The Forbidden City

Oh no. She’d send you there, wouldn’t she? She’d transport you there just so she could feel your pain and write about it. But you’re not going. You’re never going back to Texas. Not for fame. Not for money. Not for the glory of Victoria Volt. Not for that article she wants you to outline. Not for anything. Not on your life.

Sure. You check your bags in at SFO and get on the plane. You hate everything about yourself as far as Nevada. You can’t imagine the number of things Victoria demands, all the things she wants from you. You don’t want any of them back. There might have been a time when the deal could have been reciprocal. But now, no. Now you’re lost in lackeyland. If you had a personal life, it’s dead. Working for Victoria kills.

While you’re cursing and grinding Delta peanuts and hating yourself for giving in again, the perfect date is going on two blocks east of Coit Tower back in San Francisco at a little café called Nunu’s—where the perfect couple is getting together under a Tiffany lamp with carpets on the floor and drinks and everything good. There’s no weird. There’s no crazy. No pretend happy. No dull-eyed shrugs. No lying. No flight to DFW. Your boyfriend, Dane, and his new girlfriend, Adriana, will have their perfect date and then get married and live the rest of their lives together and die on the same day and be buried in the same grave and everyone will talk about how right and how beautiful it all was.

None of that will ever happen in or anywhere near Texas. The last time you were there, you saw a house out in the desert half-full of sand, a dead horse by the side of the road, a coyote wandering in circles because it drank from a poisoned spring. Years ago, your older brother, Stevie, dead in a Lubbock parking lot. The Klan and rancid TexMex and border towns that look like the zombie apocalypse. There’s a vein of spite flowing up in the contrails of the sky and blocked up anger in bowels of the earth. Texas is a tragedy. It hates you and maybe your dog and the President. It isn’t a state of the Union; it’s a state of disunion, a wretched state of mind, of being in a rotten place at a lousy time with locusts and bad Santeria and guns. To hell with Texas. But that’s redundant.

Victoria doesn’t believe in direct flights and always sends you coach. The plane is packed and smells of all the drama and passion of the Lone Star State. You can’t get away from it. The guy sitting next to you once had curly brown hair but now it’s gray and his name is, in fact, Curly. Dark blue jeans, plaid long-sleeved shirt, suede blazer, his fingers covered in silver and turquoise. Curly introduces himself at pushback, shaking your hand a little too long, grinning a little too much. He drinks beer after beer, telling you about his life in San Antonio and asking too-personal questions when you’d prefer to brood in silence.

“Little lady, whatcha got there? What do you do for a living? You married?”

“No.”

“Got a boyfriend?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. Because you do, right?

“You live in San Francisco, don’tcha? I can tell. You got a San Francisco accent.”

He tells you he owns a chain of vegetarian restaurants and he figures that being from San Francisco, you’d be into that. You look at Curly and think, yes, he looks like Texas. He drinks beer like Texas. His name is Texas. And you’re thinking that everything about him comes straight out of the old stereotype you knew as a girl, when your dad would make you drive part of the way, long distance from Bakersfield to his refrigerator factory in Lubbock. You hated Texas for that reason alone. On some other level, you knew it was your father’s attempt to spend some quality time. But it didn’t feel like anything but a rolling prison to your 12-year-old self, forced to drive the truck while your father read the paper or slept in the passenger seat. That drive from Bakersfield to Texas. It was shit. And then your brother died.

Still, you’re thinking that this Curly might actually be okay. Slightly unstable—but who doesn’t seem slightly unstable if you look closely enough—an affable old coot. And when it comes to men from Texas it might not get much better than “old coot.” Old coot might be the best that Texas ever has to offer. So you think: maybe. Maybe the odds are getting better. Maybe, on this trip, Texas won’t be what it has always been, a depressing, disturbing bout of alienation and repugnance.

Then he starts talking about his restaurants. “Are you a vegetarian, little lady?”

“Yes.”

“Well shit you have to come to my restaurant in Houston. I own about 15 of the fuckers.” He gives you his card. It says Silver Star Vegetable HouseCurly Morgan, CEO. A white card with an embossed star in the middle, shaped out of silver leaves.

“Really? Texan vegetarian cuisine?”

“We grow all our own produce. Science is amazing. I can grow a bell pepper half as big as a Volvo. Have you ever eaten a mutant bell pepper just for dinner? A stuffed bell pepper? We put sour cream in those fuckers. Shredded cheese? Fake tofu bacon chips? Just dump it in there. I got some of them bigger than a plate. They look like small dogs. It’s amazing. People love it. And you know what? You don’t have to eat meat to have food that good.” He pounds the arm rest, takes a fierce gulp of beer. Curly really cares about his mutant peppers.

“That’s interesting.” What else are you going to say? You’re stuck with the mutant vegetable restaurant tycoon of the universe for the next three hours.

“Yeah, and it’s real popular with the tourists who come from, you know, California.” He winks. “A lot of tourists come in terrified, traumatized, because they think Texas is all just steer and beer. But we grow our own stuff.”

At this point, you’re fighting a flashback, thinking of Jim Logue, your father’s partner. Creepy Uncle Logue, who always came by for dinner whenever you and your father got into Lubbock. He managed the refrigerator factory and did everything while your father was home in California. Uncle Logue used to poke you in the shoulder and say you were growing up to be a sexy little thing and to call him in 5 years.

That creepy-crawly feeling you’d get from Uncle Logue—that’s what Curly’s giving off. Only he’s not thinking about you. He’s thinking about a Honcho bell pepper as big as a small dog. It makes you wonder what Curly gets up to with his mutant bell peppers at night when nobody’s around. And suddenly, all the possible ideas you have about what Texas could be, vanish into what it clearly is. You look around the plane and realize that nothing changes—that every city in Texas has a different permutation of the same dysfunctional human blight. Uncle Logue was supposed to teach Stevie the business. But Stevie got killed. He’d only been in Texas for a few months.

“People need it big. They want it now, you know? And if it moves, we can kill it dead. And if it don’t move, we can cook it,” Curly says with his vegephile grin. That’s how it is. People need it big.

Why you choose to live in California: everybody who hasn’t been to California says Los Angeles, fires, crazies, gangs, riots, San Francisco, godless homosexuals, cults, earthquakes, falling into the ocean, weirdo freak Democrat liberals. But maybe that’s okay. And even if that’s all there is, you’ll take it any day. In fact, the perfect day in San Francisco goes like this. You’ll get up late and you’ll take the BART from Hayward into the City. You’ll have a crepe at Tart-to-Tart and walk down 7th Street pleased with the world. Then you’ll go by the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park and look at the dogs playing on the grass and at the wandering peacocks and the Korean girls trying to make sense of tourist maps on rented bicycles.

The sky will be blue. And someone will be doing Tai Chi beside a pond. The disc golfers will be laughing. You’ll pause to watch a mime do the entire second act of Hamlet, playing all the characters himself. And then you’ll go sit by the stone lion in front of the de Young museum, where there’s an Andy Goldsworthy installation that’s just a crack that runs down the center of the entryway. You’ll wait and nobody will notice it, thinking it’s just a crack in the concrete. And you’ll enjoy watching everyone, until a crowd of extremely self-conscious tourists in electric blue jumpsuits arrives on Segways. And then you’ll go in and look at the art. And this will be your day.

Curly’s ordering another Amstel, flirting with the flight attendant. You’ve bored him. You put his card in your pocket and close your eyes. You’d give anything to have a job that’s stable, that would allow you to pay your bills and live back in the City. And then Dane would realize that you are around and that he really does love you. But life isn’t like that. It would be too perfect. That perfect couple on their perfect date back in San Francisco are as far from Texas as Texas is from anything good.

Knowing this, you also know the fault is yours. You’re the one that got on the plane, telling yourself you had to. Your last experience in Houston (fiancée George, dentist, mistake) was as horrific as your first experience in Waco (12 years old, on a trip with dad, thrown from a horse, six weeks in bed). Sitting in the factory office in Lubbock for hours with nothing to do but watch the workers load refrigerator shells into the backs of trucks. Stevie in his coffin, laid out in a black suit that he’d never worn while he was alive, the deep cuts in his cheeks spackled and rouged. Texas has enough bad memories and ghosts for you to fill the back end of a horror story—when all you want is to make up with Dane, at least to break even as friends, at least to walk with him down Embarcadero one more time and look at the bay. But here you are.

So you touch down in the mutant cyclops state that only gets one star. DFW’s full of idiots in cowboy hats, morons in mongoose, monitor lizards in Durango dusters. And you’re going to get on that connecting Fokker F-27 and it’s going up in the sky and coming down in Houston. Blind date in Texas? Oh yes, motherfucker, you’re all about it. You’re doing it for Victoria. You’re doing it to get paid. You’re doing it because she forces you to do things like this. And then she’ll write about it as if she did it herself and you’ll fade into freelance vapor. You’ll try to recover, curling up in your studio apartment in Hayward, feeling like a beaten animal, nursing your wounds. Blind date in Texas? Shit, you’re helping Victoria Volt get famous. You’re fueling her image, doing what she’s supposed to be doing instead of raising her son on 7 acres in upstate New York, eating vegan, and going to yoga twice a day. Research assistant? There’s no such thing in Texas. You’re going to wind up skinned in a barn, tied up on a farm, overwhelmed by locusts, lynched by rednecks.

You get off the plane and avoid the urban cowboys, the dudes with handlebar moustaches trying desperately to look like Sam Elliott. You sit in a small bank of chairs far away from everyone between the boutique that offers bells and little glass angel chimes and the food court with four varieties of Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que. It’s a trade-off. You have to smell the meat, sauce on a slab of death, but it’s far enough from the gates to discourage new cowboy friends.

The first thing you have to do before you read the files Victoria sent is check your email—the special account you have just for messages from She Who Must Be Obeyed. You open your laptop and go through the motions. There she is. She’s left you the usual video message. She has the clearest skin of any woman you’ve ever seen. Short brown hair in a bob and a radiant white smile—so constructed, so perfectly put together that it makes you think of an artificial sun. She wears blue contacts, does Yogalates multiple times a day. She has an obese 10-year-old boy named Frederick, but there isn’t an ounce of fat on her body. In fact, Victoria has biceps cut so severely you can see them ripple.

Her face is frozen on the screen in that perfect smile, ready to deliver the usual instructions, veiled threats, and warnings about spending any unnecessary money. You plug your headphones into the computer and notice Curly embracing a tall Asian man, dressed in a black suit, black Stetson, and a clear glass bolo tie with a spider encased in it. They’re standing right in front of you, but Curly doesn’t notice.

Curly says, “Well, shit, Robbie, what the hell have you been doin’ with your life?”

Robbie bows. “Do you want me to get your bags, Mr. Morgan?”

Then you hit play and your patron and mentor, Victoria Volt, begins her pronunciamento, which will regulate and define all things for the next minute and 38 seconds of your life: “Hi Allison,” she says, losing her smile a little as if your name were a term for something necessary yet disappointing. “I hope you’re well. By now, I’m sure you’re already either on the plane or touching down in my favorite state. I understand it’s not your favorite state, but let’s not forget this is a job I need you to do. You’re going on a blind date, Allison! This should make you happy. Does it make you happy? It makes me happy thinking that you’ll be getting out for a change with an eligible guy. This is as much for you as it is for me. You need to get out more, you know. By sending you on this trip, I’m doing my part to help you out. And if writing comes out of it, then all the better, right? Think of it as a paid vacation. I’m paying you to go out on a date. How much better could it be? And this guy, Harley Winslow, he’s perfect for a human interest piece. I discovered him through a friend of mine at the Houston Chronicle. Harley’s amazing. He used to be a travelling preacher, but now he raises alpacas on a farm and it’s really fantastic because he wrote a book. Would you believe it? It’s a book about dating.”

She holds the book too close to the camera then pulls it back and the image of a glowing white crucifix on a hill comes into view with a man and a woman holding hands and kneeling before it. “It’s called Sacred Love: the Words of Jesus as the Ultimate Guide to Life and Romance. How about that? I think he might be an idiot, which would be perfect.” She puts down the book and raises her eyebrows. Directive number one: make sure you note any details that would make him seem like a fool.

“Anyway, he’s not very attractive. Not too hunky. At least by my standards. But he’s certainly interesting. You need to find out all about him. I think he’s human interest gold. Magazine readers would find him very entertaining. Don’t you think so? I hope you do. You’d better.” Victoria smiles—not at you, but beyond the webcam lens at the Universe, with whom she shares various running jokes. You watch the video a second time with a certain Zen detachment.

Victoria’s real last name, her maiden name, is Vichinsky. You have no idea what her husband’s last name is. Victoria would send you into a swamp to investigate alligators. But she’d do it with a wink and her supernova smile. Every time she sends you on a job, which is about once every three weeks according to her writing schedule, she frames it as something that’s good for you, something that can make you better and more like her. If you thought in such terms, you might be flattered, since she’s the most attractive competent woman you know; though, you suspect she spends hours a day on her appearance. You also suspect she’s OCD, a hypochondriac, and very possibly an agoraphobe.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is: you have a job to do. As you watch people from the plane drift into Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and drift out, looking slightly bilious and poisoned, you realize that part of Victoria’s success and beauty lies in the fact that she hardly ever leaves home or deviates from her schedule. She lives on several acres of old farm land in upstate New York in a barn that has its own air purification system and is riot-proof. It’s even got a moat. On those rare occasions that she does go out, she checks the driving routes in case everything hits the fan while she’s on the highway. Her husband carries a gun to protect her.

She has only granted an in-person audience to you once—when she hired you. And, even then, there was a certain skittishness about her, the sense that you might, in fact, be a vector for some kind of bacteria that would eventually kill her and her entire family. These are things the world doesn’t know about Victoria Volt, columnist, celebrity, who has appeared on Oprah, Doctor Phil, The O’Reilly Factor, and even Charlie Rose. Radiant avatar of failed marriage and doomed romance, hidden away in her secret temple in Saugerties, New York, who has written many books, who is everywhere and yet nowhere. The times she has to do a show or an interview are periods of great stress and there’s always a blackout interim before and after in which she speaks to no one—probably doing Yogalates.

You open the Word file that Victoria sent. It gives contact details, your motel, what she wants you to do. Victoria writes that Harley calls himself Lord Harold sometimes, which is his bowling club nickname. He was an itinerant preacher on the old chitlin circuit. He went to Hosanna Bible College of North Texas and drove around in a 1972 Winnebago with a box full of Gideon Bibles, sanctified nails, and gallon milk jugs of holy water. He was casting out devils, exorcising the peoples—until he had a faith crisis and became a Unitarian. Then the Longree Pentecostal Sanctuary in Bethel kicked him out. He started selling power tools door-to-door, but that didn’t work, either, because he was more interested in talking about the Lord. So now what does he do? Now he’s a cell phone salesman at The Galleria in Houston and he raises alpacas. He does Christian Star Wars reenactments in his spare time. This is the guy she wants you to go out with—the embodiment of everything Curly could have been had he made slightly different decisions and not had a fetish for oversized Honcho peppers.

There’s a small photograph embedded in the Word document. Harley’s details: 6’2” tall; sunburned pink scalp under sparse blond hair; blue eyes; small nose; thin lips, but a prominent chin with a cleft. In the picture, he’s wearing a western shirt with pearled snaps. And you think he isn’t attractive, but he doesn’t look that bad. More like an extra in a cowboy movie. Someone you take for granted as you’re watching a young Clint Eastwood put a steel plate under his poncho to stop bullets before a gunfight. Victoria has set you up on a date with this man in order to vicariously live it and write about it. Yes. Okay. You can do this. You’re a professional. But dating for money sounds like something else—something that almost came up before. What if Victoria decides to write about what it’s like to be a hooker again? Does she send you out to some guy’s apartment and tell you it’s going to be good for you? Every now and then, she tries to broach the subject.

You’ve got 20 minutes before boarding starts for the short flight to Houston. So you wander around the airport. There’s a kiosk with shelves of tiny ceramic dogs. Serapes are hanging everywhere for sale, more serapes than in all of Mexico. And DFW smells like dust. The hot dust of Texas. Even in the hermetically sealed biodome of an airport, the outside world will seep in over time. And this is true even here at Dallas-Fort Worth. The airport resembles a dystopian bubble city from bad 70s science fiction—with its own rail system and outlying terminals designed to contain a terrorist blast. You think DFW probably has machines in the basement that could independently support it as a city-state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Logan’s Cattle Run. You can even see the dust on some of the people just in through security. You wonder if you’re going to smell like Texas when you get back and how many showers it will take to get it off you. This is something Victoria would know.

In the restroom, you look at yourself in the mirror, your brown hair has streaks of gray in it like little lightning bolts of death. Gray already at 31. You keep your hair tied back most of the time. It’s easier that way. You haven’t worn nail polish or lipstick in a dog’s age and why would you? All you do is work. And the type of work you do doesn’t require you to look like Victoria Volt. It requires a laptop, focus, and self-discipline most days. When you have to meet with someone, you have the basic ensemble ready—a black two-piece Donna Karin business suit, a few silk blouses.

But right now, you’re wearing the blue Cal sweatshirt that belonged to Dane. You kept it because giving it back would have been like giving him back to the world. And that isn’t on the docket. He’s still your boyfriend. Looking at yourself, at your gray in the mirror, you feel a wave of sadness rise up through the center of your being. But nothing’s changed. Everything’s on track. You’re going to do this job, make 2 gs. You’re going to go back to the bay area and call Dane and he’ll actually answer the phone and you’ll go out and have dinner at the aforesaid chic little café called Nunu’s, his favorite.

If you don’t call him your ex, he’s not really your ex—Dane now has Adriana and, yes, she’s from Brazil. But it’s because you’re never around. And really, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of Victoria. Adriana’s a model who doesn’t shower. And even though she stinks, she’s possibly the most well-put-together woman you’ve ever seen in real life other than Victoria. Her father owns a villa in Belo Horizonte, which you know because Dane has a framed picture of it on his wall. And when you come by his place to check on all your things still in his closets, Adriana’s always there and you leave faster than you arrive. Victoria wants you to write about that, too—at least to make an outline for her as usual and work “frenemy” into the title.

The crowd on the Fokker F-27 is sparse, which is strange because the trip from DFW to Houston is popular, but today there’s hardly anyone on the plane. You have an entire row to yourself. Below, the tawny lion hide of Texas goes past as the plane reaches 37,000 feet. The flight attendants are all female, blonde, and look vaguely porny. Centerfold material. They have a festive air. They’re telling jokes to each other, imitating people they know and laughing hysterically. The few passengers consist of a South Asian gentleman who goes to sleep immediately, three old ladies sharing a crochet bag, a business man on his day off in an Izod polo and a baseball cap, reading the Wall Street Journal, and you.

It will be a short flight. You consider watching Victoria’s message again. But you know Harley’s waiting for you. He told Victoria he’d pick you up at the terminal. You won’t have a chance to put yourself together. He’s going to be there from the minute you set foot in Houston—another thing you don’t like. But you’re not being paid to look good for Harley Winslow or even to like him. You are a prosthetic eye that will not be touched and that’s how it’s going to be. You are the agent, representative, and sometimes ghost writer for a famous author. So you put your laptop back in its leather shoulder bag, drink the 7-Up that Miss November just brought you and close your eyes, listening to the hiss and rumble of the plane. Someone had too much Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and it’s evident. Your seat is up against the restroom bulkhead. You close your eyes and try to ignore the smells and sounds of air sickness coming through the wall.

This is your life. You had a Confucian exit strategy as recent as last year—the cheerful retreat, the thank-you-for-teaching-me-so-much-master, the take-care-can-I-use-you-as-a-reference sort of thing. But reality: you don’t know how to operate a hydro-encephelator or manage IT security for an auto parts chain or give MRIs. You could apply to wash dishes at Golden Wok across from the library in Hayward. You could maybe get a job selling shoes at the mall. Instead, Victoria pays you $2,000 to spend the weekend riding along to meth labs with the LAPD. She then sells the article to Vogue, “Dark Days: Victoria Volt goes Undercover in the Inland Empire.” Your title.

She acts like she’s your mentor, like she’s grooming you to be her. But you’re already Victoria in many ways, her muse, her lackey. She supports herself with blogs and pastel-colored books on divorce. She’s the divorce queen. The diva of despair. Five Things I Learned from Divorce. Vengeance and the Abandoned Spouse. Things You Should Never Do After a Divorce. Men: Do we Need Them? Seven Things About Me You Didn’t Learn Until You Divorced Me. You Haven’t Divorced Me…Yet! Maybe You Haven’t Divorced Me But It’s Like We’re Already Married So Maybe You Could. And What I Hate About You: A Book of Holiday Lists.

Victoria has a problem. But it isn’t divorce. She’s married to a guy she calls “The Plumber” because he’s a plumber. But there’s supposed to be a double meaning in that. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just The Plumber. She has attempted to castrate him 17 times with a wood chisel. It’s an ongoing project. And she writes about it, about how he’s distantly amused by it: The Plumber comes into the room and says, “Tried to use the chisel on me last night, eh?”

She has written that the Plumber sleeps in a different bedroom. She needs to pick the lock every time she wants in. But he’s always one step ahead of her. He leaves crumpled up newspapers around his bed. He has pepper spray stashed everywhere. He doesn’t talk much, this plumber. But they communicate in absolutes, in physical essentials, like: “Did you try to castrate me with a wood chisel again?” or “Did you lock me out last night?” According to Victoria, she hasn’t had sex in seven months, 22 days, and 7 hours. She has some scheduled for around Christmas Eve—when she’ll put down the chisel and he’ll unlock the door and first they’ll go have prime rib in some restaurant in Saugerties and she’ll blog about it later.

But you’ll be shivering in someone’s basement with a can of pork and beans, even though you’re a vegetarian and you hate pork and beans. You’ll be eating it anyway for some kind of experiment of Victoria’s—because she’ll want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone in a cold basement and eat pork and beans out of a can. And that would be the lesser of evils. You’ve dug out latrines and spent the night in subways and halfway houses and bungee corded into rivers and all sorts of other things that Victoria wanted to pretend she’d done. Only Victoria and The Plumber know about you. Whenever you narrowly escape something awful, she says, “I think your reportage is really coming along.”

And how much is she paying you and why do you do it? It’s because you majored in English. That’s why. Because there are no jobs. Because you’re not good at poker and you couldn’t afford the gas to Vegas anyway. You answered the ad in your last year of grad school: Research Assistant for Nationally Recognized Columnist. Must be obedient, smart, and hard working. Victoria said you got two out of three, but it was enough. She liked the fact that you didn’t know how to dress yourself when you flew out for the interview and she offered to teach you how to write because people don’t learn anything in graduate school. “I’m absolutely willing to learn” you said, which was code for: soon I will have a MA in Victorian lit., which is to say, soon I will have nothing. I have massive student loans. And I need a job like I need the air. “Breathe,” Victoria said.

Harley drove 47 miles from Bethel, Texas, to pick you up. Harley opens the trunk of his white Crown Vic in the airport parking lot and points everything out because he thinks you’ll want to write about it. In his trunk: a rubber tourniquet, a box of spoiled Taco Bell chalupas, duct tape, a bag of shriveled biscuits, a Taser gun, a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, and an enormous fucking jar of Metamucil.

You wonder what Victoria told him about you. He’s a lost tumbleweed that blew up against your door. The last thing anyone wants to do is take something like that in, break it open, and see what kind of strange sick thing is curled up inside. The whole research project has felony murder potential. It’s the tumbleweed of death. It’s a tractor wheel rolling downhill and killing an old lady at a bus stop. A random bolt of lightning. The zombie apocalypse. It’s the end times. You look at the rifle—DRAGUNOV SVD on the stock in slanted black letters—and decide that going on a date with Harley just so Victoria can write about it isn’t even a real job. It’s a tragedy. You tell yourself this won’t become a felony murder. And the sky won’t be filled with bullets. You tell yourself it’s just another research project. But you’re not stupid. You can’t deny your sense that the excrement is heading for the air conditioning. And Texas is where it’s at.

“I collect all kinds of stuff. I just keep it all in my trunk. You ever heard of Watts Towers?”

“I’m from California, Harley.”

“Watts Towers is a beautiful thing, man. I got five books on it.”

“I’m not a man, Harley.”

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, Allison?”

“No.”

“I realize that this is some sort of test tube experiment for that writer. But could we at least try to make the best of it and be friends?”

“You’ve got a rifle and a tourniquet in your trunk.”

“Sniper rifle, honey. And that’s actually a hospital grade medical tourniquet.”

“Are you a junkie or a juicer of some kind?”

“I have been known to make a mean banana-guava smoothie.”

“What’s a former preacher doing with a Taser?”

“Technically, it’s a stun gun. Don’t tase my balls, bro! You see that video? That was funny. Internet. It’s on the internet.”

“I’m going, Harley. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Don’t you want a ride?”

“I’ll get a cab.”

It was supposed to be a date that lasted three days. The first day lasted three minutes. After a year of working for Victoria, of coming up with ideas and outlines for chapters of books and magazine columns, there’s one thing you know for sure: as long as you get her a nice article to write—not too serious, not, as she says, “offensively smart”—she’ll love you long time. You’ll get paid. Victoria will get the credit. Life will continue.

It’s 7:00 PM in room 14b at the Roundup Motel when you decide to call Dane again. His cell phone rings and rings. Sometimes it’s good just to hear his voice on the outgoing message. You used to leave messages for him, trying to sound casual:

It’s me. Just checking in. Just want to see how you’re doing.

Hey, I saw this funny thing on Facebook and I thought—hey, are you online?

Hey, I thought maybe you and—your friend—want to catch a movie. Or maybe just you.

Hi, it’s me—wondering what you’re up to. It’s so weird. I’m going to be in the neighborhood again.

Hey you! Thinking maybe we could meet up if you want to get a cup of coffee, may at that café down by the tower. What was it called?

Everything in room 14b is vinyl. It has a Bates Motel lamp hanging loose by a cord from the ceiling—something to send shadows all around the room while an occupant gets knifed. The motel is outside the city on Highway 35. Victoria’s all about the work and never about luxury. You can’t count the number of roadside motels you’ve stayed in—Motel 6s, Super 8s, Red Roof Inns, Budget Suites. Truckers welcome. Once, she sent you to Osaka for two days and you stayed in a coffin hotel—which, although creepy and uncomfortable, was still infinitely cleaner and better put together than any American low-budget motel you’ve used.

The smell of the dust is here, too. But this time, it’s not Texas dust per se, just motel dust. Still, you unroll your sleeping bag on the bed because there’s no way in hell you’re getting in those sheets. At this point, you feel you know about motels. The only vegetarian fare on the menu is a small apple and a bottle of water. You have suspicions about the water. Somehow, Texas would find a way to put meat in it.

So you sit there in the mustard colored bank chair with cigarette burns in the wooden armrests, looking into the mouthpiece of the ancient room phone. It’s holes are crusted with the creeping crud of the ages. You listen to Dane’s outgoing message: Hi. You’ve reached Dane Robbins. Leave a message, okay? He doesn’t mean it. You call back and listen to it three times. His voice is beautiful. Like him. At the beep, you always hesitate. What do you say? Dane, I’m in Houston but I’ll be back in a few days. (Would you be interested in leaving that stinking bitch from Brazil? Moving in with me? Getting married? Having 2.3 children? Changing our names and moving up to Pacific Heights where we’ll have perfect jobs, perfect happiness, and relief from the horrors of life?). But you just listen and hang up.

For some reason, your cell phone can’t connect whenever you call Dane, but you won’t believe he blocked you. When you call him, you always have to do it from hotel phones. You wonder if Victoria has paid attention to those charges because she always requests the motel receipts. She knows you have no living family. What does she think about the fact that you call the same San Francisco number every time? She has to wonder. But she’s never brought it up. Hopefully, she never will.

The psycho killer lamp, the single light source in room 14b, is dim. Not enough light to read. The TV is a Zenith. Its screen is a dark 1970s olive green. You turn it on and get the agricultural channel, three channels of Spanish news, and Doctor Phil. Tonight, he’s featuring real life vampires and the people who love them. You turn it off. Outside the hotel, there’s a truck stop gas station and a Burger King. You’re scheduled to be picked up by Harley at 4:00 PM tomorrow, when he will take you on a tour of his alpaca farm and then buy you dinner. That’s the plan.

You take a shower and get back in your sleeping bag, but you can’t stand the buzzing of the gas station floodlights, enormous orange sodium vapor floods that cast a flat matrix of light and shadow around the motel. The 16-wheelers are giant rumbling monsters blinking their headlights and hissing in the dark. It will be a long night. So you hop over to the TV in the sleeping bag and turn on the Doctor. It’s the middle of the show. A very large pale man with purple streaks in his long black hair and a silver stud below his lower lip holds hands with a heavyset woman in an orange sundress. Doctor Phil says, “Really? And you go to these clubs and you never have any trouble with him getting together—”

They both start talking at once. Then the woman holds up a hand and says, “It’s a lifestyle thing. This isn’t like cheating.”

The crowd boos.

“I’m not being unfaithful,” the man says. “It’s just part of our vampire culture. We’re predatory. We need to hunt.”

“Yes.” The woman nods. “It’s a need.”

“And you’re okay with this? You take precautions? Isn’t this sexually dangerous?”

This time, the man holds up a hand bedecked with steel rings. “Being a sexual outlaw is part of it. You take a chance in your life walking across the street. But, you know, it’s like playing roulette. We don’t expect the mundanes to understand.”

Everyone laughs.

Doctor Phil raises an eyebrow the way Victoria might if she were proposing that you walk naked through Times Square just so she could learn what it feels like. “Sexual roulette? You’re sexually gambling?”

The woman grips the armrest of the chair with her free hand and leans forward, displeased. Then she says, “It’s not random like that. He has this ability.”

“Yes,” the man says. “I can sense my prey. I can sense when someone wants it. Can’t you, Doctor Phil?”

Silence and then a few tentative boos from the audience. The camera pans over the faces—people straight out of middle America. Weight problems. Bifocals. Chunky sweaters and bad haircuts. The disapproving frowns of suburbia. Doctor Phil makes an interested face with an under layer of extreme boredom. He says that after commercial they’ll be back to talk to someone who claims she must drink blood in order to survive.

You fall asleep with that thought: some people have to drink blood to survive. And you dream that you’re in China in the Forbidden City. And Sun Yat Sen, dressed in saffron robes, is giving you a tour through its empty rooms. And then he’s sitting at the foot of your bed, smiling and nodding and telling you the location of the emperor’s silverware that he hid many years ago—a treasure room of such vast proportions that it’s amazing it has never been found by the government. A treasure room cunningly hidden far below the Forbidden City. And even in your dream, you’re putting together an outline on this for Victoria.

You eat a greasy truck stop breakfast and drink a small chemical orange juice. Then you call a cab and take it into downtown Houston and walk around, feeling lost, feeling like a ghost, a Sun Yat Sen poltergeist. You snap some photos with your cell phone for Victoria so she can write more convincingly about what the place looks like. She wants photos, video, sounds of people talking, images of food, descriptions of the weather, major landmarks. It works quite well. The final copy of her articles read as if she were really there. She always wants you to start with downtown—places, she says, that the rednecks might avoid, even in Texas, because she hates rednecks. This takes you several hours, as always, before you go to Starbucks to email it all.

While there, you look at Victoria’s latest blog post. It reads like straight fiction. “The Chisel Report: How to Know What You Need in a Man.” It describes her latest attempt to overpower The Plumber while he slept. This time, she picked the lock early and waited all day in the closet, razor-sharp chisel, mallet, latex gloves, coffee, bag of doughnuts, penlight, the question: Does he really need his balls to be my husband? circling through her thoughts. But Victoria fell asleep.

Four or five paragraphs into the post, she speculates: was it was the extra cruller? Too much milk in the coffee? The lack of movement and light? The warm closeness of The Plumber’s overcoats and suits around her like a comforting wooly uterus? Victoria admits that she doesn’t know exactly why she drifted off. When she awoke it was the middle of the night. She crept out into the dark bedroom, feeling a sense of triumph, tasting victory at last.

However, when she drew back the comforter, she saw that he had anticipated all of it. He’d shaped an outline of himself with pillows under the blankets and left her a note that said he’d been living at the Holiday Inn Express in Tannersville for the past week. Toward the end of the post, Victoria admits that she hadn’t noticed his absence.

In the last paragraph, she writes, This is what I need in a partner instead of husband-ballast, dead weight, a man who brings nothing to the table. I need a man sharp enough to stay one step ahead. This is what we all need in a partner if it’s going to last and I know I’m a fortunate girl. This is love in case you were wondering. Are you lucky in love?

You think this might be one of the worst pieces of writing you’ve ever seen from Victoria. It’s surprising. But she’s told so many lies about her life and herself at this point—her participation in Viet Nam protests as a toddler; beating and making a citizens arrest of a potential rapist in Central Park using only a rolled-up magazine and Krav Maga techniques; turning down an invitation to MENSA. The Victoria Volt image, brittle and constructed, a gilded eggshell.

During a Skype call in which you were waiting for Victoria to come back from the restroom, The Plumber once paused on his way past the computer to ask you how you were. He’s a short paunchy man who wears baseball caps and has a pencil-thin moustache. And, as he stooped over the webcam, he seemed like someone from a different era, maybe the 1930s—the sort of man who’d peer carefully through a peephole before opening the door to a speakeasy. He wiggled his fingertips at you and said, “I admire your skills and so does Victoria. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” At the time, you didn’t know what to say. Now, if you could relive that moment, you might say, “No, actually you don’t.”

Doctor Phil is always on. You return to Room 14b and watch a rerun of an earlier broadcast. No vampires this time. Now it’s people who secretly try to make their spouses obese. The panel members on stage are very large and very unhappy. They speak over each other, a certain dark luster in their eyes. You picture them skinny under their voluminous T-shirts and muumuus with pillows strapped to themselves so they could be on TV. You try to imagine the hidden world of such people, delighted, desperate, depressed, full of the need to be on television, to be seen.

The sun goes down and Harley never shows. Once again, you watch the telephone, imagining the best worst Dr. Phil episode: Ex-Girlfriends in Denial Who Call from Texas. Some of them are sad and desperate. Some of them will drink your blood. It’s easy to be in denial when you don’t know what went wrong. You have four pictures of Dane in your wallet and you lay them out on the bed like Tarot cards: Dane playing water polo with his headgear pushed slightly back, his arm in mid-throw. Dane in his living room trying to play a didgeridoo. Dane riding his father’s horse, Sugar, in Connecticut. Dane laughing at the Gypsy palm reader that day in Berkeley.

You shut off the TV and the room is silent. You think of the last time you saw him. You’d gone out for a drink to celebrate his acceptance by Hastings. You said congratulations and he just shrugged. “I’m so dedicated to life,” he said, “that I can’t tolerate weakness in others for very long. It gets disgusting waiting for the world to catch up.” But Dane had cried like a baby when he didn’t get into Boalt Hall and stayed drunk for a week. He’d hired a ringer to impersonate him and take the LSAT again. You didn’t bring these things up. Why would you?

It’s then that you see the procession beyond the curtains of Room 14b and you forget about Dane completely. Maybe you notice it out of sheer luck or fate. Or maybe it’s just something randomly ejected from the great machinery of happenstance that turns beneath the sodium floods outside all one-horse motels. It doesn’t surprise you at first because you’ve heard about the kinds of things people have seen in Texas: ghost caravans emerging out of the fog, a semi-transparent circus, a silent menagerie floating north toward Nacogdoches, invisible by dawn.

A heavy mist, maybe a fog, has risen six feet above the ground. A ghost mist from which anything might emerge. But you’re not prepared for a night procession, cars rolling past, a hearse covered in flowers, various old convertibles driven by skeletons, and at least 50 mourners afoot, each carrying 7-day vigil lights, little sugar skulls. Some are dressed as the Grim Reaper. Some carry statues of saints. Some have burlap bags over their heads, inching forward in prayer. All in perfect silence.

You stand in the doorway to your room and close your mouth. If there is anyone else staying at the motel, their cars are gone from the parking lot, their windows dark, curtains drawn. Maybe they’re terrified of this. You look at your long shadow stretched out before you in the light from the room. Then you look at the procession still going by and take picture after picture with your phone. No one looks at you.

What are you now? Are you the ghost? The ghostwriter? Are you a journalist? Are you still that prosthetic eye and is this something that the eye should see? Is this something you could tell Dane about? Maybe it’s not something you could describe to anyone. It’s not something Victoria would ever write about. It’s not something Doctor Phil would want on his show, five kinds of Grim Reaper sitting on the stage and an audience in skeleton drag.

Taking a step backward, you almost fall. You’re dizzy with surprise and unsure whether to shut the door. You could zip yourself all the way into your sleeping bag, like a body bag, and pretend that you, too, are part of it somehow in the dust and vinyl of Room 14b. Or you could walk out and take more pictures and follow this strange parade.

You run back into the room, pull on your jeans, Nikes, a T-shirt and the Cal sweatshirt. Then you lock the door behind you and fall in with the mourners, your heart triphammering in your chest. No one speaks to you or looks your way, except for an old woman who hands you one of her candles—a white taper with a paper guard to keep hot wax off your hand.

Silent, you walk for over an hour according to the clock on your phone. And when you reach the graveyard hidden from the highway by buttes on either side, it’s a quarter past midnight. When the hearse rolls down a dirt path and stops at an open grave, you realize it’s November 1st, the Day of the Dead. This is someone’s funeral mass. You make your way to the front of the crowd and kneel with the family by the mound of fresh earth as the coffin is lowered.

The priest is all in white with a green stole. And the graveyard is already full of burning candles like a fairy metropolis, pinwheels, tiny chimes tinkling in the wind. The priest says, “Oremos” and everybody bows their heads. You do, too, even though you were raised atheist and have never been to a religious service in your life.

Escuchanos, Señor,” the priest says.

“Amen,” responds the congregation.

A woman beside you collapses forward, wailing. No one touches her. She drops her candle on the mound of fresh dirt, digs in it with her hands. She pulls on her hair and moans and says things not in English or Spanish but in the special language of grief that everyone eventually learns. And part of you feels you should take a picture of this, if not for Victoria, then for yourself. But it wouldn’t come out or make sense if it did.

The image of your brother beaten to death by someone you’ll never know. He’d had an open casket and you were not grateful for that. No embalmer’s art could completely obscure the lacerations or reconstruct the extent to which Stevie’s cheekbones had been crushed, shattered, they thought, by a metal bar. Hit by a bar repeatedly, they said, in the restaurant parking lot.

Then you’re crying, too. You’re looking down at Stevie laid out in the bottom of the grave in his cheap black suit. His eyes are open, staring at you. Dizzy, you can feel the tendrils of the mist on your neck as you listen to “Bendito seas por siempre.” And the great world seems hollow, the great gilded eggshell world—a fragile empty thing made to seem fine and rare but secretly thin, as brittle as bone, and capable of shattering in an instant.

Hit by a bar.

You think of all those years back and forth to Lubbock with your father, who has now also passed on. And a great terrifying knowledge rises up inside you where before there has been merely an empty space that sometimes filled with longing. This knowledge, like the rising mist, like the body now in its coffin, like Stevie’s broken face staring up: the knowledge that you will return to Hayward, that the sun will come up, and that these moments will be hidden by the lying, prevaricating customs of the daylit world. You will submit your outline and materials to Victoria, carrying on the gilded fairy tale that everything is fine, that Victoria Volt is a brilliant journalist. You will continue to think of your brother as the victim of an impersonal tragedy—as if he’d been caught in an earthquake or drowned at sea instead of being beaten to death in Texas by someone he knew holding a metal bar. Beaten repeatedly. The heart of things, the truth, will sink back into the rotten shell of the earth where no one wants to look. But you will have seen the Forbidden City, at least in your dreams.

This is how you spend your night, crying silently with a Mexican woman dressed in black with dirt in her hair, watching, listening, kneeling. They take communion by the open grave. And by the end of the service, people start drifting back toward the road. You follow, feeling that you’ve left your body, that you’ve seen something hidden, horrible, beautiful—something that you shouldn’t have seen, something that cannot exist after sunrise, that could not be true in the same universe as Victoria Volt, that has never existed anywhere near Coit Tower or Dane Robbins or a chic little café named Nunu’s.

When you reach Room 14b, the sun is rising from the middle of the road beyond the Roundup Motel. The mist is gone. Your TV shows the morning news. They’re talking about a Day of the Dead gun battle between rival gangs in downtown Houston.

Later, as you doze, Sun Yat Sen comes to you again in a dream, dressed as a Buddhist monk. He takes you by the hand and leads you through hallways of filigreed gold, down red carpets with embroidered dragons, through hidden doors beneath Fou dogs. You travel far beneath the Forbidden City into the caves, through waterfalls in caverns as big as football stadiums. You follow him down a twisting stair into a darkness, where his torch shines like a lingering candle flame in a hidden graveyard. And when you reach the bottom, he’s no longer there. But you do see the Emperor’s silverware—enormous mounds of it, forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks shaped like dragon claws, like tiny Dragunovs, like the mandibles of great golden scarabs. And there are horses made of rubies. And there are mountains of inlaid plates and loving cups and jade bowls. And even a mountain of brass bullet casings, smoking in the torchlight. You wake up covered in sweat, your sleeping bag stuck to your bare skin. And you breathe the dust of the motel and you still want to cry but you tell yourself there’s nothing to cry about.

A few hours later, you wake up and listen to Dane’s outgoing message again. The connection picks up but there’s nothing on the other side other than the sound of whistling air, a series of clicks, a weird insectoid trill. What does this mean? You know it should upset you. You should take it as a sign. But something is different. You can’t say, Hi! I’m just up the street! because you aren’t. You can’t say, I just attended a midnight mass and saw the ghost of my dead brother. It seems that those clicks, that empty whistling, that computerized insect song is fitting—wind through an empty shell. You hang up, dial again, and then hang up before it connects.

There was that day after you both had class. You walked down Telegraph with Dane and saw the Psychic Hoodoo Palm Reader. You both went in just for fun, Dane repeating that he didn’t believe that horseshit and you daring him. “What’s the problem, then?” you said, winking, happy, laughing.

An older woman dressed in stereotypical Gypsy silks, as if she were in a perfectly arranged Gypsy Halloween costume, with a head scarf and big silver hoop earrings and electric blue eye shadow and blood red nails. All part of the fun. You sat in what used to be the living room of a house but was now done up in purple velvet. Her name was Madam Philomena. The requisite crystal ball was in the middle of the table. She held Dane’s right hand in both of hers as if it were made of fine china.

You remember that moment when he couldn’t control the muscles around his mouth and she said, “A dark-haired man with blue eyes. Your uncle has an evil cloud over his head. He’s addicted. He’s speaking Spanish to a policeman. He has a message for you.”

And Dane looked sick and terrified. “Where is that in my palm?”

“It’s not in you palm,” she said. “It’s in your face.”

“My uncle has blonde hair.” He stood up and threw down a twenty. But what he didn’t say was that the rest was exactly right. His uncle died a few months before, trying to bring cocaine over the border.

As he walked out, you took his picture, laughing again, ha ha, what a joke.

He grinned. “The stupidest twenty dollars I ever spent.”

Neither of you brought it up again. You held onto the picture of Dane you took that day because he didn’t want it. His family told everyone that his uncle got framed by corrupt Mexican police, that he was a victim. That it just happened like a rainstorm or a flood, another innocent American victimized south of the border, shot for being in the wrong place. In time, even his family believed it.

You dial his number again by heart, one last time, and this time it doesn’t even ring. There’s only that whistling sound, that black space, as if the wind is twisting through a hole in a window that no one cares to replace.

Your hands won’t stop shaking. So you buy a pack of Marlboro Lights at the truck stop, even though you haven’t smoked in months. You’re halfway through it when Harley knocks on the door.

He looks you up and down. “Rough night?”

“You could say that.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “For me, too. But I guess we gotta do this. I promised.”

“Let me get in the shower before we go. Do you mind waiting?”

“Not at all.” Harley bows slightly. “I’ll be in the car.”

When you come out, you’re almost awake. But you bring the cigarettes in your purse. As soon as Harley pulls away from the motel, you ask him if he minds.

“Just roll down the window,” he says. “I personally have never smoked, but it doesn’t bother me.” You go through two cigarettes before he gives you a sideways look. “I guess you’re supposed to be interviewing me or something. But maybe you want me to ask a few questions like, what happened to you last night?”

“I went to midnight mass.”

“You mean the graveyard mass they have sometimes back down the road? They do it for Day of the Dead if somebody’s died around that time. I hear there was some pretty bad stuff back in the city.”

“What do you really do, Harley? You don’t sell phones in the mall.”

The highway opens up and every now and then when a car or truck passes, heading in the opposite direction, people raise their hands in salute. Harley does the same.

“What do I do? Well, I suppose you’re asking because I stood you up yesterday. I suppose I owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“I’m a known exorcist, Allison. You know what that is?”

“I read something—you travelling around with holy water. Something like that.”

“Something like that.”

He turns right onto a dirt access road and everything gets bumpy. You still feel like you’re not completely in your body, not completely present, like part of you is back at that service the night before, kneeling on a grave with candles all around. If asked, you might have considered trading the experience for more of Curly and his Honcho peppers. That you can understand, expect, laugh at. But this? You can’t shake the image of your brother, of those candles amid the headstones, of the priest like a ghost floating above the grave, and the mourners drifting by the motel—a secret parade that only appears on the night of the Day of the Dead.

“Here we are,” Harley says. “My place.”

It’s a nice one-story ranch house. A big affair with two backyard pools and a guest house done up in Western-brick-fireplace grandeur. But he doesn’t take you inside. And you don’t want to go in anyway.

“I was going to show you the ’pacas, but quite frankly, I hope you don’t mind if I just go to the range.”

“The range?”

“The firing range. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

You light your 15th cigarette off the butt of the 14th with slightly trembling hands and shake your head. “Whatever. It’s all for Victoria.”

Harley coughs and squints at you. “Right.”

His trunk, in addition to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle and the various other items he showed you before, now contains a large box of assorted melons. He places them at periodic intervals of 900 feet, head high along a wall of square hay bales. Beneath every melon, he tacks a fresh black-and-white bull’s-eye target with numbers on the rings. Then he comes back.

“You ever shoot a rifle?”

“No. You?”

He laughs. “You got quite a mouth on you. I’ll give you that. But that’s okay. I guess I deserve it 90% of the time.”

Harley unrolls a felt blanket on a slight rise of earth. He puts a clip into the rifle. He chambers a round and adjusts the scope. “Stay behind me.”

DRAGUNOV SVD is written on the stock, but you might have guessed a name like that. It looks like a long black mandible, a sleek dark stinger with nothing on it that would glint in the sun. When he takes a shot, a cantaloupe vanishes in a mist.

“Marine sniper school,” he says. “That was my real job.” The brass casing ejected from the gun smokes on the ground beside him. “You can take the man out of the Corps, but, well, you know how the saying goes.”

A loud pop like five balloons punctured at once. And what used to be a honeydew melon is no more.

“Nothing I have says you were a military sniper.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not something I necessarily put on my resume anymore. I like to think of myself as a godly man.”

Pop. Another melon down.

“How do you justify it?”

Pop.

“Justify it? I know it’s a waste of good melons, but you gotta pick your battles.”

Pop.

“No, being a sniper and being, you know, a preacher.”

“I did two turns in Iraq. I gotta believe in god, honey. If not, what was all that killing for?”

“I never accused you of wasting melons.” You’re thinking of that midnight mass, the woman on hands and knees clawing the dirt from the open grave, the carpet of candle lights between the headstones in the darkness, the priest with his hands outstretched. You’re thinking about Harley as a young man somewhere in Iraq, dug in with a rifle just like this one, sighting into a building, saying the Lord’s Prayer. You’re thinking of your vision of your brother in a black suit, staring up at you from the bottom of the grave.

Pop.

“I guess this isn’t much fun for you and for that I apologize. But exorcisms will change a man. They leave a spiritual taint. And you don’t get that off you for a couple days. I’m afraid it sours my disposition.”

Pop.

“When the devil gets up in someone, you gotta pull him out. It can go on for hours. It can go for a whole week. And you better pray hard.”

“You want to tell me about how you do it?”

“Not particularly, Allison. I understand you came here to parody me. Well, I can be parodied and that’s fine. Most of my life is a bad joke. But I’d prefer that my spiritual beliefs not be made fun of by some New York writer.”

“I can understand that.”

“Thought you might.”

He kills two rows of melons in silence with only the pops and the mist of melon juice as punctuation. Then he does a round of wine bottles. And then he starts on the paper targets. 90 minutes later, you’re back in the truck. He hands you the targets and you hold them up so you can look through the bullet holes.

“You can have ’em,” he says as he pulls up outside Room 14b. “I suppose that will give your boss something to write about.”

“I think it will, Harley.” You extend your hand. He takes it and kisses the back.

“I’m honored to have made your acquaintance, Allison. And I hope that someday our paths may cross again, if only for the pleasure of seeing you once more.”

You’ve smoked all your cigarettes. When the white Crown Victoria pulls away, you stand in the parking lot of the hotel and think of Stevie buried up in Lubbock and that you might go find him sometime.

Your flight leaves at noon. Before the cab arrives, there’s time to walk out to the hidden graveyard. You leave Dane’s four pictures beside a burned-down vigil candle. You look around the graveyard at all the drippings, wax spilled onto headstones, wrought iron fences tilting into the dirt over forgotten graves, tall glass holders lying on their sides, flowers and an ornate black and white cross made of sugar laid on the freshly filled plot. It’s here that you will put your love for Dane to rest and let the sun bleach the pictures. You will never come here again. It will be as if you had never visited this secret place. No one for a thousand years will discover your path to the emperor’s silver.

Waiting in the room for the cab to come, you see the same things on television, the agricultural channel, the news, the temperature at the Alamo, Dr. Phil coming on in 14 minutes. Then you go back to the parking lot with your suitcase and breathe the hot dust of a Texas afternoon, composing your letter of resignation to Victoria. It will say, Dear Victoria, I appreciate everything. I’ll remember everything. But the time has come to lay our relationship to rest. Harley Winslow might be insane. But even if he is, he’s still too good for you. Come meet him yourself. She’ll be furious. She won’t say that your reportage is coming along. She’ll say she’s going to bury you, that you’ll never work again, that she’ll hound you to the ends of the earth. But none of that will be real.

* Note: this story first appeared in Forge 8.4, April 2015.

Some Go Dancing

It got dark and they fell in. The water was cold. They turned together under the surface, Janelle’s hair twisting like smoke, her eyes closed. Blaine could barely see her face in the dim moonglow through the high gym windows. He thought again about his own death, how easy it would be to drown, to let go. But then he inhaled, choked. It hurt and he panicked, pulling her up with him.

He coughed while Janelle vomited water. Then she rolled on her back, looked at him, and grinned.

“Your eyes are fucking crazy,” he said. He was flat on his back. Janelle was beside him, her pale shoulder glittering with droplets.

Your eyes are fucking crazy. Along with the rest of you. Where’s my shirt?”

The water slapped against the tile. The pool filters gulped. Somewhere, far above in the dark, a wall clock thunked one minute forward. Blaine had a dim memory of boosting her up through one of the men’s room windows. They were in the Women’s Gymnasium, CSU Fresno. What the fuck.

“You put it on that kid’s head. The one who grabbed your ass.”

“He shouldn’t have done that.” Janelle sat up and raked her wet hair back. “Gimmie your shirt. Did I burn the place down this time?”

He could see her ribs in the moonlight, the bumps of her spine, the goat’s head pentagram on the back of her neck. Blaine sat up beside her and started unbuttoning his soaked short-sleeve. “You tried.”

“No shit? Well, that’s what happens when you smoke K.”

The kid hadn’t been smoking K. That had been Janelle. They took the elevator up to the second floor and climbed back out the bathroom window, slower this time. On that side of the building, it was only a short drop to a closed dumpster. Then they walked across campus toward the sirens.

The kid’s only crime had been being drunk and horny. He’d done what any loaded 19-year-old will do when a woman takes off her shirt in the middle of the frat party and grinds on him. He didn’t deserve a front kick to the sternum.

“Holy shit,” Janelle said.

Yes, thought Blaine, holy shit. Across Shaw Avenue, the Zeta Beta Tau house was on fire. Red-orange flames licked out of the windows. A crowd had formed. A wilted group of sorority girls in tiny shorts and sweatshirts sat on the curb, crying and holding hands. A few people still had plastic cups full of beer. The police had set up a perimeter and two water trucks were spraying the third floor. Then a deep thud came from within and a green fireball busted out towards the sky, raining hot glass on the firemen. They immediately turned away and dropped to one knee like synchronized swimmers or medieval soldiers when a volley of arrows comes down.

“I guess you succeeded,” Blaine said. The air smelled like smoke and melted plastic. The heat had already dried his T-shirt.

“Maybe it wasn’t me. I don’t remember a thing.”

“It was you. It’s always you.”

Five campuses this spring and three fires. Deaths? Blaine didn’t know. Why would he want to know something like that? And yet he felt he should know. He should find out. So when they got caught and someone threw them both in a dark hole, at least Blaine would know why. Someone was tracking them. Someone had to be.

“Shit,” Janelle said. “Look.”

Two sorority girls and a frat brother with a ball cap on sideways talking to a cop and pointing.

“Go,” Blaine said. They walked. They didn’t look back. When they got a block away, they started running—silently, simultaneously, the way the firefighters had knelt, perfectly synchronized, as if the two of them had also been trained. Some mad dance: arson, fire, and blame.

“You gonna hit it or what?” she said when the Dodge Monaco wouldn’t turn over. Blaine touched the screwdriver to the top of the solenoid inside the mangled steering column—nothing.

“It’s dead, babe. We have to go. Get something else.”

Janelle sighed. She’d found some black lipstick in her duffle bag, but she was still wearing his short-sleeved button-up. She was a beautiful woman, no doubt about it. Fair skin, long raven hair, blue eyes. She’d even look good when all she had to wear was a prison jumpsuit. The yellow-white streetlight made her jawline and cheekbones look extra severe. Her hair framed her face in graceful arcs. She looked well put together, as if she hadn’t just gotten high on horse tranquilizer, burned down a house, and almost drowned.

“Give it here.” Janelle slid over to him and planted a black kiss on his cheek. When she used the screwdriver to cross the terminals on the solenoid, the Monaco lurched and started up with a high keening deep in the engine. She kissed him on the lips, made the heavy metal horns with her right hand, and said, “Love me.”

“Listen to that. It won’t last.”

“Nothing does, Blaine.” She winked, then slouched against the passenger door and shut her eyes. It started to rain. They went down several tree-lined streets to the squeak of the wipers and the death cry of the engine. Blaine headed for what he thought might be the direction of the 5 North. He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, listening to the sirens in the distance.

It was dangerous, life. He was falling. Always in his dreams, falling or burning or screaming. Not so different from when he was awake. He’d done too many drugs. That was one thing. Ketamine. Meth. Rock. Hash. Shit Janelle cooked up on the way. How did they both still have their original teeth? Blaine didn’t know. Cancer was probably locked in. Arthritis for sure. He creaked when he walked. He’d turned 37 four days ago and hadn’t said a thing about it. What would Janelle have done if he had? Bake him a cake?

Now she’d gotten the portable lab stuff, the hot plate, their tiny generator and some ingredients. She was over in the woods doing her thing. You could make meth from lots of substances. And you could make it anywhere. All it took were a few household products, a heat source, and patience. He’d taught her how, at first, but now it was all Janelle. Maybe it was bullshit, the patience part. But they were careful. They hadn’t had a cooking explosion in a long time. Still, what did he know? These days, he waited by the car. She never let him watch.

Maybe she was cooking down another batch of that liquid K they’d bought in Arizona. Or something else. They could make more in the long run selling meth to hillbillies in trailer parks, but that was dangerous. So they stuck to universities. And the college crowd liked K just fine. Dissociative. Hallucinogenic. Snort a bump of ketamine and you go outside your body. Tastes like oven cleaner if you smoke it. But it’s good for the nervous high-maintenance types. Blaine had seen it all. Rich kids with suitcases of dope. Wheezing trailer trash rednecks in wife beaters, no teeth and orange hair. Secretaries with death in their eyes. Fun-loving idiots who had no idea. Addicts. Future captains of industry. Future guests of the state. Kids on fire, feverish, drowning, disintegrating, disconnected, coming down, shot up, strung out, freezing in the heat, melting in the cold. Kids headed for the gutter, jail, the grave. Everything.

Pop the trunk. There it was. A shit-ton of meth in two lady’s handbags. Three more 12oz. cylinders of liquid ketamine. His usual bag of travelling hash. A cardboard box of lab equipment, solvents, a folded tent. A crate of cold pills in individual boxes. A box of powdered rat poison. All that special goodness.

Janelle came back grinning, armpit rings and a V of sweat on her T-shirt between her breasts. She smelled like cleaning supplies and burned hair.

“We’re good.” She took the cigarette from his lips.

“How good?”

Janelle sat on the bumper of the Monaco, smiled, smoked. “Just wait.”

Four hours later, after dumping the chemical remains in an orchard and getting a filthy dinner at Denny’s, they drove through downtown Chico, looking for the state college. She had directions written on a ripped piece of graph paper. 11:30 PM on a Friday. Packed sidewalks. All bars wide open. Drunk blondes in glittery dresses. Subwoofer thumps at the stoplights. A ten-year-old with a mohawk in front of a lit-up laundromat breakdancing on a piece of linoleum, black silhouettes around him in the bonelight.

“Go left,” she said. And there it was. Chico State. Dark as a crypt. The place looked like Atlantis sunk beneath the waves. Blaine imagined a shark snaking between the red-brick buildings. They went around a field to the other side of the campus, then went left again and rolled down another quiet tree-lined street. It looked just like the one in Fresno where they’d parked the car before selling the first batch of K to the ZBTs and then ruining everyone’s night. Every campus in the country had neighborhoods like that around it. Quiet old houses. Not too much money, but clean and neat. Window boxes with geraniums. Cats. It was the sort of area Blaine used to live in when he worked at Chemical Dynamics in San Diego. But that was more than five years ago—when he had a job, a wife, a life. Ancient history. Before he failed his drug test three times in a row. Before Janelle.

“Here,” she said. “Yeah. This.” Small two-bedroom house. Peach stucco. The rust-colored drapes everybody had in the 70s tied to the sides of the front window. Dark inside. He went by, did a three-point turn, and parked across the street from the house. Janelle opened the trunk and wrapped something in a plastic grocery bag. Then they were ready. They walked down the driveway past a minivan and a Subaru with a CSUC Faculty Parking sticker in the corner of the windshield. The backyard was a small rectangle of flat grass surrounded by trees and walled with fix-foot trellises. The neighbor’s floodlight shined around the spikes of a wrought iron spite fence, striping half the yard and house with fat bars of light. More bonelight. Pale. Spectral. Ghost city. Dead light.

Nothing on in the house, but they didn’t have to knock. He came out immediately and shut the door quietly behind himself. Fat guy. Round belly and a double chin. Early forties. Brown hair down to his shoulders, parted in the middle. Khakis. Lionel Richie concert shirt. Hello, it said across the bottom, is it me you’re looking for? He had a long face, small full lips, and the expression that people get at graveside funerals—mournful, a bit uncomfortable, a bit like he thought he should be somewhere else, like maybe he’d killed the person in the casket and was afraid people might catch on. He stood on the cement step just below his backdoor and frowned at them.

“What do you want?”

“Who else comes up to your backdoor at midnight?” Blaine said.

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“We’re here to sell you illegal drugs.” Janelle smirked and held up the bag.

He looked at her for a long moment. His frown got deeper, brows pushed together. Then he laughed. “Well good.” He looked Blaine up and down. “And what are you here for?”

“What the fuck does it look like?” There was something about this guy that seemed extra wrong. Not the usual wrong drug shit, but reptile wrong. The kind of guy who goes to AA meetings to find a date. That sick vibe. He was a college teacher? Of what?

“Wait here.” He went back inside, taking care not to make a sound. When he turned, they could see the handle of a gun in his pants pocket. Blaine looked at Janelle. She shrugged.

The fat man slipped back out with a yellow plastic bong in his hand. “Let’s see it. And keep your voice down. My wife’s asleep.”

Janelle unwrapped the plastic grocery bag and took out a large Ziploc full of white powder. The K. She held the bag in the light. It cast a gauzy spider web on the back of the house. Bonelight, boneweb, thought Blaine, everything dead or dying, falling apart, falling away.

The man’s mournful expression had returned. He offered the bong to Janelle. “Go ahead. Do the honors.”

She looked at it and shook her head. “Sorry, Nate, I don’t feel like it tonight.”

“You serious? How do I know it’s for real? How do I know it won’t tear a thousand little holes in my lungs on the first bowl?”

“Killing customers is bad for business,” Blaine said.

Nate turned his head slowly and raised his eyebrows. “Was I speaking to you?”

“I was speaking to you. If you want the shit, pay us. Otherwise, we’re out.”

Nate looked at Janelle. “I think he’s bad for business.”

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Oh really. Well tell him to relax. And at least pack one for me.”

She put the bag on the ground. “Why don’t you do it?”

He sighed. “Because of this.” He took the gun out and pointed it at Blaine. It was a little gun, the kind women keep in their purses. Dull black metal. Not a movie gun. Not an ego gun. A gun people buy along with shooting lessons because they’re planning on using it and afraid of it at the same time. A gun you get shot with in a parking lot or in someone’s living room or in a dark backyard.

“What is this?” Blaine said. “You’re robbing us?”

“Lower your voice. My wife needs her sleep.”

“You’ll wake her up if you fire that thing,” Janelle said.

“Aw, shit,” he smiled and tossed the bong to her with his free hand. “You got me there. Then I guess I’ll have to shoot her, too.”

It’s not even his place, thought Blaine. He broke in and killed everybody. He’s a psychopath.

“Hurry it up,” Nate said. Then he looked at Blaine and winked.

Janelle carefully loaded and tamped the bowl with her thumb. Then she got out her lighter and offered it to him.

“No way,” he said. “You first.”

She gave him a look of pure hate but took a hit. The smoke was thick and unnaturally white when she exhaled. Cartoon dragon smoke. She made a face and blinked a few times. It smelled the way the house fire had—hot chemicals, melted plastic.

“That good, huh?”

“Always tastes like that.” She croaked the words out and spat on the grass.

Nate nodded and sighed. “Okay,” he said. “I’m satisfied.” Then he unzipped and took out his limp penis, a small pale tongue hanging out the mouth of his fly. “Now you can blow me.”

“Fuck you,” said Blaine.

“Right.” Nate shrugged and fired into the ground. The gun made a pop no louder than a balloon. Lines of gray smoke came out of the barrel and flowed up around his hand like tiny serpents. “I can do you and then pick up with her. It’s all the same to me.”

Blaine looked at Janelle. She had dead eyes. She put down the bong. “It’s cool,” she said. “Just be cool. Blaine, why don’t you go sit in the car.”

“He’s not going anywhere,” Nate said. “Now get with it.”

She wobbled as she walked over to him. She knelt down and took his penis in her mouth the way she sometimes did with Blaine, then started bobbing her head.

Blaine’s throat tightened up. He was breathing hard. He stared at the gun still pointed at him. He was maybe five, six feet away. He started to sweat.

But Nate was looking straight at him, grinning. Nate didn’t look away, even when he slapped the side of Janelle’s head. “Slower” he said. “Take your time.”

She slowed down.

The wind rose in the leaves above the backyard. Black branches waved in the starless sky. It took a long time for Nate to come. He made a little sound and told Janelle to swallow. And then Blaine thought they were both going to die. And he thought about falling in the pool; the time they were both shitfaced and Janelle drove them off the freeway into a canyon; the time he came home high and his wife Sarah started screaming because he’d gotten cut to the bone and was covered in blood and didn’t realize it; the time Janelle tried to burn a Hummer and it had a locking gas cap and wouldn’t burn and she kept pouring gas over it from a can and then, when she finally gave up, it exploded and they were both deaf for a week. A hundred other times. Waking up in the hospital. Waking up in a ditch with blood in his hair. Waking up on an enormous concrete pipe in a construction site. Waking up in people’s homes, in stolen cars, on roofs, in movie theaters, on shit-stained mattresses. Death was easy. It was right there all the time. It was drugs. It was that bullet in the ground. It was Janelle. It was Blaine himself, his own mind. Maybe it didn’t matter whether you tried to live or die. Sometimes you lived. Other times you died.

“That was real sweet,” Nate said. Then he gestured with the gun. “Now get lost before I change my mind.”

They backed away from Nate, the bong, the bag of K, his erect penis sticking up out of his fly, glistening in the light. They walked up the driveway in silence, past the Subaru with its faculty parking sticker, past the minivan with a plastic Goofy on the dash.

Janelle got halfway to the car before she started vomiting. Blaine tried to put his arm around her, but she staggered up, almost fell, and ran down the middle of the street. He watched her go. She went across the intersection at the end of the block and almost got hit by a truck. She didn’t even look.

He started searching for her about an hour later. The Monaco wouldn’t turn over. Blaine worked the screwdriver across the solenoid from ten or twelve different angles before the current connected in the steering column. Meanwhile, the house across the street stayed dark.

Blaine drove around the neighborhood, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He was thinking about guns. He was thinking about handcuffs and about injecting oven cleaner into Nate’s balls and letting him stay like that until he died. He was thinking maybe Janelle was going to kill herself—because she’d tried to before. But he was also thinking she’d want to burn one more house down first, that she wouldn’t go out so easy once she got angry. And he knew she was angry.

So he cruised the gas stations in the area. Janelle knew a hundred ways to start a fire, but gas was her favorite. It was her thing. She loved the smell of it. She loved the way it burned, the way it made a fire breathe. She said a gas fire was better than a poem or getting high. It got her high. Just the sight of it.

But he couldn’t find her. He went down the same streets twenty, thirty times. Not knowing where else to look, he drove back to Nate’s house. It was almost 2:00 AM. He parked in exactly the same place, got out, and leaned against the car.

There was Nate in the front room, sitting in a recliner, watching T.V. He had a beer resting on his belly. A woman came in. She was wearing a pink bathrobe and she had a baby on her shoulder. She was patting it on the back, doing a little rock-a-bye dance. Nate said something to her, then looked at the T.V. and started to laugh. Then she started to laugh. They laughed for a long time.

Something was real funny. But the baby was crying. It was wearing one of those animal pajama suits, all one piece with little rabbit ears on the hood. She held the baby at arm’s length and said something, then she started patting it more rapidly on the back, doing that rock-a-bye dance. She and Nate were still laughing. He got up and put his arms around them both and they started waltzing across the living room. Waltzing and laughing. The woman did a one-handed pirouette. And he bowed like an 18th century lord.

That’s when Blaine looked around and noticed Janelle sitting on the porch steps of the house behind him. She had two red metal gas cans beside her, the sort you see strapped to the backs of Jeeps. She’d been crying. Maybe she’d cried out all her tears. He walked up and sat next to her.

“There’s a baby over there,” she said. “He’s got a baby. They’re dancing.”

“He’s got a wife, too, from the look of it.”

Janelle nodded slowly. “I guess she woke up.”

Now Nate was back in the recliner, holding the baby on his belly where the bottle had been. He pointed at the television and said something to the kid. The wife had disappeared.

“I can’t do this.” Janelle looked down at the gas cans, rested her hand on them. “I want to, but I can’t.”

It started to rain. They stared through it at Nate until his wife came back and took the baby. Then it was just him. He turned off the lights. The blue-white flicker of the television flashed on his face like lightning.

“We could get him now,” Blaine said. “Get the crowbar from the trunk. Throw a rock through the window. Go straight in at him. Beat him in front of his wife and kid. He fucking deserves it.”

Janelle thought about it. But she shook her head. “He’s got a baby. The baby’s innocent.”

“So we don’t beat on the baby.”

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s see if the heater works in the car.”

Blaine drove to a 7-11 and they bought doughnuts and coffee. Then he got on the 5 going south this time. Neither of them felt like spending the night in Chico. They hadn’t talked about where they were going to go next. It didn’t matter. After an hour, she looked at him.

“You know,” she said, “some people lead their whole lives and never go dancing.”

Blaine remembered the kid with the mohawk breakdancing outside the laundromat in that dead bonelight. Maybe that kid was high. Maybe he was just a normal kid. Maybe he had no home. Maybe he was some kind of genius. Maybe he’d grow up to be a rapist like Nate. It made no difference. Blaine would never know him.

“But then maybe they do dance. Maybe they just decide to and they do it,” he said.

She coughed, nodded. “Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t cost anything. No one can stop you. You say, I’m going dancing. You just make the decision and you go.” Her voice wobbled a little. She looked very young to Blaine right then.

He smiled. “Anybody can.”

“Yeah.” She looked at the rain being pushed along the passenger’s side window. “Even us. We could go dancing.”

“We could. I like dancing.”

“I like it, too. It’s better than dying.”

The keening from the engine had gotten worse—like an animal caught in a cruel trap, screaming in pain. The wipers squeaked. The steering column made an electrical zap sound and smelled like hot metal.

“Blaine, can we go to San Francisco? I think my mom lives there.”

“We could go down there,” he said. “There’s nothing stopping us. San Francisco’s better than dying.”

“I think I need some help.” She slid over and put her head on his shoulder. “Can we stay there for a while?”

He said yes, okay, if that’s what she wanted.

“Yes,” she said. “And I want to go dancing someplace like normal people.”

Blaine thought about it. Normal might be good. They could try normal. So he said he might like that, too. The night was almost over. The bonelight had faded back to the drug world, the world of the dead, the lost, the dreaming. Ahead there was only sunrise and the mad dance of the sober, daylit world.

 

 

* Note: this story first appeared in Redline, Best of the Year Issue, 2014.

Far Tortuga

In the morning, I watch the sun come up from the bottom of the empty swimming pool, lying on my back in dead palm fronds. In the afternoon, Faye calls to tell me she’s going to kill herself. In the evening, I buy a bottle of port wine at a grocery store in town and drive back out to the motel. I sit in the threadbare chaise lounge by the pool, drink from the bottle, and listen to the wind push dead fronds over the concrete.

While I’m sitting there, Faye calls again.

“It’s all ready,” she says. “Just give me a day before you tell anybody.”

“Faye. Stop.”

She’s crying. She’s been crying for about ten days.

“Look, I’m at a motel about five miles north of Plaster City. There’s nothing out here. You can come if you want.”

I’ve been living in the motel, drinking one thing or another for the past two weeks. This is the first time I’ve told Faye where I am. All day, I’ve had this new internal organ pain that I’ve never felt before. And I think, okay fine. Would it be so bad if I died in this motel? I’m $130,000.00 in debt, and my legal career just ended before it could begin. No, it wouldn’t be that bad. The world would go the way it’s going. A couple people would feel sad.

“I’m not coming anywhere. I mailed a letter to your apartment.”

“I don’t live there anymore, hun. I won’t get it. You can come down. It’s nice here.”

“You can fuck yourself.” She hangs up. Faye has called me twice a day to talk about suicide since I’ve been here.

Palm trees shed their fronds all year. Someone thought to plant a ring of them around the motel. I haven’t counted how many there are. Palms can grow anywhere. In a couple decades, there might be twice as many of them here. Eventually, the motel could be in a palm grove. As far as I’ve seen, there aren’t any other palm trees near Plaster City.

The place is about 17 miles west of El Centro, just north of the Mexican border, smack in the middle of 41,000 acres of open desert. There are a few sad motels along the highway, held over from the days when gas tanks were smaller and cars went slower. But mostly there’s just Interstate 8 in an immense beautiful emptiness. You might see a hawk or heat wobbles in the distance. In summer, you might see an overheated car or a dead armadillo.

Faye calls back, and I look at the phone light up in my lap. There’s a dead silence out behind the motel at night, and the sound of my phone vibrating seems violent and stupid like a crime. There should be misdemeanors issued for the use of certain phones or ringtones. I look at the phone until it stops vibrating. I finish the port before listening to her message.

“Okay,” she says. “The thing that’s killing me. You know, I was attracted to him. And if he called me right now and said let’s have a do-over, let’s give you another chance, I’d go in a second. I wouldn’t think about it. So now you know.”

But I already knew. I already knew it. And what I implied to her more than once was that I wasn’t judging. What happened didn’t bother me. And it wouldn’t have bothered me if she’d decided to make a move like that. You’ve got to use what you can to get ahead. Faye not using her looks just didn’t make sense. Of course, the fact that I didn’t cut her loose when I should have didn’t make sense, either. But she didn’t. And I didn’t. And so it went.

Two agonizing years of law school down the toilet. My whole future. Just for being visibly involved with her, for thinking that I was some kind of savior, that I could do anything. It’s an old story: the good professor propositioned her. She turned him down. And then he told her she was through. You don’t fail a class in law school and continue. And law professors don’t need reasons. I objected and so I went, too.

I call Faye back but now she’s decided not to answer. “You should come out here,” I say. I’m starting to slur my words and I can’t think too straight. That’s good. “Come out here and die in the sun instead of up there. He’ll hear about it up there. It’ll be an event. They’ll say you were crazy.” It occurs to me in some non-drunk part of my brain that maybe that’s exactly what Faye wants—for Professor Steptoe to hear about it and maybe feel bad for ten minutes.

“But don’t do it, okay? You’re not going to do it. You’re not going to do it because that will really fuck me up and we both know I’m already really fucked up. You can call me back, but I’m getting ready for bed.” Sometimes I pass out in the chaise lounge by the pool and wake up at dawn. This will be one of those times.

Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. John Owen wrote that. He died in 1622. He was a Welshman and he liked to compose Latin epigrams. You get a lot of Latin epigrams in law school. Going through the 17 spiral notebooks from the trunk of my Corolla, I find tempura mutantur nos et mutamur in illis written at the top of a civil procedure practice exam: tempura changes and we change with it. That was good. I ate tempura that day in a little bistro off El Camino Real in San Jose. Lunch break on my internship at the Santa Clara County Adult Drug Court.

However, I find the motto of Korvinus Junior College in Sackstona, North Carolina, to be more compelling: Tempora mutantur. Times are changed. Times have changed. I don’t know why this is the motto of the school. I do know that a triple murder happened there on their upper field. It went to the NC Supreme Court due to a disproportionate representation of African-Americans on the jury. It was a hate crime in which an unemployed former auto worker axed an African-American family to death in the middle of a softball game in front of about 70 witnesses. After a mistrial and a completely biased appellate decision, it went up to the supreme court. Professor Steptoe taught the case in Con Law II, which I failed. Now the Axeman is sweating it out in ADX Florence up in Colorado where they shipped him when he bit someone’s ear off in Craven Correctional. I know this because I’m supposed to know this. I know this and thousands of other things like it because I’ve been trained to know. Faye knows this, too. We were in the same class. The five practice exams I took before the final scored between 93% and 98%.

Today is a Korbel day. And on a Korbel day, you sit in a hot tub with beautiful women and appreciate philosophy and culture and the invention of champagne. Okay, it’s Korbel, so maybe they’re not so beautiful. Maybe they’re missing some teeth or they’re afraid to get their extensions wet or they’ve got pendants made out of rhinestones that say their names. Kaneesha. Jobie. Dolores. Those three were sweethearts.

My usual rule is that I don’t start drinking until the sun has been up for at least two hours, which puts it at about 9:00 AM. But I don’t know because the hotel room doesn’t have a clock. I’ve got my course notebooks spread out all over the floor and it almost seems wrong to be drinking Korbel without my girls from the drug court. But I need something between me and the memories locked in my handwriting. Faye hasn’t called yet. And I’m trying not to think about it.

Delores’ pimp paid a lot of money to have her sterilized so he could fuck her without a condom and stop paying for abortions. She was his property and he kept her on a dog chain in his apartment until she lit him on fire while he was sleeping. She did not get arrested for this. Rather, it came up as evidence for her post-traumatic stress disorder when she was caught driving a van full of meth months later. Delores was a nice girl. She just got some bad breaks. Same with Jobie, whose mom had been a hooker and pretty much brought her into the business as soon as it was biologically feasible. Kaneesha was just a junkie.

I’d walk down the hallway to the courtrooms and they’d all be standing there, a hundred people or so in handcuffs and ankle chains, males on the left, females on the right. I’d see them standing there every day, waiting to be arraigned because there is only one drug court in Santa Clara County and a lot of goddamn drugs. I got to know people. The Accused. Getting caught with a heroin kit or robbing a store because you’re getting sick doesn’t make you a monster. I’d stand there and drink the machine coffee from the lobby and talk to them. About the 49ers. About the fact that R. Kelly got screwed. About O.J. Everybody wanted to know what a white male law student thought about O.J. I’d wink and say, “Shit, man, you really think he did it?” This never failed to incite gales of laughter. Sometimes they’d call out “O.J. innocent!” when I’d see them getting loaded back onto the bus at the end of the day.

Kaneesha and Jobie didn’t get convicted for their offences. Delores did two months on a parole violation because the meth was hidden in the fenders of the van and they couldn’t establish clear possession much less intent to traffic. After she got out, she looked me up at school to thank me for calling her mom about the trial. Faye and I had a party with Delores, Kaneesha, and Jobie to celebrate. Faye brought everyone together. We all got incredibly drunk on cheap champagne. It was the happiest moment I’d had in years.

But that handwriting. That handwriting tells it true: there were days when I was so nervous, I could barely hold a pen. I had this shaking thing crop up from time to time. Others developed facial tics. A couple people in my classes were working hard on a cocaine habit. Everybody drank when they could. Pot was irrelevant; though hash had a brief renaissance at the end of my first year.

The traditional bullying of individual students in classes of 100 people was one thing. But law school is like a game of belligerent poker in which the institution keeps raising the stakes. You fold and fuck you: you weren’t cut out to be a lawyer anyway. You raise and you better know what you’re talking about because even if you’re right, the professor has an ego. And power doesn’t like a challenge. Mostly, you try to stay in the game. You pray that the competitive bullshit and the sadistic scrutiny of the professors leaves you alone while you go further into debt and develop health problems from worrying all the time, not sleeping, and destroying your liver. But John Owen knew what he was talking about. Times do change. And nobody can live like that for long.

I step out of my room because I have to piss. I take off my left shoe and put it down so the door won’t shut all the way. I don’t know where my key is, and the toilet in the room hasn’t been flushing for two days. There’s a communal pissoir at the end of the hall, which lends a certain bouquet to the entire floor. The communal pissoir is not often flushed, either. But at least it’s away from my room. It’s dark when I go in because the lights are on a timer—like an oven timer that ticks down. If you want to do your business in the light, you’d better be able to complete the operation within two minutes. I wind the light switch up to the maximum two and go over to a urinal.

In one of the stalls, Nelson is trying to take a shit. Nelson owns the motel and, as far as I know, he’s the only person who works there. He’s leathery, about 700 years old, and wears a lot of turquoise jewelry. I like Nelson, but I don’t like talking to him while he’s shitting.

“How’s it goin’?” he asks. He’s wearing Converse tennis shoes that a teenager might wear. His stall is closed, and all I can see are the shoes and his sky-blue polyester pants crumpled down on top of them.

“Oh, fine.”

“Good to hear. Me? Oh, it’s been a horrible day. Just horrible. I’ve got problems a young man like you can’t even imagine. With the plumbing.”

“You mean shitting?”

“Some days it just won’t happen. I’ll sit here for hours. Nothing. My legs fall asleep.”

I flush the urinal but it doesn’t flush.

“Well, you take care,” I say. “Maybe I’ll see you out by the pool.”

“Unlikely. I may have to sleep here. I might have to ask you to carry me to my room.”

“Keep trying. I won’t be around.”

After I wash my hands, I realize that I’d made a mental note last time to remember there are no paper towels. I wipe my hands on my T-shirt and look at myself in the spotted mirror. I look awful. At 29, I’m almost completely gray. I’ve got bags under my eyes and I haven’t cut my hair in two months. I’m growing a lopsided beard that’s going gray or blond in patches. I can’t tell. It should be black, but it looks like I’m hiding a skin condition.

“Yeah, that’s your generation, isn’t it,” Nelson says. “Twist up the light, will you?”

I do. And it begins to tick down again from two minutes. I step in some water with my shoeless foot on the way out.

There’s only so much Korbel a body can handle. And I am nowhere near that limit, but I am near the bottom of my fourth and last bottle. What to do: there’s half a bottle of $8 sherry that I don’t like and a case of warm Pabst in the back seat of my car. You can drink and drive out in the desert. The chances of you wrecking are the chances of you winning the California lottery. But I don’t like to drive into Plaster City unless I’m relatively sober. Too bad I’m going to make an exception because I don’t want warm beer and that sherry is being saved for desperate times.

I’m halfway there, trying to keep my eyes open, when Faye calls. I drop the phone twice before clicking on.

“I’m driving,” she says. “I need directions.”

Faye says she left the night before, hasn’t slept, and she’ll be here in a couple hours. She thought about what I said and she wants to see me.

I say okay and give her directions before I hang up. I’ve got about a hundred different emotions and none of them are good. So I keep on toward the little market on the edge of Plaster. There’s no way I can be sober when Faye arrives. I’m potentially an alcoholic. But no one can tell me what an alcoholic is. So I don’t really know. It’s easy to feel like you’re potentially anything. I was potentially a lawyer 49 days ago. Then I got my grades and I knew Steptoe had made good on his threat. Now I’m potentially ruined.

At the market, I get three bottles of ruby port, four bottles of Korbel, a fifth of Jack Daniels, a twelve-pack of Coke, and three bags of ice. Then I think, what the hell, Faye’s coming. So I also pick up a bottle of Southern Comfort, sour mix, and a quart of Early Times on sale for $28.50. I spend money like this. I’ve calculated out a few hundred just for alcohol from my remaining student loan money. The rest comes to about two grand and change, enough to get me somewhere else, wherever that might be. Enough to buy me some time. I haven’t talked to my family in years. I have a BA in history an no marketable skills. All my personal effects are in a storage unit in San Bruno—where I might be living soon.

My good friend, Sanjit, rings me up at the counter. “You’re drunk already,” he says. He has an incredible white turban, an equally incredible white beard, and wears a lot of army surplus.

“You don’t want my business, say so.”

“Don’t worry, my friend.” He takes my money and shakes open a brown grocery bag. “I’ll take all your money before you die.”

“Good man,” I say and walk the first two bags out to the car.

I start thinking about Steptoe again on the drive back and realize I’ve become dangerously sober. So I pull over and open one of the bottles of port. It’s only after I’ve drunk about half an inch past the top of the label that I can think about him without despair overwhelming me.

Me. Fucking me. In my good suit with gel in my hair, standing in front of Steptoe’ desk, shouting. I did the research feverishly, indignantly. The case law in California alone could have its own library. Teachers sexually harassing students. Students, teachers. Teachers, other teachers. Janitorial staff, teachers and students. Teachers, athletes. Athletes, campus clergy. Campus clergy, department secretaries. The combinations are endless. I found enough to argue multiple torts. There was also a criminal angle. But I didn’t want Steptoe’ resignation or damages or conviction. I wanted him to apologize to Faye and, ultimately, to me. Faye was my girl. And my ego was involved.

I pull up in front of the motel and Nelson comes out of the office, waves.

“Lemme help you with those,” he says. I hand him a grocery bag. But it’s too heavy so he sets it down on the super-heated parking lot asphalt.

“Having us a little party?” he asks when I run back to get the bag before the ice inside completely melts.

“Something like that. My friend’s driving down from San Francisco. You’re invited.”

“That’s wonderful. You’re the only motel guest I’ve had in six months. I hope you never leave.”

“You’re cheerful,” I say. “Did you shit?”

“As a matter of fact, I did, yes. No thanks to you.” Nelson draws himself up and gives me a stern look. Tangled white hair. Watery blue eyes to go with his turquoise rings and plaid button-down. “You realize how long it took me to get back to my room with this metal hip?”

“You could see a proctologist.”

“I am a proctologist.”

I heft the last two bags and kick the car door shut. “That explains your knowledge of crap.”

“That, my boy, explains my sadness.”

By the time Faye arrives, Nelson and I are already deep in the Early Times. I’ve fallen into the drained pool and cut both knees. Nelson has urinated on himself and sweat through his clothes while sitting in the ripped beach chair by the edge of the pool, eyes shut, head tilted back.

She walks around the corner of the building at dusk and the setting sun outlines her like she’s some kind of Celtic goddess. Or that’s how she seems in my misted vision. We’ve already been having a conversation when I realize that it’s Faye and she’s here. But only she will remember what we talked about.

***

“I don’t know how you can live like this,” Faye says. This from the woman obsessed with suicide. It’s early. We’re sitting in a Dennys somewhere near Plaster City. Faye drove. And in the pale light, she looks tired. Washed out. Like she’s been crying consistently for days, which is probably the case. I wonder if this is her look now. I’ve seen that look on guys I went to high school with who went into insurance sales, real estate, got jobs at car dealerships and started making money—for a while. A worried, tired, regretful look with a touch of resentment creeping out around the corners of the eyes: how Faye can’t look straight at me when she talks and I can’t look straight at her when she doesn’t. There’s an embarassment in that look, too, a sense that all these emotions wouldn’t be necessary if some key decision hadn’t been made incorrectly. The mistake you remember for the rest of your life. The deal that ruined you.

“I’m alright for now.” I take a sip of the rotten Dennys coffee that I can’t even taste. I’m congested. My head is killing me. And some internal organ (Kidneys? Liver? Who really wants to know?) feels inflated and tender. But this is still the good kind of hangover. The kind where I don’t have to think and I can just focus on my body. It might be the Zen state to which all heavy drinkers aspire—not the process of drinking or the drunkenness, but the painful dead-calm of the morning, the no-mind that comes from obliterating yourself completely the night before.

Faye’s got a thick wrap of gauze around her left forearm. When I ask her about it, she says she couldn’t go through with it. “But it looks like you’re succeeding,” she says. “You won’t last long drinking like this.”

“You remember Delores from the drug court? We should go back up there. Look her up. You know? That was fun that one time.”

She looks out the window at the parking lot. She’s got bags under her eyes and the cruel mouth wrinkles that women in law all seem to get. Law is a harsh mistress, especially to women.

“Yeah,” she says. “I remember Delores. She’s in Chowchilla now, doing eight-to-ten.”

The place is starting to fill up with the morning crowd. A table of Mexican laborers. A few worn out old men who look like farmers but who can’t be farmers because this is the desert. Our breakfast arrives.

Faye looks at her French toast like it just died on her plate. “This isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m going to drive back tomorrow.”

“Could you stay a couple days?”

“This isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere,” Faye says. “You need to dry out.”

“There’s time. You have time for a couple days.”

She pushes her plate towards the center of the table with her thumb and then rubs her thumb hard with a napkin. “There’s no time for us,” she says. “There never will be.”

Of course, the very nature of a criminal court internship means the intern is going to witness tears. The system is built on sorrow. And in the fall of my second year, I began to notice a certain attrition. Arraignments came and went. People got tried in groups and convicted as individuals. They were put on the “Rocket Docket” and got fast-tracked out to Fulsome, Chowchilla, Lovelock, CYA. They had one or two strikes, previous convictions. Their hearts gave out in their cells. They got sent to work homes, group homes, rehab centers. They killed themselves in the night with pieces of broken glass or plastic forks. The great world went on. A few people were sad. But not that many.

I’d see them in the hall on Friday (“Yo! OJ innocent, man! Ha ha ha!”) and by Monday they’d be on a bus. That year, I drank more than I ever had before. I worked for lawyers and judges. I filed papers. Took notes for the public defenders. Had lunch with law students, secretaries, paralegals, all the lesser carnivera of the judicial food chain. And I saw the wind and light change into winter. And I saw families weeping on the courthouse lawn. And always new faces lined up down the hall. And I didn’t want to make friends anymore. I walked past them quickly.

Late December, I got a postcard from Jobie in my law school mailbox: They got me in Seattle. Guess I fucked up. Don’t have nobody to write to except you. Good memories. Say hi to Faye. She is such a dear. – Jobie. I pushed the postcard across the table to Faye one afternoon when we were having lunch at a little Japanese bistro a block from campus.

She read it and smiled, shook her head. “I’m not surprised. I thought she had a little crush on you.”

“You don’t feel bad? Like maybe it’s a tragedy she’s back in?”

Faye pushed the postcard back and slouched in her chair. Then she looked at me. “The world’s full of tragedy,” she said. “You better toughen up.”

Faye takes sleeping pills and passes out in my rumpled bed before Nelson brings out his Glock 17.

“Where’s that little blonde gal of yours? I don’t trot out my gun for just anybody.”

“She’s asleep,” I say. “So that’s your piece, huh? What about the other one?”

“The elephant gun?” Nelson takes three magazines out of his pockets and starts loading them with bullets from a plastic utility box, copper 9mm rounds all tumbled into a single container like metal cigarette butts in a giant ashtray. “I don’t know where that monster is. Maybe somebody stole it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Tonight, I’m drinking the Southern Comfort I bought for Faye with the sour mix and a Pabst on the side. Nelson’s back into the Early Times, but he’s taking it slow because he wants to shoot his gun.

“I only shoot one tree,” he says. “That one.” He points to the very center palm tree in the dirt on the other side of the pool. At one point, there was a fence where the concrete stopped. Now there’s just a row of palm trees like the condemned before a firing squad. Beyond that, acres of parched flat earth run out toward purple mountains, which you can barely see after a rain.

“I hate that one. I like the others. But I hate that one. Reminds me of my wife.” He grips the Glock in his bony liver-spotted hands and fires nine times. It sounds like a Chinese firecracker. Pop. Pop. Pop. Nelson takes a sip of Early Times and ejects the clip. “Goddamn tree,” he says.

He tells me that the tree he hates is the original palm tree, the primogenitor of all the others. Nelson also explains how much he hates large palms in general. They make dust that gets into his lungs. He doesn’t like the way the big fronds look. And he drained the pool because fronds and pollen made it impossible to keep the water clean. “Like Natasha. Filthy woman.”

He slides a new clip into the gun and hands it to me. “Go ahead. You kill the tree.”

I aim, trying to hold it the way he did, but something isn’t right, because I squeeze off all nine shots and not one connects. The gun smells like smoke and machinery, which, I realize, is mostly what it is. When I turn, Nelson is sitting in the chaise lounge, eyes shut again, short glass of Early Times balanced on his knee.

“You know,” he murmurs, “later on, I’m gonna go take a shit.”

I load up a third clip, fire one mis-aimed round, and stop. What did that tree do to me? I put the gun in my belt. I’m staggering and wary of falling in the empty pool again. So I give the edge a wide berth. I go up to the condemned tree and notice that it doesn’t have a single bullet hole on it. Nobody’s watching. I put my arms around it and say, “I hope you have a long and happy life. I’m sorry.” And if I start to cry for a tree, it’s only because I’m a drunk and the world is full of tragedy and I haven’t toughened up even though Faye tells me I need to and I know she’s right.

I wake in my bed with Faye standing over me. She’s showered. She looks determined.

“I’m going.”

It takes me a moment to process this. “Where?”

“Back. Rudy called.” Rudy is another law student. He’s been after Faye since he met her and has despised me just as long. “He says Steptoe’s having a party in two days.”

“And you’re going to it.”

“Steptoe can reverse my grade. I have to try. But I better cute myself up. Think I’ve got it in me?”

“We were shooting trees last night. You should have seen it.”

Faye gives me a level stare. “Take care of yourself,” she says.

Out by the pool, I push Nelson’s broken whiskey glass into a pile of shards under the chaise lounge and resume drinking from the bottle of Southern Comfort. The Glock and the open box of bullets gleams in the afternoon sun. I wonder how hot it would have to get in the desert for those bullets to explode in one giant supernova of death.

Nelson is nowhere around and I resolve to check the bathroom later in case he fell in. I know he’s probably sitting there in the dark, meditating on old age and constipation or snoring and dreaming about better days—before he married filthy Natasha and made that one fateful decision that ruined him forever.

That day in Steptoe’s office, I ranted and raved at the top of my voice about ethics, best practices, betrayal of trust. About the irony that he was famous for his civil rights cases. That he’d argued the Constitution before the US Supreme Court. I even cited the Constitution.

He’s a dignified man, a fatherly man, someone you want to trust with his close-clipped gray beard, wry sense of humor, and the way he squints into a smile. He was smiling like that when he said, “Are you finished?”

I was out of breath. I stood there on the Persian rug in his office, stunned by my own tirade.

Still smiling, Steptoe folded his hands on the desk. “You’re making a career decision.”

“I think you made a career decision when you sexually harassed Faye McDaniels, Professor Steptoe.”

He sighed and nodded. “You’ve said that.”

We looked at each other. And then I noticed Steptoe’s vision shift. He stared right through me at something else.

“Good luck to you,” he said to that other thing.

“This isn’t over.” I didn’t know what else to say. I turned on my heel and stalked out of his office, slamming the door behind me, and walked off campus. After five or six blocks I went into a liquor store and bought a fifth, which I drank greedily with trembling hands in the aluminum bleachers of a high school football field. Some kids were playing catch there. One of them stopped and looked over at me. I can only imagine what he saw.

A day goes by and I’m out of alcohol again, except for the Early Times and the disgusting sherry—which is just as well because my kidneys (I think) have swollen up enough that it’s hard for me to sit straight. By late afternoon, the pain is manageable and I feel good enough to make the drive to the market. I call Faye from the road but she doesn’t answer.

“Look,” I say in the message, “I’m not judging you. But I want you to ask me sometime why I failed Con Law. It’s not because I didn’t study.” I never found out if anyone else knew what transpired that day in Professor Steptoe’s office. I wrote a letter to the dean of the law school shortly thereafter. The letter disappeared. I think I expected outrage. I expected people to rally to my cause. For a few days, I told myself I was a hero, that I was doing what lawyers did—standing up to power, giving a voice to those who, whether through fear or incapacity, were voiceless. I took my finals. Con Law was open and shut with no surprises. I wrote 15 pages longhand and finished in good time.

“Ah, it looks like you’re finally dying,” Sanjit says.

“Don’t be envious. At least I don’t work at a liquor store in the desert.”

“Where I come from, there are far worse things. But you are an idiot. Why do I speak to an idiot?” Sanjit is drinking a strawberry smoothie from a white foam cup and the bottom of his white moustache is stained pink.

“Yes.” He grins and makes crazy eyes. “Can you believe it? It is a smoothie. Fruit. It’s healthy. But you would not know about that.”

So I let him have it. I tell him everything in one big paragraph: I got kicked out of law school over a girl. I’m thousands of dollars in debt. No future. Little money. And no one to take me in. “And, yes,” I say, “I am an idiot.”

“Come with me.” Sanjit puts his smoothie down and locks the front. He’s wearing his usual perfectly white turban and a red long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned down the front over a Bull Taco Motorcycle T-shirt. His pants are gray-blue arctic camo and he has a pair of black combat boots coming apart at the seams. I follow him out the back of the market to an asphalt lot with weeds growing up through the cracks. The lot is full of wrought iron in the shape of a deer, an enormous Japanese robot, a kid doing a handstand, a horse, a cowboy driving a stagecoach—all of it rusted, baking in the heat.

“Just look at it,” he says. “My son did this.”

“Your son’s a welder?”

“My son’s an artist.”

I walk around the sculptures while Sanjit watches me from the shade of the doorway.

“They’re beautiful,” I say.

He nods. “The smoothie place is two blocks away. I won’t be offended if you spend some money there.”

My insides are killing me, but suddenly I want to break down and weep or hug him. But the sharpness in his eyes makes me think that if I tried either of those things, he’d punch me in the face. Instead, I extend my hand.

“Don’t do me any favors,” he says and turns back into the store.

I look at the sculptures a little more: wrought iron life, motionless in the heat. I wonder if his son really did make them or if Sanjit’s in there having a good laugh at my expense. But then I realize it doesn’t make a difference. Somebody made them. And it doesn’t matter if someone sees the sculptures or wants them. They’re out there anyway, soaking up the desert heat, playing out their silent drama for the weeds.

Sanjit rings me up in silence. In the interests of good taste, I only buy another case of Pabst and a second bottle of Early Times, both of which I put in the trunk before walking down to Smoothie King for a strawberry-bannanna zinger. I vomit it up along with a gallon of bile beside the door of my car. My best friend doesn’t come out, even though he must have heard me retching into the asphalt. Driving away, I feel incredibly light-headed; though, there’s only one thought in my mind: I’ll have to find a new market.

Nelson has a rechargeable hair clipper. Later that day, with the sun melting into the smog over the mountains like a bloodshot eye, I sit crosslegged in dead palm fronds at the bottom of the pool. I drink Jack Daniels and shave my face and my head down to the scalp. There are small brown scorpions and centipedes under the fronds. A scorpion crawls past my bottle of Jack. A centipede investigates a gray clump of my hair with its feelers. This is more fascinating than it should be. I call Faye to tell her about it but her line just rings and rings.

When I wake up, I’m on my back in a puddle of whiskey, the phone held tightly to my chest with both hands. They used to bury knights that way with their hands gripping the hilts of their swords. But with me, a phone’s more appropriate: live by the phone, die by the phone.

Nelson has turned on all the exterior motel lights. The place is lit up like an orange landing strip. I get up on one knee and steady myself. A whiskey-soaked patch of cut hair falls off my neck. I stare at it for a moment, trying to understand what it is, what it signifies. In the orange light, it looks like a little fiberous alien, it’s long shadow jagged over the palm fronds. The bottle is on its side and there’s hardly any whiskey in it. I stand up and throw it against the wall of the pool. It explodes in a flower of amber glass that glitters on the fronds like tiny stars.

Swaying, I almost fall face-first into it. The pain in my side has gotten worse, progressing from a dull ache to a sharp stabbing agony that comes on every few heartbeats, making me feel like I should be vomitting or shitting but I also feel that I won’t be doing those things anytime soon. Instead, I stand with my arms straight out to either side like Jesus over Rio and look at my shadow while Nelson fires his elephant gun at the tree.

BOOM.

The shot sounds hollow and thick the way a ship’s cannonade must have sounded off the coast of far Tortuga.

BOOM.

And a mass of blue-white smoke moves over the pool. I shake whiskey out of the hair clipper, put the phone in my pocket, and contemplate walking up to the shallow end beneath where Nelson’s standing, cursing and reloading his gun.

“Bitch! Whore! Howdjalike that, hah? 40 calibers, bitch!”

I cup my hands around my mouth and call out: “Hey there, Nelson! I’m in the pool, okay? Hey! Cease fire!”

There’s a moment of silence before he lets off another round. BOOM. And my right ear starts fluttering like a strained muscle.

BOOM.

“Take it all, you filthy whore!”

I hear him grunt and crack the stock of the gun to reload. In spite of all the drinking and self-destruction, the living animal part of me still gets hungry and wants sex and knows when I should sleep and wants to live. My palms are sweating. I wipe them on my jeans and laugh at myself. That elephant gun would take me apart like a watermellon on a hot sidewalk. Would that be so bad? Wasn’t I the one with nothing left? But that deep part of me is locked on the amber floodlight, the glitter of the broken glass, the carpet of dead palm fronds, my long dark shadow on the bottom of the pool.

“Hey! Fuck you, Nelson. Unless you want to kill somebody, hold up so I can get out of the goddamn pool. Alright?”

Another moment of silence. Then his ragged screaming, more scared than angry: “Shut up! Get out of my fucking head! You’re not in the fucking pool!”

My inner safety animal tells me that if I want to live, I need to scramble out of the pool before Nelson finishes reloading because he’s about to walk up to the edge and let one go. I run to the shallow end and half-leap up the little blue staircase in the corner: whiskey-stained, shaven superhero with magical hair clipper.

Nelson looks up with terror in his face just as he’s closing the stock on two more enormous rounds. When he sees me, he lets out a little cry. I notice that he’s wearing a woman’s maroon tassled bathrobe with paisley designs that make it looke like a Turkish carpet. It’s open down the front, showing his sagging hairless chest and belly poking out over a dingy pair of boxers.

“Who the fuck are you?” He pushes his round wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose and squints. “You’re not Natasha.”

“No. Obviously not.”

Nelson points at the hated palm tree that reminds him of his wife. One of the shots must have grazed it because the top fronds are burning like the bush of prophecy.

“I taught her,” he says. “I taught her a lesson she’s never gonna forget, the bitch.”

And I nod. The palm tree will never forget. Ash and burning embers fall in a tiny rain of fire to the foot of the tree. He hands me the rifle and says, “You be the guard.” Then he shuffles through the glass door that connects the pool area with the motel’s single internal hallway.

All the lights go off. I sit in the chaise lounge next to the empty bottle of Early Times and a cardboard box full of enormous .40-caliber shells. The gun is impossibly heavy with over-and-under barrels and a round metal sight. I unload it, put the two rounds back in the box with the others, and settle back to watch the tree burn.

Nelson isn’t up the next morning, but I am. Being neither intoxicated nor hung over at 8 AM seems unnatural and awkward. I do not feel better about life, but the image of the burning tree and Nelson, drunk and hallucinatory, in what could only have been his late wife’s bathrobe haunts me. I decide not to drink for the rest of the day.

Tempora mutantur. Times have changed. And we may or may not have changed with them. But some things are always the same, like the feeling I got when I first read Jobie’s postcard. They got me in Seattle. Guess I fucked up. Death energy there, laced into the words. Guess I fucked up like I’m going to die now. This is it. Arivaderche Roma. Give my regards to Broadway. See you in the next life, on the flip-side—out in the far country, far Tortuga—where you’ll be headed, too, before long.

There’s always a degree of absurdity in that feeling, like it’s a horrible farce, a killing joke. Like the Axeman chasing a whole family down one-by-one between third base and the west side bleachers of the upper field—running back and forth with a bloody Woodsman Mark VIII, while 70 people screamed and made for the chainlink.

It’s the same feeling I get when I walk out back and look at the half-burned palm tree. A V-mark of soot runs down the center of its trunk. It’s fronds have been burned to spindly tendrils reaching up toward the sky. If the tree could scream, it would sound the way those tendrils look, sharp and twisted and wrong against the rising heat of the day.

Out here, in this emptiness, an old man can get drunk in his dead wife’s bathrobe and fire a .40-caliber gun at a tree in the normal course of human events. A former potential lawyer can try to drink himself to death and realize what a fool he’s been. And who knows how many ex-wives are buried without their bathrobes between Plaster City and El Centro.

My best friend is not surprised to see me. He stands beneath the cigarette overhang with one hand on the register and another on a glass case full of cheap cigars—an inscrutible wirey Sikh in a white turban and an USMC jacket with the patches ripped out.

“You look now like you’ve escaped a concentration camp.”

“Well, maybe I have.”

“I sincerely doubt it. But it shall now be impossible for me to sell you more alcohol.” His eyes regard me from a great distance beneath his bushy white eyebrows.

“That’s fine. I’m here for something else.”

“You wish to rob me?”

“I wish to work for you. Tell me you don’t need the help.”

Sanjit looks down and sighs. He shakes his head. “The help. I don’t need it. But ask at the Smoothie King. I will provide a recommendation and lie that you are not suicidal or impossibly stupid.” It takes him a moment to grin at his own wit.

“That smoothie made me puke.”

“Yes.” He nods slowly. “In my parking lot. They are often disgusting. The milk is often sour.”

“That’s why you need to hire me. It’s too unhealthy over there.”

Still grinning, he says, “That is the first thing you’ve said that has not been stupid. Come back tomorrow and you can try out for the position.”

On the drive back to the motel, I pull over and study my face in the mirror. I don’t recognize myself—gaunt cheeks, shadows below my eyes, shaved head. I really do look like I’ve survived something big and terrifying. The destruction of my home planet. An endless galactic war. Some chapter of Revelation that permanently changed the times and changed me with them.

While I’m stopped, Faye calls.

“I just thought I’d tell you,” she says. “We’ve worked it out.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, we’re going to, I think. He forgave me. He’s leaving his wife.”

“Oh?”

“He’s going to make a call. I’ll be back in on a probationary basis.”

“And that’s good?”

“I don’t think we should talk anymore,” she says. “It’s too risky. I can’t fuck up again.”

We sit on the open line without speaking. Then she says, “So . . . good-bye.”

“Good-bye, Faye.” I listen to the beep.

When I start the car moving again, I think about looking for an apartment nearby, maybe a small sandblown house. Times are changed. Times have changed. And I’ve arrived in my own far country. The road from Plaster City shimmers before the car—a painted background damaged by heat that can no longer trick the eye into believing it’s real.

 

 

Note: this story was originally published in Isthmus magazine.

Ghost Town

Dogs cannot be made to look like human beings. You’re sitting on the rooftop deck at Dick’s Chop House in Fresno, California, and this is one thing you know. There is nothing modern science can do to make a dog resemble a person. The waitress comes and goes. Dennis lights a cigarette, leans back in his chair, and watches moths flit around pale yellow deck lights.

“Look,” you say. “It’s here: ‘Federal Scientific Panel Tests Limits of Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs.’”

Dennis coughs against the back of his hand. “Want to hear the one about how a dog both does and does not wag its tail at the same time?”

These trips to Fresno are making you nervous. Brown smears of pollution hang over searing afternoons. Police are everywhere. Fistfights on sidewalks. Porcelain statues of saints and shrines to dead relatives on porches. Car shows in parking lots. SUVs with rims and tint jobs bouncing high at the stoplights. From Dick’s roof, you can see Blackstone Avenue three stories below, stinking, pulsing, clotted with angry traffic at nine on a Friday night. Flashing lights in the distance. Always. Based-up mariachis from passing lowriders make your empty beer bottle vibrate on the patio table.

“I can’t shake the feeling we’re about to get shot,” you say.

Dennis looks at you for a moment and then holds up his cigarette, watches smoke uncoil from the tip. “Relax. Dogs can tell when they’re being filmed. Know that?”

You scan the rest of the front page. Murder. Lies. Bombing. Abductions.

“You can’t just film dogs when nobody’s around to see if they’ll wag their tails,” he says. “They always know you’re watching.”

You try to remember if you asked the waitress to bring another beer. You tell Dennis you can’t understand why someone funded a government project to see if dogs could look like people. You cross and re-cross your boots at the ankles, light one of his cigarettes, and think about the future. It’s been fifteen minutes since Warren went downstairs to meet the buyer. In about fifteen more, you will finally have enough money to live comfortably for at least a year or be arrested.

The waitress brings two more beers. Black hair, thin, pretty, she looks barely twenty-one. Dennis tips her a dollar, and she rolls her eyes. He smiles and watches her go.

“Schrödinger. It’s the tree in the forest thing,” he says. “First, you take a dog and put it in a room. Inside the room you have a bunch of nuclear waste. If the waste gives off too much radiation, a machine detects it and smashes a can of nerve gas. But if you look straight at the door of the room, there’s no way to tell if the machine has smashed the can or not.”

You imagine a plastic surgeon’s scalpel cutting into the muzzle of a screaming Golden Retriever and shake the thought away, drink your beer. A police copter hovers over distant city lights. Its search light probes like a glowing feeler.

“Which means you can’t tell if the dog is alive or dead,” Dennis adds.

“And that’s why you can’t tell if it’s wagging its tail?”

“No.” Dennis pauses, takes another drag, and looks at you a bit longer this time. “This is a hypothetical example. The tail comes in a minute.”

Five trips from San Diego to Fresno in as many months. And each time, you carried enough illegal items to stop your happy thoughts for a good, long time if you got caught. An hour ago, you parked stolen truck number five in the lot behind Dick’s. It’s loaded with one-hundred-and-seventy-eight cases of premium vodka that should have been in Reno, according to the bill of lading. Stealing interstate means federal time. A possibly dead driver means life. You smoke Dennis’s cigarette and try not to think about it. Instead, you read yesterday’s paper filled with all the heinous shit people already got caught for.

“So the fucking dog is now in a quantum state. It’s both alive and dead until you open the door. Maybe it’s wagging its tail. Maybe it’s just a stiff, little bundle of joy.”

“But wait. You can never find out because if you open the door you might get nerve-gassed. You can’t risk opening the door.”

“Fuck that,” says Dennis. “You’ve got a space suit. That’s not the point.”

Then it doesn’t matter because Warren walks up to the table with a grin. “All done.” He takes a long drink of your beer. “Andre says we’re good. We go out back right now and get paid.”

“Fucking-A,” you say, standing up. Dennis stands, too.

The waitress walks out onto the deck, sees Dennis, Warren, and you grinning at each other, and takes a step back. “What?” she says.

“Dogs,” says Dennis. “We like dogs.”

She looks at the three of you and nods slowly.

You wink.

Andre is an extremely large, extremely stupid man dressed like a farmer in a plaid shirt and overalls. He’s got a shaved head with a dark red birthmark shaped like Florida on the back. Every time you have to deal with Andre, you wonder what he would do if he lived in Florida and people kept asking him why the state was tattooed on his head. He’d likely kill a few of the slower people and then spend the rest of his life in prison. Prison. Something to not think about when standing in a parking lot beside a sixteen-wheeler full of highjacked vodka. Andre’s holding a can of Miller and doesn’t seem at all bothered by passing sirens on Blackstone Avenue.

He does look like he enjoys eating chops at Dick’s Chop House. That’s another thing you feel confident about besides the bit about dogs not looking like people. The question is: if you put the contents of Andre’s belly in a quantum state—i.e. with or without a chop—would that mean he’d be digesting and not-digesting at the same time? Would it mean he’d be simultaneously hungry and not-hungry? Andre’s eyes are very small. He gives you a glazed, faintly hostile look.

“So it’s all there,” says Warren.

“So it is.” Andre’s eyes shift to his beer.

You look at Andre, at Warren, at Dennis standing back a few feet, puffing his cigarette down to the filter, and wonder what’s going on. Usually, it’s Andre with a bag of bills and then good-bye, done. Not the current Andre with the beady expression of some fat, hostile marsupial in overalls. Marsupials. Koalas and shit. They eat bamboo, not chops.

“Thing is,” says Andre, “Jimbo don’t come down no more. He don’t like being recognized. You gotta drive it over to Madera. That’s where the money is.”

“What the fuck,” says Warren. He’s tall. Medium build. Sandy blond hair parted on the side. Warren wants to get mad, get up in Andre’s face. But Warren doesn’t get anything more than smart. “This is bullshit,” he says to the asphalt. He puts his hands in the pockets of his Pepsi windbreaker and looks down like a schoolboy.

Maybe Dennis could do something. He’s wiry but strong. You’ve seen him get in fights, get crazy, punch holes in walls. Once, he beat the hood of his ex-wife’s Firebird until his fists were all torn up. In the morning, the car looked like Dennis had won. But what’s there to do if you want to get paid?

Andre blinks. “Madera,” he says and drains his beer.

Madera will be a challenge. Only twenty minutes north, but getting there will be difficult. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the police are out en masse, the Force in force, making people walk the line and count back in sevens from a hundred. There’s a sobriety checkpoint every five blocks. Driving north into Fresno earlier, you saw highway ninety-nine lit by flashing lights, the first unlucky drunks of the night standing pale and uneasy in patrol car floods. So the three of you decide to call it for the night and go out to the warehouse tomorrow noon. Dennis tells Andre. Andre will call Jimbo, and all will be right with the world.

For you—for obvious reasons—traceable cell phones are a no-no. You stare at the truck and dial your girlfriend, Christina, from a filthy phone booth in the dirt lot behind the Apache Motel. You parked the truck a few feet away, right next to the room you’ll share with Warren and Dennis. It looks like any other semi parked for the night, but the shadows in the cab remind you of a ghost town.

Your girlfriend’s roommates call her Tina. You call her Chris. You both call your little boy Jessup because that was your grandfather’s name and neither of you wanted a son named Jessie. Jessies go to jail; Jessups go to college, according to Chris, and you have no cause to disagree. But you wonder if someday he’ll wear a jean jacket and a mullet, if he’ll ride a motorcycle he calls a “dirt bike” and phone you from jail in the middle of the night like you did to your father. When that happens, you’ll feel as sad as your father once looked standing on the other side of shatter-proof glass at County, his failure complete.

Images of Dennis throwing a crowbar away from the highway. It was easy for him to whack the driver in the back of the head while Warren pointed a .45 in the guy’s face. Dennis and Warren didn’t like doing it that way. Neither did you. But highjacking trucks is what it is. Unless you want to spend the rest of your pathetic life in prison, it’s you or the driver, who should have known what he was risking when he took the job. You listen to the connection beep and tell yourself you’re a survivor. You try not to remember the groans or the sound the driver’s body made when you and Warren heaved him into a ditch in the darkness.

The connection goes beep-beep and the answering machine comes on, Chris and Jessup together, sounding happy, laughing, saying after the beep! You don’t mention anything about what you’re doing. You hesitate and say, “Hi, Chris. Hi Jess. It’s me. I miss you!”

Whenever she asks where you’ve been, you tell her a story. You say that you’re a dealer in dry goods, that you work for a trucking company, that sometimes you sell ladies’ hats out of boxes because it’s easier that way. You tell her you only sell high-end jewelry and only when you can get a good deal on it. You tell her you once owned a Zamboni that used to belong to the L.A. Kings, and that the price of shoes in Cleveland is much lower. Which, you add, is how you came into fifty-seven crates of Louis Vuitton Vienna Minimalisa High Boots in ostrich leather. You tell her there’s nothing better than family and not to ask where the money comes from because every dollar means I love you. You tell her to wait, to be patient, because you’re going to get her a house in a neighborhood not as violent. You tell her to be realistic because you are. You tell her you’re a hustler because, in this goddamn world, everybody is. And, most of the time, you feel you’re telling the truth.

“I’ll be back soon,” you say and wonder who’s standing beside the phone listening, maybe one of Chris’ cruel roommates, a blood-red nail hovering over ERASE.

“Tell Jessup I got him a present.”

Ghost town: the darkened windows of the truck are like the dead spaces of abandoned buildings at night, somewhere you wouldn’t want to go. After dark, they’re just void, negative space. The truck cab is empty. And, you think: twenty-five years to life for interstate highjacking and maybe an accessory to murder. You think: maybe what you tell Chris isn’t the truth; it’s just your truth. But that doesn’t make the Zamboni any less real or the fact that it came into your possession something false. You tell yourself no other thief in the world has successfully stolen and resold a Zamboni. That, too, is part of your story, your truth. Maybe, if you’re lucky, the bad karma of your thieving life will take a long time to kick in, unlike with your father. Maybe then you’ll know what is or is not absolutely true. Until then, you’ll keep calling from dirty phone booths outside ghost towns in the dark.

“I love you both,” you say. And the phone booth is silent. On its two-story pole beside the highway, the Apache Motel sign is a pale, yellow circle with hot-pink Vacancy across the center. But behind the L-shaped motel, the empty dirt lot continues into darkness. The motel is two exits up the ninety-nine from Fresno, a place Dennis says nobody cares about, where he’s stayed a couple times before. When you turn your back to the highway, the empty motel, and the truck, you look across the flat dirt and feel you’ve reached the end of something. After this, somewhere out there in the night, there may only be emptiness and the good chance of falling into it—or maybe twenty-five years to life, waiting patiently to pounce. You’re thirty-four years old. You’ve spent four of those years in Corcoran State Prison for stealing a tractor from a construction site in Chula Vista. And, right now, you’re headed for Madera.

The door to Room Six swings open silently. It’s unlocked. Dennis and Warren don’t give a shit. They’re sitting cross-legged on the bed, two grown men in their boxers, sweating, shuddering, smoking meth. Normally, they look like computer programmers from Akron. Windbreakers and Hawaiian shirts. Wire-rimmed glasses. Socks in Birkenstocks. Dennis is only thirty-eight, but his shoulder-length hair is dark gray streaked with white. He keeps it pushed behind his ears. Warren likes to wear sun visors. He knows card tricks.

The bowl of the lightbulb pipe is black where Warren’s lighter flame licks it. Warren grins at a square burn on his thumb from the lighter. The facial tick at the corner of his mouth is back and makes his grin look insane. Warren’s cockeyed. Cockeyed-stoned. He exhales a puff of used smoke and hands the pipe to Dennis. Neither of them speaks. You don’t hear a sound but the lighter, the pipe hiss, and the tick of the air conditioner in the wall. Chemical meth-smell hangs in the air. Dennis exhales and stands on the bed. He turns on the TV and starts jumping, flipping channels with the remote. This makes Warren fall over backwards. He gasps and curses but doesn’t get up. Instead, he stretches out on the floor between the bed and the wall. You hear the hiss of the pipe.

The bathroom is cool and dark. Thankfully, it has a tub. You take your jacket and shirt off. You’re careful to remove your wallet, keys, and the thin survival knife you found in the truck’s glove box. This won’t be the first time you’ve used your clothing as a mattress in a strange bathtub. You curl up on your side and pull the shower curtain closed. Outside, Dennis yells at the television. Warren yells at Dennis. They will do this for five, six hours, then crash.

It’s a long way to freedom with a girlfriend and son behind you and Madera in the front. You might be an accessory to murder. Accessory. The word tumbles around in your head. You hear it the way one hears a foreign term and can’t forget it. The word for prison in German is Gefängnis. You took German in high school from Mr. Antonucci. Du mußt nicht ins Gefängnis gehen, he’d say and laugh. Don’t go to prison. Gefängnis, you think, accessory.

“Szechwan chicken is not fucking fried!” screams Dennis.

“Fuck that. The fucking chef knows what he’s doing!” screams Warren. “He’s the chef, man.”

It’s been almost six hours with sleep as a distant fantasy and the two assholes in the next room, arguing about (1) the Musical Chef; (2) the differences between Fiats and Škodas; and (3) whether Nixon was better than our current chief executive—Fucking-A he wasn’t. Nixon was an idiot—Fuck you, Dennis, Bush is a FAGGOT—with the occasional Learn your shit! and Why don’t you just shut the fuck up? thrown in. Yes, you frown, pulling your knees up closer to your chin, yes, why don’t you?

Then, finally, when silence comes, it’s total, sudden, and ominous. You dress, put your things back in your pockets, and creep out of the bathroom, cheering yourself with images of Dennis and Warren contorted in a final death-embrace, hands around each other’s throats, neck veins still bulged-out. Instead, it’s the usual scene. Dennis is spread-eagled on the bed, head hanging upside-down off the edge, snuffling with his mouth open. Warren’s on his side, sleeping on the round table under the window. He didn’t bother to brush away the wrappers from the vending machine food and looks like he’s been sleeping at the bottom of a trashcan. You walk out of the room, shut the door, and stare at the low-slung peel of moon just above the horizon. Maybe you should call Chris again. You’re out of change. You’d have to call collect.

The woman in the motel office is also stoned. How many times have you seen this in the late night offices of motels, trailer parks, campgrounds? The bored, slightly pathetic life form behind the desk, hooked into bad TV and whatever happens to be on the smoking menu that evening. There’s usually nobody around, and it’s a real bummer when somebody steps in with some problem. She’s thought ahead, has a cigarette burning in the ashtray to cover up the hash smell. But hash is hash, as a wise man once said. In your humble opinion, hash is a good thing. Let there be hash.

She looks over at you, wishing the one thing in the world you won’t do is speak. You mosey over to the urn of free coffee and get a cup. The coffee tastes like hot, bitter plastic, but it warms you from the inside, which is always the best way to get warm. When you were a kid, warm felt like that. Your dad would make instant coffee on the kitchen counter in the morning—thin and steaming, without sugar. Was it his way of saying, I’m sorry your worthless mother o.d.’d in your bed and you had to come home from school and find her there? Was it his way of saying, I apologize for the stints in various orphanages while I did six months in prison here, a year there? Maybe he wasn’t trying to say anything but Drink up. You’ve thought about these things for years. You can take all the time you need, think about it for the rest of your life if you want. It might take that long to figure your childhood out. The important thing is, standing in the office of the Apache Motel, looking at the sad array of yellowed tourist brochures from fifteen years ago, you feel warm. You’ve got coffee. You’ve got a son named Jessup. You’re not in jail. You’re not dead.

“I suppose there’s something you want.”

“Nothing,” you say. “Coffee.” You hold up the Styrofoam cup and smile on your way out. She turns back to her show without a word. Her cigarette has burned down to the filter, leaving a two-inch worm of ash. Doesn’t look like she smoked any of it. She’s in her thirties, getting curves where she shouldn’t, platinum-dyed hair tied back in a band.

Outside, you look at her through the windowpanes in the door. She’s sitting there, not blinking, staring at the television as if she’s part of it. A machine could do her job. Someday, you think, a machine will. You notice a blue pushbutton with a black circular base beside the door. Around it, Press Button if Offise Closed is written in Magic Marker. You walk down the side of the motel, following the wires running from the button. The wires are covered in the same tan paint as the rest of the motel.

Ah. You feel good for the first time since you started this trip. If Dennis were here, you might even consider discussing whether you’re about to enter a quantum state. Or, rather, whether the blonde’s cottage is, because that’s where the bell wires end, and you’ve still got that survival knife in your pocket. While she sits over in the motel office, the rest of the cosmos waits in one of Dennis’ probabilistic equations—with and without her hearing you snap the latch on the cottage’s screen door and pry the survival knife into the lock; with and without her getting up to check (probably not—if you want to talk about likely hits from a very probable hash pipe); with and consequently without some interesting items, which she should have made a lot more secure.

You smile, picturing how irritated Dennis would be with you narrating all the possible outcomes of the situation as you easily, absently, twist the knife in the ancient lock and shoulder the door open. Probabilistically speaking, you’d say to Dennis, dogs simultaneously wagging and not wagging their tails misses the point. You pause in the darkness of the living room and think about Dennis’ hypothetical. Who cares what’s behind Door Number One? That’s the real question. Nerve gas? A yipping daschund? If you want to know, twist a knife in the lock. If you don’t, let poisoned, radioactive daschunds lie.

It’s a small cottage, but the living room seems large in the dark. A digital clock face glows red from a bookshelf. You hear a slow drip-plop from the kitchen, and decide to feel your way to the bedroom first. What’s wrong with a little thievery, really, everything being equal and equally thieved? Money. Time. The Beatles thieving Little Richard. The US thieving Mexico thieving the Indians, body and soul. Everybody thieving oil and oil thieving right back. Children thieve the future from their parents as parents thieve the past. Dracula pulls up in front of the blood bank, and the President invades Iraq. It’s the way you live, the way we live, the way we’re all going to die—thieving one more taste of life in this desert of trouble and mistakes until death gets its own hustle on. The only downside is getting caught reminding people of the truth, not just your truth but everybody’s: the world is a criminal. If your son were here, you’d sit him down and tell him just that. The whole world, Jessup. The very earth.

The bedroom smells like cigarettes and strong perfume, and it cheers you right away. Your new best friend has cases on her pillows. Good. You strip both pillows in the dark. Now you have two sacks. Tossing a house, really stripping it, might take an hour or two. But if you don’t want the gold out of someone’s teeth (and normally you don’t—too burdensome, too hard to get rid of every last, little thing), it ought to take ten minutes, less. Appliances. Jewelry. Grandpa’s roll of bills under the mattress. People have no imagination. They’re sheep. They buy the fake Ajax can to hold their pension and go to sleep feeling like its safer than the bank.

Sheep. Like this girl—diamond earrings, five-hundred, and a dime bag rolled into an old sock in her panty drawer—the place you usually look after the mattress. Someone should tell her she’s right. The bank isn’t safe. No place is. Someone should tell her, if she put down the hash pipe, just for tonight, and did her rounds, you wouldn’t be able to rob her blind, and there’s no FDIC on an Ajax can.

“Baa,” you say to the living room, bagging the DVD player and some nice stereo components—far too nice for a motel manager, which proves your point yet again. Who really owns anything? You’re a goddamn social revolutionary, quantum dog state or not. You pull the clock’s power cord out of the wall, wrap it around the clock, and put the clock in your sack. The entire escapade has taken about twelve minutes in the dark.

On your way out, you turn on the bathroom sink and the shower. This is great—a little, original twist. Most people will run straight into the bathroom and stare dumbly at the floor, going, “Baa.” Did the pipes explode? Did the toilet overflow? (Oh shit!) Meanwhile, you’re several miles down the road, feeling good for having played your role in the great, daily sacrament of human crime.

Back in the office, she’s still sitting behind the desk, slack-jawed, watching television. You look at her again through the glass in the door, then enter, leaving your sacks leaning against the wall outside.

“What’s on?” Another cup of coffee seems good. It swooshes into the cup.

Real Life. It’s a reality show.” She doesn’t look at you. Her words sound stilted, deliberately linked, as if she thought about each one before adding it to the sentence. You wonder if she might be thinking about just how much attention it’s going to take for you to leave smoothly, without a fuss, without screwing up her high.

“Reality, eh?” You’ve heard of this kind of show, but you’ve never seen one of them. You haven’t watched TV in about ten years. “Does that mean other shows aren’t real?”

“Of course they’re not real. Where’ve you been?”

“I work nights.”

She turns and gives you a long, slow stare, one part disbelief, two parts weariness.

“If we can talk about them, aren’t they real?”

“What the fuck do you mean?” Hostile. She swivels all the way around to face you. You are a problem. Now she has to deal with you.

You take a sip of coffee and smile, stepping back. “Shows are real shows, right?”

“Are you looking for something? ‘Cause I don’t have anything for you. Understand what I’m saying?”

“Just talking.” You shrug. Smile. Move toward the door.

She stands up, brow knitted, concentrating. “Look,” she says to the desk, “shows are shows. Some shows are real. Some are all made up. Is that what you’re asking?”

“So what’s real life, then?”

“They just take a camera into some place, like a store, and let it sit.”

You put your hand on the doorknob. “That’s crazy. What do you see?”

She is convinced you’re an idiot. She gestures with the backs of her hands, fingers up, as if to show how evident it all is. She looks like a surgeon about to operate. “Everything. They went to this butcher shop. People came in and said fucked-up things to the butchers. Then they cut some meat.”

“Like nasty things?”

“This one chick goes, ‘I want a piece of rump,’ and the butcher, all covered in blood and shit, goes, ‘Me, too.’ How fucked-up is that?” She’s still standing as if she’s about to pull a can of mace out from behind the desk, but the corner of her mouth curls in glassy amusement. Thinking about it makes her laugh and cough.

“Ever want them to come here?”

“And film what? Me watching the show? That would mess with your head.”

“It sure would.” You toast her with the Styrofoam cup and walk out, picking up your sacks on the way to the room.

Baa.

The truth happens. Sometimes, absolute truth happens. And, when it does, you’ve decided you don’t want to be anywhere close. Fifty megatons of truth with a half-life of regret for eternity. When the truth comes down, it drops like a bomb or a burning flare. Facts that follow you. Fallout in perpetuity, in the midnight hour, staring at a dark ceiling or out the window of a stolen truck, thinking of all the people you’ve robbed, defrauded, screwed. Of how you went to college for two years and could have wound up better.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat of the jacked semi as Dennis drives it up the ninety-nine, you look out at tractor dealerships, broken motels, heavy machinery yards in the orange-white envelope of a burning, San Joaquin Valley afternoon. You think of the original driver, pale in his own headlights, as if sculpted in wax. You imagine his upturned face burning white at the bottom of the ditch where you threw him, the ditch itself like a ghost town. Marking the spot: this is where they left me to die, the truth finally come down. Burning where it fell. Clinging to the earth for as long as it could. Not your truth. Not anyone’s. But the truth. Absolute truth this time—hideous, brutal, and rare.

Regret for eternity. How much for taking that poor chick’s DVD player and pot and clocks? More, you’re sure, for having drawn her just the smallest bit out of her bolt hole of hash and Real Life. Eternity plus five.

“So I’ve been thinking,” says Dennis, “about the possibilities. You know. With the dog.”

“You’re still on this?”

“On what? What the hell, man? Don’t you care about the meaning of life?”

“That sounds like a show.”

“Work with me. We’ve got a dead-or-not-dead dog trying to wag his tail. We need to solve this shit.” Dennis downshifts and grins. The silver cap on his right incisor is turning black. His eyes are still bloodshot from the meth.

Warren’s stolen, brown Datsun two cars behind is holding steady in the side mirror. It looks like it’s been smoking meth, too. And Warren inside it: hair straight up, face partly swollen as if he’s been punched a few times which, in a way, he has. Warren got up this morning like Night of the Living Dead. Dennis laughed, said, “Rise! Rise!” To which, Warren responded with his usual, “Fuck. You.”

Plus five. Plus five with fire and perdition. With your whole ancestral line for generations back, through dispossessed French Huguenots and amoral Scotsmen—the balance of whom were probably hung as thieves or burned as liars. And drawn. And quartered. And blamed. And mortared. And taken off all books of contributing members before being dismembered. But not before they could breed the next generation into this confusion. The confused, jagged screech of a newborn slapped hard on the ass so it takes its first breath—what better way to symbolize life than this? That hurt. I don’t feel good. And this place very clearly sucks.

You’re thinking about all this, letting it tumble through your brain, while Jimbo checks the truck. A slight man, Jimbo, slight and low-talking. He mumbles. He murmurs. He stands by the truck and says things to Andre, who nods like he’s taking dictation. Maybe Andre is. There’s no telling what a relationship could be between a beady-eyed, marsupial-faced thug and a little man from Nigeria with colored braids and a dark green polo. All that matters is Jimbo has the cash. That’s all you need to know. And Jimbo’s got a kid named Omar who’s fidgeting with the latch on the truck, over-excited, asking you too many questions: “Hey, man, you do this a lot? It looks like the money’s good.”

Andre goes to get the payment while Jimbo and Warren talk off to the side, Jimbo’s voice like the hum of distant equipment, Warren gesturing with his hands.

“It’s fine,” you say and look at the kid.

Omar nods, uses his palm to wipe the sweat off the top of his head. Dennis yawns and lights a cigarette. The warehouse is empty except for the truck. And it’s big—as big as a hangar. Might have been a factory once or a machine shop for heavy equipment. You watch Andre get smaller as he walks across the cement floor, way back to the other side of the warehouse, where the dark office door stands open. Then he lumbers back, carrying the bag. The wrinkled, paper grocery bag. The bag of bags.

The bag with the money.

Everybody gets paid, and everybody gets happy. Andre buys both sacks from you for a crisp hundred-dollar bill off his roll before he gets in the truck with Jimbo. You watch them go, Kennworth ghost town vanishing to the underworld. The warehouse is dead-silent. It’s all over, done, and no problems. You tell yourself you should feel good.

You get into the passenger seat of Warren’s Datsun. Warren slides behind the wheel and tries to get the engine to turn over, Dennis and Omar in back. Omar’s nervous, trying to act like he’s cool. But he’s wired, staring at the three of you when he thinks you’re not looking.

“I gotta ditch this shit in Bakersfield. I’ll drop anybody on the way.” Warren sighs, stretches. Nobody says a word or counts any money. You look at Dennis’ eyes in the rearview mirror as the car pulls out and leaves a cloud of white smoke behind it that reminds you of meth. Dennis is getting freaked out by Omar. You’re mildly surprised Dennis waits until you get on the 99 before he starts messing with the kid.

“Why you lookin’ at me?” he says to Omar in a half-whisper. “Don’t you fucking look at me.”

“Sorry.” Omar looks like he might piss himself.

“Why you here, anyway?” Dennis pulls the .45 and presses Omar’s face against the window with it. “Why the fuck are you here? Why didn’t you leave with Andre?”

The kid doesn’t say anything. He clamps his jaw shut. You turn around in your seat and watch. Omar’s got a sweat stain around the neck of his T-shirt and straight down the front like a ruff.

“That’s a good question,” says Warren, driving with his left elbow on the door and his face propped in his hand. He sounds like he’s about to fall asleep, still hung-over from all the happy meth.

“Pull over,” says Dennis. “I think I’m gonna shoot this asshole right here.”

“No,” says Omar, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Okay,” sighs Warren. The Datsun rolls to a stop in another cloud of smoke.

How many times, you wonder, has something like this happened on the 99-south?

“Get the fuck out,” screams Dennis as he runs around the back of the car, gun in hand.

Omar tries to lock the door, but Dennis yanks it open and pulls him out by his foot.

Omar’s crying, on his knees, with Dennis pushing the .45 into his forehead in broad daylight.

“You pathetic piece of shit,” screams Dennis over air and traffic, “gimme your wallet.” A semi, not unlike the one you’ve been driving for the past several days, makes the Datsun rock like a boat. Dennis whacks Omar in the side of the head with the gun to snap him out of his crying. A passing car leans on its horn. You imagine the call: Police! Send the SWAT team! There’s a guy getting executed on the 99!

“Come on. This is taking forever.” You yell it into the wind, not wanting to get out and make yourself more identifiable, hoping Dennis doesn’t actually shoot him. But, by the time you say it, Dennis is already in the backseat. Warren hits the gas and whips into the slow lane. Behind you, Omar is still kneeling but bent over, forehead on his hands as if in prayer.

“Look at that.” Dennis has Omar’s watch on. This is the real Dennis, you think—not the philosophical guy who likes to take it easy and talk about dogs wagging their tails. This is the criminal. You wonder where you fall on Dennis’ scale and whether you’d have left Omar bent over and weeping in the heat.

“That’s not a real Rolex,” you say. “A real Rolex doesn’t have its hands click forward like that. They’re smooth.”

“So? Shit, I knew that.”

Warren and Dennis start laughing. You laugh, too, because not laughing when a crazy meth-addicted asshole is sitting behind you with a loaded gun is not an option. You tell yourself this might be it. No more truckjacking. Fuck the money. A box of high-end Louis Vuittons doesn’t shoot you in the head.

Dennis is still laughing when he taps you on the shoulder with the butt of the .45.

“Wasn’t loaded,” he says and shows you the empty space where the clip should be. He makes a hard face. “You like my gangsta-gangsta?”

“Yeah, man.” You smile: funny joke. “I believed it.”

“I’ve got talent.” He takes his wire-rimmed glasses out of his leather case and polishes them with his shirt.

You nod and keep smiling.

These trips have made you close to $50,000. But none of them were as violent as this one. You think of Omar bent over on the side of the highway. You should put him out of your mind. You tell yourself you’ve been Omar. You tell yourself that if Omar keeps his mouth shut and learns a thing or two, he might just live to be you.

 

The Afterlife

For five years after his imprisonment, the house waited.

More faithful than his wife.

More faithful than his dog, who his wife had put to sleep. More faithful than the roses dead and gone under weeds.

A chainlink fence went up at the edge of the sidewalk and light went out of the house, its windows boarded up, brown grass overgrown from the fence to the broken porch still held up by bricks. The house had lived and now its life was a memory, the way a skull remembers its face, or the empty classroom remembers its children.

The white paint on the shingles curled upwards in the sun. But, still, the house waited through its death, through rain, through LA summer heat. The six-foot high fence clinked in the wind, and only the pigeons listened. Clouds rolled across the sky. A child’s red ball got kicked over the chainlink, turned flat, gray. Spiders spun their webs under the eaves, ate them, and spun them again, fishing the air year after year. And still, the house waited. Until, one day, Darwin returned. The tall gate in the chainlink pushed open. The front door’s rusted lock was made to turn.

Now, even with its eye sockets dark, the house seemed full, conscious, occupied. Cats hunted the backyard around the droopy stone garage that was gray and dusty, packed with whatever his wife, Janel, hadn’t wanted.

Time passed to sunrise, sunset, sunrise—the city of Los Angeles stapled into the earth for miles and miles and miles of monstrous concrete ribbon and box, mirror, metal spines, twisted carbon fume in every direction at every moment. But in its small orbit of shadows and cats, of brown grass shivering in the breeze, of pigeons in a row on the dead telephone line and bits of paper dancing off chainlink into the wind, the house was alive. The house clothed him like glass around a lick of flame. And, from the windows, his faint light glowed. Before Darwin went to work at night, a filigree of shadows from the chainlink would flicker on the sidewalk. By then, the children would usually be gone but, as if he could still hear their voices, he’d listen and pause before blowing the candles out.

When he hit the girl, he was drunk and, for five years after that, Darwin had not seen a girl or a car. Now he watched both pass the front window as if on a screen. In five years he had not had a drink. Now he drank from the faucet in the kitchen, made coffee in a pan on the stove, shaved his head every other day. And waking up at sunset to the voices of the kids next door, he’d stare across his bedroom at the large plywood dollhouse he was building for no one, watch shadows grow into its doorway, gather beneath its unpainted eaves.

It was two-and-a-half feet tall and, when he wasn’t working on it through its open back, he’d turn it against the wall so it looked like an actual house being constructed. It reminded Darwin of the housing projects he sometimes passed on his way home from work—unpainted with black plastic trash bags staplegunned over the window spaces. Blocks away, you could hear wind sucking the plastic in and then puffing it out like sails, as if the house-frame were breathing through its eyes.

The little beaded pull-chain ticked against the light bar over the bathroom mirror, Janel in cursive on his neck when he stepped out of the shower, a streak of shaving cream over his left ear. Water dripping, he saw her name on him, as always. I can’t do it, she’d said. Two years. It’s been a long time already. Already. How many more you got? Three? Eight? I don’t think I can make that stretch. What would he have done if he were her? Probably the same. Find somebody else. Move on. Darwin dried himself off, pulled on an undershirt. But what if he could have told her exactly how long? What if he could have looked into the future and said, Five out of ten, state. And then I’m out, no problem. What would she have said then? He clicked the pull-chain and the bathroom went dark, his black silhouette in the mirror. The dollhouse watching from the bedroom, miniature shadows in miniature window spaces, doorway like a gaping mouth.

When Darwin was released and moved back home, he unboarded the windows, bought an old bureau, a mattress for the bed frame. Saving money on power, he moved through candlelit rooms, sweeping the dust, hammering down boards in the floor. Every sundown, he put on his uniform and walked to the bus stop at the corner. By day, he slept, shafts of light through new glass and curtains moving gently over his body. Or, quiet in the front window, he listened to the children next door play in the street, smoke from his cigarette twisting into shapes—a hand, a question mark, thick lines of a laughing mouth. The silence of the house made his cigarette loud, the drag, the hiss of the ember. Outside, when the little girl and her brother yelled, their laughter came in waves, went up, down.

He would close his eyes and listen.

It was dusk when he stepped onto his porch. Darwin shouldered his backpack with sandwich and thermos of coffee inside and shut the chainlink gate. His uniform was the gray of the sidewalk, the bus stop. Behind him, the black sockets of the house watched him go.

Dust was always falling in the museum. That was one thing. Job security. But no light after closing, that was another. The big lights in the ceilings were too expensive to keep on, so they gave him a camp lantern, florescent, ran on a battery the size of his fist. The darkness reminded him of something solid, huge balloons of night pressing the walls, while his lamp illuminated a four-foot circle of granite floor. He scanned the darkness and positioned his bucket, the white face of a portrait just visible in the distance.

When Darwin mopped down the center of a large room, it looked like there was no end at all, like the floor continued forever. Moving the lantern was tedious, so he’d leave it in the center and mop until he bumped into a wall and had to turn—no outside sound, no windows, only the polished granite beneath his feet, the wheels on his yellow bucket, the slish of the mop.

Every night, he put in four hours. Then he stopped, found a bench, ate his sandwich. Not like making toilets at Lovelock or before he went to prison, at the plant, cutting pine into strips for people’s brooms. There were no buzzers, no foremen, nothing but an island of light back in the middle of the room and the beep of his digital watch to let him know.

Then, after break, Darwin climbed the wide stone staircase like a blind man, without the lantern, testing out each step, keeping his hand on the sculpted rail. No power for the elevator. He’d climb all the way up to the seventh floor storeroom and carry the huge buffer down to the bottom, where the lantern light made its chrome thorax shine—an armored grasshopper that rumbled like a rock slide when he turned it on.

That noise seemed wrong every time he did it, like cussing in church. And, with a cough, he always felt like he should address the edifice itself, should apologize to the museum the way a swarm of ants might apologize to the corpse of a mouse: when this is finished, your bones will glisten. The air inside your head will be dark and clear and still. Your eye sockets will never be obstructed, and you will never die.

It was like a church, everything fixed in its place, a relic out of time looking back, still around, dead but not dead. Like the faces of condemned houses or a frozen surf of crumpled bed sheets in the dark, the memory of a little girl’s laughter floating over Darwin as he slept.

His mop left a wet sheen that glistened faintly in the lantern’s glow. If he stepped where he mopped, he could leave a perfect shoe-print in the moisture. It might be gone by the time he’d reach a wall and work his way back, but he’d look for it anyway—a subtle hint of his passing, the tick-pattern an ant might leave in the wet cartilage of a mouse’s skull.

The buffer would erase all footprints, but it wouldn’t matter. By then, he’d be nearly finished and on his way home, where he’d animate the bones of his own house with candlelight and movement, with the thought of what he’d left behind, of one who’d died, of a missing wife, of brown grass and chainlink and white paint curling upwards in the sun. Darwin pushed the mop forward and imagined the face of his house looking out at the street where, ten blocks to the north, he’d hit the girl.

That day was a day off from the broom factory, and it felt like a holiday, no reason not to put down a few pitchers. Everyone from his usual shift was at the Elbow Room, so he’d gone, too. Then he ran out of money and floated out into the bright world, looked at cars whipping past on the other side of the parking lot, the workday still in swing. Trying to put Janel’s beat-to-shit Datsun in gear took him five minutes, ten, examining the H diagram on top of the shift. It was broken and there was a trick to it, something simple, but his brain didn’t work. He squinted at the road, at gleaming traffic in the distance where the asphalt swam with midday heat.

Once he’d gotten Janel’s car rolling, he tried to drive casually, but who could say? Darwin’s vision kept crossing, head spinning. He made it to his neighborhood without being pulled over and saw the streets were empty, people at work, their kids at school. Darwin relaxed, told himself he only had to watch out for a few old people now—the toothless granny with her rolling cart who took fifteen minutes to cross the street, the ancient garbage picker with bags of aluminum cans—and cops, swarms of them all through the neighborhood all the time, sitting in alleys, sliding into the street behind your car to run your plates. Just get home, he thought, just get there.

Darwin saw faint wisps of his breath as he dipped the mop, a sight he knew was impossible at any other time. Cold for LA is around forty degrees, and only in the dead of night could this happen, in the earliest morning. The mop had a metal clamp attached to the shaft. He used the clamp to squeeze the excess water out: water on water, split-second clatter of a rocky stream when he pushed the clamp down. A reverberation that wasn’t quite an echo. The sound would go out and rattle over the surfaces of a room: polished granite floors, marble benches topped with black leather, paintings and sculptures, dead lights in the ceiling. Quiet, Darwin always paused to hear it. Then slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . until he reached the wall, each thrust of the mop changing the sound just that much.

Sculptures stood in glass cases or on pedestals in the center of some rooms. When he entered, they moved into his camp lantern’s glow like ships drifting out of a fog. First, the leading edge, maybe the corner of a glass case, a vertical line ahead just visible in the dark. Then more: a tongue of shadows slipping back between the lips of frowning samurai armor, a carpet of light moving over a gigantic Plasticine orb painted like a swirly marble, illuminated spindles growing beneath a small glass skull as Darwin put his florescent lantern down. Sounds came back differently near those things: crick-crack of the clamp, water on water, slide of the mop-dreds.

He looked up at the form of a horse made entirely of rusted rebar, at the varicose tangle of shadows on the white block-platform beneath it. He watched a tiny flick of condensation in front of his mouth and dipped the mop again.

Right before he hit the girl, Darwin told himself that once he got home, he’d forget all about what it took to get home. He just had to make it. He’d turned onto his street about ten blocks away from the house, took the corner more quickly than he intended. Now, when he passed the spot on the bus, he turned his face away. But somewhere in his memory, Darwin was still driving around that corner in Janel’s car. The memory, like ghost pain from a severed limb, went with him everywhere: the low screech the car made when he turned too sharply, the thunk of the wheels through a pot-hole, cars hazy in the heat at a distant intersection.

Memories seemed very much like ghosts as he mopped through the dark rooms of the permanent exhibit, seventeenth century portraiture, ancient sculptures, Holy Roman triptychs, panoramic views of Hokusai’s Fuji. The artworks were a crowd of curious shades at the edge of the camp lantern’s glow, memories of time gone. All those directly connected with the images were now just ideas, ghosts—the painter, the painted, the dynasties, entire civilizations gone to dust with only these left to tell the tale. The museum was a house of the dead.

When he finished mopping, he sat down to eat his sandwich in a circular foyer that had a copy of headless Nike at its center. He thought of the girl floating up diagonally onto the hood as if she were a piece of paper caught in a hot vent, the way she seemed to drift in that moment, the ripple of her T-shirt. Darwin stared at headless Nike. Shadows clotted under her wings. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find the girl’s ghost waiting in one of the rooms—just another work of art, another shadow, looking on in the half-light.

The buses didn’t run at 4:30 AM. It always took him two hours to walk home after work: city within city, dark inside dark, downtown shadows were impenetrable night. Far above, staccato code-lines of yellow-white squares glowed across the sides of skyscrapers where people just like him vacuumed and emptied, never seeing the regular employees who worked during the day. The absence of dust and crumpled paper was the only indication that anyone had been there at all. Seeing those lights from the ground—signs, distant implications, like a column of camp smoke on the other side of a forest—meant somebody was up there. But, as soon as the mirrored faces of those towers were washed with sun, as soon as the regular workday began, Darwin and the others would be home, asleep, and it would be as though the buildings had cleaned themselves.

He passed a homeless man burning phonebooks in an alley. Darwin could smell the smoke but couldn’t see it above the fire, his sneakers quiet on the sidewalk. And the man didn’t look up, crouched with his back up against a red brick building, hands balanced lightly on his knees. How many others were watching from that alley as he passed across its mouth. How many were sleeping back in dumpsters, on rusted escapes? The world would never know and daylight would find them gone. Trash blown into the gutter made more sound than those ghosts.

Traffic lights changed over empty intersections all the way down to Thurmond Drive where the street went up on a steep hill and entered some old neighborhoods. Darwin walked up that hill, thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack, and turned for one last look: downtown Los Angeles, still and dead, pale points of light, a helicopter blinking tiny electric beads across the sky, a few cars on the Five going south.

It had occurred to him that the girl he’d killed, whose only crime had been to run across the street in the middle of the day without looking, would never see these things. It occurred to Darwin every night that that was one more night she wouldn’t have. She, whose name he still could not bring himself to say or even write down. He walked home his usual way, through neighborhoods of crumbling slatted houses and Beware of Dog signs, cars up on blocks, muddy toys in dirt yards. Each familiar point in the nightscape, each bit of detail was one more she wouldn’t have—the smell of lilacs bent over the sidewalk from a sagging window box, the one-eyed German Shepherd watching in silence, its ears pricked up behind a short iron fence, the bone-white sliver of moon like an afterthought. Nothing Darwin would notice during the day. But, at night, he knew exactly where he was and wished he could take her by the hand, up Thurmond Drive, show her the alley where an orange streetlight made puddles of water shine like sunset, hold her up to smell the lilacs, stand her on a cul-de-sac’s peeling wooden rail so she could look into a canyon that had become a lake of darkness.

Sunrise. The end of his day. A jet broke the sound barrier, an earthquake rolling away in the sky. Darwin stood at the window and listened to it, to a hundred sparrows chirping from the chainlink fence. The sparrows were a sight, especially when they all flew up together, as if each bird was attached to an invisible wire, and all the wires jerked at once. Wind chimes made the dull tink of champagne glasses. Palm trees along the sidewalk moved their fronds up, down, a draft rattling through them as through cheap Venetian blinds. To the right, the kids next-door followed their mother onto their porch. She was all dressed up in a brown leather mini with black snakeskin flames up the sides, black hose and heels, a white blouse and gold rings on her fingers. She gave her son and daughter a dollar each and then pulled away in her green Chevy that backfired like a shotgun. The kids sat down on the bottom step of their porch in silence, waiting for the school bus the same way they waited for their mother to get home in the evening.

The one time Darwin could have spoken to the woman, she looked him up and down, saw Janel on the side of his neck, the bass-clef scar up his right forearm where part of a door once shot out of a varnishing machine and cut through his coveralls, the gold cap on his right incisor. She noted those things, added them up in an eye-blink, poor person’s math. Her mouth turned down at the corners and she gave him a curt nod. Don’t be a problem for me, that nod said. I won’t, his smile answered. But she didn’t believe him, seemed convinced something was going to happen eventually. He saw it in her face, so he tried not to see her face, looked down, turned away, stayed inside when their paths might cross because her expression brought it all back. Her knowing: somehow, somewhere, he’d failed in some horrible way. She smelled it on him. And she was right. And he didn’t even know her name.

He’d built the dollhouse shell from the inside-out, partitioning rooms, fixing plywood walls with super-glue. It was a simple early American two-story with a walk-up attic. In issue 84, page 16 of Dollhouse: The Magazine for Miniature Aficionados, Darwin found the design laid out in scrupulous detail. The exterior walls were 3/8th inch balsa, the interior walls 1/4th inch. He had all openings for doors, windows, and stairs precision-cut at Pacific Building Materials, where he’d bought the wood and lost nearly a day of sleep getting everything together. But what was sleep? Maybe a journey through another world, a drift of consciousness where the minute and insignificant didn’t exist, where all that was nameless or forgotten could rise up like the smoke from a burning phonebook in an alley at night—dark against dark, black fume against black air. In that case, building the dollhouse had to be a kind of sleep too, a good dream.

In Lovelock, he’d begun by drawing stick houses, but soon the single-line walls were fronted by Doric columns twined with marble snakes, simple peaked-rooftops eventually fletched with dragon-tiles. His designs were a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, Greek, German. Anything Darwin had ever seen, he’d try to draw, clumsily at first but eventually in exacting precision. He begged paper off the guards, little golf pencils that he sharpened by rubbing against the cinderblock-and-plaster wall above his bunk.

Lying on his bed, he drifted off, staring through the dollhouse’s eyes at the bare wall. In the half-light, it didn’t look that different from the walls in Lovelock. You can learn a lot by staring at a wall. Al, a cellmate, would look at him and say, “It’s just a wall, man,” then laugh and shake his head. “Darwin, you one strange cat.” But nothing is ever just itself, just one thing. You focus on the plaster wall over your bunk where somebody outlined part of a long crack in blue ballpoint, went at it until it looked like it was bleeding ink, like somebody had actually leaned in and stabbed it. And, after a while, your senses spread out, go sideways. You hear things from other cells. Somebody talking in his sleep. A crackle like an instant of hail or a giant piece of parchment being turned. A dripping faucet. Cars on the street outside like a mechanical ocean. The girl next door yelling, playing with her brother. Two cats in the backyard growling, about to fight.

Darwin opened his eyes. Headlights rolled across the bare walls. There was no furniture, no big entertainment center, no shelves with movies and plants and all the other junk you see in people’s houses. Just wooden floor, white walls, the window that now had glass and not boards. The thin white curtains Janel didn’t take.

He stood up from the shadows at the back of the room. He’d slept all day. The streetlights had come on. It was just about time to take a shower and go to work. The walls looked like an alien landscape, the surface of a new country, a place to get lost, to stake a claim and build.

“I’m not strange,” he’d said to Al. “Just try looking at where you are.”

“Whatever you’re on, give me some,” said Al.

The little girl next door had short braids with silver beads at the ends. Her younger brother had a shaved head, smooth like a rock in a stream. It looked like somebody had waxed it for him because it had a dull gleam in the orange street light. This late and mom still wasn’t home to let them in. They sat on their front steps, staring at the sidewalk, at the street, at the blade-shadows of dead grass in their front yard.

On his way out, Darwin shut the chainlink gate, clink-clink. They looked over like he’d shot a gun, stared at him in silence as he walked past the front of their house. The chainlink shadows were doubled on the sidewalk, one orange streetlight up towards the bus stop, one back at the corner.

“Where’s your mom?”

They stared at him.

“You kids got a key?”

They stared at him.

“You better get your asses inside. It’s getting late.”

They kept staring at him as he walked up to the bus stop.

It made him think about a dream where he stepped into the bedroom wall as if it were a landscape. “Open your eyes,” he’d said to Al in the dream. “Try looking. Nothing’s ever just one thing.” Before him, white craters and plaster mountains had stretched to the horizon. To know a place, to know it like you know your own body, means seeing it, then looking but not seeing it, then seeing it anew. Seeing the gleam on the floor you’ve polished or the light from your windows in the distance. And it means loving the place as if all of it were precious and all of it yours.

Darwin didn’t get right off at his stop. He rode the full circuit through downtown and into the neighborhoods. He saw houses pressed together like ripples in a carpet, the cars pulsing into Sunset from Malibu and Glendale. At dusk, distant headlights were pale moons floating down the contours of streets. Coming off PCH, there was a stillness, colors faded to a long purple-blue, hints of baked asphalt drifting in a palm wind. The graffiti seemed at rest. He noticed a Japanese girl standing in blue window light from the Luminescence Day Spa, closed now but making the girl luminous nonetheless. King Seymour Smitts The Bail Bonds Man smiling down at her from a billboard, his white teeth as long as a person. The brown grass of a vacant lot, still, then bending, then still.

At the museum that night, he mopped the rooms, ate his sandwich, climbed up the dark stairs, wondering whether the kids were still locked out on their porch. The buffer shocked him when it snarled awake in his hands, a small, angry beast that hated dust above all else. Darwin moved the buffer beneath pale English faces—the Duchess of York, a count with a white terrier asleep at his feet, a cardinal in blood red velvet. They looked down at him as he erased his footprints, leaving another gleaming floor for them to contemplate. He paused from time to time and studied the portraits. Each night the darkness waxed and waned as the paintings in the museum looked on, fixed and certain like the stars.

The dollhouse was finished. He’d airbrushed the outside pure white, installed a complete electrical system. The paint was still drying when he plugged it in. He’d had to buy an extension cord so he could bring the house onto his porch and show them the working ceiling light in the kitchen, the track lighting in the bedroom, the tiny yellow porch lamp.

The boy started to walk towards the porch, but his mother held his shoulders. His sister sat over on her front step, looking at the dollhouse without expression.

“We can’t afford it,” said the mother.

“You can have it.”

Her eyes narrowed. She looked at Darwin in disgust as if he’d just proposed something obscene. “No. We don’t do that.” She took her kids inside. He heard the sliding bolt in her door go clack.

Darwin carried the dollhouse back in and set it in the middle of the living room. The interior lights shined out over the floor. He’d put in real glass windows. There was a tiny brick fireplace and a chimney, a genuine porcelain bathtub.

He slumped down against the wall and ran a palm over the stubble on his head. All the house needed now was a miniature family, a dog. It was Friday afternoon but, all of a sudden, the neighbor wouldn’t let her kids go outside. Darwin looked at the dollhouse for a long time, until the light began melting into dusk. He felt exhausted. He kept his eyes on the light in the windows, the oak front door standing open to the royal blue foyer, the porch so pure white it glowed. The girl’s name had been Ada Miller. It came into his mind, and he put the name away. Then he gently shut the front door of the dollhouse, his fingers gigantic on the miniature knob.

After midnight, the neighborhood’s windows were no longer yellow rectangles silhouetting the branches of trees. Porch lights and streetlamps reigned over all other light, knocking the same dirty orange glare across overgrown lawns, between the slats of homemade wooden fences. Chainlink shadows were the most interesting at this time of night—static waveforms of orange and black warped over the pavement. And Darwin’s own shadow, finely tooled on the sidewalk and yet vaguely missile-like, the way it stretched from his feet as if it were deliberately set to blast off on a mission into the greater dark.

Darwin lit a cigarette as he approached his house, contemplating the way light and shadow tumbled through the interior of a’78 Oldsmobile up on blocks, how darkness and orange light seemed to coexist perfectly inside it, molded to each other in the contours of the seats. The steering wheel’s shadow drooped like a stupid grin. The plastic Virgin Mary on the dash was the same color as the interior. Streetlight turned everything gray. He looked at his reflection in the driver’s window, blew a line of smoke from the corner of his mouth. Friday was his day off and he’d just walked past the corner where he’d hit the girl, not realizing it until he was half a block away. Darwin wondered if he’d subconsciously meant to go past that corner, if that had been his reason for taking the walk in the first place. Nothing’s ever just one thing. Al would have sneered: sure, take another hit.

The neighbor and her two kids were snug in the dark behind bolts and locks at this time of night. Knowing her, she probably had a loaded piece on hair-trigger right by the bed. Walk under her window too loud and kiss your ass good-bye. He paused in front of her house and listened to the buzz of the streetlamp, a distant flagpole hook clanking in the wind. Something had happened to that woman, and she would be forever angry, forever scared. Afraid to unlock her house during the day. Afraid to go out and look at the night. People don’t change. They’re as predictable as the dusk. But, Darwin knew that, like the night, there are entire universes hidden in people, waiting to be discovered, beautiful and still and overlooked. Like the rows of powdered faces in the museum staring at the newly polished floor. Or the yin-yang of shadows inside a house, light and dark entwined like lovers.

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Normal School  2 (2010): 92-98.

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.

Problems and Solutions

This morning I sat down at my desk, read for a while, and then asked myself the same questions I’ve been asking for the past 15 years: what can this writer teach me?  What does s/he do especially well that I can study?  How would I write this differently?  What I haven’t often thought of is how I came to ask these questions as a kind of fiction writer’s daily office.

When I was a MFA student at the University of Montana, the famous editor, Rust Hills, came to talk in our program.  Though retired, he was still connected to the fiction being published in Esquire and he seemed to radiate all the confidence and clarity of the romantic minimalist tradition—the pared-down prose style that writers like Hemingway, Carver, and Ford helped make the dominant paradigm in North American fiction for the latter half of the 20th century.

Here was Rust Hills, sitting in our workshop, live and in person.  Everyone was excited and I was no exception.  I was very much a fan of his book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.  At the time, it seemed definitive, the young fiction writer’s answer book.  Forget Rilke.  Here was someone who told you exactly how not to embarrass yourself on the page, how not to write like a fool, in a way that sounded far more elegant and far less proscriptive than John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—the other book on writing that everyone trusted at the time.

When I met Hills at the usual dreadful faculty-grad student party for visiting dignitaries, I was also happy to discover that one of my heroes was a decent human being—something that quickly becomes an exception rather than a rule when encountering visiting celebrities in MFA programs.  He was a soft-spoken thoughtful person, witty, and perfectly at ease in every situation.  He was essentially a gentleman.  Moreover, he spoke about writing with the sense of quiet surety that comes from being wholly immersed in a particular aesthetic.  When this happens, the boundaries and characteristics of the style in question can provide an answer for everything.  And though I have since rejected this as a kind of creative sickness, an over-stylization that traps imagination and limits possibilities, I was young enough back then to believe.  Someone with Hills’ degree of conviction had to be right.  At least, he had to be righter than someone like me who wasn’t sure about anything as far as how to write was concerned.

For the rest of that year, I rededicated myself to writing the Lished-down Carverian prose line.  I read Ford’s Women with Men, Munro’s Open Secrets, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.  I took “Gazebo” and “Cathedral” apart, writing imitations that tried to evoke the same invisible weight of implication between simple lines.  I learned how to admire Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and I fell in love with the stories in Busch’s Absent Friends.  But then I read Waltzing the Cat and everything fell apart.

Up late one night, smoking, too much coffee, I looked at the handwritten draft of my latest story and started to feel sick—that heartsick dread we get when we don’t want to admit that a particular piece of writing has already failed, failed conceptually and therefore completely.  I tore it up.  I looked at the last 10 or 12 story manuscripts in my cardboard “finished pieces” box: crap.  In fact, they were a special kind of crap: slavish craven imitation.  I had produced most of a story collection over the last year and it was garbage.  And I didn’t know if I could write another word.  I didn’t know if I should or if I even wanted to.  It seemed that my personal heroes were guilty of some glaring lies of omission.  A long night of whiskey ensued in which a fellow grad student and I jumped a train and wound up in a snow bank, which did not help.

Hung over and covered in angst the next day, I wanted to blame Pam Houston for everything awful in my life, especially for my artistic faith crisis.  But how do you blame someone who wakes you up?  Is it really possible to blame Lucifer if the apple makes you less gullible?  In Waltzing the Cat, Houston was doing just what the minimalists did—practicing economy, implicitly characterizing through dialogue and action, showing change only within the frame of implications and assumptions established in the beginning of the story.  But she was also enjoying words.  A playful absurdity undercut many of her scenes where straight Hemingway-esque minimalism would grind its teeth in existential despair.  Essentially, Pam Houston’s collection gave me a way to imagine other ways of writing—ways that diverged radically from what Hills easily set forth as the way it should be.

I read Cowboys Are My Weakness  that week and had a similar experience.  Then I started to look at how she was doing these things, how she could blend the hard-cut storytelling abilities of the minimalists with maximalist sensibilities.  That line of inquiry helped me produce “Living in It”—a short story that would become the first in my book, Gravity.  While working on Gravity, I discovered that there were a lot of established fiction writers diverging from the minimalist party line.

Pam Houston made it possible for me to learn from a different tradition that was largely overlooked by my writing teachers, most of whom had built careers around prose that was minimalist and therefore easily publishable and who typically defended their way as The Way to Write.  But that was untrue.  If I’ve learned anything by asking myself how other writers do things, it’s that there is no one way.  It’s a hard realization, especially for beginning writers looking for some kind of objective clarity.

Since having that realization, I’ve taught students of my own and have suggested that by all means they should imitate the writers who interest them.  It’s one of the best ways to learn.  At the same time, it’s important not to become a true believer—not to get sucked into an existing aesthetic simply because it’s there and it gives you boundaries.  Those boundaries will ultimately kill your work.

Instead, become a student of literature and read with a writer’s eye.  Read Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular and The Art of Fiction and Story and Narrative Design.  But also use your own brain.  Keep a journal or a computer file in which you write about what you’re learning.  Above all else, keep an open mind.  Genre writers can teach you structure and dramatic tension like no one else.  Poets can teach you voice and depth.  Playwrights live on implicit characterization.  And other hybrid forms like comic books, online interactive narratives (hypertext, etc.), songs, legends, and folk tales each have something that is particularly useful to learn.  Read everything.

This is what I’ve done and what I continue to do.  And I think this is what has led me to question everything I read as if its author were sitting across from me, eager to explain.