Retiring these cowgirl boots from Maurice’s. The vinyl is peeling, and they were never my style anyway (though I do know how to ride a horse). I took them for a final spin around Ulta and Whole Foods, but the J.Crew outlet was closed.

I have some ideas for weekly blog entries; for today, however, this will be enough.

I Just Want Prince to Be Proud of Me

In downtown St. Cloud, I asked the bookstore owner where I could get a decent meal within walking distance, and he directed me to the White Horse, a bar with a full menu two blocks away.

“Are you still serving food?”

“You betcha,” the Minnesotan barman replied. “Sitting outside?”

It was a nice, sunny day for Minnesota, but I am from Texas, and I wanted to thumb through my new bookstore buys, which embarrassingly included Lonely Planet’s guide to becoming a travel writer. I ordered the cubano he recommended over another sandwich he deemed “a bit too spicy,” (again, I’m from Texas, but you betcha) and pointed to a bar table in a dark corner. “I’ll be over here.”

He shrugged. “I’ll chase ya.”

Don’t make me chase you
Even doves have pride

I saw my first billboard for Paisley Park shortly after leaving St. Cloud, an image of the shoe exhibit inviting me to “Stand in awe.” I squealed, snapped a photo, and drove on, stopping once to pee and buy a Purple Thunder Mountain Dew, available exclusively at 7-11. I would see the same billboard again an hour down Interstate 94, backdropped against the Minneapolis skyline. I nearly broke my neck driving past the Spoonbridge sculpture park as I turned off for Birchbark Books & Native Arts, my only stop before Prince Land.

Prince’s Minneapolis, which I know only from Purple Rain, is the setting of the Prince planet in Ready Player Two, the sequel to Ernie Cline’s blockbuster novel and subsequent Spielberg movie. I loved Ready Player One, reading the novel and going to the theatre twice each, so I never understood the grumblings of real geeks (“I’m not going to watch my childhood bastardized on screen,” one nerdboy said) until Ready Player Two. It was here, on an impeccably researched but passionless Prince planet, that Cline revealed to me why his brand of fanboy fiction infuriates true heads. [Spoiler alert:] To beat the Prince planet, a player must…fight Prince.

To reiterate, the final boss of the Prince planet is seven iterations of The Purple One himself, whom players must defeat in combat. This is, for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Prince, absurd. There is no planet in the multiverse, fictional or otherwise, on which one would have to fight Prince. It is completely plausible that you would have to fuck Prince, but never fight him. A situation where one has to seduce The Purple One in order to ascend from his planet is intriguing, even titillating; a battle royale is simply disrespectful. Prince was a lover, not a fighter.

All seven and we’ll watch them fall
They stand in the way of love and we will smoke them all

I had determined in Omaha that, since I was this close to Minneapolis, it was time for me to visit Paisley Park. I thought I might go on a Sunday, “like church!” I mused; alas, tickets were sold out, so I bought the next available date: Tuesday. And I knew where I needed to stay Monday night.

The Beautiful Ones, Prince’s sumptuous 2019 memoir, was meant to be a very different book, but his death pre-empted a lot of the planned work. Still, it is a gorgeous object, full of photos and handwritten pages of notes printed on heavy German paper. Biographer Dan Piepenbring deftly handled the change in assignment, writing in the prologue (and an excerpted article I first read here, with slight changes) about his hiring and vetting as Prince’s official collaborator: in his proposal, he wrote that Prince’s music made him feel like he was breaking the law, a statement that The Purple One quickly corrected, for funk is about nothing if not structure and rules.

This shift in emphasis toward the process of writing instead of the final polished product Prince had planned is echoed in the archives locked inside Paisly Park, recordings the estate promises to dribble out according to Prince’s very specific and well-documented wishes regarding music ownership. We read about the work of biography, the chosen writer documenting his meeting Prince for the first time. He ruminates on the wait at the Country Inn & Suites in Chanhassen, an unofficial Paisley Park waystation seven minutes away, where Prince would rent a suite for visitors to wait in until he was ready to bring them to Paisley.

Amazingly, I remembered the name of the hotel, along with the claim that Prince could have purchased the hotel four times over with the amount of money he spent there.

I chuckled when I arrived at the Country Inn & Suites, which was actively having its roof replaced. Normally, listening to men with nail guns stomp and clamber all over the roof of my $200+ king suite would be an unwelcome development, one that certainly should have been mentioned on the website or post-reservation email or even printed letter upon arrival, like the one apologizing for the Wichita baseball stadium’s fireworks.

But my dad had owned a roofing company, making similar bids all over the country and inadvertently instilling my love of travel. We once visited him at a jobsite in South Dakota, my first visit to that state and the reason I did not need to make the obligatory swing by Mount Rushmore on this trip—that, and I had also recently seen the image of the original Six Grandfathers mountain face, and what to my childish eyes seemed awe-inspiring now seemed, at best, Looney Toonish. The roofers crawling all over Mount Chanhassen seemed like omens I was in the right place, so I said a little prayer for Dad and went inside.

Bolstered further by the Prince shrine I found near the lobby, I ducked in to poke my head around the fitness center—indoor pool and the requisite cardio machines, but no free weights or scale, which was probably for the best, given my recent diet of poutine and pub grub. Once checked in to the second floor (not a sound from the roof, though ground-level machinery was noisy), I opened the curtains of my room and squealed at the purple Prince mural on the backside of the local cinema. When I stepped out to the smokers’ area downstairs to snap an unobstructed photo, I observed more evidence of the roofers—half a watermelon rind and a plastic bag of soda bottles, the remnants of lunch left on a patio chair.

In my single-minded rush to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, I decided to forego the hike I had promised myself I would take. For one thing, in a Twin Cities metropolis of 800+ lakes, it really is difficult to tell which one is Minnetonka without constantly consulting a map. This iconic mistake, made by Apollonia in a Purple Rain scene apparently seared into the brain of every straight male on the planet, is understandable: In 1984, none of us walked around with GPS systems in our pockets. Still, the water she purifies herself in is actually a river in Henderson, Minnesota, 30+ miles from Lake Minnetonka, so maybe Apollonia should have been paying better attention while riding on the back of The Kid’s bike. She looks good on celluloid, though, which was the whole point.

I put her on the back of my bike
And we went riding down by old man Johnson’s farm

The Minnetonka Regional Park supposedly had a nice hiking trail, but when I drove to check out the swimming area first, I found kids frolicking in little more than a puddle—decidedly, not Minnetonka. I kept driving, dazzled by the water all around me, repeatedly consulting my navigational screen and wondering how both sides of the road could still be Minnetonka. Too late it occurred to me that paddleboarding would be the perfect way to purify myself in any body of water; alas, I had jettisoned my own SUP back in Texas after the car rental company got a little uneasy with the way it was strapped to the roof of their car. As the sun was on its descent, all the watercraft rental places were closing, but I drove toward the highest-rated one with a location near the promisingly named Surfside Beach, where I found a roped-off swimming area and a historical plaque to boot.

After changing into my strapless swimsuit in the car, I snapped a few soggy-haired selfies of my decolletage submerged in the mystical Minnetonka, but the results were nothing approximating Apollonia. I once asked myself, while reading in Prince’s biography about his sexually voracious early years, “Would I fuck Prince?” The better question, I soon realized, was “Would Prince have wanted to fuck me?” As omnisexual as he was, I wasn’t exactly his type. The closest I may have gotten was the lyric from “Little Red Corvette” that still thrills me, but I’m not even sure I would rank: Prince saw a lot of ass.

Girl, you’ve got an ass like I’ve never seen
And the ride, I said the ride is so smooth, you must be a limousine

Regardless, I said a splashy prayer to Prince to purify my sexual hang-ups, then drove back to the hotel, the windows of my Little Red Rental rolled down as I circumnavigated Lake Minnetonka in the fading sunlight. I rinsed off in the hotel shower and went for a solo patio dinner and ice cream, telling myself I would hit the hotel fitness center in the morning.

Time got away from me, and in my best efforts to look good for Prince and pack up the Little Red Rental, I failed to stop by the fitness center the next morning. “No matter,” I thought. “Prince doesn’t care if I work out.” I did manage to swing by the inclusive hotel breakfast twice—an early reconnaissance mission to snag the rare items that inevitably run out (in Chanhassen, string cheese) and again to grab something basic for the road (the last tub of yogurt, peach flavored), both times tanking up on coffee. I wore rings on half my fingers, one of which still had a price tag from the upscale secondhand store in St. Cloud (alas, they had no raspberry beret; I feel it is a missed opportunity for every thrift store not to stock up on these). I knew I would be fidgety without my phone, notoriously verboten at Paisley, so I left the price-tag string knotted on the ring: it was purple after all. I wore my lucky, purple-inclusive peacock dress and, of course, purple panties.

She wore a raspberry beret
The kind you find in a secondhand store

Another detail I remember from The Beautiful Ones introduction makes my heart swell. When the writer is finally picked up from the Country Inn & Suites and arrives at Paisley, he sees Prince standing alone outside, “ready to introduce himself.” That humble moment of politeness, Prince waiting to introduce himself to his guest, always stuck with me. He seemed so sweet, not at all the trickster of Minnetonka.

The theme song for my visit to Paisley was a surprise, though pleasant: “I Feel for You.” I’m not sure where I decided this; in the car on the way there or in the lobby of Paisley Park, looking up at the starlit sky painted on the recessed ceiling lined with piano keys. This reception room was used as a holding area for those of us on the tour, our phones already locked into personal pouches that would prevent us from prodding too much around Prince’s “creative sanctuary.” Still, I had already snapped copious photos of the love symbol out front and the delightful purple fire hydrant just outside the chainlink fence, though I failed to get the love symbol branded on to the city’s electrical transformer near the gatehouse.

“Everyone on the tour before us was purple from head to toe,” the woman next to me said. “Even their hair, some of them.”

“Yeah, that had to have been the VIP tour,” I responded, thumbing the purple string on my ring. I had asked her about the phone number she provided upon entry; it started with a 512. It turned out, she had lived in my college town for 17 years and kept the area code, rapidly becoming a hot commodity in a new Austin full of 737s.

“We get a lot of Texans here,” the Paisley Park tour guide, Tyler, told me later over the sounds of the live doves cooing in their cage on the second floor above us. I did not follow up on why this might be, but if some state-centric publication wants to pay me to find out, I will gladly undertake that research.

Inside Studio A, Tyler showed us the drum pedals and the synthesizer that were Prince’s weapons of choice; they are most clearly heard in the intro to “When Doves Cry.” Tyler also told us how Prince often played basketball in Studio C, which is currently occupied by a photography display. “He was known to play in heels,” she nodded, alluding to the Dave Chappelle sketch, as well as the Beautiful Collection of 300+ pairs of Prince’s shoes on display elsewhere in the building. I overheard a question about his workout habits and leaned in just in time to hear Tyler say: “Oh yeah, he was ripped.”

In the Beautiful Collection room, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Carrie Bradshaw’s closet, I observed the friction damage and broken heels, listening to one of his favorite shoe designers talk about vegan materials. Prince had started his career in four-inch heels and gradually worked his way down to three-inchers, but he always preferred the bootie, a style also favored by my late mentor, who gave me 54 pairs of her own shoes when she retired. I said a prayer for her in front of the shoes, and, when Tyler asked the last person out to shut the door, I made sure that person was me. I ripped off the purple string and dropped it on the carpet as an easily vacuumed offering and a thank you to Prince.

Tyler unlocked our phones for the soundstage, where clips of Prince’s greatest performances played on the screen surrounded by several of his cars and motorcycles. The tattooed couple from Tennessee started dancing together, possibly to “I Feel for You,” but I can’t really remember because what happened next was even more moving. During the Super Bowl performance of “Purple Rain” in the purple rain, the stage lighting inside Paisley Park swept over our faces, and I found myself crying. “Can I play this guitar?” he asked as we all sang along, 15+ years after he originally commanded it. Then the tour was over, the purple velvet rope moved aside, and we were left to wander around the NPG club for as long as we wanted. We now had access to our phones, a coffee bar, restrooms, purple sofas, and the giftshop.

As badly as I wanted the Snickers latte special, named after Prince’s favorite snack, it was entirely too sweet, and there was only one barista on duty. She didn’t have drip coffee brewed, but upon ordering the quickest Americano I could to pair with my locally made turtle cheesecake (Cheese Cake Funk, a Black-owned business and another favorite of Prince), I was delighted to find the individual tubs of Coffee Mate creamers included a flavored option: Snickers. I sat with my coffee and snapped photos for as long as I could—that is, until the next tour group finished their tour.

The giftshop was a disappointment in that I would have gladly paid up to $50 for an officially merchandised Starfish & Coffee mug like I had seen in the Prince shrine back in the hotel (and countless places online; the point is not availability but that the money go where he intended). Also, the two tote bags I liked were from past exhibits I had not personally visited, which felt like a poser purchase until I was overwhelmed with such non-buyer remorse back in Texas that I went on the Paisley Park website, where they are sadly not available for purchase. The only Beautiful Collection swag was a poster, which I neither liked nor needed, but I got some love symbol zipper pulls, just like the ones on most of Prince’s booties.

I also surreptitiously flipped through a copy of The Beautiful Ones off the stack in the back of the giftshop. My own copy, purchased from an independent bookseller on the day of publication, is packed away in storage. Though I had no intention to buy, I did want to reread the passage about the hotel, and this would be my only chance for a while. My eye scanned the page, including this sentence: “One of Prince’s aides told me he’d lived there for so many years that he’d broken the recumbent bicycle in the hotel’s fitness center.”

I could not believe I had forgotten this detail. I did not stop to ask why Prince was living in the “unremarkable chain hotel”; I assumed there were some renovations happening at Paisley Park. Maybe the roof was being repaired. Regardless, I made it back to the hotel five minutes before noon, just enough time to use my still-active key card to get into the fitness center and plant my ass on the bike.

It turned out, Prince did care if I worked out, and I did a solid minute of recumbent bicycling in my peacock dress and gold flipflops, giggling and snapping photos. I would be back in Texas 18 hours later, having driven straight through six states and continuing to listen to Prince at full volume through two of them. I arrived in time to get a few hours of sleep, then return the Little Red Rental to its rightful owners.

Only a few days later, looking at my photos of Paisley Park, did I notice the pronouns. He’d lived in the hotel, he’d broken the bike… I had assumed the “he” in question was Prince, but upon careful reading while not standing in a giftshop swaying my hips to the music, I saw that Prince’s aide was the antecedent to the pronoun in question. This is literally stuff I teach at the college level, clear pronoun antecedents, but since the Paisley Park employee mentioned in the preceding paragraph is a she (“Sometimes you gotta femme it up”) and, well, the love symbol is a mixture of male and female, a little Prince pronoun confusion is perfectly understandable.

I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand

It was the wrong Minnetonka. Prince had not stayed in the hotel or broken the recumbent bike; that was just my wishful thinking and perhaps guilt that I had not availed of this particular hotel’s fitness center. But in leading me to the wrong Minnetonka, Prince had successfully gotten me on the bike. And we went riding.

Not in Kansas Anymore

The yellow brick road into the children’s garden at Botanica.

North of the Texas state line, parts of I35 become a toll road. This was, and is, a shock to me, like charging for air or water. But since I had already aroused the car rental company’s suspicions by slapping a paddle board atop my borrowed Chevy Spark and did not know how to navigate a toll payment with a rental lest it be one of those “pay by mail only” situations, I opted for the “avoids tolls” route on my navigation app. This took me through some scenic views and small towns, both charming and not: I found a cheap little roadside motel in one, got offered a roll in the hay and a pitbull puppy in another. “You shore are pretty.”

El Reno, Blue Eyes, Dirty, and Hitler.

As I approached Wichita from the south, still avoiding I35, I began to roll through sweet little pastoral scenes of farmland known as Belle Plaine—pretty plain. Dark green leaves, low to the ground, indicated a crop I can only assume was cotton. Occasionally, a purple political sign would pop up in one of the farmhouse yards. Moving by at a fair clip, though nowhere near as fast as I would on I35, I could see what looked like the silhouette of a young girl with her head bent over a book. It is a message I can support. The encouragement to VOTE YES loomed large enough for me to read, even though the finer points of the sign escaped my attention, and I assumed it was a slam-dunk of a bond proposal to help local schools.

Credit goes to Kyle Palmer, editor of the Shawnee Mission Post.

Rolling into Wichita proper, I rejoined a highway, though somehow still not I35. On an overpass bridge surrounded by chainlink fence, I saw three figures, what appeared to be college students, two female and one male, though I was moving much faster at this point and hate to assume someone’s gender. It was relevant, however, but I would learn too late: as one of the females, the white woman, made the international “honk your horn” motion, the other held up a tiny carboard sign with lettering so dark and small I struggled to read even as I passed directly beneath them: MY BODY MY CHOICE. A message I can support but known too late, and I failed to toot my horn as I blasted into downtown.

I had been catching up on the news, learning days late that the president had a rebound case of COVID (I had not known he had a first case) and had started hearing about Kansas being the first to vote on banning abortion at the state level. It had to do with an amendment to the state constitution. Once I exited the highway and began looking around at a pedestrian pace, I learned that the purple sign was not a school bond election at all, but pro-life propaganda paid for by a PAC called Value Them Both, whose name was in fact written across the bottom of the sign, which depicted not a little girl reading but a mother, obviously a white woman, holding a baby in her arms.

There were also bumper stickers advising me to VOTE NO ON AUGUST 2, the pro-choice argument to keep the amendment in the state constitution. I finally found some of the pro-choice printed propaganda on the ground outside my hotel. I picked it up, thinking it was a group photo someone had printed out and lost; the doorhanger hole was punched right through one of the women’s faces. Both sides claimed the other was using scare tactics, a topic explored by a podcast I listened to the next morning as I ran along the river toward the Keeper of the Plains. (“He’s a keeper!” winked the article I skimmed on best trails in Wichita.)

I visited Botanica, the botanical garden that by stroke of luck also featured a traveling Washed Ashore installation. I managed to find all 13 pieces and still avoid the children’s garden full of screaming kids. I took a picture of the sleeping troll bridge with a pair of children’s flipflops abandoned next to the troll’s mouth and captioned it “Look, he ate one!” for my friend back in Texas who is, incidentally, a parent by choice. In search of solitude, and shade, I found an educational garden with a lovely sculpture of a young girl with her head bent over a book—a message I can support. At the time, I was in the middle of Madeline Miller’s Circe, about the witch of Greek myth who firmly regulated her own reproductive system until such time as she chose to have a child with Odysseus.

I followed a Hyundai with a VOTE NO bumper sticker out of the museum district, then watched local drivers disrespect each other all the way to my salad spot for lunch. I stopped into CVS or Walgreens, whichever was next door, and picked up two newspapers while I was there. USA Today had the Kansas story on the front page; The Wichita Eagle made no mention of abortion…that is, until I got to the last page, where an editorial stated simply that the poorly worded bill was political chicanery and to vote no.

On my way out of town, I stopped by Eighth Day Books and wound up spending an hour combing the religious and secular titles, including at least two books on the concept of the week, hilarious to me given the name of the bookstore (and, upon reflection, the fact that I had just finished Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals). I dug through the stacks and bought my first Marilynne Robinson. My rental car was blocked by the garbage truck, so I ended up taking a back street to the traffic light and saw a church with a sign out front: “Jesus trusted women, and so do we. Vote no.” A message I can support.

The newspaper editorial had mentioned both sides defacing each other’s messaging, and I saw evidence of this just down the street, where a community baseball field, somehow festooned with the Value Them Both signs on the infield fences—itself an egregious misuse of community space—had been graffitied to read NO where they had been printed to say Yes. Neither side looked good in this visual. I would soon realize I had left my wallet on the counter at Eighth Day, an almost exact recreation of the absentminded mistake I had made at Commonplace Books in Oklahoma City. If there is ever a place to lose your wallet mid-roadtrip, it is at the bookstore; both times, I recovered it unmolested.

Leaving Wichita, still not on I35 despite heading in the exact same direction, I saw a van with windows painted VOTE NO while I listened to NPR to try to put the amendment in context. When I got to Kansas City, I made sure to get a hotel on the Missouri side, where I saw on the news that the amendment had been soundly defeated. The next morning, over coffee and a life-changing savory bear-claw croissant at the Filling Station in Union Hill before my pilgrimage to Prospero’s Bookstore, I chuckled aloud while reading the local alt-weekly, The Pitch. The Letter from the Editor comprised a pro-choice personal narrative involving holding his girlfriend’s hand while she swallowed a Planned Parenthood-provided morning-after pill at Disneyland: “We were standing in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle—its shadow cast over us, and dozens of screaming children with beleaguered parents formed a Greek chorus of reminders that we were absolutely making the right decision.”

Prospero’s Bookstore, where I did not forget my wallet!

Sex and the Sopranos XV

Just a Rat in a Cuter Outfit

“So Caroline—should I call you Caroline?”

“Carrie is fine. That’s what everyone calls me. That’s what gets printed in the paper, for work, wedding announcements… Hardly anyone calls me Caroline; one would be forgiven for believing my name is actually Carrie.”

“I imagine there would be a sense of betrayal for, say, someone who also has a nickname for a first name and believed you were a kindred spirit, then learns your full name is Caroline Marie Bradshaw. Almost like finding out your imaginary friend has been lying to you.”

“Or has other friends besides you.”

“You seem bitter about something.”

“It’s probably just my main character energy. I really thought my three best friends would always be my loyal sidekicks, but one just up and moved to London.”

“I see.”

“And it’s a shame, because I really could have used her PR expertise to—once again—deal with the cover of my new book, but it turns out, I was just an ATM to her.”

“You were paying a friend to handle your public relations, is what I’m gathering from this…”

“Well, I mean, she took me on as a client—pro bono, at first, but once I hit the New York Times Bestseller list, and married an extremely wealthy man, I started paying her. Her actor boyfriend had the same arrangement until he made it big in Hollywood.”

“This woman—”

“Her name is Samantha, Samantha Jones.”

“So what you’re telling me is that this Samantha runs a PR firm that handles movie stars, and you believe that your brand as a writer is so valuable that she moved out of the country over losing you as a client?”

“Well, I might have been a little bitter about the New Yorker review of my third book.”

“Yes, that explanation did sound a bit flimsy. I truly hope you two will work it out, but you have indicated that you would like to spend our time here today discussing grief. Is that correct?”

“Yes, I’ve recently experienced a…Big death.”

“I see.”

“My remaining friends have threatened to cut me off, so I’m undertaking a shit-ton of therapy, although I do think this framework is a little trite.”

“Many have found it to be very successful.”

“I dunno. I remember watching one episode of a show that everyone swore was the greatest television ever made, and the therapist had some cheesy breakthrough about a dog with heavy jowls representing her client in her dream after she was raped. A slice of Sicilian vengeance, if you will.”

“Yes, that rape storyline was rather tropey.”

“A bit of a detour, right? Imagine if that was the only episode you’d seen. You’d be forgiven for not revisiting the show until the pandemic.”

“Given that particular client’s tendency toward fever dreams of talking fish and frequently swapping out women’s heads and voices in his sexual fantasies, I’m not entirely sure the rape even occurred.”

“That would make a better show. Like, I was veering toward a “mafiosa story with a twist/To Wong Foo Julie Newmar hitch” reference, that the therapist is just a rat in a cuter outfit because he’s an undercover FBI agent, à la my high school boyfriend in that show with Charlotte’s first husband, but I think we’re not handling the gender spectrum very well and I’m afraid to go there. I just can’t get that song out of my head every time I work on this piece.”

“What piece?”

“Oh, I write about everything I experience. I don’t exist if I don’t write about my existence.”

“We might need to unpack that.”

“Why? It fits in my Vuitton luggage so perfectly!”

“Fair enough. Your tendency toward exposition is actually a little clunky.”

“Trust me, I’m working on it. I think I rely entirely too much on scaffolding and references to other works. I’m exhausting myself at this point.”

“I would imagine.”

“Like, I’m kind of seeing this guy, and I recommended a book to him that all us girls were passing around, even Natasha. In fact, Stanford’s last words to me (in person, not counting his lost Bronte sister letter) were “Great bangles all around,” which I am fairly certain was a reference to the main character in this book. She wore a lot of bangles; one character commented that it was like built-in applause.”

“Where are you going with this?”

“Just that he hated the book, and he let me know his ex hated the book too. Then I start backpedaling, like, did ever really like the book? Did I just want to read it because everyone else was? Did I only like it because it generated some ideas for polyphonic narrative voices? How hard should I fight this battle?”

“You’re a big proponent of libraries, did you check this book out?”

“Yes, in ebook and audiobook, because he listened to the audiobook, and I wanted to get his experience.”

“That seems like overkill.”

“You’re telling me, sister. I’m also convinced this therapist I’m seeing is not very good at her job, because she learned something at a dinner party that completely changed her relationship with her client. Ended it, in fact, since I’m now entirely certain he died in the diner. And it was just some reference to an article in a magazine, not even a scholarly journal for practicing psychiatrists.”

“I remember that dinner party.”

“And was our mutual friend there?”

“Who is that?”

“Well, I never learned his name, because Big forgot it that time we ran into him in the street and I thought he was ashamed of me, but they went skiing together in Aspen.”

“Oh, ha ha, that guy. No, he wasn’t there, but his name is indeed hard to parse. When I dated him, he was known as Nils and then Eric. He’s the one who pointed out my well-connected client when we first started seeing each other. The client got us a table at that restaurant where the hostess wound up being way more crucial to the story than any of us ever realized.”

“Another rat in a cuter outfit.”

“Lots of leopard print there. That’s why everyone believes she came back as a cat.”

“Baciagalup, another pejorative kitty name, like my friend Miranda’s big orange cat, Fatty.”

“Good way to catch a rat.”

“Also featured in a memorable CGI scene, but we’ll allow it because it’s one of my favorites.”

“Our time is almost up, but there were a few more connections you wanted to explore…”

“Yes: the guy at Gray’s Papaya who gave me a free hot dog after my book launch, and the guy Charlotte met at her man regifting party who ended up hooking up with his ex on her bed.”

“Who were they, respectively?”

“One I don’t know, but he’s the real-life son of Don Squirrel-Leone, and the other somehow became a Muslim terrorist. Oh! And let’s not forget Big’s driver, Raul. And apparently one of the groomsmen from his wedding with Natasha was also an FBI agent, but who wants to revisit all that?”

“I certainly didn’t. Not for an entire episode. Though I did appreciate the coffee-spill callback.”

“One last one. The actual rat, the one your client offed on his daughter’s college trip—he once catcalled me from a truck while I was running to ring the stock exchange bell.”

“Does that about sum it up?”

“No, there are lots more in my spreadsheet, but these are the ones I jotted down in my notes, which I’m about to burn because it’s time to jettison this clutter.”

“Are you looking for a new place to live?”

“I am, even though I have had the perfectly worn cashmere sweater of living arrangements at my disposal for the past 24 years. Still, I’m going to agonize about it for an entire episode—even buy a whole new apartment only to change my mind days later—while people who genuinely do not know where they are going to live stare at the screen in disbelief.”

“Are you pleased with yourself?”

“God, no, I just wanted to get this done. I had one more joke I was going to shoehorn in, about none of the FRIENDS knowing what Chandler Bing did for a living because he was heir to the racketeering fortune accumulated at the Bada Bing, a sort of “Chandler Bing, of the New Jersey Bings” gag, but I never really watched FRIENDS and can’t do that joke justice.”

“So, have I helped you with your Big grief? What can we focus on for next time?”

“Oh, doc, this was a one-off thing, like Samantha’s nude portrait or your rape—we’re never going to revisit this again.”

“Fair enough. Can I say it?”

“What, ‘Suddenly I realized…’?”

“Nope. ‘…And just like that, our time is up.”

“Needs work, but as one of my journalistic subjects once told me, no one reads this anyway.”

“You’ll get my bill.”

“Good thing I’m so inexplicably rich for a writer.”

Ulysses Podcast

Most readers who enjoy a good literary challenge have attempted to read Ulysses, James Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece. The text, while brilliant and representative of the 20th century shift into modernist thought, contains so many narrative cul-de-sacs and classical allusions that readers often turn to a guide to lead them through. Whether a college course or Twitter bot, Ulysses gurus abound, offering to light the path through the 265,222-word labyrinth Joyce built through Dublin.

For the centenary anniversary of the book’s publication on February 2, the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company began hosting an ensemble podcast reading. Spanning the four months between the publication anniversary and June 16, the day covered by the novel known as Bloomsday, each weekday brings a new episode of the novel, read aloud by a different literary luminary. Joyce’s fellow Irish wordsmiths Caoilinn Hughes and Paul Murray, authors Will Self and Jeanette Winterson, and even comedian Eddie Izzard have lent their voices to the podcast thus far.

Interspersed between readings of the text, the almost-weekly Bloomcast helps clarify the novel’s plot. Host Adam Biles, the literary director at Shakespeare and Company, is regularly joined by Alice McCrum of the American Library in Paris and Dr. Lex Paulson of the Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique in Morocco. Other guests have included Patrick Hastings, creator of UlyssesGuide.com, and Aggie, resident cat at Shakespeare and Company, whose vocal stylings are clearly audible throughout Episode Two.

While the bookstore encourages listeners to purchase a special Clothbound Classics centenary edition of Ulysses by publishing partner Penguin, complete with the shop’s Kilometer 0 hallmark stamp, Shakespeare and Company has more than just a bookselling connection to the novel. The original Parisian Shakespeare and Company, an English-language lending library run by American Sylvia Beach in the years between the world wars, also acted as publisher to the first edition of Ulysses.

Famously, Joyce was making edits to the proofs of the text even as the book was being printed in Dijon, but on February 2, 1922, Sylvia Beach met the morning train that carried the first two extant copies of Ulysses. One she gave to Joyce, and the other went on display in the window of her bookshop, but impatient customers forced her to hide the book until she could fulfill all pre-orders. The novel, which had already been banned in the States after excerpts in The Little Review brought the magazine’s editors up on obscenity charges, saw an initial print run of a thousand, some of which were smuggled into the U.S. over the Canadian border. Shakespeare and Company published eleven editions of Ulysses throughout the 1920s.

In 1964, another Parisian bookshop run by an American was rechristened from Le Mistral to Shakespeare and Company in honor of Sylvia Beach, who had died two years earlier. In fact, George Whitman was so taken with Beach’s legacy that he named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman. After taking over the bookstore in 2006, this Sylvia began introducing new initiatives, like podcasts, to the legendary bookshop.

The Worst Bookseller in the World

Currently playing on subtitled screens in the States after making a splash at Cannes last year, The Worst Person in the World opens on an effortlessly beautiful woman standing in profile against the Oslo skyline, smoking a cigarette outside a book launch. The film comprises such stunning visuals of the Scandinavian atmosphere, including a triptych of vignettes that pull focus from star Renate Reinsve’s beguilingly wholesome face toward a backdrop of moody skies, but also pays homage to Northern Europe’s literary traditions through its heroine’s day job.

The narrator explains how Julie went from medical student to trainee psychiatrist to amateur photographer in rapid succession, securing a temp job at a bookstore as her fallback. Borrowing the bookish structure of chapters, prologue, and epilogue, the film follows this thirty-ish woman adrift in central Oslo. Julie shrugs off a question about the temporal status of her employment, which seems to gain permanence as the plot unravels, becoming her most consistent attribute throughout the four years covered by the film.

The bookstore, Norli, is a real-life Norwegian chain with five locations in Oslo alone. Julie’s branch, “near the university,” is known as Universitetsgata (@norliuniversitetsgata). Her uniform is a navy polo with white letters on the back declaring “Jeg hjelper deg gjerne!” (“I’m happy to help you!”). The employee discount may be to blame for Julie’s accidental hoarding of books. “I have two copies of a book,” she incredulously tells her boyfriend, the wonderfully Nordic-named Aksel, as she rearranges a bookcase that also includes such English-language titles as The White Album and Portnoy’s Complaint. “Can I have two shelves?” she asks.

Within the context of her bookstore job, Julie is equally absentminded, knocking over multiple stacks of books and holding several life-changing personal conversations, all while on the clock. Yet a bookshop is the perfect setting for such chance encounters, the intersection of ideas and culture serving as a waystation where old friends and new loves can wander freely. This affection toward bricks-and-mortar stores gets grounded in practical commerce when Julie regretfully informs a customer that it will take two weeks to order a copy of Green Yoga.

In one poignant scene with Aksel, Julie listens patiently as he laments the loss of Gen-X tactility: “I grew up in a time when culture was passed along through objects,” he says. A dozen years older than Julie, Aksel is a comic book artist with fond memories of hanging out in record stores, an experience he implies her generation will never understand. “They were interesting because we could live among them. We could pick them up, hold them in our hands, compare them.”

In his waxing nostalgic about the digital shift, Aksel has forgotten that Julie can relate through that timeless artifact that constructs her workaday life. Now an aspiring writer who has had some success with a viral article, she nevertheless knows a little something about object permanence within a culture. Julie smiles dolefully, but not without sympathy, and asks: “A bit like books?”

Sex and the Sopranos XIV

Damn…We’re Gonna Win This Thing!

As I stared down another self-imposed and perilously close deadline, I couldn’t help but wonder: would this undertaking eventually fall into place? With all the ghosts and magic and twins and flashbacks and fever dreams, would these stories ever effectively tie together? Or should I have let sleeping fishes lie?

I once had a case of writer’s block so bad that I wrote a column about my sock drawer. I was convinced I was going to get fired; even Samantha wasn’t reading my column, and the socio-political aftermath of 9/11 did not render a good economy in which to be whipped cream. I was so desperate, I even agreed to go to a self-help seminar with Charlotte.

“You might get a column out of it,” Charlotte reasoned, catching me in a weak moment.

She and I were sitting at a sidewalk café playing “The 100,” a game where we decided how many men walking past we would sleep with. Charlotte had resoundingly rejected the angry-looking bald guy with a big head walking toward her…but then she realized he was fast approaching our table.

And just like that, my editor Gabe appeared, ex machina, and told me that an editor from Clearwater Press wanted to turn my columns into a book.

Despite passing on the opportunity to hypothetically sleep with Gabe, Charlotte was extremely offended when he brushed her off as I introduced them. Charlotte went home in a huff that the angry, balding, big-headed guy was not interested in hypothetically sleeping with her and, being Charlotte, could not leave well enough alone.

So she cyber-stalked him.

Since I work from home, my interaction with my work colleagues is minimal. I write my columns in my apartment and somehow transport them to Gabe at the New York Star office, despite once devoting an entire column to my learning how to use email…in 2001. Gabe and I occasionally take meetings, like the time I left Aidan behind at the Suffern cabin to take the train back into the city, but suffice to say none of my friends had met Gabe before that day with Charlotte.

Perhaps she has better taste than the rest of us, but somehow Charlotte avoided dating any of the guys who would overlap with the New Jersey underworld. Still, she cracked the whole case wide open with her internet sleuthing skills, honed during the hours she spent researching Trey’s impotence online.

“Carrie, he’s a secret agent!” Charlotte cried as she, Anthony, and I shared a well-endowed baguette from Hot Fellas Baked Goods. Charlotte held out a photo she had helpfully printed from the internet. “Look: Agent Dwight Harris of the FBI.”

“More like Agent I-Have-No-Harris,” Anthony shrieked.

Imagine my surprise when the most important man in my life—my editor—turned out to be the key to the whole mafia-Manhattan connection.

Once again, Charlotte was my salvation…and my meal ticket.

“I am going to get so many columns out of this,” I laughed. “Well, that’s just fabulous!”

Sex and the Sopranos XIII

The Sopranos: Season 1, Episode 10 A Hit Is a Hit (14 Mar. 1999) Robert  LuPone , Dr. Bruce Cusamano (as Robert Lupone) | Sopranos, Hbo, One in a  million

Flo and Cooze

“Remember my over-the-hill neighbor Len? The one who said he was keeping me on neighborhood watch?” Samantha and I were catching up over a little mani-pedi-botox session.

“Let me guess—he moved to Jersey and joined the mob?”

“No,” Samantha frowned. “Why would you assume that?”

“Just the way things have been trending lately. So what happened with ol’ hip-replacement Len?”

“His twin brother lives next door to that mafia don you’ve been so curious about.”

“There are two of them?”

“Actually, three. They have a sister who is famous in the theatre; the brothers changed their names to avoid recognition. Len went with Schneider and moved to the meat-packing district. The other, Bruce, for some reason chose the last name Cusamano and moved to New Jersey.”

“Does he have the ponytail and the pierced ear too?”

“Ugh, no. He’s a doctor.”

Len had been an art collector Samantha went out with to validate herself when she thought she was going through menopause. He spent the whole dinner talking about the lumbar support in his new Cadillac El Dorado.

“His mood music was the sounds of smooth jazz on the radio,” Samantha recalled. She had slept with him anyway, resulting in Len lamenting that Flo had come to town all over his $2000 Pratesi sheets.

“Did you keep running into him in your building?”

“Yes, but he would just look squeamish and scurry away,” Samantha shrugged. “Good riddance.”

“So how do you know his brother knows the godfather?”

“I ran into the twin at a benefit and thought it was Len. I walked up to say hello and his wife got really upset. It took a while, but we got it all straightened out and had a good laugh. I even got them to donate to Javier House!”

“Impressive,” I nodded.

“So the wife is also a twin, and her sister wrote a stellar college recommendation for the neighbor’s daughter.”


“I think so—something like that,” Samantha nodded. “Anyway, the wife, Jeannie Cusamano, was extremely dismissive of her neighbors’ interior design, too much Murano glass.”

“I like Murano glass.”

“Well, it seems the neighbors don’t think too much of them, either. Called them Wonderbread, the type of Italians who eat Sunday gravy out of a jar.”


“The Cusamanos said they’ve been keeping a package the big man asked them to hold on to for years. They have no idea what’s in it.”

“Luca Brasi?” I quipped.

“I gotta tell you, honey, this isn’t your best work.” And just like that, Samantha called me on my bullshit.

I couldn’t help but wonder: would I get it together next week? Or had this whole little project run out of steam?

“I just thought you might want to know that the good doctor Cusamano recommended a psychotherapist for the big man. She could be a good source for some of these questions you have been asking everyone.” Samantha stood up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my botox.”

Sex and the Sopranos XII

Gay as Pink Suede

Miranda and I were in the gender-neutral restroom at Webster Hall, trying to have a meaningful conversation in the inconvenient atmosphere of flushing toilets and roaring hand dryers.

“Do you remember that time I ran into a coworker in the bathroom at a gay club?” Miranda shouted.

“At Trade, a.k.a. Shirtless Heaven,” I nodded. “That was the night I picked up my gay mistress and some gay porn.” My gay husband, Stanford, had been so green with envy about my new Australian shoe distributor, Oliver, that he later outed me for having worn pink suede Candies in the 80s.

That same night, in the sanctity of the men’s room, Miranda had revealed her pregnancy to Max, who asked her to keep his sexual preferences hidden from the older partners at Stern, Hawkins & Erickson. Turns out, it was mutually assured destruction, as both Miranda and Max accidentally outed each other to the office gossip, Celeste.

“So this little junior associate gets Casual Friday cancelled for wearing mesh and camo on his first foray out of the closet, then he leaves to go work for Grubman, Grubman & Curcio. I can’t begrudge him the salary, but he was my gay boyfriend. We were supposed to have each other’s backs, you know? Even my gay relationships are dysfunctional.”

As we exited the all-gender restroom at Webster Hall, a pansexual foursome made their way past us, looking like an updated version of our original group. Miranda turned her head slightly to watch them go, while I waxed nostalgic about the time when all we needed was each other, even if it was just hanging out together in Samantha’s apartment, watching gay porn.

“The thing I can’t wrap my mind around,” Miranda said, her gaze gliding back toward me, “is that he went back into the closet after he changed jobs.”

“Let me guess: he changed his name, too?”

“Yup. He dropped the “Max” nickname from law school and returned to plain old Patrick Serafini Parisi. Celeste found out that Patrick got engaged to a girl—I forget her name, maybe Fielder? But you’ll never guess whose daughter she is…”

This girl, whom we will just call Fielder, had grown up with Patrick Parisi, son of Pasquale Parisi and nephew of Patsy’s late twin brother, Philly Spoons. Their histories often overlapped, but nothing serious developed between them until she got a good look at him during the premiere of the family-funded mob slasher movie, Cleaver. The two rekindled a long-latent spark and were engaged soon after.

Patrick was instrumental in convincing his fiancée to give up her long-discussed but never genuinely pursued goal of becoming a pediatrician and instead “settle” for law school. Fielder claimed she wanted to help combat Italian American stereotypes after seeing the way her father and his associates were treated by the federal government, but the $170,000 starting salary Mr. Grubman dangled in front of her did not hurt.

“What kind of spoiled Ivy League brat graduates from Columbia with zero life direction and takes another three years to decide between medical school or law school?” Miranda mused aloud.

“An annoying but well-connected one?” I shrugged, thinking of my own rejected application to Columbia.

“I mean, usually you have some sort of inclination, one way or the other: medicine or law. There’s not a lot of overlap. None of that flakiness would fly at Harvard Law,” Miranda concluded.

I couldn’t help but wonder: If this Fielder girl were half as smart as she thought she was, would she have noticed her fiancée was gay as pink suede? Or was it like the time Stanford and I pretended to be engaged so he could lockdown his inheritance and I could lockdown a sugar daddy and, perhaps, one of his grandmother’s Chanel suits? Did Fielder and Patrick Parisi come to an arrangement that worked for them both, keeping their respective families happy while allowing the two of them to live their personal truths away from prying eyes?

Could a closeted gay man in the New Jersey underworld keep his proclivities private, perhaps even escape to New Hampshire to live out a fantastic gay porno with a volunteer firefighter who made a tasty batch of Johnny Cakes? Live free or die, right? Surely there would be no repercussions?

And just like that, I remembered the time I got karmically mugged for my pink suede Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals from the 1999 collection that I got half-off at a sample sale. As the mugger pointed a gun in my face and demanded I hand over the Monolos, I whined that they were my favorite pair—granted, I say that about damn near every pair of shoes I own. But for someone who uses pink suede as a measure of gayness, I sure wear a lot of it.

Perhaps sexuality is a spectrum that my friends and I all populate at different places during different points in our lives. I was clearly in the pink suede zone of the LGBTQ rainbow, while Samantha was lightyears beyond the rest of us in her fluorescent power suits, and even Charlotte was becoming woke…by pastel Park Avenue standards.

As for Miranda, we had tried to establish early on that Miranda was undeniably straight, even though her coworkers and boss at Stern, Hawkins & Erickson thought Miranda was gay long before she outed Max and even before she made partner. Miranda famously failed the lesbian kiss test with her softball buddy, Syd, but what if Miranda was just not attracted to that particular lesbian?

“Hey, Miranda, what are your thoughts on pink suede?” I asked as we exited Webster Hall. I looked around, but Miranda seemed distracted, staring down the sidewalk into the crowd. After an entire summer of badgering her with questions about members of a certain Italian American subculture, maybe it was time I let Miranda focus on herself.

“Huh?” she finally asked, glancing at me.

“Never mind,” I said as our Uber arrived. “I’ll ask Charlotte.”

Personal photo 7/17/21 12:20 a.m.

Sex and the Sopranos XI

Reminder, this is basically fan fiction for both The Sopranos and Sex and the City. The stories are confined to the shared fictional world, but we’re reaching the end of both series, so I’ve taken a few liberties with the narrative arcs that extend beyond the life of the show. Again, it helps if you’ve seen both shows, and spoilers abound.

In memory of Ed Vassallo, 1972–2014.

Catcalls and Gummy Bears

Back during the days of Blockbuster, Miranda once hit a sexual drought so prolonged that she racked up enough video rentals to earn a free pound of gummy bears.

At three months and one week without sex, Miranda swung by the quick drop slot at the Lexington Avenue Blockbuster to return a libido-numbing five-hour Danish documentary on the Nuremberg trials. A construction worker yelled that she could “quick drop this,” so she rolled her eyes and scurried away. She never went inside the Blockbuster yet produced a bag of gummy bears to share with the ladies as we watched my neighbors having sex. She must have secreted them away in her Strictly Rhythm satchel…or in her dungarees.

When Miranda weirdly went back to Blockbuster for the second time that day, ostensibly for another pound of gummy bears, she got catcalled again by the same guy yelling: “I got what you want! I got what you need!”

“You talking to me?” Miranda yelled, doing her best De Niro. She proceeded to let everyone on the Upper Eastside know she needed to get laid, effectively cat-calling the construction worker’s bluff. She dismissed him as a gavone, Italian for swine-god, then stomped into Blockbuster for her gummy bears. Inspired by her little lesson in the language of love, she also rented the entire Godfather trilogy.

“Part III is so bad,” Miranda told me the next day.

“And Parts I and II were both so good,” I agreed. Maybe revisiting a beloved franchise after an extended break might not be such a great idea…

“I find the higher the number, the worse the sex,” Samantha interjected.

“We’re talking about roman numeral movies, not roman numeral guys,” I scolded Samantha, though maybe she had a point.

“How did he react when you demanded to get laid?” Samantha reached into the bag of gummy bears.

“He said: ‘Take it easy, lady. I’m married.’”

“Well, that has absolutely nothing to do with getting laid,” Samantha stated, then pursed her lips.

“You know, I believe her,” Miranda said to me.

“Do you think he was really married?” I asked.

“He was married, all right,” Miranda said. “Married to the mob.”

Tom Giglione, Jr. and his wife, Barbara, lived a relatively quiet life in Brewster, New York, with their kids, Tom III and Alyssa. Occasionally, they would drive the hour and a half across the Tappan Zee to visit his New Jersey in-laws. Tom made appearances beside Barbara at five family meals, four funerals, and one bedside vigil when the head of the family was in the hospital with a gunshot wound. He and the don’s baby sister lived in relative obscurity, avoiding getting drawn into the underworld that subsumed Barbara’s parents and siblings.

Tom uttered some of the best one-liners in the family…by virtue of only speaking one line per appearance:

When the matriarch of the family, a terrible woman, finally died and her equally awful eldest daughter forced everyone to choke out a few nice words about the departed, the first lady’s father snapped and went on a tirade about suffering under the yoke of that woman, to which Tom responded: “Hear, hear!” When Christopher Moltisanti finally settled down with a wife and kid to throw a housewarming party at his tacky Mini McMansion, complete with a CLEAVER poster in the foyer, the Giglione family arrived bearing gifts and Tom cracked a joke that the wine-shaped one was for the baby. When his buttnut of a nephew went through a woke phase regarding Iraq and started quoting “The Second Coming” during another uncle’s funeral buffet at Vesuvio, Tom corrected his mispronunciation of the poet’s Irish name: yates, not yeets.

But mostly, Tom blended into the background, at least in New Jersey. The edgiest thing Tom ever did was grow a goatee and accept mafia boosts when his honest and hard-working father died. Tom II liked football and food, and once unknowingly poked the bear by bringing up the Jets at the dinner table, prompting the elderly uncle with dementia to tease the scariest man in New Jersey about never having the makings of a varsity athlete. His life was so seamless and relatively uncomplicated that his wife transformed into a completely different woman who simply had to call the mafia don “big brother” during that pasta dinner to reclaim her role in the family.

I couldn’t help but wonder: were the women in that world as disposable as the men were in mine? If wives can be recast and mothers can be computer generated, what place of power can women really hold? With an ever-rotating supply of guest-star goomars, not to mention background strippers who are never given credit and might as well be human scenery, was the life depicted on the other side of the Lincoln tunnel as dismissive of women as mine was of men?

And just like that, I realized our stories constituted thematic inversions of each other, reflected across the Hudson River.

To learn more, I dusted off my press pass and did a little investigating into the parallels between us. I figured that Tom Giglione was the most approachable: he was a New Yorker (albeit upstate), he was connected without being CONNECTED, and Miranda had all his contact information from the sexual harassment case she had considered pursuing against him.

“Whatever happened with that?” I asked as we reminisced with gummy bears in my single gal apartment that BIG AND I KEPT AS AN EMPTY PIECE OF VALUABLE MANHATTAN REAL ESTATE.

“It’s so great you never bothered to find renters for this place,” Samantha said, watching the couple across the street having sex. Well past their prime years of two-hour matinees, the pair still liked to occasionally put on retrospective exhibitions. Like the rest of their audience, I had moved on, but Samantha still liked to take a peek, for old time’s sake.

“I didn’t pursue it because I pretty much trumped him when I started screaming in the street about needing to get laid,” Miranda said, stretching a gummy bear until it snapped. “I did get him fired, though.”

Miranda’s discovery procedures had prodded Tom’s employer to issue a round of layoffs, allegedly only affecting upstate crews so disorganized that they had to work in the middle of Lexington Avenue on Saturdays, which somehow also managed to get rid of the sex pests. The company was trying to rebrand, and the catcalling construction worker, pounding away at the pavement with his ineffectual jackhammer, was a sexual harassment trope that everyone was ready to dismiss.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Tom, who took small handyman jobs around Putnam County while he went back to school to earn his teaching certificate (with a few feminist studies classes thrown in for good measure). He eventually became a football coach, a dream he had shared with his brother-in-law that would ultimately become a nightmare.

Tom began as a coach of his son’s pop warner football team. The big man back in Jersey seemed supportive of Tom II’s progress on the sidelines and Tom III’s development on the field; his own son was also showing some promise as well. But as the Toms began to display more and more gridiron prowess, the buttnut of a nephew was experiencing panic attacks in the huddle, and Tom Jr. started noticing some passive-aggressive comments from the mafia don.

“My brother has a bit of a jealous streak,” Barbara told me when I drove Big’s Batmobile up to Brewster for an interview. I had thought I just had to drive by Aidan’s rustic cabin and turn left instead of right at the sign for farm-fresh summer squash, but it turns out Brewster is nowhere near Suffern—they are on complete opposite sides of the Hudson. It’s like I don’t know upstate New York at all.

Barbara recalled her husband staring out over the darkened waters of the Tappan Zee on their way home from a family dinner. Her brother had needled Tom III about hitting the weight room, bragging that there was a time when he could bench press 300 pounds. “I may have placed us in a no-win situation,” Tom told Barbara.

But football had become a way of life for the Gigliones, and they couldn’t quit if they tried. By the time Tom Three, who everyone now called Tre (Italian for, you guessed it, three), made the all-state team, Tom Two had secured a job on the varsity coaching staff as an offensive coordinator.

A photo I found in the newspaper archives showed the two of them—Tom II and Tom III, father and son, player and coach—embracing on the field after a heartbreaking loss in the state championship. Both were covered in dirt, drenched in sweat, and openly sobbing. The photo was a perfect balance of masculinity and vulnerability, two warriors who came up short but left everything on the field.

I thought back to the time I dated an actual New York Yankee and acted like a whiny baby the whole time—maybe my relationship problems stem from my having horrible taste. I do tend to pick the wrong men, and I probably should have continued seeing the therapist who led me to that breakthrough.

“Then Seton Hall started recruiting Tre,” Barbara told me. “That was the beginning of the end.”

Her brother had been indignant that Tre look elsewhere to continue his education. “Those guys from Seton Hall are seven feet tall, some of them,” he had yelled during Sunday dinner with the family, pounding his fist on the table before leaving in a huff.

“I used to worship my big brother,” Barbara told me. “Christ, I went to Seton Hall because that’s where he went—for a semester and a half—but I guess all godfathers meddle in their sisters’ lives.”

“Like Connie Corleone’s husband in Part I,” I nodded. “They let that play out for years.”

“Tom disappeared during a college visit with Tre,” Barbara told me, stubbing out her cigarette. “Now I sit here, turning into my mother, shriveled up and bitter, ruining my children’s lives. I don’t even recognize myself. It’s like they hired someone else to play me.”

“You never go back to Jersey?” I asked with trepidation.

“I don’t even cross the Hudson,” Barbara croaked. “After his father disappeared, Tre was angry enough to go back to Newark and steal my mother’s car.”

“That green Dynamic 88 in the driveway?” I had dinged the car when I pulled up to the house and was just waiting for the right time to bring it up.

“My horrible sister tried to claim it as her own, but that family owes me,” Barbara said, lighting another cigarette. “Tommy took a lead pipe to the kneecap for his efforts. Got the car, but never played football again.”

“All this because Tre succeeded where your brother failed?”

“No, because my husband succeeded where my brother failed,” Barbara yelled. “My brother always wanted to be a football coach; he literally dreamed about it. It was the only honest work he ever wanted to do, but since he was incapable of honest work, he had to send my husband into the witness protection program.”

“Is that a euphemism?” I asked.

“Get out.”

As I left the Giglione house in a hurry, I had a thought: the senseless deaths were now hitting way too close to home. If people in the actual family were not safe from the mafia don’s wrath, maybe I should stop asking questions.

A long scrape of green paint now marred the front fender of Big’s Batmobile. The custom color was so outlandish that it evoked neither the Green Lantern nor the Green Hornet—both of whom, I now knew, were considered heroes. No, this green was pure villain, the most quintessential, sociopathic, and secretly adored villain of all time: the Joker.

I pointed the Batmobile toward Manhattan. Surely there would be no repercussions for my actions.