Thursday, March 29, 2007

An Accident

The Acme supermarket placed its own generic products on the bottom shelves. The unbeatably low prices were sufficient to move the boxes of fake Raisin Bran and copied Cheerios. Ellen Winters was a smart shopper because she had to be. She fingered the federal food stamps in her pocket, pushed her cart down the aisle with one hand. She squatted and selected a box of Acme’s Shredded Wheat, stood up and put it in her cart. She studied her options. A box of Kellogg’s Fruit Loops sat at eye-level. She’d had a bowl just this morning, Sunday, while visiting with her neighbor Jane. Ellen’s kids — there were four of them — were always hollering for a cereal like Fruit Loops. They too ate Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms at their friends’ houses. They saw child actors smiling and lip-smacking and enjoying these cereals on TV. Sometimes they even hummed the jingles, repeated the slogans. Ellen recalled a talking toucan.

“Mmm, Shredded Wheat,” Jason, her oldest, would murmur with his newfound sense of irony as he perused the cereal selection.

Sometimes Ellen did buy Fruit Loops, or more likely, Honey Nut Cheerios. Ellen labeled these kinds of excessively sugary cereals Number Two’s. There was a rule: Whenever there was a Number Two in the house, one had to first eat a bowl of a Number One cereal — Shredded Wheat, Special K, Grape Nuts, and their generics — before enjoying a bowl of a Number Two. This was the best way to create healthy habits.

Ellen picked up the box and studied the ingredients. Sugar reigned supreme. Generally she didn’t like to buy any cereal if sugar was even in the top five. Moreover, this Friday night, she was to prepare dinner for her boyfriend, his two children, and her own kids. They were to celebrate her birthday together, all nine of them. So she wanted to splurge for a few extras today: walnuts for the salad, fancy cookies for dessert, sparkling grape juice for fun. Nevertheless, with the taste of the cereal near in her memory, and a spontaneous generosity in her heart, she placed the box of Fruit Loops in her cart. She smiled to herself.

At the checkout counter, she watched her total tab climb with each item. She wasn’t sure she was going to make it. She’d wanted to stay below one hundred dollars. As the box of Fruit Loops slid up the conveyer belt, Ellen almost set it aside. She thought choosing the cereal had been a mistake, a kind of minor accident. After all, there was no apparent reason behind the purchase. The kids didn’t need Fruit Loops. But she let it go. And the counter beeped as the checkout lady swept the box over the strange infrared machine.

Ellen thought maybe there was a little man inside there who could read barcodes and made this beeping noise all day long. She laughed to herself, just before she saw the total. About five dollars over her intended limit. Not bad. She paid the bill, wheeled the groceries to her Volkswagon van, loaded up and headed home.

Her two boys were playing football in the front yard with some other boys from the cul-de-sac. Ellen called her sons over to help her with the groceries, and after a timeout in the game, they came, begrudgingly. As Mark, the youngest, walked to the front door, he searched the contents of the brown bag in his hands. He saw the Fruit Loops and called out, “Awesome! Fruit Loops! Can I have some now, Mom?”

“No,” she said.

It ended there; Mark wasn’t even hungry.

There was a message on the answering machine. Ellen pushed the playback button, then went about putting away the milk and eggs. It was a woman from the local library, where her youngest daughter Molly, aged twelve, liked to spend Sunday afternoons looking at art books.

“Hello, Mrs. Winters. This is Alice from the William Franks Library. I’m sorry to be calling you, but we have a situation down here involving your daughter Molly. Please call us as soon as possible. It’s very urgent.”

The woman left a number. Very urgent, she had said. So before she even finished putting away the refrigerated goods, Ellen, with a quickly beating heart, dialed the number and asked for Alice.

Bags of groceries still sat on every chair in the kitchen. Ellen moved one to the floor and sat down. The wait on line was short, perhaps fifteen seconds, but it was enough time for Ellen to grow immensely nervous.

“Mrs. Winters?”

“Yes,” said Ellen.

“Thank you for calling,” said Alice. “Would it be possible for you to drive down to the library right now?”

“Of course. Is there a problem?”

“I’m afraid so,” said the librarian with resignation. “We have a situation.”

“Is Molly in some kind of trouble?” asked Ellen, irritated by the vagueness of the librarian’s words.

“I’m sorry, but I’d rather not discuss the issue with you over the phone. Please just come quickly. The police are also on their way.”

“The police!” shouted Ellen, stunned. “Are you serious?”

“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Winters,” said Alice. “Please come.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Ellen was shocked: Molly had always been a good girl, shy and inscrutable, but never misbehaving. As Ellen grabbed her keys off the counter and hustled out the door, her white Ked sneakers stuck to the kitchen floor, making a sticky sound. Outside, she called Jason over to the driveway and told him to finish putting the groceries away.

“And mop the kitchen floor before I get back,” she added. “It’s dirty.”

“Where are you going?” asked Jason.

“To pick up Molly from the library.”

“Why can’t she walk home?” asked Jason, looking back at his stalled football game.

“Just put the groceries away, Jason. I’ll be back soon,” Ellen said, before closing the door, starting the van, and backing out the driveway. Jason called his younger brother Mark over to help with the groceries and told the other boys they’d be back in two minutes. Not enough time to mop the floor.

At the library, Molly was sitting in the back office. Two Whitemarsh County police officers, Alice the head librarian, and a man in a tweed jacket were standing just outside the door to the room where Molly sat. One of the policemen introduced himself as Officer Johnson and told Ellen the story.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Winters, but it appears your daughter Molly has stolen money from this gentleman, Mr. Whitmore.”

Ellen felt the fury rising up in her body, into her feet and through her stomach. She felt it in the red heat of her face. The man in tweed nodded apologetically to Ellen. The officer continued.

“Apparently Mr. Whitmore ran back to get a book he’d forgotten and he accidentally left his wallet at the front desk. That’s when your daughter grabbed the wallet, ran to the ladies room, and removed the cash inside. She then returned the wallet to the desk, thinking no one would be the wiser.”

The policeman paused, rubbed his neatly trimmed goatee. Ellen looked through the glass window at her daughter, who briefly made eye contact with her mother, then dropped her head over the desk.

“I’d like to speak with my daughter,” said Ellen.

“Of course,” said the librarian, opening the door to her office.

When Ellen walked into the room, Molly sat upright, looked courageously at her mother, faced the wrath. Ellen went to Molly, stood above her, and looked directly into her eyes.

Molly, unable any longer to face the severity of her mother’s gaze, dropped her head.

“Molly, look at me,” said Ellen. She hesitated with the question, disbelieving the situation. “Did you take this man’s money?”

At the word money, Molly wailed and threw her head down into her folded arms which rested upon the desk. She cried, threw a fit. No answer was forthcoming. Ellen’s head spun. As she turned to face the policeman, she felt the room breath.

Ellen got to the point, “Did anyone see my daughter do this?”

“Yes, Mrs. Winters,” Alice said solemnly. “I saw your daughter return the wallet to the front desk. Clear as day.”

Ellen’s heart dropped with the truth of the librarian’s witness. Her fingers curled into a fist, a fist she wanted to shake at God. If any doubt remained, it vanished when Molly reared up from the desk, her face wet with shame, and cried out, “I’m sorry, Mommy! I’m sorry!”

“Don’t tell me you’re sorry, young lady! Don’t tell me!” said Ellen, her anger now evident to all. “You apologize to this man.” Molly looked sheepishly toward Mr. Whitmore. “You apologize,” said her mother.

“I’m sorry I took your money,” said Molly, hardly getting the last word out before again breaking up.

“And you apologize to these policemen, here, Molly.”

“I’m sorry!” she wailed. “I’m sorry!”

“And you apologize to Alice,” said Ellen.

“I’m sorry!” cried Molly, utterly defeated. “I’m sorry!”

Ellen felt this last wail at the base of her spine.

The short ride home in the van was silent, steeped in an unspeakable outrage. The gentleman in tweed had kindly decided not to press charges, and considering Molly’s show of remorse, the officer too had let it lie. As Ellen saw it, the two men had merely passed the responsibility of punishment onto Ellen herself.

They drove through the neighborhood, suffered the silence. Husbands were out in force mowing lawns. Kids rode their bicycles alongside the van. A little girl at the corner of Barkley and Eagle had set up a lemonade stand. Sunday stretched lazily toward evening.

Ellen wasn’t only angry, she was touched with fear. This was not how her children, how God’s children, were to behave. Jason was the one who never studied his lessons for church. He was the one with pride and rebellion in his heart, just like his father. Molly on the other hand sang in the choir and could recite at least a dozen verses from the Gospel of Matthew. She certainly knew the Eighth Commandment. It didn’t make sense. That’s what caused the fear. The senselessness and confusion. To soothe her trembling, Ellen prayed to herself. And her prayers mingled with the sunlight cutting through the windshield.

When they pulled into the driveway at home after what seemed an eternity, Ellen turned to her daughter and asked the question.

“Why, Molly? Why did you take the man’s money?”

Molly sniffled. She wanted to get out of the car, to be released, to escape her mother. “I don’t know, Mom.”

“Think about it,” Ellen said sternly. “What happened? What were you thinking when you picked up the wallet? Why did you do it?”

Molly began to cry, “I don’t know, Mom!” She stammered, “It, it was like, it was like I didn’t mean to. It was an accident!”

This was unacceptable. “An accident, Molly? I don’t think so. It was a decision, a bad decision. You chose to take the wallet, then you chose to take the money. Why? What I don’t understand is why you think you needed the money. Why, Molly?”

“I don’t know, Mom!” Molly grew hysterical. “It was an accident! It just happened!”

Disappointed, Ellen shook her head no.

“I guess,” Molly offered at last, sniffling, whimpering. “I guess I wanted the money to buy you something for your birthday.”

Ellen felt her fingers curl and her shoulders tense up. This was an unfair thing to say. She felt the space between her and her daughter harden. Her anger transformed into a more diffused, metaphysical anger.

“Go to your room,” she said flatly. “I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”

Molly hustled out of the van, free at last. She scurried into the house, down the hall and into her bedroom, where she would replay the day’s events over and over again in her mind for hours. Ellen sat in the van a minute, gathering herself. She let the setting sun beat down on her body, and she prayed. She closed her eyes, she breathed, and she prayed.

Back in the kitchen, her sneakers still stuck to the dirty floor.

There was a tradition in the Winters household that Sunday night dinner was breakfast. Pancakes, waffles, eggs and toast. Every Sunday night, it was morning again. This seemed to make the weekend last a little bit longer. Ellen had decided not to allow Molly’s troubles disturb the entire household, and so, a few hours after returning from the library, she and her older daughter Lucy were in the kitchen fixing fruit salad and scrambled eggs for the family.

Earlier, Ellen had visited Jane and told her the story. Jane had said, “The devil got into poor little Molly today. The devil’s damned clever.”

“What do you think I should do?” asked Ellen, debating the proper punishment.

“Search her room for more money,” said Jane.

Standing at the kitchen counter, Ellen cracked an egg against the side of a steel bowl. She watched the egg yoke drop into the bowl along with the others. With the whisker, she beat the eggs, rhythmically whipping the yokes into a smooth, blended whole. Lucy sat at the table, slicing apples and bananas, singing a pop song.

The boys barreled in the front door, rambunctious with physical energy. They were celebrating their victory on the gridiron. Ellen heard Mark talking about another boy from the neighborhood. “Danny sucks at defense,” Mark said, and the boys laughed, loudly and cruelly. They appeared at the kitchen door.

“Don’t use that word,” said Ellen, looking up from the cutting board, on which she was now slicing onions.

“What word?” said Mark.

“You know what word: the word you just said,” said Ellen. Mark rolled his eyes. “Now go wash up and tell your sister it’s time for dinner. She’s in her room.”

“Is Molly in trouble?” asked Jason.

“Tell her it’s time for dinner,” said Ellen.

The boys marched down the hallway of the rancher, screaming, “Mol-ly’s in trou-ble! Mol-ly’s in trou-ble!” They laughed and pushed each other against the walls. Mark bolted ahead and Jason threw the football to him. As Mark caught it, he crashed with self-conscious dramatics into the door of Molly’s bedroom. The door pushed open and Mark fell into the room and onto the floor, rattling the small table at his right shoulder. The things on the table — a collection of porcelain figurines of fairies, princesses and ballerinas — all shook and fell in upon one another. One pink, winged fairy dropped off the side, and Mark caught it with his left hand just before it hit the ground.

“Touchdown!” cried Jason, standing at the door. Then, to Molly, “Time for dinner.”

Molly rolled off her bed and stood up. She pulled her hair behind her head and fixed her scrunchie. She stepped over Mark and walked down the hallway without a word.

Ellen poured the eggs and onions into the Pam-sprayed frying pan. The wooden spoon was halfway across the kitchen, in the drawer beneath the dish drying rack. After fetching the spoon, she passed it through the eggs, scraping the cooked egg off the pan’s bottom. The kids liked the eggs just a touch moist, but not wet.

“Can I have a bowl of Fruit Loops?” cried Mark, as he and Jason stampeded back into the kitchen.

“Can you two please calm down?” said Ellen. “And no, Mark. Eat your eggs first, then, maybe.”

“Fruit Loops!” cried Jason. “Can I have a bowl too please, Mommy?” he said sarcastically, mocking his younger brother.

“I’m just going to pour a bowl, Mom, okay?” said Mark, stooping down to grab the box from the bottom cupboard. “Then I’ll eat it after I eat my eggs. Okay, Mom?”

Jason jostled with his brother. “Me too, okay, Mom?” he said whiningly, making fun of his brother.

Mark had the box already open, and he pulled out the plastic bag. Jason tried to grab the bag from Mark, and the box dropped to the floor. Mark elbowed his brother in the sternum and yelled, “Get off me!” Then Jason jabbed his brother in the gut, and as Ellen put the wooden spoon down and turned to reprimand her boys, Mark yanked at the plastic bag from both sides to open it, and he did so with such force that the bag split clean down the middle, and the cereal, every loop of it, poured out onto the floor.

“God, Jason!” cried Mark. “Now look what you made me do!”

“Shut up, idiot,” said Jason to his brother.

Ellen looked down at the mess, put her hand to her chest. Hopelessness descended, dressed as an angel, and touched her heart. The whole thing appeared to be an accident, but Ellen knew better. Smiling to herself, she went to the corner to get the dustpan and broom. She handed the broom to Mark and the dustpan to Jason. As the boys began to clean up, Ellen returned to the stove, where, for just a moment, the eggs were cooked just right.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Good Novels of 2000-2007

Here are thirteen novels written this decade that I have enjoyed. What do you think? What have I missed? Post a comment!

1. What is the What, Dave Eggers (2006)
2. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami (2005)
3. Old School, Tobias Wolff (2003)
4. Adverbs, Daniel Handler (2006)
5. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
6. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
7. Atonement, Iam McEwan (2001)
8. Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem (2003)
9. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)
10. The Romantics, Pankaj Mishra (2000)
11. Homeland, Sam Lipsyte (2004)
12. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
13. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)

Friday, March 2, 2007

Love Poem

for Erin K.

I. Nerves

Your nerves taste like figs and bitters.
Offer them up to me
Before the moment has passed.
It already pants like a winded horse.
Hurry now, fill my mug with gin,
Before I begin to wonder what comes next.

II. Kiss

Your face looked different, more familiar.
I saw colors in there matching your winter hat.
When you climbed on top of me in the park
I was shivering, not from the cold,
But because I felt so bound up in our kiss.
How much is wound up in a moment?

You're the fortune teller, here's my palm.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Mickey the Tiger


Mickey the Tiger was an old-timer who lived in a basement apartment in Alphabet City. He was as gay as the day is long. Tompkins Square Park was his second home, and for about a year or two in the eighties, his only home. I got to know Mickey through writing assignments he gave me for his homegrown anarchist weekly called Network. By publishing two of my essays, a Rudolf Rocker appreciation and a piece on decentralized websites, Mickey instilled confidence in me. I looked up to him. Eventually we became good friends.

In the summer of 2003, after thirty years on the scene, Mickey disappeared. Nobody knew where he’d gone. When he turned up eighteen months later, he said he’d decided to spend time with his mother back in Iowa before she passed. He blinked rapidly when he told this story because it was a lie. 

We were smoking cigars in his front room. We had our shoes off. It was snowing outside and the floor of the apartment was cold. Since his return to the city, Mickey had been working without rest on the revival of Network, which had died off in his absence. He’d found the money to go to print, now he was looking to fill the pages. He summoned me to discuss a piece on flash mobs. After we powwowed about the story, Mickey began to rub his belly.

“I’m going to cook some spaghetti,” he said. “Would you like to stick around and eat with me?”

“Sure,” I said.

Mickey lifted himself off the sofa. He was getting older. I had him at about 50, twenty years or so older than me. That many years living the way he did took its toll.

I followed him into the kitchen. He put the water on, then took two beers from the fridge and handed me one. We clanked our bottles together and took the first slugs. It was about four-thirty in the afternoon.

“You still with that girl of yours, the painter?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Stacy and I live together off Lorimer.”

“Good for you,” said Mickey. “How long now?”

“I guess we’ve been there about a year,” I said.

There was a tension in the conversation, a vacuum created by the mystery of the past year and a half of Mickey’s life. According to a tacit rule, Mickey was allowed to ask me about my life, but I wasn’t permitted access to the same information about his.

“That’s nice,” he said. “You’re settling down.”

We drank our beers. I sat down to the table and rubbed my cold feet. I wondered how Mickey was able to piece his life and the lives of others back together after his absence. How one could slip away, then somehow be reconstituted.

The boiling water on the stove made the lid rattle. Mickey stepped to it and poured the thin spaghetti in.

“It’s a good thing to settle down,” he said.

“It feels right,” I said.

“There comes a time,” he said.

He took two plates out of the cabinet and set them on the table. There was a gentleness in his way that struck me as new. The old frenetic madness had been replaced with something tender, wounded. He fetched two more beers from the fridge. With a small sigh, he sat down across from me.

“The time I spent with my mother this past year has changed me,” he began. “There was such peace out there in the country, and I developed a hankering for it. It was nice to go for walks in the woods. To have a drink at four in the afternoon and not worry about summoning the energy to go out later. To go to bed early. To be with someone and not worry about what that person was thinking. This is why I ended up staying away longer than I’d expected to. I came to like my life in Iowa.”

“People were worried,” I said.

“I know. I could have called. But once a few weeks slipped by, then a couple of months, it just seemed so possible. That I could do that. That I could vanish like I did. There was a thrill in it.”

“I thought maybe you’d died,” I said flatly.

Mickey grunted a laugh. He looked squarely at me for a beat. Then he stood and served our late lunch. That was all Mickey had to say about his disappearance. We briefly discussed the piece on flash mobs again, then ate in silence. At 5:15, I went home.

Mickey was a strange bird. I want to emphasize that. Although animated in public, he was ultimately private and secretive. I even suspected him of nefarious business. For example, I knew he ran Cuban cigars to make a living for many years. What I’m saying is that this is not a story about an ordinary guy, about how the extraordinary creeps into even the most normal lives. Rather, this one goes the other way.

After I got home from Mickey’s place, I lay half-awake on my bed until the effect of the few beers I’d had wore off. After about an hour, I got up and turned the radio on. I brushed my teeth and took the trash out. At around seven o’clock, I settled down to work.

As I began to write the essay for Network, something happened. Writing is a peculiar act, and lots of unusual things happen when you sit down to the desk. What happened was this: as I wrote the piece, ostensibly on flash mobs, all I could think about was Mickey himself. The Tiger. The legend. The man in the bathtub writing his unpublishable political manifesto well into his forties. Taking mysterious trips every so often, to D.C., to Central America, on boats. Enjoying regular sex like the natural biological function it is. I tried to concentrate on the flash mob phenomenon — this fad of groups of people suddenly showing up at random locations across the city, then just as suddenly dispersing — but with each sentence, I found I was writing about Mickey the man. "The mob is a demonstration of potential, of the possibility of organization and power coming from the bottom up, or from no particular place at all." No matter how hard I tried to focus on the subject at hand, I couldn’t shake the fact that this piece was going to be about Mickey.

I had been reading about these flash mobs for a few months. With the research done, the piece came easily. I took one break at around ten o’clock to walk to the corner and buy a cup of bath-water coffee.

“This fresh?” I asked my local deli man.

“What’d you think?” he said.

I bought it anyhow and took it home and drank it as I reread my draft. I was pleased with the way the thing was coming together. Like anything, writing is an organic process. You’ve got to soften your grip on the thing and let it come into its own. At midnight, after a round of edits, I printed the essay out and called Mickey. He was still up of course. Told me he was stitching monograms into his towels and watching C-SPAN. I told him I’d be right over with the draft.

I road the L train in from Williamsburg, then walked down First Avenue. I was proud of my piece and eager to show it to Mickey. When I got to his building, I heard him shouting at the television.

“Goddam politicians have zero vision!” he hollered at me as he opened the door. “It’s like the whole goddam world is centered around the next quarterly earning report, and nothing more. The world could end next quarter, and it wouldn’t make a goddam difference to the way these people make their decisions.”

This kind of outburst was not unusual for Mickey, a man of mood swings.

“Don’t just make a good move,” I offered, “Make a move that’s part of a winning combination.” This was an old chess motto I’d read somewhere.

“That’s right,” Mickey said. We sat down on the couches in the living room. “Look at this guy” — Mickey pointed to the television, some representative was giving a speech — “here’s a guy who’s probably nice enough, probably smart enough, to be a leader. But what happens is the guy gets sucked into the system — the two parties, the lobbies, the money, the deception, the corruption, the money, the delusion, the greed, the money! — and after a few years in the game, he finds he can’t do what he set out to do, which was to make a change. To do something good for his country. It’s concepts, ideologies, that get in the way of honest politics.”

“That’s why you’re an anarchist,” I said. He turned his attention back to the guy on the TV. I pulled the hard copy of my essay out of my bag and handed it to him.

He thanked me, took the draft, and began to read it. He paced the room and made comments out loud as he read. Mickey was in fifth gear, all cylinders firing. When he was in this mode, he could tear into a text and fix it in a matter of minutes. With his pen, he axed whole paragraphs, hacked at my sentences and reworked my diction. He marked where to insert a perfectly apt quote from a writer I’d never even heard of. Twenty minutes later, I had a rewrite on my hands. Not easily impressed, I was by Mickey.

“Can you rework it tonight?” he asked. “I’m actually catching a flight tomorrow afternoon, and I’d love to have it before then.”

I gave Mickey a suspicious eye and said, “Where’re you flying?”

He laughed. “To D.C. Just for the weekend. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

“All right,” I said.

“So you’ll get it in by tomorrow, say noon.” It was as if Mickey didn’t realize it was already one o’clock in the morning, but of course, he did.

I nodded.

“Let’s have a few beers first, yeah? You want one?”

“Yeah,” I said. I was happy to stay longer. I felt that if I could hang around long enough, at odds hours, then I’d soon hear more about Iowa.

He called to me from the kitchen. “You want a bite to eat? I’ve got some hummus and crackers. I’ll bring 'em out.”

He placed a platter on the coffee table. Wheat Thins lined the circumference; the center was filled with a roasted pepper hummus. A few olives sat atop the hummus. It was artfully presented, as if this were a dinner party. Mickey handed me a napkin and a bottle of beer. I took a slug.

He turned up the TV and we sat watching re-runs of the speeches given in the House of Representatives earlier that day. They were talking about health care. We sat there for an hour, eating hummus and crackers, drinking beers. A midwestern Republican started in on his spiel.

“I like this guy,” Mickey said. “He’s cute.”

“Nice coif,” I joked.

We laughed. Mickey watched with a curious concentration. For a few minutes, I watched Mickey watch the guy on TV. Then I said, “So, Mickey, what are you doing in D.C.?” He held up his hand as if to say, hold on a minute. I returned my attention to the fellow on TV. I didn’t see what was so interesting about him. He looked like your run-of-the-mill pretty boy Republican. Neatly folded hair, thick eyebrows, a handsome face. When I listened to what he was actually saying, I lost interest again. Same old political double-speak, same old echo chamber.

When the speech was over, Mickey muted the TV and said, “The problem is the system makes these people into hypocrites. It’s our clinging to concepts that keeps people from being fully human, from being who they really are.”

What was I supposed to say to that? I asked my question again, “What are you doing in D.C. this weekend?”

“Attending a conference, a meet the press ball.”

At first, Mickey had taken the normal route to a career in politics. After graduating college, he worked on K Street for a few years, before becoming disillusioned and taking to the underground. But he still had connections in Washington, and every so often he attended these conferences. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Mickey’s purpose was at these functions. I assumed it was subversive. I wanted to know.

“What do you do at these conferences?” I asked.

Mickey stared at me, and I stared back. He took a deep breath and smiled. “I’ll tell you, John,” he said. “I like you. You’re levelheaded. I trust you.” He leaned in. “What I do at these events is try and seduce members of Congress who are purportedly homosexual. I get an assignment, right. Then, using my charm, I get close. We drink. As much as possible. Then if I’m lucky, which is exceedingly rare, I take the guy home, back to a hotel. You see, with photographs, you can ruin a guy’s career for life. It’s that simple. But don’t go romanticizing this: it’s only worked once. About five years ago, we got this bastard good. You remember Congressman R***, well, I’ll tell you, he was a real son of a bitch. A menace. I didn’t feel an ounce of remorse screwing him over. After we got to him, the son of bitch dropped out of the race the following fall. Usually nothing comes of my efforts. But they keep sending for me. These operatives. They’ll stop at nothing. They’re unbelievable, totally unscrupulous. So that’s what I do. What do you think of that?”

At first, I didn’t know what to say. It sounded outlandish, outrageous. But I wanted to reserve my judgement, to trust Mickey. Though I'd never quite figured him for a blackmailer.

“Ah, forget I told you,” Mickey said, standing now and slapping me on the knee. “You’re young, yet.”

“That’s wild, Mickey,” I said “I would’ve never guessed.”

“That’s the point,” he said. He crossed the room and turned on the stereo. I could see another stretch of activity lay before him.

“Back to work,” he said, and he started doing stretches, as if the day were just beginning. It was 2:30 in the morning. So I left Mickey in his living room doing calisthenics to the throwback sound of The Pixies. “Drive my car into ocean,” Mickey sang out loud as he reached down to his toes. “You’ll think I’m dead, but I’ll sail away...”

At home, Stacy was back from work and sound asleep in the bed. I crawled in next to her, set my alarm for six AM, then passed out. I dreamt of Mickey and cornfields. We were drinking iced teas on lawn chairs in the middle of this fallow field. Mickey picked up a huge, fallen stalk of corn and smoked it like a cigar. He kept chuckling, touching my knee, and saying, “This is the life!” The dream was vaguely homoerotic. When the alarm went off, I rolled over and tried to wake Stacy for sex. But she rolled her back to me and said, “Are you kidding?”

So I stepped out of bed and into my khakis. I rubbed my eyes and put on the coffee. In the apartment’s second room, I sat down to the computer and reworked the essay. I loved working at this early hour. It freed me for the rest of the day.

When I got to Mickey’s around nine, he answered the door in his robe, water dripping at his feet, and said, “I’m in the tub. Follow me. You don’t mind, do you?” So I followed Mickey into the bathroom. He dropped his robe and immersed himself in the bubbly, jasmine-scented water. With a sudsy hand, he picked up his cigar and puffed.

“Read it out loud to me, yeah?” he said.

So I read the essay out loud, as Mickey hollered exclamations. He was excited about the piece; we both were.

“That’s the stuff,” he said. “To think how anonymous text messaging was the sole organizing principle for these mobs. Astounding. People are not thinking hard enough about how deeply technology is changing the political landscape.”

Mickey insisted I light up a cigar in celebration. He offered me a drink, but I reminded him that it was nine in the morning and passed. We talked about the essay for about ten minutes. He soaped his underarms. Then he asked me about Stacy. I told him how she was just so smart and sexy and with it, how the whole thing was so clear and good. He liked hearing about how happy we were.

“Let me tell you a secret, John,” he said. “I haven’t told anybody this, and I don’t know why exactly I'm telling you. I guess you’ve been around the past few days. I expect you to keep all this to yourself. ”

“Of course,” I said. Mickey bit his lower lip.

“The last year and half, in Iowa, I wasn’t with my mother.”

I nodded. This much was obvious.

“My mother died eight years ago from cancer. She lived her entire life on Long Island. But people will believe anything you tell them. And I was in Iowa. I was living on a farm. Every day, I fed chickens. I ate fresh eggs. In the spring and summer, I worked the garden. I sat on the front porch and watched storms come.”

He stood up, briefly exposing his junk, and grabbed a monogrammed towel from the rack. He began to dry himself off.

“And I was living with somebody. The stupid secret is I fell in love, John. I can’t tell you who it was. You see, it’s somebody I met at one of these events. I’m going to see him this weekend. The name doesn’t matter, but he’s an important guy. I seduced him and was looking to screw him, because his views are awful, and that was the idea. But then I got to know him. At home, with me, he was a completely different person. It was uncanny. How sweet and kind he was, how human. So I went out to this farm he owned, he had money, and after we spent a week together, he promised to come back to me, so I ended up staying. When he wasn’t in Washington, he was with me in Iowa. Not for very long stretches of time, of course, the whole thing was secret. And when he was gone, I enjoyed my solitude. But when he was there with me, it was paradise. Like nothing I’ve ever had before. I felt transformed by all of it, by the love, the country. Funny enough, that was as close to normal as my life’s ever been. And I liked it.”

Mickey dried his hair. I sat on the closed toilet, waiting to hear more. But Mickey appeared finished. So I asked, “What happened? Why did you come back?”

“Oh, I can’t go into all that now. I guess you could say we had a fight.”

I nodded. I desperately wanted to hear more. This was only so much as a tease. But Mickey was finished; he had a flight to catch. He thanked me again for the story and saw me to the door. As he shook my hand, we lingered on eye contact. On the train ride back to my bed, I thought about how nice it was to have known Mickey.

Mickey the Tiger never returned from D.C. that weekend. I felt a touch betrayed, lied to, but like anyone, Mickey had a right to his happiness. So after having been back for only a few months, he disappeared again. People weren’t as riled up this time around. His legend was waning. There were new figures on the scene making the usual noise.

Then, rather miraculously, one final edition of Network appeared on the streets. I’m not sure how Mickey managed its distribution, but there it was, with my essay on the cover. It created a minor buzz; people were mesmerized by the idea of flash mobs and what they might mean. Since my story had the cover, people thought I was in with the Tiger, and many strangers came up and asked me where Mickey was these days. I told them I had no idea.

It was close to a year later when I got the letter. Congress was debating Iraq at the time. Mickey had sent me a long, tortured, handwritten letter. It was full of anger and love. He was all torn up about a decision. He was asking me for help. Just reading the letter through caused me a great deal of anxiety. I read the letter a second time, then heaved back in my chair. I folded the letter in thirds and picked up the envelop again, when a photograph slid out. I recognized the faces, despite the makeup and the dresses, I recognized both faces — Mickey and the Congressman from TV. After taking a good look at the picture, and rereading the part of the letter about Iraq and about love, I carefully inserted both the letter and the photograph back into the envelope and tucked it into my bottom drawer. After all, the whole thing was none of my business.