Thursday, October 11, 2012

Window of Opportunity

The improperly latched seat belt buckle popped open as the Jeep Liberty made its first rotation. Centrifugal force, aided by the punch of an airbag, flung Buddy out the open passenger window. As he arced upward, he could see the Jeep ascend almost straight up over the guard rail as it continued to spin.
The ground below him looked rocky. Buddy assumed he would die upon hitting it, but he was sure his body would be broken beyond repair if he didn’t. He often had heard how time seems to slow down in moments of impending doom. The reports were true. He’d also heard about seeing your whole life flash before your eyes. He doubted the time distortion effect was sufficient to accommodate a review his whole life, however. He settled for revisiting the past few hours.

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

Buddy began his Friday night the way he had begun most of his Friday nights since he moved out of his parents’ house. He checked the internet for local concerts, and called a few friends to see if any wanted to go with him. On this occasion, none did.
Buddy had made the move from his childhood bedroom only the year before. He did so because his 25th birthday was approaching, and he felt it was time to be on his own. It was a struggle financially. His degree in Business Administration had given him a mountain of debt and an entry-level job at a call center for WeCare4U Investments, where he tried to placate angry customers without making any concessions that would cost the firm money. He had hoped the job would be a stepping stone to something better, but after three years he sat in the same chair. His apartment in a run-down building on the outskirts of Jersey City had the advantage of being close to New York while being cheap enough for him to get by most months without an extra dollop of cash from his parents.
Buddy was not in a romantic relationship of any kind. In truth, he never had been a ladies man. Shorter than average with unimpressive looks, talents, or charm, his social life always had been one big fizzle. Even in college, where young men were outnumbered almost two-to-one by women, he always had the feeling that the few women who dated him were practicing on him, honing skills for someone better. None of them had dated him for long, which reinforced his inkling. Since graduation, he scarcely dated at all.
So, he filled his weekends with music instead, sometimes clubbing with his guy friends and sometimes going out alone. He enjoyed the music clubs, and, besides, there was always the possibility of meeting someone open to a fling or possibly more. This sometimes happened to his friends, even the married ones.
Occasionally he went to see name bands at large venues, such as The Beacon or Roseland, but he preferred small intimate clubs. They were much cheaper, and the unknown musicians playing in them often were remarkably good.
One band he had begun following recently was The Heather Field Band. He liked her bluesy-rock sound, even though it was far from original, and regularly checked her schedule on her website. On this night Heather would perform at midnight, a prime time slot, at The Bitter End. Buddy intended to be there. He usually took the Path subway under the Hudson, but on this occasion he opted to drive. It was a way of enforcing self-restraint. Knowing he had to drive back had the advantage of keeping him sober, and therefore fit to go out again on Saturday night.
Holland Tunnel traffic was heavy but it moved steadily. The Jeep made a distinct rumble that suggested Buddy soon would be buying a new muffler. Buddy exited the tunnel, turned up Hudson, and cut over to 8th Street by way of 10th Street and Greenwich Avenye. He pulled into a parking garage on 8th. Buddy walked down 5th and then across Washington Square, ignoring offers of “smoke, dope, coke” from shadowy figures on park benches.
The Bleecker Street sidewalks were crowded with NYU students, random New Yorkers, and the bridge and tunnel crowd. Nevertheless, at the door of The Bitter End there was no wait to get in. Apparently Heather did not have a large local fan base. Buddy paid the cover, walked past the bar of the deep and narrow club, and took a seat next to the stage. The little table with six chairs where there was barely comfortable space for four, but the other five chairs were empty.
His timing was good. Heather and her band were setting up. The musicians who played with Heather varied from gig to gig. Tonight Harlan was on guitar. Buddy thought his idiosyncratic sound added something extra to the band, though he noticed Harlan and Heather tended to feud between sets.
“Do you mind sitting somewhere else?” said a voice in back of him.
Buddy turned. The voice belonged to a young woman with thickly banged shoulder-length black hair. She wore dark glasses, even though the light in the bar didn’t rise to the level of dim. Her black sweater, black jeans and black boots harkened back to the beatnik era. Her phrasing was in the form of a question but her tone verged on a demand.
Buddy assessed the woman’s companions. One was a young man, good-looking in a boyish way, with his head ensconced in a grey hoodie. He sported a perfectly trimmed two-day growth of light brown beard. Buddy wondered if there were special razors to maintain this look. Also in her company were a short blonde girl with excessive makeup and a young man dporting a peace-symbol sweatshirt, jeans, and spiky platinum-dyed hair. All four appeared to be in their 20s.
“There are six chairs,” Buddy pointed out. “Do you have two more friends coming?”
“Please,” the Dark-glasses girl said simply.
Buddy didn’t feel like arguing. He shrugged, stood up, and walked back to the bar.
Buddy ordered a club soda. He leaned on the bar and observed the other patrons. They were an eclectic hodgepodge of ages and types. Gray-hairs mingled with barely-legals. His attention kept drifting back to the four to whom he had surrendered a table. They ordered and quickly consumed two rounds of drinks. They engaged in some low-level dispute. In fact, they argued in all the combinations mathematically possible for four people to argue. As soon as Heather started her set, though, Dark-glasses girl shushed the others.
Heather began with her original song Subterranean Groupie Blues, and followed with several classic rock covers. On some songs she played keyboard, on others not. Heather’s voice was rough, as though she had gargled with roofing nails. Yet, it worked for her. The effect was captivating. Once again, Buddy wondered why she remained virtually unknown.
As soon as Heather took a break at the end of her first set, the four at the table resumed squabbling. Buddy soon discerned the group’s internal dynamics. Dark-glasses girl played it aloof, knowing the pose annoyed Hoodie-guy. Hoodie-guy grew increasingly put out at the disregard from Dark-glasses. Blondie outwardly was marginally attached to the spiky-haired guy, but in fact was infatuated by Dark-glasses girl on whom she cast longing looks. Spiky was “just happy to be nominated,” and joined in the spats simply to avoid being left out.
Heather walked past Buddy and sat at the bar several seats away from him. Buddy leaned over to the bartender and said, “I’d like to pay for Heather’s drink.”
“It’ll be a double Jack Daniels,” said the bartender, a young woman in a tight-fitting blouse and clear aviator glasses.
The bartender put the double shot in front of Heather and whispered to her. Heather downed the double shot in a swallow. She briefly acknowledged Buddy with a glance and a wave of the glass. She tapped the glass on the counter. The bartender refilled it. Heather bolted it as quickly as the first. The third vanished the same way. She slowed down on the fourth. She was sipping it when Buddy wended his way to her side. Buddy thought to himself that he would be comatose if he drank so much alcohol so fast, but he had seen Heather put away more than this without affecting her stage performance.
“I’ve caught you act before. I like your work,” Buddy said to her.
“I know.”
“You know?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen you. Do you think you’re invisible?”
“You know, sometimes I do. So where are you playing next?”
“Check my website, but you already know that. Look, honey, if you’re slowly working around to asking me out, don’t bother, but you can buy the rest of these rounds if you really want to.”
“Oh. Well, OK.” Paying her tab seriously depleted his cash. He wondered if the parking garage took VISA.
Heather looked him up and down. “You’re not a vampire,” she told him.
“Is that a shortcoming?” he asked.
Buddy decided not to mention that, if anyone looked like a vampire, it was Heather herself with her long black hair, pale skin, and blood-red lipstick. He wasn’t sure if this was some off-beat humor or if she was a little crazy.
“Your girlfriend is a vampire though.”
“The chick in the bad wig you gave your seat up for. Stay away from her, even though she dumped the other boy,” said Heather.
“You mean Hoodie-guy? She dumped him?”
“Yes, but he hasn’t accepted the fact yet. He’s a vampire, too, by the way.”
“I see.” Buddy decided she was serious. Apparently, Heather was daft.
She tapped the counter. The bartender was reluctant to pour Heather another Jack Daniels, but in the end she did.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Heather said to Buddy. “Vampires are real, but they aren’t like in the movies with fangs and sucking blood and shunning sunlight and all that. Vampires enter people who let them in. They grow inside those people and live on their corruption until in the end they are the people. If you play with that woman, she’ll corrupt you and then you’ll be a vampire too.”
“Would you go out with me then?” he joked.
“Maybe, but you wouldn’t like it,” she said. “I’ve got to go.”
Heather was steady on her walk back to the stage, and began her second set without visible or audible impairment.
Heather was right about Hoodie-guy – at least the part about him being dumped. Two songs into Heather’s set, Hoodie-guy stood up, spilled his drink, and stomped out of the club. Blondie looked thrilled at the development. Spiky sipped his drink wide-eyed. Dark-glasses girl showed no emotion. She leaned over to Blondie and said something to her. Blondie got up, went to the front door, peeked out, and came back nodding.
Heather didn’t miss a note in any of this, but her eyes followed Dark-glasses girl as she stood up and walked over to Buddy. Buddy noticed she was a several inches taller than he.
“Hey. Have you got a car nearby?” she asked him.
“You did me a favor, so I’ll do you one. Get your car. Let’s go somewhere,” she said.
“With you?”
“I’m the one talking to you.”
It was the first time in his life a woman had picked him up at a bar. He saw that Heather was right about the wig. Buddy didn’t care if she was a vampire.
“Get you car and pull it in front. You have your cell on you, I presume.”
“Yes,” he said.
He slipped the phone from his pocket and handed to her. She punched a number into his phone.
“This is my friend Regina’s cell,” she said.
“The blonde girl?”
“Yes. Call her when you’re in front of the club. We’ll come out. What kind of car is it?”
“A Jeep Liberty. Black. It’s in a garage on 8th so it will take a little while to get here,” he said.
“Hurry up, then. Go.”
He went.
He was out of breath by the time he reached the garage, which did take VISA. He drove to Bleecker and rang Regina’s number.
Dark-glasses girl and her companions hurried out of the club. Two men standing on the sidewalk suddenly had cameras in their hands. Dark glasses girl got in his front passenger seat and the other two got in the back.
“Pull away!” she ordered. “Head uptown. Fast”
He followed her directions. At 3rd Avenue and 18th Street she said, “Pull over. I’m driving.”
“Did I slur my words? You want to hang with us or what?”
He pulled to the side, slid the shift into Park, got out of the Jeep, and switched seats with her. Buddy tried to latch the passenger seat buckle three times before it caught.
“You’re car is a piece of crap,” said Dark-glasses girl.
The car had 170,000 miles on it but Buddy kept it in repair.
“It’s old but it’s got a good engine,” he said.
“We’ll find out,” she answered.
She took off her glasses, much to Buddy’s relief. He preferred that she be able to see. She lurched away from the curb. She drove aggressively up to 34th and then hung a quick left into the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel on a yellow light.
“Any of the bastards behind us?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Spiky. “I thought a Suburban was following us, but it stopped at the red light.”
“Maybe he’s just being sly. Keep an eye out for him.” They exited the tunnel and headed west on the LIE.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“That sounds like a name for a German Shepherd dog.”
“I think I was named after the character in The Nutty Professor movie.”
“Eddie Murphy?” she asked.
“My mom preferred the Jerry Lewis version.”
“There was a Jerry Lewis version?” asked Regina.
“Apparently,” said Buddy. “So who are you guys? Why would a Suburban follow us?”
“You don’t know?”
“Sorry, no.”
“At least this damn wig isn’t a total waste.” The driver peeled off the wig, revealing a mane dyed blindingly DayGlo red.
Buddy remained silent.
“You still don’t know me?” she asked
Spiky laughed in back.
“You can laugh when cars follow you, asshole,” she said to Spiky. To Buddy she said “But you do know that nobody singer at the club. Were you there to see her?”
“Yes, Heather Field. She’s good.”
“Yeah, she is. So what? Her act is old-fashioned. She doesn’t put on any show on stage. The days are long gone when you can just walk out, play music, and get anywhere. Besides, she’s too old – in her 30s I’ll bet. It’s too late for her to break out unless she does some stunt or commits some freaky crime that’ll get her name in the news in a big way.”
The word “crime” connected in Buddy’s head with the red hair.
“You’re Wendy Wolfegang.”
“I know.”
Wendy Wolfegang was a “pop tart” singing sensation whose recording career had peaked few years earlier. Since then, drug busts, several very public car accidents, sex tapes, brawling incidents, a bizarre drunken Tonight Show interview, and an arrest for public lewdness had turned her into a running joke for late night comedians. Multiple court dates were pending for her.
Songs from Wendy’s first album continued to rack up millions of hits on YouTube, but her second album was a complete flop, despite (or because of) all the publicity from her misbehavior. Critics were calling her washed up. She was 22 years old. Buddy remembered reading something about her dating a former member of some boy band. He assumed that was Hoodie-guy.
Wendy snapped her fingers. Spiky handed her a flask. She took a swig and held it back over the seat. Regina took it, at the same time slapping away Spiky’s hand which was engaging in unwelcome explorations.
“Where are we going?” Buddy asked.
“Do you care?”
“Just curious.”
“My place, while I still own it. It’s on the North Shore,” said Wendy.
“‘While you own it?’ Are you planning to sell it or something?”
“It’s not really a plan. I might have to. I’m broke,” Wendy explained.
“That’s hard to believe.”
“Believe it. I owe millions on the house. My agent, business manager, staff, and lawyers take almost everything I make, and the IRS takes the rest – in fact they claim I still I owe them more.”
“Why are you revealing this to me?”
“It’s not a secret. The tabloids carry on about it, using ridiculously inflated numbers. I really need this next album and tour to work, but the critics are fucking with me, panning it before they’ve even heard it.”
“There is a Suburban back there,” said Spiky. “I’m sure it’s the same one. He’s hanging back a few cars but he is definitely following.”
“He knows where we’re headed. Maybe I can lose him by taking an early exit,” said Wendy.
“Does it matter if we’re followed?” asked Buddy. “Don’t paparazzi follow you all the time?”
“Yeah, that’s the problem. Right now I need to control my press. It won’t be cool for anyone in my target demographic to buy my album and download the singles if I’m nothing but a joke. Cool is gold in this business. It will be cool if I look like I straightened out. People love recovery stories. But you can bet that Trevor is already badmouthing me to some gossip-monger. Very uncool, and the comedians will be all over it. The idiot following us wants some shots to go with the story, spinning it something like, ‘Wendy dresses in black, mourning her failed relationship.’”
“Hey, that’s not bad,” teased Regina. “Let me get some video with my phone so I can get on Entertainment Tonight saying how sorry I feel for you.”
“Shut up.”
“Trevor? Is that the guy in the hoodie?” asked Buddy.
Wendy laughed. “At least you don’t know who the hell he is,” she said. “If you recognized him and not me I’d be pissed … unless you’re gay.”
“No, I’m not that.”
“Let’s lose the Suburban,” she said.
Wendy swung into the left lane and sped up. The Suburban followed. Suddenly, through a barely wide enough break between cars, she crossed lines of traffic to the right without signaling and veered off onto exit 39. The Suburban missed the exit.
“If he’s dedicated enough, he’ll get to the shoulder and back up against traffic in order to take the exit and get back on our tail,” she said.
At the first traffic light, Wendy turned left onto Glen Cove Road and accelerated north.
“Don’t you think you should slow down?” said Buddy
“No. Shit, I’m coming down bad. Give me something, Regina.”
“Hold on,” said Regina.
Buddy was overcome by a smell like burning plastic.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
He looked back and saw Regina holding a lighter over the bowl of a small brass pipe.
“Is that crack?” Buddy asked.
“Ooo-ooh,” Regina intoned derisively. “Chill, it’s not a big deal. Want some?”
“No thanks,” Buddy said, coughing at the stench. He opened his window. “Do you mind?”
“Yeah,” said Spiky. “The wind is blowing in my face.”
“Let him breathe, Billy,” said Wendy. It is his car, after all.”
Regina stuck another small white lump in the bowl, and passed the pipe and lighter to Wendy. Wendy held the wheel with her knees as she inhaled on the pipe. Regina and Wendy passed the pipe back and forth for the next few miles. Glen Cove Road became a divided road called Pratt. Bordering the road was typical suburban architecture alternating with stretches of trees.
“Give me another hit,” said Wendy.
Wendy turned her head away from the road and reached over the seat for the pipe. Buddy realized she didn’t see the stopped police car up ahead sticking out into the roadway in back of a motorist.
Wendy glanced forward, swerved around the police car, and sideswiped a pickup truck in the left lane. The Jeep careened rightward into the guard rail. The Jeep flipped into the air.

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

Buddy, still flying, braced for impact. He saw the Liberty descend and strike roof-down on the guardrail. Buddy smacked into the upper branches of a sapling. The Jeep rolled off the rail and down the slope in his direction. The sapling decelerated him as it bent. It deposited him on the ground, if not gently, at least without his initial bone-crushing momentum. Nonetheless, he passed out as his face hit dirt.
As consciousness returned, Buddy, lying prone, waited for the pain to kick in. It didn’t, at least not in a big way. He was dazed, but except for some scrapes and scratches, he seemed to be uninjured. He emerged from the trees, surprising a policewoman who was examining the Jeep which had come to rest wheels up.  A middle-aged, paunchy, balding male photographer snapped pictures of the gruesome scene inside the car. Wendy’s head was crushed between the dash and the collapsed roof. One arm extended through the broken windshield. The other two passengers had not fared better. A Suburban was parked on the road shoulder by the guard rail.
As so often happened when strangers spoke to him, the officer unknowingly used his name. “Whoa, Buddy, sit down. An ambulance will be here soon. Were you in the car?”
Buddy nodded. “I don’t need an ambulance.”
“Neither do your friends,” said the photographer.
“One is coming anyway,” said the officer.
Buddy sat down on a rock. The photographer approached him. “Listen, kid…”
“I’m not a kid. I’m 25.”
“I don’t care. Listen, kid. You stick with me. You’re going to need an agent.”
“An agent? For what?”
“For your story of Wendy’s last hours. About how she dumped Trevor for you. About how your romance, now freely in the open, was cut tragically short. We’ll get you on the morning talk shows circuit. Her new album is going to be a monster hit now, you know, even if it’s crap. The label might want to use you to promote it. Maybe we’ll even get an E! documentary out of it. What’s your name?”
“Perfect. Maybe we can use that old song My Buddy. If Wendy never sang it we’ll get a voice double to do it.”
“Look mister, I don’t want any part of what you’re talking about,” said Buddy.
“Kid, is this your car?”
“Then there will be lawsuits and maybe charges. You’ll need money for your legal fees or your life is ruined. But don’t worry, kid. Stick with me, and you’ll come out smelling like a rose. All I want is a few exclusives and a 20% agent’s fee. I know tonight has been rough on your friends, and you must feel bad about that, but, trust me, one day you’ll realize this was you’re lucky day.”
Buddy recalled the warning Heather had given him. She had been wrong. Wendy hadn’t turned him into a vampire. He’d become a ghoul.

[Note: For more on the rocker Heather Field and her keen eye for inner vampires, see the short story Slaying the Blues, also on this site]

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