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Playing ping pong with Steve Jobs

It was definitely Steve Jobs. Sure, Steve Jobs has been dead for years, but the person in the body was Jobs. Lean build with casual clothes loosely hanging on him. He sounded like that actor, not Peter Coyote, the other guy, who was in that movie with Russell Crowe and Guy…what’s his name. Pierce Patchett was the character. It will come to me.

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Prototype iPaddle

Jobs had twin boys with the exact same face, the face of this guy pretending not pretending to be Jobs. Round, flat, moon faces, tanned, with prominent noses. Faces of character that looked older than they were, and except for the boy bodies and boyish exuberance, you’d think they were adults.

They were playing ping pong on a long table, 2/3 the width of a regulation table with rounded ends. The net in the middle rose and fell, sometimes regularly, other times staying in place. The whole setup was on a turntable that slowly rotated, occasionally stopping and reversing.

My wife knew I’d want to play, and Jobs took note. “When the boys are finished, well have a go,” he said. “Do you play well? Are you good?” I play hard bat, an old school form of spongeless ping pong, from ping pong’s golden age. Before I could answer, another set of twins, these older, and less Jobs-like, came into the room carrying a telephoto lens about 8 feet in length and gave it to a woman, a doctor. I said something about the enormity of the lens and she said, “why shouldn’t I, it’s my vacation.”

While the boys played ping pong, Jobs showed us around. “What brings you to Atlanta,” he asked. Then, “Wait, don’t tell me, you’re here to bicycle the rivers. Of course you are.” Which was how we arrived here. His sprawling house complex crossed the river and the bike paths on either side went straight through the house. We were just pedaling past, admiring the furniture when he waved us over. “Have lunch with me,” he said. “We’re having grilled asparagus and some other things. Chips, maybe.”

Periodically, things, the furniture, tall, deep shelf drawers would automatically open, and Jobs would react, either removing an item, or putting something away. “If I miss it, I have to wait another day for an opening. Crazy system works,” he said. David Strathairn, that’s the voice Steve Jobs used. Really good choice.

A Jobs nephew, climbed on to his rotating bed as shelves were opening and removed some clothes, tossing off and throwing the old ones in a just opened chute. The doctor with the camera watched. “Why shouldn’t I watch? I like to see naked people especially when they look good. It’s my vacation.”

The boys came running up, each holding a ping pong paddle. “We’re finished,” they said. “You can play now.” Jobs looked exasperated. “No, no, NO,” he said. “It’s not the right time.” He patted his chest. “What do you think of this body? It works, but the design isn’t as user friendly as it should be. Look at these hands. Let’s play ping pong.”

We went to the table and slid it out, away from a couch. “Which side do you want?” he said, taking the side he wanted. “Grab yourself an iPaddle. They’re all the same.”

I picked up a paddle. Wood handle, rounded striking surface made from maybe cork. Slightly tacky. No rubber. Jobs hit me a ball and I returned it. The tack on the surface allowed me to get a little topspin and the ball dove nicely for me. My first shot landed deep, and high-bounced Jobs. He said,”whoa!”

He hit short balls, hard ones, angled ones and I returned them, each time eliciting a loud exclamation of praise from Jobs. A crowd gathered and I hit the ball back and forth with Steve Jobs, occasionally slamming one just to let him know I could do whatever I wanted, that I was in complete control.

Carried off by the swift waters

“All right,” I said. “Tell me all about it.” Like I said, I had time and more than anything, I like a good story.

Alder Fanspree got up from the bench and turned to face me and his wife.

“I had just dug into breakfast, egg and cheese on a toasted roll, when a man sat down to share the table. This was outside. This happened often and I didn’t bother to look up. ‘Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you,’ he said.

“I looked at him over the top of the Post. He sported an outlandish  thick moustache, curled at the ends, and his cheeks were ruddied as if by a raw winter wind.

“‘Of course it wouldn’t,’ he continued. ‘You’re just an average man caught up in a mundane life. You’re married. You have two children. The girl, the older one you have named Willow, is an athlete, a decent student who will no doubt get into a state school one day. Although, she dreams of an Ivy, it’s beyond her and she knows it. The other struggles. Maybe he’s on the spectrum. Maybe he isn’t.  You think he may have difficulties in social situations that will make it harder for him as he grows up.’

“This man’s information was only partly right. I am nothing if not average. You’ve met my wife, but, we’re childless. I told him, ’You have me mistaken for someone else.’

“’So, that’s how you’re going to play it,’ he said. And he smiled and twirled the end of his moustache.

“‘Look,’ I pressed on. ‘You have confused me with someone who looks a lot like me. I get it – I have one of those faces. But I don’t have children. You’re after another man. Not me.’

“He slid a 9 & 12 envelope across the table to me. ‘Open it,’ he said.

“There was a photo of a man jogging in the early morning along the river. It was an excellent capture of a tall, strikingly handsome man in the midst of an easy run. In the background, another runner out of focus, followed.

“‘That is Shnabullious Traffletum.’”

“I flipped the photo over and in the next image Mr. Traffletum was out of focus and the trailing runner was in sharp focus. That runner looked a lot like me, but it wasn’t me. For one thing, he wore a knee brace. I didn’t know who he was, but he must live nearby. We’d seen him around. I could see how we’d get mixed up. I often run past the same place.

“This man had information about a guy who looked like me, his children, and maybe every salient detail about his life. Stuff he could use to leverage the guy.

“‘Look at him,’ I said. ‘He’s wearing a knee brace. I don’t have one. My knee’s fine. And I don’t run that early. It’s not me.’

“‘That was Saturday,’ the stranger said.

“The next image showed Mr. Traffletum again, this time from the side passing a gate that separated the running path from the river.

“‘The gate is not latched,’ he said. ‘What I’d like you to do, Mr. Grass, is nudge Mr. Traffletum as he passes the gate tomorrow morning on your run. The gate is not latched – it’s there for kayakers and they never lock it. It will be low tide and the rocks at river’s edge will be exposed and Mr. Traffletum will trip as he falls through the gate and if god is with us, he will strike his head on the rocks below, hopefully doing permanent damage. Or, render him unconscious so he can drown. If he remains conscious, he will get carried off by the swift waters, and as he cannot swim, he will likely drown anyway. Eat your sandwich before it gets cold.’

“I noticed the egg and cheese perched in my hand next to my head and took a bite. It was still warm and the cheese was gooey.
‘What do you say? Can we count on you? Do this for us, and our relationship ends and Willow grows up and, who knows, maybe Princeton takes her. Maybe Clem – is that short for Clematis? – gets a little specialized attention to help him over this rough patch he’s going through. Maybe your beautiful wife doesn’t get snatched and held and…’ He paused and fiddled with his moustache again. ’She’ll live. We’re not animals. But would she ever be the same?’”

Laurel had stood up some time ago and she was pacing back and forth.

The whole damned city had changed

“Me?” I said. No one comes to see me. Not anymore.

“You are Mr. Pyrus,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Just Pyrus will do. My friends call me…”

“We shan’t be friends,” she said with a sweet smile. “Can we talk somewhere?”

Shan’t we? Has this woman modeled herself on an Audrey Hepburn character, I wondered. Anyway, we couldn’t go back to my office, not with Thorn strapped to a street sign. “Let’s take a walk.”

All that commotion surrounding the shooting spree was ramping up. Police cars, helicopters, ambulances, TV reporters – all the usual. The city was getting good at dealing with this nonsense. We walked in silence down 9th toward Gansevoort Street, where the Whitney Museum had relocated a couple years ago. It was a nice space if you were into art. We ducked into a cafe on Washington St., a place with $7 coffee and $10 muffins. The place had changed. The whole damned city had changed.

I bought her a cup of coffee. She declined the muffin, saying, “I don’t eat bread.”

“What’s this all about?”

“It’s my husband,” she started. She wasn’t wearing a ring, but I could see the outline as if she’d just slipped it off. “He’s a runner. He likes to run in the early morning. When he came home Friday morning after his run…”

She looked around. We were sitting outside on a bench, our backs to the Ripoff Cafe watching people walk by. “That man who was following me…”

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. At least not for now. Maybe later.

“When my husband came home, he was agitated.” That word was a little warning sign to me. People don’t use words like agitated when they’re about to describe a traumatic event. Maybe they’d say upset. Or freaked out. But agitated? No.

“And his name is?”

“Oh, yes. Of course. Alder Fanspree. I’m Laurel.”

“What happened next, Mrs. Fanspree?”

A man in running attire came around the corner of Horatio St. and stopped in front of us. Mrs. Fanspree gasped and quickly rose and touched his cheek with her hand. He was taller than she was by a few inches. They kissed.

“Mr. Pyrus, this is my husband.”

I reached out to shake his hand.

“I was about to tell you that he was missing,” she said. “But I think we may not be needing your services after all.”

I shook his hand.

“I’m afraid we do,” Alder Fanspree said. “Need your help, I mean. Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you?”

“No,” I said. “Not really.” I was beginning to doubt the Fansprees. “Traffletum. Come on, that’s not even a real name.”

They were wasting my time. On the other hand, I had a lot of free time and they both did appeared to be genuinely shaken up. We sat down on the bench, the three of us. Mr. Fanspree also had the shadow of a ring on his ring finger.

Yeah, yeah, yeah

It’s a bad idea, going after the woman. It’s already cost me a sport coat and pair of pants. Nice pants. If I think about it I’m already invested in this case. What case? She has disappeared up ninth and I’m a block away.

On top of that, I’ve pissed off whoever Thorn works for. Thorn’s a common simpleton with bills to pay. But his boss, he’ll come calling on me, no doubt. I round the corner at ninth, pedaling uptown now. The street’s packed with the usual traffic. Trucks double- and triple-parked unload produce, pedicabs slow down the one lane that is moving. There’s no space to squeeze through with the old bike so I jump the curb and now I’m swerving through a mass of foot commuters.

“Get off the curb, asshole,” a guy shouts.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say.

“Get off and walk it or you’re getting a ticket,” a cop says. “Oh, hey, Pyrus, how you doing? I didn’t see it was you”

I dismount. “Hey, Weed,” I call back over my shoulder. I stop. “You see a pretty redhead in a black skirt come by?”

“‘Bout a minute ago she crossed 19th.”

“Thanks.”

At 19th, I lose her. I look left. I look right. I check straight ahead. I turn on 19th, heading west, toward the High Line and the Hudson River beyond. It’s a nice day. Maybe I’ll lock the bike and walk, or ride in the park next to the river.

I pass the galleries and coffee shops, peering in the windows to see if I can catch a glimpse of red hair. The galleries aren’t open yet but the coffee shops are crowded with morning types wanting their specialized brews. Just give me a simple espresso and I’m happy.

I’m near the High Line when I hear a rapid firing of shots followed by screams and more shots. I see a man running and shooting calmly on the raised park, an old train line that serviced the butcheries and factories of the former meat packing district.

“Great.  Another angry man with a gun,” a woman says. Standing beside me, two cups of coffee in hand, is the redhead. She hands me a cup. “I assume you take it black?”

We stand there and watch the man duck behind cover. He’s cleared the High Line and now he comes to the railing and starts shooting at people in the street below. “Maybe we should get out of here,” she says.

But then a single loud shot cracks and the man tumbles forward over the railing smacking onto the street below him. Later, we’d learn that he killed seven and wounded 23. My buddy Weed, a member of NYC’s finest, heard the shots, grabbed the rifle from the trunk of his cruiser and nailed him with a single shot from a block away.

“I wanted to thank you for stopping that man earlier.”

“Sure. Where were you heading to in such a hurry?”

She takes a sip from her cup. “To see you.”

She looks familiar, but then, everyone does at a distance

Editor’s Note: this is a continuation of story started two posts earlier about a reluctant detective. You may recall that the narrator observed a man chasing a woman down Eighteenth Street and out of a sense of either chivalry or boredom decided to intervene. There’s no connection to the most recent post, and no way to explain that entry’s  appearance other than we’ve had some difficulty with the writer lately and he’s back on track now after we threatened to replace him with either a robot or a random word generator. 

I’m standing there on Eighteenth in the shadows of the overhead building corridor, twisting the arm of a thug I happen to know who goes by the name of Thorn. I shove his face into the wall, just enough to let him know that he’s got some explaining to do.

“Thorn,” I say. “How’s things?”

“Not bad. Keeping busy,” he says.

“That kid of yours ever get straightened out?”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t believe it, but he’s applying to law school,” he says. “Thanks for asking.”

“Great. That’s great to hear. Why are you chasing the lady?” I ask.

“There’s no chase,” he says. “I’m just in a hurry.”

With my free arm, I increase the pressure on his face. It has to be uncomfortable, but he doesn’t make a sound. The red-headed woman is now nearly a block away. Even with her in those heels, I wouldn’t be able to catch her on foot. She looks back over her shoulder, stops for a moment, appraising the situation, then slows to a casual walk. She looks familiar, but then, everyone does at a distance.

Decision time: get some answers from the thug, or go after the woman and see if she has anything to say. There’s a third option. Keep the thug here long enough to let the woman get away, then get back to the business of finding some business.

I twist Thorn’s arm with a bit more pressure. “Still got nothing to say?”

This time he responds, “Unnnnh.” I’m getting through, but not fast enough. I think maybe the woman might be in a chattier mood.

“Have it your way,” I say. I pull a zip tie out of my pocket, untwist his arm and zip his wrists together behind his back. With another tie, I zip him to a street sign. Then with a third, I zip him at the ankles to the sign. That ought to keep him still.

“Good luck with things,” I say, waving goodbye.

“Yeah, you too, Py,” he says.

I unlock the door to the Flamm, grab my bicycle, a Rudge, and sling my leg over the seat and wheel off down Eighteenth in pursuit. My right pant leg, however, gets caught between the crank and the chain and in an instant the bike halts and I go over the handlebars landing hard on the cobbled street. I pick myself up to check for damage. A hole in the jacket and shirt at the elbow and a bloodied, skinned elbow showing through. The right pant leg torn at the cuff. Damn. I like this jacket.

I tuck the pant leg into the sock and start off again, a little more slowly.

The takedown

The morning of the takedown was the first time dad said to Mara and me, “Don’t waste food,” and it had real meaning. We might regret not having that food soon enough. She was little and had burned her bread and didn’t want to eat it. Dad said the time of excess was coming to an end and people had to compete with each other and with wildlife for the first time in anyone’s memory.

We walked to the big hill, my sister and I each gripping one of my father’s gnarled hands. The people circled the great White Oak that stood with giant sheltering arms spread over the hillside, stretching some 120 feet into the sky. Mrs. Heiser arrived and the circle parted and let her in. “Quercus alba,” she said, and, shading her eyes with a hand, looked up to its crown. “All things must pass,” she said to the crowd.

“All things must pass,” they replied.

She walked completely around the base of the tree, running a hand along the rough bark. After completing a circuit, she stopped and stood with a palm resting on the bark, eyes closed. The tree was sick, beginning to show the early signs of the blight. “We must take her now,” Mrs. Heiser said. “so that we can salvage her wood.”

 “What does she mean, dad,” Mara asked.
     “She means that the blight hasn’t gotten deep into the wood yet, but it will. If we don’t cut her down, she’ll fall soon enough and the wood will be useless, even for burning.”
     “All right,” Mrs. Heiser said. “We’ve all done this before. If you don’t know what to do, now’s the time to ask because once we start, it gets dangerous. This beautiful old white oak was here before your great grandparents and probably would have gone on living if times had stayed the way they were.”
     “But they didn’t,” a man called out.
     “They didn’t!” the people replied in one voice.
     “They didn’t, and we’re the reason,” Mrs. Heiser said.
     “We’re the reason!”
     “We honor this tree by cutting her down and using her branches and boards, for shelter, for heat, for whatever may come.”
     “For whatever may come!” the crowd called out.
She strapped crampons on her boots and wrapped a strap around the tree, sliding her hands through loops at each end. With a  flick of her wrists, the strap went up several feet and she scampered up so that she was now about four feet off the ground. She repeated the process so that in a burst she stood hugging the tree some 30 feet overhead to where the lowest branches split out. She rolled up the strap and hooked it to a clip on her belt and continued climbing by hand until she stood at the point where one of the highest branches split off at an angle. She quickly attached a rope and lowered it. Without a word, someone tied a basket on one end and someone else put in a gigantic pulley with a handle on it.
     “That’s a winch,” the father answered without being asked. “Watch.”
     In a few minutes a man strapped a harness on, it was Mr. Paulings, the tooth man. He waved an arm, and called out, “OK, pull me up” There were two sets of winches, one at the top that Mrs. Heiser turned and a large one at the bottom with a big steel wheel turned by two hulking men. Mr. Paulings was up in a matter of seconds. The two hitched themselves to the trunk and walked out on the branch, and about halfway out, began sawing.
     This would have been quick work with a chain saw, but the community voted to use hand tools to minimize noise and the chance of rovers detecting us.

Catching up with an old friend

The woman passes below my window, my perch in the connecting corridor suspended over 18th Street between two buildings, the Flamm and the Mercator. She’s walking eastbound on the south side of the street, sticking to the thin band of shade shiellding her from the summer sun. It’s not her red hair that has my attention, or her tight skirt that stops just at the knees. It’s the hurried nature of her walk. Gaits are a pastime of mine and hers isn’t the oh shit I’m late kind of walk.  It’s the kind of walk you have when you don’t want someone catching up. Short, quick steps and a quick glance over the shoulder. And there he is, about a half block away, a guy in spandex running gear and a jacket, a hand on the pocket.

If you’re like me you’re thinking that maybe there’s a gun in that pocket. Maybe there’s just a sandwich, an egg and cheese from Jonny’s truck just around the corner. It’s not worth guessing it’s just breakfast. He’s matching her pace, craning his neck around people. She’s looking back over her shoulder every few steps and he’s looking straight ahead. Not gaining on her, but not falling back either.

I grab my sportcoat and race down the steps to the street, coming out of the Flamm door just as the guy’s passing. I fling the door open and it makes him step to the side. I don’t knock him over. Hey, he says.

Hey, yourself, I say and reach out and grab his arm. I have his attention. Get off me, he says. Bobby, I say. Oh it’s you, he says and takes a swing. I see it coming and slide my head back. He makes contact, but it’s no big deal. I take a side step, and twist his arm around behind him.