After accidentally destroying her roommate’s computer, Valerie must pick up a series of odd jobs in order to rectify the situation.
As I tuck Miles into bed, his father bursts into the apartment, whimpering on the phone to some woman who is very clearly not having it. I wait stiffly behind Miles’ bedroom door until the argument seems to resolve — and I can safely ask for my paycheck. I let him lead me out the front door.
“You’re a lifesaver, Vicky,” he says, his frenzied gaze darting from side to side, like he was expecting some movie mobster to appear and make an attempt on his kneecaps.
“Hey, any time,” I lie. Where’s the money, pal? I hear the clock ticking in the back of my head, every passing second sounding more and more like the idle clicking of Emily’s tongue as she mulls over particularly tricky homework assignments, or waits to hear back from this week’s perfect boy.
“What do I owe you again?” I wonder if he’d notice if I rounded up. “How’s this?”
Before I can respond, he shoves a wad of cash into my hand. I count it hungrily. 50, 60, 80, 120, 200, 250. Not bad for a babysitting job, but not nearly enough for my purposes — or for the damage sustained to my feet.
“Thank you so much.”
I force a smile, to be polite, and to try to trick my brain into chilling out. It doesn’t work. Adrenaline continues to crawl up my spine and around my ribcage. My own software was betraying me, as if I’d been foolish enough to chat with a horny Russian MILF in my area. I stuff the money into my back pocket and descend the townhouse steps.
I hear the ding of a notification and feel my empty pockets salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Or Frank the dachshund. Where to next? I pull out my phone, but there’s nothing. Rather, it’s Richard who has been called upon. He holds his phone tightly and too close to his face, the blue light surely doing irreparable damage to his irises. He holds up his hand, palm out, as if to freeze me in place on the stairs. And for some reason, I do freeze.
“Say, Mallory, do you think you could run a quick errand for me?” He asks, getting my name wrong a second time now.
“I’ll double your pay. Triple it, actually.”
Now that’s interesting.
Take the Q to the F to Roosevelt Island, he tells me.
“Then, head straight for the southern tip: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. But not until after the sun goes down. There will be a guy waiting there with a black van. When you see him, he’s not going to say anything to you. You go up to him and you say, ‘Hey, man. Got a light?’ He’s going to tell you ‘no’ but don’t get discouraged. That’s just the first step in the dance.”
The subsequent steps include pulling out your own lighter, lighting a cigarette, inhaling twice before blowing it out, plucking a blade of grass from the ground and dropping it at the base of a nearby tree, where you must then recite a poem (of my choice, how generous), before finally asking him if he has a delivery for Richie.
“I know it sounds odd,” he says. “But I promise it’s totally safe. Our old au pair used to do it all the time. The reason she left is unrelated.”
Within the hour I am sitting on the subway, being funneled to my next task through a tunnel that runs beneath the East River. Roosevelt Island. Didn’t realize that place was even real. And yet, here I am, getting off of the F in a station that is mostly empty now. I check my phone. It’s nearly 1 a.m. And to make matters more urgent, I am met with three unopened messages from Emily.
[EMILY 1:03] men r stupid
[EMILY 1:04] I just want to get in bed and watch the office all day
I’ve never bought cigarettes before. I’ve always hated their smell, but when I’m walking around campus during the peak of winter, I often find myself envying the warmth those partaking must feel as their lungs fill with smoke. I push open the door to a convenience store and walk up to the counter.
“One pack of cigarettes, please,” I say. Then I remember the lighter. “And these.”
I grab a three-pack of translucent purple lighters from where they hang beside the candy bars and place them on the counter. The attendant looks me up and down.
“Uh, whichever’s popular,” I said, trying not to sound too obviously confused.
I watch the attendant choose the most expensive pack from behind the counter and place it in front of me.
I tap my foot anxiously as I pass the attendant my drivers’ license. My head is filled with Emily’s clucking. Tick, tock, tick, tock.
“Miss, I can’t sell you these,” the attendant says.
“What do you mean? I’m eighteen.”
“You’ve got to be twenty-one,” he tells me. “Started in July.”
God damn it, Cuomo. I don’t have time for this.
“Alright, well can I at least get this, then?” I ask, handing him a chocolate bar.
“Sure, that’ll be — HEY!”
I grab the cigarettes and the lighters and bolt out the door. I disappear around one block, then another, then another — just to be safe. I feel a twinge of guilt as I catch my breath that I quickly put behind me. I’m never coming back to Roosevelt Island anyway. I ignore my stinging soles.
Certain I’m not being tailed by a disgruntled convenience store attendant, I board the next bus to the park. I watch the skyline ripple over the East River as the bus loops around the perimeter of the island and try to relax into the knowledge that the old au pair used to do this all the time. Though, I am still curious about what happened to her.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park is pretty simply designed. It’s a triangular stretch of grass, bordered by trees, which are bordered again by the gray-white stone sidewalks that evoke a sense of the political. It’s not the sort of place you would expect to encounter a black van containing… well, who knows. And yet, there it is, parked at the base of the pyramid, with a man dressed in the type of velour tracksuit I’ve come to associate with movie villain henchmen standing outside. I take a deep breath. I begin the dance.
I pop a cigarette into my mouth.
“Got a light?”
The man in the tracksuit grunts something that sounds like “what?”
He nods. He pulls out a lighter and lights my cigarette. Wait a minute — this isn’t right. And — to make matters worse — all that tar and rat poison we talked about in health class is dripping into my lungs. The combination of circumstances and unfamiliar smoke lead me to cough out-
“YUCK,” as I spit the lit cigarette into the face of the velour tracksuit man, causing him to shriek and yank a switchblade from his pocket like some greaser out of time.
“What the —” he cries, too distracted by the sting of his burn to actually stab me — thanks, universe.
“You weren’t supposed to do that!” I gasp, still half-shocked.
“What are you talking about?”
“What happened to the grass and the push-ups and the poetry?”
“Oh- oh, my God, are you here for a delivery?”
“Yeah!” Is he serious? “I’m here for Richie.”
“Oh, you must be the new au pair. I was so sad to hear what happened with the last one. I’m Roy.”
He puts the knife away and begins rummaging through the back of the truck. He hands me a container of a purpley iridescent goop. I turn it over in my hands, awestruck.
“What is it?”
“Wrinkle cream. Made from ground-up baby seahorses.”
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