Anya and Betsy both appear at our table seconds later. “Everything alright over here, pardners?” “Everything okay, comrades?”
I grin as wide as possible. It actually hurts my face a little. “Everything’s fine. Wonderful. The food’s fantastic. No one was making any claims that could be libelous, I tell you what.” I turn to my friends, still grinning like a corpse whose muscles have dessicated to the point of rictus. “Isn’t the food great, guys?”
“It tastes like suffering,” Googe croaks. I can see tears welling up in his eyes now and I’m torn between two equally strong desires to pull him close and patting him on the shoulder for comfort, or else slap him across the face for getting us all sued.
Papa Chub forces a smile to his face. “Don’t mind our friend. He’s one of those semantic vegetarians that will eat meat, but has to hate himself in an amount equal to the animal’s suffering.” He reaches down to the plate, takes a bite of the burger, and says something that might be “Everything’s amazing” as particles of food drift from his mouth like feathers in the wind.
A sense of admiration cuts through the haze of vodka and beer. Whatever else he may be, I can’t dispute that the man’s a natural actor, an expert at playing roles with patience and talent. He also seems to be a fine student of my philosophy of dealing with adversity. With his performance, we are now a table with a drunk, a sobbing vegetarian eating meat, a well-mannered slob, and two other guys not making enough of a fuss to warrant acknowledgment. A table not worth dealing with, in other words, lest the drunk make a pass at a server, lest the vegetarian’s sobbing make a scene, lest the slob get little meat particulates on one’s fine Soviet or American uniform.
“Okay, pardners!” Betsy says with feigned cheer. “Y’all just let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
“Da, comrades,” Anya adds. She pauses for a moment, then leans closer to the table and says with a level of customer service that could only be described as malevolent, “We’ll be watching you.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” I say weakly. “In fact, maybe we can just get the check now?”
She smiles and nods. “Absolutely, comrade. Wouldn’t want to keep you waiting.”
She disappears into the back of the restaurant and I let a long sigh of relief. I’m surprised to learn that I hadn’t really been breathing while the two waitresses were hovering over our tables. “You guys don’t mind if we leave, do you? I assume everyone’s done eating?”
No one says a word, but I can tell from the wall of pale, angry, tearful expressions staring back at me that, yes, we are done eating.
The walk back to the Tropicali proceeds in silence, at least in as much as none of us is speaking a word to each other. The streets of the Meadows are a riot of sound as ever, music leaking out of car windows and the doors of hotels, barkers selling commemorative t-shirts and other cheap useless crap, would-be pimps crying out the virtues of the hottest girls in town, the beefiest studs, the most lifelike sexbots.
The silence from my friends is more than I can take, though. Plus I’m starting to sober up slightly, so it’s getting harder to ignore. That means it’s up to me to say something to let everyone know that everything’s okay, that there are no hard feelings.
“Guys. No hard feelings.”
“Fuck you,” Erb says immediately.
Tough crowd. Well, when in doubt, go on the offensive.
“I mean, so what if I bought us all dinner and the four of you looked like you were going to vomit. So what if you started babbling about Pocket Cows and the waitstaff’s eyes lit up with cartoon dollar signs because they heard, ‘Slap me with a defamation suit!’”
“Dude. So not cool.”
“You know what? I didn’t do anything wrong. I usually do something wrong, say something shitty, behave selfishly, insult someone’s mother, but this time, I was just a good friend. And it blew up in my face.”
“You fed us Pocket Cow.”
My first instinct is to start screaming, but instead I take a deep breath and glance around. We’re drawing a few stares, which is at once impressive and less than ideal. In a place where the naked human form is on display all around you, where freakshows both metaphorical and literal are a short walk away, where advertising campaigns with millions of credits in research and planning and executing surround you, drawing the attention of passerby is a noteworthy feat. You really don’t want it to be for a fight, though. At an any moment, a genetically engineered giant with biceps like watermelons and shoulders as broad I am tall is going to tap on my head and say, “Excuse me, Sir, but you can’t do that here.”
““You think I’d eat Pocket Cow? Me, of all people? Come on, man. I got the waitress to explain to me very carefully where the meat comes from and I made the executive decision that, yeah, that’s acceptable eat. It’s a Hell of a lot kinder than way people used to produce beef, if you ask me. At least the creatures don’t have the capacity to suffer. Hell, I’m not even sure they have the capacity for pain.”
“It was pretty tasty,” Monk admits. “It made me wish we’d had real burgers.”
“You did have a real burger, man,” I say, grateful that one of these goons is finally kind of sort of maybe on my side. I throw my arm around his shoulder and pull him close, gesticulate in the air with my free hand. “You had beef, real beef, and it was topped with real bacon and real cheese and real veggies, and don’t let these cynical motherfuckers tell you otherwise. What, just because the cow was grown in an artificial womb from cloned genetic material it wasn’t a real cow? Just because it was twenty feet long with eight legs and they made it run on a treadmill to build up the flavor in its muscles it wasn’t a real cow? Why, Monk, I posit that thing was more of a cow than you or I will ever be.”
“You’re still an asshole,” Erb says. After a moment’s hesitation, after a deep breath and a pained sigh he adds, “But the burger was pretty good.”
“Thank you! That’s all I wanted to hear. ‘The burger was good.’ ‘Good job, man.’ ‘You’re so handsome and smart. Way more handsome and smarter than us.’”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“Fine, fine, I won’t.”
We walk along in silence again, but things feel lighter. We’re moving more quickly, our heads held a bit higher. We talk to each other. “Hey, watch out for this guy.” “Christ, get a load of that.” “Oh, shit, we should go see Cat Berry.” “I did not fling myself a thousand miles into goddamn orbit to go watch Cat Berry.”
“What are we doing tonight?” Googe asks as we slip through the doors of the Tropicali and the dull roar of the streets becomes a kind of semi-pleasant white noise of slot machines and stickbots and laughing gamblers. The tight little cluster we’d had to walk in to make our way through the streets unfolds into a loose line. We turn to address each other now that there’s room. We look each other in the eyes.
“I don’t know,” I say with a shrug. “Maybe something a little tame? Go out to a fancy dinner? Catch a show?”
“You want to catch a show,” Papa Chub says in a way that his question isn’t quite a question. “You. You want to spend our first night in the Meadows sitting in a chair watching body artists or magicians or gymnasts or whatever.”
“There’s a lot of different kinds of shows, man. Maybe I want to see a tentacled robot bang a supermodel.”
I shake my head. “God, no. That sounds awful.”
“So it’s gymnasts and magicians and fireworks, then?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I’m just a little surprised that you aren’t advocating that we ‘blow the doors off this bitch.’”
“Actually, I remember that,” Monk helpfully adds. I shoot him a look that’s supposed to say, “Don’t be so helpful,” but he presses on regardless. “I think it was right after we got through the security checkpoint.”
“Oh. Well, in my defense, I’d just swallowed a fistful of pills that may or may not have been stimulants. They probably weren’t, though. Or if they were, they were weak as shit.”
“How can you tell?” Googe asks.
“I didn’t have a heart attack. Or start foaming at the mouth. Basically, I didn’t die. Unless I did, and this whole thing is the shittiest afterlife ever.” I turn to Papa Chub walking next to me and punch him in the shoulder. “Are you real?”
“Son of a bitch!” he says, and with the rhythm and grace of a dancer matching his partner’s movements, he punches me back without slowing down for even a moment.
“Okay. Pretty sure I’m not dead. Like, eighty or eighty-five percent.”
In the time we’ve been bullshitting, we’ve cleared the distance from the front door to the elevators. Our feet have been moving of their own volition, as none of us have a goal in mind. We are no closer to deciding what to do with ourselves and my mind sets work thinking of ways to advocate a sedate evening. I want to take the Beast as soon as I can and in as good a state of mind as possible. I need to exist as I did years ago and do things right this time.
The elevator doors open with a ding. Evidently we’ve all subconsciously decided to head back to our rooms and regroup. Hooray for the hivemind.
“So, seriously guys,” Erb begins. “What’s the plan?”
“I still want to see a show,” I offer knowing full well that the idea will get shot down, or at least augmented with something else. A show and a club. A show and another show. A show and copious amounts of gambling.
“Nah, fuck that,” Papa Chub says cheerfully. I roll my eyes in feigned exasperation. “Let’s go out and do something fun. Let’s blow the doors off this bitch.”
“I’m down for that,” Monk chimes in.”
“We should go to a strip club!” Googe says, his exuberance plain to hear.
“We should go to a nightclub and go home with strippers,” Papa Chub counters with a grin.
“Maybe we can avoid the strippers?” Erb says with an insincere timidity that isn’t really all that insincere. “Some of us have girlfriends.”
“The man’s talking about strippers, not prostitutes,” I say. “You don’t have to sleep with them. Hell, none of us are going to sleep with them.”
“We should go to a strip club with prostitutes!”
“Hey, I’m going to sleep with a stripper.”
“Yeah, keep telling yourself that.”
“I thought you wanted to ‘keep things tame’ tonight?” Erb says with a smile, waving his hands in the air to let me know exactly how much he’s making fun of me. Things have gone horribly wrong when I’m the one in my circle of friends being mocked for not having the pressing need to consume every drink, try every drug, throw myself at every beautiful woman.
“Eh,” I say, shrugging my shoulders up to my ears, lifting my doubts up to the sky on my palms to be carried away. “I know a losing fight when I see one. I want to be on Team Winner.”
Word Count: \m/ (>.<) \m/