His daughter, Samantha, is a sophomore at Stanford and their mascot is a tree. Mark played a small role in killing one using the envelope for the tuition check he slipped in the Church Street post office mail slot. Amount 11,266 dollars, 11 being a lucky number, two even better, but add another six and it is the number of the beast, reminding him of the bipolar drummer in his band Jesus Nosepick, who went off and started a riot in Quincy when they opened for Scratch Acid, hastening the end of that phase of Mark’s life. Therefore, two luckies and one not so much, never good enough to play Lotto, and Mark crossed himself four times at the sight of St. Peter’s across the street from the post office, staring at the rusted, bent beams pulled from the wreckage of World Trade Center. Four, yes four times is a good number, and Mark though lapsed Catholic, respected enough of the Church to give on up for the Trinity, and one for himself before walking to Maryann’s to meet with his publisher, who, after dropping off this check to Stanford kinda, sorta held Mark’s life in his hands, at least until Anita, Mark’s wife, received her paycheck, which was not until the following Tuesday. Today was Monday, and he expected the check to arrive in California on Thursday. He couldn’t wait, he had already missed the bogus deadline, several we understand Mr. Nipple extensions and was now up against the your daughter Samantha will not be allowed to attend threat. Welcome to freelance illustration, Mr. Nipple, your book covers at Barnes and Noble pay the refinanced mortgage, and most of the college education since between you and the wife you make too much for grants and times being what they are, hmmm, not a good idea on Sammy taking out Stafford loans as a Classics major. Instead, Mark had to make this book deal go through, camel through the needles eye and all that.
Mark whistled through his teeth, reminding himself not to be late, promptly walking north on Church Street, eyes spied for cracks to step on, ensuring as he walked toward Maryann’s that he pressed his black Dexter oxfords on exactly 22. That number landed him five months of interior features and incidentals at Maxim, however that was eleven years ago. Still, 22 is a good number; the shape reminded him of sleeping ecstatically, comfortably with Anita, holding her close before and while babies were born. Mark made 22 on the corner of Church and Warren Street, and turned left toward Greenwich, cautiously avoiding any more cracks or seams in the sidewalk. A block from the restaurant, his phone buzzed. Luv u my sweetheart *kiss* from Anita. Instinctively, Mark counted the characters, smiling with relief when he realized they added up to 22. Yes, arms wrapped around Anita, holding her belly and breasts, first in Boston with the sun peeking through the curtains of dawn, later in Pittsburgh, in the rain.
“How was the flight?” Lazlo reeked of fried chicken and racism, which was the impression he gave Mark with his twitchy hand and head movements, and his leering at the waitresses from the Dominican Republic, accompanied by the caustic inappropriate comments he made regarding their physical attributes and sexual prowess. The fried chicken aspect Mark was afraid to ask, some things too personal and ridiculous to inquire regarding.
Mark nodded, “It was fine.”
“I have signed off on the reimbursement. You should get that by mail later this week.”
“Thank you.” Lucky 22 Mark thought. Means flying home with check and contract.
Lazlo shook his cropped raven haired head from side to side, twisting his neck, placing his hand in the back. Old football injury he said, grimacing before asking to see the hard copy of the .pdf renderings Mark had emailed him the night before, adding he had not gone to his office yet. Lazlo was old school, though close to fifty, and liked looking at things in his hands rather than on a computer screen or PDA. Mark reached for his portfolio case, unzipped and slid out the folder. Twelve eight by tens, printed off a Kinko’s Xerox ColorPress.
Lazlo held the four-color prints in his hands. “Niiiiiice. You really remind me of Bruce Pennington; y’know who he is?”
“Yes, I read the Panther science fiction and horror paperbacks when I was a kid. They inspired me to fine art illustration, after I dropped doing silkscreen in the early 90s.”
“I know. You were as good as Kozik. I started collecting both of you at the same time. It surprised me when you quit band posters.”
“That will do it. Worked out well for you, though. You have a fine line.”
“Thank you.” Mark’s flight was five hours away. As Lazlo quietly studied the prints of various Lovecraftian horror scenes illustrating Lazlo’s high-end Cthulhu Mythos omnibus, he started counting down from a hundred, stopping at 17 when Lazlo finally spoke.
“Well, they are what I asked for,” he said, smiling, before popping a couple of pills in his mouth and handing back the prints.
“Those are yours.”
“Nah, I can get them run off when I get in. Let’s order. Be careful with the margaritas. They can knock you on your ass, even though you’re a Boston boy.”
“I drink scotch these days.” Mark resolved himself to get the not too expensive kind, and only on the rocks, and sip it slowly, taking perhaps no more than 22, since he was on such a roll. Keep playing it cool, because right now I am the dude.
Over lunch Mark got the check, and a promise from Lazlo to buy several prints from the early 90s, namely from the Helmet tour in 1991, a good number and a better year because he met Anita then, in February. The memory warmed him as well as the scotch, but Mark took only 19, which is an okay number, and ordered another, feeling buzzed.
This was Mark Nipple’s third time in New York City. The first was in high school, jazz band trip to play at Radio City as guests of the Mayor of New York. He met Cab Calloway, the Hi-Di-Ho-Man, and Mark and two of his friends snuck out to see bands at CBGBs on the Bowery and tripped on microdot, staggering in Technicolor while Alphabet City tenements grew appendages to touch them. The following morning was a migraine from the strychnine and hallucinating Cab wearing a yellow zoot suit and spats. It was the last time he played alto sax in public; in the band it was bass, 1959 Fender Telecaster yellow with white pick guard inherited from his uncle who never left the garage.
The second was shortly after his son Aubrey was born. Now sixteen, Aubrey inherited his Telecaster bass, plunking along with Singapore Sling and The Ravonettes, hoping to be the next 21st century answer to the Jesus and Mary Chain, just as much as dad wanted to be the answer to The Damned. Aubrey was tall, wiry, a mop of wavy brunette bangs like his mother, and looked more punk rock than Mark did. Mark then was short and paunchy and his hair was sad, even with Royal Crown spikes. His stage presence left much to be desired, but he was the bass player so no one cared. After the drummer got them banned from all the Boston area clubs, Mark moved on, silk screening posters for other bands and illustrating for punk ‘zines with rising reputation. Ten years later, two kids, and a fine line drew him to midtown Manhattan and magazine illustrations pitched and purchased. That covered the move to Pittsburgh, to live in the house Anita inherited from her maternal grandparents. On his fourth interview, he landed a job as an assistant art director for the largest ad agency in western Pennsylvania. While Pittsburgh was no Manhattan, there was nothing for them in Boston. After five years, he quit, withdrew 401(k) and went freelance while Anita held up her end in her state job, so it was fine, just that Sammy was too smart, and the salary too much for anything less than Stanford, and well, the girl hated Pennsylvania.
Third time was this and now Mark was leaving. Yes, Mark Nipple was still short, but he had been thin for years and kept it up. He thought his hair remained sad, now gray but Anita loved his astronaut crew cut and playfully scratched her arms sometimes on his scalp. So did Sammy, dishwater blond and short like Mark, almond shaped eyes like her mother, color forest green like Mark’s mother. I have a good family, Mark mused. The check was in his suit and he desperately wanted another scotch. As the plane rose from the runway at LaGuardia, Mark said an Our Father and the Act of Contrition, four times four, for each.