Fiction — From the January 2009 issue
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My nuts arrived quickly—they were mixed, and someone had looted them of the almonds and the cashews, leaving only some pecan shards and those albino roach-sized nuts that taste more like a bloated cannellini bean than a nut. My drink, however, was very long in coming. More perplexing still, the bartender wasn’t visibly engaged in making it. Instead he was rewashing, for the fourth time, his stirrer and his shaker and his shot glass, like a surgeon sterilizing his equipment repeatedly while his patient dies on the table.
I approached the bar.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m still waiting for my cocktail.”
“Oh,” he said. “What was it you ordered?”
“The Salomone Killer,” I said.
“We don’t have a cocktail by that name.”
“The Santogori Killer,” I said. “It’s Glutinous.”
“Ah,” he said. “The Santosbrazzi Killer.”
“That’s it,” I said.
“Coming,” he said, and started drying his utensils with a chamois.
Although I wasn’t wearing a watch, and the Cruise Room, like some kind of subterranean casino, boasted no clocks, I’m certain I waited twenty-five minutes for my cocktail before giving up. I’d just lodged a dollar bill under the nut dish when a man slid into my booth.
I recognized him, or thought I did, from the subsidiary research outfit. It was the mustache-and-sunglasses guy, sans sunglasses and apparently desiring a follow-up. After our tense exchange that afternoon, he’d treated me with glaring (I could tell he was glaring, even behind the dark lenses) hostility; he was also, I was pretty certain, the person who’d slipped into my clipboard, while I was in the loo, a business article about a workplace phenomenon called “asshole poisoning.”
Vengeful subsidiary, indeed.
“Hello,” I said, noting again that he was not wearing glasses, which meant that he was wearing contact lenses, which meant that he could have worn contact lenses to work to prevent the “going dark” phenomenon he claimed was out of his control. Jick, I thought.
“What brings you here?” I said.
“You asked for me,” he said.
He nodded solemnly from his shadowy booth patch.
“Well then,” I said. “Welcome. I’d encourage you to order a drink, but drinks don’t seem to be a strong point of this bar.”
“I don’t drink,” he said. “In my line of work, it’s frowned upon.”
Your line of work, I thought, receiving, loudly and clearly, the slight.
“Huh,” I said coolly. “Your judgmental abstemiousness jibes completely with your less-than-optimal work attitude.”
He signaled the bartender, who, instantaneously it seemed, appeared with a tall glass filled with cola so carbonated I felt the bubbles misting my forearm as he set it on the table.
“So you’re a regular,” I observed.
“Not so regular,” he said. “You’d be surprised how little work I get these days.”
“You’re employed here as well?” I said. I wanted to remind him of the no-moonlighting clause in his contract.
“I meet clients,” he said. “Such as yourself.”
“I’m your client?” I said. “How is that?”
“You ordered me,” he said. “I’m the Santosbrazzi Killer.”
I laughed. I tried to catch the eye of the bartender. Good one, my friend. But the bartender was busily origami-folding his chamois.
The so-called Santosbrazzi Killer pulled a clipboard from his briefcase, and in doing so leaned his face into a dust-twinkling swathe of pinker airspace. He was not, despite the near-twinny similarities, the mustache-and-sunglasses guy from the subsidiary research outfit.
This unsettled me. Suddenly I was talking to a stranger in whom I’d engendered no prior animus toward me. I thrived on prior animus to render unsurprising all human interactions.
“I’ll need you to fill out this form,” he said, rotating the clipboard toward me.
“And this is?”
“Legal requires it.”
I inspected the form. It asked for the standard information: name, address, DOB, employer, insurance, etc.
“And why do you need a reference?” I asked.
“Here,” I said, showing him the form.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s the job,” he said.
“The person you want me to work on.”
“Kill,” he said.
I laughed again.
“But I don’t want you to kill anybody,” I said.
“Then you shouldn’t have ordered me.”
“You weren’t my first choice,” I said, reaching for a roach nut. “I wanted the Vengeful Subsidiary, but, due to a dropper mishap, he was unavailable. Who is Santosbrazzi?”
“It’s a place. A little fishing village on the coast of the former Yugoslavia.”
“You were born there?” I ate a second roach nut. Then a third roach nut. Then I felt very thirsty.
The Killer pulled a ballpoint from his overcoat pocket. He jicked it six times. Jick-jick. Jick-jick-jick-jick.
“Please stop that,” I said.
“My grandfather,” he said. “We’ve been in this line of work for generations.”
“A family business, then. Do you think I could get a drink?” I called to the bartender.
The bartender approached with the bible.
“No, no,” I said nervously, “I’ll just have what he’s having. Generations,” I said, returning to the Killer. He’d placed his pen hand in his lap; I could hear the muted sub-booth sounds of jicking.
“Since the 1600s,” he said. “The first of the Santosbrazzi Killers could be summoned by carving an X into the corner of a certain church pew.”
“How appropriate,” I said. “And what if a man asks you to kill another man just because he thinks he’s an asshole?”
“It’s not my job to evaluate motive,” he said.
“You’ll just kill anyone,” I said.
“Not anyone,” he said cryptically. “But let me ask you. Would it be so terrible if an asshole died? Think of how little sense it makes when generous, lovely people die. But when an asshole dies, we think, well, hmmmm. An asshole is dead.”
Our conversation lagged. Usually a conversation lag is a man’s social escape hatch, but this lag had a more sinister feel to it. The less I talked, the more trapped I became.
The Killer sipped his cola and used his Cruise Room cocktail napkin to blot his mustache. I hadn’t previously noticed, but now I saw with some alarm that the Cruise Room’s insignia was a piece of nautical rope coiled into a noose.
“So. An asshole killer,” I said. “You must be swamped.”
“Actually, I’ve suffered five straight years of negative growth,” the Killer said. “People are loath to take direct responsibility for killing anyone these days. That’s why we’ve partnered with the service industry. We wanted, in this culture of no responsibility, to emphasize responsibility. To emphasize the prison of choice. A menu provides the most direct access to a person’s primitive and unmediated desires; i.e., I want this thing. Bring it to me. The average person won’t take it upon himself to put a hit out on his son’s faux- beleaguered kindergarten teacher, but he’ll order a panino or a protein smoothie called The Santosbrazzi Killer.”
He seemed a little bleak on humanity, the Killer.
“And what if the average person, after ordering you, tries to send you back?”
“In the restaurant of life, there are no returns. And believe me, the average person is relieved when I show up. By the way,” he added, “I’ve recently cemented a deal with two local Orange Julius franchises. Also a Panera.”
He handed me his ballpoint.
“But I’ve told you already,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who needs killing.”
“As I just explained,” the Killer said. “I cannot be unordered. There are some loopholes, but they’re too rare to be counted upon.”
“That’s unfortunate,” I said. “Because there’s nobody that I want dead.”
“Everybody wants somebody dead,” he said.
“Metaphorically, of course. I’ve wished many a metaphorical death on people. But dead-actually-dead-dead? That’s another matter.”
“Apparently you haven’t heard,” the Killer said. “Metaphor is dead. Metaphor is the asshole of language. I killed it.”
“Okay, but . . .”
“We live in literal times,” he said.
I peered paranoiacally over my shoulder. Surely this was all a big gotcha joke choreographed by the staff of the subsidiary research outfit, clearly a craftier and more creative bunch than I’d credited them with being. But the lounge was almost empty.
“So let me get this straight,” I said to the Killer.
“Let me get you straight,” said the Killer. “Before there are dictators there are the sadistic nobodies who spread daily misery and make it possible for someone with a perspective problem, like a Mobutu Sese Seko, to respond out of all proportion to the little cruelties perpetrated by one asshole, and kill millions of people.”
“One asshole created Mobutu Sese Seko,” I said. This was a new theory to me.
“My family has been responsible for arresting the development of countless evil people,” the Killer said. “Our motto is ‘Crimes for Humanity.’”
He pulled his swizzle stick between his clamped lips, squeegeeing it dry.
“Without civilians to steer us in the proper direction, we’re a useless service. You ordered a Santosbrazzi Killer. Your subconscious is telling you that you know someone who should be killed. It is your duty to tell me the name of this person.”
I nodded understandingly, perhaps too understandingly. Because I’ll admit it—I was intrigued. The situation was a crazy one, yes, but not entirely unappealing. This was a checks-and-
balances system, after all, that may have kept the burgeoning tide of hurtful human jerkiness to a bearable minimum for four hundred years.
I contemplatively jicked his ballpoint. It had a very nice action to it, what I liked to call “jickback.”
“I really think I need to sleep on this,” I said to the Killer.
He tugged at his mustache tips; clearly my indecision further contributed to his sense of a greater cultural decline.
“I can give you until tomorrow,
8 p.m.,” he said.
“I’d appreciate that,” I said.
“We’ll meet here,” he said, indicating this booth.
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