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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Bill, Book, and Strangulation

Since the story has been told by a few different people in a few different places, I figured I might as well lay out the events of that evening as I perceived them, given some of the wacky renditions that have already floated back my way.

I try and make a point of avoiding "literary" happenings, readings and book parties and the like. Well, any kind of party, to be honest, but book parties in particular. The idea of hobnobbing with sophisticates is one I don't particularly relish. I'm not a sophisticate, not by a long shot, and have very little to share--and much less patience--with people who are.

Still, though, Bill Monahan's a good friend, and his first novel, Light House, is one of the most brilliant things I've read in awhile, so when he invited me and Morgan to his book release party on July 10th, well, how could we say no?

I'm told that the Carnegie Club on W. 56th is quite the elegant place. Couldn't see any of it, myself, but Morgan described it to me as she led me to a back table, first to say 'hey' to Bill, then sit down with a couple beers and our friend Jane. That was one of the advantages to going to Bill's party--we'd have a chance to talk to some folks we hadn't seen in awhile. Nothing wrong with that. So we sat in the dark and comfy booth and talked and drank.

As the crowd grew thicker, I started hearing the names of a few of the luminaries who were there--the entire Page Six crew, it seemed. Anthony Haden-Guest, Jay McInerney, the members of the Unband (I like them a great deal), magazine and publishing types. It was a very healthy turn-out, and regardless how nervous I get in crowds, I was happy for Bill.

We stayed in the corner, talking, drinking some more.

At one point, however, two young interlopers appeared. Gate crashers, they appeared to be, taking advantage of the open bar.

Now, I have no problem with that in principle, having learned to survive that way myself when I had nothing else. But when I was doing it, I also learned that it's best not to call attention to yourself in any way--especially not by being an asshole.

It was obviously a lesson that these two youngsters hadn't learned yet. They began hitting on Jane and her roommate in a most unpleasant and unwelcome manner.

They were asked to leave, which they did, briefly, moving to another part of the room for five minutes only to return to in the booth where we sat in order to continue with their boorishness.

Disgusted by their arrogance and the crudeness, Jane finally stood up and left. When she did, however, the interlopers assumed her place, sitting down in the velvet-lined booth with us.

Well, that just wasn't the thing to do.

"So," Morgan asked them, "where are you from?"

I could tell by the tone of her voice what she was up to. Socratize them into a corner, get them to admit that they didn't belong at this particular private party. Then, with luck, get them to leave for good.

"I'm from Woodstock," the one nearest me admitted. I couldn't see him, but from his voice I could tell he was just a kid. Mid-twenties, maybe. And smug. Oozing with what Morgan calls a "sense of entitlement." He was in that seat and, by God, he deserved to be in that seat.

"Yeah? And what do you do?" she continued.

He said he was part of a writer's group. That's never good news. And his friend, we were told, was "in media," whatever the hell that might mean.

"A writer's group, huh? And what have you published?" Her voice was getting sharper as she circled a bit, waiting to move in for the kill.

The youngster confessed that he hadn't published anything yet--no surprise there--but was hoping to get a short story published soon.

"Uh-huh. And what are you doing here?" There was silence.

"Are you friends of the author?" They hemmed and hawed a bit, finally admitting that no, no they weren't.

"So," I jumped in, "do you happen to know who this party's for?"

"Sure," the smug one answered.

"Uh-huh." I said. "What's his name?"

There was another moment of silence--just a bit too long--before the smug one said, "Ummm...."

"Very good!" I applauded. "Look, why don't you just skedaddle, son?" I figured I'd give him one more opportunity to make the right decision and leave, but he was a stupid lad and didn't get it.

"I'm sitting here enjoying my drink."

"But we don't want you sitting here. Please go someplace else." I thought I was being polite, but firm. But he just couldn't take the hint (which, come to think of it, wasn't a "hint" at all).

"I'm just sitting here, enjoying my drink," he repeated. Oh! how smug he was! How smarmy and arrogant! It was infuriating.

"C'mon, son, blow. Get the hell out of here." He didn't move. He took a dainty sip of his martini (a martini, yet!), leaned back, crossed his legs, and smirked.

That was it. Morgan finally couldn't take it anymore. First the way he was harassing Jane, now this. She stood up and, in a move that I guess could be called "escalation" (but justified escalation), she slapped the free martini out of his lily-white hand. I couldn't see it, but I heard the smash and tinkle of glass. She's got the guts and the fire, I'll tell you that.

Then the smug little fuck took a swing at her.

It may have been an ineffectual slap, from what she tells me, but still--that shit simply is not done.

I was on top of him before I knew what was happening, my hands around his throat, squeezing hard.

I didn't stop to think that we were at a fancy book party in a fancy club full of fancy people, and that perhaps killing somebody wasn't appropriate. I didn't stop to think (until later) that it was a good thing I didn't end up grabbing a seat cushion instead. I simply listened to where the voice was and aimed a tad south. All I could think about was what he had done and what a soft, tiny neck he had. If I kept squeezing it the way I was, my fingers would meet in the middle, like squeezing a half-filled balloon.

Then it was over. I was pulled off him, and he rolled away. I'm not sure what happened, but I was sitting in my seat again, and he was standing on the other side of the table, out of reach, his collar askew.

"I'm gonna go get the police and press charges!" he shouted. "That was assault!"

"Yeah? Go ahead," Morgan told him.

"I will!"

"Good. Go ahead."

"I will!"

But he didn't. Funny, but as I sat there, feeling perfectly calm, relaxed, cleansed even, part of me was thinking that perhaps she shouldn't encourage him this way and part of me was hoping he would get the cops. I wanted to hear how he'd explain trying to hit a woman.

Soon there were others there, and he was telling them that he'd done nothing, was just sitting there, when I started strangling him. But the people who were surrounding him knew me better than that.

He and his friend were asked to leave, and eventually, they did.

Morgan and I got a couple more beers.

"He was asking for it," she said. "He was dressed provocatively."

Now, I don't tell this story in order sing my own praises or to illustrate what a tough guy I am. I'm not a tough guy. I tend to avoid confrontation these days and haven't been in a fight since my early twenties (though for an old, busted-up blind guy, I think I did okay). And I feel bad if the scene put any sort of a damper on Bill's book party. It was his night, after all. But you simply don't do things like that. And the people who do deserve worse than they usually get.

The thing that frightens me a little bit, though, was how damned good it felt.