MAY 8, 2018
THE SERIALIZED NOVEL has a long history. The success of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers got the Victorian craze going, and it spread to American magazines (Melville, a lot of Henry James, Mark Twain), Russia (Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov), China, Poland, and France, where Madame Bovary first appeared in serial form, and where serialization of Eugène Sue’s Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew) increased the circulation of Le Constitutionnel by a factor of six or seven.
We expect our first experiment with serial publication — weekly installments of Seth Greenland’s epic novel The Hazards of Good Fortune — to do the same for LARB. The title is a play on William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes, which was serialized in Harper’s Weekly in 1889 and is sometimes credited as the first novel about New York City (which would come as surprise to Washington Irving and Horatio Alger, but nonetheless). A much more recent serialization — Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone in the 1980s — is also a novel of New York, and like Hazards surveys the city’s highs and lows. Greenland’s novel follows Jay Gladstone from his basketball-loving youth to his life as a real estate developer, civic leader, philanthropist, and NBA team owner, and then to it all spiraling out of control.
A film and TV writer, playwright, and author of four previous novels, Greenland was the original host of The LARB Radio Hour and serves on LARB’s board of directors. The Hazards of Good Fortune will be published in book form by Europa Editions on August 21, 2018.
“Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.”
From his customary sideline seat at the center of the brightly lit basketball court, Harold Jay Gladstone surveyed his kingdom. He was trim and good-looking with an open face and outstanding posture. His brown eyes might have been a little too closely set; his prominent nose revealed a slight bump. Dark, wavy hair was thinning at the crown. But the white teeth were straight in his wide mouth and the warm confidence with which he displayed them put those who observed him at ease. They recognized a serious and gracious man, one born to take care of his responsibilities. He wore a gray chalk stripe suit, a pale pink shirt with a tasteful silk tie. The silver buckle of his alligator belt was discreetly engraved with the initials HJG. His wingtips were well worn but agreeably polished. Other than a wedding band, his only jewelry was a simple gold watch, a gift from his parents, decades earlier on his twenty-first birthday. That was the year he jettisoned “Harold,” the name he had been known by since boyhood, and declared himself Jay Gladstone. Jauntier, more heedless, “Jay” hinted at soaring possibilities in a way the more earthbound Harold never would. Now in his fifties, he was a picture of understated elegance, nothing too new and flash, or too old and rumpled, at once approachable but slightly remote.
He faced both benches and the chattering broadcasters, in plain view, front, side, and back, of the eighteen thousand-strong crowd, no one paying attention, much less deference, to him. He didn’t sit courtside because he wanted anyone’s attention. He sat there because he had loved basketball since he was a child.
And because he owned the team.
It was a frigid Wednesday night at Sanitary Solutions Arena in Newark, New Jersey, and his players were battling for a spot in the NBA playoffs. With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the game was tied 96-96. The Celtics had just knotted the score on a jump shot by Rajon Rondo and Alvin “Church” Scott, the coach of the home team, had called a timeout. There was a palpable buzz tonight because the franchise was currently battling for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
The players ambled toward their benches and crossed paths with the Lycra-sheathed cheerleaders strutting toward center court. Hip-hop blasted over the P.A. system and the nubile young women—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, every racial permutation one could reasonably expect to find in the Tri-State Area in 2012—began their gyrations. The squad was there because research had shown fans liked cheerleaders. They were good for business.
To own a professional sports team was a privilege of the fabulously wealthy. But ownership wasn’t all victories, fawning media coverage, and locker room championship celebrations where excited players sprayed champagne, dousing each other and their ecstatic overlords. The possibility of thorny headaches abounded. The press could decimate you and once they established an owner’s tabloid identity—egotistical moneybags was the preferred caricature—it was hard to shake. Then there were the decisions that had to be made involving the commitment of hundreds of millions in salary to players with balky joints, or a tendency to consume too many cheeseburgers during the offseason, or personal lives that distracted from professional responsibilities. To lure these players, luxurious pleasure domes had to be constructed at even greater cost. While Jay watched the cheerleaders throw a petite redhead into the air where she executed a triple somersault before landing in a net of arms, his mind was on real estate.
Everyone hated Sanitary Solutions Arena. Built with public funds at the dawn of the Reagan Era, the concrete edifice was outdated almost as soon as the contractors finished their work. Concession areas too small, hallways too narrow, and the cramped squalor of the restrooms suggested the need for vaccinations before entering. The roof leaked. The acoustics were dreadful. The too-small size of the skyboxes made it difficult to entice free-spending corporate clients who could max out their platinum cards at a safe remove from actual fans. Naming rights had been sold by the State of New Jersey to the giant waste management company whose role as a near-constant defendant in a series of environmental litigations had earned them the nickname Sanitary Pollutions. Yes, the Rolling Stones had performed there. U2 and a reconstituted version of The Who had all blasted through. One year Bruce Springsteen played so many dates he might as well have moved in. Still, Sanitary Solutions Arena was a dump, a poor relation of the shiny new sports and entertainment palaces in cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, and Dallas.
Despite all of this, it was with a sense of optimism that Jay turned to the goateed African-American seated on his right, Mayor Major House of Newark, and in a voice mellifluous and full of casual assurance said, “We’re going to win this game, Major.” Recently he had learned that the politician’s mother had named him Major so people would address her son with respect and Jay always made a point of using it.
“Always been a positive thinker,” the mayor replied, a grin spread across his broad face. In a charcoal gray off-the-rack suit, white shirt, and striped tie, House looked like a school superintendent, his occupation until a few years earlier, when politics presented itself as a viable alternative.
“Do you think the game’s going into overtime?” asked Nicole Gladstone, Jay’s second wife, seated on his other side.
“I have no idea. Why?”
“Because I want to order another glass of wine.” One of the attempts at upgrading the amenities at the current arena—with its rudimentary design and great swaths of exposed concrete it exuded all the charm of an apartment block in Bucharest—was VIP courtside service. Fans could order sushi, nachos, and beer or wine from waitresses sporting formfitting team gear while they watched the action unfold. “Will you order me another, or do you want me to do it?” A tincture of hostility betrayed Nicole’s attempt at sober composure. She believed Jay kept too close an eye on her alcohol consumption.
Nicole was in her late thirties and through a religious devotion to daily yoga, the right genes, and a diet free of fat and sugar (copious intake of white wine excepted) had retained the beauty of her youth. She wore an olive-green silk bomber jacket, slim black pants, and stiletto heels. Expertly cut, subtly colored blonde hair pulled into a chignon. Golden hazel eyes delicately shadowed, and cheekbones that could slice a pineapple. There was an air of mischief around Nicole, a feeling that you never knew quite what to expect, but it had been a while since her husband found this quality charming and he suspected more wine would only heighten it. She had already consumed several glasses, and he worried about her volubility on the ride home to Bedford in the far reaches of Westchester County. A little too much to drink and his otherwise amiable wife might take offense at an innocent comment or become argumentative over a remark she would ordinarily let pass. He knew it was useless to point out there was no alcohol served after the third quarter. She would remind him that he was the owner and if he wanted to procure an additional dose of chardonnay it could be arranged.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said.
While pretending to look for a member of the wait staff, Jay glanced across the court at D’Angelo Maxwell, the team’s star player. Everyone, the fans, the media, his mother, called Maxwell “Dag.” Built for headlines, the handle was quick, terse, and contained a hint of lethality. Like Michael or Magic, it was all that was needed to convey his mastery of basketball skills, the self-confidence he exuded, the cultivated detachment that suggested—even when the television cameras were trained on him and millions watched—he was balling alone in his driveway.
When Jay purchased the team, he hired Church Scott as the coach and general manager and challenged him to win a championship. Then he opened his checkbook. Scott proceeded to rebuild the team, and his splashiest acquisition was Dag Maxwell. Although Jay loved attending the games—the improvisational genius of professional basketball, its hypnotic combination of speed, potency, and an aesthetically charged physicality so pure it had the power to alter the psychological state of those who witnessed it, was a quality absent in his own life—to the owner’s displeasure, the team had fallen considerably short of expectations.
Jay noticed Nicole staring intently at the bench where Church Scott kneeled in front of his players, pointing at a clipboard. His three nattily attired assistants (the league mandated business attire for the coaching staff) stood at a respectful distance. The twelve-man squad consisted of ten African-Americans, a Frenchman of Senegalese extraction, and a 7’1” Lithuanian tank. But it was the charismatic Dag who held the world’s attention.
“Are you going to get me the wine?” Nicole asked.
There were no waitresses in the immediate area, so to forestall his wife wandering off in search of it, Jay told her he would go to the concession stand. It was a stalling maneuver. And he liked to mingle with the fans, not so much to glean what they were thinking about the team but, rather, to imply that he was one of them. He prided himself on doing it without a single body man, much less the herd-of-bison security detail that routinely surrounded men of his importance when they ventured out in public. The vox populi, even when slightly discordant, was music to his democratic (small d) consciousness.
When Jay rose from his seat, his regal bearing conveyed above average physical stature, although he measured slightly less than six feet, the exact height he had reached as a sixteen-year-old. Mayor House was surprised to see him get up and reminded his host there were only three minutes left in the game.
“I’ll hustle,” Jay said and started walking.
A fan called out, “Yo, Mr. Gladstone!” The owner smiled in the direction of the voice and gave a slight nod. Someone yelled, “Mayor Major!” and House waved and smiled. The politician was popular here, and Jay liked to think at least some of that popularity reflected on the team owner. Another fan yelled, “Go, Jay!” and Jay turned toward that person, touched two fingers to his forehead, and pointed in a jaunty half-salute. He didn’t mind the familiarity. If the paying public wanted to be on a first name basis with him, that was all right. These interactions enabled Jay to tell himself that rather than being another inaccessible magnate separated from the masses by a vast fortune, he possessed the common touch. He might not show up at the games in the man-of-the-people fashion of owners who wore jeans and T-shirts while they capered around the sidelines like Ritalin-deprived teenagers, but the fans seemed to like him just the same.
“YOU SUCK, GLADSTONE!”
The voice was froggy, basso, and it cut through the arena hum, this malediction, rendered in fluent Jersey.
Jay had the presence of mind to call out, “Thank you, sir!” and this engendered laughter from the surrounding seats. He was satisfied with how he handled the catcall. Knew it wouldn’t escalate. Interchanges like this between owners and fans were simply an outgrowth of the egalitarian age so Jay let it slide off his well-tailored back as he headed up a short row of steps which led to a tunnel that would bring him to the lower level concourse. He calculated the time it would take to do his errand and quickened his pace.
Because the game was tied and there were only a couple of minutes left on the clock, no fans wanted to abandon their seats, so the hall was mostly deserted. A janitor tied off a plastic garbage bag, a soda vendor thumbed through a thick wad of bills. Neither noticed Jay as he passed. He would buy a bottle of water for his wife and tell her the concession stand had run out of wine.
Jay pondered how the culture had descended to where a fan at a professional sporting event believed that it was socially acceptable to yell insults at the team owner. It reflected the coarseness that seemed to metastasize every day, manifesting as road rage, feverish Internet comment threads, and the turbo-charged political discourse that rendered all opponents as mortal enemies, developments Jay found deplorable. He made every effort in his conduct to be nonadversarial.
The sight of three black teenagers headed toward him interrupted these ruminations. Jay’s first thought was: What are these kids doing on this level? Access was allowed only to those seated in the arena’s lower bowl, the most expensive seats in the house, so Jay assumed these boys had snuck down. But he quickly upbraided himself for this reaction. One of them might have been the son of a season ticket holder. Or perhaps they were successful rappers and had purchased the tickets themselves. Jay didn’t know much about pop culture but was aware that young entertainers could be economic juggernauts. The three boys were dressed nearly identically in baggy jeans that hung low revealing what appeared to be acres of boxer shorts, oversized flannel shirts, and spanking new white high-top sneakers accented in various tropical colors. The kid in the middle was Jay’s size, and two glowering beanpoles flanked him. He realized the beanpoles were twins. All of them wore baseball caps turned sideways. The cap belonging to the one in the middle bore a Lakers logo. The twins were Knick fans, apparently.
“Yo, Jewstone,” the one wearing the Lakers cap said. “Wassup?”
The three stared at him.
Had Jay heard this correctly? Jewstone? Had it suddenly become acceptable to hurl an ethnic slur at a complete stranger during a public encounter? Yes, anti-Semitism was on the rise around the world, there had been tension between blacks and Jews, and as evinced by the fan that yelled You suck, the public sphere was an indecorous place, but Jewstone? This was an affront that beggared the imagination. So unexpected, so . . . so crude and frontal and . . . ugly! Jay could not ignore this the way he had ignored the hostile fan. He wanted to drag the kid by the band of his low-slung boxer shorts to the nearest Holocaust museum and school him about the deportations, the camps, the chimneys spewing human ash, but that was not practical. Should he summon security and get him ejected from the building? Calling for aid would show weakness. Offer a stern rebuke to his rudeness and continue toward the concession stand? They would laugh at him. How did they even know he was Jewish? It wasn’t as if they had seen the annual check he wrote to the Anti-Defamation League. Jay felt his neck muscles constrict. Adrenalin rousted his heart causing it to leap and buck. Was he about to be mugged? This could not be happening on the lower concourse of his team’s arena. The Beanpole on the left angled his head as if to say, You gonna talk? The other Beanpole nudged Lakers Cap and whispered something in his ear.
“Gladstone!” Lakers Cap declared. “Mr. Gladstone! Dang!” He laughed at the faux pas, if indeed it were a faux pas, as if he, the Beanpoles, and Jay were playing the dozens backstage at the BET Awards.
“Dang!” the twin on the left echoed.
“What do you want?” Jay said.
“You gonna re-sign Dag?”
“We’ll see,” Jay replied and pushed past them toward the concession stand.
“Yo, Gladstone!” It was Lakers Cap again.
The kid left out the Mister, but at least he had called him Gladstone this time. After a split-second internal debate about whether he should ignore him anyway, Jay turned around.
“Stick a fork in that nigga. He done!” More laughter and the trio moved toward the tunnel that would take them into the arena. Jay shook his head. It was impossible to fathom why black people would refer to each other using that word. It would be like Jews calling each other “kike.” Certain African-Americans could talk all they wanted about reclaiming the slur, repurposing it, snatching it from the hands of the bigots and performing the same sleight of hand gays and lesbians had done with “queer” but Jay believed their reasoning to be specious. Rap moguls, bejeweled pop culture titans who pumped their product into millions of ears, tossed nigga back and forth like it was a beach ball. Jay couldn’t understand it. But as a white man, he was prohibited from having an opinion on the subject. As a white man, it wasn’t his word to parse, much less throw around. To weigh in on the subject was paternalistic, so mind your own. If he said anything about race, some right-minded person was going to label him a racist. The whole business was a proverbial “third rail” that Jay did not want to touch.
The crew was totting up the receipts at the concession stand. Jay ordered a bottle of water, paid for it with cash, and dispensed smiles and thank-yous to the two women and one man working there. The women were black, the man Latino. They knew who he was, had seen him in Sanitary Solutions Arena many times, and the respect with which they responded to the boss’s presence returned Jay’s world to its former equilibrium. He knew what the concession workers thought of the word nigga.
Did the kid mean to say Jewstone? Whether or not it was purposeful was immaterial, Jay concluded, since that was likely how those three referred to him in private. The deterioration in relations between blacks and Jews troubled him, and it was a matter to which he had devoted considerable thought. Jews came to America more or less willingly (insofar as people willingly flee pogroms)—Africans did not. Jay knew black people had a right to be angry, but resented being the target of this enmity.
“They were out of wine?” Nicole was not happy when her husband handed her the water bottle.
“That won’t happen in the new arena,” the mayor said and winked at Jay, who gave him a genial slap on the back.
Nicole unscrewed the bottle cap and took a long pull from the water.
“What took so long?”
“Some fans wanted to talk to me.” Why tell his wife what had happened? Nicole occasionally accused him of sensing anti-Semitism where, in her—admittedly gentile—view, it didn’t exist, and he was not primed for that kind of conversation.
There were seventeen seconds left in the game with the score still tied at 96 when Jay settled into his seat. Church Scott was standing in front of the bench, his face impassive as he watched the point guard, Drew Hill, dribble across midcourt and throw a bounce pass to Dag on the left side where the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett guarded him. Dag began to back Garnett down. A notoriously grinding defender, Garnett leaned on Dag in an attempt to arrest his progress. Dag swiped the hand away and thrust his backside into Garnett. Drew Hill was open at the top of the key, but Dag ignored him. The seven-foot center, Odell Tracy, came over to set a pick and Dag waved him off. He and Garnett banged against each other like a pair of Brahma bulls, muscles taut, eyes blazing. Rivulets of sweat streamed off of the two antagonists as they vied for advantage. The crowd held its collective breath, willing their hero to perform a feat that would briefly enable them to rise above their colorless lives, uninspiring jobs, overdue bills, the east coast winter weather, everything they yearned to transcend, and summon the bliss that victory can release. The loud report of the leather basketball—thunk thunk thunk thunk thunk—as it repeatedly struck the hardwood floor reverberated through the hushed arena.
Entirely in his element, Dag was ready to display his essential, ineffable, what-made-him-a-superstar Dag-ness. Fifteen feet from the basket with his back still toward Garnett, he dipped his shoulder to the right, getting the big man to bite on the fake, then deftly spun to his left and falling backward hoisted a fadeaway over the defender’s outstretched arm. The ball sailed through the air with perfect backspin, tracing an exquisite parabola against the sea of spectators gaping in anticipation, and fell into the net as eighteen thousand voices erupted in a chorus of joy and deliverance.
“Bang bang, motherfucker!” Dag roared, his trademarked phrase (tm: BangBangMotherfucker, 2011), uttered whenever he drilled a shot at a crucial moment. The bench players jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering. Church Scott frantically gesticulated for his team to get back and play defense. Dag shimmied his hips then cocked his hands like six-shooters and fired into the air before jamming them into imaginary holsters.
As Nicole screamed YEEEAAHHH with an exuberance that surprised her husband, Kevin Garnett coolly retrieved the ball, stepped behind the baseline and winged a pass to Paul Pierce at half court. Pierce took two dribbles and, before the nearest defender could close him out, launched a three-point shot from the right side which rippled the net to eviscerate Dag and his teammates—so recently exulting—who suddenly looked as if all of their blood had been drained. One second left, 99-98, Celtics.
The home team did not score again.
When the final buzzer sounded, scattered boos rained down. There weren’t many but enough to indicate that more than a few fans were disappointed in how the team had performed. As the arena emptied, a lone voice yelled, “Trade Dag!”
Jay placed his hand on the mayor’s shoulder. “I wish I could’ve arranged for a win.”
Despite the loss, House was sanguine. “Heck of a game,” he declared. Then: “I look around this place, and I think how much better the team is gonna play when their home reflects their talent.”
Jay shrugged like a man who was accustomed to overcoming insurmountable obstacles. The Mayor wanted a new arena for his city and all of the ancillary economic development that would follow. But he had the usual and seemingly intractable urban manager’s dilemma of union contracts, pension obligations, and a shrinking tax base. Inconveniently, the price tag for these life-giving structures had risen to stratospheric heights, so funds of this scale could not be obtained from the hemorrhaging coffers of Newark. This is where Jay Gladstone came in. If Jay achieved the arena deal, New Jersey would hail him as a patron saint, and it would cement his position as a key player in the world of professional sports ownership, something that had great resonance for him as a lifelong fan. He reveled in his role as the potential savior of a fallen city.
“It’s going to be the most impressive arena in the league,” Jay told the mayor.
Oblivious to the business being discussed, Nicole joined the conversation and said, “Dag was fantastic.” Despite having attended countless games with her husband, she remained blind to certain basketball nuances such as the one that indicated Dag was supposed to be guarding Paul Pierce at the end of the game.
“That was some shot he hit with Garnett draped on him,” Jay said. Nicole liked Dag personally, always chatted with him when she attended team functions, and Jay saw no advantage in pointing out that his blown defensive assignment had cost their team the win.
Mayor House thanked Jay for the ticket, turned to Nicole, and pecked her on the cheek. Apparently unsatisfied with this, Nicole wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close in a way that, to her husband, seemed overly friendly. Jay could see the mayor’s spine straighten. When she released him, House looked at Jay with an awkward grin and walked off to greet a prospective campaign donor on the other side of the court. Nicole air-kissed women but any silverback male found himself enveloped in her embrace. Jay had spoken about it to her, but she dismissed his concerns as generational. Tonight, he chose to say nothing.
An hour later, the two of them lay next to each other in bed, Jay on his side facing Nicole who was on her back, eyes closed, a biography of Spinoza resting open on her chest. He wore pajamas and she a camisole, yoga pants, and an eye mask. After a “rocky patch” in the marriage he believed to have been caused by too much business travel, the couple had been getting along better lately. Professional basketball was a hobby for Jay, a diversion. He was the co-chairman of the Gladstone Group, the family-held real estate company founded by his father and uncle. Recently, he had started a massive construction project in South Africa. Nicole accompanied him once but had declined to go back. Although she kept busy with charity work and her horses, Jay believed his absences had worn on her. She was distant when he returned, and even if he had been away less than a week, it took them several days to get back on an even keel.
It was just after midnight, and he had the stirrings of an erection. It had been weeks since they had had sex and it was his firm belief that a healthy sex life was an important component of marriage, a philosophy that occasionally necessitated having sex when sleep might have been more desirable. He removed the Spinoza biography, placed it on the nightstand, and pressed himself against his wife’s hip. She murmured something he could not make out. Choosing to interpret this as encouragement, he slid his hand over her breast. When this did not produce the hoped-for reaction, he slipped his hand beneath the camisole and gently rubbed her nipple with his thumb and forefinger. She swatted his hand away and rolled on her side with her back to him.
“Tomorrow,” she mumbled. Her voice had a raspy quality that was magnified by fatigue. She adjusted her pillow.
Because his attempt to make love had a desultory aspect, it was without much disappointment that Jay retreated, rolling on to his left side, his back to her. In this position—back-to-back—he thought about his relative lack of ardor. His wife was still a lovely woman, her body youthful and fit. Her intelligence restless and undiminished. When they had first met the sex was seismic and revelatory. So, what was it that made this night’s attempt feel perfunctory? Jay had the usual worries of a man who ran a multi-billion-dollar empire, but he had become an expert at managing the stress commensurate with that level of responsibility. If the real estate market cratered and the value of the Gladstone family holdings dipped by a hundred million dollars no one would miss a meal. He worried about his health but, physically, he felt hale and strong. He had thrown himself into the basketball team’s business with a fervor that seemed to surprise his wife, whose own life lacked a similar passion. Nicole had worked as a model and then in government but left the workforce when she married Jay. A year ago, she informed him she wanted to resume a more active professional life (a small Kabbalah-themed jewelry business—available in Barney’s, Bonwit Teller, and I. Magnin—had briefly occupied her), but as far as Jay could tell this meant having a lot of lunches with friends to talk about her options. As he considered whether his reaction to Nicole’s full-body embrace of Major House reflected anything other than a projection of the dissatisfaction he had been feeling, Jay decided he needed to engage her in some way that would reflect enthusiasm for the marriage. But what to do? Buy her another home? They already owned five (Bedford, East Hampton, Manhattan, Aspen, London, St. Kitts). Perhaps a work of art would charm her, a painting or sculpture? But Nicole was not materialistic, and while she would appreciate the quality, it would not move her. What then? She was a woman who sought to devour life, who craved exhilaration. What fresh thrills could he provide? He began to enumerate a list of possibilities but caught himself. Was that his role, he wondered, to create endless diversions? There was too much else that required his attention.
The ragged quilt of dirty snow that covered the ground in front of the red-brick apartment building was considerably enlivened by the presence of a naked man doing push-ups on a patch of frozen grass. It was just after seven o’clock the following morning.
The man was wiry and young, and his muscles flexed as he lowered his torso then pushed hard and straightened his arms. Jagged noises emerged from his throat. It was impossible to tell if he was counting since the guttural sounds were indecipherable. After a series of push-ups and accompanying grunts, the man bounded to his feet and, pink soles flashing, dashed into the apartment building past a startled woman who was emerging through the glass doors carrying a 2’ x 2’ cardboard box. The woman blinked as if to make sure what she had seen was not an apparition, delicately placed the box on the ground, reached for her cell phone, called the police, and reported what she had just witnessed. Then she picked the box up, walked a hundred yards away from the building, and waited.
Less than a minute later she watched as the man materialized on a second-floor balcony where he climbed on to the metal railing and, hands on hips and still resplendently exposed, surveyed his domain. On the short side, he looked to be about a hundred and forty pounds without an ounce of fat. Unkempt hair clung to his head in uneven clumps. His penis was flaccid and unexceptional. A tattoo on his arm displayed two crossed M16 rifles cradling a skull crowned by the words U.S. Army. His eyes were hectic, and he did not appear to be taking in the tableau in front of him, a row of identical apartment houses known as Gladstone Village, constructed in the 1960s, or the bystanders gaping at him. The marble stillness of his pose was compromised by the twitching of his left eye.
A staccato SQUAWK!SCREE!SQUAWK! emerged from his throat, bizarre and otherworldly, and like a superhero, arms spread wide and chest thrust out, he leaped to the ground where he landed on his feet, thighs flexed, knees absorbing the impact, and sprinted back to the spot where he had been doing push-ups. Then he threw himself face down on the ground and resumed his routine.
The woman—her name was Gloria Alvarez—had lived in the building for nearly ten years. She was a school teacher in Harlem, and this guy’s shenanigans were going to make her miss the train. The cardboard box in her arms was the prototype of a device through which her students would be able to view a solar eclipse the following week.
It wasn’t the first time she had observed this man acting strangely. A few weeks ago, he was muttering to himself at the mailboxes in the lobby. In the basement laundry room, she encountered him wearing boxer shorts and staring at the window of a dryer that was not running. She had seen him around before that but hadn’t noticed anything unusual about his behavior. Maybe something had happened to him. She knew a sweet guy in the Queens neighborhood where she grew up who killed a neighbor’s dog because he said it was talking to him. Sometimes people bug out. It was a fact of life.
Gloria Alvarez lived with her husband and daughter, a fifth-grader. Her daughter’s bus had taken her to school half an hour earlier, so the little girl had missed the freak show this morning—thank you, Jesus! But what if the naked guy started making a habit of parading around like this? Gloria was not inclined to put anyone in the crosshairs of the system, but this naked cabron appeared to be in serious need of professional help. She figured the authorities would send the appropriate representatives who would take him to a safe environment and get him sorted out.
A maintenance worker named Gustavo Solis was at a bachelor party the previous evening and as a result of too many beers had overslept. It was a Thursday, the day he checked all of the interior lights in the public spaces of the apartment complex and replaced any bulbs that might have burned out. He clutched a large black coffee as he emerged from his truck and blearily made his way toward Building #1. This was when he noticed the naked man doing pushups. Gustavo was about the same age as the naked man and had seen him around the complex fully clothed, skateboarding with the teenagers, singing to no one in particular but not causing any problems. This clothing-optional look was new. Gustavo looked around for the security guard who was meant to be patrolling but didn’t see him. He didn’t want to deal with this nonsense. His head was pounding from last night’s revels—the coffee had barely started to work—but he was the only official representative of Gladstone Village who seemed to be around, and he felt some responsibility to hold the fort until help arrived.
Gustavo called out to get his attention, but the man continued the up and down of his push-ups. The intense physical exercise was causing his sternum to expand and contract and from a distance of fifty feet Gustavo could see clouds of breath visible in the cold air. Cautiously he moved closer. Then the man jumped to his feet and whirled on Gustavo. Assuming a martial arts stance, Gustavo prayed the man would not charge him. He did not want to wrestle anyone who was naked. Gustavo was relieved when the man turned and sprinted into the building.
“He’s gonna jump off the balcony,” a woman’s voice said. Gustavo turned to see Gloria Alvarez standing a safe distance away. “I called the police a minute ago.” He knew her from around, but they had never spoken. Keeping the box balanced between her elbows, she offered that trans-ethnic New York, palms-up, aayyywhaddyagonnado? Gustavo tried to smile, but his head hurt. He wished he had stayed in bed. A birdlike sound emanating from Building #1 drew his attention. When he looked toward the source, he saw the naked man standing on the second-floor balcony.
A pot-bellied, fiftyish white man and his sallow adult son emerged from a van with a faded McCain/Palin sticker on the rear bumper next to one that read Obummer. They were carrying a tarpaulin and several cans of paint toward the building when they observed what was going on and froze in their tracks. The sight of public nakedness was transfixing. The combination of aggression and vulnerability a human in this state manifests will exert a hypnotic pull. So, they stared. The man, again perched on the railing, pirouetted as if on an exercise bar. Rather than beholding his cold-shrunk maleness, the onlookers were now treated to an unobstructed view of his backside.
Two hours earlier, in a small apartment in Port Chester, Russell Plesko was avoiding a fight with his wife, Crystal. The previous night they argued about who was doing more for their young family, comprised of the two of them and their baby daughter. Russell had been watching one of the local professional basketball teams lose to the Celtics. After a trying day at work, he didn’t want to deal with Crystal. It was the usual beef couples at that stage of life get into, hardworking people who labor long hours, don’t get enough sleep, and can never seem to attend to all their mundane obligations. Russell had spent a fitful night on the living room couch where he got no more than two hours of solid rest. Lately, he and Crystal had been scrapping like weasels, and he was beginning to wonder whether their union was built to last. For the past hour, he had been thinking about checking into a motel to teach his wife a lesson. Let Crystal try to raise their daughter on her own, see how she liked that. She had called him lazy. Lazy! Russell Plesko lettered in two sports at Port Chester High School, spent summers as a teenager working in his uncle’s landscaping business with a crew of Central American immigrants, earned his associate’s degree in criminal justice at Westchester Community College, and became a police officer at twenty-five. Now, at twenty-seven, he was poised for his first promotion. Lazy? Officer Russell Plesko did not think so.
When Crystal entered their small kitchen that morning, Russell didn’t glance up from his bowl of cereal. He kissed his daughter and left without saying goodbye to his wife. The desk sergeant told him it looked like he hadn’t slept. Russell prided himself on his professionalism. However volubly he might behave at home, at work he was known for his unflappable demeanor. Was the rough night that visible? Now the cold snap was aggravating an old sports injury, one he had strategically chosen not to reveal when he filled out the forms for his job application to the White Plains Police Department. He carried prescription painkillers for when this happened, and although he had popped one twenty minutes earlier, the pain had worsened. Driving his patrol car west on Post Road when the call came over the radio—unidentified black male, approximately thirty years old, acting erratically inside and in front of Building #1 at Gladstone Village—Officer Plesko was in no mood.
It would strike an ordinary person as odd, the idea that anyone could forget they had taken off all their clothes on a frigid March morning in suburban New York, but John Eagle was not an ordinary person and had forgotten his nakedness. He had been born in a small Ohio town and enlisted in the Army after high school where he had been a tenacious defensive back on the football team and sung baritone in the choir. Following two tours in Iraq, during which he saw extensive combat in the Anbar Province and reached the rank of corporal, he received an honorable discharge and made his way to New York to pursue a career as a recording artist. After his time in Iraq, John Eagle was proud to live in a country where the various ethnic groups were not constantly tearing at each other’s throats.
In New York City, he worked as a security guard, a restaurant deliveryman, and a telemarketer. Luck in relationships was spotty. His love of individual women was intense but the ability to focus less so. A souvenir of this tendency two different tattoos rendered on opposite sides of his neck in cursive lettering: Vanessa on one, Donelle on the other. Each had temporarily been the love of his life.
Although his psychological condition had begun to deteriorate almost from the day of his discharge, he was able to continue to make music with a secondhand laptop he had purchased on Craigslist. A series of rhythm and blues tracks on his SoundCloud page featured an acceptable (if not professional quality) voice warbling over generic music. Flanking these links were inspirational slogans like “Built to Win” and “Never Gonna Give Up My Dream.” John Eagle randomly contacted strangers on social media and sent them links to his music accompanied by notes like “Hope you enjoy it!” His psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Hospital was treating him for bipolar disorder and had recently prescribed both antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs.
That the metal railing on which his feet rested was cold enough to freeze skin tissue did not register with John Eagle. Nor did the sun, breaking through the clouds now. He could not taste the sourness the drugs caused in his saliva, or smell the exhaust from a passing bus. He could not hear the traffic on Melville Road or the faraway voice of Gustavo Solis calling for him to climb down and put some clothes on. What he did hear or, more accurately, thought he heard, was a distant whooshing sound, threatening and mobile, careening around, first coming from here where it grew loud and more insistent and then from there, quiet and sinister, now inside of his head, inescapable. This sound evoked his time in the desert. The relentless wind that churned sand and debris, getting into his mouth and nostrils, coating his skin. He could handle it with his buddies, but you didn’t want that wind to kick up if you were alone. Safety in numbers. It was drilled into each recruit, never be caught solo. Every soldier had your back. They headed out in pods of twos or threes or fours. No one wanted to be alone in the desert. Between the wind and the locals—and, damn, those folks always looked angry about something—he didn’t want to think about it.
The drugs prescribed for him by the doctors at the Veterans Affairs hospital were powerful juju. John Eagle had vowed to stop taking them but they helped him forget that he couldn’t hold a job or stay in a relationship, that he’d been making music for nearly three years and wasn’t getting any closer to achieving his elusive dream of a recording career, and that his future appeared as a dreary, decades-long stretch of frustration and disappointment. He wanted to cut a swath through life, for the world to take notice. Maybe he’d get a peacock tattoo across his back. There was a guy in Iraq who had one, all blue, green, yellow, and colors he couldn’t begin to name. And those oval markings that look like eyes. A feathered fan of colored eyes inked into his back staring out at people. That was some awesomely freaky shit! He’d get it done today.
John Eagle tensed his calf muscles.
Oh, sweet mother of Christ, Russell Plesko thought as he trudged across the caked snow toward Building #1 in Gladstone Village. The mope is naked. Buck fucking naked. The dispatcher had failed to mention that little detail. At the moment, the guy was balancing on a second-floor balcony railing, treating the frigid suburban morning to a moon shot. At least he wasn’t a jumper. If the man were suicidal he’d be on a higher floor, so that was positive. Russell reached for the radio mic attached to his coat and requested immediate backup. The dispatcher informed him another cruiser was less than three minutes away. Russell signed off and turned his attention to the immediate surroundings. In training, he had learned that a police officer is always onstage. There was a middle-aged Latina watching, and a maintenance worker—Latino, too, from the look of him—and two white workmen probably here to paint an apartment. The citizens all had their eyes trained on him, every one of them. He noticed the male Latino had taken out a smartphone and was filming the scene. Should he ask him to stop? Civilians were doing a lot of that lately. Why was he worried? He’d dealt with far scarier perpetrators than this one.
In a voice meant to convey authority Russell called out, “Anyone know this gentleman’s name?”
“He lives in the building,” the Latina answered.
The painters gazed at Russell with bovine indifference.
The maintenance worker who was shooting with his phone shrugged and said, “I’ve seen him around.”
None of this was helpful.
“Sir,” Russell called to the man on the balcony. “I’m respectfully inviting you to get down from there and put some clothes on.” The choice of words was not improvisatory. Police all over America were being trained in nonconfrontational tactics, to get what they want through the use of unthreatening language. Respectfully, an adjective meant to defuse, Invite a verb of surpassing friendliness. In theory, far superior to the more traditional Get your ass down.
The man did not respond and remained immobile. A flock of pigeons fluttered across Russell’s line of vision. After a brief pause, he employed the same words and, unsurprisingly, achieved identical results. Polite language usually didn’t work, but Russell was doing his job by the book, and he could now check that item off the list.
In his training, the young officer had been taught to think about outcomes. Don’t just act but consider the consequence of each action. What were the possible outcomes this morning? Best case, the man stayed where he was and with more forceful words Russell might convince him to abandon his perch. Then he could book him for causing a public nuisance and get on with his day. Worst case, the guy slipped and broke his neck, an unfortunate result for all concerned. Cops saw things they couldn’t forget, and Russell didn’t need to see this guy land on his head. Reflexively, he tugged on his duty belt, weighed down with a police issue Glock 9mm revolver, handcuffs, summons pad, Taser, baton, flashlight, portable radio, and pepper spray. The pain in his knee had sharpened. He was tired. Russell volunteered as a coach for a youth league basketball team and worried he wouldn’t feel well enough to show up at practice that afternoon.
Watching the man on the balcony, his nakedness an ongoing affront to propriety and worldly order, Russell questioned why he hadn’t called in sick today. Then he remembered: his wife. He had left the apartment like it was on fire.
More than anything Russell wished this winter nudist was not a black man. In Florida, less than two weeks earlier some shit-for-brains Neighborhood Watch knucklehead had shot an African-American teenager named Trayvon Martin, and the whole country was going berserk. The president himself had weighed in. Gasbags on cable TV were calling for a National Conversation On Race, whatever that was. Russell was no racist. Growing up, he had played sports with black kids. Was as friendly with them as you could be in a high school where whites mostly sat at one set of lunchroom tables and blacks at another. Nothing resembling genuine racism disturbed his conscience unless the feeling that after this recent Florida calamity he needed to be more sensitive when dealing with black people was an even more subtle form of it.
Russell needed to establish communication, get a bead on the exact level of psycho he was dealing with this morning. No-clothes-in-March was an indicator, but there were gradations. Was he intoxicated? Certifiable? It was unlikely that he was a health freak, but Russell had seen a YouTube video about the Polar Bear Club in Brooklyn, those extreme fitness enthusiasts who every New Year’s Day jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. So, you never knew. In the time that it took to formulate a direct order something happened that caught the cop off guard. The man dipped his knees like an Olympic diver then flung himself into the morning air, his spine arched, toes over his head, and executed a reverse somersault before landing on his feet in the snow.
Oh, Jeez, Russell thought. He’s an acrobat! Then: Where’s my backup? They were supposed to be three minutes from here. He looked around. No sign of them. The situation felt more volatile than it had a few seconds earlier. Everyone watching, waiting to see how this representative of government authority would handle the situation, what he, Russell Plesko, the man in whom these powers were vested, would do. The aerialist wheeled, spotted him and blinked as if awakening from a trance. He began moving toward Russell.
The expression on the man’s face was tough to interpret. His eyes were opened wide, his lips parted—Was that a sardonic grin or a pained grimace?—to reveal teeth whose even brightness stood in sharp contrast to the rest of his physical and psychological dishevelment. It was hard to tell if he was angry or confused but what played on his features seemed like a rendering of the disturbing images that Russell imagined must be unspooling in his fevered brain. Russell had undergone training in dealing with the mentally ill, and the one fact he knew was that their behavior could be dangerously unpredictable. If it was impossible to pinpoint what was going on in the man’s head, it no longer mattered now that this vessel of anarchy was bearing down on him.
The man was seventy-five feet away when Russell shouted for him to halt. He kept coming, lurching over snow and frozen grass. Russell was conscious of the ache in his knee. The swift assessment of whether one man can physically overpower another now occurred in Russell’s mind. Even with his knee acting up he could win a fight but he didn’t want to start grappling and have the man reach for his gun. Things could get out of hand quickly. Colleagues on the force had informed him that weird bursts of strength had been known to accompany people in the throes of psychotic episodes and Russell didn’t want to find out whether or not these reports were apocryphal.
The man was thirty feet away and despite his uneven gait seemed to be gaining speed. Russell again shouted for him to halt but the man relentlessly advanced. Nothing prepares a police officer for the sensation that accompanies being charged by a deranged naked man, Russell thought as he reached for the Taser hanging on his duty belt, and yanked the device out of its holster. At the same moment, a twinge in his aching knee caused it to buckle. When he threw his arm up to regain his balance and keep from tumbling to the ground, the Taser flew out of his hand and arced through the cold air before landing in the snow somewhere behind him. The man was fifteen feet away and hurtling toward Russell, arms beating like a raptor’s wings and—SHHKREEEEEE!!! SHHKREEEE!!!—emitting unearthly sounds. Panicked, Russell spotted the Taser and mapped its location relative to his own and the velocity of the incoming force and wondered whether he could reach it in time to save himself from the havoc headed his way.
The bullet caught John Eagle directly in the chest and arrested his forward progress. A look of confusion blotted his features. He collapsed facedown, and the gray snow ran red.
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events,
real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2018 by Seth Greenland
First Publication 2018 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.
Seth Greenland is the author of five novels. His latest, The Hazards of Good Fortune (Europa Editions), will be published in 2018. His play Jungle Rot won the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund For New American Plays Award and the American Theater Critics Association Award. He was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love.