(Welcome to week eight of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-7, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Eight. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, Bobby Lee boards a train bound for New York City to meet up with an old friend.)
Beware the ides of March, my friend.
Beware the hollow, brittle feeling February casts in its wake. Beware the doldrums of pre-spring, the purgatory of passing seasons. Beware the emptiness that lingers like embers in midair, swirling and twirling, before disappearing neath the breeze. Beware the challenge of starting over. Beware the hopeless, desperate yearning that rises from your gut to remind you you’re alive. Beware the burden of learning to walk again. Beware the hurt that comes from learning to hate the thing you thought you loved the most. Beware the pale and piercing betrayals that grind young dreams to dust. Beware the anxious, jagged fears that come crashing in from every angle. Beware the vicious undertow that drags you out beyond the breakers, sucking you down beneath its weight.
Beware the ides of March, my friend. Beware the ides of March.
Laura called last week.
She wanted to let me know she plans on taking everything.
She plans on taking the house and she plans on taking the kids. She plans on taking the long, winding driveway, the creaking floorboards and the wine cellar-cum-wreck room. She plans on taking the climbing ivy and the shitty crown molding. She plans on taking the rotted-out drainpipes and the high, coffered ceilings. She plans on taking the granite countertops and the squeaky French doors. She plans on taking the entire 15,000 square feet where we agreed to build a life together. She plans on taking as much of my income as she possibly can … perhaps even more.
She plans to dip my balls in bronze and hang them from her rearview mirror.
She plans on doing it all, and she plans on doing it now.
I plan on telling Laura Lee to take a flying fuck for all eternity.
That’s what I plan on doing.
Laura has hired Rabbi Arnie Fischel, a well-known Main Line lawyer, to represent her in the divorce. Fischel calls me three times a day, threatening me for several minutes, before hanging up like some teenage hoodlum. It is jarring and intimidating. It is also highly effective, which is precisely why I’m boarding a train bound for New York City this morning to consult the only divorce lawyer I’ve ever known.
I need to find out whether he’s still capable of whipping his weight in wildcats.
Nathaniel Hawthorne has asked me to meet him at Bayou Billy’s – a barbecue grill on 32nd & 7th, where the windows are aglow with neon signs and Christmas lights and rusty hubcaps hanging.
It is lunchtime when I arrive, and the restaurant looks completely bare. There is no hostess. There are no patrons. There is only me … me and a sawdust bar stocked with coasters shaped like tiny barnacles.
Beyond the sawdust bar is a narrow alley lined with diner-style booths. Sitting alone in the rear booth is Nathaniel Hawthorne – pilsner ale in one hand, Wall Street Journal in the other. Nathaniel is wearing a blue button-down shirt with a red tie so shiny it shimmers. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows and the top button of his shirt is undone. What’s left of his hair is much grayer, and the color is gone from his cheeks. But otherwise, he looks very much the same as I remember him.
“Well, I’ll be,” Nathaniel says, looking up from his newspaper. “If it ain’t the boy wonder.”
Nathaniel rises to greet me. He massages my shoulder with one hand, extending the other. Nathaniel’s palm is soft and sweaty, and it swallows mine whole like a pig in a blanket.
Nathaniel takes a step back. We say the awkward things people say when they haven’t seen each other for 18 years. Nathaniel informs me he’s already ordered us a plate of barbecue wings. The waitress delivers the wings along with a pair of bibs with the words “Put some south in yo’ mouth” written on them. Nathaniel snatches up a bib and stuffs it into his collar. Then he shuts his eyes, inhaling the aroma.
“Y’smell that?” he asks.
I smell mesquite and Merle Haggard.
“Smells like home,” Nathaniel says, reopening his eyes. “Y’know, there’s only six of these places left in town. I swear, it’s like every time you turn your head, another piece of this city just keeps on slippin’ away.”
After all these years, I still find Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complete lack of self-awareness endearing.
“I thought we might be meeting in your office today, given the reason for my visit,” I say.
“Oh no,” Nathaniel says, pointing at me with a buffalo wing. “I don’t pimp my office out for fly-by consultations. No, sir-ree. You’ve gotta earn that office, son.”
Apparently, all I’ve earned is a plate full of grease and a disposable bib.
“I take it you’ve got a pretty nice spread,” I say.
“Nice?” Nathaniel says, shaking his head. “Nice is a birdbath in the backyard. Nice is a wooden porchswing and a glass of lemonade. My office is located in a deluxe suite high atop one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. My office has a 15-foot glass facade and a parallel view of the clouds. My office opens out onto a landing so lush and intimate that … Well, let’s just say there are mornings when I step out onto that landing, and it feels like I’m having high tea with the good lord himself.”
“That sounds like one hell of a view,” I say.
“Indeed, it is,” Nathaniel says, smirking at me through blue cheese lips. “Indeed, it is.”
Midway through lunch Nathaniel and I begin to discuss my divorce, which he refers to as “having [my] dick in a twist.”
It turns out Nathaniel Hawthorne already knows a great deal about my situation. He knows I have been married for 12 years. He knows my wife’s name is Laura. He knows she has been having an affair. He knows I know she has been having an affair. He knows she wants the house. He knows she wants full custody of the kids. He knows she wants to squeeze me for every major asset I’ve got.
Nathaniel Hawthorne knows a lot of things … things he has no real business knowing.
And he uses that knowledge to make some very reasonable assumptions.
He assumes Laura’s lawyer will attempt to paint me as a miserable drunk, who drove her screaming not only from the marriage, but ultimately, into the arms of another man. He assumes that angle will relieve Laura of any accountability for her actions, while also creating the impression it was I who emotionally abandoned her years before any marital infidelity occurred. He assumes Laura’s legal team may even leak these allegations to the press, if I do not submit to their demands.
I assume I’m pretty much fucked.
But Nathaniel Hawthorne does not appear to be the least bit concerned.
“Have you heard about the new Divorce Barbie?” Nathaniel asks, goading me with a wink of the eye.
“No, I haven’t” I say, reluctantly playing along.
“She comes with all of Ken’s stuff,” he says, breaking into a wide Cheshire grin, then letting loose with a belly laugh so crass and powerful it rattles the entire table.
I smile politely, but I do not laugh.
I realize that, metaphorically speaking, I am Ken.
“I feel a little awkward not mentioning this until now,” I say, feeling the time has come to lay my cards on the table. “And if it presents any type of conflict, I want you to know I completely understand. But the man Laura has been having an affair with for the past several months is … “
“Yeah, I know,” Nathaniel says, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. “She’s been fuckin’ that dimwit son-o-mine. Don’t give it a second thought. Montgomery hasn’t spoken a civil word to me in years. He ain’t no conflict. He’s a Christmas card, at best. Maybe a one-sentence email on my birthday. But he ain’t no conflict. That much I can assure you.”
“Fair enough,” I say.
“One thing I will need to know,” Nathaniel says, as he licks Tabasco sauce off of his fingers, “is when and how you found out the two of them were … y’know …”
“He told me,” I say.
“Who told you?” Nathaniel says. “Montgomery?”
“Yep,” I say.
“When?” Nathaniel says.
“About six months ago,” I say.
“He told you everything?” Nathaniel asks, thoroughly engaged.
“As far as I know,” I say. “He told me how it started, how the two of them had fallen in love … everything.”
“Well, fuck me with a pool cue,” Nathaniel says, rubbing his palms together. “After all these years, that boy still don’t know his asshole from his armpit.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“He just handed you your frag-ron-tay dee-lick-toe,” Nathaniel says.
“You lost me,” I say.
“Fregrante delicto,” Nathaniel says. “It’s Latin. Means you’ve caught your spouse with her pants down … quite literally. In divorce cases where one party accuses the other of adultery, there needs to be some type of reliable evidence to suggest an affair actually did take place. Usually, that means hiring a private investigator or conducting dozens of interviews in the hopes of finding a reliable witness who’s willing to testify on your behalf. But my boy Monty seems to have alleviated any need for all that.”
“Are you telling me Miggs just dropped the entire settlement right in my lap?” I say.
“It ain’t that simple,” Nathaniel says. “It never is. Your wife may claim you misunderstood what Montgomery was saying. In fact, there’s a reasonably good chance her lawyers’ll advise her to deny the physical affair altogether. But there’s so much evidence to the contrary at this point, she’d probably blow any credibility she has by attempting to go that route. How long’d you stay in the house once you found out about the affair?”
“I didn’t,” I say. “I passed out in the backyard that night and moved into the city the next day.”
“Has your wife filed the divorce papers yet?”
“About three weeks ago,” I say.
“OK, so we still have a little bit of time left to shore up our case before we respond,” Nathaniel says.
“Actually, I’d prefer to move forward as quickly as possible,” I say. “Laura’s lawyer has been calling me three times a day, claiming my delayed response could subject me to further legal action or fines.”
“Bullshit,” Nathaniel says, nonplussed. “That’s a pressure tactic. He wants to force you to file without representation … or, at the very least, without good representation. Next time that fuckface calls you … What’d you say his name was?”
“Rabbi Arnie Fischel,” I say.
“Rabbi?” Nathaniel says.
“It’s a thing,” I say. “Don’t ask.”
“Well, next time Arnie Fucking Fischel calls, you tell him I said to cease and fucking desist immediately, or I’ll personally slap him with a harassment suit so fast it’ll give him whiplash. In fact, give him my phone number. Then tell him to Google me. Enough of this big-fish, small-pond bullshit. I’ll have that Jew bastard pissin’ in his pants
by week’s end.”
“Does that mean you’ll agree to represent me?” I ask.
“You got a prenup?” Nathaniel asks, completely ignoring the question.
“No,” I say.
“Why the hell not?” Nathaniel asks.
“Laura and I were 24 years old when we got married,” I say. “At the time, neither of us could’ve ever imagined something like this would happen.”
“No, nobody ever does, do they?” Nathaniel says, taking a deep breath. “Y’know, there’s an old saying that if you stare at something long enough, it loses all its meaning.”
“I think that’s Andy Warhol,” I say.
“Whatever,” Nathaniel says, clearly bothered by the interruption, “The point is, maybe every couple should have to spend a good five years or so just starin’ at each other before they can even consider getting married. What d’you think?”
“I don’t think anybody would ever get married,” I say.
“Exactly my point,” Nathaniel says. “And I’d be out of a job.”
“Do you drink a lot?” Nathaniel asks.
“I used to,” I say. “I stopped about a month ago.”
“Cold Turkey?” Nathaniel asks.
“Well, it wasn’t like a 12-step thing, if that’s what you mean,” I say. “I simply decided to find more constructive ways of passing the time.”
“But it’d be accurate to say you drank throughout your marriage?” Nathaniel asks.
“The last decade or so of it, yes,” I say.
“Were you abusive?”
“I was barely coherent.”
“Did you cheat?”
“I rarely left the house.”
“So that’s a no.”
“That’s a no.”
“Do you love your kids?”
“Do they love you?” Nathaniel asks.
“Most days, they’re the only ones who love me,” I say.
“Well, at least you’ve got that goin’ for ya,” Nathaniel says.
“Indeed, I do,” I say.
Before officially agreeing to represent me, Nathaniel insists I stop looking at the situation through the eyes of a jilted husband, and start looking at it like a “goddamned realist.”
My house, Nathaniel insists, is no longer my house … It’s a marital asset. My income is no longer my income … It’s deductible alimony, based on a calculated average of my earning potential over the past five years. Miggs is no longer my lifelong friend …He is a co-respondent, guilty by association in a dishonest and psychologically damaging extra-marital affair.
“The more emotionally detached you can remain,” Nathaniel assures me, “the better chance we have of settling this matter quickly and quietly without ever winding up in court. In fact, let me show you something.”
Nathaniel draws a pen from his pocket and scrawls a few notes on the back of a business card. He turns the card over and slides it across the table.
Here is what is written on the other side:
“Where the fuck did you get this?” I say, rather loudly.
Nathaniel wags his index finger back and forth slowly, assuring me we’ll get to that. But first, he asks if I know what those three figures represent.
“The first figure is the appraisal value of our home,” I tell him. “The second is the balance in our joint savings account as of this morning. And the third … Well, I haven’t the faintest fucking clue what that third number is. Perhaps you can enlighten me.”
“That third figure,” Nathaniel says, flicking the business card with his middle finger, “is the amount of money your soon-to-be ex-wife has stashed away in a personal savings account she opened at a separate bank three years ago.”
“No fucking way,” I say.
“Way,” Nathaniel assures me.
He also assures me this is the first of many things I am about to learn about the woman I’ve been married to for the past 12 years. Nathaniel suspects Laura has made investments on the side. He suspects she may have taken on freelance jobs that weren’t on the books. And he strongly suspects Laura has been siphoning money out of our joint savings account for years … a thousand dollars here, a thousand dollars there.
“She is an accountant, after all,” Nathaniel explains. “If anyone’d know how to make money disappear, it’d be her.”
Nathaniel reminds me it will be critical to keep my emotions in check throughout the divorce, despite the knowledge Laura is a backstabbing, money-laundering, whore of a woman who spent more time and effort making a fool out of me than she ever did loving me. Nathaniel thinks we can build a case around the fact that Laura isn’t only independently wealthy, she’s also been lying to me – and quite possibly the IRS – for several years now.
When Nathaniel asks how closely I’ve monitored our joint savings account over the past 36 months, I hang my head in shame and say, “Laura handled all of our finances.”
“She sure did,” Nathaniel says, pruning his lips. “She surrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre did.”
“What about the kids?” I ask.
“Unfortunately, the kids are pretty much fucked,” Nathaniel explains, very matter of fact. “They always are in cases like these. Children of divorce usually end up paying the price for their parents’ complete lack of foresight. The only upside is that some day your kids will have earned the right to expose their kids to a complete lack of foresight. It’s the circle of life, my friend. You might as well embrace it.”
Nathaniel seems to think there’s a decent chance of me gaining majority custody of my irreparably damaged kids, provided he can get Laura and her legal team to agree to our terms without having the case go to court. If we do wind up in court, Nathaniel warns, there’s very little chance I’ll ever get full custody of my kids.
“You think we can pull this off?” I ask.
“I think we can pull this off,” Nathaniel says.
With those words and a hearty handshake, Nathaniel Hawthorne agrees to represent me. For a brief moment, I consider the fact that I’m placing my entire future in the hands of a man who looks and sounds like Foghorn Leghorn; a man whose principal motives
for representing me are highly suspect at best.
But then I consider the fact that Nathaniel’s motives for representing me are no more suspect than my motives for wanting him to represent me. I also consider the fact that there is tremendous reassurance in the way Nathaniel Hawthorne carries himself. I consider the fact that he has remarkable presence and he knows how to throw his weight around. I consider the fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne has handled divorce proceedings for movie stars and financiers and politicians-o-plenty.
I consider the fact that there’s no worthwhile reason why Nathaniel Hawthorne shouldn’t be able to handle my divorce. Then I consider the look on Laura Lee’s face when she finds out who my attorney is.
I consider that all the consideration I need.
After lunch, Nathaniel and I part ways out front of Bayou Billy’s.
Nathaniel heads north along 7th Avenue and I head south, slipping in and out of a sea of two-piece suits as I go. It is midday in midtown, complete with street toughs, souvlaki vendors, and sideshows galore. The intersections are overrun with bells and whistles, smoke and sizzle, beggars and choosers. The sidewalks are wide and well paved. Buildings scrape the sky, vagrants curse the earth, and the Jesus freaks are all reeling from a wicked case of rapture.
I make a right on 23rd Street, catching a quick glimpse of the Chelsea before hanging a left onto 8th. From there it’s a straight shot all the way down to Bleecker. I am in the West Village now, where the buildings feel more residential, and the side streets feel more intimate. Blocks cut into one another at jagged angles, disappearing, then reappearing in an endless maze of crisscrossing never-sections. Retail outlets with formal-sounding names like Robert Marc, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren rub up against independently-owned eateries with one-word names like Pinto, Rebel and Moustache.
Here is an abandoned shopping cart. There is a diamond-studded storefront.
Here is the ongoing battle for control of Greenwich Village – a never-ending tug-of-war between old guard and new, bohemia and fauxhemia, lifelong tenants and rising rents, special interests and corporate ownership.
Here is Magnolia Bakery – the smell of bread and cinnamon swirling from its vents. There is Juice Generation – a wheatgrass smoothie chain disguised as co-op friendly.
Here is Barrow proper – a one-way street lined with red-brick rowhomes and pastel shutters, window wells and planted trees. There is my destination – a cobblestone alley where Barrow meets Commerce.
Here is 39B Commerce Street – a basement apartment in a prewar building, bordered on all sides by a cast-iron gate. There is a limestone stairwell that descends onto a tiny landing – littered with unswept leaves, overrun with gardening tools.
Here is an unraveled hose, still dripping and damp. There is a row of potted plants, wet and wilting on the windowsill. Here lies a doormat with the number “39B” spray-painted on it in white. There hangs a placard that reads: “ON THIS SITE IN 1897, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED.”
Here I have found one of the most intimate pockets still left in the city … no traffic, no bike messengers, no business owners hawking their wares. No street toughs. No souvlaki vendors. No sideshows galore. No bells and no whistles, no smoke and no sizzle, no beggars, nor choosers to stand in my way.
Just silence. And security.
And the scent of smokestack embers, drifting through the air.
I wander across the street. I sit down on a park bench, painted fire-engine red.
I take a few minutes to consider the silence. I take a few minutes to consider the fact that New York is no longer a city in need of saving, that the cost of living is so high that desperate dreamers can no longer afford to dream here. I take a few minutes to consider the fact that Manhattan has done the same to its poor that America did to its Indians; that all of the violent crime has been forced into the outlying boroughs; that the entire span of Manhattan has become sanitized, corporatized, commercialized and privatized. I take a few minutes to consider the notion that New York City might actually benefit from reclaiming, rather than renouncing, some of its original grit.
I take a few minutes to consider the fact that these were all reasons why I chose Philadelphia – rather than New York – as the inspiration for New London, the fictional city where Subhuman: Volume One takes place.
I take a few minutes to consider the fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne never explained how he gained access to my personal finances; that he never explained how he gained access to – or knowledge of – Laura’s clandestine bank account. I take a few minutes to consider the three figures scrawled on the back of a business card, nestled deep inside my wallet. I take a few minutes to consider the notion that perhaps knowledge is power, and that sometimes it’s the not-knowing that actually allows a person to sleep better.
But all of these considerations pale in comparison to the overwhelming sense of anxiety I feel once shadows begin to fall along Barrow and Commerce. I wait. And I wonder. And I watch in vain, hoping for someone – anyone, actually – to emerge from the downstairs apartment at 39B.
But no one ever does. And as the shadows give way to gaslights, I wander across the alley and pull back the latch on the cast-iron gate, careful to minimize the rust-metal squeak in its wake.
I tiptoe down the stairwell, avoiding patches of dry leaves along the way.
I cup my hands over my eyes, peering through a basement window. The apartment inside is dark and still, and the only thing I can make out for sure is the outline of a doorway and a silver streak of light, cutting clear across the kitchen floor.
I reach into my bag. I pull out a first-edition, hardcover copy of Subhuman: Volume One. I lean down and prop it up against the front door at a 45-degree angle.
I wander back up the stairwell. I close the gate behind me. I secure the latch.
I scan all the other windows in the alleyway, curious whether anyone has been watching me all this time. I decide that even if someone has been watching me, there’s really no point in worrying about that now.
This is New York City, after all – a thriving metropolis where everyone’s a voyeur and no one seems to care.
Despite that, I know I still have no real business being here.
So I make a right on Barrow, and I start the long trek back to 31st and 8th.
I feel silent. And secure.
I am consumed by the scent of smokestack embers, drifting through the air.