SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 9, 2010

Author’s Note: Whenever possible, I try to avoid being a big fat insufferable whore. This has not made me popular among publicists. So in the spirit of goodwill, I’ve decided this small foray into whoredom wouldn’t leave me feeling too filthy inside. On June 1, I’ll be releasing my new book, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and Other Fairy Tales (Simon & Schuster, $14). Between now and then, Electron Press will be running a few stories originally intended for the book, but not included in the final collection. The hope is that if you like these stories, you’ll like the ones in the book even more, thus feeling compelled to buy several copies. So please don’t hold it against me.

 

The Devil Went Up to Queens

 

“Okay,” the pale, cadaverous man in the dark suit said. “We’ll go over it one last time. Here’s the deal . . . “

            It was ten-thirty on a Wednesday night. The five of them were sitting around a back table in an otherwise empty diner just down the block from the Forest Hills Woolworth’s. Plates covered with smeared ketchup, scattered, cold french fries and gnawed chicken bones had been pushed to the side. Three of the young men were still sucking on sodas. The fourth was staring out the window, bored. A thick stack of typewritten pages rested in the middle of the table between them.

            “If you sign this contract,” the thin man said, “I will make you certain guarantees.”

            “Like what sort of guarantees?” one of the young men asked. He had asked that question the first time they went over the contract, and the third time, and the sixth.

            “Well,” the thin man said (more patiently than one might have imagined). “I guarantee that if you sign this contract, you will all become very wealthy.”

            “That sounds good.”

            “Yeah,” added the boy who’d been staring out the window. All four were dressed very much alike, which at first made it difficult for the lawyer to tell them apart. Then he decided that telling them apart didn’t much matter.

            “It also guarantees,” he went on, “that you will be very, very famous all over the world. In fact, you will be called ‘legends,’ and you will inspire a generation. Several generations, in fact. You will be considered among the greatest who ever lived. Everyone will love and respect you.”

            “Uh-huh? And?”

            The thin man raised a sharp eyebrow. “That’s about it, actually. You’ll be rich and famous legends. You’ll inspire the multitudes. All for doing nothing more than exactly what you’re doing right now.”

            “Oh wait—I get it,” one of the young men jumped in. “Like, all this will happen a hundred years from now, right? After we’re long dead? It’s like irony.” The thin man had noted throughout the negotiations that this one was clearly the brightest of the four, for whatever that was worth.

            “Oh no,” he assured them. “This contract stipulates quite clearly in subsection C, paragraph 6f, that you will see all of these things within your lifetimes. Within the next five, ten years, even, all of these things will have come to pass. You’ll be able to see and enjoy all the rewards. You’ll need to work hard of course,” he warned them. “But I know you will. And think of it—you’re all very young. Ten years from now you’ll still be reasonably young, and you’ll be wealthy and famous beyond anything you can comprehend. Imagine how long that could go on.”

            “Wow,” one said, as he elbowed the boy next to him.

            “You’ll travel to all the corners of the world,” the thin man added. “And everywhere you go, you will be worshipped by thousands upon thousands of fans. And with that, I don’t think I even need to say anything about the sex. Or the drugs. Or whatever you like. It’ll all be yours for the taking.”

            “Wait a second,” the clever one said to his three friends. “Before you all get too excited, I want to know what the catch is.” He turned his attention back to the thin man. “There’s always a catch.”

            “Well,” the thin man said, leaning back in his chair and smiling slightly. He expected the bright one to bring this up eventually. “Of course I get my cut, as we’ve discussed. Fifteen percent is industry standard, and that’s all I ask. Arranging these things won’t be easy. It’ll take a little time. I’ll need to work almost as hard as the four of you to make it happen. But trust me, it will happen.”

            “Okay, fair enough. Is that it? That’s not a catch. That’s standard business.”

            The thin man paused, his eyes cutting to the left. “No, that’s not exactly all of it. I wouldn’t exactly call them ‘catches,’ but there are two other clauses you need to know about before you sign. Just to keep everything above board. But they’re minor points. Hardly a concern at all.”

            “Oh, here we go,” the shrewd one said, his anticipated dissatisfaction undisguised. He folded his arms across his chest.

            “No, no, no—it’s nothing terrible. Really. Trust me. Let’s just say that one of the clauses in the contract is to protect my investment, and the other one’s there just to make things a bit . . . shall we say, ‘spicier’?”

            The four young men stared at him, waiting.

            “Understand that this is a lifetime contract. We’ve discussed that. So the first clause states that if you ever stop performing as a group, if you ever decide to retire or break up, you are breaking the contract. And for that, I’m afraid you will all get sick. In the years soon following your breaking of the contract, you will all begin to grow very ill in one way or another, and you will all begin dying, one after the next.”

            They all continued to stare at him.

            “Except the drummer,” he added, turning to the young man who was tapping rhythmically on the edge of the table with a knife and spoon. “He’s expendable.”

            The drummer paused briefly, then resumed his drumming. The other three continued to stare.

            The man’s smile broadened, becoming warm and reassuring once again. “So easy enough, the way to avoid that is to simply never break up, right? As long as you keep playing, you’ll keep getting richer and more famous. You could live forever if you play your cards right. Hardly age at all, as a matter of fact. How easy is that?”

            “And you get richer too, of course,” the clever one observed.

            “Of course I do. I don’t deny that for an instant. Yes, certainly that has something to do with the clause. But gentlemen,” he paused and looked at each one in turn. “Think about it. It’s not like you’re stuck in some regular, boring, dead end job like the rest of the sheep out there. It’s not like you’re digging latrines or working in a coal mine. It’s an opportunity very, very few people—even in this line of business—can ever hope to encounter. So that clause should be of no real concern to you at this point.”

            Two of the young men smiled at that, and relaxed. “Sounds cool,” one of them said. “Play forever and stay young. All the dope and pussy we want?”

            “The minute you stop, however . . . “ the thin man cautioned them with a nod and a raised eyebrow.

            “Yeah, we know. We die.”

            “Except for the drummer,” the drummer interjected hopefully.

            “Except for the drummer, yes,” the man confirmed. “You can have as many drummers as you like. No one would notice.”

“So what’s the other clause?”

            “Ahh, the other clause,” the thin and pale lawyer said, his generous smile unwavering. “That—as I mentioned— is just there to make things interesting. Because, while I’m in to profit a great deal from your success, as I said earlier it also requires a great deal of work on my part. This other clause makes it more of a challenge, you see? A test of sorts, designed to prove just how much effort you’re willing to put into our deal in exchange for these rewards.”

            The clever one, growing more frustrated, asked, “Would you mind just coming out and telling us what the hell it is?”

            The man leaned forward across the table, clasping his hands in front of him. “The other clause, gentlemen, states that you will all hate each other. You will all get on each others nerves. Every minute you’re together will fill you with loathing and misery. You’ll want to kill each other as soon as look at each other. And believe me, you’re going to be looking at each other a lot.”

            They stared at him, shocked.

            “But—but we’re friends,” one of them said, finally. “That’s why we’re together in the first place. We’ve been friends for years.”

            “You won’t be friends for long.”

            “But we have to stay together, or we die?”

            “Right.”

            “And we’re rich and famous so long as we keep playing?”

            “Right. And afterward, too, certainly, if you ever decide you can’t take it anymore—but afterward you’ll be dead, so it won’t really matter.” He tipped his head to the side and both eyebrows jumped playfully. “Think of it as a kind of game.”

            There was a silence around the table.

            “We’ve been working on this contract for a long time now,” the thin man said. “Everything’s been laid out quite clearly, everything’s in black and white, and it’s all right here. No surprises. You sign on the dotted line tonight, and we can get started immediately.” He tapped the stack of pagers. “If you feel you need to discuss it in private, then by all means take a few minutes. I’ll wait.”

            The four young men huddled together and whispered among themselves for no more than a minute. Then they looked at the thin man and nodded. He smiled again, pulled a pen the color of flame from his breast pocket, and clicked it twice.

            “Very good then,” he said. “Joey, would you care to go first?”

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.