“There’s a black hole pulling me in
I slowly bend till I see the back of my own sins
I stole my soul from myself now I wonder”
—Jack Johnson, ‘Ones and Zeros’ From Here to Now to You (2013)
Brisby, that’s what Whistler ultimately decided on. Mrs. Brisby was the little mouse from The Secret of Nimh, and considering that mousy was the first description that came to my mind when I first saw Angela, the name made perfect sense to me.
Brisby’s recruitment was unusual to say the least. Typically, Whistler took a hands off approach to the “assets”—It was probably pretentious, but the spy terminology helped us to believe that our little endeavors were somehow elevated about petty drug-dealing and small town crime—but Brisby was different from the very beginning.
While I had expected him to dismiss her immediately, he seemed intrigued from the very beginning, even agreed to meet with her personally. I’m not sure if he was captivated by her defiant personality and peppy spirit or if he was just trying to get laid (with Whistler, either possibility seemed equally plausible), but he was more personally involved than I had ever seen him with any other asset.
After a few months, it seemed pretty clear that Brisby was operating under a different set of rules than the others. While the other dealers were held at arm’s length—Zevon nearly broke one poor bastard’s arm when he showed up unannounced one evening—Brisby became a semi-regular fixture at the Hall, and in a matter of a few short weeks, she seemed to ingratiate herself to the group, a de facto member of the crew.
She seemed especially close to Caroline. They seemed to make an immediate and complete connection, and they would spend hours hanging out together, inside and outside of the Hall.
One night, I was working behind the bar with UB, when they bounced into the pool room, glistening with sweat from the dance floor. Caroline was wearing a pair of tight, worn jeans and a low-cut top, while Brisby was wearing a tiny, skin-tight black dress. As they bellied up to the bar, I took note, again, that they formulated a perfect study in opposites.
While Caroline wasn’t exactly the girl next door, she wasn’t nearly as wild and uninhibited as Brisby. Caroline was long-legged and had straight, blonde hair, while Brisby was a short, flat-chested, curly-haired brunette, a physical contrast that only served to highlight their opposite personalities.
Loud versus reserved, daring and cautious—they were a perfect complement to one another.
Caroline leaned against the bar, her wet chest tantalizingly exposed as she fanned herself. “Whew,” she squealed. “It’s boiling in there.”
Brisby reached over and slapped her playfully on the ass. “Cause of you, baby. You were tearing things up!”
It was the kind of exchange that they both loved. Neither of them would ever admit it, but they both knew that every male eye in the place was aimed squarely at one of their physical features. The fanning, the playful touching—it was all part of the same dramatic theater performance, designed to lure the maximum allowable attention.
It’s a game that we all encourage on a society level, the balancing act of sexuality in popular culture. We put beauty on a pedestal, all the while sternly condemning whore-ish behavior. It’s a dynamic that dates all the way back to our Puritan and Quaker roots. As a society, we are infatuated by naughtiness. In fact, our willingness to indulge fantasies and break rules is only superseded by our very favorite hobby, which is judging our friends and neighbors for being naughty.
Hawthorne said all that there is to say on the subject over a hundred and fifty years ago, yet, over a century and a half later, we still find ourselves alternating between our admiration of and our disgust for that little red letter.
I smiled and blushed at both of the girls, who simultaneously purred with approval. They both knew they could manipulate me at will, but what could I do?
I handed them each a Captain and Coke—their drink preference having long been established—and they turned their attention away from me with a smile. Karl was standing in the corner near the pool table, boring a hole into the back of Caroline’s skull with his eyes.
It was clear that it was going to one of those kinds of nights. Karl’s mood was legendarily consistent in its complete and total lack of consistency. In other words, he was predictably unpredictable. Some nights, he would be casual and fun, completely laughing off Caroline’s flirtatious romps around the room, and other nights he perched above her like giant vulture watching a dying field mouse take its last breath.
Based on the angry furrow in his brow, tonight was to be a bird-of-prey kind of evening, which seemed to be the case more and more often. Evidently Brisby’s addition into the equation was starting to make Karl’s mood slightly more predictable, on the negative end of the equation, of course.
As always, Karl stayed back and brooded, but there was little doubt that the situation was nothing more than a ticking bomb.
It turns out, that the timer on that particular event was set for about an hour and a half, just long enough for the bar to swing into its peak business hour, around eleven o’clock. In any given night, the bar only functioned as a legitimate business for a few hours, sometime between nine o’clock and one-thirty in the morning. That was the time that actual patrons came in, rather than the usual crew and our invited guests. If you found yourself lucky enough to be counted as one of Whistler’s elect, you used the bar as your own personal slush fund, an all-inclusive vacation or open-bar wedding that never ended. Everyone else paid for shitty service and watered-down drinks like the rest of the world.
I was in the middle of dealing with a belligerent, actually-paying customer when I saw Karl jump into action. Though Karl wasn’t the kind of bulked, up imposing presence that Zevon was, he was intimidating in his own way. Zevon was instantly noticeable when he walked into the room, with his massive frame and cave-man brow, whereas Karl was strong but also lean, not exceptionally tall. Rather than an imposing physical presence, Karl drew his intimidation from raw emotion. Fueled by an appropriate amount of anger, he would swell up like a tractor, capable of swallowing anything and everything in its path.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a body move across the pool room with swift, deliberate ferocity. I didn’t even need to turn my head to attach a face to the blur. Something in the movement itself told me all that I needed to know, an instantaneous, quick-twitch of a motion across the floor, like a coiled snake striking out at its prey.
I left the babbling jackass at the bar standing alone, mid-complaint, and moved around the bar toward Caroline, who was standing with her back to both me and Karl, completely unaware of the fury unfolding a few steps behind her. Of course, I was too late. I was still at least fifteen feet away when Karl reached her, spun her around and slapped her across the face. Somehow the sound of his open hand grazing across her cheek rose above the music and the general murmur within the room.
The slap occurred in perfect syncopation with the chorus line of Prince’s ‘Kiss,’ his hand slamming into her cheek to add perfect emphasis to Prince’s strained falsetto.
Zevon was upon him almost immediately, throwing his arms around Karl in a bear-hug and dragging him back. “Not cool, brother. Not cool.”
As Zevon pulled him back away from Caroline, Karl began unleashing a string of curses in Zevon’s direction, but he just kept pulling him backwards, repeating the line “not cool” over and over again. Brisby jumped up and took advantage of the bear hug that Zevon had on Karl, raking her fingernails across his eyes and down his cheek.
Karl let out a guttural howl and struggled even harder against Zevon, who was wrestling him to the ground. He glanced up at me. “Take care of that little bitch, now!”
I went over and grabbed Brisby around the shoulders, pulling her back. Though I managed to avoid her flailing fingernails, I became the focal point of her rage. She spun around and began shoving me in the chest. “You gonna let him get away with that?” she screamed. “Little dicked, pussy-assed fucking bastard!”
Though she was talking about Karl, the white-hot focus of her rage was pointed in my direction. As I fumbled my way through an explanation, Caroline reached over and put her hands on Brisby’s shoulder, a soft and feminine gesture that had an immediate calming effect.
By that time, the action within the pool table room had stopped completely, the whole crowd watching breathlessly as the soap opera unfolded. Whistler stomped into the room and took a quick look around, taking stock of the situation. Though he had not been in the immediate vicinity when the events unfolded, it didn’t take him long to figure out the story. He looked at Brisby and pointed towards the back room. “Take her in there,” he said, shifting his focus to Karl.
Karl and Zevon were still down on the floor, Zevon down on his knees, pinning Karl’s chest to the floor with both hands. “You done?” he shouted. “You done here?”
Karl nodded quickly, and Zevon let him up, raising slowly as Karl rolled backwards and away. Karl dusted the dirt off of his jacket and turned towards Zevon with searing hate. “Fucking traitor,” he said, leveling his gaze towards Zevon’s feet. “You’re supposed to…”
Zevon stepped forward again, and stuck his massive palms in Karl’s face, as if he were holding back a wall, refusing to give in to the anger that was flooding in upon him. “My job,” he said, “is to protect you, and to protect everyone in this whole crew.”
Karl laughed—a loud derisive cackle aimed right into Zevon’s face. “You weren’t protecting me,” he said. “All you did was…”
“All I did was stop you from making any more stupid fucking decisions,” Zevon said. “A few more seconds, and you might have wound up in jail tonight. Is that what you really wanted?” Zevon looked ready to lash out again, when Whistler stepped into the middle, like a wrangler stepping knee-deep into an alligator pit.
“You need to come outside with me,” Whistler said, placing a soft, tentative hand on Karl’s shoulder. Though Karl kept shooting daggers towards Zevon, when Whistler spoke, his body relaxed slightly, releasing a small but palpable bit of tension from the air. “Come on,” Whistler said, “Let’s go outside.”
A few minutes later, the bar had returned to normal. Void of the teleplay unfolding before them, everyone in the room went back to slurring and socializing and clumsily trying to get laid. To the patrons, the event was little more than an unnoticeable blip on an otherwise normal radar screen, but I had a different sense. A visceral feeling of dread.
For a while, after Tommy died, I had a dream about a man in a blue suit. He would show up over and over again, all pudgy-faced and leering. He looked like Dr. Phil, only strung out and chalky, with pock-marked skin.
The man in the blue suit would never say anything. He would just smile, a used-car salesman grimace, drippy with condescension and arrogance. Then he would reach up, slowly, and pull off the skin on his face, like some dramatic reveal in a Mission: Impossible film.
In the dream, he’d wave his limp, rubbery mask in my face only seconds before I woke up. Every time, I would look into his face, but I’d always wake up before I really saw the hideous visage beneath the mask. I’d get a fraction of a second’s worth of a glimpse, and then I would wake up.
It was the same dream, over and over again. Every time, I would wake up with a cold chill gripping my body, a deep and frantic pounding in my chest.
Though I could never see that disgusting face, I still woke up petrified. Every…single…time.
The truth is, we’re predisposed to dealing with the gore. As much as we may convince ourselves otherwise, we’re even attracted to it. It’s why we look for the body when we roll past a grisly accident on the interstate. Whether we admit it or not, we all take a peek.
In the end, the real fear has nothing to do with the gory details. It has everything to do with the mask. Because the anticipation of the fear is worse than the fear itself. We live and die in the moment between the tearing away and the big reveal.
As I quietly stood there in the growing, casual activity in the bar around me, I realized that I was experiencing the same fear I had in the masked-man dream. That rabid terror that accompanied the big reveal.
Whatever had just unfolded, however minor it may have seemed to the random strangers in the bar, was important, an essential shift in the status quo, a changing of the paradigm. Though I didn’t realize it then, the fear I felt was a primal warning about the things to come.
Karl had done more than just slap a girl, he had torn a hole in the fabric, and no one was going to fix that hole, not me, not Whistler, not all the king’s men.