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A short short about mistakes by lakes.

 

Hockel knocked once, softly.  Louis knew it was him, but Louis didn’t get up.  He stared at the rain on the window.  It had been raining for eight days.  After six, Louis found that he could almost believe it was going to rain forever, a cold, greasy, stinking rain coming down on the city for all eternity. Cleveland would never get clean.

He folded his hands on the unfinished wooden table, felt Hockel waiting silently on the other side of the door.  It was late afternoon on a Tuesday and, in the waning light, the rusted tube-chimney on the opposite building’s roof looked warped and blurry through the wet windowpane.  Louis had been staring at it for—he wasn’t actually paying attention to how long.

Hockel knocked again.  He’d keep knocking until Louis answered.  Hockel was as predictable as the rain.  Louis stood and quietly moved down the short hallway that connected the room that served as a living room, cotroom, and kitchen to the closet bathroom and the front door with five deadbolts and three sliding latches.

“What.”  Louis spoke softly, his left hand hovering over the dented copper knob.

“Louis?  That you?”

“Who else would it be?”

Hockel lived two doors down.  And, in the year Louis had rented the tiny concrete-box studio on Euclid Avenue, Louis hadn’t said a cheerful sentence to anyone other than Gina. 

Now Gina was gone.  But, unlike everyone else in the building, Hockel couldn’t take a hint.  He regularly appeared at the door with that soft, insinuating knock of his.  Eventually something horrible was bound to happen to Hockel, given his lack of sensitivity.  Then Louis would be free.

“Can I come in?”

Louis shut his eyes and took a breath.  “What was it you wanted?”

“Open up.”  The knob jiggled.  “It’s dark out here.”

The light in the hall outside had been broken for weeks.  One had to walk down from the elevator in complete darkness and know where the right door was.  But it wasn’t difficult.  Louis had gotten used to it.  He opened the door a few inches. 

“You mean to say you can’t find your door?”

Hockel pushed in, turning around the edge of the door like a gust of wind.  “Of course not.  I’m not an idiot.”  He sat in the other chair at the little wooden table beneath the window.  “I just don’t like waiting out there in total darkness for someone to answer their door. You know there’s roaches in this building, right?”

Louis sat back down and sighed.  “I’ve never seen any.” 

“You wouldn’t.”

At 34, Louis was short, wiry, already balding with a narrow face and a delicate pointed chin.   Hockel was five years older and at least 20 pounds heavier.  Everything about Hockel seemed swollen, from hands to lips, his shock of jet more like a mane.  He was just starting to go gray and his hair stood up in places though he always tried to slick it back.

“I’ll have a coffee.  Black is fine.”

Louis looked at him.  “You came over to order me to make you a coffee?”

“When you hear what I have to say, you’re gonna want to, I don’t know, pass out or scream or something.  Before that, let’s have a cup, alright?”  Hockel thought for a moment, then grinned, which involved his entire face, making his eyes open wide and his forehead wrinkle.

“It’s about Gina, isn’t it?”

Hockel shrugged and pursed his lips, resting his chin on his hands.  “Only one way to find out, eh?”

Gina.  What could be said about her that hadn’t already be said already, over and over, from Louis to Hockel, from Hockel to Louis, from Lewis to Gina’s voicemail, from Gina’s voicemail back to Louis as he replayed her outgoing message in the middle of the night?  If Hockel had something more to tell, it might mean that she had come back from Lithuania.  Should Louis let himself hope that somewhere in the frozen dark of Vilnius, in the decrepit condominium Gina inherited from a grandmother she’d never known, her affection for him had somehow returned?

He got up, went to the sink, and started to fill the kettle—as much to hide the anxiety at the corners of his mouth as to make coffee. 

“Come on, man.  Did you really think I’d hold out on you if I knew something?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Louis murmured. He lit one of the gas burners with a wooden match.  The ring of blue flames wooshed into being and gripped the bottom edge of the kettle like little blue hands.

“What?”  Hockel was still half-smiling when Louis sat down again.

“Nothing.”

A few moments passed in which neither of them said anything.  The rain clattered against the window.  The cheap aluminum kettle began to wobble and hiss.  Maybe it was the way Louis stared at nothing or the lack of conversation, but after a few minutes, Hockel started to drum his fingers loudly on the table.

“This rain.  It’s crazy, yeah?  How do you sit in here all day with that racket going on?”

“I don’t sit here all day.  I have a job.”

Hockel nodded slowly.  “Oh, right.” 

The kettle began to shriek.  Louis got up slowly and turned off the burner but leaned against the stove, listening to the kettle’s long wail die off.  He dumped a spoon of instant into a cracked yellow mug and poured the hot water.  Then he set it down hard on the table before Hockel, the swirl of undissolved grounds twisting on the surface.

“Instant.”  Hockel sighed.  “My stomach will never get used to it.”

Louis sat back down and folded his hands again.  “So talk.”

Hockel took a long sip then licked his lips, smiling down into the cup.  “Still, you do buy the good stuff, Louis.  I’ll give you that.”

“Gina.  If you’ve got something to say about her, say it.  Or am I going to have to wait for you to finish the whole damn cup?”

Hockel paused, the cup halfway to his mouth, and nodded solemnly.  “You know, I get it, Louis.  I know what it feels like to be put under the bus by a woman.  By many women.  All kinds of women.”  He took another sip, shook his head.  “Damn.  It gets better with every sip.  I have to get some of this shit.  What’s the brand?”

“Lucky Instant.”

He set the cup down and grinned again.  “No way.  You’re definitely messing with me now.  This is the good shit.  I know you wouldn’t make me a cheap cup of coffee on me.  You’re too classy for that, my friend.”

Louis looked out at the rusted chimney.  It stood all by itself at the edge of the opposite roof, condemned to be assaulted by all the rain and snow of Cleveland’s unforgiving winters until the day the wrecking ball took it down.

“Remember how Gina used to come over to my place and bum cigarettes off me?”

“Yeah.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“What’s so amazing about that?  She was your neighbor.”

“She was your neighbor, too.  But you don’t smoke.  That was something she had in common with me.”

“Guess it was.”

“Yeah.  Guess so.”  Hockel tipped back the cup, then set it down and pushed it towards Louis with one finger.  “I appreciate the coffee.  Generous of you.”

Louis looked at him, then back out at the rain.  “I think you better get going, Hockel.  You know the way.”

Hockel stood, grinning again.  Louis looked at Hockel’s brown short-sleeved shirt with a lighter square where the front pocket used to be, his frayed gray pants, his bare feet in rubber sandals.

“Okay,” Hockel looked down at him.  “If that’s how you wanna play it.  That’s cool.”

When Hockel got to the door, he turned back and wagged his finger at Louis as if the latter was a misbehaving child.  In that moment, in the Louis’ peripheral vision before he turned his head to look, Hockel gave the impression of a large grinning bear.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Hockel said.  “Something my mother told me on the day I got let go from the plant.  You know, I got caught up in some stupid shit out there.  And, when I came home, all pissed-off and full of bitterness, she said some broom factory bullshit is not why you failed, son.  Cleveland’s why.  Cleveland is why you fail.”  He nodded to himself, then smiled again with his whole face.  “She goes, you get out of here and you’ll do just fine.”

Hockel fished a bent cigarette out of his pants pocket and put it in the corner of his mouth.  “She wanted me to join the Navy.”  He laughed and shut the door behind him.

Louis looked down at his hands still folded on the table.  He thought of the four dates he’d had with Gina and imagined her buying a plane ticket to Vilnius, dropping her good-bye letter to him in the airport mailbox.  The letter didn’t say much—goodbye, was nice living next door to you, you’re a decent guy, sorry things can’t work out but a condo is a condo. 

Louis went to the sink and washed out the mug he’d given to Hockel.  The kettle was still hot.  Its curl of steam still twisted up from the spout.  He spooned some instant into the cup and went to pour the water but hesitated and poured it onto his left hand instead—white hot pain so intense he dropped the mug and kettle in the sink. 

Louis collapsed where he stood, back against the sink cabinet, burned hand between his thighs.  But he didn’t make a sound.  Instead, he looked up at the window.  Rain was still pelting the glass.  The rusted chimney was a faint silhouette in the glare of the drugstore across the street. 

A story about pain.

 

When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath.  He looked drunk.

“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?”  His way of saying welcome back.  I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow.  He was parked five blocks north.  We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.

I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego.  And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year.  Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins.  We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses.  We used to come to the Old Sod a lot.  And here we were as if I’d never left.  In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed.  Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar.  The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.

“I thought you quit drinking.”  Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils. 

“How’re things?” I asked.  “What’s new?”

Jim sighed.  “Look at this.”  He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us.  The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.

“Careful,” he said.  “It’s got a bullet in there.”

“What do you need this for?”

Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette.  “You’re back in Montana, Davis.  Didn’t you notice?”

“These things kill people.”

“So do these things.”  Jim held up his cigarette.  “And this thing.”  He stood and grabbed his balls.

There weren’t many people in there.  Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers.  The jukebox had Broken on it.  There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered.  Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table.  They talked.  He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it.  Then he came back and sat down. 

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last.  Then we staggered out into the snow.  It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.

He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac.  Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb.  I laughed and slipped on the ice.  Everything was funny.

“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.

“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too.  I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.

 

In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life. 

A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid.  The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana.  I believed him. 

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out.  A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence.  I was not proud of this.  Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged.  But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.

In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree.  I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego.  I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out. 

So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed.  I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a eighty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait.  My parents wouldn’t ask questions.  Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever. 

I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done.  I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with.  My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing.  I would write to them from Missoula.  Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.

It was October.  At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact.  Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind.  But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else.  I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate.  I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone.  It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day.  And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams. 

When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat.  Money never meant much to me.  I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did.  Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good.  And I never saw the point of fashion.  It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life. 

But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style.  He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness.  Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends.  In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program.  He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else.  And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk. 

As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it.  I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet.  In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles.  My body was stiff.  I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.

I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe.  Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV. 

I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor.  So I didn’t say anything.  I sat there quietly and looked at them.  Jim was staring at the widescreen.  The blonde was staring at me.

“It’s a breast,” she said.  “Want to see the other one?”

“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.

“Fuck off,” sighed the girl.  She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag.  “You look like a sick rat.”

“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.”  The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.

There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table.  Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember.  The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch. 

“He’s breaking up with me, you know.  He broke up with me yesterday.  I’m moving out.”  She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.

Jim changed the channel.  “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Mike.  I could have gotten us both killed.  It’s stupid to drink and drive.” 

“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything.  He’s not your friend.”

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”

“I fucking hate you.”  She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.

Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”

I shook my head.  I didn’t know what you could do.  First I was a drunk.  Then I was sober.  Now I was a drunk again.  The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me.  I could feel it.  It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.  I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket.  I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom.  The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves.  For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. 

Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.  I stopped before entering the living room.  Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch.  Her cheeks were full of tears.  She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him.  He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest.  One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing.  I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.

This was two and a half months before the millennium. 

Jim went to school to teach a class.  With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve.  I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues.  So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts.  All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go.  She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly.  Maybe she was looking through me.  There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.

“Christ,” she said.  “I’m getting so thin.  It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.”  Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her.  Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right.  Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.

“You look fine.”

“Look at my hands.  I’m a skeleton.  You can see the bones coming through.”

“What are you worried about?  You’re beautiful.  You got everything going for you.”  I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on.  I lit it for her and sat back down.

“What am I worried about?”  Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us.  “Wow.  Yeah.  Wonderful.  That’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, listening to her breathing.  I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen.  I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me.  So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour.  Just one.  Just for steadiness.  Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.

“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous.  Why don’t you have a drink.”

She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another.  But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass.  I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.

“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink.  “You might want to leave.”

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?” 

I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her.  She was shaking.

“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest.  I held her tight and sipped my drink.

After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems.  You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down.  I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink.  The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.

I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with.  Then I began to pace.  I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on.  After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything.  I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.

“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door.  “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”

He was right.  I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.

“Your girl.  I think she od’d.”

He went over and looked down at her.  “She’ll live.  She say she was going to kill herself?”

I nodded and the room tilted.  I steadied myself against the bar. 

“Happens all the time.”  Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch.  We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street. 

I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.

“Yugawara.  I can’t see him.  I’m not up to it.”

“You’re a mess,” said Jim.  “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles.  Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster.  Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world.  Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.

“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge.  People stick things in his body for money.”

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”

“What about her?”  Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.

“Forget her.  She’s stoned.”

The road was covered in ice.  It made a sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.

By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet.  Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it.  I couldn’t see why we’d brought her.  But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round.  But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice.  I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey.  Jim held the opened one to his chest.

We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn.  Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture.  The pasture was covered in snow.  A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows.  An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar.  The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse.  In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator.  His hair was shaved down a centimeter from his head and his face showed no emotion.  He sat completely straight in his chair.

A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking.  A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger.  A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck.  And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35.  A few others.  Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.

“Look at this.  Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans.  Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle.  The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women.  I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.

The old woman from behind the bar walked up.  “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”

I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip.  Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around.  Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks.  He don’t drink.”  The kid didn’t do anything but blink.  He was completely still.

After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood.  “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”

Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.

“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.

The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See?  He don’t feel nothing.”  He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed.  The skin was pale and curiously unscarred.  Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen?  He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant.  Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins. 

In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms.  I thought of them and wished I was there.  California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.

When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs.  The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.

“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”

“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.

Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was.  She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October.  When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.

Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.

The bearded man stood.  “Okay, that’s good.  We’re all done now.”

“Wait a second,” said Jim.  “What about that knife?”

“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife.  If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.”  He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple.  The kid hardly bled at all.  Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete.  But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.

Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets.  He gripped the wheel with both hands.  The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up.  We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed.  He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object.  But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile. 

Later, we’d drink until we both wept.  Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar.  He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both.  The next day, he’d lend me another suit.  I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a vision problem.  And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow.  I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back. 

“What’s going on?  Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.

“Don’t you worry,” said Jim.  “We’ve got you.  Nothing’s gonna happen.”

A short story about voicemail, voyeurism, and stupidity.

Sea-Tac at high noon is a cold saucepan, everyone sitting in it and the burners waiting.  The occasional flash-boom of a jet outside.  Blue-white daylight through ceiling-high windows.  Static crackle of dust remover on plastic.  The burnished coffee stand curdling the air around it with sour French Roast.  Far away, someone shouts into a phone.  It’s always like this. 

Waiting for the next thing in the Seattle airport is like waiting for the saucepan to cook.  Major airport, major risk: one moment, cold metal emptiness; the next, shitfire and everybody burns.  Terror.  Screaming.  Bullets.  Anything could happen at any time.  Jim Fowler sat up in the black plastic seat and thought this as calmly and easily as he thought of anything, whether he should take a flight sedative, for instance, or whether to call his voicemail before boarding.

Today, Jim was wearing a coal-gray three-button DKNY, one of his traveling suits—really decent, actually, but not impressive.  The impressive suits, the ones he’d bought through a consultant, were too good to wear on the plane.  The two Jim had taken to Seattle were wrapped in plastic inside a reinforced Kevlar valise that could withstand a three-hundred-pound anvil dropped on it.  Jim knew this because he’d gone to the corporate demonstration where they’d dropped the anvil. 

So far, he’d noticed two other men in the airport wearing his same coal-gray suit, but that wasn’t why he was sitting in a desolate part of Sea-Tac, staring out a wall of windows.  Jim was three hours early for his flight and no one else had arrived at the gate.

He opened his cell and speed-dialed: his voice, There is no one here to receive your call, in sterile monotone.  Had he taken something before recording the outgoing message?  It was possible.  Something to make him sleep.  And then the permanently programmed machine girl sounding more human than Jim: You have . . . zero . . . messages.  He loved her voice: frowsy, smart, with just a touch of humor.  You have . . . zero . . . messages, as if it were a personal compliment.  They knew something over at that cell phone factory.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Maybe there was no girl like this on any other voicemail in the known world.

Girls.  The trouble with girls.  He never knew what to say.  They made him nervous, shaky.  Always judging, picking out his mistakes, noting the every hard swallow, every flat joke—always on record.  Jim kept his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact: they’d see him again somewhere, sometime—and they’d know: he was the creepy one, the one with that look.  The windows rattled as a 757 shot down a runway.

That morning, Jim had woken up at 5:00, as always, unable to go back to sleep, and soon got bored with the Weather Channel loop from the edge of his hotel bed.  So he called a cab and wound up watching the sky over Seattle lighten from the inside of Sea-Tac. 

Jim had wandered for a while, glancing in the tourist stores and the lousy restaurants, at the determined expressions of people already in a hurry.  And he’d stopped to look up at a 15-foot steel sculpture of a praying mantis that had been temporarily installed by his gate.  It was burnished just like the coffee stand, the railings, the oblong strips of metal that had replaced whatever bland paintings used to line the jetways. 

Beside him, a little girl with rings around her eyes and a dirty-looking teddy bear stared up at the mantis as if it might suddenly bound off its circular metal platform.  Its front legs were pressed together in the classic mantis pose, sharp spines sticking out sideways from its body—hundreds of tiny daggers waiting for someone running late to trip and fall over the red velvet stanchion-ropes.

“What is it?” the girl asked, pointing at the mantis.

Jim squatted down beside her and looked up.  “That’s a sculpture.  Somebody made that and put it in here so we can look at it.”

“Did God make it?”

From the girl’s vantage point, the mantis seemed twice as big.  It’s blank stare passed through him and Jim imagined it springing to life, its steel claws ripping him in half.

“Yes,” he said.  “How did you know?”

“No,” said her mother, putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders from behind and staring down at him.  “It’s a bug, honey.  Just some bug.”

Jim stood and watched them go to a far gate.  He’d seen the mother in the leper smoking room, where the glassed-off air looked pale gray and so did the people sucking down their morning tobacco.  She had frosted hair, gold rings, and a faint desperation in how she’d crossed her arms and concentrated on her cigarette.  They’d made eye-contact as Jim passed by the room. 

She was pretty in a removed, angry sort of way, and he’d gotten ideas.  What were the chances of them being on the same flight, in the same row, sitting together?  He’d let the possibilities play out for a few moments, then forgot all about her.  And this is what it came to: Jim transformed to an insect, squashed under a forty-dollar pump.  How often could this sort of thing happen to one person?

Now, in the empty block of seats facing the windows, Jim didn’t have to speak to anyone.  If he stayed medicated for the flight, he’d be able to avoid any further human nastiness.  Of course, he didn’t always try to avoid people.  His real reason for coming to Seattle was to meet someone.  But, as usual, things didn’t work out that way.  The National Convention of Law Librarians had been something. 

Frenzy: everyone single paired-up immediately, then everyone married-but-open-minded, and then anyone else who got a randy thought toward the end of “Comparative Search Diagnostics” or “Alternate Systems of Citing Primary Authority.”  Unfortunately, there were a small number of people who always missed out on the librarian bacchanalia.  Jim had now been in this group two years in a row.

Bored, he watched a fuel truck creep like an orange beetle through tarmac heat wobbles.  The truck didn’t look like it was moving very fast but, if he aligned a wingtip in the foreground with a distant pole out on the airfield, he could measure the fuel truck’s progress.  Jim did that for a while, imagining how it would be if the truck suddenly exploded, how it would look from his position—the flames curling up around the tank in wreathes or maybe shooting around the truck in all directions, hanging in the air for a heartbeat, like a fiery octopus.

By expecting the worst, you’re prepared.  Lose all hope, lose all fear.  Jim wouldn’t mind losing fear.  He was turning thirty-five next month, had no family left, and the college girlfriend who had once come close to marrying him was now an interior decorator in Singapore and no longer returned his calls.  His hair was gray above the ears, which seemed to have already put him in the geriatric crowd.  When he looked at girls in their early twenties—long hair, midriff, belly button ring, little tattoo over delicate ankle—he saw worlds forever closed to him.  After thirty, he no longer showed up on their radar.  Or, if they had to deal with him, it was the thank-you-excuse-me, the pasty smile, the consolation laugh right before they escaped to the other side of the room.

But what to do.  Back home in Irvine, Jim tried to face it.  Mind over matter: he answered personal ads and went on nightmarish exploratory dates.  The single mother who left the pictures of her ex-husband face-up on the restaurant’s table like a challenge and spoke earnestly to him about becoming a lesbian.  A bird-thin waitress with strands of colored string braided into her hair who cried at Neruda’s love poems and had dreams about the devil.  A middle-aged professor of economics who said she’d never orgasmed and wanted to know what he thought about pissing. 

“Pissing?” he asked.

“It can be a lot sexier than you’d think,” she said.

In the end, they all seemed as disappointed with him as he was with them.  And now Jim had just wasted all three convention nights in his hotel room and voicemail was still his best friend.

Behind him, the girl had wandered back to the praying mantis, seemed fascinated with it, staring up into its metal face like it was about to tell her something.  Jim felt the urge to walk over and talk to her again, but he didn’t want a second encounter with the mother.  The girl was right at the edge of the red velvet ropes and was reaching out tentatively toward one of the mantis’s folded-down claws. 

Jim turned back toward the wall of windows.  It wasn’t his business if she cut herself.  When he looked again, she’d slipped under the ropes and was standing directly under the claws, looking up.  The sharp leg-spines pointed all around her, only an inch on either side of her face. 

Jim turned and vowed not to look anymore, staring at the fuel truck, now an orange speck in the distance.  He was sure that soon the screaming would start.  He fished a sedative out of the plastic pill case he always kept in his vest pocket and swallowed it dry.  His hands were shaking slightly so he crossed his arms and closed his eyes.  It would take a moment for the pill to kick in.

***

Irvine.  Yuppietopia of southern California.  Yet, there was something about it, thought Jim, something to love.  The palm trees were bio-engineered.  The streets were angled for maximum runoff.  There would never be a major septic horror.  There were no alligators in the sewers.  Or, if there were alligators, they were ecologically appropriate.  Maybe there were no sewers.  In Irvine, the sun was sunnier.  The kids were kiddier.  Birds cartwheeled through height-zoned eucalypti. 

Whatever wasn’t working was cavorting and every car came internet-ready.  Jim looked down from the 22nd floor and listened to the absolute silence of Gould, Dien, and Strunkmeyer’s law library, his library.  Mirrored office towers flashed in the new light and Newport Beach glittered in the distance, blue like a perfect sky.

Today, he was wearing a rust cardigan-slacks combo with pale cream button-down and burgundy Ungaro tie.  On the fashion e-calendar provided by his consultant, this ensemble was dedicated to putting a spin in June’s gloom with the earthy tones of fall.  Theoretically, one was supposed to stay just ahead of the season: when everybody was still wearing grays, you crept into the browns.  At this time, said the calendar, accessories with polka-dots are recommended.  Recommended but not required, thought Jim.  That was key.  Not everybody could get away with polka-dots.

Dark thoughts on this Monday morning: where was Scafandra, his assistant?  He got to work at 7:00; he expected her at 7:30.  Lateness was the devil, the root of all vice.  Jim was never late.  Even this morning: mesmerized by the Weather Channel again for a whole hour, then the sudden shock of lost time, the pressured zip down the 73 from his condo, Prussian blue Acura revving 80, barely making it, iced coffee through a straw, email on car-screen, no messages, no messages.  It was too soon to start calling his voicemail.  But now, sitting at his desk in the library, he felt like he’d left something back in Seattle.  His watch read 7:34.

The library’s holdings were extensive—as good as any public law library, in some respects better—and when Jim ascended from assistant to head librarian, he redesigned the floor plan: Federal Cases to the north, California Appellate Reports to the south, taxation, intellectual property, Uniform Commercial Code to the east, transactions, forms and business practices around the big window in the west. 

GDS rented a storage annex in the basement as big as a supermarket for everything else.  And in the center of the library: his oak desk on a raised dais flanked by both editions of the Annotated California Code.  If the lawyers needed to know the law of the land, they had to approach—supplicants at Jim’s altar, where a fat brass desk lamp made him glow like Moses fresh off the mountain. 

Then Scafandra came in through the library’s oak double-doors, her eyes already shrink-wrapped in tears, and Jim knew it would be like this.  He could have predicted it.  Forecasting Scafandra’s tears on a day she was late was about as hard as guessing rain after a week of darkness.

“You have no idea what I’ve gone through this morning.  It’s . . . I can’t even talk about it.”  She was a thin woman with delicate pale features and auburn hair, the sleeves of her mustard knit sweater rolled up into gigantic cuffs.  Her sweaters were psychic shields—always massive, always making her seem like she was dissolving into them, in need of assistance.

“Oh?” 

Scafandra Theory 101: any reaction at all will feed standard traumatic breakdown.  Any little cooing sounds that would normally mean sympathy and commiseration will cause one to be immediately sucked into 30-minute-long lateness-justifying vortex of pain.

“I was read-ended.  Rear-ended.  I don’t know what I’m gonna do.  I love that car.  That car is my life.”

“Oh?”

“My god.  What is this world coming to?  It’s just . . . life is just . . . sometimes, it’s too much.  Sometimes, I think I could, you know . . .”

“Rear-ended you say?”

Her cheeks were wet with tears.  Scafandra had skills, but there it was, the split-second glance, scanning Jim’s expression to see if she was making progress.

“Weren’t you listening?  It’s alright.  I don’t expect you to understand.  No one ever does.”

“You’re right,” said Jim.  “Some things are more important than being on time.”

Scafandra nodded, daubing her eyes with Kleenex from her purse.

He watched her go to her desk in the glass cubicle near the east wall, where the architects had originally meant the head librarian’s desk to be.  Jim knew that by lunch she’d be chipper again, tapping out messages to internet chat friends and humming to herself.  When he could see her sitting at her computer in the little glassed-off space, he unlocked a drawer and took out a sheet of GDS letterhead.  Below a long list of excuses, Jim made another entry complete with date, time, what she’d said, and how he’d responded. 

When he got to the bottom of the page (one more excuse to go—he hoped it would be good—lightning setting her dog on fire, all four tires blowing out spontaneously, abduction, smoking fissure opening beneath her straight to Hades) Jim would type a memo, circulate it to the partners of the firm, and that would be the end of Scafandra.  Until then, Jim would wait, serene, detached: 22nd floor law library bodhisattva.  Nothing bothered him.  Kung Fu.  The e-calendar’s icon, a radiant sun, smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen.

It was strange the way he felt about Seattle.  Unpacking, he’d gone over everything.  All his bags had arrived, plastic-wrapped shirts layered and locked into place.  Nothing heavier than an anvil had been dropped on his valise.  Nothing lighter than socks came out.  No surprises.  No unsolved mysteries.  And yet, driving through Newport, Jim felt dreamy, detached, felt a nagging something in the back of his mind.  He called his voicemail.  You have . . . zero . . . messages

No emergency phone calls from the hotel or Sea-Tac about lost credit cards.  So . . . what?  Jim didn’t know.  But there was something going on here.  Something bothering him.  He called his voicemail again, as if the solution might have been in the beautiful scrollwork of her voice.  First, his own: There is no one here to receive your call.  The more Jim listened to it, the more it seemed like he had taken a sedative before recording the outgoing message.

Newport Center Drive was wide and full of BMWs.  Being on it was like docking at the galactic spaceport—everything huge, slowly pulling you in.  To the right, huge white office buildings like great latticeworks of bone with mirrors in the sockets.  To the left, a shopping center bigger than a city: Relax, we have you in a tractor beam.  The streets were full but traffic circulated with a low pulse.  People instinctively knew when it was their turn to glide.  They didn’t have to check.  At the light, a pigeon-haired man in a 745i gazed absently into his AC blast.  His face looked creamy tan like his leather interior.  He glanced at Jim, then shot ahead. 

Jim parked and walked into the mall—past the Towne Bistro that had waiters with white dinner jackets and its own domesticated tiger, past the koi pond, past the Venetian fountain with marble cherubs climbing over each other in a gigantic heap, the topmost one spitting up at a non-offensive slant, past the store that only sold toys guaranteed to raise a child’s IQ by a minimum of fifteen points.  It was Consumer Never-Never Land: Peter Pan, all grown up, buys a cell phone and a Bimmer, spends his time in boutiques with names like Anthropologie and Un Petit Cadeux

Jim didn’t mind the ambiance, always a faint tinkling in the air, a freshness, trellises of red Bougainvillea and tiny ornamental catwalks that only a cat could walk on.  But there were no cats, no birds, nothing that might offend.  Even the kids were well-behaved.  Something in the atmosphere weighed them down, made them walk dutifully, quietly beside their parents.  A group of them stood around the koi pond in silence, watching the thick golden fish swoop furiously back and forth without making the slightest ripple.

The shopping center was called Fashion Island, and it had one really great quality, one thing that made it different and better than most of the hulking malls of the world: Dream Houses.  Jim spent a hundred dollars there every time he visited.  Dream Houses was nestled on the other side of the rose atelier between Middle America and Anja’s Day Spa

He stopped at Middle America’s floor-to-ceiling window.  Inside, a fat, red-faced man in shirtsleeves was all smiles as he drove a pair of oxen across a plot of land.  Off to the side, his wife and son cheered.  He’d stop to wave and get his picture taken or have the attendant put new bandages on his hands—already bleeding from the wooden plow handles.  He loved it.  Off to the side, the manager, looking like she’d just stepped out of Anja’s in black Von Furstenberg chiffon, her hair at a wicked slant, sipped a cup of coffee and stared into infinity. 

People paid to help cultivate the land then got a gift basket later in the year full of the beets or turnips or kohlrabi they’d helped produce.  You could hear them happily going on about their crop in the Towne Bistro over a light wine and spanakopita, fresh white gauze across their hands.

But Dream Houses was different.  Ultimately, it was about people, about real life and its challenges.  Deep down, Jim liked to think of himself as a people person, and Dream Houses was where he interfaced with humanity.  This was the human condition.  And, for the price of a gold-plated sink faucet or a pair of high-toned brass knobs, it came dirt cheap. 

An extremely thin girl with burgundy hair sat at the DH front desk.  Her name was Leda.  In the year and a half he’d been a customer, Leda had never said more than two words to Jim, but those two words were enough.

“How long?”

“An hour would be good,” said Jim.

She smiled as if that was just right and gave a little Asian nod, even though she wasn’t Asian, tapping something into a computer that was part of the flat surface of her desk.   It looked like she was practicing scales, her purple-black nails ticking.

Jim walked past the desk and sat down on a twisted Sköna Hem sofa with green and white stripes.  This week was part of the Hide-a-Way Den series and the furnishings had a lush sink-into-me feeling, despite the pastel motif.  There were two sofas, a pale blue Italian divan, and a Yamakawa end-table engineered to slowly change its elevation as the wood aged.  Somehow, the designers had managed to sink the floor two steps down, and Jim wondered whether they’d built a whole new temporary level above the old one or simply exposed the original floor.  He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles. 

It started as a small home furnishings outlet with a different set interior every month.  But it grew into something more.  Now time inside was billed and there was a new interior every week.  One was expected to buy something, but that’s not why you came to Dream Houses

It was, quite simply, the best way to meet people.  Voyeurs and the occasional tourist excepted, DH had its regulars—people who appreciated style.  And the designers were gods.  Most of Dream Houses Online was dedicated to the twists and turns of their dramatic lives in exotic cities—Casablanca, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, St. Croix—one was cheating on his wife with a Finnish model; one might have been gay or a woman or a gay woman (10 gigs of posted speculation said the photos were fake); one had a club of Japanese schoolgirls dedicated to group suicide if he ever stopped cheating. 

Actors showed up at Dream Houses.  Rock stars got photographed in the secret exclusive DH franchise that operated by invitation only.  It wasn’t just a showroom, it was a way of life.  And, for one or two hours, you could become witty and graceful on your molded Italian chaise lounge; you could flirt provocatively over Ting dragon-cisterns filled with white roses and come away with a handsome mother-of-pearl sconce or an authentic Karastan throw as a memento.  The idea was to bring a little bit of it home with you every time.  Someday you’d reach perfection.

Jim knew he was far from perfect, but he also knew that the blonde on the other sofa was named Tiffany.  At least that was the name she used in Dream Houses. And, every week, they bridged the gap to perfection together.  Always, at their time, she’d be waiting—long straight hair, blue eyes, some cream Atsuko Kudo polymer shift that revealed just enough as it clung to her curves.  Was she married?  Did it matter?  Contact wasn’t allowed.  DH had its rules: no touching, no smoking, and no food—nothing that would jeopardize the merchandise.  It was that simple, and it was never a problem.

“You’re late,” said Tiffany.

“No.  You know that’s not true.”

“I’ve been waiting here forever.”  Her smile became a pout.  She tilted her head to smell roses in an onyx vase beside her without looking away.  “Where have you been?”

“Around,” said Jim.  “Why does it have to matter?”

“You know it matters.  It matters to me.”

“I’ve been at work.  Where else would I be?”  He folded his hands in his lap and looked down the long interior.  Beyond a silk partition of cranes in flight, a different couple was having a conversation, voices only murmurs in the stillness.

Tiffany and he had carried on this romance for nearly a year, and she was incredibly talented at keeping him interested.  One week, she’d be jealous, the next, bubbly and vivacious, the next, depressed.  The situation encouraged this behavior.  Relationships in Dream Houses depended on talking, on never letting things rest, never letting the conversation get predictable.  Boredom was a constant threat and mood swings, unlike in the outside world, were an asset here.  Tiffany was brilliant.  Sometimes Jim admired her ability so much he thought he actually was in love with her.

“Did you get my email?” 

Sometimes they sent each other email as a way to keep things going.  It was a good way to stay consistent or to let each other know of a time conflict.  But in her last message, Tiffany had very tentatively asked him out, said there was a mime who did the Rodney King beating to Japanese Butoh music.  He was exclusive.  She had tickets.  Did Jim want to go?  Et cetera.  She’d been off-hand, embedding it in a long discussion of DH’s bleached llama carpets and whether they were treating the llamas right. 

Jim was getting vaguely interested in the issue—whether Dream Houses ran clandestine llama farms, exporting glue and steaks to South America when the animals stopped putting out quality fiber—until she popped the question.  It sickened him.  Tiffany was willing to throw it all away, to violate the purity of what they had.  And for what?  Dinner and the usual?  She was missing the whole point.  He wrote her a long response, saying as much, then re-wrote it, then deleted it.  All he had to do was not respond, right?  He’d stay quiet, and things would continue.  Right?

“No,” he said.  “I haven’t checked.”

“You’re distant.”

“I am the way I’ve always been.  I don’t change.  I’m like the ocean, always there.”

“Like the distance, you mean.  Always over there.”

“Close your eyes.  You can sense me.”

“I’d rather feel you.”

“Don’t.”  He stared at the silk cranes.  The other couple’s conversation rose and fell like quiet tide.  Jim wished Tiffany and he could stop talking and just listen to it.  But she was changing.  Their situation was changing.  He tried to focus on a set of long black-dipped teak chimes that didn’t really chime, though they always looked about to.  And he knew that what had been good about Tiffany was drawing to an end.

“Well.”  She looked toward the lime-tinted storefront windows, where Leda was talking to what looked like three gigantic Swedes in jogging suits.  “I don’t know what I’m getting this time.”

“I’ve had my eye on that brass curtain-rod,” said Jim.

“I could say a lot . . . in response to that.”  Tiffany smirked—inappropriate on her porcelain features.  Women like her, thought Jim, should be cold and poised, removed, like high mountain snow that never melts.

And then, completely without warning, Tiffany did the unthinkable.  She sat down next to him and planted a wide warm kiss on the side of his neck.  It was a direct violation of the rules.  Jim froze.  They could both be permanently banned for something like this.

She had her arms around his neck and kissed him a second time before he thought to tell her to get back to the other sofa, that Leda might see them through the surveillance camera.

Leda was already standing there when he looked up.

“This has to stop,” Leda said, “right now.”

Tiffany sneered but let go of him and sat back.

“Wait.  It’s not what you think,” said Jim.

“I’m putting a violation in both of your accounts.  And I think your time is up.”  She stalked back to the front desk, her purple-black skirt swishing.

Jim sighed.  A violation meant no more discounts, no more updates, no more promotional offers or exclusive events.  Another violation and he’d be barred permanently, worldwide.

“I have to be somewhere,” he said and stood up.

Tiffany crossed one knee over the other and gave him a blank stare. 

Jim bought the brass curtain rod from Leda without looking at her.  He told himself he wouldn’t come back for a long, long time, but he knew that wasn’t true.  In the car, he started shaking, so he took a Hydrocodone from the plastic pill case in the glove-box.  One of the lawyers he worked with was a walking pharmacy and Jim helped bankroll his habit.  It was amazing how steady and calm he became with the help of synthetic opiates.

Voicemail told him he had zero messages; Jim stood in his darkened entryway and listened to the voice repeat a few times.  His apartment complex was shaped like a honeycomb—twelve-inch-thick cement walls, units angled so you didn’t have to look at anyone else.  Everyone had a balcony and could, in theory, see a shred of Newport Pacific; though, the apartments started on the fourth floor and went high enough that braving the balcony would have been a major undertaking for most of the retirees there. 

As far as Jim knew, he was the only resident under fifty.  His complex was always completely silent.  Everything was sound-proofed.  But tonight he couldn’t relax.  He kept thinking of Seattle.  What had he accomplished there?  He hadn’t met anyone—hadn’t even had the opportunity.  No one had paid any attention to him.  He’d passed through the convention like a heavily medicated ghost.

He went into the bedroom closet, took off his suede windbreaker, and hung it up.  It was half-past nine, almost time for bed.  Jim had let dinner drag out, sipping jasmine tea in Bao Voce—a new restaurant that served Vietnamese and Italian dishes together—and pretended to go over a research file from work, while eavesdropping on three drunk lawyers from Quill Collins, one of GDS’s rivals.  He hadn’t learned anything useful, but it helped pass the time.

He took off the rest of his clothes, folded them neatly, placing the stack in the sky-blue hamper at the back of the closet.  His apartment was completely dark except for the weak moonlight that glanced across the carpeting, making everything black or pale gray.  He never closed the drapes.  His unit was on the fifteenth floor.  Besides, the windows were an inch thick, didn’t open, and polarized automatically on sunny days.  He took down a shoebox from the closet’s top shelf and carried it out to the bed.

This wasn’t something Jim did every night, but he did it often enough that it had become like tacit punctuation at the end of a hard day.  He sat on the bed and took out a pair of Newcon NZT-22 hands-free night vision goggles.  They were SWAT issue from the 1980s: secured by a head strap, starlight technology, could be rotated up, away from one’s eyes along the canvass strap, which came down to Jim’s forehead and made his hair stick out to the sides like a cartoon scientist.  He clicked them on and the world turned bright green.  Jim looked strange in his bedroom mirror, naked and goggled with glowing green eyes, which, he knew, were being magnified by the starlight effect and were actually tiny points.

He’d bought them through a catalog years ago but hadn’t used them until he moved into this apartment.  Now he used them all the time because the old man who lived one unit down and two to the right was great entertainment at night.  Jim walked out onto his balcony.  It was warm, no wind.  Most of the other units were dark.  You could do anything on that balcony.  No one would see—commit murder, seal the body in the apartment; by the time anyone checked, it would be dust and teeth.

Jim had to stand at the very edge of the balcony and lean over in order to see into the old man’s unit, but it was a small price to pay for such good entertainment.  Jim didn’t know what the old man did during the day; no one ever saw anyone in the building coming or going. 

The dim hallways seemed to absorb all sound, and movement wasn’t easy—every floor required a numerical pass code, as did the elevator, the parking garage, the trash chutes.  Jim figured most of the residents simply stayed in their apartments, had their groceries delivered, kept their televisions turned up.  But the old man led a double life.  During the day, he did whatever he did, and at night he became a railroad magnate.

Without the night vision, Jim would still have been able to see the electric train moving through the hills and forests.  But he would have missed the important details: the small dog running beside the tracks while a boy called to it and waved his hands; the miner on a stretcher being carried out of an opening in a hill; a wooden bridge sagging and broken over the river; hobos hunched around a campfire behind the rock quarry. 

Above it all, the old man hovered in a tie and a pressed suit, keeping track of everything, wringing his hands, squinting through the gloom of his faintly lit apartment, talking to the train and then listening to it intently.  His entire living room had been turned into an electric set, and he noted all changes on a green chalkboard that was propped up at one end of the room—precipitation, supply and demand, date, time in fifteen-minute increments, profit, loss, employment, and “Projected Expenses for Next Fiscal Term.”

The train curved into other rooms where, Jim assumed, there were other wooden towns like the one in the corner of the living room—something like depression-era Kansas: old dirty buildings, drifters shuffling through the streets, shadowy train yards and tumbleweeds. 

The detail was astounding.  Jim was sure the ceiling of the living room was painted.  The walls were done as perfect three-dimensional extensions of the landscape, hills like the old man’s balding head sloped up from forests.  There were four bridges: two of wood, two of rusted iron.  And the river that ran beneath them went all over the landscape, widened where logs floated down toward the mill outside of town, and carried a boy on a small skiff.

The old man was deeply involved in the lives of his people.  He gestured dramatically to the hobos, gave advice to the boy on the skiff, moved the dog farther down the tracks and then consoled its owner as best he could.  He was the guardian spirit of the world he’d created.  The real entertainment wasn’t the train or the set.  It was the old man himself. 

When he’d turn the speed all the way up, the train would eventually derail, and he’d weep at the destruction—pine trees smashed, one of the drifters knocked to the other side of the mountain, the miner clattering down the slope with his stretcher-bearers.  The train would go over the half-broken wooden bridge and the old man would cover his mouth in worry.

Jim could watch him all night—how he held forth like Cato before the senate, making passionate speeches, gesturing, long unruly wisps of white at his temples and his fingers stained with chalk.  He’d been someone in his life, probably someone with a lot of responsibility, thought Jim.  And now he went through a full range of emotions every night. 

Buildings were destroyed and rebuilt the next day.  Hobos and drifters moved around the terrain, disappeared into other rooms, showed up days later at the edge of the trees or leaning against the wall of the train station.  Occasionally, the old man receded into the background so that, even with the night vision, Jim could only make out his silhouette, black-on-black, in the short hall that went to the other rooms.

And so it went: the old man in a pressed suit and the train circling through the rooms.  It did occur to Jim that he was equally ridiculous, perhaps more so, standing buck-naked on his balcony wearing night vision goggles.  But who cared?  A day in the life.  Jim only knew these things amused him.

This was a night when the old man wouldn’t stop the train to unload or link up new cars.  He just let it go and followed it around his apartment, drawing a hash mark in the corner of the chalkboard every time it made a complete circuit.  Jim wasn’t sure what the hash marks were supposed to accomplish, if they were building up to something or not. 

It didn’t matter.  The important thing was that the old man was there, doing what he loved, in deep conversation with the train.  Every so often, he’d gesture at it with an open hand, admonishing it, as if to say What did you expect?

Jim watched until he got his fill of smirking at the old man’s pained looks as he bent over the train and clasped his hands together, full of anxiety.  Jim leaned out over the balcony railing, enjoying every minute of it, the glowing green eyepoints of his goggles like tiny anonymous stars.

Of course, he was wearing a double-breasted Zegna with classic pleats today.  The e-calendar had laid it out in no uncertain terms: the moment is auspicious for Prada, Fendi, or Zegna as surely as Gladiolus blooms like the midday sun.  Jim was not completely sure what that meant, but his wardrobe Feng Shui was clear: Zegna in, everything else out.  The e-calendar’s radiant sun icon smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen: friendly guardian spirit.  The ancients lit incense at the feet of icons, Jim double-clicked them.  It made sense.

The real question was why Scafandra had suddenly been possessed by the Daemon of Work.  She’d already cite-checked and proofed a 40-page pleading that one of the lawyers had left in the to-do tray the night before, and it didn’t look like she was even going to break for lunch.  This was not normal Scafandra behavior. 

Jim unlocked his desk drawer and looked at his List of Scafandra’s Excuses.  Had she picked the desk’s lock and found it or had she just reformed?  This morning, for the first time ever, she’d come in before Jim.  There she was behind the glass partition, eyes riveted on her computer screen, sections of the pleading in neat stacks across her desk.

But, of course, nothing ever changed; people certainly didn’t—always the same, whether cite-checking into the blurry gum-eyed afternoon, running only on coffee and the fear of getting axed, or banned from Dream Houses.  People, Jim knew, were as reliable as the California sky, static, dedicated body and soul to the usual—which presented certain fundamental truths about Scafandra, certain unquestionable realities.  Jim wondered if the stacks of paper on her desk were even real documents. 

Catlike, he made a long circuitous path through the oak-paneled stacks, suddenly pretending to be interested in California Real Estate Law 3d, then pirouetting through California Jurisprudence into the Federal Supplement shelves.  Pure stealth.  He snuck up behind her glass cubicle, walking only on the blades of his shoes so the carpet wouldn’t swish, and peered over her shoulder at the computer screen.

There was the pleading in all its tedious majesty.  Could it be that she was actually working?  Impossible.  He cleared his throat.

“Yes?”  Scafandra kept typing, didn’t turn, the day’s voluminous sweater making strands of her short auburn hair stick to her neck.  She’d had too much coffee and was sweating.  Jim stared at the back of her neck and imagined kissing it but banished the thought.  Scafandra was a problem.  One didn’t fantasize about kissing sweaty problems.

She stopped and swiveled.  “Yes?” 

“Aren’t you hot in that?”   

She cocked her head to the side.  “What do you need?” 

Jim hadn’t planned in advance.  “Well, I’ve been thinking.”  His mind raced. 

“That’s always good.”

“Right, well, do you eat?  Lunch?”

Scafandra glanced around the cubicle then back up at him.  “Is there a problem?”

Problem?  What did “problem” mean in this context?  Jim tried to focus.

“Are you alright?”  She crossed her arms and rolled back a few inches.

“No, I mean, are you going to take lunch?”  He noticed her eyes were the same light brown as her hair.

She frowned.

“Look,” he said, “I’ll buy you lunch.”

Scafandra seemed wary, half-shocked, like he’d just offered her a deal on some stolen TVs.  But she said okay and they were both suddenly relieved, each retreating back to their private spaces—Jim to his desk, furiously reading a random section of the California Code on dog bites, Scafandra making busy noises and clicking her mouse. 

How had this happened?  His nerves.  Suddenly Scafandra had morphed from irritating assistant to woman.  What did one do with a woman?  What would it mean to see her every day now that this had happened?  Jim thought: if I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, now would be the time.  A few minutes later, Scafandra sent him an email and disappeared with her purse in hand. 

Jim’s inbox bleeped just as the library’s double-doors closed silently behind her.  She said she’d meet him at Gordon Yow’s, an all-Hawaiian grill, just off Irvine Spectrum, where you could eat poi out of wooden bowls.  Jim made a mental note to surreptitiously check her car for rear-end damage when the moment presented itself.

He stared blankly at the email until the screensaver blinked on and passworded itself.  He was going to have to do this.  Any possible excuse Jim could have cooked up was now worthless.  There was no way she could be expected to check her email in the thirty minutes until they were supposed to meet. 

Jesus, he thought, spending social time with Scafandra . . . it was crazy, unthinkable.  Jim ordered his desk, locking his briefcase in a bottom cabinet.  He’d never been to Gordon Yow’s.  He didn’t know the terrain, possible distractions, possible escape routes.  At least at the Towne Bistro, they could watch the pet tiger and not speak.

He walked out of the library, between the glass-partitioned offices.  The world was busy sending faxes and barking into cell phones.  No one looked at him.  All internal walls were glass and Jim always got the feeling he was walking through a cross-section cutaway entitled “Law Firm.” 

One of the associates paced back and forth running his fingers through his hair over and over.  Another sat on the corner of his desk, gesturing at a webcam mounted on top of his computer screen, papers across desk and floor like a carpet of snow.  On the far side of the room, the smoked glass walls of the partners’ offices stood out like blackened teeth.  Jim saw the outline of someone leaning back in a chair, speaking to a silhouette on the other side of a desk.

Absolute truth: visiting the restaurants of Irvine is like visiting the smaller cities of eastern Europe one at a time.  You’re aware of the differences until you aren’t, until all the minarets and cathedrals look the same, until the soul-deadening sameness of the landscape signifies exactly that and nothing more. 

So: poi in wooden bowls.  There was a luau at Gordon Yow’s and Jim suddenly realized this wasn’t foreign terrain.  He knew everything about the place without ever having been there: the bartender, who he knew, knew, was named Chaz or Troy or Blair, who used to be a pro skater and now, you know, was, uh, trying to break into the entertainment business. 

The waitress in the silver ass-pants, just this side of whorish, who’d snap if you went a hair over her line—a line re-drawn so often she was practically occult.  But Jim didn’t want to flirt with her.  Jim didn’t want to flirt with anybody.  And, luau or not, lunch would have to be short and crisp with a straight shot clear back to the loading entrance if Scafandra started to make any sort of scene whatsoever.  Somewhere in the back, there would be a busboy willing to keep her busy for a twenty while Jim hit the freeway at speed.

He almost hoped it would come to that, peeking around an oversized fake palm at Scafandra, who was trying to do the same thing from a different palm ahead of him.  She hadn’t seen him yet.  Jim had arrived a half-minute before her and, instead of taking a table, he’d said he was meeting a friend.  The one who sat first would be the one who got observed, the one under the scope.  Hence this double-sneak, while grass-skirted Kanakahanaleya did a greased-up belly dance under a platter of roast pineapple and the coconut was flowing. 

But minarets, they keep pointing. 

And cathedral bells, they ring. 

And this landscape was never going to change.  Absolute truth.  Look at it forever, he’d see the same thing.  The sad part was that Jim knew it, maybe he’d always known it, like knowing burnished Sea-Tac in an upbust of fiery dawn when none of what happens is new and none of it any good.  Jim walked.  It was all too much.  He found three pills at the bottom of his pocket and swallowed them dry without looking. 

The energy was all wrong, nerves in his face twitching, hands getting cold like he was about to hyperventilate.  Wooden left-right, one step then another.  The glass doors, etched in gigantic Gordon Yow’s, opened to harsh parking lot light.  The moment was auspicious for escape as surely as Gladiolus dies in Orange County hardpan.  And his Acura: a glittering Prussian blue lifeboat amid all that space.

It was hot.  Shimmers reared up at the street’s vanishing point, making the distance look wet.  Jim pulled over.  He’d drifted across Irvine in a haze.  Somewhere along the way, his hands had started shaking bad.  Nerves.  Scafandra was back there under a latex palm, now hating him twice as much.  A parti-colored mass of University High students moved across the street.  In the shade of the tree-lined sidewalks, they looked like gumballs in a quarter machine, all the bright colors clumping through patches of light. 

Jim dialed his apartment: There is no one here to receive your call.  It felt like the vents were blowing hot air but the AC light was on.  Tiny fires kept starting inside his veins.  He didn’t know if it was nerves or pills.  Jim clicked the AC off and on, rolled down his window.  You have . . . zero . . . messages.  Someone a block over was pissed, beeping long streams of angry car horn into the air.  Jim got out, left his cell phone on the seat.  Now there would be a message to play back—a long sustained car horn.  It was something.

And then there was Hegemon: a store-front café, now owned by Starbucks, that was filled with loud furniture and no longer sold coffee.  He sat at the wooden counter and ordered a carbonated chocolate sundae.  It looked like normal ice-cream but, when you put it in your mouth, it had a faint fizz.  At least that’s what the little chalkboard over the register said. 

The pink-aproned woman behind the counter repeated a dollar amount for the third time, but Jim couldn’t focus.  He put down the loose bills that were in his pocket.  He wished he’d brought his phone.  It would’ve been really nice to hear her voice right then, to murmur something sweet back to her.  Yeah, baby, I know, I know.

The place was full of senior citizens.  In a puce loveseat, a skeletal grandmother spooned heaps of carbonated ice-cream into her mouth, mobile oxygen machine parked next to her like a robot companion.  On the stool beside Jim, an old man with wisps of white hair and a pressed blue suit sat down with a Register and a tumbler of peach frappe.

“Don’t I know you?” said Jim.

The old man unfolded his newspaper and scanned the front.  “Nope.”

Jim leaned toward him.  “No.  I do know you.  You live in my complex.”

“Nope.  Sorry,” said the old man, turning a page.

“You’ve got this incredible train—”

“Look, sport,” said the man, still not turning toward him, “I come in afternoons for a quiet frappe.  I don’t know what you’re on.”  He glanced quickly at the woman behind the counter.  “Excuse me,” he said, taking frappe and paper over to a purple velour sofa, where he sat between a cadaverous 80-year-old man in a straw hat and a fat woman in a sweat suit with an unlit pipe clamped between her lips.

I don’t know what I’m on.”  Jim thought: Valium, Xanax, Librax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone.  The floor tilted when he stood up. 

The woman behind the counter stared at him.

Out front, the bus from the old folks’ home was still unloading.  Jim staggered around a woman’s walker toward his Acura.

Valium, Xanax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone: the mantis was gone and Jim was stoned.  These are the facts of life in Sea-Tac at dawn when you don’t know what you’ve taken.  The pinwheel of memories behind him was still rolling through disjointed hours of the flight-time dark that put him here.  And nothing, nowhere, at no time would ever be auspicious again.

Jim had lost track.  He didn’t know how much of what he had taken pre-flight, during-flight, in what combinations.  Somewhere, in a medical reference, there was probably an entry for what was working inside him, but the mantis was gone so it didn’t matter.  He’d never know whether the little girl had blinded herself, impaled herself on the sculpture or not.  Or maybe there had never been a combination of chemicals like this in any person’s body in the known world.  Maybe he was beyond reference, off the map.  Maybe he’d become the map.  Jim staggered back a step, hugged himself.

He stood in front of the spot where the mantis had been.  The velvet stanchion ropes were still in place, cordoning-off a circle of empty carpet.  A passing janitor gave him a look.  His Zegna jacket had an ice cream stain up the right sleeve.  He’d gotten a few nosebleeds, and there were splotches of blood where he’d used his tie to wipe.  Jim’s shirt was out, left shoe undone.  He thought he should sit down; he had nowhere to go.  The familiar bulge of his wallet was missing from his pockets.  All he had left was his phone.

Jim walked to the same bank of plastic window seats he sat in before.  Had the mantis ever really been there?  If he turned around right now in his seat, would he see it again, all burnished chitinous mandibles and razor-sharp spines?  If the girl had killed herself, had tripped against it or gotten pushed back against the spines in his dream, would it have been any less tragic?  Jim would have asked someone, but there was nobody around—empty seats to vanishing points, black morning-dark windows—and words weren’t moving right in his mouth anyway. 

He speed-dialed home.  If this was all a drug hallucination, maybe this time she’d say something to him, something affectionate, understanding.  The phone slid out of his hand, down his wrinkled shirt as the peal of a miniature car horn came out of the speaker.  In the distance, the first flight of the day touched down.  And a fuel truck on an empty stretch of tarmac suddenly exploded: a marble-sized fireball from where Jim was sitting.  But he didn’t see it.  He was asleep.

A short short in the Tibetan sense.

Can you cover my shift?

No.  I got my grandfather’s funeral.  He’s died and been reborn so many times he’s just about Hindu.  I love him.  He’s magic.  He’s died seven times this semester alone and might go ten if I need an extension from Dr. Iltis on my Media and Society paper.   

He keeps on giving.

Yeah, but I’m in class with some of the guys here.  I can’t be coming to work if I’m saying I need to be at the crematorium in Lemoore.  The illusion must be preserved.

You mean the lie.

I’m an illusionist.  Lying takes no skill.  Any idiot can lie.

But it takes a special kind of idiot to do what you do.

Exactly.

My girlfriend, Francine, she’s gorgeous.  She took Media and Soceity three years ago.  So I might use her paper.  She’s really smart.  She had a Cowgirl Up! sticker on the back of her F150 until Iltis.  Then she got into State and got that internship at KFSR.  Now she knows everything.  It’s amazing.

No more Cowgirl Up?

Well, she got a hybrid.  She doesn’t know EVERYTHING, but she can explain anything.  Like, she knows why class polarization has created a false consciousness in the economically intersectioned urban underclass.

Damn, dude.

Right?  I don’t even know what the fuck that means.

She still bartending at the club?

Yeah.  I go out there on Friday afternoon and I drink for free.

The world is a wondrous place, my son.

Actually, grampa’s still alive.  But, you know, any day now . . .

And you won’t have to lie about it.

I’m not lying, actually.  Francine says we’re already dead in the Tibetan sense.  The minute we’re born, we’re dying.  And if we’re dying, we’re dead.  Think about it.

That’s pretty fucked up.

That’s the Tibetan sense.

Don’t send me to Tibet.  Where did she learn all that?  Media and Society?

I don’t know.  Maybe.  I haven’t learned anything in that class.  Then again, I haven’t bought the textbook, done any reading, or gone to it after the first meeting.

[laughter]

Man, I needed the credits.  Had to pull a jack move.

That’s all you do.  Pulling jack moves.  You’re a jack puller from way back.

You don’t even know.

I don’t.  And I don’t want to.

Ask Francine.  You know what she did?  We were in bed and—

Is this something I need to hear?

Just relax.  So we’re in bed and she rolls over and says, “Tell me about me.”

Tell you what?

That’s what I said.  But she’s like, “Tell me all about me.”  I mean, what’s there to say that we don’t already know?

About Francine?

Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about this.  If I told her something she knew I knew, it would have been pointless.  And if I told her something she didn’t know I knew, I’d be saying I was some creepy stalking motherfucker.  You know?  You can’t win.

So what’d you do?

I said it would be unromantic.  It would ruin the mystery.

Damn.  You’re good.

That, grasshopper, is a jack move.

So what’d she say?

She said she knew I’d say that.

She probably did.  In the Tibetan sense.

Doesn’t matter.  The situation was circumvented.  With a girl like Francine, with a mind like she’s got, you’ve got to stay awake.  You’ve got to keep her entertained.  She gets bored and it’s all over.  You wouldn’t believe the shit I have to come up with.

One slip and it’s back to Bob’s on Friday night.

I’ve got nothing against Bob.  Or the fact that I know you sad fuckers get shitfaced there three times a week.

We talked about you the other night.

Yeah?

Bob came out at bar time and we sat up maybe ’till five.  And somebody was like “Where’s Les?”  And then Bob goes, “I bet he’s with that college cutie works out at the radio station.”

That all?

We were pretty drunk by then.  It’s kind of a haze.

I go to college, too, you know.

No, you don’t.  City college doesn’t count.  And you have to attend your classes and actually learn things.

I’ve learned plenty.

You ain’t learned your ass from a hole in the ground.

[laughter]

Well, I know one thing.  This dock won’t sweep itself.

See, that’s your problem.  You think small.  I bet Francine would come up with a bunch of drones with little brushes on the bottoms and they’d sweep the dock in like 30 seconds.

You think you know what she’d do.  But you don’t know shit.  Sweep, my young apprentice, sweep—if we want payroll to work this month. 

Exactly.  Only then.  Only then can we get paid. 

[laughter]

A short story in B-flat minor.

To wake to the sound of dragonfly wings is a rare pleasure usually enjoyed only by dragonflies.  The insects were moving in.  Great powdery moths like slivers of cake stuck upside down on the lights.  Caravans of black ants.  A cricket under the dresser.  Creamy brown roaches dazed on the carpet, crawling slowly toward the wall.  I saw a millipede slither down the bathtub drain, its legs as thin as hairs.  The humidity had come and, with it, all manner of flyers and crawlers, web-spinners, egg-layers.  I expected nothing less; the house had been built in the middle of an old riverbed at the bottom of a canyon.

Eventually, it would rain.  A tide of thick, greasy mud would swallow the front steps and climb a few feet up the sides of the house, leaving curlicue hieroglyphics flaked over the chipped white slats when it dried.  With every rain, the hieroglyphs changed.  If only I could have read them, I might have finally learned something.  But I didn’t know a thing.

Thankfully, dragonflies do not change like the weather.  Waking to the sound of one perched by my head was a sudden moment of grace.  I watched it fly to the ceiling and land upside down as my Swedish girlfriend, Elli, blew into the living room.

“I told you not to open the fucking screens,” she said.

“Hi.”

She looked at me and dropped her purse on the carpet.  “How do we live like this?  We don’t.  That’s how.”  She began to blast the corners of the room with the palm-sized can of bug-spray she took with her everywhere, guaranteed to kill anything smaller than a mouse.

“Hard day at the office?”

She didn’t dignify that with a response, leaving me there on the couch under a cloud of pesticide while all the lesser carnivera rolled on their backs in agony. 

I looked up, but the dragonfly had disappeared.

When she finished purifying the room, Elli did what she did every day when she got home from work.  After long hours having sex in front of a webcam for money, she had to scrub every inch of herself under smoking hot water.  She’d emerge from the bathroom with a vehement look on her face, her fair skin poached red and steaming, the burgundy streaks in her swept-up black hair like dim veins of fire in an ash cloud.

The emeralds of the world take flight and, with them, horseflies, fruit beetles, the slow flap of a pigeon’s wings, jeweled eyes with legs hanging down in the buzz of the early evening.  I went outside, stood in front of the house, and looked across the canyon at a cloud of pale gnats churning over a burned-out car wreck so old it had no color beyond its rust—a sedan someone crashed years ago and left to cook on the canyon floor—and I wondered what died in it this time.

Having cleaned herself, Elli sat in the front window in her white bathrobe.  She lit up and blew smoke at the back of my head through the screen.  “Talk to me,” she said.  “I hate it when you don’t talk to me.”

“In the Mississippi Delta, a dragonfly in the house is good luck.  We had one today.  I hope you didn’t kill it.”

“You’ve never been there.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s a hoodoo thing I read about.”

“Hoodoo?  You don’t know fucking hoodoo.  This is Oregon.”

I nodded, looked at the sky, and thought, once again, about leaving.

Above the thorn bushes and poisoned fir trees, above the cracked stones at the canyon’s lip like bad broken teeth that should never be seen, pigeons and ravens fought over the air.  Behind them, gray sky and nothing but.  There’s no outside world when you’re living at the bottom of a canyon in a house from 1910, quarter-sunk in the mud of an old riverbed.

A friend of mine once wrote a haiku and gave it to me as a going-away present:

Murmuring traffic’s so far from the sea,

Still, you go farther, friend.

I thought of that poem and of the sea—not here near the Oregon coast, but in the southern California of my childhood—deserted Huntington Beach on a workday, yellow-white sand combed smooth by the wind, not a footprint, just the folding and refolding of the surf, the water’s blue-green shimmer, a seagull hanging still on the air like a kite.  I was 11 or 12.  If I left now, that’s where I’d want to go—to that time, not just that place. 

But the beach had changed.  California had changed.  My family, dead.  My fortune, lost.  Years, wasted.  The moment I left Elli, I’d be a genuine bum—no place of residence, no legal tender.  I had no job, no bank account to speak of, a suitcase full of clothes, and a $15,000 violin made by Sebastian Klotz of Mittenwald in 1743.

I played it for 5 hours a day—for free.  I played to the canyon and to the wrecked car and the gnats.  I played for the patronage of dragonflies and the largesse of cockroaches.  The broken rocks looked down from the balcony and the poisoned firs in the third row suffered a little bit less, I imagined, with LeClair in the air, a little curative Handel, Mozart after a rain.  Actually, the Klotz wasn’t worth a cent because I would never sell it.  So come, dear gnats, a little later, and we’ll have a nice Passacaglia in G-minor for your digestion.

Elli walked up next to me and squinted at the old wreck.  She’d put on a pair of cargo shorts and one of her tight T-shirts that had sassy, hep expressions across the tits.  This one said, ROCKSTAR, with a big gold star underneath.

“You going to come inside or stand here all night?”  She lit another cigarette off the remains of the previous one.  She smoked long, thin cigarettes and never packed the tobacco down.  A few unruly strands would sometimes stick out the tip.  I hated watching her light a cigarette when it was like that, seeing the strands of tobacco turn orange and curl.  I imagined them screaming in pain.

“You smoke like an old man in the park.”

“You think you’re funny,” she smirked, “but you’re not.  Come inside.”

Elli was only half-right.  I wasn’t funny.  But I knew I wasn’t.

The night unfolded the way it wanted to unfold, with Elli as the sexy, affected, Swedish center of the universe, and me as a half-bystander who knows he is not funny.

We played our game of cutthroat Monopoly, in which she insisted, as always, that I double-mortgage every one of my properties.  When I couldn’t make the rents, she offered me a one-time loan at 500% interest—and laughed.  When my hand accidentally brushed hers, she recoiled.  Tonight there would be no touching.  I was unclean.  Do not pass GO.  Advance token to nearest utility, but do not touch the owner thereof.

Later, I went outside and played to the rocks in the heat of our portable floodlight.  It immediately brought out the music lovers among the local moths and gnats, an  occasional cultured mosquito. 

Elli fell asleep in bed over her 2000-page fantasy novel, in which dragons with psychic powers take on human shape to save the world.  I came in and sat at the kitchen table in the dark.  Having opened every window screen, I felt things fly past my face, a sudden brush against the skin of my neck, the back of my hand.  I stayed there, drinking beer until I fell asleep with my forehead on my arms.  Sometime in the night, a coyote howled and I wished him well, one musician to another.  But it might have been a dream.

Elli was gone before I woke up—gone to have sex with another woman in front of a webcam for the gratification of adolescents all across the internet.  My friend Moe came by.  We smoked a very large joint, and I listened to him bitch about his English comp. students, but I knew he came around just to catch a glimpse of Elli.  Too late, Moe.

“I’m like, hello,this is not rocket science, you know?  Fucking junior college students, man, all they want to do is smoke out and get laid.”  Moe, with baseball cap on backwards, T-shirt, and beer belly, looked like the frat brother with the one-syllable nickname in all the college party movies.

“I should go back to school.”  I held in the smoke.

“All my students work at Taco Bell.  All of them.  You want one of these kids making your tacos?  That’s some crazy shit, man.  They can’t even set their margins right.  Too STONED.”

The trouble with Moe was that he had two masters degrees, a 3-page vita of academic honors and publications, and enough drugs in his body at any given moment to make him sublime—a pharmaceutical bodhisattva.  I couldn’t do anything for him.  I didn’t know what to say. 

All that enlightenment couldn’t keep him from falling in love with Elli.  And so the basis of our friendship had shifted from “we’re-two-losers” to “we’re-two-losers-but-you-don’t-appreciate-your-girlfriend-like-I-would-if-only-I-could-figure-out-how-to-let-her-know.”  When Moe wasn’t around, she referred to him as “den smutsiga svin,” the dirty swine.  When he was around, she didn’t refer to him at all.

“You know what we need?  We need a road trip.  When was the last time you took a road trip?”

“I think I was 19.”

“Exactly.  Why don’t grownups take road trips anymore?”

“Maybe they do.  I don’t know what grownups do.”  I smiled at Moe to calm him.  He was getting agitated, talking with his hands.

“You get married, right?  Your wife pumps out a kid or three.  You quit drinking and going to parties, lose all your friends, start clipping coupons.  It’s sad.  It sucks.  You get a fat ass.  You have to fight it.”

“Right.”  I picked up his tweezers and used it to hold the last smoldering bit of joint to my lips.

“Yeah, just the 3 of us, just get in the car some weekend, say fuck it, drive to Vegas.  What’s Vegas?  17 hours?  17 hours is child’s play.”

I nodded.  “Just the 3 of us.”

Moe stopped gesturing, his hands in his lap, palms up, like two pale crabs that had died at the bottom of a tank.  He looked down at them and blushed.

“You got any chips?”

“Let’s get a taco,” I said.

Parlance means a way of speaking, but nobody in Parlance, OR, seemed to talk much.  Locals drifted the main street like old reeds traveling vertically on the wind.  Fog in the mornings.  Overcast with drizzle in the afternoons.  Christmas lights on a combine harvester blinking a mile out every night.

Drive 28 miles east from The Dalles off the 84 and you hit Parlance.  Actually, you don’t hit it.  You miss it.  It’s too small to hit.  But, if you’re trying for it, if, for example, you’ve got good aim and a reason and a car that won’t get stuck in the mud, then you might succeed where so many lack the presence of mind to even fail: our town of Parlance.  It seemed more like the collection box at church than a town, a few sad-looking bills crumpled on green felt, a destination that, one feels, won’t do the bills or the box any good. 

Still, the town is there.  Somebody went ahead and put it on the map.  And, sitting in the Dixie Diner, contemplating the Russian sandwich I didn’t really want, I knew that Moe and I were two of those somebodys—two random fools supporting the local economy in cheap beer and Russian sandwiches, toilet paper, and sometimes a tank of gas.

Moe looked like he fit in, but he didn’t.  Once you got past his belly, his Harley T-shirt, the Orioles ball cap with the curve he’d put in the brim, all the drug talk, and the lewd comments about assorted women, you started to see the edges of his personality.  You started to see that all this stuff was only a smokescreen he threw up so people wouldn’t realize how angry he was with just about everything. 

He should have been sitting in the faculty lounge at NYU in a half-buttoned Brooks Brothers with a world-weary expression on his face, listening to some over-privileged student pitch a line of bullshit.  I should have been back in southern California, 10 years old in my uncle’s little pink stucco house with a tree outside my window and the Klotz singing in my hands.  But I didn’t have the Klotz back then. 

Moe was saying something about how happy he was that we forewent Taco Bell this time so he didn’t have to see his students, and I was nodding, but I was thinking about how life could have turned out differently if I’d owned the Klotz when I was young.  Would I have been sitting in the Dixie Diner?  Would I have ever polluted myself with a Russian sandwich? 

Moe said something inconsequential, yet another thing.  I looked at the watery depth of his eyes, at his own inner-self—which was also far away, thinking about something else—and tried to forgive him for all his anger and horniness and desperation. I thought about Elli, wondered if she was home yet, killing insects and scalding herself back to goodness, then picked up the Russian sandwich and examined it from various angles.

The question, posed: how does one live at the bottom of a canyon in Oregon?

The answer: an access road.

It wound down the side of the canyon and had enough boulders in it to support Elli’s Jeep even after a rain.  The trouble was that after a rain—like the one that had just swooped down two hours ago, disappearing as suddenly as it came—thick, greasy mud formed instantly.  Elli had to drive slowly.  There was no other way.  Her Jeep had to creep down the rocky slope like the water beetle currently vacationing in our sink.  Maybe that was what frustrated her so much: she had to drive like an insect.

“Ha-ha,” I said to the large white cat that had come to clean its fur while I tuned up for the day’s practice.  It wore a sky-blue collar that had a metal tag underneath shaped like a heart.  The cat scratched itself and the heart jingled.

“Don’t you see the irony?” I asked no one in particular—maybe the air or the cat.  I decided either the whole insect-killer-becoming-an-insect-metamorphosis-thing was lost on the cat or it had no sense of the absurd.  It looked up at me and blinked, then went back to its grooming.  It kept itself pure white while everything else, including my shoes and the cuffs of my jeans, was covered in dark mud.  How did it accomplish this?  Practice, I thought.

I drew out the opening to Spohr’s Duo Concertante in D-major as a warm-up, violating the phrasing but enjoying it.  I’d learned both parts; though, the prospects of getting a second violinist down through the mud were no doubt very slim. Elli drove too far to her left and the left rear wheel of the Jeep spun, fanning ropes of mud into the air.  The cat looked at her, then at me, and blinked.  Elli needed more practice.

I nodded: “My thoughts exactly.”

The cat and I had an understanding.  If it had had opposable thumbs, I’d have taught it the violin.

It took Elli a shower and a comprehensive house-purification before she was ready to speak in non-cusswords.  Later, I sat on the couch and smirked as she strafed the corners of the room and stomped whatever tried to reach the cover of the hassock or the old floor-heater. There was something enticing about motherfucker said in a Swedish accent that I couldn’t explain.  Occassionally, she’d shoot me a dark look.

“I saw the swine at the market and had to talk to him.  It pissed me off.”

The white cat stopped in front of the screen door and stared in at us with a wary look on its face.  Elli had scared it earlier when she’d gotten out of the Jeep, cursing, half-covered in mud, and tried to give it a kick.

“There’s something wrong with him,” she said.  “I don’t know—he’s weird or something.  I hate him.”

“Let’s not talk about him, okay?  He is who he is.”  If there were a composer named Scales, he would have been the most famous musician who ever lived.  “Know who wrote this piece?”

“You’re playing a scale, you idiot.”

“Ha ha ha, I make joke,” I said, letting B-flat-minor roll up two octaves and back down, playing legato, making sure each note caressed the one after it like perfect little cushions all in a row.

“But can you say what do you get being friends with him?”

I looked over at her.  “What does anybody get?  What could anybody ever get?  What do you get hanging out with me?”

Elli raised an eyebrow, looked away.  “That’s a good question.  Somebody asked me that a few days ago and I didn’t know what to tell him.”

“Is this where I get sad and withdrawn?”  I felt myself smile and I turned my attention to the scale.

“I’m moving out if you don’t get a job.”

“You say that every week.”

“You have to be a man.  I mean it.”

I shrugged and stood up, still working B-flat-minor.  “It’s your house.”

She did mean it.  But the thing that kept me from getting a job was the same thing that kept her from leaving.  It was a thing, an invisible force, a blanket of inertia.  It wasn’t the house.

“You’re the worst part of my life,” she said.

“Worse than your job?”

“Fuck you, asshole.”

I opened the screen door with my foot, having transitioned to D-major.  The white cat gave me room, blinked, looked away.

I went for days without seeing another dragonfly.

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum