Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011
It was in the backseat when Arkady woke up. He tried to discern from the rotting flavors in his mouth what he’d had to drink the night before. There was a smell of garlic. He sniffed his hands: it was there, under his fingernails. He remembered the pasta sauce he’d made for his boys three nights previous and was impressed at garlic’s tenacity, that the odor hadn’t been burnt away. When he leaned back against the carseat thousands of cigarette ghosts puffed out. It was bright out and the skin on his face felt tight, stretched over the drumming in his head, and he wondered whether it was possible that he’d gotten a sunburn through the windshield.
When he looked in the rearview mirror its eyes looked back. He turned. It was pale, bald and sexless, furled fetally, blinking wetly up at him.
Arkady cleared his throat. “Um,” he said. He had speech now at least. “Do you need a ride someplace?” It seemed to shake its head but it might have been burrowing more deeply into the cloth seat. “I need to get home,” he said. “Just. Stay down.”
He was parked on a side street that led to Camp Tanglewood, closed since it was October. This meant his last stop had probably been the Lynbrook Tavern, a neighborhood place so quiet as to be anesthetized. So it was unlikely this squatter had fled there for the safety of his car.
“Where are your clothes?” Arkady asked as he pulled onto Ocean Avenue, hoping the appearance of some sort of gendered garment would provide a clue. The thing whimpered a little and started to sit up. “Don’t,” he hissed.
In the sunlight burning off the familiar business fronts on the way to Sunrise Highway—24 Hour Bagel, Chwatsky’s, the Sunrise Motel—it grew increasingly foreign. Another quick glance in the rearview as it rolled over to face away from him suggested the outline of a spine with far too many vertebrae. Morning commuters were beginning to accumulate around him and Arkady felt his head whip back and forth, monitoring them for reactions to his passenger. He found only a man in aviators singing along to the classic rock station, a woman ashing out the window ineptly, gray powder sticking to her door. This reminded him of his wife and her silent, wounded way of cleaning up after him, crouching to take crumpled napkins or swiping the halo of salt left on the table around his plate after dinner in such a deliberately unobtrusive way that it came back around to implication. He hadn’t been home in three days. The boys had probably been banging on the piano in his absence.
“What am I supposed to do with you?” he asked his passenger. It cowered.
In the house his wife, Sara, was emptying cups of murky water into the kitchen sink. A further step inside revealed his youngest son, Randal, at the table slapping a sodden paintbrush onto construction paper. His wife liked to engage him in these art projects, though he often just became frustrated and cried.
“Daddy!” he said and ran over, wrapped himself around Arkady’s legs, less an indication, Arkady thought, that he’d been missed than that Randal was happy to be released from painting.
He watched the quick snuffing out of everything Sara had intended to say to him.
“I had a rough one last night,” he told her.
“Give Daddy some space,” she said. “He wants some rest,” and moved to draw him toward her and away from the boy. The thing still in his car was like a throb at the center of his back. The cloud of his anxiety concentrated itself around its nudity—what his wife did trust him for was fidelity. He felt for the first time the acute franticness of having an actual object to conceal, the absurdity of the even voice he used to smooth over it.
“I need James’ help first,” he said, “with a little project.”
His older son emerged from the downstairs den, where he must have been sitting in the dim, the television turned low, listening.
“What?” he said, the cartoon-induced glaze slowly lifting from his eyes.
“I’m having a little car trouble.”
“That’s good!” his wife said in her mother voice, which Arkady’s return allowed her to employ. “It’d be good for you to start learning a bit about cars.”
“I can’t drive,” James said, as though his parents needed reminding of this. “I won’t be able to drive for five years.”
He felt an urge to throw the kid against a wall. “Outside,” he said.
On the front steps he told James, “Now look. Don’t be frightened. There’s a person in my car, I think a homeless person. I didn’t want to upset your mother. But maybe you can help me figure out what to do with this person.”
“Does he need food?” James asked.
“Probably. And um, clothes.”
“He’s naked?” James tried to peer around his father’s big body.
“But he’s harmless, I think. I couldn’t get him to talk—maybe you—” But James was already going to the car, with that steadiness Arkady found increasingly inconceivable. He realized he was waiting for James to normalize this for him with his creepy sobriety, his as yet unconquered willingness to help people. James cupped his hands around his eyes and put his face to the car windows.
He turned back, expressionless. “There’s no one there.”
They opened all the doors, checked the trunk. Just fast food bags translucent with old grease, and an empty bottle James suggested they give to Sara to use in an art project, for its pretty blue color.
“There is a smell, though,” James said.
“Like temple.” And he knew what his son meant, the mustiness that would have been pleasant, like a library, had it not conveyed authority, discomfort in formal clothing, nothing to connect to in the gold stamped prayerbooks they’d flip through to see how much more was to go during services, until, for the boys, the oneg—the reception afterward where dense brownies and juice were served, and, for Arkady, a release into the mouth of the night. When he sniffed he could smell it too.
“Do you believe me?”
The blankness relaxed a little into something more boyish, more human. “Of course, Dad,” James said.
Sara resisted outright expressions of pride and support but couldn’t help herself from squeezing Arkady’s hand and giving him a watery smile at the dinner table for bearing up under the assault of the lights, the sticky linoleum floor, the brainless chatter of the boys, for she knew, she had said, it was harder for him than it was for most other people.
In bed he ran through the calculations. Better to go on little sleep with no hangover than little sleep and a hangover. Of course, it was even better to go on a full night and a small film of alcohol fumes than little sleep and no fumes, though that zone was an elusive one and the calibration removed all pleasure from drinking. Now the most he could get was six hours, respectable, though the calculations were an assault of their own that sent an irritated nausea cycling through his system through which the penetration to rest was not possible, and her steady deep breathing, Darth Vader-like, belied her deep enjoyment of the sleep, her appetite for and unconscious appreciation of it, and further agitated him. Arkady h ad several lessons the next day at the Seaside Music School, a cube in a strip mall between Jordan Lobster and a clothing store called 10 Dollars The Limit. Tim, a deadhead and the first person Arkady had ever met who had a pierced chin, a tiny silver globe glinting out of orangey chin fuzz, would be there too, at least, and usually had good pot that he shared freely with the older man, whom he’d admired to a ridiculous extent ever since Arkady told him about seeing Eric Clapton live back when he was so zonked on heroin that he drooled over his guitar until he was booed off the stage. It was very difficult for Arkady to not see his pupils as stupid, especially when Randal, a seven-year-old, reproduced on the piano with his fat child’s fingers overheard commercial jingles nearly perfectly, with no training whatsoever. He’d inherited the ability to see the instrument as not an instrument but a gate left hanging always slightly opened for him. Less than six hours now. Tomorrow morphing quickly into a stretch of unstoppably irritating hours. Sara breathed on. Arkady huddled closer to her as though the realm of sleep was communicable, but her clammy warmth only sped his heart faster with impatience. She sighed contentedly, expelling a sour cloud. Disgusted, he threw back the covers. Half-roused, Sara murmured to him, “I sleep so much better when you’re here.” He headed for the backyard to smoke a cigarette.
It was there, sitting upright on one of the swings of the dented plastic swingset.
When he was a child Arkady was visited by a little boy no one else had ever seen, who sat on his windowsill at night. It was his mother’s pinched facial expression, when he asked her to suggest a polite way to tell the boy to leave when it started getting really late, that turned the visitations into something unnatural. Until then they’d been only occasionally bothersome, but generally welcome for an only child, though he could never recall the specifics of their conversations.
It watched as it ran its bare feet back and forth through the grass, as though it had never experienced this sensation before.
His mother told him he needed to ask in his mind. To close his eyes and think, I don’t want you here anymore. And just her saying that seemed to ban the boy permanently. Arkady never saw him again.
On the cement patio, cigarette unsmoked in his hand, he did the same: he asked. When he opened his eyes it was still there, dead-white legs crossed over its sex, if it had one.
“I didn’t invite you,” Arkady said.
He went inside and locked the back door and went up to the bedroom. No sleep, then.
Tim sucked his joint dutifully, the same way he pulled down the child-sized acoustic guitar from the wall of instruments for a lesson with a fidgety eight-year-old. There was a sense of duty and integrity in how he administered the drug to himself. The shrubs shuddered at the edges of the parking lot, its asphalt unable to work itself into a simmer under the pale autumn sun.
“How’s your prodigy?” Tim asked, meaning Randal.
“Oh, you know,” Arkady said. The shrubs expanded into waxy fronds past which it was nearly impossible to push his words. This exhaustion, the jungle of hours between him and the grim release of drinking, crowded out language.
“Plays every day?”
“And what about the older one?” Perhaps if he was slow enough in responding, the cloud would hit Tim’s head and swathe him in introversion.
“He is a mystery to himself.”
But what Arkady meant was James was a mystery to him. His firstborn was like one of those nagging dreams in which there’s something you’ve forgotten, a tug in your lungs, made animate. He had dreams Lefty was still alive, in which he suddenly realized he hadn’t fed him in two weeks, and found him someplace strange, like inside the cupboard, a living dog-skeleton. But that wasn’t hard to interpret: Lefty’d had his throat slit by some craven teenager when they lived in a bad part of Nashville, in the interest of Arkady’s career. Tim admired this too: Nashville instead of the City or L.A., the pure singer-songwriter’s home. Sara thought it was because they were Jews. James understood there needn’t be a reason. The nag of his son, growing a husk around himself, was a mystery following Arkady even when James was there, like a ghost crouched under the table at restaurants, or in the attic with the dusty guitars.
In the shrubs, its white face haloed in the leaves, were the hungry eyes of a neglected child.
“Let’s go in,” he said. He felt sure that if Tim saw it several truths would immediately become clear: that Arkady was being followed, that he had done something to induce the following, that the follower was an embarrassment—like a crazy ex, a disabled child, a friend only you had not dropped your loyalty to out of your own bloated and dishonest sense of g oodness, who only made scenes, talked too loud, spat when he talked—that Arkady was not worthy of Tim’s admiration.”
“Break’s not up yet.”
Arkady stood. “Come on, man.” Like a kid who needed the bathroom.
Tim blinked at the unexpected departure of cool. “Okay, okay.”
When he looked over his shoulder at the door he saw the face sucked back into the green like a retreating dream.
Sara liked to feed him after his absences. It was true he ate little when he was alone. A drink alone was fine; you could sip, swig, quench in fluid motions. It filled an animal need unrepulsively. But a single man sitting on a park bench, having a snack, was a sorry thing. You were embarrassed for him in his naked devouring of a hot dog, his repeated reachings into an oily bag of chips. Worse if it seemed a pleasure, a little present he gave himself. You wanted him to take it somewhere private, his aloneness, his need.
Over dinner Sara announced the reinstating of Family Stories and offered to go first.
Sara’s story was that a letter had come from For Saam Foong, the Filipina child they sponsored through Childreach, and that in the included photograph she and all her immediate family members were now wearing shoes, whereas in the first letter’s photo they had not been.
James’ was that his English teacher had made him go sit in the hallway after she caught him reading a book instead of listening to her explain how to structure an essay.
Randal’s was that he learned if you light a match after someone farts it masks the smell. He learned this when someone farted and the teacher lit a match.
When Arkady’s turn came he said, “Strange that they had a camera but no shoes.”
“I think maybe someone from a local NGO takes the photos.”
“Can I see?”
Sara passed him the photo.
“Nikes,” Arkady noted.
“Dad is avoiding telling a story,” James said.
Arkady looked at him. “I’m going to need you after dinner tonight,” he said. “It has to do with the car.”
James’ face shifted from critique to the kind of controlled excitement he used to show when Arkady and Sara would tell him, after Randal was born, what a good big brother he was shaping up to be. Here was a role, and a secret one; the illicitness of fracturing off from the larger family unit.
As he was washing the dishes Sara said, “Randal wouldn’t do Family Stories if you weren’t there. So we just stopped totally. It was too weird, going back and forth.”
“But now you’ve restored them.”
“Yes, I have,” she said. She patted his butt, looked into his eyes, smiled. The constant convincing, or the attempts to convince. What had she been before? It was hard to remember. He dried his hands on a soggy dish towel and called to James.
They drove up Long Beach Road and turned at the Lutheran church for Rockville Centre, the nearest approximation of a downtown area. They passed a coffeeshop with a burned-out neon sign that said Scotty Dee’s in cursive.
“Teenagers go there,” James said.
“Scotty is the owner. He looks like a scarecrow. He lets them do drugs in the basement.”
“And what do you think of that?”
He shrugged. “It’s what teenagers do.”
Arkady laughed. “Not just teenagers.”
James turned his face to the window.
He parked in front of Croxley’s. “First stop,” he said.
On entering the familiar dank the bartender, Ronnie, said, “Oh! It’s the Cossack, come to settle his tab!”
James stepped out from behind his father’s bulk in an oddly decorous way, quietly presenting himself for assessment.
“But no,” Ronnie said, raising his eyebrows. “He’s brought a bodyguard. No collecting tonight.” His voice rang over the empty chairs, the chalkboard list of offerings.
“Just wanted to ask if you saw anyone follow me out of here two nights ago.”
“Were you here two nights ago?”
“I thought so.” He glanced at James, who appeared to be reading the list. “Anyway a sort of weird-looking person, very thin and pale?”
“Guy or girl?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“I thought you said it was a man,” James said.
“I never said that.”
“So a skinny pale person of indeterminate gender?” Ronnie said. “Actually. That describes a lot of our customers.”
“But on Sunday night. Following me.”
“Sorry,” Ronnie said. “Want something?”
“Oh, you’re driving,” Ronnie said, and gave a yellow smile. “Very responsible.”
They walked down the block to the St. Leonard’s Tavern.
“What’s in a Dark and Stormy?” James asked.
“Rum and ginger ale.”
“What’s in a Manhattan?”
“Whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters.”
“There was a drink on there called Adios Motherfucker.”
“I know. Don’t tell your mom.”
“She’ll smell the bar on us, you know.”
“It’s all right.”
They had no idea what he was talking about at the St. Leonard’s Tavern. They had no idea at Monaghan’s. Or Stingers or The Blackthorn. They got back in the car and headed for Lynbrook.
The Lynbrook Tavern was a rougher sort of place. The bartender had a pinched and ancient face and Arkady didn’t know his name. He had not seen anyone, either, who fit that description.
James asked if Arkady had gone to all these places on Sunday night.
“Probably not all. I don’t really remember. These are my regular places, though.”
“I’m hungry,” James said.
“The food here isn’t very good.”
The kid just stood there.
“Want some French fries or something?”
As they sat and ate a regular came in, again a nameless man, whom Arkady knew for his usual post at the corner of the bar, hunched against the wall, his chain-smoking of Kools. He walked by and looked at Arkady and then at James, for a while. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“What are you doing?” Arkady said. The man moved away.
“I’m not helping,” James said.
“But I’m glad you’re here.”
James put a fry in his mouth and chewed with what seemed to Arkady an implicating slowness, as though the boy wanted to prolong their stay in this pathetic place. Lingering as accusation. And hadn’t he brought him here to show him, finally, what it was he did? Arrest the flow of increasingly pointed looks, remarks, questions? Show him t here was no mystery, really, nothing James could say tha t he didn’t already know.
Back in the car he said to James, “Detectives get a lot of false leads in the beginning, don’t they, in your books?”
“I don’t really read detective novels.”
The stream past the window again of the squat establishments, the roads emptied out, the commuters in their split-levels, the trees shaking themselves like fists in the wind that blew up from the ocean. And then out the passenger window, standing on the sidewalk, the white flash of its form, bare, the split-second image of its mouth yawning in grotesque humanoid agony.
“There!” Arkady shouted, his voice echoing in the car. “Did you see it?”
“I saw it,” James said.
In the semi-moment before James turned from the window to look at him, what was Arkady expecting? Confirmation that James had seen his unseeable core, an ember not yet extinguished by the dank sickness around it? Something like the smile of some nine years before, when they lived on the 7 th floor of the apartment building on Shore Road and he’d toddle to the elevator and wait, lifting his arms as the doors slid open to present his father home from work, who’d scoop him up—that smile, shot through with the empathy of a burgeoning adult? But it was the other face, the one of masklike solidity, that Arkady found.
“So what?” James said.