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Vol. 4, No. 2

When the Nines Roll Over
by David Benioff

~

The next afternoon Tabachnik picked up Molly at the occult boutique in the East Village where she worked. They took the subway to Penn Station. Tabachnik had not ridden the subway in years. He longed to be back in Los Angeles, where there were supposedly millions of people but you never really saw them. He could walk two miles in his neighborhood, on broad sidewalks beneath tall palm trees, and encounter one old woman in yellow pants and one boy on a skateboard. Everybody else was locked away somewhere safe.
    Tabachnik and Molly Minx held on to a metal pole as the train shuddered and plunged through the tunnel. He wore black woolen pants, a black cashmere turtleneck sweater, and a full-length black peacoat. Molly wore a powder-blue cat suit that zipped in the back. Winter wasn't over yet, and this is what she wore. She had what seemed to be a permanent wedgie. All the men within sight had noticed this condition. An old man chewing a potato knish stared at her ass, glanced at Tabachnik, and then resumed staring at her ass. The other men pretended not to stare at her ass, pretended to look up only at appropriate moments--as when the conductor announced something unintelligible--and then sneakily stared at her ass. When Tabachnik caught them they would quickly look away, but Tabachnik wanted people staring at her ass. He wanted the whole world horny for Molly Minx.
    When they got to Penn Station they boarded the 4:12 and sat in the smoking car. "The best thing about being a smoker," said Molly, indicating the empty rows around them.
    When the train shot out from under the Hudson, the pale New Jersey sunlight seemed strange and hostile. They sped through industrial flatlands, past smokestacks that pointed to the sky like the fingers of a giant hand. As the train began to slow down Molly said, "This is us," and Tabachnik thought she was joking. People didn't live here.
    They walked past sprawling chemical plants ringed with chain-link fences topped with concertina wire. Warning signs were posted every few yards. DO NOT ENTER and THIS AREA STRICTLY OFF LIMITS and NO TRESPASSING. Everything stank of methane.
    SadJoe's street was normal and suburban--two rows of ranch houses with aluminum siding--except that it was the only residential block in the entire industrial complex. In front of each house was a tidy lawn. Leashed dogs growled. Tabachnik and Molly walked below the outflung branches of leafless red maples.
    SadJoe's house was the last in the row. There was a barbecue party in the backyard. SadJoe stood at the grill, a bottle of celery soda in one hand, a pair of tongs in the other. He wore black sweatpants and no shirt, though the temperature was in the forties. Tabachnik noticed, for the first time, that SadJoe's chest and arms were crosshatched with fine, pale scars. Candy, the rottweiler, sat by her master's feet. When SadJoe flung her bits of charred beef, the dog would snatch them out of the air and lick her black lips.
    Tabachnik followed Molly to the grill, watched her kiss SadJoe on the mouth, watched the drummer's bottle-holding hand slide over her ass. When they disengaged, SadJoe nodded to Tabachnik, gesturing with his tongs and soda bottle to indicate that he could not shake hands.
    "Well," said SadJoe, watching the hamburgers sizzle above the coals, "welcome to the neighborhood."
    There was a long silence until Tabachnik pointed at the scars on SadJoe's chest and asked, "What are those?"
    "Huh?" SadJoe bent his head and studied his own skin. "Oh. Razor scars."
    Tabachnik waited for the rest. When he realized it wasn't coming, he asked, "Why do you have razor scars on your chest?"
    "From when I was in high school. How do you want your burger?"
    Tabachnik shook his head and explained that he had eaten earlier. A keg of beer sat in a red plastic tub of ice. A picnic table with a black-and-white checkerboard tablecloth held bowls of potato salad and coleslaw, bottles of cola, and a chocolate cake with the number 200,000! in yellow icing. Most of the men wore work boots, blue jeans, and plaid flannel shirts. They stood in small circles drinking beer from Dixie cups and yelling at SadJoe to quit burning the goddamn burgers. SadJoe would give them the finger each time and the men would laugh and resume their conversations. The women sat at the picnic table. They watched Tabachnik and Molly and spoke in low tones.
    An older man, his eyes bright blue beneath savage strokes of white eyebrow, sat with the women. He wore a Jets football jersey with NAMATH embossed on the back on top of the number 12. When he saw Molly he stood up and limped over to her. He kissed her on the cheek.
    "This is SadJoe's father," she told Tabachnik. "We call him OldJoe."
    "Not around me, you don't."
    OldJoe grinned and shook Tabachnik's hand. His grip was as firm as his son's. "Help yourself to some beer, friend. I'm going to check on Joey's mom."
    He limped to the house, opened the screen door, and disappeared inside. The sky began to darken. Somebody turned on the floodlights and people ate their burgers and drank beer and cola and Tabachnik wondered if he was the only one about to die of exposure. It was the first week of March. Who had outdoor barbecues the first week of March?
    After dinner everyone gathered on the front lawn. SadJoe and his father and several of SadJoe's friends were inside the garage. An engine revved and the crowd on the lawn cheered.
    Molly smiled. "He's been looking forward to this for three years."
    A black Ford Galaxie 500 rolled out of the garage, glistening in the floodlights with a fresh coat of wax. Everyone but Tabachnik whooped with pleasure. SadJoe sat in the driver's seat, his black mohawk brushing against the car's roof. His father sat beside him. Four other men were crammed into the backseat. All the windows were down and the car's speakers were blasting a song Tabachnik recognized, "The Ballad of SadJoe."
    SadJoe waved his friends over to his window and one by one they came. Each leaned into the cabin, looked at something on the dashboard, and then shook SadJoe's hand. When it was Molly's turn she leaned in and kissed her boyfriend for a long time, and people started whistling and making smooch-smooch sounds. When she stood up she beckoned for Tabachnik. Tabachnik did not want to lean into the cabin and he guessed that SadJoe didn't want him to, either. But Molly kept curling her finger and everyone seemed to be waiting, wondering who he was, so Tabachnik went to the side of the car and crouched down until his head was level with SadJoe's.
    SadJoe pointed at the odometer. "What does it say, pilgrim?"
    Tabachnik squinted at the numbers, white on a black field. "Ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine."
    "And nine-tenths. I've already flipped the first hundred. This is mile number two hundred thousand coming up."
    "Wow," said Tabachnik. Wow sounded ridiculous, but what was he supposed to say?
    He shook hands with SadJoe and backed away. SadJoe pulled himself halfway out of the window and called out to his assembled friends: "Everybody who's helped with this car over the years, Gary and Sammy and Gino, thank you. Thank you, Lisa, for the hubcaps. Molly, thanks for 'The Ballad of SadJoe.' Mom, if you can hear me in there, thanks for never complaining when I practiced the drums. And most of all I want to thank Dad for buying me this car when I was in high school, when it only had ninety thousand miles on it."
    Everybody clapped and whistled and SadJoe put the Galaxie into gear and rolled into the street. He took a left and drove very slowly and all his friends walked behind him. Candy, loyal squire, trotted alongside the car. Tabachnik followed in the rear. He glanced at SadJoe's house and saw an old woman standing in the window, the curtain pulled back and gathered in her hand. She was watching the car's stately progress. She looked much older than SadJoe's father.
    In the middle of the block SadJoe hit the brakes, leaned on the horn, and began yelling and pumping his left fist out the window. The four men in the back jumped out and high-fived each other as if the Jets had finally won another Super Bowl. The crowd cheered and started singing "The Ballad of SadJoe" a cappella. A few boys about high-school age set off a round of fireworks. Everyone watched the rockets hurtle into the dark sky above the brightly lit street, higher and higher and higher, disappearing into the blackness, everyone still watching, their faces upturned to the nighttime sky, waiting for the rockets to burst, for petals of blue flame to drift slowly downward. Everyone watched for a full minute, until it became certain that the rockets were duds.

 

~

On the train ride back to Manhattan, Tabachnik asked Molly if she loved SadJoe. It wasn't a question that he had planned on asking, and he didn't think it was a smart question to ask, but he wanted to know.
    She was staring out the window. She said, "I guess there was a Shell station near where he grew up. And him and his friends, they had a rifle, and every now and then they'd get drunk and shoot out the S. You know, make it the Hell station. And the next week there'd be a new S up there and SadJoe and his friends would go over and shoot it out again. They got caught, finally. And the judge said, well, this is the first time you've been in trouble, and he let SadJoe go. His friends had records, so they were sent to a JD center. Anyway, a week later he shot out the S again. And they brought him back to the judge and SadJoe said, 'I want to be with my friends.'"
    Tabachnik nodded and studied the various New Jersey towns listed on the train ticket. He did not believe the story. It was too romantic, too perfect a history for a rebellious punk rocker. But he thought about the street SadJoe grew up on, with its concertina wire and methane stink, and he thought about the razor scars, and the mother behind the window with the curtain bunched in her hand, and he thought about the friends who had piled into the backseat so they could be there for mile number two hundred thousand, and he thought if anyone would shoot the S out of the Shell station so he could join his buddies in the JD, it was SadJoe.
    Tabachnik did not want to say any of this to Molly, so instead he said, "Hell is other people."
    Molly turned away from the window and stared at him. "Really?"
    "No, I mean, that's a quotation. I didn't make it up."
    She rested her head on his shoulder and said, "I never heard that before."
    Tabachnik stared out the window but it was too dark to see anything outside. He saw his own face reflected in the glass, and Molly's bowed head, and the empty seats around them.
    They went to a Turkish twenty-four-hour restaurant on Houston, drank small cups of bitter black coffee, ate syrupy baklava. The Turk manning the cash register had the Daily News crossword puzzle on the counter between his elbows. He chewed on the eraser end of a pencil.
    "I'm going to make you a star," Tabachnik told Molly. He never smiled when he said these words; he never made a joke of it. He said the line very simply, enunciating each syllable, looking directly into the listener's eyes. He knew that every kid in America was waiting to hear those words, or at least all the kids who mattered to him. They wanted to believe him. They needed to believe him.
    Molly took a deep breath. She smiled and looked down at her fingers picking apart the layered pastry. She looked very young, very shy, a blushing girl on her first date.
    "I'm going to fuck you anyway," she said. "You don't have to blow smoke up my ass."
    Tabachnik made eye contact with the Turk at the counter. The Turk grinned.
    "Check," said Tabachnik.

 

~

She had a small room in an Alphabet City apartment that she shared with five other musicians and actors. She led him by hand through the shadowy hallways, guiding him past piles of dirty laundry, a sleeping dog, and a bong lying on its side in a puddle of bong water.
    When they got to her room she closed the door and slid a dead bolt shut. She saw Tabachnik's raised eyebrows and said, "Weird things go on here. A guy got knifed on New Year's Eve."
    Tabachnik didn't want to know about it. He held the side of her face and kissed her on the lips and she unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants and he thought, Jesus, what's the rush? And then he realized that he was very, very old. Soon he would have no idea what kids wanted to hear on the radio. A&R men did not age gracefully--you either moved up or were bumped off. Tabachnik was good, a rainmaker for all seasons, but he had never had the huge score. He had never signed a group that became a supergroup, a Nirvana or R.E.M. or Pearl Jam. The men who signed the supergroups were no longer A&R. They were VVVVIPs.
    He unzipped the back of her cat suit. Her skin was beautiful, the color of a cinnamon stick, and it flushed in the places where his mouth went. She shimmied out of the suit and stood naked before him, her hands covering her crotch with mock bashfulness. Tabachnik kissed her throat and her breasts and her belly, crouching lower and lower until he was on his knees.
    When they finished they lay on their backs in bed and listened to the sleeping dog in the hallway moan in his dreams.
    "I want to fly you out to L.A. and have you record a few demos."
    "We have demos," said Molly, pointing to a black boombox piled with cassette tapes.
    "I want them done right. We can fly out tomorrow."
    "What about everyone else? I'm not just going to leave them."
    Yes, you are, Tabachnik wanted to say, but instead he traced circles around her nipple with his fingertip and said, "I don't have the money to fly the whole band. We'll get you out there, have you meet a few people, send for everyone else later."
    "SadJoe won't like it. The Stains are his band."
    "I'll tell you what, Molly, the Stains might be his band but you're the one people want to see. You're the one writing the songs. I was watching the kids at the club before, I was watching who they were watching, and it was all you. Nobody cares about the drummer."
    "I care about the drummer."
    Tabachnik had worked in this business for ten years and he'd come to believe that loyalty only existed when it was convenient for all parties. He'd never seen a band that he couldn't break up. He took no pleasure in splitting these people apart, he wasn't a sadist, but he felt no guilt, either. They all believed they were destined to be stars and they were very sad to leave their friends behind but they got over it quickly. They understood that not everybody could be a star.
    Tabachnik looked at Molly Minx and saw that she was looking at him. She was waiting to hear the rest. She would argue with him, but not with much passion.
    "You're the one with the talent," he told her. "I like SadJoe, he's a good kid, but you're the one with the talent."
    "I don't even know what talent means," she said. She waited for him to speak but he kept his silence; he wanted her to give it a little effort. She wrote a song for the poor kid, she could at least give him a mild defense.
    "I don't think I believe in talent," she said at last.
    Tabachnik believed in talent. A band he was scouting had opened for Buddy Guy in Atlanta and Tabachnik had stayed for the main act, had listened to Buddy Guy play guitar. On the drive back to his hotel, Tabachnik had thought, I'll never be that good at anything. It wasn't a big deal--most people would never be as good at anything as Buddy Guy was on the guitar. It was sad to realize you were lumped with most people, but it wasn't a big deal.
    Still, he understood what Molly Minx was talking about. He wasn't trying to sign her because of her talent; she saw through that bullshit. He wanted her because she would sell records. That didn't mean she was talented and it didn't mean she was talentless. Talent was irrelevant to the equation.
    "Listen," he told her. "I'm putting you in a difficult position, I understand that. But it's not that complicated. Come with me to L.A. and good things will happen for you."
    She stared up at the batik tapestry that was tacked to the ceiling and didn't say anything.
    "Oh," he added, "do you have a copy of your recording contract lying around?"
    "I think so. Why?"
    "Let me take a look at it."
    She got out of bed and he sat up against the headboard and watched her squat beside a blue milk crate and rummage through a manila folder filled with receipts, bills, and certificates. He liked the efficient lines of her body. She looked like she could squat for hours, a peasant shelling peas.
    When she found the contract he took it from her and studied it carefully. It had been printed on a dot-matrix printer with a dying ribbon. One page. A brown stain from a coffee mug neatly ringed the signatures. Tabachnik sighed. People were so stupid he no longer took pleasure in their stupidity. He folded the contract and fanned himself with it.
    "What's your real name, Molly?"
    "Jennifer." She was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him.
    "Your whole name."
    "Jennifer Serenity Prajadhikop."
    "Where are you from?"
    "Toronto."
    "Really? Okay. Serenity. That's good. We'll need to retire Molly Minx."
    She said, "I can do that. I was getting kind of sick of it anyway. I've been Molly Minx since high school."

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