(Art by spoon+fork.)
A nice suit made me look sharp. More importantly, it gave me confidence. I’d never worn anything that gave me such a mental boost, apart from a protector cup. I got my hair trimmed like Chuck told me, and before we got into the courtroom he took out a comb and tried to run it over me.
I flinched and grabbed his arm.
“Don’t give me your dandruff, Chuck!”
“Hey, it’s not my comb. I just bought it!” he said. “Anyway, you can do your own hair, Sean.” Chuck handed it over and I repaired myself.
I got up on the stand and after they were done with the Bible, I got a good look at Mr. Aggarwal.
He folded and unfolded his arms and shook his right leg. The lapels of his shirt were uneven and the tie knot was mushy. His eyes were downcast and only slightly open, like his mouth. Sometimes he would rub his ears.
Mrs. Aggarwal wasn’t around.
I had both feet on the ground and I placed my hands on my knees. I made the left and right fingers mirror each other in the same exact spot.
Then I lied.
I lied like a motherfucker.
I had premonitions of what my testimony would be like. I knew I wouldn’t be nervous. I just pretended I was trying to get a girl to take a ride with me.
It was Mr. Aggarwal I was unsure of. I had a vision of him lunging at me with a knife, or maybe the same wrench that he used to kill Howard. On TV they always kept the murder weapons on the evidence table, like they were daring the murderer to pick them up and fight their way out of the courtroom.
But the wrench wasn’t there and because there wasn’t another camera angle to cut to, a sense of action was missing in the court. I would have been incredibly bored if I weren’t testifying.
Mr. Aggarwal was completely still with his head down.
He looked like a boy preparing to meet the principal, not a man facing the death sentence.
We had a recess for lunch. Chuck took me across the street to a lunch counter with a cracked-linoleum floor.
“Sean, you’re doing great!” he told me. “I think you missed your true calling. You’re a natural actor!”
“Oh, yeah. So I’ve been told.”
Chuck took off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with his tie. I leaned into him and said: “I’m one fuck of a liar, aren’t I?”
He looked at me strangely and when he put on his glasses I saw menace in his eyes.
“Don’t say that,” he said, his voice as faint as a lead pipe scraping against a wall in a back alley. “Don’t ever say that.”
Chuck ordered a toasted plain bagel with nothing on it. I got the tuna salad sandwich and a coffee. I started with the chips first.
“I’ve already got a Star Ledger reporter who wants to interview you and get your whole life’s story,” Chuck said. He only took a glass of water with his dry bagel.
“What do you think I should do?”
“Don’t do any interviews until the trial is over. But in the end, it’s up to you, Sean, if you ever want to talk to them. I mean, if you were the kind of guy who knew how and wanted to publicize yourself, then talk to them. Someone could make your story into a book or into a movie.”
“Yeah. Happens all the time with stuff like this.”
He took a bite out of his bagel and chewed. Watching him eat made my throat feel scratchy.
“How can you eat that, Chuck?”
He shrugged and kept chewing.
“That’s got to have no taste. It’s like eating seashells.”
“I have a bad stomach, and on top of that, I’m a little nervous,” Chuck said.
“If you’re not going to put anything on it, why not get an onion or raisin bagel? Why did you have to get a plain?”
“The plain bagel isn’t plain-tasting. It absorbs the flavors from all the other bagels around it. It’s like getting an everything bagel without all the crap falling in your lap.”
The waitress refilled my coffee and I finished it in about five seconds. Then she gave me a dirty look, daring me to ask for another refill.
“Hey, there, don’t be that way,” I told her. “I’m a hometown hero!” It was good for one last refill.
After we were done eating, Chuck said I had to take the stand again.
“I thought I was done,” I said.
“You’re only half done. Now the defense gets to question you.”
Panic went through me like a lightning strike. I cracked my thumb knuckles and rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth because it felt numb.
Mr. Aggarwal’s lawyer looked like the rat-like bad guy from the first “Die Hard,” Hans, and seemed as mean-spirited.
He came walking straight at me with his black eyes sharp as spearpoints smeared with ink.
“How long has it been,” he asked casually, “since you’ve rejected Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”
I put my hands over my crotch.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“How long have you been working at the hamburger stand adjacent to my client’s hotel?”
“About three months.”
“Where were you employed immediately before?”
“You were in jail, weren’t you?”
Chuck spoke up. “May counsel approach the bench?” The judge said yes and the three men had a conference.
Hans’s mouth swung open. He stepped back to the floor. When he looked at me again, I knew the worst was coming.
“Are you familiar with the group known as the Dotbusters?”
“I have heard of them, yes.”
“What do the Dotbusters do?”
“They hate people from India.”
“And how is it that you’re familiar with the Dotbusters?”
“My co-worker, Howard, the murdered guy, told me about them.”
“Isn’t it true that he was a member?”
“Objection,” said Chuck. “That’s pure conjecture.”
“I’ll rephrase. To the best of your knowledge, was Howard a member of the Dotbusters?”
“He said he wasn’t,” I said.
“What do you know about the hate crime perpetrated against the Aggarwals?”
“Objection,” said Chuck.
“To the best of your knowledge, did Howard know anything about the posters that were put up around the Seahorse Hotel?”
“He told me he didn’t know.”
“I object to this line of questioning,” said Chuck. “The hate crime has nothing to do with this case.”
Die Hard villain said, “I’m trying to establish that the witness is prejudiced against the client.”
“I’m not prejudiced!” I yelled. “Howard was!”
Chuck threw me the look of death. I shut up.
“And yet you continued working with Howard,” said Hans.
“I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t quit and leave.”
“Wouldn’t you say were friends with Howard?”
“Not really. We just worked together.”
“Do you resent immigrants such as Mr. Aggarwal coming into this country?”
“No. I became friends with Mrs. Aggarwal.”
“Just friends, Sean?”
“Objection,” said Chuck, lazily.
“Did you have an affair with my client’s wife?”
“Sustained,” said the judge. “Counsel is warned that this is a frivolous line of questioning.”
Hans bit his lip and nodded.
When I got down and went over to Chuck, he muttered to me, “That was so fucking lame.”
“No, not you. The defendant’s lawyer. God, it was just pathetic. Was Aggarwal just trying to save money by calling 1-800-LAWYERS?”
“What happened earlier, when you walked up to the judge?”
“I told the judge that you were part of an undercover operation. That any further testimony along the lines of your supposed imprisonment would put other undercover agents in jeopardy.”
“I wasn’t really.”
“No, it’s true. I’m not lying. You just didn’t consciously know it.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
“I’d say Aggarwal’s done like Tandoori chicken. Serve him up with some bread.”
I slid down in my chair and played with my jacket buttons.
That was the end of my testimony. I was done with going to court. Chuck told me to lay low and stay away from any cameras until the verdict came out.
The day after me, Mr. Aggarwal was on the stand. There were other people testifying–Johnson as to how he found us up there on the terrace, and someone at the autopsy to say how Howard was killed–but it was basically me against Mr. Aggarwal as to what actually happened.
I read in the paper that he didn’t deny that he grew the pot or that he sold it to Howard. Mr. Aggarwal even admitted killing Howard, though out of “temporary insanity.” Howard had always made racist comments at Mr. Aggarwal, calling him a “dot” or “7-11.”
Mr. Aggarwal said he lost it when Howard accused him of sending the money to Al Qaeda.
He happened to have a cast-iron pipe wrench in his hand at the time.
The next thing he knew, something soft dropped on his foot. It was Howard’s neck.
Judging from the demographic of the jury, they probably thought that Mr. Aggarwal was part of an Al Qaeda terror cell, too. People on that jury were meatheads like me, Howard and Andrea Conti.
Mr. Aggarwal’s lawyer must have known what was going on. He had Mr. Aggarwal’s engineering degree from M.I.T. passed around the jury, but it wasn’t enough.
Mr. Aggarwal hanged himself in jail that night. He had ripped out strips of fabric from the waistline of his jail pants for the noose.
Chuck came to my apartment in person to tell me about Mr. Aggarwal. I had been asleep and came to the door in my boxers.
I remember that when I heard the news, I curled up in a fetal position on the floor, crying. Chuck didn’t know what to do and turned to leave.
I grabbed his ankle when he tried to walk away. Chuck put his briefcase down and pulled me up to the couch.
“Hey, come on! Pull yourself together, Sean,” he said. “Look at you. This whole thing is good for you! You were the star witness, and now you’re a star!”
“I need to tell Mrs. Aggarwal that I’m sorry!”
“No! Don’t ever contact her!”
“I killed him.”
“The jailors, the guys who didn’t take away all the things Mr. Aggarwal could hurt himself with — they’re to blame, not you. Anyway, he killed himself. Innocent and good people never kill themselves. He was bad.”
“I was bad, too! I was in jail!”
“Well, he was worse than you. Much worse.”
With such a dramatic ending to the case, the press came for me. I talked with the Asbury Park Press, The Star-Ledger and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I even had a telephone interview with The New York Post.
I didn’t really know why they bothered to talk to me, because it seemed that they already knew what they wanted to write. I was a reformed drug user working undercover to topple the pot kingpin of the Jersey shore.
The New Jersey Devils and the Nets wanted me to come to pre-season warm-ups and meet the guys. I went to see both teams and it felt like the whole thing was happening to someone else — someone bigger and taller.
But most importantly, Johnson arranged for me to have dinner with a retired detective who now ran a management consultation business in the city. His name was Ron LaVerne and he looked like the guy who does the diabetes drug ad on TV. LaVerne wanted me to come and work for him, starting out with a low-level office job.
What struck me, as I was getting set up in the city, was how similar my situation was to when I was on probation. Actually, it was a little worse.
The first time I saw the apartment LaVerne had set up for me, on the fifth floor of a walkup way over on 10th Avenue and 52nd Street, I thought that there had to be some mistake with the address. The neighborhood was poorly lit and the sidewalks were as dirty as the gutter.
In fact, the asphalt of the street was so high and the sidewalk blocks had sank so low, there was no curb. When it rained, the sidewalk was the gutter that the water washed up onto and flooded.
People hanging out were a strange mix of elderly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and young white college students.
My building looked like the others up and down the block. The cracked and chipped stone steps up to the lobby door looked like they belonged in a haunted graveyard.
The tile floor of the lobby was mostly pulverized or missing. The staircase was in surprisingly good shape. It barely creaked when you walked up. The handrail had so many coatings of lead paint that it was bulletproof.
My apartment faced the street and even with the window shut, I could hear people yelling and laughing no matter where I was — in the small bedroom, the small living room or the tiny bathroom.
The first thing I did in that apartment was put the goldfish bowl on the toilet tank. I watched him shake his fins and sink slightly.
I saw some nails on the floor so I took a broom off the counter and swept them out into the hallway. I heard a girl in the next apartment on the phone, crying. I came back in, shut the door and locked it.
In the morning, I walked down to 34th Street and then walked past The New Yorker hotel on the corner of 8th Avenue to a generic office building.
I was ready for my first day. After taking the stand in court, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t face.
I walked into the lobby and tried to read the quote that ran the entire length of the lobby mural. The guard behind the desk gave me a look like I was lucky his trap-door button wasn’t working.
Up on the 10th floor, the receptionist was on her cell phone and buzzed me in without even looking at me.
Ron LaVerne wasn’t in yet. It turned out he rarely came in on Mondays, or early in the week or early in the month.
I got a cup of coffee and took a desk in a cubicle in the corner closest to the window. I had a few coffee refills before a tech guy wandered over to set me up on the computer. He got Firefox up and running but he couldn’t get me an actual company account until the boss came in. I killed time by looking for a used copy of “The Corduroy Road.”
Ron came in on Thursday and had me backdate my paperwork to the beginning of the month.
“Someone show you the ropes around here, yet?” he asked as he glanced at my Social Security card.
“Nobody’s shown me anything. I’ve been getting the cold shoulder around here.”
“You know what? People think you’re my mole here. They all know you from the newspaper and that you work undercover. The first few months might be tough, but they’ll soften up.”
“Oh, you need an eight-by-24 phone, here.” I found out later that that meant I was going to be handling the calls. I also filled out FedEx forms and took deliveries. I became the go-to guy for Excel spreadsheets because I learned it quickly and soon took over for the woman who taught me. Now that I think about it, I guess she let me pass her on purpose.
I didn’t have a computer at home, so I stayed a little late every day just to surf the Web. I tried searching for where Mrs. Aggarwal was, but I kept turning up lists of professors and doctors.
I finally found “The Corduroy Road” at a used-book site. Someone was selling a used one from a public school that had just shut down. Jesus, how many years did they teach that book?
I did a Google search for myself, but as time went on, newspaper sites with my name started expiring and leading to dead links. Hitting too many of them was always a signal to go home.
I was in a bar one night when I felt someone grab my shoulder. I turned my head and stared into the face of a pretty green parrot. Its head was cocked and a little tongue was hanging out of its beak.
His name was Money and he belonged to this Polish-American girl, Crystal. I wish mom could have seen me now, dating a college graduate.
We were on and off, depending on how much money I had at the time. I guess I was old-fashioned because I think men should have to pay.
LaVerne drug-tested at work every month and was also my landlord, so I didn’t dare smoke pot or even call in sick. I was so paranoid, I wouldn’t even put oregano on my pizza.
My goldfish seemed more active in the new apartment, or maybe it was just my lack of pot intake.
Above the mirror in my bathroom, a sign read, “Promotion to Office Manager.”
Sometimes late in the afternoons there would be a loud hoopla from the mailroom. Because all the managers in the office were white, they were too scared to go into the all-black-and-Latino mailroom to see what was going on.
Not scared for their lives. Scared of looking stupid or square.
Because I sent out and received so many packages and flat-rate envelopes, I was probably the only white guy who went in there regularly.
One day my curiosity got the better of me and after a spirited series of hollers and high-fives from the mailroom, I got up, put my hands in my pockets and sauntered in.
The enthusiasm in the room died two seconds after I walked in.
“What’s going on in here?”
“Why, we’re only working hard, boss,” said Pops, the senior mail guy. He had been there since the beginning, almost 10 years ago. Pops had a kinky gray chin and head but clean-shaven lips.
Somebody quickly hit some keys on the tracking computer and then stood in front of the monitor.
“What do you know about the stock market?” asked Pops.
“Do you want to learn?”
“Not really. I just wanted to know what all the shouting was about.”
“Well, we made our nut this week.”
“Yes, well, Sean, when a trading desk makes back all its operating expenses – things like rent, salary and other costs – it is said to be making its nut. After that, everything’s gravy.
I didn’t understand a word he said.
Pops rolled up his sleeves and took a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and started clicking the button.
“This is what’s going on, Sean,” he said. “We’ve opened an online brokerage account and we’ve been trading stock.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Look, nothing illegal is going on here. Except maybe we’re a little distracted from our work at times. We’re even set up as a limited-liability partnership.”
“When we first got our WiFi network in the office, I noticed that my subordinates were spending a lot of time going over sports stats. One day I figured, shoot, if we’re gonna be putting that much effort into numbers, we might as well be making money off of it.”
“Legally. Not with bookies. I mean, I know how you’re the hero of the drug bust in Jersey, but there’s nothing here for you to sniff out. Unless you want to join.”
“How do I join? Um, what am I joining?”
The guy blocking the terminal broke in: “What are you asking him to join? Just the investment club and not the book club?”
“Doug,” said Pops, “he can join either one.”
“A book club? I like to read. I’ll join that one, too.”
“Well, now, we have to take a vote on your memberships,” said Pops. “Just wait outside for a few minutes for us to talk this over.”
They let me into the investment club, but I missed the book club by one vote. The initial investment was $100 and I told Pops I’d have the money next week, after payday.
Just after congratulating me on getting in, Pops grabbed me by the shoulder and looked into my eyes.
“Tell me you have your 401(k) retirement plan set up.”
“I got the folder, but I didn’t read it.”
“Man, you gotta read that shit! I’m enrolling you online right now. Sit down!”
I sat down in the swivel chair in front of the terminal as Pops typed something on the keyboard. It was a little too high, so I pulled on the lever on the side.
There was something very familiar about the feel of the lever. I got up and turned the chair on its side to look under the seat. It was made by DEPCOR, and maybe even by me. I put the wheels back on the floor, sat down and slowly spun to the monitor.
“Now, what’s your last name, again?” asked Pops.
Johnson called me at work.
“O’Keefe!” I shouted into the phone out of instinct.
“I hate to admit it, but it’s nice to hear that name again,” Johnson said.
There are fables of people who wander into a hidden land of fairies and stay for a day and have fun. But when they leave the forest for home, they find out that in reality a number of years have passed — one year for each fairy hour. You live in New York City in fairy hours.
When I heard Johnson’s voice I realized that it was now May, about seven months since the trial and everything, even though it felt like I was still in my first few weeks in the city.
May used to be a really exciting time for me. The summer officially started in Shore Points with Memorial Day weekend, and before then, I had to get a job and a girl lined up, or at least my first job and first girl for the season.
Now it didn’t matter. We went from winter to spring and the temperature and humidity of the office didn’t budge. It was the same fucking thing every day.
(Next week, the electrifying conclusion to Motherfuckerland.)