Monthly Archives: June 2012

I’m ready for my close-up


Just a short post to share my very good fortune at being interviewed by Anne Michaud on her blog.

Image

Anne’s a great horror writer who’s been published numerous times, most recently being nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

She and I discussed Yolanda Polanski and the Bus to Sheboygan this time, and next time, we’ll be talking about my first book, My Heart is a Drummer. It was a lot of fun!

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Finally, a reason to live


I can’t help myself; I’ve got to blog this one. Finally,  I’ve had a real, actual reader read one of my novels, and I’m overjoyed.

You know what I mean by a “real reader,” don’t you? Well, I’ve had some very generous friends and family members read my novels, but up until Friday, no one has read my stuff that didn’t do it for my sake. For the first time, someone read my book without any guilt involved!

Maybe you novelists out there know what I mean? Maybe (even more so) you self-publishers out there really know what I mean? As novelists, we struggle for months and years to get our work right, but as self-publishers, we invest even more of our time and money doing something that probably isn’t very much fun at all for the majority of us. Almost at the end of my rope, I’ve lately been wondering if I should’ve even taken up all of this vital, writing time to mess around with self-publishing.

Then a real reader actually read what I hoped and prayed real readers would read. Now, I’m living in a dream.

On top of that, she knows the town that I set my second novel in and feels that my depiction wasn’t too far off the mark. That had been a worry of mine, as I’ve never actually set foot in the place. You can read her review of Yolanda Polanski and the Bus to Sheboygan at:

http://www.amazon.com/Yolanda-Polanski-Bus-Sheboygan-ebook/dp/B008C4QI8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340592906&sr=8-1&keywords=yolanda+polanski

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The Latest Intrigues


It’s been a while, but I’m back, baby, and better than ever. Also more psychologically scarred than ever.

Why so scarred? Well, I’ve been busy actually getting my books published, as well as setting up a website. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? A few words, just a couple of little goals that regular people accomplish everyday. Well, I’ve been scrambling to get these simple tasks done for the past four months, and still, I’m not done.

But I thought it would only be right to catch my readers up.

The paperbacks are done (as far as I know). They’re availabe now on Lulu:

My Heart: http://www.lulu.com/shop/adam-sydney/my-heart-is-a-drummer/paperback/product-20109166.html

and

Yolanda: http://www.lulu.com/shop/adam-sydney/yolanda-polanski-and-the-bus-to-sheboygan/paperback/product-20148408.html

I‘ve even got an ebook for Yolanda that should work on the Nooks: http://www.lulu.com/shop/adam-sydney/yolanda-polanski-and-the-bus-to-sheboygan-ibook/ebook/product-20139717.html

Soon, all of this is supposed to be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and lots of other retail outlets, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

And that’s it. Months of my life (and chances to write) spent on a couple of simple books.  My website has been responsible for a bulk of my time over the past month, though, as I struggle through HTML. I’m cyber-challenged, unfortunately, so for some reason, every time I make a change to the stupid site, it changes back in a week. Isn’t it sad when people who don’t know what they’re doing flail around wildly, spiders caught in their own webs? I’m trying to spin “S.O.S.” right now, but Charlotte made it look easier than it is.

Anyway, I’ll get it all figured out soon. One of my biggest issues has been to upload the first three chapters of my book to an FTP account so that people can read them off of my site. But they don’t even wait a week to disappear; they’re gone the next time I check the FTP account. So I got the brilliant idea of including the first three chapters here and just linking to the posts directly. That way, people can read them, I won’t go any crazier than I already am, and I’ll be driving people to my blog. Sounds less idiotic than usual, right? Well, we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve still got to turn my first novel into an ebook and send my books to the Library of Congress, but then I think I might be actually done with all of this stuff. Oh, except for marketing.

But no big deal. That’ll be easy, right?

 

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First Three Chapters of Yolanda Polanski and the Bus to Sheboygan


1

You scared me.

 

Mr. Krimm’s left nipple was noticeably larger than his right, surprised and staring, the eye of a belligerent rainbow trout. In contrast, the other nipple looked down, disappointed with itself, which I supposed it had a right to be.

I’d seen them both on his “home page.” Mr. Krimm had been a boy wrestler, and his imbalance was clear in an especially sweaty shot. In it, he gritted his teeth, straining at his opponent, while his nipples went about their day behind their Lycra, imperious and affronting, mild and downcast. I wondered if they were ever to meet, would they wrestle? Or perhaps they would be glad to finally get a good look at each other and embrace, two long lost brothers, rubbing noses like two Eskimo.

As I sat across from him, I couldn’t help but wonder what else was out of balance with Mr. Krimm. His face was regular and flat as the prairies it had sprung from—and as flat as the accent those prairies had spawned. He had two, similar hands and, presumably, two regular feet, because he’d walked with a steady gait. But I’d observed that his step over-controlled the natural sway of the rear. I had a feeling that his left nipple wouldn’t approve of this and his right nipple wouldn’t say anything but would secretly resent Mr. Krimm for the weakness.

Did our physical appearance betray our souls? My left ear was quite a bit higher than my right. It caused my glasses to be always crooked, and I felt certain that this made me look delightfully unaware, unselfconscious and a little disheveled—none of which was true in the slightest. In fact, it was such an uncommon physical trait that I wondered if crooked ears were a sign of a preternatural empathy in those who always seemed to have one ear cocked, listening for the subtle signs of the human heart. My fellow travelers.

“But I don’t understand, Miss Polanski.”

I sensed Mr. Krimm didn’t like me, possibly because he could see that I embraced disharmony. I didn’t hide it under layers of cotton and lapels.

Perhaps our personal relationship with our deformities betrayed even more than just our souls? I instantly detected Mr. Krimm’s philosophy of life: a duality in which there could only ever be one dominant partner, one submissive.

Pushing my glasses into an even more brazen angle, I moved to knock my opponent off balance. “Tits pretty straightforward, Mr. Krimm. I’m completely different from any other teacher you’ll ever meet for the nipple fact that I treat my students as peers, and they act like them.”

It had the desired effect. His face crumpled, unsure, for a moment. He was pinned.

He went on, more hesitantly. “But they’re six.”

“I know.”

“They’re not your peers.”

I smiled, pushing the left side of my glasses so high that I saw two Mr. Krimms, blinking and helpless. Time for the sleeper hold.

“Ahh, but I don’t believe they are my peers. I just teat them as if they’re my peers.”

In my head, I slowly counted: one… two… three. And then I slammed the mat. Mr. Krimm had been an interesting opponent, but far too easy to overcome. In my mind, I began to rearrange the little chairs in my new classroom into groupings of seven students each, which naturally would form perfect quadrilaterals: the shape of success.

But I was a bit too hasty: “Well, thank you, Miss Polanski. We’ll be in touch.”

He’d squirmed out of my grasp just before the bell! I had to get him prone again, against the ropes.

Ms.”

“Sorry. Ms.”

“But my resume, you haven’t even looked at tit—”

“I’m sorry, but you seem to be using terms for nipples quite a bit. Why is that?”

“Why do you think you’ve noticed them?”

“They’ve been fairly obvious.”

“Well, the left one, anyway.”

“I’m sorry?”

“There’s nothing wrong with inequality, Mr. Krimm. Nothing is truly equal in this world. Inequality doesn’t always lead to a winner and a loser; it’s often a challenge that encourages us to personally excel. For instance, I excelled at guano farming in Tlaxcalacingo, yet I never looked down on the natives—even when I was looking down toward them. You’d like to excel, wouldn’t you, Mr. Krimm?”

At this, he stopped short and suppressed a grin. I felt as if it were my turn on the mat.

The grin expelled an “Oh.”

And I actually began to perspire! For a moment, I believed that he’d realized the true extent of my advantage—my natural empathic powers—but I remained calm, my hands folded serenely in my lap. I sensed this behavior would calm him.

“‘Oh,’ Mr. Krimm?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“But I think it’s all just been a nipple misunderstanding—”

“No. No, don’t do that.”

“But you and I both know that I’m the perfect candidate to teat at this school—”

“You can stop that now, Miss Polanski.” He now seemed awfully good-humored. “But why me?”

I instinctively knew when to keep quiet.

“I never actually said you didn’t have the job! John knows I’m more careful than that.”

I shrugged; it was the right thing to do in the circumstance. It also gave me time to reformulate my attack, although I still perceived that Mr. Krimm’s physical irregularity was his most sensitive spot. Or spots, so to speak.

He’d now grown almost conspiratorial toward me: “Actually, you were pretty good.”

“But not good enough for the job.”

Mr. Krimm’s smile faltered a bit at the gravity of my voice. “I’m sorry?”

“You just said I wouldn’t be hired.”

Then I saw the unmistakable glint of fear in his eyes, and I focused my attention on the dusty, tropical houseplant in the window behind him. Just like Mr. Krimm, it struggled to survive against its very own nature and would eventually pay for its mistake. I almost pitied it for a moment.

“But this is not the Amazon, Mr. Krimm.”

“What?!”

“I’m worried about you. You’re going to regret turning me down, and regret can be so…”

The smile was gone now. “And if this had been an actual interview—”

“…so regretful.”

Down for the count. Game, set and match. The surrender in his eyes was so clear, so abject, that even an ordinary person would have felt it. I just had to hope that my god-given sensitivity would ensure as swift a victory with my larger mission, too. After all, this town cried out for help to me, desperate for my gift, perhaps even my leadership. I couldn’t let it down.

“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Polanski. I misunderstood what was going on here. But no, I’m not hiring you.”

I rose, having always lived by the maxim that one should part from a position of advantage.

“Oh, and Mr. Krimm—” I leaned into him, my glasses so crooked now that I found it difficult to focus. He stared up at me, his mouth in the shape of a certain poplar in Sandusky, Ohio. The memory was a pleasant one, and I found myself wanting to wrestle the leafy, Erie summer off his lips.

“—nipple.”

*     *     *

Arby’s.

Her weakness was mediocrity, but her strength was an unerring ability to dismiss this fact—to rise above. A Midwest titan!

I paused at the edge of Mrs. Stefano’s table, finally setting things in motion. “Oh, what a coincidence!”

She looked up from her wrinkled foil and caloric mess—a fawn, a kitten—and I knew. I knew.

I continued. “We met at Darby Hills Elementary? I was in last week. For an interview with Mr. Krimm.”

She put down the fry. Not the most promising reaction (I knew the importance of this fry to Mrs. Stefano, and to deny herself—!), but I’d dealt with and succeeded in spite of much sharper reactions. In fact, my interview with Mr. Krimm had been sharper, but his sharpness was just what I’d needed to slice through the fallacy of my far too humble self-worth in regards to my natural talents. The last month had been crammed full of epiphanies; it groaned with revelations.

As far back as I could remember, I’d always just accepted my uncanny ability to read people as a gift I’d been born with—something on which I really couldn’t improve and for which I really couldn’t take credit. So in a sense, it was my ability to see right into the soul of others that had provided significance to recent signs and directed me to the place where I was most needed: Two Rivers, Wisconsin. I’d been merely passive, a vessel, a slave to my powers.

But now, as I inspected Mrs. Stefano’s shirt, I suddenly realized that I’d always been much more active in the process. I wasn’t just some sort of slack-jawed psychic-vibration receptor; I was an active interpreter, applying a keen understanding of psychological currents to the millions of indicators human beings offered each other on a daily basis, from which I carefully strung together a cohesive narrative of their behavior—their life! It had never been an innate gift at all! It was a skill I’d been consistently sharpening for years, honed against the lethal barbs that people turned out toward the world in their desire for an imagined safety that was, frankly, available to none of us.

Mrs. Stefano was wearing a shirt that sported a pattern of repeating teddy bears. Black, brown, beige, black, brown, beige. In the past, I’d seen her in dresses, shirts, and even a kind of jumpsuit, all of which featured cartoon animals as a theme. (The jumpsuit had been covered with kangaroos, and only later did I notice that it included a large “pouch” of its own over Mrs. Stefano’s well-rounded middle.) (She appeared to keep Stella D’Oro breadsticks within.)

Although these fashion decisions lent her an air of juvenility that was profoundly unwarranted, at last I’d come to realize that I’d been drawn to her for more than just a “feeling” that she was the right person for the job I was about to give her. Unaware of my own perceptiveness, I’d not only connected the subconscious dots presented to me—I’d reconstructed her dominant, personal psychodrama!

I recognized now that this was the true reason I’d chosen her.

And the psychodrama was all so clear to me now. Mrs. Stefano’s father had loved his dog more than his daughter—probably a miniature Schnauzer or Corgi/Lab mix—and she’d always been painfully aware of the fact. When she was thirteen, or possibly as late as thirteen and a half, she’d attempted to poison the dog with chocolate cupcakes but succeeded only in causing massive diarrhea in the animal, which she was forced to clean up. The guilt, coupled with the smell of her rival’s b.m., had forged a lifelong wound in her heart that she’d never been able to heal.

But Mrs. Stefano was a resourceful woman, psychologically speaking. Instead of collapsing under the pressure of such trauma, she was strengthened by it! Now, in her fifties, she finally felt comfortable embracing the truth that had nearly crushed her as a child. In fact, she almost flew this wound, a flag across her large chest. And the animals, who’d once received the love she’d so desperately craved, were tiny now, under her direct control. They reminded her—every time she looked in the mirror—how strong she really was. After all, wearing such unfortunate clothing could only ever be attempted by a person with a profoundly healthy self-confidence.

I was in the presence of an extraordinary victor.

Feeling the need to praise her, instead I simply glanced at her espadrilles, which played peek-a-boo with toes pointed in a surprising variety of directions.

“Oh, I remember now. Ms. Polanski.” Clearly, Mr. Krimm had mentioned my fighting spirit to her, because Mrs. Stefano suddenly averted her gaze. Step one: De-fuse.

I instinctively softened my voice: “It seemed the perfect position for me—I’m new to Two Rivers—but, I don’t know. I usually use cartoons quite a bit with my students. You know, fairy tales and such. Stuffed animals. I love anthropomorphic whimsy. Skinks, kangaroos, that sort of thing. But I just got the feeling that Mr. Krimm doesn’t appreciate the beauty of, well,” and here, I couldn’t help swallowing back some discomfort at the colloquialism, “cute critters’. His eyes reflect merely competence. Does that make sense? A tepid PTA meeting followed by a potluck with Wal-Mart tablecloths and ‘lite’ dressings? In that vein.”

Mrs. Stefano considered her “meal” intensely, clearly debating whether she could live with herself if she were to leave it half-eaten. But food had always been one of her weapons against the injustice of life, from the poison chocolate cupcake to her present, and also doubtlessly poisonous, “All-American Roastburger.” I knew she’d remain in her booth.

That was because after a week of surveillance, I’d determined that lunchtime at Arby’s was the perfect occasion to approach her. It was Mrs. Stefano’s moment of weakness; her soul would be as open as her mouth. She always sat in the corner, surveying the dining room as if it were her kingdom, as if her fondest dream had come true and it were here, before her, processed, sticky, and underwhelming.

My second choice to approach her had been the post office—she was constantly at the post office—but there, she seemed much more guarded, somehow, clutching her large parcels to her chest and peeking around them at the people in line behind her. As there could be no logical reason on earth to be guilty about sending large parcels through the United States Postal Service, I realized that my next step would be to determine the cause of this particular flaw.

But Mrs. Stefano surprised me: she rose. “I have to go.”

This was my only chance for success; I couldn’t let go. “After all, what’s wrong with some light-hearted play in class? Look at your beautiful blouse! You see, that’s what I mean: teddy bears! How… how merry.”

She glanced at me sharply, her pug nose crinkling. “I really have to get back to work.”

“And Mr. Krimm said—right to my face—that he wouldn’t hire me.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“I was so hurt that when I got home, I wished I’d had something just like a teddy bear to comfort me. Soft and plush—”

“Bye.” At this, she turned and practically ran out of the restaurant, her “cankles” jiggling, full of varicose veins vying for prominence beneath her denim skirt.

But what Mrs. Stefano did not yet understand was that Ms. Yolanda Jean Polanski had once removed a roofing staple from the center of her right hand with the edge of an American Express Titanium card—without anesthesia and without slowing down on the west gable. (Claude apologized later for the ensuing infection, but we never roofed together again.) Did she really think that I would give up this easily?

I followed her out to her white Hyundai Accent with its tell-tale dent in the rear fender. Sometimes, this was the only thing that could help me identify it in a parking lot full of white Asian cars. In fact, the dent was almost a friend now, and I smiled to myself upon finally approaching it so closely. Of course there were other ways of identifying cars and people, but I hadn’t the patience for license plates. They were simply nonsense words and numbers that never added up to anything significant. If police officers could just learn to be a bit more observant, they wouldn’t even need them.

“Did you make that blouse yourself? You must be so handy—”

She stopped at the door of her Hyundai and whirled around at me, her shirred skirt flaring momentarily into the shape of disappointment. Mrs. Stefano was crying! Somehow, I’d managed to be even more effective than I’d hoped—I’d zeroed in on the pain of her childhood, and she was now thrashing with these memories. I imagined her battling with a beast of a sewing machine at her kitchen table, sweat on her upper lip and the fire of a righteous woman in her heart. She was a fighter! And Mrs. Stefano wore her victorious, regrettable creations proudly; in this case, I noticed for the first time that her blouse featured a Peter Pan collar, and I shuddered.

But then I felt pride in her work—in her—too, surer than ever that she’d be the perfect partner. Members of Team Polanski never flinched at reality. We overcame it.

“Look. Please. Please! Just leave me alone.” She fumbled for her keys, her pudgy hands stabbing into her purse.

But it was more than her father’s dog-love that was upsetting Mrs. Stefano; I’d touched on a subject that absolutely terrified her, an immediate threat that had been borne of her craving for paternal love.

And then it became crystal clear.

“I know, Mrs. Stefano. About Mr. Krimm.”

This increased her frenzy. “I can call 911!”

“Of course, you can. But who would they believe? You or him?”

“What?!”

“And what would your ‘furry friends’ think?”

She screwed up her face at this. “But that’s not illegal!”

“Isn’t it?” Perhaps the laws on sexual harassment were different in Wisconsin? I made a mental image-note of Mrs. Stefano wearing the two O’s in Google like a pair of glasses.

“I’ll have to ‘web search’ it.”

Was Mr. Krimm taking advantage of her need because of some secret he held over her? “I feel you should know that a goat herder in Tajikstan kept me more or less prisoner in a cave for a month after he’d discovered that I was an accidentally illegal alien. Apparently, he liked to watch me rinse out my underclothes.”

“What do you want?”

“Extra sausage.”

It took a moment for Mrs. Stefano’s entire body to freeze.

“We both know you’re not vegetarian, Mrs. Stefano.”

“Pizza?”

Waiting for her to blink, I studied her closely and found that here was actually something majestic about her bulk, colossal. Even though I’d quickly uncovered her darkest secrets and laid them bare before the both of us, she still stood tall, buxom.

“‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”

It was barely audible: “What?”

My heart warmed: I sorely needed an ally who could pull off “innocent” like this, and I knew Mrs. Stefano understood me perfectly. (After the fire at the bakery, Claude had always insisted on one thing: “innocence,” his pencil moustache confirming it, demanding it. I could never be sure.)

She and I were two whirlpools joining, widening, deepening.

“What we could draw down into the frigid depths of the ocean together, eh, Mrs. Stefano! Joey’s Pizzeria, tonight, seven p.m.”

I turned away, chuckling when I heard her last murmur.

“But I’m lactose-intolerant.”

 

 

2

You don’t scare me.

 

Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Bethlehem, Judea. (The locals referred to their town as “Trivvers,” an unfortunate contraction that bore no reason to acknowledge it ever, ever again.)

If it weren’t for the lake… How often had I spoken these words to myself in the last few weeks? The lake stopped the Midwest in its tracks; it would never itself be the Midwest. The flat lands to my west harbored “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and corners in the spare bedrooms of ranch houses featuring photo shrines to the high-school athletic careers of people now laboring away as breezy receptionists or bartenders. The flat lands harbored cows.

But Lake Michigan held only its secrets below; secrets I didn’t wish ever to know.

Of course, I already understood every secret in Two Rivers, and its ultimate secret was that Two Rivers’ deepest, darkest mysteries involved nothing more scandalous than a niece’s dislike of homemade teapot cozies willed by ancient aunts now sitting at the back of cupboards, forgotten. And stolen Milky Ways. But only the short kind.

“The house is haunted.”

“Haunted?”

Samuel Ziewick stepped across my threshold, penetrating my privacy. We both felt it.

“It was a joke, Sam.”

“Oh!”

“Why aren’t you laughing?”

“Why aren’t you?”

“Let me get you some cranberry juice, Sam.”

“Sammy. Please, everybody calls me Sammy.”

I gestured toward my couch, immediately intuiting his strategy for the day, and therefore, mine. Today, his was feigned innocence; mine, playful resourcefulness.

“Well, I’m not everyone. Am I, Sam.”

He eyed the couch, eager to give me the impression that he didn’t want to sit there, but he did. Naturally.

“So how are you settling in, Yolanda?”

I was in the kitchen, preparing his drink. The kitchen still smelled of the dumplings of previous residents (does every kitchen in Wisconsin smell of dumplings?), but I’d conquer that, too. All in good time.

“Everybody calls me Yolanda.”

“But that’s what I just called you.”

“But you’re not everyone. Not to me.”

The living room smelled of dumplings, too. In fact, the whole house did. I swallowed a wave of nausea when I momentarily imagined the previous tenants. There was Boggle involved. Boggle, Velveeta nachos and DVDs of America’s Funniest Videos. I was certain of it. The place really was haunted.

He giggled, of all things. “You always get me going.”

“Do I? Here’s your drink.”

“Thanks. So what’s the problem?” He took a sip and choked on it before laughing outright. “Is there booze in this?”

“We’re both adults, Sam.”

Now he was howling. “You get me every time!”

Cat and mouse. And Samuel Ziewick was most definitely the mouse.

“The shower’s dripping.”

The house had been built in 1947, perhaps a brief moment in which the residents of Two Rivers believed there was such a thing as an ever-expanding, open-sky future. So perhaps in contrast, the structure was anemic—rooms that furiously denied space, mean windows that squinted at the street, a ceiling whose true purpose was to crush its hated victims below out of existence. The toilet seat was always so, so cold. (My new residence brought to mind a certain nuclear shelter in South Korea. Claude had called its atmosphere “nut-crushing.”)

“Do you remember what I told you?” Sam had sobered a bit, pushing a lock of hair out of his face.

“Samuel. I remember everything you’ve ever told me.”

Sam Ziewick was by far the best Two Rivers had ever seen. He had hands that sculpted air, distinguished features that drew you back to them and clothing that perfectly caressed the body beneath. The most furious rumor in Two Rivers was that he’d actually lived in Milwaukee for a whole year. Which almost touched Chicago. Which almost touched the big, wide world.

So how had Sam managed to grow up and live most of his life smarter and better-looking than his fellow townspeople? What was his personal psychodrama, the moment that had defined the man who stood before me now? I had to shift my empathic forensics into high gear.

It took merely an instant for the relevant evidence to become clear: he drove a late model Cadillac; he wore Brut cologne; he retreated into deliberately sophomoric humor; his middle name was Irwin.

“Is that right?”

“Yes, Sam. I must remind you of Brenda.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bryn, then.”

Obviously, when Sam had been in first grade, a young girl, headstrong, perceptive, had enrolled in his school, and he’d become immediately smitten with her, an equal. She’d moved from Detroit, probably, or some other Cadillac-producing city where street smarts were necessary for survival. And she’d immediately recognized a worthy ally. Unfortunately, when little Brenda or Bryn (I was almost certain it was Brenda, but whatever it was, it had to have sounded like “Brut” had publicly returned his interest in the middle of the crowded cafeteria, Sam had panicked, worried that all his classmates from Two Rivers would think he believed he was better than they. So, instead, he called her a “doo-doo head” (“poo-poo face?”), cementing his position forever in the minds of the townspeople as the jokester, “just one of the guys.” And ever since, he’d giggled in the face of sophistication—although it took a moderately sophisticated person to identify sophistication in the first place! So in fact, the giggles had the unintended, converse effect of indicating his latent erudition to those who were sufficiently erudite to recognize it.

And I was. The details of the defining moment of his life were as plain as day to me.

Disappointingly, Sam was laughing again. I couldn’t imagine how this awkward sense of humor could actually disrupt my plans per se, but it was disquieting, nonetheless.

So I laughed, louder, harder, longer. I laughed to compete, to equalize. I laughed as Marie Antoinette did before the guillotine, the sunshine on her teeth chilling all in attendance, mirthless, pitiless.

“Stop! I’m going to wet myself!”

I allowed his Two Rivers comment to pass out of existence as I allowed so much of unenlightened Two Rivers to do—simply raindrops running down my coat, joining under my feet, coming together down, down into the sewers that collected all that the town presently had to offer.

It hadn’t had much to offer Sam, so far. And now, clinging unrelentingly to the ghost of little Brenda and everything she would have offered him, he was bereft, driving a car her father could have built, wearing a cologne that reminded him of her and the fall of 1975, defending himself with a wall of childish laughter against minds who could never understand. And his middle name was Irwin.

“You do know, Sam, that Coupe de Ville is French for ‘the wound of the town.’”

“The wound of the—”

“Tell me something. If I wanted to break my lease, what would I need to do?”

He looked much more presentable frowning. “Why would you ask me that?”

“The shower… constant dripping…” I allowed my voice to trail off.

“Do you remember, I told you to be sure to twist the shower head counterclockwise whenever it starts dripping?”

“Was it counterclockwise?”

“Here.” He handed me his Seabreeze and passed into the hallway, the scent of vintage grooming products in his wake. And me. Assuredly me.

I moved as if to block the view into my bedroom. “I’m afraid you caught me while I was sorting my… my underthings, Sam.”

But he was already in the washroom, desperate to give the impression that he hadn’t heard me, that he wouldn’t find some excuse to bleed the radiator next to my bed.

I followed him, disturbed and then assured that the only reason he was wearing “Dockers” trousers was for the purpose of Two Rivers stealth. After all, a landlord had so many transactions, so many interactions. The utter banality of “Dockers” would calm the locals much as his humor did, gradually taming them, a cleverly painted decoy floating in their midst.

And I, suddenly emerging from the rushes, would raise my sight on the gaggle, both barrels soon obscuring the air with the acrid smoke of renaissance—a gun-toting missionary!

“They must positively flock to you, by now.”

“Pardon?”

“The ‘Dockers.’” He looked down, as if he had no idea what I meant. “Well, they’re stain-resistant.”

“You don’t miss a trick, do you, Sam.”

“I don’t?”

I hesitated in the doorway, my eyes firmly on the vinyl flooring. “It’s just that I’m not used to joining a man in a situation that’s so—intimate.”

“Oh, that’s okay; just stay there. You see, you just twist the shower head like this, and the drip will stop. See?”

“Yes.”

“Is the toilet giving you any problems? The last folks who lived here said that when the bowl was really full it would—”

“Sam, Sam, Sam! Please. You don’t have to impress me.”

“Impress you?”

“I stand in awe.”

“You do.” He studied me for a moment, lifting, opening, unbuttoning from across the lavatory. I felt my face flush, suddenly unsure if my attraction were an act any longer, or something else, something real not only for him, but finally for me, too.

Because if there was one thing to which I responded—almost a reflex, animal, biological—it was a reckless man. Clearly, he’d sublimated his desire for little Brenda all these years with a yearning to break free from his existence and run wild through the world, aching to dare, to play, to win!

I was prepared to sacrifice everything for my plan, but my body? The idea was absurd, and yet exquisite: what could be more effective than physical honesty? Sam was too clever for anything less; he’d recognize insincerity as quickly as I’d recognized the true motive behind the “Dockers” and the comments in poor taste formulated merely to put Two Rivers at ease.

Astonished, I realized that truly, it had been inevitable all along. In targeting the most urbane, perceptive man in town to help me in my mission, how could I expect any other outcome? Perhaps it had been an obscure motivation for the plan in the first place! Dizzying, I considered the tapestry of the unconscious: seemingly disparate colors and textures that met up, crossing in the most unexpected angles, repeating far, far down the length in patterns that only could be seen—that only could be grasped!—with a cool perspective on the whole. The relentless grinding of life’s eventuality, of its undeniable meaning gripped me. I felt certain he saw this in my blush, too—or perhaps he’d recognized it much sooner than I: that first moment we met in the driveway, the curtains of Two Rivers twitching at an event the likes of which its population would someday stand in utter awe.

As I did now. Finally, I understood that I’d known all along Sam would be a partner in my plan—the daredevil, the adventurer—hence my incarceration at 618 Frick Street.

“Raw sewage can be a real bitch.”

It was my turn to chuckle.

Clearly I would have to make the first move—our first move. It wasn’t quite time.

“All right, Sam. ‘Raw sewage can be a real bitch.’”

*     *     *

With my back to the town, I gazed past the breakwater, knowing that I at least shared the steadying horizon with San Franciscans, with Habaneros, with Shanghainese. The waters of Lake Michigan eventually flowed into Oceania; I had to remain focused on that.

“Reow.”

But even the stray cats of Two Rivers, Wisconsin were eager to draw me back, draw me down into the bake sales and snow mobile jamborees and J.C. Penney culottes that flapped in the wind like flags of surrender. Even the stray cats wanted me to discuss the weather primarily as it pertained to farming conditions. I pitied them for it. Even the stray cats were jejune.

“Rooww.”

And this one couldn’t have been more predictable: beige tabby, medium sized, medium-beige behavior. It twisted around my ankles, the clichéd purring boring the both of us even before it left its whiskered lips.

“You know, you can rise above this.”

“I’m sorry?”

Mrs. Stefano had come up behind me. She wore beige culottes, much wider than they were long, and I shuddered at my finely honed powers of perception.

“I said, ‘You can rise above this,’ Mrs. Stefano. Everyone here can. J.C. Penney’s. Ten-cents-off coupons. Pink ice milk that drools out of a machine.”

“Well, I’m lactose-intolerant, so—”

“Correct answer. There are some things that deserve nothing less than intolerance.”

“I see you’ve met Tabby III.”

I sighed. “Don’t tell me this town has named all of its strays, too? Has the Midwest squeezed every form of iconoclasm out of Two Rivers?”

“The guys at the marina name them. My favorite was Tabby II.”

“Would I be expected to ask what happened to it? And Tabby I?”

“Tabby I got run over, but they didn’t call him Tabby I. They just called him Tabby.”

“Did they.”

“And no one knows whatever happened to Tabby II. He was orange.”

“Not beige? I’m sorry. Let’s go.”

I was distressed to note that the cat followed me, running ahead into the humid evening, stopping to rub against a street sign, speaking up to me from the long, shadowed grass as I passed it. The drone of a small plane above (Piper J-3? Cessna 172?) reminded me of the breezes and eddies and gales that blew across the plains, indifferent to the troubles of the inhabitants of Wisconsin. And here I was, flanked by two such inhabitants: a cat whose instincts were so deficient that I expected it to end up like “Tabby II” within the week—possibly at my own hands—and a woman who insisted on wearing cartoon-themed clothing in spite of the fact that she was being sexually harassed by her boss. Today, it was a homemade, yellow blouse sporting stylized sparrows that had somehow thwarted nature and gotten their beaks to smile.

But once again, I realized that there was a commendable bravery in Mrs. Stefano’s manner—in the face of brutal oppression and salacious cruelty: cartoon sparrows! Perhaps she looked down at them scattered across her blouse while cowering near the water cooler or in a restroom stall, attuned to the slightest sign that Mr. Krimm was closing in. Perhaps her roiling heart was pacified, then, her perspective on the situation broadened. After all, what was hate, what was fear in a world that could celebrate cartoon sparrows whose open beaks produced perhaps the most apt appraisal of the futility of mankind that has ever been uttered: “Tweeeet!!!!”?

Mrs. Stefano squealed like a school girl when the cat ran between my legs, only to stop and look back at me, curious at its effect. I was careful to communicate that there was none.

“He likes you!”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“Then why are you doing this to me?” I didn’t like the idea of a partner who whined at quite this pitch, but a few weeks in my company would lower her register. I had that effect.

For you, not to you. With you. Surely, you don’t expect me to stand aside and allow it to continue?”

“But there’s nothing really wrong with it.”

“You don’t really believe that.”

Mrs. Stefano looked close to tears again. No, she really didn’t believe that. “What do you want?”

“I’d like to look forward now—to potentialities. To the cherries; I have a feeling we’ve both had enough of the pits.”

“Roww-oww.”

The cat was at least intelligent enough not to follow us into Joey’s Pizzeria. Perhaps there were lines of propriety that even the stray souls of Two Rivers didn’t cross. I hoped so. And if not, my plan would soon be providing the poor townspeople with much more challenging lines to cross, lines that were so far from their present lines that they almost blended with the distant horizon, like Lake Michigan and its silent, watery secrets. Soon, I would be drawing a line in the sand, and it would mean an endless, spreading universe to any Two Riverian brave enough to cross it.

But for now, I had to contend merely with “cheesy buffalo wings” and “deep-fried pizza balls.” Mrs. Stefano and I studied the “laminated” menu; I struggled inwardly to keep my distaste under control. The restaurant touted neither quality nor price in its bill of fare; the value of its food was measured in ounces, and in two cases, pounds. I denied myself a recollection of Paris, of respect and love for the table, of boeuf en croute that was proof of the existence of god.

“—and a quarter pound of stuffed cheesy sticks with Ranch.”

“Okay. And for you, ma’am?”

“Parlez-vous Francais?”

“Huh?”

“Small pizza. Sausage.”

“The Pounder, or—”

“Yes! Yes. The ‘Pounder.’ Thank you.”

Mrs. Stefano sucked her Mountain Dew as the server bounced off. “Pounder I hardly know her. I always say that.”

“Mrs. Stefano. I want to help you.”

“Help me?”

“Obviously, I know what’s going on.”

“Only help me?”

“Is there something else?”

“You said Mr. Krimm.”

“Exactly.”

“How is that helping me?”

“But you don’t want it to continue, do you?”

Mrs. Stefano bit her straw, tears coming to her eyes. “What if I said yes? There’s nothing wrong with it! What if I said I didn’t care, because I’m providing a kind of a service!”

Normally, I was attuned to such psychological subtleties! How could I have made such a miscalculation? Mrs. Stefano was in love with her paternal substitute, Mr. Krimm!

Did I really expect to execute such a delicate, intricate mission if I were to make such fundamental blunders? Damage control was in order. (Claude had once crowned me the Queen of Damage Control, although they still came for him the next day, his tattoos rippling and glistening in the sun, his fencing mask retired forever. I could still smell his heady musk.)

“All right. But I assumed that as you’re married—”

“My husband died last year.”

“I’m sorry.” Damage control. “I am sorry. I am.” I took a deep breath, neurons flashing in pairs, in groups, stretching across empty space in a flurry of discrete goals. “I’ll admit that Mr. Krimm has a certain—” I halted, visualizing the larger of the nipples. “But surely since you know what he did to me—I know your integrity, your strength runs deeper than that.”

She squinted, and if I hadn’t known very much better, I would have believed that she was “confused.” Although my tactics had been proven slightly off-target, I had chosen my lieutenant wisely.

Finally: “Oh. I get it.” Mrs. Stefano shook her head vigorously, twisting her straw in her fingers. Her voice concentrated itself into a stage whisper that was louder than her normal voice. “If I tell you, then you won’t say anything. I shouldn’t, but you’re kind of forcing me to: Mr. Krimm wasn’t supposed to tell you that he wouldn’t hire you while he was interviewing you. He’s supposed to send you a letter. He got into big trouble a few years ago, because the lady said, you know, ‘How could he know that he didn’t want to hire me until he’d interviewed everyone?’ It was sort of discrimination. She still works at Darby Hills. Connie Jackson.”

I sat back against the soiled vinyl and absorbed this piece of intelligence. Mrs. Stefano became more intriguing, more delightful by the minute. Not only did she have the chutzpah to fly in the face of her provincially innocent community and conduct a brazen affair with her superior (perhaps a dog-hating, surrogate father? I would have to do a little research into Mr. Krimm’s pet ownership record), but she had a perverse pleasure in betraying him, too, therefore keeping his power over her in check.

“Your sparrows are merely camouflage, Mrs. Stefano.”

“Excuse me?”

“Touché. But you’re right, of course. So I suppose he’s allergic? Or he’s more of a cat person?”

“Excuse me?!”

“I won’t blow your cover—if you don’t blow mine!”

“So you promise you won’t say anything to anybody? About you-know-what?”

“Please! I have more sense than that.”

“Wait a minute. Your cover?”

“‘Excuse me?’”

“You said your cover?”

“‘Excuse me?’”

“I don’t really understand.”

“And that’s exactly how we’ll play it.”

Mrs. Stefano sighed, staring too strongly at the mangled straw in her hand. It appeared that her hair style involved hot rollers. It wasn’t something I normally offered as a component of my relationship with team members, but I found myself testing different cuts, styles that would narrow, perhaps even wizen, rather than accentuate the dimples that erupted across her face.

“Obviously long layers are in order, but why do I consistently find myself doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Shaping acolytes into a facsimile of me. Or perhaps not of me, but of what I strive to become. But you are amazing as you are, Mrs. Stefano! And you don’t know what’s going on here because I have haven’t bothered to tell you the plan. Don’t you see?”

“No.”

“Of course not! When I was eight years old, my Uncle Clarence promised me that he’d take me fishing if I spelled ‘angular’ correctly. Now it was during hurricane season, I’ll grant him that, but after I immediately spelled it correctly, his excuses extended right up until his death twenty-four years later. I never even saw the inside of his boat.”

At least Mrs. Stefano had stopped torturing her straw.

“You’re wondering why it’s taken me forty years to learn a lesson that’s probably immediately obvious to you, and I’ll tell you why: idealism. But you’re ideal as you are, Mrs. Stefano. Truly. You’re the perfect Mrs. Stefano. Your hair—your clothes—that wonderful straw—the entire façade and its cracks, which perhaps only I have ever truly appreciated—you have the formula for Mrs. Stefano, not I. Everything is as it should be.”

She actually seemed heartened by my revelation. “So you’re saying everything is really okay? Even you-know-what? I thought you just said I should stop.”

I continued. “Don’t you see? I was wrong. I still believe to this day that I would’ve made the best damned fisherwoman in Islamorada. But I suppose Uncle Clarence saw a Farah Fawcett, and I saw a Dorothy Hamill. And I was right! I was right. And I will no longer allow Uncle Clarence’s presumptions to be mine. With you as my witness, Mrs. Stefano, I hereby disinherit misgivings of every kind.”

It was a personal revelation! Mrs. Stefano would be my first team member with latitude, the first with autonomy. I vowed to no longer “shape,” but rather to “empower.” Instead of giving her the game plan, I’d give her only the goals; she would craft the best Mrs. Stefano tactic for attaining them. It was an exciting moment for me, and I could tell that it was an exciting moment for Mrs. Stefano, too, as some of her dimples had deepened.

“So what do you say? Are you up for it?”

“You really think it’s okay?”

“More than okay—I think you’re absolutely perfect.”

She made a high-pitched noise. “Well, okay then! And I should totally be ‘myself?’”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are going to make a team the likes of which Two Rivers has never seen. And when we’re finished, this town will be utterly transformed.”

“And I’ll do all the sewing?!”

I was about to ask her to clarify that last statement, but the cat was just outside the window, staring at me as it relaxed behind some shrubbery, daring me along with the rest of Two Rivers to wholeheartedly live up to my word. Challenging me to knock the town off its plodding course to utter obscurity.

I folded my hands over the napkin in my lap, refusing to be the first to break eye contact with the interloper outside. I had, in fact, accepted this challenge a month earlier on my fateful Greyhound bus trip to Sheboygan, and accepting it had been as absolute as my acceptance of Mrs. Stefano. Now, with her—and Sam Ziewick—by my side, I would not be stared down, and I would not be broken.

“Do you want one of my stuffed cheesy sticks with ranch?”

“I would love one, Mrs. Stefano. Thank you very much.” The thing had the heft and shape of a flaccid penis. “It’s going to take more than a few ‘cheesy sticks’ to keep us down, I can tell you that!”

“Oh, well, they’re better with ranch.”

“Please don’t say ‘ranch’ again.”

 

3

Where’s my mommy?

 

“You have got to be kidding me.” Del let out a hearty, hearty laugh—distinctly unnerving for me.

“No, I’m perfectly serious.” Why were the ladies at home improvement stores always so incredulous when I needed to discuss my little projects?

Another guffaw erupted, which allowed me to see right down into her generous mouth and count her many silver fillings. “I’m sorry, but that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! You’re putting me on!”

I hadn’t driven all the way to Two Rivers’ sister city, Manitowoc,   universally considered the slower of the siblings, to be laughed at like this. (Claude would have pointed out that I’d come to a store whose name sounded like a cross between “manure” and “retard.”) (Of course, Claude would have then attempted to convince Del to join him in some sort of garden-tool theft ring, effectively destroying my plan before it had been executed.)

I smothered my ire. “Are you able to help me?”

“I don’t even think that’s legal!”

I had to gain the upper hand. I inspected her blunt nails, her worn blue jeans, her short, very coarse chestnut hair. Del’s features brought to mind the grizzled face of a plains-burned Indian chief, one who hung on tenaciously to a freedom that everyone else in the tribe had long ago accepted as about to be trampled by the U.S. Cavalry. In a way, her utter disregard for the world’s even most basic standards of beauty was admirable, but the thing of it was, she’d been “rode hard and put away wet,” and it had clearly been she who had done the riding and the putting away.

I smiled politely. “Is Del short for Delilah?”

Almost too quickly to believe, Del’s dismissive grin turned into a snarl. “Why would you say that?”

I was right! I’d revisit this revelation in a moment. “Just a guess. So my project—”

“Look, I don’t know who the hell you’re trying to kid with this Miss Priss act, and I don’t know what you’re trying to pull with me, but obviously, you’re up to something illegal here, and I do not have to put up with this. A secret room?!”

“But I can assure you that—”

“You can assure me? You can assure me! What the hell is this, Masterpiece fucking Theatre? Honey, I’ve got half a mind to call the cops right now.”

Damage control! (Claude, in his coarse, accurate way, would’ve given me three options at this point: flee, fuck or fight.) (He invariably chose the second.)

I stalled for a moment to think. “I’m terribly sorry if I’ve upset you—”

“I’ve worked here for ten years, and I’ve never had somebody walk in here and try to pull this kind of crap, asking me to build some James Bond bullshit secret room and talking like you’re Queen Victoria and how many scarves are you wearing?! Are you, like, undercover or something? Is that what’s going on here? Because if you are, you’re going to have to act more like a real human being. This shit is not believable. Or is this some reality show?!” She looked around.

“But I can assu—I am a real human being. I am!”

Where was my psychoanalytical acuity when I needed it most? I scanned her quickly for clues, for insight into past experiences that had shaped who stood before me now—and quite menacingly, as a matter of fact. There were no immediate signs: the plaid shirt, the can of chewing tobacco, the large belt buckle of an American eagle, none of it seemed to provide any foothold for her personality, her needs, her desires. I was dry, and now, because of my instinct to trust her, I’d managed to put my entire plan for Two Rivers into jeopardy. I had to figure her out, and quickly.

And as always, it suddenly struck me: Delilah. Her name was the key to her personality!

Delilah, the girlfriend with the scissors. Clearly, she had a very passive relationship with her overbearing, possibly abusive and long-haired husband, hence her desire to hide her real name with a powerless diminutive. But she denied this weakness in other areas of her life, this inner, shorn Samson, by presenting a threatening demeanor, an act in which she pretended to demand dominance, yet secretly ached for guidance, for control by a stronger personality.

No wonder her hair was so short!

“Your husband wouldn’t like the way you’re speaking to me at all—”

Husband?!’” She screamed out a laugh, a futile attempt to erase the truth from my lips. “Are you hitting on me? Is that what’s going on here? Because your skinny, crazy ass is about as far off the fucking mark as it could be.”

Fluidly, I changed tack. “I’m just, I suppose, a little different than most of the folks around here. I can’t help it! My clothes, I suppose my hair. The scarves. I mean, are you going to attack me for being different, too?” I held my breath, praying that she’d recognize the mistreatment we apparently had in common and hoping that the part of her heart damaged by all the taunts, all the cruelties over the years would open up to our similarities.

But Del only regarded me coolly, her ravaged skin screaming out for moisturizer.

“Is it for pot? Are you growing pot?”

I wasn’t sure if a confirmation of her suspicion would be a good thing or a bad thing. I remained neutral. “Growing pot is illegal.”

She hitched up her pants and inspected the floor as if looking for a place to spit. I had spent many hours over the course of a week evaluating each of the store’s “associates” in the lumber department and had finally chosen Del simply because I had a good feeling about her. This had always been the core reason I chose everyone with whom I “associated,” and I had never been proven wrong before. During my observations, I’d determined that her strength and attitude would be a definite asset to my team, but now I realized that I’d failed to formulate my recruitment strategy as carefully as I always had in the past. This time, I’d simply assumed my immediate psychological assessment during our conversation would be enough, but I found this tactic to be vastly misguided.

Although I knew her name was at the heart of it all, I simply couldn’t decode the secret while under her towering menace. So I began desperately to consider alternative schemes to convince Del to join up—schemes that I knew could prove violently dangerous if misguided.

She leveled me with a blinkless stare, the veins in her eyes pronounced, angry. “Okay. If this is some test from corporate, I’ve already failed it, so why stop now. But I don’t think it is. And for whatever reason, lady, you really rub me the wrong way, so I’d love to see you rotting away in jail. I’d also love to knock that smarmy, innocent look right off your face with a hammer. Now, I’m pretty sure that building a secret room in your house is illegal—especially since you’re only renting it—and I really, really want to call the cops on you. But I don’t want to go through all the paperwork and trial and shit, for a variety of reasons, so I’m going to do you a huge favor. I never, ever want to deal with you again, okay? There’s the door. If you just walk out of it and make sure I never, ever lay eyes on you in Menard’s again, you’ll actually get away with it—this time.”

“Well, it wouldn’t actually be a secret room, per se, more of a secret closet—”

“Lady—” I could actually hear her teeth gnash, the sound of an ancient, cursed door fighting the entrance of treasure seekers into the tomb it had guarded for millennia. “I’m about ready to go to jail myself for what I’m about to do to your face. Get the fuck out of here. Now.”

“But don’t you want to ‘stick it to the man’ with me, as it were? After all, we’ve both been rejected by a patriarchal society that can’t—”

She actually raised her fist.

“Two-thousand dollars.”

My offer was immediately swallowed up by the beep of something backing up nearby, and Del’s hand merely continued to the nametag perched atop her generous bosom. She flicked the edge of it with her thumb, keeping time to some hard-rock song in her mind all about irritation and murder. Centurion, my mind called out, hear the trumpet call of your destiny!

“For me to build—”

“Three-thousand dollars. Just a bookshelf in front of the closet.”

“Mother fucker.”

Del knew a minor element of my plan, now. I couldn’t afford to have her acting against me with the intelligence she’d acquired, and I wasn’t yet prepared to take more drastic measures to keep her silent. I’d simply have to knock down her resistance to me brick-by-brick as she built up the false closet in my home. Eventually, once I’d determined the key to her psychodrama, I would succeed.

“Please tell me you live in Manitowoc.”

“Oh, is that how you pronounce it?”

“Shit.”

“Two Rivers, actually.”

“Shit!”

“Four-thousand.”

Del looked around the lumber section again, perhaps seeking out the hidden camera of a reality show. But this really was reality—her new reality.

Someday, she’d thank me.

“But I want to kill you.”

*     *     *

Two Rivers, Two Rivers, Two Rivers.

During the summer I spent in Brazil, I’d come to believe that the mud cart tracks and rocky footpaths of the old village had become the very arteries of my soul made somehow external by an unknowable force of nature. (Claude pointed out the many instances and types of feces on my “arteries;” I disregarded his humor.) It had always fascinated me how our surroundings could somehow become a part of us: an actual, physical manifestation of how we felt toward a particular time in our lives. And even the weather played a part, a percussion section, under and around the symphony, mutating in different, yet complementary rhythms.

But if Sao Domingo had spread out before me as the course of my very lifeblood, its thunderstorms revealing sunshine at the most unexpected moments just as my own hopes and inspirations would emerge as suddenly and as blessedly, today Two Rivers closed around my throat like a goiter. Its flat, grey sky was a steady constriction on the lungs that made it increasingly difficult to breathe—that made it increasingly difficult to want to breathe!

And that cat had insisted on following me home.

As I lay on my couch, fruitlessly wishing that my nearest neighbors would turn down their “classic rock” station (how could the experience of hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” for the ten-thousandth time be in any way “classic?”) and warily watching the cat on my front porch as he warily watched me through the screen door, I forced my respiration into an easy, regular rhythm. The summer evenings in Two Rivers weren’t completely insufferable, and its people had endless redeeming qualities, too, buried, perhaps unlearned. After all, they were the reason I was here at 618 Frick Street, to begin with. A missionary was nothing without her gentle savages.

My campaign was coming along nicely, too. Mrs. Stefano was onboard, Del would be soon, and Sam and I were communicating in such an intimate, charged way that I knew he would have no choice but to do anything I asked of him within the week. But could I, in turn, bridle his raw impetuousness? It was a challenge I was only too glad to wrestle. In oil, if necessary.

And of course, I had a meeting scheduled with Mr. Krimm for the following morning, so that important facet of my mission would once again be back on track.

Sheboygan, Sheboygan, Sheboygan.

My mind passed back again for the thousandth time to that fateful bus trip, to the night that changed the course of my life so utterly. Why did all my most profound events claw their way to the surface of my life at the oddest moments? My mind passed over a few: that urine-soaked restroom in Kiev where I saw the amazing work of a woman named Galina blooming across the wall of my stall and realized that I could never paint again. That urine-soaked adult daycare center in Palo Alto, where a Mr. Francis Solomon had tossed off the simplest of comments, “Food tastes better when you’re younger,” and I’d vowed to develop a hybrid of the russet potato and sweet yam. That urine-soaked street in Dublin, where I’d lost a sapphire ring, but found an answer to the place in my heart that had never learned to sing before that night (Claude).

And now, that Greyhound to Sheboygan, which I would have doubtlessly found urine-soaked if I’d dared enter the illicit lavatory at the back of the aisle.

Danny had said then, “For fun.” For fun. The phrase was at the heart of my mission now; in more ways than one, it was the mission. I could almost imagine the crest of our army: a glorious, cartoon sparrow in the upper-left quadrant, a pair of stealth Dockers in the upper-right, a tin of “chaw” in the lower-left, and an ice-cream sundae beside it. And, running beneath it all, our motto, in gold, in capital letters, invincible: Pro Fructus.

But of course, it had since become so much more than just “for fun,” and in a way Danny would’ve never imagined when he and I had shared those few, rushed seconds together on the bus to Sheboygan. It had become pro so much more than fructus, now.

“Tabby III” had approached the screen door, and he considered me now with golden eyes, his tail swishing out subconscious motives and desires unbidden. Clearly, he sensed that I was no “Two Rivers girl,” that I had something to offer him that he’d never get from the sleep-walking denizens of the lakeshore. And I supposed that he wasn’t alone; each Two Riverian whose life I’d entered since arriving must now have been feeling the same subconscious tug toward enlightenment, toward providence. Toward me.

I had a deep, deep distaste for cats, but I opened my door. Who was I to deny an individual whose most fervent desire was to become a recruit in the cause, to be close to my energy, my purpose? I even managed to be philosophical when he proceeded immediately to spray the corner of my living room and run back outside, his genitals almost winking at me under his upright tail.

Urine-soakings and profundity: two points apparently linked forever in the many-starred constellation that was my life. I closed the door behind “Tabby III,” eager to remove the funk that was already wafting up out of the corner and glad to be moving ahead with the next step of my plan the following morning at ten a.m. It was such a vital step, too, because when it was finally accomplished, only then would I have the blueprint—the gospel!—for the rest of my mission: the missing information.

I couldn’t help chuckling to myself. When would the residents of Two Rivers learn that it would take much more than a territorial squirt to halt my inexorable progress toward victory in the name of fun?

Answer: very, very soon.

*     *     *

“Miss Polanski—”

Ms.”

Ms. I’m really kind of busy right now, and I’m not really sure what this has to do with anything.” Mr. Krimm wasn’t wearing a T-shirt today, and from the moment I’d entered his office, I’d found myself intensely intrigued to see if his nipple disparity was still as extreme as it had been in his youth. You see, it was white, his shirt, and only a thin, poly blend.

Perhaps Mr. Krimm had “grown into” his left one. Perhaps the right one had been just a late bloomer. I stretched my arms over and behind my head, groaning with satisfaction.

“Ahh. Stretching is such an underappreciated stress-reliever, don’t you think? You should try it. Go ahead, arms up over your head—”

He remained still.

“Mr. Krimm, I bring up our last meeting only to illustrate my point. With only two pieces, a pawn and a king, it’s very difficult to win the match, but it’s not impossible. Anything can be done, if we just put our minds to it.”

“So you came here to talk about chess.”

“Ahh, so you play!”

“No, I—”

“So you know, then, that even a lowly pawn,” I gestured in a general way toward the right side of his body, “can take a king.” I indicated his left. “Power might not always be as lopsided as it feels.”

Mr. Krimm sniffed his Germanic nose, rolling his watery eyes slowly across the ceiling of his office. I imagined him at home, at the kitchen table carving tiny toy soldiers out of yellow maple while his wife cooked sauerbraten. He would continually push his limp gray hair out of his face as he went about the work, making private, satisfying analogies between the perfect little soldiers lined up before him and his careful efforts with the pupils at Darby Hills Elementary. Mr. Krimm was doing all this in lamplight because, for some reason, I imagined him in 1870’s Bavaria.

I continued, in part to prevent the arrival of lederhosen in my fantasy: “But the king doesn’t necessarily need to fear the pawn before him. The pawn could possibly be just a messenger from the opposing side with a peace agreement, or perhaps he’s a defector—”

“Do you know how to play chess?”

“Let’s not bog ourselves down in vagaries.”

“Well, there’s only one vagary: why you’re here.”

“Why I’m here. Excellent question. Well, I assumed you’d given more thought to my taking the position as instructor—”

“We call them ‘teachers’ here and no. I haven’t.”

“But you really would regret—”

“I’m regretting allowing you back into my office.”

“I understand. But there is a certain, let’s say “rook” that’s—”

“That’s what?! Moving in a straight line down the chessboard with a pizza for the king?”

“Well, straight into a position here at Darby Hills.”

He shook his head, smiling as if mildly disappointed that he’d accidentally taken off the limb of one of his little, wooden soldiers, or perhaps shaved off a face.

Ms. Polanski, I’ve already explained to the superintendent that I thought you were an actor of some kind, someone sent here to test me. He understands perfectly.”

Mrs. Stefano had prepared me for this: “And Mr. Dumbriskie said that I hadn’t been sent to test you.”

“Are you suggesting that the superintendent would lie to me?”

“I merely ask, ‘if the king controls the board, who controls the king?”

“Please don’t make any more chess references—”

“So you’d rather I not say ‘checkmate.’”

“I’d rather you leave my office.”

“A lawsuit could be very costly, Mr. Krimm. For you and for the school district.”

“Ms. Polanski, I’m going to be honest with you. No jury in the world would convict me of absolutely anything, once they’d heard you give testimony. Anything. Not that you have any reason to listen to me, but I really think you need professional help.”

It was a classic chess move: shifting blame onto the opponent. I’d dealt with it so often that I didn’t even need to think about my next counterstrike.

“Well, this ‘crazy person’ isn’t going to give up this fight. I’ll use every pawn and every knight and every—”

“We’ve got a lunch lady position open.”

“I’ll take it. Now, it’s customary where I come from that when a deal is reached, both parties stretch way, way back—”

“Please leave.”

*     *     *

I realized that just as Mr. Krimm’s physical inequality had steadily and subconsciously eaten away at his ego over the years until everything he did was calculated to prove his supremacy as an uncompromised, equinippled male, so too did Mrs. Stefano’s obsession with cartoon clothing indicate her overwhelming creativity in the face of adversity. Today, it was what—stoats? Weasels?

“Otters! They’re my favorite.” This was said with more gravity than was at all appropriate for the situation. “I didn’t make this one, though. I got it at SeaWorld in Orlando.”

“Otters. Oh, I see it now. Very… So I hope your father at least left the dogs at home, rather than insisting on taking them with your family to Florida.”

“Why do you keep asking about my father? Remember? He’s been dead for twenty years. And this shirt’s two years old.”

“Well, I’m sure that under it all, he would’ve really liked your shirt, Mrs. Stefano. He would’ve respected it, as he did you.”

She looked at me unsurely. “Not if he’d known about, you know, me. Well, I didn’t really understand myself until recently. Not until you made me realize it was okay to, you know, kind of ‘let go.’ Well, you and then the Internet and stuff.”

I couldn’t say that I was surprised at how self-aware Mrs. Stefano had become due, at least partially, to my presence. She’d proven herself quite insightful several times over the last two weeks, and I was glad to hear now that she’d broken it off with Mr. Krimm, whom I was absolutely certain did not respect Mrs. Stefano’s otter-covered shirt or the strong, increasingly confident woman held rather tightly within it.

And now she had an Internet therapist? I made a mental note to suggest this as an option to my many friends and acquaintances who, for a multitude of reasons, couldn’t—or shouldn’t—discuss their issues with me or some other live, licensed counselor. I could still do something for them.

“Wonderful.” But the word soured in my mouth as I looked down at the mournful mound of food that had just been slid toward me.

“Have a great day.”

Food was never meant to be slid.

Nonetheless, I gave the cashier my most winning smile. “Thank you. You know, you would make an excellent artist’s model—”

But the young woman had already been absorbed back into the ultimately futile activity behind the counter. If my plan didn’t shift into action soon, the poor thing would spend her life in Two Rivers and die with a generous coating of grease and ignorance over her soul.

Of course, we were in Arby’s for “lunch.”

It was a strange, Wisconsin kind of synchronicity: Mrs. Stefano’s corner table was always free for her. We “slid” into the booth and “slid” our lunch down the Formica table, I wishing that some, supreme being heard my prayer and that this time, the food “slid” down my throat.

My prayers were again rejected.

“Mr. Krimm totally hates you, Yolanda.”

“It’s not hate; it’s resistance. You’d benefit from recognizing the difference.”

“That’s not what he says. I heard him talking. He thinks you’re going to hate Kryst’l so much that you’ll quit. But he’s waiting for any reason at all to fire you next week.”

“He’s resistant to my perceptiveness; he’s resistant to my sedition.”

“You’re not lazy.”

“Not lazy—revolutionary! He senses it, and it terrifies him.”

Mrs. Stefano remained dubious, her otters stretching to cover her generous bosom as she worked doggedly through the things before her. One particular grouping looked as if it were a nest of egg rolls, and I shuddered.

“So you promise me that you’re going to tell me next week. The whole plan.”

“Absolutely. I’m just waiting for the final facet to fall into place once classes begin—the facet that will tell us exactly how we are to proceed.”

“Well.” I wished that Mrs. Stefano wouldn’t speak with her mouth still filled with little white wads of bun, but an ally was an ally. “I’ve got a surprise for you next week, too.”

“Oh! How unexpected.”

“Well. I bet you’re kind of expecting it.”

“Am I?”

“You know.” She was being coy, now, another grossly inappropriate habit for a fifty-year-old woman that I’d have to break, eventually. Still, I knew that whatever the surprise was, it couldn’t affect my mission, so I merely smiled in response.

Nonetheless, I didn’t like surprises. (Claude and his vintage toaster oven came to mind: fifteen kinds of melted cheese sandwiches until an unruly Reuben exploded while I happened to be standing nearby, shattering his career as an amateur short-order cook and mine as a deli-foods admirer. As far as I knew, he never touched another hot sandwich again, but the toaster oven remained on the counter, the inoperable centerpiece of his failure.)

I didn’t like surprises because they were specifically designed to throw one off balance, to compromise one’s ability to react in the most advantageous way. I’d made a career—a life!—of maintaining the advantage. Of course I remained measured in even the most unexpected gales, but it was work! Surprises drew me away from my confrontations, my schemes, my seductions. I resented them.

“So, Mrs. Stefano, you haven’t ever wondered what it would feel like to, I don’t know, wear a band of leather around your neck?”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, I suppose like a collar of some sort.”

“What, like a dog?”

“Isn’t it interesting that you brought up dogs.”

“Well, I’ve never wanted to be a dog.” This was said slyly, with layers of moist meaning. Perhaps I’d miscalculated, and her father had preferred the company of the family’s gerbils to that of his daughter? Or maybe he’d ignored her in preference to a pet otter!

But I didn’t want to rush our work untangling Mrs. Stefano’s harrowing past and so approached at another, more oblique angle.

“But there must have been some happy, healthy activities from your childhood.”

“Polka.”

I continued, as if neither one of us had noticed my flinch. “Polka? Your father made you dance?”

“Well, the whole family. But it’s kind of died out now.”

Undoubtedly by euthanasia, I thought to myself, but I had to soldier on, just as Mrs. Stefano had been soldiering on for me over the past few weeks. I owed her that much.

“Well, then, we’re going to polka. I’ll find out where it’s occurring in the area—”

“Occurring! You always talk so funny. ‘Occurring polka.’” Her dimples deepened, her titter rang through the restaurant. For a moment, her head was turned in just such a way that there was a marked resemblance to one of the otters on her shirt, playfully cracking an oyster open. My heart felt just like that oyster.

“Mrs. Stefano, we are going to polka. You’ve been on this earth far too long to let your debilitating childhood rob you of any happiness you can gather. I simply won’t allow that to happen. We are going to polka: you and I and your wardrobe menagerie!”

“I didn’t have a debilitating childhood—”

“Call it what you will. Now, that subject is closed for the day. I’d like to discuss next week.”

Shrugging, Mrs. Stefano started in on the “egg rolls.” They didn’t smell like egg rolls, and I wished, yet once again, that America would respect traditional cuisines, rather than mixing and matching them as if they were tattoos running up its arm: a pair of dice, the Japanese symbol for strength, Satan holding a stick of dynamite in one hand and a boomerang in the other. (Claude had once drugged me and attempted to tattoo a chupacabra on my thigh. But I’d drugged him, too.)

“There is a family that moved to Two Rivers three months ago, and their youngest son is starting first grade at Darby Hills. Danny Kravitz. I’ve gathered a great deal of information on them—and on him—already, but I need more.”

“Is this part of the plan?”

“This is part of the plan. You are part of the plan. Do you have access to—”

She dropped her voice and looked around the restaurant. “No, no, no. They don’t let me near the files or anything like that. I’d totally get in trouble if I tried. I’ll only know more about the student if he comes to Mr. Krimm’s office, and I can talk to him and whatnot.”

“I see.”

“But I know everybody at Darby Hills. Maybe I can do some checking around that way.”

“Excellent.” I “slid” my food away from me, having barely moved it around in its container.

“So the plan has something to do with this little kid, Yolanda?”

“It has everything to do with ‘this little kid.’”

“And you promise that you’re not, you know, trying to kidnap him or something. It’s really not bad or anything, right?”

I tore my eyes from the egg roll that disappeared into her mouth. No matter what part of the globe from which they originated and what exotic ingredients they contained, the world’s cuisines were simply carbon-based matter, were they not? To be immediately broken down by stomach acids into chains of carbohydrates for the purpose of life.

I had to live. Picking up my “Ultimate BLT,” I leveled Mrs. Stefano with my most piercing stare.

“Mrs. Stefano, once I can extract the final piece of the puzzle from this young man, our team will be responsible for the best thing that’s happened to Two Rivers. Ever.”

She nodded sagaciously, the flakes of eggroll skin that covered her chest bound to be consumed by other forms of life down the food chain. It would be the best thing that would ever happen to a certain lucky paramecium, and I silently thanked her for her good deed.

Briefly entertaining the thought of Mrs. Stefano constructing me a kaftan with paramecia all across it, I then simply took a bite of my Arby’s carbon matter. Microscopic life clearly wasn’t my wardrobe theme.

Suddenly she screeched, and I was worried for a moment that a bun wad had lodged in her throat.

My concern was unnecessary: “Polka I hardly know her!”

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First Three Chapters of My Heart Is a Drummer


LOURDES

 

MONDAY

The first glimpse was always the sweetest.

Her car’s transmission died and would never be fixed. Her daughter had a hypodermic needle in her sweater drawer. Her meatloaf was horrible—even though she’d made it exactly the same as every other meatloaf in her life—and Joselito yelled at her. Maybe things were a little tough, and Lourdes had wanted to cry on the bus with her forehead pressed against the sweaty, cold window.

But instead, she’d wondered about the first glimpse she’d have of him that day, and she smiled. Some mornings, it would be a little more difficult than usual, and she’d have trouble believing that he’d really visit her that afternoon, too. So she’d pull out the other first glimpses, which felt framed to her, like little paintings, icons, and review them for their actuality and their joy. Today, she had faith.

Always, always, Lourdes was baffled by what she’d done in her small life to deserve his presence within it, yet she denied herself the questions that could spoil, those signs of faithlessness that destroyed miracles because they offended the divine. Thinking of him was a prayer whispered, catching sight of him a prayer answered.

When it finally arrived, it was over Rodney’s shoulder, right between Niqua at the register and Alfonso at the fry station. Donald was looking down at his phone, as usual, but she knew he’d seen her because he was smiling. His hair fell across his forehead toward the floor.

“Lourdes?” Rodney was breathing down at her.

“Sorry.”

“No, I’m not looking for apologies.”

She returned her attention to the monitor and worked a little faster than usual.

“I’m starting to wonder about that extra forty-five cents I’m paying you.”

Lourdes focused on the smooth surface of the cheese slice on her fingers and replayed the first glimpse, between Niqua and Alfonso, over Rodney’s shoulder. This time, his hair was a curtain.

The restaurant was a bit busier than usual, and it took an extra ten minutes before she could head out the door, certain Donald’s eyes were trained on her. The sharp smell of winter would always and only ever mean New Jersey to her, and it smelled the most like New Jersey just after the layered stinks of the December Burger King. Today, the parking lot was humid with salted snow and laden with exhaust.

Situated at the back of the lot, his car was as far away from the camera as possible. Lourdes had taught Donald to park there. Of course, she knew they watched her; she’d watched them, too, smoking or making out. Everyone made fun of her out there, just as they did with each other, and she just smiled. If they really knew, they’d be silenced by the purity of it, only able to giggle as they cut their eyes at one another.

Now she stood by his car, and when he joined her, she was glad that she’d learned just kind things to say in English. Of course, she knew the other words because they had been directed at her so many times in the past thirty years. But seeing his face, knowing that his grin was all for her, she understood the uselessness of learning the bad things because they could never help in determining Donald.

“Lourdes.” A gift.

She only blushed. Donald didn’t speak Spanish, and when she thought about their time together while she was at home or at work, she cursed her handicap in English, an inability to say things exactly the way they should be said to him, about him, for him. There was so much to say. But now, when he was near and his gaze melted the space between them, she remembered that there were no languages, no barriers. There was only this one thing.

They entered the car, which was still a bit warm. As he moved his hand into her big coat, Lourdes stared effortlessly into Donald’s eyes, a way to consume him and offer herself back. Helping him undo her pants, she allowed herself to moan as he encouraged her. In fact, it was the only time and place that she had ever allowed herself to moan—even with Jose, it had been too private. This was what she gave back to him, and she knew that it meant so much more to Donald than anything she could ever accept from him. But was it enough?

Right from the beginning, Donald had understood that Lourdes’s whole life had been conducted in service to others, so she and Donald had immediately fallen into this particular way of appreciating one another, a way in which she was welcome to receive and never expected to give. It had never varied since, at first because Lourdes mistrusted her English, and then because neither of them seemed to want it to. But now, although fully clothed, she laid herself bare, and it was this act, so profound for Lourdes, that also worried her. Did he sense the loop that formed in her mind during their communion, the round of doubt that she regretted and was fighting against? Did he want more? Was he hoping desperately that she snake her way under his puffy jacket? She so wanted to return his kindness, and in fact it was this act that she thought about—if she thought about anything—as he drove her on, down in her lap. But as always, Lourdes’s hands lay firmly on Donald’s arm. She’d never betray her desire because she feared that any change could end her miracle, and she climaxed, and Donald smiled into her, deeply, and her worry was pushed out of their union for another day.

After seeping in his rapt attention for a few minutes, Lourdes touched his cheek. “You look so sad today.”

“I have to leave you now.”

“No! I have to leave you.” Had any of them watched this time, and had they seen the faces she must have made? But she didn’t care; let them see something pure.

Zaïda wanted them to see something when she was fourteen. The Pacific’s breeze was colder than usual that day, and she’d spent the whole afternoon constructing her sand sculpture for her Aunt and Uncle in Punta Sal. Having spent all of her attention on the flourishes and details, she only realized how astounding the whole thing was when she waded out into the sea, the sun now at her back, throwing her work into sharp relief. It wasn’t a few grains of sand shifted around—the thing was Zaïda. Her father had died having never seen a single thing from her, and her mother had never looked before, but now, finally, Zaïda had something for her loved ones to recognize.

Running up to the house, she quickly determined that no matter what she said or did, no one would ever come down to the beach to see the only thing that would ever come close to expressing everything in her soul. So she ate her shrimp that night silently, knowing that only their brothers and sisters had seen what she’d done, as the tide dragged her revelation out to sea. After that, she didn’t bother to be seen, and she wasn’t.

 

Donald turned his attention to the steering wheel, naked conflict at his eyes and his mouth. Lourdes never knew, she never asked, worried that her untrustworthy comprehension would only make things worse. But to witness his pain was unbearable, and to do nothing a crime she grappled with during quiet times, washing dishes, waiting for sleep to come.

He never asked for anything.

“I’m going to learn Spanish.”

“No.” She said it as gently as possible.

But how could she truly explain that she suspected these waves of sadness that periodically overtook him were due to the endless selflessness he showed her? That somehow, doing only one thing more for her would make his life even more miserable? That she didn’t understand, but she wanted desperately to, and she’d be honored to do whatever she could to make Donald’s life easier for him to bear?

“No, Donald.” She said only this and prayed that he read the rest in her eyes.

WEDNESDAY

The sun was out, and it steamed patches of brown grass near Donald’s car. Lourdes felt more uncomfortable being there with the sun so strong at the windows, but the innocence of the whole thing was so fundamental that anyone who came upon them would have to feel the same way. People weren’t always nice, anymore, and they needed to be reminded, sometimes. Donald and her orgasm were both gifts from God. She wished the kids in the restaurant would someday be able to appreciate all the gifts that are already there, right inside of them.

She watched Donald eat the mistake chicken sandwich she’d saved for him, glad he’d finally told her that some of the other workers were doing things to his food. She’d been at Burger King for two months, now, and she just couldn’t understand how people could care so little about others, about life. Nothing was important; nothing was serious; everything was gay or cool. Lourdes had been brought up to believe that most things were important and serious and floated on the waves somewhere in between. Your little opinion depended mostly on which coast you stood and how the waves moved that day, but all was tiny against the ocean.

Still, she laughed. “You have—on your—mayo.” She pointed to the corner of his mouth, enjoying the lack of tension in her shoulder that his tenderness had brought but that would return soon enough because of all the tomatoes and lettuce and Rodney, always over her.

Donald laughed, too, as he wiped it off. But he looked so much more tired than even Monday. “This is just what I needed, Lourdes. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

She stroked his face; his eyes were bruised from stress. “I think of you always. You know, I call you my angel in my head.” She didn’t know much, but she knew she could do this, at least.

Donald stopped chewing to tear up.

“Oh, no! I make you cry every time. I’m sorry.”

“Please. Don’t apologize to me, Lourdes. There isn’t anything… You’re the angel.”

“No. Sometimes everything seems so bad, but then I think of you. Everybody should have an angel.”

“I know.”

His crying changed a little; with four grown children, Lourdes knew crying. “Oh, what is it?”

A strong intake of air steadied his breathing. “Would you come to my New Year’s party?” Donald gazed into her, laying wide an exposed panorama of hope and pain and need. His intensity was a constant shock to her, but this was more so. “Please.”

Lourdes averted her face and inspected the back of the restaurant. She thought of the bus to Newark that late at night, then the vomit and drunks. Then she thought of the other guests and how different she was bound to be. Then she thought of the private relationship that she and Donald had created, how she cherished it as it was and how it would have to change when put into words for others. Then she thought of the truth about Donald, which she knew he held close for her until he felt she was ready, experience obviously informing his actions and also at the core of the truth itself. This was in the car, too, somewhere.

She thought of her mortifying limitations and of losing her one and only angel.

Then she thought of herself, aged five, back in San Juan, when a neighbor boy the same age attempted to rape her, based on the relationship his father had established with him. Lourdes understood this, and also understood why the boy sold cheap wallets to tourists for ten years so he could finish college and become the executive director of a food bank in Schenectady. All the apologies, all the sacrifices—she knew it was easier than the other way, the hardening and dismissing and forgetting.

“Okay, Donald.”

To see his joy was to see a raw, beating heart, and Lourdes knew that she’d never regret her decision. But a New Year’s Party?!

Then the tears returned. “You’re so wonderful to me, Lourdes, and I’m—” Donald trailed off into a slow shake of the head. “I am going to learn Spanish for you. I’m not going to let things continue like this. I promise.”

Lourdes cursed her limited English and railed against her fear, but still she wouldn’t ask what he meant by ‘letting things continue like this.’ They were honest with each other in so many other, gratifying ways. That alone was more than she’d ever asked for from her life, and she was determined to avoid anything that might alter her special gift for as long as she could. Things always change, she knew that, but in a way, she was barricading against old age now, collecting as many memories as possible that might save her when things got worse.

THURSDAY

It was so strange: her favorite car in the world, something with which she was so achingly intimate, parked in a street that was intimate for her in all the other ways. It was the first thing she saw, down at the curb, and Lourdes felt her heart spasm, not sure if she was thrilled or terrified by the situation. Or both.

Then she noticed the expressionless Asian man, a little older than she was, in her seat, staring through the windshield out into the heavy snowfall, into the night. Things were changing.

The man looked like he’d had a comfortable life, and Lourdes couldn’t help but feel a little silly in her Wal-Mart sweat pants and old jacket with the stain on the back. She understood Donald wouldn’t care, and right now she didn’t really have time to care, herself, but she knew she would be reworking this moment over and over again over the next days and weeks, wondering how they discussed her poverty afterwards. Probably gently and charitably, if at all, but there would also be the mental echo of the shameful jacket, the boarded window on the second floor, the tennis shoes hanging from the wire above the car. These men couldn’t help but retain those things, coming from Montclair, and a flush of embarrassment quickly crossed her forehead.

And just like the Burger King, there were youngsters behind her, watching her. Here, they peered down from the windows, wondering who on earth would ever want to associate with their mother. She felt their exhausting presence sixty feet above her, and prayed that the snow was thick enough to obscure the street below.

As if stung, Lourdes sucked air through her teeth: Donald was standing a few feet away from her in the shadow of the porch. Her heart misfired. Meeting him at night, finding him almost lurking, being asked to contend with a third person—so much was suddenly changing. It was the panic of slipping to the cliff’s edge, so she took a deep breath and resolved to change as little as possible, herself.

But her eyes were adjusting to the light, and she saw that Donald was different. He looked drained and frail and his expression, in her experience an epic battleground where love quickly and easily triumphed, now just looked haunted and vacant, a dispassionate evaluation of her, somehow.

It was the one look her angel was never supposed to give her, and Newark the one place in the world he was never supposed to be.

“Donald, you look so… What’s wrong?”

Relief at this flooded past the grayness around his eyes, and she felt a little better.

“I really want to hug you, Lourdes.”

“Joselito’s watching. Nobody comes to visit me. I said you were from work.”

“I guess I am.”

“You don’t have to come here to say you’re sorry about today.” She glanced at the man in the car. “I know how busy you are.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Lourdes knew that look; she’d been giving it to herself in the mirror for the past twenty years. Back then, she’d let out the cat by mistake, a misshapen, confused tom, and hadn’t bothered to look for him right away. She’d been nursing Carina, so she only moved the blinds and looked down around the dumpster, but the cat had run out into the street and been immediately hit by a car. He’d dragged himself to the gutter, twisted, and panted for an hour before she’d found him, only to die, staring up into the sky as she lifted him. It was the worst anger, the kind that could only be directed at herself, and it still felt the same, all these years later. Some things she had no right to forgive.

But she didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else ever feeling that way. Especially poor Donald, who looked to be wearing right through his life. She wasn’t a mute animal with only heaven ahead of her. She understood.

A weak wind blew snow into the alcove, wetting the outside of Lourdes’s hands. The two of them couldn’t even find shelter there.

“This is not right!” Taking one final look at the car, Lourdes turned back to the light and steam heat of her building. “I’ll be right back.”

*          *          *

The snow had muffled Lourdes’s return, and she stood, a few feet behind Donald, clutching her two plastic bags and worrying that the men would notice that she’d changed her clothing. He was on his knees, leaned up against the passenger door of his car. The window was down and his head rested awkwardly on the seat before him as he stared down her street into the flurries. The other man was right next to Donald, in her seat.

“Donald?”

His hesitation was too long. “Oh, Lourdes! I’m just—”

The man removed his seatbelt carefully, so as not to hit Donald with it, and said, “Why don’t we get you into my seat, and then I’ll just drive you home.” He smiled apologetically at Lourdes, and she came up to the car, instinctively aware of her role, rubbing Donald’s shoulder before helping him stand up as steadily as possible. The man quickly vacated his seat, and the two of them got Donald strapped in.

As they backed away, the stranger quietly thanked Lourdes, who made no attempt to hide her distress.

“What happened?”

“He’s tired. Maybe he has a cold. He’s been so busy today.”

Lourdes finally looked the man in the eye. “He has?”

But when she returned her attention to Donald, she found him staring at her, studying her and begging her all at once. She didn’t understand what he wanted and was too disturbed to ask, so she turned to the man and tried to smile.

“Oh. Lourdes, this is Joseph. Joseph, Lourdes.”

She shook the man’s gloved hand, aware that snowflakes were catching on her eyelashes and glad at least that was still the same. But she felt Donald’s gaze burning into her and understood only that it had something to do with this introduction.

“How are you?”

“Pleasure to meet you, Lourdes.” The man pitied, apologized with his eyes: she must’ve been failing at hiding her distress.

Signs of Donald’s illness were even more pronounced once he was in the car, and his head lolled against the seat. He turned away from her, defeated, disappointed, and massaged the gear shift. Lourdes had always been so thankful that his face was a window, a slave; this was the first time she had wished it wasn’t so.

Deciding to focus on the one thing that still made sense to her, Lourdes peered down at him, poring over his appearance as mothers do for clues, and therefore, for possible remedies. All this craziness was probably just due to his sickness. “You should go home, Donald. We can talk later. Oh—” She looked down at the bags in her hands and then back to Donald, and in attempting to reconcile the two things, finally became overwhelmed. Her eyes welled up. “I don’t know—I made brownies and thought—”

The man smiled politely when she handed her bags to him. “That’s very kind of you.”

Neither Donald nor Joseph acknowledged her tears, so she was certain, then, that her reaction must have been appropriate for the situation. Fear gripped her more tightly.

Without looking up: “Lourdes, my party on Sunday. Rascal’s, you know the place?”

“Okay. You should go and get some rest now. Please.”

“You’re going to be there?”

“Yes.”

Donald reached his hand out the window, and Lourdes took it deliberately, no longer concerned with what her children might think.

“Joseph will be there.”

“Okay.”

“At the party.”

Lourdes looked up at the apartment buildings that loomed all around them, their lights and sounds so far away now, almost gone in the heavy snowing.

“Angels have hearts for everyone, Donald.”

A note of harshness crept into Donald’s voice that Lourdes had never heard before, but there was also the familiar self-effacement and contrition: “I’m not an angel.”

“Then there are no angels.” Lourdes shook her head at Joseph and backed away from the car, unable to experience any more. “I’m sorry. Go, go!”

She moved out of their decreasing sphere quickly, feeling already the frustration burning at her throat. He was leaving her now, and she’d failed in so many ways. She’d somehow even managed to make his life more painful. Lourdes didn’t know what was wrong; she didn’t know how to help him; she didn’t know what she’d done to hurt him; she didn’t have the capacity to understand.

Donald was still there, though, right in front of her! She still had time to make things right. She’d try until they understood each other. But she moved toward the car just as it pulled away. Lourdes could only vow to herself, then, as she watched the taillights dissolve into the silent, rapid snow flakes, that she would make things right when she saw him next. At his party.

ERIC

 

WEDNESDAY

“Come in.”

The morning was warmer, the dripping water reducing snow to clear, hard lacework. Its sudden humidity made Donald’s hair limp, made him look like a bashful little kid. At this, Eric’s mind stretched out electrically in several directions: naughty schoolboy; fevered recess; innocence stripped away. But he tucked these back and refocused on the goal at hand, the anticipation radiating from his solar plexus and warming his extremities.

Eric stepped aside, and Donald entered the apartment. One of the canvases was in the corner, covered by a cloth, and Donald turned away from it as quickly as possible. The many other images, displayed around the old, echoey loft, he avoided, too. Instead, he stood squarely in the center of the space, motionless, and faced the floor as he should.

Eric put Mindy down and inspected. Besides the hair, Donald looked thinner, sapped. This might work for the session, or it might work against it. His face was as plastic as ever. Even when it was supposedly controlled to the point of impassivity, Donald’s expression was like the surface of a lake, rippled by any and every stone that broke the surface. It was still as round, as dimpled, but the cheeks were closer now, the brown, bottomless eyes correspondingly farther apart. Eric felt his breath catch: the legs, short in proportion, and the thickness of the body in general gave the impression of a giant baby, which never failed to delight Eric. He still couldn’t believe his luck.

Donald literally gave no thought to what he wore, another facet of his gormless persona that invigorated Eric’s creativity. Today, he had thrown on a Shetland sweater and old, brown corduroys that stretched across his backside.

Eric loved the middle-class ass, and he came up alongside it to scrutinize its form, which really did inspire memories of white bread, doughy and soft. Since Eric had known him, Donald’s butt had grown and shrunk regularly over his naturally generous dimensions. Now, it was looking smaller, forgotten.

“You’re losing weight again. Pull down your pants.”

Donald immediately did so, the sweater drooping, the shirttails parting. Eric felt the thrill as forcefully as always: the unreality of a self-gratifying dream experienced over and over. It was the kind of perfection that had to include the phrase “once in a lifetime.” It was the kind of perfection that could only come from gross, dismal imperfection. It was the kind of perfection that Eric was bound and determined to continue to exploit to its absolute extent.

But then he noticed new shoes peeking out from under the crumpled corduroy, a definite element of hip style about the red leather. They were clearly not a purchase Donald had made.

“I hate those shoes. Lift your leg.” Eric pulled them off and walked to his sink. There, he opened a drawer that wailed into the cobwebbed, remote rafters of the space and removed his sharpest knife. For a moment, Eric considered keeping them for himself, as they would compliment his clubbing wardrobe quite nicely, but that felt as if it belonged to a different drama, so he simply hacked them up and threw them away.

“Next time, wear those old boat shoes. Take off your sweater and shirt.”

Once again, Donald did as he was told, keeping his eyes down but unable to control his quickened breathing. The pale nakedness seemed to melt into the flesh-colored walls and soft, round shapes of the furniture, a coordinated element of the tableau. Eric liked that.

“Now I want you to answer me. Would you like to be thrown into a bath full of ice water right now?”

Donald always struggled with the questions; Eric feasted on this.

“I would like an answer to my question: would you like to be thrust into freezing water?”

“No.”

Although he almost tripped on Mindy, Eric quickly recovered. He rushed up to Donald and pushed him into his bathroom, where a bath full of ice awaited them both. Eric forcefully handed him into the tub, squeezing harder on the tightening muscles, and Donald’s eyes widened in what must have been profound shock. He was unable to stifle an eloquent groan, and Eric suddenly wished he’d had his audio recorder. He could’ve worked that in. But then, as he held Donald under the water, Eric saw black, spreading mildew at the corner of his bath tub, and it annoyed him. This wasn’t about seediness, but then again, it did feel more authentic that way. Nonetheless, he’d have to re-caulk.

“I want to see how low I can bring your body temperature.”

Almost immediately, Donald began shivering.

“Relax into it.” Eric watched the skin turn pink, then white, then a light gray with purple undertones. “That’s it.” He watched all the involuntary movements in the toes, the skin across the neck tightening. Eric added all of this to the many wonderful things he’d seen the human body do over the past six months.

Bringing to mind steeping tea, Eric realized after a few minutes that he had reached perfection, and he pulled his camera off of the nearby basin. He’d already loaded it, the batteries were new. Wondering if black-and-white wouldn’t better communicate the subtle, clinical changes in skin tone, Eric considered changing film as Donald held his arms stiffly at his sides, the thumbs gouging his hips.

“Put your head under the water.”

Drawing a deep breath with much difficulty, Donald did the best he could and submerged fully. Eric then went to work, captured several images that promised to be arresting, the eyes searching to recall meaning under the bobbing ice cubes and the face seeming to bloat in protest.

Reasonably satisfied, Eric plunged his hand into the water and grabbed Donald’s arm. He pulled him up, and then over spittle and gasping: “Okay, that’s enough.”

Donald struggled to stand, the shivering making voluntary movement difficult. Finally, Eric had him wrapped in a huge, nutmeg towel that he’d preheated. Mindy licked at the drops of water on the floor, purring unevenly, which made Eric wonder about her as an ironic element in the scene and if this were a popular motivation for pet ownership. When he’d first gotten her, he’d dressed her as a clown, with red-and-white striped satin and a jingle-bell in her hat, but it was too deliberate, too art-school, and he’d ceremoniously burned the whole sketch pad.

She might be in a couple of shots; he’d decide then.

“Come on.”

Making sure to wrap the towel around Donald’s shoulders, Eric gently led his subject into the adjoining bedroom. The room was dominated by a huge image over the bed: Donald’s face barely recognizable under dried mud. Eric helped him lie on the unmade bed, then pulled the sheets over his ashen feet and calves. A space heater whirred nearby, and Eric adjusted it for optimal efficiency.

“How was that?” Eric lay next to Donald, carefully rubbing and patting, noting that the body hair was standing straight up, and that the scrotum had completely disappeared.

“Intense. You’ve outdone yourself. And this is great, Eric.” Donald looked up into Eric’s face, awed. “Thank you.”

The shivering had become worse, interestingly, but the session was over. “Here. Get closer.”

Donald pressed as much of his flesh against Eric as he could, and gradually, the spasms became sporadic. Considering a bright red ear, Eric wondered to himself if he’d managed to slow the heart rate, if he’d had the power to have such a profound effect on another human. Controlling a heart. “It’s all over now.”

Donald’s body slowly flushed pink as Mindy observed the action from the dresser opposite.

“God.” Eric pushed Donald away and got up, keeping his back to what had just formed between them both.

“Just another natural reaction, Eric.”

Eric relived a certain hesitation, a delicacy during a diaper change at his sister’s house the year before. Throwing a pillow on Donald’s crotch, he swallowed his curiosity at the bald urgency he’d caught a glimpse of, a little annoyed that at that moment, the hard-on might have more power in the room than he did. At first, he wondered how he could control that, too, with contraptions or perhaps psychological tactics of some kind that might prove to be pleasantly confrontative, in a triptych or video loop, maybe. Then he thought about other ways to conquer the renegade organ. He’d wanted to avoid any salaciousness, but there might be a need to take hundreds of close-ups of Donald’s physical, blunt craving, to reduce it to the helpless flesh it really was.

Eric frowned at Donald’s chest. “But it’s not entirely involuntary.”

Holding the pillow against his crotch, Donald moved off the bed. “More of a surrender. I’m sorry, Eric.” There, at the foot of the bed, he looked down. “Hey, you better throw this thing in the washing machine the second I’m out of here!”

Donald smiled at the dry chuckle he’d extracted from Eric, but it faded too fast. He threw the pillow over Eric’s feet; he was flaccid. “Crisis over! Listen, if I’m late again to work, I’m really going to get fired, so. But I wanted to know if you have any plans for New Year’s Eve.” Donald had been unable to keep his tone natural, and the last sentence hung in the air, a pathetic act.

Eric was instantly disturbed by the breach. This hadn’t been designed to be domestic, social. No matter how his art appeared to others, it was Eric who had truly embraced his own vulnerability in this situation. And he’d come to trust Donald with it completely, as he’d learned that there was no greater trustworthiness than one based on the kind of desperate inequality that fueled their partnership. Just like dressing cats as clowns, pure manipulation was at the heart of this work; and a contamination of insipid familiarity would destroy everything. If Donald’s feelings were as deep as he professed, surely he should appreciate that. But now, penises and parties made Eric almost regret for the first time an experiment that he felt had been clearly prescribed.

Donald spoke first, quicker with nervousness. “I’m sorry. Never mind. Just give me a call if you need me again. This was really inspired. Really.”

He passed into the next room, and Eric realized for the first time that his clothes were slightly damp.

“Eric? Do you have any shoes I can borrow?” No causticity, not even impatience.

Eric remained at the foot of his bed, arms limp at his side. Despite the lurking, unnerving undertones of his own, jack-in-the-box psyche and the occasional, tender window into Donald’s, this was too productive, too ideal to end yet. He hadn’t explored it fully.

Eric picked up the pillow at his feet and pulled its case off. Why, after half a year of fruitful collaboration, would Donald suddenly decide to risk everything on some Doritos-and-canned-salsa party? After all, he knew they were nearing the completion. If anything, Donald should’ve been thanking him for the opportunity to be documented in such an arresting, groundbreaking way, rather than potentially destroying the whole thing with his defect.

THURSDAY

Eric smoothed down the old, gray business suit, vaguely annoyed that it fit him so well. He’d even gone so far as to purchase cufflinks and throw on some trendy cologne he’d found at T.J. Maxx, which still couldn’t drown out the Salvation Army smell of the worsted wool. How could people willingly constrict themselves like this? Why did they want to resemble each other to this extent? After catching a glimpse in his ancient mirror of the shiny tie constricting his neck, Eric decided that this had to be the subtlest form of torture: self-inflicted. He’d even gone so far as to carefully part his hair for the first time in fifteen years. It was all too bourgeois. His mother would have been proud.

Having just used her litter box, Mindy followed Eric to the door.

Donald looked more abject than usual on the doorstep. Eric’s stomach tightened; it was going to be a good session.

“Come in. You look like complete shit, which is absolutely perfect. What the fuck have you done to yourself since yesterday? Actually, don’t answer that. It’s part of the mystery. I don’t want to inform my work to that extent.”

Mindy rubbed against Donald’s ankles while Donald stood at the center of the room and looked at the floor. Eric was once again struck by what a perfect specimen he was for this series. The schlub. Eric’s luck had really turned around in the last year, and some days, he could almost feel fame lapping at his door while he planned the installation at his desk, rearranging the experience for different spaces he had in mind.

And discovering the schlub was at the center of it all.

He handed Donald the costume. “Put this on.” Then as Donald silently did as he was told: “How would you like to be trussed up and hung up-side-down today? And as a special treat, I’m going to be part of the session. I’ll be playing the role of a worker bee from Stamford or New Rochelle or something. A commuter who’s baffled by his existence, yet who continues on, following the rules, doing what’s expected of him, until he dies at fifty-three of a heart attack. You should be flattered; I don’t usually include myself in my own work.”

Donald finished stretching the spangly women’s shorts and tank top with “porn star” on it tautly over his body.

“Oh, and here.”

Donald pulled on the Uggs Eric handed him and became still again.

Eric giggled. “My god, this is absolutely perfect! Totally what I’m looking for. You look horrendous. So, you feel like hanging up-side-down and squirming until your face turns bright red? Answer—”

“No.”

Eric froze. Donald’s response was different than usual, plaintive. Every other time, he’d sounded eager to please; now, he sounded eager for mercy. Eric considered the change and was delighted to predict that Donald would be doing even more desperate squirming than he’d dared hope for.

But then Donald did something else he’d never done before. He lifted his eyes and looked at the images of himself crowded into the apartment: the huge painting of his torso covered in crickets; the pictures of his forehead before and after Eric had shaved off his left eyebrow; the mannequin carefully papier-mâchéd over with the giant photo of his nude body.

Now Eric was annoyed. “Well, my dear sir, that’s your—as they say—tough shit. Get in here.”

Donald followed him into his study, which had been cleared of the furniture and the tipping stacks of Donald artwork. In their place was a rusting children’s swing set, although heavy chains hung where the swings used to. Opposite, Eric’s best camera and lights were trained on the scene.

Donald gave the set-up only a cursory glance. Where was the usual awe, the keenness?

Eric refused to acknowledge the shift: “I’m going to be a pedophile at the park, feeling my young victim up while I push her on the swing set. You’re going to be up-side-down for a while. You may pass out, I don’t know. Does that frighten you?”

Donald lifted his face to Eric, beseeching, and Eric’s ogle passed away. He crossed his arms, willing himself to breathe. The room was suddenly stuffy and smelled of cat piss.

“Get over there.” But Eric sounded squeaky.

Donald moved in front of the chains. The shorts were so tight that a testicle was now visible, but instead of delighting in this detail, Eric found himself wanting to look away. Things were quickly unraveling.

He’d carefully designed the swing set contraption and even tried it on himself, but Donald was much bigger and heavier, so that when Eric trussed him up and pulled the chains that would invert him, they bound at the top of the now creaking frame, leaving Donald only horizontal.

“God damn it! Don’t move.” As Donald swayed randomly with his breathing, Eric did his best to free the chains. He’d spent too much of his time on this project to let it beat him, even if it suddenly felt as if its artistic validity had been completely drained.

“If I don’t get this fucking thing working, I might just shoot you with your balls hanging out like that. You look idiotic!” The harder he pulled on the chain now, the more Eric tittered, the muscles in his chest and throat contracting, the air being rhythmically pushed up and choked down.

“Fuck this! You’re too fucking fat!”

The swing set’s top beam collapsed, and Donald landed heavily on top of the pile of chains beneath him. His legs immediately started scrambling like an injured animal’s, but the Uggs wouldn’t cooperate, so it took him a moment to shift his position. His grunting finally caused Eric to tear himself away from the camera and approach him, but not before he’d gotten a couple of potential keepers of Donald struggling and grimacing. After all, Eric had been an artist long enough to know that sometimes, one has to surrender one’s plans to the will of art and just roll with the bitch. The whole thing might still be salvageable.

He pulled Donald up, who had clearly injured his chest, and although he wanted to punish him, Eric mildly remarked, “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Donald’s face was now animated with pain, his teeth bared above the “porn star” t-shirt in such a way that Eric was tempted to take a few more shots. But something about Donald’s flashing manner warned him not to.

“Why don’t we get you onto the bed, and I’ll take a look.”

Donald held himself farther away from Eric than seemed Donald-like as they shuffled out, and Eric told himself that it was the pain. As he helped Donald gently pull off the t-shirt, a series of bright pink welts presented themselves—something that he would never have gone for, exactly, but something he couldn’t pass up now that it was right in front of him.

“Wow. Do you think you broke any ribs?”

“I don’t know.”

Eric could feel Donald’s eyes on him and was suddenly enraged when he felt his face flush. “Listen, if you’re going to start breaking the rules with this whole deal, then we’re ending it! We’re both getting something out of this, capiche?”

Donald looked away and lay quietly down.

“Now, hold still. I’m sorry, but this is too good not to get on film. Okay?”

Donald’s breathing slowed down as he rearranged the shorts.

“Okay?!”

“Yes.”

Eric found that after he left to retrieve his camera, there was a dread that now clung to their situation, their “partnership,” and he didn’t want to return to his own bedroom. Something fundamental had changed between this session and the one just a day earlier, and his mind rushed through ways to make sense of the situation, hopefully to salvage it. Donald had never wanted anything before, never expected anything. But this was a betrayal, and the one thing that Eric never excused was a betrayal.

When he was eleven years old and just before his mother moved out, it was the same thing with the dining room. The three of them always had dinner together, and even though it was clear that his parents were trying so hard for him, the time he spent in that room was like a lie he told to himself. He could still feel the strain on his facial muscles, forcing pleasant expressions that originated in shame, his eyes manically trained on some of the world’s most boring foods: gray pork chops, burnt chili, stringy chicken. Nothing was ever prepared with enough salt, and their crystals coating everything was usually the only thing he could remember about those meals after leaving the table and retreating to his video games upstairs. The salt, catching the light at crystalline edges one moment and dissolving into coagulated gravy the next. His parents had done that to him.

Twenty years later, Eric had a lot of unusual items in his apartment: dozens of internet-sex-catalog oddities; exquisite, handmade, ethnic plunder; friends’ shocking, brilliant artwork. He had a six-foot, foam-core pickle that recited a Hitler speech when you plugged it in.

But he didn’t have a salt shaker.

As Eric stared at the door to his bedroom, refusing to allow Donald the upper hand, he began to wonder if maybe the whole project wasn’t a bit too derivative, predictable in its desire to shock by figuratively raping the middle class. The whole thing suddenly seemed pretentious, over-reaching, and it was only the building, clenching rage at his subject that drove him back in.

Donald’s chest was worse, but the bruising now looked to Eric like something private, something suffered alone and modestly. Even his bedroom felt like it didn’t belong to him, anymore.

He put the camera down on his dresser and closed his eyes on the scene. The violated schoolgirl concept was at the center of his installation.

“All right. What the fuck happened? You know, I can sense that you’re not participating. And none of this shit works for me if you’re not participating.”

“Why me, Eric?”

Now Eric found himself avoiding Donald’s pleading gaze, and his anger at this new subversion screamed up from his guts, joining all the other causes of his fury that re-emerged and multiplied whenever he was thrust into this kind of shit. He could feel his face contorting uncontrollably, the same ugliness of a grown man about to cry, but without the possibility of inspiring pity. Nonetheless, he wanted Donald to see this; he could be naked, too.

“Because you’re free and you’re utterly nothing! And because you’ve always begged for it, at least up to now. So maybe the real question is: why me, Donald? Really, do you even have a clue how to answer that? Do you have a clue how important this is to me? Have you ever really given a shit about it? Because I’m not the one who approached you. I’m not the one that worked out this whole deal. That was all you, buddy. So now, to find you all of a sudden looking at me like I’m some kind of freak is not only unfair, it’s also proof that you don’t know the first fucking thing about what you call love! And I can’t fucking stand hypocrites—you should have at least worked that one out by now.”

Donald almost sounded surprised by it himself: “I still love you.”

“And I don’t love you. So I don’t have to put up with any of this shit. I just don’t! I don’t even know you, and I don’t want to. I already know too much. And you don’t know me, so don’t presume that just because you say I’m so important to you and that my success with this project is, too, that it has any impact on me, whatsoever.”

The detached evaluation Donald performed on Eric was the worst affront yet, but Eric declined to rise to the bait.

Once again, the aching supplication: “So what do you think I feel for you? Eric, please, I—”

“I want you to leave now.”

Donald got slowly up, the comforter gathering in his clenched hands. Eric had never dared attempt to inflict this particular kind of pain on his subject because he’d been worried he’d walk, but now that it was here, he had to capture it, Uggs and all. It was also a suitably brutal response to Donald’s questions, his shift in attitude, and Eric reveled in the rawness of his power. The camera flicked away, documenting Donald’s winces, his eyes slightly crossed from the effort to move. He held his torso so stiffly that the tortured sculptures on and around Eric’s bureau were an eloquent echo of Donald’s suffering. As he photographed, Eric realized that this suffering could never have reached the level it had without Donald’s sudden emotional turmoil, and he found himself relaxing into a gladness of it. Even if he never saw Donald again, he had this, and this was new, a nice addition. In fact, the submissive, desperate nature present in all of Donald’s other images, Eric was now beginning to realize, limited their impact. Willing victim was suddenly too one-note. He began to wonder if the project wasn’t worth the effort after all.

“How would you feel about me coming to your party and humiliating you there? Bringing all our work—a trial run of the show? For all your people to see? I wonder what they’d think about you, then. Capturing their reactions would finish off my project nicely. Do you love me enough to let me do that to you?”

Donald continued toward his pile of clothing silently. He removed the shorts with his back to Eric, but Eric grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, the graphic injuries a nice contrast to the paleness of the thighs and bound to look fantastic in black-and-white.

Finally, after getting most of his clothing on, Donald posed his own question, the tone of his voice better suited to the subject of chess or microbiology. “What do you feel about me?”

“I don’t answer questions, buddy, I ask them. I’m going to humiliate you at your party. Look at the camera lens and tell me how that will make you feel.”

A sentiment Eric never thought he’d see flower on Donald’s face: the smooth brow and pressed lips of an academic detachment.

“I’ll see you then.”

Austin remembered the very second he stopped caring. He’d seen his cellmate beaten up for what had to be the twentieth time that month, and he actually felt a physical shift inside of himself, two monolithic stones scraping by one another, one coming and one going. The one going was the one that cared, and the one inside him now was blissfully hollow, free of needless, and therefore dangerous, things. It struck him now that they were both just stones, and one worked just as well as the other to mill things into dust.

His next concern was just dinner, and after that, just rec time and then just lights out. Just a single line of duties to manage, one at a time; just one, single life to live.


 

 

 

 

 

BRAD

MONDAY

Brad waited the full twenty minutes before going next door to their stuffy office: 9:22 to 9:42. He wasn’t planning on going the exact moment the clock hit 9:42, but he finished reformatting the spreadsheet he was working on at the same time and didn’t see a point in starting on the next step. It didn’t have to be twenty minutes, either, because that might be a pattern people would start to notice if they became suspicious at all.

In the corridor, Brad considered alternatives: first fifteen minutes, then the next day maybe twenty minutes, then fourteen and nineteen, then thirteen and eighteen. But he’d lose track too quickly of the waiting period that way, even though he didn’t really even need a waiting period, as such. Maybe he could tie it to a random event, like the first phone call after Donald arrived, or the first bird he saw in the tree near his window. Or maybe not the first, but the fifth. But there were a lot of birds, so maybe the first time he saw two birds together. Actually in the tree.

Stacy had her back turned when Brad entered, so he could smile at the top of Donald’s head. The bright sunlight that was reflected off the snow outside passed under Donald’s thin patch and glowed on his shiny scalp.

“You really have to start showing up on time, Donald.”

Stacy turned back and took a pencil out of her mouth. “An old guy slipped and fell.”

“Of course, he did. Can I—? For a second—?” Brad motioned to the door.

Donald rose and smiled broadly. “Okay, Brad.”

Brad led, his mind focused exclusively on his ears, on noises that might determine what he’d do next. There was nothing else to think about. Everyone remained in their workspaces behind closed doors, so he continued down the short hall to the men’s room, and Donald followed. They’d just remodeled the bathroom, and it was all black tile now, with strange, indirect fluorescent lighting that always reminded Brad of somewhere. Maybe the morgue, only with more vertical shadows. Designed to draw attention away from unsightly stains.

The room was empty, so Brad backed into a corner behind the door near the paper towel dispenser. They had time to separate and recover back there if someone came in.

Closing his eyes, Brad soon had his face buried in Donald’s shoulder, his hands grasping at Donald’s shoulder blades. Perfectly silent, they hugged until footsteps echoed in the hall, and Brad quickly disengaged. He didn’t look at Donald; rather, he kept his left arm pressed against Donald’s right until the footsteps moved into an office.

He didn’t want to say it. Donald didn’t want to hear it. But there was only so much weirdness a guy could take: “So I guess maybe we should head, you know, back to the slog, as it were.”

Donald shrugged, nodding, but then faltered, the shadows of the room taking over more of his face. “You know, Brad, if you ever want to ask me about anything at all, I’ll be totally honest—”

“Shh, shh, shh! No, no, no! Go. Go! It’s echoey in here. People don’t have conversations in the bathroom.”

“So you do want to have a conversation?”

“Just go, go, go!”

Donald frowned and left the bathroom first, as was the custom. Brad could only concentrate on counting to thirty-five because everything else in his brain was melted, and then he passed into the hall, flushed and loose. Back in the white space of everyone else, he could manage only to promise himself that he would reconsider the usefulness of the thirty-five-second rule later, once the real world seemed important again.

*          *          *

Brad hadn’t thought about Donald’s question when he returned to his desk, and he hadn’t thought about it when he took a break and had a granola bar. He hadn’t thought about it when he really did go to the bathroom—even though he’d been in the very room where the question was asked—and he hadn’t thought about it when he went to lunch and had a burger with a huge red onion that lingered on his breath and hands and made him wonder why anyone would care enough about somebody like him to ever ask a question like that in the first place. He had fat, stubby fingers that almost wanted to reek of onion.

In fact, he hadn’t thought about anything except the new contracts for the hourly workers until Elizabeth dropped the kids off at the office that afternoon. She was going to spend the night with her sister in Secaucus, who had just had a miscarriage, and the last thing she’d want around, Elizabeth had said, was the kids.

Only then had Brad had his first thought since Donald’s question that wasn’t work-related: the last thing he wanted around was the kids at work. And he only realized why when the kids had run into Donald and Stacy’s office. Brad had raced in after them, his lips pressed against each other by the force of his furrowed forehead.

“Hey, guys. Come on now. Come back to my office, okay?”

“It’s no biggie, Brad!” Stacy shook her perm in dismissal.

But Donald had frozen, his eyes glazed over and glowing from the light of his monitor. He looked terrified of Cooper and Emma’s presence.

If Brad had instinctively felt that it wasn’t a good idea to mix his work life and his home life together, Donald’s disturbing reaction cemented the conviction.

Brad moved aggressively toward his children, who responded by staring, confused, up into his eyes. “Come on. Let’s let them work. Sorry, guys.”

He grabbed their hands and swiftly left Stacy and Donald’s office, disturbed by what he’d witnessed there, yet relieved to have the kids’ hyperactive antics to occupy his mind for the rest of the day.

TUESDAY

Of course, Brad knew the gentle knock. He swallowed down a little stomach acid that had suddenly sprung up as he reviewed all the tumultuous consideration he’d given the question, mostly the night before, staring at the digital clock on his bed stand. Every time a number changed, and especially when two—or even three—numbers changed, he felt his resolve click, stronger and stronger: too much knowledge about Donald would destroy what they had. On no account would he ask questions of any kind.

“Who is it?” Brad tried to relax his forehead as Donald entered. “Oh, hi, Donald. Close the door, would you?”

Donald did as he was told and sat down. “I’m so sorry I’m late, Brad.”

Brad was suddenly up. “‘I’m sorry I’m late again,’ maybe?”

“You’re really upset. And that’s the last thing I ever want to do.”

Brad paced behind his desk, rubbing his chair, touching the window blinds. “Donald! Look, I know that you always have legitimate reasons, somehow—”

“And that’s what I wanted to talk with you about—”

“I’m not asking!” Brad sputtered out a humorless laugh. “All that, or whatever, is all your business. This is a work environment. So I’m sure you can see where I’m coming from.”

“Of course, I do. Would it make it easier for you if I quit? We could still—”

“Easier?! Of course, it would! I don’t think you’ve ever even worked a forty-hour week the whole time you’ve been here!” Brad stroked the back of his chair, almost tenderly, as he finally noticed that Donald’s eyes were red, as if he’d been crying and might soon again. Brad never thought that in his life, he’d want to embrace someone and punch them so much at the same time. It was insane. Then he noticed that he more or less wanted to do the same thing to himself. And when Brad added these two reactions up, the result was his relationship with this situation, which he’d been concurrently needing and hating for almost a year.

He used to think of himself as a great manager. That was gone. But he also had begun to think of himself as ultimately alone, and that was gone, too. Because the last few years with Elizabeth had been like gradually losing sight of land.

If anything, the big news for Brad was that nothing worth anything is ever easy.

“Of course, it wouldn’t be easier.” Brad sat back down and studied Donald’s broad, sweater-clad chest. “Elizabeth wants to go back to school for her MBA because ‘I’m not really moving ahead here.’ Not like she was expecting, anyway. And I was, too, I guess.” The wool was gray-green and reminded Brad of his grandfather. “I know I’ll feel even more of a failure if the kids are stuck with some babysitter. Someone who only wants to be around them because they’re getting paid. Kids sense those kinds of things. And I know they only have one childhood. It’s such a weight on my mind.”

“Of course, it is.”

Brad shrugged. “And I know that if I told Elizabeth my feelings, she’d just tell me to pick a nanny who could teach the kids piano.”

Donald squirmed in his chair now, his face contorting with one of his shades of pain. “I’ll just stay late every night. Maybe I can stay on top of things that way. Will that make things easier for you?”

Brad imagined the sweater vibrating along with Donald’s deep voice. The wool would be scratchy and cool against his cheek.

“I appreciate that, Donald, I really do. But your job really requires you to be around when the rest of us are. You know that.”

“What can I do?” Donald leaned forward, his right hand strangling his left wrist.

Brad wanted to strangle that wrist, too. Where had it come from? Why wasn’t it like every other wrist on the planet? And why had it landed here, in the middle of this particular office in Montclair, New Jersey?

“What am I supposed to do if you’re not here? Come in every day and what? What?!” Brad pulled a sheet of paper out of his top drawer. He’d filled it out a month ago, and it was a replacement for one he’d filled out four months earlier. “I need you to sign this written warning. Too many people know that this should have been done a long time ago. The next time, you’ll be let go.”

Donald sat back, nodded and shrugged. “You’re doing the right thing. You always do the right thing.”

Brad looked down at his desk. The useless paperwork that dominated his existence only exacerbated the sudden frustration. “I never do the right thing.”

“You do, and someday you’ll appreciate it. I just wish you did, now.”

“Donald! Don’t. Please!”

Donald quickly signed the document without looking at it. “And we could still—”

“No, we can’t! What, meet up once every couple of weeks when Elizabeth lets me out of the house?!”

Now Donald did start to cry. It seemed like such a common process to him that he didn’t even notice it, and this caused Brad to take a deep breath in an effort to regroup, which merely caught on a sob of his own. He attempted to control it by holding his breath.

This was a workplace, not a talk show.

“Brad. You deserve more than this. I know that. You deserve someone who’s there for you twenty-four hours a day and can appreciate everything about you. Because it is everything. All of you. But I can’t—”

“Please! Donald, please.”

Donald ducked his head then looked expectantly at Brad, his face glistening and ravaged.

But there was a seam that ran along the shoulder of his sweater. Brad quickly walked around his desk and embraced his friend, lining the seam up with his jawbone and gently rubbing back and forth over it. Its hardness was just as comforting as Brad predicted.

The worry that was to come—the replay of the meeting, with two grown men hugging and crying about something that wasn’t even clear to Brad, at least not in his brain—all of that dropped and became still for the insignificant future as he stood so, so close to Donald.

“You don’t deserve this.”

WEDNESDAY

Brad was sketching a unicorn on the corner of his desk blotter, which he had long and silently considered his signature creature. When he was ten, he had seen a horse outside of Lexington who appeared to have some sort of light brown horn, and he looked away before the mirage was torn apart. The horse was far away, at the edge of a stand of trees and had a bandage on its right rear knee. His father had driven by on the way to the Sears Tire Center. The bandage made Brad wonder how people could know about a unicorn and not share it with the world. It was the kind of question that he was now sad to realize was exterminated by adulthood.

Brad had been sketching unicorns ever since. His wife had noticed early on and made a wry comment, never verbalizing again but only turning her face away each time she saw another one. He wasn’t ashamed exactly, but over the years, his desire to doodle at home retreated. This had been replaced by coping mechanisms, conciliatory gestures and unspoken resentments that never exactly went away, but instead stacked up in neat categories, providing each other with structure and support so that when a new one was laid atop, it was nearer the surface, closer to popping. Sometimes Brad imagined lancing them all at once and forcing his wife to swallow their contents, but then he thought of how she looked when she was sleeping, demanding nothing, relaxed and defenseless, and he became ashamed of himself.

Today, he was sketching a white unicorn with a black mane and tail when there was the knock on his door.

“Come in.”

Donald entered, closed the door behind him and stood expectantly next to the desk. Brad immediately noticed he was wearing a pair of hi-tech sneakers and swallowed a snicker.

“Who gave you those?”

“My other shoes were damaged. These are actually really comfortable.”

“And two sizes too small, I bet.”

“You don’t miss anything, do you.” As he said this, Donald lifted his arm in Brad’s direction, but let it fall back. Brad moved his hands to his lap away from his unicorn, and Donald’s eyes welled up as he stared at the blotter.

In a way, Brad was glad for whatever was about to happen because he just couldn’t do this, anymore.

“How’s your family?”

“Good. Fine.” Brad felt his own eyes stinging.

“So I have two things I wanted to talk with you about, if you have time.”

“Okay.”

“First, I’d like to invite you to a New Year’s party I’m having on Sunday night.” Donald froze in expectance.

“Oh.”

“Stacy is even helping me set it up at Rascal’s.”

“Rascal’s?” Brad was glad that the conversation was so unexpected because his dread subsided immediately.

“It would mean so much to me if you could meet my other friends, Brad.”

A different kind of dread sunk into Brad’s chest. Other. With no thoughts to speak of, Brad picked up his ruler and used it to surgically remove the unicorn from its corner of the blotter. “We’re actually going to our friends’ house, the Kriegs. We already, you know, set it up.” He threw the unicorn into the trash next to an empty bag of Bugles. They almost looked like fat unicorn horns, and he wondered if that’s why he liked them so much.

“Oh, that’s sounds great.” Donald’s voice was cracking, and Brad continued to consider snack shapes in his wastepaper basket.

“God, I’m so stupid about things! I’m sorry. Of course you’ve got plans. It’s just that I really need—”

“So. So, others. Is it the same?”

“No.”

“Do you talk about me?”

“No.”

“Am I… well. That’s all right.”

“Brad—”

“That’s okay. That’s all right. That’s really okay.”

Donald sighed unevenly. His hand was vacantly stroking the edge of the desk.

“Donald, what was the other thing.”

“I was wondering.” Donald paused in an attempt to even his voice out. “I was wondering if I could get out of here a little early today.”

It was like breaking a dowel in his hand, the exact same painful shock of vibration. And with it, Brad could no longer ignore that he wasn’t built for this. If there were tools or rules that he’d grown up with, but there was nothing. Twenty-first Century America offered a lot of maps, but not for whatever it was they shared. At least this wasn’t his fault, and it was actually a relief that he would no longer feel that it would have to be, somehow.

Still, Brad couldn’t keep the frustration from being the first emotion he expressed. “You can’t do that.”

Donald remained still, sniffling back his tears.

“Donald, please. Not for me, but for the job. I mean, what on earth is so important?”

“I—”

“No, don’t tell me. You don’t have to tell me.”

“You know, I’m thinking that maybe working from home might be a better way for all of this.”

Perhaps it wasn’t that strange that Brad had only recently started wondering about Donald’s life outside of work—after all, they’d both avoided discussing anything remotely personal about him. Of course, Brad had told Donald all about Elizabeth, all about the snowball of refusals, so light and inconsequential at the beginning, that had become so grievous and momentous lately. Only the day before, he’d realized that she consistently seated the kids between them at the movie theater.

Brad’s chest ached: he’d never be able to tell this to someone who would understand now, someone who’d shared in the gradual accretion of his marriage—and who was so remarkably concerned with it.

“Brad, we can still—”

“Still what? We work together. It’s not on purpose. It’s just the way we are, here. Outside of here, I mean, maybe you want more—”

“No! You know I only want what we have.”

Brad found himself smiling, nodding. “I know. Me, too! It’s just a little weird, you know? And I’m not a weird guy. I’m sorry, but I guess it couldn’t just stay the same.”

This was going to be the last time. It had to be. Brad was surprised at how good the hug felt, considering the circumstances. It must be electric; it felt just like they were swapping electrons. Brad knew that when he’d pull away, much, much later, he’d smell Donald on his clothing, that this must be atoms from Donald’s warm body, and perhaps some of these atoms would slip into his pores and might be with him when he lost their originator for good.

But Brad was the one who was going to be lost. He had no others. He hadn’t swapped electrons with anyone besides Donald for a long while, and he may never again. The shock of this made him start to fiercely rework things in his mind to try and concoct a formula that might work, even while Donald rubbed a small circle on the back side of his heart. Brad knew he should just be focused on experiencing, but he couldn’t help himself. And now, his desperation was going to ruin the last time.

His heart. The back side of his heart. And then Brad became aware of Donald’s heart beating. Donald was a broad, thick man, and beside the considerable mass of his chest, there were several layers of clothing, too, between them. But there it was, and this was the first time that Brad had ever felt it. It was fast and strong, almost explosive between them, and probably only noticeable because of all the weight Donald had been losing lately. He was definitely bonier. As Brad wondered if his heart felt the same to Donald, he completely understood for the first time that this man was just as invested in the situation as he was, maybe even more so.

Their shoulders were damp now, but Brad didn’t care. “How can you feel more than I do?” This was it; this was the end.

Donald hugged more tightly, tremor-ridden. “I don’t know.”

THURSDAY

Brad imagined what it must look like: the split-level at the end of the street. Small but surrounded by an expanse of what would soon again be a lush lawn, Christmas decorations rustling in the morning wind, a terribly elegant wreath that Elizabeth had picked out six months earlier on the bright red front door.

When he opened it, Brad could feel the artificially developed pine odor rushing out into the sun. He hadn’t even been able to make it for a full twenty-four hours: “Donald.”

Now that Donald was finally here, Brad felt his house bearing down on him, the sky pressing the air out of his lungs. He looked over Donald’s shoulder at a car pulling away, Shara Delvecchio driving her mother to adult day care. “Why don’t you come on in.”

As soon as the door was closed, the room was plunged into stifling murkiness, the only really clear items being the white felt beneath the Christmas tree in the corner and the white spray snow that had been over-applied at its base. Glass hutch doors shuddered in response to the men’s movement, the delicate sound echoing off shiny laminate floors. Now that the door was closed on Brad’s neighborhood, the whole thing seemed a little more hopeful.

“Thanks for coming.” No one was in the house. “I mean, is this all right?”

“Of course, it’s all right! It’s great. It’s great to see you again, Brad.”

The men stood in the small foyer, Brad aware of the new mahogany table behind Donald and the proximity of his coat zipper to its reflective surface. Then Brad sunk into the thought of what was underneath the jacket, the quiet, enduring humanity.

“Can I take your coat?”

Donald smiled as he removed his muffler and rustled his Gortex off. He seemed smaller here, somehow. Underneath everything was another one of his expansive sweaters, beige with rust flecks. Brad became aware of his own heartbeat at his neck and wrists as he hung the coat up in the closet, his mind beginning to swim and to drain.

When he turned back to his guest, Donald had moved a little closer. Brad plunged himself into the man’s chest and buried his nose in his neck, searching for Donald’s smell of pumpkin and motor oil and quickly detecting it. He savored the heartbeat, felt their undulations of breath, which moved closer, became one, moved apart. He became aware of their feet, their shoes, which were pressed up against each other, too. He resented the fact that this was taking place in the center of his home, but he had to do this. Over the course of his life, he’d learned how to compromise, and he’d come to accept that compromise was just one of the consequences for the uncreative. He was fine with that, now. He was fine with everything.

Uncharacteristically, Donald was the first to loosen his hold. Brad dropped his arms in surprise.

“I’m a little… Can I sit down for a second? Sorry.”

“Oh, god. Sure.” Brad walked into the kitchen and indicated the nearest, backless stool at the counter. The things were uncomfortable after a few minutes, and Brad wanted Donald upright again soon.

“Would you like something to eat or drink?” Donald’s eyelids were gray, the lines around his nose and mouth deeper, unless it was the passionless northern light from the nearby window.

“That would be wonderful, thanks! Whatever you’ve got is fine with me. I’ve just been feeling, you know—”

“You look tired.” The refrigerator was empty of most everything but condiments. And thank god of it, because shopping would keep Elizabeth and the kids away for a long time. “I don’t have a lot, right now.”

“Oh. Well, I’ll grab something later.”

“Maybe there’s some soup.” Brad knew there wasn’t, but he needed some time to think about the next few minutes. It was just them, now. No immediate reason to part, no work issues to fill in the cracks of awkwardness that constantly shot through this thing, whatever it was.

Brad shut the pantry door and swung around at Donald, who was in his private space, now, who was from this moment a much bigger part of his life. “So what is this? I mean, what do we do?” He laughed in spite of himself. “You know? I feel like I’m cheating on my wife, for Christ’s sake! I am cheating, in a way! I’m supposed to be doing this with her. I guess. Or maybe not this, exactly, but you know. It was one thing at work. I could tell myself that it was like some kind of weird work relationship or something. But the thing is, she can’t do it! We never—it’s always been something different. She’s a regular person; she only cares about me so much. I mean, why are you here?”

“I know how difficult things have been for you, Brad, and I want to make things better however I can.”

“But why?” Brad felt behind him on the counter, eventually grabbing the little air purifier. “What’s so bad in my life? You know?” He had the pack in his pocket, and he lit a cigarette on the stove, bending over so that all the smoke was immediately processed by the tiny, whirring fan. “It’s not that bad.”

“I guess I don’t know.”

“And why are you even bothering? I mean, do you actually know what the reason is? Because I don’t.”

“There are lots of reasons.” Donald seemed to hold his breath.

“But you hardly know me! I mean, work and everything. But not really. They can’t be, you know, particularly realistic, these reasons. Accurate.”

“Well, you might not want to hear all of them.”

Brad inhaled a great wave of nicotine. “Try me.”

“You’re funny, but the kind of funny that most people aren’t. You don’t even know you’re being funny, or if you do, I can’t tell.”

“I’m not funny.” Brad put his face right up to the purifier and felt the smoke being pulled out of his nose. It was more pleasurable than he would have thought. He may have purred a little.

Donald chuckled behind him. “You see? That’s funny. And you’re so helpless, sometimes. How else would someone feel about a person who’s so thoughtful and caring, but who just needs a little break, once in a while? And I know you don’t want to hear this, but your wavy hair—”

“You’re right; I don’t want to hear this.” Brad turned on the faucet and carefully dumped a load of ash into the sewer system.

Then he looked frankly into Donald’s eyes. He wasn’t lying, and there was more there, too. It was precisely why the situation was so uncomfortable: Donald couldn’t or didn’t hide things.

If it hadn’t have been for that, the two men wouldn’t be facing one another in Brad’s kitchen. But Brad still had no idea if that was a good thing or a bad one.

“So, these others. What’s that all about?”

Donald looked out the kitchen window. For the first time ever, he didn’t seem as if he wanted to give Brad what he needed, and Brad was immediately glad that he wasn’t going to get an answer. He didn’t really want to know, it was just that he couldn’t go on without asking the question that had always been there, waiting. Not if they were going to move it outside the office, this whole strange thing.

But then, Donald stretched out his arm toward Brad on the counter. He looked terrified, and Brad’s stomach plunged from the possibilities.

“Brad. I’m different from most people.”

Brad had to turn away, so he filled the purifier with another lungful.

“I fall in love with everyone I see.”

There. It was only a surprise in that he’d finally said it, the words settling in the kitchen like ash. Brad wasn’t special at all.

“And once I have, it never goes away.”

Brad was an accident; their whole thing was just one of hundreds of things. Hundreds of strangers got the same treatment, or maybe better.

“No wonder you can’t hold down a job!” Brad fumbled with his cigarette, his face hot. He was determined not to let Donald know how hurt he was. Probably everyone else made a scene; he didn’t want to be more like them than he was, already. Just one of the crowd of pathetic, desperate losers, that they would let this happen to themselves, let Donald add them to his list.

“I haven’t been telling people because all it does is make them feel bad. Or maybe they think that I don’t really love them. But I do.”

“Well, don’t worry about me! I’m relieved, to be honest. Takes a lot of the pressure off! And now, you know, we can end this thing, which has gotten way too weird for me now, and I’ll know that, you know, you’ve got a bunch of other people, so it won’t be such a big deal for you.”

Donald looked at his lap, clearly working up one of his crying fits again. But it was all his own fault! Brad didn’t go around hugging his employees; he hadn’t started it! And he didn’t love Donald! He’d never said that he loved him!

“It would be a big deal for me, Brad.”

“And the New Year’s party…”

“I wanted everyone to meet you.”

“But really… Really you wanted everyone to meet everyone. You wanted me to meet everyone. Wow. You’re a little crazy, aren’t you.”

Donald lifted his face to Brad, to the window behind him, and revealed a massive wound. Brad needed him out of the house, needed time to process all of this, but he mostly needed a hug more than he’d ever needed one before.

 

Sergei promised himself it would be the last time, the night literally falling on the city, the kind of winter night that blows hell right into your bones. This would be the last time he would look for her. His mother had probably wandered down into the park, but there was always the slight possibility that she’d shuffled over to the much more dangerous Chaykovskogo, and he struggled with the same problem he always did: which first? Greater chance and less danger? Greater danger but less chance? No matter; this would be the last time he would ask himself this question because it forced him to admit that luck had such a stranglehold on his life. He hated this admission as much as he did his heart beat, which only ever reminded him how simply it could cease.

So next time, it would be his mother’s luck that would matter, not his. Next time, he’d stay by the stove and drink tea while he did his crossword, and fate could take the blame.

 

Then Brad heard the extremely distinct, raspy sound of Elizabeth’s brakes.

“Holy shit.” Brad threw the cigarette down the sink and turned on the garbage disposal, pouring a large amount of dishwashing liquid in after it. He then looked at the expensive bottle in his hand, which had been mostly emptied. “Shit!”

Grabbing Donald’s soft sweater, he pulled him to the French doors behind Elizabeth’s grandmother’s dining room set. “Wait out here for a second. And, you know, hide. Move away from the door a little. Just for a minute.”

Brad raced back to the kitchen and turned the faucet on. Remarkably quickly, the sink filled up with bubbles, and the more he tried to wash them down the drain, the more were produced. Through the window, he couldn’t see Donald at all, but Roberta Sachow and her ten-year-old son, Eli, were waltzing in their family room across the back yards, their mouths counting out the steps. They actually weren’t that bad.

“What are you doing?” Elizabeth was right behind him.

“Oh, hey. I just, I guess I used too much and it went wild on me!”

She looked at the nearly empty bottle but said nothing. “The kids forgot to bring their recycling.”

“Oh.”

“I smell cigarette smoke.”

“You can?”

“Is it a stupid rule? Do you think it’s a stupid rule?”

“No! It’s just that I had a friend over, and I forgot to mention it to him.”

“You had a friend over. We’ve been gone ten minutes. What friend.”

“Not a friend. A guy from work.”

“He came and left in ten minutes.”

“It was a work thing.”

“And he had time to smoke.”

“I had to fire him.”

“What, like a firing squad? Did you blindfold him, too?”

Now, Elizabeth laughed, and it was a hard laugh, but it still seemed like maybe there was a bit of affection underneath. Brad wasn’t sure.

As soon as he joined her, she stopped. She was staring over his shoulder.

Brad turned. Donald was waltzing by himself across the deck, smiling at the mother and boy in the other house. He was counting, too, like some kind of dashing clown. As soon as Roberta saw him, she stopped, waved awkwardly and slowly closed her curtains. He looked drunk and was even stumbling a bit, his horizontal plane tilting.

Elizabeth approached the French doors, determined, while Brad trailed her, wondering how it could have happened so fast for Donald. Roberta was awkward and a bore. But did that even matter?

When Elizabeth stepped out on the deck, Donald turned, his face drained of most of its color, and lurched forward, sitting hard on the deck and smiling apologetically.

“Sorry.”

*          *          *

Brad stood over the kitchen sink, watching water run down the drain. Nothing was ever going to be the same, but if he told Elizabeth about it, maybe she’d understand. Maybe she hadn’t understood for years because he hadn’t told her anything for years. Basically because he hadn’t had anything to tell her for years. And after all, it wasn’t an affair because he never loved Donald—or anything else like that. Brad hugged his own mother, for Christ’s sake. There wasn’t anything wrong with that.

“What are you doing?”

He turned off the faucet and faced his wife. She only looked resentful. “Oh. How is he doing?”

“How could you leave him out there? Without a coat? Am I really that much of a bitch?”

“I don’t know. I panicked.”

“So I am that much of a bitch. Nice to know.” She came up closer to him. “Well, I guess since I’m such a bitch, I should ask why, if he was the one who was smoking, why he doesn’t smell like smoke, and you do.”

“Well. We both were.”

“But you felt like you had to blame him?” She dropped her voice. “I know I’m not that bad.” She searched his face for a better explanation, and in response, he picked up the air purifier.

“It’s like I’m in prison in my own house, Elizabeth.”

She never altered her glare for an instant. “I don’t want to get into it. The kids are going to be coming down in a minute.”

*          *          *

The china tinkled with Brad’s entrance into the living room, and Elizabeth rose placidly from her chair. She pulled some hand cream from the table behind her, and expertly worked it into her skin and over her subtle manicure. “So Donald seems like he’s doing a bit better, Brad.”

Donald was lying on the couch, smiling vaguely at the ceiling. He didn’t look better.

Brad nodded awkwardly and stood as far as the room would allow from Elizabeth and Donald. He was never going to see Donald again—certainly never with his other people at some party—and he was never, ever going to explain any of this to Elizabeth. Let her go crazy wondering.

“Oh, that’s great. Yeah, you know, I’m really sorry about all this, Donald.” He pulled a cigarette packet out of the front pocket of his pants and fished for his next one. “Sometimes I get a little crazy with this one!” He pointed the cigarette at Elizabeth. “It’s not her, though, it’s—”

“What are you doing?” Elizabeth put the hand lotion away, now that the entire room smelled overwhelmingly of rose petals.

Brad looked down at the cigarette in his hand and laughed. “You see what I’m saying? You see?!”

“Kids?!” Elizabeth’s raised voice caused Brad’s smile to falter. “We have to go. It was nice meeting you, Donald.” She looked down an instant at the cigarette in Brad’s hand. “Maybe next time we’ll talk more about yoga.” She turned her head toward the stairs to her left, and Brad understood just how much she wished she was out of this situation. “You know, I’m at my class every weekday at ten at The New Day Studios. They’ve got some great instructors over there.”

Brad carefully replaced his cigarette as Elizabeth passed from the room, her quick, purposeful stride an open contrast to the prone guest and slouching husband. “Kids!”

Brad dropped into the chair next to Donald and rubbed his face. Now, he was even whispering: “What the hell were you doing, dancing out there? I told you to hide! She can tell that something weird was going on.”

Donald inspected the empty space where Elizabeth had been standing. “She’s really something.”

Brad’s chest bounced up and down, but his humorless laugh was silent. “Yeah.”

“I’ll be able to stand up again in a second. I feel a lot better.”

Brad watched as Elizabeth, Cooper and Emma passed through the hall and out of the house, fighting the squeaky storm door. Neither of his kids had bothered to look his way, let alone come to him.

“That’s good.” Brad coughed, noticing for the first time that his throat was scratchy. “I think I’m coming down with something.”

As soon as Donald was feeling up to it, Brad was going to get him the hell out of the house. And no hugging. The whole morning had been a nightmare, and he was going to be utterly destroyed by Elizabeth when she got home—or worse, she’d never mention any of it again. His father had always said that you had to harden yourself to make it in the world, and today was the day that Brad would finally take that advice seriously. He found his mind drifting for the thousandth time back over the general unease he felt about all the moments he’d been weak, and all the times people found out about it. The time when he refused to dissect the pig fetus in biology, the black one who had a white spot over his left eye, and everyone tried to treat him the same at school but never did again. Then the time he refused to fire Dominic Carter at K-Mart, even though his speech impediment made it impossible to understand him, and then Dominic had a heart attack and no one understood what was going on until he passed out from the pain. Then the time Brad got mugged behind the CVS, and he didn’t chase after the guy—even though he was so slow that Brad could have easily tackled him and bashed his head repeatedly on the side walk—just because the guy had on a t-shirt advertising an Aerosmith concert from 1976.

It never ended well, and it wasn’t ending well now, so this was it. At the exact minute that Donald crossed the doorstep on his way to all his other people, Brad was going to be a changed man. At that exact minute.

“You know, you have to harden yourself to make it in the world, Donald.”

Donald didn’t seem at all surprised by the comment: “I know.”

Brad watched Elizabeth’s car move down the street. Somehow, she managed to keep it clean, even in the winter. Its chrome flashed in the sun.

Maybe one more hug, but it would definitely be the last.

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