I have been ignored, avoided, cursed, berated, insulted, threatened with bodily harm, chased, spat upon, and assaulted. Sometimes all in the same week. But I don’t mind. Quite to the contrary, this is the kind of week to which I aspire. The kind that typically nets me a nice little bonus. You see, it’s what I do. Professionally. I annoy. I agitate and antagonize. I drive people right to the edge and if I can, over. I am a Professional Nuisance.
I even have a business card: Scott Stempowicz * Professional Nuisance * Antagony LLC.
A Professional Nuisance (PN as we refer to it in the trade) is kind of a hitman for the meek and passive aggressive. We don’t make people dead; we make them miserable. Do you have an awful neighbor? A cheating boyfriend? A coworker from hell? A tyrannical in-law? I can get you satisfaction. I will, for a fee pre-negotiated by Antagony LLC, make your despised one the target of my considerable antagonistic talent. And for your viewing pleasure, many of the interactions with the target will be recorded with my vintage Google Glasses, that, let’s face it, annoy everyone a great deal right off the bat.
I have been with Antagony LLC for eight years and I’ve won Nuisance of the Year four times. I was all but assured the Senior Professional Nuisance (SPN) position opening up next month. But unfortunately for me, a public nuisance is only as good as his last case. And as I sit here with my jaw wired shut, sipping coffee through a straw, I now have serious doubts about my chances of promotion. You see, my last case was such a shit show-dumpster fire-spectacular-hot mess, that even these idioms invoking feces and flames fall short as descriptors.
It did not go well.
I didn’t even want the stupid case in the first place, but then when the original PN became incapacitated, it was assigned to me. That original PN would be one Freddie Spangle, my longtime rival and now probable lock for the SPN position. Don’t get me started on Spangle. He is a great and terrible asshole.
There’s a lot of competition among us nuisances. It begins early on. Antagony LLC is always looking for new talent and there is no shortage of annoying people out there who would like nothing better than to transform being their anathema into a prosperous career. Most get weeded out during the applicant interview process–clueless aspirants who all think they’re Machiavelli when really they’re just Elmer Fudd. Only the very top of the talent pool makes it through for a probational try. As these hopefuls quickly find out, talent alone doesn’t cut it. Nor does enthusiasm. We’re always getting these young hotshots, fresh out of college and full of promise, talented enough to make even Fred Rodgers go red in the face and scream “FUCKKKKK!” through clenched teeth.
Your typical probie hot-shot starts out gung-ho but no matter how much he’s warned, his enthusiasm will usually get the better of him. He’ll cross the line from clever, covert nuisancing to legal harassment. He’ll go too far, too soon, and blow his cover on the first or second day. This ruins any chance of continuing the case for the week or so it takes to truly antagonize someone. When they fail, Antagony LLC ends up having to refund the money. At best. But sometimes the target goes to the authorities and the whole big mess leads back to Antagony and creates legal headaches the company does not need. Had it not been for the Trump Freedom of Business Act of 2019, capping liability suits against corporations by individuals to $1,000, Antagony LLC would surely be out of business. Nevertheless, a new hire who catches a harassment suit or even a restraining order during his probationary period is automatically shit-canned.
Any seasoned PN will tell you that a successful case takes more than just a full frontal assault. It takes research into the target’s habits. It takes planning. You must be sagacious. The first thing I do when I’m assigned a case is study the target’s routines. I slog through the research so I can map out my nuisancing ahead of time. The company encourages this. They recommend one week for research, one week for nuisancing.
Once my research is done, I begin. If the target is a motorist, Day One will typically begin with one of my favorite and most effective techniques: I engage him in a rented car. I start by weaving recklessly around him so that he gets very nervous and slows down. Then I pull right in front of him and drive very S-L-O-W-L-Y. Think of the speed you’d need to go in order to get a large knuckled, eleven-and-one-steering-wheel-clutching, elderly person to pass you across a double yellow line, shaking their heads in pity while doing so. Now half that velocity and you have an idea of what I mean. The target becomes upset, blowing his horn, flashing his lights, screaming out the window, etc., until he can finally get around and away from me. Except: Aha! He hasn’t gotten away at all. I already know where he’s going. And I, armed with my research into his routines, can take my time like Pepé Le Pew gently and relentlessly pursuing his feline love interest. On a good day, if the target has lots of driving to do, I will switch rental cars several times to preserve my cover and make his day a vehicular living hell.
Antagonizing a mark without his knowledge offers more than just a safeguard from legal snafus. It profoundly increases the quality of his misery. I’ve seen it in case after case. There is nothing more infuriating to a target than the belief that the string of terrible things happening to him is just some sort of bad luck/random anomaly i.e., something against which they are powerless to act. With no outlet or chance at resolution, the target becomes truly agitated and anxious and will inevitably incur some sort of public meltdown. Typically this happens on Thursday or Friday. And I will be there with my vintage Google Glasses to document this money-shot for the client. A good public meltdown video all but guarantees a bonus. I have recorded dozens: targets being escorted from grocery stores, malls, banks, children’s birthday parties at pizza-arcades, etc., sometimes in police custody, sometimes even under emergency psychiatric care, just your average joe losing his shit in the middle of the paper goods aisle of a Shoprite because he was absolutely positive he had put that bottle of Creamy-Caesar salad dressing into his cart seven aisles back. But now that it’s mysteriously gone after having left the cart unattended for only just a moment, the target faces the prospect of having to return almost to where he began shopping in order to get another. It’s a minor inconvenience that would normally evoke just a simple head-scratch from most people. But now, at the end of a week of unprecedented daily aggravation, the mark begins muttering unkind words louder than he realizes, making the other shoppers around him nervous, one of whom hoists her eyebrows high and pantomimes an incredulous “O-kayyyy…” while the others simply move briskly away. And although the target understands he is making a spectacle of himself, he’s unable to contain this anger that’s been building all week. He begins tourettically shouting obscenities at these nebbish paper-goods perusers, whose reactions are making him feel like a crazy person. By now the shoppers have pretty much decided to postpone their selections and have vacated the aisle, making the target even more agitated. With nowhere left to vent, he turns his rage on the sole remaining shopper and accuses her, a little old woman, who up until this moment had been oblivious to the whole situation and was simply trying to read the grocery list written in seismographic cursive on the back of an envelope. He accuses this frail, powdery-gray woman of taking his Creamy-Caesar salad dressing, sounding now even to his own ears like a deranged individual yet too far gone for reason or self-control now that his week of frustration has finally boiled over. And so, as a profane war-cry he yells FUCK IT! and begins whipping rolls of overpriced, individually-wrapped toilet paper at the elderly woman, who, at her advanced age can’t even deflect much less evade. She gets nailed by two right in the face, knocking her glasses off. But then she is relieved to see, through her tear and cataract-filled despectacled eyes, two blurry, yellow-coated figures rushing their way.
The target comes to the realization that this has now become a full-blown “incident” from which he can’t simply walk away. He views this black morning as the absolute nadir of his nightmarish week-long run of bad luck and drops to his knees, shakes a fist at God and then flops onto his back as the burly grocery store security guards go to grab him. He kicks and stomps like a petulant toddler until he is picked up and removed forcibly from the isle, flailing against the restraint of the bigger guard’s fireman’s carry. Finally, he is taken from the store by the authorities and a psychiatric escort, needless to say without his groceries, much less the Creamy-Caesar salad dressing that I will purchase that very morning in order to mail to him at the psychiatric hospital of which he will be a court-ordered temporary resident.
But things aren’t always so fun working for Antagony LLC. There are some cases where you’d have to be a Spangle-level cretin not to be upset by. And therein lies Freddie’s big advantage: He doesn’t care who the target is. It’s my conviction that the man was either born without some fundamental bit of compassion that even your classic sociopath has for animals and babies, or else he is a robot created by a misanthropic scientist. And I’m not using animals and babies just as a poetic flourish here. Remember the case I mentioned earlier? The one I had to take over from Spangle?
The target was a seven-month-old infant.
No shit. A little baby. Now of course management was wary about accepting such a case and most surely would have turned it down, but as I mentioned, the client is extremely high-profile. This man, whose name will need no mention, who has paid Antagony LLC an exorbitant sum to antagonize a seven-month-old, is the star cornerback of an NFL team right here in the New York area. He is also one half of professional sport’s biggest power couple. Yes, that guy. The poor baby belongs to his wife, the other half of the power couple: Super Agent to the highest paid athletes in sports, Michelle Millenia. I say half the power couple, but everyone knows that financially it’s really a seventy/thirty split in her favor.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard rumors that they’ve just separated. In fact, they’ve been living apart for over a year. And since they value their privacy above almost all else, you probably haven’t heard why.
Super Agent Michelle Millenia accidentally conceived the child during an affair with a rookie wide receiver from a rival NFL team. Millenia and this Rookie Wide Receiver Fuckboy fornicated the baby into existence right in the kingsize canopy marital bed under thousand-dollar sheets while the Cornerback was in Miami getting routed by the Dolphins. After the game the Cuckold Cornerback, who was already in a foul mood from the 28-3 loss and who had long suspected Millenia was having secret trysts whenever he was away, checked the new cloud footage from the webcam he had just secretly installed in their bedroom. His suspicions were confirmed. He bore witness to the vigorous six-position, extramarital, baby-making romp with the Rookie Wide Receiver Fuckboy. And although the Cornerback found it emotionally difficult to watch his wife have sex with another man, he was voyeuristically impelled.
In the Cornerback’s own sexual life with the Super Agent he was definitely the bottom. But he pretended to enjoy her dominance by playing up the role of a stereotypical, sexually lazy, old-school all-American-male when deep down, his lack of performance and aggression caused him anguish and feelings of inferiority, which just made him less confident and aggressive. The thing fed upon itself. The Cuckold Cornerback tended to try and cope with these feelings on the field–where he was nobody’s bottom–by dominating his opponents. Millenia intuited all this of course, and so she liked to fuck him silly before a game. game. Then she’d watch him play and note the analog between her aggressiveness in bed and his on the field. It became a game of her own. The Cuckold Cornerback’s off-the-charts performance the day after she caused him to climax prematurely by inserting an unexpected digit into his anus won him Defensive Player of the Week honors.
One year for their anniversary, she had given him a copy of the Kama Sutra with a lewd message she’d written inside the book’s front cover. He gave her flowers. The Cuckold Cornerback read the dirty inscription and mocked a surprised look. They laughed conspiratorially. Her laugh made him secretly nervous. He pointed out a couple of positions almost at random and said he’d love to try them with her sometime. She squealed and embraced him and gave him a brazen, sexual look that made him even more nervous and intimidated than her laugh had. The Cuckold Cornerback kept the Kama Sutra on the nightstand for a few weeks, making a show of thumbing through it from time to time but he never seriously considered employing any of the positions. They all seemed to him like some kind of sexual yoga. And he was strictly a missionary type-guy: no sex-yoga for him.
And so the book went into the nightstand drawer and the next time the Cuckold Cornerback saw a Kama Sutra sex position was on the 320×240 undercover webcam video. Of the five different entry methods the Cuckold Cornerback counted, he recognized three from the book. The other two struck him as somewhat satanic and he has since tried to forget them. To make things even worse, not only was the Wide Receiver Fuckboy’s near-falcate penis much larger than his own (and was surely reaching places inside his wife that he never could), it turned out that he was one of those despicable types the Cornerback sometimes saw in old-school porn who rested one hand on the small of his back when he copulated from behind. Like it gave him some sort of extra thrust or something.
And that was it. That was the straw. The Cornerback zipped up his pants and broke the laptop over his knee like a cheap piece of wood. To say that he was not happy about being cuckolded by this younger man he had to go up against on the field twice a year, trash-talking and tackling, a man for whom a certain hatred was professionally expected, would be an understatement. The Cuckold Cornerback wanted this baby, this Whoops-Baby-Love-Child that his wife created with his rival on that horrifying video to suffer. It was up to Antagony to figure out how.
And so management called a closed-door meeting with all of the top PN’s. They wanted to ask us, before simply assigning the case, if anyone would be willing to antagonize a sweet little seven-month-old baby girl. The pay would be double the usual rate. Good ol’ Freddie Spangle raised his hand so fast he almost dislocated his shoulder.
There is an upside to working with this type of person, I’ve come to realize. Freddie tends to be a shit-shield. You can always count on him to take the cases that tend to be very difficult for anyone with a mammalian conscience. Whether or not he actually enjoys them is anyone’s guess. The only time he ever addressed the subject was to say that it made him more valuable to the company and if layoffs ever came around, we could all bet our sorry asses that it wouldn’t be Freddie Spangle who got jettisoned. My guess is that he enjoys them very much.
And so then what happened? Spangle hadn’t even been on the case for two days when a sleep-deprived and unwitting agent of karma lost control of his taxi at the end of a sixteen-hour shift and came up onto the sidewalk, taking out a hydrant and a newspaper kiosk before finally pinning Spangle against a Taco Bell. His leg was broken in three places and he has paid medical leave for two months, not to mention a lawsuit he’s sure to win.
And me? I was given the task of trying to make a baby miserable.
I started with the usual research. Millenia The Super Agent and Whoops-Baby-Love-Child live in a two-story penthouse in the West Village. Millenia employs a full-time nanny because of her career’s time demands. Research and prep week was tough. I struggled to come up with a plan of attack. I’m sure you can imagine that my options for this particular subject were limited at best. Vehicular confrontation was obviously out. Crank calling during the baby’s nap-time was an idea I had but then quickly rejected. Even if I managed to wake her up a time or two, there’d be no way to document it.
I followed the Nanny and the Whoops-Baby-Love-Child around the West Village. Each day at eleven they’d stroll around the neighborhood, hit up this old Italian caffe for an iced coffee for the Nanny, and then head to Washington Square park. They would enter under the arch and head for the fountain, on whose steps they’d sit and watch the bathers, mostly the young and the old: kids between the ages of mischief and puberty splashing around, shooting one another with their high-powered water cannons. Some would try to redirect the fountain’s spouts towards a friend while the elderly moved slowly around the periphery in a plutonian orbit, bent slightly at the knees, arms out, palms down on the water as if for balance. The Nanny would hold the Whoops-Baby-Love-Child under her arms and dip her feet in the water that lapped up to the fountain’s lowest step. Then they’d go sit on the grass in the shade of a basswood. The Nanny would spread a blanket out beneath the low branches and they’d look at board books or sometimes simply watch the manic, stop-and-go squirrels. The child seemed to already possess a callus all Manhattanites eventually develop: the ability to selectively ignore a great number of people in close proximity and enjoy a public space as if was it for them alone. The squirrels would scurry around frenetically or else be as still as statues; there is no in-between with squirrels. Live jazz was a near constant in the park and seemed choreographed for their fitful acrobatics. I hate jazz, but I heard not one drum solo all week and considered that a small miracle and a blessing.
It was in Washington Square Park that I first attempted to engage the target. I put out a blanket and sat near where I approximated the Nanny would come lay hers. I was not alone. I brought my twenty-two-month-old nephew and burgeoning terror, Lionel, along as kind of a lure. The term my family uses to describe Lionel’s disposition is: Hard to Handle. I have since discovered that this is a gross underestimation of the child’s ability to create chaos. Lionel is my sister, Leigh’s, kid. Leigh’s a fantastic mom. She and her husband both work long hours and they do their best with Lionel. When I told Leigh that I had some vacation days to either use or lose and that it was high time Lionel and I did some uncle/nephew bonding, she was so thrilled to get him out of his dreary Jersey City daycare center that she didn’t even bat an eye at my bullshit.
Getting Lionel to simply sit with me on the blanket was a struggle. All he wanted to do was stomp around the park and kick things like a drunk NYU student. But I am a professional, folks, and I was prepared. This was when I introduced the little bastard to Kit Kats. And for a little while, at least, he sat there in my lap, putty in my hands. Lionel devoured the chocolate strips with a gusto that is surely a diabetic harbinger. The Nanny put out her blanket next to us. They sat down. The Whoops-Baby-Love-Child was plopped passively and pleasantly against the nanny, with three quarters of her hand in her toothless mouth, drooling like a pavlovian dog with a glandular issue at a Salvation Army kettle stand. Lionel had already eaten half the Kit Kats and was taking a respite to lick chocolate from his fingers. The Nanny beamed him a smile and twinkled her fingers in greeting. Lionel furrowed his brow and drew the remaining Kit Kats close in a protective gesture.
“Well somebody sure does have a sweet tooth,” she said to him. “Yes. Yes they do! Hello there. Hi. Is that good? Is it yummy? Boy, you’re a cutie. Yes you are! A-booogey-booogy-booogy-boo!”
“Lionel, No. We do not–I’m so sorry.”
“That’s ok. I’m sure he doesn’t know what it means.”
“I’ve never seen him do that. How embarrassing.”
“Oh, It’s ok. His fine motor skills certainly are impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child his age isolate that finger so fluidly. But you didn’t mean it, did you sweetheart? No, I know you didn’t. I know you didn’t! A-boogey boo. A-boogey boogy-boo!”
“He probably picked it up from daycare. I think I’m going to have to move him. The kids are awful.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“My name is Brooklyn. And this little slice of pumpkin pie is Isabelle. I take care of her during the week while mom gets work done.” Brooklyn made some sort of pet gesture at Isabelle, a thing with pinky and index finger, and then handed her an unfortunately-titled board book: Cat, House, Mommy! Isabelle took the book with the shriveled hand she had just been gnawing on. The front of her shirt was soaked with drool but it seemed not to bother her one bit as she sat there holding the book upside down, smiling contently into the West Village afternoon like a little urban Buddha.
“Pleasure, Mike. Ae you guys enjoying a boys’ day out?”
“Well, every day is kind of a Boy’s Day Out for us. Lionel’s mom and I aren’t together anymore.”
“Oh. I’m sorry”
“That’s ok, Brooklyn.”
“No, I mean, I should know better than to just presume. Michelle is a single parent, too. Isabelle’s mom. Totally cool lady. She’s so successful. She’s like this big time sports person or something. I love working for her. I’ve got so much respect for single parents.”
“Well you do what you have to do, I guess.”
“You know, Michelle runs a single parent support group.”
“Totally. She knows how tough it is to raise a kid solo, especially in New York.”
“What a great idea.”
“I help out. I watch the kiddies while the parents get coffee, talk, whatever.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“Well, it’s not like I don’t get paid for it.” Her chuckle made use of her entire upper body and involved several snorts.
“Nearby?” I asked.
“Yep. Right here in the Village. She has this awesome duplex. Plenty of space for the kids to play. You guys should totally come to one.”
“I’d be up for that, it sounds like fun.”
“Let me put your number in my phone.”
Isabelle began gnawing on one of her book’s corners.
“Oh! Isabelle, you are such a drooly mess. We’ve got to change that shirt before you get a rash.” Brooklyn stood to get the diaper bag from the stroller and as her back was turned I took the opportunity to fire my first salvo at the target. I switched to record on my vintage Google Glasses and brought my face down just inches from hers. I made the most vile, frightening expression I could muster. Ok, so it wasn’t the most advanced tactic, but I was sure it would get results. I held the face for a few moments and then backed off to wait for the hysterical crying and a nice first video for the client. Instead, Isabelle just smiled and laughed. Brooklyn turned at the sound. “Oh. Haha! She is so silly. I think she likes you, Mike. I think you–OH MY GOD!”
Brooklyn pointed frantically behind me. “Lionel’s in the fountain!”
My stomach dropped as I registered his absence from the blanket. When did he even get up? I looked over and saw him splashing around and making a scene. Naked. I ran over, following the trail of clothes, gathering them up along the way. I got to the fountain’s edge and sternly told him to get out. He gave me the finger. Pretty much everyone under the age of forty laughed.
“Oh shit, son,” I heard somebody say.
“Lionel! Get. Over. Here…NOW.”
Did he listen? Of course not. I took off my socks and shoes and put them down with his clothes and stepped over the rim and onto the fountain’s steps.
“Could you keep an eye on this?” I asked a serious-looking woman. She nodded seriously. I reached out into the fountain as far as I could from the bottom step but Lionel simply moved to the center and started dancing tauntingly under the water spouts. His little dingus flapped like a goldfish pulled from its tank. I took out my cell phone and wallet and handed them to the serious-looking woman. I rolled my pants up to the knees and stepped into the water. Lionel stopped dancing. I stepped forward and he retreated, putting the center’s platform and spouts between us. He started to dance again, this time turning and shaking his ass at me. I charged and chased him around the platform.
“Oh, shit, son!” someone said again.
What ensued was wet frustration and the useless result of circular pursuit. I stopped to catch my breath and I could see through the cascading water that Lionel was highly amused. I was not. I was soaked and I needed to end this. I stepped up onto the platform and stood in the middle of the geyser like some sort of aquatic demigod. Lionel didn’t even bother trying to get away as I hopped triumphantly off the platform and took his hand. We left the fountain to scattered applause. Even the serious woman was clapping. I took our belongings and headed back to our blanket.
But when we got back to our spot, Brooklyn and Isabelle were gone. No doubt Brooklyn wanted nothing to do with us. And who could blame her?
I took Lionel back to New Jersey.
“Hi,” my sister said at the door, as Lionel pushed past her. “So how did it–Hey, why are you guys all wet?”
“Well, come on in for a moment and I’ll get you a towel.”
“No thanks.” I turned and walked to the elevator.
“So are we still on for tomorrow,” she called to me.
“I’ve got errands,” I said, and stepped onto the elevator.
Later at home, I was working on my US Citizenship Renewal application when my burner phone chimed with a text:
Hey Mike! It’s Brooklyn. Sorry about earlier. Belle got a bee sting and I had to get her home for tweezers and an icepack 😦
Oh no, I replied, wishing I had gotten some footage of that.
Lionel sure is a little water bug, tho, lol!
He is Satan’s spawn, I typed, but then deleted, and then typed: LOL!
So Michelle is having a meet-up tomorrow. I told her about U and she wanted me to extend an invite. Still interested?
I quickly flipped to my sister’s text thread and tapped a message: Hey Leigh. The errands have been pushed to next week. Ok to take Lionel to the city again tomorrow?
Sure! Should I pack a towel this time?
Haha no. Just taking him on a playdate with my friend’s kid.
Awesome! Take pics 🙂
I replied to Brooklyn: Sorry. Thought I heard Lionel wake up. Sure, we’d love to come. What time?
I’ll send you Michelle’s address. See you guys tomorrow!
The next day in the city, after walking the final twelve blocks because Lionel somehow managed to annoy our driver so badly–even though a glass partition–that we were kicked out of the taxi we had taken from Penn Station, we arrived at Michelle’s building at 5th Avenue and West 8th Street. The doorman directed us to take the main elevator to the tenth floor, where he’d call the private one to take us up to the penthouse.
We exited, finally, to a marble and glass foyer. A shoe mat, coat tree, and an umbrella stand stood outside the door. I removed my shoes and then wrangled Lionel’s off his feet. I pulled at the tip of my left sock and then pushed the slack between my big and second toes to hide a hole. The door opened before I could knock.
“Hey guys! It’s great you could make it.”
From the pictures and videos I had seen of Michelle during my research, it was obvious that she was an attractive woman. But standing in front of me as a three-dimensional person, she was absolutely stunning, beautiful in a make-a-regular-guy-extremely-uncomfortable kind of way. And I am, if nothing else, a regular guy, so when she held out a perfectly manicured and unblemished hand, I could suddenly feel all the moisture in the room gather upon mine. But she was gracious and showed no disgust or aversion to my damp handshake. And with this most tiny morsel of encouragement and against all professional instincts, I found myself imagining us engaging in different type of exchange.
“…and then perhaps a movie. Mike? Hey Mike? Thought I lost you there for a second.”
“Oh. Sorry. No, I was just admiring your amazing apartment.”
“Well come on in and get a better look, you guys. No honey, let’s not bring the umbrella stand inside. Thank you. Right this way. We’ll head downstairs first. There’s a closet where you can stow your bag. Hey Lionel. Guess what? There are some friends downstairs who can’t wait to meet you! Zach and Chloe. Oh, and Isabelle whom you’ve already met at the park! Won’t that be fun?”
I gave him a little nudge. “Don’t look too excited there, buddy.”
“Oh, he just needs a minute to warm up, don’t you Lionel? New faces and all. Don’t you worry, you’re going to have F-U-N, fun! Mike, once he’s all settled in, you, I, and Sofiya can get better acquainted up in the kitchen. Knowing Sofiya, she’s already cracked the wine.”
The apartment’s bottom floor was set up as a playroom. The wall-to-wall carpet was super soft but hideous in design; its primary-colored and schizophrenically-arranged geometric shapes seemed to come straight from the mind of a neoplasticist on hallucinogens. Brooklyn was sitting on a beanbag, wearing a princess hand-puppet and making it talk to Chloe, who looked to be about Lionel’s age. Zach made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to stand up. There was a Raffi song playing from speakers I could not see. Isabel watched everyone and smiled.
“Hi Lionel!” Brooklyn waved manically.
Lionel retreated behind my legs.
Zach finally managed to stand and squealed with joy for having done so. Chloe picked her nose and wiped it on the beanbag. Brooklyn either didn’t notice or chose to ignore the booger and went back to her puppetry. Zach lost his balance, fell back onto his ass and began to cry. Raffi was already beginning to irritate me.
Michelle knelt down in front of me to talk to Lionel. Her blouse was low-cut and I tried to ignore a burgeoning chain of inappropriate thoughts.
“Don’t you want to play, honey?” she asked. Lionel was being uncharacteristically timid, still clinging to my legs. This was distressing because I’d been counting on his disruptive prowess for distraction while I put my plan into action. He was finally coaxed over to examine a box of Legos. Michelle caught me staring down her blouse and looked up with a coy smile I thought I had surely misinterpreted. She reached out for me to give her a sweaty hand up. Chloe was still talking to the hand-puppet, Zach was still working on standing, and over in the corner, Lionel was now trying to open the lego box. Isabelle was still smiling. Michelle clasped her hands together in an expression that connoted satisfaction. “Ok. Looks like we’re all good here. Lionel seems happy, don’t you think, Mike? What about you, Brooklyn?”
Brooklyn held the princess puppet up. “All good, Michelle,” she said in a Mickey Mouse falsetto.
“Shall we head upstairs, Mike?”
But then Lionel, God bless the little bastard, lost his patience trying to open the Legos box. He threw it on the ground and began stomping on it. “STUPID STUPID STUPID,” he yelled at the box as he crushed it underfoot.
Michelle and Brooklyn were slack-jawed. Chloe, digit in nostril, gawked, as well. Zach began to cry. Isabelle smiled serenely.
“No, Lionel!” I stopped him from causing further damage. “This is not acceptable behavior. We do not destroy other people’s things.” Things were beginning to go as planned. I took Lionel’s hand. “Maybe we need to have a little time-out,” I said.
Lionel lost his shit. He threw himself onto the floor and into a real doozy of a tantrum, literally kicking and screaming.
“I’m so sorry, Michelle,” I said loudly over Lionel’s fit. “Do you think we could possibly have a few minutes?”
“Sure, Mike. We’ll just be upstairs.”
“He’s just a little out of his element, aren’t you Lionel?” Brooklyn said, her voice dripping with pathos.
“No!” Lionel shouted back.
Michelle and Brooklyn gathered the kids and took them upstairs. I let Lionel continue thrashing on the floor for a minute before I broke out the Kit Kats. I wanted everyone to stay away while I put my plan into action.
When I was doing my research, I came across a story about an invention called The Banshee. This was a controversial device that emitted a high-frequency tone that only the young ears of children and teen-agers were supposed to be able detect and be irritated by. Its purpose was to keep kids from congregating on corners or in front of homes–that innocuous behavior that middle-class adults who have no real concerns like crime or violence in their suburban neighborhoods but who for some reason still have a need to fear, fear. It turned out that The Banshee didn’t work quite as advertised. Some adults could also hear it. There were lawsuits and outright banning in most places and the device never took off. I tried to get a hold of one but the company had folded. I checked eBay and Craigslist but couldn’t even find a used one.
This was a job for George, I decided.
I picked up a six pack at the Beer-Mart and headed over to see him. George and I go all the way back to high school. We’re good buds. He’s the only friend outside of work who knows what I do for a living. As for his own career, he had been a maintenance technician in a music studio up until about ten years ago when the recording industry shit the bed. Most of the studios in New York closed, and when his finally did, too, he left the business and began teaching. Today, George is a professor at Rutgers. He teaches his students audio signal flow and studio tech work and basically encourages the poor sons of bitches to go into a career he himself found too unstable and difficult. Go figure. We often argue about whose job is more immoral. But the point here is that George still loves to tinker with audio gear in his garage. If there was anyone who could help me annoy a baby sonically, it was him.
He was soldering a circuit board when I got there. I startled him when I walked in and he dripped a bit of hot solder onto his fingers.
“Son of a bitch!” He shook his hand around and then dunked his fingers into a glass of water.
“Nice one, Georgie.”
“Hey. F you, Stempowicz. What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be out making people miserable?”
“We can’t all have the summers off, professor. It’s research week and I’ve got a new case I wanted to pick your brain about.”
“Oh yeah? Well this is a first.” George tossed the circuit board down onto a pile with some others. “It’s going to cost you.”
“Like I’d ever set foot in your nerd-cave without beer. Is Witch-Tiddie IPA still your go-to?” I handed him a bottle that was cold and sweating with condensation. “I can’t keep up with all your microbrews.”
“Dude. This is so perfect right now.”
I took one for myself. We clinked bottles and threw back inaugural sips. The bitterness of the hops nearly took my head off. “So what’s up, Scott?”
“Ever hear of a device called The Banshee?”
“The kid repeller?”
“That’s right. It’s defunct now.”
“Of course it is. Besides being a horrible idea in general, it was flawed technically. The tone it put out was what, like 10K?”
“I think that’s what I read.”
“What were they thinking? Most adults can hear that. They should have gone up to like 15, 16K.”
“So why didn’t they?”
“Probably because you’d have to make the tone pretty loud to be irritating at that frequency.”
“And that wasn’t feasible for The Banshee people.”
George shrugged and took a big swallow of his beer. “Guess not.”
“And 15k would be above adults’ range?”
“I’d say like eighty to ninety percent of them would not hear it, at least not to the extent that it would bother them. Even teens might not really be affected very much, especially with all the loud crap they listen to. It would annoy the shit out of younger kids, though.”
“Perfect. So if I could…”
“Wait a minute.”
“…if I could find a Banshee somewhere…”
“No. Just no.”
”…and rig it to put out a higher frequency..”
“…and make it louder…”
George pointed an accusing finger. “You’re a horrible person. Do you know that?”
“…then I could probably drive a child bat shit without a mom or nanny hearing it.”
“I hope you realize you’re smiling like a lunatic.”
“This is the grin of a man who sees victory, my friend.”
“Antagonizing a child. This is low, even for you.”
“Come on, Georgie. A little help?”
“Look, it’s not like I’m enjoying this. I had no choice. And it’s just a little irritation.”
”Fuck. All right. Look, you don’t need that stupid Banshee. It’s just a fixed-tone generator, anyway. There’s no way to rig it. I have a couple of battery-powered oscillators with built-in speakers. They’re plenty loud and they can be set to any frequency. I’ll set one for 14k and one at 15k–that way they’ll be discordant. They’ll definitely do the job.”
“You are a hero, Georgie. Do you hear that?” I slapped him on the back. “An American goddamned hero.”
“F. you, Scott. Hand me another Tiddie.”
As Lionel lay crying and flailing on that awful carpet, I took the backpack out of the closet and removed the two oscillators from inside. The first I hid in a floor-to-ceiling book case. The second I put on the opposite side of the room on a toy shelf. I switched them on to test. I couldn’t detect the tone but Lionel stopped crying and began to look around. He looked more confused than annoyed, so I turned them both up to full blast. He shook his head and winced. I discovered that if I angled my own head just-so, I could hear a bit of a whine, something like a florescent light’s swan song, but it was no more disturbing to me than that. Lionel, on the other hand, was fairly agitated. Perfect. I shut off the oscillators and pulled out a package of Kit-Kats and before I could even get the wrapper open, Lionel was cozying up.
Brooklyn approached the playroom’s threshold.
“Knock, knock,” she said as she knocked on the door frame. “Everything okay in here?”
“Yes. I think he’s ready to play.”
“Come on, Lionel,” Brooklyn said, “let’s see about those Legos.”
Upstairs, Michelle and Sofiya were sitting at the kitchen island with glasses of wine.
“Mike, this is Sofiya. Sofiya: Mike.”
“So nice to meet you. Welcome to our little playgroup. Hee-hee.” Sofiya gyrated her arms and shoulders in movements that could have been interpreted as either dancing or running in place.
“Merlot, Mike? Or if you’d prefer, I have some beer.”
“Merlot sounds great, Michelle. Especially after that little tantrum.”
Over the next half-hour the three of us polished off a magnum while discussing everything under the sun except for the room’s elephantine subject. But I figured the talk would eventually turn to single parenting. Perhaps they just worked up to it with newbies. Michelle asked us if she should open another bottle and Sofiya made a T with her hands. “I need a day-drink time out.”
“Same,” I said.
Michelle took our empty glasses over to the sink. “So there’s this new documentary called Centrum Solutam playing over at the Angelika. It’s about the formation of the Republican party. A friend of mine saw it last night and he says it’s absolutely brilliant.” On the way back to her seat, Michelle stopped behind Sofiya and straightened her hair, running her fingers through it. It struck me as an oddly intimate gesture, but then again I’m a dude. What did I know about inter-women behavior that wasn’t informed by a horny subconscious? “The movie takes a bit of an anti-merger stance so I’d really like to check it out before the PPA pulls the plug. You guys interested?”
“I heard about this,” I lied. “I’d like to see it, too.” Going out to a movie would allow plenty of time for the plan.
“What about you, Sofiya?”
“Sure. Sounds good to me. What is the PPA?”
“The Patriotism Protection Agency. Remember when my ex declined to stand for the National Anthem? They’re the ones who took his game check.” Michelle poked around on her phone. “The next show starts in an hour. If we hustle we’ll have time for more pregaming.”
Sofiya snapped her fingers and shimmied her shoulders. “Okayyyy…”
“I’ll just pop downstairs and check on Lionel,” I said.
The kids were content. Raffi was off repeat, which lent a saner atmosphere. As a matter of fact, there was no music playing at all–another plus for my plan.
“So what did you guys decide?” Brooklyn asked.
“We’re going to a movie.”
“Oh, nice. Good for you, Mike. And don’t worry. Lionel and I are going to get along just great.” She winked with the elegance of someone who had just learned to wink and pulled open her purse to show me several packets of apple slices and baby carrots. “See? You’re not the only one with a secret weapon.”
“Hey, can you do me a solid and hang here for a minute while I use the Ladies’?”
Perfect. I took my Google Glasses out of my pocket and placed them onto the book case with the camera-eye framing the room. They were fully charged so I’d get about half an hour of video before they shut off. I switched on the oscillators.
Michelle, Brooklyn, and Sofiya came clomping downstairs. “Ok, we’re headed out,” Michelle scooped up Isabelle for a kiss.
Sofiya went over to Zach and Chloe to do the same. Zach started to get a little fussy and pulled at his left earlobe. “Oh no, Papi, I hope you not getting another ear infection,” Sofiya said. “That’s no good.” She palmed his forehead. “No fever, thank goodness.”
“I’ll keep a close eye and text you if he gets warm,” said Brooklyn. She slipped the princess puppet onto her hand. “Now you guys go,” she said, and then added in her high octave, “Vamoose! And have fun.”
We took a cab to Houston and Broadway and got to The Angelika forty minutes before Centrum Solutam was to begin. At Michelle’s suggestion, we gave fake names and paid cash at the ticket counter. I thought this was somewhat paranoid–who really believes the government is going to do anything with these lists? We discovered that the Angelika Cafe did not, in fact, serve booze so we went to a bar down the street instead.
Hyponothermic was six steps below street level, dim, dank, and mostly empty. We took a table in the far corner and settled in. “I don’t think there’s waitress service,” Sofiya said. “Let me get the first round.”
“I’ll stick with wine,” Michelle said.
“I’d better just have a club soda.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll be right back.” She went over to the bar and flashed a smile at the young handsome bartender. He said something that made her chuckle and their ensuing conversation seemed much too involved to be a simple drink order.
“There she goes perpetuating that divorced stereotype,” Michelle laughed. “What a flirt.”
“I was going to say. Do all your support group meet-ups devolve into barroom shenanigans?”
“Support group? How do you mean?”
“Oh, no. This is too funny. Brooklyn really is precious. What did she tell you?”
“What did she tell me when?”
“When you guys met at the park. How did she frame our get-togethers?”
“Just that you you ran a support group for single parents and that she helped out and watched the kids when you guys wanted to socialize.”
“Amazing. I can’t believe even Brooklyn is this naive.”
“So not a single-parent support meet-up, then.”
“God, no. Call it a single parent…hookup.” Michelle leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Who has time for dating with careers and kids? We cut to the chase.” She licked my neck slowly from shoulder to earlobe.
“Oh, ok,” I stammered. “I didn’t…I wasn’t even…I mean…”
She chuckled in my ear and gave my neck another swipe with her tongue.
Sofiya came back with the drinks and sat down on the other side of me. “Looks like I’m missing all the fun.” She drained half a vodka-cranberry in a single gulp and then scooted over so that I was pretty much sandwiched between them. Before I could decide whether to just to go it or high-tail it to the Men’s room, all of our phones began vibrating on the table. I flipped mine over and Michelle saw a text from Brooklyn:
Guys: EVERYONE IS OK. But could you guys maybe come back now??? Things are a little nuts here. It’s like they all decided to throw the biggest fits of their lives at the same time and I can’t get them to stop. Help?
We rushed back to Michelle’s apartment and found the playroom in shambles. Toys and books were strewn across the floor and apple slices were mushed into the carpet (although to be honest, there was practically nothing you could do to make that carpet look worse). Zach was sitting in a big pile of stuffed animals and crying loudly while his sister Chloe whipped him with the princess hand puppet. Brooklyn was on hands and knees attempting to straighten the mess while Lionel rode her back like some sort of deranged bullwhacker. That Brooklyn was able to pretty much ignore Lionel and continue on told me all I needed to know about how long this had been going on. It was sheer luck that the Google Glasses and the oscillators hadn’t been dumped onto the floor.
And Isabelle? Where was she and what sort of misery had I been able to provide for her? Because of the mess, I had to scan the room a second time to locate her. I spotted her in the far corner watching (merely watching!) the chaos. And do you know what, ladies and goddamned gentlemen? She was…smiling! Completely content. Not an agitated ossifying bone in her body.
Who was this child–this infuriating saintly child–immune to frustration of any sort? She was unreal. And as Michelle made that same pet gesture to Isabelle Brooklyn had at the park, and scooped her up and kissed her on her little head, smiling at this innocent mutant who did nothing from the moment I had laid eyes upon her except smile back, my heart vomited. I despised this child so very much.
Sofiya toddled over to Chloe and Zach and tried to calm them. I grabbed Lionel off Brooklyn’s back and then under pretense of surveying the damage, I turned off the oscillators. It was like I had hit a switch on the children as well. Even Lionel became placid. They all looked suddenly tired, and who wouldn’t after a forty-five-minute group tantrum?
“You ok, Brooklyn?” Michelle asked.
“I’m all right. I might need to call it a day, though.”
“Of course. What the heck happened?”
“I have no clue. They got agitated pretty soon after you guys left, and it just ramped up from there.”
“As long as everyone is ok. That’s all I care about,” Sofiya said and then belched.
“I’m sorry that Lionel was climbing all over you, Brooklyn.”
“No worries, Mike. They were all upset. I tried giving him some of the snacks from my purse but he was not having it. He threw the apple slices at me and the kids and then stomped around on them. I don’t think you even want to know what he did with the baby carrots. Michelle, I had to borrow your pliers. I’ll put them back in the utility closet after I wash them.”
“Do you want me to call you a car, Sofiya? You guys all look ready to crash.”
“Yes. I think maybe so. Gracias, Michelle.”
Brooklyn inspected one of the princess puppet’s arms that had been torn half off. “I guess you’re going to want to get Isabella down for a nap before her dad comes to pick her up for their visit. Do you need me to stay for a little bit?”
“Nope. You’ve gone above and beyond here, BK. I’ll get her down; she looks ready to conk out. Sofiya’s car will drop you home on the way.”
“Of course. Hey, could you let Larry at the front desk know that Isabelle’s dad is coming?”
When Sofiya, Brooklyn, Chloe, and Zach left, Michelle put some lullaby music on in the playroom and switched to a lighting setting her smartphone called Nappy Time. All on his own, Lionel crawled into my lap and curled up like some kind of normal child. Michelle brought Isabelle to her room. It took only a couple of minutes for Lionel to fall asleep and then just another couple for Michelle to come back. She motioned for me to come up to the kitchen. I laid Lionel gently down on the playroom’s couch and went upstairs. Michelle was at the kitchen table flipping through a photo album.
“Those kids were exhausted,” she said.
“Tell me about it. Lionel is totally out.”
“That’s a good looking photo album.” I reached out my hand and ran my hand over the leather cover.
“There’s still some hard feelings between Isabelle’s dad and me so I had this made for him as kind of a peace offering. Belle’s christening. Want to take a look?”
The last thing I wanted to do was look at pictures of that child, but there is no tactful way to tell a mother brandishing a photo album that you’d rather have your eyes sucked out with a straw than to see pictures of her stupid kid. Michelle took me through each page with play-by-play narration. There, in almost every picture was Isabelle wearing a gaudy christening dress and her vapid, ever-present Jim Henson grin that never wavered, even apparently while being held up for display in a church full of people, holy-water dripping off her head. I’ve been to a few christenings in my time and every single baby cried. Every single baby cried and cried badly for quite a while. Can you blame them? Of course not. That’s some scary shit for a baby. But no, not so for little Isabelle, the happiest baby on the planet. Isabelle the Unantagonizable. It was some kind of mental illness, I decided; no child can be that happy at every moment. I looked again at the pictures and had a dark fantasy that I was the priest. And I christened that child like a boat.
“Wow, these all look great. Isabelle’s dad is going to love it.”
“Think so? I hope he does. He’s a good guy, but too possessive. That was our problem. Isabelle wasn’t really supposed to happen. And when I got pregnant he just assumed we were going to be exclusive.”
“Not what you wanted, huh?”
“I’m technically still married! I’m sure you’ve heard the story. In the tabloids or whatever.”
“They’re true. We’re getting divorced. And I am so not getting into another monogamous relationship right now. Or probably ever. You know?”
She waited for me to say something, but I did not. “Anyway,” she said, “let’s forget all that. You’re going to stay for a bit and let Lionel finish his nap, right?”
“Do you have any idea what the trip home would be like if I woke him up right now?”
“Good. Give me a couple of minutes to freshen up and then meet me back in the playroom. I’ve got something cool to show you.”
“Sure. Oh, hey, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. What’s the deal with the devil horns? Are you guys like closet metal heads or something?”
“That hand gesture you and Brooklyn make at Isabelle.”
“Oh, silly. Didn’t you know?”
“That’s sign language for ‘I love you.’ Belle is deaf.”
Michelle went to the bathroom, leaving me alone with the realization that I was a man who had been trying to annoy a deaf baby with a high pitched noise. What was I doing with my life? This case was a disaster.
But wait, it gets better.
In the playroom, Michelle brought me over to one of the built-in book cases. We made sure to be quiet, although it seemed Lionel was sleeping so hard I didn’t think we could have woken him up if we tried. This proved to be disastrously wrong.
“The previous owner was kind of a paranoid eccentric,” Michelle whispered.
“Because of a bookcase?”
“No. Because of this.”
She moved aside a few of the books on a lower shelf to reveal a button. She pressed the button and pulled at the side of the book case. It moved rather easily on some sort of track in the floor that I could not see. Moved aside, the openeing revealed a small room.
“Come on in.”
Michelle shut the case after me.
The room had a futon, mini fridge, and a desk. On the desk was a bank of four monitors, each showing a different security camera: The private elevator, the outside of the front door, Isabelle’s room, and the playroom.
“So what’s this, a panic room?”
“The realtor called it a hidden room. I think an actual panic room is supposed to be, like, impenetrable. This room you can get in by pushing a button.”
“Of course the trick is to know that there actually is a button,” I replied.
“Look, there’s Belle. And there’s Lionel. Both asleep. Everyone’s gone, everything’s calm. Belle’s dad won’t be here for another hour. How do you propose we pass the time?”
Rather than wait for an answer she simply reached for my belt. We both knew there was only one answer to the real question, the one she had not asked.
I don’t remember how long we were having sex; let’s just say we were very focused. For we never noticed Isabelle’s dad arrive early. We didn’t see him in the elevator security camera, buzzed up by Larry unannounced, nor in the the front door cam as he knocked, waited, and then reluctantly entered through the unlocked door. Maybe when you have a reception desk with a doorman and a private elevator, locking your front door can be kind of an afterthought. Perhaps it was all the wine.
And we didn’t notice Lionel in the playroom’s camera, who had feigned sleep earlier, rooting around the book case looking for the way in. Nor did we notice Isabelle’s dad, all six foot six of him, he of the NFL-caliber biceps and drill sergeant disposition, enter the playroom and approach Lionel as that little shit found the button in the bookcase.
But what we did notice rather starkly–as I worked behind Michelle, her hair whipping me repeatedly in the face because I was too lame to take the not-so-subtle hint that she wanted me to grab it–was this: the bookcase being rolled aside and the furious look on Isabelle’s Dad’s face. And the smile on Lionel’s.
And so there I was with my pants around my ankles–damp, withdrawn, and vulnerable–Michelle admonishing and then finally pleading with Isabelle’s dad as he strutted resolutely up to me and drew back an arm…
Edward Raso is a fiction writer and survivor of the music business. His stories have been published in Causeway Lit, eFiction Magazine, The Naked Feather Literary Journal, and New Flesh. He lives in Bucks County, with his family. He can be found online at http://www.edraso.com or on Instagram as @ed_raso