The drummer wanted a mind eraser. Not bad, Theo thought, wondering if it might hold up later, in front of Audrey. They’d been trading potential opening lines since the night they met, inventing new beginnings, the first words of the fictional books of their lives. Audrey was better at it—she was funnier—but Theo had his moments and he hoped this might be one. Also, it had the benefit of being true. The drummer had asked for a mind eraser. If only Theo could place the order.
He should have listened to Audrey. Theo Gorski was not small, and still it had taken him ten minutes and counting to get close to the three-sided bar anchoring the center of the club. Along the way he’d tripped over clandestine cube chairs and been stymied by human cul-de-sacs. Reedy night owls with unfocused eyes. Now he turned sideways, all six foot three, two hundred fifteen pounds of him, and sort of shimmied past a group of sharp-shouldered women, apologizing as he did so. He was twenty-two stories above Manhattan, at a nightclub on top of a hotel on top of a landfill. A city extended by refuse. Theo guessed he was the only one in the room who knew what lay beneath (and certainly the only one who appreciated the latent metaphor). He was full of such minutiae, and increasingly aware of its irrelevance.
Thank God he’d hit the cash machine earlier, still had 75 or 80 bucks. He ran through the order: mind eraser, Bulleit bourbon for Audrey, and beers for the rest. What was in a mind eraser anyway? Kahlúa, maybe, or Baileys; he couldn’t remember, if he’d ever known. For the first time, it crossed his mind that their new drummer—Gatsby, Theo had heard the kid say through the din, but that couldn’t be right— might have been messing with him. Not that it mattered. These were Audrey’s people—her boys, she called them—and that was enough. He didn’t mind being the genial plus-one. He’d grown used to balancing on the edges of couches, leaning in to hear snippets of talk, leaning out to digest it. There was no pressure to perform when he was with one of her bands. No one asked his opinion on anything that hadn’t happened that night. Had he liked the show? The new T-shirts? As if he’d ever say he didn’t. What a funny world Audrey’s was, with all that posturing and beauty and talent. The trick to making it in music, Theo figured—because it was the trick to pretty much everything— was finding balance, some form of stability in the most unstable of environments. Audrey said the trick was to write great songs. The rest was just life. The two of them were different like that. Wonderfully so.
A hole opened up in front of him, and Theo, former football star, reacted quickly. Soon he found himself, if not quite at the bar, then near enough to call out an order. He watched the bartenders rush back and forth, shaking and pouring, shaking and pouring. All women, mostly skin. How that equation had changed. When he’d first moved to the city, it was all skin, mostly woman in this part of town. But he was dating himself.
Patience. Positioning. Incremental gains. God, this really was like football. Cash in hand might help. He fished out a 20 and waved it in the air. Like a dandy. Like a fraud. Surely, there was a more effective way to do this, but he didn’t know it. Shaking and pouring, shaking and pouring, ice, ice, ice, and no one looking up. At least at him. It was the paradox at the center of Theo’s life. For all of his abundant physicality, he was decidedly modest and unassuming in temperament. He supposed he was cerebral, if a person could still be such a thing. “He not only has no ego, but, like, no mechanism for selfishness at all,” he’d overheard Audrey tell her then–best friend, Sarah, one night early on, and while Theo knew that wasn’t true, there was probably something to it in a relative sense.
The self- he did have a mechanism for—an entire assembly line of machinery—was self-analysis. Not in a clinical way, but situationally: a kind of outsider’s omniscience. He existed not in moments but near them; he didn’t drive the narrative of his experiences so much as study their structures, the frameworks of his environment. For instance, while waiting at the bar, having adopted an overtly casual strategy of not looking at the bartenders, he began to take in his surroundings, beginning with the faux-crystal “chandelier” above him. It looked like the dripped-wax base of a candle turned upside down and magnified a thousand times for no discernible reason but poor taste. From there, he followed the ceiling to the wall of windows and the gunmetal skyline beyond—blurry lights in the black of October. He thought of people riding late-night subways. Protesters occupying Wall Street parks. Friday night crowds in clubs like this one. Theo peered around, stirred by the energy, the exuberance, the (im)pure stamina of the room, but no one caught his eye. These people didn’t pause to ruminate; they paused for selfies, which, when taken with a flash, changed the windows to mirrors, endless reflection pools, and that seemed about right.
But he was projecting. For all he knew, half these revelers were first-timers like him. Just look at Audrey. Short shorts over red tights, with some kind of black leotard top. Plus heels. Plus a Slinky’s worth of jangling bracelets up and down her arm. Plus—agghh, he had no idea what he was talking about, the names of these female things that other men learned through urban osmosis. The point was that Audrey had never been here either, and, further, actively hated places like this— exclusive clubs, posh rip-off dens, anywhere that catered to “society” kids or still offered bottle service at this thankfully-late date in bottle-service history. But to see her you’d think she breezed through every night.He existed not in moments but near them; he didn’t drive the narrative of his experiences so much as study their structures.
Someone fell into him, and Theo spun around to find a loose-legged prepster getting up off the floor. “Dude, I was pushed,” the guy announced by way of apology. Then he took Theo’s measure, held his arms up in a no mas gesture, and made himself scarce. This was ridiculous. It was way too crowded, way too loud. Theo turned back to the bar and this time raised his hand with some urgency. Several other hands were in the air, and Theo felt an odd surge of adrenaline. He fixed his gaze on the closest bartender, a willowy brunette whose hardness seemed more put on than permanent. He went again for eye contact, in hopes of ordering, yes, but also because the top she was wearing was low cut, and the glitter in her décolletage so potentially distracting that—
Theo looked up, mortified. He’d only glanced down so as to actively not glance down, peeked so he’d know where not to peek. But how do you explain that? She started shaking a drink in front of him, the glass and shaker up by her head, as if to establish his allowable viewing frame. “I’m sorry,” Theo said, “I wasn’t—”
“What do you want!”
He recited the order, face burning. She didn’t flinch at the mind eraser, which was sounding increasingly enticing. In fact, she didn’t acknowledge him at all. Somewhere above, a song ended and another began. Synthetic dance pop no one was dancing to. How long had he been gone?
The drinks appeared on the wet bar top in front of him, all four leaking down the sides. The mind eraser was two-toned.
“Eighty-seven!” the bartender shouted, leaning over. Theo looked at the drinks. “But I only got these four!”
“I know what you got!”
Dazed, Theo reached for his wallet. His head swam with figures, none of which, when added together, reached the number she had named. Predictably, neither did the cash in his wallet. He handed over his debit card.
“Start a tab?”
Excerpted from Kings County by David Goodwillie. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.