Alarm clock. 5:30.
Pop’s in town. That means dinner at the latest, hottest new place. Tonight. Some Balkan joint I’ve never heard of. With his latest arm confection, no doubt.
Shower: Uneventful. Too anxious to engage in “The Thinking Man’s Television.”
Bathroom Scale: Too much. It’s the damned biz-dev job. No time to work out. I can hear it now. Some slip like, “Hey, Jumbo!” Instead of the scarcely less deprecating “Jimbo.” I am a bit heavier than my playing weight (in the 190s), it’s true. I can’t see my penis. I take an herbal cortisol suppressant.
The collar button pinches my neck. I squint at the three-or-so threads connecting it to the light-blue shirt. It can survive perhaps one more sortie. Which is good, as it’s my last dress shirt. Need to do some laundry. To preserve the little button’s precarious grip on life and my shirt, I decide to leave it unbuttoned until dinner. I can’t sew. Maybe I just don’t want to.
I roll up a disappointing tie and lob it into my shoulder bag and bear myself in my tight, already-warm suit out the door to the train. The overcast day is warmer and muggier than I expected, with a yellow-gray sky portending… moisture. It is certain that my humid bulk will push this woolen scuba suit to the endurance limit today. Think spinnaker-ripping squall, old sheets tearing, lines flying, tacking fiercely into a sky like a bruise from horizon to horizon, all of it scaled to the thermal drama of my metabolism.
I tend to perspire.
The day goes about as well as you can hope for in these unusual times of ours. I didn’t lose any money, but between waiting on dewy subway platforms, to running a little late to meetings, to a long lunch with a prospect, and to a brief but intense late afternoon rain that played strange acoustical effects on the sweating streets, I have become One with Moisture. By dinnertime, between the rising aquifer of my pores and the steady precipitation of the day, my outfit is palpably moist, threshold wet, warm like a peacoat, emitting a fragrance recalling its barnyard origin–yes, wool in the summer! And God alone can guess the status of my saturate button-down shirt. What itchy, yeasty wilds beneath the canopy?
I am running late. I flag down a cab. Stretching my leg to enter the car, my inseam finally gives way with a sodden ripping sound. It is the system failure I had vaguely foreseen, this instantaneous aperture from knee to knee, sartorial victim to the day’s cumulus of heat and humidity.
On the plus side, this sudden vent does admit some refreshingly cool air from the rear-seat air conditioning. Glad am I for the dark-gray pair of boxers Gracious Fortune allowed to remain for me, the last underpants in the drawer.
Oh, what quiet, consistent, evening-long fun Pop will have with this! Worse if he brings the latest sex-bomb version of his “Associate” with him! Just a slight eyebrow-raise or a micrometer twist in his basic smile is all it would take for him to reveal he noticed my sad pants. I would read it, he would know I read it, and thus the hierarchy would be re-established, the son’s yoke: BIG J.B > LITTLE J.B. Forever my father, I, your son, Cordelio.
But I’ve got more neck than the Big Guy, I tell myself, with gallows amusement, attempting to gasket-seal the collar around my throat with clumsy fingers, eyeing myself in the mirror of the jerking cab. It is tight around my neck.
Finally. Through the buttonhole, at last, and a brief, pinching stalemate at my Adam’s apple. I relax, sit back, force a grin, and the weakened threads betray me.
The pearly button skips away into the linty Eternity deep beneath the the driver’s seat. My rebellious ensemble has finally reached “Crush Depth” as the submariner might term it. As Pop might term it, being an ex-Navy Man.
I see the driver’s Central Asian eyes in the rearview as he looks at me.
I see pity there.
How many more are like me? I wonder, riding north past the Park towards our Upper East Side rendezvous at the Beograd Restoran.
How many are sons and daughters of an indisputably great man?
How many are my half-brothers and -sisters. Pop’s not getting any younger, after all…
I hate where that thought leads. He means… well. He is a big part of This Man’s Universe, for sure. I want him to live forever.
It’s hard to describe him, really. But I’ll try.
He seems never to age, for one thing. I compare the pain and swelling in my 50-year-old ankle, aggravated by the wingtips I’ve shoehorned around my feet.
He’s fantastically handsome. Like a rugged movie star. An action hero. A lead role, at any age. The spotlight rests comfortably on him. He is the perfected blend of art-scene suavity and blood-sport heavyweight; the affect of an irredeemable Mod Londoner and the implied effect of Rhodesian reconnaissance soldier. Or so you think.
Women fall to him like meteors, swept-up, helpless victims to his gravity, crashing to earth on the mattress beneath him, begging to be ravished by the Cossack brute they sense beneath his keen, self-imposed decorum. Despite her best efforts to resist (for resist she did, at first), that’s what happened, that one time, to my Mom.
The one time she switched sides. But let’s leave my Mom out of this. I am an only child, perhaps it is needless to add.
Women tend not to see me, despite my size.
I have a slight Chicago accent. Because that’s where my mom raised me.
What an athlete he was! Is! Still! How he used to drag me around the tennis court on those occasions when we’d spend time together! That killer second serve and the phenomenal wingspan he’d carry to the net. Me in tennis whites is something to behold, let me tell you. One of my schoolmates, Charles, up for a summer visit, nicknamed me “Bip” after he watched Pop landscape me around the court for three sets.
The whole “Bip” nickname thing didn’t make much sense to me until 20 years later, when, pitching the Michelin Tire account, I learned “Bip” was the name of the brand’s mascot. We won the pitch. But, I’d even been in Charles’s wedding. Me. His Bosom Chum. Old “Bip.” Rat-bastard.
That certainly cast the last twenty years of that friendship… in a whole different light. Sheesh.
Pop would disappear for a time, sometimes whole years. But I’d always get a birthday card and a nice check and sometimes just a note, saying “Hi.” Such fine handwriting, too! And from overseas, so often. So I collected stamps and often bright and funny memories of him, as well as the tennis example I’m belaboring. He’s really the sweetest guy in the world. A real softie, at heart. I’m pretty sure. And now, I haven’t seen him in… what… could it be… three years?
The taxi swerves to a halt at Restaurant Beograd and I tip rather handsomely and uncoil myself from the car I am making to shake with my labors.
… assures the neon sign in the plate glass window. I glance at my watch. Five minutes late. Disadvantage, Mine!
The place is close and dark and pleasant and the Balkan-standard trio, two violins and an accordion, quietly play something stringy. Pop rises as I enter. A beautiful brunette is with him, a little over a third his elapsed age.
“It’s a…” He offers his hand and a genuine smile,”… Moist one, isn’t it, Bip?” Mmm. Aced! A perspiration-plus-weight-gain overhand smash! Forty-Love, already, if you count being late. My ears redden like coils on an electric stove. He smoothly transitions:
“This is Tatyana Ivanovna Benderova, my associate.” Ben-DARE-ov-na. Have to be careful pronouncing it. Stress on the seCOND sylLABle. She extends an arm out of Swan Lake. Pop’s ageless, all right. We seat, I sweat, and the waiter pours me a shot of something as an apertif. I try to stop sweating, and fail. The woman is simply ravishing.
“Plum brandy,” explains my dad, pointing to the overfilled shot in its tumbler with its wobbly meniscus of šlivovice. “The toast of the Yugoslav sniper!” As ever, the cone of a martini glass hovers over his place setting, supported by a glinting orange stem of glass.
That seems an awkward reference to the past… to be making, here. Anywhere, really. “Well, let’s toast happier things. To your health, Dad. You look great. And, very nice to meet you, Tatyana Ivanovna, you look better than great.” She replies to my usage of the proper polite form of address in Russian with a smile of pleasure and raises her glass. Oh, she’s a gamer, all right!
We toast. I tip mine back and instantly my throat ignites. My vision fogs, a haze of purple sparks boil up.
I can’t see for a moment, I gasp, “Odd choice for a sniper.”
Vision returns slowly and I watch Dad take a sip of his martini. Still regaining feeling in my face, I notice a flicker of dissatisfaction in his… a nanometer twinkle and darkening of his irises only I–or my possible half-siblings–would be able to detect. Something’s wrong with his special-order martini.
“Warm,” he burrs. The “r” in the word “Warm” purrs out of him. It sounds a bit like Warn. It purrs, but not like a housecat purrs. Something bigger, more feral and more Scottish. Maclaren-enginey, tuned too hot.
Something that at this moment may or may not be sufficiently contained.
<<O, Konobare!>> he commands. Serbian? Same with the “r” here, too, but with additional Slavic force. I recognize his use of the strange south Slavonic Vocative or “Hailing” Case in the “e” ending of the noun. I study these things.
The “Waiter” materializes. He, too, uses the Vocative Case. <<Da, Gospodine?>>
“Mister” Pop proceeds to explain the failure of this martini in fluent Serbian, which I find surprising, as I did not know he spoke it. I say “fluent” because I speak a little Russian and am not unacquainted with certain verb-stems shared by the Eastern Slavs. One of them is the all-purpose profanity based on the root “Eb-” or, phonetically, “Yop-“, meaning, “Penetrate,” which Dad employs repeatedly, combining it with other shared root-words such as “Sukh-“, “Dry” or “Withered”, which is an ingenious pairing of the state of Pop’s martini with certain pre-existing conditions within the Konobare’s mother. An clever double-entendre. If you’re looking to get killed.
I can tell from the waiter’s face that this admirably insulting parallelism is not lost in the embroidery of the idiomatic “fucks” and various receiving “orifices” being delivered by Pop.
Here we go! thinks I. I’ve seen this scene played out on a number of tables around the world. You do not mess with Pop’s special drink. It can be a show.
Tatyana Ivanovna understands the gist of it, as well, and blushes becomingly beneath a peach-pit-sized diamond pendant that could almost be the only thing she’s wearing. Her admirable calves grip her chair.
<<Trenutak!>> hisses our Konobar, silencing Pop with a sharp hand gesture and retreating behind the bar to what I assume is the manager’s office. I push back a little in my chair and note the route to the exit.
“A ‘Moment’, eh? He’s off for the manager, by my trow,” smiles Pop. Tatyana Ivanovna doesn’t know the meaning of that look, yet, but I know it. The eyelids have narrowed and the eyes behind have hardened.
I saw it once when I got thrown out of boarding school and once more when I accidentally proposed marriage.
“Tell me more about the train through Yugoslavia, James,” Tatyana Benderova implores my dad in a Slav accent thick as a dollop of sour cream served atop thick beet soup.
“That was many years ago, even before this lad was born. Ah, here comes the manager. And the manager’s retinue, it seems.”
An intense-looking foursome of tall men in coattails approaches, single file, through the darkness. Dad arises and so do I.
The manager looks like a cross between Slobodan Milošević and former Chicago Bull Tony Kukoc, if Kukoc were a Serb. Like a really tall war criminal. Or heroic defender of the Serbs, depending on whom you talk to. Opinions vary. Goddamn I miss Michael Jordan, is all I know.
“Hello, Slavko. What’re you doing in town? It’s a crime you didn’t call me. A war-crime.” Did he say it in Serbian? Za ratne zločine? I honestly couldn’t tell you, but knowing him, he could have gone there. It’s his style, the pun. Bilingual, preferably.
The table flips up into my face and I fall backwards. With a crash the flatware hits the floor, combining with the sound of an exchange of gunfire and the thump of low-velocity bullets hitting the thick wood of the table’s bottom. Which splinters anyway.
Tatyana executes a gymnast’s move clear of the table and produces a small (Czech?) machine pistol from God-knows-where in her scant evening dress and lays down covering fire as Dad, with that unconscious agility I remember from the tennis court, moves into the kitchen. Without haste, he idly claps a new magazine into his smoking, already empty small automatic as he strides into the manager’s office. I hear the pistol reload with a snap.
Restaurant customers, genuinely concerned by this turn of events, are devoting themselves to screaming and exiting as I gather my bag and produce an as-yet unopened lock-blade knife and peer at the action from the floor, where I’ve elbow-crawled behind the cover of the table.
The four tailcoated men are dead or dying amidst overturned tables. Pop pops out of the kitchen, pocketing several documents and what looks to be a heavy lead container about the size of a beercan, marked with the anti-Smiley Face “Radiation” yellow logo. With a flourish almost undetectable, I see him produce a small zinc cylinder with a cap, which begins to smoke when he twists it. He flips it back into the kitchen.
He suddenly snap-turns through the cardinal compass points, gun extended, hammer back, finger outside the trigger guard. Really perfect form. He spies me.
“What are you doing down there, Son? Let’s find another restaurant.” Movement on the floor behind him catches my eye. Pop tracks my gaze, then spins and fires a coup-de-grace into Slavko, whose now-lifeless form had been clandestinely reaching for a pistol on the floor. I jump a little at the noise.
“I tore my pants,” I offer.
“Well, that tears it. Let’s go. I’ve noticed several health code violations here already. Let’s just say, I have my reservations.”
“Me, too. What’d you toss back there?”
“A little tip.”
He and I exit with Tatyana, the sparkling pendant swinging around her olorine neck and the smoking Škorpion pistol nosing about the room. Past upset tables and out the door of the now-empty restaurant and, wouldn’t you know it, the valet has his car ready!
“Thank You, Željko. Here’s something for your troubles.” Pop hands the valet… a Brazilian passport and a whopping stack 500-somethings in various currencies. A frigging loaf!
“Obregado!” replies the “valet,” who then vanishes into a dark red sedan that barely stops on the wet city street.
We speed away. This is a nice car. A barely audible thump can be heard behind us. I look back to see a strangely vertical inferno behind us as we accelerate through the turn and up Madison Avenue. I turn back to Dad.
There’s a devilish grin in the rearview.
“Serbs them right.”
“Oh, James!” sighs Tanya, looking away, groaning at another of his characteristic puns. She slides her long thighs a little apart, however, and presses into the seat. Ageless! He shifts gears and conversation topics, a little, the car smoothly accelerates.
“Željko’s actually a Croat. Undercover as a Bosnian Serb.” Figures. A double-agent. Soon enough, firetrucks are responding from all directions as Dad pilots the vehicle without his hands away and uptown. At the threshold of sense is the fine borderline sandalwood scent of Tatyana Benderova. “And ‘Tatyana Ivanovna’, here, is a Czech. Ljuba, this is J.B.”
Pop gives me another rearview mirror look.
“How’s your mom? Still beautiful?”
I knew he’d ask.
“She and Sarah went back to Israel, to be with Sarah’s family there.”
“Sarah’s sick again, eh? Too bad. You’re Ma still flying?”
“Nah. Macular degeneration.”
“She could really fly, your Mom.”
“I’ll visit her next month.”
“September? Ah. To atone.”
“Something like that. Maybe.”
“Send my best wishes to Pussy?”
“It’s back to Priscilla, now. And I always do.”
“You’re a good lad, Jimbo.”
“And you’re quite a man, Pop.”
We drive in silence for a moment. The awkward topic, but I have to ask it.
“Now many step-sisters and -brothers do I have?”
“Jeez, Jimbo,” He cranes his neck and notices my trousers. The car continues to exceed the speed limit by itself.
“Breezy?” He sounds just like Sean Connery, sometimes. At least he didn’t say, “Jumbo.”
Tatyana pretends not to hear any of it. Nice girl.
Maybe she could get him to settle down.