"Petrochemicals," says Henry, who came to the party with Ara. "I sell petrochemicals. Mostly to foreign governments."
"Petrochemicals," says Ara's ex husband, Dan, whom she has just introduced to Henry. Dan lifts a fluted champagne glass from a passing tray. "I don't know much about petrochemicals. Is that like Napalm, stuff like that?"
"Not exactly," says Henry easily, smiling. He is a big, bulky man, florid and self confidant. "So tell me...Dan, is it? Tell me Dan, what line of work are you in?"
"I'm a writer. My line of work is writing."
"Well now, that's an interesting field," says Henry. "Tell me, just what kind of writing do you do?"
"Mostly fiction. Short stories, mostly." Dan feels like he's getting sucked in, answering Henry's questions like a good boy. He looks out the front windows of the loft, at the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge reflecting through the rain, and the black, glittering river below.
"Fiction," says Henry. "I really should read more fiction. Tell me, what kind of stories do you write?"
Ara is wearing a green scooped neck dress that exposes the creamy tops of her breasts. Dan wants to walk her to the back bedroom, right now, then lift her skirt, pull down her panties, throw her down on the pile of coats on the bed and take her fast and hard.
"I write about the human condition," says Dan. "I try to make the good old human condition resonate in the hearts and minds of my readers."
"No kidding," says Henry. "So tell me, Dan, how's the market for the human condition? I mean, do you find you've got a winner there, with that approach?"
"Commercially, it's a bust," says Dan, "but the spiritual rewards are amazing. But enough about me, Hank...can I call you Hank? Tell me, how are those petrochemicals moving these days? I mean, I guess it must be hard to maintain your profit margins with all these bleeding heart environmentalists around."
"Can't complain, Dan, can't complain." Henry's smile looks to Dan like its frozen in place, pasted in the middle of his pink, moist face.
"Henry, get me another champagne, will you?" says Ara. As he steps away, she turns to Dan.
"Lighten up, for God's sake. I hardly know this guy."
"Ditch the asshole and come home with me."
"Dan, you're crazy. We're divorced."
"That's no excuse for Hank of the petrochemicals."
"Dan, if I knew you were going to be here tonight, I wouldn't have come."
"Do you realize what an embarrassment this guy is to me? I mean, we were married six months ago!"
"Dan, if you want to stay, Henry and I will leave. Take your pick."
* * *
One hour and two bars later, Dan thinks of a woman he doesn't like who lives alone in the East 60s and is usually eager for sex. He steps into the rain drenched, empty street and hails a lone cab.
"Where you headed?" says the cabby through the front window as Dan approaches.
"Sorry, fella. I'm headin' home to Brooklyn."
"Your light's on. You stopped."
Dan kicks the rear fender as the cab pulls away.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, drunk, soaked, his foot throbbing badly, Dan leans against a pillar on the uptown side of the Canal Street subway station. He is thinking about killing Henry of the petrochemicals. He is thinking about watching Henry's moist, pink smile dissolve into an expression of pain and terror. A young black man in a magenta jogging suit ambles over, a tall, rangy dude with a flat top haircut and rings through one nostril and one ear.
"My man," he says, smooth, smiling, moving in close, like they're just two old friends having an intimate conversation. "Can you spare a coupla dollars?"
"Don't start with me," says Dan.
"Hey man, I'm jes' tryin' to scrape up somethin' to eat."
"How about I crap on the floor?" says Dan. "You could scrape that up and eat it."
"You got a attitude, my man."
Dan steps back, away from the pillar. He feels swollen with blood, giddy with joy, risk, release.
"I think you should change yo' attitude."
"How about I change your face around instead?" Dan inquires.
The black dude steps forward, loops out a long, thin arm, and gently, almost delicately, slaps Dan on the side of the head. Dan, surprised, feels the razor bite and the hot gush on his face. As he staggers back, he is slapped again on the side of the neck, and feels a second hot flow begin. He sits down, holding his head with both hands, and feels quick, efficient fingers rifle his jacket and lift his wallet.
This is a New York cliché, Dan thinks. Does he have to be black? I'll have to change that detail when I write the story, Dan thinks, just before he passes out.
* * *
Dan's eyes pop open. He is in the back of an ambulance. Someone is sitting next to him, pressing something against the side of his face and neck. Dan moves his lips, but no sound emerges. The EMS technician leans over him.
"Just take it easy," he says. "Don't try to talk."
"Cause of death," Dan whispers. "I mean...if you need it...
"Don't talk now."
"I got it," says the technician. "I'll take care of it, don't worry. Just take it easy."
Dan closes his eyes.