Tag Archives: Gravity Stories

Gravity

Oh, the puppy. Everyone wept for the puppy. Tears rolled down my wife’s cheeks as she cried through the night. Little Jessica next door wouldn’t say hello and took a week off from school. Jessica’s mother stopped coming outside and stopped speaking to me altogether. The puppy. Little fluffy puppy that didn’t have a name. Big brown eyes. Pink tongue. It was so cute. Someone decapitated it with a shovel. After that, its cuteness declined. It’s useless to add, when our neighbor was hit on his bicycle last year and sent at high velocity through the trunk of the tree across the street, his cuteness also declined. The man was forty-five, a mechanic with three DUIs and a failed marriage, who couldn’t look you in the eye. When it happened, my wife, Cheryl, said: “Too bad he’s dead,” and walked in the other room.

Yes, I thought, too bad. Too bad was what it was.

I thought the same thing watching Cheryl get nailed by Gary, our attorney, on a day I was supposed to be out looking for work. I stood outside our open bedroom window, briefcase in hand, my tie, my overcoat, watching Gary give it to her from behind. The sound of his body slapping against my wife’s ass made me a bit upset. I was somewhere in the vicinity of “too bad,” or maybe something a little stronger, when I drank half a bottle that night and rolled Cheryl’s Accord into a ditch. Given enough time, all things wind up in a ditch by the side of the road. Our airborne neighbor should have known that. Maybe not the puppy. Certainly Gary. And my wife.

Mister .38-caliber knew it. Every time I looked into his dark mouth, he repeated it to me. Ditches: the end of all things with broken windshield and sincerest regrets. I hope you remembered your seatbelt. If not, well, that’s too bad. I was sitting on the old orange step-stool in the garage one day, trying to explain to Mister .38 that getting out of Texas was just about the best thing that ever happened to me when I saw the neighbor’s bloody shovel lying under his box-hedge. The puppy was there, too. Both parts. Who would do such a thing, I asked Mister .38.

Nothing’s worth anything unless you can get away from it. The problem is money. Having it. Getting it. Keeping it. Losing it. Loving it. Leaving it. Money. Some even run from it, from money itself, which, no surprise, requires money. But you can get away from that, too, if you know people in West Des Moines, Iowa.

By the time you get out of Texas and into West Des Moines, everything’s taken care of, problems sorted, checks posted, accounts dissolved. Shit, by the time you show up in West Des Moines, you don’t even exist anymore. And, when you wake up on a beat-to-hell futon in your friend, Max Latham’s, basement, you feel like you can say just what this world is worth—because there it is, way behind you. There’s nothing left but dust, the futon, some bookshelves, and the sound of water running in the kitchen above. Everything you know, you’ve gotten away from, and that, my friend, is living.

Unfortunately, if you then make the mistake of getting married, it’s all down-hill from there. At the bottom of the hill is a house in California one block away from a polluted beach, a wife who hates you, a lot of remorse, and a decapitated puppy. But you’re not there yet. You’re still, at present, stuck deep in the bad reality of getting out of Texas the hard way, which means getting out for good and for good reason—with bullets somehow involved and, for all you know, with that good reason back up the highway behind you, coming on strong. Right now, you’re into more than just a speeding U-Haul, because Jackson Jackson is driving and that special goodness behind you might just be the Texas Rangers. Not the ball team.

Consider what you know about your old chum, Jackson Jackson: He’s tall and thin. He does calisthenics every morning at 5 religiously no matter where he is and he always has for as long as you’ve known him. In the Navy, he was a forklift operator and a shotgun expert. He’d send you postcards from exotic locations where he’d had many drinks with beautiful local women. He’s the only black man you’ve ever met who listens to Rush. In high school, he ran track and laughed a lot, the kind of kid who’d give you the last dollar in his pocket and not mention it. But now, Jackson Jackson has become a bitter motherfucker. Now he keeps a .38 somewhere on him at all times, which he addresses as “Mister .38.” He has a .44 in the luggage and a disassembled AK-47, which he calls Kalashnikov as if it were the lost testament of Jesus and Jackson Jackson just got religion. “Treat Kalashnikov with respect,” he’d say, then wink with a smile that was more like shorthand for some wrong, homicidal mission-statement he’d learned in the Navy: I’m gonna operate my forklift, clean my shotgun, then do you like you’ve never been done before. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed when he’d mention the AK. “Finest quality,” he’d say. “Superior workmanship.”

Consider that he’d been out of the Navy for six days; that you hadn’t seen him in person for six years; that his grandmother, who’d raised him, had just died; and that there were large bullet holes all over the back of the U-Haul. Say to yourself: there is no causal connection between these things. Granted, his grandmother died of natural causes. She was very old. One does not, however, acquire bullet holes through natural causes. When asked, Jackson Jackson’s only response was to nod and say, “I know. Shit’s fucked-up.”

Indeed.

Now say you’re me. That’s the situation in which I found myself: shit = all fucked up. I contemplated the variables from the passenger’s seat as dead-flat Texas got rainsoaked to the horizon, and my old friend stared straight ahead, pissed at past, present, and future all at once.

Consider the piano that fell out the back of the truck and hit the highway. It was interesting. The whole thing exploded, wood going everywhere, keys, the big metal harp inside clanging down over its hammers in the middle lane. It was fun to watch it all burst apart in the side mirror. In the rain, the fragments sticking up at odd angles reminded me of a shipwreck. Jackson Jackson looked in his mirror, held his hand out for the whiskey bottle, and said nothing.

We were both sweating. Outside, it was fifty degrees and pouring but, in the truck, it was Cabo San Lucas at peak tourist season. The heat hadn’t worked for the first thirty minutes out of Austin. Trying to get it going, I’d turned it up all the way and broke the switch. Now, if we rolled the windows down, we got a big Texas facial. So there we were: drinking Black Velvet and losing weight by the mile.

“Well,” I said, “we’re almost to Dallas.”

“Bed’s about to go.”

He was right. It took me a second before I saw the top sheet fluttering around the side like a white flame. His grandma’s big, oak poster-bed with the carved lion feet. She’d just had too much stuff. We’d tied the door down with a bungee cord, but that didn’t even hold it to Buford Station, and the door’s bent latch kept coming open.

“You want to stop again?” I asked, reaching to turn down the Beach Boys Reunion, the only tape besides Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show we could get at the Bi-Lo in Martenville. It got stuck in the tape player and auto-reversed at the end of each side in spite of all my attempts to pry it out.

“Do not touch that fucking dial.”

“We better stop,” I said.

He handed me the bottle without looking and put the truck in fourth. The lead Beach Boy, the one who got fat and started looking like a latter-day Spanky, sang she’s giving me excitations. It was the seventeenth time we’d listened to the song, but Jackson Jackson wouldn’t let me turn it off, wallowing in his misery.

I guess he missed his grandmother. I’d talked to her a few times back when Jackson Jackson and I were in high school in L.A. She seemed like a nice lady, but I couldn’t imagine why she’d moved to Austin. Jackson Jackson didn’t know anybody in Texas. She raised him, but he didn’t say anything about her funeral, or his family when he asked me to go along. He just said, “She’s got this glass bar, right? And it’s real nice. We could set it up in the basement.”

Possibly, I came along to just help him out. Possibly, it was also convenient that I was leaving Texas, too. But the world wouldn’t weep for one less upright piano, and I was pretty sure we’d have to sell that bed off or put it on the roof because it wasn’t going to fit through the front door of Max Latham’s house.

Max was waiting in Iowa with open arms and open basement. Everybody needs an old high school friend with a wife, a stable job, and an empty basement. It’s necessary when the Navy’s made you weird. Or, in my case, when you went off to study writing and philosophy, but wound up in Texas with a large gambling debt and no gainful employment.

When the bed hit the highway, it didn’t shatter like the piano. It went down crunch-crunch on all four lion feet, and there it was, linens flapping in the rain around the triple-band of silver electrical tape we’d put down to keep everything in place.

“They don’t make them like that anymore,” I said. “Crashworthy.”

Jackson Jackson pulled a three-point turn suddenly and with such vehemence it almost tipped us over.

“You had to say that,” he said.

It took us an hour and a half to put the bed back in and tie it down.

Close my eyes. She’s so much closer now. Softly smile, I know she must be kind.

I woke up on the couch as usual, went into the kitchen, and made a cup of instant coffee. I couldn’t stop thinking about the puppy. I’d dreamt its severed head was licking my hand.

The bedroom door was locked, of course, and that was a good thing. Maybe Gary was in there right now sleeping blissfully in the arms of my wife. My wife: Max Latham’s former wife. A year ago, I’d been in the Gary Position. Now I was in the Max Position. Did it serve me right? Had anything ever served Jackson Jackson right on our fateful trip, his short trajectory from Navy to Iowa basement to bullets to Ft. Madison State Penitentiary?

Maybe it was time for Mister .38 to finally have a coming-out party. Maybe three shots for Cheryl and three for Gary, Jackson Jackson style. Then a quick reload and six more in the ceiling as I howled and did a crazed, murderous hat-dance. El Danceo de Vengeance. But the door was locked and closed. Whatever was behind it was still awash in a haze of quantum possibilities: Gary? Cheryl? Some other guy? Another headless house pet? The string section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra all pressed together cheek-and-jowl, their instruments held gingerly above their heads as if they were fording a river? Maybe. But I didn’t have to deal with it if I didn’t see it. So I decided to take my coffee down a block and talk to the ocean.

Imperial Beach stunk. Literally. The sand itself smelled like a fouled toilet, and there were red signs saying TOXIC and HAZARD at the end of every street going to the cement boardwalk. The beach had been critically polluted going on four months, blocked up toilets in Mexico, overflowing sewers, sending the shit north. But toxic sand never killed anybody through their feet. And brown tide hadn’t killed the surfers. You could see it in the waves. The whitewater wasn’t white. Yet the kids were out on their boards, surfin’ the break every day.

I curled my toes into the sand, sipped my coffee, stared at gray morning. “What do you expect me to do?” I asked the beach. “What’s required when a man catches his wife blatantly cheating it up?” I looked to the brown tide for answers. Asking the tide was crazy. It didn’t make sense. But what made sense? Forty-five minutes south of San Diego, Imperial Beach was the broke-ass redheaded stepchild of southern California. Gang members didn’t even come there anymore due to the stench. But the locals kept walking their dogs every morning in pathetic imitation of the beautiful crowd up north. The surfers still surfed.

I heard, “Dude!” as two overtanned kids came out of the water holding their boards. These were the same kids with the same boards saying the same Dude! that you’d find on any beach, except here the kid on the left was picking toilet paper out of his waistband instead of kelp. “Nasty,” said the other. I smiled and nodded as they passed. Nasty was right. And, more importantly, somebody close by had whacked that puppy. I wondered who. That was something Jackson Jackson, at his lowest, might have done.

It’s a fifteen hour drive from Austin to West Des Moines. After six hours, I took the wheel but decided to stop when I realized I was driving on the wrong side of the highway. Jackson Jackson just laughed, turned up Surf Safari, and said, “No, man, just keep on going. We’ll get there.” But we were on one of those long stretches of dark Texas nothing, where you can see a light from a great distance. And not seeing one, not seeing anything through the rainglittered windshield but fifty feet of highway caught in the headlights, made me nervous.

“I don’t feel right,” I said, pulling over to the side.

“Doesn’t stop me day-to-day.”

“Too many variables. I’m too tired. Let’s get some sleep.”

He didn’t say anything to that. I closed my eyes and tried to get comfortable in the seat. Time passed in blessed post-Beach Boys silence. The air seemed cleansed now that the tap of rain on the truck had replaced a bushy bushy blonde hairdo. I also had the slosh of the Black Velvet bottle to remind me that Jackson Jackson did not share my views on sleep as opposed to facing the dark infinity of Texas. I hoped he’d drink the rest of the BV and pass into whiskey dreamland. Jackson Jackson hung-over couldn’t have been that different from Jackson Jackson sober. And I wondered if it was all just the Navy and his grandmother. I wondered what had happened in the last six years to change him so drastically and so much for the worse.

Of course, he did sleep eventually. When I woke up sometime in the late morning, he was out with the empty bottle upright on the floor between his feet. I had the overall lousy feeling of having slept in the driver’s seat of a U-Haul. But, all things considered, there was no harm done and soon we would be out of Texas, which brought a certain joy to my heart.

I was so confident, in fact, that I thought it would be a good time to call Maddog, the man to whom I owed a total of $17,870 as a result of the three worst poker games of my life. I didn’t own a cell phone for many good reasons, so I took Jackson Jackson’s out of the ashtray and dialed Maddog from memory.

How I got involved with a man named Maddog is, in itself, a tale to be told. Suffice it to say, there are still a few ways left to struggle without having to get a soul-destroying, ass-numbing nine-to-five. And one of those ways, apart from murder or dealing mountains of drugs out the trunk of your car, is card playing. You just have to have patience and sit in the small games until you meet the right people who can hook you up with the bigger games. You also have to be good, and you have to have enough honesty with yourself to know whether you are. That’s where Maddog came in. He didn’t play cards; he played money. I told myself I was good enough to borrow his, pay my debts, make my rent, and pay his back. I told myself that three times in a row and, all three times, I was lying.

“I don’t know you,” was how he answered the phone. Okay: caller-id, cell phone technology and all that meant he could see who was calling, and he didn’t know Jackson Jackson from Adam (good for Jackson Jackson). But the real reason Maddog answered that way was that he didn’t associate with one single respectable person. He was something out of a B-gangster film, and he did the things that B-gangsters in films did. Maddog wasn’t from Austin. He was from Queens. He sounded every bit of it when he answered.

“Maddog. It’s Christian.”

“You fucking rat bastard.”

“Yeah, about that—”

“Now is not time for the bullshit, Christian. Bring my money over right now, and you’ll be glad you did.”

“I’m on vacation. I won’t be around for a while. I hope that doesn’t put you out.”

“I’ll find you. Don’t worry about that.”

“God bless you, Maddog. You’re a Mother Theresa. You know that? A big, goddamn, stupid, stinking Mother Theresa who doesn’t know when to quit. Pretty soon, you’ll be nailing the sick in Calcutta.”

“I get my hands on you, and it won’t be so funny.”

Why did I take the trouble to agitate the idiotic, leg-breaking asshole who was right then scouring the Austin card rooms for the faintest scent of my trail? I don’t know. Maybe, in my own way, I was equally as stupid. If he was a mad dog, I was a weasel. I’d just made the most weasely phone call of my adult life. But it felt good. One last kiss-my-ass—coming from me this time—as I vanished into the comforting embrace of God’s own American Midwest.

“There’s a little more to you leaving Austin, huh?” Jackson Jackson still had his eyes closed, but his snoring had stopped.

“You want to tell me about the bullet holes in the back of the truck then? And we can have a heart-to-heart about all the heinous shit we’re dealing with here?”

“Now I will piss.” He climbed out on his side and pissed to the east. I climbed out on mine and pissed to the west. I had no doubt right then that, just like me, he was reviewing the unlikely and unfortunate events that had conspired to have both of us pissing on the same latitude.

Schopenhauer wrote: “The ordinary man places his life’s happiness in things external to him, in property, rank, wife and children, friends, society, and the like, so that when he loses them or finds them disappointing, the foundation of his happiness is destroyed.” I believe the Beach Boys put it this way: I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip/ I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip. Just so. But putting my happiness elsewhere and moving on from Imperial Beach to the next thing, from Cheryl, who’d been Max Latham’s unfaithful wife and who’d once seemed like my salvation, would not be easy or simple. She had a steady job as a RN at Kaiser. I’d been looking for a job. The Accord was in her name. Since I rolled it, I only used it when she didn’t need it. She put all the money we’d stolen from Max toward a down-payment on the house. If I walked, where would I go? I’d be sleeping in the Greyhound Bus Terminal. External things? Yes. When I got back home from the ocean, Cheryl was having it out with Gary in the living room.

Gary was in boxers and a T-shirt. Strangely, he was also wearing brown loafers with brown dress socks. My wife was in panties and a Cal sweatshirt I’d never seen before. Her long, brown hair was only partly tied back, and she had the same fierce, wide-eyed expression as the day she’d done half a bag of speed and threatened the mailman.

“I saw you,” she said. “You think I don’t know where you go?”

Gary crossed his arms. “A lot of people look like me from a distance. Right, Christian?”

I glanced from Gary to Cheryl. The fact that he was fucking her was one thing. I was ready for that. But backing him up in an argument? I wasn’t ready. I thought about running for the safety of the garage and my little orange step-stool.

“Don’t bring him into this.” She crossed her own arms, squared her stance, shaking a little from the dope she’d obviously done. “He can’t even get it up.”

What?

“I think you’re paranoid. I think you’ve got a substance habit,” he said.

“Asshole,” she screamed as she ran back into the bedroom. “I’m gonna find that bitch and cut her bitch heart out.”

“You do that, but don’t call me when you’re down for assault. Find somebody who cares.”

I sat on the couch and looked at the brown hairline cracks on the bottom of my coffee cup. I felt like a kid again, watching my parents.

“Screw you.” Cheryl had put on some jeans. She stormed through the living room and out the front door. The screen slammed behind her with a thwack.

We listened to the car peel out.

Now the house was silent. Gary sat down on the other end of the couch and stared at the gray TV screen.

“Women,” he said.

I went into the kitchen and put my cup in the sink. It was a mess, dishes piled everywhere, a big brown roach on top with its head stuck in a glob of ketchup, the smell of death from the overstuffed garbage disposal. We didn’t have any utensils in the utensil drawer. I wondered where they’d gone and had the crazy thought that maybe my wife had gotten guilty and sent all the cutlery back to Max. All I saw was a wine corkscrew with a burgundy-stained cork on it and a couple of small, water-spotted pairing knives.

Gary turned on some basketball and settled in with his hand in his boxers. I walked over and sat down on the arm of the couch. “This is for the puppy,” I said and stabbed him in the stomach.

“Fuck,” he said. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

The pairing knife had gone in about a quarter of an inch. It was the first time I’d ever stabbed someone. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.

“I can get it up.”

Gary looked at me and nodded, pressing his hand over the wound. “I believe you.”

I gave him a hard stare before I went to the bathroom for the hydrogen peroxide and some Band-Aids.

We were over halfway there. Hours of fields and flat, open nothing: Toline, Eagle, Lungerberg, Gainesville. Dallas sliding past in the gray flash of morning. Rain coming down, then not, then again, ice-cold, fat, Texas drops as big as the locusts that could storm up in summer and band the flesh off a grown cow.

Jackson Jackson had found a pair of black, leather gloves somewhere in the luggage. They creaked as he tightened his jaw and tightened his grip on the wheel.

“I put those holes in the back of the truck before you showed up, okay?”

He said it spontaneously somewhere outside of Baton Springs. I pictured him with those gloves on, screaming incoherent syllables in his grandmother’s front yard, firing round after round from Kalashnikov into the back of the U-Haul.

I asked him why. He thought of what he wanted to say. And I waited, watching the scrub go from Texas brown to Oklahoma red. The Beach Boys sang with gravity and passion about a little deuce coupe, and Maddog rang Jackson Jackson’s phone for what must have been the twentieth time. We were a happy caravan of goodness. Even then, I pitied Max Latham for the sorrow that was clearly about to descend on his head.

“I broke my old fishbowl.”

I nodded, but it made no sense. Fishbowl?

Just as all men need a former high school friend who’s married and stable, so the friend needs to know better. Usually, the wife says something like, oh no, they’re not moving into my basement—if she’s a good woman, if she’s done her wifely duty in distancing her man from all his old hoodlum friends. But I would find that Cheryl was not a good woman, and the shot-up U-Haul was raging down the interstate like Satan’s private livery. What would happen, I wondered, when Max’s wife saw the beaten, claw-footed bed with all its linens duct-taped in place? How would we account for the bullet hole-fish bowl connection? For the leather gloves? For the whiskey-sweat reek of the cab still pulsing with heat and Beach Boys perdition? No, it wouldn’t do. We were all wrong.

Oklahoma passed with crops and sprinklers, with the smell of pesticide and fertilized soil. Then we were on the I-35 North, crossing into Kansas. At about that time, I concluded that everything about the fishbowl story was complete and utter bullshit. Maybe it was Kansas clearing out the last of Texas, the last part that had slipped up into Oklahoma as the South tried to rise. Kansas was rational. Kansas knew: one does not put a clip of 7.62mm into the air over a fishbowl. Not even an emotional Naval forklift operator and shotgun expert would do such a thing. Maybe I’d lost my judgment for a while in the unreality of the trip, but my mind started coming back when Jackson Jackson answered one of Maddog’s calls.

“Yes, hello, can I help you?” His all-professional-and-polite-noon-in-the-haberdashery-voice.

I stared at Jackson Jackson, but he just winked and gave me a minty smile. I could hear Maddog screaming on the other end, but I couldn’t make out the words.

“503 Pearl Street, West Des Moines, Iowa.” I heard a black, leather glove creak on the wheel. “You got it, buddy.” And Jackson Jackson hung up. He seemed deeply pleased with himself, smiling at the distance as if all the joy in the world had now become his.

I said: “You realize Maddog wants to kill me. You did realize that before you gave him our destination.”

Jackson Jackson kept smiling. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I got guns.”

I was behind the wheel because Gary felt too fragile to drive.

“Shouldn’t we be armed for this sort of thing?”

“We’re just looking,” I said. “You know, for a lawyer, you’re a nervous bastard. What are you trying to be, some kind of gangster?”

He winced and looked to see if there was blood on the palm of his hand. “I got stabbed today,” he said.

I’d done a good job with the Band-Aids, but Gary still kept his hand pressed on his stomach as if his guts might shoot out at any minute. We were sitting in his forest green Jeep Cherokee across the street from Cheryl’s favorite bar, The Brig. She’d been in there over an hour.

“Quit complaining. I should have killed you.”

“Over her?”

We looked at each other.

“Did you behead that puppy in my backyard?”

Gary checked his palm again. “That’s disgusting,” he said. “Don’t talk like that. It’s bad luck to even hear something like that.”

I looked him over and shook my head. “Somebody did. Puppies don’t behead themselves.”

“Maybe she did it.”

Cheryl stumbled out through the tinsel in the bar’s doorway. Behind her came a large man in jeans and a flannel shirt. He was grinning like he’d just won the state lottery and had nothing to do with the money but refurbish his trailer. We sat in silence as my wife leaned back against her Honda and made out with today’s lucky number. Watching her, I knew deep in the cockles of my own, small, criminal heart that the last bit of attraction I carried for this woman had just lifted away, replaced by a certain cold revulsion. I thought of our neighbor, Willis, knocked through a tree and her saying it was too bad. I thought of the puppy. Of Jackson Jackson’s grandmother silent in her grave under Texas rain.

I moaned, and Gary shot me a startled look. I moaned the way I imagine Jackson Jackson might have moaned when he gunned down Maddog in the street in front of Max Latham’s house. Moaned, not for Cheryl or a broken fishbowl or the polluted tide that never had any answers, but for all the choices I’d made that had put me on this latitude and for the cruel gravity that conspired to hold me to it.

“Don’t do anything crazy,” said Gary. “I’m an officer of the court.” He winced and checked his palm. “I live by morality.”

My wife and Lucky had gotten in her car and were pulling away. I started up the engine. “No,” I said, “you live by me. And you fuck my wife.” I hit the gas and the Cherokee surged. A red Honda Accord is no match for a green Jeep Cherokee in a collision. We sheared off her trunk and the Accord skidded up onto the sidewalk, bent trunk hood bouncing over nothing. I hoped Lucky would jump out so I could run him over, but Cheryl was still going on a snootful of speed that no amount of Brig drinks could negate. Smoke came off her back tires. She shot down the street, new friend and bouncing hood notwithstanding. In about three seconds, I was right behind her. Gary had stopped pressing his stomach and was now holding onto the dashboard and handbrake for the grace of god and deliverance from evil.

“The trouble is,” I said as I put the pedal all the way down and rammed the back of the Honda, “the puppy was innocent. It didn’t do anything to anybody. It just wanted to be loved.” I hit my wife’s car again and it fishtailed, rims flying, the back left tire wobbling badly.

Gary’s mouth moved, but no sounds came out. It was all too much for him. I might have looked at him too long, too long as in one millisecond over. The road veered sharply to the right, I looked away from Gary and saw the edge coming, tried to turn, heard him pull up on the handbrake. There was a soft, empty moment where the Jeep Cherokee became a feather floating in a white nothing. All the fluids in my body began to rise, as we went over the edge of a canyon.

I wanted to speak. There was no time to speak. The front of the Jeep became my nose, the windshield my eyes, the steering wheel my cheeks, my mind the sky, my anger a dark, fiery cloud rolling upwards without sound. The rain of blood inside the Jeep made me think back to Texas one last time—one last, nervous thought that yanked me sideways into black.

Max Latham’s house in the blue light of morning. And Max standing there watering his lawn as if the storm wasn’t moving north from Texas. Anyone who thought to look could have seen it rolling up on the edge of the horizon like a polluted tide, bringing with it all manner of flotsam, heavily armed fools in U-Hauls, homicidal moneylenders from Queens, and 100,000mg of unmerciful fate delivered right to his front door. But that was exactly Max’s problem. He never thought to look.

When we got out and walked up behind him, he was talking to Cheryl. She was sitting on the sill of the second-story bedroom window in jeans and a bra, smoking. Max absently held the hose to the side. The water bored a hole in the grass and puddled around his sneakers.

“Well, don’t close the windows, then. I don’t want my ass blown off in the middle of the night.”

“Radon doesn’t do that,” said Cheryl. “It kills you in your sleep. You’d never know.” She exhaled a tongue of smoke that hung over the porch for a moment before twisting into a draft.

Jackson Jackson and I stood behind Max and said nothing. Cheryl gave us an empty look and took another drag.

“Oh, that’s so much better. I’m so happy. Die in my sleep. Fuck.” Max gestured with the hose and pebble-sized clumps of water flew in an arc.

Then he turned and saw us. His expression changed from the morose, Midwestern husband with receding, close-clipped, blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses, to a boy delighted that his sandcastle had withstood the waves after all—complete with toothy grin and mud on his shoes. His old friends had arrived. No amount of radon could change that.

Max: the image of a chump, a fall-guy, a perpetual victim. In school, he’d been the one who got tricked, a bewildered, hurt expression on his face, as the bus pulled away. Yet there was always a streak of cheerfulness in him that enabled him to forgive everyone, to make it alright again. Seeing him made me want to smile, to clap him on the shoulder and celebrate something—maybe his innate goodness, maybe just the contrast between him and me. I may have fallen in love with his wife a little later. But, then again, I may have fallen in love with her at first sight, seeing her sitting up in the window, smoking, like she didn’t care about a thing. Max was oblivious from the start. He had a paunch and obsessed about things like invisible gas poisoning, EMFs, and keeping a perfectly well-groomed front lawn. Many times during that first night, as we unpacked the truck and got extremely drunk, he grinned at the lawn and said, “Isn’t that a fucking gorgeous piece of grass right there?”

Toward the end of the night, I think he may have hugged his front yard, but he could have simply fallen face-down on it, spread-eagled as if the whiskey and PBR had temporarily reversed all local gravity and the lawn was the only thing that cared enough to keep him from floating away. Max had been married for four or five months. I wondered how long he’d had his lawn.

We piled everything in the basement, everything, that is, except the bed, which we had to leave in the driveway under a tarp. Jackson Jackson said little. When I asked him how he felt about leaving the bed out, his only response was: “Light the fucker on fire.” His mood, apparently, had not improved by arriving in West Des Moines.

No one lit the fucker on fire but, staggering drunk down the long, railless basement stairs at 3:00 in the morning with a tiny flashlight, I saw our mountains of boxes piled like miniature ziggurats in the dark, a tiny Babylon. Toward the center of the darkness, Jackson Jackson was snoring on the futon, probably with arms crossed like King Tut and a loaded gun in each hand. I passed out in the corner. I hoped, away from existing lines of fire.

Sometime, in the wee hours of the morning, Max and Cheryl had a horrendous argument. I woke with the spins, my stomach lurching, and remembered hearing them screaming at each other and slamming things around. I would eventually discover that she threw his computer through one of the upper windows that morning and Max spent the rest of the dark hours cruising around town in his brown El Camino as he listened to Dwight Yoakum and drank more beer. The way she told it to me later was that she’d kicked him out of the house and it hadn’t been the first time.

Problems. The first was extricating myself from the airbag. I came to upside-down, the mouse-grey pillow almost suffocating me. The second problem was Gary. He was out, belted in place. It looked like the passenger airbag had shot forcefully enough to break his nose or something else had. Gary’s blood was everywhere. His forehead was dark red with it, and there was a little puddle of it just below his head on the Cherokee’s roof liner. He moaned and snuffled, a bloody bubble popping in his nostril.

I squirmed out, went around and unbelted Gary and pulled him through the shattered passenger-side window. The Cherokee was on fire, a little fire. It had been the source of the black firecloud that I saw in the rearview mirror after we went end-over-end and landed on the canyon floor. As soon as I dragged Gary away, the gas tank exploded with a hollow thump into sparks and green-orange streaks of flame, jagged strips of glass, and sizzling plastic.

Neither of us had cell phones. So I turned Gary on his side, leaned back into the ice plant and stickerweed on the slope of the canyon, and watched the Cherokee cook. A burning vehicle in the middle of a residential area: someone would call. There would be fire trucks, police, ambulance. Gray wheezed and snorted blood. I watched a seagull glide over the rooftops of houses on the other side of the canyon.

Two hours passed, and Gary grew silent. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. I put my ear to his back and still couldn’t tell. No one arrived. No sirens in the distance. Nothing but the occasional gull overhead, the smell of melted plastic.

So I did the only other thing I could do. I walked. People don’t like people who walk away. It’s unpopular. It’s ugly. It shows a certain changeability, weakness, lack of determination. I didn’t feel good about it, but I went anyway. I left (blood-spattered, probably dead) Gary on the slope of the canyon and walked my way to freedom. Or, if not to freedom, then at least out of a certain kind of bondage that would have involved explaining to police how we’d arrived at the bottom of the canyon in the first place. I told myself repeatedly it was actually good that no one called or came, that Gary got what he deserved.

The ice plant roots were twisted like rigging and, even though I was beaten and dizzy, it enabled me to climb right up and out of the canyon. I went down the sidewalk, wondering what I was going to do now that I had no home.

Late afternoon and nobody was on the street. It was a quiet, residential neighborhood not far from the beach. Little brightly colored one-story houses. Kids’ toys strewn on front lawns. 3-foot high white picket fences. Party sounds came from a backyard, pool splashes, laughter. Pure, bright clouds hung low in the hard blue sky. I went down the driveway of a house towards the party sounds, half-thinking that I should say something to someone about Gary, half-thinking that it would be nice to lie down next to a pool where people are laughing and sleep. I had a powerful urge to sleep.

3 metallically clean, blond teenagers tossed a beach ball in the pool, 2 girls and a boy. They looked happy and perfect like models, like they’d been pressed from a mold. On the far side of the pool, another boy was grilling burgers. A tiny cd player with speakers plugged into it played music I’d never heard before, a crackly kind of accelerated country with the singer whispering nervously over the guitar.

I sat down in a white chaise lounge and looked at them. Eventually, the boy and girls in the pool waded towards me. They didn’t get out. The boy on the other side looked over but kept grilling. The music scraped out of the speakers on the patio table next to me as the singer stammered and strummed his guitar. I caught lyrics about love and radiation coming from the sky.

“You’re bloody,” said one of the girls.

I turned my head slightly to see her, realizing that there was something wrong with my neck.

“Who messed you up?” asked the boy in the pool next to her.

I noticed that there was a tear across the filthy bloodstained button-down that had been white when I’d bought it long ago at the Austin J.C. Penny. The boy who’d been grilling came around and stood next to the cd player, holding the grilling fork with a smoking hamburger patty stuck on the prongs. I looked up and smiled. The boy in the pool took a step back.

Maddog was on his way. Jackson Jackson had already cleaned and assembled the AK in anticipation and was sitting down in the basement, testing the firing action and loading clips with black-jacketed 7.62mm cartridges that looked more like a bad day in Baghdad than home defense. Jackson Jackson looked like a bad day in Baghdad. He’d never been more cheerful, but with that crisp smile that was heavier on the homicide than the happy. I knew he wouldn’t be after Max’s wife. Everything that had formerly been Jackson Jackson the human had gotten jettisoned into some distant, pockmarked landscape in a USMC Government Issue Standard Waste Disposal Receptacle. All that was left was Jackson Jackson the Pile of Endless Rage with the occasional episode of Malicious Joy thrown in by the gods for flavor.

I don’t know what it is about upheaval that makes people seek it out, or what it is about very personal, very utter destruction that makes people hungry for it like no other. But I knew then, in the way of knowing that seems completely clear, even though it’s completely corrupt, just how good Cheryl looked to me when I staggered up from the basement the next morning, my hair like a bush hit by too much wind.

Was I corrupt or just aware? Why was it that neither Jackson Jackson nor Max had any desire for this well-endowed brunette, who, as I emerged from the basement, happened to be drinking a beer in her underwear—very narrow, very sexy black underwear? She leaned back against the kitchen sink and gave me a look so clear and blank her eyes might have been polished glass—the same look she’d given me from the window the day before. As we stood there blinking at each other, I wondered what it would be like waking up next to her legs, what her belly would look like when she stretched and arched her back.

Right then, I should have jumped in the U-Haul, turned up the Beach Boys, and wailed through the cornfields until inertia and gas mileage won and all there was was an atomized pin-flat duskline as far as I could look, the nearest telephone pole 50 miles gone. Then I should have started to run. I knew this just like I knew the house was ready to pop with Max hung-over upstairs face down in his bed and Jackson Jackson in the basement getting ready for war. He’d traded up the Beach Boys for Funk Soul Brother on infinite repeat as he kissed each cartridge and whispered to it before grinning and sliding it into the clip.

Yes. Crazy. But all I could think was how cool Cheryl was, drinking a beer all by herself in the kitchen at noon in her black underwear and not giving a shit.

“No,” she said, “You don’t get a beer. This is the last one.”

“I wasn’t asking.”

She raised an eyebrow and put the empty bottle in the sink. “This, from someone living rent-free in my basement?”

“Don’t worry about the money. It’ll flow like sweet milk from heaven as soon as we stock the bar down there and get our liquor license.”

“Funny man.”

Nobody who says funny man ever means it the way it sounds. It’s always a placeholder for something else, some other stronger observation that can’t be voiced right then. What I didn’t realize, as Cheryl moved close to me and rested her palm lightly on my chest, was that she was about to kiss me.

When I become a learned philosopher, my first book will be entitled The Beach Boys as Ontological Modality: An American Response to Schopenhauer’s Primacy of Will. I will argue that the term, “hodaddies,” as it occurs, for example, in the song “Surfers Rule,” is a mystery term, an intentionally ambiguous sign, carrying a multiplicity of culturally significant meanings: The hodaddies sittin’ while the surfers are draggin’/ The surfers are winnin’ and they say as they’re grinnin’/Surfers rule. Hodaddies. What does Schopenhauer have to say in response to hodaddies? That angle has been completely overlooked by scholars. It will be the first of many important books I will write. The second will be an exploration of death. Specifically, how little deaths create chain reactions that result in big deaths. I will reference hodaddies.

Hodaddy No. 1: Little fluffy puppy that didn’t have a name. The puppy that haunted my dreams, severed head, blood crusted into white fur.

Hodaddy No. 2: Max Latham, who now also haunts me in his own sad way, who stumbled downstairs too late to catch his wife kissing me, who, like the puppy, only ever wanted to be loved and free to focus on harmful minerals in the tap water and the hygiene of his front lawn. He didn’t ask for nihilistic, ex-naval shotgun experts and failed gamblers. Max didn’t ask for philandering wives in sexy black underwear. But this world is full of victims. And so there would come a time when the puppy would have to lose its head, Max his wife, Jackson Jackson his freedom, Maddog his life, and me my immortal soul.

And then, of course, Hodaddio Grande del Mundo: the flight of bullets through the air, cyclic rate of fire as estimated by the US Department of Defense: 650-750 rounds per minute, give or take variations in barrel design that might affect velocity. The grand Hodaddy doing its thing over your rental car, the street, up the front of your body, and out the back.

“Where’s Jackson?” Max asked, not even noticing that Cheryl was standing there in her black underwear or maybe not even caring since their fight the night before.

She shrugged, and the glimmer of interest I’d seen in her face when she kissed me receded into the mask of blank indifference that seemed to be her normal state—and would be until, much later, when she’d discover she liked to do speed with various unwashed individuals in the washroom of The Brig.

“I think he’s downstairs, loading his weapons,” I said.

“Oh.” Max frowned deeply and poured distilled water into the coffee pot by the sink, blinking his bloodshot eyes slowly against the light. I wondered how much was hangover and how much was anxiety that the trouble with his wife or maybe the brooding arsenal in the basement would somehow negatively impact his lawn. How could a man who was ingenious enough to build a tri-level water-distiller in his kitchen from hardware store parts and a battery pack completely overlook his wife? Or, for that matter, how could he overlook the very depressed, dangerous man sitting in his basement giving each bullet its own unique name?

Max put the grounds in, turned it on, and the smell of percolating coffee filled the air. For that moment, as the three of us stood there blinking at each other, I hoped it all might work out. I told myself I’d legitimately put Texas behind me. I could get a straight job, pay off my debts, maybe get a lawn of my own. Max had to know something the rest of us didn’t. Unfortunately, the moment after that, I realized Jackson Jackson was not still in the basement loving his bullets. He was in the street outside, firing them.

We ran out like idiots. I saw Maddog on his back in the street, red long-sleeved button-down shirt, sneakers pointing up, and jeans washed in blood. His scraggly beard. His fat belly. A pistol in his left hand. His eyes staring straight up at Holy Astral Queens, the loan shark heaven. I didn’t feel good about him dying, but then I didn’t feel bad about me living. And it looked like Jackson Jackson wasn’t feeling anything, standing there like a statue with Kalashnikov smoking.

The bullet holes were large. The same ones that covered the back of the U-Haul had riddled Maddog’s rented Taurus. Jackson Jackson frowned at them as if they’d failed to live up to his expectations point-by-point. He was a death artist, and this was his performance, his installation in the center of 503 Pearl Street, with cordite in the air and Max back inside, sweating and pissing and hissing an emergency-911-death-immediately-now hoddady into the telephone.

Jackson Jackson sat down right where he was, in a half-lotus, and proceeded to disassemble and clean each part of his weapon with a little, white bristle-brush and a can of machine oil from his pocket. When the SWAT team arrived, no shots were fired. A gun-cleaning kit was confiscated along with the AK parts and several pockets of ammo..

The next day, Max didn’t go to work and started drinking at 8:00 AM. No one had been shot in front of his house before, and he was taking it hard. He sat in the den, sipping whiskey as he clicked the TV remote with a trembling hand. The fact that he’d started on a brand-new bottle of Black Velvet was not lost on me. So many synchronicities seemed present when I realized he was watching a biography on Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys’ drummer. Everything comes together. Everything converges. I said it to myself over and over. This is not a chaotic, disconnected whirlwind of shit and suffering. There are reasons. There is a tide, even if it happens to be brown. If you don’t want to ask the tide, ask Schopenhauer. He’ll tell it true.

I kept saying this all to myself when I crept down into the basement to do some secret packing and found Cheryl waiting there with one suitcase full of money and another full of clothes. My clothes. My suitcases. Max’s money. It looked like all of Max’s money. She unzipped my little blue valise and showed me how she’d rolled the twenties and fifties in fat little bundles, each one like something a movie gangster would have in his pocket after selling a pound of crack. How many pounds would this represent? It looked like harvest day in Crackland.

“I love beautiful women smiling at me with suitcases full of cash,” I said, “but I hate jail and, oh, who knows, bounty hunters and enraged husbands and death.”

Cheryl shrugged. “I don’t give a fuck, and I won’t offer twice. Max is an asshole. He deserves it.”

Maybe seeing Jackson Jackson take out Maddog in the street jarred something loose. Maybe she was just as fundamentally evil and crazy as everyone else, sexiness notwithstanding. But such a woman in such a situation making such an offer could seem right even if it were wrong. No matter the reasons, in a life of lousy decisions, leaving with her seemed like the answer, the next thing. Everything comes together.

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“How?”

“I’ve got a car.” Cheryl zipped the suitcase back up. “This is everything. I’ve been planning this. Max is screwed right now, but he doesn’t even realize it. He won’t have time to come looking.”

I nodded. She smiled. And then we, too, came together. A few hours later, we were gone.

All these things. Convergences, mistakes and imperfections, resurgences, corrections, convections, exceptions. The slow path of a leaf or a bullet through the air. And I ask myself who the puppy is: Gary, Jackson Jackson, Max, or me. And who is West Des Moines? And who is the futon in the basement? Who are the bullets? And who is the problem? Money? And how are we getting away from it, money? And gravity, why gravity, when all we want to do is leave?

* Note: this first appeared in Willow Springs 62 (2008): 67-83.

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Living in It

Tomlin sits across from me. Pissed. He wants to smoke a cigarette, but he doesn’t do that anymore, and anyway we’re in the café of the Cherry Blossom Hotel. Tomlin’s got a tonsure of white around the back of his head but nothing on top. That’s the first thing you notice. Then the liver spots. Gigantic ones that might as well be birthmarks or bruises for all anybody knows or cares. He’s of an indeterminate ancientness. He’d gouge holes in the ground if he thought the earth could feel the pain. It’s freeing, really. It almost makes me happy. Fifteen minutes with him and I feel fortified, ready to go back and face one more day of blocked up toilets and garbage. I sip my lousy coffee and smoke down to the filter. I crush the butt out on my shoe, and nobody needs to understand.

The Kitchen Staff watches us from behind the coffee counter. Three women who used to work the x-ray machine at the airport. They are harder than pig iron and they stick together. They’ll beat you. I’ve seen them face down snarling dogs with just a chair, a broken bottle, and some language. Glaring over the espresso machine, they look offended by our existence, enraged, as if they can read our thoughts, sure that we come here just to stink up the place and make their lives harder. They comprehend all, see all. And what they see, they despise.

We are your filth-ridden, smoking co-workers.

We are having a cup of coffee. We excremental examples of janitorial wrongness are drinking your coffee. And, of course, I will exhale gray, poison death-fumes all over your asiago bagels.

The Kitchen Staff knows who we are. We know who they are. It’s a hate stand-off. They hate me and my smoking. They hate the fact that Tomlin takes his coffee black. They’re hate generators. They hate the sky, the birds, the flowers, the ocean, your mother, and dirt. Find something. Put it in the café. And they’ll bust hate all over it. The only thing they might not hate is hate, but they probably hate that, too.

In fact, we are hateful.

We’re maintenance. Janitors. Custodial staff. Sanitation engineers. We don’t have a lot to live for, according to Tomlin. He says this all the time and, lately, I’ve almost come to believe him. I’m not saying all janitors are automatically like this; somebody has to clean up the shit. But we’re employed by the world’s first and only fake Chinese hotel. Even if we work like imperial slaves, nothing else does. The lawn is always dying. It, too, stinks and is fake. Garth, the owner, bought lawn-carpets that look like grass and are supposed to eventually become grass. But now they’re just gigantic, rotting mats of corruption, and he knows it. The toilets back up or the pipes explode, weekly.

Eventually, everything stinks. Such is life.

As for us, Tomlin’s still hung over from his fourth divorce. And Marciel, our very own hypersensitive Oaxacan, is a now an Evangelical Spiritist awaiting God’s thunderbolt. The stable one might be Otis. He doesn’t believe in anything but television—not what’s on, but TV itself, the Muse, he says, of our civilization.

The news burbles low from a big-screen near the ceiling. These are strange days. A serial killer has just been given the death sentence in Texas, his execution a media event. Depressing, brutal wars in places we’ve never been taught to locate on a map. The earth hot, ready to pop, and everything dying all at once. We follow the news from the café or from our break room in the sub-basement—Otis shaking his head in dismay at what the Muse hath wrought, while Marciel prays under his breath.

The execution is now being performed in Dallas. The man on a gallows, black bag over his head, arms locked in a heavy leather harness. His picture squared in the corner of the screen: Warren Edward Ames, 35, hard cheekbones, mouth pressed to a single line, all 16 murders sitting in his stare.

“Death by hanging,” says Tomlin. “A classic. Rupture of the cervical vertebrae, laceration of the trachea, asphyxiation.”

“Messy.”

“Not true.” He smiles at me. “It’s all in the knot.”

“Don’t tell me you were a hangman before you worked here.”

Tomlin looks at me for a moment, sips his coffee. “I sold Buicks.”

CNN live. Amazing that they would show this on national TV. A verse from the Bible being read for the prisoner, who, the reporter notes, is a professed atheist.

“You didn’t sell Buicks.”

“Buicks,” says Tomlin. He stands up on a chair to flip the channel.

If Tomlin’s still trying to unwrap himself from his divorces, I’m trying to get unwrapped, too. But not unwrapped as in shed, as with skin or hang-ups. Unwrapped as in untwisted, made smooth, ironed out. If I could have one wish, I’d ask for a little bit of that, a little smoothness. In the deep end of the night, the very basement of the blackest, darkest hours of the night, when I wake to hear Beth weeping in the kitchen, I imagine normal life, how smooth it could be. When she weeps and prays at the same time, she sounds like she’s mewing out a different language, spreading tears on herself and the table. Crying for the son we gave up for all the good reasons we both agreed were good. For a son we kept for approximately two minutes and didn’t even name. Beth has recently nailed a crucifix in every room. And that’s where we are as a modern couple.

I tell Tomlin I’m thinking about buying a snake, and he just shakes his head.

“Save your money,” he says. “It’ll die eventually anyway.”

“Well, maybe I’ll feed it.”

“The fuck you will. You’ll forget or your wife’ll start having nightmares and chop it up while you’re at work.”

“Maybe I’ll get two, then. And hide one. So when she kills the first one, I can tell her Jesus raised it from the dead.”

Tomlin sighs, stares into his coffee cup.

We are emotional janitors.

I look to Tomlin as my moral compass. He’s an atheist, he says, which means he can’t pray; he can only hope—for a global nuclear war. He’ll smile and wink and say it’s best for everybody. Square the books. Take it back to before humans got out of control and became an infestation. He’s one of the few people who’ll be happy when all that’s left is smoking ash and twisted rebar. It’s an interesting approach to the world. How bad can things seem if you’re ready to burn at any given moment? Still, Tomlin says it’s not going to matter when some crazy fool rolls a hundred pounds of diesel into the Blossom’s lobby and lets the bitch burn. He says the world is becoming a disease-ridden corpse. Eventually, we’re all going to have to face the consequences. Tomlin is also fond of reminding me that, in lieu of a redeeming bullet in the back of the head, a good low-carbon straight razor costs $5.78. Applying it to one’s own throat costs nothing.

The Kitchen Staff snaps the TV off with their remote.

“One of these days,” Tomlin says, “I’m going to take an axe handle to that espresso machine.”

I nod slowly and glare at the Kitchen Staff with a fierceness.

“What about this,” he says. “Get a horned viper. A horned viper can bite you and you’ll just go to sleep. No pain. Dead in seconds.”

“That’s a myth.”

Tomlin looks at me and raises his eyebrows.

Of all the venomous snakes in Africa, Tomlin, Otis, and I have learned that the horned viper is actually the least likely to bite a human. We know this because the high school football team that stayed up on the twelfth floor five months ago left one in a bathtub. Marciel has a phobia about snakes, and so naturally he’s the one who found it when he went up to unclog the toilet. Since then, the rest of us have done a few snake searches on the internet, and Marciel has stayed as drunk as possible. He’s still going to the Evangelical Spiritual therapist, who told him the snake was a physical manifestation of the Devil—but added that it’s natural to feel anxiety about Satan and that we shouldn’t sublimate our emotions. I don’t think Evangelical therapy has been helping Marciel much considering all the sublimating he’s been doing with the apricot brandy he takes from the kitchen.

My cell phone rings. It’s Beth, so I ignore it. It has been something of a general policy of mine not to answer when it’s Beth. She hired a private investigator a year ago to find out all about our boy. He lives in Arizona now. He’s in preeschool. His name is Robert. I discover her in bed some days, holding the phone to her chest, dial tone carrying out of the receiver, and I wonder was she calling his house again. Our son. Not our son. I’ve stopped asking. Maybe I wonder sometimes how it might feel not to have to come home to this.

In two minutes—less than 113 seconds to be exact—I will have to go get Otis and check out the drainpipes on the mountainside where the hotel plumbing is supposed to empty out. Otis tells me we’re expected to wear hip-boots for the job, which does not bode well.

Garth beeps Tomlin on his walkie-talkie and they have a conversation about the roach problem in the second floor east wing. Guests are upset. Garth is pissed, screaming, his angry little voice coming through the two-way like some kind of Lilliputian tent preacher. But years in the janitorial profession have taught Tomlin to breathe and be the Zen master who speaks calmly and in short syllables. He is Master Po. Master Tomlin, the Silently Angry.

“No,” he says. “Yes. I understand. Right.”

“Can’t you just tell him they’re authentic roaches from Shanghai?”

Tomlin says nothing. He gets up and stalks away, a grim expression on his face.

I pick up our half-full Styrofoam cups and walk through the café. It’s made to look like an ornamental Chinese garden complete with fake bamboo, red paper lamps, black lacquered tables, and an artificial stream that works fifty-percent of the time. Koi can’t live in it, we’ve discovered. On my way out, I place the cups right on the inside of the café’s round, wooden door. Ten-to-one, when some guest walks through it, rancid coffee will go everywhere. Two-to-one, Tomlin will be culling the roaches and Marciel will be sleeping off a pint of sublimation. That means I will get the call, because the Kitchen Staff has made it abundantly clear they can’t be bothered with spills. It means I’ll have to take the hip-boots off and hightail it back up the mountain. Sorry, Otis. You should have prayed more to the Muse.

Abundantly clear. Some things just are. Like the fact that the local villagers of Pine Bluff, Colorado, have no idea what to make of The Blossom. Actually, let’s be real. Nobody has any idea what to make of it—not even Garth, if you decide to qualify him as a person.

Architecturally, it’s about as bogus as a hotel can get, a series of interconnected towers made from cheap concrete and gridded into floors. When I was fifteen, my uncle took me to a donkey bar in Tijuana that looked like that: a parking structure closed off and painted in bright primary colors. The Blossom is essentially the same thing without the donkey. Instead, for lovers of wildlife, there’s the crazed grizzly bear who Tomlin named Claudia, after his first wife, and who occasionally puts the fear of god into the guests by trashing their vehicles in front of them.

In aesthetic terms, the main differences between the Blossom and a donkey bar come down to a few green, tiled dragon corners and fake round windows that help create a sort-of pagoda façade. Ergo, Chinese hotel. Ergo, occasional Pine Bluffians coming halfway up the mountain road or watching from the tree line, bewildered expressions on their faces. Standing in my hip boots, covered in human and animal fecal matter, I have stared back, painfully aware that the tree line was not the only divider between my world and theirs—and burdened with the knowledge that the Blossom presides over everything like the last remaining ruin of an abandoned theme park, a dead world devoted to particleboard and leakage, cheap moldings and graft.

But let’s go with the idea of abundance, get right to the heart of it: me and Otis working our way down the side of the mountain with climbing ropes to unplug the sewer so the waste can run down the mountainside, through the forest, and into town like it’s supposed to. The sewage pipe is about two-hundred feet below, sticking straight out of the earth like a busted rib. And here’s Garth on the walkie-talkie: “Where are you, Otis? Otis? Give me your exact coordinates.” Garth is worried. Garth has had more than his usual four Red Bulls this afternoon. Maybe a fun line of cocaine up his nose. Maybe two.

He walks around most days in a brown silk robe, Ming-dynasty-style with matching slippers, high, trying to look like Wise Old Grandfather. Needless to say, Garth is 36, a straight-up white boy from Hackensack. The closest he’s probably come to China has been the Nee-Hou Restaurant in Trenton. But on a mountain in Colorado, maybe that’s enough. In the nineteen months of The Blossom’s history, the only affectation Garth has missed is the long, Emperor Ming fingernails, which he’s probably growing right now while Otis and I risk our lives for plumbing.

“We can see it,” Otis says into the two-way. “We have visual confirmation.” He slides a little lower on the line and hammers a piton between two boulders.

“Why do you talk like that?”

Otis cranes his neck so he can glare up at me. “Don’t trip, Ellis.”

“I heard what you said. You said, ‘visual confirmation.’”

“You’re trippin’, Ellis. Don’t trip.”

“Oh, I get it. Now you’re all trippin boo, but a minute ago you were, ‘Check. Roger. Visual target in sight, Captain.’”

“Fuck you.”

I laugh my hard laugh. I almost find him funny. I wonder if Otis is going to find it funny when I get to climb back up the line and he has to pipesnake the drain all by his lonesome. I’ll sure as shit be laughing then.

We secure ourselves on either side of the drain. This is accomplished by running nylon ropes through carabineers in Velcro waist harnesses that look like diapers. We’re wearing hip boots because, once we clear the drain, the nastiness will spray out like Hell’s own Trevi Fountain. For chest coverage, we’re wearing brown plastic trash bags. This is because, according to Tomlin (who’s done it before all by himself), it’s impossible to completely get the sewage out of rain slickers, coveralls, or hair. Otis pulls down his goggles and begins to unfold the deluxe fourteen-foot pipesnake.

I look down and imagine jumping. On his list of the twenty best ways for maintenance workers to die, Tomlin has defined number eleven as drowning in a water tower cistern filled with Bushmills single malt. Such a way to die would be, in the words of our beloved employer, the “quintessence of decadence.” With Garth, everything’s the quintessence of, indubitably, without a doubt, the paragon of, essentially.

In the world according to Garth, there are stylish ways to die and gauche ones, some flamboyant, others plain. Strange words from the man who pretends to be a different ethnicity to up his booking rate. But Garth doesn’t know what Tomlin claims to know: there may only be good ways to die; although, some may be better than others. Right now, dangling from a rope for the sake of someone else’s shit, I can’t think of a better exit than a lungful of County Antrim’s finest.

I’m waiting on the café spill call to save me, but it never comes. This means Otis sits on my right shoulder like a baby at the zoo—a large, bald, two-hundred-and-fifty pound baby, smelling of old cigarillos, in hip boots and a trash bag. I’ve got my own goggles on now because I’m the anchorman. And I really hope this works out since I’m staring right into the mouth of the pipe.

The pipesnake looks like a giant segmented bottle cleaner with a corkscrew at the tip. Otis works it in, giving it an angry twist every few inches.

“I hate this job,” he says.

“This job hates you.”

“You been hanging around Tomlin too much. Pretty soon, we’ll be out here looking for your body.”

“Don’t talk trash, Otis. Tomlin knows things. He knows things. You should listen to the man speak.”

“I listened to him,” says Otis, twisting the pipesnake almost all the way in. “Aha. Found the motherfucker.”

“You listened to him. But you didn’t hear him.”

I bend my knees and get ready to push off to the side. Otis will push off of me. And, if all goes well, the blocked-up shit will fire out between us. If all doesn’t go well, my plan is to at least keep my mouth closed.

“Tomlin never said much to me other than I should blow myself up for science,” he says.

We re-thread the ropes and get ready. I coil up as much energy as I can in my legs. Otis puts his left boot against my right shoulder, holds his line with one hand and yanks the pipesnake out with the other. We leap apart. A few hundred pounds of raw sludge goes into the air between us with a hiss. Aside from being coated by a fine sewer mist, Otis and I are mostly unviolated. We wait for the pressure to die down to a garden hose dribble before starting the slow climb back.

“You really think Tomlin knows a lot about science and cadavers and that?”

A few moments pass before Otis finds the energy to say, “Ellis, that’s just stupid.”

Beth has her friend, Lenorah, over with Lenorah’s two kids, Nell and Illy. I don’t know what the kids’ actual names are. Probably Nelson and Illyana. But who’s asking? The important thing is that, if the local toddler contingent is going to be represented, the local septuagenarian population should be present as well—namely Tomlin. He sits with a cup of coffee in the corner of the living room at our computer desk, surfs the net, and talks about as often as I do, which is to say, little. As Beth’s husband, I am required to sit right up next to the kids on the couch. I’m required to participate in socialization with my wife’s new friends, all of whom are fundamentalist Christians in their thirties with children under the age of ten. And they always get around, sooner or later, to the fact that we gave up our boy for adoption.

Tonight, it’s Lenorah: the sighing, coo-cooing, Jesus-loving center of the universe and her perpetually screaming, defecating offspring. But so be it. I got home from my mountaineering adventure, wanting nothing more than to shower off the corruption and go to sleep, only to find Lenorah T-minus fifteen minutes and counting. Enough time to entertain running to the car and flooring it or perhaps a few choice suicide fantasies. Enough time to say, “So be it,” over and over before calling Tomlin. I can always depend on the old smilodon to be free and available, even though to save face he has to say something like, “Well, I don’t know. I might have something going on. You’ll have to call me back.” Just like a schoolgirl. I usually call him later, and whatever it was has mysteriously fallen through.

Lenorah wrinkles up her nose and pokes Illy in the stomach. “Say Jesus loves me,” Lenorah says. “Say Jesus.” Illy gurgles “Jeegis,” before letting go in her diaper and trying to fit her fist in her mouth. Beth and Lenorah rejoice and laugh hysterically. Praise Jesus for such a cute kid. But Illy and I look at each other, and we know: just get the job done. That’s all life can ask. Say Jesus. Then it’s alright. Then you can load your diaper with a modicum of grace.

Much wooden laughter and baby talk from Beth and Lenorah. Though, occasionally they shoot each other highly critical, calculating looks. I wonder if my wife and her friend actually get along or if there’s some unspoken agreement that all fundamentalists must act like distant relatives meeting each other for the first time. Tomlin lets out a belch or my attention wavers, and I see Beth take on a different, yet equally critical, expression—the severe, smoking look of death that a wife usually reserves for younger, firmer women who may be trying to adhere to her man. However, when filth is adhering to your man ten hours a day, it appears that you get to save those looks for him and his buddies.

So be it.

Actually, I am rather undead. With every conversation about the goodness of adoption, I see Beth get a little more fundamentalist. As in “sinking into the fundament.” Buried in it. Brain-deep. She gets fundy and I get zombie. Now the process is almost complete for both of us. I sit, a faint smile on my face, and appreciate the kids. In instances where there are no kids, I nod seriously at Beth’s friends and make the little noises people make when they’re listening. I am allowed one beer. If I put on an especially convincing show, Beth will be satisfied that I’ve done my part and go to bed early, avoiding accusations, weeping, and the invocation of our Lord and Redeemer to brutally show me the error of my ways.

But I know the error of my ways.

“Here you go, Ellis,” says Tomlin. “Here’s your fuckin’ snake.”

There’s a general gasp from the couch. Tomlin points to the picture of a bright green snake with ruby eyes on the computer screen. He has no idea that all the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world just shattered at once. Lenorah hisses the way I imagine the snake would if someone called up a picture of a human in its living room and uttered something profane. She yanks Illy into the bathroom to change her diaper, and Illy starts crying.

I don’t want to look at Beth, so I look at Nell. He grins, and I count six teeth in his mouth, three spaced on the bottom and three together on the top. He’s looking at the snake.

“See that shit?” Tomlin winks at the boy and slurps some coffee. “That’s a fuckin’ emerald tree boa. You like that?”

Nell nods his empty little head and keeps grinning.

“I think you’re leaving now,” Beth says to Tomlin, and I know she’s gone pale the way she does right before she starts to shake from too much stress.

Lenorah comes back and says, “No, I think we’re leaving.” She takes Nell by the

hand and carries Illy out the door. Over Lenorah’s shoulder, Illy waves at me with the fist that was too large for her mouth. I wave back. In her own way, Illy’s telling me, let’s face it, tonight there will be crying. And in my way, I’m saying yes, I know. She looks at me with big, mournful, blue eyes and a tiny part of me, deep down, a tiny non-zombified centimeter, feels moved—one worker to another, Illy and I, we understand each other.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Beth expects me to do something about the fact that Tomlin just belched, called up another emerald tree boa on the screen, and cackled like the snake was some kind of dirty joke and he finally got the punchline.

“I’m waving at the kid.”

We look at each other for a moment before Beth stalks into the bedroom and shuts the door. There will be reprisals. There will be screaming. I wait and say “So be it” to the carpet twenty or thirty times, sensing my zombification reassert itself, willing it to rise up and take away that last bit of me that might want to start screaming, too. I feel as if I’m slowly turning to stone or, given my life, at least a low-grade cement statue of a janitor. And I say, so be it. That’s alright. I’ve done my part, my screaming.

This was before Beth had her breakdown. I screamed a lot before she had it, the complete and utter psychotic rip down the center of her brain. The way I imagine it—like the window of an airplane getting punctured at altitude—the contents of her mind sucked out the hole with so much hiss. And then she woke up one day. But she didn’t wake up. And she realized I was there, had been waiting there. But she didn’t realize. And she found Jesus. And she refurnished the interior of her brain. But I’m not fond of the décor.

I say: so be it, and everything’s okay. The adventures of statues are many and various. Statues get to be left alone in this world and probably have fewer problems. There’s always a place for statuary. And the successful ones get put in the Louvre. So there really is no glass ceiling when it comes to a statue’s upward mobility. Glass walls, maybe.

“That didn’t take long,” grins Tomlin. He whacks his paper coffee cup down beside the computer keyboard, and I realize his teeth are not that different from Nell’s. “Now we can get down to business. Did you know you can buy these bitches with a credit card right now?”

In the end, I bought four. Four snakes and no more room on the MasterCard. That’s it. I winced before I hit CONFIRM TRANSACTION but, according to Tomlin, if you’re going to ruin your credit, you might as well do it on emerald tree boas from the Amazon basin. And, goddamn it, he’s right. Thank Jesus. Or don’t. I’ve been walking around all day with one of them in the sleeve of my pink-orange coveralls. It’s wrapped around my arm, and it likes it there. I address it as Satan. I refer to the others as Maltodextrin, Cleano, and Colorado State Birding Trail as these were words I randomly noticed in the break room when I came to work. But Satan is my favorite.

For his part, Marciel talks Spanish to the Devil while pushing a housekeeper’s cleaning cart down the halls, telling the Prince of Darkness to get away, get back, get behind him. And Marciel gives me nervous looks whenever I go by. Maybe he’s seen snaky lumps shift and tighten under my coverall sleeves. Maybe he’s looked into my face and seen a emerald swamp-light there with zombies and snakes—thoughts of my marriage like a half-sunk raft stuck with mosquitoes. The Blossom is there, too, in my eyes, in the center of my swamp, its dragon corners enfolded in a dirty gauze of webs and vines, creepers and mold.

The night of Lenorah’s visit, I sleep little and drink much.

The next day, Beth moves in with her parents in Boulder for a week of complaining and prayer.

Then the snakes move in and Beth moves back.

For the love of sweet whiskey I’ve slept with my new reptilian friends in the Caprice since her return. Seven holy days of snakes and Bushmills, of plungers and mops in the blear-eyed stuporous day, and feeding live, white mice to the boas at night. Stretched out on the Caprice’s backseat, staring up at parking lot lights, I want to jump on Jesus, beat him senseless, and raise my angry little fists to heaven. I want to dive into a cistern of Bushmills and find the mystical portal to County Antrim. To join the Devil’s army and execute the helpless. To load my diaper and hold my breath. The whiskey itself is a serpent, a burning firesnake twisting into my lungs and coiling around my heart.

The snakes move on the seats of the Caprice, slither over the headrests. The mice don’t stand a chance. I’ve been able to tell Satan apart by the blue-gray stripe across his nose. But when he strikes, he’s invisible, like the others. All week, I sat in the back seat while my new friends slid over my thighs. It’s been a weird experience—being part of the hunting landscape. This is what Pine Bluff feels when Garth goes out in his war chariot with his bow like the Emperor Ming of old.

Today, Garth has called the maintenance staff to accounts, to an inquest of sorts. We stand before his mahogany desk—Marciel, Otis, Tomlin, and me, all covered in different degrees of filth. Garth presses his fingertips together. His long nails are coming in nicely. His blond Fu Manchu has gotten downright respectable. He’s wearing a brown satin cap with Chinese characters on it and a yellow T-shirt that says, Boston Marathon 1988.

“You people,” says Garth, “have no values. No value system. No guiding functions. You’re acting like peasants.”

In the normal course of human events, when someone addresses a group with “You people,” a certain amount of hostility usually results. The phrase conjures up white-columned houses and tobacco plantations, red-faced state governors and chain gangs. Nobody wants to be “You people.” But my fellow sanitation engineers just sigh at their shoes, perhaps even in agreement. Peasants. Even Tomlin, especially Tomlin. What I took as Zen remove, as the calm, Master Po-ness of one who’s seen it all and is now wise beyond his station, is proving to be nothing more than tiredness, resignation, peasantry. It feels like a general, unspoken agreement that, yes, we all suck—not just because we’re janitors, but because we’re low-down human specimens.

Maybe we should blow ourselves up for science.

“You need iron balls to be in hotels. IRON. You know what iron is, Ellis?”

I nod. I also know what unemployment is and hate myself for knowing it while nodding.

“Now we have a fucking roach problem, second floor east. And five guests have left. Who’s fault is that? Mine? You guys fucked up. The roaches haven’t fucked up. The roaches are doing their jobs. They’re on-task. That means you guys are, right now, lower than the fucking roaches.”

Garth’s eyes are bugging out slightly from whatever stimulant has frothed him up to this angry place. His blonde Fu Manchu vibrates as he talks. That Garth is a strange cat is beyond question. Maybe at one point, the whole ancient Chinese motif was a put-on. But somewhere along the path toward having us pull his war chariot through the forest so he could shoot arrows at deer, Garth crossed over. He swivels around and sprinkles some incense on the hot iron brazier behind his desk. Then he presses his fingers back together and looks over them.

“You need direction.” He nods to himself. “You need a guiding philosophy.”

Just like the war chariot, his office is done up in red and gold. The black wrought iron incense brazier hangs down to desk-level by a chain. A jade luck dragon slithers across the front edge of his desk. And a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary always sits in an ornate wooden bookstand from the Eastern Han Dynasty, open to the word of the day.

We know about these artifacts because Garth takes the time to explain them. He’ll call one of us in to talk about, say, a forgotten puddle of vomit or a mess left by Claudia, Tomlin’s favorite grisly bear, who likes to rip off trunk hoods and upend cars. Garth will begin in a coked-out furor—all twisted up about how the puke bonded with the hallway carpet at the molecular level and how now everything needs to be ripped out or how Claudia couldn’t get to a bag of dog food and wound up flipping a Corolla down the mountainside in frustration. But Garth’s lectures invariably end with: This is an authentic. AUTHENTIC. Vhass from the time of Cao Cao. Look at it. See that crack? That was made when Hua Tuo delivered his famous speech on the significance of the sunrise. Like that. Garth knows what he’s talking about, as far as any of us can tell. We stopped trying to cross-check him with the internet long ago.

So, when he hands each of us a new copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we hold it in our hands and blink and nod. We’re lower than the fucking roaches, but we can read The Art of War.

“Simply put,” he says, “this is battle. This is conflagration. Chaos. Life is a struggle and you people—maybe not you, Tomlin—but the rest of you fuckers have no idea what’s going on. You’re stupid. You’re lazy. And you’re your own and the Blossom’s worst enemies.” Garth sniffs. His pupils are tiny.

I’d like to say I’ve never been spoken to like this, that I’ve got a smudge of self-respect left on my zombie heart, but I look at my shoes like everyone else. This isn’t the first of Garth’s speeches we’ve had to enjoy. I’m thinking about Satan, who’s traveled up my right arm and coiled around my shoulder. Marciel, looking as contrite as an altar boy, is doubtless dreaming about apricot sublimation or the Prince of Darkness, while Tomlin imagines everyone dead and Otis tries not to trip. But we all look sufficiently browbeaten by the time Garth takes another breath.

“One thing I want for you. One thing—no matter if you keep this job or not—is for you to pull yourselves up. Take responsibility for once in your sorry lives.” He sits back and wipes sweat from under his eyes even though the room is cool and smells of purple lotus. “So I need two things. One, no cockroaches on second floor east. Two, this immortal manual for life and warfare read by this day next week. There will be a test, and then we’ll see who keeps his job. Now fuck off.” Garth puts his feet up on his desk and closes his eyes, exhausted.

Tomlin takes a cigarette out of the pack on the desk and puts it between Garth’s parted lips. Otis lights it. Without opening his eyes, Garth blows a funnel of smoke over his head, where it mingles with the incense. We file silently out of the room and Marciel shuts the door softly behind us. I turn the book over, and read the back: An immortal manual for life and warfare written by perhaps the greatest military thinker of all time.

When I get home, a fundamentalist prayer circle is being held in my living room.

What does this mean, you ask?

I am a man of routine: after feeding five white mice to the boas (Garth’s voice in the back of my head tells me the most enterprising snake should get a one-mouse bonus), I plan to sneak in through the bathroom window for some stealth hygiene. Such an operation consists of showering, brushing my teeth, and shaving as quietly as possible in the dark. I am highly skilled. Catlike, I plan to slip out the window again and drive to the Blossom, where I will park and sleep in the car. But today, I’m worried. There’s a prayer circle in my living room where there should only be dust, vinyl, and remorse.

In a cardboard box in the trunk, I’ve got a bouquet of the silk flowers Beth collects, a new pink satin bathrobe (on which I paid to have a B monogrammed), a white teddy bear Jesus with a plush crown of thorns and a puffy red heart on its tummy that reads, I forgive you because I love you!, and a brand-new copy of Chicken Soup for the Quilter’s Soul to bring my wife’s Chicken Soup collection up to date; though, to my knowledge, she does not quilt. These are the peace offerings I plan to leave in conspicuous locations around the house over the course of several days.

But with ten fundamentalists in my living room, casting prayer circles and calling up Jesus from the netherworld or whatever it is they do, there’s no room for plush teddys and forgiveness. They close ranks; Chicken Soup becomes just another demonic manifesto; and I become 100% sinner in everything for all time. Period. Another possibility—that they’re actually in there waiting for me—means they could be some kind of protestant Inquisition, some kind of radical Christian Schutstaffel, waiting to crucify me over the fireplace with sanctified nails and eat my soul. I peer through the windshield into the big living room window for a few minutes then put the car in reverse.

Man: “What is corruption?”

Jesus: “It’s you.”

The Devil: “It’s nothing.”

Sun Tzu: “Have you looked on the other side of that hill?”

The hill: rooms 144 through 168. The roaches have been uncharitably horny. It doesn’t matter that we’re about to unleash a boiling tide of death-spray designed to kill them all or that such chemicals will probably shorten our lifespans by ten years. It doesn’t matter that we work for a corrupt, coke-snorting asshole who likes to play dress up. What does matter, according to Otis, is deception:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Otis stands with us outside Room 144, delivering The Art of War as if it were a fiery Baptist sermon designed to cast out demons. He holds the text at arm’s length and looks down his nose through his spectacles, gas mask pushed up on top of his head like a second face turned toward heaven.

Tomlin’s got his own mask down, locked to the PVC collar of his hazmat suit. His breath comes in soft hisses. He sounds like Colorado State Birding Trail the morning I woke up on the backseat of the Caprice with its body outlining the curvature of my skull: don’t worry. Everything will be okay as soon as another mouse comes along. I didn’t have the heart to tell the snakes that I’m the one providing the mice, not some benevolent snake god in the sky. Tomlin isn’t a snake or a snake god; though, he sounds like a monstrous python when he breathes. And he looks like a cartoon armadillo—long snout, dual filters at the bottom of the mask suggesting flared nostrils or some kind of round baleen as if the air were a dirty ocean. Hissing, waiting, Tomlin glares at us, his thumb on the red button of his sprayer.

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy,” reads Otis. “Feign disorder, and crush him.”

“Yes,” says Marciel, oddly sober today and excited, ready for battle.

Attack him where he is unprepared. Appear where you are not expected.”

“Yes!”

“In order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger!”

“Yes! Yes!”

“That there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their REWARDS!”

“¡MATE A LAS CUCARACHAS!”

And with that battle cry, Marciel kicks open the door to Room 144 and opens up, screaming, with his NCC-18 B&G Sprayer, loosing a full gallon of Cypermethrin into the air. Otis and I also start screaming, running back up the hallway, trying to get our gas masks locked to our suits.

We go to the hospital to visit Marciel, who is in surprisingly stable condition after inhaling a massive amount of insecticide. In the small coppice of oaks and willows behind the pathology lab, I release Satan, Cleano, Maltodextrin, and Colorado State Birding Trail back into nature. I would have released them somewhere near the Blossom but for the fact that they are snakes. As a result of Claudia the Bear’s gentle ministrations with the cars in the Blossom’s parking lot, the guests are already nervous. Someone’s grandma would find Satan in her coleslaw and, much like Solomon Kane, the great Puritan witch hunter, I or one of my unfortunate colleagues would be called to destroy the evil with iron and fire.

“You realize,” says Otis, leaning against a tree, “that by letting them free out here, you’re probably killing them. This isn’t their . . .”

“Habitat,” says Tomlin.

“Yeah, habitat.”

I’m not listening. Everything will not be okay as soon as another mouse comes along. Maybe I’m the only one present who understands that. I feel sad as I watch Cleano test the air with his tongue and begin to move tentatively, carefully, under a bramble.

“Dead today. Dead tomorrow. What’s the difference?” Tomlin smiles and shrugs. But, quite frankly, I am sick to death of his phony death-worship shit. Only he survived our war against the roaches unscathed, the Blossom’s WMDs having blessed Otis and me with a certain lingering incontinence. More than any of us, Tomlin had been concerned for his own safety.

I turn toward him with lightning in my eyes: “Tomlin? Why don’t you go blow your ass up for science, you old phony bastard?”

“You’re gonna see,” he screams as I make my way back to the hospital lot. “You’re gonna see as you get old! It all gets worse! Worse!”

Maybe it gets worse. Maybe it gets better. For better or worse, I go home. There are Christians again in my living room. I know they are Christians because their expressions harden when they see me. They’ve finished another prayer circle. I don’t know what for. It must have been a long one because they all look a little drained. They’re sitting around, eating potato chips. Three of them watch a sitcom on my television, laughing when they should. I notice that Lenorah is absent, still recovering, no doubt, from her little, profane adventure at our house.

The guy making my wife laugh is fortyish with a bit of a belly. Young in the face but balding, delicate wisps of blond arcing over his scalp. His smile fades when he looks at me.

“Who’s this?” he asks Beth in the tone and manner of a nervous adolescent boyfriend about to snap.

Beth says nothing, looks at the carpet, stone-still.

“I live here, too,” I say.

Beth looks up at me. Suddenly. Like someone switched on the wattage in her face. “No,” she says, “you live in your car.”

“We put your stuff in the yard,” says the guy. He gives me a little, knowing smile.

“These are my friends,” says Beth.

A man who loses his home and his snakes in the same day is unfortunate, sayeth Sun Tzu. And if he didn’t sayeth it, he should have. It’s late. The Blossom café is empty. The Kitchen Staff sees that I am alone, maybe senses that something is amiss: chum in the water. They circle in the distance, letting their fins break the surface, swishing their tails.

The CNN loop doesn’t show the actual execution. The volume is off. Now it’s Warren Edward Ames looking out silently at the world. The news ticker runs across the bottom of the screen, informing us that the President has announced he intends to go back to school after his term is up. Then a lurid, two-second clip of the gallows, the red jumpsuit, the black bag over Ames’ head.

The Kitchen Staff stares. One of them ventures closer, wipes down one of the small black tables with a dishcloth. A true blue-collar veteran. Her face is leathery, eyebrows drawn in severe arcs. She’s got the forearms of a dockworker. She peers at me, curious. I’m a dangerous property. I’m plutonium. I look pretty worked-over. She’s not sure about me. She might be wiping tables at ground zero. When she straightens up, I see all her night shifts. I see her telling herself she’s hard. The stresses of the years that put their stamp on her. She’s marked by them, the way Warren Edward Ames is marked by what he’s witnessed. And Tomlin by what he hasn’t.

A terrible weariness sits on my heart.

I glance away. I don’t want her to see that I understand her. Because if she sees my recognition and her face falls, if she drops her hostility and stops believing she’s a tough, cast-iron broad, what then? At least, she’s got belief working for her. She’s found something, a shelter. Like Marciel with his brandy or Garth with his Blossom. I stare at my unlit cigarette, at my nails cracked with grime.

“What’s wrong with you?” She’s spooked, holding the dishcloth in front of her body like a protective charm. I smile and light up. But I guess my smile is odd.

“I’m not sure.” I blow a puff of smoke above my head and wink at her.

Garth’s voice crackles over the two-way: “The BEAR!” his precious, little squeal full of coke and dread. “The bear’s in the west lot! It just mauled a Honda! DO NOT GO OUTSIDE! For the love of god. Tomlin. Otis.” Garth weeps, mumbles. The signal breaks off with a beep.

The woman backs away from me, nervous, wary.

“I’ve seen your kind before,” she says. “Crazy eyes. You smell like shit.”

I shrug. Smoke leaks out from the corners of my grin.

“Fuck this.” She throws the dishcloth down and runs for the kitchen.

I want to cry but I smoke my cigarette, smile, and tell myself I’ve got a shelter.

* Note: this story appeared in Gravity, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2009. Buy it here.