NEW YORK CITY, 1979. If Maria, as she entered her second year at Juilliard, rarely had the sense that her move to New York was a dream from which at any moment she might be shaken awake, she continued to have doubts. Linda, for one, seemed so much happier than she was, and the same could be said of many of the other students, who while clearly devoted to their practice regimens, managed to find time for friendship and dating in a way that still felt largely beyond her. As often as she craved having more friends or—a much keener desire—a boyfriend, the singer in her would belittle such [...]
I poked my head out of a room that smelled of casual sex into a hallway where the prevailing odor was casual violence. It was the smell of spent adrenaline, the kind of butt-puckering pheromone warning that sent small animals scurrying back into the brush for cover. The top floor of the Unfettered Souls’ Wellness Center had witnessed the kind of primal discharge that Chief Motivationalist Wayne Maker dedicated books to suppressing. None of these men had paused to take a deep breath and count backwards from five.
Luckily, I’d been down the rabbit hole when the violence took place, working on a different sort of discharge.
Wayne Maker had inspired me. I’d calmed down, centered myself with an entirely improvised breathing exercise, and had choked back the overwhelming desire to flee New York. When the diner ceiling had collapsed above Paul Fennel and I, it’d been the second time in as many days that the sky had opened at the will of God and dumped trash at an uncomfortable proximity to my person. I’d argue that I had good reason to be a little shaken; that maybe my instincts were as blunted as Dot had warned, that I wasn’t up to juggling homicidal marines, ingratiating self-help gurus, and a variety of supernatural warnings [...]
God cradled me in one burly arm, my cheek pressed to His nipple. It was the size of a satellite dish. Blown by a gentle breeze, the downy blonde hair on his forearm tickled me. Endless blue sky stretched out around us. Fluffy oblong clouds gently bobbed upward, inevitably drawn by some divine magnetism into formation around God’s face, preventing me from gazing directly upon Him.
“THERE THERE, ROYCE MULLINS” said God, and though His voice exploded in my ears like fireworks, I still found it soothing. “YOUR TROUBLES ARE AT AN END.”
My Joining lasted about eight minutes. I didn’t take my time.
The Virtue shoved me onto a mattress and straddled me. She pinned my hands above my head. As per the rules of The Joining there was no speaking and, as per the rules of sex-workers, no kissing. Her face inches from mine, close enough that I could smell the Newports lingering on her breath, and still I couldn’t make her out through the room’s oppressive darkness. Deprived of sight, I wouldn’t have been opposed to some mood music. Instead, I was forced to focus on my increasingly erratic breathing and the growling of my stomach as [...]
Even gently cradled in the contoured backseat of Wayne Maker’s town car, my back howled in protest. Boxed in by tinted windows, an architect of self improvement beside me, I felt vulnerable. Paul Fennel, my former client, had opened up too many cracks, and now I rubbed shoulders with a man who had built an empire out of probing fissures of the spirit with benevolent tentacles.
Let me tell you a little story about your client. I know by looking at you, not to mention by the way you throw a punch, that you've never served. You city boys never have to. Too many opportunities for you, too much life to live. Even a guy living like you are, like a real dirtbag by the look of this place, even you probably think you got it too good to hump around the dunes and light up some Arabs, am I right?
Paul Fennel was waiting in front of the motel room door when his soul mate and I pulled up, his face flushed the color of brake-lights from forehead to chin. I watched as Paul auditioned a variety of places for his hands – in-pocket, out-of-pocket, thumbs through belt loops – before hiding his overactive digits in a tangle behind his back. Darlene, The Virtue, watched this too, and sighed.
“That’s him, huh?”
“Go to him,” I replied, sagelike. “His soul cries out to yours.”
“Barf,” she said, as she stuffed her wad of chewing gum into my car’s crowded ashtray.
Disappointed children shuffled away from the entrance to The Rudy, their fuming tourist parents trying to cheer them with brochure read taglines of lesser Times Square attractions. Above, the dormant Rudy hung empty midway through its second loop, the ride closed for garbage related damage to the tracks. Childlike wonder derailed by the stinking detritus of the adult world, it was an image that suited my mood, and it sent waves of inappropriately sadistic cheer through me, as if I was the one responsible for the roller-coaster’s breakdown.
“You’re angry,” said Paul Fennel.
In a back booth at a LES greasy-spoon renowned for the historic amount of orange Department of Health stickers scraped off its windows, I stared at Paul. He stared down at his pancakes, refusing to make eye contact, making like another motley patch on the upholstery. Yesterday morning, Paul asked me to infiltrate the Walmart of self-help to rescue his soul-mate, a girl he’d never actually seen but that’d almost literally burned her way to his heart. By nightfall, I had an unhinged marine waving my own gun in my face, conscripting me into a murder plot against the seemingly harmless [...]