Last thing I did as a twenty-four-year-old was try to shave in the dark. I pictured all the puckerings and sneers, the facial flex, each tangled zone of beard. Stickiness mingled with the cooling foam: blood. I’d cut the pads of two fingers. Affixing Band-aids, I blamed an obsession with a man. Then I successfully blamed the man. Then I knew what a struggle the rest of my life would be.
Striped with these reflections, I left my Hell’s Kitchen sweatbox. The humid night put glaze on my chin. A gypsy cab or two patrolled the streets with feline eyes, wasting princely sums in gasoline. Another week’s energy tax would park these scavengers for good. Above Manhattan’s voluntary blackout: a cathedral ceiling of stars where electric lavender had hung. Skyscrapers were vast hanging shapes, black on black, imprecise. Streetlights, which City Hall couldn’t afford to switch on, became stooped trees bearing rotted husks of fruit.
Mitch, the man’s nametag had said. Asst. Manager, it had claimed. He worked at The Usual, a deli where I lunched with some frequency. Day before, I’d watched him slather unrequested mayo on a BLT, wrap the abomination and write the wrong price on it as if a twenty-cent error was destined or just. And in the customer’s favor! There was no earthly reason to carry his slight incompetence in my memory, and yet I did more than carry it. What had so infuriated me that I stood there knotting my shoulder blades? Perhaps that this series of events had been tangibly insignificant, devoid of real consequence—apart from my having to scrape off the mayo, saving twenty cents, and replaying the meaningless scene for a day.
Faintly the latticework of a construction site embossed itself on my vision. I took out my cell to double-check the address on Coupler, then felt for the plywood wall and peeled back a panel. I moved carefully past a wide trailer, running my fingers over its ribs, and caught movement in the templed peak of a backhoe.
“1258,” I said.
“Don’t actually call me that,” said a stalk of darkness, high up in the machine.
“Is there an easy way to—”
“Not really. You don’t climb?”
“There are places we could have met.”
“Already an asshole. Not bad.”
I entered the vehicle with some difficulty. She said she was married. I told her I’d be on my way after all, and she touched my shaven jaw. It was rough—I could never achieve that advertorial smoothness. She writhed around in her seat and I sensed that underwear had come off. It took her a moment to clear the little forest of levers, and then she was bent over me, hair curtaining my sight, darkness falling on darkness. She sighed as she eased herself down, and as she slid back up I heard her draw trembling air through her nose.
I recalled the way Mitch had wiped his nose, a not bad-looking nose, with a plastic-gloved finger in the sharp light of lunch hour.
“It’s my birthday,” I told her.
“You’re a mess,” she whispered back.
Not wanting to go straight home, where there was no hiding from my inexplicable and embarrassing thoughts, I dropped in on some friends. Deidre and Hyler adored one another painfully. Not that they fawned or let pet names slip. I mean that they suspended themselves in corrosive love. They struck up debates over who’d get which role in the murder-suicide; that was their sort of co-dependent humor. When better moods struck, they’d organize a team and paint inspiring murals on some lost-cause school. All part of the bipolar duet.
She was soaking in a cold bath, he and I nude and asprawl on cool tile.
“Heard about another self-sufficient,” Hyler said.
“Yeah,” I said, finding I wasn’t asleep.
“Engineer in Morningside. Doing five-plus hours a day on a treadmill hooked up to a storage battery of his own design. Said he even got enough to power an air conditioner.”
“Shut up,” Deidre said.
“Oh, you haven’t drowned,” Hyler said.
“Goodbye, I live underwater now,” she said, and submerged. Shortly afterward, we heard a flurry of bubbles surface.
“Small miracles steel the soul,” Hyler said, possibly quoting.
“Have you met anyone else with Coupler?” I said.
“Have I met anyone,” Hyler talking into a towel, sounded like. Deidre stood; the water slapped around in the tub.
“Just meeting you by the park that night,” she said.
“Disappointment,” Hyler added. “Might’ve written you a bad review, actually.”
“Don’t hurt my feelings.”
“Don’t pretend not to have any,” Deidre said.
We only did uppers. A freakish clarity to guide us through hidden shapes. We moved according to temperature flux and the quality of floor underfoot. You’d know when the couch was close; your shin could intuit distance. Deidre and Hyler had junked most of their furniture anyway, to fight evening’s claustrophobia and find room for humans of interest, which I never quite became. A glass of water broke somewhere early, a shard burying itself in my foot later on. I wagged a leg that seemed no more mine than the pain. “Can we turn the light on,” I wondered aloud. “What do you think,” Deidre said.
Work: it dominated my waking life yet managed to seem an interruption. I was burnishing the résumé when Myron, the dapper cubiclemate, spun his chair. He had some news. He said it had been a pleasure, dodging the axe as long as he had.
“Guess you’re all the copy editor they need,” he said.
“Let me take you to lunch.”
“Usual? Or is Sixth too far.”
In fact, it was just far enough from the steady drip of posts to proofread, reports of bankruptcies and unraveled mergers sprinkled too generously with commas. I winced all the same, hoping Mitch’s poor service would prove an aberration. What made the man such a splinter between my toes, I reflected as we crossed Lexington against weaving cyclists, was that The Usual was otherwise perfect. In the two months since unplugging my fridge, I’d lunched at The Usual every day, tried every special, found no systemic flaw. Two months: I had much invested.
Today Mitch wore a poppable zit on one cheek. Myron ordered prousciutto and mozzarella on ciabatta, showing no impatience when Mitch paused to clarify the bread choice three, three times. I longed to be openly hostile; this was a goddamn consolation lunch. But Mitch assembled my Asian chicken salad well enough, if sluggishly, and I saw no chance to ply this contempt. A slender Latina’s slender fingers danced over a cash register, and again when Myron set down a six-pack of pale ale.
Myron dispatched beers and disparaged the custom of cover letters. I ate and monitored Mitch, against my own will, from our corner table. Mitch re-tucked his polo shirt into his khakis. He swept greasy hair away from his eyes and asked another employee a question. This second man was taller, tanner, wore a red tie and carried a clipboard, all of which bought him the aura of bosshood. The tan superior gave Mitch a pouty headshake while unclipping a sheet from his clipboard. He crumpled it and leaned for a three-pointer that widely missed the garbage can, bouncing off the door to a unisex restroom. Myron was asking for my bottle opener. I tossed it and shoved out from the table. Before knowing why, I was hunched forward on a loose toilet seat, pulling the discarded paper taut with freshly bandaged fingers.
What I’d grabbed grabbed me back: cell phone glow revealed a manifest of The Usual’s employees, surnames A through M, alongside salaries, contact info. And there was Mitch—Mitch Falkin, a suitably itchy name—taking home twice the paycheck his colleagues did. Two and a half times what Brandon Ellison, the sap above him, could claim. In the next column were phone numbers, Mitch’s circled in red ballpoint.
A knock exploded against the silence.
“Let me in.” (Myron’s voice.) “Gonna puke.”
Because I didn’t see the point in refusing, I went out with Deidre and Hyler that night. A billionaire named Victor Ohnesorg supported their abused little Chelsea gallery. He also invited them to his Moth Parties. The old man flooded his uptown penthouse with light from a hundred aluminum chandeliers, Japanese paper lanterns, bulb-studded and wire-festooned coat trees, chrome Swedish lamps shaped like commas, the entire lot arranged to cast an appalling glow over his Sotheby’s centerpiece: a naked carbon filament from Edison’s lab, on a pure white box, in the middle of a dining room so bright it triggered migraines.
Entering the blaze, I tried to shake an anxiety. The more amphetamines consumed, the more the bloggers and critics and gossipists would interrogate me about my antiquely precious job, my lack of opinion as to recent digital controversies. That night, several guests informed me that an annual meteor shower would be visible, what with the lack of light pollution. When a muscular fashion photographer said as much, I asked him what time we might stand outside to observe. He shrugged.
As he did every week, Ohnesorg eventually stood next to the Edison Altar, clapped twice and signaled a regular to cut the stereo’s bossa nova. A choral excitement spilled through the room and lured smokers in from the roof deck.
“Very quickly,” Ohnesorg assured the party, looking fussy Italian but sounding glib Slovenian. Hyler leapt to my side with a handful of ampalex. I popped two and stashed the rest. “Newcomers must realize only two things,” Ohnesorg was saying. “One: a Moth Party is only reasonable. Two: if and when this very ambitious, very hypothetical revamp of the northeast energy grid is realized, you are all invited to a Blackout Party.”
“Where all the lights are off?” a man dressed like the fifties jutted in awkwardly.
“Yes,” Ohnesorg said. “But I’m afraid in your case it won’t help.” Here came oily laughter, Victorian chuckles. What’d he say, a low voice in the background asked. I didn’t hear him. The insulted went sportingly crimson, smiling.
“I can’t prove it,” Hyler said, his breath chemical. “But that guy is a plant.”
“He’s given a set-up before?”
“Damn it, man, I just told you I’ve got no evidence.”
Pocket buzz. Hyler wandered off as I peered at a Coupler alert. 1258, nearby. Ohnesorg was passing out index cards for some hideous guessing game—people were throwing elbows to get one. Deidre was talking to the photographer but felt my idiotic stare and discreetly turned to stick her tongue out.
Outside, a tall hooded or longhaired person was leaning against a street sign.
“Lucky I came down, party was just getting interesting.”
“And here I’d pegged you as a good liar.”
We walked without destination. Soon we came upon an open black rectangle and ducked under the yellow police tape. The lightlessness below the sidewalk was hotter, moldier. I helped her jump the turnstile. We fucked against the tunnel wall. She struck me across the face, repeatedly, and begged me to return the favor. Somewhat perplexed, I did. After a while our selves floated back. We stood there, panting foolishly.
“Next time, call me names,” she said.
“Why do you love to take abuse?”
“Why are you willing to give it?”
“I have no understanding of my own motivations, except to say that they seem highly contradictory.”
“Jesus,” she said. “No wonder you don’t normally talk.” Flame illuminated her mouth and bowed into the eye of a cigarette. At the flare of her lighter, a rasping cough and papery shuffling started at the far end of the platform. A disused voice smoked out of the distance, telling us it was hungry.
Wordlessly we emerged from the subway. My sight had been sharpened by the inkier dark below. Each cell in my body was hummingly tight. I had pulled Band-aids off spongy fingers and begun to bite the nails. We stalled at a dead intersection, waiting for something to part us.
“You see the meteor shower?” she asked.
“Did it already happen?”
“Probably,” she said.
People have always been like this. But vanity settled over the night, convincing us we were new.
Mom’s call woke me the next day. She asked if my brother, unemployed, was an alcoholic. Relayed some week-old incident with details missing. I strolled down to Thirty-third Street, nabbed counterfeit tickets from a slim teenage pillhead and took the train into Jersey. Dad picked me up on a tandem bike. The lush green suburbs were shot in soft focus, grease on the lens. We ate the best dinner I’d had in weeks, vegetables they grew out back, and ignored my brother’s foam neck brace. He drank beer at exactly my rate.
Got back to Penn Station, lit by emergency lights, at ten. Too early to show up anywhere. I swam across the invisible grid and wound up near my office. Walked into a mailbox with my eyes pointed straight up at Mars. Aimed west. Checked Coupler: nothing. Turned down Sixth and came to The Usual, closed. But inside, far down on the counter, a candle was lit. Only it wasn’t flickering. I waited—watched. The wax wouldn’t melt off. For half an hour, this candle didn’t flicker and its wax didn’t melt. At that point, thank god for Mitch Falkin. The man could absorb my fury, and he didn’t fail me then.
Monday I figured Myron was sick. Tuesday I remembered he’d been laid off. Wednesday the company’s chairman died, and on Thursday, William Zheng, the CEO himself, stood on a box of printer paper in the newsroom to speak. He reminded us that our product had value with or without a living founder.
“Who has control of us now?” a blogger asked.
“A number of his funds,” Zheng said. “They all lead back to him.”
“Dead man’s in charge,” the video editor said into her chest.
“I wish I had answers for you,” Zheng said.
I returned to my desk and stared at story abstracts in the queue. Through the haze of my disinterested reading, jargon looked accidentally poetic. Golden parachutes had built-in flaws, being either too heavy or too flaky. A tender expiration: death slow enough that a family gathers to say their goodbyes. Stress pendulums were onyx metronomes, insidious. The shadow rate was the cost of each unit of doubt, printed atop a monthly bill. A syndicate of angels would turn salvation and love into illicit enterprise. I looked at the street beyond my computer. A woman held a bodega door for a man who didn’t enter. “Do It In The Dark,” a bit of graffiti commanded from the side of a delivery truck. I couldn’t take my eyes off all the things down there.
I boycotted The Usual that week, using my lunch hour to walk to the East River. By some repeating coincidence, I always passed the same woman at First Avenue, a Muslim with different festive hijabs and white tennis shoes that stayed blindingly clean. On Friday she unveiled one of those high-wattage African smiles, and I smiled back, and we went on wondering.
That evening I went to Chinatown for pre-juiced cell batteries. Soon as I plugged one into my phone, Deidre’s name was staring back.
“What do you want.”
“You’ve got to help me,” Deidre said. I waved off the street vendor, who was trying to unload a Polaroid camera. “I can’t lift this sculpture alone, and you’re normal.”
“I resent that,” I told her. “Ask him.”
“No charging.” The vendor tapped the camera. “No electricity.”
“He’s not here,” Deidre said. “Been out at his family’s place in the Hamptons and says he can’t afford the ticket back, which means he’s waiting out a sunburn and reading difficult novels. He calls every night stoned on painkillers and bores me to tears.”
“Fuck you and come over.”
Deidre and Hyler’s gallery was a concrete smudge with a door. It sat between two failing laundromats owned by one unlucky immigrant. Deidre, vigorously brushing her teeth, let me in. Always had a toothbrush handy—I swear she kept spares in her purse. She gargled that there was a Moth Party later, led me past a row of grotesque woodcuts into the supply room and spat in a paint-flecked garbage can. She rinsed her toothbrush in a rusted sink. Her color was Mediterranean, and her studio T-shirt left one bra strap exposed against a silky back. “Sorry,” she said, spitting again.
“You said sorry.”
I stepped forward and kissed her clean mouth. She withdrew and studied my face for intent, then shoved me. I stumbled backwards, my left foot staggering for purchase but landing on a Jasper Johns book that slid. I stood up and brushed sawdust from my pants. Deidre had already gotten on with business, putting jars of paint back on shelves.
“You can’t do anything to me,” she said.
“Didn’t I just do something,” I said.
Stupid to go to the Moth Party later. Doubly stupid to think Deidre might’ve been there. The penthouse was empty save two overly wise-looking women. They stopped chatting to address me as I hung in the foyer.
“Look at this now,” one said, as though I were the most ridiculous yet in a long succession of fools.
“Where’s . . .” I said.
“Someone on the East Side is throwing Moth Parties now,” the second woman informed me.
“I mean where’s Mr. Ohnesorg.”
“He left us in charge of this one,” the other one added.
“He isn’t calling off his own party to go to the other one.”
I backed out and sprinted for the elevator. Something about Fridays: they spoil. I dawdled in the cool marble lobby, conceded defeat, stepped out.
I moved down Tenth Avenue, trying to be careless. Around Sixty-second Street a small creature or flock of leaves scuttled across my path. When I looked up, the dark ahead boiled. Five to seven figures loomed. I stuck to the normal pace. The point man held something big that I strained to make out. Chemical powder erupted into my face and a fist unstraightened my neck. A hot grip found me in the cloud of fire extinguisher gas and slammed my head on a parked car. I was draped along the curb like cake frosting. Shoes swooped over me and a female voice said you okay before they clacked off sideways into the void.
I got up after a minute or five and still had a wallet, keys, phone. A wetness was crawling up my shirt from the hip, that and shame. One contact lens had been blown out, or I was blind on my left side. I limped. An ear was ringing. Few blocks south, a bum thrust out of the dark at my steps. I took the only bill in my wallet—crisp ATM twenty, felt like—and laid it on the shaky palms.
“I got beat up,” I said.
“Beat up, let me see. I can’t see you.”
“I’m right here,” I said, and kept walking.
My bed was scorching. I thought about putting my head in ice water. No ice. I woke. Still dark and my heart a diamond twist. No one had ever broken it. I woke. Darker and the air was wet. Or my face. I’d been crying in my sleep, and I didn’t stop. I cried in the shower. The dust wouldn’t come off. I turned the hot water on, knowing how much it would cost. I woke to dusk or dawn. I groped around the nightstand, found my phone and sent 1258 a text. I rolled onto cold blood. It hurt to roll. I woke. The doorbell was ringing. Dark again. I crawled to the door. A silhouette crossed into the room.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Floor.” Her hands, unrecognizably tender, found my knees, my ribs and finally my head.
“Did you call the cops?”
“They won’t find them.”
“It’s happened at least once, you know.” Her fingers pressed the stubbly gash on my hip. She was prodding, checking everywhere. “But I guess you think you can just . . . brush it off.”
“Your husband must wonder where you go,” I said.
“All he has to do is ask.”
There was an empty, weedy lot next to The Usual where a few homeless organized their recyclables. Along the brick wall was the deli’s dumpster, which I hid in for perhaps twelve hours, nerves splitting like hair, bruised joints aflame. Big kitchen knife at the ready. I tucked myself under the flap farthest from the back exit, as it was rusted stuck. Most of what got thrown out was edible, and I was hungry, but the eye-watering stench got in my way. Three coats of sweat in metallic heat. Oxygen thin and tainted. The other flap came up again and again, pure air, employee faces I half-recognized.
At last the flap opened and it was Mitch Falkin’s face in the gathering gloom. He tossed a batch of receipts. I sprang and toppled him. I sat on his chest and slapped. His leg snuck up behind me and snared my neck, pulling me down. Then he was on top of me, wild in the eyes, fist cocked and daring me to explain. With a surge of purpose I flipped him and held the kitchen knife to his nose.
I demanded answers. What was he up to working here, ill-suited as he was to the job, making more money than anyone else. What business did he have interfering with my small, pathetic happiness. What hiccup of the universe had made him Mitch, intolerable to me alone.
“What,” he yelled.
“What do you mean what,” I said.
“I don’t know what you think—”
“Mitch I think,” I said, “something’s off.”
“That’s not my name,” he said. I ripped the nametag off his shirt and dangled it over his eyes. “Ogod,” he said, swallowing.
“Mitch Falkin,” I said.
“I’m not him,” Mitch’s voice guttered. “I only wear his nametag.”
“Mitch,” I insisted.
“When I got here some guy’d just quit. They gave me his nametag so they wouldn’t have to order another one.” Impossible. “You have to order a whole box of nametags just to get one.” The sky was going navy, wrinkle by wrinkle. “I’m not him.” We were panting in unison. I stood up and offered my hand. When he took it, I squeezed threateningly.
“You have a candle here,” I said.
He led me through a storage area into the darkened deli, rubbing the back of his skull. At the end of the counter, he crouched to root around in a cardboard box. After a few seconds, a light blared upward, and out came the candle. Or an imitation, rather. Christmas decoration—a type my family had owned, even. White plastic shaft and a tapered light bulb on top for the flame.
“Must’ve left it on the other night,” Mitch said. “I stay after and go over my receipts, try and make sure we’re square.”
“Why not a real one,” I said.
“Just a little thing I wanted to try.”
Mitch drew up the tape-coated cord attached to the base of his candle. The other end was plugged into a potato. I looked up at him, and he looked away into the undefined room, as if searching for a customer. He said they often had leftovers, that it seemed a shame to waste. I lowered my knife. Mitch held his device in two hands, weighing inert and illuminated halves, ready to surrender both.
I asked him how it worked.
© 2012 Miles Klee