The following are noncontinuous excerpts from a novel in progress.

The Bottom of the Top

A guy we didn’t like very much died. I can’t say we behaved very well.

The news started flipping around the channels like a gigged fish. When I heard I texted Roland—you kill V_____? I asked. Planning my reenactment for the Biennial, he wrote back. I Googled the guy and saw on a local gossip site that he was, indeed, dead; they’d found him in a hotel room that morning. Phones bleated around the office; is that why people were calling?

I immediately told my colleagues, who responded with Huhs and Reallys and some humane cluckings: Tsk tsk. Someone said they had met him at a party once and he was much nicer than you would have expected. After a few minutes I did feel a twinge of something, less guilt than superstition. What a waste, I said, in some earnest.

We didn’t like his work, you see.

After a while, unable to wait any longer, I called Roland. We chatted about his recent trip to Mexico, and the weather. Then I said, So did you know him?

Yeah. He used to come around Marina’s when she first opened, in the old space, when I was hanging around with them more. He was polite—in the genes I guess.

Another reason we didn’t like him was that he was rich. Texas oil rich, to be precise. This colossal lifetime subsidy made his graffiti excursions, tattoos, wild beard, run-ins with the law, drug problems, bowler hat, and art that included a corpus of tabloid covers decorated with his ejaculate all the more difficult to take.

I only ever remember him getting kicked out of a bar once, I said. Or well dragged out by his friends, screaming at somebody.

Nobody’s perfect, Roland said. Then he added, expansively, I don’t know. . . . His Polaroids were fun to look at, him getting his dick sucked and stuff. He was decent the few times I talked to him. He lived at a level way beyond anything I’ll ever experience.

RIP, I said.

It’s too bad it wasn’t Reese. That guy’s a real fuck.

And his art is even worse, which is, I can’t believe I’m saying it. That whole crew. I mean what about Jana?

I wouldn’t talk her off a ledge. Darren?

I would tie him off for the O.D. Hey, did I tell you I met this dealer who says her doctor prescribes her B-12 shots? She gets the needles herself, skin-pops them.

Art dealer you mean?


All those losers. And Dean, you know . . .

Roland threw in this last bit with a touch of hesitation; though I have no desire to compare my very good friend to a snake, it reminded me of a reptile’s tongue flicking out to taste the air. After a second he added, I wish he’d cooled it.

I know people think he’s just the same as the rest of all them, I said, just some bullshit society artist. But it’s not like that.

No, you’re right. He’s not dumb. I used to like talking to him.

He’s really smart, actually. He’s cunning.

He’s a showman. I admire that.

You know, the first time I met him he gave me a ton of coke. For no reason, either, he didn’t know me at all. It was a few years ago.

That is nice. You guys are still friends. Do you see him much?

If I write he writes back. If we’re in the same room and we see each other we say hello. You know.

I never run into him anymore. He must be insanely busy. The last time I saw him was at a Modern opening. Actually he was pretty high.

A few weeks ago? That was a hot ticket.

I went with someone I used to assist. Yeah, he was fucked up. He was talking to Christophe, slurring, leaning on him—just incoherent.

Huh. Interesting. Christophe loved it I’m sure.

Hands in each others’ back pockets.

Later that day and through the next I Googled the dead guy occasionally. I couldn’t avoid emailing some links to Roland, ignoring the fact that I was being irritating. That’s what friends are for, I figure, if anything, imposing your obsessions on. I suggested, only half-joking, that we go out to a couple of big parties that had been on the calendar for months but that now no doubt would take on a memorial air. The obituaries, absurdly hagiographic, even in the organs of record, had become to come in as well.

At work I said to JB: You don’t think he’s going to get turned into some kind of an icon, do you?

Please God, no.

And yet we could not be certain. We would not for know eight or ten years, long enough for him to drop into the void and then be found again. The cycles are longer in general, twenty to thirty years for obscurities to be rediscovered, and just in time for them to enjoy fifteen years or so of relative ease before dropping dead; but with someone so young and with a pop appeal, and the acceleration of culture overall, a tighter orbit and quicker return seemed entirely possible.

For a few more days my friends and I sent each other emails of mock mourning. Black armbands were discussed, black coke mirrors, an ever-so-crude mural of the sort memorializing innocent youths caught in wannabe gangsters’ crossfires. We tried to imagine who would write the memorial column in the number one art magazine, our competition, which had always deplored his work (like the rest of us sophisticates) but would be forced to say something nice, regardless, because of who his family was.

I kept Googling him, with envy, and reread the obituary the Times had run on Miranda. I meant to drop a line to my friend Karen, but I never got around to it.

About a week later I attended a couple openings and a party for a cosmetics company held in an artist’s studio. The itinerary cut across several demographic niches; various sorts of right people were represented. Much to my surprise, I didn’t hear a word about him.

What if it had been one of your friends? I asked myself lying in bed one night.

Well then, I answered, I guess I would have said they had it coming to them.

What if it had been you?

Instead of thinking that through I got up, made some herbal tea, and worked on a crossword until I nodded out, pen in hand. You’ve got to be careful: it’s a good way to ruin a sheet.

[ . . . ]

Having dragged myself into the office for a day of suffering, I thought about meaning and meaninglessness. When people say life has no meaning, what they’re really saying is that they’re unhappy. The problem is not that life lacks meaning—it has it in spades, but only contingently. Things slip away, orders of meaning recede. What once seemed important you forget you ever cared about. The woman you once would have killed for, or murdered with your bare hands, becomes a stranger. Nerve endings go numb. We want to feel the lack of something but can’t, or can’t be bothered to. And when the old sensation reawakens, when a spark jumps the gap and we are for a second restored to who we once were, then we feel a misery that takes years of disappointment to understand.

There was a text from Rheya on my phone; I caught it while fumbling to buy coffee before getting on the train. You mean Irish goodbye, it said. I asked myself, What the fuck is an Irish goodbye?

[ . . . ]

Around this time a song came out that was a grand celebration of our fair city, both its hardships and glories. It was an ode, an anthem. It was wildly popular, which was its whole raison d’etre. Its author was the world’s most successful hip-hop artist, a local born and raised, and it featured a guest vocal slot by an R and B–sensation protégé of his. Though the city was already heavily mythologized, not least in the minds of its denizens and in countless previous works of art about it—most of which dated either to mid-century or to the late ’70s/early ’80s period of blight, murder, and despair that was now haloed by the artmaking classes for its cheap rents and “freedom”—the tune sold a kazillion copies and appeared to be coming out of the open windows of every other car for what seemed like half a year.

The first time I heard the song I loved it. The mogul who had produced it had always managed to maintain his way with a four-bar melody, as well as his cachet, despite years at the top. The second time I heard the song I still loved it, the third even more so. I attempted to lead a singalong at a karaoke bar. I listened to it over and over.

Sometime around the eighth listen I began to feel a little cheap, but the song was so popular there was no way I could talk about it to anyone. The feeling only deepened. The whole thing was highly ersatz, which was fine; but the desperation of its cheerleader mentality, and by extension of we city residents who had willed the song into being through this pop star and his magnificent abilities with the zeitgeist—it all made me sad. What was wrong with us that we needed to project a confidence so flickering? Did we all sense that something was deeply, decisively wrong? The fact that I could tell no one about my shifted feelings toward the song made it all the worse. In many cases I wore my contrarianism a badge of honor; it was a core algorithm of my entire being, expressed or otherwise. But in this case I felt like a traitor. Then I grew to feel more horrible, like I was the bearer of a horrible secret, one so awful that to confide it to anyone would destroy them, would bring them to the pitch-over point into an abyss of absolute despair and madness. It was like being the only one who knew a war hero was really a war criminal, or that your father was a rapist. I felt this way because the fantasy I was destroying was one of the last ones I had managed to believe in, maybe even the very last.

[ . . .]

After the meeting for no good reason I felt nervous and exhausted. Obviously I needed some coffee.

Around this time there was a trend for a particular kind of high-end coffee shop. Four dollars and twenty-five cents got you something iced, plus between three minutes and an hour inside an envelope of tasteful, unobtrusive interior and graphic design—a decided turn against the sprung-couch-and-bad-paintings-for-sale aesthetic that had characterized the coffeehouse since the boho late fifties. A key aspect of the decor was information, printed in cautiously distinctive fonts or neatly hand-chalked on boards mounted high on brick walls. Your experience was enhanced by available summaries of knowledge sets including the provenance of your bean, its flavor characteristics, the names of the cows who produced the milk, and the carbon footprint of your paper cup. It was like walking into a heads-up display of a coffee-shop video game; also, strangely, it reminded me of the trenches of text, furrowing across sheet after sheet of copy paper thumbtacked on walls, that turned up in the more boneheadedly rigid works of conceptual art, which never acknowledged that all their words were in some way not meant to be read.

On the other hand, the places had excellent coffee, and conceptual art was pretty much the only respectable kind left.

One such cafe had set up shop on a side block near my office. Their logo was a cleaned-up scrawl of a scowling smiley face—like one of Dean’s smiley faces, I realized. Here I think the gesture had been conceived purely as punk rock.

I entered. At the register a tidy new laminated sign said: HAVING IT ICED? YOUR STRAW IS MADE OF CORN followed by a tiny graphic of an ear and an eight-line paragraph.

Hi. An iced cappuccino, please.

Sorry, said the man behind the counter. We don’t make that drink.

How? I asked. The response was admittedly inarticulate but I was baffled. How don’t you make it?

We do iced latte.

He wore a blue T-shirt with the gentle, watermarked fadings of a thousand trips to the laundromat and had a beard, ragingly popular in these days to connote a countercultural sensitivity.

After a long, ugly moment, I said, Fine, an iced latte. Then I threw in, But make it dry, please.


Less milk.


And skim, also, please.

He had already turned his back. My mind went blank with rage and my throat seemed to swell shut, which is what I believe happens in a bad reaction to painkillers. Even if I thought of something wise to say, then, I wouldn’t be able to get it out. Always the same in these fucking situations. I stood aside—someone was behind me—and seethed.

A guy in a suit walked up to the counter. Why are all the bad guys in movies in suits nowadays? I thought. It should be assholes like the Paul Simon fan behind the counter.

Yeah, can I get an iced cappuccino, the guy in the suit said, as the barista turned to give me my drink.

I’m sorry sir, but we don’t make that beverage. The guy seemed to shoot his eyes at me as he said it, like I was responsible.

They really don’t, I interjected sourly.

What do you mean you don’t make that beverage? Come on, are you kidding me?

We make iced latte, he said. No foam. He tilted at him the one he held in his hand, mine.

Iced latte, right, he said, taking the drink. Now put some fucking foam on it.

Hey, I said.

Look sir, we don’t make that beverage. If you don’t like it you can take it up with my manager.

Your manager? the suit guy said. He seemed truly incredulous. Here’s your fucking manager, he added, and threw the coffee in the other guy’s face.

There was a shocked silence. Coffee drizzled audibly. The counter between them froze them in place.

Hey man, I said, what was that?

The guy in the suit turned to me.

That was my drink.

And then he punched me in the head. I saw it coming, and he was kind of slow, so that even though he did not say by way of warning, Here’s your fucking drink, I was able to step back. It ended up being a glancing blow that hit me more on the shoulder, and luckily it didn’t much hurt. I did though trip over my own feet as I was trying to get out of the way, which was embarrassing, and I actually fell. Probably I could have scrambled away but the first thing I thought to do was curl up in a ball. He kicked me once but he really didn’t know what he was doing. Then something knocked him back. I got to one knee and saw it was the guy with the beard, who was rangy and was beating him in the face with one of the handles from the espresso machine. From the first strike it had cut him pretty bad, in the cheek.

As other people piled on, acting variously, my contribution was to stomp on the guy’s hand once he was on the ground, and call him a fucking son of a bitch, which I had always imagined myself doing in one of these situations. I did not however ask him if he liked it, or say, Here’s your fucking latte, mister.

The police who arrived, one Latino and one white, were surprisingly sympathetic. It no doubt helped the story of the hippie barista that I was relatively groomed and wearing business clothes; I had had a haircut relatively recently also and had no visible piercings. (For a while I had a roommate who had gone to boarding school and wore its tweed-and-tie uniform into adulthood. He shoplifted many of his groceries.) It turned out the cops had a substation down the block, and from their tone I could tell that a few jokes had been thrown around the breakroom about the douchey weirdos selling overpriced coffee down the block. I realized that out of all the parties intimately involved in the scenario at the moment, no one really was disposed to like anyone. The barista hated the coffee thrower and the cops, the cops hated the hippie and dickhead in the suit, the guy who had wanted an iced cappuccino hated the whiny bitch from behind the counter and, situationally at least, the police. On the other hand, except for one person whom everyone else in the entire shop now hated, I was viewed as heroic.

With a fraternal hand on the shoulder the cops led me outside. Did I want to press charges? They advised it. Assault and battery.

Would I have to appear in court?


Well, I said, I mean the guy behind the counter did provoke him, kind of. But then if I don’t press charges he just gets off?

No, the cops said, there’s the disorderly conduct, and simple assault for the coffee throwing—they had what they needed for that without me. But the battery was worse.

I mean he’s not going to jail either way, is he? People punch people all the time, right?

Sir, one of the police said, and stared at his shoes. I was pretty sure he just wanted me to make up my mind.

They took my number in case it was necessary and I took down the substation’s, just in case. I carried myself back to the office on a bier—wise and gracious, a hero all around.