Fiction, Vol. 6.3, Sept. 2012
Paul had his epiphany a third of the way through “Dixie,” with his tasseled arm pointing to the beams of the steakhouse, and the left knee of his white jumpsuit resisting the pressure of a stray walnut. His bangs, dyed a discount black, fell in front of his left eye so that when he winked at the two elderly women dancing their pieces of T-bone on their forks to the rhythm, the hair got caught like a thin twig beneath a garage door, stinging his left eye. In this moment, as he sang, Look away, look away, he saw the floating spheres of white light in his eye and knew something.
After the song, Paul unplugged his fog machine and crooked it in his arm. He scribbled his address on a guest check for the fifty dollars he had coming, paid his thirteen dollar tab, and left the building.
A year ago, he had brought home the gold at the state Independence Day Amazing Graceland Competition. The year before that, he’d recorded a CD of covers that received radio play on the local classic hits station found in the middle of his alarm clock. A tailor had stitched him a custom jumpsuit complete with a cape, charging him only a live performance for the Red Hat Society. After a talk he gave at the middle school, boys were growing their sideburns out and wearing white T-shirts, rolling crayon boxes into their shoulders like cigarettes.
But in the synapse, that white blindness in the steakhouse, Paul had felt like one of those boys: these were not his songs, not his clothes, and not his voice.
By page 57, Brian accepted that he was not reading the book his brother gave him, but was instead struggling to read his brother, pausing between paragraphs to reflect on how Will read those words.
Will had given Brian the novel on a whim one night, without a dust jacket, without a plot summary. Although unspoken, Brian knew that this was the novel his brother had read during the chemo and radiation treatments. While waiting for his haircut, Brian read the prologue of the 667-page behemoth.
Brian counted backward, calculating the length of Will’s treatments, allowing for sitting room waits. When the hairdresser called his name and asked him what he wanted, he placed his hands over his hair, contemplating the absence. With his hair in limbo, his ears protruded, his nose was knobby, his eyes were hungry. But removing his hand, he saw the protrusion, the knobbiness, the hunger right below the surface, or more accurately, as the shadow text of an aura, the metaphysical bed sheet.
The hairdresser took a little off the top, a little off the side, and a little off the neck. Looking in the mirror, Brian could see the magazine table where he’d left the book. He watched a woman in her late forties pick it up and begin to read it in a chair next to the coat rack.
When the hairdresser took the apron off of him and Brian began to stand up, he thought of leaving the book there with the stranger, the book now that woman’s, to become a story of her finding to tell her dinner guests.
Frances knew she had not left her trash like this. The paper cup, which was now on top, had been on the very bottom, the first item she’d placed into the new liner. Frances knelt in front of the trash can, taking out item after item, then returning them as they should have been. She held onto the refrigerator handle to lift herself up from the floor, and in doing so, noticed the refrigerator magnets had been rearranged. The praying Precious Moments girl was now on the right side of the freezer box. The calendar magnet, which bore her banker’s name, was now further down-left than she remembered. One realization led to another, from the trash to the magnets, and now, opening the freezer box, she found the deer meat her daughter had given her a year prior on top of the individual pizza she had purchased earlier in the week. The long green popsicles she bought for her grandchildren were underneath the twist-tied peas. One lone waffle rested in a squashed box closest to the freezer door.
This was unacceptable. Frances would never leave one waffle alone in the box because she always ate them in sets of two. Moreover, she would have twist-tied the bag within.
She moved to the living room recliner and watched cable news on mute until she felt calmed by the continuity, the ever-moving mass of people blipping by the screen. Frances flipped through the Bible she kept next to her recliner. She read the account of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God. This story both fascinated and upset Frances, but in the last few months, she had become more and more interested in stories like this one.
She then called her neighbor Bradley and told him Roy was back, had been in her house while she was gone, touching things.
Bradley came over, sat across from her on the couch, nodded when she nodded, shook his head when she shook her head, but with every part of the retelling, Frances felt more unsure of whether Bradley could hear her. So she talked louder, more assertively, mentally removing phrases like I think. She asked him if he had seen a man walking by the house while she was out, if he had seen a blue truck. She showed him the trash, the magnets, the waffle.
Usually Frances did not talk to her neighbors, preferring her privacy. But since she had made Roy leave, she’d begun talking to Bradley when he was on his way outside to cut the grass or when he was coming home from work. At first she only asked a superficial How are you?, but over the past few months, she began to invite him in for lemonade or to ask him about unfamiliar vehicles in the neighborhood.
Still, she enjoyed the silence of her home, but lately had become uncomfortable with the not-quite silence, the sounds one hears when there are no sounds. And not just the whisper of the refrigerator or the moan of the sink, but even the sounds beneath those.
Today Frances noted not what Bradley said in response, but what he did not say. He did not say that perhaps she had eaten one of the waffles and had forgotten, that perhaps she had thought to eat the deer meat finally but then decided against it and placed it on the frozen pizza, that perhaps she had moved the magnets while using the refrigerator handle to move herself off the floor. He said he would keep an eye out.
But this worm of understanding collapsed upon itself, moving backward, raising its middle up and stretching out to timeline left, laying its eggs within all her previous episodes with Bradley. She realized she had known all along that he did not believe her, or perhaps he had believed her once, at the very beginning.
After Bradley left, she called Roy and told him she knew what he was doing. He assured her he had not been anywhere near the house, that he had moved on. She said she knew he had been there, that she had the evidence: she had not moved any of the contents of the refrigerator or the magnets since she had noticed their rearrangement. She cited the behavior that made her kick him out: she had noticed the way he moved furniture while she slept, sometimes by an inch, sometimes across the room, so that she never knew where to find the TV remote or the phone or the newspaper or her favorite coffee mug. She could not cope with the movements, and until recently, they had stopped with his absence. It had to be Roy.
Roy told her she had kicked him out because she had begun to wonder what her neighbors thought of her. He said she was afraid of what they thought of the black man in her bed.
Right before she made Roy leave, she had begun going to church services again. She would stay after the service and ask the pastor about the angels. No matter what the pastor had preached on that week, Frances would ask about the angels. About angelic hosts, about Gabriel and Michael, about the spirits throughout the Old Testament who walked among men.
Frances carried with her a story she told no one, a story she had forgotten until a week before she decided Roy had to leave. This story was a memory, tucked back and forgotten until one night when she was watching Roy asleep in her bed.
In this story, Frances is a young girl. She is in bed. It is night, and snowing. She was asleep, but has woken up. On the other side of the room, next to the closet, is a mirror, and she sees something moving inside it. At night in the dark, everything casts monstrous shadows in moonlight, and she reminds herself of this. But this is no shadow. There is a small black boy in the mirror. Frances looks in her room for what can be causing the reflection, but there is nothing. It is as if the body is literally in the mirror, not a reflection at all.
He is a boy. A dark young boy in her mirror. A black angel, or a demon. He stares at her, swaying in the glass. And then he is gone.
When Frances had watched Roy sleep, she had the sudden thought that the little black boy had been watching her this whole time, all throughout her life, and was now in her bed.
Roy was talking too much again, something about Iraq, spitting out the word oil as a curse, knowing as he spoke that the man next to him was not too terribly interested. Even as Roy spoke, admiring his own words, he saw a version of himself which he assumed this man next to him saw: an old raving black man, the barfly who talked you up for a free beer, or a few bucks.
He wanted to talk. But when he talked to people, they were not listening to what he was saying, but rather waiting for the question, Can you spare a dollar? Even though he never did, he recognized in himself the potential to ask, and for Roy, that was just as bad.
The only thing Roy had asked for tonight was the man’s name, and he was now using it throughout his monologue to exert camaraderie.
“The whole system’s fucked up, Will.”
Will silently agreed and held his bottle up to the light to judge how much was left.
Roy knew he was getting nowhere and switched strategies, segueing poorly into a speech on women, a can’t live with em, can’t kill em jig he had danced before. At this, Roy registered a shift in Will, a slight bemused nod. And so he continued: “My former old lady is a card. The Queen of Spades in a game of Hearts.”
Will nodded and turned in his seat slightly to better face Roy.
“She was convinced I stole her money. She would shout and scream, threaten to call the police. And then she really did. I guess I was kind of dependent on her, but she used me just as much as I used her.” Roy struggled to express the difficulty of comparing monetary goods to emotional and physical goods.
When Will finally spoke, Roy became silent. Will said he should not be drinking this soon after radiation. That moreover he should be home with his wife and children. But something had twitched, convulsed in the last few months. His wife described his behavior as an understandable selfishness. Will did not want to think of returning to a full workload, of having drivers calling him throughout the day and night. Calling him on his cell phone, able to call him wherever he was, at the office, in his car, in his bed. Next month he would be back to his full workload, and he did not want to hear all those drivers, all those voices, all the droning of the big rigs. He wanted to focus on what had happened: something within his own body had attempted to kill him, and the part of himself he called I had triumphed.
Will, sure he would never see Roy again, and having had three pints of Blue Moon, told Roy about the morning he had woken up, feeling energy he had not felt since before the cancer. He turned to his wife and said, “If you’d like to have sex, pull once. If not, pull a few hundred times.”
She had replied that she wanted the first time after cancer to be a certain kind of lovemaking, a kind of lovemaking for which she felt neither he nor she was ready. Will told Roy that perhaps she had seen him as being too vulnerable. Or perhaps she was just not into bald men. He laughed. Roy laughed. A man to their left laughed. Will and Roy looked at him. He looked away.
Christine set the grocery bags on the table. She had two hours to herself before Bradley would be home from work, and before Thad was home from soccer and Sissy home from band. She hid the mousse she had impulsively bought at the salon in the pocket of one of her winter coats in the hall closet. This done, she emptied her bags and stocked the cupboards.
A month had passed since Bradley had sat her in the green wooden rocking chair she had inherited from her mother, and told her the sprees would stop. He said he was giving her a weekly allowance and a specific amount to spend on groceries and house supplies. Money had been tight, and she was aware of this and had been shopping with this in mind.
But as she sat in the rocking chair, Bradley standing in front so she could not get up, he showed her the three dresses he had dug out of the washer. They were still damp, and they dripped onto their beige carpet. While Bradley scolded her, she focused her eyes on the tiny pool of water. It settled on top, not soaking into the carpet.
When Bradley shifted his weight, the puddle seeped in. Christine told Bradley the dressed were from Goodwill, but he showed her the department tags still attached, the short sliver of the price tag, folding on itself and deteriorating.
She told Bradley that department stores sometimes donated new clothes to thrift stores, but he was not convinced. She scolded herself for not having seen the tags before washing them.
From then on, she was more careful. At stores, she would ring up all the items Bradley would look for, and then separately ring up the others. Bradley forgot to budget for bleach or sandwich bags or the lactose free milk for Thad. He would check the receipts and make sure she only brought back what he had sent her out for, but he had always been bad at keeping track of actual numbers. So she hid the second receipts in her winter coat in the back of her closet. She hid the lactose free milk in the vegetable crisper, knowing he would never look there.
And yes, maybe sometimes she bought herself something small, something on sale. But maybe she deserved that.
Perhaps in another month or so, life would be back to normal. Christine figured Bradley was mostly upset about work. He had transferred from one insurance firm to another six months prior, and had been told he was being groomed for a senior position. He was still being promised that position, but his new boss was vague about exactly when. He had looked into returning to the firm he had left, and since he’d worked there for eight years, he was certain he could negotiate a new deal with them. But when he called, they only wished him the best.
Christine could tell he was upset with himself for agreeing to the new job so quickly. It had been his dream job. He had not even been looking for a new job. He had received a call from the senior regional manager, who complimented him on his reputation. Now the promises made in the interviews and orientation remained unfulfilled.
She felt that lately Bradley had shifted, had come to some private realization he could or dared not share, and although he was still as physically close as before, she saw him as a superimposition, a studio effect. She had considered which of his coworkers he was having an affair with, but quickly discarded that thinking: he still wanted that position. And he was spending his weekends at home with her, Thad, and Sissy, but as a senator who votes present. More and more he spent his time in the lawn, mowing when the grass did not need it, cutting a fourth of an inch here at a time. And then he began helping that old woman next door. Christine would sometimes catch the woman peering into their yard. When Christine would raise her hand in acknowledgement, the woman next door looked blankly on, either at her or through her.
She would never admit to anyone, and would barely admit to herself, what she almost did when Bradley had stood over the rocking chair with her dresses in his hands and had begun yelling at her. She had almost rocked forward, trapping his right foot underneath the wooden bow. She had almost pressed down very hard.
These were the reasons Christine hid the lactose-free milk, why she hid the mousse, and why she would have to hide the book, when she finally got it.
She had begun to read it while waiting at the hair salon. Bradley had told her she could no longer go to her regular salon, so she now went to a walk-in salon attached to a pizza place and cell phone store. Christine knew nothing about the book or the author, and was not even interested in the book at first. She had gravitated to it because she did not want to read the magazines and be reminded of what she could not have. As she read though, she became increasingly interested in the character of the wife.
It had been years since she read a novel. Since the land around their house had been annexed back and forth between two towns, the library asked that she pay twenty dollars for a library card. Bradley had said no.
She read intensely until a young man, no older than twenty, stood above her, cleared his throat, and pointed at the book.
“That’s actually mine. Sorry. It’s a thick book. I left it here because, you know.” He had pointed at the swivel chair, at the scatterings of brown hair around it.
He was a handsome boy, tall and thin. He smiled as if the rest of his face didn’t know he was smiling. Christine nodded and handed him the book. And that was it: just as quickly as she found it, it was gone.
But not quite gone.
She asked, “Is that a library book?”
“No. My brother gave it to me.”
“Are you the kind of person who keeps books he reads?”
“No. I’m the kind of person who reads books given to him. They remind me of the person who gave them to me.”
She was surprised that he was interested in pursuing this chance connection. She felt that sometimes the universe nudged, and one should not ignore the nudging. She gave the boy– no, the young man– her phone number, but did not think to ask his. He promised he would read the book, then call her.
As she placed the last can of chicken noodle soup in the pantry, she ruminated on the immensity of the novel, the physical weight, the amount of time one must allot to a novel of that scope. Perhaps he would take a year to finish it. Perhaps he would never finish it, leaving it on his bookshelf, telling himself he will pick it up and read it soon, just as soon as he had time.
At 2:30, Bradley folded a sheet of paper into his coat, turned off his work computer, and headed for the stairs. He walked quickly past Ledstrum’s office, keeping his eyes down, his head turned away. But Ledstrum saw him and called out to him. He turned back and stood in Ledstrum’s doorway and responded to the question he was not asked: “Thad’s sick.”
“Still. Christine thinks Sissy’s coming down with it too. You’ve got to watch kids that age. Three and four, and they’re ground zero for biological warfare.” Bradley gave a big grin. “Christine needs me to pick up some things for them. She can’t take the two sick kids to the pharmacy, and she can’t leave them alone. I should be back in a few hours.”
Bradley quickly thought back to the excuses he had already used this month. There had been the lunch meeting with prospective clients. But he could sense Ledstrum was becoming suspicious because none of these prospects ever did business with the firm. Recently Bradley had begun using Thad and Sissy. Kids could stay sick forever. Bradley had even begun concocting stories about his neighbor Frances, referring to her as his mother, telling Ledstrum he had to check on her because she recently had a break-in, and it was affecting her health. He no longer spoke to his actual mother, so he reasoned this was not much of a lie since Frances was the closest he had.
Bradley did not care if Ledstrum was a little upset, because Bradley was unsatisfied with his job.
Almost immediately after transferring, he felt discontented. He did not get along with Ledstrum or the other people in the office—the people who had been there longer, who resented him for coming in and being groomed for a position above them. He supposed some of those people had complained to Ledstrum, and he had conceded. There was no longer much talk of grooming.
But Bradley needed the extra salary that would go with that position, and he began looking for other opportunities. A tavern in which Bradley used to play guitar recently called him and asked if he would be interested in a permanent gig a few days a week. A slot had opened since the Elvis impersonator had stopped answering his phone. Bradley began keeping his acoustic guitar in the trunk of his car under a large blanket, taking it out to play in the mid-afternoon for the early drunks and the few people who came for the food. He sang “Under My Thumb,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Take the Money and Run,” and ended with “Heart of Gold.” People in bars liked the familiar. The bartender who had come over to adjust the sound had said, “Never play more than one original song, or you’ll lose them. People don’t give a shit about you. They give a shit about singing along.”
At first, it hadn’t occurred to Bradley to have even one original song. He just wanted to play. But leaving the bar and driving home, he thought that yes, of course he should write a song. His own song.
Throughout the month, Bradley worked on a song in his work cubicle. He would come home from work and sing verses as he mowed. He would sing low so that the groan of the mower covered his voice.
As Ledstrum sat behind his desk and reminded Bradley of their personal day policy, Bradley mentally practiced the song that was finally read, that he would play today: “Woke up last night / Still feelin’ last night’s buzz / My ex old lady’s been here / ‘Cause my shit ain’t where it was. / She comes here while I’m sleepin’ / Watches me, then leaves. / But not before she takes my dough. / The world is full o’ thieves.
Two months after his radiation treatment, Will and Chelsea had still not had sex. They hadn’t been intimate since the day was diagnosed with cancer.
After returning from the hospital, Chelsea had undressed to take a shower. The kids were still at school, wouldn’t be home for hours.
Will was still dressed. He had worn a suit to the doctor’s office, as if this had been a job interview, as if he could change the doctors’ minds by dressing up. But instead he had to keep taking the suit jacket off and rolling up the arm of his shirt to check his blood pressure and to take blood samples. Will kept trying to put it back on, but Chelsea finally walked up behind him and took the jacket off. For a moment, he stiffened his arms so that she could not take it all the way off, but he relented. She carried the jacket for the rest of the day, from exam room to exam room.
On the way home, they barely talked. She held his hand and kept saying, “It’s going to be OK.” He wanted to talk specifics, about how this would change their routine, but he didn’t know what to ask. They would know more later. Will had made so many appointments today, for the future, to learn more about the cancer. He figured Chelsea felt the same way: concerned, but unsure of what to do.
At home, in their bedroom, she took off the suit jacket he had put back on, and then she took off the rest. The kids would not be home for hours. He had not wanted her right then, like that. He felt tired and weak, but also relieved he now had a word for the tiredness he had been feeling. She pushed him onto the bed and climbed up onto him. She closed her eyes, tilted her head up, and rode him. She rode fast and hard, moaning loudly, sweating, her hands pressed down against his chest as she came.
When he finally came, she dismounted. She dressed herself in only his suit jacket and left the room for the bathroom. She turned the shower on.
By the time she came back into the room, Will had fallen asleep.
Now, ten months later, Will felt much better. And he wanted to have sex with Chelsea. Since the day he learned he had cancer, she had jerked him off about once a month, but that was it. The process had become almost medical. When he saw her bring a hand towel into the bedroom, he would know that was the night.
Today he needed more than hands. He wanted the sex they had had before. Not just before the cancer. But before the kids. He did not have a specific time in mind. He just knew it had been a long time.
Chelsea said she was still not ready. At first she said she did not want to jeopardize his healing process by overstressing him, but by the second month her reasons were diluted and vague: she would say she did not feel clean, would take a shower, and then would say the shower had made her tired. She suggested they take up a hobby, like the model airplanes he’d bought for Thad that had never been opened. They could spend time putting those together, could talk while they sealed all the doors shut with glue, securing the model so that it would not fall apart. And then they could see.
In the kitchen, Will began to playfully rub against her from behind as she put away the dishes. She laughed at first, but then asked him to stop. Will did not stop, and began grinding on her harder, pressing her stomach against the counter. “Seriously. Cut it out,” she said. Will could feel her trying to move away, but he held her arms down, pressing her hands in his. “You let go of me right now,” she said. At first, he could not tell whether she was excited or scared, or both, but now she seemed only defiant, the strong-willed wife who was rejecting him. He pressed his palm against the back of her neck and shoved her head forward against the closed cupboard once.
She was silent. He could feel the twitch of her arms, the shift in her body, the acceptance.
In the silence that followed, Will began to organize in his mind the list of ways he had been grieved. He wanted to tell her he was himself again, that he had beaten the cancer, that he wanted her to see him as he had been before. But he kept seeing himself the man who was pressuring his wife for sex. He knew he was not that man, but out of context, he could be seen that way, or as having the potential to be. When he finally spoke, he said, “I’m your husband. I’m your fucking husband.”
“You keep saying I’m not well. We keep waiting because I’m not well. We have to wait til I’m healed. I’m healed, Chelsea. This is part of healing. Men have sex with their wives.”
For a moment, Will thought she was conceding, but then knew she only meant the kids. He let go of her hands and stepped back. He knew he could not stay in the house much longer, that he must leave without saying where he was going.
Chelsea did not turn around. She opened the silverware drawer and began placing the spoons, forks, and knives into their respective nooks.
In the driveway, sitting in the car, Will called his brother Brian on his cell phone and listened to the rings. Voicemail. Will would not go to the bar yet because he did not want to be the man in the bar at 2 in the afternoon. He let down the emergency brake, and rolled into the street. He turned on the engine and drove aimlessly away, taking left turns if he saw a green arrow coming up, turning right at red lights, following a path he envisioned as both random and predetermined.
Suddenly Will was thinking about the book. He wondered if Brian had read it, if he had even started yet, or if he even intended to.
Brian had always been the reader, recommending to everyone whatever book he had just finished reading. Until recently, Will had resisted fiction. He had never understood why someone would read hundreds of pages of lies. But after the first few appointments, when no one could tell him what was wrong, Will had felt the need for something else. Suddenly, he needed the lies.
Perhaps Brian would never read the book.
As Will sat at a red light, he regretted giving away the only novel he had ever read to the finish, the novel into which he had invested so much time. The significance was not in the book itself, but rather in the ghost text that hovered above the chapters. Chapters 1 through 3: Will in the emergency room before the doctors used the word cancer. Chapters 4 through 8: Will sitting in his car on the second floor of the hospital’s parking garage, reading the novel so he would not have to go home and tell Chelsea. Chapter 9: Will at his first chemo treatment, reading the book so he would not look at the others in the waiting room. And on and on.
Will had the sudden desire to call Brian and ask for the book back.
Or maybe what he needed was a new book to chronicle his recovery.
Tucking the need for the original book into his memory, Will turned at the light leading to Goodwill. He had gotten into the habit of buying his nonfiction books at thrift stores back in college when he had little spending money. He liked the limited selection, finding a good book among all the mediocre ones.
After browsing the book section and finding nothing, Will decided to leave, but as he passed the men’s blazers, he saw it: a tasseled and sequined white jumpsuit, the arms hanging so that the top resembled an upside-down Y. Will moved to it and studied it closely: the sweat stain in the lower back, the dullness of the white, the worn down knees, the missing sequins. Here among all these dead-man jackets was an Elvis jumpsuit. Someone had worn this suit for years, and now it was here. Will wondered why. Whoever had owned this, it had been part of their life. In a suit like that, a person would be seen. One could not be denied.
Rubbing the sequins between his thumb and index finger, Will was reminded of the magic tricks he used to perform as a child.
He had never seen these tricks actually performed. He had read about them and studied the pictures from old library books with names like Tricks for Boys. The illustrations were always of the same tall boy performing tricks for neighborhood girls who all had ponytails or pigtails. A white dog with one black spot over his eye was always watching from a distance. It was always summer. Everyone wore shorts. Except for the boy magician: he wore a tasseled, white one-piece suit with a cape.
When Billy was ready to perform his own tricks, he stood by the road near his house with a sign that read Magic Twenty-five Cents, and for a quarter he would perform a trick. Most of his tricks involved a deck of playing cards, but he also had a ring around his index finger with scarves tucked in tight. He had a series of bungee cords in his jacket so he could make items disappear up his sleeves. He carried a large top hat and a stuffed bear he would make appear in the hat. He tied a blue beach towel around his neck for a cape and called himself Billy the Magnificent.
He never made much money. Some days older kids would knock his hat off as they cycled past, but they usually left him alone.
Sometimes he would use his baby brother Brian in a trick. One time in the front yard, Brian crawled into a box they had saved from when their father brought home a new TV, and Billy cut straight through the box with his bowie knife. But Billy had not quite grasped how to perform this trick.
Billy moved the two sections of the box apart. Brian curled his legs in so that it would look as if his legs had been cut off, but there were no legs in the other section of the box to show the audience (Rachel and her sister Heather from a few houses down). Not his legs. Not even fake ones. Just an empty box, as if his legs had dissolved away.
Will thought about putting on the jumpsuit, to at least see how it fit. But instead, he walked out.
He needed a drink.
Bradley wasn’t making any money by playing at the bar. He got a cut of the money raised by the door cover, but usually that was about $15 a night. Tips were slim: in the month he’d been playing, he had made $10 in tips. After a drink or two, there was barely any profit left.
But for the last month, he’d seen men walk into a small, unmarked room across from the men and women’s restrooms. He had a feeling people were making money in there, and he was getting to the point where he didn’t care how: he just wanted in.
He had attempted to ask a bartender about it before, but she had either not heard, or pretended not to. He had pointed, but she said, “Yeah, the bathroom’s around the corner.”
Bradley didn’t like asking anything directly. In most situations, he thought that what he wanted was pretty clear, that directly saying it was crass.
So after a month of watching people enter and leave through that door, Bradley walked in.
A small tennis table took up most the room. There were four men seated around it.
One of the bartenders, a short, stalky, muscular man called Mack, who always wore his dog tags.
An old black guy that Bradley recognized as Roy, the ex-boyfriend Frances was always paranoid about. Bradley never said too much to him, never mentioned anything about Frances. He didn’t know Roy well, but he doubted he’d go anywhere near Frances’ house.
A thin and sickly bald man Bradley didn’t recognize.
And a man with thick vintage-Superman hair. He looked somewhere between Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
And a pile of money in the center.
Mack motioned for him to sit down. Bradley took the last empty seat.
“Hearts,” Mack said. “You in?”
Bradley had never heard of betting on Hearts, but he nodded. He’d only played Hearts on his computer.
“Five to start,” Mack said.
Bradley never quite knew when he was supposed to choose three cards to give someone else, and how he was supposed to pass them, so he watched to see what the others did.
He passed three cards to the bald guy next to him, three high hearts he wanted to get rid of. Bradley always played to get rid of all his hearts as quickly as possible. But sometimes, a player will hold onto those high hearts, and will let others play hearts on them, and then they will play the queen of Spades. And they will have jumped the moon: no points. They win. You had to make sure no one hoarded every single heart.
High card to the bald guy. He played again. He reached over and shook Bradley’s hand. “I’m Will,” he said.
“Another dollar to stay in,” Mack said.
Everybody placed a dollar in the center.
The guy with Superman hair looked at Bradley. He said, “I think you took my job.”
Bradley looked up from his cards. He got a hot, fuzzy feeling on the back of his neck. He thought about Ledstrum and the promotion that never happened. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who’d been promised that job.
“I heard you play the other night when we were in here. Nice.”
Bradley wasn’t buying this guy. It all seemed patronizing. The guy wasn’t making eye contact. He was nodding his head a lot.
He reached his hand across the table to Bradley. “I was Elvis. Now I’m Paul.”
“Oh yeah. I loved seeing you play,” Bradley said. He had never seen Paul play before. “It’s a shame you stepped down.”
“I think I’m leaving. Soon. Wanted to tie up ends now. Say goodbye to people. Make room for other people.”
“Yeah. Well, thanks.”
Will played a club. Two hearts are played. Bradley starts getting worried. He did not have the Queen of Spades. Will probably had it and was making a play to shoot the moon.
Another dollar in.
Bradley realized he wasn’t going to make anything tonight. He kept putting in the pot. He didn’t know how to play that well. Will was most likely a shark. He’d just wanted to know what was behind the door.
High card in a suit, and Will was still in control of suit. He played another club. More hearts.
He played the Ace of Hearts.
He played the King of Hearts.
He played the Queen of –
“That’s my card,” Roy said. “Queen of Hearts. That was mine. I was dealt that card.”
Everyone else was quiet, but slowly gave each other a look, meaning, Drunk.
“He must’ve switched with me. I have an Eight of Diamonds. I don’t remember an Eight of Diamonds. I would remember that.”
Will smiled meekly and shrugged. “Sorry, man. I’m just playing what I have.”
“Let’s not make this a thing,” Mack said. Bradley had seen him stop many a “thing” that needed stopping in the bar.
“But he just took it. I didn’t see it, but he did. I remember. It has to be him because now he has it.” Bradley stood up and hovered over the bald guy.
“I quit then,” Roy said. “I want my share back.”
Mack stood up. “Nuh-uh, man. Once it’s in the pot, it’s in the pot.”
“I’m out. I want it back.”
Roy scanned the room, then looked back at Mack. “Fuck you, man,” he said, and walked out.
Will won that game, and then another.
Bradley was down $20.
He had come here to play music, to do something he enjoyed.
But he barely played. He usually played four or five songs before one of the bartenders motioned for him to wrap it up.
Or: He had come here to share something original, something new that he had made.
But he had one original song, and even that was written from stuff Frances had said.
Or: He had come here to make money, to make up the money from the promotion Ledstrum had promised him.
But he was losing more money than he made.
He looked over at Paul. There was a man who’d spent over a decade dressed as another man. He’d done more than play covers: he’d become a cover. He wanted to ask if he was quitting because there wasn’t as much money in it anymore, or if people had lost interest. He finally asked, “Why’d you stop?”
Paul just shrugged.
After the bar closed, Paul and Mack stayed behind, in the small room across from the bathrooms. Paul sat in front of the tennis table. Mack stood behind him and draped a towel around Paul’s neck.
Mack said, “Ready?”
Paul said, “Ready.”
And then the humming of a small electric razor for hours.
Paul closed his eyes and concentrated on nothing but that hum.
After Bradley left for one of his walks, the phone rang.
“Christine? I finished the novel.” Christine hesitated, pretending to not quite remember. But she did remember. “So,” he said, “should I mail it?”
Christine imagined Bradley bringing in the mail, holding the package in front of her face and asking what she had bought now. “Would you mind bringing it over?”
Christine had been thinking. Bradley was distancing himself from her. He was hiding a change of clothes in his car. When she called his office, an assistant said he had gone home for the day.
He wasn’t lying to her because technically, they were barely talking, and she did not ask him what he was doing. She was afraid to know.
She didn’t think she would leave him if he was in fact cheating. She would be the wife who stayed. Chelsea’s father had cheated on her mother decades ago. A long affair that had lasted years. He had barely attempted to hide it. Chelsea’s mother would tell her, “There he goes. To see his girl.” Chelsea wondered why he needed to leave when she was supposed to be his girl. But until she was ten, he was barely present.
Everyone had known. But when the mistress broke off the relationship, she did so publically, in an attempt to humiliate him. But instead Chelsea’s mother became compassionate. She stayed, and he changed. It seemed overnight he went from always gone to always staying in.
He bought a cookbook, and they made every recipe. He had changed in a way Chelsea could see and eat, as if every bite was one of forgiveness. After they made it through the entire cookbook, her father began again. But Chelsea was no longer so hungry. She didn’t want to keep eating his apologies.
Yes, she would be upset, devastated, if Bradley was actually cheating, but she had to be careful about how she went about this. If she was wrong or wrong “enough,” he would not let her forget it.
She wanted Brian to come over. She would offer him something to drink. She would talk to him, keep him there, until Bradley came home.
She told herself she wasn’t going to actually do anything. Brian was a kid. He was undoubtedly handsome, but he had a look of youth and terror. Bradley would notice this too, would know the kid himself was no harm, but that this was a message from her to him.
She would force Bradley to confront her, to ask questions, to talk to her.
Will hadn’t tried sleight of hand tricks in years, not since he’d been Billy the Magnificent. But the night before, the man next to him had been so drunk and careless with his cards, placing them on the table and looking away—Will suddenly remembered how he had practiced for days so that he could move the card from the bottom of a deck to the top of a deck without anyone noticing. He had practiced quick, subtle gestures that relied on controlling the audience’s eye contact.
Last night he moved before even he could really think about what he was doing. The moment of hesitation is the moment a magician is caught.
He was going to buy that jumpsuit, the one he now assumed had been Paul’s. Watching Paul last night, Will had figured they were about the same size, that the suit would fit him just fine.
Will wasn’t sure what he would actually do with a suit like that. He would figure that out later.
Brian had not finished the book. He had not made it past the third chapter. But he did not want that burden anymore: the weight of the book on his sheets when he would wake to realize he could not remember any of the pages he had read the night before, the clumsy way he had to move the book from arm to arm as he locked the door to his apartment, the attention a book that size drew in fast food restaurants. He had decided a week after Christine had given him her number what he would do.
As Brian drove to her house, he looked down at his phone in the passenger seat and noticed he had missed a call from his brother. At a red light, Brian called his brother back, holding the phone against his shoulder and his ear as he shifted into first gear. Will answered and said, “I’m at Goodwill. I’ll wait for you here.”
This is what Will did. He never asked. He always assumed. Brian did not say he already had plans. He said he would be right there. He had not seen Will in a month. Since the last treatment, they had seen less and less of each other. But ever since the cancer, Brian felt the need to say yes whenever his brother asked for company, no matter what. At the next red light, Brian set the book in the backseat and covered it with his jacket.
When Brian pulled up, Will was sitting on the hood of his car in an egg-white jumpsuit, his cape shifting in the slight wind. Brian imagined how his brother must seem to others: Will’s hair had not grown back yet, and he was still very thin and pale.
Seeing Brian, Will lifted his arm, the sun reflecting off his sequins. Brian pulled up next to him, and Will got in, closing the door on his cape.
“You look like Lex Luthor,” Brian said. “What the hell are you wearing?”
“I’m seeing a therapist. As part of cancer rehabilitation. He said I should wear a power suit. To show that even though I may still look sick, I’m actually very strong.” Brian thought his brother was probably lying. He never made eye contact when he was lying.
“Oh. Did you want to hang out? Or did you just want to show me—”
“I was going to ask you for the book back. Because it reminded me of the chemo. But I don’t think I should have it.” Will picked at one of his arm sequins.
“Um. So you’re sure you don’t want it back?”
“OK. Because if you’re cool with this, I was kind of going to give it to someone. You want to go? It could help with your therapy, maybe. If you feel like it would help to get rid of stuff that reminds you of the cancer and all.” Brian watched his brother to see how he would react.
Brian wanted to get rid of the book. He didn’t want his brother to have it. Something about that huge novel tied to the cancer. Something about letting the weight of it go.
He liked the idea of giving it to a stranger. Not that it was cursed. But this way, she wouldn’t have that burden. To her, it would just be a novel.
Brian decided to be insistent on this. “Let’s drop off the novel, and then we can grab something to eat.”
Frances stood in front of her living room window, holding the waffle, watching for movements, for shifting in the bushes.
She’d been holding the waffle for an hour. At first, it had been frozen, but now it was much more giving in her hands. She was tempted to crumble it, but she knew that was not the way to handle it. She must be patient.
Bradley and Christine’s blinds were shut, but Frances could see Christine’s shadow moving through the house. She followed the shadow into the master bedroom, and then it was gone. Christine must have lain down on the bed.
A car pulled into Christine and Bradley’s driveway. A young man got out, carrying something.
He walked over to the passenger side of the car. Another man was opening his car door and stepping out.
Frances saw the shadow of Christine move in the bedroom.
Frances looked down for a moment as she rubbed a dry spot on her left hand.
When she looked up again, she saw a figure dressed in white, standing at the edge of her yard. His white garments shone and flickered, little sparks of lightning across his arms and chest. A halo of sunlight crowned his head.
At first, he did not seem to see her, but then his eyes focused directly on her, and he moved forward a step, pressing down on a corner of her lawn.
She thought back to the young boy in her mirror, of the angel magnet on her refrigerator, of the lone waffle in her freezer.
She said, “I have the fear of the Lord.” She was shouting it, over and over, through the window, to him, to the shadows that moved within her house, to anyone who could hear. “I have the fear of the Lord,” as if she was daring him to harm her. This was not praise. This was an admonition.
He stared into the dark living room from across the yard, and she continued to point to him, to command him not to harm her, to let her be, for she had the fear of the Lord. Her window began to fog, and she could not see him as clearly, but she knew he was there watching her.
And then she was swallowed into the darkness of her home.
Frances was on the floor, her face against the carpet. Hands were groping at her, pulling her. She wanted them to stop.
They turned her over. Christine was kneeling above her. And the white spirit who had been watching her was standing behind Christine. Frances did not tell her. She knew Christine would not be able to see him.
He was holding the waffle, cupping it in one hand as if it were an offering. He placed his other hand over it, covering it entirely, and then moving his hands slowly apart, to reveal nothing. There was nothing in his hands.