Erica Jordan didn’t feel quite right. But that was OK, because as she decided between coconut cranberry and chocolate almond granola in Trader Joe’s, she looked right. And that was more important, in the scheme of things.
She was unspeakably attractive. Not pretty, like Carrie Underwood, nor beautiful, like Julia Roberts, but attractive, in a way that drew the eyes and envy of everyone, no matter gender or orientation. She was only 5'6, but was blessed (somehow) with both long legs and a long, lean stomach, both of which were on display as she perused the crowded market on this Friday afternoon.
Her chestnut hair was tied in a ponytail and pulled through the back of a weathered Red Sox hat, but strands danced down her neck in the slow-moving air. Her white halter top and pink shorts popped against the display’s darkness, and men who had caught a glimpse of her when passing the aisle now doubled back as if they had forgotten something — making the second pass at a much slower pace.
At the other end of the aisle, ostensibly comparing breakfast cereals, stood April.
This wasn’t Erica’s usual look, but Trader Joe’s wasn’t her usual location. This had been last minute— the Shaw’s downtown had doubled security. The book might have been a bit much, she thought, but Rachel Carson’s text on the overuse of pesticides in the ‘50s screamed “Look, I’m earthy-crunchy!” in a way that her trusty Coach handbag did not.
“You catch more flies with honey,” she’d said.
Silent Spring’s green cover poked above the rim of the black, cross-stitched purse, grinning down the aisle like a moss-covered tombstone. Erica shook her head and moved down the aisle a few feet, arching her back as a tall, slim, sandy-haired man sidled up to her.
“You know, if we rid the world of pesticides, maybe they won’t even be able to grow grass at Fenway. Might beat watching Buchholz pitch, eh?”
Jackpot. Kind of a long pickup line, but she’d heard worse. She dropped her hand and pulled down the hem of her shorts as April watched.
April left the aisle.
Fifteen minutes later, Erica and Boris (originally from Ukraine) strolled into the Boylston sun. She played her part well, and found that her emotions started to cleave to her appearance — her heart beat loudly in her ears, her pupils started to dilate, and her skin pebbled with goosebumps despite the August heat.
She looked like a woman yearning to give herself to this man.
April followed. She watched from two blocks away as her partner beckoned the man to follow her down the agreed-upon street in a way that would be described by Shakespeare as coquettish.
April never had doubts about whether she or Erica should be doing something more worthwhile with their Boston University degrees — this was fun, dangerous, and lucrative.
The gun lay silent and comforting against her thigh as she followed them into the alley.
Fifteen minutes after that, the colors of the day had changed. The yellow sun had dipped below the jagged line of buildings in the west, and red light bathed the city. The two women, all long hair and suntanned skin, weaved through the post-work drinks crowds in the Financial District.
There had been easier targets, April reflected, but not many. Perhaps it was because European men enjoyed so much emotional power over the women in their countries.
Or perhaps it was the guns.
They stepped into the lobby of an office building on Milk Street and entered the white-tiled bathroom.
If you were a female leaving work a bit late on this Friday, and worked in this building, and had stopped in your lobby’s bathroom to freshen up, you might not have noticed anything. The handicap stall sat around the corner, hidden from the rest of the bathroom.
However, you may have heard hushed whispers over the tinkling music. And if you had taken a peek, you might have seen a $100 bill or two drift down, past the black Coach handbag and onto the floor, before being snatched greedily up again.
One by one, the children filed out for recess. The school was a brick elephant, slain, dead on its side in the dust of the hot dry playground, and the children the ants that marched dutifully into and out of its decaying corpse each day.
Hunter watched them from the fence by the hill. He only knew a few names — this had been the other class. There was Jessica, one of the smallest girls in the whole first grade, but the loudest by far. She had two blonde pigtails that looked like they wanted to jump off her head whenever she ran. Today she was running almost as soon as she left the school, breaking the line and running right at Hunter, her head twisted almost all the way around to yell back at the other kids.
The fence was only a foot taller than Hunter. He could reach up and touch the top. He thought about how it probably should have been higher. It was easy to climb. And that’s what it looked like Jessica wanted to do.
“I’m gonna find Hunter and I’ll be a heeero!” she yelled as she ran across the scorched grass of the soccer field. The kids in line all stopped to watch, transfixed. The recess monitors abandoned their posts and raced to intercept Jessica before she reached the fence.
He turned around and looked down the sheer rock face to the ocean. It was high tide, and the waves smashed the wall angrily, like caged tigers bent on freedom.
Before the recess monitors could catch her, Jessica reached the fence two feet to Hunter’s left. She grabbed the iron bar that ran across the top of the chain link and, with a young gymnast’s strength, pulled herself up and stood on the top rail. She twined her fingers into the mesh cargo net that served as the barrier between wayward soccer balls and the Pacific Ocean, and would have climbed but for Ms. Nancy. Huffing and puffing in her sensible pencil skirt, she finally caught Jessica and pulled her off the net.
Hunter suspected, by the tone of Ms. Nancy’s voice, that Jessica wouldn’t be allowed out to recess for quite a long time.
A shame, he thought as he felt himself drift slowly backwards and into the warm embrace of the Pacific Ocean.
In terms of cliches, the “life flashing before your eyes” one is pretty well-known. I don’t know if that actually happens, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be around to find out.
There’s another common cliche that pundits and analysts like to deploy when athletes are performing particularly well. Actually, it’s more like one big umbrella cliche that encompasses a lot of smaller, sport-specific platitudes.
When a basketball player is in the zone, the hoop looks as big as a trash can. When a baseball player is in the zone, that 90-mile-per-hour fastball looks like a beach ball lobbed from a toddler. Hockey players in the zone have been said to see plays before they happen; to know where a teammate will be without even looking.
Again, I’m not sure if all those are true. The closest I’ve gotten to being “in the zone” in any other sport was once when I made two consecutive hole-in-ones in mini golf when I was 12. The cup still looked like a cup to me.
It’s always been fascinating to me how fast the human brain can think. And, more importantly, what the body can do by instinct while the brain is miles away.
The ball doesn’t look larger, per se, but it does seem to be falling slower than it normally would, drifting down from over my left shoulder to my right foot, a revolving pearl falling out of the ink black sky. Some players have complained about the lights, something silly about the angle of the halogens and how certain crosses get lost in the glare.
So, yeah, my life isn’t flashing before my eyes. But, somehow, I do have time to rifle through the thousands of snapshot memories that got me here: my first goal, my high school all-star game, my acceptance to college on a full soccer scholarship, the day I got called up to the national team.
The keeper’s coming out: he’s in no-man’s land. That was a sick ball by Johnson. I always knew he could have been a midfielder. Hope I’m onside. Gotta finish anyway.
Some people say that athletes are just so laser-focused on their task that they can’t concentrate on anything else during the game. That may be true of some people, but my mind’s always been a little weird. As my right foot connects with the ball and sends it up again, looping over the helpless fingertips of the Dutch keeper, one thought rings incessantly, like a bell at the base of my skull: this is the most important goal in United States soccer history.
“The Commissioner looks like a cancer-ravaged turtle with alopecia.”
I’m about to hit “Send” on Twitter when my phone is rudely snatched from my hand. Strange. I usually don’t get stuff snatched. I’m the one doing the snatching. It’s kind of my job. Steals are kind of important when you’re vying to be the top point guard in the country. Leave it to guys like LeBron and Kevin to fill it up, I’ll do the rest.
But still, that was a good tweet. I turn around and find Mom looking ahead with a cool, glassy stare at the stage. I can see the red and white spotlights mirrored in her eyes, my phone clutched menacingly in her gnarled, oaken fingers.
Without moving her eyes, face, or (seemingly) lips, she says, “If you tweet anything derogatory about that skinny little man so help me God I will beat you silly.”
I’ve always found it funny that Mom could adapt her threat volumes to the environment. This was a church threat. Very hushed, very menacing, very low likelihood of it being actually carried out. That’s in contrast to the home threat, where she explained in great detail what my (and my older brother’s) bottoms would feel like after taking the mixing spoon to them.
Those were real threats. We tested her once — just to see. And also, the squirt gun in the house game was way too fun to stop.
We were sore for a week. Showers were difficult. Sleeping was worse. Going to the bathroom was no longer a sit-down activity.
But this threat, here in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, just minutes before the first pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, wasn’t happening.
Shit. It’s starting. Who’d they just call? Oh, ok. Someone up on the left. Jones? Yeah, he’s a good player. He’ll fit in there too — they need rebounding bad.
I turn around to see if I can get my phone back, but Mom’s put it in her bag. She turns her eyes to me and they crinkle around the edges — she never smiles with her mouth. But sometimes you can catch one in her eyes.
OH fuck. That’s me. That’s definitely my name — it’s the one teachers and my mom and aunt have been yelling since I was old enough to run around the hou-
That’s Mom, pulling me up and out into the aisle. It acts like a cold bucket of ice water straight to my veins and now I’m in my element. Swagging for the cameras, red-on-yellow suit game on point. I’m about to meet that alopecia dude.
Dad’s bodily noises were legendary.
His burps were beer-bottomed belches, bubbling up from some underground cavern where drops of Heineken fell from french-fry stalactites and landed wetly in pools of ketchup and cheeseburger.
His farts were ten times as rare, twenty times funnier, and one hundred times more likely to send us running for the matchbook. Legend had it that one particular emission had put the dog into a shallow coma for several minutes.
Of course, the dog rarely moved from the rug in front of the fireplace, so you couldn’t take that one as fact.
Last, but far from least, were Dad’s sneezes. Now, he was a polite guy, so it was rare for him to let loose with a belch if company was around, and there was only one recorded instance of him cutting a fart in the presence of someone other than his family (though it had been Mom’s cousin, a sort of adopted sibling of Dad’s, which I don’t think counts).
Dad always had allergies, and hated taking pills (he had nearly choked to death at a company picnic years before, and his boss had had to give him the Heimlich to dislodge the chicken bone).
So, once every few hours, a small nuclear explosion would occur somewhere near the house. He was the stay-at-home variety of Dad: a novelist between trips to the hardware store, the marina, and the golf course.
But those sneezes. The only comparison was a thunderclap. There was no defined “A-choo” noise, or anything resembling it. There was also no intention to stifle or cover it up. It was as if he wished to launch his nose from his face. You could be having dinner, watching sports, or sipping whiskey by the fire, idly chatting about one thing or another, when Dad would uncork an earth-shattering “AAAH!” with no warning. Then he’d return to the conversation, as if he hadn’t just ruptured everyone’s ear drums and heart valves.
He looks peaceful, which was almost never the case in life. He was either writing with a pained ferocity, following his Minnesota teams with a feverish intent, or measuring, cutting, and building with a manic precision. Dad did everything big, fast, loud, and (usually) well.
The organs toll their last, and people begin to stir and drift away. Mom sits motionless to my left, brown hair hanging perfectly curled just below her shoulders.
Every time Dad would wake the dog from a sound sleep and scatter the neighborhood birds with his jet-plane sneezes, Mom would shout “JESUS, MARK!” in an exasperated voice. But I always suspected she kind of liked it. He was a comedy writer, and these periodic blasts would shake people from whatever reverie they might have been experiencing.
Jessica Valentine had just broken her toe while on her way to the most important lunch of her life. There was no point pretending otherwise. It had happened only moments ago — a powerwalking judo kick delivered to the cinderblock strewn carelessly across the sidewalk — and already her left big toe was darkening to purple and throbbing with a low fury every time her heart pumped blood through it.
But Jessica was not a woman who took her problems lying down. She had not scored a Friday afternoon table at Gennaro’s by being meek or unresourceful. Gennaro’s had a certain aura about it, a mood, one might say if one were being pretentious. It wasn’t the fanciest joint in the city (that dubious honor would go to Mon Coeur, the French bistro that insisted all its waiters produce French passports), and it didn’t boast the most expensive food (Clark’s sold a $250 Kobe strip steak). What it did have was a good mozzerella fritta, a great shrimp and garlic pasta dish, and all the exclusivity of a five-star restaurant without the prices. Or the fawning waiters who re-filled a water glass when it was half empty and swept in with the entree just as you picked up the final steamed mussel.
She couldn’t walk. That was another reason she knew her toe was broken. But that turned out not to matter. Because she was only a half a block away from Gennaro’s, and the short, balding man stepping out of the black SUV about 200 feet in front of Jessica was the man she had been waiting for.
Not her best opening line. Ostensibly, she had the upper hand in this deal. It would be hard for him to find another billionaire with a criminal enterprise approaching Valentine’s, not to mention one with the kind of soccer clout that her father possessed. Still, not a strong start.
As “Steve” moved towards her, Jessica Valentine, daughter of New York Red Bulls majority owner Mark Valentine, leaned casually against the brick facade and tucked her left foot behind her right. The effect slimmed her already slender frame, accentuating the subtle taper of her legs as they descended from her dark blue skirt.
Sepp Blatter smiled, opening his arms as he waddled towards the younger woman, looking at her as a golfer views a particularly challenging but beautiful tee shot.
Anything for the bid. Jessica’s father’s mantra ran through her head as she explained her issue and accepted the shoulder of the president of FIFA, the governing body of world football, making sure to allow his pruned hand a brush of her breast on its way past.
Ratty Cardboard stole my spot.
There’s a lot of folks out in the morning, ‘specially when the weather’s nice, so I keep track’a who goes where. You want somewhere with no competition and lotsa slow-movin’ traffic. But if you really wanna clean up, you gotta find the sweet spot. That place after the coffee’s kicked in but before the morning generous-feelin’ wears off.
I found that spot. It took me a few weeks — I move around the country a lot and just got in from Hoboken. But I found it. It’s about fifty feet back from the red light at the corner of Chestnut and Bellington. You don’t wanna be closer — the front’s pissed they missed the light. Most mornings you’ll have 15, 20 cars backed up here, so 50 feet is a good distance. They’ve got their windows rolled up, but if you have a good sign and look disease-free, you can do alright.
Not that many of us have diseases, I mean. Well, I don’t know, actually, I barely know any of these people since I just got in, like I said. But I’ve never met an AIDS victim or anything. Least I don’t think so.
Dammit. Rambling again. These fuckin’ Percocets leave me on top of a warm pink cloud mountain for a solid four hours, but they get me ramblin’. Like I said, Ratty Cardboard got my spot. Haven’t gotten his name yet, he’s usually eight or ten blocks back towards the highway, workin’ the news stations out that way. But today he’s doing his usual hitch-strut right on the median there where I make my livin’.
Here’s hopin’ they see right through it. It’s like those girls in the shop windows with the jeans that some kid in China had to sew together then rip apart. That sign’s not his umbrella/pillow like mine. He’s probably got a nice little couch in the back’a some crackhouse down by the waterfront: free blow (and blowjobs).
Meanwhile I’ve been sleeping in a tipped-over dumpster behind the middle school for the past month. It’s actually not bad, but I think the janitor knows I use it.
But back to the issue at hand. Mister scruff-beard, winter jacket in June, scarf around the neck, fake army sob story, Ratty-ass Cardboard took my fuckin’ spot.
He reads the news at least. Know how I know? Cuz that sign he’s got, the one with the carefully torn edges and the on-purpose coffee stain? Says he lost his squad and gained some chest shrapnel from an Afghan ambush on December 5th, 2011.
Know how I know? Same reason I make more money in the summer when I can wear shorts. I lost my squad and my left leg that day.