Pomegranates and Henna and Aralia and Things
Al Brecht’s carved-granite ivy-league smile was burnt into Tobie’s retinas like a too-long-stared-at solar eclipse.
A few years before, Tobie had worked for a liberal rag, the People’s Voice. It had been the kind of paper that threw softballs to anarchists, but now, after a zaibatsu takeover, the People’s Voice was called MAKE, in big red caps with a bang at the end.
Tobie’s job was now playing softball with the movers and shakers. The job was starting to chip away at his soul.
Pete Caiazzo, adopted son of Nerio Caiazzo and heir of the biggest crime family in the city, was on the run. His adoptive father had gotten it in the neck a few years back, and word on the street was Pete didn’t know how to earn. Every paesano in town wanted his head. Pete was on the run, and Tobie dearly wished they’d let him cover the crime beat.
As Tobie exited a glass walled elevator, and strolled across the marble floored entry hall, a roar started to grow in his ears. He’d hoped to make a quick exit from legal-theft-central and catch a train home so he could grab a shower and wash off the contact greed, but, stepping out onto the sidewalk through a tall pair of glass doors, the roar grew cacophonous, and Tobie noticed the source.
The WHO building across the street was surrounded by about a thousand chicer than average protesters; they must have gathered there while Tobie had been listening to Al Brecht spin epic tales about his yacht.
The first picket-sign read Silence=Death, a tried and true catch phrase. Then there was FUCK WELLCOME; he wasn’t sure what that was about.
Tobie’s eyes scanned the crowd. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, or told himself that. He was thinking about Jo, a kid he used to date, and, thinking about Jo, Tobie remembered the test Robin had made him take before she’d married him.
“Hey, you,” a sing song voice said in his ear.
Tobie turned and almost fell flat on the sidewalk. He found himself face to face with Marilyn Monroe, or maybe what she would have looked like at fourteen. The platinum blond wig was convincing, but the bust of the white Travilla cocktail dress was glaringly flat, and this Marilyn had a big pink triangle painted across his pale face.
“Jo?” Tobie said.
“You can call me something else if you want– You’re totally dressed wrong for a protest. You see anybody else here in sleeve-garters?” Jo asked. “Are you crying?”
Tobie hadn’t realized he was. “Stress.”
“Look guys!” Jo turned back to the crowd and yelled over the chanting. “Tobie’s crying manly tears.” A few guys in leather nodded at him, and one guy rested a hand on Tobie’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze.
“Thanks,” Tobie said. He grabbed Jo’s arm and took quick steps towards a slightly quieter alley.
“Where ya takin’ me?” Jo sing-songed. “Lookin’ for a down-low quicky at an AIDS protest is pretty hard-core.”
Tobie ignored Jo’s nostalgically typical banter. He wasn’t sure why he’d dragged him away. They hadn’t met in years, so maybe he just wanted a chance to process in relative quiet.
He noticed the sign Jo held in his hand. It’s AIDS not ARC, You Stupid Pricks!
“What’s that mean?” Tobie asked.
“Some acronyms, or somethin’. It’ll be the shit in a couple years– Hey! I got a story for ya!”
“…You know I work for a money paper now.”
“How bout, I got a story that’d land you editor at another paper, if you pimp it right.”
“…You know where Pete Caiazzo is?”
“How’d you guess?” Jo asked, glaring at him for spoiling the surprise.
“I just thought, what would be the most surprising, coincidental thing Jo could say–”
“So you were surprised!”
“Not so much…. You really know where he is?”
“…Yeah,” Jo said. “He’s staying at my place.”
That was actually surprising.
It was a relatively short walk out of the business district, and a crowded subway ride across town.
Tobie knew this neighborhood well. It had been his home turf before he’d gotten married. Jo led him through a dozen grimy alleys before stopping in front of a familiar liquor store with a brick tower stacked precariously on top.
“Now,” Jo said, “before you freak out, you remember how your apartment was rent controlled?”
“Yeah,” Tobie said.
“I’ve, kinda, been pretending I was you and staying in your old place.”
“I figured,” Tobie said.
“So you’re not mad?”
“…Do you, dress up like me?”
“Only when the landlord swings by, I gotta wear high-heels– You know Mr. Qwan’s half blind.”
“I remember,” Tobie said.
They went in the side entrance and started up the steep concrete steps.
“Pete’s really staying here?” Tobie asked.
“Yup. My dad and his dad were colleagues. Pete and me used to play when we were little.”
Pete had to be in his thirties. Thirty-four if Tobie had the facts right, but Jo didn’t look any older than he had five years before, and back then Tobie had been worried he’d get busted for statutory.
“Ah!” Jo said as they continued up the concrete steps.
“What is it?”
“Pete wanted me to get tomatoes.”
“So you’ve got him cooking for you?”
“Pete’s hetero as a volunteer gynecologist, but, yeah, he cooks. Hey. I heard you made a kid.”
“…Yeah, Lily. She’s four.”
“Lily, after Robin’s grandma?”
“Yeah. Lillian died a few months before–”
“I was at the funeral,” Jo said. The corners of Jo’s lips usually twitched when he was telling a joke, and they weren’t twitching.
“I didn’t see you–”
“I was in disguise– Now, that looks bad,” Jo said as they climbed the last step.
Tobie’s old apartment was at the end of a dusty wood-floored hall. The big industrial door was half open, and Tobie saw a toppled coffee table through the gap.
“Shh,” Jo said, holding a finger to his lips.
They crept forward. Jo tried to take point, but Tobie sidled around him. He peered in. The toppled coffee table seemed to be most of the damage. The window to the fire escape was open and balled up news papers rolled across the stained-wood floor like tumble weeds. Then Tobie noticed the man in a black robe standing in the middle of the room.
He had a white scarf draped over his head, a long black beard, and a shiny little machine gun in each hand. This wasn’t Pete.
“That’s not Pete,” Jo said, holding up his hands as the man aimed dead black eyes in their direction.
The man said something under his breath, “…Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad….” He raised an Uzi, and Tobie held up his hands too.
“I…” Jo said. That was the first time Tobie had seen Jo at a loss for words. “…I think Ori’d be pissed if you started a war with One Eye.”
The man’s head cocked to the side as his dark eyes examined the Marilyn-dress and Jo’s pink-triangle-painted face. He lowered his pistol but continued his mumbling as he slipped out the window and started up the fire-escape.
Tobie stared at the open window, only lowering his hands when Jo poked him in the side.
“Was he… dressed like a rabbi?” Tobie asked.
“I’m pretty sure that’s Shani, Ori’s son,” Jo said.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me.”
“I’m not sure if he’s just super orthodox, or teaches Torah– but I guess that’d be hard since he only ever says that one prayer.”
“So… Pete’s not here then?”
“Looks like it,” Jo said, flopping down on a familiar green-corduroy couch. “I figure he heard Shani comin’ and split.”
Jo patted the spot on the couch next to him, and Tobie sat.
“So,” Jo said. “How you findin’ married life?”
“We, just, almost got shot.”
“Nah, and even if we had, Daddy woulda killed everybody in Ori’s crew.”
“I’m not sure that makes me feel any better.”
“You sure you’re not jus’ dodgin’ the question? Is Robin like, totally naggin’ you every minute– Is Lily pissing everywhere all the time.”
“She’s not a puppy.”
“Oh,” Jo said, “yeah.”
“Robin…. I kind of… hate her, I think.”
“Isn’t that just being married?” Jo smirked. Tobie noticed their hands were resting on a very old blood stain on his old green couch, and their pinkies were touching.
“How old are you?”
“You don’t look any older, than last time we met.”
“It’s only been a few years–” Jo swung around quick, scooching over and only stopping when his nose was an inch from Tobie’s cheek. “Are you hitting on me?”
“No…. I’m married—”
“To an evil bitch you hate.”
“I only kind of hate her… and I think she hates me too.”
“You think I’m a guy, right?” Jo asked.
“Well, foolin’ around with a guy isn’t cheating.”
“…Really,” Tobie said as Jo’s skinny fingers slipped into the pocket of his slacks.
“It’s like… exercise,” Jo said. “Like we go to the same gym or something, or like takin’ a ballroom dance class at the worst.”
Jo’s lips curled as his pupils dilated. “Totally,” he said.