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Coney Island Knock Off

Tablet Original Fiction: Broken lives collide in the shadow of the Cyclone

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Burton’s girlfriend had dumped him, and he missed her terribly. Though she hadn’t ever completely moved in, her absence was tangible. He woke up feeling something was missing, not so much the concoctions (fenugreek and habanero paste, pomegranate and kefir sauce) that littered the stovetop, as the sound of her voice. Naomi had been in a chef-training program, and she used to read to him aloud from books on the chemistry of cooking and baking, describing the journey of CO alcohol and sugar in yeast or why egg whites act as a binder. In the middle of such a passage she would shout, that explains what the hell happened to the gluten in my pastry. Burton was happy just lying in bed listening to how bread was invented and why loud sounds make cakes collapse, but Naomi was agitated. She dropped out of the training program because she knew after graduation all that really awaited her was the slavery of apprenticeship under, if she was lucky, a half-way decent chef somewhere in the city, and she was doing that already. Naomi also complained about Burton. She said he was like one of those bobble heads people had on their dashboard, always looking around, but also he slept way into the afternoon and never wanted to go anywhere. He couldn’t help it, he told her, he always did his best work at night, and he had big student loans to pay off. Collection agencies dogged his steps with letters and phone calls. He had no time to go anywhere and no money.

“We’re like flour molecules cleaving from butter when we’re meant to adhere,” Naomi said as she packed up a dog-eared copy of The History of Salt, rolled up her flannel bundle of extra-sharp knives, shouldered her oversize messenger bag, and left.

Burton had no guide to explain the physics of his flopping. To make his despair complete, not only was Naomi no longer returning his calls, not even to be polite. His business partner, A. Lassiter, disappeared, and their client base had dried up. No one was using holograms for credit card fraud anymore. There were faster, more accurate, and cheaper ways to make the cards than to use his handmade products that reflected the high standards of a craftsman. Anybody could make fake cards now. It was like the invention of Polaroids, the automatic transmission, the Internet arrived, and boom he’s an antique, out of business. He leaned further out on his fire escape only to hear the thump of two feet landing directly behind him and a hand on his shoulder. Then Nachmann jumped down like Spiderman, pulled him back from the edge, and shoved him through the open window, knocking over a couple of parched plants. With the force of Nachmann’s push, both of them landed flat on their backs on his apartment floor.

“I can’t believed someone who was about to break into my apartment would save my life.” Burton pushed Nachmann off him.

“Look, it would have been easier for me to let you jump, then I hop into your place, collect what you got, and I’m out before your carcass hits pavement. Nobody’s the wiser.” So much for gratitude. Nachmann looked around. No flat-screen TV, no mp3 players, no high-end portable electronics to speak of, and this joker didn’t look like the kind of guy who wore jewelry or left wads of cash lying around. A couple of Bakelite-handled ice cream scoops hung from a wall as if family heirlooms. Pretending to be absent-minded or preoccupied, Nachmann opened an El Producto blunts cigar box lying on a table, hoping he could at least pocket a smoke. It was full of very small screws. An El Ray Del Mundo Flor de la Vonda box contained nothing but assorted lenses. Who was this guy? He could see not one thing worth lifting.

“Why did you save me then?”

Nachmann shrugged. On Burton’s worktable: Bank of America, Washington Mutual, Commerce Bank, Wachovia. While Burton was tossing water on his face from the kitchen sink, Nachmann pocketed one of the credit cards that looked finished, not realizing it probably wouldn’t work. Hungry, he opened Burton’s fridge.

“Feh,” he said. “How long has that sushi been sitting there? Don’t you have anything decent to eat?”

Burton turned from the sink.

“There’s some bread in there, I think.”

Nachmann found the heel of a rye bread and spun it on the flat of his palm. “That,” he couldn’t believe this guy, “you could use to hammer nails.” This was what he remembered from Odessa-level food. He drank cautiously from an open bottle of orange juice, sniffing before bringing the bottle to his lips.

“You want some?” He offered to his host. “You should have something to drink. You have a little beer or whiskey in the house?”

“Use a glass. They’re in the sink.”

Nachmann looked over at the sink, overflowing with dishes.

“I only save lives. I don’t do dishes.”

Burton noticed the man said house, the way Burton sometimes said house when he meant apartment. Burton lived in this apartment building because rent, this far at the end of the subway line, was cheap. He knew from maps there were islands out beyond the airport, and he’d heard about a guy who wrecked a small boat on one. He did OK on the island. He killed ducks with his hands and survived for a few days until someone doing maneuvers in a police helicopter spotted him, and so he was rescued, but if you went to one of those islands with enough supplies, and didn’t want to be rescued, it was conceivable you could live for a while at least like the Swiss Family Robinson within sight of JFK. So if the card business really tanked, he could move to one of those islands for a while, maybe.

When Burton started work on the cards, years ago, he felt like a watchmaker working out of Geneva or Zurich, places he could only imagine: turreted, Alpine, as different from the suburb of Rochester where he grew up as possible. As a miniaturist his teachers at art school thought he was a freak, but to some, his dexterous fingers were golden. In another century he might have made automatons or fit gears into minute timepieces or music boxes. As a sixteenth-century Mughal painter he would have fit fragments of butterfly wings no bigger than a newborn’s pinkie fingernail onto Sita’s sari, but he was an art student in New York in an era when Benazir Bhutto had been under house arrest. While others constructed giant sculptures from scrap metal, logs, chunks of stone, his genius was recognized by a classmate’s cousin who could put his oddities to good use. He made Burton an offer and, just out of school, he liked the idea of continuing to work alone, unbothered by office routine; the rewards, at first, were considerable. A. Lassiter provided many of the contacts, and they got on well enough until he disappeared from his house in Greenpoint and the missing-persons report filed by Auggie’s parents threw an uncomfortable light on their enterprise. The police interviewed Burton, but he claimed he was under the impression the holograms he made for Lassiter were for legitimate purposes, corporate identification cards. They seemed to believe him, but he suspended operations for a month, then needed to get back to work. How long could you lay low? And then what? Burton carried on alone as best he could, but then the nature of their business was changing anyway.

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Coney Island Knock Off

Tablet Original Fiction: Broken lives collide in the shadow of the Cyclone