Chapter 1

 

Manhattan
Thursday, April 15, 1982


“It’s just my disposition
To do the things I do
A man in my position
Holds some things to be true.”

 


Jon Cells never filed a tax return, so when the noise woke him up that day, he smacked his hand on the bedside table where his alarm clock lived and tried to go back to sleep. The annoying sounds didn't stop, and they seemed to be coming from outside, so he got up and stuck his head and torso out the apartment window. There were too many vehicles to tell which one was honking, so he yelled at all of them.

“Shut up!” he roared in a hoarse morning voice, straining to be heard over the din. The sidewalk was full of pedestrians but no one looked up. The car alarm stopped by itself, but other cars, jockeying for shortcuts as they inched along the crowded street, drowned out the morning calm with angry beeps and tire squeals. Sneezing on exhaust fumes, Jon forced the window shut. The giant neon clock across the street— the one he actually relied on— blinked through his flimsy curtains. He lit a cigarette and re-arranged his hair, trying to come to grips with reality.

Yesterday’s clothes were still on the chair in the corner, but he picked up the electric guitar lying next to them before getting dressed. Sitting naked on the edge of the bed, he cradled the cool, contoured body against his skin and fingered the neck, mindlessly strumming the song he had been working on the night before. G minor to C minor, then back again. The rhythm crept into his right hand and an early morning dream began to re-materialize. He was performing with his band n front of a packed house at Max’s Kansas City.  They bounced a heavy pocket off the low ceiling and the crowd pulsed under its suggestive weight. Lyrics squirmed on this tongue like a live oyster. “Just my disposition, to do the things I do.” He savored the lines a few times before the taste of inspiration stood him up. Holding the body of the guitar against his waist with his right hand, he bent his knees, one at a time, and marched in place to the rhythm. Then the song took on a life of it’s own. His left hand stayed with G minor on the third fret while his huge right thumb raked down on the strings and snapped the up-strums. A bass line formed from the hammer-ons and lift-offs. “A man in my position holds some things to be true,” he rhymed, repeating the lines until they synched with the music. Weaving single-note figures between the changes, he felt his free-swinging manhood pulse to life, but just as conviction took shape, his obnoxious ten-dollar alarm clock decided to remind him of the time. Frustrated that he didn't have time to capture his fresh ideas, he threw a sock at the alarm, leaned his guitar back on the chair, and picked up his work clothes. Slipping on the same slinky shirt he’d been wearing all week and wriggling bare-ass into his skin-tight jeans, he kicked the bedroom door shut with the back of his boot and abandoned songwriting and headed out.

Over thirty, in a beaten leather jacket, and determined to keep his dream alive, Jon cruised past the densely packed import boutiques on Canal Street, his field of vision as much occupied by the demons in his head as with the colorful plastic gargoyles hanging from the eaves. Passing fragments of his reflection in store windows made him tousle his hair, and he glanced furtively to see who might be watching. He wasn't sure if anyone was—but that was only half the problem.

Jon wanted it all: recognition, rationalization, notoriety, compensation, adoration, vindication, and relief from the pressures in his head. He wasn't sure how he was going to achieve “it”—what he called “artistic success”— but he knew he was running out of time. Unsettled and dissatisfied, every clack of his heel on the pavement game him the comforting illusion that even if he was years behind, he was, at least, still firmly on his way.

His wiry frame was charged with nervous energy as he twisted through shopkeepers’ offerings that protruded on the sidewalk. With pointed boots and an attitude to match, he strode around early morning browsers, groggy homeless sleepers, professional dog walkers, and uniformed school children. He avoided eye contact with young lovers holding hands, didn't acknowledge the head nods of the local population, and steered clear of all contact that might alter his appointment with destiny.

A subliminal soundtrack paced his heels-first tromp. Gibberish, masquerading as words, gurgled between the lyrics he had already settled on.

“Just my disposition,

To do the things I do.

 A man in my position,

Holds some things to be true.”

Moving smoothly across the uneven sidewalks and curbs like a stealthy predator, Jon crossed the side streets as if he had special permission from the traffic gods who regulated the daily migration through the stone canyons. The familiar smells of smoke and coffee eddied around the vortex of his fitful march, and he breathed in the edible vapors deeply enough to satisfy his hunger without breaking stride. People seemed to bounce off his energy field like polarized magnets as he careened through the busy streets of lower Manhattan with the untamed confidence of a distorted whole-tone solo.

Approaching the wide ravine of Broadway, Jon spotted an intriguing ripple in the scattered flock of people ahead of him— a shapely woman walking in the same direction. Almost unconsciously, his pace quickened, and he accelerated through the gauntlet of pedestrians, trying to get closer. But before he could catch up, she sashayed across Broadway as the lights changed, leaving him stuck on the other side. Squinting into the bright clouds of the gray morning that silhouetted the buildings, he waiting impatiently at the edge of the swirling river of traffic.

While he was waiting, switching his weight from one foot to the other, a middle-aged man with glasses edged warily away from him. Jon didn't notice him, or the two schoolgirls who were also waiting to cross. The children were too young to understand Jon’s kinetic presence, but their ethereal bodies reacted and one of them stumbled into the street. Instinctively, the man with the glasses grabbed her arm and pulled her back to safety just before she was sideswiped by a racing taxicab.

“Watch where you're going!” the man lashed out at both the taxi and Jon.

Jon barely heard him. He had seen the little girl saved from disaster, but it never crossed his mind that he had anything to do with it. Who was that guy talking to? Jon looked around and wasn't sure.

“Watch where you're going!” the man repeated, pointing an admonishing finger at Jon’s face.

Jon squinted down and tightened his lips against gritted teeth. Six-foot-two, vain and sometimes mistaken for Robert Plant, Jon’s shaggy blond mane and bright blue eyes made him believe he was as important as he felt. His resentment circuits began to charge, but before he could retaliate, caution seized his accuser. Ralph Lowell lowered his arm to the shoulder of the youngster he had rescued, and the girl moved within the aura of his protection. Satisfied that he was longer under attack, Jon disengaged, and as soon as the walk lights changed, hurried across the street. A few steps behind, Ralph Lowell shepherded the young girls through the intersection and waited until Jon had gone ahead.

The street-corner incident had thrown off Jon’s timing, so he slowed to peek into the stores, looking for the woman who had caught his eye. He thought he saw her disappear into a corner shop, and stopped for a closer look. The bright daylight obscured the store interior, and he had to cup his eyes against the glass to see inside. A man behind the overstocked register at the bodega spoke to a customer whose curly hair was cinched in a high ponytail. Jon couldn't see her face, but while he was pressed up against the glass, Sonya Diaz leaned over the counter and kissed her uncle on the cheek as he handed her a small bag. Jon couldn't remember where he had seen her before and crept away before she came out.

Still walking with the schoolgirls a safe distance behind, Ralph Lowell saw the top of Jon’s head bobbing through the crowd ahead of them, so he accompanied the girls to the gate of their schoolyard, then continued another block to his office building on Varick Street. After showing his badge to the guard, he took the elevator to the second floor and settled into his administrative job at the United States Customs Department.

Detective Todd Falin, who's was already at work in the Enforcement Division of the Customs Department one floor up from Agent Lowell, had no idea that Jon Cells was even in New York. The file with his picture in it had been sitting on his desk for a week, but there were so many other files related to the same investigation he hadn't looked through it yet. It had been three years since Detective Falin had even thought about Jon, so when he found it later that morning he was surprised to see Jon’s picture on his desk again. The memo from the FBI authorizing the stakeout at Laden Imports didn't mention him, and Detective Falin didn't understand Jon’s connection to the case. As he shuffled throughout the stack of reports and surveillance photos, trying to piece together the relationships between his suspects, he remembered the Colorado bust that had put Jon’s backers out of business. He never knew if Jon was guilty of anything, because by the time it came to charge somebody, the department decided to concentrate on bigger targets. Jon had slipped off Detective Falin’s radar without even knowing he had been on it—and had no idea that the place he was now working at was under surveillance by the same man.

The same bust that had facilitated Detective Falin’s promotion to the New York office, also brought Jon Cells back east. With his freewheeling Colorado friend Duke sidelined, and his musical prospects diminished, he bought a box van for his equipment and moved back to New York, hoping to continue his career. After several years in the relative isolation of the Rocky Mountains, he was more than ready to embrace the musical zeitgeist that had migrated from London to Manhattan. His band moved with him, and they fit right in with the post-punk music scene that was starting to turn out national acts. Money was tight, but they rented a loft together and scraped by in between gigs. Totally committed, Jon was determined to make a name for himself, and believed he was on the verge of something big. He went midnight bowling with David Byrne and The Talking Heads, visited the eat-out bars and invitation-only clubs with Joey Ramone other low-life celebrities, shared a love interest with his arch friend from Boulder, Marc Campbell, and was a regular in the crowd at CBGB’s where Seymour Stein and other music business tastemakers cultivated talent. Jon’s group, Cells, played some shows in and around New York, got a little local radio airplay, and was developing a reputation as a contender before they suffered the critical setback they were still trying to recover from.

A late-night altercation with the manager of a rival band had resulted in Jon’s arrest for possession of a controlled substance, and the punishment—ninety days of supervised release—required him to, among other things, get a job society approved of. Humbled, he found work in the warehouse of a perfume factory at the western end of Canal Street through a contact of his father. As the singer, songwriter, and leader of the band, Jon’s involuntary removal from the music scene sent his bandmates scrambling, but Jon felt like they were holding him back and he didn't really miss them. He rented a room in a different apartment and planned on lying low for a few months, cutting himself off, using the parole as an excuse to write, rest, and reinvent himself before starting his career as a solo artist.

Nearing the perfume factory, the sickeningly sweet smells scented the sidewalk for two blocks in all directions, and he held his breath as he went inside for another day’s penance. Surprisingly, despite fifteen years of promoting his outsized artistic visions—often at the expense of his health—he was still ruggedly handsome and exceedingly strong. And although his day job was physically very demanding, it wasn't much of a mental challenge, so he was able to keep his internal soundtrack going most of the time. There were only ten more days to go before the terms of his parole were satisfied and he would be free to come out of hiding, quit his day job, and reassume control of his destiny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listen to Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 - Vaporized
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