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Vol. 4, No. 2

When the Nines Roll Over
by David Benioff

~

The next day he took her out for lunch and then to the label's New York office. The receptionist sat behind a horseshoe-shaped desk sheathed in black granite. Behind her, twenty-foot-high windows stared out at the Hudson River.
    "Good afternoon, Mr. Tabachnik. Good afternoon, Serenity."
    Molly squinted at the woman as if trying to place her from high-school days, and then she said, "Hey!" and tugged on Tabachnik's jacket sleeve. "They already know me!"
    He took her into an empty conference room, left her staring at the platinum records on the wall and the giant photographs of smirking singers. In an unused office he phoned Steinhardt, the label's president, and waited for the assistant to patch him through.
    "Tabachnik? How's our girl?"
    "We got her. Schmucks had the group signed to a two plus one, but they have her listed in contract and in signature on her stage name."
    "Ha, I love it. Well, they might sue on breach of good faith."
    "I already faxed a copy to Lefschaum. We're clear."
    "Yeah, good faith my left nut. Get her out here. Get her name on a six plus one and let's make this girl happen."
    "It turns out she's Canadian."
    "Uh-huh," said Steinhardt. "Everyone turns out to be Canadian."
    Tabachnik didn't know what that meant. When you were the boss, you got to say inscrutable things and everybody would nod as if Confucius were just reborn and not a minute too soon.
    "How's the wife?"
    "Lenis?" asked Steinhardt, as if the word wife were too vague. "She's in Montana this weekend with the dogs. I better run, buddy. Listen, good job. You're my ace."
    Tabachnik hung up the phone and stared out at the Hudson. A Circle Line boat was pushing north through the gray water. Tourists pressed against the starboard railing and snapped photographs of the Manhattan skyline. Tabachnik waved. Their flashbulbs flashed, pointlessly, and Tabachnik waved both hands, knowing he would never show up in any of the pictures.
    

 

~

Nothing went wrong. He flew back to L.A. with Molly Minx. She began introducing herself as Serenity--"Just Serenity," she told people--but he still thought of her as Molly Minx. He had one of the girls from the label take her shopping on Melrose, and that night she modeled her new outfits for him. He told her she looked good in vinyl and she said, "Are my breasts too small?"
    He thought they probably were but he shook his head and said, "Not for me."
    They decided that she would stay in his apartment for a few weeks, until she learned her way around the city. He wasn't used to having a roommate. He hated sharing breakfast, hated having to say, "Pass the orange juice, please," hated to hear about her ornately symbolic dreams from the night before. But Tabachnik noticed that the apartment felt empty when she was away. He noticed that he was almost always happy to hear her key turning the lock. They would put her face on television soon, they would put her face on CD sleeves and promotional posters and billboards, but right now he was the only one looking.
    She signed a contract rendering exclusive recording services to the label for six records, plus a seventh at the label's option. When she received her advance she held the check between both palms as if fearing that the zeros might roll off like stray Cheerios. That night she took Tabachnik out for sushi on Ocean Avenue and forced him to drink shot after shot of sake with her. He got drunk for the first time in years. Later, at home, he knelt before the toilet, returning fishes to the sea, while she sat on the edge of the bathtub, writing lyrics in a spiral-bound notebook.
    The next morning he was in a nasty mood. He left the apartment without waking her and went straight to work. His assistant was already there. She greeted him cheerfully and Tabachnik smiled his tight-lipped smile and closed the office door behind him.
    He skimmed the trades, glancing at each headline and noting names and dollar amounts. He paged through poorly written reports from junior A&R reps and then jotted a few comments on Post-its that he stuck to the appropriate demo tapes stacked on his desk: pretty boys+good dancers; lead sing hot black chick; lead sing Marc Bolan's son. He checked his E-mail quickly, deleting messages marked Urgent! from agents and managers, scanning a tedious missive from Steinhardt, deleting a long list of dead lawyer jokes sent from the London office, opening a file attachment and staring at a photograph of his baby nephew. He could see no family resemblance, which he figured was lucky for the kid, and he deleted the file.
    The last message came from Joseph Paul Bielski. Tabachnik had never heard the name before. He opened it and read:


        this is Tabachdik he got shot in the head  .:(
    this is Tabachdik and theres a speer sticking in his head  --->:(
    this is Tabachdik he got shot in the head but hes okay about it  .:)
    and these are the spread cheeks of my ass  )*(
    saying kiss me Tabachdik!
    See you soon, sadjoe.

He called for his assistant and when she came into the office he pointed to his computer screen and asked, "How did this guy get my E-mail address?"
    She read the message and laughed. "Tabachdik? What is he, five years old?"
    "I don't give this out to strangers. Did somebody call here asking for it?"
    She closed her eyes and rapped her forehead with her knuckles. "Thinking, thinking... yes! Somebody called."
    Tabachnik stared at his assistant and wished that he were a woman, a very large woman, so he could pound the little twit senseless.
    "Look, I've told you before, take a message and I'll contact them. Okay? Assume that everyone calling is a psychotic. All right, goodbye. And no more, okay? Next you'll be giving these fuckers my home address."
    His assistant had the door halfway opened. She stopped and looked back at him, her mouth open in a small O. "Ooh," she said. "Uh-oh."

 

~

Tabachnik asked Molly if SadJoe still had the rifle he used to shoot out the S's. She didn't know. He asked her if SadJoe was the sort of person who might plot a violent revenge. She pursed her lips, thought about it for a while, and said, "No."
    Tabachnik wasn't satisfied with that answer. If the kid cut himself with razor blades, what would he do to the man who stole his girlfriend and broke up his band? So Tabachnik shacked up with Molly in the Chateau Marmont for a week. He showed her the room where John Belushi overdosed and the lounge where the guitarist Slash fucked his girlfriend on a glass-topped table until the glass shattered and both of them had to be rushed to the emergency room.
    They had drinks on the flagstone patio--Jack and ginger for her, mineral water for him--and she said, "And this is the patio where SadJoe murdered Tabachnik."
    This struck her as extremely funny and she laughed and laughed. Her hair was now fire-engine red.
    When the week was over Tabachnik decided he would not be intimidated by a New Jersey punk who lived with his parents and had dandruff in his mohawk. He and Molly returned to the apartment in Santa Monica. He had a dead bolt installed on the front door. He took his name off of the building's intercom box. He borrowed a pit bull from an agent who was going to Cannes for two weeks but the pit bull refused to eat his food and cried all night and Tabachnik had the agent's assistant retrieve the dog. Let the kid come, he decided. He was angry at himself for being afraid, and he was angry at SadJoe for frightening him, and he was angry at Molly for ever dating such a vindictive thug. Let the kid come.
    Nearly a month went by in this paranoid manner before the kid finally came. Tabachnik and Molly were lying in bed, smoking and watching an old episode of The Jeffersons. It was just after one in the morning. All the lights were out in the apartment. Tabachnik wasn't holding Molly's hand but their shoulders and hips were touching. By this time, of course, she could afford her own place, but he kept forgetting to tell her that.
    George Jefferson launched one of his tantrums--eyes wide with shock at the world's injustices--and was interrupted by a loud drumroll. Tabachnik frowned. The drumroll wasn't part of the show. The drumroll wasn't coming from the television. He looked at Molly and Molly closed her eyes and smiled.
    They listened. SadJoe was playing from the sidewalk. He was loud. He was pounding on the skins, and the quiet street echoed with the sound. Bud-a-bum-bum-BOM-bud-a-bum-bum-BOM-bud-a-bum-bum-BOM-BOM-BOM-bud-a-bum-bum-BOM. It wasn't music, it was violence with a rhythm.
    Tabachnik wondered if the kid was good. It was hard to tell. Who listened to punk-rock drum solos? He found himself tapping the bedspread nervously with his palms, keeping time, and he stared at his hands as if they were traitors.
    "That fucker," said Molly, laughing. "That little fucker."
    SadJoe played so hard the windowpanes rattled. He played so hard he silenced George Jefferson. He played so hard every dog on the block began to howl, howling with the last traces of wolf blood remaining in their plump domestic bodies.
    Tabachnik lit a new cigarette. "I guess it's a serenade."
    Molly covered her face with a pillow and Tabachnik wondered why. Was she laughing under there? Crying? People were already beginning to yell at SadJoe. "Shut up!" they yelled. "Hey! Asshole! Shut up! Hey!"
    Tabachnik got out of bed and opened the curtains. He opened the glass sliding door and stepped out onto the narrow balcony that overlooked the sidewalk. Up and down the street people were standing on their balconies or leaning out their windows to watch. SadJoe sat behind his kit in the middle of the sidewalk, ignoring the catcalls, pummeling the drums and toms. The bare scalp on either side of his mohawk shone in the streetlight. He was shirtless, and the muscles of his shoulders and forearms coiled and uncoiled beneath pale skin.
    Tabachnik sucked on his cigarette and rested his elbows on the concrete parapet. The Galaxie 500 was parked in front of a fire hydrant. SadJoe's army jacket rested on its roof. Two Golden Arches--three-foot-high yellow McDonald's M's--leaned against the black car's rear bumper.
    SadJoe looked up and saw Tabachnik standing on the balcony. He jumped off his stool and pointed toward his enemy with a drumstick. "FUCK YOU, TABACHNIK! FUCK YOU!"
    Tabachnik tapped off his ash and sighed. SadJoe was the good guy in this situation. There was no way of reckoning the past events and coming to any other conclusion.
    "WHERE'S MOLLY? MOLLY! MOLLY!"
    Tabachnik turned and looked into the bedroom. "He's calling for you."
    Molly pulled the pillow off her face and sat up in bed. "Jesus, Joe. What are you doing to me?"
    Tabachnik stared at the burning tip of his cigarette for a long while before looking down at SadJoe again. "She wants you to go away."
    "FUCK YOU, TABACHNIK!"
    Directly below Tabachnik the building's front door burst open and a big man in a white T-shirt, plaid boxer shorts, and black basketball shoes charged toward SadJoe and his drums. SadJoe saw him coming and said, "This isn't about you, pilgrim."
    Tabachnik recognized the man as one of his downstairs neighbors. A stuntman--no, not an actual stuntman, a stunt coordinator. Something to do with stunts. He had explained it one time. Tabachnik would run into him and his girlfriend at the mailboxes and they would all exchange pleasantries, and one time the man spoke about his profession, how he arranged for cars to vault fallen bridges or roll down steep embankments. He had always been friendly but it seemed that he hated to be awakened by drum solos.
    SadJoe said, "Hold on, brother," but the stuntman wasn't listening. He dodged around the kit, grabbed SadJoe in a headlock and started punching the drummer's face. Whack. Whack. Whack.
    Tabachnik puffed on his cigarette and watched. The stuntman threw SadJoe into the drums and the kit toppled to the pavement, boom stands clattering on the concrete, brass cymbals ringing as they rolled back and forth on their rims.
    Tabachnik winced. He turned and said to Molly, "He's getting his ass kicked."
    She jumped out of bed and made for the balcony, fists clenched at her side.
    "You're naked," said Tabachnik.
    Molly stopped in midstride and looked down at her naked self. She seemed surprised, as if she had never seen her breasts before, her belly.
    She crossed her arms over her chest and stared sadly at Tabachnik. "He needs me."
    Tabachnik stubbed out the cigarette on the parapet and walked back into the bedroom, pulled on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt.
    "Where are you going?" she asked.
    "I'm going out there before he gets his neck broken."
    "Why?"
    Tabachnik shrugged. It was complicated. He left the apartment, jogged down the stairs, pushed through the building's front door and hurried over to the fight. Except the fight was over. SadJoe was lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the nose and mouth. The stuntman was smashing the kit, putting his shoe through the kick drum, slamming a floor tom against the pavement, breaking the stands over his knees.
    "Hey!" yelled Tabachnik. "Enough!"
    The stuntman glanced at Tabachnik and then walked over to the Galaxie 500, the broken end of a cymbal stand in his hand. He started swinging at the yellow McDonald's M's.
    Tabachnik, barefooted, stepped around the shards of broken drum equipment and grabbed the stuntman's arm. "Enough," he said.
    The stuntman wheeled around and punched him in the nose. Tabachnik went down. He surprised himself by quickly standing up. He even swung at the stuntman. It seemed like the thing to do. He swung as hard as he could, got his whole body into it, hit the stuntman flush on the cheek. The stuntman frowned and punched Tabachnik again, and this time there was no getting up.
    Tabachnik sat slumped against the fire hydrant. The stuntman surveyed the damage for a moment and then went back into the building, stomping on the snare drum for good measure.
    The curbside was littered with yellow plastic splinters. The Golden Arches lay facedown on the street, their backsides burnished aluminum. Tabachnik heard police sirens in the distance. He looked over and saw SadJoe crawling through the wreckage of his kit.
    "Are you all right?"
    "Fuck you, Tabachnik."
    "That's the first fight I've been in since fifth grade."
    SadJoe wiped his nose with the back of his hand and stared at the blood. "You call that a fight? Usually I think of people fighting when I think of a fight."
    "I got one punch in."
    SadJoe sat cross-legged with the kick drum on his lap. He ran his fingers over the perforated skin. Blood leaked from his nostrils, ran in rivulets over his chest, seeped into the waistband of his camouflage pants. He tilted his head back and stared skyward. "This kit cost me two thousand dollars."
    "I'll get you another one."
    "Hey, fuck you, man. Fuck your money."
    People were still watching from their windows. A young man standing on a balcony across the street, wearing tightie-whities and a Dodgers cap, recorded the scene with his video camera. Tabachnik checked his teeth with the tip of his tongue. They were all there.
    "I want to talk to Molly," said SadJoe, his head still held back, the kick drum in his lap. "I want to give her the M's."
    "The thing is, it's over. She doesn't want to talk to you."
    SadJoe snorted loudly and spat a gob of blood and phlegm onto the pavement. He looked very tired, sitting beneath the flickering streetlight. Of course he looks tired, thought Tabachnik. His girlfriend abandoned him, his best shot at stardom was destroyed, he drove cross-country to win back his girl and got beat up by a stuntman. A stunt coordinator.
    "She didn't need you," said SadJoe. "She could have been a star in New York, she could have been a star in Toronto. She was going to be a star no matter what. The cream will rise to the top."
    "No," said Tabachnik. "It won't." Whatever was floating on the top, it wasn't cream.
    "She didn't need you," SadJoe repeated, slapping the side of the broken drum. "It was my band but she was the star and that was cool. I don't give a fuck if you don't believe me. I just wanted to sit back there and lay down the beat and watch her. You're going to put her with some studio guy who sounds like a fucking drum machine. Why, man? I'm not greedy. I just want to make a living, it doesn't have to be fancy. So why? I'm not good enough? Is that it? You think I'm not good enough?"
    "I don't know," said Tabachnik. It was the most honest answer he could give. "I don't know anything about drumming. You sound fine to me."
    "So why?"
    "It had nothing to do with you."
    SadJoe laughed. "Jesus, Tabachnik, look at me!" He held up his bloody palms and waved them. "Look! I'm real. Real blood, see? A month ago, everything was okay. Not perfect, not even close to perfect, but okay. Then you came along, and I don't know who invited you, and now . . ." He gestured at the demolished drums and cymbals around him. "Don't you have any imagination, man? Don't you have any fucking imagination? You think you turn the corner and I disappear?"
    Tabachnik stared up through the palm fronds. The moon was nearly full and the clouds frothed like boiling milk. Closer to earth, Molly Minx stepped out onto the balcony and leaned over the parapet. She had put on an oversize hockey jersey. The red bristles of her hair looked like tiny flames rising from her scalp.
    SadJoe saw her and scrambled to his feet. "Molly!" he yelled. And again, more quietly, "Molly." He pointed to the broken Golden Arches. "I brought you a couple M's, but that big guy busted them."
    "It doesn't matter," she said. "My name is Serenity now."
    "Okay." He nodded and rubbed his forearm under his nose. "Serenity's a good name."
    "You need to go home, Joe. You can't keep stalking me."
    "Stalking you? I'm not stalking." He looked at Tabachnik for support. Tabachnik shrugged.
    "Go home, Joe." She walked back into the apartment and slid the glass door shut.
    SadJoe stared up at the empty balcony for a long time. Finally he turned to Tabachnik and lifted his shoulders in a gesture of surrender.
    "Molly Minx is dead," he said. He grabbed his army jacket, got into the Galaxie 500, and drove away, leaving behind the ruined drum kit and shattered M's. Tabachnik watched the car's taillights until they were out of sight. His nose did not hurt very much and he figured the stuntman had pulled his punches. In a few minutes he would stand up and walk back into the building, climb the stairs to the second floor, return to his apartment, and lie down again with Serenity. But not yet. He wanted to sit for a moment and think.
    All the street's balconies were empty now, the windows dark again. The show was over. He wondered how far SadJoe would drive, where he would pull over for the night. Nobody could drive straight through from Los Angeles to New Jersey, but Tabachnik couldn't imagine SadJoe stopping at a motel to sleep. He could only picture the drummer driving, his hands on the steering wheel keeping the beat of the radio's song. Driving past mountains and deserts and strip malls and farm fields, never stopping, never stopping, alone in his black Galaxie, the odometer ticking off each tenth of a mile.

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