The coffin-sized pit in his basement wasn’t freshly dug. “If I was burying Cub Scouts, I wouldn’t have let you down here,” he joked, his voice thin.
It was pretty logical, but I was too creeped out for logic. Six months together! I said, “The truth.”
“The truth? You shouldn’t have come down here, you shouldn’t put me on the spot like this.”
I backed away toward the stairs, gripping the railing behind me, waiting for him to grab an axe; instead, I saw self-righteousness melt into tears.
“You think I’d hurt you? I’m the same person,” he blubbered. “You loved me five minutes ago.”
I didn’t answer.
“I dug it four years ago, the day I found out I was positive.” He waited for me to speak, like this was some answer. “I laid down in it. Pretended I was dead. It… it was good.”
“You’re not going to die,” I reminded him. “Not now.”
“Duh,” he said. “You said you’d love me no matter what.”
I let go of the railing. “It’s spooky! You could have told me.”
“Tell you I think I should break up with you, just to spare you eventual doom?” He gasped for air and pulled away when I touched his neck.
I climbed into the pit and beckoned, arms open. He wiped his eyes and breathed deeply, then climbed down. I put my arm around him and imagined our future as I held him in the dirt.
Category Archives: John Wentworth Chapin
Pop-pop and Lily were in the garden again. His hands were knobby and mottled, ugly things, but she took them without hesitation when he offered them to lift her out of the dirt or onto his knee, setting her there like a giggling princess. Pop-pop couldn’t talk since the stroke, but his gestures were broad with warmth and love.
Dee, Lily’s mother, watched from the porch, hiding her rare cigarette from her father and her daughter. She was as ambivalent about Kent III’s as she was about her formerly monstrous father charming his granddaughter. For a long bit of her childhood, he’d come drunkenly into her bed and made a mess of her life; it started after she quit ballet and ended around her first period. She had to count the years on her fingers, but she remembered the markers.
She forgave him, she supposed. It had been easy to do so at the hospital when he was gray and papery. Now, it took a cigarette to steady her when she watched him touch Lily, another drag to quench the fire when Lily shrieked with delight. Dee trusted him, but she couldn’t look away. Yearning, horrified, resigned.
Perhaps he was hollow, without memory behind his now watery eyes. Perhaps this was a peace offering. Perhaps it didn’t matter. They were a family, now, these three: child, widow, widower.
Lily aped a pirouette and collapsed giggling onto Pop-pop’s lap. Dee inhaled.
“Dammit, I am good at what I do,” Evie slurred, overly loud. Her wings ached.
“You got one job and you do it, Evie. You do it good, the hive thrives. You do it bad, we all die. You want praise? Pfft. We all bust our stingers around here.” Shirley stubbed her cigarillo out on a dead chunk of honeycomb. “Be happy. The queen crawls around and squirts out your future all day long. You want that shit job?”
A drone raised his honey-soused mandibles. “Shut your trap about Her Holiness.”
“Mind your own beeswax,” Shirley warned. Goddamned uppity drones. “You got freedom to fly, at least, doll.”
“I’m not complaining, Shirl. Well I am, but not about the work. Why do we do it? We don’t see no payoff. No one does, not you, not Her Fatness. We just continue on, year after year, pollen, babies, honey. What’s the point?”
“I puke up honey and squeeze wax out of my ass for a living. If I don’t work, I don’t eat and then we all die. I don’t want to die. There’s your motivation, babycakes.”
Evie stroked her thorax drunkenly. “What if I refused? What if I wanted to sleep in one morning?”
The drone gaped. “She’s thinking about herself,” he half-whispered.
Shirley eyed the drone warily. She’d have to eat him before he spilled the beans about Evie to the hive.
She’d have to keep her eye on Evie, too.
When he was seven, he and his four-year-old brother hunted raspberries in the ravine. They found an old abandoned refrigerator covered in brambles. He continued filling his coffee can with blood-red berries, maneuvering carefully around thorns, eating any over-ripe fruit. He called for Will but got no response; Will’s can was perched on the old off-white refrigerator. Will was inside: warm, not breathing, limp as a wet towel. He pulled Will out and their jeans and skin caught on the brambles. He tried to drag his brother, but it was too much. He ran for home, screaming for help in the silent ravine. A hollow space opened inside him.
His mother gaped as he blabbered incoherently, dripping his own blood and vomiting bloody red raspberries onto the linoleum. He couldn’t make her understand; he was hollow. He ran from the house with his mother on his heels screaming at him to stop and come inside.
When they got to the bottom of the ravine and she saw what had been Will, she ran to her boy, flaying herself on the brambles, shaking him and pounding his chest and kissing her baby. He threw up again. The hollow space engulfed from within, emptying him.
“What did you do to him?” she howled at him, at the brambles. But he was a blown egg now, fragile around nothing. He had no answer for his mother, then or decades later, long after she stopped asking.
I knew Courtney Love was hot even before she finally brushed her hair and took a shower sometime after Kurt Cobain shot himself. One look at that mouth and you know she gives kickass head when she’s not passed out or saying stupid shit. Someone that talented should be a fucking superstar, but what’s so hot about Courtney is she’s so damaged. If I met her I’d be cool and sort of a dick to her and she’d eat it up, and we’d end up with her straddling me in my back seat, probably. And she’d be pissed off about it, too, because I’m a nobody and look how far she’s fallen. She’s always had one foot on a pedestal and the other in a gutter. Every Courtney episode is just so screwed up and it makes her all the hotter. It’s not like I’m fixated on 1994 Courtney or rehab Courtney or Golden Globes Courtney or whatever – I accept all of her. You know, I bet no one else does – not anyone who isn’t drawing a paycheck off her. She would hate me for being nothing and I would love her for being famous but nothing. I’m the one who could make her happy. I’d probably have to treat her like shit a little, but that’s okay, because I want to see what she does next, even if I’m already fucking her.
Steven blurts it out: he cheated on her, broke into the lab, time-travelled back, fixed it. Technically, no cheating… they wouldn’t even know he broke in at work. Now it is all fine…except his conscience: fancy dinner and confession.
“You’re ridiculous. Time travel is impossible, Steven.” Her lobster tail is getting cold, drawn butter congealing.
He persists. “For the sake of this $200 meal, let’s pretend it’s not…. So are we good?”
Luann sighs, sucks a claw. “You think I care if it physically happened? If it temporally happened? You didn’t just fantasize. You screwed her – so you cheated. Pour more Perrier Jouet, asshole.”
“But it never happened! The universe has no record of it!” Steven looks triumphant: NASA-nerd triumphant, like when he beats a video game. She has no patience for it.
“Do you remember it?” Luann asks. “Did you get off?”
“So there’s record.”
“But I made it so I never even met her!”
“Plus, you are a work-breaker-inner and coverer-upper.”
Steven’s brow furrows and he considers the diagonal weave of his napkin as it curves at a fold.
“Okay, Mister space-time engineer. You didn’t meet her. You didn’t boink her. But I’m a therapist… and I know you will. Or did. Or whatever.”
Luann tries to enjoy her lobster. She knows her husband: he’s sneaking back to the lab and this meal will never show up on the Visa bill.
Steven knows she knows: time travel is better than bulimia.
It’s blistering hot on the balcony, and everyone’s trashed, including you. They’ll be hooking up, puking, passing out, fighting, talking about old cartoons, crying, the whole human drama. The only way you can sort everyone out is Monday morning: the pretenders ride the train to work and the fuckups are sleeping in.
Mrs. Horne is in her chair near the window, a blanket on her lap, bright sun streaming across her shins and feet. She was parked here about an hour ago, bathed in warmth and looking at the bleak institutional lawn beyond. For the last twenty minutes, she’s been getting colder as the shadows lengthen, but the staff is busy with the folks who really need them.
Our children: a dream. Tall, my hair, your skin – beautiful. If you were mine for more than just tonight, I’d imagine more, but I’m going to stop there, before the darkness sets in.
I want to put the lilies down in front of their gravestone; the florist put a green easel on the back so they’d stand up. But something in me can’t stand to bend over like that in front of the grave – I was going to throw up or scream and that would piss my sister off. I kick the leaves away but end up leaving the flowers on the stone. My sister stubs out her cigarette at a safe distance.
“You gonna eat?” she asks. They pick crabs alone at a wooden picnic table at the end of a pier. Some inept guy with a double outboard tries a third time to back up to the dock beside them.
“No appetite,” the husband says. He’s hardly eaten since he caught her cheating.
She guffaws. “You have plenty of appetite for that beer. The last thing you need is a DUI.” She’s right. Not less than three months ago, he got probation for assault: he broke four of the guy’s teeth when he caught them. Now he wishes the two had run away together.
The wife slaps the table and stands. “You bore me. We’re leaving.”
It happens fast: her high heel catches on the picnic bench, and she tries to catch her balance, hopping on the other high heel. When the heel becomes free, she goes flying where she’s leaning, and in a second, she’s in the creek. Mr Outboard backs churning engines toward where the wife disappears into the dark water.
The perfect murder, and it’s not even murder; Mr Outboard hasn’t seen a thing.
But there are no witnesses. No police or judge would believe this to be an accident, not after last year. The husband shouts over the thrumming engines, and the boater shuts them off, confused and then alarmed as he sees where she has now surfaced, bedraggled and sputtering angrily. The husband considers helping her more but chooses to finish his beer.
“Barbie stood naked before the throng, facing all defiantly,” the Narratrix intoned. The crowd of men jeered: a green Power Ranger, a handful of Pokémon, two Batmen, and Bob the Builder, behind them a seething mass of African Safari animals and sharks. Barbie wore only her clear pink heels, her defiance untempered by her precarious stance on a white Lexus convertible. The potential for mayhem was tangible.
“Whore!” cried Papa Smurf, leaping vertically and shaking with righteous zeal. Barbie fell from her makeshift gallows, taking out a Lion and the Polar Bear of Unknown Origin. Barbie quickly hopped back.
“You may call me whore, but I will never bow to your rules.” Barbie pushed her flowing golden locks behind her shoulder.
“Burn the witch!” cried the crowd.
Barbie shook with fury. “I would rather die than live a lie. I could never love Ken. NEVER, I say!”
“A single tear fell down her lovely cheek,” whispered the Narratrix; Barbie was thinking of her one true love, Dora, silent in suicidal repose after her Hummer plummeted off the couch.
Ken soared through the air, collecting Barbie in his well-defined arms. The Narratrix’s voice was triumphant: “The crowd howled, cheated.”
“No!” Barbie screamed. “Let me die! Let my love and me reunite in death!”
Ken deposited her on the pouf where the Hulk waited, chest bared. “Be patient, sister,” Ken said. “We can fool them another fifty years.”
The Narratrix blinked back tears. “Fuck NOM,” she hissed.
Uncle Allen came to live with him for a short while, between retirement and nursing home. Allen would stroll the remains of the orchard, reminiscing with Tad, flirting with dementia. One row held a decrepit peach which yielded a host of sad fruit over the decades. In amongst a cluster of old trees that produced reliably, all of which were planted before Tad’s folks bought the place, this tree bore hard nubs ripe with promise which wizened to black before July. “This tree,” Allen said when they walked the property together, “will never amount to nothing. It sucks the life from the trees around it. They’d all produce better if it was chopped down.” Once, he added, “And that’s what my mother always said about me.” He didn’t repeat it.
The nursing home was a horrid, low-rent affair that shamed both Tad and Allen; it was easier for them both if Allen just died, which he did eighteen months later. Within weeks of the funeral on the north slope, that tree bore luscious peaches the likes of which Tad had never seen on his farm. He plucked one at first ripeness and carved a slice with his pocketknife: sweet and juicy. He wolfed the peach down and wiped his bristled chin.
In his palm lay a blackened, shriveled pit the likes of which he’d never seen on his farm. He took the old peach down himself with an axe that afternoon, leaving the fruit to rot in the grass.
I hear the undying screams of the children outside. The pitch never rises or falls; as one voice falls silent, another joins in. This persistent caterwauling threatens my resolve, but I am determined. I have worked it out carefully, mulling doctrine. I know right from wrong. I’m seven; I’m not an idiot.
God is all-knowing; there is no way to escape His notice. I can’t hope for a sneeze or a turned back. Even if there were a volcano in the Philippines right now, he’d pluck the memory from my mind. It’s obscene. He already knows I’ll do it. I am stealthy and efficient.
There are all sorts of sins, but they have one thing in common. Whether you pinch your sister or slaughter a family with an axe, you can be forgiven: just apologize. You don’t even have to be contrite. Clearly, God is desperate for our entreaties. His law is unavoidable but woefully deficient. My aunt says I should be a preacher – I know the Word – but I plan to be a lawyer. Apologies mean nothing in court.
I unwrap her birthday presents on the front hall table while outside she gnaws her filthy hot dog and smears mustard on her flouncy birthday dress. As long as the cola-soaked miscreants scream, her parents will remain in the back yard, and I am safe in here with God’s eye and a diminishing pile of toys shrouded in paper mystery.
Sundown on a resort balcony; lazy waves purred below. “You don’t believe in fate? Still?” Sand dusted the tops of Sam’s feet which rested on the railing.
“We found each other, sure, against all odds.” Ty chewed on a gin-soaked lime peel.
“That sounds like an accident. My head and my pants say this is fate.”
“Fate is 31 flavors and you end up with a tasty but random scoop. But you haven’t had the other 30 to know the difference. Choice is… a whole mall that only sells socks and you try them all on and there’s only one pair that fits. You, my dear man, are my pair.”
“You want to get laid talking socks.”
Ty shrugged. “I’m getting laid no matter the topic.”
Sam grunted and cracked a smile.
Ty breathed in salt and contentment. “You want to believe we were put together by the universe. Forces coming together to create us. The universe doesn’t care, my love.” Ty leaned over and pecked Sam on the cheek. “But I do.”
“You want to believe you had a choice in the matter.”
“You want me to say that thirty-one years together is someone or something else’s doing? Nope.”
“I think we had this same disagreement on our twenty-third anniversary. Italy.” Sam said.
Ty shook his head and tapped Sam’s foot with his toe. “Twentieth. Aruba.”
as long as it is we who wake together
Seven empty wine bottles huddled on the coffee table. “URGENT,” I said to my brother. He stared blankly at me. “URGENT,” I repeated. You can’t say more in Password.
“I heard you,” he snapped. He stared at the burgundy dregs in his glass. I wanted to go to bed, but I wanted to win. Competitive and drunk.
“You’re taking too long,” my mother said. If she said anything else, he would explode. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know that by now.
He paused, long and deliberate, daring anyone to goad him.
“DELIVERY,” he said. I sighed.
“SOS,” his wife said to my mother immediately, barely a pause.
“HELP,” my mother responded. It was the right answer.
My brother glowered. “Delivery was a good guess,” he said.
“But it was wrong!” his wife chirped.
His eyes were glazed: the wine, the late hour, the competition. A bad combination. He and my mother looked at the next card.
“DOCTOR,” she said to her daughter-in-law.
“NURSE,” came the reply. My mother shook her head and frowned.
My brother stared at the card, again too long. He looked at me. “DOCTOR,” he said, nodding slowly.
“She just said that,” I groaned, my tone critical, bewildered.
“I know she just said that,” he snarled. “DOCTOR.” He nodded, persistent.
“You can’t gesture,” my mother complained.
I took in a sharp breath. “NURSE,” I hissed.
He called me a fucking asshole before he upended the coffee table and sent the bottles clattering across the floor.
Gladys was looking through the peephole in her front door when the bell rang a second time. It was a beagle. She cracked the door and shouted Shoo!
The dog thumped his tail. “Please help me. I’m lost.”
“Go away.” She closed the door.
“I’ll let you put me on YouTube,” the dog whined.
“My show is on,” she said through the closed door.
“Gladys Miller!” the dog shouted. “Live a little. TiVo it.”
She shouted back. “How do you know my name?”
“I looked at your mail.”
Gladys pulled the door open and snatched her mail. “You rotten mutt! That’s a federal offense.” Ugh: the Victoria’s Secret catalog was damp with spittle.
“Please help. My family went for a hike and I stupidly took off after a collie.”
“Where do you live?”
The dog growled. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t need your help.”
“Are you one of those persevering dogs that travels a thousand miles to be reunited with his master?”
“Are you one of those lonely old ladies with too many cats? C’mon, Gladys, gimme a break.”
She frowned. “If you don’t know where you live, how can I help?”
“I’m sure they put a notice on Craigslist. B-U-D-D-Y. I’m six and part Schnauzer.” He looked ashamed.
“Seriously?” he asked. “It’s a website.”
“I don’t have a computer. But you could come in and have some water.”
“Sorry, Gladys. You’re a poor investment.” Buddy trotted off in search of modernity and his family.
The hunched woman brushed her gray hair and wrinkled her nose. She muttered loudly, “I’m glad they put the wall up. When it gets a little humid around here, I can smell those damn people.”
“No, you can’t, Mama,” Linda said.
“I can and I do and you mind your own business,” the old woman retorted.
Linda sighed and folded laundry. So unnecessary.
“It goes under the ground, but not deep enough,” the mother continued. “Their rain soaks in and poisons our trees. Look all the way down the wall.” She pointed with her chin. “Weeds won’t even grow next to the wall.”
“Papa,” Linda mused.
“Don’t,” her mother warned.
Linda didn’t have to glance out the window to know that the ground along the wall was barren. They poured industrial-strength pesticides along the wall to keep the ground dead and make hole-diggers and runners easier to spot. Her father had crossed the border, even before the wall; they never knew how, whether stowed in a van or on foot. He promised to send money and bring them over. That was nine years ago, and they had never heard from him. They both knew he was dead. Each kept it to herself for her own reasons.
“Keep the bastard up north. We’re better off without him,” her mother grumbled.
Linda hoped he was happy and rich.
At my niece’s Christmas pageant they had two dogs on stage, one dressed as a cow and the other as a donkey. That’s when I had the idea for a pageant for my obedience school at spring graduation, the Saturday before Easter.
I spent the whole winter preparing: wigs, robes. I abandoned beards, because the dogs kept pulling them off. A kid-sized wifebeater and pillowcase skirt were perfect biblical robes for all but the Rottweiler, so I made him a Centurion. His helmet was inspired.
I picked a border collie bitch to play Jesus. When she rolled that gray-painted beach ball away from her tomb, you should have heard the applause and the shouting. Praise be! Our Lord has risen! I was ecstatic.
How was I to know the little bitch was in heat?
I think the applause set the dogs off. Mary Magdalene started humping Our Savior first, and then Peter tackled the slattern, trying to get a piece. While they were fighting tooth and claw, the Centurion mounted Jesus and rode him like a rodeo bull around the lawn and down the center aisle between the folded chairs. One little girl started crying about her Pomeranian, the Messiah began howling, and then the audience was up, chasing the holy family all over the baseball diamond.
Praise be. It was a great idea, but Jesus’s puppies’ll be the devil to get rid of.
The Ancestors confront The Writer. “Why do you write filth?” they howl – the very timbers quake.
The Writer drinks in their longcoats, sabers, powdered hair. It’s not… well, not all filth.
“April 12, 1986!” thunders a corseted woman with an eyepatch, waving folded yellow legal paper: “Fellatio, drunkenness, bestiality, and six blasphemies!” A man in black frock with buckled boots nods, glowering.
That was a fake letter, a joke…
“He thinks it not filth if a joke!” The gentleman in dingy Civil War-era military garb hisses, the blue or gray faded to a judgmental charcoal. Someone belches fire somewhere; brimstone and sulfur creep hot down The Writer’s throat.
Uh… yeah, that one was filth.
The Writer’s mind races. Nothing he has written comes forth; all he remembers is sitting with a pencil, a pen, a typewriter, a laptop, an iPhone, words and images spilling over the lip of his mind like so much lava, too hot to touch but oh so tempting. He thinks of houseplants blooming in January, doe-eyed pets on his lap, lovers in blissful repose. Dappled sunsets…
“Well?” croaks a woman in rags, shaking her fists. “You think we have eternity?”
The Writer begins to object… Every time I go to write about beauty, I hear you scoffing at my weakness. He doesn’t speak a hurtful truth: I write about your weakness.
The Writer clears his throat: “You have written yours. Be still.”
The boat crashed into the concrete bank and the little boy shrieked, delighted: “Do it again!” His father tried to put it in reverse with the remote, but the engine only whined. He directed the boy to turn the boat around.
“You broke it already?” she said.
He said nothing.
“Come back to the party. We’re going to do cake soon.”
“It’s his birthday. Let him play.”
“Mommy, look!” the boy shouted, nudging the boat away from the edge.
“Careful, sweetie,” she called, her tone shifting to warmth. She hissed five minutes and disappeared over the embankment.
He joined his son at the water’s edge and toggled the remote. The propeller spun a moment, urging the boat forward, then stopped. “That last crash might have been one too many,” he said.
The boy took the remote and carefully pushed one lever forward. The engine caught and reached full speed, leaving a tiny wake. The boy grinned up at his father: two rows of white baby teeth.
“Turn it around now,” the father suggested. The boat continued forward and then the engine died, stranded fifty yards away in the middle of the pond. The man sighed; he took off his shoes and rolled up his pants legs.
“Can I come?” the boy asked. The father looked past his son up the embankment and nodded. The boy held onto his father’s hand as they waded together out into the shallow, frigid water. The boy giggled, splashing his father and howling at the cold.
As the closing credits roll for Spinal Tap, I click off the VCR and TV. Bobby is stoned past the point of giggling. He grunts and says, “That’s true, you know, what they said about the drummer and spontaneous combustion.”
I’m still staring at that little spot in the center of the television, waiting for it to wick out. It’s an old one, rabbit ears and all. I need new friends or something.
“My grandfather knew a guy who died of spontaneous combustion,” Bobby says. “Wait, no, my grandfather died of it. The whole inside of his truck got crisped.”
No, he probably didn’t, I think. I wish we were at Bobby’s so I could take off, but instead I just stare at my TV. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him digging around in the ashtray.
“Is your wife coming back?” he asks.
This startles me; I wonder what he knows about Heather. I turn to look at him. He’s offering me a tiny wedge of juice-soaked paper wisping thin smoke from the dim ember. He doesn’t know anything about anything.
I turn to look back at the TV, but the light has winked out. I take the roach from Bobby gingerly and hold it to my lips. I want to tell him she spontaneously combusted, but I don’t. I kill the joint instead.
It was that first sip of bourbon that brought on the calm. Yes, she drank every night, and no, she didn’t have more than two except for the occasional festive or depressed night. Yes, she drank alone, and no, she didn’t worry about it. She’d dated enough drunks to know the difference.
Sometimes she had a date and sometimes she had to work late, but she carved out time at about 6:30 to kick off her cramping shoes and relax a bit before going on with the day. Vespers, she called it. The church of the self.
You need to get laid, her sister said. You’re alone too much.
I’m not alone enough, she answered, skewering a cornichon on her fork and snapping off half in her slight overbite for emphasis. It was a quick deli lunch; her sister had the habit of injecting intervention into every meeting, no matter how brief.
You live like a nun, her sister objected.
She toyed with a comparison between Mother Teresa’s needy millions and the marketing department she ran.
That’s right, she agreed. A nun.
Taped to the front door in an envelope:
This morning, you missed your schoolbus for the third time this fall. Dr Pruitt agrees with me that it’s time for something called Tough Love. This Tough Love contract will set up expectations for the future so that we may traverse this rocky path speedily.
I locked you out of the apartment today because you inconvenience me when you miss the bus. I have to get you to school, and I end up late for work. I hope that you are similarly inconvenienced. Does being hungry feel worse than Mommy felt this morning? Unlikely – disrespect strikes quite deep. If they don’t cover consequences in your gifted and talented program, you may care to research it.
For you to ponder: how gifted can one be if one can’t manage to catch a bus?
PS — We will keep this contract in the sitting room credenza for future reference.
Also, I have a deposition until about 6:30. If nosy Mrs Wong by the elevator asks why you are sitting in the hall, tell her you lost your key.
|Darlene’s dad had sent her down here from the county to keep her from the drugs and the pregnancies that had trapped her older sisters. She missed him, but there wasn’t really a place for her there anymore, and that was okay. She liked thinking of herself as the One Who Got Away.
When school was about to let out for the summer, she needed to find a reason to stay in the city, so she got a job around the corner sweeping hair at the little crummy salon that churned out little fat women with pinked curly hair. They had daughters they fought with and daughters-in-law they fought with worse. Darlene listened carefully; clearly, unless she figured out things for herself, she was in trouble no matter whether she was out beyond the bus line with her father or here in the city. The old women were miserable, and the young women were miserable. They all nestled up against convention and obligation, and it beat them down.
As far as she could figure, the only way not to be one of them was to be something else. She played with the coloring chemicals at the salon after hours; weird hair was enough to keep immediate trouble at bay for the short term. Keeping the world at arm’s reach over the long term was going to take more than some colored streaks and unconventional cuts.
He lay on his side for a moment, catching his breath, assessing the damage to his body and the small sitting area next to his bed. He didn’t have a real living room anymore; he’d had to select one piece of furniture to bring with him to this facility four years earlier. He had sighed when he made the choice: better than being dead.
He’d been hobbling past the end table and had put his hand out for balance. The table tipped, and he went with it. He wasn’t hurt badly, but the pain was starting. He sighed: better than being dead.
He’d made this table — decades ago, couldn’t really remember if he’d been a young man or an old man. One of its legs had splintered in the fall. He saw the culprit: on the floor under the table was a folded-up piece of paper that had been keeping the table level. One of the legs had always been too short.
He reached with bruised arm to grab the paper, unfolded it, saw that is was a postcard: a tropical beach. He didn’t recognize it. He flipped it over. Nothing was written on the other side, and he didn’t have his reading glasses to decipher the tiny print. He didn’t know where it was from, who’d bought it, why, anything.
“We never know what you’re saying to us,” she says. I laugh, because this should be funny, but it’s not.
“What a pleasure to know that my pearls of wisdom fall on deaf ears,” I say.
“Like that,” she says. She’s the worst student in my Modern Film class and we’re alone at a bar.
She is just a few years younger than I, back in college. She doesn’t know how to organize or articulate her thoughts, but she has killer instincts. We watched a film in class and she said something brilliant; the sheep surrounding her stared blankly. So I educed, elaborated, expounded – all the verbs necessary to make her observation an insight.
“No,” she said, when I reframed her observation, “that’s not what I meant.”
The rest of the class chewed its cud. I was left to elucidate or shut up.
“Perhaps you could clarify your point,” I offered. She repeated, eerily verbatim, her observation that prompted my diatribe.
They understood what she was saying. I understood it; but no one understands me. This is what prompted me to follow her after class to this bar and act surprised when I walked in and saw her there. She didn’t look surprised; in fact, she casually nodded me over.
“You act as though you expected me,” I said.
She shrugged. I understood exactly what she meant.
This is what they say about my hair: Brillo. Jew-fro. Nigger wool. Seriously, people: nigger wool.
Nice, right? Buncha fuckin low-lifes, right? No, I’m not at the junior high bus
My cousin Theresa, who I haven’t been able to look in the eye since the incident in fifth grade with my unwilling shriveled cock and her fingernail polish, is
I flinch, and my mother rolls her eyes. I say, “You can’t call yourself a hippie and use the N word, Mom, for fuck’s sake.”
“You call yourself a hippie, Denise?” my dad asks. I’m pretty sure he’s stoned.
“Niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger,” she says. I’m sure she’s drunk. I snap.
“OKAY!” I shout over her mantra. “I will get my hair cut before the wedding.” This appeases them.
I will get it cut, and it will look nice for a brief moment in time… And then,
They all held Christmas back in Pemberton. Only old Mick Turner and FJ – one of the middle sons – still lived in Pemberton, but the far-flung Turner boys and their broods descended upon Pemberton like locusts. The clan had long since outgrown the pine dining room table with its single leaf; FJ set out four long plastic folding tables on the lanai. The old pine table sagged with aluminum trays of meat and soft vegetables. The Turner boys loved the homecoming and their women graciously tolerated it. Family is what it is.
When the hour grew late and the supply of whiskey dwindled around the circle, each prodigal Turner boy lamented his state. Each past holiday was farther back than the distance between the previous two. One brother spoke of his desire to return to Pemberton, to give the finger to the fast lane and come home. The other boys grumbled in agreement: FJ had it good here. FJ grinned and nodded into his cup.
Old Mick Turner struggled not to weep: all this flesh from his own, longing for home. But in two days’ time, he would be alone again with this loathsome sponge who reminded him daily of his failure to have loved enough as a father. FJ might drown or disappear, something painless and eternal, but such freedom was a hopeless dream for Mick.
Her bleached hair pulled into a dark-rooted ponytail, the girl in pajama bottoms pushes a stroller over a patch of brown weeds in the sidewalk and shouts upward, head tilting slightly, the arc of her invective presumably aimed at the little boy and girl ambling halfway down the block behind her, but this foghorn of animosity broadcasts widely and blankets the block with a simmering layer of teenage bile. She pushes her biracial toddler past me and her voice gets even louder; not a Doppler effect, but some insidious sociological one which demands that this childmother make up for in volume the dominion she cannot claim in life, particularly when being observed. The pair behind her shout back, half-laughing and half-mumbling; this is no argument. This symphony is joined by a new instrument a few moments later, the bellowing of the girl’s mother decrying travesty unseen. I trudge up my stoop as this long line walks by. I turn and survey them, backwards and forwards, seeing the invisible grandmother far behind, and her mother as well behind her, seeing into the future the unavoidable stroller pushed by a scowling teen scouring the same landscape with the same howl of failure born from the longing for the line to break.
|“You’d want me to tell you, right?”
I pause. “Of course.” This is a polite lie; I haven’t made up my mind.
“Good friends have to be brutally honest, because no one else will. Tell me.”
I ponder the differences between our families; we were kids together and know each other well. I grew up with perhaps a little too much honesty. We are loud: we yell, we cry, we slam our flatware and storm out of the room. It is tiresome. I dream of a Thanksgiving without tears. His people eat soggy casseroles and smile with tight lips. It would be unthinkable to say something honest and personal between them.
So of course he needs me to be honest. But he doesn’t know how fucking mean I am; I am wise enough to keep it under wraps. He doesn’t know how deeply I judge, that I roll my eyes, that I pretend his new bathroom paint looks good, how I hated the sundried tomatoes in that omelet.
He forces a jovial grunt and pushes my shoulder. “Come on, for fuck’s sake! Tell me what you really think. That’s what friends are for.”
I consider this, fully. “I think you two are bad for each other,” I say.
He stares back at me, catching a short breath.
“You asked,” I remind him.
I watch a film descend over his eyes. He retreats, he gets polite.
“I guess you’re still on edge about your last break-up,” he says.
I fucking knew this would happen.
|I dropped my infant brother on his head, and although he screamed for two
hours, I didn’t tell anyone; the lump went away before anyone came home.
I rifled through the bedside table until I found dirty magazines; I
I watched from the darkness of the landing as he told my mother he didn’t
I read his email when he left his laptop on while he went to the store.
I saw the cat’s collar glint in the headlights before it thudded under my
I sobbed alone in the elevator on the way back to my hotel room; we were both flying home the next day, me to my empty house and him to his husband.
I fished his cell phone out of the toilet and put it on the bedside table and didn’t tell him.
I slipped the photographs under the front door of my ex’s parents’ house
The accumulated weight of what has gone unseen is more than I can bear.
“And I love the National Gallery. I was there two – no, three months ago – and the guy I was with knows a curator, so we got a special tour of works that aren’t on display. They were being restored. It was… phenomenal.”
Pause. Both men sip their Cabernet Franc.
“Oh, that is extraordinary. I love knowing people in the right places. When I went to the Inaugural Ball last year, it was all because of my work. I chatted up Barbara Boxer: loves the gays.”
A wry nod. Of course she is.
Silently over the bar, four Taiwanese play table tennis on television, the ball invisible from speed, swiftly hit, deftly returned.
“So tell me what you do again.”
“DARPA contracts processing. Hush-hush.” Wink. “Their budgets are…enormous.”
When the waiter brings the check, neither reaches for it.
you scared the shit out of me, knocking
no one else comes in my back door but you,
because i would rather be miserable
your eyes drank in the wine and the boxers and the exhaustion
i guess you were watching me through the window
while you fucked me bent over the kitchen counter
“I said, what’s your lucky number, babe?” the drunk guy at the counter says, again. I’m casing the place; my boyfriend Jimmy is about to bust in and rob the store. I’m pretending to be looking at puckered hot dogs rolling behind the glass case but am really eyeing the Indian clerk at the counter. Jimmy’s waiting outside for me to raise my hand as a signal. I wander away toward the microwave and condiments so I can get a better look under the counter where the foreign clerk waits to enter the drunk’s last Pick Six number.
“Hey, stuck-up bitch, you know I’m talking to you,” the drunk says.
“Don’t talk to my customers like that,” the clerk warns; he doesn’t have an accent.
“I’m the fucking customer, Achmed,” the guy says. “She ain’t bought shit.”
“Get out of my store,” shouts the clerk.
“Fuck you,” the guy snarls. He starts toward me, fast, eyes narrowed.
“Leave her alone!” In a flash, the clerk whips out a long black revolver and cocks it, aiming at the guy’s face. “Get out!”
The guy’s hands go up in the air. “Don’t shoot! Fuck!”
Time stops: my stomach clenches because I can see what’s coming. The drunk pisses himself.
Jimmy rushes in, gun drawn, “GIMME YOUR FUCKIN’ MONEY!”
The clerk swings, gun pointed at the door.
I hit the floor before the shooting starts. All I smell is piss.
Jocelyn has always been a special child, and that’s just the way it’s always been. Other children fidget, cry, stamp their feet, get runny noses – but not Jocelyn. Pageant kids are usually better behaved than the non-pageant variety, of course, but even so, Jocelyn is a standout. Of course Teddy and I have loved her with all our hearts her whole life, but it’s almost like she just knew how to act regardless of the coaching. I watch the other mothers smile with their mouths and not their eyes when their girls are on stage, but when Jocelyn does her talent routine or her Promenade, I’m relaxed. When I look in some of those poor little girls’ eyes, I see that they don’t like this: they don’t like the mascara, they don’t like sequins, they get tired of their dance or majorette routines. Sometimes the mothers hiss under their breath or the child rips off a false eyelash in front of a judge. And that’s where I draw the line. Children should not be made to do things unless they want it. It’s like Oriental sweatshop children – they don’t want to be there. Jocelyn wants to be there. Every bouncy ringlet, every crisply executed split, every careful moment of eye contact with each judge: you know Jocelyn wants to be there, and the judges know it, and the other parents know it, too.
“Something’s got to give,” she croaks, slouching on the other chair in my small office. “I can’t take on any more work.” She is my boss.
I glance at my computer screen as email notifications pop up. They are too small to read before they fade.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” I commiserate. I put my hand on the mouse, gently.
“I can see you’re busy. I’ll go,” she sighs. She looks at the mouse and then back at me, slowly.
I keep my hand on the mouse. It feels brave. “No, no, it’s fine. I’m just expecting word back from a client.”
“I’m so busy I can’t even do my work,” she moans. “What am I supposed to do?”
I look as sympathetic as I can, under the circumstance, which is entirely unsympathetic. The mouse begs me to click.
See, I actually have lots of work, much of it hers. She is master of the gambit of pre-emptive complaint, a forcefield of misery that effectively shields her from all work. If my dog breaks a leg, her daughter gets cancer. If I need to leave at 5, she needs to take off a bit early.
That finger on the mouse button, threatening to click, threatening transgression… she’d be able to hear it. She catches my eye: stalemate. I haven’t answered her question. I feel sweat on my cheeks.
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask, hating myself more than I hate her.
While you sleep, I wait for you to die. These months, all these months! They wear on me. I don’t want you to die – you must know that. I don’t even fucking believe in God, but I pray just in case. I want the lifeguards and policemen and hall monitors to really get it when I say that I don’t want you to die. When you do die, I don’t want to be caught unawares. I don’t dare expect it, but I can’t help waiting for it.
That this could happen has been hideously clear since that first electric moment of I’m pregnant when I stopped in the hallway in my ragged tightie-whities with a “?” and she said “!” and I thought about all the reasons she might have to trap me – there are so many fucked-up untrue stories that it’s hard to disbelieve all of them. True fact: since I was ten I wanted a kid more than a pony or a Mustang. When everyone else wanted to be a cowboy or fireman, I wanted to be a father.
You sleep, but you must breathe. Every time they smeared the ultrasound jelly above you, I knew you’d be stiff, unresponsive – but each time your heartbeat grew stronger. Now the gates threaten to close on your infancy. They mustn’t close on the wrong side of you: for then I will die.
I have been planning this vacation for months. I’ve heard people say that New York City is the gayest place in the world, and I can’t wait! I don’t think I’ve ever put this much into plans before – hotel, restaurants, museums, tours, shopping, bars, shows – it’s going to be perfect. Every day is booked, but not in a bad way… in a very, very fun, perfect way. And when I say perfect, I mean perfect. I wonder if we’ll see any celebrities. We’re in the lottery for a couple of TV show tapings, even! People said that three months was too soon to be vacationing together, but I had a good feeling and I went ahead and booked it anyway. Our room will have a balcony overlooking Central Park, for God’s sake! I can’t wait! It’s going to be expensive, but it is booked and I am going to enjoy every single minute of it. Walks in the park. Empire State Building. Ethnic food. Broadway! Broadway, for crying out loud! I can’t wait! I have been singing showtunes my whole life and I am finally going to see not one but three Broadway shows in ten days. Is that the shizzle or what?
The only thing I am more excited about is the day we get back home and I break up with this miserable queen. I can’t wait.
The droning of the ventilation system agitates him. He feels clammy: cold and yet sticky with sweat. He tries sleeping on his left side; when he rolls over, a small sigh escapes her lips. “Are you awake?” he whispers, squinting in the dim refracted halogen light. He feels bad for a moment: she is silent for a good long while.
“As if I could sleep,” she hisses, all venom.
“It’s loud and I’m hot and… well, I’m totally not comfortable.”
“We’re camping in space. What’d you expect?”
He doesn’t know what he expected. Not this. Not intense discomfort. He studies the far outline of some nebula-like shit; his contacts were bugging him and he had to take them out. He sighs, “This isn’t really camping.”
“Oh my God, Scott. You didn’t expect a tent?”
Again: he doesn’t know what he expected. He says, “Do you remember that time we had the RV in New Mexico? And we got stuck?”
She thinks. “And you thought there were mountain lions?”
“Right.” He thought a moment. “This is worse.”
She props herself up on her elbows. “How?”
“We were stuck, but it was better in the morning.”
“I think it’s exactly the same,” she says, moving closer and rubbing his back. “You’re afraid.”
He nods to himself, feeling her fingers on his back. But I’m more afraid. Her touch is relaxing, but it’s not enough.
Thomas walked out of the emergency room and around to the main door of the hospital, a spring in his step. He rode the elevator to the seventh floor alone, a familiar path. His arms still itched, despite the Benadryl and prednisone. He pushed past the door with the biohazard symbol on it and entered.
Jim was asleep in bed, a morning news show on TV droning overhead. He looked even thinner, if that was possible. His ears seemed oversized, hanging loosely from his head. Thomas stared at his dying friend for a few minutes before Jim woke with a start. Blue irises peered out of a pool of wet red, not an iota of white. He had been so damn handsome.
“What happened to you?” Jim croaked, his voice still scratchy from an extubation the week previous. They thought he would die.
Thomas’s lips were swollen like trial-sized toothpaste tubes. Fingers of angry red welts crossed his face and neck. Thomas said, “Allergic reaction to penicillin. Spent the night in the ER. Nothing serious.”
“Does it hurt?”
“I’m trying not to itch it. But it’s fine. I thought you’d like to see me like this,” Thomas said.
“You look awful,” Jim said. He smiled and closed his eyes.
Stranded. They tried to figure out what would spoil first and eat that. The ground beef was already warm, but they were beyond the point of caring about taste. They ate small, cautious bites at first. She said it tasted like when she was little and she would snack on meatloaf meat with her mom while she cooked. He didn’t answer but took another bite.
It was like biting his own mouth, and he wondered aloud how his mouth knew to chew only the cow meat and not the Jim meat. She suggested that they wait and see when they got hungry next. Maybe they’d be rescued. Maybe not. But no point in just eating all the food. He asked if she wanted to dance and she thought about it before saying no. It just seemed like too desperate an attempt to make things better. He asked what was wrong with that, and she didn’t have an answer.
The invisible line reached over and tickled Eddie, taunted him. Eddie could stand it no longer and poked Thomas’ knee. When he moved it, Eddie poked his elbow.
“MOM! Eddie’s on my side.”
“He was saying mean stuff!”
“I didn’t say ANYTHING, doofus. You poked me.”
“You were thinking it.”
“BOTH OF YOU! Cut it out. Eddie, move against the door. Thomas, stop provoking him.”
“I didn’t do ANYTHING and you should yell at EDDIE and not ME.”
“Not another word out of either of you.”
Thomas went back to his graphic novel. A minute later, a shadow appeared across the left-hand page of the book; Eddie was straining to sit as tall as he could, his head now craned against the rear window, reading. Thomas turned the page and heard a slight gasp from his brother; Eddie hadn’t finished reading yet. Although he was older, it seemed to Thomas like Eddie was slower at everything. He wasn’t retarded or anything, just slower than Thomas.
In the mirror, Thomas watched his brother’s lips move as he read. Thomas caught his mother checking their silence in the rear-view mirror; a calmed smile broke across her face.
Thomas scooted across the seat and read with his back to the door. Eddie scowled and slumped on his side, eyeing again the invisible line.
He sniffed the air. “Somebody’s been smoking in my car,” he said. The increasingly furrowed lines on his forehead made her stomach clench. He shook his head in disbelief. “I am going to try to keep it together, but…damnit! In one move you…you lie to me, you disrespect me, you disobey me, you make me look stupid.” He slammed his fist against the steering wheel for emphasis. “You just gonna sit there?”
“Daddy… I–” She faltered. She wanted to tell him he was wrong, but he wasn’t. Allen had been in the car last night indeed, smoking even though she asked him not to, running his fingers up her skirt even though she asked him not to. “It was me. I… sometimes I have a cigarette.”
He pulled over onto the soft shoulder of the road and brought it to a stop. “Don’t lie to me. Get out,” he barked. She flinched when he reached across her and opened her door. “You think I’d hit you?” he said, dumbfounded. She was silent.
He clenched the wheel with both hands and closed his eyes. “Don’t you lie to me,” he whispered. He took a long, deep breath and then opened his own door and hopped out, leaving her there with the engine running and both doors wide open. He walked ahead on to church, alone, his shoulders shaking. As she watched him go, she thought of Allen.
Angela knew the sensation she caused as she approached Jeanne’s casket
carrying a white rose; it would agonize everyone at the gravesite to watch
the identical twin approach. The girls had always been together, from
moments after conception and first meiosis till 28 years later when the
elevator decapitated Jeanne as she struggled to extricate herself from the
doors, Angela at her side. Now the survivor faced the perished, those two
identical faces brought together one last time. She knew the increased
weeping from the folding chairs on the grass was as much for her, remaining
in the world alone without her constant companion, as it was for Jeanne —
always one life, one identity, one half. To conceive of them separated was
unthinkable to every wet-eyed soul at the burial.
Angela imagined tomorrow: free for the first time. Neither had ever dared
let the other out of her sight from overwhelming horror that one might
secure an advantage, might get something that the other didn’t have. She
dropped the rose on the polished cherrywood and prayed for there to be no
God, for the stories to be just that: stories. The possibility that Jeanne
had an afterlife refueled in Angela’s heart the furious hatred that had
burned there bright for 28 years.
He tossed the sopping, warm facecloth in the corner by the shower of the hotel bathroom. The discarded towel nearly glowed against the subdued khaki of the tub and tile; it was wet, but the plush loops of absorbent goodness were thick and luxuriant enough to give the towel a fuzzy look, despite what was wiped inside the clot of cotton. He peered at his face in the mirror, sweaty and spent. He was triply satisfied: he’d come twice and he was a damn good-looking man.
Satisfaction drained from his face as he glanced over his shoulder to the bed; his therapist was holding the camcorder in his palm, aluminum legs of the tripod splayed beneath it at an angle like some uprooted monument. He walked around behind the therapist and watched the small screen over his shoulder. The sex act was mechanical; the therapist’s face was hidden, but his own face was there, looking at the camera most of the time. His face was inscrutable, but he strove to remember what he was feeling as he stared into the camera while building to an orgasm. He couldn’t make meaning out of it.
“This fucking experiment didn’t show me shit,” he said.
His therapist continued to watch his own pelvis thrusting in the foreground while his client’s face beseeched the camera. “You can’t see what you were feeling?” the therapist asked the client.
“Nothing,” he replied.
The therapist nodded.
Hot summer night, heat steaming off the asphalt and crushed beer bottles outside the bar. A buzzing crowd of men cluttered the sidewalk in front of the bar entrance; he expected as much. The guys liked to wind down with some cheap drinks on Sunday night before starting back to the grind the next morning. He affixed a sociable smile to his face as he maneuvered through the tight knot which reeked of cheap warm beer and fresh cigarettes and unwashed sweaty ass. One of the guys called his name, and he looked up: a familiar face. They’d slept together once. He’d do him again, but probably not. Chris–that was his name. They exclaimed and bear-hugged, hot, sweaty, and nearing drunk but not sloppy. He pulled back from the hug and made for the door; a hand tapped his shoulder and he looked to see Todd, a former hookup. “Hey you!” he said as he smiled and positioned for another hug. He happened to glimpse Chris’s face and saw there the dawning recognition of his relationship with Todd. It was disarming, recognizing that whatever signal he was giving off just told everyone that he’d slept with both of these guys, and now they both knew it. He couldn’t dredge up a single memory about the sex. He made for the dark doorway to the bar when another hand tapped his shoulder. He turned to see a familiar face.
The bar door was dark and inviting and a long way off.
The sun hammered the blue and white umbrella; she gauged the sun coming through the white stripes and guessed that she could burn under that brutality. If white t-shirts are only an SPF of 8, she couldn’t even imagine what a white nylon-mesh umbrella on this godforsaken beach might be in terms of protection. She wasn’t taking any chances. There are certain things you don’t mess around with, and the Maui sun is one them. She’d made sure that the children were slathered in PABA-free 70 before she looked after her own flesh. She eased back in her chaise longue, but before she could relax, she had to think about her scalp. Her hair was pulled back tightly; a razor-sharp part bifurcated her hair above her right eyebrow. She’d gotten unwanted sun on her scalp before. She didn’t want to put on a hat, but certainly, with the unreliable protection of the umbrella, she couldn’t be sure that she wouldn’t burn along her part. She picked up the spray sunscreen she’d used on her thighs and read the ingredients; she wasn’t sure what might be bad for her hair, but there was no point in taking chances. She decided to use the same crème she’d used on her face. No point in taking chances.
Where were the kids? She scanned the beach; a lone floating dinosaur bobbed in the churning surf.
He glared at his sister before tossing his cigarette butt to the forest floor, grinding it into the pine needles with a well-worn shoe greatly in need of repair. “You stupid fucking twat,” he muttered.
“How is this my fault?” She dropped the bundle of faggots she had collected and spun around with her mouth open.
“Well, where the fuck are we? You said you’d take care of it this time, and here we are.”
“You have been such a… a jerk lately.”
“We’re lost, it’ll be dark soon, and you want to have this discussion?” He rolled his eyes. “You’re worse than she is.”
“Oh, you asshole, can’t you see it? It’s true. You’ve lost weight, you’re short-tempered, you won’t talk to me or Dad. This all started when she moved in. Do you think no one notices?”
“I don’t care if anyone notices. I hate her.”
“I hate our alcoholic stepwitch, too, and if you want to blame anyone for us getting lost out here, blame her, not me.”
“Well, she’s not the one who stuffed a handful of breadcrumbs in her pockets on the way out the door instead of using her friggin’ brain.”
She held up her hand and sniffed the air. “Wait, wait! Do you smell that?”
“I smell pine.”
“No, it’s like… gingerbread. From over there. Trust me,” she said, pushing him toward the scent.
“You’re so naïve,” he sighed.
“I got us into this mess, and I’ll get us out,” she assured him.
“Global horseshit is what it is,” she said at the television newscaster, pressing ice cubes down into her glass of chardonnay which was freshly poured from the sweating magnum beside her, seven more like it chilling in the fridge out in the garage next to the enormous garbage can which eschewed recycling due to economic restraints of her gated golf course community.
On the fourth attempt, Viktor judged the bowtie properly tied: red Italian silk, small and rectangular rather the ridiculous black nylon butterfly the others would wear.
He parked several blocks away and watched from the shadows as PJ came out of the brownstone. PJ started down the stoop, and then Tom followed and put his hand on his shoulder, stopping him and turning him around. Kiss, a peck at first, then a little more. Viktor guessed that they were already on their second bottle of wine. He turned away.
PJ opened the passenger door and jumped in. He leaned over and gave Viktor a moist kiss on the neck. “Look at you all dressed up,” he said.
“It’s black tie,” Viktor answered, throwing the car into gear. “Where’s yours?”
“I’m an artist, baby. We make our own rules,” PJ answered. Viktor stiffened. PJ retreated back across the emergency brake to the passenger side.
The Asian woman peered at Viktor. “Where’s Tom?” she asked PJ.
“You know he hates these things. He’s writing a check instead,” PJ winked at her. “This is my buddy Viktor.” He raised his scotch in toast.
“I want you to fuck me in here,” PJ slurred, pushing the button for the fifth floor. He tugged the studded shirt out from beneath Viktor’s belt. PJ’s breath was hot copper on his neck. Viktor shook his head but let PJ slide his hand down the front of his tuxedo pants.
Rough Cut by John Wentworth Chapin
Cut jakfruit sits on the tin table. The flesh is pale yellow and rubbery, cadaver labia. He shakes his head, wrinkles his nose.
She chooses a breadfruit instead. “Del,” she says, slicing off the stem with her crude knife: rusted with splintering, village-made almondwood handle, sever a man’s neck in two strokes.
“Deeelll,” he repeats, savoring the new word.
“Del, hari,” she nods, okay.
It’s nothing like bread. It is the color and feel of skin: khaki, firm, a man’s neck behind the ear. He bites and imagines, numbed by want.
In the States, the kitchen was his domain; here, women cook and he flounders. Last week, he beseeched her to teach him to make curry and pol sambol. She was bemused but resistant. This week she caved. She is dark brown, old, wrinkled, less than a third his weight. He watches her carefully in his sarong and Polo shirt.
She sits on the cement floor, legs extended, knife held between her feet as she shreds kopakola leaves against the knife-tip. Americans bring knife to leaf. Not she.
A durian fruit reeks from next to the washbasin, powerful funk of gangrene and crotchrot. The village storekeeper across the road whiffs it as he sits on a bag of onions, tapping his bare toes in the dust. He strokes himself in his ratty sarong, thin cotton between calloused hands and dark penis, sniffs his fingers absent-mindedly. His iron machete rests next to piled coconuts, blade oiled.