Put together an Irish convict, a Greek fisherman, a Yankee whaler and a Dreamtime Aborigine, and you have Carson O'Flaherty. If he'd had the worst aspects of each, he would have aspired to losing teeth in bar fights. Instead, he was clever, funny, earthy and ready for anything. He was as likely to come up with a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem as he was to get a notion that there was treasure in your backyard and fill the place with holes. He could sit for hours quietly contemplating the shadows of a rock formation or swap dirty jokes with you non-stop until three in the morning.
I met Carson on a visit to Melbourne. He has a peculiarity common to Australians, a low tolerance for complaining. They do complain, but they keep all fussing in bounds. In my first week Downunder, I noticed the slogan, "Enough whingeing for today." Once I figured out what whingeing was, I learned they meant it. Not a single complaint would escape the mouth of an Aussie after the day's promise had been made. I even found myself complaining less.
Eventually, Carson returned the visit. When I picked him up at the airport, he was half asleep, so I put him to bed. As he slept, I got back to my day job. I decided I could combine work with my hosting duties by bringing Carson into town with me after his nap. It put Carson right into the middle of real situations in what may be the Capital City of Complaint. I never suspected what this would lead to.
While I'm waiting for my band to make it big, I scout locations for independent films. My latest project was finding a location for a low-budget horror film. There can never be too many low budget horror films because teenagers always want to see kids who speak their slang, listen to their music, engage in clique warfare and get naked and dead.
I always start my research online, looking through real estate sites. Empty property in New York swallows up money, and the owners are usually glad to have a bit of income. If the commitment is only a week and the payment is in cash, so much the better.
I found several possibilities, including a perfect spot to shoot a zombie scene - a ritzy apartment with a view of Central Park. I would never have been invited in as a guest by the owner, but I called the realtor about a one-week rental. I told her I was considering several places, and I used an Ivy League manner I'd picked up from an actor who played snobs in direct-to-video SF movies.
The realtor told me it was impossible, but she'd check with the owner. I told her it wasn't necessary. Mr. Scorsese preferred another location. This one just had the advantage of being empty, which made blocking out the scenes easier. I was glad to confirm it wasn't available. (I've never met Scorsese, but I've found his name opens doors.)
Within twenty minutes, I had an appointment to view the location. She even let me know that she had power of attorney, so she could close the deal on the spot. Could I stop by in an hour? I checked my watch. Carson was still asleep, but he'd had three hours. I knocked on his door.
I found him naked, stooped over, picking the aspirins off the floor and plinking them back into the plastic bottle. The pills had been spilled out into a spiral design. "Have a good nap?" I asked.
"Perfect," he said. "These aren't zamia seeds, but, with a bit of a wongga chant, they kept the quinkans away." He dropped the last pill into the bottle and handed it to me.
"No, you keep them," I said. "You may need them later."
"Right," he said.
After Carson was dressed and had eaten a whole box of cereal, we took the Seven to Manhattan, and then the Six up to Lex and 59th.
Mrs. Arbutus was about fifty, heavy-set and dressed in brick red Chanel. She reminded me of a nun I had in grade school. That woman could hit me in the ear with a piece of chalk from across the room. I had difficulty making eye contact as Mrs. Arbutus looked me over. I didn't pass inspection, but she was delighted to meet Carson.
Carson knew my plan, and he fell right into role, pretending to be the assistant director of photography. "This is a fine building," he said, running his hand along the framing of the door.
I wasn't interested in the exterior of the building, but Carson made a big deal of it. He borrowed my tape measure, and called out the widths of the front door, side windows and a planter. I scrambled to grab my pad and write down this useless information. Then he looked in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic and dashed across the street. Brakes squealed and he got a New York greeting of curses and horns. From across the street, in Central Park, Carson made squares with his fingers and peered at us. He closed his eyes, shook his head, frowned, and then nodded slowly.
It was a great show, but I wasn't getting anything done, and I didn't know how much time Mrs. Arbutus would give us. I waved for him to come back, and he did, creating another round of traffic chaos.
"Well?" Mrs. Arbutus asked.
Carson furrowed his brow and looked solemn just long enough to unsettle her. Then he broke into a glorious smile and nodded. "I can make it work," he said.
I felt relief, even though Carson's film only existed in his imagination. "Let's go inside," I said.
Mrs. Arbutus began to explain the history of the house and its many features.
I let her and Carson walk off while I did my own inspection. The place had rich, expensive wallpaper and lots of wainscoting and other wood accents. Beautiful, but a bit busy for background in a film. We'd have to paint over it or tack up paper, maybe old newsprint. The rooms were good sized. We had space to hang lights and solid walls for the bolts we'd install. We could even put in tracks for some action shots when the zombies got hopping.
I listened. Very little of the road noise got in. That was good because it not only meant we could record, but it was less likely that neighbors would call the cops when the screaming started.
I went down to the basement to check the power. When I got back upstairs, I saw that Carson had Mrs. Arbutus totally charmed. He telling a story about a shoot that never happened and work he'd done that no assistant DP would ever have been involved in. So far, Mrs. Arbutus didn't know she was being conned, but I didn't think we should push our luck.
"Carson, do you have what you need?" I asked, interrupting his story when he took a breath.
"Photographs," he said.
"I need some photos of the place for planning."
It was madness. We needed to finish and get out. "I didn't bring a camera," I said.
He rolled his eyes. He gave Mrs. Arbutus a "see what I have to put up with?" look. "Can you not use your bloody cell phone?" he asked.
I wanted to strangle him, but I handed him the phone instead. He went around taking useless digital pictures. While he was gone, I got down to business. "We'll need access without interruption from September 18 to 25."
Mrs. Arbutus frowned. "I can't have this off the market for a full week. I'll need to bring potential buyers through."
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, but that's impossible. The house wouldn't show well anyway. We will have sets installed and our equipment."
"How much equipment?" she asked. That was a question I'd hoped to avoid.
"The usual," I said. "Cameras. Lights."
"I'll need to hang diffusion drapes!" Carson said from another room.
"What will that do to the walls?" Mrs. Arbutus asked.
"Nothing. I guarantee that not one nail, screw or bolt will be used to hang diffusion drapes." I'd never heard of diffusion drapes, and I wasn't sure that they actually existed.
This seemed to relax her a bit, and I was about to offer $300 (not enough for one night in a good New York hotel), when Carson spoke again from the other room.
"I think we can use the crane if we punch a small hole out the back wall."
The air pressure in the room changed. The red of Mrs. Arbutus's dress popped. Every edge - windows, floor, wood trim - came into sharp crystalline focus.
I felt a chill and I swear I saw my breath. "He didn't mean..." My words died. In fact, before they could travel the fifty centimeters between my mouth and her ear, they spiraled to the floor and splattered.
"My business is based on trust. My sellers rely on me to display their homes with honesty and dignity and to ensure their care."
"I wipe my feet before I enter someone's home. I have services clean each of my listings weekly."
"There can be no scratches on the woodwork, no handprints on the windows."
Mrs. Arbutus grew larger and larger.
I was shrinking so much that I could have easily fit into one of the tiny desks I sat in as a third grader at Holy Nativity. Sweat turned the fresh new rental agreement in my pocket into cheese. Somehow, I knew, zombies would never work here.
Carson glided in, a smile on his face. "There's a horse out there," he said.
Which meant what, exactly? It meant Mrs. Arbutus had to turn to look at the mounted cop patrolling the park.
I realized we had a chance to escape. "Sorry to have taken your time," I said. I leaned over and grabbed the sleeve of Carson's shirt. He didn't move.
Mrs. Arbutus turned back. She looked confused.
"You are a most charming woman," Carson said. "I thank you for showing me this place and putting up with my little jokes." I was still holding onto his sleeve, and he turned to look at me. "Do we need to go look at the other place now?"
"I think we should," I said.
"I think Mr. Coppola will be delighted with this one," he said.
"Scorsese," I whispered.
"Perhaps him, as well. I was referring to Alan Coppola. Didn't you know that he's the art director on this project?" I risked a glance at Mrs. Arbutus. She just looked confused, not suspicious.
Carson pulled out my cell phone and dialed a number. "G'day, Alan. Yes. Yes. I'm there now. With the most charming woman." He nodded at Mrs. Arbutus, and she faintly smiled. "Yes, he's here. No worries. I've been able to keep him out of trouble."
"Wants to speak with you, I'm afraid."
He handed me the cell, and I said hello. After adjusting to the accent, I realized I was listening to a greater Melbourne traffic report.
As I stood there, confused, Carson chatted with Mrs. Arbutus. "...that one," Carson said, pointing to me. He shook his head.
Mrs. Arbutus said, "I understand. The woman who answers my telephone? She can barely speak English. And the things she says."
"Did she ever compare a client to a water bug?"
Mrs. Arbutus gasped.
"And do it in a television interview?"
"How does he...?" she asked.
"Family needs to keep him employed. And out of trouble."
I glared at Carson, who winked at me.
"But he's developing. I have hopes."
Mrs. Arbutus nodded.
Carson pulled out an old pocket watch and tisked. "Look at the time. And we were having such a lovely chat."
"Harvey," he asked. "Do you have the agreement?"
I kept the phone next to my ear and pulled the moist contract out of my pocket. I handed it, then a pen, to Carson.
He snapped his fingers and turned me around.
Mrs. Arbutus signed it on my back. She has a heavy hand.
Once we were outside, I looked for a chance to talk to Carson, but he spoke first.
"You don't have to thank me. I was delighted to be of help," he said.
"You humiliated me in front of a client," I said.
"I was happy to do it, Harvey. Any man would have done the same."
"I'm going to have to deal with that woman again. She's going to speak to my boss."
"I have every confidence in you. With the whinges gone, you can handle it."
"I don't know why I even brought you."
"We made a wonderful team, didn't we? And you'll have no more problems with those whinges. They were quite feeble looking by the time we left."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Carson looked me in the eye. Then, he got very concerned. "My, lord. You're blind. I'm sorry. I never knew."
"You were a champion in Melbourne, driving away the whinges. I just assumed..."
I was angry, but I worked to keep it under control. Maybe he had jet lag, or maybe I just was seeing him differently out of his own environment. Whichever, Carson had gone on his last ride-along with this location scout. "Hey, Carson. This was my mistake. I shouldn't have brought you with me. Let's say I put you on a Circle Tour while I get some work done. I'll meet you after..."
He was staring at me, but I don't think he was hearing a word. Ultimately, I ran down. I thought I'd hurt his feelings.
"Come on," he said. "We need some pepper."
He pulled me over to a restaurant, one with nice linen table cloths. "Come on," he said, gesturing me in.
"Are you paying?" I asked. It was somewhat upscale, both for the way I was dressed and the contents of my wallet. We were early enough to beat the lunch rush, so the maitre d' seated us immediately. I noted that we were not placed in the window to attract more trade. That was reserved for a pair of middle-aged ladies who were taking their jewelry out for the afternoon. Otherwise, the place had about a dozen business people chatting, exchanging papers and yelling into phones.
I scanned the menu and decided I could afford a bowl of soup.
When I looked up, I saw that Carson had all his attention on the waiters' station. It had pitchers of water, coffee and pepper grinders the size of bowling pins.
Just then, our waiter came over. "Something to drink?"
"Definitely," Carson said. "But later. First, we'd like some pepper."
The waiter looked at the table. No salads. No entrees. "Pepper?"
"Yes. One of those bloody big ones. A fresh grind." He pantomimed holding one of the grinders and twisting the end.
"Okay," the waiter said. "Would you like some water first?"
Carson held his hands higher and ground again. The waiter scampered off.
I've spent enough time with Carson not to let pepper distract me. "Carson, if you're not paying, we need to be careful about how much we spend."
"Not now," he said. The waiter returned. "Hold out your hand, Harvey."
"My hand?" I said. I raised it, and he took my fingers and turned my hand palm up.
"There," he said to the waiter, pointing to my hand.
The waiter raised the pepper grinder, and then stopped. Evidently, he hadn't been asked to season a customer before.
"It's okay. He won't mind," Carson said, speaking for me.
Pepper grounds rained on my hand, which I kept holding out like a dummy.
There was quite a pile before Carson stopped him. "Enough," he said. "You can get us our beer now."
"The yellow kind with bubbles and a bit of foam on top. You'll recognize it when you see it," he said, and the waiter wandered away, somewhat more confused.
I sat there, hand full of pepper, not knowing what was coming. A number of our fellow patrons looked over, more or less discreetly. One of them snickered, and then turned away.
As I tried to decide whether to dump the pepper onto the floor or fold it into my napkin, Carson took my hand into his. "Whatever happens," he said, "keep looking at me. Don't look around the room." Then he started to chant. Low guttural tones, held together by the insistent rhythm. Have you ever heard the wailing of a didgeridoo? Imagine that with more articulation. And there was an odd, subsonic overtone that I could feel in my gut.
One of the women at the window must have felt it, too. She squealed and, instinctively, I looked over. Whinges. I saw them. Like children who had been taffy pulled. Two of them stood next to the women, touching them.
I turned back to Carson, but my eyes only glanced at him because I saw a monster embracing the man on the cell phone. It was stretched and distorted, larger than he was.
My eyes locked with Carson's for a fraction of a second, but I had to look around the room. Everyone except Carson had a personal demon. I felt cool fingers on my calf. My tiny whinge was there. I kicked it away.
"Harvey, stay with me."
My eyes returned to Carson.
He smiled. "Good man." Then he let go of my hand. I wiped the pepper off on the leg of my pants.
The waiter gave us our beers. "Are you ready to order?" he asked.
"Not quite yet," Carson said.
I didn't say anything right away. I couldn't. Carson took his beer and downed about a third of it. The whinges had disappeared. I caught my breath. I sipped a little of my own beer. "Pretty good trick," I said. "Is it hypnosis?"
"Could be. If that's what you need."
But I didn't believe it was hypnosis. I thought of the pepper. It wasn't a known hallucinogen.
My mind was looking for other explanations, when Carson took out a piece of paper and drew a figure. It was in the Aboriginal style that I'd seen on boomerangs, calendars and park benches in Melbourne - curvilinear and stretched and peppered with dots. And it was unmistakably like the whinges I'd seen.
"Are they still here?" I asked.
"In a manner of speaking."
"You didn't have one."
"Well, not this time of day. Mine is well-trained. And you've done a fine job with yours, but I think you've been overfeeding him. And speaking of food..." Carson signaled to the waiter, changing the subject.
Ultimately, we did not get back to talking about the whinges. Part of me believed that I had just imagined them, but I knew better.
Carson let me know he was paying for lunch before I ordered. That was uncharacteristically considerate of him. Then he announced that the Circle Tour sounded like a fine idea for him. I think he just wanted to give me time to process my experience on my own.
We had enough food left over for doggie bags (which meant I didn't need to worry about paying for dinner). I packed these away, and we easily got over to the pier at 42nd Street for the 1:30 departure of the tour boat. I waved goodbye to Carson, and then I subwayed downtown to check out a garage on Orchard Street. Broken cars and zombies just sort of go together, don't they?
The train was crowded, tourists blocked the sidewalk and a kid had redlined his boombox, but I wasn't complaining. Any griping gave me a sick feeling. On the street, I detoured around whiners. At the garage, I found that humor and humility tended to cut complaints short. I came across a man shouting into his cell phone, and I had no problem imagining him in the full embrace of a monster whinge. So I was being cautious.
Three hours later, I met Carson at the dock. As the boat came in, I saw him put his arms around a blonde and give her a theatrical kiss. The passengers and crew applauded them, and Carson bowed deeply.
He disembarked, and, as led him away, his fans shouted goodbyes and waved. I was working with a rock star. "Tourists," Carson said. "A very enthusiastic bunch."
"Especially the blondes."
He grinned and he may even have blushed. "Fine woman. Out of Colorado. Owns a horse."
"Did she teach you anything about riding?" I asked.
"A bit," he said. "But the trip was only three hours and I did want to get a good look at the Statue of Liberty. How was the garage?"
I told him about some big chains that could be used to bash zombie heads and explained the many uses of a car lift for a man with a welding torch.
"Did you sign them up?" Carson asked.
"Oh, yeah. It was all very pleasant," I said. It had, in fact, been one of my most pleasant site visits, despite my looking over my shoulder for whinges. Maybe because of that.
Back at the apartment, I realized that somewhere along the way I'd misplaced the doggie bags from the restaurant. It was a bitter disappointment. I had been looking forward to more than peanut butter and jelly and now that hope was gone.
I sat down, cracked open a soda and brooded. When I brood, small animals go into hiding. Dark clouds form across the Tri-state area. Keeners feel foolishly upbeat.
"It's a sad and a hostile world, Carson. Tense. And oppressive. Everyone is suspicious. Look at Mrs. Arbutus. And everyone pretends to communicate. On cell phones. In blogs. Anywhere but face-to-face. It's the New Anxiety." My New Anxiety speech was well rehearsed, and it railed against everything bad that was emerging and everything good that was being driven away. It's heart-rending, and I'm sure not even the Dalai Lama could withstand its melancholy.
But when I looked up, I saw Carson turning my sofa up-side-down. He'd already inverted several chairs and a table. And he was eyeing the fish tank.
I lost my place in the speech. "What the hell are you doing?" I asked.
"Whinges," he said. "They can be distracted. They have a keen sense of the way the world should be, so a bit of disruption holds them in check."
"You know. People should be fair. They should understand what we are getting at. They should be more grateful and helpful and accommodating."
"They should," I said.
"Yes. And you were 'shoulding' all over yourself and everyone else. But I think we'll be okay now." He headed toward the fish tank.
"Hold on. You've made your point," I said.
"Thank God. My back is getting sore," he said. He sat on a fallen chair and grabbed the legs they way I did when pretended to be a rocketeer as a kid. I hadn't thought of that in years, and it made me smile. Then I shrugged. "We have nothing for dinner," I said.
"No worries." He handed me a business card:
PERFORMING ARTISTS MANAGEMENT.
"What's this?" I'd been trying to hook up with an agent for my band for two years. The address was the hottest neighborhood in the Village.
"We're invited to a party, fair dinkum."
"How? How did you get this invitation?"
"Cindy was taking her parents on the cruise. Nice folks." If all the agents hung out on Circle Line cruise ships, it's no wonder I'd never found them.
Cindy greeted us both at the door with hugs and kisses. She was a little older than me and dressed more formally than I was. Enough to impress, but not enough to make me feel uncomfortable.
Carson, of course, introduced me as "Harvey." Since I had a business interest in being identified accurately, I immediately corrected him. To no avail. I was Harvey to her for the rest of the evening.
Her place was spare and restrained. No framed Playbills and grip-and-grin photos with celebrities. None of the walls were painted this month's colors or trimmed with camel bells, barbed wire or Russian icons. Nothing about the environment begged for attention. It was all about the music.
Within the room, there were lots of comfortable spaces to sit, and most of them were focused on an expensive-looking sound system that could equally handle tapes, CDs and vinyl. There were also a number of acoustical instruments with their own spaces in the room, including guitars, a banjo and what might have been a lute.
After introducing me to her parents, Cindy took Carson and went off to get drinks. It was as if they were lifelong buddies.
I was left with Cindy's parents who were charming, unrepentant communists from the folk movement. They were dressed beyond casual, all the way to hayseed. But starched and ironed hayseed.
"So, how was the cruise?" I asked. But the conversation didn't stay there long. Mr. Horowitz got me chatting about my band before I knew it. Cindy's mother listened with her eyes, ears and ESP radar. When she spoke, her words crystallized what Mr. Horowitz and I had been marching around.
The room began to fill up, and Mr. Horowitz put his hands on the banjo. I found myself trying to get some pleasant noises out of a steel guitar. The only reason the combination worked was because Mr. H. knew just what he was doing. He picked up on my strengths as a musician immediately. He pushed things to me so I actually was featured, and he even got me singing. This was an impromptu master class.
When we finished, the whole room applauded. It was the best reaction I've ever gotten from an audience.
I was high on this when a dazzling brunette pressed a mojito into my hand. My longstanding relationship had crashed and burned recently. Carson had congratulated me on that, and I now could see the wisdom of his comment. DeeDee was a fan, and I'd never had a fan before. She bubbled content-free compliments, and I said clever things like "uh."
We ran out of small talk. This might not have mattered if we'd been in a more private area. But the growing sexual tension had no release in a crowd of strangers. I started chatting about protest music with all the authority of someone who can't remember the lyrics to "We shall overcome."
DeeDee didn't know much more, but she segued cleanly into her own protest against the management of her apartment. "They insist upon absolute quiet in the building from midnight on," she said. "This, in the city that never sleeps."
I knew that game, so I topped her story. "Once," I said, "the police came to my row house during a band rehearsal. The neighbors were getting free entertainment, so why?"
"I hear ya."
"And firecrackers hardly qualify as terrorist weapons, but I ended up in court and had to pay a fine."
She had no problem upping the ante. And an edge crept into her voice. "The police. Yeah. Today. Today, I get pulled over for talking on my cell phone while driving. I mean it is against the law, but..."
About this time, Carson joined us. "Harvey, have you seen the little soaps in the washroom?"
I was annoyed. I hadn't gotten laid in forever, and I didn't need him distracting DeeDee. So I ignored him. Instead, I started complaining about tourists. It's a sure conversation-starter in New York, one that leads deep into the heart of kvetch-land. "I guess we're hard to figure out," I said. "People from Oklahoma seem surprised that we don't like it when they stop dead on a busy sidewalk to read a map."
"Or walk three abreast at, like, the speed of, well..."
"Snot drying. Yeah. Last week I had my hands full of deli sandwiches and someone from, what, Dubuque? asked me to take her picture."
I made it impossible for Carson to get a word in. When he tried to sing, I shifted the subject to requests of out-of-towners that New Yorkers speak more quietly. That struck a nerve for DeeDee and multiplied the decibels of her comments. Carson's song died before he finished the first verse.
I launched into a diatribe about how slowly out-of-towners speak. Slowly and indirectly, taking forever to just get to the point. I can talk about that all day.
"Raymond," Carson said.
I ignored him. I had just had to deal with a character from Georgia, and I was putting on that thick-butter accent for DeeDee. She loved it.
"Raymond," he said again. Raymond, not Harvey.
I turned to look at Carson. All the color had drained from his face, and he was slumping. He started to fall, and I caught him.
As I touched his arm, I could see the whinges. Everywhere. Many tame, but some real monsters. DeeDee's was huge, almost completely engulfing her. And my own had grown to twice its size. I had been feeding it, and now it leaned on me, weighing me down.
DeeDee hadn't noticed Carson's condition. She was still complaining loudly.
I helped Carson to a chair. He collapsed into it.
DeeDee, meanwhile, went over to a girlfriend and complained about men. The girlfriend responded with a voice like a window shattering. I didn't dare glance in her direction.
Carson looked worse by the moment.
I was reaching for my cell to call an ambulance, when I saw the guitar nearby. I picked it up, without thinking, and started playing. Instead of rock or folk, what came out was flamenco, of all things. It was the only flamenco piece I knew, a loud and macho bit I picked up when I was a teenager. It could be heard over stamping feet, so it had no problem silencing the room. All conversation, including complaints, kvetches and whining came to a halt. I had their attention. And I only had two more bars left of my limited repertoire.
I was about to loop it, when an image occurred to me. When I was 14, my father took me on a business trip to India. We ended up in a hotel in Jaipur, off the beaten track for Americans. The place was filled with Japanese tourists, seriously involved with their own business. I was waiting in the lobby for my dad, but not bored because a band, up on an overlooking mezzanine, was playing classical Indian music. I was the only one paying any attention, and they noticed me. Without missing a beat, they segued from a complex piece featuring rapid strumming of the sitar to a mellow tune that was both familiar and unfamiliar. I kept listening, and I knew it: "If You're Happy and You Know It." My eyes went wide when I recognized the melody, twisted into Indian tunings, and the band members gave me these shit-eating grins that I still remember.
So, naturally, I transitioned my flamenco into this eternal kid's song.
Imagine a room full of New York sophisticates. They are serious artists on the rise. They embody what comes next in the clothes they wear, in the wines they drink, and even in the ways they stand. Into this mix, I had, after demanding their attention, dropped this bomb of innocence and playfulness.
No one under thirty knew how to react. There was complete silence and complete confusion for a full chorus.
Then I heard Mr. Horowitz singing in a reedy baritone. He knew the words, of course. Even people who pretend not to know the words, know the words. But I found that other people were joining in. And those who didn't sing, clapped their hands, shouted hurray, slapped their legs, snapped their fingers, and otherwise performed on cue as we worked our way through that silly song.
Carson was totally restored.
And even though I didn't get laid, it was still the best party I've ever been to. I even ended up getting regular gigs for my band.
I do still see whinges, on occasion. Just often enough to remind me to take time to sing and joke and have a bit of fun.