Floating slowly over, feet grazing the mists like a crane’s wings on a still lake, Steve Jobs points at the table and said, "Put your hand right there, please."
Most can’t conceive of a heaven that includes pain. Which isn’t totally off the mark. Any sensation, pain included, requires a particular change in a particular stimulus, a nerve state going from 0 to 1. God has seen to it that doesn’t happen. But since even The Kingdom is still mostly subject to universal principles of reality, you might say that in this case baby has indeed followed bathwater, in that we don’t experience what the still-living consider pleasure. You have to get creative with your jollies.
I says, "Now Steve —“
Steve cuts me off wordlessly. It’s a version of telepathy, among the nastiest of the many parlor tricks he’s invented since his arrival. Never once during my living days did I fall prey to this sort of playground-bully dynamic. But I never let myself get near this sort of person, either.
Then things start shaking all around us. Little droplets of vaporous spacetime spumed up, a kind of rain in reverse. It happens here. Jobs maintained eye contact; they smile, those Athenian eyes, here, finally, as clear and deep as they were always meant to be. Their twinkle utterly unfiltered.
Then He enters from across the … well, spacial stuff is different here. Let’s call it a room. But He, the only one here who can walk instead of float, comes in looking a bit like everyone I’ve ever seen, standing around twelve feet tall, having cooked up a perfect expression of placid amusement.
"You boys hear? Sendak’s about to hit the trade block." His brow folds handsomely.
"Don’t tell me," Jobs says. “They want ..."
Their eyes brighten. They count together: "One… two… three… Mario Puzo!" and break into mismatched but, I must admit, wonderfully compatible laughter, like Jasmine and Aladdin learning to fold their distant registers into star-crossed love. The Big One’s big belly laugh, needless to say, pings sonorously between the many translucent figures tessellating endlessly throughout the void.
I realize now my hand is stuck as if by invisible dart to a particular spot on the desk. My spirit sinks. I feel Jobsy smile off camera. I look to my Creator, trying to look as respectable and unobsequious as possible. He meets my gaze with an expression, truly convincing in its artlessness, that would translate literally into English as "Mmmyyyes?"
I make one last attempt to pull my hand off the spongy, eleven-dimensional particle board to which it’s pinned. But the sheriff doesn't answer to his constituents in this town, and right now the rule is for me to just sit tight while Jobs drifts back on over — slow, real casual-like, pivoting clockwise as he moves, docking in backside-first to douse my hand directly with a simmering fart that escapes with the sound of a dry train whistle.
God laughs. They high-five. I sigh, but the subsequent deep inhale just makes the smell worse.
It was a cold night for early September.
“Try not to go too deep here. You’re sort of rap rap rapping on the basilic vein’s chamber door.”
“Okay, so how do I —”
“So to speak.”
“Are you really going to keep drinking through this?”
“Alright, two things. First off, booze has already put my miracle mitts on the sideline, so … yeah. Rubicon crossed.”
“Which did I mention how nervous this makes me?”
“And two of all, do you have any idea how much this would cost if I were actually on the clock?”
“So I don’t know how much doctors cost. You doing okay, brother?”
“Okay but and thirdly, when you interrupt someone’s quiet evening —”
“Don’t listen to him, boys, you didn’t interrupt anything. Honey, I believe your help is needed.”
“Right. Erm … how you doing, Piper? Oh, wait, someone just asked that, right?”
“Dr. Cass, please. What do I do next?”
“He needs to bend his arm a little. To make sure that when he flexes his elbow with the stitches in it doesn’t, like, explode. Not to get all jargony on you.”
“You get that? You’ve got to bend it a little. Can you —”
“Oh and fourth off, I’m not a surgeon. Let’s make that distinction. Surgeons are just hands. Disembodied, glory-seeking little hands. So don’t —”
“Oh, man, Pipe. Sorry.”
“Hey, who do your parents hang out with, by the way? Like in the neighborhood.”
“I just mean why aren’t your parents here?”
“We kinda didn’t tell them about this.”
“Because what, they’d take away your trampoline?”
“I mean, for starters. After that … honestly, I don’t want to think about it.”
“Jesus. Does anybody let their kids just mess up anymore? When I was your age, a life-threatening stitch-up from your brother was price enough.”
“Does Piper really need to be biting down on that?”
He’s your twin. I just assumed he was a pussy, too.”
“Sorry, love. Thing is, Evan, I’d prefer the neighbors not hear him screaming. On the other side of the Rubicon is what they call malpractice country.”
“We appreciate you taking the time. And risk.”
“Speaking of neighbors, is that get-together still going on at your place? The folks like to go late night?”
“They usually make us go to bed during those things.”
“I might wander over once we get Junior back in action. You know if the old man likes scotch?”
“You’d have to ask him. But then … I mean ... they’d know we were here.”
“We wouldn’t say anything. It’d just be like, ‘Hey, what’s up guys, heard the music down the street and I’ve got this fucking amazing bottle of scotch, it was a gift from some Johns Hopkins trustees but nobody else around here seems to understand what that signifies, but, uh … how about you?’”
“Very sweet of you to offer, Evan. But we weren’t invited. We wouldn’t want to make a scene.”
“No, it’s okay, Mrs. Dr. Cass. I mean … you're helping us out big and everything.”
“She’s right. Forget it. And step back, let’s get a look at that wound again. Whoa, shit ...”
“I mean, you almost fell over just now, and you look kind of … upset?”
“I’m fine. Just, uh … grab those scissors. And tell me what you see. Honestly, everything went a little soft on me ten minutes ago.”
“I think it might actually look ... okay?”
“Let me see … uh, errmm, yeahhhh, pretty good. I mean, I wouldn’t put your inheritance into starting a fashion house or anything, but you can at least say you saved your brother’s arm.”
“Just kidding, not really. But you did save your parents some headroom on their deductible. Oh, and you can take the bit off of your brother now, if he promises to keep it down.”
“Last time. Sorry.”
“OWWW. Gosh. That was … the shittiest … thing … ever.”
“‘Shittiest thing ever’? Do you realize how actually shitty that could have gone? Until thirty seconds ago, I was nintety percent sure I was going to jail tonight. Honestly, I still might.”
“Well, Dr. Cass, it’s been …”
“Really something. Hurry back now, you don’t want your parents wondering why their house is suddenly and inexplicably free of the sounds of muffled internet porn coming from behind your bedroom doors. Actually, that might be your alibi.”
“You want to come by, like you said?”
“I mean, it’s fine if you don’t want to.”
“No, that’s fine. We’ll be fine here. Just do me one favor.”
“Stephen, dear, your dignity is on the line here. Might wanna cut your losses.”
“My parents are dead. So that’s two people off the table. My brother and I don’t speak. That’s four, including his family. And my cousins are not only scattered across every backwater shithole in this country, they don’t have enough combined income to ship themselves down here via priority mail.”
“All I’m saying is, consider us for Thanksgiving.”
The wind had picked up. It rushed noisily and scattered several brittle leaves into the foyer as the boys saw themselves out.
No one’s flying the ship at the Mickey Mouse Club, Vanessa Vanveen has lately concluded. She’s got one eye on the darkened production suite, alive with the shadowy ripples of grips performing thankless chores. Out beneath the scorching set lights sits a taut bridge of trapezius muscle linking shoulder to neck on one Leslie Pratt.
Having leapfrogged more than a couple more senior cast members since arriving this season, Leslie’s been getting the all-eyes-on treatment during shoots. Everyone’s asking all the time whether her hair should maybe do x or y while taking extended, theoretically sexless looks up and down the seams tracing her inner thighs. Though actually it’s not the lolita-style objectification that Vanessa finds repugnant.
“Stick with the flats. The little slip-ons,” says Kevin Royce, emerging from the shadows and shouldering past everyone with a cat carrier full of shoes for Leslie to try on. Leslie’s posture stiffens even more around him, Vanessa’s pretty sure she’s noticed. Kevin, for his part, takes care to be noticeably not-handsy. Whether it’s actually suspicious, Vanessa can’t tell.
A great morass of opinion has formed around Leslie. Set and costume designers, wardrobe all orbit her as adjustment-based worlds, making of Leslie a kind of communal art installation.
Vanessa steps out of position and moves reluctantly to join. “Kevin.”
“Yaap.” Kevin’s down on one knee, intently eyeing Leslie’s feet.
“Maybe Leslie has her own thoughts? I remember her saying she likes heels.”
Kevin stands. His broad red needle of hair swings to point right at her. He’s got a tall head, like home plate squeezed thin. “What are you … What?”
“She’s not… Let’s let her make some decisions of her own. Be an adult.”
Several crew members turn to ponytailed, turtlenecked Ellen The Director. She stands tapping her lip, eyes intently blank, looking through her scene into something more pure and timeless.
“Ellen.” Kevin starts toward production but halts after one step. Ellen doesn’t notice. Her non-response seems to have frozen the nineteen year-old former Mousketeer.
“Don’t you think,” Vanessa says slowly, “maybe people see past the ingenue schtick by now?”
Kevin’s mouth hangs open when he thinks. “Actors play younger,” he says. “They play young, period. That’s how they avoid getting old. Timberlake. Gosling. Spears.”
Vanessa can’t help getting scoffy. “Britney Spears pulled it off twenty years ago. Then the internet happened, and we all saw her vagina, then watched her lose her goddamn mind trying to hit every demo with this Peter-Pan-Honey-Boo-Boo-Nancy-Sinatra shit.”
“So we should what.” Kevin locks in now with Vanessa as if it’s just them in the room. “Paint up Leslie like a cabaret sliz and have her just shake that ass?”
“No, obvious — “
“On the FUCKING MICKEY MOUSE CLUB?”
Any scene-related topicality having clearly evacuated the room, Vanessa lets her face flush. “Let’s talk about that, Kevin. About how you — as the latest in a long line of people going from cast member to production track —”
“That’s got nothing to do —”
“As someone whose future depends on keeping people down and underpaid and feeling like they’re worth far less than they are — let’s talk about how you, as the charmingly overweight, superlatively white face of the Club’s darkest parts, have more than a couple incentives to keep Leslie under thumb. Or am I missing something?”
“Or,” Kevin lurching toward her now, finger raised. “OR is it possible that you, as the sad-sack, thick-in-the-hips poster child for coulda-been child stars everywhere — is it possible you can’t get over your failed career and are trying on vicarious living for size? Is that maybe kinda possible?”
“I’m trying to keep a young star from making the kind of decisions that held me back.”
“It wasn’t about decisions. You just aren’t good.” That finger is now within a foot of Vanessa’s face. “Your rhythm is off. You’ve got no face. Your time here will be nothing more than a story your grandkids get sick of before they’re old enough to tell you to stop your yapping.”
There’s movement near the line separating scene from darkened production area. “Okay,” Ellen calls. “Forget the shoes, actually. It’s going to be a waist-up.”
Leslie relaxes a little, it seems to Vanessa. “So should I stick to my mark?”
“Yeah,” Ellen adjusting her lens. “Just stand there and say the line. I’m gonna try something.”
Vanessa settles in beside the others in the cast tent. Leslie’s devastatingly neutral features bore into her from the set. Makeup crew backs away. Leslie breathes deep, shakes her tiny self loose. To her left Vanessa hears Kevin cough and mutter instructions to a grip.
Buster stood atop table six in a drop stance, the Glock cocked and wavering in his hand. Late summer dusk had finally settled in outside: a perfect night for sticking around, taking a moment to savor being alive. A tremor of warm air warbled up and over his pate. He was sure it was growing more exposed each day; this whorl he’d never tried to look at was now forfeiting its perfect form forever.
In the leftmost corner of his periphery Buster saw a single exception to the looks of horror fixed on him throughout the room. It was contempt, this Other Thing. Inaction as family-man courtesy rather than expression of fear. Buster couldn’t turn away completely from this strange patron, this cowboy brewing treason out of sight. He recalled the face, anyhow, recalled how the man had ordered the check without a second thought. Even then, the disdain was clear. So, no: There in that corner spot he’d stay, just visible enough to know Buster had him in check.
At no point had Buster commanded the low-lit diners to stay still. But thousands of collective years of movie watching had trained them. It seemed possible the itchy heart in the corner had grazed a different Friday-night buffet growing up, had absorbed some real tart ideas on how to act in the face of doom. But who knew. Buster felt the man breathe.
Throughout these long minutes he’d found it easiest to let his gaze rest on a pair of young children. One male, one female. Both wearing horizontal red-and-white stripes, both somewhere between five and ten. Buster could never tell anymore.
He’d learned lately to start targeting the little ones straightaway. Bearing the burden of parents’ hopes, they had a hand on the purse strings no charm could hope to match. Kids had never liked Buster, though, for some reason. He tried with them. Maybe too hard. These particular ones had feathery blonde hair and dark, dark eyes disinclined to focus.
“Cumawn, feel the noise,” came the exhortation, quieter now at Buster’s request, from the speakers in the ceiling. Nicole, working a solo Wednesday shift behind the bar, had been invited to keep her hands glued to the house music controls.
The little boy happened then to emerge from his rote, wide-eyed state and come, for once, to stare at Buster rather than through him. Inside, two gears met and clicked. Instantly Buster was transported back to that morning’s staff meeting, right here in the high-ceilinged dining room, morning light easing in from the now-regrettably large front window. The sole entrance and exit was to stay locked for an hour to come.
Mo, the long-tenured floor manager, a short guy with the darkest little pebbly peepers of his own, had gathered waitstaff, kitchen and bar to address some concern he wouldn’t specify in the email.
“Guys,” Mo’d said between loud slurps of coffee, “We’ve got to start selling more desserts.”