The Maybach sped along the Belt Parkway. Karjiel peered out the window to the water where huge commercial liners moved in and out of the port.
He patted his driver’s shoulder. “This is an interesting place, Carl.” Karjiel opened another bottle of vodka and refilled the shot glass that read I Love NY. “It is ugly and beautiful at the same time. Usually a place—cities especially—is one or the other. Or maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve been in one…”
Carl looked back at him through the rearview, “What, you don’t go to the city where you’re from, Mr. D? I figured you for a regula’ cosmopolitan.”
Karjiel laughed. “No, no, no. I spend my time in… other places.”
“Yeah, me too. Me and the wife moved out to Oceanside on the Island.”
“Yeah, Long Island.”
“Oh, yes. Of course, of course. How do you like it out there?”
“More room, less to do,” Carl answered, chuckling to himself.
Karjiel laughed in turn. “The worst sort of problem to have.”
“So, Mr. D… why are we headed out to Coney Island?”
“I want to check on an old property of mine.”
“Ah, that makes sense,” Carl said.
Karjiel downed his shot and poured another, holding it in his long fingers, pointing at Carl with the same hand. “What do you mean by that?”
Carl shrugged. “You know. Your English. You speak good. Makes sense you been here before.”
“Not in a long, long time. But I’ll tell you a secret, Carl,” he said as he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the ledge of the open partition.
“I’m having a goooooood time, my man!” Karjiel flung back into his seat and downed another shot, then let loose a manic, wheezing cackle.
Carl laughed with him. “Well, awlright then, Mr. D. Let the good times roll!”
* * *
The Maybach pulled up to Boxy’s, a shitty titty bar known as much for bullet-holes (in the building facade and the bouncers and dancers), as its tiggled bitties.
Karjiel noted his driver’s expression in the rear-view mirror. “Carl, my dear new friend… what is the matter?”
“Mr. D—this place is…” Carl paused to think. “There are better places to go to see broads. Boxy’s isn’t really—you know, an educated fella’ like yourself can go to one of the nice places in the city.”
Karjiel laughed. “Are any of these places really nice?”
Carl thought for a moment. “No. No, I guess they’re not.”
“Right. So then let’s not pretend. You know what they say: You can put lipstick on a pig, but—”
“—but it’s still a pig.” Carl finished.
“I was going to say, but isn’t it better to forget the lipstick and eat bacon? The saying must be different here.”
“Well, isn’t a pig always bacon? Isn’t bacon sort of… always a pig?”
Karjiel smiled. “At least always part of the pig. I like your perspective, Carl. You’ve got a curious mind.”
“Is that a good thing?” the driver asked.
Karjiel took another sip of vodka—he’d slowed down after finishing half the bottle—and pressed the glass hard against his forehead, an old habit of his. It was as though the pressure of the glass forced the distractions from his mind.
“So, how did you get this job?”
“Well, I used to work for Ali Baba limousine in Philly—real nice place. Used to drive the Sixers players around a lot. Ali—that wasn’t his real name. But anyway, Ali says he’s got a cousin up in Queens who runs a car service in the boroughs. Ali says he’ll sell me the limo I was drivin’ if I’d go work for his cousin and promise not to leave straightaway.”
“What sort of carriage?”
Karjiel scrambled for a noun that would better convey his question. “Uh, what sort of auto-mo-by-el?”
“A Mercedes Sprinter. Big ol’ van with leather chairs, television, office inside. High-class luxury, you know? It was very nice.”
Karjiel nodded as he continued sipping.
“Yessir, Mr. D. Very, very nice.”
“And… you find this returns acceptable profit?”
“Yessir, Mr. D. Very, very good money. More than a Jersey kid could expect to make in his life—at least more than a Jersey kid with an eighth-grade education could expect.”
“May I ask how much more than you could ever expect?”
Carl smiled. “Well, I can tell you what I grossed once I went out on my own the first year.”
Karjiel drank from his glass, but gesticulated in a manner that urged Carl to continue.
“One hundred and ninety thousand dollars my first year.”
Karjiel widened his eyes and gestured hyperbolically to show Carl he was impressed.
“Yeah,” the self-made chauffeur went on, “definitely not bad. A few years after that I went off on my own, hired a few other drivers. Now…” Carl continued, sucking his teeth and smiling, “I make more money than I’d ever dreamed of. But it’s funny…”
“I don’t spend it. I like the job. Driving and running the company. It’s good work. If people want to talk, I can flap my jaw like nobody’s business. If people want to sit quiet—well, I like quiet, too. So when clients want to be left alone, I can just roll up the median—the privacy barrier—and listen to Howard.”
Karjiel had not spoken to a being on his recent travels who expressed such an ideal. A man who did not leak the currency he acquired. He brushed the thought away. “Howard?”
“Howard Stern, Mr. D. You never heard of ’im?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
“Very funny guy. Maybe a little crude for your tastes.”
Karjiel laughed long and hard. Carl could only watch and wonder what the oddball was yucking at.
“Oh-oh-oh! No, no, Carl. I am not laughing at you. Ach! Certainly not. I am laughing at the idea that my tastes—well, they are crude, have been crude… there was a time when I knew of nothing except crudities. What my father called horse manure.”
Karjiel clapped his hands together, spilling what vodka remained in his glass, then pointed at Carl. “HORSESHIT! Yes, that’s exactly what he thought of my tastes. Of course, in Ardeal—eh, in what you call Transylvania, things were different. There were different, more darkly colored and ugly, soiled manures to shove one’s face into.”
“Well, Mr. D, I ain’t no philosopher, but I think that anywhere a man goes he’s bound to run into horseshit.”
Karjiel laughed hard at that; Carl chuckled to himself, too.
“Carl, you sell yourself short. You are indeed a philosopher!”
There was a short silence before Carl spoke. “Mr. D—are you going in?”
“Not quite. I would say we are going down.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, Carl. Look.”
The air wavered before them like it would during a heatwave. A neon turquoise lining appeared at the base of the bar, loosely shaped like a stretched oval. As the oval grew taller and wider, bright yellow flares flew, bouncing off the street and dissipating into the air—a frenzied dazzle of welding sparks. Boxy’s Gentleman’s Club opened—the way a mouth opens—as the turquoise-lined oval grew, distorting and squishing the space surrounding it. The area outside the neon lining—the street and building—danced and swirled. There was a road that went down into the mouth, except past the wavering neon light, the “road” (under Boxy’s; the roof of the mouth, as it were) looked something like a deep, dark purple tongue.
Carl’s jaw dropped.
“Do not worry, Carl.” Karjiel’s accent seemed thicker now. The word worry came out sounding like furry with a V. “Just drive.”
Not thinking much beyond his surprise, Carl drove the Maybach into the luminescent-psychedelic mouth below the titty bar.
* * *
Brooklyn, VFW Bar
Hezekiah and Smitty were shooting the shit, chain smoking, and sipping their drinks at the end of the bar. Yoma watched them gesticulate wildly while bitching about old-man stuff—kids these days, millennials, having had to walk fifteen miles uphill through blizzards and hurricanes and packs of locusts and plagues of wolves to get to school. Deciding that she would rather watch or listen to anything else, she turned her attention to one of the only sources of light in the dim bar.
Yoma extended her arm and tipped the top of her Corona bottle toward the TV mounted up near the top-shelf liquor. “Yo, Dylan! Can you up the volume on that thing?”
The bartender grabbed the remote and aimed it at the TV.
“Hello, this is Ron Lime with MXMVC. Reports are coming in from all around the country of violent attacks against the populace. These attacks are assumed to be carried out by seemingly unconnected groups of cell-phone users. The motive for these attacks is still unclear. Live from Brooklyn is our correspondent, Timmity Tomlinson. Timmity?”
Yoma’s face contorted with concern at what she had just heard. Who the fuck names their kid Timmity? The reporter appeared on the screen—Yoma recognized the neighborhood.
“Yes, Ron, it sure is a tremendous shit-show here on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, where a crowd of hundreds waiting on the latest friggidy fresh sneaker debut has been attacked by what can only be called Cellheaded-Deadmen, or CDs for short. Now, these CDs are not to be confused with the CD abbreviation meant for cross-dressers. The latest reports indicated sixteen dead, and thirty-one injured. Victims were electrocuted, bit, or beaten. Yessir, careful around those CDs. I’ve only recently coined this term; it remains to be seen whether ‘Bash CDs’ will take off on Twit-Tier. Where did they come from? Hashtag TruthHunt, y’all!”
It sounded like nonsense to Yoma. Cellheaded-Deadmen? Perhaps the media was exaggerating whatever was happening out there; ratings and all that. Perhaps Timmity was desperate to push his hashtags. Yoma noted that Timmity’s facial features were too small for the size of his head. He had a very punchable face, as Smitty might say.
“Many of those who were standing in line will now have to wait hours, perhaps even days, to purchase the sneakers they’ve been waiting for, spending, in some cases, more than a week’s paycheck on the finely crafted athletic footwear put together by what I can only assume are very tiny Asian baby-hands. Very, very tiny, little baby Asian hands. A sad commentary on the state of hands, Ron. Very sad—er, uh… indeed.
“The NYPD is at a complete loss, but of course they haven’t begun investigating yet because of reprisal by the NYC PBA Head, Devin Bynch, who has been critical of Mayor Bill DeFazio’s statement on Meet the Press, where he said, and I quote, ’The police don’t have a dangerous job. Teenagers have a dangerous job. Because they are the future. They have to be the youths of our future, and nothing’s more dangerous than that. Teach them well and let them be real gay. I’ve seen Back to the Future. I know what I’m talking about.’ End quote. Ron, I’ve also seen Back to the Future, and I agree with that assessment.”
Yoma wanted to hear more about these Cellheaded-Deadmen, but Timmity’s name, face, and manner of reporting made her want to bash her head bloody on the bar. Despite that, she kept listening.
“DeFazio’s administration, you’ll remember, has pressed for manslaughter charges against four-dozen separate police officers who ticketed cars in minority neighborhoods.
“All of the officers who have been indicted are Asian. Which begs the question, Ron: Do the indicted officers have tiny, tiny baby hands, too? Maybe that’s—uh… maybe that’s… there’s the connection there.”
The station cut back to Ron in the newsroom.
“I’m sorry, Timmity, we have to cut you off. We’re now going live to Gracie Mansion to hear DeFazio comment on this strange phenomenon.”
Yoma was curious to hear what the mayor had to say about the violence. The station feed cut to a man standing behind a podium mounted with dozens of microphones pointed at his face. The man wore a black blazer, a yellow undershirt, and a black-and-yellow checkered tie. Dressed like a dumbass bumblebee, Yoma thought. At least she didn’t have to look at Timmity anymore.
“Yes, thank you, thank you. First, I just want to say that all people are all equal and that ALL deaths are tragic. I want to make this clear: We are using every available resource to find out what is going on. My team of twenty-three-year-old City University of New York Human Resources majors are on the case.
“New Yorkers can handle anything… um… we got through nine-eleven, we got through the pandemic, and we’ll certainly be looking into the Cellheads. We plan to send a team of mediators to meet with them, in order to come to an agreement; a cease-fire, if you will. I don’t consider them terrorists, so we can negotiate. They’re clearly upset about something, and we will find out what that something is.
“If you see one of these… Cellheads, please respect their space. Make sure to subscribe to my YouBoub channel, brofazio, and follow me on Twit-Tier. DeFazio out!”
There wasn’t a mic for DeFazio to drop, so he awkwardly pried one off the podium—it took a good twenty seconds—then repeated, “DeFazio out!”
He dropped the mic.
The bumblebee mayor straightened his tie and stepped down from the podium. He was off-camera now, but reporters could be heard swarming him with questions. The station’s feed swapped back to Ron in the newsroom.
“Wow. I think I speak for all of us when I say that everything the Mayor said was brilliant. Back after a few words from our sponsors.”
Yoma felt she had lost IQ points watching that “special coverage”, but she was still curious about the Cellheads.
She downed the rest of her drink, got up from her stool, and got her mentor’s attention. “Hezzy! Check the TV. Somthin’ weird’s goin’ on—sounds right up your alley. I’ll be back later—got other plans. I’m gonna gear up.”