Buggy Betty Brings Blue Birch Beer


It's like this:  Malachi Flame gives the bag to Peking Slim; Peking Slim gives the bag to Cherry Joe; Cherry Joe gives the bag to Dirty Larry; Dirty Larry gives the bag to me.  And I get paid to deliver the bag to some guy whose name rhymes with Slim Tight.  If I live to a hundred, I'll never find out what his real name is.

My immediate manager, Dirty Larry, who gets paid off the books like everybody else, said Peking Slim started a rumor that Slim Tight, which is not his real name, is a rat.  But Dirty Larry said that was just a rumor.

So, I'm cruising down East Houston in my beat up Reeboks and a faded T-shirt from a 1995 AIDS marathon.

I'm walking like I'm real nonchalant and all, a spunky step to my punk promenade because I don't want to cause any attention to what's in the bag.  I don't know what's in the bag or why Malachi Flame told me not to look in the bag, and besides him, I don't know if anybody else knows what's in the bag.  What I do know, according to my instructions, is to buzz the walk-up on 204 Ave. A, say this tongue twister of a password, wait for the codeword, repeat the password, and give the bag to some guy named Jim Slight, which I don't think is his real name.

At the club where Malachi Flame hired me as a go-go boy, Heaven's Plow, I use the name Benny Pho.  Benny Pho is not my real name, is nowhere near my real name, and to first time customers I'm known as Wonderboy.  The regulars who buy me drinks and spend Andrew Jacksons on me in return for quality time might find the name Benny Pho exotic, spurring fantasies of yum-yum boys toiling in the back rooms of far eastern ports, their eyes opium-blurry and drop-droopy, their arms twig-boned or sprig-thin.  They are all looking for Mr. Right, a plum-faced retiree with a fist-fat wallet.  Whenever a regular comments that I look too occidental for a Benny Pho, I tell them that I got the Benny from my mom, and the Pho from my dad, and I was born on an ocean liner on the way from Bangkok.  That usually gets them going and they pat me on the rump and say things like, "Honey, you're something else."

It's getting my curiosity as to what's in this bag.  Pickles?  But why would anyone want to send somebody a jar of pickles?

No.  These have to be goldfish.  Maybe Malachi Flame is sending a friend, a business associate, possibly a lover, a present, and if I could guess what it is, I'd say fish.  Goldfish.  Yeah.  I think there are three orange or red little goldfish all squirming around in this jar.

I'm wondering if the fish have been fed.  You don't want to deliver three dead fish to Jim because that would be a slight.

Okay.  Back up and turn down Macdougal.

The bag is beginning to weigh down my right hand.  I switch hands, careful not to bump against people walking the opposite direction.  Look no one in the face, I think.  When you look someone in the face, they might remember you, might follow you if they think you remind them of someone they once knew or were trying to forget.  Look no one in the face.

I'm back on Bleecker now, taking my time, lingering in front of an Italian pastry shop, eyeballing flaky desserts with bellies of rich cream.  From the window, I spot somebody across the street, maybe looking my way.  I won't turn real fast, like, I gotcha sucker.  No.  I won't do that.  Doing that is bad luck.  Like looking into the bag.

I got this thing about superstition, like not walking on the curb in the rain, or down a crack in the sidewalk, especially if it tilts.  If I get a phone call at 2 a.m. informing me that my third cousin, Eunice, on my mother's side, fell down her porch and broke her collar bone, then I can trace the sequence of events eventually to my decision to walk on a curb or down the middle of a sidewalk crack.  Then I'd think Eunice has to wear a neck brace just because I had to go and feel lucky.  This is often the root cause of many accidents.  This is not a mystery.

It's getting damn tempting to look inside this bag.

Goldfish really make an awfully nice present.  Jim Slight is going to form an "O" with his lips and say, "My God!  I love goldfish."  He'll say that.  I'll say, Okay, have a great day.  Then, I'll start to walk away, and he'll say . . . he'll say, Hey, wait, here's a tip.  Then, he'll dig deep into his pockets and pull out a wrinkled Abe.  Then, I'll say, you know it was a heck of a walk from Lexington and 22nd.  And he'll say . . . he'll say what a schmuck he is, and slip me an Andrew.  He'll wink at me too.  I hear Malachi Flame's friends always tip nice.

East Village again.  I'm taking this roundabout route so I can lose any stalkers.  You never know who's watching you, maybe even some satellite eye in the sky.  CIA tracers.  Members of shadow networks.  And it's New York.  People will even go out of their way to rip off your goldfish.

Okay.  Take St. Marks, down to Ave. A.  I'm starting to work up a sweat now and that's a good thing.  Keeps me in shape, my abs, my butt, firm.  Anyway, I want to deliver these fish before they die or something.  The sun is not too strong but it's humid, my armpits turning to suction cups.

At the club, Heaven's Plow, I like to work up a sweat.  I love when my quads tense and my pecs burn.  Especially on Saturday nights, when the place is packed and all and the DJ stops spinning remixes, and it's show time.  After the voice on the mike announces, "Okay.  It's Wonderboy Benny!"  I strut my stuff onto the stage, posing in my G-string, my body all greased and smoothed, then I really start working it.  I turn against the back wall, arms raised, and I'm really getting into it, you know.  I'm grinding and swinging those hips and my G-string is slowly coming down, just enough to make Heaven's customers part their tight mouths lizard-hungry open.

Behind me, I can hear the hoots and the applause, and I imagine the yum-yum boys, grouped like grape clusters on the side, whispering in each other's ear, really jealous of my MTV award-worthy moves.  Brittany Spears and her choreography team would just ogle me when I slither on stage.  Then, the men will file up, slipping a five or ten in my strings.  On a good night, I take home an easy four hundred.  On a good night, I go home with some Fifth Ave., fifth decade jade-eye jack who can speak French, cook like Julia Child, and his eyes dance over me like spinning quarters.

I'm on St. Marks now.  Slightly panting, shifting my body into second gear.  Before me, street vendors spread their wares onto long rectangular rugs: paintings, jewelry, books, designer jeans, custom-designed T-shirts.  Nobody is looking at my bag, maybe because they're too busy watching their own.  I'm worried about the fish; I don't hear them moving.  But since when do you hear tiny fish move?  It does make me nervous though.

I mean, I'm only on the job a month, so, I don't want to muff anything up.  When Malachi Flame—a hulking black ex-cabaret performer who collects long coats with collars of camel or angora fur—interviewed me, he said there are only two things you have to remember.  Number one, follow instructions.  And number two, follow instructions.  Follow instructions; you'll make a lot of money.  He leaned back in his swivel chair and took a puff from his menthol light shrunk to a stub.  A lot of money, he repeated, rolling his orange dyed lashes up.  Then, holding the cigarette between his orange glossy lips, he laughed through his gritting toothpaste-stain-remover white teeth.  He coughed, then laughed again.  My eyes scouted over the color photos tacked to his wall, photos of the yum-yum boys in studied poses.

"No, problem, Malachi.  Won't look inside the bag."

"That's right, honey.  That's right."

His head sloped back and he puffed a few clouds to the ceiling.

"And baby.  You know what happens to bad little boys who don't obey instructions?  They're almost as bad as little boys who talk too much."

He whistled out another stream of smoke.

"What do you call yourself?  Superboy?  Wonderboy?  I like that."

Right.  Past Ave. C.  Scoot past Ave. B.  Jump and twirl around.  Cool.  The corner of C.  I've arrived, man.  Now, which way?  This way.  The numbers run up.  No.  They run down.  I don't remember.  What time is it?  Look at my watch.  Good.  Ten to two.  I won't be late.  God, June is a blister sore.  Does my hair look okay?  Doesn't matter.  Not going to a hot body audition.  The heat will melt the fat from my abs.  That's a good thing.

Okay.  I'm squinting at these numbers.  This street is less packed than St. Marks.  Even Tompkins Park looks empty.  204.  I run up the steps like the Energizer bunny I am.  Ring the buzzer to an old square-shaped intercom.

"Yeah?"

"Buggy Betty Brings Blue Birch Beer by Big Black Bear."

"Huh?"

"Betty Buggy Brings Birch Beer . . . Blue by Big Black Bear."

A pause.  My heart imitates the beat to a rap tune.

"What the fuck you saying, bro?"

I mentally repeat the password.  Did it come out right?  Yeah, the first time, anyway. 

The door in the inner foyer opens.  A disheveled Hispanic man, bare chest and barefoot, thick tuft of hair and a handlebar mustache, stoops in the middle of the staircase, eyes me suspiciously a few seconds, then scurries down, swinging his arms in mad short arcs.  He stops at the bottom door, opening it only slightly, his reddish knobby nose protruding past.  I hold up the bag.

"What the fuck is your problem, bro?"

"The code.  Give me the code."

"The what?  Look.  Ah don't know what kind of shit you smoke . . ."

Malachi didn't prepare me for days like this.  I'll drop all pretense.  Maybe this guy is just testing me.  I don't know.  Oh, heck, let the cat out the bag.

"I have a delivery for Jim Slight."

"You have a delivery.  What's in the bag?"

"Some goldfish."

"Oh, some goldfish.  Yeah.  Like Ah knew it."

He keeps shaking his head, eyeing me up and down.

"Well, he ain't here."

"Where can I find him?"

"He's in the hospital."

"I'm sorry.  Which one?"

"How many around here, bro?"

"NYU . . .  Cabrini.  The one north . . . Mapplethorpe or something."

"Yeah.  That's where he is.  Tell that puta he owes me money."

"NYU or Cabrini?"

"That's where he is."

"I know where Cabrini is."

"Who sent you?"

Now Malachi prepared me for this one.  If someone asks who sent me, I'm to say I'm a friend of Jim's and we're not as close as we used to be, but we still keep in touch.  Nobody sent me.

"Nobody sent me.  I'm a friend."

"Never seen your face, bro."

"We used to be tight, but not so much now."

His head tilts and his eye lashes jump.

"That so."

I thank him and turn towards the sidewalk.

"And bro."

I squint up at him from the bottom stair.

"Next time, you come here and start talkin' that crazy shit . . ."

"No problem, sir."

" . . .  Gonna be a big problem.  I'll call the cops."

"Have a good day, sir."

"Big problem.  You know?  Problemo."

I turn left from the walk-up.  Can still hear his voice grumbling.

"Est 'fapido.  Punk ass bullshit."

This is turning out to be some day.  Now, I gotta walk another twenty-something blocks to freakin' Cabrini.  Well, look at the bright side.  My cousin Eunice from Oregon always said there's a bright side to everything.

I'm hungry.  I'll stop at the next diner and order a cheeseburger, maybe a jumbo, with steak fries, a small toss salad.  Back in Portland, I knew a place where they served the fattest steak fries in the country.

I'm trudging in this heat.  Head west.  A diner on the corner off Eighth Street in the shape of a caboose.  I enter.  The booths are all taken, so I take a seat at the counter.  The waitress, who has short white hair matted down and puffy eyes, hands me a menu.

"No menu please.  Know what I want."

She whips out a pad, checks the end of the counter, flips some pages, taps the end of her ballpoint on the pad.

"What'll it be."

"Cheeseburger and steak fries."

"We have a cheeseburger platter that comes with regular fries.  The steak fries will cost extra."

"It's okay.  And give me a large Coke."

"You sure you want the steak fries?  The cheeseburger platter won't cost . . ."

"No.  Really.  Steak fries.  Please."

"Just steak fries?"

"No.  Steak fries and a cheeseburger.  Well done."

"Something to drink?"

"A large Coke."

"Steak fries, cheeseburger well done and a large Coke.  Got it."

"And a tossed salad."

"What kind of dressing?  We have French, Italian, Thousand Island, Ranch, Blue Cheese, and the cook's homemade one—Ollie's Oregano and Basil Bust Out."

"French is fine."

"You're sure you won't try Ollie's?  I tried it myself and it was . . ."

She presses her thumb and forefinger to her lips and lifts her eyeballs.

"No, French.  Okay?  Just French.  Nothing but French."

She slides her pen over her ear and I'm left sitting studying this bag now sitting on the counter.  I mean, is Eunice going to suffer a broken ankle if I open it.  No, I think, don't do it.  You'll know what will happen.  Something will go bad.  Well, hell with the way this day is going it can't get much worse.

The waitress from hell sets down my platter and salad.  She flashes this maternal mother-of-all-kindness sort of smile.  Maybe in her past life she was an evil vixen who destroyed men.

I always eat fast when I'm nervous like this.  Even more nervous than the nights I tend bar and clip Malachi's cash register.  Well, everybody does, even the yum-yums.  Eight percent of all tips, says Malachi, as he stalks behind the bar, sending a perfumed breeze past our showered and powdered bodies.  Always, say the yums-yums as they wink at each other and give Malachi the finger behind his back.  But we all clip him.  Only I don't think of it as clipping, more like taking back what belongs to us.  And the yum-yums and I just carry on as if nothing ever happens.  Life is strange, isn't it?

But it bugs me.  Why didn't Malachi tell me that Jim was in the hospital?  He didn't know?

The fries are too crispy, and they need more salt.  Passable, but not the Portland fries.

The bag.  Stop looking at it.  The bag.  It's not calling you.  The bag.  Leave it alone.  Oh, heck.  I mean how much worse can my day get if I open it?  Is there gonna be an earthquake in Portland?  When was the last time there was a major earthquake in Portland?  Just open it.

Well, I was right.  There's a jar . . . and the water is kind of cloudy.  And . . . and these maybe orange, maybe fleshy thingies floating at the end.  Some red streaks down there.  Did the fish die?  I hope not.  Take the whole thing out, dummy.  There.  Get a better look here.

What the . . .

Oh, my God.

They're fingers.  They're somebody's fingers.  Not just somebody's fingers.  But somebody's fingers that are cut-off.  Oh, my God.  Somebody's fingers have been floating all along in the bag I carried from Lexington and 22nd.  I've been carrying Jim Slight's fingers that have been cut off.  Not just cut off but chopped off.  They're not just fingers but they must be Jim Slight's fingers and he is lying in Cabrini missing his digits that he was always intimate with and they must have been attached since childhood and most likely a good time before.  These are fingers floating free as goldfish.  These are fingers that were once part of Jim Slight's real identity.  These are Jim Slight's fingers.  These are Jim Slight's real fingers although his name may be false.  I've been sent to give Jim Slight his fingers.  This is more than a slap in Jim's face.

I'm gonna puke.

I rush out to the bathroom.  Where is the bathroom?  Where is the most logical place for a restroom?  A restroom is usually located to the rear of a food and beverage establishment.  That is where I will go.  Not just go but fly.  I will fly there faster than somebody can say Buggy Betty Brings Blue Birch Beer by Big Black Bear.  I fly into the restroom located at the rear of this food and beverage establishment and lock the door to this cubby hole of a bathroom.

Okay.  I sink to my knees.  Put my chin to the rim of the toilet.  Should have wiped it first.  Okay.  I can do this.  Going to do this.  I get some of the cheeseburger up, but the steak fries seem to like it where they are.  Put a finger down my throat.  It's not working.  I think I got enough up.  It's enough.

Okay, I think.  Take a deep breath and relax.  Not just a deep breath but a slow deep breath.  That's what my mom told Eunice when she got hit with the softball many years ago.  A slow deep breath.  Now, focus, I think.  Everything is going to be alright.  Everything is going to be alright because the sun is up.  I feel a little better.  Not much better.  I don't feel better.  I feel a little better.

Some customers bang on the door.  How long have I been in here?  A whole twenty minutes?  I hear two or three voices mumbling.  They probably don't have three ounces of urine among them and yet they are knocking like bedwetters at a boys scouts' makeshift kybo.  They call them kybos in Canada, which is not far from Oregon.  Three ounces of urine among them and they all panic like young geisha boys during an immigration raid.

I stagger out.  The three guys stare at me and one says you know other people gotta use it too.  I just shake my head and ignore them.  They are such dumb shits.

Back to my seat but I don't sit.  I flag the waitress and ask for a check.

"Was everything alright?"

"Yeah . . .  Why wouldn't it be?"

"You look pale as a ghost.  Was the cheeseburger cooked?"

Down the far end, a customer stares at me and shouts out that the bathroom stinks in there.  Did you hear me? he yells.  It stinks in there.

I wait for my check and ignore this ignorant and callous dumb shit who probably only had half an ounce of urine in him.  I peer back down at the counter, down at my dirty plate, the frosted glass; I'm trying to avoid the bag.  I can't help it.  I'm going to look at it.  I know I shouldn't look at it.  Just like I shouldn't have opened it.  But I'm going to force myself to look at it.

The bag.

The bag is gone.

Somebody took it.  I peek around, but only half way.  Don't want to cause attention.  Maybe the Spanish guy followed me here.  Maybe he took it.  I do a quick scan of the table tops, the customers leaving.  Look down on the floor.  Nothing.  If somebody took it, he'd be out the door already.  Think he's gonna stay here with somebody's fingers and order a slice of cherry pie?

Maybe I'm going to be questioned by the police.  Maybe I'll be the center of a large scale crime investigation.  Maybe my story will form the basis for a new CSI pilot.

What am I going to tell Malachi Flame?  I'm sorry but I lost Jim's fingers.  How do I explain this?  He will fire me.  He will never let me dance on the stage of Heaven's Plow with my MTV award-worthy moves again.  He will never let me perform the slithery moves that make the yum-yum boys drool and breathe fire.

I pay the check and take off.  Gotta do some serious thinking.  Walk back to my apartment on West 10th.  Think this out thoroughly.  I'm taking my time.  Walking at a leisurely pace because a faster one will invite attention.  I cross 7th Ave.  Some Nazi-crazed cab driver honks his horn like it's got bullets in it.  Forgot.  The light turned green.  Okay, so he was right.  Okay.  I tell myself it's okay.  It's okay, faggot.

Enter the apartment and plop down on the small ottoman.

My eyes float around the room, the white lace curtains my roommate put up, the new HDTV 56" set he bought that I only use sometimes.  The silver framed picture of some monkey-faced owl he picked up at a street sale on 6th Ave. The owl looks directly down at me, but monkey-face tells me nothing.  Not one word of enlightenment.

Did Malachi Flame set me up?  Did Malachi Flame make Dirty Larry set me up?  And what part did Cherry Joe play in all this?  Was this somebody's idea of a joke?  Maybe those weren't Jim's fingers.  Maybe they were.  Maybe they were not real fingers but plastic fingers.  They looked like real fingers.  Maybe they were in ice before the ice melted.  Who can I contact for a consultation?  Is there a 1-800 number for detached fingers?  Not just detached but cut-off.

The phone rings.  I jump.  Should I answer it?  No.  Can't.  Better.  Really should.  Maybe it's for Octavio, my roommate.  I stumble over.  Pick up.  Don't say hello.  Let them say hello first.

"Benny?  Benny, you there?"

It's Malachi Flame.  I stall for things to say, things to make up.  My mind is racing so fast it's like listening to my thoughts in Chinese.

"Hey, Malachi.  What's up."

"Just wanted to check in.  See if everything went alright."

"Well . . .  Yeah.  Kind of.  Almost alright.  Not one hundred percent alright.  I had a little problem.  See, Jim's roommate said he went to the hospital and . . ."

"It's alright, Benny.  We got the bag."

"You uhm . . .  You got the bag?"

"Shame if the merchandise got lost."

Think fast, I tell myself.  My cheeks turn into two heating pads.

"Well, I didn't look.  Thought it was goldfish swishing inside."

"Everybody looks inside the bag, Benny."

"No.  Really.  Cross my heart and hope to croak."

"Goldfish.  I like that.  You know, butterfly, you're going to make a lot of money."

My feet are itching a storm.  Wanna kick these sneakers off.

"Really?"

"Because you're smart.  Know how to keep quiet.  Play the game."

"Well, money's the name of the game."

"That's right.  That's right, baby.  Owww!"

I can picture that big, pompous grin stretched across Malachi's face.  His eyes growing huge, like two chocolate-covered mint balls.

"And baby, baby, we'll just keep this to ourselves, you know?  Loose lips Lypsinka ships."

"Sure.  No problem."

"Oh, baby, I love it when you talk dirty to me that way.  Now, you get some rest, and don't let those big ol' bedbugs bite, you hear, lover?"

"Take care, Malachi."

"Oh, and uhm darling.  Just one more thing.  Those fingers?  They were fake."

Click.

I pace around the room, its perimeter.  Then, back and forth, into the kitchen, heat up some left over spaghetti in the microwave.  I'm not hungry right now, but I will be because I'm still nervous.  Nervous like the father of some ten-year-old who can't be potty trained.  I hate being made a fool of.  Hate it like hair lice.  Eunice and I caught hair lice once in summer camp.

I'm never going back to that club.  Not ever.  I'll call Dirty Larry and tell him to tell Cherry Joe to tell Peking Slim to tell Malachi Flame that my distant cousin Eunice is dying of cancer.  I'll tell him something like that.

Get some rest for now.  Tomorrow I'll fill out an application in every McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's or Pizza Hut in the city.  I'll make up references.  Tell them breakfast is my specialty.  Pancake mix is my forte.  Could break an egg by looking at it.  Yeah.  Tomorrow is going to be another hot one.  Maybe hotter.  Wet T-shirt scorcher.  Little girls hosing their poodles in the streets.  Going to be a lot of pavement pounding.  But it'll be good for my endurance, my stamina.  Build up my legs.  My quads.  Good for my abs.  

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