Sure they knew him. Everybody knew him. Even with a face made for radio as Miriam loved to say. Because they knew him they stuck him in the same van with the others, gave him the same sloppy pat-down, took his name on the same list, and put him in the same holding pen with the mesh wire wall instead of bars. When he mentioned his name (half-ashamed, but he couldn’t help it) their eyes were just too blank. OK, I get it, he thought, Hurley Vixx is being punished.
Twenty-three righteous arrests, boasted the bio in his press kit, but Vixx could have lived without a 24th. Now he was stuck here, and God knows for how long. With one seatless toilet and at least 30 pen-mates. College kids, mostly. Though he was 50 (well, four days old as 51) Vixx prided himself on being eternally youthful in sympathy. Yet when the kids gently jeered him – Aren’t you a little old for this? What’s with the ponytail? You’re gonna mess up your suit! – he did feel a little annoyed. First of all hadn’t Ritchie said that Vixx & Vleeberg’s most rapidly rising listener group was the 18- to 30-year olds? OK, probably all he had to do was let fly some vintage Vixx invective and they’d be asking for his signature and free studio tickets. But who were they to question his commitment, his vitality, his…radicality! Bunch of babies. Tattoos and body-piercings everywhere, but not one mark that wasn’t self-inflicted. When he was their age (God listen to you) he would never allow himself to be arrested without getting a little roughed up. You had to stir the beast into showing its true nature. And you needed evidence. For all the jeering and slogans – GWB is the WMD! – these kids had nothing on their faces but worry. So when the cops brought in one covered with blood Vixx could hardly contain his joy.
He was at the tail-end of a new batch that otherwise was as immaculate as the current group. They filed in neatly, almost courteously, and just as courteously the group already there made room for them. Meanwhile everybody gave the bloody kid a wide berth as if not wanting his blood on them. They should have been cheering him, holding him up, using their own garments to clean and wrap his wounds. For the first time since entering the pen – in fact since he had bellowed at Miriam that his attendance at the march would not make him late for his belated birthday gift, the Mel Brooks tribute at Lincoln Center tonight – Vixx raised his voice: What’s WRONG with you people? Look at him! Hey kid, are you all right?
One of the new arrivals said to Vixx, He’s crazy. I wouldn’t if I were you.
He’s evil. This from a guy with a scrawny neck, a vaguely Germanic accent, and an oversized, pale green, roughly woven shirt. He’s worse than they are!
This surprised Vixx, who prided himself on never being surprised, not by human nature, not in court or on the street or as expressed by his partner and fascist, Lenny Vleeberg; and he was even more surprised by the lack of protest from the object of all this, the bloody kid. The kid heard everything. He just seemed to accept it, to understand and even approve of his ostracism. He had blood on the left side of his face, blood in his already dark hair, blood smearing his neck and soaked into the part of his shirt (blue but otherwise similar in texture to the shirt of the guy who branded him evil) that covered his collarbone and solar plexus. The blood was between dry and gooey on his neck and chest, yet still very liquid on his face. His bloody left eye was closed, already purple, swollen; his hand was not bloody at all but had blown up to twice its normal size, and though it resembled a fist the fingers were clearly too thick to even bend. He didn’t press any cloth to his eye, nor did he ask for anything, nor did he even moan, nor make any attempt to capture attention. He seemed embarrassed, like a man who had had a pie thrown in his face. The clotting blood might have been a sticky meringue, the swollen flesh chunks of pie crust that refused to fall off. Maybe he was still in shock, Vixx thought, because he wore a fixed, incongruous smile.
Vixx pushed through the people between them and held out a handkerchief to the kid. Take this. You’re hurt. Please.
The kid heard and saw him, because he took the handkerchief at once, but he didn’t do anything with it. Vixx laughed. Hey I know its silk, but it’s red anyway. Really, you should put something on that eye. I can’t believe they didn’t give you ice or something? Still fucking pigs after all these years, and he laughed again. The kid put the handkerchief, which was indeed red to match Vixx’s power tie, lightly against his eye. The fixed smile in no way connected with Vixx’s laugh, but then, he shouldn’t expect this kid to get 60’s references (already second-hand when Vixx made them in the 70’s). Although now he looked a bit older than Vixx had first thought.
How did this happen? Who did this to you?
He did it to himself, said the guy with the green shirt.
Not talking to you, said Vixx very distinctively. Come on, he said to the wounded kid, who now he thought might even be as old as 30, let’s get a semblance of privacy, and he led the way to the corner of the pen where the cement wall met the mesh wire wall. Then he realized the other hadn’t followed him. He went back, took him gently by the elbow, and brought him there. Everyone got out of their way as if they had leprosy, but then by shared reflex moved back in on them, staring. The guy with the scrawny neck and green shirt kept his head sharply averted, making clear to all in the pen and all the world how utterly he disowned them, yet his ear still faced them, and gaped like a mouth, and Vixx noticed that he was about the same distance away as he had been before they moved, so he must have moved too.
Vixx felt his blood jump. Nothing fueled him like opposition, though in this case he didn’t understand the reason for it. For the first time today he felt necessary. He thrilled to the little spectacle they made, the 30-year-old kid who had police brutality written all over him and the 50-plus guy with the long homely face, three-piece hand-tailored suit and streaked-with-gray ponytail that you didn’t even notice if you faced him from the front yet trailed down almost to the small of his back. The more they hated and the more they refused to comprehend, the more Vixx knew that he had hold of something. Something that would make noise, make a real statement, or, at the very least, make Vleeberg eat his liver.
Then he looked at the kid again and was startled to recall that he still didn’t know his name or what had happened. Nice to meet you by the way, I’m Hurley Vixx. Vixx, he repeated, because the other clearly hadn’t heard him. Just stared at the extended hand, and then slowly stuck the handkerchief between the swollen thumb and forefinger of his left hand and even more awkwardly extended his right. His grip was strong but he seemed to be clutching Vixx’s fingers rather than his palm. You’re a lefty, Vixx said (and mentally added, Perfect).
And your name is…
Oh. Sorry. Mead. Albert Mead.
The name didn’t do much for Vixx. A defendant’s name should resonate. For example, recently Vixx had argued on behalf of a young drug dealer named Damascus Peterson. Now there was a perfect name for a heartfelt plea of revelation and redemption! He was sure that was half the reason Damascus got five instead of 10-to-15. Now here the theme wasn’t redemption, actually Vixx wasn’t sure what it was yet, but he was sure that it wouldn’t soar on Albert Mead.
Hey, you got my sympathy. Albert, huh? Well, I wasn’t born Hurley, you know. Harry, by way of Harold. Can you imagine? Leonard and Harold? Well, look, Mr. Mead, as you know from listening to my show I’m not just a loudmouth pinko radio host, I’m also a well-known attorney, and my specialty is defending people exercising their right of civil disobedience to unjust laws…and unjust wars, which we know this certainly is. I can see that you were not only arrested but assaulted –
Please – sorry to interrupt you – you don’t have to call me Mr. Mead. Mead is fine.
OK Mead. And you can call me Vixx. Even my wife does.
And I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t know your show.
Vixx and Vleeberg. Six to nine WFAN? Left-wing lapsed Catholic, right-wing Jew? Aw you must have turned us on when you were driving to work.
I don’t drive to work. I don’t have a car, actually. Uh, I don’t have a radio either. So, no, I’m sorry, I don’t know you.
No problem. Would you like me to describe my credentials?
Oh no. I’m sure you’re a real lawyer.
And I’m sure you realize you’re going to need one.
Do I? His smile – not a new one, the same smile he’d been wearing all along – made this sound especially strange. Why?
Well…look at you. You’ve been attacked, beaten. And I’m sure they’ll try to make it seem like you’re the one guilty of assault –
Well, to be honest, they don’t have to make it seem anything –
That’s right. You are guilty. Worse than they are. You traitor. You betrayed my trust.
Uh, that’s Holger, said Mead. We’ve been friends 11 years. He brought me here today. He’s Austrian and very, very green. So he’s a little upset with me. Can’t say I blame him.
Vixx, who had been about to tell Holger to mind his own fucking business, was startled silent for a full minute.
You have to tell me what happened, Mead. And then, before the kid could say anything: You sound like you’re blaming yourself. Blaming the victim, as they say. Because you are the victim here. The violence was done to you. Look, and he held his palm out as if it were a mirror.
Mead did look, with that same unnerving smile.
…Unless there’s a cop or two that look worse than you do?
No. Mead laughed abruptly, which made Vixx hopeful. No.
Talk to me.
Where do you want me to begin?
From the beginning.
Well…this is the first time I’ve ever attended a march.
That’s OK. That’s beautiful. You were driven by pure idealism.
Uh…well, no…I was driven here by Holger…like I said. He convinced me to go. Begged me. I couldn’t say no to him. He’s been too good a friend to me.
(Holger’s ear, which looked about to shriek with every word Mead said, seemed momentarily mollified.)
But the war – you must –
Hey, I’m all for peace. I’m against war of all kinds…unless we’re directly attacked and it’s do or die… (Good phrase, Vixx thought, but just as good for Vleeberg.) Anyway, don’t ask me about this war, I really know nothing about it.
There you go putting yourself down again. I’m sure you know a lot – just turning on the TV – or from the papers. But don’t tell me you read the Post!
I don’t have a TV. I don’t read newspapers. I lead a quiet life. I’m a vegan, you know.
Oh. Vixx, who had skipped lunch today, felt himself instantly ravenous, his stomach keening for steak frite at Orsay.
You’re a fraud is what you are, Holger said.
Is he gay? Vixx said this to Mead, but loudly enough for Holger and everyone else to hear. Acts like you jilted him.
No. Well…I don’t know. You’re asking the wrong guy about sex. I gave that up a long time ago with meat and booze. I don’t even think about it when I look at people.
Is your real name Jesus Christ by any chance?
The kid took it with a good-natured wince. Not me. Talk about violent…my life was violent and horrible and toxic, and I had to give up all that or I was going to die…sorry. I’m not being clear. Let’s put it this way. By the time I was 24 I was a total mess. I was an alcoholic, drug addict – heroin, smoking crack – and to get what I needed I was a thief and a mugger, I hurt people, I’m sure I killed at least one person, mugging him…My only excuse was this started from the moment I had my first drink. When I was 12, I must have some kind of addictive gene. My family, friends tried to help me but nobody could help me. They disowned me and I don’t blame them.
But you turned your life around, Vixx said, impatiently, stomach still whining.
Well I can tell you it wasn’t a religious conversion. Or moral. It was really kind of scientific. Holger explained it to me. He explained it biologically: I was poisoned. From alcohol and drugs, of course, but even more basic – from meat, dairy, the chemicals they’re all treated with. I was filled with the toxins of meat and testosterone and bad protein, that’s what made me so violent, so sick and addicted and self-destructive. To save myself I had to purify myself.
OK then. And?
And so I tried it…this science experiment. That’s really what it was at first. Holger let me use an office at the Green Party headquarters. He had to lock me in there. It wouldn’t’ve worked otherwise, ‘cause it was agony. I puked, I screamed, I sweated rivers, I’d wake up in a pool of piss, I bit myself and bled, but it worked. I got cleaned out. And eating only what Holger would give me, I felt the change. And then I started to see…and feel…the horror of what we do, to ourselves and then to others. Other people. Other living beings. The violence begins in our own bloodstream, then we carry it to others, then inject back into ourselves, like a cycle of infection – Shit. I’m sorry. I’m not proselytizing. I’m totally against that.
Thank you, said Vixx and both he and Mead laughed. Just in time: he was about to write the kid off. It would be point-blank target practice when Vleeberg took aim at this one. And every listener, right or left, would be cheering, because everybody hated vegans. Vixx hated them even more than he hated Unlapsed Catholics, Born-Again Christians, Muslim Fundamentalists, or Orthodox Jews – all enemies of pleasure, but to Vixx food was pleasure, the purest, sacred in his current state. To prevent the killing of creatures that regularly killed each other, these losers would leach every drop of blood from pleasure. Turn goodness into a diet.
I’ve been really lucky, Mead said. This worked for me, I don’t know if that means it works for everybody. And if it wasn’t for my grandmother, who disapproved of everything I talked about but still loved me, I may not’ve stuck with it. She let me live in her house. She let me turn her whole backyard into a mini-farm, for God’s sake. And then she left it to me along with her money when she died. So I could afford to grow my own food, and live my quiet life. Holger reminded me that those people in the desert weren’t so lucky. I had no right to divorce myself, to remain silent. I like Holger. So I went.
No good deed goes unpunished, eh? Vixx patted Mead’s shoulder. He was wrong: this kid would be perfect. Because whatever he said there was that shrug in his voice, that regular-American decency that was humble and humorous and likeable and inviolable. Next to him Vleeberg would be exposed as the vicious, soulless media whore that he was, and even Vixx would seem a little fake. And you couldn’t see his strange smile over the radio.
Good deed? Vixx, I deserve this. This, holding up the red handkerchief now almost black with his blood. I punched –
But they started it. They provoked you.
It wasn’t like that at all.
OK, what was it like?
It was like…Rip Van Winkle. Like I’d been asleep for 11 years and then I woke up. Except, it wasn’t that everything was changed. It was that everything was the same. I was the same, after all these years. I was the same.
What are you talking about?
I was…as toxic as I had ever been. I was everything Holger’s been calling me…evil, that’s right.
(Holger’s earlobe was quavering, like a 13-year-old girl’s lower lip.)
All this for using your fists? On a cop?
I didn’t punch a cop.
So who did you punch?
I punched the horse.
You punched the horse. Of course. Vixx felt the blast of laughter split his lips, blow right in Mead’s face. He couldn’t help it. He saw Mr. Ed baring his teeth and he saw Mongo in Blazing Saddles decking the horse with one punch and he saw himself, watching everyone around him being arrested and realizing with a sigh there was no graceful way he could not be arrested. He wanted Mead to laugh with him as he had before, but the kid just stood there with that smile which Vixx belatedly realized was meant to express shame. And abruptly he remembered the time he saw a carriage horse collapse from exhaustion. Or maybe heat stroke; anyway it was a scorching day, and he and Miriam were trudging home to their crappy two-bedroom (this was before the townhouse). And there, right on 62nd Street, they saw the horse, still harnessed, fall down. Somehow, lying on its side, one leg kicking, ribs and belly heaving, steaming from water they threw on it, the horse seemed massive, bigger th an any horse Vixx had ever seen. Miriam started to sob and broke away, and he had to follow her. Now he thought of it to contain himself in the same way, during sex, he once thought of his father’s dying face to keep from coming too fast.
Oh! I get it. The cop was on a horse. So – big deal – he tried to ride you down, right? Probably about to trample you! Of course you hit back. You were really hitting him, kid.
No. I wasn’t.
Look, Mead, I was in the same crowd you were. Those bastards were getting rough. They were using the horses the same way they were using clubs. As instruments. Weapons.
No, Mead said. I didn’t even see the cop. I heard the yelling back and forth, and then the people around me seemed to gasp, seize up, like a muscle. I heard the sound behind me, smelled it and heard it at the same time, something between a snort and a laugh. A belch. I turned around and we were face to face.
You and the horse – laughing again – I’m sorry, kid, but it is kind of funny.
Yeah, it is, isn’t it. I can see that. But then all I saw was the horse’s face…like one inch away, closer than my own face in a mirror and yet this utterly alien thing. Huge long face, brown hair, black eyes. Black crud in the corners of the eyes. And white stuff, dripping from the nose and mouth. The lips pulled back, the teeth and the breath in my face. Animal, I thought, fucking animal, and…next thing I knew the thing was screaming and my hand was…He held it up, Like this. When it screamed I hated it. It hated me, I hated it. So I’m the same. I’m…
You’re a punch line, Vixx thought. My God, if he had let Vleeberg get hold of him! Or the Post, or Leno or Dave, or PETA, or the righteous idiots (his colleagues) at the ACLU. Set the cause of peace back even farther than it already was. Poor bastard. Part of him wanted to comfort the kid, tell him that history and human progress were best viewed from a distance, that every Gandhi harbored an inner Saddam and every grass-muncher had a taste for flesh. But the smarter part of him wanted to step back, get away, because let’s face it, the kid was weird. He was repulsive, in fact. And still smiling at Vixx even as Vixx was thinking this.
OK, it’s not so bad, Vixx started to say, and Mead turned and dashed his head against the wall. There was a squishing thud, and Mead sank to his knees, leaving a bloody smear at the point of impact and making a muffled hocking noise, like he was clearing the bottom of his throat. Jesus! Vixx grabbed at the kid’s arm, but suddenly he was shoved aside by Holger, who cradled Mead in his arms, and then by everybody else in the room, rediscovering their compassion or simply drawn by that human need to gawk at train wrecks. Pushed to the mesh wall, he yelled for the cops – We’ve got a man hurt here! We need EMS! – and there they were, three of them, already about to open the door. Vixx was about to reevaluate his life-held view of police responsiveness when it dawned on him that they were here for another reason. And while one of them rushed off at once for medical help, the other two stood there. Vixx? We’re looking for Hurley Vixx?
Oh! That’s me.
One of them glanced at something in his hand, while the other hissed in his ear, It’s him, there’s the ponytail.
OK. You can go now.
What’s the catch?
You’re bailed out. Your buddy Vleeberg. Says he needs a punching bag for tomorrow’s show.
Yeah well, fuck him.
Hey, you can stay if you want. And rot here until your case comes up.
If you’re trying to get me to shut up about him… Vixx looked back at the Mead-Holger Pietá, and then knew that every wound on the kid was self-inflicted. He must have bashed his own head to get the other black eye, too. And, of course, the swollen hand was from punching a horse in the face. Look. He’s in bad shape. You can’t leave him alone, he’ll....
Don’t worry about it, the cop said, with no sarcasm. We’ll take it from here. We’ll get him to the hospital. Put him on suicide watch, if we have to..
You just have to sign for your stuff, the other cop said. His eyes were too blank. Your limo’s out back.
Vixx was about to say Fuck you, it’s a black car, but was struck dumb by the wonder of his driver actually being in the right place at the right time, for once.
He left without looking back. In the car, to rid himself of Mead’s persistent bloody face, Vixx dialed Ed Offitt – lawyer, righteous idiot, and old friend – and left a message telling him about Mead and asking him to bail the kid out. He made Mead sound like a martyr, and he was sure Offitt would jump at representing him.
There, he thought, done my doo-doo, and he made it uptown after all and to Lincoln Center just in time for the Brooks tribute. Miriam (using his name?) had gotten them into the VIP balcony. Ann Bancroft and Mel Himself sat two rows ahead. Bernadette Peters was a few seats to his right. But over the next two hours, despite a hilarious parade of scenes from all the great movies, Vixx didn’t laugh once. He realized he was waiting, with dread in his belly, for the scene of Mongo and the horse. It never came. Could Mel have deliberately left it out? And then, at the thought that Mel, too, might have gone vegan, Vixx did laugh.