Katherine said it was gonna be slow this winter, but Michael was optimistic. His band, The Black Maria, had just opened for Hold Steady at the Bowery Ballroom. Greg Finn, Hold Steady’s lead singer, said he loved ’em and Mike figures if he plays his cards right he might have a tour lined up to cover December’s bills, and maybe a little extra for January. God bless Katherine, he thought. It was a rare and precious thing to find a catering company owner in this city who understood it was not, in fact, your life’s mission to carry champagne trays or fill amuse-bouche soup glasses or pour gallons of fucking Diet Coke at an uptown bat mitzvah way too early on a Sunday.
Mike is just at the point where playing music is almost enough to meet the rent and pay bills on time. But every second he’s not on stage or in the studio, he’s tending to The Black Maria’s MySpace page. Or sending out links to demos. Or calling some promoter about money they owe. Or a million other less than glamorous tasks that he never thought would be part of the whole struggling-rock-star gig when he was in high school. Not that he’s complaining. He can’t afford to buy his girl the perfume that she likes, but he lives in New York fucking City and he plays music to make most of his living and that, too, is a rare and precious thing.
Besides, the job that fills in when the T-shirts don’t sell isn’t that bad. Sometimes it’s just pouring sodas for seventh-grade girls who think the tattoos creeping out from the cuff of your work shirt are the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. Sometimes you get to take home an extra gift bag because one of the guests didn’t show and it just happens to have a bottle of Lolita. Sometimes your boss, who is the nicest white woman you have ever worked for, takes your tray of brownies and sends you on a smoke break.
In the hallway out to the elevator Mike passes the most distraught preteen boy in all of Manhattan, which put him in high running for the most distraught preteen boy in the world. Mike remembers how utterly trapped it felt to be that age. He had read a story on the train this morning about a girl who shot another girl in the face. They were in the seventh grade, and up until recently had been best friends. Broken-heart necklaces and all. Mike thinks about all the times he thought of doing something like that, or worse, and is so glad he just buried his face deeper into sci-fi novels and the soundproofing he put up in his room. He plotted and schemed like an arch criminal to save his money and not get strung out or get anyone pregnant, and he made for damn sure he got the fuck out of his small town if it was that last thing he did. Good luck to you, he thinks, saddest little preteen boy in Manhattan.
Mike rolls a cigarette while he walks through the lobby to the front door. He flicks the loose tobacco stuck to the calluses on the fingers of his chord hand. There’s a bad cut on his index finger that he sealed last night with crazy glue, but now it’s opening back up. Mike starts to scroll though the favorite numbers saved in his cell phone. Thinking about how he’s gonna tell his girl how he got to work OK and on time, despite the hangover and subway fuck-ups. How the Jonas Brothers are setting up for their very special acoustic set for a very special birthday princess, and he’s happier than a puppy with three dicks to be outside and on the phone. How he loves her so much sometimes he just aches for enough ways to say it.
Mike thinks about saying all of this as he steps out from under the awning to light his cigarette. He realizes, flicking the lighter faster and faster as he curses at it, will not in fact, make it work. Mike closes the phone, goes inside to borrow a book of matches from the concierge, steps back out from under the awning and hits send. On the fourth ring a body smashes face first into the sidewalk in front of him. There’s not much blood at first, but the thud of impact is accompanied by an eerie cracking of bones that ripples through the cold November air. When the blood does start to creep toward his feet, he can’t seem to move out of the way. Clare says, “Hey baby, hello, can you hear me?” Mike quietly mumbles, “Oh my god oh my god oh my god.”
The call drops and Clare is unsure what to do. Should she call back or wait for Mike to call her back? The last thing she wants is for him to try to call her while she’s trying to call him, and for them to get caught in a purgatory of busy signals. She takes the stack of poems she was grading, the ones by the students in her gifted and talented program, off her lap. On the top is a poem from Jeremi about cars. She knew it was going to be terrible and is more than a little relieved to be interrupted. Somewhere in the pile underneath is a poem by Ballard about birds that she won’t read until after she hears the news. Clare puts the whole stack on the nightstand next to her bed. She lights a well-rolled joint that hangs out the corner of her mouth. She paces from the living room to the kitchen and tries to call Mike back.