King Lear in Wonderland
Lear (waveringly): Me head is spinning as if the Gods themselves throw incense. I fear I is soon to faint.
Cordelia (notsonicely): You’re about to more than faint, Pops.
Lear (OMGishly): But dearest daughter, upon such sacrifices what hast thou done?
Cordelia (maliciously): Payback time, Daddy Pie.
Lear (odiously): Hast thou with jealousy infected the sweetness of affiance! Hast thou poisoned me drink?
Cordelia (pedagogically): Amatoxin-botulinum-cyanide, is the potion of my designs. Should hit the spot, my liege.
Lear (resignedly ): So nothing comes from nothing and unburthen’d is I crawling towards death?
Cordelia (blandly): If you wish to put it that way. Why should a king, a dog, a rat, have life, saith I?
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
Bye, bye, my Northumbrian pie
Drove your Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Thought you were drinking whiskey ‘n rye
Only this’ll be the day you’ll die
This’ll be the day that you die
Lear, teetering precariously, dropped his poisoned cocktail glass. It broke with a crystalline-crunchy crash, a pretentious off-stage sound effect which kicked in a second too late, drawing discourteous snickers from the more uncouth members of the audience.And then he himself convulsed, spasmed, and fell via table and chair to the floor in a well-rehearsed, well-executed swandive – definitely the best acting Thiago had seen all evening.
The thoroughly crinkled, thoroughly bored stage curtain that had been itching all evening to come down on the theatrical trash transpiring within its bowels, did so now as Cordelia flipped her dying father the bone (with both hands for good measure) and by happenstance or intent (you never know with these creative Broadway types) the legs of prone-dead Lear stuck out from under the lowered curtain so that the soles of his boots served as the focal point of the audience’s appreciation.
At last it’s over, thought Thiago – prematurely, because when the perfunctory applause had begun to peter out, a smattering of enthusiasts rose to their feet and needled the rest of the audience into a reluctant, but nevertheless standing, ovation.
As every seasoned play-goer knows, standing ovations provide an opportunity to make hay and grab pole-position in the coat-check queue, but Luna and Thiago were stuck in the middle of their row and, besides, Luna had refused to stand in the first place. She was sitting defiantly on her hands, passing judgement on the play with her rear end so to speak.
Thiago would have stayed put as well if only the young man on his right hadn’t tugged him up by his shirt sleeve and motioned for him to get busy applauding, which Thiago, coward that he was, obligingly did.
After an endless cavalcade of curtain call combos for cast members, several of whom Thiago could not recollect being in the play, the enthusiast-fueled applause evolved into a unisonal cadence of Author, Author, Author!; and Lear, making one last salute in the direction of his Cordelia, trotted humbly off the stage as the star of the play, waited guilefully in the wings as its director, and when audience exuberance had cooled to just the right temperature, sent himself with solemn modesty back to center stage as its author.
Yes, Frank Paloney was not only the leading man, Frank Paloney was the author, producer, director, and financier of “King Lear in Wonderland”. The Village Voice had said that Frank Paloney was a multifaceted power-force injection in a combobulated Broadway season. The Times had praised him as a renaissance unicorn. And the Post had deemed the play “a mysterious, frightening sojourn”.
With cast members gathered about him, Paloney, the author, accepted elaborate floral bouquets from three schoolgirlish, yet nubile, young ladies in elaborate party dresses who curtsied in front of him — elaborately, yes, there too.
Thiago, naïvely unaware that one should never intimidate fellow theater-goers by soliciting their opinion on difficult-to-interpret performances, asked the rude fellow who had forced him to ‘give it up’ for the play if he perhaps understood why Cordelia had poisoned Lear. The man looked at him sleepily, not answering. Thiago persevered:
“Why would she poison her father? “
The rude man had some sort of hearing device which he, with annoyance, removed.
“You’re talking to me?”
“You seem to have really enjoyed the play. Murdered by the only daughter who truly loved him? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I wasn’t listening,” said the man as he motioned in the direction of the aisle, indicating his impatience with Thiago and Luna for not putting more pressure on the elderly couple with canes and alarming muscular disorders who were blocking their path.
” Oh, my question was – ”
“I heard your question, buddy,” said the man. “I wasn’t listening to the play.”
“But these tickets weren’t cheap. You paid to sit here and you don’t listen?”
“I didn’t pay anything. Do you think we could move out now?”
“Somebody comped you?”
“Something like that.”
Later when Thiago and Luna were waiting for their drinks in the bar at Joe Allen’s, a popular after-show restaurant across the street from the theater, they overheard the woman standing next to them say to her partner that forty dollars wasn’t fair for two hours of such junk. Thiago turned to her and asked if she was speaking about ‘King Lear in Wonderland’.
“We paid eighty bucks apiece for our tickets”, he told her. The woman looked at Thiago as if he was an alien and turned her back on him without answering.
“My God,” said Thiago, “has this town become unfriendly, or what?”
Luna told him that everybody should be in a bad mood after sitting through what was probably the worst play in history.
“You know what, Luna? It’s dawned on me . . . that guy who forced us into applauding?”
“Forced you, you mean.”
“Okay, forced me . . . he wasn’t wearing a hearing aid at all. Those were earplugs. You wear earplugs to rock concerts — not to Broadway plays. I don’t get it. There’s something fishy going on.”
In the Joe Allen’s men’s room, Thiago thought he recognized the guy pissing next to him from the theater lobby, and on a hunch he told him that 80 dollars was far too little for such crap.”
“You got 80?”
“Yupp. But it wasn’t worth it.”
“You really got 80?”
“Yeah,” said Thiago, enjoying the man’s anguish.
“Then I’m going to have to have a word with Sammy.”
During the cab ride back to their apartment, Thiago ungraciously implied that it was Luna’s fault they had gone to that idiotic performance in the first place. If she hadn’t complained about their not taking advantage of all the great culture surrounding them they could have enjoyed a nice evening at home. Or if they were smarter they could at least have gotten paid for being there like many others in the audience apparently had been.
“You want to be a claqueur, Thiago?”
“They’re called claqueurs – people who are hired to go to premieres and be supportive.”
But the weird thing was, he pointed out, it wasn’t a premiere. The show had opened two weeks earlier. And how about those author accolades? Does the author usually take a bow at every performance? Isn’t that only supposed to happen on, like, opening nights? He could understand how, if you think you are going to make money in the long run, you might start the ball rolling with claqueurs or whatever they’re called – but night after night? The guy was throwing away a lot of money. It didn’t make sense.
“He can afford it. He’s a billionaire. The Paloney family owns half of Boston, you know.”
“Nobody owns half of Boston, Luna. You shouldn’t repeat stuff like that.”
When they got back to their apartment Abuela was snoring away on the sofa, but the girls had stayed up to show their parents the Silly Putty models they had been making on account of Abuela refusing to let them spend the entire evening on their iPads. Ashley had recreated the Solar System which Thiago pointed out was both disproportionate and three planets short. Micaela had sculpted a figurine.
“What is that supposed to be, Micaela?”
“It’s the president, Dad. Can’t you see that?”
“The president of what?”
“The president is black, Dad.”
“Well, you got that part right.”
Luna wasn’t happy with Thiago’s review of Micaela and Ashley’s artistic efforts and after they had been put to bed she told him so. He defended himself by saying that you had to be honest – even with children. Luna asked him if his aesthetic integrity was more important than their kids’ self-esteem.
“Was I supposed to say that their stuff was great? What if they actually did something worthwhile and I had already praised them for making crap? People who grow up thinking everything they do is fantastic are destined to create a lot of shit. That’s probably how they raised Hitler. It’s probably how they raised Frank Paloney.”
“You’re just depressed ’cause you’re losing your record store” Luna said, turning off the bedlight.
The record store Thiago “was losing” was on the Lower East Side only eight blocks from their apartment, a distance he had regimentally walked since opening for business over 23 years ago. He knew every building, every corner, every pothole on his route. He had witnessed how local shops, some passed on through generations, had folded. Out of touch. Out of time. Dinosaurs they called them. A woman’s lingerie store had become an art gallery currently exhibiting animal sculptures made out of used light bulbs. In another gallery, converted from a Mom & Pop hardware store, some celebrated genius had microwaved Barbie Dolls and smeared them like cake frosting over a brick wall.
Once the leading independent record store in the city, Thiago’s shop was another of those untimely dinosaurs. He had tried to go modern, be hip, get in tune with the gentrification going on around him. Fat lot of good it had done him. He had installed new lighting, new furnishing, free WiFi. Fat lot of good . . . He had bought a fancy Italian espresso machine and beefed up his vinyl section. Fat lot of good . . . For the last five years he had been letting staff go one by one and now there was only himself and thirty thousand baby dinosaurs left. The handpainted sign in his window read:
I’m goin’ down the tubes –
Please come in and profit from my misery!
He bought sandwiches at the Cup and Saucer and after opening the shop he made tea and settled down at his desk. He knew he should be busy arranging for the offloading of inventory. He should be haggling with the Japs who only wanted his gems and insisted on communicating solely by fax. He should be checking out all the insultingly low bids on eBay, working the Discogs forums, answering emails. Instead, interrupted only occasionally by a few diehard customers and a pair of Scandinavian tourists who asked to use his bathroom, he spent most of the day looking through old newspaper clippings, autographed artist photos, his lifetime achievement award from BMI and ASCAP, and bills he couldn’t pay.
At 6pm, as he was hanging up his “SORRY WE’RE F**KING CLOSED” sign, a jogger stopped outside his window and gestured in the direction of the back of the store. Thiago was totally zonked to realize that the jogger was King Lear from last night’s play, Frank Paloney, the billionaire renaissance man.
Thiago opened the door: “We’re closed,” he said.
“You having a fire sale or what?” asked the Jogger.
Thiago told him it was just a plain ol’ going-out-of-business sale.
“Well, there’s smoke coming out of the back of your store.”
Thiago turned around to see that this was true. He left Paloney standing in the door and ran into his office. The fax machine wasn’t on fire but it was jammed and whining and grey smoke was coming out of the vents. He pulled the power plug, ripped out the smoldering faxes and threw them in his sink. Damn Japanese! He didn’t want to sell to those guys anyway.
When Thiago returned, Paloney had moved to the store’s sales counter, but he wasn’t alone. There was a dark young girl next to him also dressed in Under Armour jogging gear. Their outfits were so similar they could have been on a team together, which obviously wasn’t the case, as this second arrival was pointing a revolver at Paloney and shouting:
“¡Su celular! ¡Deme su celular!”
“I don’t speak Spanish,” Paloney said.
“¡Vacía tus bolsillos y pon las manos en la cabeza!” shouted the girl with the gun.
“I still don’t speak Spanish,” Paloney said.
“She’s telling you to empty your pockets on the counter. She’s robbing us, in case you missed the point.”
Paloney did as ordered, but he had nothing on him except for an unmarked plastic key card. The robber, who judging from her accent was from Central America, probably a Salvadoran, turned her gun on Thiago, who cooperatively gave up his iPhone and wallet. She was tall and skinny and would no doubt be considered pretty in circles where extensive facial tattoos were in fashioin, but her eyes were dead. Vacant and dead. She had Thiago open his cash register, swearing over the measly thirty-six dollars and change it contained. She put this money in a plastic Sephora shopping bag along with Thiago’s ex-belongings and Paloney’s key card.
“¿Tiene una caja fuerte?” the robber asked.
Thiago shook his head. Paloney protested:
“We shouldn’t let this be happening. There are two of us and she’s alone, We don’t even know if that’s a real gun.”
“No hay que ser un héroe, chingado,” the girl told Paloney.
“Tell her she doesn’t have to do this. She doesn’t have be a thief. Tell her I can give her a good job.”
Thiago translated Paloney’s offer.
“¡Chinga tu madre, puto!” the girl told Paloney.
“Ask her if she enjoys going to the theater.”
“Ignóralo. Él está mal de la cabeza,” Thiago told the robber.
The Salvadoran girl had them both lie face down on the floor and keeping her gun aimed at them, walked backwards towards the street. Halfway out the door she paused, remembering something important. She asked Thiago where he kept his Reggaeton.
Thiago directed her to the far corner of the shop.
“Unbelievable,” Paloney shook his head. “This is absurd.”
“By the way, I saw your play last night,” Thiago told him.
“Really? And now I’m, like, a hostage in your music store. It’s a small world after all. But we need to be proactive here, buddy. That girl appears to be very unpredictable. She’s on drugs for sure.”
“Listen, Mr. Paloney–”
“Call me Frank. And you?”
“Nice to meet you, Thiago.” Shaking hands proved to be awkward lying flat on the floor.
“Frank . . . I’ve got to ask you this . . . I happen to know you are paying people to go to your play. It must cost a fortune. I don’t get it?”
“It only costs a few grand a night.”
“Well, that’s a lot of money . . . for most of us.”
“¡Callaros ya allí!” the robber shouted from across the room where she was rifling through CDs with her pistol. Paloney lowered his voice to a whisper.
“Do you know what it costs to stay in the Royal Penthouse Suite at the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland?”
Thiago said he hadn’t the slightest.
“Around seventy grand a night,” whispered Paloney.
The Salvadoran robber girl called out to Thiago asking if he had anything with ‘Heavy Clan’. He told her there oughta be a couple of bootlegs in the next rack over. Thiago asked Paloney if he had actually stayed at the Hotel President Wilson.
“I had to,” Paloney said. “Think of it – the most expensive hotel room in the world. That sort of thing eggs you on, my friend.”
“You bet. Why do people climb Mount Everest, Thiago?”
“Because it’s there, Frank?”
“Exactly. You’re a smart dude.”
The robber had found two ‘Heavy Clan’ CDs which she put in her Sephora bag. Encouraged by these spoils she asked Thiago if he had any ‘Crooked Stilo’ in stock. Thiago told her to look in Cumbia Urbana two aisles down.
“You do seem to have a fantastic assortment, Thiago. How could this business possibly fail?”
“A little something called the Internet, Frank.”
“That’s so sad. And so wrong. What is going to happen with all this inventory now that you’re closing?”
“¡Eh gilipollas, cállate o te callo!” shouted the Salvadoran, halfheartedly, for she was more interested in finding CDs than keeping them quiet.
Thiago told Frank he’d probably end up dumping most of it in the East River.
“I hope that’s a joke, Thiago. Anyway, we have to plan how we’re going to overpower that nutcase over there.”
“Please Frank, just lie still. She’ll leave soon. This isn’t the first time I’ve been robbed. It’s inconvenient, but it’s not the end of the world.”
“We can’t let her get away with this, Thiago. And you know what? After we’re done with her I am going to buy your entire inventory. It will probably make me the greatest private collector of CDs in the world. I’d like that.”
“It might, but you know the Japanese– .”
“Name your price, Thiago.”
“¿Hay alguna manera de que pueda escucharlos? ¿Tienes un equipo de sonido?” the Salvadoran robber girl asked, holding a up ‘C-Kan’ vinyl.
While telling her if she wanted to hear that song she would have to listen online since those vinyls were virgin, Thiago was also making some quick calculations.
“One hundred and twenty-eight thousand,” he told Paloney. “That’s less than two nights at your President Wilson, and it includes all the furnishings and fixtures. But for God’s sake, don’t mess with the girl.”
“It’s an opportunity I don’t want to pass up, Thiago.”
“Buying my entire stock?”
“No. Making sure this lunatic doesn’t get away with this. As for your inventory, I agree to your price and I’m gonna throw in a night at the Woodrow Wilson for you and your family, if you have a family that is.”
“I do, and thank you. That’s very generous of you.”
“Think nothing of it . . . now, when I count to three I want you to create some sort of distraction. Pull over one of these bins or whatever.”
“Mr. Paloney, I beg you.”
Paloney, who had plenty of training in physical stunts from his work in the theater, agilely rolled to his feet and dived down the nearest aisle, sliding smoothly over the polished wooden floor in his tracksuit. The robber girl, taken by surprise, fired a shot in his direction that missed the billionaire renaissance man but successfully wounded Thiago’s fancy Italian espresso machine. Paloney hadn’t reckoned with the speed of his dive and he crashed headlong into the espresso machine’s floor stand so violently it knocked him unconscious and sliced a large gash in his forehead. The Salvadoran walked over and stood above him.
“Estúpido hijo de puta.” She shook her head in contempt while surveying the blood seeping out of Paloney’s wound. The coffee machine, which had been jarred into autonomous mode by the bullet, began serving a continuous output of double espressos that, after filling the drip tray, were running over the counter and spilling onto the floor.
Thiago came over and knelt down beside Paloney. The head wound was nasty. Thiago took off his shirt and made a tourniquet to try to stop the bleeding. He told the girl she needed to call 911 right away.
“No, tú tienes que llamar al 911,” she answered.
“No, no puedo. Has robado mi iPhone,” Thiago reminded her.
A thin, feral stream of deep black espresso had made its way across the floor towards Frank and was mingling with the blood from his head.
“Mmmm, smells like somebody’s making coffee.” Frank regained consciousness, opening his eyes to see first Thiago and then the robber girl standing over him. He immediately grabbed her by the leg and tried to pull her down. Her gun went off, hitting Paloney in the hip.
“Oh mierda, estúpido imbécil,” the girl shouted at Paloney. “Has arruinado la vida de ambos, idiota.“
“Have I been shot? Is this for real, Thiago? Am I wounded?”
“Yes, we need to get you to a hospital.”
Thiago could see blood erupting in spurts from Paloney’s hip. He searched for the bullet hole through the man’s tracksuit and jammed his finger into the wound. This seemed to keep the bleeding in check.
“¡Llamá al 911 por favor! ¡Podría morir!,” he shouted to the girl, who rather than showing empathy for her victim, seemed to be deliberating whether she should give him a few kicks in the ribs or split the scene. She decided on the latter, grabbing a bunch of random CDs on her way out of the store.
“One day I’m going to start a rock band, Thiago.”
“You’re a musician?”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary. Talent is relative, you know. All art is relative. You just need to be famous. The machines, the computers, the robots are taking over. They’ll do all the art and music in the future, they’ll write all the books, but they’ll never be famous. People won’t go for it . . . Do you think I could have some of that coffee. Smells really great.”
“Sorry Frank, I can’t move. I’m like that little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. If I let go of you you’d probably bleed to death.”
“This is for real, then?”
“For real. We just have to wait for an ambulance.”
Frank’s eyes were doing strange little jerks. “How did you like ‘King Lear in Wonderland’, Thiago?”
“Great. I loved it.”
“Good . . . if you can keep a secret – I didn’t write it. It was my twelve-year-old. He’s the real genius in the family.”
Thiago told Frank he should stop talking. Save his strength. He wondered if the Salvadoran girl would call 911 once she had gained some distance from the store. His hand was going numb from pressing on Frank’s wound.
“If I should die here, Thiago . . . if I should die on the floor of your amazing store with your wonderful collection of CDs, how would we complete our little transaction? We haven’t done up any paperwork. I should be signing something. I’d really like for you to experience the President Wilson”
“We’ll put a contract together once you’re back on your feet, Frank.”
“For humans there is only one form of true artistry left, Thiago. Do you know what that is?”
Thiago was tired of kneeling in the pools of blood and coffee. He wished Frank would cut out all the delirious nonsense. The man’s face was turning beige and his voice had lost its timbre. Thiago conceded to Paloney that he hadn’t a clue as to what was the only form of true artistry left to humans.
“Fighting the machines,” whispered the billionaire renaissance man. “The computers, the robots. Declaring war on technology.”
Thiago heard some sirens close by, but this was the Lower East Side and you could hear sirens all the time. The Italian espresso maker was beeping politely, informing the world that it had run out of beans.