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New York Minute
by Edward McKeown
"Jesus Christ," I said, jumping halfway off my barstool. The huge cockroach, startled by the movement, bolted back into cover under the bar before I could step on it. Not that I was sure I wanted to. It was about the size of a mouse and I wasn't sure stepping on it would do more than piss it off and give away my position.
The guy next to me turned to look at me when I jumped. I felt obliged to say something. "Nice joint, huh?" I groused. "They must feed the roaches on steak."
"Come on, Aidan," said Al the bartender, " McCan's is a nice place, but it's New York, man. You get roaches. Here, have an Amstel on the house." Al plunked it down and moved off. Al was like McCan's itself, old and very New York. A bartender for pouring shots and beers to serious drinkers. He might have a fuzzy navel but he wouldn't know how to make one.
"I wonder if that was him?" muttered the stranger. He was slim, good-looking, about my own age of twenty-five.
I glanced at him with little interest. Why talk to someone not wearing a skirt? Correct that, I thought, wearing a skirt and female. This was after all, New York, late on a Friday night. Still, I had spoken first, "What was that?"
"The roach," he said. "I wonder if that was Tony?"
Ah man, I thought to myself, a psycho.
He looked at me as if divining my thought. "Sorry friend," he said with the extra careful speech of a guy who was drunk, but trying not to be obnoxious about it, "didn't mean to intrude."
Al returned. "Hey Brian," he said, addressing the stranger, "how about another one?"
"No thanks, Al," replied Brian. "I've probably had enough for tonight. I'll be heading out after this one."
"Off to see Nina?" asked Al grinning. He looked at me. "Quite a sharp looking lady he's got there, Aidan. You could learn a thing or two from this guy."
"I dunno," said Brian ruefully, " I seem to get the real high maintenance ones."
Al snorted. "They are all high maintenance, Brian buddy. One way or the other." Having dispensed this gem of bartender wisdom, Al sped off toward some fresh customers.
I looked at Brian with more friendliness. Al's manner vouched for him as neither a freak, nor a bore and straight. All very important criteria for a bar companion if you were part of that great New York fraternity, Irish Catholics drinking in bars. "So who's Tony?" I asked.
"You sure you want to know?"asked Brian dubiously, "it's a strange story."
"Well," I said, "it won't be the first tall tale told in McCan's. Name's Aidan." I finished, putting out a hand.
"Brian," he replied, setting down his half-empty glass to shake, "as you heard. You know, it might be good for me to tell the story. Help me get it straight in my own mind."
I nodded, sipping my free Amstel, wondering if I would regret my sociable impulse.
"You heard me mention Nina?" said Brian. I nodded. "She's quite a girl. Italian, black hair and eyes, figure that makes Marilyn Monroe look like a tomboy. As I said, she's high maintenance...
* * *
"Well anyway, I was leaving her place on East 69th Street after a night I hope never to forget any detail of. Nothing excited Nina more than my spending money on her, and I'd given her a two-karat rock on a band of gold. She was modeling it for me, wearing it and little else but a bra the structural strength of which would amaze the boys at NASA.
"It's gorgeous, honey," she said for the one-hundredth time, "I can't believe we're engaged."
"Glad you like it," I said, wondering for the one-hundredth time what impelled me to go further in a debt I wasn't even able to make the payments on. Lately VISA had become frosty, MasterCard wasn't speaking to me anymore, and American Express wouldn't return my calls. Now I was reduced to borrowing from Johnny Red in my old neighborhood of Bensonhurst.
Nina came over, dropped into my lap and vividly reminded me of why my sanity went off-line whenever she was around. An hour later, as I was looking for my socks, she turned to me. "Baby," she said, "let's go out somewhere special tonight to celebrate."
Inwardly I groaned. "Of course honey, but I gotta go to work now. I'm late already."
Nina pouted in that Fifty's era, sex-kitten fashion she has. It doesn't work for many, but it works for her. Women of the Nineties mostly want to kill her. Nina doesn't care, they're women and of no use or interest to her. "Gotta go," I said hastily, before my willpower failed. I found the socks and fled the apartment. I had to get to work at the brokerage. I cleared the building door and was heading toward Madison when a hand came out of the alley next to the bagel place and dragged me in. A few New Yorkers saw, with momentarily widened eyes that averted almost instantly. They walked on as quickly as they could, like zebra ignoring a lion kill. 'Oh well, the lions got Brian today, too bad, least it wasn't me.'
I found myself face to unlovely face with Tony Roveggi, also known as Tony the Human Arm, a body-builder doing duty for Johnny Red on collections. Tony had a very small brain chiefly stimulated by causing pain. "Brian, you Mick bastard," said Tony, as if reading from a prepared speech. "Johnny says you're late on your payments, and you ain't showing him no respect when he calls. You hang up on him."
"Tony, Tony, take it easy," I bleated. "I'll get the money. I'm going to work right now. Look, I'll give you everything I got on me."
"You ain't got shit on you that I want," said Tony, little piggy eyes squinting. "But you know Mick, we might work something out. Maybe I didn't find you today."
"What do you want, man?" I said.
"Give me the keys to the apartment," he said. "I'll take a turn with Nina, give her some nice...
I hit him. Probably the dumbest move in my life and I thought maybe my last one. I slammed two fingers into his right eye, the only thing I could have done that would have hurt him. He wasn't expecting a skinny guy like me to do it, and his head snapped back into the wall. I tore free and ran. Tony, moving fast for a body builder, came after me.
We began a weird chase. We'd run, attract attention, then slow, the gap would close, and I would run. I'm going to die, I thought terrified and stumbling. He'll kill me for hitting him, slowly. They won't even find me in one piece, if they find me at all.
I hadn't wanted a cop till then. I was a Wall Street bond trader running from a loan shark. I could kiss my license goodbye along with my apartment in Manhattan and maybe Nina. Looking over my shoulder, at Tony huffing behind me, made me realize that at least I'd be alive. As usual, there wasn't a cop in sight. I raced across 5th Ave, there were always cops near the park. Except today. Worse, Tony had now cut me off from the other side of the street and was charging across, ignoring the abuse of Pakistani cab drivers.
No choice, into the park. I scrambled over the wall and ran. Tony was crashing through the brush behind me. It was early fall, but the vegetation was still heavy. If he lost sight of me, I had a chance. I ran, heart pounding, fear making me nauseous. The park seemed a million miles wide. I ran like a hunted animal.
I broke through some brush, sobbing for breath, and ran right into a deer. We both crashed to the ground. "Aaaahhh," I said.
"Christ," said the deer, " whaddya nuts, running like that?" It clambered to its feet, blowing and rolling its eyes.
"Uhhhh," I said staring, mouth hanging open.
"Good going," called a large black squirrel from a nearby tree, "talk some more for the human, maybe show him a few card tricks, ya dope. I told you it wasn't your mate coming. Jeez."
"Up yours, Bushtail," said the deer crossly. "He didn't freaking run you down like a truck. I was startled."
It occurred to me that as the sole representative of the allegedly higher species, I was not making words and they were. "Talking animals," I said.
"Oooh, a sharpie," said the squirrel derisively, "nothing gets past this boy. Talking animals, talking animals, why do they always freaking say, talking animals! Can't you come up with something new?" It jumped up and down in annoyance.
"Sorry," I said, gasping for breath and doubting my sanity "I didn't see you."
"Well Ok, Ok," said the deer, still glaring at the squirrel.
There was a crashing noise and a bellow behind me.
"Love to chat," I said, "but I'm being chased by a guy who wants to kill me."
"Yeah, we know," said Bushtail the squirrel, "it's the only way you got here.
"All right, Berrynose," he said to the deer, "better take him to the council."
"Right," said the deer. He turned to me. "Okay, buddy, follow me. We'll get you safe."
The crashing sounds were nearer. Following a talking deer was no more insane than staying to fight Tony. "You're on." As we left, I noticed the squirrel was talking to a pigeon. It looked at me, shook its head and flew on ahead of us. I trotted after the deer in silence for a while then could contain myself no longer. "Wait, wait a minute," I began.
The deer sighed, "Ok, chill and just keep up. I'll answer the usual questions. It'll save time. Save your breath for running. You humans run lousy."
"It's okay," responded the deer, "it ain't like you don't have nuclear weapons.
"So you see it's this way," continued the deer called Berrynose. "We animals have been getting crowded out of New York since humans showed up. It got worse when the Eurotrash landed. The spirit of the forest, one of the Elder Gods, told us, 'Look. I don't do so good with humans. Best I can do for you is to make you a magic space. I'll put the idea for a big park in the brains of these bozos and they'll keep it a park, no matter how freaking expensive Manhattan real estate gets. It will be a place only animals can find their way to."
I looked around uneasily, the park seemed lusher, I could see more birds than usual, but otherwise it was just Central Park. "Well, how did I get here?"
"I was just getting to that part," said the deer, exasperated. "You guys forget sometimes that you are animals too. So did the Elder God, they weren't always that bright. Lived in the country you know, so what do you expect? Anyway, if one of you comes into the park in an animal state, blind fear, murderous rage, lust, etc, with all the higher functions shut down, sometimes you can break through."
"Well," I said, looking nervously over my shoulder, "you got the fear part right."
We entered a clearing; it was full of animals, rabbits, squirrels, deer, raccoons, all sorts of birds, and a chimp. In the distance I could see the top of the old weather station tower over the lake. We walked slowly up to the chimp. I eyed it warily, chimps were strong enough to tear a man apart.
"The council," said Berrynose, "come to pass judgement."
"I don't like the sound of that," I gulped.
"Well," said Berrynose, "like I told you, our place, our rules."
We came to a stop before the semicircle of animals, in front of the chimp. He looked up at me thoughtfully.
"I'm Swings-High-in-the-Tree," said the chimp. "Swing for short. I'm president of the council this year. You've presented me with a problem, human."
"I'm sorry," I said, "like I told Berrynose, I was running for my life."
"I understand," said the chimp sympathetically, "I had a similar experience getting away from a cosmetics company in New Jersey.
"Sit down," he gestured toward a rock.
I sat. The chimp walked forward and slowly, gently put his hand on my forehead. I felt a strange warmth, a sensation like someone riffling through the pages of a book. The chimp stepped back. "Well, son," he said, "You're all right. You're not too bright about females, but that's usual at your age."
"Hey," I protested.
At that moment, Tony the Human Arm broke into the clearing. A few good size bucks and a horse were behind him, herding or leading him on. He saw me. "You, you fuck; you're dead." He reached under his jacket.
"Run!" I yelled to everyone. "He's got a gun."
The animals all stood fast. Tony kept searching his jacket.
A raccoon strolled up casually, stopping behind the horse. "You looking for this, homeboy?" it asked, brandishing a holstered .38.
"Gimme that," yelled Tony. As he started forward, the horse reared and Tony fell back.
"You gotta hope," snorted the raccoon in contempt.
"Well," said Swing, "no need to probe this one. Shall we proceed to judgement?"
"Don't I get a defense?" I asked weakly, thinking of my last Big Mac as if it was there to accuse me.
"Don't worry, you already had one," said Swing.
"Hey fuck you, you stinking animals," said Tony, paraphrasing Charlton Heston as best he could.
"Look who's talking about stink," said Bushtail, who'd just shown up. "Introduce your butt to some soap, will ya?"
Swing looked at me. "We dispense kind of a karmic justice on the humans that come here."
I thought of all the species that had gone extinct in the last ten years and figured I was next. I also remembered I was wearing a leather jacket.
"Relax," said Swing, "we don't do the species guilt thing. It's just your own ledger." He consulted with the others for a few seconds, then came back.
"Okay," he said heavily, "let's get this done.
"You first Tony, you're the easy choice. Cat-killer, dog-killer, hell, you've killed some of just about everything. You have been judged."
"Fuck you animals," screamed Tony at the top of his lungs, advancing toward Swing. Heston would have been proud. Suddenly a mist enveloped Tony and his features began to blur. He screamed and the mist dissipated. No Tony.
"He's gone," I said numbly, wondering if I was next.
"Not quite," said Swing, "come here."
I walked forward and looked down. On the grass lay a huge, ugly cockroach, the type that comes out of the sewers at 3AM on Wall Street. "You turned him into a..."
"Yep," said Swing, "didn't you ever wonder why there were so many?"
I looked at him, my skin crawling.
"It was nice of you to take that bird to the vet last year," said Swing. "Keep up that ASPCA membership too. The boys will take you back to the edge of the park and you can be on your way."
"I swear," I said, relief making my voice shaky, "I'll never tell a soul."
"Tell anyone you like," shrugged Swing, "they'll put you in Bellevue."
"Sorry about the leather jacket," I croaked.
"Ah, forget it," said Swing, "we eat each other too, you know. Nature's way and all that. Just don't wipe out the species, that's all. Take it easy kid, we won't meet again." He reached up and touched my forehead. Next thing I knew I was standing on Fifth, pulling twigs out of my clothes. I called in sick, went home, and hid under my bed."
* * *
I looked at Brian's earnest face and dissolved into laughter. I roared, pounding the bar till tears ran out of my eyes.
"Swing said nobody would believe me," muttered Brian sadly.
"I'm sorry," I said, trying to choke off the laughter and the tears. "That was the best story I've ever heard. You've got a gift, Brian."
Brian smiled a little shyly. "Thanks, friend, but it's all true."
"Really," I said in fake astonishment. "So what happened with Johnny the loan-shark?"
"Oh," said Brian, looking uncomfortable. "I told him that his best boy Tony wasn't coming back and if he sent anyone else I was going to the cops. I think losing Tony shook him up. He said to forget it, but to stay out of the old neighborhood."
I grinned and shook my head. "What a whopper," I said. "Let me buy you a drink. Hell, let me buy you several for upholding the tradition of the Irish Tall Tale."
"Sorry," said Brian, putting a tip down, "but Nina awaits and you don't keep a Nina waiting. See you around." He walked somewhat unsteadily out the door. I watched him go, bemused. I was about to turn back to my drink, when I saw something that made my heart lurch. From under a counter, a large brown roach reappeared, determinedly stalking Brian as he headed out the door. They both disappeared into the night.
I turned back to the bar, Al was in front of me. "Al, I think I'd like a whisky, Jameson's. Make it a double."
Story copyright 2002 by Edward McKeown email@example.com
Illustration copyright 2002 by Patrick Stacy firstname.lastname@example.org
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