Max Gets a Phone Call

Sophia reached out and slapped him across the face. "How dare you look at me?" she shouted.

He recoiled, pulling against the restraints on his wrists and ankles. Her scowl shifted into a slight smile. "Aren't you going to apologize?" she asked, "I'm not going to play with you unless you're nice to me."

"I'm sorry," he said.

She slapped him again, harder. "I'm sorry,what?!" she shouted, kicking the leg of his chair.

He jolted, "I'm sorry, Mistress Sophia. I'm sorry."

Sophia took a step back and gazed at her shoes. She pulled a patent leather heel off and inspected it closely. There was a small scuff. "These were my favorite," she said, "and you ruined them."

Before he could respond Sophia pressed the heel of her shoe into his thigh. He screamed in pain while Sophia looked bored. The chair creaked as he struggled against the restraints. He stopped moving as she rested her hand on the wrist buckle.

"I forgive you." she whispered.

Sophia dropped her heel and slid out of the other. She ran a single long lacquered nail up the length of his bare arm and circled behind him. Standing on the tips of her toes she walked her fingers up the side of his face and began to run them through his hair. He seemed pleased as her fingers massaged his scalp. "Do you really want to play? I'm not even sure you like me..."

Before he could answer she yanked his head back by the hair and whispered, "Maybe we should play with our friends..." She let go of him and took a few slow steps toward a stainless steel cart.

He turned his head and strained to see what she was doing. Sophia was running her finger over all of the tools at her disposal. Her hand stopped on a beveled leather paddle. "What about this?" She asked aloud. Shaking her head no she dropped the paddle and picked up a cloth drawstring bag, pulling out a wooden clothespin. Pinching it open and closed she brought it close to his face. He winced.

Sophia took a clothespin and attached it to one of the his earlobes. She did the same with the other ear. She paused but there was no response. So she grabbed one after the other attaching them to the skin on his arms, legs, nipples, and navel. She took a step back and surveyed her work. There were red blotches along his body where the pins were attached with near uniform spacing. She upended the bag counted the remaining clothespins. Only eight left.

"That'll do," she said to no one and attached a clothespin to one of his eyebrows. Then the other and his eyes began to water.

Sophia placed the last six clothespins on his lips. Three on top and three on bottom. He was shaking a little and couldn't close his mouth. He started to drool. "You look ridiculous," she said, "so stupid."

She clapped her hands together and returned to the cart. She held up a black leather riding crop and it whistled through the air and made a deafening crack as it made contact with his arm. A clothespin flew off and he screamed, drool running down his face.

Sophia stood on her tip toes and turned her body to the side. She theatrically cocked her arm high in the air and whipped it down onto his bare thigh. He roared in pain and pushed against his restraints. As he screamed the drool flew out in and spittle landed on her arm. She looked at her arm, and then at him, and then back at her arm. He knew what was coming and started to steel himself. She slashed with the crop and tore through the flesh on his arm.

He started to shake violently, staring at the blood coming from his arm. She showered him with kisses from the crop in an unending stream of quick loud cracks all across his body. The clothespins flew off in all directions as she struck him over and over. She stopped suddenly when she was right in front of him and he met her gaze with furious anger in his eyes. She flicked her wrist and the crop was singing through the air, stopping just next to his cheek. His eyes were tightly shut and his face contorted into a grimace, expecting the worst.

"I said fucking cut!" came a voice from the darkness, "FUCK! The stream crashed! We're not live... SHIT!"

Sophia stood breathing heavily. She looked up and smiled before gently tapping the large man's face. "Good work," she said before turning toward the voice. "What's up?"

Max blinked in surprise; he'd been so caught up in the scene unfolding before him that he'd almost forgotten where he was. He looked around. The perfect uniform light that gilded the muscular body of the restrained man and the leather-clad Sophia ended at a point about four feet away from the chair, and was replaced by harsh white light from a panoply of buzzing fluorescents. Max was in an unadorned, musty warehouse space, filled with cameras and huge lighting rigs, all of them aimed at the scene of sexual torment.

"What?" Sophia asked, blinking into the lights. "Sujoy—what's going on?" Sujoy, the director, threw his hands into the air and turned to look at the bank of glowing laptops that buttressed one side of the room. "Jeff, what the FUCK?!," he yelled. Jeff, an angry looking guy wearing a vintage "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" shirt, was tapping savagely on a keyboard and taking no notice of the consternation around him.

As Sujoy walked over to see what was going on, Max turned to his friend Curtis. "So, I take it something went wrong with this supposedly 'next-level' livestreaming tech of yours," he asked.

Curtis rolled his eyes. "It's not 'my' tech, obviously," he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a pack of American Spirits, "and it IS next-level, when it works; a bunch of execs in the valley are still trying to figure out how they do it."

Now it was Max's turn to roll his eyes. He wanted to lay into Curtis for wasting his time coming out here but Curtis was fresh out of rehab and Max didn't want to goad him too pointedly. Curtis, ignoring several no smoking signs, lit up and inhaled with profound slowness as a group of panicked techs swarmed the computers. Max watched them idly as they clustered Sujoy, who was now making tight gestures of restrained fury and shouting "fuck" over and over.

Someone had released the man in the chair from his restraints and he'd nonchalantly put on a robe. As he walked toward the craft services table Max saw his robe was emblazoned with the words "DICK TEAM SIX." The craft services guy was looking at his phone, although he had a second phone sticking out of his front pocket whose purpose was unclear. One of the lighting crew was eating a banana, and had peeled it from the bottom instead of the top—she was explaining to a camera operator that this was a superior technique because it was the way monkeys did it. "MOTHERFUCKER," screamed Sujoy from the bank of monitors.

Curtis continued smoking, looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling, his long legs twined around one another in a posture Max had always thought looked incredibly painful. Max had observed Curtis in this attitude countless times over the many years of their acquaintance. He remembered the first time. It was during a particularly boring day, early in their army careers, when Curtis had sat like this for over three hours without moving except to light new cigarettes. Max had surreptitiously observed him and taken notes with meticulous time stamps. Later, he'd slipped the notes under Curtis's pillow, hoping to rattle him. Curtis had never mentioned it, and he continued his long bouts of smoking and staring unperturbed. This was when Max knew that they would be lifelong friends.

Max looked at his watch and stood up. He did a quick stretch, his spine popping audibly, and then strolled with pretended nonchalance over to where Sophia was sitting. Now that she wasn't holding an instrument of pain, he felt he could speak to her without sweating. She looked up at his approach, her eyes surprisingly open and friendly considering she was barely clothed and he was a strange man on the set of a porn shoot. "A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step," he reminded himself, reflecting for a moment on how very many situations that adage could apply to.

"Hey," he said by way of greeting, then gestured vaguely toward Sujoy and Jeff, who was now typing with one hand while batting Sujoy away with the other. "What's the deal?"

Sophia snorted. "Jeff doesn't have his shit together, that's what's the deal," she said, "what else is new, that guy sucks."

Max laughed. "I've never met him," he said. "I'm Max. I was really enjoying...uh...your performance." She snorted again and looked back at her phone. He pressed on. "I came to check out the tech side, I didn't know what kind of scene you'd be doing when Curtis invited me, but it was really interesting. I don't know anything about...uh...S&M? I feel like that might be a dated term." Sophia just looked at him. "Uh...anyway, I don't know anything about it but I..." Max faltered, about to say something he'd never said aloud to another person.

But then Sophia intervened. "Yeah, I get that a lot," she said, "I think seeing some of this stuff realized in the flesh really opens people up to desires they never knew they were into. I know that's how it was for me, anyway." Max flushed with pleasure at being so instantly understood.

As they chatted, he felt his awkwardness fall away. Sophia did not seem to find him creepy, and she was incredibly open about discussing her career in the sex industry. Max found it fascinating, and when she told him at length about the way she had leveraged the popularity of her instagram account to get a producer credit on the most recent movie she'd done, he was filled with admiration for her entrepreneurial spirit.

"That's great," he said, "the heart of any entrepreneurial endeavor is opportunism. It's like Darwin said."

Sophia laughed. "That sounds like something Omega would say."

Max was confused. "Who's Omega?"

"Oh sorry," she said, "I assumed you were here because of him. He owns this place and he's really into evolutionary science."

Max started to ask her more, but then Sujoy was there, waving his arms dramatically and miming wiping sweat off his forehead. "Okay everybody, the livestream's back up, so lets get back in the zone!" he called.

"Break a leg," Max said to Sophia as he quickly moved off the set.

Returning to Curtis, he found him exactly as he'd left him, staring at the ceiling in a halo of cigarette smoke. "Hey," Max said, interrupting Curtis's reverie as he had done so many times in the past. Curtis didn't respond. Max pressed on. "So who's this guy 'Omega'? Do you know him? He owns the tech we're looking at?."

Curtis unwound himself, unfolding his long legs like a praying mantis, stretching his arms above his head as he came back to the present. "I've never met him," he said, "But apparently he's in financial trouble and wants to sell this whole operation. Oh, and something about how he's friends with Bono and Bono hates S&M? But that's just gossip..."

Max groaned internally at the mention of Bono. Why couldn't he get away from Bono? Max made some mental notes. "Can you set up a meeting, or intro me to someone who can?" he asked. Curtis simply nodded, one long slow nod, like a grave King in an old movie. "Thanks," Max said. He hesitated, wanting to ask about rehab but not knowing if it would be rude. Were people supposed to talk about such things? On the sets of porn shoots, no less? "So...how are things?" he asked awkwardly. "I mean...how have things been? You know."

Curtis sighed and ran a hand through his thick hair, making parts of it briefly stand up crazily. Curtis had always had great hair. "Yeah man," he began, "it's been intense. Past few months have been hard. When's the last time we saw each other?"

Max thought for a minute. He had a vague memory of Curtis dancing wildly in the corner of a party, shirtless, and wearing someone else's glasses. "Was it at Jenny's? When that guy brought his dog and it took a shit in the kitchen?" Max asked.

Curtis smiled without humor. "Yeah I think so. That was not a great night for me. I blacked out and when I woke up I literally didn't know where I was. Like I got up and wandered around this strange house and looked out the window and looked at the pictures on the walls and literally could not figure out where I was or whose house it was. It turned out it was this guy Jason's house, he'd just let me crash there. He said I was acting crazy and kicked me out. The look in his eyes when he came out of his bedroom and saw me there, half-naked, wild-eyed...." Curtis passed a hand in front of his face, sort of ritualistically. "That was my lowest point, man. Lower than when I wrecked Leslie's exhibit and the cops took me away." Max winced at the memory of that awful night. "The pity and disgust in this stranger's eyes was the fucking worst. Worse than jail. I didn't have anywhere else to go so I called Renewals and checked in that same day. I just got out on Saturday. I'm feeling okay. A little raw... kind of shaky."

This was, by far, the most Max had ever heard Curtis say at once. He was stunned by the outpouring of words. Rehab must be amazing, he thought. He pictured Curtis, in a bathrobe, not just words but whole sentences flowing from him in a cascade of truth-telling while other robe-clad smokers nodded in solidarity. Or maybe it was one of those therapy places where you took care of horses and were spiritually soothed because the horses didn't judge you. He waited to see if more details would be forthcoming, but Curtis had begun staring at the ceiling again. "Well I'm happy for you," Max said lamely. The thing was, he WAS happy for Curtis. He loved Curtis and had definitely been worried about him in recent months. He debated asking more questions. He didn't always know what was considered normal and a hard time expressing empathy. It was part of why he had begun his current, all-consuming business project.

"Action!" Sujoy yelled at that moment, interrupting Max's thoughts.

Max turned his attention back to the set. Sophia really was spectacular. Smart and easy-going. Max would have liked to ask her out on a date, but was worried he didn't have time to clear it with the shareholders before the shoot ended. He'd been trying out a new "speed voting" process that so far had yielded only middling results; many shareholders were on their phones less than Max would have liked, and they often missed votes and then complained about it in the forum, which drove his share price down and annoyed him. The concept was great, but the execution needed work. Watching Sophia command the much larger man, he decided to try it again. His dream was to inhabit a world of instantaneous voting that would eventually take all decisions out of his hands and place them into the power of a perfect market; then he would be truly free. "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs," he thought to himself—another great adage! Who came up with these things?—and tapped the PIPO app (Personal IPO) on his homescreen. He touched the "romance" tab and quickly filled out the form, typing "just met adult film actress at a shoot. She has many great ideas about micro-celebrity, and she also knows Omega Baphomet, the owner of the streaming tech I've been investigating. Should I ask her out on a date?" He looked at his watch again—it was 9:46 a.m.—and set the poll closing time at 10:46. Then he went outside to talk to Raina, who was running the numbers on their next meeting with a company that was offering fractionalized ownership of cattle.

The custom Sprinter van where he and Raina spent too much of their time was humming in the parking lot, the solar panels on its roof angled to catch the cascade of gleaming sunlight that poured from the cloudless Los Angeles sky. He slid open the side door and saw Raina looking at her phone and laughing. "So, how'd it go, Mr. Big?" she asked. Before he could say anything, she waggled the phone at him. "I see you're turning the speed voting concept into speed dating," she said.

Max pretended to be outraged. "As I said in the proposal, she knows this Baphomet guy, and Curtis is setting up a meeting. This is business, it's not pleasure," he said.

Raina rolled her eyes. "It never is," she said.

Max regarded Raina with deep affection as she fished a carrot slice from a tattered plastic bag on the desk by her filthy laptop. Raina was a friend from college, less a personal assistant than a co-conspirator; "personal assistant" was what his accountant had recommended she be called on the books, for tax purposes. And "friend from college" was not quite right either; Raina had been in college when they met, certainly, but Max himself had never matriculated anywhere. When they'd met, he'd been fresh out of the army, dishonorably discharged for going AWOL when he was really just fully embracing the idea of playing the Opposing Force, or OpFor, in a training exercise (yes, he had left the training facility and broken into the private residence of a the provost General and rigged a training grenade to his bathroom door, but, as he argued in his trial, that's what the enemy would have done and he was playing the enemy). He found himself brawny, tanned, and with no idea of what to do with his life. So he had moved to Portland because he had some friends there. Raina was a friend of these friends, and at the party where they'd met she'd challenged him to do ten pushups with her sitting on his back. He'd complied, and their friendship was sealed. Raina was brilliant, impish, and cute in a sort of spritely, boyish way. She was absolutely unimpressed by any aspect of the world of business, which she found infantile and regressive.

They'd worked on many projects together in the years since they'd met, as she'd gone off to grad school and a career in academia and he'd eased his tentacles into the world of experimental business. Her scornful perspective on this world was invaluable—being surrounded by sycophants was not smart business, in Max's opinion. Raina had become the youngest tenured professor in the history of Columbia University's Philosophy department, but had grown bored of academic life. She'd written several books, including a surprise bestseller in which she'd re-written the Platonic Dialogues to address the ontological question of how to define a sandwich. In that same time Max had burned through a few semi-successful tech startups and then launched his most audacious project and taken himself public. Three years ago, during a late-night discussion of her career malaise, Max had offered her an outrageous salary to quit her job and work with him on various unusual business projects that she found appealing for the ethical dilemmas they posed. They had fun together, and although many people and a few shareholders assumed they were (or at least had once been) lovers, they were not, and did not want to be. In fact, Raina was currently dating a hot Brazilian filmmaker in his mid twenties. He made weird avant-garde collages that Max didn't understand and Raina told him were "Brechtian." Max had later learned he had been a sponsored rollerblader in the early 1990s. Max didn't understand the appeal, but appreciated that Raina found someone who made her happy.

"Oh," Raina said, "I forgot to tell you, I got you two tickets to that concert you were so wound up about, the Disney Hall thing."

"Ah, that's great," Max said, "thanks! Also it's not a 'Disney Hall thing' it's an amazing one night only Beethoven/Mahler program being put on by a mysterious benefactor who has flown in some of the greatest living orchestral musicians and it's sold out. So thank you, I won't ask how you got tickets, but know that it's a very big deal. "

Raina was now rummaging in a box filled with cables. "I know," she said, "I just refuse to dignify your weird fetish by taking it seriously."

This was well-worn territory between them, and Max relished it, the ongoing bickering about aesthetic taste. "It's not a 'weird fetish,' it's the greatest music in the world," he said, "I'm sorry if you can't handle it but it's the truth."

Raina was still rummaging in the box. "I'd rather 'Handel' it, frankly," she said, "at least Handel's stuff has words and is in English."

Max held up a middle finger at her, waiting for her to turn around and see it. While waiting, he thought it would be funnier to hold up two middle fingers. He held both hands toward her and waited for her to turn around but she never did, so finally he let his hands fall. "What you said sucks, and you suck," he said pompously instead. "What are you even looking for in there?" She didn't answer, but when she finally sat up she was clutching a can of compressed air, which she immediately began applying to her filthy keyboard. The application of compressed air was something she did only fitfully, and was, quite frankly, a losing battle; the machine was too deeply ingrained with grime and dust and the stains of innumerable meals eaten unwisely near the keyboard for the air to have much effect. But they both allowed each other their little foibles, so he refrained from teasing her about it. Then he realized what she'd said.

"Wait—you got two tickets? Does that mean you're coming with me finally?" How he longed to sit with Raina in the dark, listening to nineteenth-century German symphonies! He knew if only he could trick her into attending a concert with him, she would love it, emotion would sweep over her and she would be moved, like that scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts cries the single luminous tear at the performance of Madame Butterfly while Richard Gere watches approvingly, a scene which Raina had once described as "disgusting bourgeois agitprop." But if he could only open up to her the world of this beautiful music—not Puccini of course but real music, serious music—then they could listen to Brahms and Schumann in the van, which was currently on Raina's "dealbreakers" list along with air fresheners and talking about sports.

"Don't make me laugh," she said, "I'd rather eat a mustard-covered cockroach than listen to all that creepy German stuff. Just because you like something doesn't mean I like it too. No— I got two tickets because your deadbeat friend Roger is in town tonight. I know how you two like to go sob at your Beethoven together." Max smiled. He did like sobbing at Beethoven with Roger.

Raina swiveled her chair around and plugged her phone into the van's sound system. "This is what I like," she said, cranking up the volume and yelling "FUCK BEETHOVEN" over the incredible wash of noise that poured from the speakers. All Max could say about it was that it was heavy metal; he knew Raina would categorize it with some much more arcane hair-splitting generic title, like "the Second-Wave of Swiss Doom-Thrash" or "Sludge-Adjacent Northern Flemish Deathcore." It was extremely loud and grinding, an apocalyptic sound, a sound like the end of the world. A male voice shrieked unintelligibly, probably in Dutch. "IT'S THE WAIL OF DESPAIR," Raina yelled, "THE FRAGILE, INSUFFICIENT HUMAN VOICE RAISED IN FURY AT GOD HIMSELF."

Max had heard this argument before, and actually after several months of thinking about it had come up with a few things he'd prepared to say to her the next time they had this conversation, about how actually Beethoven probably would have appreciated the spirit if not the sound of this music, given he himself had had a few choice things to say about God's sick sense of humor w/r/t cursing him (Beethoven) with deafness when he was just in the first stages of discovering his own powers as a composer. He was flipping her off again, getting ready to say all this to her as soon as there was a break in the sonic wall of abuse she was reveling in, when he felt his phone buzz.

When he looked down and saw who was calling, he unconsciously stood up straighter and reached to tighten a tie even though he wasn't wearing one.He made a fierce neck-slitting gesture to Raina to cut the music. He turned his back on her, unconsciously running his free hand over his impeccably combed hair. A lone crow flew in an arc overhead, cawing mournfully into the abrupt quiet.

"Comptroller," Max said in his most clipped professional tone. "It's great to hear from you."

"Tell me about Sophia." came her response. Max was worried. She didn't sound happy.

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