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Vol. 4, No. 2

When the Nines Roll Over
by David Benioff

The singer had presence. She wasn't a beauty, and her pitch was imperfect, but she had presence. Tabachnik watched her. Lord, the girl could yell. From time to time he surveyed the young faces in the crowd. The way the kids stared at her--the ones in back jumping up and down to get a better look--confirmed his instinct. The girl was a piggy bank waiting to be busted open.
    Tabachnik and a foul-smelling Australian stood by the side of the stage, in front of a door marked REDRüM STAFF ONLY! Most of the kids in Redrüm were there to see the headliners, Postfunk Jemimah, but the opening act, the Stains, was threatening to steal the show. There was no slam-dancing or crowd-surfing or stage-diving--everybody bobbed their heads in time with the drummer's beat and watched the singer. She prowled the stage in a bottle-green metallic mesh minidress so short that Tabachnik kept dipping his knees and tilting his head to see if he could spot her underwear. He could not spot her underwear.
    When the band finished the song Tabachnik turned to the Australian and asked, "What's that one called?"
    The Australian had recently started an independent label called Loving Cup Records. The Stains were the first band he signed. His head was shaved and his black track suit stank of sweat and cigarette smoke.
    "It's good, huh? 'The Ballad of SadJoe.' SadJoe's the drummer. He started the band."
    "Who writes the songs?"
    "Molly," said the Australian, pointing at the lead singer. "Molly Minx."
    She didn't look like a Molly Minx. Tabachnik wasn't sure what a Molly Minx should look like, but not this. He guessed that she was Thai. Her hair was cropped close to the scalp and bleached blonde. A tattooed black dragon curled around her wrist.
    "The story is," continued the Australian, "she has a big crush on SadJoe, and she writes this song, and one night she sings it to him. Right on the street, a serenade. So, you know, love. Boom. And he asks her to join the band."
    Tabachnik had never heard of the Australian before tonight, which meant that the Australian did not matter in the music business. Whatever contract Loving Cup Records had with the band would be a mess, whipped up one night by a cocaine-addled lawyer who passed the bar on his third try. That was Tabachnik's guess, anyway, and he was generally right in these matters.
    After the Stains finished their set Tabachnik retreated to the VIP room with the Australian. He expected the man to light a joint and offer him a hit; when it happened Tabachnik shook his head and took another sip of mineral water.
    "I got you," said the Australian, leaning back in the overstuffed sofa. He sucked on the joint and kept the smoke in his lungs for so long that it seemed as if he had forgotten about the exhale part. Finally he released the smoke through his nostrils, two plumes curling toward the ceiling. It was an impressive gesture and Tabachnik appreciated it--Australians were always doing shit like this--but it was meaningless. He wasn't going to deal with Loving Cup unless it was necessary, and at this point he doubted it would be.
    "I got you," repeated the Australian. "You want to keep a cool head for the negotiations."
    "What negotiations?"
    The Australian smiled craftily, inspecting the ash at the tip of his joint. He had told Tabachnik his name. Tabachnik never forgot names, but in his mind the Australian was simply "the Australian." He was sure that he was simply "major label" in the Australian's mind, but eventually he would be "that fuck Tabachnik."
    "Okay," said the Australian. "Let's just talk then."
    "What should we talk about?"
    "Come on, come on. Let's quit the gaming. You're here for the band."
    "I don't understand something. You've signed Postfunk Jemimah?"
    The Australian squinted through the haze of smoke. "The Stains."
    "So what are we talking about? I'm here for Postfunk Jemimah."
    "You like the Stains," the Australian said, wagging his finger as if Tabachnik were a naughty child. "I saw you checking on the crowd. Well, you want them?"
    "Who?"
    "The Stains."
    Tabachnik smiled his version of a smile: lips together, left cheek creased with a crescent-shaped dimple. "We're having a conversation here, but we're not communicating. I came to see Postfunk Jemimah."
    "Too late, man. They signed a six plus one with Sphere."
    "Right," said Tabachnik, rattling the ice cubes in his glass. "And we're buying Sphere."
    The Australian opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. "You're buying Sphere? I just saw Greenberg two nights ago at VelVet. He didn't say a word."
    "Who's Greenberg?"
    The Australian laughed. "The president of Sphere."
    "Greenspon. And he's required by law to keep silent about it. I'm breaking the law telling you, but," Tabachnik indicated the empty room with his free hand, "I know I can trust you."
    The Australian nodded solemnly and took another deep hit. Tabachnik figured he would need forty-eight hours to get the girl. The last thing he wanted was for this pissant label to sniff out his interest and put the chains on her, rework her contracts. If that happened he would have to buy out Loving Cup, and Tabachnik hated paying off middlemen. In the grand scheme of things, the musicians made the music and the consumers bought the music, and anybody in the middle, including Tabachnik, was a middleman. But Tabachnik did not believe in the grand scheme of things. There were little schemes and there were big schemes, but there was no grand scheme.
    "I can introduce you to Heaney," said the Australian, desperate for an angle. "He manages Postfunk Jemimah."
    "Yeah, we went out for dinner last night. But thanks." Tabachnik gave another tight-lipped smile. All of his smiles were tight-lipped because Tabachnik had worn braces until a few months ago. He wore the braces for two years because his teeth had gotten so crooked that he would bloody the insides of his lips and cheeks every time he chewed dinner. The teeth were straight now, the braces gone, but he had trained himself to smile and laugh with a closed mouth.
    He was supposed to get braces when he was fourteen, like a normal American, but his mother and father, who had split up the year before, kept bitching about who ought to pay for it. "Your only son is going to look like an English bookie," his mother would say into the telephone, smoking a cigarette and waving at Tabachnik when she saw that he was listening. "Excuse me, excuse me, I would have a job except you know why I don't? You know who's been raising our son for the last fourteen years?"
    So when the money for the orthodontia finally came, Tabachnik told his mother he didn't want it. "Sweetheart," she said, "you want to be a snaggletooth all your life?"
    Tabachnik found the negotiations over his teeth so humiliating that he refused to have them fixed. He never again wanted to depend on another man's money. He worked his way through college in New Hampshire, copying and filing in the alumni office until he figured out better ways to get paid. He convinced the owner of the local Chinese restaurant to let him begin a delivery service in exchange for twenty percent of the proceeds; he hired other students to work for tips and free dinners and to distribute menus around town. Tabachnik made out well until the restaurant owner realized he no longer needed Tabachnik. That incident impressed Tabachnik with the importance of a good contract.
    He managed a band called the Johns, a group of local kids who worked as custodians and security guards at the college. The Johns always sold out when they played the town bars, and Tabachnik took them to a Battle of the Bands in Burlington, Vermont, where they came in second to a group called Young Törless. Young Törless became Beating the Johns and had a hit single remaking an old Zombies song. Tabachnik was reading Variety by this point, and he saw how much money Beating the Johns made for their label, and he thought, Jesus, they're not even good. And he realized that good doesn't matter, and once you realize that, the world is yours. When Postfunk Jemimah began to play, Tabachnik and the Australian went to listen, and afterward joined them, their manager, Heaney, and the Stains for a post-gig smoke session in the club owner's private room. The VVIP room. Tabachnik had been places with four progressively more exclusive areas, where the herds were thinned at each door by goons with clipboards, turning away the lame. Some of these rooms were so hard to get into that a full night would pass without anyone gaining entrance. People who had never been turned away before, people unused to rejection, seven-foot-tall basketball players and lingerie models with bosomy attitude, would snipe at the bouncer and declare their lifelong friendship with the owner, and the bouncer would nod and say, "No." Tabachnik wasn't a VVVVIP, but he didn't care. He suspected that if you ever got into the fourth room you would find another closed door, leading to an even smaller room with even fewer people, and if you could somehow convince the bouncer to let you pass, you would enter a still-smaller room, on and on, until finally you would find yourself in a room so cramped only you could fit inside, and the last bouncer, the biggest, meanest one of all, would grin at you before slamming the pine door and lowering you into the ground.
    Tabachnik asked Heaney to speak with him in the other room for a minute; they huddled in a corner of the single-V VIP room and ignored the wanna-bes who stared at them and wondered who they were.
    "Congratulations," said Tabachnik. "I hear you signed with Sphere."
    "Yeah, they own us forever, but we're good with it."
    "I need to ask you a favor..."
    When they returned to the VVIP room, the Australian stared at them unhappily. Heaney gathered his band and they went off, in high spirits, to eat pierogies at Kiev. Tabachnik stayed, as did the Stains and the Australian, who slouched with the discontent of the small-time.
    "Well," said the Australian, passing a joint to SadJoe, "next year in Budokan."
    There were no chairs or sofas in the room, only giant pink pillows. Everyone sprawled in a loose circle and Tabachnik felt like an adult crashing a slumber party. Only Molly Minx sat with her back straight, very erect and proper. Her legs were propped up on a pillow and Tabachnik studied them: they were tapered like chicken drumsticks, thick with muscle at the thighs, slender at the ankles. She wore anklets strung with violet beads and black slippers like the ones Bruce Lee wore in his movies. Her hands were clasped together in the taut lap of her green dress; her face was broad and serene below her bleached, spiked hair. Thai or Filipino? She smiled at Tabachnik and he smiled back, thinking that a good photographer could make her look beautiful.
    The guitarist began to snore. The bassist was crafting little soldiers from paper matches; he had a pile of Redrüm matchbooks beside him and he arrayed his army on the gray carpeting. They were very well made, with miniature spears and a general on a matchbook horse, and Tabachnik watched, wondering when the war would begin.
    SadJoe was shirtless. His black mohawk was spotted with large flakes of dandruff. A rottweiler's head was crudely tattooed on his neck, the name Candy inked in green script below the dog's spiked collar. The air was rich with marijuana smoke and body odor. SadJoe puffed on the joint contentedly until Molly elbowed him.
    "It's a communal thing, lover."
    He grunted and passed her the joint; she smoked and passed it to Tabachnik; Tabachnik took a hit, let the smoke sit in his mouth for a moment, and breathed out. He passed the joint to the bassist and asked the drummer, "How'd you get the name SadJoe?"
    SadJoe made a gun with his thumb and index finger and shoved it into his mouth. Molly said, "He's sick of telling the story."
    If you're going to call yourself SadJoe, thought Tabachnik, you ought to expect a little curiosity.
    "I'll tell it," said the Australian. The whites of his eyes were now mostly red. A strand of mucus was creeping out of one of his nostrils and Tabachnik started to say something but then decided not to.
    "SadJoe grew up in New Jersey," the Australian began. "What town?"
    "Near Elizabeth," said SadJoe.
    "Near Elizabeth. And the street he lived on, I guess this was a quiet town, all the kiddies played together. Football and so forth."
    "Street hockey," said SadJoe. "Street hockey was the big game. I was always goalie. Goalie's the best athlete on the team." He nudged Molly Minx and she smiled at him.
    "So they all played street hockey together. This was before SadJoe became SadJoe. He was just Joe."
    "Some people called me Joey."
    "All right. And along comes a new family, with a little boy. This boy, unfortunately, was born a little off. Special, you call it?"
    "He was a mongoloid," said SadJoe. Molly shot him a nasty look and SadJoe shrugged. "What's the nice word for mongoloid?"
    Everyone looked at Tabachnik. There was something about his face that made people suspect he knew things that nobody else would bother to know.
    He said, "A kid with Down's syndrome, I guess."
    "Mon-go-loid," said SadJoe, chanting the syllables into Molly's ear. "Mon-go-loid."
    "But a sweet boy," continued the Australian. "Always smiling, always laughing."
    "He used to kiss me on the lips sometimes," said SadJoe, scratching his armpit. "But I don't think he was gay. Sometimes retards don't know the difference between right and wrong."
    "Jesus," said Molly.
    "Well," said the Australian, "the boy's name was Joe. But the kids couldn't call him Joe, because our friend here already had the name. So they started calling him Happy Joe."
    "He was a good kid," said SadJoe.
    "And eventually," concluded the Australian, "if there's one Joe called Happy Joe, then the other will become Sad Joe."
    "Ta-da," said Molly, lighting a new joint.
    "And they all lived happily ever after," said the Australian, gazing hungrily at the fresh weed.
    "Not really," said SadJoe. "Happy Joe got run over by a UPS truck."
    Everybody stared at him. He sighed and rubbed the palm of his hand over the stiff ridge of his mohawk. "First dead body I ever saw."
    "You never told me that part," said Molly, frowning.
    "Death makes me glum, baby."
    The club closed down at four in the morning but Tabachnik and the Stains stayed until five, when the manager came to say they were locking the doors. They shuffled outside and shivered on the street corner.
    "You know what we should do," said SadJoe. "The fish market opens up in a few minutes, down on Fulton Street. We should go down there."
    "Why?" asked Molly. She was wearing an old fur coat. One of the sleeves was torn, but it looked like real fur.
    "That's when the fish is freshest," SadJoe explained.
    The Australian and the bassist and the guitarist murmured stoned goodbyes, hailed a cab, and headed for Brooklyn. Finally, thought Tabachnik.
    "If you two want to grab some coffee, there are things I'd like to talk about."
    "Nah, I guess I'll go home," said SadJoe. "First train will be running pretty soon."
    Molly stared at Tabachnik and then at SadJoe. "Maybe we should get some coffee."
    "Not for me, pretty. It's fish or nothing." He extended a hand to Tabachnik and they shook. The drummer had a firm grip. "Later, pilgrim."
    "Why don't you invite him to the party," said Molly, still staring at SadJoe purposefully.
    SadJoe looked at her, raised his eyebrows, and then shrugged. "I'm having a party tomorrow afternoon. In Jersey."
    "We can go together," Molly told Tabachnik. "His place is hard to find."
    Tabachnik gave her a card from the hotel where he was staying, his room number already written on top in neat, square digits. "Give me a call. I'd love to go."
    SadJoe watched this exchange in silence, chewing his lip. Finally he said, "Tell me your name again, man."
    "Tabachnik."
    "Yeah, all right. We'll see you."
    SadJoe and Molly Minx walked away and Tabachnik watched them go, SadJoe's heavy black boots clomping on the pavement, the back of his old army jacket scrawled with faded words in black Magic Marker.

~

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."

~

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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