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0 Comments | Nov 09, 2015

The Negotiator

25escapes.span“John, do you ever feel like there’s something just a little off about life?”

He sat, chair pulled up close to the kitchen table, spooning Frosted Flakes into his mouth while a cigarette smoldered in the ashtray adjacent his left elbow. January wind howled just beyond the single small kitchen window. The apartment was cold, but John sat uncaring, clad in a terry bathrobe the purple hue of which matched his cereal bowl with uncanny fidelity. My roommate was a big fan of purple.

“Well, let’s ponder that question for a moment, shall we, Matthew? I spent eleven years in college and grad school obtaining a high honors Ph.D. from what is widely reputed to be one of this nation’s finest universities, following which I festered unemployed for some four years and have only in recent weeks finally landed a lucrative position driving an Uber car that nets me barely enough to afford a seventh floor walk-up apartment and sufficient food to keep me looking slightly meatier than a Somalian. Yeah, Matt, I would have to agree with your hypothesis that maybe—just maybe—there’s something just a little FUCKING bit off about life, particularly my own. Tell me, brother, what shaman shed that bit of insight on you this fine winter day?”

John rose from the table, caught the lower corner of his robe beneath one of the chair legs and very nearly fell, instead merely spilling his remaining cereal milk onto the kitchen floor, to the delight of Oswold the dachshund, who proceeded to lick it up enthusiastically. John offered only a curse as he untangled his robe from the chair leg and stepped to the already overflowing sink, adding his empty bowl to the tenuous stack.

He grabbed the cigarette from the ashtray on his way back by the table and drew heavily on it before taking seven steps to the living room sofa, where he fell deftly onto the center cushion. Though he knew full well that there was a spring end protruding from the left side of the cushion, he nevertheless stuck himself in the thigh as he settled in, uttering yet another curse.

“You know, Ben,” he said, “there’s a fundamental flaw in the Uber business model.” He paused for a moment, took another drag from the cigarette, and exhaled loudly, staring at me as though I knew what he was about to say. “The model leaves it up to me to decide when I want to log into the system and accept rides and when I want to log off. I have to decide for myself when to work. This is clearly not a model designed to maximize the earnings of a chronically lazy ass such as myself.”

I sat down next to him and reached for the remote.

“So what you’re saying,” I replied, “is that you require a position in which you work as an underling to a tyrannical overlord and are forced to show up and leave work at prescribed times.”

“That is precisely what I am saying, my insightful friend.” He reached for a PlayStation controller as the Halo splash screen appeared on the television. I set down the remote and pried another game controller from between the cushions

“What I really need is a job where I play Halo all day long and receive money for doing so.”

“They actually have such a job,” I replied. “Problem is you have to be a software developer to get it.”

“Which, needless to say, requires spending time in college and grad school studying engineering rather than English literature. It has been the great disappointment of my life to discover how few and far between are the lucrative opportunities for leveraging my microscopic knowledge of Geoffrey Chaucer’s early life. I have read every word the man ever wrote—multiple times. I have opined credibly as to his impact on modern fiction. For Christ’s sake, I can tell you what the man had for breakfast on September 17th, 1356. But I can’t get a job waiting tables at McSorley’s. Where is the justice in that?”

“You could write a book,” I offered without any real conviction.

“I could, but it would take me five years to research, three more to write, and two more to edit, sell, and publish, after which I’d sell maybe ten copies to the next generation of pathetic grad students wending their way down the same pointless path that I have trod. I find it hard to steel myself for such an undertaking.”

He spoke these words while effortlessly dispatching bad guys on the TV screen with short precise bursts from his weapon, each victim falling with a shriek and a spray of high-resolution blood.

“I wonder, given how skilled you are at this,” I nodded toward the TV, “if you shouldn’t just sign up for the Army or Marines.”

“Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind, friend. Besides being a pacifist,” he said, his on-screen character rounding a corner and removing an adversary’s head with a machete, “I’ve identified two significant problems with that idea. First, I have it on good authority that the Army expects you to get out of bed before sunrise, which, as you know, is a deal breaker for me, what with my genetically implanted circadian rhythms. And second, as rewarding as it might be to spend my days running around gunning down bad guys with abandon, it is my understanding that in order to do so with impunity in real life, they have to be actually shooting back at you. I’m sure you can see the conundrum this presents.”

“All of which leaves you reduced to driving strangers around the city, racking up miles and rapidly lowering the value of the one tangible asset in your possession.”

As he sat pondering this last bit of negativity, the door to John’s apartment flew open and Brett rushed in, out of breath from the seven-story climb and apparently in a state of considerable agitation. He bent over, right palm on his knee, catching his breath and gesturing frantically with his free hand toward the living room window.

“FIELDER … ,” he managed through great gasps. “Fielder is out there.” He finally caught his breath and stepped to the window as John and I remained on the couch, utterly clueless as to what was going on.

“What are you talking about?” I asked without taking my glance from the TV screen. “Fielder works on Thursdays.”

Clarence Fielder was a grad school colleague John and I had known for about a decade. His life story was not dissimilar to John’s, including the extended stint at an Ivy League grad school, a Ph.D. in a societally useless liberal arts program (in Clarence’s case, philosophy), followed by several years of futile searching for a teaching position and eventual settling for work as a sales associate at Saks downtown.

“He’s on the ledge,” Brett said, trying unsuccessfully to pull open the living room window that had been painted shut since sometime in the Reagan administration.

“He’s not on the ledge,” John replied. He pushed his controller’s ‘pause’ button reluctantly and exhaled loudly. “Nothing can even get onto the ledge other than pigeons.”

Brett, unsuccessful at prying the window open, was leaning far to one side and trying to look through the glass.

“I’m telling you, man,” he said. “There are like thirty people down on the street looking up at him. I think he finally snapped.” He tugged again at the window, still without success.

“Did he come up here?” Brett asked frantically.

“Yes, Brett, Clarence came through here only minutes ago screaming that Schopenhauer was right, and that life is, in fact, pointless, and that he was going to throw himself off the building, following which he climbed through a window that can’t be opened and out onto the ledge. Which explains why Matthew and I are sitting here on the sofa playing FUCKING video games! For Christ’s sake, Brett, enough with the jokes, okay?”

At that moment there came from the street below the sound of a siren. Brett shifted his gaze downward through the window.

“There … there … you see.”

“Look,” I said, turning in John’s direction, “what say we humor the lad for a moment and go have a look from the fire escape, eh? Before he pulls a muscle trying to get that window open.” I rose awkwardly from the sofa. My right calf had fallen asleep and the pins and needles effect of sudden awakening made walking momentarily difficult.

I walked into the apartment’s single bedroom, around the bed, and drew open the window that led out onto the fire escape. The noise of the siren on the street below grew louder. I threw one leg through the window onto the platform outside and then climbed fully out onto the escape. Turning my gaze quickly in both directions, I suddenly saw, sure enough, Clarence standing on the ledge at the building’s far corner, about thirty feet from where I stood. The only way he could have achieved this feat would have been to use the same fire escape upon which I was now standing. Brett’s head was soon sticking out of the window, and he was joined shortly by John, whose curiosity, I suppose, had finally succumbed to his friend’s apparently authentic excitement and the increased noise of the siren.

“Son of a bitch,” I said, turning back to face John and Brett. “There he is.”

“What the fuck?” John said to no one in particular. He couldn’t see Clarence with only his head protruding from the window, so he climbed out and joined me on the landing.

“Clarence!” he shouted. “What’s going on, man?” Clarence did not look back immediately in response to John’s question. He was standing on the ledge, facing outward, arms hanging loosely at his sides. He was still dressed in one of his work suits, a stylish dark gray Yves St. Laurent number with white French cuff shirt and red print silk tie that flapped about in the breeze. I noticed, even at this considerable distance, he was wearing the gold cuff links I had given him this past Christmas.

John shouted again, this time with a bit more volume and insistency. “Clarence, what are you doing over there? You’re freaking everybody out, man. If this is some kind of joke, it’s not actually that funny.”

“It’s not a joke, John,” he replied without turning his head. A pigeon landed on the ledge about three feet to his left, in our direction. “I’m just sick of this shit. I’m sick of all of it.”

The crowd on the street below was growing, and a second fire truck was just now rolling up. It was a ladder truck, though whether or not the ladder would reach seven stories I didn’t know. I wondered if that was something they’d even try.

“What happened, man?” John asked. It occurred to me that he was an incongruous figure in an improbable situation, standing in a bright purple bathrobe on the seventh-floor fire escape platform, hands gripping the rusty iron rail as he addressed a man in a tailored suit threatening to leap from a ledge. There was a slight breeze now, and the iron was very cold to the touch. Clarence’s hair blew about wildly. No way to know how long he’d been out there, but he had to be freezing.

“Did Cary dump you again or something?” John continued. “She doesn’t deserve you, man. I always said she’s a piece of—”

“Nobody dumped me!” Clarence shouted back. This time he turned slightly in our direction, but only slightly. “I’m just sick of everything. I’m sick of my bullshit job and kowtowing to rich fucks who treat me like I’m some subhuman slimeball. I’m sick of this city. I’m sick of paying twenty-seven-hundred goddamned dollars a month for a shoebox studio apartment … and … and walking past restaurants everyday that I can’t afford to eat in.”

“So this is about money?” John shouted. Then he turned to Brett still looking out the window but standing in the bedroom. “Get me my sweatshirt from the dresser,” he said. “Jesus, it’s cold out here.” He turned back to Clarence. “You could just, I don’t know… move to someplace cheaper. Wouldn’t that be easier than killing yourself?”

“Oh yeah, John, that’s an awesome suggestion,” Clarence said. “I’ll move to bum-fuck Iowa because the culture there is so freakin’ awesome and I’m sure the career opportunities for philosophy Ph.D.’s are almost certainly greater than they are here.”

“Okay, maybe so,” John said, “but the apartments there are like three hundred a month or something.”

“Jesus, it’s not about the money, John,” Clarence said. “It’s working my ass off for the past ten years and being twenty-seven goddamned years old and seventy-six thousand dollars in debt and stuck in a job that a third grader could do. I’ve spent my life doing everything I was supposed to do and now I’ve got shit to show for it.”

“Tell me about it, man,” John responded, more to himself than to Clarence, though easily loud enough for the man on the ledge to hear. He rubbed his upper arms hard against the wind. “BRETT, where’s my goddamned sweater?” He glanced momentarily back through the bedroom window to where Brett was furiously rifling through dresser drawers. “In the CLOSET, for fuck’s sake!” he shouted.

“You said it was in the dresser,” Brett replied, pushing closed the dresser drawer. He threw open the closet door and started searching anew.

“Clarence,” John shouted, turning back to the man at the corner of the ledge. “You want a sweater or something? You must be freezing your ass off out there.”

That’s good, I thought, get him thinking about ordinary everyday stuff instead of flinging himself off a seventh-floor ledge onto the sidewalk. There was frantic activity now down on the street, but it wasn’t clear what they were doing. The fire truck had thus far made no attempt to raise its ladder. They probably knew it wouldn’t reach. Several men were spreading something out on the ground that looked like a big tarp or bed sheet. Was that supposed to catch someone? It seemed like an impossibly small target. Brett thrust a worn gray New York Giants sweatshirt through the window and John drew it over his head and arms.

“Grab another one,” he said.

“You’re still cold?” Brett replied

“Not for me, dipshit. For Clarence,” John said.

“How in the hell are you gonna get it to him?” Brett said.

“Don’t worry about that, just get it.”

For one freakish moment I found myself wondering if John—who only rarely demonstrated any grasp of real-world skills—might actually know what he was doing in this situation, if only by accident. Another sweatshirt was extended through the window. John accepted it and turned back to where Clarence continued to stand and shiver.

“Clarence … buddy, for Christ’s sake, at least come and put a sweater on. You can’t kill yourself by jumping if you freeze to death first.”

“John, you’re such a douche,” Clarence said through chattering teeth. He crossed his arms and drew them tightly against his chest.

“You know it, man,” John replied. “And believe me I’m just as much of a loser as you are, probably more. Same school, same degree, same useless bullshit life afterward. Hey, at least you have a real job where you get to put on decent clothes everyday and interact with actual live people. I’m sleeping ‘til eleven and driving a fucking glorified gypsy cab around the city. Hell, I’m the one who should be out there on the ledge, not you.”

He paused, let his words sink in. There was commotion outside John’s apartment door, then a loud knock. Brett turned but didn’t go to the door.

“John, if you’re trying to talk me out of this, you’re doing a piss poor job of it.”

“Exactly,” John said. “See what I mean? What’s the point of you jumping off my ledge when I’m more of a basket case than you are? Why don’t you come inside and have a beer or some grass or something. Fuck, if you’re gonna go, at least go with a buzz on, right?”

“Not exactly a compelling argument, John,” Clarence said. He was now stamping his feet, but carefully, on the ledge.

“It’s not an argument, Clarence, just a friendly offer. You want compelling? How about this?” He paused for a moment, turning his gaze back through the window, then back toward Clarence. “This morning I broke your all-time high score on Halo, and … and … I found a new level you have totally never seen before.”

John turned briefly to face me, raising his eyebrows uncertainly. He was bullshitting at this point, but in an interesting and possibly useful way.

“You’re so full of shit, man,” Clarence replied, turning his head at this latest challenge. There were few things in life that Clarence cared more about than Halo, and John damn well knew it. It occurred to me that this might actually border on genius. “There are no new levels … I’ve done every level.” But there was a hint of uncertainty in his response, mixed with the chatter of his now shaking jaw. “That’s just … that’s bullshit.”

“I’m not messing with you, man,” John said. “After you clear a hundred thousand and you reach the top of that mountain—the one where you need the ice axes to get up it—then you’re at the top and there’s, like, nowhere you can go …”

“Yeah …” John had Clarence’s attention. This part of the story was real—the mountain, the ice axes.

“So you have to turn around and shoot like five or six of the guys who are climbing up trying to get you, right? Only then this V-22 Osprey hovers in right over your head and some jarhead reaches down his hand and plucks you off the mountain just as the rest of the bad guys make it to the top. Once you’re inside, the Osprey sprays the whole mountaintop with twenty-mil. It’s a fucking bloodbath, man. You totally gotta see it.”

Clarence said nothing for a moment. The knocking on the apartment door had inexplicably ceased. The cops, or whoever, had decided to try reaching Clarence through another apartment, I supposed. Down on the street there arose a loud hissing noise, the fire guys inflating the cushion, or trampoline, or whatever the hell it was.

“Clarence,” John said, glancing down at the activity on the street, “you see what’s going on down there … NO, Jesus, don’t look down,” he shouted, realizing his error. A bout of sudden vertigo was not going to serve Clarence well at this point. “If you jump now, they’re just gonna catch you in that stupid bouncy castle thing, and you’ll end up breaking your leg or something, which will hurt like a bitch, and then you’ll be walking around with crutches and a cast for three months.”

Despite John’s exhortation, Clarence stole a quick glance down, but then as quickly averted his gaze. I had never known him to have any particular aversion to heights, but still, it had to be a seriously unsettling view. I nearly had vertigo looking down from the relative safety of the fire escape.

“Clarence,” John shouted with remarkable calmness, “look, man, just quit the bullshit and come inside. We’ll play some Halo, we’ll get wasted, and we can spend the afternoon debating whose life sucks more.” He paused waiting for a reaction. “Oh,” he added after a moment’s apparent reflection, “it’s not just you and me in that debate, boss. Look at Matt here.” He gestured in my direction, though Clarence wasn’t looking our way at that moment. “He’s just as much a waste of life as we are. Right, Matt?” He looked at me apparently in search of some sort of affirmation of this last dubious point. While his assertion was, strictly speaking, accurate, it was increasingly unclear how pointing out the uselessness of all our lives was going to help resolve Clarence’s situation.

“Uh … yeah,” I said loudly in Clarence’s direction. “I’m a real piece of shit too.” It sounded unconvincing and I turned back to face John palms upheld uncertainly. John seemed to realize the ineffectiveness of this latest tack, and he turned back in Clarence’s direction.

“Okay, Clarence, it’s fucking cold out here, all right. There are cops and fire guys wasting their time down on the street when they could be putting out a real fire or rescuing somebody or something. So here’s what we’re gonna do … CLARENCE!” he shouted, obtaining the first good solid look in his direction. “Either you’re gonna get your ass over here and inside, or I’m coming out there with you and we’re gonna jump off into the giant beanbag together. How’s that sound?” To demonstrate conviction at this assertion, John actually flung a leg over the railing of the fire escape, his bathrobe flopping open in the frigid breeze to reveal that his day had not, to that point, even progressed to the point of putting on underwear beneath the robe.

“For fuck’s sake, John,” Clarence exclaimed, suddenly smiling broadly, “put your leg down man. People down there don’t need to see that shit. Hell, I don’t need to see it either.”

The rail was cold on John’s naked thigh and he drew it back but continued leaning out over the rail in Clarence’s direction.

“Okay, okay … here’s the deal,” Clarence said, turning his body carefully on the ledge to fully face us. “I’m coming in only because John is such a fucking retard that he’s willing to share his junk with the whole city of New York … which, by the way, is an image I will never EVER get out of my mind. So thanks for that!”

At which statement, John offered a mock bow over the railing to the people below, as Clarence began making his tenuous way across the ledge in our direction.

“And I’m coming inside, and … and … after I thaw the hell out, John is damn well gonna show me this new highest Halo level, and God fucking help you if you’re making that shit up. Because, if so, I am going to throw your sorry ass out that window and you can bet I’ll aim so that you miss the beanbag. How’s that sound, my friend?” He had paused after returning about halfway to us. At this point, despite Clarence’s newfound good humor, I wondered how this would resolve itself in the longer term, since John was clearly and absolutely making up the story about the Halo level. Still, logic suggested that the uncertainty of dealing later with the lie once Clarence was inside and safe was preferable to scraping him off the sidewalk below.

“If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’,” John said with a grin. He extended a hand in Clarence’s direction, and Clarence accepted it with astonishing insouciance (considering the circumstances) as he made his way over the railing and back onto the fire escape. “Jesus, man,” John said upon touching his friend’s hand, “you’re fucking freezing.” At this point, with impeccable timing, as John and I helped Clarence toward the bedroom window, the knocking recommenced at John’s apartment door, this time with greater enthusiasm than before and accompanied by muffled shouting.

It turned out the police didn’t have much of a sense of humor for the sort of stunt Clarence had pulled that morning. Around the time the three of us were climbing back through the fire escape window and into John’s bedroom, Brett had at last opened the apartment door and was greeted by a rather harried looking assortment of New York’s finest, both fire and police. They took Clarence away downtown, with John and I in hot pursuit. It wasn’t clear whether of not he was actually under arrest, but they assured us at the precinct that whatever grilling or interrogation he was undergoing would take a good long time and that we ought to make our way back home.

By the time Clarence reappeared at the apartment it was nearing dinnertime, and John and I had spent the better part of the day trying our damndest to get a higher score at Halo than Clarence’s all-time high, which was, of course, an exercise in complete futility, since he was better at the game than the two of us combined.

“Still trying?” he asked, his first words as he entered the apartment.

“Still trying,” I replied

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