The Cry of the Water Wolf

by

07/06/2006

Bushwick, NY, NY 11237

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Williamsburg

Last July, a friend of mine called to tip me off about an upcoming water gun assassination tournament. I was swamped at work when he called, crimping duvets for a big Neiman Marcus order—but seconds later I was on the tournament’s website, reading the requirements for entry. By midnight I was in the back of a GMC Envoy, paying my entrance fee to a man in mirrored sunglasses. This was the founder of Street Wars, a large, menacing guy who apparently wanted his players to understand, from the start, that this tournament was not a children’s backyard affair.

He snatched the money out of my hand. Then he asked me for my phone number, my home and work addresses, my e-mail address, and two current photos—all of which another player would use to hunt me down like a predator. I’d come prepared with this information, but the notion of giving it to a man double parked in the Meatpacking District didn’t feel right. I gazed out the truck’s tinted window, evaluating my situation while a pack of whooping frat boys disappeared into Hogs and Heifers. Relishing the slim possibility that one of them might be in the tournament, I gave him everything I had.

As it turned out, my target was a sun-kissed, twenty-four-year old Hawaiian paralegal. K lived in a five-story walk-up in the east 30’s, and worked an evening shift in the Conde Nast building in Times Square. As far as I could tell from the Polaroids, her skin was as smooth as a sea stone. In one picture she wore a sun dress with frayed spaghetti straps; in the other a faded lacrosse uniform that hung over her like a sheet. In both her eyes seemed to well with hope.

The man told me I’d have to soak her by the end of the first week in order to advance. Then he said that if my assassin (whom I would not be given a photo of) nailed me, I’d have to surrender K’s information and forfeit the contest. We shook hands like old associates before I hopped out of the truck, onto a street that teemed with drunk people strutting like roosters from restaurants and bars.

For the first time since I’d moved to New York, I studied each of them.

*

I hadn’t done anything like this since my first attempt at college. About ten years ago, I fell for a girl in an early morning general requirement class called “The Experience of Music.” The little I knew about Barbara was that she looked like a cheetah, drank a case of Cherry Coke every week, and majored in Human Nutrition. “A fine major,” I muttered as I bent down below the kitchen sink, lugging out the White Pages to find out where she lived. Minutes later I was on the road.

I constantly assured myself that I wasn’t stalking her, even as I raced through a red light and slammed into a cab, which was stunningly more battered than my ’90 Tempo. The cabbie poked his head of out the window as if he were an ancient mud turtle looking for food. We exchanged personal information and clattered off on our respective journeys. I eventually made it to Barbara’s house, a tiny Chicago bungalow strangled with Christmas lights, but I never left my car. A week later our music teacher said we’d be taking a closer look at the songwriting in “Muppets Take Manhattan”, at which point Barbara grabbed her book bag and her soda can and walked out the door.

She never came back.

The e-mail I sent K mostly conveyed a hope that one day I’d get to see her, preferably while discharging a hard, pencil-thin stream of sink water onto her chest. She responded almost instantly, confessing that I’d made her laugh in her cubicle. She sounded almost desperate in her response, concluding her email with a plea for my spray. This was not the response I was shooting for. I’d tried to rattle her cage by invoking the voice of a stalker; instead she responded like someone who’d paid ten dollars to get stalked.

I, on the other hand, was trying to avoid my assassin at all costs. To get into work I’d sneak in through my building’s rarely used freight entrance. The freight elevator had been out of service for years, owing its disrepair to a pair of brawling bootleggers who inadvertently knocked the shoddy door back and plunged four stories through the shaft. Both men died on impact with the lift car. Firefighters used saber saws to deliver the bodies from the steel.

Nights I spent at my girlfriend’s apartment. I did this because no one affiliated with the tournament had her address. But after three days without so much as a phone call or an email, I wondered whether the extreme efforts I was taking to avert my assassin were even necessary.

“Why isn’t anyone trying to stalk me?” I asked my girlfriend.

“Sweetheart,” she said, slapping a nicotine patch on her thigh, “not everyone is going to be as into this thing as your desperate Hawaiian girl.”

*

It isn’t easy to keep a low profile in New York while trotting with a plastic bazooka the color of rainbow sherbet. Oftentimes I had no choice. Even though I tried to keep my gun wrapped in plastic in my book bag, it still leaked through the bag and soaked my books. This pretty much summarized the effect that Street Wars took on my life. I was getting up early, jogging backwards to the subway with my hand on the pump. I was dozing off at work and school after lengthy evening stakeouts. I took cabs during my lunch break to K’s Murray Hill apartment, hoping to catch her on her way to work. I even had friends from across the country call her around the clock, to warn her of impending rains. She flirted with one of them to the extent that he actually considered leaving both his wife and his Irish wolfhound to move to New York.

“Do you think she really likes me, or is she just playing games?” he asked during one of our late night strategy sessions.

Three straight nights I raced out of class to stake out K’s crummy building. As I inevitably tired, I’d dart into a nearby McDonald’s for coffee. By the knowing looks of the other skittish, coffee-sipping men in the fast food dive, I wondered if I’d stumbled into some kind of stalker headquarters. Were they playing in this tournament too? Or were they waiting people out the old fashioned, socially-unacceptable way—with their hands resting calmly on the napkins placed beneath their cups? Who were they waiting for? What were they waiting for?

I realized I blended in with this scene the moment I walked into the bathroom to splash some water on my face, because the man I glimpsed in the bathroom mirror looked like a stalker straight out of central casting: the dingy Mets cap, the erratic beard, the timeless sporty windbreaker with upturned collar… I looked like a maniac. And on Day Four of the tournament I walked out of that McDonald’s only to find K slithering out of a taxi and into her building before I could pump off a round.

I stared at her from the other side of the glass door. She winked at me and smiled, not looking nearly as wholesome in 3-D as she did in the photos, clomping up her building’s stairs while throwing her head back in a burst of giddy laughter.

The only things missing from this scene were the life lesson subtitles: you cannot wedge stalking into your life as if it were just another obligation. It’s not about you—it’s about them. If you are to have any success, you need to devote yourself to the truth that another human being is actually alive, that she can take herself away from the world as easily as she can plunge herself into it, independently of your plans, or the density of the corporate hedge plant you’ve been hiding behind for the past two hours.

I was furious, and instead of retreating back to my girlfriend’s apartment, I went back to my own place. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I wanted to breathe my own air. I had an eighteen-pound cat that I hadn’t fed in three days. I got to my place and managed to do all of these things. I turned off the lights and fell asleep. Moments later I received a pair of text messages, but since my phone’s ringer was set to silent (stalkers must remain silent at all times) I didn’t get to read them until it was too late. The first one said, “I see you just turned out your lights.”

The other one said, simply, “The Water Wolf.”

Early in the morning I jogged up to the roof, where I cased out the scene on the ground for any suspicious activity. I quickly spotted a man dressed in lavender tie-dye watering the sidewalk with a garden hose. This seemed rather peculiar, as I’d never seen anyone water anything in Bushwick. Convinced he was there to make a “bitch hit,” (an attempt on my tourney life with a modified civilian water device) I walked back across the roof and towards the stairwell, ready for an encounter. I walked straight into a blast of water. My assassin, a dead ringer for Kato Kaelin, howled triumphantly in the doorway, waggling a tiny pink pistol in the air.

It was eight in the morning.

He was wearing a black t-shirt that said “Israel.”

I screamed, too, after the shock subsided, creating this sort of chilling, two-part harmony of yowling, exhausted men.

On the subway to Manhattan, he told me everything: how he spent almost the entire night on a lawn chair in my building’s elevator, waiting for me to emerge from my apartment for another day of work; how he drank from his gun as he grew thirsty in the night; and how his gun had leaked itself into his crotch as he slept, forming a conspicuous wet spot that hinted, if nothing else, that he was in the throes of something getting the best of him.

“Have you heard of Street Wars?” he asked my neighbors as they entered the elevator in the morning, attempting to explain the pistol in his hand and the wetness on his lap.

“I’m just waiting for someone,” he told them.

Apparently most of my neighbors simply ignored him as they got on the elevator. But the Water Wolf told me that not everyone did. There were a few people who got on and, taking in the scene, simply couldn’t hide the glimmer of recognition in their eyes; who smiled widely or laughed as they pressed down on the button that brought the shaft to the ground.

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