BY TOMA

(a short story)

I came across this story in the paper like the rest of ya’s. I can’t say I really knew the guy, but we worked together for a time. What a coincidence that my friend lived in the same tenement block early days. We couldn’t believe this guy ending up dead in his 67th floor penthouse. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s DAILY edition for details about coroner’s report. What it’s been a week now?  “What goes up must come down,” my buddy says. “He was the man who had millions,” he says, and that’s the only way he refers to him now.

He had some life at my buddy’s building I tell ya. He jumped on the subway, and after a few stops ended up working in the publishing bizz with me: NYC State Printing Press, that’s where we caught up, a subsidiary of some big British Company. We worked in a huge warehouse with office cubicles in the back. Sometimes it could get hot as hell in there. Something was always up with the duct work: hot in summer; cold in winter.  They never could get it right, but we were moving and shakin’, on the phones, hustling clients, knockin’ on doors, so our working space was more of the City, in the elements so to speak, than the tiny box we were given, like a bird’s cage without the newspaper under your wingtips. And the noise got through the cement walls from the massive printers. I still hear that hum in my sleep. The misses still thinks it’s what’s making me go deaf-but I just don’t listen to her. So she thinks.

I was in print advertisement; he. in clerical, if you call data entry clerical. I saw him typing every day, looking at glossies about elegant houses, expensive cars, yachts, and real estate until I guess he ”moved up in the world.” He seemed to be here clacking away one minute, the next he just disappeared and moved on I guess. What eight months if that.

Frankly, nobody could give a damn—he was just another white shirt. Faces came and went out of this office like burgers through a drive through. We weren’t buddies by any means, but he seemed like a decent guy. I mean he came to work on time, did his job, ate his lunch, typed out whatever he was supposed to do, and went home like the rest of us—what more do ya want from life .

But one conversation I do remember. I was in charge of the tombola so I says to him:

“Hey, ya wanna give to the local boys and girls club? We’s doing the spring baseball gig again. Time to pony up. Money goes to uniforms, batting helmets, and chewing gum.”

I show him the coffee can.

“How much in there?” he said.

“Everything but you’ve given us,” I says.

“Teach a man to fish. . .” he replies.

“Fish. What you talking about fish? Would you eat fish out of the East River? These are kids. You expect them to go out and make a livin’ to support buying uniforms? They’re ten year olds for christ’s sake. What you want them to be chimney sweeps?”

He says, “Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to start a man off with a pole. What are the kids doing to help support the club? They can sell cookies or something. How about chocolate bars? Didn’t you sell chocolate bars, wrapping paper, donuts?

“It’s the city! What da ya expect them to go door to door, alley to alley, elevator to elevator. How they get past the door man? Tip em with the money they just got from the popcorn they just sold?”

“Why aren’t they selling chocolate bars? They gotta be vested. That’s the ticket. We all got bust our butts. That’s all this city offers us, all this country.  Why should you be doing everything for them? What you trying to be a saint or something? People need to fend for themselves.”

“Get over yourself” and I was about to hit him and really get into it but just them another guy dropped a few shekels and folded dollars into the tin which made a pleasant noise. Suddenly he rustled into his pants pocket and slipped a couple of coins in and pretended he was out of bills.

He never gave to any other work-related charities or pitched in during our volunteer days at homeless shelters, street clean up, or tutoring sessions not to mention the sporting stuff which was huge by us. Some people are cheap bastards. Got a glimpse of him.

You’d of thought we were all kind of similar really, with morals about the same, relatively speaking. Hell, we’re all found working in this dull office, the shell of a beat up old warehouse. We’re just different shades of blue and white collar, right? Who knows had I finished college, maybe I wouldn’t have been here and thought differently. But this is the only real conversation I had with him. Go figure. He liked the Mets.

So while the word hit the street about his recent demise and we’re all awaiting the story, my friend tells me this week while we’re having a few beers that he lived on the bottom floor in a room below the steps in his tenement block. Go figure–we never put this guy in the same room. This is years ago now.

He says he kind a went unnoticed: a guy and his zip-up coat, maybe a sweatshirt once and a while, or on the hot summer days in a typical white tee shirt—though my buddy did say the guy preferred the “V” necks. Hair slicked back, a regular Joe I guess and he was working at some bar as a bar back or maybe waiter. For all I know, he was doing the dishes at that point.

My friend’s backtracking now, but he says he remembers this one July day. He was wearing this bright orange, short-sleeved shirt with an alligator on it: a Lacoste for christ’s sake. He said he suddenly became noticeable with real emphasis on “became.” One moment he’s part of the backdrop and the next, he’s visible, like a guy in a hat, you know those old time hats that your grandfather wore, amid a crowd.

He says “here’s a guy that I never said a word to, or even a nod.” He was laughing telling it. “Geez, we were all like camouflage like salamanders scurrying in the trees. Nobody stood out except for women of course. They could be wearing a sack clothe and if they’re alright, all ya hear is whistling.”

He continued, “Suddenly, you could a picked him out in a heartbeat, especially in this neighborhood where everyone walks like they’re carrying a bag of potatoes. And you know with clothes, black’s the thing. Well, he looks real sharp. It’s just a damn tee shirt, a polo alright, but the guy’s wearing an orange collared shirt with an alligator on it. Who the hell wears an orange collared shirt…”

So he keeps telling it to me.

“Then, the following week he’s got the pants.” You’ll get the gist of it though my buddy has an odd way of putting the emphasis on the wrong word.

“He’s wear’in a typical brown slack variety but with closer inspection there’s a faint yellow pin strip running vertically throughout, top to bottom. You’d think it looked lousy but it actually looked pretty cool. I mean real cool, like he was getting ready to be a model or something.” He said he was wear’in the same old Converse white high tops, with the blue rounded badge you know, Chuck Taylors not that he had never noticed before but from that time on, he noticed those sneakers until on another day, he’s suddenly wearin’ a pair of bucks–same outfit.

Maybe he came into money or maybe he started savings as people do. But overnight, it seems the guy starts donning these rainbow shirts as if he’s come into some real money, then big money, because that’s when the Italian loafers came in. Then, shirts, pants, shoes, of all kinds followed. Highest quality. My bud calculates he must have worked through the bar scene, got the job at the printing press with me–then as I shared left the print shop. Hard to exactly time it.

Then I got some remarkable news from a cop, who’s a friend of a friend but I’ll get to it.

So he apparently, as my buddy tells it while he’s at this tenement house living on the bottom floor below the steps, you know those half apartments they sell here with beer cans in the gutter, which passes as your front door, iron grates on the windows, and someone sleeping behind a sofa because they put a curtain to “create” a separate room, like near Cafe Wha on Bleecker Street. Well, he begins to buy…oh, and I don’t think he ever had a roommate as it’s never come up, solitary guy,…he begins to buy a few second or third hand shirts at the local thrift shop and used these as stepping stones for all the rest that follows. Talk about a mustard seed.

So he’d, bear with me as I get through this, because it’s weird. He’d unstitch the little alligator from one ripped up shirt which he got for nothing, and then would re-stitch the gator onto another just as cheap, colored shirt. Seems like a lot of hubbub to me.

He begins this process, day after day, week after week,. . . keeps gettin’ new or used shirts at low cost and bang! he’s got this whole wardrobe which looks like he comes from Uptown:baby blues, tangerines, lime greens, off yellows, royal blues, burgundies. Just stitching away in his basement, unravelling, unsewing, is that a word? resewing.

My friend says at some point, people on his block start treating him like he wasn’t from the neighborhood anymore. “Maybe he won the lottery, who knows?” they say. At least our buds, basketball buds, were talking about it with my buddy because they’d meet at the stoop and started witnessing this general progression or procession of this guy’s updated clothes. You know how you see something and it registers but you don’t say anything like flipping through a magazine with fancy ads. My buddy registers that everyone saw it happening but nobody says a of god darn thing.

Get this. My buddy says even the landlord starts calling him “Mr.” and then “Sir” if you can believe it–what a load of shit!”

So my bud is on the first floor up the step in an apartment and he sees this guy in two years move to the top floor, fourth floor, front street side.

Oh, and there’s another crazy conversation my buddy shared which I is priceless. They’re sitting on the front step, each to own his own stoop.

Pointing to my buddy’s forearm, he says “Why didjya get that particular tattoo?”

My buddy, former military, and works in shipping. Did I mention that already? until something better comes along. All his marine buddies have tattoos.

My buddy responds, “Pretty simple. Was in the Marines, got the American Eagle and Semper Fi written on the banner beneath. ‘Always faithful. Always faithful.’”

“Faithful to what?” the guy says.

“Are you kidding?” says my friend.

“Faithful to what?” he asks.

“Listen asshole,..” he says who’s getting infuriated pretty quickly. He doesn’t have a short fuse but get him talking about the flag and our country…

“Take it easy. Take it easy,” the guy says, “Don’t get so hot under the collar. I thought you might have joined to buy a Camaro or something. Isn’t there a promise about a college education or something, girls in every port?”

“Marines not Navy, dick wad.”

My buddy is about to haul off and rip his throat right out of his neck and he could kill ya if he wanted but he’s used to guys like this in bars always looking for a fight, poking, poking always poking about something political. So he calmly in complete contradiction to what you’d think, says “I joined the Marines to serve and honor this country and protect your and my family’s freedom and which you seem to care so little about.”

“It’s just an extraordinary act that’s all I’m trying to get at to paint your body with a symbol, that’s all and it’s there for life to the grave,” putting emphasis on the last three words.

“Listen friend, my father was a Marine and a cop, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, plus I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with myself in high school.”

“Hey, I don’t want to know about your whole damn life story, just asked you why you got that tattoo?”

“You’re kind of asshole, aren’t you. But I guess I’m not telling you anything people haven’t told you before. And by the way, the odd thing is that this tat means more to me each and every day. I did my part. It reminds me of my comrades, my country, my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, my time in boot camp, all of it, even my duty, my every day duty to this country. That’s how I feel here,” as my friend points to his heart–I remember him re-enacting this part of the story as his finger pressed on his chest again and again, not to the tattoo on his bicep.

But the guy keeps coming at him.

“What about the other one at the back of your neck?” he says.

“It’s an Asian symbol for happiness.”

“Why Asian?”

“Just looked cool. Guys were getting barbed wire, skulls, and I liked it.”

“Aren’t certain kinds of tattoos universally accepted as cool?”

“Don’t catch your drift.”

“I mean, Do ya ever think people will eventually brand themselves and have no need for designer clothing?”

He remembers the silence like you see when an atomic bomb drops as it somehow takes all the air out of the atmosphere, like conversations with your girlfriend when you speak to truth–never want to go there.

My buddy was lost at this point. He had no idea what the hell this guy was talking about. This is where the story ends, because they just leave each other there like a conversation stopped in mid sentence, frozen in time, like suspended air stuck in a pocket within a cavern. That was it.

So back to the rent part. You still with me?

The landlord gives this guy the next apartment up, then the next, and eventually in only three years, the top apartment in a four story tenement building, street side. There’s no way he can afford it. The man goes from basement to the fifth floor in a snap.

So the money thing seemed real enough. He got a new fancy watch as a present from some guy, and some cool hats from a tailor shop uptown who apparently “liked his look.” He apparently starts hanging out at all the downtown hotspots but you know that from the papers. Never wares baseball hats anymore. Some new “friends” give him the royal treatment. Old people on the block started spreading the word that he’s “selling.” He manages pretty good somehow until he really gets off his feet. That’s where the real business began, because my friend remembers him bringing in all sorts of fabric in brown bags up the staircase.

Funny, the stories never crisscrossed before. When we got hold of the story last week about his death, work was abuzz. I couldn’t get enough from the writers, copywriters, and anybody that knew anything, and kept buggin’ ‘em like everybody else in the place for information. We all know what the last 10 years was like, a regular Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger but this early stuff is priceless.

So just now, at this time, he’s only one floor above my buddy’s place. He begins creating this company he’s got in his mind. Word on the street, it all started here. I’m filling in the spots here but from the penthouse where they eventually find him, they found these diagrams in a trunk. There were all these drafts, scribblings, notes, and three dimensional graphics which he had apparently started in this third floor tenement house. He wanted to create a logo not for a company but as a company. He worked backwards by trying to create an “unspoken mantra” whatever that means. Like people see some story in a figure not letters.

So he begins the logo design by thinking about just general letters–the one’s with power like: M, B, V, R, T and then goes to some lower case letters for creative style like: e,c,s, and g. He should have talked to me–I’m in the print ad business, maybe that’s why he at least worked here for a time, something subconscious.

I always liked the fonts Garamond and Book Antiqua. So all this stuff was in the chest. Did you read of this in the paper? Am correlating all of this because I can’t get enough of it.

The police found notes, research and the entire story, and he kept everything dated.

He considered Greek letters and other foreign ones: those ∑, Ω, ∆, and the ä thing. . . umlauts, that’s what the new Polish guy told me. Then, cool numbers like 4 and 7.  Have you ever wondered why there isn’t a symbol for the number 10, you know like all the others. We’ve had to count to ten as a base unit with ten fingers from the year dot and I always thought it strange that 10 was 1 and 0. Apparently, the first time we see zero is from the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, some 5,000 years ago. Imagine that a world without a 0. It became a placeholder. Is it something or nothing? but I’m getting off the subject. With print ads, everything you put on paper becomes a symbol of sorts and you can imagine the early printing press block letters. Nothing has really changed as it’s just layout of blocks which is probably why this stuff interests me.

I liked the part in one commentary, did you read it? about the guy’s notes saying the sign for the cross was something like 2000 years old where the Jewish Star of David, the hexagon, was more than twice that some 4000 years old. Some editor called the guy a demigod like Hitler because he said this guy had notes on the Swastika which apparently first meant “life, power, strength, and good luck” which had been used by the Egyptians and even our Native Americans. The Editor was saying that this guy was trying to figure out a way to get a whole lot of people following an allegiance to one brand–one symbol and have people marching to it like some high steppin’ Gestapo phalanx of socialites. It was news to me but not everyone else knew that the Nike swoosh was derived from some Greek Goddess called “Winged Victory.”

In his drawings, which is actually very cool to hear about, and can’t wait to see them, like DaVinci and his machinations on horses, pulleys, and devices for war, he first cut a circle into halves, with one side shaded, the other not, but thought the symbol looked too much like the Asian yin yang. Like one article said: Yin (the moon) is negative, receptive, passive, cold, black, and part of the female force and Yang (the sun) is masculine, positive, white, representing movement and heat. Together, this black and white “interplay” of forces, both with tail-like features, and dots or worlds,  one in the other, sunrise and sunset, represent harmony.  But he felt his new design showed opposition; the colors black and white had too much racial history, especially in America. Wouldn’t do. Other colors he used seemed like traffic lights.

Then, he tries an hour glass, but that doesn’t work because it doesn’t represent anything tangible to a lifestyle or any sense of nostalgia.  Then, he gets onto this: horse, crab, dog, polo stick, golf club, badge trip as if Americans come from some monarchy or something. Most are already taken. Nothing fits. He’s got problems with his audience—the one he needs to capture by some hypnosis mumbo jumbo. He learns he needs to move backwards not forwards.

You see, he’s trying to think of sales, who needs stuff—those preppy dressers were already full to the brim. So this one bright idea comes to him. He looks at the overall market and does a market analysis of the clothing industry, does simple counting to get a handle on number of competitors, company worth, regional influence, markets and he creates a snowshoe. Can you believe it! He creates a fucking horseshoe like the old one plodding through the snow, like wearing a set of tennis rackets on your feet, and settles on just one not a group of them. He figures nobody’s got the snow season fully covered. There’s winter all over the world both sides of the equator and he’s got just two competitors he needs to worry about and their more utilitarian wear.

You know the rest. We’ve all seen the ads, commercials, Entertainment Tonight stories over the last decade though you might not have known the man behind the curtain.

It takes just a year. He sells dozens, then hundreds and then, thousands. He easily competes against the northeast market saturated by the old firm and takes west of the Mississippi and Canada by blizzard. That must have been a special time to see an idea grow like that. Then, an American conglomerate with an Asian distributor picks him up and within three years, he’s living the high life at the top of the 67th floor in his Snowshoe skivvies. In ten years, dead. Go figure.

My friend calls it, “Another rags to riches story–The American Dream incarnate.” I say why does it always seem to have to have this trajectory.  I mean the guy was photographed everywhere, on all the covers of all those magazines, with smokin’ babes all over him. Though there was talk he might have been gay. Did you see the article on his home in Architectural Digest? It was in Florida! You’d think he’d have had it in Park City! He had the Oyster Rolex, the yellow Hummer, and the Infiniti pool. Never enough, is it? He even won some golden thimble the size of a baseball worth $50,000 from the DBEA Designer’s Business Enterprise or America. The guy starts out parting his hair on a different side and suddenly he takes over a small part of the world.

It was kinda funny readin’ how the guy hadn’t realized he hated snow. The whole cold weather thing—he should a made a flipflop,. . . not hiking, or nature, and was “found out” eventually by the Aspen crowd. But those guys never ever let the real secrets out.

He didn’t know anything about skiing or even how to fish—Christ, everybody knows how to fish, ironic, right? The guy never had an interview, apparently didn’t have any close friends. Not one substantial word or memorable phrase was uttered by him, just images, photos on techno colored Kodak paper. Did you also know “Kodac” is a word just created out of thin air and means nothing and look what it became. Reading all these articles and listening to all these newscasts, no one could say anything positive or negative about him, really. Not one word. Sad really. That’s my greatest fear.

So my buddy says, “So he had one bad day. The day that he died,” He loves to cap things off like that. Don’t know about that and guess we’ll never know but here’s the coup de grace. You know the story has to end with a climax.

The world’s waiting for the coroner’s report. I got the inside scoop.

So last night I’m out till about 2:00 am and drinking when a couple of police show up. I buy them a drink and then a few more and we close down the place because the bartender and waiters and waitresses all want to hear. These two guys were first on the scene, do it doesn’t matter because tomorrow’s edition is going to do a series on it, as there’s that much there.

Juan says, the first policeman, that they walk into this 67th penthouse. Everything is all modern, sleek, silver, brush polished, with a lot of glass and he first notices the guy’s body on the floor. There’s no blood. He’s face down. I know last week’s article said ”The body was all intact.” This city is gonna eat this up. This police report is gonna blow people away.

It is rumored that all his assets were cashed in and given anonymously to unknown charities. His golden thimble was rumored to first have been missing but the other cop, “Mac” for MacKinley, says they’ve tracked it down to some kid’s treasure trunk in his bedroom on the upper east side. His grandmother apparently turned him in. The kid was just interviewed by the police and says “a stranger gave me this package in a folded Chinese takeout carton, as a gift.” He then told him, “to do with it what you will.”

So the police are at his place and forensics is coming through the door, police photographers, guards at the door, there’s a lot of activity suddenly going on and my guy notices the guy’s body on the floor, no blood anywhere, face down, and he’s in winter attire: pants, boots, he’s got some parka on. Everyone is thinking it’s gotta be they guy but they don’t touch him yet.

Everyone is dying to turn him over but they take about 30 minutes to get everything in place. A crowd of officers and such is around him just eager to get a first glimpse of him.

Then, finally, they turn him round and the guy’s face was a complete tattoo! Have you ever see they guy with a giant reptilian snake tattoo all over his neck and face? Well it’s like that but more of an intricate web or something all over his entire fucking face and his entirely bald shaved head.

So they start unpacking him so to speak. It appears he’s been there for a few days as rigor mortis has set in. He says his face is barely distinguishable for the black thin lines of tattoos running through and everywhere on it around his eyes, nose, everywhere, just everywhere. They begin talking off his Parka and cut through this polo shirt. It’s like they are unraveling the rags of some ancient Pharaoh. Cutting and pulling away strands of cloth and clothing only to uncover gazillions of strange tattoos inked all over his entire body.

Juan said he  originally thought the man was charred by some fire and put back into his clothes. They were just looking for a wound of some kind. They couldn’t barely find any skin. They guy was completely blackened with slight demarcations of that green and red color you so often see in tattoos.

Mac said the guy had so many weird interlocking designs head to toe and even on the bottom of his feet that for a split second he had to look away because he mind couldn’t take it all in. It was too much. Then, as he composed himself when he returned he was suddenly thrown back into a memory of being in a doctor’s office as a kid and looking at a Highlights, remember that book? As he and the others looked closer, on his entire body were images, barely visible due to lines of demarcation and images being on top of one another of  hidden pictures.

On the man’s own skin were the his own initial drawings found in that trunk. What  makes matters worse or crazier was that at very close inspection the entire length and breadth of his body was covered, immersed in real logos, actual logos amidst the morass of lines and shapes: the cursive “M” in McDonalds, the Esso sign, GE, he Ralph Lauren Polo Player, the AirJordan, Michael Jordan flying high with one hand on the ball ready to dunk symbol, the sunflower for BP, the Coach bag symbol, Superman sign, IBMMicrosoft, Crest, Walmart, Taco Bell, Mercedes, Audi,  Dove, the umbrella for Travellers, Nike, the bite out of an apple for Apple, the NBC Peacock, the New York Yankees NY and more American and foreign companies which also were interlaid among a tangle of dragons, skulls, crossbones, fairies, pinup girls, and a hawk coming out of a fire. This guy also says that on one of his calves, was an 18th century, masted sailing ship painted on an Elephant’s tusk.

The most awesome part of this whole gig, what cops can’t figure out—his cause of death and some wacky inscription. They’re still checking into it. Near his heart, there’s this circle, the size of a softball, with some words in it, in some foreign inscription. They’re still trying to track down where and when he had all this stuff done because nobody really knew about it because his clothes had covered it up. Maybe if they find the tattoo parlor the can get some answers.

Had it all been done at one time or over a series of days, weeks, probably years? The face they guess was probably the last thing done. So putting together what Jaun and Mac said, I wrote it down and showed it to the Pole, who said it was in Hebrew. That was the writing in Hebrew letters.  I then, early this morning went right to the local synagogue and asked for help from a Rabbi. I know the police are doing the same thing.  The words apparently come from the Talmud. So inscribed on the center of his chest is this riddle in a small circle:

”If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am for myself alone, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Make of it what you will. They’re sure to find the tattoo parlor and get to the bottom of it. Some say he might have died by a hit man with chloroform rag up his nose or from poison by ingestion or even by the succession of  needles from tattoos, the ink dye in his bloodstream. Others say,   an angel of death pulled his gluttonous heart right out of his chest.

Goodness knows what’s the real story, but it’ll all come out for the man who had millions. I’ll bet the Paparazzi were fighting to get in there before the coroner. Somebody will have gotten a payday for it. We’ll see pictures, you can bet on it.

My buddy and I were laughing and said wouldn’t it be great if they buried him in some diamond, studded coffin, filigreed with gold and sliver, and dropped him down some abandoned coal shaft closest to the earth’s core. He died like some ancient Egyptian King.  Like us, future generations could stand silent, gasp, and ultimately admire this American Pharaoh.

One thought on “American Pharaoh

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