Stories About Songs #2: “My Old School,” Steely Dan

She said it was business, we had to go there, otherwise Jeff couldn’t close the deal. A white apartment building on a long, mean hill; layer after layer of stairs leading up to Farley’s place, which reeks like a bear’s cave after a hard winter. Red tapestries over all the windows; flies hovering like helicopters over a fake wood coffee table. On one wall, a poster of Jimi Hendrix, with a short brown fly paper dangling next to it.

She’s wearing scuffed white clogs and a pink terrycloth polo, too short to meet her jeans. You see a sliver of brown back, with a few acne scars. Jeff’s wearing white clogs too, and you wonder if they bought them together, blotto in some empty mall at 3 p.m., stumbling from store to store and scaring the kids with after-school jobs. His red mustache, permanently stained with tobacco around the lips, doesn’t hide dying teeth; but his cheekbones are sharp, his eyes ice blue, and Michelle says he has a big dick.

You don’t want to, but you have an idea of their sex life, from the unsubtle hints she lets drop. Sweaty, high sex in the middle of the day. Way too much self-acceptance. You’re attracted to Jeff, but you’d rather clean his apartment.
Or this one. But you’re due at the bowling alley at 8. A double date — you and your sister, Jeff and some guy he works with. “A real pencil pusher,” Michelle says. “You’ll like him.”

You’ve saved that sentence to look at later. The focus now is to get through this “business visit.” You’d wanted to wait in the car, but Michelle said no. She said it’d be “real fast”. She said Farley had a grey kittycat, really stacking the deck, at least the deck as far as she understood it.

But there’s no cat in sight. Farley sits in a brownish-pink velour armchair, feet bare, toenails pale and splintered as fresh wood chips. He’s packing a bowl and talking to Jeff about microwaves. For reasons that are unclear, he holds a grey plush sofa cushion over his lap.

“You can make fish in a microwave,” says Farley.

“Naw,” says Jeff.

“Yeah!” says Farley. “Just get some little fillets, cover ’em with a wet paper towel. Dinner in ten minutes.”

Farley’s lap cushion is covered with marijuana stems. You stare at your feet. You have your own bowling shoes, already on; they peep out from under your belled jeans, shy as nuns.

You should have worn sexier shoes, to make you look taller and thinner for the pencil pusher. You shouldn’t have gone anywhere with Jeff and Michelle; it always turns out like this.

Farley inhales, coughs, then passes the pipe to Michelle. She smirks, smokes, passes it to Jeff. She’s the older sister, though no one would guess it.

You wander over to Farley’s bookshelf, to avoid the embarrassment of declining the pipe. “The Dice Man.” “Moby Dick.” “Something Happened.” Farley must fancy himself a risk-taker. Big nose, curly black hair. Almost handsome, if one likes sister’s boyfriend’s suppliers.

He’s in the kitchen now, pouring you all tumblers of Carlo Rossi. He brings them out on a daisy-painted TV tray. Your wine has a fruitfly in it. It’s 7:46.

“We’re going to be late,” you murmur to Michelle. If Jeff hears, he’ll take twice as long. He doesn’t like “nags,” i.e. girls who keep track of reality.

And Michelle knows it. “Let’s ask Farley if we can see his kitty,” she says. “Hey Farley, where you keeping that cat?”
“Jesse’s room,” says Farley. “First three days you live with a cat, you’re supposed to keep them in a confined area, so they can build environmental security.”

You clear your throat, not sure if that’s true, but not wanting to challenge him. “Can we go see him?” You have an idea they’ll wrap up their “business” faster, if you’re out of the room.

Farley shakes his head. “Jesse hoards,” he says. “Piles of books and newspapers, up to the ceiling. You won’t like the smell.”

“Why would you put the cat in there, then?”

“Boy, she talks a lot,” Farley says to Jeff.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Jeff says.

You flush. Michelle looks worried. “Let’s do a bump,” she says.

Jeff and Farley exchange glances, then Jeff sweeps the coffee table clear of tobacco crumbs, and Farley takes a small mirror out from under the couch.

Michelle takes off her necklace. It’s got such a long chain, you hadn’t seen the charm on it before. It’s a rose gold razor. She uses it to chop up the powder that Farley has poured out, from a baggie extracted from the depths of his jeans.

You remember your sophomore year, when you were both on Yearbook. It was her last year of school. She used a razor then too, to trim down photos to fit the layout.

You go back to the bookshelf. A novel by Leon Uris. “Tarantula,” by Bob Dylan. A Seventh Day Adventist cookbook.

You page through Dylan’s awful poems, and think about going home. Your yellow cat Dusty, sitting on your yellow chenille bedspread. The virgin’s bath you could take in the pink tub, scentless and sterile.

You need better associates than these, but don’t know how to go about getting them.

Michelle puts Chicago onto the record player, probably to cheer herself up. It’s five to 8.

“Take that shit off,” Jeff says. He’s weaving a little, because coke makes him mean. “Got any Kenny Loggins?”

“It’s almost eight,” you say, despite your better instincts. “We’re going to be really late if we don’t leave now.”

Jeff looks at his watch. “You’re right,” he says. “Paul will probably take off before we get there.”

Farley laughs. “Then give up now, man. We got some things to talk about anyway.”

Your throat has something caught in it. “I wanted to meet Paul,” you say. “That’s why I came out.”

Jeff snorts another line. “It’s not always about you, princess,” he says. “Besides, Paul might not have gone for you.” He swipes under his nose. “Look at those thighs,” he says to Farley. “Like tree trunks.”

Farley grins. “I don’t mind a little meat,” he says, looking you in the eye.

Michelle thumps Jeff. “Don’t talk about her legs,” she says. “Ruth is self-conscious about them.”

“Then why doesn’t she do something about it?” says Jeff. He pulls Michelle (thin, if acne-strewn) into his lap, and tickles her ribs, not gently.

“Stop,” she gasps. But she’s giggling, she likes this. Being the small one, menaced by her great big boyfriend with his great big swinging dick.

Farley’s looking at you again. You want to steal his Leon Uris novel and teleport somewhere far away. Not to your apartment; somewhere cool and genteel, like a tea party. Silver tea service, damask napkins, the shadows of lombards streaking across the lawn. You’d wear a long dress, to hide your thick legs. There would be birdsong, seedcake, newly opened roses —

Farley’s got a telephone table, next to the sprung-cushioned couch. A black rotary phone, gleaming with fingerprints. You lean over, pick it up, dial two numbers.

“What are you doing?” says Farley.

“Calling the police,” you say. “Already dialed a nine and a one.”

Michelle stands up, panicked. “Are you insane?”

You huddle over the phone. The key is to scare them just enough. “I want to meet Paul,” you say. “I want to go on a date tonight, not watch a fucking drug deal.”

Farley’s standing now, too. “This is not a drug deal,” he says. “Sharing drugs is not the same as selling drugs.
Actually, it’s the complete opposite!”

Jeff is silent, circling slowly towards you; you keep your finger in the rotary dial.

“No,” you say. It’s almost funny, how they’re finally paying attention to you. “First off, it’s obvious you’ve got something stockpiled in Jesse’s room. I don’t know what, but I bet it’s white and I bet there’s a lot of it. Secondly,
Jeff’s back pocket is bulging, so I know he’s here to buy–”

Movement in the corner of your eye, then a sudden, sharp crack, right above your left ear. Stars flood your vision, and you can barely see Michelle, mouth wide and ugly, yelling —

Your fingers feel fat, stupid, but you make yourself depress the hook, then circle through the numbers again. A dim, dry part of you knows there isn’t time, but you still get through a nine before Jeff has you on the floor.

You’d imagined the two of you on the carpet before, but never like this — his knees pressing down on your shoulders, a terrible weight. His fist battering against your ear. You’ve made a mistake.

Michelle is screaming at him to stop it, she’s running at him, jumping on his back, and he’s flipping her off him as irritably as a water buffalo flicks away a fly. Her head smacks into the bookshelf. Melville, Dylan, Uris and Heller cascade around her body, bang against her limp brown hair.

You bring up your (fat tree trunk) legs as hard as you can, scoring a direct hit at Jeff’s kidneys. He grabs his lower back, roaring, rocking back on his heels, his weight coming off his knees and your shoulders. Quick as a minnow you slide out from under him, scrambling backwards, and then Farley is there, breaking the Carlo Rossi jug against his head with a satisfying crack.

The room fills with the sour stench of cheap wine. You run your hands over your head, trembling. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. You were just fucking around. Now you’ve got a lump the size of a plum on the back of your head; your ears are swollen and ringing.

Michelle crawls out from under the book pile, blood in her hair. But not much.

“Jeff,” she moans, and crawls over to him. You want to warn her against the glass on the carpet.

Weeping, she touches his slack face, then raises a rageful rictus toward you and Farley. “You’ve killed him.”

“Not hardly,” says Farley.

He grabs his huraches from behind the couch, slips then on, then picks his way over to the coffee table. He rubs what’s left of the coke on his gums, then brings the small mirror back to Jeff’s body, holding it against his mouth. It fogs. “See?”

Michelle strokes Jeff’s chest. She won’t even look at you. “You better take us to the hospital,” she says. “He might have a concussion.”

“I should hope so,” says Farley. He turns to look at you. “That was really stupid.”

“I know,” you say. “I was just fooling.”

“Well, Jeff’s not much for jokes.” Farley looks at the wine-soaked rug. “That’s never coming out. You want a ride to the hospital?”

Michelle stands, grabs his arm. “You have to take us to the hospital!”

“Naw,” says Farley. “You got a car. You take him.”

Her fingers press into his arm; you can see the whites of her nails. “You know I don’t drive.”

“Then call a cab.”

“Why?”

Farley winks at you. “Because if they don’t keep Ruth overnight, I’m taking her out bowling.”

And you don’t really like him, at least you probably don’t, and you certainly don’t trust him, but you let him take your arm. You let him lead you out the door. Because you’re not so rich in victories that you’re letting this one go.