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Stories From a Bar With No Doorknobs

 

 

stories from a bar with no doorknobs

By Joaquin Emiliano

Copyright 2016 Joaquin Emiliano

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

***

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidences are all either products of the author’s imagination, or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.

 

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[++]

[++]

Welcome To Creole Nights.

 

Open season, another lonely night on the calendar.

February 7, 1999, and three days earlier, Amadou Diallo had been shot.

Twenty-two years, all summarized in a single moment: reaching for his wallet, violently thrust into the next life with the help of nineteen slugs from four officers of NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. Dead on his own doorstep, as a doornail.

Starting Thursday at sundown, then all through the weekend, the boroughs ran wild with bad blood. Whether taking to the streets in isolated protests, or secure behind double-barred deadlocks, everyone waited, baited breath, to see whether civil disobedience might undergo some unfortunate antigen shift.

Come Sunday, very little had changed.

Proof that, at the very least, God was most certainly resting.

Perhaps a little too heavily on everyone’s shoulders.

Otherwise, just another lonely night, sure. Even the bottles seemed scarred by neglect. I graced them with a reassuring smile. Caught my reflection in the mirror, barback lights in no mood for sweet talk. Dark hair cut haphazardly short, a few stray tufts sticking up and out. Unseasonable white tee showing off my ribcage beneath a worn, gray leather jacket. Olive skin. Brown eyes cradled by matching baggage, topped with a pair of overly ambitious eyebrows balancing on either side of a sharp, inelegant nose.

A week or so shy of my twentieth birthday.

Not much chance that face would be looking to make improvements.

I lit a cigarette, practiced a few unconvincing sneers.

Still early in the evening. Not one fresh face had ventured down the steps to Creole Nights.

Zephyr, Ayizan , Jacob and a few other Haitians, Jamaicans, Dominicans were huddled at the end of the bar. All the unusual suspects. They spoke in low murmurs, holding their own early mass beneath the red and white seconds of an illuminated Budweiser clock. On occasion, their muddied eyes would venture up to the mounted, twelve inch screen. The floating head of Rudolph Giuliani cast his spectral gleam. Not a hint of reconciliation on the other side of that looking glass, and I kept to my drink.

Laying quiet bets on the end of the world.

Imagining a worst case scenario where it might never take place.

Zephyr wandered over, mixed up a rum and coke.

“Lucky Saurelius…” he said absently, Haitian accent drawing out the vowels along the entire length of the bar. “The man.”

I reached over, plucked a few cocktail napkins. “Let’s not get carried away.”

He nodded. Thick mustache matching trimmed hair, trace amounts of gray in both. Wire-rimmed spectacles perched low. His ordinarily mischievous eyes were opaque with simple, commonplace curiosity. “Where’s your woman tonight?”

“Don’t have a woman.”

“You don’t?”

“Not a one.”

“What about that red-haired girl? Sandra?”

“Over and done with over a year ago, Zephyr.”

“Helena?”

“She ain’t so wild about me right now.”

“Anika?”

“One night stand, it would seem.”

“Then have a drink.” The bottle of Jack seemed to magically emerge from the sleeves of his purple Baja. He laid a pour on me, asked if I’d heard about Amadou Diallo. “Nineteen bullets, all over a goddamn wallet.”

I told him I’d heard. Didn’t mention it was his third time asking.

Thought it best to let that one go.

“Man, it is dead tonight,” he sighed. Wandered off.

I put my pen to the first napkin.

Couldn’t find a match for the occasion.

Took a look around. Neck craned over the back of my seat, one sweeping glance to take in the details of my underground world. Cracks in the wall displaying what must have once been an eggshell white beneath the dulled, tangerine paint job. Lit candles dotting the rickety tables, backed by the soft, orange glow of scattered lamps built into the wall. Row after row of straw hats, stapled upside down against the ceiling . An immense mural had found its home along the entire length of the far wall, wild medley of colors depicting a Caribbean village. To my left and right, empty stools nestled beneath the chipped, unfinished bar, where ghosts of evenings past awaited indefinite departure.

I reached for a cocktail napkin, scribbled a few notes.

An hour passed.

A stream of smooth reggae made its way through the speakers.

Television on mute, closed captions telegraphing the outside world.

I ordered a beer, went to the bathroom. Had a little group hug with the soiled toilet, rusted sink, and plywood walls. Plans to paint over the exposed grain had fallen to the wayside. Time being, countless lines of graffiti bunched together like makeshift poetry, making fun of me and my little ol’ Bobby McGee.

I smiled along.

Sense of humor; some nights, even the walls had it.

Even on the worst of nights.

I walked back to Jack Daniel’s.

Bamyeh had nested himself next my seat.

Aged eyes moist and wandering. Pupils pushing through professorial glasses and past gray dreadlocks. A wool sweater hung over his frame, bathed in the glorious reek of eucalyptus and rum. Split fingertips forgetting the difference between his drink and a flickering candle.

“It’s the young writer,” he greeted me, calloused handshake taking me for a ride. “Don’t forget me when you reach the top, Lucky.”

“I won’t.” I thought about it, “…and I won’t.”

“Where’s your woman tonight?”

“Don’t have one of those.”

“Can I have a cigarette?”

I handed him a Marlboro Red.

Got my change in a dime-store smile and went back to sitting.

Raised my eyes to the straw hats along the ceiling. Rims sprouting wild, jagged reeds.

Up on the television screen, the mayor’s teeth worked between thin, indignant lips. White block letters at the bottom of the screen, close captions assuring us all that AMADOU DIALLO WAS NO ALTAR BOY.

A chorus of mournful cries rose above the music.

Or maybe that was what he would someday say about Patrick Dorismond. Shot in the chest by an undercover officer in March of 2000. Bled to death all the way to St. Clare’s Hospital. Haitian immigrant, father of two, and once altar boy at the same Catholic School attended by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

There were times it all bled together, even with one year later still one year away.

But in the now, there was Amadou Diallo.

I flattered my drink with one last kiss, asked for another.

***

It was ‘round about 11:30 when Clarence walked in with that woman.

One inch shy of six foot. A thin composition of fifteen degrees. Cheeks flushed with pure February over a peculiar, gray hue. Chestnut hair. Wrinkled white dress-shirt hanging over black jeans. Eyes leading her face down a dozen different paths, drunk as the day was done.

Trapped in her own world, yet another animal in from the cold.

Clarence was a regular, and in all my hours underground, I had never seen him walk in with a woman. First time, that time in ’99.

Her scuffed flats shuttled her to the end of the bar, got the standard greeting from Zephyr.

“Welcome to Creole Nights.”

A few minutes’ worth of harmless details sailed by. A middle-aged couple, two women in oversized winter coats, asked for their check. One or two tables helped themselves to a fresh round of drinks. Beaks dipping into Hennessey, rum, gin and tonic. All business as usual, before traces of an argument began to float past the cloud of exhaust. I glanced over, down to bar’s end. Cocked my head. Did what I could to casually peek around the pillar that bisected the surface. I grimaced, situation making itself readily available.

That woman, our own pale horse, was locked in a desperate battle against the rest. Words flew from her mouth, covered in pasty spit. Sliced by gleaming incisors. Foaming at the corners, an unrepentant hatred of everything.

Clarence stood by her side, doing what he could to make peace. Hazelnut skin noticeably pale. Sweating beneath his brown leather jacket, cherub face looking for a way out as voices clashed

A few customers pulled the wish out from under him, and made for the door.

Zephyr caught my eye, gave me the long and short: “She doesn’t like Jews.”

I rubbed my eyes. “Ok. Gonna be one of those nights, then.”

The woman caught wind of an extra card in the deck, sent her fury my way. “What of it?”

Before I could answer, Bamyeh slammed his hand on the counter, drawing her back into the fight. “Do not get mad at him! This is not about him!” His gravelly voice rose, cracked. Strained to the limit with three days’ worth of accumulated rage. “Explain yourself! You explain yourself to us, if you plan to continue talking that way!”

“My kike boss fired me today, how many times do I have to repeat it?” Practically talking to herself at this point. “Fucking Jews, all the same.”

“All the same what?”

“And why?” she marveled, answering her own question with more mad rhetoric. “Because I drink? Because I like a fucking DRINK sometimes, every now and then?”

“All the same what?”

“All the same, all the same, you need me to draw you a fucking PICTURE?”

Back and forth, battle of the underground all-stars.

Each reproach louder than the last.

And it might have been alright on any other night.

Zephyr leaned back, crossed his arms. “What do you think, Lucky?”

“What do I think?” Leaned back. Stretched. Made careful use of my words. “I think all you fucking Caribbean motherfuckers can all go fuck yourselves.”

And everyone laughed, thank God, for the first time in days.

Except that woman. If anything, it cut deep into thin skin. Stuck like barbs of chicken wire. Eyes bulging, something desperate struggling to escape as she burst out: “What the FUCK would any of you know about JEWS!?”

Bamyeh stopped laughing. Grabbed her arm, thick lips spread wide with every damning syllable: “I am the ORIGINAL Jew, WOMAN!”

Brimstone words from the lost tribes.

The woman jerked her arm from rooted fingers.

Knocked her seat back with a hopeless shriek, and ran out of our lives.

Out the door and up onto Macdougal Street.

Whether she went left or right was a question well above our pay grade.

Clarence gave chase, but he was up against a running start.

The rest of us stared at the tiny brass bell, shuddering against the wooden frame.

“Can’t believe that fucking woman,” Zephyr muttered. “She should not bring thoughts like that into a place of love…” He raised his voice high over the shadows: “Creole Nights is a place of LOVE! Life is too short for that kind of bullshit.”

“That’s right, Zephyr,” Bamyeh said, too proud to wipe his eyes. “That’s right.”

The door opened, and Clarence walked back in.

Stood in the middle of red brick tiles.

Throat working its way between guilt and honest sorrow.

“I’m sorry I brought her in here, guys,” he managed.

We forgave him.

“I met her in the bar across the street,” he explained, unsatisfied with our readiness to let tides recede. “She looked sad, so I bought her a drink. She told me about her job, and… she said she was going to kill herself. I thought that if I brought her here, introduced her… Let her feel a little warmer, it might cheer her up. I didn’t know…”

“It’s all right, Clarence,” Zephyr assured him. “Sit down. Have a drink, for God’s sake.”

Clarence didn’t move. He turned to me. “Sorry about that, Lucky.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I replied.

“I really am.”

“So am I.” I brushed some ash from my jeans. “It’s cool.”

Beat. “Where’s your woman tonight?”

“Atlantic City,” I told him, and went back to my drink.

Clarence returned to the end of the bar, where the lamps shone their brightest Clementine.

And they all went back to what was now.

What was New York City in those days.

Amadou Diallo, nineteen slugs from NYPD.

I lit a cigarette.

The streets were dangerous with rage that night. You could sense it in the air, and I could taste it in my drink. The evening continued on its sad and steady course.

Zephyr closed early and everyone went home, though I stayed open. Wandered along Macdougal, up Third, all along University Place, down in SoHo town. In and out of bars, clearly not as cool as the weather. Searching for a disjointed conclusion to something conceived on and beyond my own, limited reach.

“There’s a woman out there about to commit suicide,” I slurred, half smiling at the eight foot bartender before me.

“That’s real nice,” he replied, crossed his arms. “But it’s still ten past four, and you still owe me twenty one seventy-five.”

Hope I remembered to tip him.

There’s simply no excuse for that kind of behavior.

 

 

Love For $3.99.

 

It wasn’t a lie, what I told the attendant.

Less than six hours earlier, reality was just as it should have been. Lying drunk in a field near the tracks, waiting for the ten o’clock box car to cut through Verona. Nobody but me and my lonesome. Back pressed against terse summertime grass, sorting through amateur laments. Stray dogs had wandered by on occasion, taking the time to sniff my neck. One of them even licked me, and I think I grinned with eighty-four proof gratitude.

Other than that, the great wide open between heaven and earth remained all my own, and I didn’t feel the slightest need to move.

Don’t know how long before I found myself staring up into the eyes of a runaway woman. Her hair was a wild mess of raven curls, body poured into a black satin dress. Ruffles leading down her arms. Fingernails painted rough magenta. Beautiful, gratifying face lined with premature wrinkles, all paths leading up towards eyes the color of aluminum joy. She regarded me with only the slightest interest, careful and remote, eclipsing a blood-orange moon.

I let her stare, entirely willing to grant the situation.

Her lips glistened, red and full, wink of a gold tooth trapped between the two.

“And what is your name?” she asked, accent stemming from some post-Soviet nowhere land.

“Lucky.”

“Do you believe in luck?”

“Sure.”

“What about destiny?”

I giggled, drunk as a monkey. “All the same to me.”

The woman ran her fingers through dark tangles. Tilted her face towards the sky, smiling at the stars. Her nipples poked charitably through the confines of her dress. A tattoo of a snake devouring its own tail turned happy cartwheels along her neck.

I ran my hand along my chest. Reached into my gray leather jacket. Tickled my inner pocket. Cigarettes waiting for me. I sparked one up, breathed in a cloud of pure sin.

The woman looked down, abruptly. She snatched the pack of Marlboros out of my hand, crushed it. Tossed the mangled remains into the weeds.

“Leave those alone,” she snarled, bright flare of a guardian’s concern burning the night at both ends. “Do you understand, young man? Leave them alone!

I took another drag of my cigarette, laughed. “Ha, ha!”

“Do you want to know about LUCK?” she cried, infuriated. “Do you want to know about DESTINY?”

I kept still. A gust of wind blew past, and my cigarette sparkled festively. A carnival light for this possessed carnival woman.

“If you want to know about LUCK, then just stay here! Decay, seep into the ground like animal SHIT!” Spit flew from her mouth, landed on my eyelid. I blinked, several times. “If you want to know about DESTINY, then go east, young man! Go EAST to the COAST, and watch for the SIGNS! Go EAST! EAST TO THE COAST!”

I took another pull, grass tickling my neck. I was beginning to enjoy this. Smiling, even as her hair transformed into a nest of snakes, serpentine motions of a waking lullaby. The woman’s eyes cleaved into mine, fires within, lovely and unconditional. And within those flames, bodies melted into each other. Screaming, roaring with laughter, resolution painted over with lipstick and hope.

…I woke up at the bus station, three minutes before departure time.

***

And then, I was on the coast of North Carolina. Atlantic Beach, it felt like. Riding shotgun alongside a high school dropout I’d only known for a few hours. His skin was littered with sunburned freckles. Hair styled in an unfortunate bowl cut, washed out blond hanging like a curtain over a pair of blue pebbles. Nose peeling. Moist lips pulled back in an interminably friendly and idiotic grin.

The motor of his run down Nissan shuddered dangerously with every mile.

Still and all, not a bad night to be on the road. The stars shone with diamondback secrets, and the moon had bled out into a luminous, white disc. Windows rolled down, salt water wind kissing my face. I was smoking one of his cigarettes. Its ashes scattered, swirling out into the air.

There wasn’t much life on the streets that night.

The kid commented on this sorry state of activity, downshifted and made a left. His hair tossed around. Lifted, revealing a fading scar on his forehead. I didn’t like him very much. Couldn’t even remember his name. Nothing personal. I had accepted the ride so’s to hit up a gas station, grab myself a pack of smokes. And now I was saddled with a stranger dead set on finding a good time.

We rode past pallid streetlights, shuttered surf shops and desolate bars.

Stuck to the glove box, a two-by-two pic of a twenty-some blond flashed a tired, optimistic smile. Edges curling along with the humidity.

“Who’s that?” I asked him.

He smiled. “She’s beautiful, ain’t she?”

“You bet.”

“That’s my sister.”

We stopped at a traffic light. I glanced back at the picture. Yes, there was a resemblance. I stared, trying to make the picture come alive. Wasn’t long before I realized the kid had joined me in a quiet bout of appreciation. The light turned green and he didn’t notice.

I didn’t want to be the one to tell him, but I did: “Go, man.”

He blinked, and we were on the move again. I reminded him I was going to need more cigarettes. The kid smiled apologetically. Pulled up to a gas station, sand crunching beneath worn tires.

A pair of military boys were walking out of the store. Crew cuts aligned with equally cut bodies, muscles bulging, toting several cases of Milwaukee Beast .White shirts tucked into blue jeans. Assembly line marvels, programmed to kill.

Marines, most likely.

The kid slowed down, watched them closely.

The marines strolled over to a Jeep Cherokee. A trio of women stepped out to help with the beer. Neon colored bikini tops hugged their tits with elastic loyalty, and cutoffs gave their thighs true meaning. Carolina accents drifted from their mouths, out across the pumps, mixed with the stench of gasoline.

The kid kept his engine running, watching them load up.

I couldn’t figure it out. “What are you up to?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just trying to understand.”

“Not saying I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but –”

“Those men know something we don’t.”

I shrugged. “We’re sitting in a car outside of a gas station. I’m sure they know any number of things we don’t.”

“No, I don’t mean it like that.”

“What do you mean?”

The kid didn’t answer.

One of the marines went back into the store. The rest of them piled into the jeep. As for me and my wingman, we just kept on waiting. The remaining soldier walked on out the sliding doors. Long strides with tremendous purpose.

The kid let out a whistle, then yelled, “HEY!”

The marine stopped. Caught sight of our stakeout. He made his way over, trotting slightly. Practically gliding over paved paradise.

He leaned into the window: “What’s going on, guys?”

“Where’s the party?” the kid asked.

I stole another cigarette, sparked my lighter. Watched this exchange with cautious eyes.

“Couldn’t tell you that,” the marine said. He smiled with an innate warmth, calm as can be. “Me and my friend are just going over to these girls’ place, see if we can get some pussy.”

The kid grinned. “Yeah?”

“If you’re looking for action, you could always try The Shack Shack.”

The Shack Shack?”

“Best club around these parts. Real good pussy there.”

“Can’t, man. Not eighteen.”

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

The marine thought things through. Turned a respectful gaze in my direction. “You over eighteen, man?”

“Yeah.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty.”

“Man…” He shook his head, genuinely sorry for us, perhaps. “My guess is this car’s got more a right to buy a beer than either one of you.”

“She’s a good girl,” the kid agreed, gave the dashboard a tiny pat.

The engine kept on purring. I snubbed my cigarette, broke its neck in two quick jabs. The marine was lost in thought. Concentrating; deliberating, more like. The night stretched out around us.

Inside, the station attendant watched us through Powerball posters.

“All right, boys…” The marine reached into his shorts. Little bit of pocket pool before producing a small, glass bottle. No larger than an average thumb. No label. Just a viscous brown liquid coating the insides, an ounce or so of raw sewage.

“What’s that?” the kid asked.

“This… is love in a bottle.”

Nobody said anything for a few seconds.

“Love in a bottle,” he repeated. “And I’ll sell it to you boys for three ninety-nine.”

The kid’s eyes brightened. “What does it do?”

“It’s love in a bottle, dummy. You want some grad school thesis, or are you going to ask the real question?”

“What’s the real question?”

“Does it work?”

The kid was happy follow him down this path. “Does it work?”

“You bet.”

The kid turned to me, cherub face alight. “Wanna go halves with me, Lucky?”

“Oh, God. No thanks.”

The kid pulled out his wallet. Black Velcro with gunmetal stitching. I saw another picture of his sister peeking out from between red folds. He removed four singles, turned them over to the Marine.

The Marine gave up the goods. Gave us a wink. Kept the penny and walked away without another word.

I watched him get into his car, start the engine.

Seconds later, they were gone and I was alone with the kid.

“Love in a bottle,” he mused. “Looks like some kind of drink.”

“Could have sworn it looks like a goddamn Lexus.”

My sarcasm slid off his shoulders as he popped the top, took a whiff. “You sure you don’t want to split this?”

“I’ll stick with my cigarettes.” I stepped out of the car.

Picked up a pack of Marlboros. Paid with a crumpled fiver, all I had left to show for this mad adventure. The attendant asked if I was from around there. I told him I wasn’t, got my change. He asked what I was doing ‘round those parts. I pulled out a cigarette, lit it.

“A fortune teller told me to come here,” I told him, and walked out the door.

Back in the car, the kid was polishing off the last drops of love in a bottle.

I closed the door as he forced it down. Throat working, lip synced grimace.

Goddamit.” He wiped his mouth, whole body shuddering. “Tastes like a landfill.”

“What did you expect?”

“I’m not sure… flowers?”

I laughed, coughing exhaust. “Alright, man. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

***

The kid drove us to his house.

“Not my house,” he explained. “My sister’s house. Jade. I’m living with her while I get my GED. She won’t mind if you spend the night. And you know she’s hot.”

I tossed my cigarette out the window. “You admit your sister’s hot?”

“Well, if you want to get personal about it, she’s my stepsister.”

For some reason, I felt guilty. “My bad, guy. I was just –”

“Known each other since I was five,” he interrupted. “Yea high.”

He didn’t elaborate on what yea high meant. “Ok, that’s fine.”

“I know hot when I see it.”

I wasn’t about to argue. Before I had the chance not to, we pulled into the driveway of a rundown beachfront house. Two stories of warped wood towered over us, painted red with dark outliers. To the left and right, a line dance of extravagantly remodeled houses muscled in. Weather-sealed windows. Roofs with fresh shingles, gutters fully furnished. Automated garage doors. Outdoor floodlights ready to pounce on any and all interlopers, sending raccoons scurrying back into the shadows.

He killed the headlights.

I got out, mindful of my cigarettes.

The kid led us up some rotting stairs, damp and green from time-tested events. The ocean wasn’t far off. Sea breeze blasted my face, that odd combination of salt and erosion.

He pulled back on the screen door. Rusted and unwilling, falling off its hinges. He struggled with the lock. Got it, and we walked into the living room. Walls painted the same tetanus red as the outside. White carpet, home to endless grains of sand, glistening bedbugs. Cheap couch, cheap chairs. Ugly frames home to family portraits without focus.

“SIS?” the kid yelled. “SIS? I’M HOME!”

I picked an armchair. It creaked with aged complaints. I lit another cigarette and waited.

Jade made her entrance in a way that made me wish I had been invited. Her hair was wet. Damp from a recent shower, it looked like. She wore a see-through nightgown, behind which a thin, strangely disproportionate body awaited judgment. Nipples, yes, blond pubic hair, it was all in plain sight. Her eyes flashed with intoxicating shards of blue lightning.

I watched her as she joined her brother.

“James,” she said.

James, that was his name. James.

“Hey, sis,” he said, and the two embraced. Cradled in each other’s arms. They rocked back and forth, surrounded by worn furniture and dim lights. Jade’s eyes were closed tight, ambivalent smile on her face. She ran her hands up and down his back.

The two broke apart.

She grinned, crooked teeth radiating an unfulfilled glee.

Their eyes locked.

“This is my friend, Lucky,” James said,pointing. “Lucky.”

Jade extracted herself from her brother. Let her eyes have their way with me. It took me less than a second to realize I was in love. Not the first time, and my namesake wouldn’t make this the last. It was the in between that caught me on that particular occasion. Perhaps not actually in love. A sudden need for instant gratification. I knew I wanted to sweep that Jade sculpture, translucent nightgown and all, take her to the bedroom and roam the surface of her body with my hands, eyes, mouth.

It was only instinct, but it was also all there was left to trust.

“Lucky,” she said, walking towards me.

I prepared myself for the same greeting she had given her brother. Possibly a kiss, full on the lips. Tongues meeting in the median. She extended her hand. It bumped into my chest, and I had to step back. Met it with a firm shake, tasting softness through my fingers.

Jade smiled. “Looks like you two need a drink.”

She came back from the kitchen with a bottle of red.

Did the honors, poured us a serving in disposable, plastic cups.

“Stole this from work,” she announced with pride. “It’s a merlot. Got three more in the kitchen.”

We camped out in the living room and drank. Jade and her brother sat next to each other on the couch. I kept to my old easy chair. James told a few stories, and his sister laughed, kissed him on the cheek. I told of a few outlandish encounters, and we opened another bottle. I took obvious impressions of her body. She caught me a few times, didn’t say anything.

The night was slowly intensifying.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” James proclaimed. “All that wine…”

He stumbled out of the spotlight.

Jade watched him go, turned to me.

I pierced her nightgown with my eyes.

She struck a lavish pose for an instant, then laughed.

“Lucky.” She leaned forward, poured herself another drink. “I bet people ask you about that a lot, right? Whether or not you actually are lucky, or if you believe in luck?”

“All the time.”

“When I was little, before my mother died, she told me a secret. She told me that jade was a rock that contained magical powers. And if you threw a piece of Jade into the lake, you could… release these powers.” She played with her hair, shuddered. “And then, one summer, my father took us to the lake. I was walking with him in the woods, and we found a large stone. I asked him what it was, and he told me it was a piece of jade. It wasn’t, it was quartz. I didn’t know the difference, so I took the stone and hurled it into the water. Like that Olympic event, hammer style.”

I put out my cigarette. “What happened?”

“My brother was out there swimming, and it hit him in the head.”

“The scar on his forehead?”

“The scar on his forehead.”

“I’m sorry about your mother.”

“And father.”

I took another hit of wine. “Father, too, ok. Shit.”

“Mm.”

A box fan in the corner kept circulating the same damn regrets.

Jade’s lips twitched, puckered to the left. “You didn’t ask me how my father died.”

“Well…” I slid off the chair, propped my back against it. “I didn’t ask how your mother died, so I wasn’t sure if –”

“Yeah, but I want to talk about my father for a moment.”

“Ok.”

“He overdosed.” She flashed an alarming smile, something that shouldn’t have been. Quickly returned to a more appropriate expression. “Some punk handed him what was supposed to be an eight ball. Turned out to be high grade, uncut heroine. Or maybe he did know. Guess I never will, one way or the other. But I came into the room, saw him propped up like a dummy. Bloody nose, blood covering his upper lip and chin…”

Didn’t want to patronize her with any display of emotion. Kept the overt to myself.

“Yeah.” She had another hit of wine. Worked her jaw, left to right and back again. “He was already pretty far gone. I called 911. And I waited. And the whole time, he was lying on the floor, chest barely rising. I wanted to grab him, hold onto him. And you know what?”

I shook my head.

“I didn’t,” she said. “I was paranoid. The only thing I could think about were those Menendez brothers. It was right about their time, killed their own parents. All over the news. Court TV. I wanted to hold him as he was dying, but all I could think about was whether my fingerprints would end up all over his body, and what would that mean for me..?” She smiled again, lips chapped with tannins. “I screamed at him, so angry. Fuck you, I cried. I circled him ike a vulture. Fuck you for doing this, and I can’t even hug you one last time, you stupid, fucking asshole.”

Without realizing it, I had synchronized my breath to match the sound of the ocean.

Jade pointed towards me with an elastic arm. “He died right where you’re sitting, right now.”

“I could move, if you’d like.”

She shrugged. “And what would destiny have to say about that?”

Jade tilted her head to the left, thinking.

I stood up, took a few wretched steps over to the couch and kissed her.

She kissed me back for a single, red light second, then pushed me away.

My legs got caught in a dispute with the coffee table, and I fell to the floor. Knocked over her cup. Spilled its contents. My shirt turned a purple sort of imagination; I thought my heart might be pouring out of me, and before I could make it stop, I said, told her: “Jade, I love you.”

“I don’t know if you do.”

“Take a chance.”

“I love my brother.”

A few moments passed where I let myself believe I didn’t know what she meant.

Jade played with her hair.

I watched the ceiling warp, wondering. Landscaping every last shattered taboo.

“Never told anyone,” Jade said. “Actually, I didn’t even realize I wanted him until tonight.”

I sat up, abrupt motions causing contents to slosh, all that wine. “When?”

“What?”

“When was it you realized that you were in love with your brother?”

“I don’t know. I was in the shower, earlier, and I was…” She paused. Laughed at her own dirty joke, then, “I was rinsing myself off, and it just hit me. Occurred, or something. I have never been more in love. With anyone.”

It couldn’t be…

“Jade.” I managed to get to my knees. Grabbed hold of her hands, posing for a marriage proposal. “That’s not love you’re feeling. Not even strongly worded like. That’s just love in a bottle.”

“Huh?”

“The bottle that James bought from the army boy. The marine, sorry. That’s all it is. It isn’t real.”

Jade stood, pushed. A pair of open palms against my chest, knocking me back once more. She stared down at me. Let me stare right up her gown, no apologies, so certain my gaze was so unimportant.

“Fuck the army boy,” she told me. “I love my brother.”

“You don’t really love him.”

“You’re drunk.”

“How could you possibly be in love with your brother?”

Her face grew sad. Momentarily resigned to reason.

I sensed victory, accomplishment. A very real chance of taking what was mine.

Then, the remorse was gone, and that strange smile returned to her face as she said: “How could you possibly be in love with me?”

I had nothing left to say.

Jade straightened up, looked across the room.

I craned my neck. Saw James slouched against the threshold. Balancing on uncooperative legs. He was smiling, as always. Tried to take a step, fell back against the wall.

“I’m not feeling so good, Sis.”

Jade stepped over my body, floated towards him. She cupped his face in her hands. They kissed. James closed his eyes, but I knew that beneath those lids, wonder and abandonment were spinning circles. He reached up, fingers tentatively feeling her hair. She reached down, between his legs, moved her hand around.

I watched from my feeble position, all things upside down.

Carpet fibers rubbed into my elbows, thoughts pressed against the ceiling, angry and resentful.

Their lips separated with a wet seal of approval.

“Let me put you to bed,” she murmured.

Jade took him by the hand. They stepped over me, once more, into the breach. Into the bedroom. The door closed. I remained on my back. The wine stain on my shirt taking the shape of a botched transplant. Then came the sex noises. Drunk fucking, it was easy to recognize. Moans, whispers, and sounds easily confused with crying.

I rolled onto my stomach. Got on all fours. Crawled to the bedroom door. I put my ear to the unfinished wood. Brother and sister fucking for the first time. Muffled but obvious. I listened and slowly, anger let his friends join in. I flipped the script, let my back sag against the door. Reached into my jacket. Lit a cigarette, last of a five dollar bill, and sat against the gateway as a headboard thumped away.

I smoked, watching it all dissolve, awaiting the approaching climax.

And what if I had gone halves with James? Nothing made any sort of sense anyway. Fortune tellers were deceitful but correct. Brothers fucked their sisters. Parents lied. Fathers overdosed without thinking of all that they left behind. The world was straddled with a prime meridian bursting at the seam.

And in the midst of all this, marines took homegrown southern girls back to cheap motels; hopes of scoring some pussy and selling love in a bottle for three ninety-nine.

I found it in myself to giggle. Absurd sounds on either side of the green door, a climax just seconds away.

Who needed destiny when there was so much luck in this corner of the world?

 

 

The Ballad of Fast Jack.

 

And I’m warned by all sorts. From activists to pool hall bruisers, to those suspicious few who have found the time to do both:

“The future’s got a special place for people like you…”

And I tell them…

“I’ve got a special story for people like you…”

 

Two hours before the end of the world, Fast Jack left his ten-by-four flophouse, and went wandering for a drink. Led down busted, undesirable streets by a bulbous nose. Inexcusably long hair hanging before blue eyes, both tinted a hungover, cardiac red. Shuffled through the double doors of an artificial saloon. Buttons of midday sunlight led to a bartender with an undiagnosed twitch in his right arm. Only one tooth to boot, but nobody ever noticed that. One of those details what turned out to be just a little too typical, every ignorant soul a little too distracted by a bar that was never wiped down, paralyzed ceiling fans, and the exhausted creak of barstools, warped from years of thankless servitude.

Fast Jack – or Cole, as he was known to nobody other than himself – sat down and gave mention to the bartender. With this reminder clutched firmly in fist, Bartender served up a scotch. But it was better n’ the usual. Top Shelf. An unhealthy dose of Johnnie Red, which was good as it got between those rotting walls.

Fast Jack asked why, and Bartender said, “Two-Time Crenshaw is still alive.”

So?”

Two-Time was set to be killed by Lennox.”

Why’s that?” The scotch went elsewhere, and seconds later, refilled.

Two-Time fucked Lennox’s girl.”

Pink Lady?”

Pink Lady, that’s the one. Lennox blew this place last night on the war path. Pissed n’ blitzed, telling us all he was going to stab Two-Time in the mouth.”

And Two-Time’s still alive?”

Told Lennox it was you.”

Well, Fast Jack knew right then that it was over for him. Unless he fingered someone else. Let the Furies play hopscotch until someone faltered in the art of fiction. On and on. Could take years for any kind of imaginary vengeance to finally rest its sorry feet.

Same thing every last one of them was doing.

So Fast Jack downed his drink, and ran along the inside track of impending doom. Got himself another one. Turned his life into a quick, impersonal laundry list. Dead mother. Father fond of raping his sister. Hands fond of a glass and the occasional woman who might take payment in return for ignoring that face of his, half-deformed by a hash-house grease fire on the fringes of Baton Rouge. Brain on a slow boil, twelve steps shy of complete annihilation. Senses dulled from a juke box gone off the record. Rained on and dried out by a sun that shone in shifts.

In the midst of such memoires, a midget with a cowboy hat stormed in and had a drink. Cackled along with his bourbon and left within the same miraculous minute.

It’s been some kind of a time,” Fast Jack mused. Only a moment or so to drape his arm around this thought, before Lennox cried out from the streets:

Fast Jack!”

Fast Jack lit a cigarette, one eye closed against the smoke.

I’m calling you out, Bitch!”

Fast Jack turned to Bartender: “One more?”

Don’t go out there.”

I’m no idiot.”

Bartender poured another one. That overworked, singular eye measuring an oversized hit.

Jack took it down. Caught his half-face in the mirror. Paid without tipping.

I hope he kills you,” Bartender spat.

Jack laughed, and emptied the contents of his wallet onto the bar.

Come back, Fast Jack!” Bartender cried, and Fast Jack kept grinning every last step of the way, because life was like that. Life was a second midget in one day, this one by the name of Lennox. Life was getting floored, hunting knife to the throat, a three foot human being screaming drunk accusations while the block contented themselves with watching. Life was all about blood, one quick gush of arterial spray, spilling into the gutter, only to reunite with the city’s drinking water someday.

But life was more than that.

It was the laughter that came half an hour before the end of the world.

Half an hour before the end of the world, and Jack, Fast Jack, never saw that meteor coming…

 

And when people tell me: “That never happened.”

I say: “What makes you so sure?”

And they say: “The world hasn’t ended.”

“Wait,” I tell them, and go wandering for a drink.

 

Sidewalk pumping against my sneaks, because, I know, it’s the pavement that does all the walking.

 

 

Fresh Coat Of Paint.

 

The classifieds had someone looking for help repainting their downtown loft. So I dialed the number. Got a woman on the other end, inquiring as to my qualifications, experience. Padded a three-day stint with St. Augustine’s chapter of Habitat into a six-month construction project along the Florida Panhandle, got the green light, and set my alarm for six-thirty am.

***

Downtown sunlight was on the move, draping orange curtains over the retired factories down SoHo way.

I stepped over a few squashed cabbage leafs towards my destination. Double checked the address I had scribbled on the back of a tattered bar tab. Shared a cigarette with an unassuming nobody ‘round my age, before discovering he was there for the same cattle drive. Buzzed blond unable to hide a disappointingly premature widow’s peak. Light stubble along his face, lower neck. Plump, camel lips. Cautious smile offering a fake tooth stained with nicotine memories. Crystalline eyes, sharp darts awaiting further instructions.

“What did you tell her?” he asked.

“Six months with Habitat in the sunshine state,” I told him. “You?”

“Know the children’s wing of St. Cedars hospital? In Jersey, the one with the gigantic mural painted along the west wall?”

“No.”

“Neither does anyone else. But she doesn’t know that she couldn’t know.”

I liked that very much.

He pressed the buzzer, and we took the elevator up three floors.

***

Our employer was a Boomer in her mid-fifties, draped in a lightweight pastel dress. Yellow flowers from head to toe. Chestnut hair pulled back, shocks of grey like landing strips. Passive frown lines mapped along a seasonally inappropriate tan. She had chosen not to trust us with her furniture. The mismatched antiques were already grouped in the center of her twelve hundred square foot apartment. She said a few polite things, quickly bridging the gap from hostess to overseer.

We set about taping the corners, spreading newspaper out along the hardwood floor. Popping the paint cans, stirring, prepping the trays and virgin rollers. She directed us with mild disapproval of a tourist, always punctuating her orders with an indignant, half implied question mark.

I tried to make nice.

My comrade kept quiet, mostly. Something on his mind. Reserved, diligent. Ignoring the gathering stains on his blue shirt and black jeans. At one point, he tapped me on the shoulder, motioned to one of the newspapers on the floor.

Gore Grabs Torch From Clinton, Hoping to Avoid Burns.

I nodded.

***

We broke for lunch.

My comrade and I made for a corner bodega.

We stared at the chalkboard above the deli counter. Calculating our pay against the cost of a corned beef sandwich. I ordered a bagel with butter. Same for my brother in arms.

We took our catch back to the loft, crawled through the window onto the fire escape. The woman popped her head out and asked if that was all we were going to eat. An exclamation point this time, in place of a question mark.

We both made something up.

Watched the pedestrian traffic for a while, then went back to work.

***

We made our way along the walls. Rollers peeling like wet bandages ripped from fresh lacerations. Open windows venting the fumes, inviting heat and the raw blast of tailpipe, the occasional complaint of a car alarm. The woman asked us if we wanted to listen to music. If we liked The Mamas & the Papas.

We made something up.

Kept at it throughout the afternoon. Sunlight dipping into our thoughts. Stepladders giving us fair warning about that top step, as oatmeal white dripped onto yesterday’s news.

California dreamin’.

***

Five o’ clock had me and my comrade back on the streets.

He gave me a cigarette.

I gave him a light.

“What’s your name, anyways?” I asked.

“Philip. What’s yours?”

“Lucky.”

“Hm.” He rubbed his abdomen, absently. Pressed two fingers against his liver. “She never told us her name.”

“The lady?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. She never did.”

We shrugged and angled for different subway lines.

Uptown.

Downtown.

All around town.

***

I stopped by Bolo to visit Helena.

Waved at her through the window.

She stepped out. Indigo blouse and fitted black slacks. Blue hair spiked to full attention. Lips painted the color of uncultivated clay. Green eyes unaccountably making fun.

“What?” I asked.

“The waiters are laughing at you,” she said.

I squinted through the windows.

Couldn’t see past my own paint-splattered reflection.

Black ties and white collars hovering from somewhere inside.

***

Day two, Philip and I focused on the frames and crown moulding. Slow going. Paint brushes easing their way from floor to ceiling.

We skipped lunch.

Pretended to eat at the deli and went halves on a pack of smokes instead.

Took a break on the fire escape.

The lady stood by the window and watched us.

“You know, smoking is really, really bad for you.”

We nodded.

She crossed her arms and leaned against the frame. “Back in the Sixties, all we did was pot, pot, pot. And, you know, we were changing things. We changed a lot. And we waited for the next generation to do the same, and they never did. What generation are you two, anyway? Gen X? Gen Y?”

“Cusp,” I said.

Philipp nodded.

“We did a lot for the world,” she said. It wasn’t wistful, the way she framed her evergreen history. Hers was an authoritative tone. “We did. But from what you two have told me, you’re doing your best.”

We made something up and went back to work.

***

I decided not to visit Helena at work that day.

***

Our third and final shift, and the lady dipped her hands into the paint, pressed them against my back. Left two sturdy palm prints on my shirt.

“That’s a work of art,” she said. “You should save this shirt. I’m going to tell all my friends about you. They’re looking to have their places painted. I’ll tell them you’re both good, hard workers.”

I glanced at Philip.

He smiled, and sent his roller spinning.

***

We finished ahead of schedule, and I managed to make the bank.

Three hundred dollars for three day’s work.

Not bad, if I do say so myself, and it would turn out there was plenty less where that came from.

***

The lady wasn’t lying.

I got a call three days later.

Husband and wife, looking for a fresh coat of paint.

They would have to knock one dollar off the hourly rate, but would we mind?

I told them I didn’t actually know Philip and they would have to call him.

And no, I didn’t have his number.

And yes, I could be down on Spring Street at eight am this Saturday.

***

Philip met me outside the building.

The very sight of him had me checking the skies for a calendar date. One week, and Philip was looking ten years past our prime. Pale. Bordering on grey. His blue shirt hanging a little more loose, an extra notch added to his belt.

I asked him if he was alright.

He made something up, so I let it go.

I rang the buzzer, and it was two floors up this time.

***

He was an American History professor at NYU. Tenured.

She was dressed in jeans and a white blouse.

Rings on all her fingers.

They left the labor to us. She directed us towards the center of our new world and sent the furniture where it needed to go, and he told us about whatever piece we happened to be moving.

Butler’s specialty vintage oak writing desk. A pair of French Louis XIV-style carved walnut bergere fireside lounge armchairs. North Star Sewing machine from 1872.

The sewing machine stuck with me, for some reason.

I don’t think even one of their words made it to either of Philip’s ears. He strained, sweating through every step; his veins were inkwell blue, and I watched the blood struggle along the expressway to his heart.

So, yes, they were no help, but our prior gig had taught us the basics, and we pulled that first day off without a hitch. The couple just sat on, around, or at their various pieces.

The professor played classic rock on the stereo. Songs From The Vietnam Era, he called them. Each one came with a story. Each one ended with Woodstock, because that’s where him and his wife had first met.

“We met at Woodstock,” he would say.

“We met at Woodstock, “ she would echo.

“That second day, it rained.”

I saw Philip wobble from atop his perch, barely straighten in time to save himself from a bad fall.

I asked if we could grab an early lunch.

Our employers talked about it for a bit. Got side tracked with stories from the holiday faculty party. He cut her off once CCR started to play. Fortunate Son, and he insisted on telling us about the day his friend met Ken Kesey, and what did we think about the electric Kool-Aid test?

I made something up for the both of us, and our early lunch came about right on schedule.

***

Day two, I asked Philip what was wrong. Really asked, refused to let him pivot.

“It started with a pain in my abdomen,” he said. Lit a cigarette. “Now I can’t really eat.”

“What the hell, Philip?”

“Don’t know. Don’t have insurance.”

From down on the streets, a semi backed its way onto the flat surface of a loading dock, heart monitor beeping.

“Does it still hurt?” I asked.

“A lot.”

The husband popped his head through the window. Asked if that was all we were going to eat.

He didn’t wait for an answer.

We shared another cigarette instead, and our tenured professor was back in a flash to tell us what he thought of that.

***

By day two, efficiency had us worrying about our paycheck.

It looked as though the job might get done as early as third go-around, midmorning.

We broke for lunch, ate nothing, then returned with a renewed pledge to listen to every last anecdote, memory and nostalgic scolding the boomers had to offer.

Their egos allowed us to coast through the afternoon, rollers at our sides as we leaned against ladders, nodded in tandem, and asked if we could hear that Bob Dylan CD just one more time.

Masking my pain was easier than it was for Philip.

Managed to stretch things down to the wire, day three.

Philip and I stood outside, painted walls drying within. The cumulative effect of one dollar less scrawled across Citibank checks. Memo in the bottom left reading, For A Job Well Done, capped with an off-center peace sign.

I lit a cigarette. “So, where to, Philip?”

He smiled. It turned into a grimace, then another reluctant cover up. “Think I’ll hit the bank tomorrow.”

“Want to grab a beer with me? Got a bartender uptown owes me a few drinks on a lucky bet.”

Philip sighed. “I just want to go home.”

“Thanks for not making something up.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Go to a doctor, will you?”

“I can’t.”

I gave him a cigarette for the walk, and said goodbye.

***

Sat by myself at The Bishop for a couple of cocktails.

Finley and Shane stood behind the bar, topping me off. Laughing at some joke they thought I had cracked.

Had another job already lined up, and with that kind of luck, I had to believe Philip could pull through.

My comps took me through closing time.

I tipped the standard amount, plus parts and labor.

***

Our final gig was minus yet another dollar at the hands of a mid-fifties mess, carbon copy of our previous employers. Only difference was, she didn’t bother with ambiguities. Her orders were sharp, barked from snarling, soured lips. Nothing left to satisfy her, no turning back. Her memories weren’t melancholy retrospectives of what was. She had packed them all into a resentful little suitcase, carried them over into this modern world where nothing made sense, unpacking them at random to remind us that every last thing we did was wrong. And all that was wrong was our responsibility.

“I said, three feet to the left,” she would sigh, exasperated. “I don’t see what’s so hard about this. You…” A tendril was sent in Philip’s direction. “Don’t act like this is the heaviest load you’ve ever had to lift. You wouldn’t believe the weight we had to carry when we were your age.”

Philip and I would do as we were told.

And Philip was doing everything he could. Doing fine by any other set of standards. But whatever had taken hold of him was nesting, metastasized to every last part of his body. Silent sweat and melted wax. Eyes bloodshot, fingernails turning yellow. Powering through every motion of his roller, quietly humming classic rock as he inched his way along the walls of that priceless downtown loft.

All the lady saw was an ungrateful layabout, dragging his heels.

“Twice,” she would insist, terse between sips of lemongrass tea. “I need those rollers up, down, twice. Two coats in one. I’m not going to have you tell me we need to let the whole thing dry, then go at it again. Three days. That’s what Carl and Grace told me it took you with their place. And they’ve got significantly more square footage than I do. Never mind what they pay for it. I’m not about to give it away just because it’s a new day, or a new century, or whatever excuses you give me for why we’re all still caught up in the same capitalist hypocrisy. Twice. Twice, just do it.”

We managed to get a lunch break on the condition she dock us both for the time.

Rather than search for food, Philip and I shuffled south, silent and dazed in an afternoon haze.

Turned the corner at Canal Street and ducked into a pop-up.

Browsed wire baskets filled with cheap product, stuffed animals, keychains, flashlights, sunglasses.

Settled on a collection of bookbags, and he paid cash at the register.

“What’s with the book bag?” I asked.

“Going to feel better, real soon,” he said. “I’m so sick of it.”

I agreed. With all of it.

Whether or not I understood was up for debate, so I made something up and followed him back to the worksite.

***

Quitting time.

I escorted him to the NR .

Kept him from folding, once and a few times after that.

His bookbag had him off balance, and each time, he shook me off.

“Take the day off, tomorrow,” I told him.

“Not a problem,” he murmured. His lips were working in opposite directions. Over and under, mashing his tongue, making split-pea of his words. Breath sour against my face as he bounced off my shoulder and suddenly managed to stand upright. Face a soggy Halloween mask, smile shining through for whatever reason. One last bump. Finding the strength to say, “I took what was mine.”

And he wove his way down the steps with surprising style.

An exit worth remembering if it wasn’t for a dried paint chip that made its way into my eye.

Blurring my vision, and flooding the world with laconic tears.

***

The phone was ringing when I got back to the apartment.

Picked it up, and had to pause when faced with my first introduction.

“Who?” I asked.

“Sheryl,” the voice spat into my ear. “And you stole from me! You stole!”

First time hearing her name, but the venom was right out of a lineup. “Say again?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know. And if you don’t then you tell me where your friend is, you tell me right now.”

I lit a cigarette and reached for an open bottle of Gato Negro. “Well…” I had a few power tugs, watched the air make its way from the neck up towards the base of backwater Cabernet. “Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t.”

“That music box was an antique! Where is it?”

“How should I know?”

“Because one of you stole it.”

I helped myself to the wine, putting the pieces together. “You’re repainting your home. That’s going to be hard to prove.”

“Oh, I am on to BOTH of you.”

“Could you describe it for me? What’s it look like?”

“It’s priceless, that’s what it looks like!”

“So it sounds like it looks like it’s got to be worth something, so…”

Radio silence. For a moment, I was sure she had hung up. “You’re not that stupid. So I know it was your friend. Get it back, give me some way to bring in the authorities, and I will pay you… I will pay you five hundred.”

“Yen? Drachmas?”

“I will pay you one thousand dollars.”

“Say that again?”

“I will pay you two thousand. Plus the money for the job.”

“If I go with you to the authorities.”

“Yes.”

I smiled. Drank what was left. “Question.”

“Yes?”

“No. Question.”

“What?”

“Question,” I repeated.

“Question what?”

“Authority, flower child. Peace.”

It wasn’t the best, but it was enough of an empty victory to put the phone to cradle.

Unplugged the jack and wandered into my bedroom.

Opened another bottle.

Gazed out the window and watched that one thread pull the whole world apart.

I thought about Sheryl, and her beautiful Soho loft. Crystals, framed photographs of Che Guevara, Castro and Gloria Steinem hanging over all those fabulous antiques. I thought about those walls, her unfinished mission to paint over the cracks of her sprawling, majestic throne room.

That woman standing in the middle of it all, wondering who would come along and do her work for her.

I took a pull of wine.

Stripped naked and stared at the ceiling.

Flat on my back, wondering if one music box would be enough for Philip. Enough to at least visit a doctor. Enough to have his body looked at, checked out. No more mysteries, even if the solutions were forever held beyond our grasp.

An answer to whatever it was that was making us all so sick.

 

 

The Stinson.

 

How good were things for a while, there?

Good enough to break a promise that had me back in Los Angeles, some six or seven years after the trigger was pulled. Thirty K in the bank, two hundred dollar per diem, all courtesy of HBO. Two straight weeks, paid to run wild among the best and the worst the apocalyptic metropolis had to offer. Boots on the ground. Countermanding the boulevards, alleyways and hidden storefronts of that sprawling warehouse. Coroners, executives, sheriffs, bus drivers, priests, undocumented aliens, parolees, Pentecostals, ID runners, drunks and gangsters of Echo Park.

My last night in town had me stranded at a community theater, a repurposed mini-mansion, once home to Spanish aristocracy. I sat in the nosebleeds and watched the rehearsal. A balls-out play about the life of Subcomandante Marcos. Prop guns fired, smoke clearing, the actor/director and all around bearded man proclaiming Es preferible morir con honor que vivir con la verguenza de un tirano dictando nuestros rumbos!

They ran through it six or seven times.

I took six or seven hits from my flask.

Replaying how it was I had ended up in that land of calibrated make-believe.

Fake backdrops bearing witness to the revolution, domed ceilings and historical pillars nestled against a dead-end sign deep in East LA.

***

Rehearsal ended at a punctual nine-fifteen.

I ran a follow-up with the director, took some notes. He seemed to believe his every last word, lips on a loop, talking art, culture, the rich tradition of the radical. As was the case with all compulsive artists, he never asked for my opinion. I got away with more than I needed. No need to fake my way through the proceedings. I wasn’t a revolutionary, was barely an artist. Certainly wasn’t a radical. I liked my bars empty, my mind broken, and my alcohol in whatever shade opportunity would allow.

He lit a cigarette, and at least we could agree on that.

Halfway through my Marlboro, Alana put in an appearance. Stood by her boss for a spell. Like any good director/actor and all around bearded man, he took the time not to notice, until the last traces of smoke had made their way to the upper balconies.

He introduced us.

We shook hands.

Then kissed abruptly.

A minor peck on the lips, just subtle enough to rearrange the letters in our names.

“So what are you doing here?” she asked. She smiled, a set of braces putting her anywhere between thirteen and thirty.

“Research.”

“You’re a writer.”

“Right now, just a peddler.”

“Research?” She lit a cigarette.

I copied her. Blew smoke. “Yeah. I got lucky.”

“And ended up here?”

“Long version ain’t nearly as lucid. Know a good cab company I can call?”

“Where you headed?”

“The Stinson.

“Downtown?”

“South Grand, between East Eighth and Ninth, that’s the place.”

“Can I drive you?”

“Would you?”

She was maybe four foot eleven. On a good day. Dark skin, an accent that spiked and ebbed in what felt like Venezuelan rhythms. Brown eyes split in half by a bridge that blossomed out into a wide nose. Lips with sweet meaning, lost to her furrowed brow.

“When do you leave town?” she asked.

“Tomorrow.”

“Let’s not waste time, then.”

I turned to say goodbye to my contact.

He was already back on stage. Enraptured by a cardboard boulder that gleamed with a white and silver paint job. The bottom boards told him some sort of joke and he laughed.

I laughed along and let Alana lead the way.

***

Ignition switched, every last emergency light awakened as the engine bitched right back. We reversed our way along a single lane of gravel and tilting telephone poles. The car was a standard shifter, which I didn’t think I had seen since the days of Milo’s beat up ’82 Corolla.

“I heard it was HBO,” she said.

“They’re looking to expand their base. Want a new series, miniseries about Latinos in East Los.”

“And they called you?” She spun her car up against a garbage can, back bumper knocking it over. Rebounded, turning the wheel, a near one-eighty onto the nearest cross street. “That’s kind of something.”

“They called me, my father and my brother,” I specified. “They were under the impression that a family of Latino writers would make a nice angle.”

“Would it?”

“It’s a gimmick.”

“So your father’s a writer?”

“He’s a journalist. Activist. Teaches at Pantheon University.”

“Your brother?”

“He’s whatever he needs to be at any given moment.”

“A real survivor.”

I rolled down the window. Lit a cigarette. “That’s him, alright.”

“And you?”

“Writer. Plain and simple.”

“You must be doing ok, though.”

“I ain’t the worst I been.”

“Nice.”

“I ain’t that, either.” I rolled the window down. Lit a cigarette. “What’s your story?”

She had herself a smoke. “Just a girl from East Los, you know? Nothing special.”

“Yeah, this town is kind of rough.”

“Been here before?”

“I’ll tell you some other time.”

“Like when?”

“Like when we get to know each other better,” I replied, knowing there was no chance of that.

“How about now?”

“You married?”

“No.” She paused at an intersection. “Well, yes. Well, engaged. Doesn’t matter.”

“Guess not.”

She smoked her cigarette and we stared out our respective windows. The entire city was alight with orange streetlights and the cold carriage of distant lives.

Dead oasis.

She pulled into the parking lot.

I tossed the last of a pack out the window. “Thanks for the ride.”

“That’s all?”

The radio reminded us of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s ongoing success.

“Don’t know what else there is.”

“This place has a bar, right?”

“You’ve been here before.”

“Buy a girl some drinks,” she said, stared with a puckered glare. “I mean, you can’t really be this stupid.”

“It’s been a while.”

“Now what does that mean?”

I reached into my bookbag, checked the situation.

Fresh pack of cigarettes and a sealed pack of Trojans.

“Hope you like your ice cubes warm,” I said.

“I don’t.”

She removed the cover to her car stereo, and slipped it into her bag.

***

The Stinson was a ten story cardboard box, carved out from the rapidly changing skyline of downtown LA. A few blocks shy of Broadway, where the crooks, hustlers, and one-eyed serpents still pedaled their porn, Prada knock-offs and gold watches that would turn your wrist green on a dare. A few unfortunate steps north, and your eyes would bleed at the sight of construction signs, large metal cranes stretching on high, Caterpillars laying the foundation for a playground of another color.

How the Stinson would survive was anyone’s guess. Home to the last of the great drifters, a transient mansion for men with no inclination of past or present. Either on their way to the next great adventure or postponing the inevitable suicide. Noose fastened tight, drenched in scotch and unbearable camouflaged memories .

Never mind the trailblazing smoking ban that would soon envelop half the country with its own brand of chamomile haze. The lobby’s mismatched armchairs, cracked sofas and wounded coffee tables all played host to cell phone desperadoes, tugging at the last remnants of their cancer sticks. Frenzied eyes, last minute deals to ensure the Stinson would not remain their home for even one week longer than absolutely necessary.

Same went for the bar.

The jukebox was drunk, the barstools splintered, and the ashtrays didn’t give a shit.

Master of ceremonies was a middle aged, platinum-dye job with thick lips, planetary tits and a dress in leopard prints. Silver eye shadow haling from some East Asian destination . They called her High Top. She was fast, sharp. A woman so quick to anticipate, that she appeared to simply drift up and down the bar on a lazy gust of wind.

I ordered a scotch on the rocks.

Alana ordered a white Russian, got carded. She flashed an ID and a blazing smile of electric diamonds.

I paid for both.

She raised her glass. “Salud.”

Salud.”

We drank in silence and smoked, let the record player turn over a new leaf or two.

“You’ve been here before,” she said.

“Not in this bar.”

“In Los Angeles.”

“Yes.”

“You said you’d tell me when we got to know each other better.”

“Yes.”

Alana glanced down the way. Knew I would follow suit, caught some ancient man with a fedora and a crippled hand talking nonsense to his drink. “This is as better as it’s going to get,” she said.

“I fell in love with a girl named Leah,” I told her. “I fell in love with her some several years ago, back east. Followed her here. Out to the wild frontier. Didn’t end so good…” I took a stab at my drink. “I was talking to some guy earlier today. Some kid, really, not much younger than me.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty four, I think.”

“Yeah, we all think. Go on.”

“He’d just got sprung from prison. Shaved head. Sad tats all over his arms.”

“Standard teardrop.”

“Yeah, Homeboy Industries, they got a tattoo removal program.”

“But they can’t do nothing about the teardrops, yeah. Too close to the eyeballs. Can’t have lasers that close to your eyeballs, can you?”

Black-and-white photography on the wall dealt out puddles of Sinatra, Mohammed Ali, and any other person you wouldn’t think might have thought to stop in.

“Yeah.” I told her. “He was waiting for his interview. Being brought back into the fold. His eyes were darting behind his glasses. He was trying to be positive, talking about his time in prison, his prospects for a new job. But his knee kept bobbing up and down. Rapid fire. He wasn’t doing as hot as he said, no way. And the only thing I could think was about the smell of this place. This city, the way things hang in the air. Even though my last encounter was everything west of Fairfax, all I could think was what happened last time I was here. Man, dangerous thoughts, when all you care about is yourself.”

“What did she do to you?”

“Huh?”

High Top stopped by and asked us if we wanted another drink.

Only one answer to that.

We lit a few cigarettes, and when our drinks arrived, High Top got her hemispheres upside down and handed me the white Russian. Gave Alana the scotch. We each settled on the hand we were dealt and drank.

“What did she do to you?” Alana repeated, taking another ride on the merry-go-nowhere.

“You’ve been here before .”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“You know this place.”

“You ever been stabbed before?”

I shrugged. Gave negligence a walk in the park. “Had a prostitute hold a knife to my throat once…” I took a taste of her white Russian, let the milk coat my stomach. “Not on my tab. Someone else’s. Also, it technically happened to Wanda. But I stole it for myself, we used to have this agreement.”

“Well, Wanda can keep it.”

“You stab somebody, Alana?”

“I ran wild around downtown with a fake ID back when I was a teenager,” she told me. “I came here with my boyfriend. Someone tried to put the moves on me, some old man with a crippled hand, but he was all muscle. Marine, or Navy Seal, or something you wouldn’t want to fuck with, anyway. Things got out of hand. High Top wasn’t bartending that night, and I guess it’s good for the both of us that she wasn’t. The cops told me his name afterwards, and it was Franklin. He stepped into the middle of the fight and my boyfriend stabbed him. I mean, it was an accident, but also, yeah, he stabbed him. He was dead by the time the EMTs showed up. He took off, ran his ass back to East Los. I stayed behind, holding Franklin’s guts in place. He’s no genius, my boyfriend — he left his blade behind and everything. The cops interrogated the shit out of me, just for fun, a chance to give their hands a little taste of my body. They never needed any of it.”

Alana took a bite of her straw. Lifted it from her drink like a slender cigarette and pointed some twenty feet away from where we were sitting. “There’s Franklin, all over the place.”

“So I imagine your boyfriend’s in jail.”

“Not anymore. And he ain’t my boyfriend.”

“Out on parole?”

“Just recently.”

“Yeah.” I sighed. Drank her white Russian, which sent my head spinning. “Twenty years knocked down to three? Got him to cop a plea without proper representation?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds like a match to me .”

She stared at me. “It’s not as likely as it seems.”

“What was your boyfriend’s name?”

“Manny. Manuel Castillo.”

I shook my head. Got the jukebox to hear my thoughts, send a little Rahsaan Roland Kirk my way, You’ll Never Get To Heaven. “I may have to check my notes,” I said.

“You’re wrong,” she said.

“Bit of a coincidence, then?”

“A familiar story?”

“Yes.”

“They’re all familiar stories,” Alana said. “And there’s no such thing as coincidence around these parts. Everything I’ve described matches everything you’ve described, because that’s all there is.”

I polished off my drink.

Alana had done pretty good business of her own, ordered us another round.

“Keep this up, you won’t be able to drive home.”

“Don’t be fooled. Sometimes, I like it here.”

I laughed with a tired wave of my hand. Lit a cigarette. High Top remained confused as to who was who. Served me the white Russian, slid my scotch between Alana’s awaiting hands.

“My room is a pastel rectangle, approximately fifty square feet,” I said. I handed her my cigarette, and lit another. “The walls are blank, cracked, like the rest of this place. The ceilings are fine. Higher than most hotels, possibly the most merciful part of this quiet thrust. The bathroom is a combination of wilted wall paper, blue flowers, and cracked porcelain. No television. Alarm clock wired to the radio. The ice machine on my floor has a hole in it, a plastic spider web spreading out. Like it was punched by someone who needed to get what was in there in a real hurry. Out of my windows, they face west, and you can catch the mirage of downtown LA as the sun sets, the buildings built into the freeway, the smoke and final solution to this crazy fucking city.”

Alana had herself a helping of what was rightfully my drink.Her braces gleaming, with an inadvertent laugh as she leaned close to me, she said, “Sounds like you ended up right back in LA.”

“And you just plan to never leave.”

She rubbed her forehead against my face, nose moving up, pressed against the corner of my mouth. “That was always the plan.”

I kept my hands where they were. Let my mind wander all over the angels in my imagination. Laughed a little. “Things get worse, don’t they?”

“Better hope they keep getting better,” she said. “You chose to come back.”

A few seats down, a perfectly bland nobody ran his hand through shallow streaks of grey. Turned to the man next to him and wondered where the time had gone. The man replied with a quick adjustment of his white undershirt. His eyes bulged behind lids that insisted on sleep. Didn’t look like that was going to be the case, though. Not as long as the sun continued to set, and certainly not as long as the clouds kept their distance for fear someone might recognize a familiar shape, somewhere in the world up there.

Not on that particular evening, promises broken, watching the clock strike midnight at the Stinson.

 

 

Making Love on the Moon.

 

This was a dry slice of wisdom handed down by Mr. Joe Watson, and on the surface, it was nothing new.

This is a man’s world, Lucky, he told me. They are the takers, the mapmakers. Self-appointed gods of history. And if there’s one thing God’s incapable of, it’s offering any kind of explanation of what he is or who he’s supposed to be. Men are so accustomed to existing as-is, what can they tell you? That I am a man. That you are a man. Self-evident truths we’ve relied on for so long, they’ve grown salty, turned our mouths to slabs of sheetrock.

It was Autumn, early in the season as far as the leaves went. Pantheon was back in town.

Joe’s eyes made short work of the eight o’clock crowd. Sliced clear through the haze of cigarettes and overcast bravado. Rested his back against the bar. Took another pull of Miller and tilted his head closer towards mine.

Lucky, he sighed, running a quick sound check. Plucked another Camel from the pack. Waited for me to finish waiting, then followed up with, what happened to all the men?

Nothing there I was qualified to answer. Made do with following the scope of his stare. Another night at On The Rail, this one just a little different from the others. Half the room plastered with college kids. Frat boys. Interchangeable smiles, cloths, haircuts. All colors of the palest pallett, their stuttering chuckles punctuating talks of class, kegs and pussy.

Back to Joe. Scratching lightly below his peppered beard. Furrowed brow, cropped crown and crow’s feet. Wasn’t the sort to be world weary. His skin was far too thick, his smile too many shades of grim compassion. Battle tested was the best way to put it.

I look at these boys and I fear there’s no hope. All bluster and no brains. No humility. Showmanship in place of experience and empathy. These are the leaders and representatives of the 21st century.

I asked if he wanted me to lighten their load.

That might help, he said. Don’t kid yourself though… It won’t change a thing.

I took an empty table alongside a thick bottleneck of Greeks. Picked a cue stick, 20oz weight. Rolled it across the surface, checking for warps in the wood, my ears picking up on their conversation. Each one talking over the other in an aggressive clash of matching philosophies. Repetitious advice, everyday household uses for the female body. Shared ownership of a not-too-distant future.

I racked for a game of nine. Broke with enough force to send a minor shockwave through my neighbors. Casually pulled a twenty from my jacket and dropped it into the top left corner. Went on a shooting spree. Nothing spectacular, pulling the odd punch or two. Chalked my cue on occasion. Taking my time.

It was Joe who had told me Sure, there’s a couple of hustles out there that work. Work with surprising consistency. But the mythology is a bit overblown. It’s like basics for breakfast. You can pretend you don’t know the first thing about leave, cushions or top-left English. But that’s a whole lot of effort. Whole lot of makeup and special effects. Yes, of course, without a doubt, people love a sure thing. Love being right. But if there’s one thing they love more, it’s proving someone else wrong. And they will dig that grave down to the bedrock before realizing they’re the only ones standing in it.

I heard the question in mid stroke. Drew back, took an unflattering shot on the eight. Straightened. Face to face with a six-two powerhouse sporting a Nets jersey, white Pantheon lid. Confident grin of a landowner. Not quite where I wanted him yet.

Had him repeat the question, then told him the twenty was my way of looking for a game. Took a moment to look past his mammoth shoulders. I sent a polite nod to his brothers. They threw a few deliberately indifferent responses my way, too cool for school.

He seemed interested. I told him it wasn’t like eight-ball. He seemed a little exasperated, made it clear he understood how nine-ball worked. I asked him if he understood what a race to three would entail. He said yes, best two out of three. I corrected him, right there in front of his boys – first person to win three games wins the kitty. Took it one step further, began to explain that kitty was really more of a poker term, cool if he didn’t know what I had meant.

But of course he did. And, of course, he had to insist.

And I had no choice but to tell him it wouldn’t be in his best interest. Him and his boys were eight-ballers. There were strategies and angles he wouldn’t know how to play. He’d be pissing his money away.

And New Jersey didn’t like that. He reached into his khakis, pulled out a leather tumor and sifted through a few twenties. Dropped one into the pocket and told me to rack.

I suggested we lag for the break.

He pretended to know what I meant, and I pretended to pretend.

Chalked my cue, and glanced over to find Mr. Joe Watson watching from his post.

Casually sending a nod my way as he lit another smoke, even though none of it would make any damn difference.

***

If you lived in Verona, there was only one sunset for every day.

If you lived at On The Rail, closing time was a second chance at twilight.

Two in the a.m. Tabs settled. Undesirables out the door. Each individual light over each individual table turned off, leaving the remains with a dirty bulb above the bar, buzz of electric signs. Fresh round for everyone in the know. A game of cards, late night movie shining down on the outdated television.

On this particular night, Casper had a batch of Bullet waiting beneath the bar. Poured some beauty into a couple of ugly red cups. Added a few ice cubes. We corralled one or two regulars into a progressive game of three-ball. Five dollars a round. Seven draws later, I was out thirty-five. Then thirty. Made the mistake of winning on the low end. My fifteen dollar victory was quickly meted by an interminable hour that left me down fifty when Casper dropped two on the snap then made short work of the third.

From the Greeks, to my own pocket, to the coffers of Casper Noel. So went the underground economy. Breaking even was as good as it got, and I sat down at a table with Mr. Joe Watson.

Nice work on those Pantheon boys, he told me.

I nodded, helped myself to some bourbon.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized what defined me, he said. Because I worry about you, Lucky. I’ve met one or two of you in my life. Once or twice. And then I never met them again, if you catch my meaning. Or even if you don’t. Either way, I never did see those cats cross my path after the last time I saw them.

I had a drink.

Casper was at the bar, restocking. Running down the checklist.

I’d like for you to do something with your life. Not in the general sense, like those boys tonight. Blow a few years at college, go into the family business. Run a hedge fund, run the whole goddamn world into the ground. That’s not doing something. That’s following. And not following is something you are good at. But you can’t let it be a rule. The defining factor. It’s one thing for a person to be free. The minute a man’s brain turns to anarchy, that’s the bottom of the ninth.

My eyes fluttered towards the bottle.

Joe gave me the go ahead, said he wouldn’t take it personal if I had myself another go.

I don’t remember where I was when Kennedy was shot, Joe said. Don’t tell a lot of people this, because it isn’t true. But it might as well be. Truth is, I just don’t care to remember. Which is far worse of an admission. Purposefully removing yourself from the collective sorrow of that day in ’63. Sad to say, I never liked it as a moment. Wasn’t interested in it. Slide that pack of cigarettes on over my way, and I’ll tell you what I remember instead…

I did as I was told. He had himself a Marlboro.

Slid the pack on back.

I helped myself to both a smoke and another drink and waited.

I was sixteen years old in July of 1969. It was the twentieth. There was a girl I had been chasing after named Madeline. Her full name was Madeline Mae. I knew her as Maddie. And it was on that night, after much of what passed as courting in those days, that we bunked together in her tiny house. Practically a shack by today’s standards, but it had running water, electricity. All the basics. Might not have been her first time, but it was certainly mine. Stretched across the couch. Mother out for the evening, a nurse on second shift. Television on. Anticipation of what was to come overwhelmed by anticipation of what was to come. Because we were supposed to be watching history. And in a way we sort of did, Lucky. Making love on those old cushions, thinking to myself there’s nothing more that could be going right in this ugly old world, when I had it in me to turn to the television. I took a moment. Turned to her. Kissed her to let Maddie know it was all right, what was about to happen. Gently moved her face, turned it so that we were both looking at the screen. There was Neil Armstrong, taking his first steps on our sister satellite. I told her, watch this. Look at this. And we smiled in the middle of it all. Time out in the middle of making love on the moon…

He didn’t smile this time around. His eyes did, a little.

I favored him with a nod, too busy waiting for him to finish his story.

He never did.

Somewhere in the middle of the history, Casper had taken a seat at the table.

Puffing on a decent, ten dollar cigar.

The Jukebox playing a little Jimi Hendrix, reminding us that Somewhere a king has no wife.

He offered Joe a pull.

Joe gave it a taste. Nodded. Smoke trailing from his lips in felonious wisps.

When the offer came my way, I declined with a grateful smile.

At home with another cigarette, another pour of bourbon and the endless sunset of Joe Watson’s story.

We sat and listened to the music for another half hour or so.

Joe had been there and back. He’d done the road, hustled Harleys, laid sheetrock, shot at killers from behind the badge, laughed in the face of Atlantic City, been left for dead, lost everything he had in a single night, been married, divorced, brought his daughter up through the years, all the while watching, always, for any sign, any hint, for the reason we kept fighting.

I took a few bullets down my throat.

Somewhere in the distant past, Joe ended up owning On The Rail.

And I ended up living there for far too many years before something else came along to define whoever I was, in what otherwise was a man’s world.

 

 

Sonia’s Window.

 

the boy sat on the floor of Sonia’s apartment in 100 degree summertime. dry desert heat flowing between the decrepit patio and the bedroom. cigarette clamped between his lips, steeped in the details of the day. indifferent to the nameless young anarchist stretched across the couch, struggling to decipher the cover of a vintage 12 inch. the slow swing of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong swelled from velvet red speakers, occasional skips and vinyl pops. in another room, snatches of conversation.

the boy’s gaze fell on a stuffed elephant, nestled between a few cassette tapes and a cinderblock shelf. he raised a plastic cup to his lips. small swallows of Gato Negro. listing the flavors, shades of lush blueberry and cherry bygones.

couldn’t bring himself to venture back beyond that same morning. waking up to the arid sunshine. traversing one house over to knock on Paxi’s door.

and Paxi had rolled out of bed without hesitation.

I have to go to El Centro, the boy had told him. in English, giving Paxi a chance to practice. Don’t want to get lost. want to come with?

Sure, Paxi answered. Just let me eat some M&Ms.

the bus had been packed, even after peak hours. windows open. the pair had stood towards the back, balancing against the bounce of potholed streets. unspoken agreement to keep an eye on each other’s pockets. half an hour down the line, disembarking on the corner of Alameda and Manuel Rodriguez, that second one named after a revolutionary who would dress as a bum and run scams on the mayor.

city walls alive with graffiti and dead foliage.

and now, they had moved to the dining room. sun streaming through the window, a tiny rectangle revealing the rooftops of Santiago. all seated in semi-quiet, the agoraphobic presence of a wake. nodding along to the swing of things. stoned atmosphere. Sonia licked a wooden spoon smothered in honey, which the boy suspected was the only food in the house.

the record ended, and Sonia went looking for something fresh.

a little Jimi Hendrix, possible bootleg featuring Lonnie Youngblood.

the melodies stung. side winding saxophone, blues guitar, and the sounds of the crowd. one night only, once in a lifetime, pressed into orbital grooves.

the young anarchist stood. swung a satchel over his shoulder, patches sewn into tattered, navy blue. stole a cigarette from the boy, shook his hand. introduced himself as Federico, then left.

Sonia and her friend escorted him out.

the boy heard the front door close. waited for a few minutes.

across the table, Paxi looked up from a copy of Hopscotch. threw out a little joke, wondered if they would ever come back.

the boy said he didn’t know. glanced at the clock, long hand making its rounds. he searched for a date, only got the time. all along the maroon walls, photographs did their best to guess. evidence held in place with dabs of black electric tape. the boy turned his head, jumped back to find the picture of a dead cat lying on the street. roadkill. paws stiff, insides splattered across the concrete in blinding, saturated hues.

the boy reached for his empty cup. just to make sure there was nothing there for him.

the runaways returned. Sonia placed a cardboard box on the table, handed the boy two bottles of Gato Negro. pointed to the corkscrew. as Sonia and the other girl retired to the kitchen, the boy went about his task. he poured himself some wine. a few sips of purple to grease the wheels.

from the kitchen, the low sizzle of oil in a pan.

lured by the promise of a late lunch, Paxi went to offer his services.

the boy couldn’t bring himself to move a muscle. chivalry held in check by loud colors and the surreal remnants of an afternoon sunset.

Sonia walked in and hung a string of dried oysters around the boy’s neck.

How do i look? he asked in broken Spanish.

Good, she said. took one of the bottles back into the kitchen.

he noticed a button, inexplicably pinned to the back of her shirt. crossed out swastika peeking through vines of matted brown hair.

the scent of onion and cooked pasta overtook the apartment, riding the currents. the boy thought the breeze must have been the same one, from that same night. ketchup in place of tomato sauce. stretching their pennies. stretching the hours until the minutes bled, begged for them to crawl into bed together and set things moving once more.

Sonia popped her head in. asked if he was hungry.

the boy fabricated a large breakfast, and declined. refusing to become part of this new apartment.

stuck with superimposing. two years gone, laid flat upon a second transparency. watched as Sonia placed mismatched plates over the dozen candles they had once lit, as Paxi plopped into his chair with total disregard for the cat who had napped for hours, as the girl he didn’t know reached past countless empty bottles, daylight swirling through midnight, creating a stage door sort of lavender, as Sonia sat in her own lap, dish held close to her mouth, unaware of the cigarette she was smoking as she removed her shirt and let it drop to the floor, had herself a glass of wine and laughed at the boy’s mispronunciation of the word psychopath.

the boy crossed his eyes, cut through double vision. zeroed in on their meal. bowties in place of spaghetti this time, tossed with a freshly made marinara. the single detail that sent the bridge burning. no ketchup. no candles, no kitten. no cigarette, for the moment, because the boy knew that was simply bad form.

Sonia gave the boy’s shin a light kick. told him that unless he made his own plate, it was up to him to carry the conversation.

so the boy leaned back, stretched his arms far over his head. launched into a story about a little robot in a laboratory. a sentient little creature whose masters had no idea he had achieved full awareness of himself. a best friend named Hamilton, experimental turkey trapped in a cage. star-crossed soul mates, destined for a life together were it not for one Christmas when the world would come crashing down around both of them, though three sentences short of killing them both, the boy trailed off.

it had carried them through the meal, and they lapsed into silence.

Sonia stole a cigarette. It’s six o’clock. we should go soon.

A walk for the digestion, Paxi offered.

Yes.

Excellent.

Maybe Blondie will be there, Sonia said, turning to the boy. “Have you had a chance to see him?

the boy lit his own cigarette and stood along with the rest. could be his name was Kenneth, though odds were just as good it was Lucky who turned to his chair. relegated some silent advice. filed out with the rest of them, taking one last look over his shoulder to catch the sunlight streaming through Sonia’s window, beyond which the rooftops of Santiago could still be seen.

 

 

If Found, Return to Wanda.

 

“Look at you,” Zephyr said. “You might as well be drinking your own tears.”

It was maybe fifteen past closing time. Noises off, regulars all gone home. Tables lousy with empty bottles, shot glasses. One or two chairs laid flat. Passed out, boozed out. Cigarette butts crushed into the floor. Space settling with tiny creaks, occasional pop from the pipes. A few barback lights left burning. Didn’t make for a very flattering refection, and so

I looked down into my drink, considered what Zephyr had told me.

“Those are ice cubes,” I said.

“You know what I’m saying.”

“Yeah, I suppose I do…”

“Drink up, Lucky.” Later hours made for a thicker accent, but I’d learned all the important phrases. “I’ll buy you another one.”

I knocked back the rest, got a fresh pour.

Zephyr opened the register, withdrew that night’s bank. Sifted through receipts and bar tabs, shuffled together like cards at The Trop. I lit a cigarette, chased it with a little Jack. Zephyr frowned through his spectacles. Ran a hand past his graying hair. Muttered when things didn’t add up, kept a straight face when all was as it should, line after line of arithmetic.

I glanced down past my jeans and worn dress shoes, noticed some broken glass.

“Zephyr,you want me to clean a little house? Grab the broom or something?”

“Nah,” he replied, distracted. “We’ll do that tomorrow.”

“What about the cat?”

“Cat’s asleep in the kitchen. Don’t worry about it, Lucky. Have your drink.”

Fine idea, seconds from the making when

Three knocks clocked in at the front door.

“Who the fuck is this, now?” Zephyr tossed his paperwork aside, glancing up.

I threw one over my shoulder.

Saw a pair of men waving, motioning for us to unlock the door. Behind them, a second figure stood on the steps leading up to Macdougal, where even the slices and falafel joints were contemplating an early night.

I didn’t recognize any of them, though Zephyr must have.

“Open the door, Lucky,” he told me.

I stumbled over, turn of the key.

Let them in along with mid-December catastrophe.

The two men were dressed in matching suits, all flash and flare. Faces beaming, chock full of that Christmas cheer. Heads bobbing. Dreadlocks swinging. Joyous greetings as their third wheel followed in their footsteps; clothesline of a woman wearing a white blouse. Blue jeans clinging to insect legs. Denim jacket. Bleached blond hair, hard features. Color of her eyes up for debate. First day of the rest of her life, buried six feet beneath all previous ones.

I watched her walk the line.

Locked the door, trotted back to the bar. The blonde had parked herself next to my seat, a toothy grin twice removed from her actual one. She caught me staring. I tried to smile. She gave me the once over and ran her tongue over her lips.

Unsure of what to do, I cautiously mirrored the gesture.

Now we were both confused.

I knocked back my drink, picked up the broom and began sweeping.

Zephyr and the late arrivals began to argue.

I kept an open ear, followed their conversation.

Realized I didn’t speak Creole, and gave it up for broken glass and crushed coasters.

The blonde stared into space, bony fingers sparking a cigarette.

The argument cut out with one swift handshake. A simple twist of the tap, as the two Haitians went into the kitchen, blonde trailing along with spiraling wisps of smoke.

Zephyr went back to his books, muttering.

I lit a cigarette. Kept sweeping.

Checked the kitchen door, bright light streaming through its compact, rectangular windows.

Back to Zephyr. “Santa come early this year?” I asked.

“Fucking assholes want to bring that fucking prostitute in here. I’m trying to tell them to go back to their own fucking place.”

“What’s that now?”

“The blonde, Lucky. Why do they have to bring that into my fucking bar, man?” He poured me another. “It’s depressing. We get enough problems in here. Enough pain. Got this poor woman doing whatever she has to do. Nobody should have to do whatever they have to do, you know it?”

Then he stopped. Tilted his head to the right, listening.

I tilted my head as well, tried my best to tap into it.

“What?” I asked.

“Shh… Listen…”

Well, the bar stayed quiet for a full minute. Jack Daniel’s anxiously awaiting my return. I was close to losing interest, when the first muffled moan hit home.

“mmmm.”

I rested my chin against the broom handle.

Strained my ears.

A smile spread over Zephyr’s face.

“mmmphmmm.”

Zephyr giggled, hand over his mouth. Brain somersaulting, sunny side up. Wizened philosophy replaced with the juvenile pleasure of a peek behind the peep show curtains.

More sounds from the kitchen: “Oh, yes, baby. Yes…that’s right. Oh, that feels so good, baby. Take that down, yes…”

Zephyr laughed, then stopped. Face serious. Righteousness and gross voyeurism finally laying down their arms. His lips twitched beneath his mustache as he continued to thumb through his greenbacks.

“Fucking idiots,” he muttered.

I strained, lonely ears listening for further scrapbook sounds. Straddling the fence. Envisioning the blonde’s bleak and disenchanted aggression. Kept listening. Caught bits and pieces here and there, and soon enough, a different shade made its way into the bar. Sounds of a sluggish conversation. Half-managed laugh or two squeezing under the kitchen door before a sharp escalation. Bypassing argument, blooming into a volley of angry accusations. Outright shouting.

Zephyr looked up from his numbers. “What the fuck is this, now?”

The two Haitians burst back into the bar.

Blonde in hot pursuit.

“No fucking way, woman!” one of them yelled. “No fucking way we are paying you!”

“No fucking way,” number two chimed in.

“You wanted head, you got head!” the blonde yelled.

Zephyr and I exchanged a pair of silent Goddamnits.

“WE are not PAYING for that shit!”

“I didn’t even come!”

The blonde’s face disappeared for an instant. I don’t know if the others saw it, but under city streets and the subterranean trap of dying candles, her features simply vanished. Replaced with less than a second of barren fields before emerging from the darkest depths, dragging someone else out with her.

“What the fuck are your trying to pull, MOTHER FUCKER?” she screamed. “YOU FUCKING CAME and I FELT IT, you KNOW it!”

“Pull WHAT, pull NOTHING!”

“I CAN STILL TASTE IT, YOU FUCKING PRICK!”

“GET THE FUCK OUT!”

“NOT WITHOUT MY FUCKING MONEY!”

No hopes for a happy ending here.

Expletives overlapping. Reverb screams of unsatisfied customers, the wild rage of a jilted working girl. A Rubik’s Cube of messy accusation as the blonde reached into her sequined purse, came back at them with a blade. Held out at arm’s length, brandished in side-winding silver rainclouds.

“Pay me my FUCKING money!”

I watched, terrified. Mesmerized by the flash of a cheap switch.

A lazy summary of my nineteen years on planet earth, as everyone’s hands went up in the air.

“Hey, relax, girl…”

“Yeah, calm down, baby. There’s no need for that.”

“Relax…”

“It’s cool.”

“Two hundred,” the blonde replied. “Now.”

“Two hundred?”

“You said one hundred for the both of us.”

The blonde shrugged. “Well, times have changed.”

“Oh, shit,” Zephyr said, right about the time I felt something brush against my leg. “You woke up the fucking cat.”

There was Moses,tabby indifference taking my shin for a joyride.

The laughter came pouring out of me.

I couldn’t help it, because this was just another story. Another classic example of something that happened to other people. Not me. Never me, one hundred times over.

No stopping it, and then the knife was aimed at my throat.

A good foot away, truth be told, but space was relative to circumstance.

“Something funny?” the blonde asked.

I closed my mouth.

I couldn’t put my smile on hold, though. Like an image sent through the iris, flipped upside down. Trapped in the darkroom. Nothing funny, nothing to sneeze at in the gruesome magic of after hours.

“I asked you a question,” the blonde managed through her teeth. “What’s so funny?”

I still had no answer. I had, actually, none of them.

That was when she pressed the knife close to my neck, my veins dangerously close to escape.

“I ASKED IF THERE WAS SOMETHING FUNNY ABOUT ALL THIS?”

“Yes…” I managed, as Zephyr and the two Haitians looked on, helpless. “Wait, no. There isn’t. I thought there might be. And then there’s the whole other side. I don’t know, I’d feel like I was cheating you if I said both, but I really think…” I paused, noticed her eyes lose interest over the course of my rambling. “Fine, yes, both. No. Neither. All of it, hell, fuck it.” There were gutters out there on the streets that knew more about this world than I ever would. “Yes. Yes, this is funny — though it doesn’t look as though I’m still going to be laughing come sunrise.”

But I was.

And I didn’t die that night.

Turns out 4:55 in the morning just wasn’t my time.

Though, truth be told, when Wanda told me the story, one lazy morning at Creole Nights, I gave her fair warning.

“That’s a good one,” I had told her. “Don’t think for a moment I won’t be stealing it.”

“A race to the finish…” Her blue eyes were rapturous, and she raised her glass. “Starting now.”

We pounded some Jack Daniel’s.

Smoked cigarettes.

Compared notes.

No plans to make that night our last one on earth.

And like a stockbroker in a leather bondage mask, or the laughable request from a literary journal, I am, and always will be open

to all submissions.

 

 

Corrective. Elective. Ruby.

 

Before she left me for the Champs-Élysées, Helena had clocked in a good six months at an upper-east side dive colloquially known as Red Rum. Long after it was over between us, I’d find myself stopping by. The food was bad, the beer rank. On more than one occasion, some poor sod got his face separated from his head. Cops, paramedics, the whole jellyroll.

Still, when they know you, they know you. The price was almost always right, the lighting a low and jealous red. Bathroom graffiti sporting some of the more blissful gems ever engraved on plastered walls.

Above all else, though, it was Ruby.

Ruby was a vision from the Windy City who never spoke much about her hopes beyond tending bar. Straight, black bob with trimmed bangs. A body that came complete with black jeans, sturdy legs, and a plain, white tee that gave both men and women plenty of reason to stay for just one more.

“Fake tits,” some would mutter after she served them with a pint and a smile. “Got to be fake tits.”

“No fucking way,” a drunk wingman would counter.

“How’s that?”

“Just look at her face.”

“Are you fucking insane, she’s fucking hot.”

“Take a closer look next time she comes around.”

I would switch stations, ears to the jukebox, and try to get as much domestic into me as last call would allow.

***

For whatever reason, Ruby was always kind enough to let my ego rest. No extraneous flirting, teasing, or counterfeit grins. Didn’t suggest, or imply. No cellophane hopes past our usual late night talks, and that suited me fine. I’d hold her eyes while she spoke. We’d tell stories. The call would come, and down the bar she would go, trolling for tips. Resting her breasts on folded forearms, looking to boost her bottom line .

***

Maybe she didn’t figure me for the kind of guy who wanted to grab her by the hair. Can’t entirely say she figured right. Because the drooling pronouncements of male clientele weren’t entirely wrong; Ruby did have a body built for brash fantasies. But for me, even beyond those spherical eyes and the bracket of her welcoming smile, there was her face. Round cheeks and forehead a gallery of imbedded pockmarks. Craters and potholes. Scars that would suggest an acne riddled youth, only that wasn’t the whole story.

Wasn’t so long ago that Ruby had been involved in a lawsuit. A major cosmetics line that had failed to mention their beauty cream might prove hazardous for zero-point-zero-two percent of the population. Naturally, they calculated the odds and took their chances. Said odds landed all over Ruby’s face, and the chemical reaction sizzled against her skin like glacial acid. Left behind a litany of scar tissue, even with what little surgery her insurance would allow.

Two years’ worth of litigation proved to be too rich for her blood. Ruby never got close to that settlement. The cosmetic company chewed up her lawyers, spat them out. Mopped the floor with her ruined face. Left her broke and languishing behind the bar of Red Rum.

“How they treating you tonight?” I would ask.

“The same,” she would say.

“Don’t ever change a thing about you.”

“Please. What would this world be like if everyone saw it through your eyes?”

“There’d be a lot more sky.”

She would pour me a pint, on the house, and move on down.

I would sit and drink. Think about the future with carefully hidden nerves, and from time to time, I’d catch Ruby, just staring absently into barback mirrors.

***

We said our goodbyes without realizing it, one hot night in early late June.

I had taken the express up to Eighty-Sixth. Crossed from Lexington down to Second Avenue, cutting through Rupert Park. The sound of live music came at me. Grew louder as I forded the street. Had to step to the bouncer before realizing that Red Rum was hosting a live show.

“Twenty dollar cover,” the bouncer informed me.

“Twenty? This is Red Rum, am I right?”

“Right place, yeah. Wrong night, maybe.”

“What’s the story?”

“Live music. Playing a benefit for one of the bartenders.”

Shit, I thought, flashing my ID. Cancer? Aids? Open heart surgery?

Pushed on through the door and paid the gate.

Right into a tin of sardines. People plastered shoulder to shoulder, barely enough room to lift their drinks. Lit cigarettes dangerously close to neighboring necks, cheeks and eyeballs. Had to fight through the thick stew of bodies and second hand smoke. Rock and Roll some several decibels above its pay grade.

I managed to squeeze against the bar. Leaned over, searching towards the back, where the tables had been cleared to make room for the band. High above their trucker hats hung a wide, white banner, reading:

SAVE THE FACE!

I caught Kieran rushing past, setting down three overflowing pints of Bass.

Called him out.

He nodded, winked. Hair gelled into a bed of perfect spikes. He played favorites, sliding past requests to land at my doorstep. “What’ll it be, Lucky?”

“What the hell is going on?” I yelled over the roar of lead guitar.

“Benefit for Ruby!”

“Benefit for what, what’s wrong with her?”

“Raising money for caustic perjury!”

“Say what!?”

“Plastic surgery!” He pointed to his own handsome mug and traced a few circles. “Raising money to help Ruby fix up her face!”

The natives were restless, no time to let it sink in. “Why!?”

“You’ve seen it! She’s got those scars, wants to get rid of them!”

“That’s not what I—”

“What can I get you, Lucky?”

Fine. “Double Jack, rocks!”

Kieran went to fetch, as I strained to find a face in the crowd.

Saw Ruby sitting further down the bar. Head propped upon her wrist, laughing as she tried to capture her straw, take a good pull of what looked like a blue Hawaiian.

I fought my way to her side.

“Hey, Lucky!” She waved her hand in front of my eyes. “Thanks for making it out!”

Felt her breath on my lips, pineapple and Curaçao.

Speechless.

Kieran plopped my double down. “Don’t switch seats on me like that, Lucky! Not tonight!”

“Sorry!” I reached into my pocket. “What’s that going to be?”

“Nine dollars!” he yelled in my ear. “Fifty percent of all tips go towards Ruby’s plastic surgery!”

Corrective surgery!” Ruby insisted.

I settled the argument with a twenty and permission to keep the change.

Done with half my drink before either one could thank me.

***

I managed to keep my mouth shut for a good hour or two.

Tried to enjoy what I could. Oddly enough, it was the easiest conversation Ruby and I had ever shared.

Took care of a few drinks along the way.

Glad to have an excuse to stare.

Must have missed the announcement. Suddenly, Ruby was bounding to the makeshift stage, arm in arm with the lead singer, both boasting their turnout, neither one directly mentioning what we were all doing there

And with a one, two, three, she began to sing her rendition of Wild Horses. Hardly a voice to herald angels, but just right from where I was sitting. Instruments accompanied her with mercifully low riffs. Half the bar didn’t bother to cut the chatter.

Ruby swayed softly before the microphone, eyes closed.

I reached for my drink.

A stranger bumped into me, but there would be no fights that night.

Everyone keeping their features exactly and just right where they were.

***

It was Ruby who suggested we step outside to get some fresh air.

And it was Ruby who suggested we cross the street, get a little privacy on the outskirts of Rupert Park.

I leaned against the wrought iron fence. “When did this whole idea come about?”

“Maybe two months ago, I feel.”

“I really need to get uptown more often.”

“It’s going good, don’t you think?”

I glanced across the street. Another couple wandered out, two more wandered in. “Yeah.”

“Hey…” she sparked a Marlboro Light, offered me one. “You all right?”

I pulled on the white filter. Popped it in my mouth. “So. Plastic surgery, huh?”

“It’s corrective surgery.”

Lit the cigarette, wiped my brow. “Think insurance companies call it elective.”

“You don’t approve?”

“If I could say this without sounding like any other asshole on the other side of the bar, I would. But I doubt I can.”

“Lucky.”

“You’re perfect just the way you are.” I threw the gutters a sloppy smile, quoting, “Just the way you look tonight.”

“You say that.”

“I did just say that.”

“Please. Don’t romanticize my face. It’s not a fucking poem, these are scars.”

“They’re your scars.”

Ruby shook her head. “Not mine.”

“Yes. Whether you like it or not.”

“Well, I don’t.”

For a moment, I thought that was it. She had that look about her, muscles tensing for a quick exit. Back across the street and into Red Rum, where the band played on.

But Ruby stayed behind. “Got half my face melted, lost all my money trying to make it right. I don’t like being reminded of what I got myself into every time I have to turn to those mirrors to pour some slimy monster his Jack and Coke.”

“You really think changing you face is going to make you forget?”

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, Lucky.” She took a deep pull, crushed her cigarette beneath her sneaker. “And you’ve never even seen me in the daylight.”

I lifted my head. Took stock of the sky, just to make sure. “Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

I turned to her. “First time seeing you on the other side of the bar, though.”

She looked around, ran her own reality check. “Guess that’s true.”

“You’re my height.”

She stood close to me. Nose to nose. Swept her hand over both our heads in close approximation. “Yes… Funny thing, I always figured you were taller.”

“Funny is the word for it.”

The floodlight from Red Rum illuminated her face. Unhappy lips, easy eyes. A lunar surface shining bright, lighting the way, giving the animals something to howl about. Every last dent and imperfection putting my memory to the test.

She rested her hand lightly on my chest. “I’m going back in, Lucky.”

“Ok.”

“See you there?”

“In a bit. Just want another minute or so away from the music.”

“Yeah…” Ruby dropped her hand. Smiled. “Band’s kind of shitty, right?”

She gave Second Ave a look left and right, then crossed over.

Back into the largest crowd to ever bother with the likes of Red Rum.

I stayed behind for another five.

Just long enough to pretend Ruby had kissed me goodnight.

***

I walked right past Eighty-Sixth, and didn’t stop for a good hour and a half.

All the way down to Spring Street.

Paused before the welcoming doors of a tiny bodega.

Breathed in a bit of what would soon be mid-June. Figured I had a long, lonely night ahead of me, and why the hell not?

I browsed the magazine rack for the next twenty minutes. Picked out an issue of Hustler. An issue of High Society. An issue of Cheri. An issue of Fox. Another issue of Cheri. Another issue of High Society. Topped it off with a special all-hardcore triple-x edition of Score.

Impulse buy involving the Gray Lady, headline reading Man Shoots 3 In Rampage In East Village.

I dropped my stack at the register.

Put the man behind the counter to be of Pakistani origin.

He gave me a friendly grin and got to scanning barcodes. Porn stars clutching themselves and their lucky friends with vehement ecstasy. Eyes wide, tongues hanging out. Bodies posed, breasts of all sizes standing at attention. He took a moment before tallying the total. Reached for a pack of spearmint gum, and with a sympathetic smile, placed it atop my stack of skinny mags.

On the house.

I returned the gesture with my own smile and flipped through some twenties.

Clutched the bag of pornography close as I rode the N train back to Sunset Park.

Wondering what might happen if it were knocked from my hands.

Artificial fantasies spread out across the floor for all to see.

It’s for a friend, is probably what I would have said.

But it never came up, and I never saw Ruby again.

 

 

Something That Happened.

 

This was not an act of kindness. It wasn’t charity. Wasn’t benevolence, compassion, or decency. It wasn’t a moral imperative. And it wasn’t guilt, so don’t think for a moment I ever considered it to be absolution.

But it was that particular type of affair, the sort that too many people put on their ethical resumes in hopes of obscuring previous work. Words such as humanitarian, necessary, and enlightening kicked around like tin cans, egos and ids intoxicated with the serenity of a single, exceptional deed. Abuse, rape and social negligence swept under the rug.

It was that particular type of affair, and I refuse to be that particular type of person.

So look into your heart, and believe me when I say there was nothing in mine that night I brought the stranger home.

***

Must have been close to three in the morning.

Must have been a weekend, because I was transferring to the N/R at DeKalb Avenue.

Must have been drunk, because it was close to three in the morning, and I was transferring to the N/R at DeKalb Avenue.

Brilliant bit of luck, as the R train made its approach, only seconds after watching the Q disappear towards Coney Island. It made me smile. The smile made me sway just a little. Walls rattling, muffling the request from a man standing to my right.

Happened to turn and see him staring at me. Dark skin, uneven afro pegged with tiny bulbs. Paisley button up, colors popping against pin-striped trousers. Friendly eyes, angular cheeks. Fingernails clean against calloused tips.

“Hey, man, can you spare a dollar or two?” he asked. Slight accent I didn’t recognize. “I’m looking for a place to stay.”

“I’m on my way home,” I told him “Got a couch in Sunset Park. Want to crash for the night?”

“Yeah, man. Thank you.”

“It’s fine. Here’s our train.”

The R came to a chalkboard halt. We stepped in, had a seat.

“My name’s Lucky,” I said.

He shook my hand. “Amadou.”

“Amadou?”

“Like Amadou Diallo. The man who was shot by the cops.”

“Yeah. I remember.”

“Good to meet you.”

“Likewise. We get off at thirty-sixth, so it shouldn’t be long now.”

He nodded.

I stared out the window, tunnels offering an occasional glimpse of third rail sparks.

Neither of us giving it another try until we found ourselves moving east on 40th.

Can’t remember whether or not it was cold that night.

“I’ve got some wine at my place,” I said. “Got a bit of rum, but it’s not the best. Boca Chica. If you’d like some beer, there’s a place at the corner.”

“I don’t drink,” he said, smiling. “I’m Muslim. But thank you.”

“My brother’s a Sufi.”

“Ah. You must know Rumi, then.”

“Not personally.” I lit a cigarette. And then: “Anything you need, just ask.”

“Tobacco is fine.”

We paused at the corner of Fifth Avenue and got his Marlboro going.

I pointed north. “Further up that way, there’s Greenwood Cemetery.”

“Greenwood?”

“Jean-Michel Basquiat is buried there. William Livingston. Samuel Morse. Eli Siegel. Walter Hunt, inventor of the safety pin. Some of the Roosevelt family.”

“It sounds like a nice place to live.”

“Also, Jim Creighton.”

Amadou nodded. “He died hitting a home run in 1862.”

“Really.”

“He died four days later, actually. But it began with that home run. It was a hernia, I think.”

“Can you beat that?”

“No, I don’t believe that you can.”

I motioned with my head.

We turned along Fifth, then left on 41st street.

For a moment, I thought I had lost my keys.

Prayers answered, just a case of mistaken pockets, and I managed to shove the door open.

We walked into my basement apartment. Two steps down.

The cat arched its back for a moment. Black shorthair, claws cutting through white socks.

“Easy, Hank,” I told her. “This is a friend.”

Hank took the opportunity to run out the door, go hunting.

I locked up. Turned on a few lights. Pointed to the blue couch I had lifted from the curb. “Get comfortable.”

Amadou stretched out.

I went to the kitchen. More of an alcove with a stove, sink.

Fridge.

Popped open a magnum of Gato Negro.

“Want some water?” I called out.

“Yeah, please.”

I filled a glass with tap.

Handed it to him.

Large sips. Done in an instant. I went to get him more.

Came back.

Saw him eyeballing the pornography on the floor.

“Help yourself,” I said. “Hope you don’t mind if I get some work done.”

“Please.”

He picked up the latest issue of Cheri. Thumbed though it as I sat at my bridge table, a warped, green fold-out situation, situated at the end of the couch. Watched his toes wriggle. Poured myself some wine and went about deciding the fate of a woman named Carmen.

“You are a writer?” he asked.

“For the moment.”

“That’s good, man.”

I lit a cigarette. Found a spare pack and tossed it towards him. “Let me know if I can get you anything else.”

“I will. Thank you.”

A good hour into my work before I looked up.

Amadou was fast asleep, an issue of Hustler folded over his chest.

A naked Sylvia Saint on the cover, rising, falling.

I kept on until signs of a prepubescent dawn got me leaning into sleep.

Woke up two hours later to the sound of scratching.

I was in my bed. Looked out the window.

Face to face with Hank. Green eyes furious with my decision to drift.

Must have been seven or so in the morning.

Walked past the couch, where Amadou remained. Sleeping.

I opened the door, let her in.

Popped a can of tuna, special treat. Saved the juice in a separate bowl.

Amadou wandered past. Stopped, then turned to me. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” I said. “Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Want something to eat?”

“I should go.”

“You sure? You can stay, if you like.”

“You’ve been very kind.”

I nodded. “At least have a shower. Get yourself a fresh start.”

“Thank you.”

“Use whatever towels you find. I’ll make you something to take with you.”

Heard the shower start up.

I assembled a couple of sandwiches. Cheese and tomato with mayo. Cheese and ham. Both on wheat. Wrapped them in cellophane as Amadou wandered in. Forehead beaded with steam. Same paisley shirt, same pin striped pants.

“Made you a couple of sandwiches,” I said. “Cheese and tomato with mayo. Cheese and ham.”

“Cheese and ham?”

“Yes”

He smiled. “Thank you.”

“Fuck…” I reached for the last dregs of wine, had a sip straight from the bottle. “Muslim. Right.”

“It’s ok.”

“Give me two minutes.”

I reconstructed another cheese and tomato.

Pressed down, wrapped it. Ready to go.

“I don’t want to waste your sandwich,” he said.

“I’ll eat it. Today, probably.”

I don’t know why, but I had a brown paper lunch bag at the ready.

“Can you walk me to the station?” he asked. “I don’t remember how we got here.”

“Sure. You need fare?”

“Yes, please.”

I reached into my jeans. Pulled out a couple of crumpled bills. “I’ve got twenty-two dollars. Enough to get you where you’re going?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Just a few steps into the chill of 41st, I pointed at the curb. “That’s where I found the couch you slept on.”

He glanced up at the corresponding stoop. “Be sure to thank them for me.”

We wandered down the pale blue streets. Store fronts sent metal gates rattling upwards, open for another day of business in Sunset Park. Moving along Fifth Avenue, when his eyes lit up. “I remember now.”

“You sure? Tell me.”

“Down this way,” he pointed. “Half a block, then a right.”

“Then keep going.”

“Yes, I think I’ve got it. Thank you.”

“You know where I am if you need me.”

“I think so.”

I had lit a cigarette without realizing it. Offered him one.

“No, thank you.”

“Take care, Amadou.”

“You too, Lucky. As-salamu alayka.”

“Yeah, man. Salam.”

He followed his directions, paper bag clutched in his right hand.

I stepped into the corner store to buy some beer.

Didn’t have the cash, so I charged it.

Got home to find a cat cheated out of its tuna juice.

Far too tired for this conversation, I took the bowl from the fridge.

Laid it down by my table and took a seat.

Noticed a red bandana lying by the couch.

Took a pull of beer, laid my freshly lit cigarette in the ashtray.

Stood and picked it up.

Noticed copper crust adorning the outer edges.

Was that blood?

Had Amadou been bleeding?

Transmission is an irrational thing, and I threw the bandana away.

Left it in the trash, picked up my beer, finished my cigarette.

Didn’t give it a second thought in the following days, though barflies would question the wisdom, while the bartenders thanked God I wasn’t killed, and my apartment wondered where Amadou had gone.

Truth is, it was just something that happened.

 

 

Star Fuck.

 

Gavin Delanco wasn’t born with any sort of gift. He grew into it by pure chance. People first noticed the resemblance when Gavin was sixteen. Before then, nobody had really noticed Gavin at all. He took to the hallways of his school like a ghost. Girls did the walk-on-by, tight designers cradling magnificent legs, and Gavin would stare with irritated longing. Never quite managing to breathe through his nose. His ill fitting sweatpants chaffed against a dead giveaway, and the popular kids would call him out. Slam him against the wall, rap their notebooks against his measly, bewildered erection. He kept pictures of nude celebrities pinned along the inside of his locker. The promise of perfection kept him warm at nights, covered in soft folds of confused wishes.

Then, a young man named Castle Nash inadvertently managed to get his foot in the door. He was discovered on the Santa Monica Pier. Sitting on a bench, alone, drinking a cherry soda. Watching the sun set. A studio exec happened upon him, slipped Castle a business card, and the rest is just as the saying goes…

Although, it should be noted, history has a rich tradition of double dealing.

Castle Nash grew older. A young star rising in the sky of a celluloid city, even as Gavin’s body continued to contort to the every beck and call of his hormones. It was the mid 1990s, and America’s urgent need for a celebrity fix was picking up steam. A train set to fly right off its tracks, ushering a golden era of runaway idolatry.

Gavin hit sixteen years on the same day that Castle’s first major motion picture hit the theaters. The resemblance between the two was there all right. Subtle. Slight. Close to inconsequential. But as far as the world was concerned, Gavin didn’t exist; until he hit twenty-one, Castle’s twenty-first movie hit number one, and the both of them became dead ringers for each other.

The cross-pollination had become uncanny. Gavin lost his virginity to a Castle Nash fan. His next lay was the exact same movie, save for casting. All those years, nothing, and suddenly, Gavin was tabloid-fucking his way through more women than his West Coast counterpart could have ever hoped.

He left North Carolina courtesy of an Amtrak ticket to New York City, one way. Nothing but the clothes on his back and the contours of his face. Got an entry level job at Citibank. Rented a cheap studio, then rented every Castle Nash film on tape. Watched him move, act, interact and react. Gavin studied Castle with a lethal eye. Learned to imitate his style of speak, every possible mannerism, an arsenal of greatest hits.

He researched Castle’s biography on the rapidly expanding internet. Kept up to date on the various sightings, details, hairstyles of the young movie star. Went vegetarian, got cliff notes on the Kabala, and exchanged his shaggy blond hair for an edgier, porcupine do.

Gavin slowly became Castle’s insignificant other.

He couldn’t go to the same bar more than twice. Getting laid was contingent on habitual rotation. Pick and choose, taking steps to ensure nobody discovered who Gavin really was. A bar in Greenwich one night, a dive in Brooklyn the next. Sit and wait for a woman to make him for someone else. Modestly make believe he wasn’t Castle Nash, then admit to his lie with yet another one. Take the young lady back to her place and systematically remove her underwear with his clout.

For the first time in his life, Gavin was in possession of all he would ever need.

***

Gavin sat down at the bar.

Got the bartender’s attention. Ordered a drink. Waited.

It was an Irish tavern, The Bishop. Third Avenue, between Ninety-fifth and Ninety-fourth, about ten blocks or so north of the Upper East Side martini belt. A mix of young professionals and long-time residents, none of whom were looking for anything other than just right. Reasonable drink prices. Average fare as far as food went, just the basics; burgers, mozzarella sticks, stuffed peppers and shepherd’s pie. Bartenders straight from the old country. White dress shirts tucked into black slacks. Consummate in their execution, every bit ready to make this occupation their life’s work ‘til the day they died.

Gavin ordered another drink. Tugged at his sport coat, loosened his tie. His entire outfit lifted straight from an interview with Entertainment Weekly.

I prefer to dress this way when I’m out and about, Castle had replied to the reporter’s softball. I think you’re more likely to get noticed if you go casual. Celebrity under the radar, and all that jazz. You’d be amazed how easy it is to blend when you’re dressed to the nines.

Took less than an hour before a makeshift blonde approached him. Stunning eyes and a vacant smile. She wore a form-fitting black miniskirt. Her face was pale, thin and perfect, brimming with awe. Cosmopolitan in her right hand, like a red light at midnight.

“Excuse me…” she began. “I know this sounds stupid, but… are you Castle Nash?”

Gavin smiled, left side of his mouth slightly higher than the right. “Not really.”

“You are, aren’t you?”

He sighed, caught in the act. All the while smiling on. “Yeah… yeah, I guess I am.”

“Oh my GOD!” her eyes rolled back into her head. “I love your work. I mean, I absolutely love it! When you were in Charm Angels, I really, actually thought you were an actual angel!”

“Well, that’s all acting is, actually.” Gavin let his grin grow wide. “Have a seat.”

“Oh, cool!” The blonde pulled up a barstool. “I know I must seem like some kind of lame stalker, but I have seen ALL of your movies. ALL of them.”

“What’s your name?”

“Cindy.”

“Cindy…” Gavin put out his hand with the ease of a pro. “Call me Castle.”

“Castle,” she repeated with breathless wonder. Met his hand with a timid grasp. “Castle Nash.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Cindy put a hand to her breasts.

Nobody gets that lucky.

Three hours later, her bare naked thighs were wrapped around his face. Straddling. Arms raised above her head, hands clutching the curtains of a south side window. Gavin grabbed her ass, worked his tongue deep into her. Cindy cried out, yes, Castle, yes! GOD, YES! MY ANGEL, YES! Gavin kept on, all the time thinking he should have been someone famous, because if Cindy had anything to say about it, he was certainly worthy of it.

That all happened on a Tuesday.

***

Thursday night, Gavin moved on to greener pastures.

Had to, in fact. He’d pulled the Nash act twice at that other joint, and soon people would start to talk.

This new place was underground. A dimly lit dive bathed in yellow candlelight. The clientele was mostly Haitian. Corner jazz bands playing their standards. The mood was quiet and mellow, so Gavin thought he’d stay a while, see if anyone was ready to recognize.

The bartender wandered over. Dark skin. Shaved head, bulbous features; a sly and superior grin that made him look twice his size.

Served Gavin a Jameson’s. Castle’s drink of choice.

Gavin drank and watched the band. A slow, wandering rendition of God Bless the Child filled every corner of the bar, set his mind wandering. He waited, thought about a girl he once knew in passing. He thought about high school. Back when he was the invisible man in everyone’s life. Translucent. The son of bank manager nobody knew or cared about. Unexceptional in every possible way.

A gale of mad laughter burst out to his left.

Some unkempt kid with drunken eyes and a tattered, grey leather jacket was demonstrating a magic trick. He drew a shot glass into his small hands. Waved it around extravagantly, placed it on the bar, picked it up. The kid made a gesture, claimed he could make it disappear. Then he threw it against the wall. The glass shattered into countless, glistening shards. Cheers from the regulars around him, and even the bartender joined in. The kid ordered another drink. The bartender served him a bourbon, handed him a broom. The kid swept up the glass, sat down, and kept drinking.

Gavin turned his eyes away.

What a fucking loser.

The night pressed on, and Gavin sat with his whiskey, but no cigarettes, because Castle didn’t smoke.

***

Gavin had to pride himself on how cool he kept it when Katie Lynn walked through the door.

Inside, a pathetically naïve cry of pure elation rattled his body to the core.

Katie Lynn.

Gavin still dreamed of her. Remembered her hallway smiles for other boys, legs crossed under a desk, red hair under gray morning skies, that one day he found it in him to ask for the time. She had answered through a mouthful of bagel, forgetting to wipe the cream cheese from her upper lip.

The time had been twelve-thirty.

Twelve-thirty on a Monday afternoon.

And in she walked. Into that cramped little wormhole. Far removed from his North Carolina history, Gavin was watching his past return, this time with fortune’s smile. Katie Lynn sat down at the far end, next to the kid. Her wildfire hair tied back in two separate pony tails. Satin blouse intentionally snuggling a pair of perfectly developed breasts. Form fitting jeans. She ordered a martini, pure class and elegance alongside the candles. Katie had always known how to carry herself. Gavin was mesmerized by her movements as he was with those eyes, playful and all-knowing, and to watch Katie Lynn take that drink down…

Gavin ordered another whiskey, prepared himself.

Sat and waited.

Katie Lynn struck up a conversation with the kid.

Gavin sat and waited.

The kid didn’t look much interested in Katie Lynn, and eventually, she would simply have to glance in his direction. Lay her eyes on Gavin, see the face of Castle Nash, and who could resist those eyes of his, splashed across countless screens?

Gavin waited.

His drink lost weight.

He ordered another one.

Katie Lynn kept chatting up the kid. Regulars crowding around, lot of interest resting at the end of the bar. No small surprise; Gavin had heard that Haitians were insatiable in their appetites. Culture, genetics, who the hell really knew? He watched and wondered from a distance. Stirred up all the wishes he could never leave behind, younger years spent confounded by what it took to capture the eyes of a Goddess, the sincerity of his heartache, it was all there in Katie Lynn’s smile…

But things were different now.

Gavin was different. Better.

He sat and waited.

Time passed.

Katie Lynn threw her head back, laughed uproariously at some off-color comment from the kid. She said something to him, and Gavin heard the word lucky somewhere in there.

He stayed put, in total agreement.

Only a matter of time now.

***

Edging on towards one in the morning, when it happened.

The jazz band had packed up. Sounds locked up with their instruments. Meager tips collected and counted, then right out the door. A splash of Caribbean music washed over the walls. The bar had grown bare, nothing but the regulars, that pathetic kid, and Katie Lynn. Everyone had descended into a sort of drunken ecstasy. Drinks consumed by the boatful, dangerous hopes bathed in the quiet reassurance of inoffensive, orange lights.

Yes, it was round about that time that she finally looked over.

Past the kid, down the bar, and right into Gavin’s eyes.

Deep into Gavin’s eyes.

Journey to the center of the earth.

This is going to happen, he thought, honestly worried there might be tears hanging from those words. Finally. Katie Lynn.

The years between that moment and his nonexistent days dissolved as she stood and made her way, a drunken sway to her hips, legs finding their point on the compass. The speakers and lights blended into everything, escorting this flawless scenario towards its natural, heavenly conclusion.

Perfect, man. Simply perfect.

Katie Lynn didn’t sit. Just stood.

Gavin gave her a look that had always killed in rehearsal.

The confidence of an angel, that was it.

He gazed into her eyes, preparing himself for nothing less than empire.

“Forgive me for asking, but… are you Castle Nash?”

Yes.

Her voice hadn’t changed.

Long vowels still flattened by the short, southern drawl tracing the fringes of every syllable.

Gavin smiled, left side of his mouth slightly higher than the right: “Not really.”

“You are, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Oh…” Her head bobbed slightly under the influence of vodka and vermouth. She appeared to be preparing her next statement with expected care. Gavin watched her, waiting for his world to unfold inwards in a single, validating encounter.

“Well,” Katie Lynn managed, “I just wanted to tell you that your movies are awful.”

Gavin’s face changed, but not quite enough.

“Your movies are shit,” she told him. “It’s embarrassing, is what it is. And I have no…” She searched for the words…. “Respect. For you as a fellow actor. That’s all, really.”

Katie Lynn held fast for a moment, as though that might not be all, really.

It was.

She walked away.

Gavin stayed put, looking into a space once occupied by his past.

A new drink was placed in front of him, embarrassed ice cubes going to work.

“Tough break, son,” the bartender said.

“Huh?” Gavin was still grappling with what hadn’t happened.

“That one’s on me… Fucking Hollywood actresses, they all have a stick up their pussy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That girl.”

“Katie Lynn.”

“Yeah, Katie Lynn. Give a woman a starring role, and she thinks she’s the center of the fucking universe.”

Gavin shook his head. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“That girl’s an actress, man.”

“She’s no actress… That’s Katie Lynn.”

“Yeah, the movie star.”

“My Katie Lynn.”

“I don’t know about yours…” The bartender abandoned his compassion for the sake of an ironic smile. “She seems to be working Lucky for all he’s worth.”

“Lucky?”

“The kid over there with the Jack Daniel’s.”

The bartender pointed yonder. Pointed right at the kid, that Lucky kid who could hardly manage to light his cigarette with those drunken fingers. Skinny little fucker, worn dress shoes, and a wine stain on his shirt.

A GODDAMN WINE STAIN ON HIS SHIRT!

And Katie Lynn was all over him. Leaning over, letting a sizable tit brush against his arm, fucking him with her eyes, catlike motions of her hands.

And Lucky wasn’t doing a thing about it.

Completely unresponsive, cold to the bone and his very soul, the ungrateful FUCKER.

And yes, when the fuck had Katie Lynn become a movie star? Gavin had missed it, somehow. Maybe she’d never been in a movie with Castle Nash, the only movies he ever bothered to watch. That had to be it. A small matter of six-million degrees of separation, bitten in the ass by his own body double.

That bastard Castle Nash had probably done it on purpose, Gavin fumed.

He turned to the barback mirror. Stared himself down, just to make sure he was even there. Katie Lynn’s laughter forced its way into his skull. He took down the rest of his drink. Ordered another one. That drink vanished faster than the previous one. He was losing it, whatever it was. His vision danced across the room, ganged up on itself. Another giggle from the lips of Katie Lynn. Gavin didn’t want to know what he had missed, loss and pain in a barstool seat, and he didn’t want to look.

So he did.

Sweet Katie Lynn.

Gavin watched her watch Lucky, and Lucky watch his drink.

The Haitians were all gathered around, enjoying the show.

“Goddamn,” Gavin said, louder than intended. “Goddamn, they’ve taken Katie Lynn away from me again.”

Everyone at the end of the bar turned to look at him.

Gavin shook his head, tried to clear it.

Even Lucky was watching now, suddenly interested, eyes treading water.

Whatever third-world mixtape had been playing, the music came to an abrupt halt.

Gavin stood up. Steadied himself on a nearby chair. Didn’t feel like a movie star. Didn’t feel like much of anything.

“Katie,” he said, struggling. Diverting energy from his mouth to his feet. “Katie, I’m in love with you.”

Katie Lynn favored him with an amused smile. “It think you’ve had a few too many, Castle.”

“I haven’t had anything,” Gavin told her, stumbling his way over red tiles dotted with cigarette burns. “And I’m not Castle Nash. We were in high school together. I asked you the time once. You were eating a bagel and smiling.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m Gavin Delanco.”

Katie shook her head, mouth ajar with a momentary plunge into confusion.

Here we go, Gavin thought, his entire body arguing over which direction to tilt. Honesty will win the day. Because then she would have to ask, Excuse me, but are you Gavin Delanco? And he would have to make do with the sly hesitation and reply that, yes. Yes, I am.

To which she would reply, Oh my god, I just loved you in Charm Angels, and the band would play on, all things following their predestined course, but instead, the sad truth of it all came crashing down, melting from the corners of Katie Lynn’s mouth, truly clueless as she asked, “Who the fuck is Gavin Delanco?”

He stifled a cry. “You had cream cheese on your upper lip. It was twelve-thirty…” He was by her side. “Twelve-thirty on a Monday afternoon.”

The Haitians all whispered amongst themselves.

Lucky remained the impartial observer.

“Nice try, Castle,” Katie Lynn said. “You’re just as bad an actor in person as you are on screen.

“Wait, that’s right!” one of the regulars exclaimed, pulling back graying dreadlocks to get a better look. “You’re Castle Nash! You were in that angel movie!”

Everyone started talking at once.

Charm Angels, that’s the one!”

“I think you are the greatest, man!”

“That’s right, that’s right!”

“What is this Katie Lynn talking about?”

“Woman, have you lost your mind?”

“We love Castle Nash!”

Lucky was watching it all with quiet fascination.

“I am NOT Castle Nash!” Gavin insisted, frantic. “Look at my face, it’s not my face!”

Gavin tried to move his mouth around. Roll his eyes, stick his tongue out, mess his freshly gelled hair. After a full thirty seconds of this, the entire bar burst out laughing.

“Oh, MAN, Castle, you are a TRIP!”

“You can’t change your face, man!”

“You are who you are!”

“And we still love you, Castle!”

“I AM NOT CASTLE NASH!” Gavin screamed. He turned to Katie, tried as best he could to hold her close, not caring where his hands landed. “I love you, and I want you, even back in school, and I want you to come home with me tonight, to my shitty little apartment, and we don’t even have to fuck –”

Katie Lynn shoved him away, told him to keep his mitts to himself.

Gavin lunged forward, gave pure exposure another go.

Suddenly, he was covered in Haitians. A dark cloud surrounded him, and the regulars all pulled, pushed him towards the door, not caring if he was a star. Not caring that he really wasn’t. Just trying to get trouble out from underground. Gavin struggled, neck cracking as he looked over his shoulder.

Katie Lynn was standing, mouth wide open, witness to his abrupt exile.

Her hand was on Lucky’s shoulder.

Lucky’s cigarette was lying in the ashtray, long forgotten.

A fist sunk into Gavin’s stomach.

Made its home.

He folded like a cheap greeting card, shoved out the door and into the streets.

Fell to the curb.

“Sleep it off, man!”

They retreated down the stairs, under the yellow glow of a sign reading CREOLE NIGHTS.

Gavin remained down and out, rolled over on his back. It had rained at some point that night. Water rolled through the gutters, over his hands, down the street. Tourists pointed as they managed the sidewalks. One group of pre-frosh NYU students whispered something about Castle Nash.

Cars drove past. Taxies and the like. Limousines with sunglasses for windows.

It was late.

Gavin was plastered, thought he might have to call in sick tomorrow. It would be Friday anyway. Gateway to the weekend. The bars would be crowded to capacity. Lots of women, lots of action, lots of opportunities. Thousands of opportunities, spread all over the city like a plague, a cancerous chance at greatness on every barstool.

Gavin coughed, vomited into the streets.

The door to the bar opened.

Through his canted perspective, Gavin saw that Lucky kid step out into the wind. Strike a match, light a cigarette. He stood over Gavin’s body.

Gavin stared with heavenly conceit, unable to come to terms.

Lucky wasn’t saying anything.

Finally Gavin resorted to what was most simple: “Where are you going?”

“Home,” Lucky replied.

“Where’s Katie Lynn?”

“Inside, with the rest.”

Gavin did his best to keep breathing, but it wasn’t easy. “Why isn’t she with you?”

Lucky laughed, looked down along Macdougal Street. “I don’t fuck shadows,” he said.

Lucky walked away with pigeon-toed steps.

Gavin turned his eyes to the skies and watched the stars with a sick sort of wonder.

He laid there, waiting for the sound of Katie Lynn’s footsteps.

It was a brisk April night and everything on the streets crept silently towards some sort of warmth.

 

 

Go to Hell.

 

Sandra was a lunatic. Blue eyed and certifiable, straight out of southeast Texas. Possessive to the point where nine-tenths of the law simply would not do. Chalk it up to only child syndrome. That, coupled with the death of her father, and she wouldn’t let me sleep facing away, because from behind, she claimed I looked just like him.

And by slept together, we can take that down to the letter. Never once fucked, though two nights after we first met, she offered herself to me. Sandra was a virgin, still, at the age of nineteen. I had declined, and in subsequent months, she continued to insist.

“Why not?” she would ask.

“It’ll hurt,” I would tell her.

“I won’t mind,” she would say, choosing her words with the romantic melodrama of a girl who’d been told far too often that she was a talented actress. “I just want to know what it’s like to have you inside me.”

“Don’t, God, please, say things like that, just listen.”

“Pain?”

“Lots. Things will tear and bleed.” I thought about it. “You ever do any serious horseback riding?”

“No.”

“Yeah, then. Tear and bleed.”

So between the kisses, hand jobs and oral sex, the screaming arguments at three am, my Jack Daniel’s and her jealous talons, home plate was always tossed out. Long after our final days, she sent me a postcard. An aerial shot of the diamond on Enron Field. On the back, what amounted to a thank-you note: Sandra’s gynecologist had told her that her hymen was unusually thick, and had recommended surgical removal.

“A penis,” the doctor had explained, “would cause a lot of damage down there.”

Well, maybe not mine, but Sandra was grateful all the same.

It certainly explained the mailman’s smile that morning.

I lost the postcard two hours later, riding the 6 down Lexington.

***

Sandra was a Barnard girl. Cozy in her liberal arts cocoon across from Colombia. Twenty-thousand subway stops uptown. The regulars at Creole Nights had told me to watch my back; that too many women in one building could only spell trouble for me, for the whole damn world. But the wisdom of men made about as much sense as the motives of women. Other way ‘round carried the same sad accuracy, so I kept it on with Sandra.

Kept it on despite the fact that her friends didn’t like me. Didn’t like my attitude, my lack of commitment. Didn’t like my drinking, smoking, ignorance of women’s studies. Didn’t like my anything.

And I didn’t like them.

Dana Straus, in particular, I did not like. She was alarmingly slender, wore sleek dresses with revealing slits that seemed almost menacing in their knowledge. Platinum hair cut close; soft, white skin acting as a pillow for her streamlined nose and pale, critical lips. Her eyes shone an aristocratic teal behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses.

Non-prescription.

Dana was Sandra’s best friend. We rarely talked. Whenever we did, conversations became contests. Who owns how much of which piece of the pie. Objectification. Cultural constructs. None of it interested me. At least, not the way she sold it.

“Don’t care, don’t care, do not care,” I would insist. “Nothing you have ever said to me is remotely as interesting as you think. You’re not an intellectual powerhouse, Dana. You’re an idea in a dress. A bad stand-up comedian.”

“Comedienne,” she would correct, sipping from a vodka martini. “Good thing you don’t fancy yourself a writer, or anything.”

At the end of the night, the ugly little secret was that we agreed on everything except each other.

***

None of this made life with Sandra any easier.

Egotism, dead fathers, enlarged hymens, and women’s liberation.

We fought every night.

Sandra was a drama student. When I told her I’d slept with Maria Felucca, she threw an alarm clock across the room. It blew past my ear, a silver bullet lifting the hair on my neck. Smashed against the wall, wouldn’t stop ringing. I put it out of its misery with a few quick stabs of a Philips head, and the next night, Sandra and I were once again in bed together.

My face close to hers because the back of my neck was the same as her fathers, and her father was six feet under.

Same song and dance when I told her about Anya.

Only difference was I had never bothered to buy a new clock.

Late in the afternoon, early March, we called it quits. I called it quits. Tired of the fighting. Tired of the everything. Both of us slumped on the floor of a stranger’s bathroom. Lights off, pitch black. Slinging a bottle of that same someone’s Wild Turkey. She cried, and I harmonized, because Sandra wasn’t evil. Life had just gotten to her before anyone else had managed to, and I rode the red line alone that night.

***

One forgotten summer past due found me sitting at Creole nights. In the deep end, back where the regulars made their home. Fortunes favoring the waitress; all tables taken, nobody at the bar but me and my lonesome.

Evan had just served me a double.

“It’s going to be a hell of a night,” he proclaimed, Haitian accent elongating his vowels. Sporting a sly and superior grin that made him look twice his size. Thick features ensconcing large eyes. Lights on low, shining off his dome. “It’s going to be a night for pussy. Good fucking.”

“Are you losing your hair, Evan?”

“I am losing my mind.” He laughed, got me to smile. “Going to be one hell of a night….”

Evan wandered down the bar, and I drank for a while.

And after that while ran its course, the silver chime above the door suggested I turn the page.

Ill sense of humor on that Friday night.

The Barnard crew had decided to go slumming. I was caught off guard as Sandra’s friends descended upon me. Animated, all smiles and lively eyes. Slinging jokes, genuine inquiries as to what I had been doing with myself in the months since.

I pounded my drink.

Evan smiled at the attention I was getting.

I took the opportunity to order another Jack. The women dispersed to join Sandra at a distant table. Dana Straus stayed behind. Pulled up a stool, ordered a martini. Lots of olives.

I stuck with my trademark. Lit a cigarette. “So how about what happened with the house yesterday?”

“Whose house?” she asked. Dipped her fingers, opened wide for an olive.

“House of Representatives. An approved open-ended impeachment hearing for Clinton, Lewinsky, that whole mess?”

She shrugged. “Or we could just discuss how our respective days went.”

It was a blue dress for Dana that night, and she talked up a storm. Not a single mention of gender roles, patriarchy, battle of the sexes. After a couple of drinks, she stole one of my Marlboros. She was a social smoker, a lack of commitment that had always bothered me. This time, I gladly sparked my Zippo. Realizing that for all the ire, her slender arms, fingers, seemed constructed for the sole purpose of making cigarettes look good. I got to enjoying those eyes. There was something cold and distant about her. Something detached and uncaring that I liked.

We ordered another round, and Sandra kept smiling at us from across the way as she flirted with a group of college preps. Doing a little fair-weather smoking of her own. Caribbean music topped off our drinks, and Dana asked, “Do you really like the way you live?”

“You know anyone who does?”

“Do I know anyone who really likes the way you live?”

“I don’t even know what you mean by do you like the way –”

“Do you really need to suffer so much to write?”

“I try not to do anything on purpose.”

She played with her straw, must have known I was watching. “I feel as though you want to say, furthermore…”

She had a point. “Furthermore, I don’t suffer. I just like drinking and being left alone. Half my parents’ friends were executed or tortured by some of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the earth. What suffering? I’m a nobody.”

A trace of a smile appeared behind the rim of her drink. “Your life is showing.”

I fell back on misdirection. “And I’ve never claimed I was a writer. I’m a college student. Sandra, strangers, these guys –” I motioned with my head towards whatever regulars might be underground that evening “– they call me ‘writer.’ You just kind of take them at their word.”

“Is your writing any good?” she asked.

“It might be, someday.”

“Couldn’t we just fuck and get it over with?”

The answer was yes, of course. “You really think Sandra would be all right with that?”

“Probably not.”

“Well, there’s you answer.”

“Did you ever love Sandra?”

I helped myself to some Jack, ice cube sliding down my throat. “No.”

“You think she loved you?”

“She loved her father.”

Dana reached under the bar and touched my thigh. I touched hers. Smooth skin. She gave me a squeeze. I followed suit, then we both brought our hands back to our drinks.

“Oh, shit,” she said.

“That’s right.”

She moved away from the bar, went to join her friends.

I lost myself in a bottle that night, but I remember leaving with a stranger and a smile.

***

I was working my way through a six pack and a poorly written piece of fiction when the phone rang. It was two days later.

“We should talk,” came Dana’s voice.

“Ok.”

“Not over the phone.”

Couldn’t imagine where that little piece of paranoia had originated, but I agreed.

“I’ll be down at Creole Nights around nine,” she said. “Meet me there?”

“All right.”

I hung up, went back to the story.

“Who was that?” Milo Blue asked from across the room.

I turned in my chair, cigarette clamped between my teeth. “That was Dana.”

Milo nodded. His face was serious, light caramel skin exhibiting an excessive amount of worry lines for someone his age. Within those brown eyes, I recognized memories of a wounded squirrel we’d found as children while exploring the wooded slums of Verona, North Carolina.

“You thinking about the squirrel?” he asked.

“Yeah. That was a dirty day.”

He stroked his chin. Through dormitory walls, the sound of laughter, so severely carefree, gave silent reminders that we were hardly adults.

“I ain’t thinking about squirrels,” he said.

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking I absolutely must advise you against whatever you’re thinking.”

“And I’m thinking we’ve always lived vicariously through one another.”

Hardly a sustainable way to maintain a friendship.

But it ended the conversation faster than our time together, and soon, nine-zero-zero rolled around.

I was on the last paragraph. The clock was trying to knock me around, as usual, but I wasn’t in the mood to step down.

“Milo,” I called out over my shoulder. “Go down to Creole Nights and tell Dana I’m running late. Would you?”

Milo slipped a Marlins cap over his floppy do, threw on a jacket. I stayed another ten minutes. Belted out the last few sentences. A dog barked, somewhere down in Washington Square Park, and I smiled as the final words came into focus.

***

I stopped at the magazine stand by Ben’s Pizzeria.

The man gave me a smile. “How are you, my friend?”

“You never ask me for my ID anymore.”

“I know who you are, Lucky.” He handed me my smokes. “I know what you need.”

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” he replied, taking my crumpled twenty and making change.

The streets were barren that night.

I walked down the steps to find Creole Nights was faring no better.

Far better, it turned out.

Milo and Dana were standing in the middle of the floor, the only ones trapped in a wonderland moment. Zephyr was behind the bar, laughing. From atop that catwalk of damp coasters and plastic empties, a woman stared down at her audience. Short stock, with the slightest plump to her figure. Her jeans were tight, allowing for a bit of that thick to bulge over her belt. Tee-shirt hanging off a chair in the corner. She was dancing on the bar, topless. Smiling glamorously through fleshy, Latin lips. Down and to the left, an old man was snapping pictures. Panama hat at an angle, suspenders and corduroys. Thinning silver combed back. Camera resting on a nose of purple blood vessels, split down the middle like a nubby little pecker.

The flash popped and popped, nonstop, shots that sent blinding white light all over her body.

The woman leapt from the bar, onto the floor, still strewn with cigarette butts from the previous night. Her tits bounced once. She stuck out her finger. Pointed, along with dark brown nipples, towards Milo.

“Would you like to touch my bebes?” she asked.

Her accent was a gentle mix of Puerto Rican and a psychotropic wrecking ball.

“Yes, man!” Zephyr crowed, jaw unhinged. “Touch her bebes!”

Milo walked over, fish on a hook, wearing a glorious smile of crooked teeth.

“You can touch my bebes, you know…” She grabbed his hands, guided them up and down her body, helped his fingers caress, pinch, do what was best left behind closed doors.

Without so much as a cue from the music, they began to dance together.

Zephyr cheered, and Dana inched her way to my side.

“Let me see your bebes,” the woman purred, pressing her hips against Milo’s. He was a short motherfucker himself, and for the first time in his life, I believe he actually appreciated the fit.

She tugged at his shirt, lifted it over his head. Tossed it aside.

It landed on Zephyr’s head. He raised the shirt up high. Twirled it around, all the while cackling in tune to Buju Banton, lyrics insisting the east was the best, there’s no life in the west.

Milo danced, finally let his hands go free as hers.

I felt something at my side.

Dana’s hand, holding onto mine. She absently rubbed her thumb against my palm as the two of us watched what could only be described as Milo dancing with a topless woman. The old man kept a straight face. Sturdy, serious. Walked the perimeter, capturing the seconds. Dana’s hand moved to my back, slipped under my jacket, dragged her nails across my shoulder blades. I moved my hand to the back of her neck, pressed, let go, clamped down in a reverse chokehold. Zephyr laughed, mercury rising. Milo kept dancing, the flash of the camera blinding us all within that little dive on Macdougal, and then

the music ended.

The dance was over. The woman reapplied her top. Bowed to Zephyr’s applause, the only sound left in the joint. Her and her old man were gone. Milo was left with a bare chest, thirsty grin. Dana with her arm on my shoulder, my left hand on her ass.

I turned to her. “How about we reschedule for tomorrow?”

“How about we do,” she said, and walked out the door.

The music came back on, Inner Circle warning us about bad boys, bad boys.

I walked up to Milo, handed him his shirt.

“Cover up your bebes,” I told him. “You look like an insane person.”

The two of us made a night of it, and we drank and drank and drank…

Should we ever come this way again, I’ll be sure and tell you more about him.

***

I walked into Creole Nights, up two hundred I had won in a game of dealer’s choice earlier that afternoon. It hadn’t dawned on me yet that I would never be a pro, but time being, I was content with my tiny pond. Tiny minnows, easy to figure, and they kept me in the business of drinking. Business had been very good that day, and it was looking to be an even better night.

The tables were all taken, clientele sprawled across the bar. Laura was seated at the end, drinking a martini, surrounded by Haitians. I made my way over. The regulars greeted me with indulgent smiles, and Ayizan stood up from the seat he had taken next to Dana.

“Especially reserved for you, Lucky,” he gushed.

A little something Zephyr found intensely amusing.

I sat down, ordered my usual.

“How about a double for the regular price?” Zephyr asked, still giggling.

“Sure, thanks.” I turned to Dana. “What’s going on with Zephyr?”

“He thinks our situation is funny,” she replied. Red satin dress this time around.

“You told him?”

“Yes.”

“You know, there’s no such thing as a secret down here. Zephyr may live by the tender’s code, but these hunchbacks are bound to tell Sandra first chance they –”

“Doesn’t matter…” She took a sip of her drink, popped an olive in her mouth. “I already told her.”

“Last night?”

“Five minutes ago.”

From across the bar came a fevered, high-rise shriek. I turned and saw Sandra seated at a table. Don’t know how I could have missed it. She stood up, stalked over. Face flushed, matching her crimson hair. She was angry. Angry and a dozen or so drinks off the mark.

Her hand sliced through the air, connected cheerfully with my face. Solid hit, too, drawing a response from the regulars and a nearby table of middle aged men.

“YOU’LL FUCK MY BEST FRIEND, BUT YOU WON’T FUCK ME?!!”

Blue-eyed and certifiable, straight out of southeast Texas. “I haven’t fucked anyone.”

The men at the table laughed.

The rest of the customers were growing bored with being polite, let their eyes wander into the action.

“HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME, LUCKY!?”

“I haven’t done anything!” I yelled.

“Do you WANT to fuck her?”

I looked at Dana, drained my drink.

Zephyr was standing by with the bottle, filled me right back up as I replied: “Well, yes.”

Sandra slapped me again.

Everyone in the bar had some kind of reaction, peanut gallery gone wild.

“GODDAMN!”

“This fucking bitch is crazy!”

“Boooo!”

“You’re an ASSHOLE, Lucky!”

Someone threw a bottle at me, and it landed at my feet, shattered.

“Adam was right about you!” Sandra screamed, hot scotch burning my face.

“Who?”

Applause filled the bar.

One or two people crossed over to my side, but most of the clientele remained allied, telling me to go fuck myself. Another bottle was sent in my general direction, and Sandra left the bar. Three or four men followed her up the steps. Smelling opportunity.

Never let a crisis go to waste.

I returned to my drink. Nothing to see here, and everyone else forgot about me. The regulars kept laughing about it, and they rubbed my shoulders with paperweight hands.

“Don’t worry about it, Lucky,” someone consoled me. “She’ll be back.”

“I doubt it,” Dana said.

I faced her and let her eyes do the rest.

“When I’m done with this drink, you and I should kiss,” she added.

I nodded, went to work on my bourbon. Lit a cigarette. The clock on the wall flared, soaking up the oxygen. Then the minutes. Then the hours. The three men who had followed Sandra out the door never came back, and I suspect their friends paid for the tab.

***

It was five in the AM, and we were in the kitchen. Cramped dimensions encouraging us to press a little closer. I had her pinned against the wall, the two of us trapped in a remarkably simple kiss. Chaperoned by a mess of dirty dishes. Premature sunlight coming through the windows. She removed my shirt. I fumbled with the zipper to her dress. Red silk, nice to the touch. I ran my fingers across her face, moved down to her breasts, still safe under a lacy bra.

She sighed, and then one of them came off in my hands.

I look down and saw a concave, silicone tit in my hand. Not doing much of anything, just resting there. I looked up at Dana. She didn’t say anything. I reached down between her legs, just to make sure.

Didn’t feel anything extraneous lurking below.

“I have tiny breasts,” she said. “Pretty flat, so I use inserts instead of a lift bra.”

I thought about it some more.

My hand was still trapped between her legs.

“You know, Lucky,” she said, closing her eyes. “It works a lot better if you move it around some. Women like it.”

“Then on behalf of all women…”

“Shut up and do as you’re told.”

I did as I was told, and we made our way to the bed.

***

She watched me the whole time.

Through every position and captured moment, she never once broke contact. Eyes wide open. I sent the message right back across the stars, lids glued to the top of my skull, and neither one of us made much noise. I noticed the blue in her retina covered with gray clouds. Morning had claimed its stake, and we both kept moving, and at one point she asked, pressed close to me:

“You’re writing this even as we fuck, aren’t you?” She began to move faster. “You’re using my pussy for a typewriter, aren’t you?”

“That’s some real poetry there,” I told her. Kissed her. Momentarily enjoying this exchange, speeding up.

“Don’t be so fucking clever and just keep fucking me,” she demanded, tugging at my hair.

“Dana?”

“Yes?”

The bed creaked beneath us, and she wouldn’t stop staring. “This is the worst conversation I’ve ever had.”

The two of us came, nails in each other’s skin.

At least, I think she did.

All I know is her eyes were open the whole time, and sleep never felt so good.

***

I woke up several hours later and Dana was gone. I rubbed my eyes and rolled over, onto a wasted condom.

Milo was seated in his chair, looking at me.

“Lucky,” he began, picking his words carefully. “Why are there a pair of tits in our kitchen and not a woman to be seen?”

“These things take time,” I told him, and rolled over.

Fell right back asleep.

***

The next time we met, it was almost friendly.

Sitting at a table of all things.

Drinks over candlelight at Creole Nights.

I gave her the rundown on poker rules. Explained the do’s and don’ts of how it worked. Psyche 101. Told her about my history, my past. How I had ended up drinking myself stupid after a lifetime of healthy living. Never noticed how little she was contributing. Never noticed her probing stare, eyes taking dictation.

Until I finally asked her, “So what’s Sandra got to say about this?”

“She doesn’t know.”

“Not sure I follow.”

“I didn’t tell her.”

“Think that’s wise?”

“Not sure I follow, Lucky.”

“I’m saying, cover-up is worse than the crime. She doesn’t know now and finds out later… then what?”

Dana shrugged. “She’s just not going to have to know later.”

I reached for my smokes. Lit a cautious cigarette. “So what you’re asking from me is…”

“Is obvious,” she said, lifting a smoke off me and bringing a candle close to her face. “You can never tell her about us.”

“Really? That’s the best, that’s your strategy?”

“And what’s your contribution?” She had yet to light her cigarette, features shifting with every candle lit flicker. “What’s your dazzling move, so late in the game?”

“Honesty?”

“Best policy and all that?”

“Seems trite, when you put it that way.”

Dana shifted the flame to the left of her face, moving through the lunar cycle. “It’s a trite saying, Lucky.”

“Are you trying to hypnotize me?”

“I suppose this whole candle thing must look weird enough.” She lit her cigarette, placed the candle between us. “And no. But I am trying to get something through your thick skull.”

“You keep trying, and this conversation’s going to need its own table of contents.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“If you tell me in Esperanto, yeah, probably wouldn’t.”

“Sandra would forgive you…” Dana said. She exhaled with nervous puffs, eyes shimmering. Darting towards the ceiling, down to the floor. Now very different from the scheming chess player who had initiated this exchange. “She would forgive you, but if she found out about what happened, I wouldn’t get the same graceful response. Not for me, no way.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s how women are with women.”

“That’s stupid.” I had a drink. “You don’t have to be a woman about anything. Same as I don’t have to be a man about anything.”

“Yeah. That’s because you’re a man.”

I reached for my drink. Changed my mind. Lit a cigarette , then followed through with a sip of Jack Daniel’s. I opened my mouth to say something, but was beaten by Dana.

“And don’t use a what if as an argument. You know better than that, Lucky.”

“So it’s lips locked and throw away the key?”

“If it’s not asking too much.”

I threw myself into the proposition. Settled back in my chair, crossed my legs. Tapped a brittle portion of ash onto the floor, and picked up my drink. Someone had forgotten to tend to the music. In the absence of steel drums and electric piano, conversations gave life to the voices in my head. Each convincing the other that this was my fault.

***

It wasn’t unusual for me to get a call at Creole Nights.

If I wasn’t in my room, there was a good chance I was boozing it up along with the rest, several feet below sea level.

First time Dana had ever bothered to call, that’s what marked the occasion.

Zephyr handed me the phone.

I snubbed out my cigarette, exchanged a second or so of pleasantries with her disembodied voice before she informed me: “We won’t be seeing each other anymore.”

I’ll never know why those words stung. At the time, I was so unwilling to understand, that I went along with it, gladly. Easily. “Ok.”

“Just thought you should know.”

“Ok.”

“Don’t want to know why?”

It was eight in the evening, and Creole Nights couldn’t have been more dead. Just me and Zephyr so far, but I pulled a bit of make-believe, so loud I had to say

“Sorry, Dana, you want to repeat that?”

“Fine, I’ll tell you.” I heard her sigh. “I’m sorry, but it turns out you’re just not a narcissist.”

We both knew it was too interesting for me to pretend I didn’t care. “What?”

“I just kind of figured you were.” Her voice resonated in my ear in a dispassionate electronic signal. “I thought it was interesting, I thought… well, anyway, it turns out I was wrong. You know one of the first signs of a narcissist?”

“No.”

“You call them a jerk, and they don’t give a fuck. You suggest they aren’t special, and they freak the fuck out… Before you and Sandra broke up, that’s what I always gathered from our talks, but I was wrong. And I’m sorry.”

“You don’t want –”

“And the dead giveaway was when I asked you not to tell Sandra about us. I saw you think about it. Not about what was best for you but about what was right. You don’t kid yourself, Lucky. I mean, you do, for the most part. But not enough. You’re just not a real man, it turns out.”

I glanced around the bar. Empty. Nobody but me and Dana, so it was the perfect time to actually show that I cared. “You’re done with me because I gave a shit about your best friend?”

“I was hoping to get an in depth glimpse into the heart of a narcissist. Guess I blew the call.”

“Still and all, I did decide to fuck you.”

“Well, sure, Lucky…” Even over the phone, I could hear her chewing on the cap of a ball point pen. “That just means you’re an asshole. And nobody’s interested in those, they’re a dime a dozen.”

“So if I’m an asshole for going along with the lie, what’s that make you?”

“A psychology major.”

Damn it, she really was interesting after all. “Goodnight, Dana.”

I hung up.

Handed the phone to Zephyr.

He poured me another drink.

I gave the ice cubes their due respect, looked up. Saw Zephyr waiting to tell me what was what.

“Do you believe in hell, Zephyr?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you believe in a place where you…” Shit, even I didn’t believe in that. I regrouped. “Do you believe that God punishes us for our sins?”

“You ever been to Haiti?”

“No.”

“God doesn’t punish. If he even exists, he just redistributes. Unevenly, so good luck.”

“How long before I have to wait, then?” I asked.

“Until you do something truly evil.”

“And how will I know?”

“You’ll wind up in a church, cathedral, or some fucking place.”

“What do I do ’til then?”

Zephyr smiled. “Welcome to hell, Lucky… You just thank God it has a bar.”

The silver bell above the door jingled, and I jumped.

Looked over my shoulder.

Spent a good deal of years looking over my shoulder, before it all came back to rest on them.

But that’s another story, and I hate that you can’t wait to hear about it.

 

 

Edit the Clouds in the Sky, If You Have To.

 

We shared the bed last night. No wider than the surface area of a snack machine. No more comfortable. Lying on my back, stomach, either side, there was no avoiding some kind of contact. Hair, or skin, shoulder, or the back of her thigh. The rise and fall of her breath displaced the air around us. Kept me waking. Wondering. Nothing happened. And if it was ever going to, that would have been the day. That would have been the night.

 

Finley swept into frame. Replaced the empty husk of my gin and tonic with a fresh round. He peered at the shoebox I had set on the bar, its dusty lip brimming with cocktail napkins, stacked two by one. “What’s this, then, Lucky? Caught the cold, or something?”

“I feel fine.”

“You never feel fine. At least, you never look fine.”

“Didn’t have to make this my new home, you know.” I squeezed the lime, licked my fingers. “Had a perfectly good dive on Macdougal.”

“That was when you lived near Macdougal.”

He was right. The Bishop was the other end of the spectrum. A straight jacket turned inside out, all buckles and belts hidden from prying scientists. The bar was spotless, the wood varnished. Tables sturdy, kitchen open ‘till two in the morning. Bartenders every bit the professionals. White shirts tucked into black slacks. Didn’t drink on duty, and smoking behind the bar was akin to spitting in the drinks.

But they somehow turned professionalism into something warm.

And that wasn’t half bad considering where I had abandoned myself.

“For real, though, Lucky…” Finley propped his foot against the basin. Rested his arm on a raised knee. Quizzical look grazing beyond a pair of green pastures. Crew cut glowing a wild, Irish red. “What’s in the box?”

“Notes from the underground.”

“Feel obligated to warn you, son. A certain mad Russian beat you to the punch.”

“I’ll kill him.”

Sixth sense kicking in, Finley jettisoned himself down the bar to top off the regulars.

I drank my gin. Reached into the box, pulled out another handful of cocktail napkins and kept reading.

 

Milo, Jake Maxwell, Beatrice. They really don’t care for her. Thrown the whole lexicon at her feet, practically in her face. Stupid. Moron. Ditz. Idiot. I’ve told them, time and again, that if any of us could stomach the thought of sounding stupid to others, we’d be the most brilliant of all stars in the sky. You really haven’t experienced deaf ears until you’ve tried explaining anything to your friends.

 

An old man sporting an argyle cap and matching vest planted himself next to me. Bristled face, a red nose of fractured bones pointed to one of seven screens. Yellow eyes staring through rugby highlights.

He made a noise, trapped somewhere in the back of his throat.

Brought Finley marching down the length of the bar. “No! Out! Right now, Liam!” He pointed towards the doors. “I am not even joking!”

The old man shuffled away, garbled words found in translation.

“Right out the door, sir!” Finley yelled. “You’re not welcome here!”

Another croak from the old man.

“You’re not welcome here!” Finley repeated. Took a beat. Came in close for a better look at my box. Read the name scrawled on the side. “Who’s Anya, then?”

I lit a cigarette. “Somebody that I used to know.”

“Pretty name.”

“Pretty face to boot.” I did something with my lips. “Dazzling smile. Lips that went from ear to ear. Slight overbite. Brown eyes, shaped like birthstones. She was slender, but she wasn’t skinny. Best part of all, she never tried… Blonde hair tangled with darker shades.”

“Mm. Curtains match the drapes?”

“Carpet, Finley.”

“I’m tired.”

He left me alone with my napkins.

Caught a shift in the date, some five months later, in March.

 

And Anya was crossing the street at random. She caught my eye. Or I caught hers. She flashed that smile. Reached into her satchel and pulled out a check. “Got paid today. And I’m looking to buy.” There’s no saying no to that. We dug our way down into Creole Nights. Grabbed a seat by the door. Milo and Tarquin drinking beer. Myself with my Jack. Anya taking shots of Stolichnaya, demanding I match her for each one. Happy to oblige. Don’t know what it was. Maybe the circumstances. Wild cards. She went to buy another round of shots. Milo and Tarquin busying themselves with musician talk. As Anya got to the table, I got to my feet. Wrapped my arms around her and started dancing. Slowly. Even though the reggae was demanding something in a faster beat. I think I heard Zephyr crying out from behind the bar. Possibly more ecstatic than I was. And that was a tall order. Anya’s body pressed against mine, feeling the raw burn of vodka on my lips. And she was smiling. That’s what it was, she was smiling…

 

I finished my drink. Summoned the genie.

“Another one, Lucky?”

“Yeah. Just going to crawl my way to the jukebox, if you don’t mind…”

“Mind if I…?” he tapped his finger against the napkin.

“Go ahead.”

I picked out a few tunes. All from the same album.

Sat back down.

Finley set the napkins back on the bar. “This is really quite bad, Lucky. No joke, it’s kind of awful.”

“Can’t imagine anything grabbing your interest that wasn’t written along the dotted line of a credit card slip.”

“Now that’s mean, Lucky… mean, and actually well written.”

The jukebox got to my selections.

Finley shook his head. “Van Morrison? Really?”

“Not a fan myself.”

“Then for Christ’s sake, why?”

“You don’t have the Strange Days soundtrack.”

“I don’t even know what that is.” He rapped his knuckles against the bar.

Buyback.

Had myself a few swallows worth of a free drink. Kept reading.

 

When we got back to my place, the lights were already dim. Just a string of Christmas lights hanging over my elevated bed. Milo had absconded next door, staying the night at Tarquin’s. Anya said she was going to take a shower. Asked if I wanted to join her. I told her I’d wait. We had our first kiss. It was big, full of smiles. A lot of mouth, but I didn’t mind. She made it work. Came back out with a towel wrapped around her body. We climbed onto the bed. I pressed play on Milo’s stereo. Strange Days soundtrack blaring. Brought that smile back. She had a body about her, and it tasted clean. Remnants of generic soap. “That’s pretty fucking nice,” she whispered at one point. We made our way through the entire album, CD changing over to Van Morrison. She was leaning backwards over the edge of the bed, hands planted against the adjacent mattress, some several feet below mine. I reached back and unplugged the lights. It was either that, or stop and pull the blinds, and I didn’t want it to end. Next morning, we kissed for a good two hours before she realized she was an hour late for work…

 

“You really think you’re something, don’t you?”

I turned to my right. Caught a man drilling for oil in his Guinness. Blue button-up, khaki pants. Thick scar below his mouth, like a fleshy soul patch. Hair a mess, suggesting the rest of him would slowly follow.

I didn’t answer.

He went back to his drink.

“What’s this then?” Shane had returned from his break. Bulbous lips twisted in a curious smile. Eyes wide, black eyebrows arching. Standing side by side with Finley. Their arms crossed, as though I had broken curfew. “What’s in the box?”

“Memories of Anya,” Finley replied.

“Oh, I like Anya. Who’s Anya?”

“Somebody he used to know.”

“She got a sister, Lucky?”

I lit another cigarette. “I’ll let you know once I’m done fucking yours.”

And the round went to Lucky. And Finley saluted, and Shane bowed and served me another drink.

I withdrew another stack of napkins.

Got to drinking. Forced myself further into Anya.

Hard to believe a good year and a half had come to pass.

 

We found each other in Creole Nights. Played catch up. Wasn’t sure if I looked any different. She remained the same. Laughing loud, mouth open wide as she knocked them back. I was on my way to a poker game. Too good to pass up, but I asked her, “Anya. You want to meet here tomorrow?” and she nodded. “We can drink, I mean really drink. Talk Chekov, talk Shakespeare. Then maybe go back to my place and have lots of sex. I mean really fuck, want to?” She nodded, smiled so wide.

 

I smiled back. Caught myself in the mirror, and ran a moistened hand along my face.

Wiped the slate clean.

 

We sat at a table for two. Back left corner. Underneath the glass skylights, twin periscopes looking out onto Macdougal. Drinking Jack out of obligation, taking vodka shots out of habit. She talked about The Cherry Orchard. I told her the four or five hands that had won me a few hundred dollars. I don’t know how Milo always knew, but he was nowhere to be seen that night. We took it to each other in every which way we could. It was raining, and outside the windows, Washington Square streetlights highlighted a glistening kind of abandon. We stayed in bed all through the next day, until the sun set. I had a game over at Kip’s. We walked out onto the streets together. She kissed me, wished me luck.

 

A drunken business man was buying shots for the bar.

Shane set a bullet of Jamison’s before me with a shrug. Eyes telling me to enjoy it while it lasts, kid.

I followed his advice, and kept right on.

 

Anya is guest bartending at Creole Nights these days. Another little thing we have in common. Last night, Zephyr and I played Texas Hold ‘Em at the far end. Money on the bar. Anya served us drinks. Kept my money stacked in neat piles. Ones, fives, tens. The band played on, and with every hand I won, she’d lean over to kiss me. Then her and Zephyr got involved in a historical debate, a hysterical fight over the lead up to WWII. Anya had lost two grandparents in the Holocaust and there was no way that was going to end well. I bought us all shots of Stolichnaya. Later on, she thanked me. It was one of our better late-night fucks.

 

I blinked.

Reread that last line.

My handwriting had changed. Morphed into a fevered calligraphy that welded letters at impossible joints.

Almost like a single thread leading me along.

“You all right, Lucky?” Finley asked.

“Yeah.” I reached for my cigarettes. “Could I get a shot of Stoli, please? If you would be so kind.”

“You’re what riddles ask each other, Lucky…”

Got what I needed. Took a shot. Asked for another, along with a fresh gin and tonic.

“Going to have to cut you off one of these days,” Finley said.

“That will never happen.”

“Going to be a big writer someday, Lucky?”

“Five-nine. About average.”

He rolled his eyes, disgusted, and sailed back down the bar.

 

We got good and drunk. Back at our place, she offered to dance for us. Milo was pretty far gone, catcalling well above legal limits as Anya spread that blanket like a cape. Topless. Smiling as she bounced to a little burlesque. Sandra was passed out in the closet. Another random event. We let her lie. The three of us curled up in Milo’s bed and fell asleep. I joined Anya in the shower next day. Water running down her body, mine. Both of us catching hot drops in our mouths between kisses. Fucked standing up. Got down into the mildew, did it from behind, bringing her up to kiss her neck, listening to her laugh in my ear.

 

There was a shift. Something I didn’t enjoy or appreciate.

 

Bad night at the table. That was Kip’s money, too. Wandered into Creole Nights, three sheets to the wind. Anya was helping out behind the bar. She served me a fresh addition to the family. A shot of Stoli Pepper. A pair of frat boys who had somehow wormed their way underground gave me a look. “Good luck, pal,” one of them said. Must have been trying it on with Anya for some time. I knocked back my shot, something awful. Told Anya to take a break. Led her to the back. Into the men’s room. Lights off, kissing, hands all over each other. Lowering our jeans in the dark. Fucking against that cold surface. Knocks at the door. Just a few minutes worth. Turned on the light and flushed the condom down the toilet. “Start yelling at me,” I told her. She did. I yelled back. Decent enough cover story. We charged out of the bathroom and took the argument to the closest table. Not letting up, until Zephyr put his arms over our shoulders. Leaned in, laughing. “You are both the WORST FUCKING ACTORS I have ever seen!”

 

“All good?” Finley asked.

“I remember that night,” I told him. “Next morning, thought I was going to die. First time with acute alcohol poisoning. Milo placed a pitcher of water before me. A loaf of bread. Told me to keep eating, and throwing up until I could get back to sleep. And I did. Got tired of seeing myself vomit the same sepia colors and added some Country Time Lemonade, just to see a little pink in my puke.”

Finley “I mean, do you want another drink?”

“Yes. Sidecar of Stoli, too, while you’re up and about.”

 

Anya caught us at Creole. I was already one bottle of wine into my evening. She was taking smuggled shots from a bottle of vodka. Said there was a rooftop party going on, somewhere in the Village. We made the scene early. Didn’t make any friends that night. Milo screaming, shirt wrapped around his head. Anya grinding against me, long before anyone had a chance to achieve even the slightest level of intoxication. Anya and I ducked into an alcove. My hands were all over her. Mouths clamped, working. Her hand between my legs. She led me to an unpopulated, adjoining roof. I figured we would tuck into a doorway, do it there. Anya. Flat against the middle of melting tar. Out in the open. Available to all surrounding apartments, moon shining down as I drove into her, let her flip me. Hair hanging down in my face as she rode. Laughter. She excused herself to the bathroom…

 

“Caught up with her as she walked up the stairs,” I read. “My vision swimming. Told her I had to go. That I would call. Scooped Milo up and made my way back home…”

“That’s cold, Lucky,” Finley said.

“True enough,” Shane agreed.

I polished off my drink. “How long have I been reading out loud?”

“Long enough to know I owe you an apology,” Finley said. “The writing does get a little better, after a little while.”

My head bobbed against the pull of the little hand, reading ten past three. I reached for the final napkin. Held it out. “Then read this, why don’t you?”

Finley obliged. Straining. “Is this even…. are these astronauts, Lucky?”

“Look closer.”

Finley did. Struggled. “Anya wandered into Creole Nights. We had a drink. I told her I was with Helena now. She nodded. We talked some more, but our time together was at an end. Both of us left it at see you next time…

He handed the napkin back.

“At some point, there’s less of her,” I said. “And more of what happened.”

“What’s in the box, Lucky?” Shane asked.

“What’s in the box?” Finley repeated.

I lit a cigarette. “Used to sit my ass down at Creole Nights. Almost every night. By the time eight months had past, I’d put in my dues. Practically drank for free. I’d scrawl out every last thought on their bar napkins. Take them home. Store them in a box. Then two boxes. Then maybe ten. At one point, I realized there was some trimming to do. Culling. I would take the napkins to the bathroom with me. Read over what I had written as I took a shit. Then, bit by bit, I would choose the worst of what I had, and use it to wipe myself. Quite literally, gentlemen, wipe my ass with my own words.” I polished off my drink. “I mean, a guy’s got to know shit when it’s shit…”

Finley and Shane jumped the bar. Leapt right over, each one on either side of me. I turned with a lazy eye towards the commotion. Saw them rushing a man out the door. He was screaming. Face gone, profiled long enough to recognize him from previous pages as the man with the khaki pants.

The bartenders walked back in. “You ok, there, Lucky?”

“Yes. What just happened?”

“Drunk piece of shit was about to take a swing at you.” Finley squeezed my shoulder. “He was trudging down the bar, headed your way. Arm cocked, ready to sucker punch you to the floor.”

“Sucker punch,” I said. Blinked a few times, wondering if it wasn’t over just yet. “Thanks. To the both of you. Good lookin’ out.”

“Can’t believe you didn’t see it coming.”

“You never hear the one with your name on it.”

“Buy you a drink?”

“Yes.”

I watched them round the bar.

Looked over and saw a napkin left behind by one of the lesser diners.

Snatched it up.

Reached into my pocket for a pen and began to write.

 

Was down by Astor Place today. Got my hair cut. Starting that new job, waiting tables down on Second Avenue. Left the place with a shorn head, all dolled up. Spiked with product. Guess that’s why she didn’t recognize me. But against my better judgment, I called out her name. Anya turned, and it occurred to me it had been such a long time since I had seen her in the daylight.

 

I turned the napkin over, kept writing.

 

We skipped over what was, barely focusing on the now. Her lips the same, no doubt that smile could have doubled down if it weren’t for the fact that she was facing me. Even with garbage bags piling up along the sidewalk, I could smell the soap on her skin. And I wanted to tell her, those years were a better brand of life, and I had lost all sight of

 

I ran out of room.

Found a fresh drink awaiting orders.

Picked it up, did it up. Televisions on replay as I took it down in three simulcast gulps.

Folded my fresh napkin. Stacked it along with the rest. Placed them all in the shoebox. Fastened the lid on tight, and tucked it under my arm. Pushed myself away and began to walk towards the back.

“Last call, Lucky,” Finley called out.

I turned. “Back me up.”

“You ever write a story about me, I want you to call it The Sight of an Empty Glass.”

I tipped an imaginary hat.

Walked into the men’s room, strolled into the stall.

Dropped my pants and took a seat on the toilet.

Lit a cigarette. Clenched my stomach. Clenched my fists. Ground my teeth together.

Remembered that it had been several days since I had eaten anything.

Had myself a tug, enjoyed the smoke for what it was.

Sitting on the throne. Eyelids drooping.

Good a time as any to truly start hating myself.

As any cheap sheet of pulp will tell you, edit the clouds in the sky, if you have to.

 

 

Crocodile Tears.

 

Nadine was telling me about the scar on her cheek. Courtesy of a brick to the face, retribution for slamming another woman’s head into the curb. I was about to ask what happened to the brick, when she asked if I knew what happened to Bill the night before. I told her I did not. She asked when I had seen him last. I glanced over her shoulder, watched Bill at the taps, pulling a pint of murky warmth. I refocused, met Nadine’s eyes. Brief regards to the milky scar against her dark skin, before telling her I had left at closing. She asked if I remembered anyone staying behind.

I took down the rest of my lager. Truth was, Bill had been fucking Preesha, currently stationed three stools down. I only knew this because of Helena, currently stationed at a table with Bill’s brother, Howard. Howard and Helena were also fucking. She’d been kind enough to take a break for my visit, though from how things operated in that corner of the world, Howard was probably vacationing in someone else for the week. I didn’t know whether Nadine was fucking anyone on the side, or if Preesha was fucking anyone on the regular, but one thing remained certain.

Everybody was fucking everyone else.

And I was fucking no one.

So I lit a cigarette, and gave Nadine a shrug.

So that put an end to that.

So we talked about her Algerian childhood instead.

That took us to six bells, and the whole lot of us stepped out of that English pub, onto the streets of Paris.

Not Texas. The France one.

***

Helena hopped alongside me. Wide grin, streetlights shining in her clueless, emerald eyes.

“It’s an afterhours bar,” she said. “It’s called Le Crocodile!”

Preesha was walking with us, keeping a safe distance from Bill and Nadine. “In case you were wondering, Lucky, that means The Crocodile.”

“Yes. I am not a complete fucking idiot.”

Preesha laughed. Round face tilted back. Light brown lips stretched against gleaming teeth.

She had a point. “Never mind. Tell me again what Le Crocodile means.”

To my left, Bill and his brother began to speak in fast-track French.

Howard glanced in my direction. Blond hair held in perfect position. Smooth skin, blue eyes regarding me from several superior inches on high. “Hello.”

“Hello.”

He pointed right, down a narrow, old-world side street.

***

The doorman was a six-five scarecrow. Ponytailed, dour. Polite.

He took a look inside, checked the capacity. Waved us in between puffs of a fading Gauloises.

Le Crocodile was a narrow affair. Scant standing room between the tiny tables lining either side, path leading to a five-top bar. Solitary lanterns were pitted against candles and purple spotlights. Walls lined with two-toned portraits of Parisian landmarks, past and present personalities.

We placed our orders through the smoky air, cocktails upwards of twenty euros apiece. Helena distributed the poisonous assortments. Assigned me a vodka concoction laced with lime and pomegranate. I engaged my straw, sucked my way two-thirds down. Put in another order.

Had a look across the room and spotted a Great Dane. Size of a skyscraper, butterscotch fur laced with a cummerbund of lustrous white. Seated in an easy chair, on his haunches. Watching a handsome couple steal kisses between whispers.

I took a few more sips. Stared over the rim, thinking why not?

A majestic creature crammed right between the jaws of an overstuffed crocodile. Sure. Made no more sense than my own presence in this alien nation. Fresh bread and blood oranges. Duplicitous lovers and loose change.

I leaned against the bar. Watched Helena and company laugh it up, ignoring the assortment of knives in each other’s backs. Glanced down at the one in my chest. Cardinal red seeping into my white t-shirt, matching my drink.

Or what was once my drink.

Checking the contents to find it had long since been tapped.

***

At least the Italian sea captain lived up to all expectations. Sinewy muscles, skin all leathery beneath his blue linen shirt. Nose like cracked cauliflower. Crown of grey hair matching a beard that spread across his weather-beaten mug, beady eyes caught in a crow’s nest.

He sat across from me in one of the many fold out chairs, the sort reserved for Hollywood stars. His traveling companion sat to my left. Some four years my senior, a possible twenty-six in certain light. Soft, intellectual features. White shirt, black tie. Legs crossed. A student of some kind.

The pair of them had met two days previous, at an exhibition on Picasso and the French New Wave. The Sea Captain was fluent in Italian and Spanish. His companion, Italian and English. Myself, stuck with English and Spanish.

Not one of us knew enough French worth wasting on each other.

The Sea Captain lit a cigarillo, asked me what I was doing in Paris.

Directly behind him, Helena, Preesha and Howard were seated around a burning wick.

Nadine and Bill off in a corner somewheres…

“I came to see my ex-girlfriend,” I told him, in Spanish.

He laughed, shook his head. Translated into Italian for his companion, who shook his own with a sad smile. The Sea Captain motioned for me to continue, unable to contain his excitement.

“Well, yes…” I lit a cigarette, rubbed my eyes. “She came here for a semester, study abroad. Reason why we broke up in the first place. Kept insisting that I visit. So I went ahead and put it all on a credit card, let her know I was on my way. She wrote back to me a week before my flight. Told me she was seeing someone. Guy named Howard… Oops, I guess.”

The Sea Captain put his hands to grizzly cheeks, giggled. Translated for his companion. The student slouched low. Forehead against his knees. Sighed. Straightened. Asked me in English who this Howard was.

“Englishman,” I told him. Stole three heartbeats from my drink, considered it, then added: “He’s a flight attendant.”

Upon hearing the Italian, our Sea Captain bellowed with laughter. Stomped. Spat on the floor. “The skies are no place for a real man!” he proclaimed, then fell back into mirthful seizures.

“Paris is no place for me,” I told him.

The Sea Captain nodded emphatically, and downed his drink. Reached for his backup. Ice cubes barely given a chance to melt as he halved it, trickles of pineapple and gin navigating his beard.

His companion asked for an update. I filled him in. He sighed, placed a hand on my knee.

Three loud barks ripped through the smoke and kind theatrics.

I turned in my seat.

There was that greatest of Danes. All four paws, perched on the floor. Tail raised. Menacing growls directed at a pair of men in black leather jackets.

Then three more barks, followed by an endless invective. Summoning the doorman, whose Adam’s apple bobbed with concise, French commands. His orders were met with indignant arguments, prompting the dog to join the fray, all culminating with expulsion, both leather boys lobbing angry expletives as they left.

Words even I could understand.

The Sea Captain laughed, currency of the open waters. He leaned over, smacked my shoulder. Began to spout Italian from chapped lips. Drunk. Forgetting for the moment that ours was a relationship built on Spanish songs.

I turned to his companion for clarification.

“He says the dog is the security,” the student told me. “What do you call it, in the bars and the discotheques…?”

I lit a cigarette. “Bouncer?”

“Yes. He says the dog is the bouncer. The man will let anyone in and he will let anyone stay. But if the dog doesn’t like you, then you have to leave. Like our two friends with the leather jackets.”

Another one of those things that rang true with creative liberties, some inconvenient remainder that urged me to turn in my seat, just one more time. Expecting to cast my eyes across the bar. Coming face to face, instead, with an enormous snout.

Eyes peering into mine. Encased in rich, magnanimous black. Tail at full attention.

I stared right back, far beyond the earlier half of the universe.

Cigarette in my right hand becoming a tower of ash. Ready for the inevitable. Fully prepared, after all the quiet humiliations of the past few days, to be cast out onto unwelcoming streets by a beautiful, unwelcoming dog.

I closed my eyes.

Emptiness met by the feel of a hot, wet tongue against my mouth.

Opened my eyes.

More kisses, all across my face. Baptized by the world’s last remaining guardian.

I heard the Sea Captain laugh as my cigarette fell to the floor, and I wrapped my arms around the furry neck of my one true and only friend.

***

By the following night, I had reached my limit. Unwilling to watch as Helena made time with her French flight attendant. Or Bill delight in the carnal knowledge of dual, overhead pussy. Or any of the regulars with money to spend, a place to belong, or willing partner to deceive.

Finished my pint, holstered my bookbag, and casually strolled out of that English pub.

Glanced at inhospitable street signs.

Terrible with names, but always set to rely on the character of my magnetic pole.

Made my way to Le Crocodile.

Looking for a little face time with my new best friend.

Stumbled into the joint with smoke trailing from my lips.

Sat down the bar. Bottle of Bordeaux and half a fifth rocking me gently from side to side.

The bartender made her rounds, settled on me.

Experience had made a fortune teller out of this one, and she asked in plain English, “What would you like?”

I ran a little reconnaissance. No sign of the bouncer, hide nor hair.

“Where’s the dog?”

It was loud that night. She leaned in close. Tilted her head, ear to my mouth, nose as far from my rancid breath as it could point.

“Where’s the dog?” I repeated. “The Great Dane?”

She pulled back just a bit. Face close to mine. Her eyes changed colors. “Chevalier?”

“He didn’t tell me his name.”

“He is dead.”

I pursed my lips. Opened my mouth. Closed it. Opened it again, with an idiot’s lament: “Dead?”

She nodded. Sharp features casting sad, cinematic shades. “Yes.”

“How? When?”

“Last night.”

Again, “How?”

“He was poisoned.”

A brief dystopia ran through my mind. Chevalier bending down towards his food dish with a happy grin. Lips wet with anticipation. Tongue like a pink sleeping bag. Large bites, wet food all over his face. Wolfing it down, as all dogs were sworn to do. Maybe making it so far as fifty feet from his feeding post, when his stomach must have told him something was wrong. Maybe his insides split apart. Maybe they just slowly dissolved. Lying on his side. Legs kicking in a static race to outrun the pain. Whimpering. Blood trickling from his ears as he convulsed. Eyes wide. Going someplace else. Taking a little trip to some faraway place, beyond the sea.

Sunkist agony in the few minutes it took to die at someone else’s hand.

Didn’t feel the teardrop till it landed on my arm.

The bartender reached out to touch my hand.

I pulled away. A mean, ignorant reflex. Absolute rejection of the kindest act any one person had yet to display since touching down.

“I need a drink.”

She looked hurt. Never occurred to me she might be missing him too.

No bouncer left to kick me out for bad behavior, and she cleared her throat. “What would you like?”

I thought about apologizing. Then I didn’t. Closed my eyes and pressed an index finger somewhere along the cocktail list.

Wasn’t that how I had gotten here in the first place?

***

The drinks were loaded. I was loaded.

And my only friend in this horrible city had been murdered. From the inside out.

I stood up from the barstool.

Made for the door.

Paused long enough to grab a chair. Folded it in half, and tucked it under my jacket. Somehow positive this would provide enough cover to allow the theft to go unnoticed. I walked past the scarecrow and into the streets.

The door closed behind me.

Silence strolled in, paired with a thin layer of mist.

I leaned the chair against my leg and lit a cigarette.

Exhaled into the damp air. “So that actually worked…”

I picked up my stolen treasure and made my way towards the gardens of Luxembourg.

***

I scaled the fence, careful to keep my crotch from the sharp ends of Flur De Lis.

Reached over and lifted the chair onto my side.

Found a bench. Pulled a bottle of wine from my bookbag. Had a few drinks.

Picked up a stray copy of Le Monde, its soiled headline reading Taliban Explique la Demolition de Bouddha.

Stretched out along bountiful splinters and closed my eyes.

***

The rain must have been coming down for a good ten minutes before I opened my eyes.

Raindrops fighting past the treetops. Seeping into my clothes. Running down my face and into my mouth, nostrils struggling.

I sat up.

Still dark. I raised my head. Beyond the leaves, puzzle pieces made for a red, vengeful sky.

With my head imploding, clothes a wet swampland, I stood and moved on.

***

Found a commercial bank with a concrete overhang.

Concrete bench carved out of the wall.

Hardly mattered at that point. More water than waste, I was soaked to the bone.

Still, sleep wasn’t something I was about to reject.

The bench was too short for my body

I unfolded the chair and placed it at the end of the runway.

Laid my head down on the moistened cloth.

Closed my eyes.

Made my bed, three sheets to the wind.

***

Wasn’t the rain this time, but a police officer.

Flawless, pale face of an international pop star, all dolled up in uniform.

Tapping my shoulder for what was obviously some time now.

I let my eyes adjust to the gray morning light.

Took a fast look behind me. Bank wasn’t open yet. Or maybe it was a Saturday.

He didn’t waste time with French. “American, yes?”

I nodded. “Yes, officer. American. Sorry about that.”

“Passport?”

I reached into my back pocket, fairly certain that wouldn’t get me shot. Not in Paris, anyway. Five thousand miles from the goons of New York City, and I presented my documentation. Inexplicably dry. He thumbed through to the picture. Did a little comparison to the damp and bloodshot drunk stretched out before him.

He handed it back. “What are you doing in France?”

“I came to visit my ex-girlfriend.”

His mouth opened slightly. The uncertain reaction towards cancer, death in the family. Unwanted pregnancy. He shook his head. “You should not have done that, my friend.”

“Yes. Believe me, I am so very, very sorry.”

He tipped me a smile of pure pity. Asked me to get on with my day. No need to haul me off on charges of vagrancy. Far as this story went, my time had been served.

***

I pressed the buzzer.

Waited.

Took a look around the French wilderness, waiting.

Lit a cigarette to make the time go by.

Let my finger announce my arrival once more.

The door opened.

There was Helena. Eyes red as mine. Makeup smeared. Distress call caught in her vocal chords. “Where the fuck have you been?”

“They killed Chevalier,” I said.

“Who?”

“I’m just here to get my stuff. But I can tell you all about it…”

She let me in, and the neighbors got some free entertainment that morning.

***

She asked me where the hell I thought I could go. My flight home wasn’t for another two days. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know my way. I was drunk. I was insane. I was a prick for disappearing. I was an asshole for coming back. I shoved what little I had into a red duffle. Couldn’t argue with a single point she made, and so I just stated what I could.

“This time, it was you.”

She began to cry.

I began to reconsider.

Then I remembered the kind, somber face of a beautiful dog.

Walked down the steps.

Out the door. Into the cold.

With a duffle bag of wrinkled clothes, two bottles of cheap French red, and less than fifty Euros in my pocket, I went wandering along the cobbled bloodlines of the old world.

I went wandering, with an invisible shotgun strapped to my back, in search of the men who killed Chevalier.

 

 

Color Test.

 

I was twenty-one with a bullet in my brain.

Doing time at The Bishop. Served by the best, buyback every fourth drink. Picking juke box songs with impunity. Staring into space over shots of Jim Beam, gray shades tapped into glass ashtrays.

Hustling tables at an Upper East Side five-star, taking orders from old money.

“Guests,” I muttered.

“What’s that you said?” Finley asked. Parked himself across from me, wiped the counter down.

“I said, Guests.”

“Why?”

“That’s what they got us calling customers now. Guests… Welcome to my house. Make yourself comfortable. Let me bring you some food, some good wine. Now give me money and go away, I’m expecting more guests.” I polished off another Budweiser. “What a duplicitous fucking world.”

Finley turned to a neighboring barstool. “You responsible for him this evening, Nelligan?”

Mister Danny Nelligan gave it some thought, shoulders hunched beneath his suit.

“It’s ok to say no,” I told him.

“What the hell,” Danny said, a little drunk himself. “Let’s get the kid a few more, see if he puts on a show.”

“Had a front row to the last one,” Finley said. Served a couple of cold ones and a double barrel of Beam. “I laughed, I cried. I threw him out of the bar.”

“You cut me off,” I amended.

“Cut you loose, baby.”

“When was this?” Danny asked.

Finley and I replied in unison: “Slice of pepperoni and a dead albino.”

Our bartender went to field a pair of Bombay Martinis.

Danny raised his glass. “To our jobs.”

“Servicing without the sex.”

“To Fox News and the Oceanic Grill.”

“Catering to the needs of the rich on the backs of the needy.”

Sláinte.”

Down the hatch.

“Lucky,” Danny grimaced. “I’ve made a decision about you.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m getting you laid.”

“Again, thank you, Danny. Not gay.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I have my standards.”

“Says the queer New York liberal working for Fox News.”

“My friend just walked in. Ana.”

I sniffed, took a pull of my beer.

“She’s quite the little number,” Danny continued. “Check her out. She’s at the end of the bar.”

I nodded, eyeing a soccer match up on the flat screen. “I know Ana.”

“You’ve met?”

“Kind of.”

“When was this?”

“Slice of pepperoni and a dead albino.”

“All this happened on the same night?”

“You should know. You were there.”

Danny searched his hard drive.

“And that,” I said, “is what we mean by kind of.”

Danny leaned in. Breathed into my ear. “Ana thinks you’re hot.”

“Nobody thinks that.”

“She’s an editor at FHM.”

“How is that even an argument?”

“When I pointed you out, first time…” Danny nudged me with intoxicated finesse. “She damn near lost it. When I told her you were twenty-one, she told me, I could suck his cock so good, make him come, and I bet he’d still be hard as a rock.”

The thought wasn’t a bad one. I kept the contents of my jeans to myself. Lit a cigarette. “Women like that don’t care much for guys like me.”

“Women like what?”

I took a drag, exhaled. “Elegant professionals. Yorktown is sick with them, and I can’t say I care much for their crowd. All wandering over from the east side Cosmopolitan belt. ”

“Please don’t blow smoke in my face, Lucky.”

“Please don’t blow smoke up my ass, Danny.”

A cluster of Manchester U fans erupted with jubilant cheers. Slammed pint glasses onto the counter, arms aloft.

Danny’s body played the buoy once more. Leaned in. His covert theatrics rang loud in my ear. “I’ve seen her pussy.”

“Jesus, Danny. You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“My mother loves me just the way I am.”

“Finally, a homosexual with an original story.”

“It’s shaved.”

“Come again?”

“Her pussy,” David gushed, mashing his vowels together. “It’s beautiful. It purrrrs.”

“Interesting bit of trivia about your mother, there, thank you –”

“Ana. Ana Banana. Your banana inside Ana.”

“Buy me another fucking drink.”

“I’m tired of seeing this young, good looking, talented individual stumble out of here alone every night.”

“Introduce me sometime, I’ll show him the ropes.”

“You want to be published?”

“Yes.”

“She’s an editor at FHM.”

“Stop saying that.”

“You could slip her one of your stories.”

For Him Magazine don’t have a goddamn fiction column,” I spat, snubbing my cigarette. “And if it did, here’s the kind of ditty they would publish.”

I yanked at a nearby napkin. Flattened it and sent my pen on a rampage. Didn’t notice Danny getting up. Didn’t notice him walk across the bar. I did take the time finish my beer, just as he returned with his catch.

“Lucky…? This. Is Ana.”

Ana stood before me in a black dress, fitted to her slender form. Cut short at mid thigh. Mesh stockings, legs generously dipped into a pair of black leather boots. I had the good sense to skip her breasts, b-cups already committed to memory, and took in her aquiline features. Olive skin. Brown eyes. Shoulder length hair parted down the middle, making a valentine of her face.

Her smile was all regards, cool and self-assured.

“Lucky was just writing a story for your publication,” Danny said. He snatched the napkin off the bar, thrust it against Ana’s shoulder.

She rotated the submission a few times, before settling. “My name is Chad,” she telegraphed, Australian accent struggling with my hieroglyphics. “I woke up one day and bought a copy of FHM because I’m a pussy, too gutless to buy porn. I like reading about tools, cars, and weight lifting. Then I jacked off while thinking about my favorite action hero…

Ana’s eyes met mine.

I waited, overplaying a hopeful smile.

“I told you he was a genius,” Danny said. He forced her into his barstool, landed a quick kiss. “Have fun, you two.”

He stumbled away.

Left us sitting side by side.

“I left my drink at the end of the bar,” she said.

“Want another?”

I didn’t think she would say yes. “Dry martini. Smirnoff, with a twist. Up.”

I put in our order.

Finley took a quick time out. Tried to make sense of the scenario. Gave it up with an impeccable mix of vodka and vermouth for the beauty. Beer and a shot for the village idiot.

Ana lifted, drank without spilling a drop. “Nice story you wrote there.”

“Wasn’t finished.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. Chad date-rapes a girl from work, then goes to watch the Super Bowl with his bros…” I took down my shot. “Then he fucks his bros.”

“Wow.”

“I’ve been to Australia. It’s nice.”

“You’re trying to distract me from how completely loathsome you are right now.”

“A time traveling clown with gigantism and Cornish game hens on his feet couldn’t distract you from my loathsomeness right now.”

“That’s one hell of a clown.”

“Did I mention he has Cornish game hens on his feet?”

“A few times, yes. You can stop now.” Ana helped herself to my pack of Marlboros. I gave her a jumpstart. Her lips plumped, and she sighed. “Danny tells me you’re a loser.”

“Verbatim?”

“You think you’re some kind a writer?”

“I think lots of things.”

“Still in college?”

“Part time.”

She rolled her eyes. “Trust-fund baby?”

“My grandfather left me just enough money to get through it. So, yeah. Guess he trusted something.”

“Trusted you to get blitzed in a bar every night?”

“Every penny spent on booze has been proudly earned by the good creditors at Sears Mastercard.”

“When’s the last time you got laid?”

“I’m a virgin.”

“What?”

“Nope. You believe everything you read in the papers?”

“I don’t know it’s not true.”

“You don’t, but you do.”

“When what you really meant was I haven’t been laid in forever.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I don’t, but I do.”

I stood from my seat. Leaned up against the bar. Hoping to add a few inches over her. “So Danny says I’m a loser.”

“Yeah.”

“Know what he says about you?”

“That I have a fantastic pussy?”

I chose to sit back down.

“You must really be desperate,” Ana said.

“How you figure?”

“All this talk wasted on a woman who will never sleep with you.”

“You mean Danny?”

“That’s not very nice.”

“Says the pot to the kettle.”

“Says the boy who tells me the magazine I work for is a publication for miscreant date-rapists.”

“I don’t know what regular rapists read… Harpers, maybe?”

Ana let loose with an abrasive, high pitched laugh. Tried to drown it with the rest of her Martini.

Damage done, I let myself enjoy the moment. “You must really be desperate.”

“You’re the one that’s going to have to buy me another drink.”

“Not a problem.” I signaled for Finley. “Long as you pay for it.”

“I can see this is going to be some fucking night.”

Finley stopped by just long enough to fuel his bewildered eyes. Took our orders and stumbled down the bar on shipwrecked legs, wondering if we weren’t all just a few minutes away from the end of the goddamn world.

***

We could have done some damage at The Bishop that night. Could’ve shut that place right on down.

Instead, ‘round one o’ clock, Ana killed her drink and announced that she was going home.

“Where’s home?” I asked.

“I live right next door,” she said. “Just have to go up the block to Dwayne Reed. Pick up a few things.”

I was eight shots deep. Barely managed to wave as she walked away. I took a look down the other end of the bar, spotted a drunk asleep at the wheel. Old man, clock ticking.

“Time traveling clown,” I muttered. Made short work of my beer. All set to order another, when Ana called out from the entrance.

Holding the door with an impatient boot.

My tab wide open, hemorrhaging half my tips for the evening.

I glanced over to my smiling bartender… “Finley.”

“Go have some fun.”

“You know I’m good for it.”

“Fuck off, Luck. Now.”

I fucked off.

Took slow, unassuming steps to the exit, where Ana awaited. Hips shimmying as she straightened her dress.

“Drugstore?” I asked.

“Yeah.” She crossed her arms. “What of it?”

“Escort?”

“Sure.”

Third Avenue was coated with a thin layer of frost. Nighttime temp down to twenty-nine. I offered my arm. Ana hooked on, and we made our way down to 94th. A group of fleece-knit bros shared astonished sentiments as they stumbled past. Ears adjusting from another night gone clubbing. One of them asking in an unintentionally loud register, HOW THE FUCK DID THAT HAPPEN?

I glanced at Ana, seemingly untouched. Mouth perched in a thoughtful scowl. Brown eyes carrying on hidden conversations. Decided against repeating the question.

Ana instructed me to wait outside.

I did as told. Lit a cigarette. Watched the smoke conspire with crystal breath. Across the street, a tripod dog loped into a pool of streetlight, then disappeared into shadow.

“Is that Pogue?” I murmured.

“Is what Pogue?” Ana was back beside me.

“Doesn’t matter. Get what you needed?”

“Yeah.” She held up a plastic bag “Twizzlers. Love Twizzlers.”

“Me too.”

“How fucking nice for us.” Ana took my arm once more, led the way.

Her building was on 95th and 3rd, at a diagonal from the thirty story mausoleum I called home. She disengaged. Boot heels clicked against red brick, ass swaying towards the revolving door.

I was two steps behind.

She turned, flashed a smile of defiant pearls. “And what do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m coming upstairs with you.”

“You think so?”

“I don’t think, Ana,” I said. “Ever.”

“Good boy.”

She motioned for me to follow.

Getting into the elevator didn’t present any problems, and the door slid shut with ease.

***

FHM made for some easy living.

A sterile, modern kitchen looked out over her spacious living room. Ana hit the switches, let a little light into our lives. Light bulbs buried into the ceiling, humming in low tones.

“Do you like wine?” Ana asked.

“I am wine.”

“Go sit down.”

I slipped off my shoes. Tiptoed to the white shag, pinned beneath a stout, glass-top coffee table. I took a seat on the floor. Propped my back against the couch, cushions a light grey. Stretched my legs. A large screen television stared at me from across the room, entertainment center taking up the entire wall.

Ran my fingers along the fibers beneath. Remembering dune grass, and a cat named Sandy.

Noticed a silver ashtray just within reach.

“Mind if I smoke?” I called out.

“Please do.” Ana emerged from the kitchen with a bottle of red and a set of industrial sized fishbowls. “Hope you like merlot.”

“As a friend, sure.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“These swank surroundings have lulled me into a state of indifference.” I lit a cigarette, handed it over. She stuck it between her lips and poured us both a healthy dose. I lit one for myself. She lowered herself onto the couch, left thigh brushing against my cheek. We brought our glasses together in a silent toast.

Things were different now.

“Can I show you something?” she asked.

“Please do.”

Ana stepped nimbly across the room. Opened a cabinet and came out with what appeared to be a blank VHS tape. She stood next to the television. Tape held to her chest. Fingers tapping either end. “Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Is it funny?”

“It’s… something.”

“Go on.”

“So, back in Australia, I was… well, kind of looking for a way to break into show business. You used to be into film for a bit, right? Went to NYU for a year or so?”

I took a cautious sip of wine. “Something like that.”

“Danny said you dropped out because you thought that if you stuck around, you might have to make certain… concessions.”

“Didn’t want to spend my life with my tongue up someone’s ass.”

“Interesting way to put it.”

“How would you put it?”

She rested the tape beneath her chin. Fingers tapping against her cheeks now. “I guess that’s exactly how I’d put it.”

“Then I guess I promise not to laugh.”

“Good.”

She turned on the TV. Fed the VCR a late-night snack. Leaped back to the couch, grabbed her wine, and sat down.

“You can lay your head on my leg if you want,” she said.

I did as I was told.

Her thigh was lean, impossibly warm beneath those black stockings.

Without meaning to, I gave her knee a light kiss.

She ran her fingers though my hair, once.

The screen flashed a color test, white captions reading TCN-19.

Station identification gave way to a cheap, poorly lit set. At a news desk sat a chiseled man in a suit. Tan skin matching pastel walls. Beside him sat Ana, an earlier prototype. Her blue, sleeveless sweater eagerly clutched her tits, turtleneck holding her in a woolen choke hold.

“It’s o’ seven in the am,” the chiseled one informed me. “I’m Chad Everett.”

“And I’m Vanessa Stone,” the alleged Ana chimed in. Hyper vigilant smile sewn on her face as she plunged ahead. “We’re live from Sydney, where the temperature’s an easy thirty, though not as easy as Team India might have liked yesterday at Nehru Field.”

I spat some Merlot back into my glass. “What the fuck?”

Ana kneed me lightly in the face. “You promised.”

I silenced myself with another pour.

For the next twenty minutes I was treated to a barrage of inexplicable analysis. Rugby, Cricket, Soccer; all held together by dubious prattle and unfortunate, seemingly impromptu puns. Topped with both personalities signing off for the morning.

Color test.

“Well?” Ana asked. “You going to make fun?”

“No.”

“I almost wish you would.”

“Wasn’t what I expected.”

She reached for the remote, shut it down. “What were you expecting?”

“What with the introduction you gave…”

“Yes…?”

“Doing things you weren’t proud of in order to break into show business.”

“Ohhh…” She stretched herself out on the couch, limber body taking up the entire length. “You thought maybe you’d get a chance to see me on some cheap soundstage, surrounded by a dozen or so cocks coming on my face.”

I shrugged. “I got the cheap soundstage part right.”

“You really thought I was going to show you a porno.”

“I don’t know what I thought.”

“Sorry the humiliation wasn’t as grand as you’d have liked.”

“You humiliated yourself just fine.” I shifted, slung my arm over her shins. “Though I wouldn’t have minded seeing that other thing I thought.”

“I know.”

“Thank you for showing me.”

“You’re welcome.”

“An end to all games.”

“Meaning?”

“I like you when you’re honest.”

“Mm…” She smiled. “Be honest with me, then.”

I moved my hand from her boots, caressing my way up to her thighs. Fingernails catching along her nylons. “You have spectacular legs.”

“And that’s your big confession?”

“I’m admitting I’d like to get more familiar with them.”

“Yeah?”

“Very much.”

The city rooftops peered in from the frame of a panoramic window.

“I’m going to bed,” she said abruptly.

And then she was off the couch. Ducking into a hallway, out of sight.

Nothing to suggest she had kicked me out. I had half a bottle of wine and a nearly full pack of cigarettes at my disposal. Why not stay a while? Sit in this magnificent living room and smile. Grin stupid disappointment and regale the skyline with tales of once and future failures.

“Who gives a good shit?” I said, and downed my glass.

Time passed.

Three tired thoughts away from taking off, when Ana materialized out from the hallway. Grey sweatpants hanging low along her hips. White tank top, nipples firm despite central heating.

“Hello,” I said… “Ana went to bed.”

Ana picked up a remote from atop the TV. Pointed it at the stereo and clicked.

The speakers complied with a violent burst of reggaton. Subwoofers pumped out heavy bass, got the floor trembling beneath me, as Ana began to dance. No stranger to her own body. Hips gyrating as though mounted on ball bearings. Arms raised high above her head. Shirt lifting, midriff exposed with a sly wink from a pierced navel. She turned around, bent down to touch her toes. Fingers kissing white socks, before straightening, thumbs locked into her waistband. Hips still circling the world over, she lowered her sweatpants just enough to reveal a black thong underneath it all.

I could only sit and watch the show unfold.

Captivated.

Confused.

Annoyed.

Happy as I had been in an unforgivably long time.

Poured myself another glass. Lit another Marlboro. Sent my mind spinning.

This went on for a good half hour.

Until the album was over.

Until the wine was gone.

Until the stereo clicked, whirred to a halt with a mechanical cough.

Ana stood at the gateway to her bedroom.

Body resting.

Undershirt transparent with wet perspiration.

Eyes burning in the aftermath.

I put out my cigarette. Waiting.

Ana shook her head, came out of her trance.

“Right,” she proclaimed, accent riding a little more rough than usual. Shot her arm out, pointing directly to the exit. “Now get the FUCK out of my apartment!”

So much for an end to all games.

I arose without hesitation.

Ana escorted me to the door. Slid back the bolt and began to open it.

I planted my palm on the heavy oak and slammed it shut.

She gave it another try.

Instant replay.

“You are leaving,” she ordered, breathing heavily. “Right now.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Not until I get my good night kiss.”

Her stance softened. With a sweet, sincere smile, she closed her eyes. Tilted her face up to meet mine. In the three seconds that followed, I realized that without her boots, she was maybe, at best, a good three inches shorter than me.

Her lips were soft, salty with sweat.

We parted.

“Go home, Lucky.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I let her open the door, then let myself out.

Turned for one last look.

Witness to what might have been a grin, spread wide across her face, as she slammed the door in mine.

***

By the time I had hit the bodega and tiptoed my way past the multitude of squatters asleep in the living room, the sky was painting itself a lilac blue.

I unpacked a pair of 22’s. Coronas, the both of them. Popped one of the caps. Sat down at my rickety bridge table. Reached into my jacket, feeling for cigarettes.

Nothing.

Probably still resting on Ana’s coffee table.

“Shit.”

By the time I hit the bodega, bought a fresh pack, and wandered back home, my beer had gone flat.

Three hours later, I was slipping on a tie, stumbling my way to work.

***

It was ten past ten at The Bishop. The joint was jumping, a solid crowd of regulars. Vibrant laughter at every seat. K.C. and the Sunshine Band on the jukebox.

I was three beers and two shots in, when Finley slid on up.

“You work today, Luck?”

“Yeah.”

“Class?”

“Skipped. I don’t test well.”

“Yes, yes. Good. How’d it go with Ana last night?”

Across every television screen, the NCAA was eclipsed with the visions of Ana bent over, touching her toes. “Fine.”

Frances flashed me a wicked one. “Our very own modest mouse.”

I gave him a vague gesture; something between a wave and the black power salute.

“No matter…” He glanced to his right. “Looks like I’m about to find out, any way you want it.”

I followed his lead.

Stepping to the far end of the bar were Danny and Ana. I felt an inexplicable jangle of nerves, surge of endorphins as she sent those eyes my way. Caught mine in a moment of elated recognition.

The boots were back. A warm, genuinely pleased smile illuminated her path. Pure radiance.

“Hey you,” she said.

“Hey.”

I certainly never expected her to draw close and press her mouth against mine. Not so surprised that my lips didn’t instantly melt against hers. Eyes closed, feeling my heart beat as far as my fingertips. No doubts as to how impossibly honest it tasted. Against all odds, this kiss was the real thing. Live and unrehearsed.

The sort of thing that simply did not happen to the likes of me.

The memory of a thousand desperate, solitary nights wailed in protest.

Unmerciful loneliness in its death throes.

A full thirty seconds in the Garden of Eden.

Somewhere amid the whirlwind, we disengaged.

Caught Finley from the corner of my eye.

Floored.

And there was Ana, still smiling. Face still inches from mine.

“Hey,” I repeated.

She pulled back just a bit. “Hi.”

“I wanted to call you earlier,” I said. Wondering where I was going with this.

“Yeah?”

“Bummed I didn’t have your number.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say, Lucky.”

“Yeah…” I nodded, now very certain that my mind had gone AWOL. Unable to accept what I had been allowed to experience, all the perfection that was destined to follow. All rational thought on hold. Ears horrified as they heard my mouth blurt out: “I left my cigarettes at your place and really wanted them back. Had to make two trips to the bodega thanks to you.”

Don’t say that.

Too late.

Ana’s face went dark.

Then it just plain went away. “Fuck you, Lucky.”

She pulled a one-eighty and walked back to the end of the bar.

Left me with a shot of beam and a thoroughly mystified bartender.

“What the fuck just happened, Lucky?” Finley asked.

“It’s a game,” I replied tersely.

“Don’t look like no fucking game, son.”

“It is.” I tossed my shot back, turned in my seat. “Another round, if you would, Finley.”

He did as he was told, then left well enough alone.

I let myself go numb for another two rounds, at least. Even managed to steal a few looks down Ana’s way. Felt the taste of her mouth fade. Lost to a curious, empty tingle, slowly spreading along the surface of my skin.

A group of revelers burst out laughing some ten feet away.

A punchline that never made it to my seat.

Wasn’t long before my shoulder was met with a hearty smack.

I came out of my trance, saw that Danny Nelligan had already nested himself alongside. Considerably less drunk than last night. Wearing his suit with a bit more style than his drunken twin some twenty-four hours ago.

“Howdy-do, Lucky.”

“Evening.” I lit a casual cigarette. “What’s the story with Ana?”

“She had to cut out. Some kind of party FHM is hosting downtown.” He helped himself to one of my smokes. “Said she was going to invite you to come along. I didn’t figure it would be your scene. Thought I’d stick around to hang with you for a bit.”

“She was going to invite me?”

“Said you understood more than you cared to let on. Don’t know what she meant by that.”

“Mm.”

“Said you passed the color test.”

“Oh.”

Finley came by with a fresh beer, and the question on everyone’s lips. “What’s up with Ana?”

Danny blinked. “Why do you ask?”

Finley gave me a respectful look.

I cleared him for the go ahead.

In a few short phrases, Finley laid it all down. So simple, it stung. Set my lids battling against the smoke.

“Huh.” Danny scratched his nose, amiably detached. “She’s a strange girl. I got the idea that you two were pretty much a thing now.”

Finley beat me to it. “What was that, now?”

“According to her, Lucky and her were now, I guess… Kind of seeing each other now.”

Finley and I shared a look.

He held up his hand. “Wait –”

“Wait.” I swallowed, bit down hard on my cheek.

“That means –”

“Wait –”

“That means –”

“No.”

“Yeah.”

I took a drag. “So Ana just broke up with me.”

“Sorry, Lucky.”

“Finley?”

“Yeah.”

I put out my cigarette. “Double Jack on the rocks, please.”

“On the double, son.”

Finley did me good.

I took my double down in a few programmed gulps. Felt the music fade. Televisions growing dim. All senses abandoning me except the ones that had truly overstayed their welcome.

From the far end of the tunnel, I called out for another drink.

“You sure?” Finley asked. “Don’t want the coppers hassling me again.”

“Cops?” Danny asked, still living in oblivion. “When was this?”

Slice of pepperoni and a dead albino.

The night didn’t end with the cops. I wasn’t cut off. No pepperoni, no dead albino. I closed the place down. Last man standing, alone as the clock struck four.

Even had the good sense to settle my tab. Squinting against house lights as I totaled the tip and signed. One last useless glance to the door, before walking through it myself.

Eventually, the frost melted.

Spring came around to pay us all a visit. Flowers bloomed. The sun shone a little more brightly. Trees resurrected, not a trace of envy to be found in that lovely, everlasting green.

The city had erased all signs of winter.

And I wish the same could be said for me.

 

 

Roadkill.

 

Travis and Kathy had only been married a few months before she told him she was leaving him for someone more attractive. Better-looking was the term she used. Kathy was a stunning woman; shapely legs triangulating with a knockout figure, taking a page from perfect, alert eyes. The whole package, and at their wedding she had cried harder and louder than anyone watching. She had sobbed, close to wailing as she choked out her vows. Travis watched the tears eagerly drop into the valley between her breasts. The newlyweds kissed, and her snot made its way into Travis’ mouth.

After the divorce, Kathy moved west with her newfound love. Travis and his unmercifully receding hairline stayed behind, alone in their two bedroom house. Windows looking out over a tattered front yard, remaining panes lined alongside neighboring houses. Inside wasn’t much better; just cardboard Kathy had never bothered to unpack. All of them stacked against the white walls, and Travis thought those boxes must have known his wife would leave him.

When he got the call, Travis was caught off guard. Tackled sideways. A boot to the stomach, doubled over with unexpected spasms. Ever since, nights had been spent envisioning Kathy pinned under a car, falling out of a window, choking to death on an apple. A Rolodex of death sentences. Blood spurting, bones crunching, no discrimination as long as her last moments were spent in an unrecognizable pulp of agony and regret…

If only I had never left poor, dear, sweet Travis.

And now his work was complete.

Travis screamed at the walls, refused to accept responsibility, then went about his plans…

The funeral was five days pending. No point in rushing things; Carolina to California was more than doable. Travis threw a few bags into his sickly, beige hatchback, and made tracks for Los Angeles.

The world became a singular blur for the next twenty-four hours. Nice and hypnotic.

Having frayed every last nerve, he stopped at a motel. Howard Johnson, maybe. Answer unclear, his decision based purely on the word VACANCY.

Travis picked up a loaf of Wonder Bread, block of cheddar at a nearby convenience store. His second pit stop, a liquor store with burnt out neon signs. He bought a bottle of red, and an opener while he was at it. Outside, an old man with soiled clothes and ruined teeth stopped him in his tracks.

“Hey, man, you look like you got a dollar.”

Travis gave him two, and stepped into his car.

That night, Travis ate the entire loaf of bread and watched headlights drift over the ceiling. The bottle of wine by his side grew lighter in weight, timed perfectly to the tune of the air conditioning. When he did sleep, finally, he dreamt of highways and supermodels. Each one naked and exact, reminding him of Kathy. They melted into the horizon, and before Travis could play catch up, it was time to wake up. Pay the fine and keep moving.

***

Within days he was almost there. And with each new signpost, Travis struggled with the idea of arrival. Zeno’s paradox for the chronically alone. Five hours to go before reaching LA, and he decided to stop. Spend the night outside Cali in one last motel.

Travis parked. Pulled the brake. He popped the trunk and removed his bag. Cars blew past on the highway, big rigs creating timid, impermanent dust devils. Afternoon sunlight cast a homogeneous veil through gray clouds. Closing the trunk, Travis crossed the near-vacant parking lot.

Inside, he was greeted by an abandoned counter adorned with miniature American flags. He rang the bell and waited. Behind him, a doorway led to an empty room; light brown walls and a set of tables awaiting next day’s complimentary breakfast. An industrial strength vacuum cleaner stood in the middle. Overweight and confused.

Looking out the windows, Travis noticed the sun had come out again.

“May I help you, sir?”

Travis turned back to the counter.

He was confronted by one of the ugliest women he’d ever seen.

Ugly.

Her hair was pulled into a bun, glorifying every last hideous anomaly. Her eyes were sad and drooping, a pair of viscous puddles. Nose arguing the case for three separate directions. Mouth slanted, scales of justice barely balancing out her jutting cheekbones. A few plain brown strands plastered flat against blemished skin. Even her makeup appeared to be making sly motions towards the nearest exit.

“I’d like a room,” Travis said, trying not to stare.

“Are you single?”

He balked.

She frowned. “Single room? Double?”

“Single. For the night.”

Her face was a melting ice sculpture.

“All right, sir,” she said, voice trembling, amiable. “Do you smoke?”

For some reason, Travis didn’t understand the question. “Yes.”

“So smoking? Your room, sir?”

Travis blinked, “Yes.”

Goddammit, she was ugly. Her body modeled after a thousand toothpicks, all angles and no curves. It was a wonder she even had tendons to speak of. Travis was positive it would be any moment before one of her limbs simply clattered to the floor, followed by nothing more than a stilted apology from that ugly, wayward mouth.

She typed a few strokes into the computer.

Travis’ bag hung loosely in his arm.

“Room thirty-five, sir,” she said, handing him the key.

“Thirty-five… that’s how old I am, you know that?”

“No, sir.” She stared into a glass ashtray. “I’m thirty-one.”

Travis thanked her and took the key. He went outside, ascended a flight of stairs and took a left. Down a corridor soaked with the smell of chlorine. He counted the rooms, one by one, eventually stopping at thirty-five. The key slid right into the slot, perfect fit.

Travis dumped his luggage in the closet, turned on the television. He thought about ordering an adult feature from SpectraVision. Didn’t bother, figured VH1 was a poor man’s alternative. Occasional music videos, coupled with celebrity skin, enough to make the mind wander. He lit a cigarette and watched the walls. Seven minutes passed, and he lit another one. Travis thought about calling in to work, explaining his absence, but stopped short of reaching for the phone. He was fine. As long as he kept on moving, there wasn’t nothing could possibly change.

He thought about his first few weeks as a married man, settled.

Those thoughts only lasted a minute or so, and soon after, Travis fell asleep.

Face pressed against the snow-white pillows of his temporary bed.

***

There was no town.

That was the story with most of America. No town, just farms, houses, highway strips.

Travis knew this and didn’t bother searching for any native cuisine or entertainment. He sat in his room, watching the sun fall past his window. Next door, a couple managed to make their bed squeak a few times. Nothing exciting, just something in general. That orange ball finally descended on the horizon, forced him to turn on the lights.

Travis showered. Faded tiles gathered steam. He wrapped himself in a towel, stared at his reflection in the mirror: bushy eyebrows and flat features. Hairy, half developed chest. Thick forearms out of sync with skinny legs. A caveman with the basic ability to use modern appliances.

This, Travis thought, is why Kathy ran away.

A small rhyme ran through his head and he hummed tunelessly, chipper notes unable to reconcile with those words:

Ran far away, to LA, only to find herself dead one day.

***

And so Travis ended up in the cramped hotel bar.

Dim lights cast shadows, and his bourbon cast a glow. The jukebox belched out top-twenty mega hits, and the bartender had been working point for thirty years. Some customers were regulars, others guests. Traveling sales reps, truckers, local workers and random exceptions. Hard to tell the difference. Everyone drank, smoked, eyes decayed by disinterest. This was one of the few places people could come together. Local taverns replaced by motels, franchised menus, and half-priced margaritas.

In the midst of all this, Travis signaled the waitress for another drink. She flashed a papier-mache smile, freshly glued, and five minutes later returned with another shot. He sipped, looked down through the table, thinking about what to say at the funeral. What to say to the man with a face of chiseled abs, and how to mean it. The man had taken Kathy away from him and it was all genetics. Now Kathy was dead and it was all nothing. A pretty face wouldn’t bring back the dead.

Cheers and aroused hollers erupted at the bar.

Travis joined in without thinking.

Stopped when he saw what the fuss was about.

A woman was dancing. There in the middle of the floor, a woman was dancing by herself. She spun in circles, moved her hips, raised her arms reaching for the ceiling. Her eyes were closed, and she smiled.

Travis couldn’t bear to look away.

She mainlined the music through her entire body, drops of sweat on her forehead, graceful face, half conscious and serene. A cheesy disco ball did all it could to keep up with her. Isolated spotlights covered with red and gold gels. Everyone watched her motions and some thought about sex. Some thought about sex with her, pressed against clean sheets, watching that face and body move, baby, move.

It was all Travis could think about.

He watched her dance, pulse quickening. Took down the last of his shot, set the glass down, and the song ended.

Applause flooded the room. Travis couldn’t bring himself to clap, just kept his eyes on the woman as she walked to the bar, sat down and ordered a drink. Just a few stools down, with her back facing him. Travis signaled the waitress. His drink arrived. Travis lit a cigarette, trying to catch what he could. Sweat clung to her shoulder blades. Men walked over, talked a bit of game, then lost interest and walked away. Travis sat and drank. A few others approached her, men with business on their minds, wives a million miles away. Wedding bands tucked into their pockets alongside baleful erections.

And then they were gone.

Something wasn’t making sense.

The woman remained alone, unmoving.

And without meaning to, Travis was suddenly behind her: “Excuse me…”

She turned to face him.

It was the woman from the front desk. The one who checked him in.

The ugly woman.

It’s the ugly woman, Travis thought desperately.

She smiled, that slanted mouth betraying far too much honesty.

Travis didn’t know what to say.

“You’re the thirty-five year old,” she said.

“You’re the thirty-one year old,” Travis managed. There was no explanation. He had seen the dancing woman walk from the middle of the room to that exact seat. And now she was gone, replaced by this other thing.

What?

Who the fuck was responsible for this?

“Would you like to sit down?” She asked.

No. “Ok.”

Travis sat down, ordered a bourbon from the bartender, double.

“What’s your name, again? ” she asked.

“Travis.”

“I’m Kathy.”

“Goddammit.”

“What?”

“That’s my wife’s name. Ex-wife’s name, Kathy.”

“Oh.” She scratched the tip of her nose apologetically.

“She left me for someone more attractive…” Travis thought about it, why he had said that. He looked into her eyes, then back to his drink. Then back to her eyes. “I saw you dance.”

Her face softened and Travis saw guilt somewhere in there.

“You’re very good,” he assured her. Compensating.

Kathy stared at her hands, a little more hair below the knuckles than either one of them would have liked. “I know.”

Travis nodded, kept nodding and didn’t say anything else. Music kept playing, and the men at the bar kept looking over, trading phrases, looking over. Travis missed Kathy, the dead one. The Kathy next to him stayed silent. Travis stole glances at her every now and then. Three or four more songs played on the box and outside, a gaping highway stretched out towards Los Angeles.

“I’m only attractive when I move,” Kathy said abruptly, not looking at him. “I’m only attractive when I’m moving, if that’s what you were wondering.”

Exactly what he was wondering, but he didn’t have the balls to say it.

“Not like I’m moving now,” Kathy continued. “I have to be moving somewhere, towards something, see? I don’t know why, but I can’t be beautiful just sitting here and talking. I have to move, you know? Dance, or walk across a room… or fuck, see?” She turned to him. “I’ve lived here all my life, Travis.”

“Why don’t you leave?”

“And go where?”

Travis lit a cigarette and watched her drink.

***

The door closed behind them. Travis threw his key on the bed. He remained standing, in the middle of the room. Kathy took off her coat and left it on the floor. She leaned against the television.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” she said, smiling crookedly.

Teeth rioting against her lips.

“Where are you supposed to be?”

“Anywhere but here. Company policy. I can’t spend the night in any of our rooms.”

Travis didn’t say anything. Kathy was looking uglier than before. It was an ugly room, maybe that was it. An ugly room in the middle of nowhere.

“We could have a drink,” Kathy suggested.

Travis poured a bourbon into separate plastic cups.

He gave himself a considerable amount more.

Kathy accepted hers without a word. They downed the bourbon and Travis poured them another. He sat on the bed and looked at the clock. Digital numbers flashed one in the morning.

Wasn’t sure what time zone he was in, but he was fairly certain it that it was the same as Los Angeles. He thought about Kathy’s body, his Kathy’s body.

The clock flashed one past one in the morning.

“What are you thinking about, Travis?”

“Clocks.”

“Clocks?”

“Clocks and my ex-wife.”

“Where is she?”

“Dead.”

“So is my ex-husband.”

Travis was relieved to have finally come across such a bridge. “You were married?”

“Yes.”

“Why did he leave you?”

“He died. I just told you he died.”

Travis tightened his jaw, felt his ass clench.

“Hard to believe?” she asked. “That he didn’t leave me on his own terms?”

“I didn’t say that…”

“Do you want me to turn off the light?”

Travis nodded. He felt like a child.

Kathy wandered over to the wall, flipped the switch. A sudden death to artificial light. She stood by the bathroom door, arms crossed. Barely hinting at her own hideousness. Travis liked her; was beginning to at least. But at least was still defined by a lone streetlight. White shadows poured into the room, and all things remained visible, just darker.

“Do you want to close the blinds, Travis?”

Travis coughed. “They don’t work.”

He could still see her smile. “You should have reported that to the front desk.”

“I didn’t want to bother you. Didn’t think it would be… necessary?”

“I see.”

The two of them remained motionless. Out in the hallway, a couple giggled en route to some blissful destination. The clock flashed one-twenty in the morning. A truck blazed past the hotel, diesel noises bisecting the distance. Next door, the bed began to squeak, rhythmically. Kathy stood, arms crossed over what must have been breasts, watching Travis.

And Travis just sat.

“I have an idea,” she said.

“What was your husband like?”

“I’ll dance for you.”

“Dance?”

“Just watch.”

And Kathy began to dance. There wasn’t much music in the air that night. The bed next door continued to squeak, and she picked up the rhythm.

Travis reached over, turned on the radio.

Hoping to catch the some exotic frequency that would make this more manageable.

Caught a bit of NPR, BBC telegraphing the latest news out of Somalia.

“Well, that ain’t too good,” he said, hitting the switch.

“Shut up and keep watching.”

So Travis sat, watched her transform. There was no excuse, Travis thought. No excuse for whatever curse everyone was under. Kathy danced, moved her way closer to him, and he felt himself grow hard.

She raised her lids, still dancing. Saw that something was working.

“Close your eyes,” Kathy said.

Travis closed his eyes, still thinking of her in motion. Kathy had stopped dancing, he knew that much, and suddenly her mouth was on his. Her tongue was covered with the inexplicable taste of apricot.

Now that’s just fucking impossible, Travis thought, and returned the favor, both falling back on the bed. They kissed and her breath quickened. Travis embraced her, moved his hands over her thighs, ass, what might have been tits or her ribcage.

There was something beautiful in this bed, and he unbuttoned her blouse.

Kathy’s bra said goodbye in the midst of all that. Travis could only guess at this; his eyes were still closed. He moved down to her breasts, small and isolated, gave his eyes the opportunity to open. She made a few noises, played with what was left of his hair. He ran his hands across her belly.

Travis thought for a moment that maybe things were supposed to work; that most predictions were solid truth, just poorly timed. He reached down and released the clasp of her pants, led the zipper down its trail. The rest of her clothes came off, and Travis moved down, not thinking, ignoring what the world might say or do or think about that night.

She was already wet, and Travis moved along her second set of lips, ran his tongue every which way. She gasped, sighed, let a moan escape. Travis looked up, into her face. He stopped. Kathy looked down, realizing he was watching her. She rocked her head from side to side, moved her arms above her head and arched her back.

And suddenly she was beautiful again.

Travis went back to work, attacked her as she squirmed and cast aspersions against whichever God she worshiped. He wanted to take Kathy and level her entire body, that poor, unfortunate, ugly girl. He moved up, kissed her full on the mouth and she moved Travis onto her, guided, relaxed, and Travis slid in.

The bed next door stopped squeaking.

Travis moved with quick strokes and Kathy responded with more motion, grinding her hips, both of them headed towards something. She flipped Travis on his back and rode him, swinging her head wildly from side to side, blessing him with outlandish behavior. Kathy was only beautiful when she moved, and the two of them were under no illusions.

Travis sat up and rocked against her. The streetlight washed over them but it didn’t matter anymore. Kathy laid back, fingers wrapped around his ankles.

They moved together, moved together, moved together.

Kathy tried to throw herself back into missionary, and the two fell out of bed, onto the carpeted floor.

Travis made to get up, but Kathy grabbed him by the neck, drew him back inside of her.

“No,” she panted. “Don’t stop. We can’t.”

And Travis drove forward. Sweat broke out all along their bodies as they moved. Sweat and agony dripped off their skin and abandoned them, because there was enough of that in the world. Too much, in fact.

With every thrust, they inched their way along the floor. Matched by every breath, far too quick to be timed or monitored. Halfway across the room and the rug burned Kathy’s back, static building, but there was no ending to any of it. Travis grunted, Kathy cried out. They were at the edge of the bathroom. Kathy’s upper back pressed against the cold tiles and the sanitation strip on the toilet smiled down at them.

Kathy took Travis by his fading hair, bore into his eyes as he worked.

“Say my name, Travis,” she ordered.

“What…?”

She thrust against him. “Say my name, Travis, or this won’t happen.”

He didn’t want to. His wife was dead and gone, scheduled for burial in a little less than half a day.

“Say it Travis, say my name!”

Travis worked and worked and he felt himself getting close.

“SAY MY FUCKING NAME, TRAVIS!”

“Kathy…”

“SAY IT AGAIN!”

He followed his orders to the very word.

They pressed against each other.

She cried out, demanding more of the same.

He screamed her name.

One of their names; Kathy or Kathy, it was up to the wallpaper to decide as she reciprocated with her own violent shriek.

Travis came, eyes closed, head aimed at the ceiling. There was a moment of pure, ideal agony as the two held onto each other, fingernails digging into skin. The universe laughed, unhinged, at the pair, as Travis collapsed on top of her.

They remained still for two solid hours.

***

It was unreal to Travis, how Kathy checked him out of his room. She was behind the desk, printing out a receipt. His bag hung loosely in his arm. Affectionate morning sunlight rolled in through the windows, and Kathy had become ugly again.

Strange world.

“I wish you could stay another night,” she said.

“They’re putting my ex-wife into the ground today.”

“Kathy’s funeral, I know.”

“Funeral for parts of her, I guess.”

Travis took the receipt, pocketed it. He stood by the desk a while longer. Kathy stared at a nearby ashtray. Diminutive and expectant in her uniform. Travis thought he should say something.

“I’ll see you, Kathy.”

“Travis?”

“Yeah?”

She was ugly.

Bone ugly, no doubt about it.

But she knew how to smile and Travis was still amazed, even at that last moment in the lobby. She smiled, scratched the tip of her nose and sighed.

“You should come back to see me, Travis,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to get married, but we could pretend to settle down somewhere else. We could sit around, fuck, have ourselves a couple of ugly children and they could grow up and have ugly children of their own.”

Travis gave the premise its due. Seriously thought what might happen if anything did happen. His ex-wife’s funeral was only a few hours away, and he would have done anything to just let go. Forget everything up to that point and simply leave Kathy behind.

He waited, one last chance to decipher the two.

“Goodbye, Travis.”

Travis nodded. “Goodbye, Kathy.”

He waited for another instant for something else to take place. When it didn’t, Travis turned and walked through the automatic doors, down the handicap ramp, and into his car. The engine started easily and within minutes he was tearing past scenery and billboards. Hot models and hot wings. Travis floored the accelerator and moved forward. He passed a sign to his right reading LOS ANGELES, 350 MILES.

To his left, a deer, dead on the side of the road. Probably clipped by a passing truck.

Its insides poured onto the tar, and flies cautiously walked along the surface of its lifeless eyes.

 

 

Rest Assured.

 

What I found was that NYPD wouldn’t hassle me, long as I brought along a good book. All suspicions allayed by the paperback spread across my face. This was how I made the most of dawn through late morning. Anything past eleven am was too damn hot. Dreams cremated in a nuclear furnace. Soon after, the monotony of waiting for sundown would set in. I would watch the city, or wander in and out of tourist snapshots, the shady sides of Manhattan streets committed to memory. Slowly wind my way uptown, toting my worn duffle bag. Wait ‘til ten and wander into The Bishop. Cool off with gin and tonics, monitor the buyback. Let closing time roll around and sometimes I got lucky. Managed to make my way home with someone. Most times, I would head west. Find a rock in Central Park and rest for a few hours. Precognition always had me on my feet before being found, and it was back to the East Village on the 6. Washington Square. Settled beneath a decent tree as sunrise approached, falling asleep between the pages of Douglass Adams. Four hours of shuteye for every night. Hardly sustainable, but my remaining days in the Apple were drawing to a close.

It was just a matter of staying alive and out of jail.

***

Another blast of UV rays had me up and wandering towards Third.

Knees aching. Throat constricting from the reek of boiling garbage.

Thought I’d take shelter in Castlebar for one hot minute.

Empty, save for Steffi, who was searching behind the bar.

She tilted her face to match the moon, soft skin and sunburned cheeks. Brown eyes taking in my packed possessions. Darting up towards the green blades resting in my hair. Tied her own in a pony tail and motioned for me to sit down.

The five-foot elf at the inn.

“Heard you moved out,” she said

I nodded. Sat down real slow. “Way out.”

“Yeah, way out, looks like.” She tossed a coaster before me. “Feel as though your friends probably would have let you crash there a little while longer.”

“Those idiots? Maybe.”

“Still, you don’t look bad.”

“Thanks.”

“But you look tired.”

“I am. A little.”

“Wish I didn’t have to worry about you.”

Glanced at my wrist. “Train leaves in five days.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too, Steffi.”

“Wow.” She reached down, pulled out a pint glass. Scooped some ice. “That does make me worry. Tell you what…” She pumped some water, set the glass on the bar. “You drink three of these and I’ll set you up with a Greyhound or two.”

Five minutes later, there was the sickly mystery of grapefruit and vodka.

Helped myself to a bent cigarette from a soft pack of Reds.

Steffi sparked a match and smiled through the smoke.

Morning whistled in through the windows, set at street level. Illuminated projections inching their way across the floor. I ran my tongue over the roof of my mouth and exhaled.

“You look so happy you could cry,” Steffi said.

“I feel…” tapped into an ashtray, read the tea leaves. “I feel far away.”

“You’re tired.”

“I’m twenty-two.”

“What are you going to do when you get to North Carolina?”

“Keep on crossing my fingers, I don’t know. Keep trying to write my way out of this paper bag.”

“Want to see some art?”

“Long as it’s yours.”

“It is.”

I took a swallow of grapefruit and Aristocrat, motioned with my cigarette.

She placed the binder on the bar. Opened. Cardboard cutouts, multicolored, cautiously pasted along the surface. Two mercifully abstract bear cubs on a subway platform, staring up at an alligator in a wool cap.

“Is this the one about the bear cubs lost in New York?”

“The alligator is homeless.”

“I like it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes…” The ice in my drink shifted. “Though I hear children’s lit is a bitch to break into.”

“Neither one of us is doing so hot,”

“No.”

“You ever meet with the woman from the agency?” she asked.

“She told me to grow up. Write about my family. Gen-X nonsense. Gave me a few cheat sheets, best sellers from her shelf, and told me to try her again in a few years.”

“You’re empty.” Steffi went to pour me another greyhound. “And you just hang in there, Lucky.”

“Thank you.” I lit another cigarette. “Guess we’ll both do just that, then.”

She smiled.

Left me to my drink for five minutes, which led to another, which led to lemons.

“Think you can run to the corner for me?” she asked. Slapped a fin on the counter. “Get me six or so ‘til Rowan gets here?”

“I was born ready.”

“Ok, but can you?”

“Yes.”

“Also…” She pulled out a ten-spot from her apron. Leaned in close, even though it was just us and the known universe. “Think you can pick me up a pack of tampons? I hope this isn’t strange for you.”

I took the ten, the five. “Write out the brand, though. To the letter.”

“And I’m going to need a receipt for the lemons.”

“I’ll try not to get them confused.”

“I’ll try not to, either.”

“You win.”

Popped an ice cube into my mouth and laced up.

My eyes crackled audibly in the sunlight. Shoes narrowly missing a friendly reminder from some neighborhood dog. Ducked into the deli and scanned my list. Went to the counter. Paid for the lemons. Placed the tampons down and searched for the ten. The girl at the register was pushing sixteen. First generation, no accent to match the other Koreans taking inventory. She made change. Smiled at me.

“Hope your girlfriend knows what she’s got.”

“There’s always hope.” I glanced down. Extracted a crumpled bill and laid it down. “I’m taking a pack of Sour Patch Kids.”

“There’s two dollars here.”

I picked up a copy of the Times on my way out, then

Brought it all home and organized the change, receipts.

Handed Steffi her sweets.

“You always remember,” she said. “You’re a good friend, Lucky.”

“I’m shit.”

“You’re tired.”

“Yeah.”

Steffi carried her tampons around the bar. “When I get back, you go get some rest.”

I nodded. Turned to my drink. Figured my free ride was up.

Gas, grass, or ass.

Still, as far as momentary reprieves went, this one had been an A+. There was something to be said for counting the minutes based on the contents of a drink. I’d killed a good hour off the streets, and now there were only nine or so left to kill me. And those odds weren’t bad. Not bad in the –

“Ok, Lucky.” Steffi returned, wiping wet hands on the back of her jeans. “All good. Head on back, get comfortable.”

“What?”

“Well, finish your drink, of course. I know how you feel about wounded soldiers.”

I felt my lids manicure what was left of understanding. “I was just thinking –”

“Oh, he’s thinking, now,” Steffi said. “It’s getting worse.” She took my arm. Guided me from my stool and towards the back, where an open floor of empty tables gathered before an barren stage. A built-in bench stretched along the wall, small portion turning in, hidden from the bar by an overreaching podium and soundboard.

“Here,” she said… “Lie down.”

She stretched me out. Took off my shoes and tucked them beneath the bench. Hadn’t noticed her taking the time, but there was my duffle. She fluffed it once, twice. Gently laid my head to rest.

“You know none of our regulars makes their way back here… you’re good until at least five.”

“Five.”

“Get some rest, Lucky.”

“There was a girl named Melody. And also Sandra…”

“Sleep them off.”

She left me to try and recap what I thought I had started back at the bar.

As far as momentary reprieves went, this one hadn’t been bad.

And then it wasn’t anything.

System crash, sending me to sleep.

Final thoughts that one or two people like Steffi every one or two years might be just enough to make it around that next corner.

 

 

One Day Your Life Will Change.

 

Woke up well past the hour with a lonesome, carnivorous headache.

Par for the course.

Par for the course, I mumbled, stepping into the shower.

Plump, greedy drops of water pummeled my body. I leaned against the tiled wall. Face to face with the mildew, arms folded over my abdomen. Fingers tapping against my ribs. Mouth dry, eyes doing no better against dusty lids. Bones aching. Throat coated in Marlboro tar. Par for the course, realizing with unease that this had become my waking routine for nearly every day. Nearly every day for the past couple of years.

I stared through the small, square window. Thirty floors up had a way of making modernity appear terrifyingly serene. A line of ants marching across the Triborough Bridge. Rikers Island and its eponymous prison floating nonchalantly in the East River. Shay Stadium a gaping crater on the horizon.

I yawned. Deep breath, inviting a stream of water down the wrong pipe.

Flung the shower curtain aside in time to bend at the waist and throw up into the toilet.

Some of it landed on my left arm.

No worries. All I had to do was straighten up, and there I was; back in the shower.

Cleaning up after myself, as usual

Par for the course.

***

The windows in my room offered widescreen variations, planes soaring above the East River. Slid into my jeans. Wondering if it wasn’t time for a change. Summer of the new millennium, and the world had already forgotten that Y2K was supposed to be the year it all came to a grinding, binary halt.

A second chance nobody seemed to be taking too seriously.

Myself, I was living in an apartment on East 95th, the cusp of Spanish Harlem. Splitting the rent three ways atop a tower of compartmentalized units. Holding down a job waiting tables at a four-star restaurant down East 72nd way. I had even managed to remain in my first committed relationship for the better part of a year. All indiscretions on hold.

Same lips, body, after sex taste in my mouth.

Day in, day out.

But the drinking had escalated. Gotten worse. Or better, depending on what bartenders you asked. Still, as far as maybe went, maybe it was time to give it a rest. See if maybe a couple of days or so without an eye-opener, cocktail or nightcap might nudge me a little further in the right direction.

I took a quick look around my room. Nothing but a square, green bridge table, home to my abused laptop and an ashtray gagging on Marlboro butts. Wood-framed futon. A mini-fridge stocked with tallboys of Bud Light. Empty wine bottles stationed along the window sill. Scattered papers decorating the floor, crammed with scribbled notes of events I wouldn’t have remembered otherwise.

No posters, no photographs to judge me

I rubbed my eyes, head pounding.

Maybe it’s time for a change, I mumbled to myself.

I glanced out the window, saw yet another plane float effortlessly across the sky.

***

I called Helena. Got her answering service. Told it to tell her I was headed downtown. Took the elevator to the lobby, and headed out into the streets. Crossed Third Avenue. Caught a glimpse of The Bishop, one block down. Put on my blinders and made for the six train. Cut across the playground of PS 198.

The low roll of thunder accompanied me all the way to the corner of 96th and Lexington. A sound so thoughtful and reassuring that I failed to grasp its meaning.

Edged my way down the steps and into Manhattan’s sweltering tunnels.

***

I transferred to the E on 51st Street.

Sat in a relatively uncongested car. A couple of kids made an appearance, dressed in Nike gear, each holding a carton of peanut M&Ms. Raising money for their basketball team. Young entrepreneurs. I bought a pack for a dollar, unconcerned whether or not I was being hustled.

Just another barroom tip deferred.

The train clattered along, and I dug into my sweets.

***

The skies had shifted dramatically in the half hour between worlds.

I trotted up the steps, only to find a curtain of liquid pebbles crashing down. Fresh off the assembly line. Village denizens just starting to bolt for the nearest store, diner, anything. Ballers on the third street courts calling it a day.

Took me a moment to adjust. Felt the hard sting of BBs against my skin. Hot as the surrounding air, nothing refreshing about it. Helena’s building was on Fifth Avenue, halfway between Washington Square and Union. My feet staged a coup against a significantly damaged brain, and sent me running along Third. Improbable sunlight cut a surreal path up Macdougal Street. Buildings blurred, water like Saran Wrap. Ears filled with the rattle of rain detonating against parked cars.

In a final, desperate plea for clarity, my thoughts coalesced around a single, powerful argument: Helena hadn’t been home. No telling when she would be coming back. And in the meantime, there really was no place else to go.

I instinctively ran down a familiar set of steps. No time to guess why the security gate had been left open. I huddled in the alcove, stared up at the zigzag of fire escapes. Brownstone rooftops set against flat, starched skies.

The jingle of keys made me jump. I whirled around, found Zephyr standing at the door. Skin camouflaged against the unlit depths of his bar. Broad smile and cheeks, pleased to see me. Eyes, brow and mustache colored with concern. “Lucky, man. What are you doing?”

For a moment, I felt the words I’m going to quit drinking for a while forming along with the droplets on my lips. “God sprung a leak. What are you doing here? What’s it, like, four-thirty by now?”

“Who cares? Come on in, man. You look like a wet dog.”

The imagery got him giggling as he ushered me in.

Creole Nights was littered with the flotsam of last night’s debauchery. Overfed ashtrays. Empty bottles of Heineken and Red Stripe shared the bar. Chairs stationed several feet away from tables covered in glass; straws bobbing in mid-tide helpings of Long Island Iced Teas and Lynchburg Lemonades.

Par for the course.

Shit. And here I am.

“Haven’t seen you in a bit,” Zephyr said, taking a minute or so to take in the deluge. “What brings you down here?”

Once again, I found myself about to spill my newfound goal of sobriety. “Got caught in the rain.”

“I mean what are you doing downtown?”

I wasn’t sure there was much of a difference between the two.

Zephyr closed the door and locked us both in.

Outside, the rain continued to fall.

***

For the next hour, I helped Zephyr clean up.

Cleared the tables. Wiped them down. Swept the floor clean of cigarette butts, mangled coasters and shredded labels. Went back to the kitchen to get some ice, two cases of Corona. Took a moment to pause between stacks of cardboard boxes. Knelt down and rubbed the cat along his soft, feline underbelly.

“Hey, there, Moses,” I muttered.

Zephyr turned the lights on to their lowest setting.

Got the music going, unlocked the door.

“Creole Nights is open for business!” he announced.

Nobody would come in for another ninety minutes.

Zephyr asked if I wanted a drink.

I asked if I could use the phone.

Dialed Helena’s number. Got the answering service again.

Left a message, let her know where I was. Hung up with a muffled Goddammit.

Out on the streets, Manhattan remained one large snare drum, pummeled by rain.

Zephyr opened the register, counted out a few bills. “You want that drink, Lucky?”

“Shit…” I sighed. Pulled up a seat and slapped my cigarettes on the bar. “Looks like this day’s just going to end up any way it goddamn pleases.”

“So, yes?”

“So yes. I’ll take a Bud.”

Zephyr popped a top, placed the beer in front of me. “Here’s to the rain.”

“Yeah.”

My name is Lucky Saurelius and I’m an alcoholic. It’s been twelve hours since my last drink.

I picked up my beer and helped myself. Reset the clock with every single swallow.

***

Zephyr’s eyes brightened at the sight of fresh blood.

I turned in my seat, now stuck halfway through my fourth beer. Quickly came to understand the celebration in Zephyr’s smile. A group of twenty or so people had bottlenecked themselves on the narrow steps leading in. Doorway giving birth to each one. Each one taking a few steps, then staying close to the entrance, talking in excited, whispered tones. Unsure of what to do. An assortment of business-casual chickens, heads whipping their way from one corner of the bar to another.

Both Zephyr and I knew exactly what this was, though neither one of us had ever had ever witnessed it from within the sheltered walls of Creole Nights.

Pub crawl.

Finally, their leader emerged. Dressed in his own three-piece. Distinguished smile, relaxed command of the situation. Buzz cut clashing with sensitive, lightly freckled features. Face a latticework of deep lines, side effect of a constant smile.

“Welcome to Creole Nights!” Zephyr announced. “Come on in, have a drink!”

It was a start. The unnamed leader stepped forward, followed by his uncertain flock.

“So we’ve run into a bit of a snag,” he told us.

“Me too,” I told him.

“Let the man talk, Lucky,” Zephyr said.

“We’re doing a pub crawl,” he began. I met Zephyr’s eyes with a psychic pop. “We were supposed to hit up a particular bar. Supposed to be around here. Don’t know if you’ve heard of it – called Kettle of Fish.”

Zephyr deferred to me.

I lit a cigarette. “Yeah, I can see your problem, sir.”

He gave me the once over, put an friendly hand on my shoulder. “You can call me Blain.”

“Good, you can call me Blain, too.” I shifted in my seat. Caught some of his people examining the mural on the far wall. Noting various points of interest, like tourists in an actual Caribbean village. “I couldn’t tell you where Kettle of Fish is. I can tell you where it was.”

“Third, right?” Blain asked. “Supposed to be near Sixth Ave?”

“Avenue of the Americas, yeah, that’s where it was.”

“Well, we’ve been looking –”

“Where it was,” I said. “It moved. Don’t know where. You all want to check out what filled in for it, the bar now goes by Fat Black Pussy Cat.”

“Really?”

“That’s the one. Fat Black Pussy Cat.”

He stared at me. Really stared, dug into my eyes with a knife and fork. I was having a bit of a day myself, and thought I’d return the favor. Let him know we were brothers in arms. He smiled, eased into a grin.

My face wasn’t wired to go that far, but I gave him a nod.

“All right!” he announced. “Looks like we’re doing this instead. Order anything you all like and…” he turned to me. “What’s your poison? Pick a shot, any shot.”

This day simply would not quit. I glanced at my wrist. Remembered I didn’t own a watch. “Tequila’s always a perfect match for the rain.” In a last ditch effort to make Zephyr some real money, I added: “Patron is even more perfect.”

So there it was. Blain told his crew to order up, sidecar of Patron for everyone.

Zephyr invited me to join him behind the bar, lend a hand.

I was happy to oblige.

We fell into our routine with ease; served up what few beers Creole Nights had to offer along with a catalog of mixed drinks, electric lemonades, whiskey on the rocks, vodka, rum, cognac.

Been a long time since I’d stepped in those shoes, but it was like riding a bike.

Straight into a burning building crammed with psychotic lobsters.

Zephyr waved his own glass of rum. “Give it up for your guest bartender, Mr. Lucky Saurelius! Let your tips bless him like the rain!”

Received my own little parade, and a blizzard of ticker tape bills.

Zephyr bundled the cash, slipped it into my damp pocket.

I was back where I belonged. Seat still open. Keeping a close ear on the downpour. On the awaiting telephone call, on the babble of corporate conversation all around me.

Blain nudged himself close, tilted his bottle of Bud in my direction. “Thanks for the help, Lucky.”

We crossed swords, took a swig.

“What was the name of the place that I was supposed to –”

“Fat Black Pussy Cat.”

“Ha!” He shook his head, waved at one of his followers with a meaningless flick of his wrist. “That still kills me.”

“Yup.”

“What are you up to, down here, by yourself?”

“Hard to call this being by myself…” I lit a cigarette and took a look around. “What are you doing down here not by yourself?”

He loosened his tie, read the label on his beer. “I’m on a pub crawl, right?”

“Yeah, had one look at you all and –”

“I work at Stanton, McGregor and Plymouth,” he plowed ahead. “We’re the PR parent company of the ad agency Stanton and McGregor, mostly handling the overseas interests of American affiliates.” Before I could ask what that meant, he sort of clarified. “For Stanton, McGregor and Plymouth. We babysit babysitters.”

I decided to nod.

“So these are my top accounts,” he said. It served as a reminder, and he called out, asked how everyone was doing. Satisfied with the positive response of clashing accents, he brought it back to us. “They’re in town for a few days. My boss thought a pub crawl might be an entertaining way to kill an evening. So we started down at our offices at One World Trade, snaked our way uptown. Started to rain, and we switched to cabs. About to hit up Kettle of Fish, only to find –”

“Fat Black Pussy Cat.”

“And I guess that’s what I’m doing down here… not by myself.”

I nodded towards the international consortium. “What are they in town for?”

He smiled, eyes a little on the worn side. “Funny thing about business trips. Lot of times, it’s fly first, find a reason later.”

Sounded a little blasphemous to be spoken so plainly, in such close proximity.

I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. Caught sight of two Japanese men in suits, happily jabbering over white wine. Couldn’t tell whether they were identical twins, or if perhaps I was just a just a supreme racist.

I was about to ask Blain if I was a racist, when I noticed another pair of shots stationed before us.

Blain was smiling at me. Eyes restless with a blind enjoyment. I gave him an approving look. Got my due in a wink, and we toasted. Knocked it on back.

He slammed his glass against the bar.

Rubbed his face with a loud moan, a man faced with another day at the races.

“All right,” he mumbled to himself. “Time to get going.” He took a deep breath, repeated the exact same words in an enthusiastic, booming tenor. “ALL RIGHT! TIME TO GET GOING!”

Amid the multicultural agreements, he hunched over the bar. Reached into his jacket. Brandished a business card. Handed it over with something between a grin and lynched horse thief.

I accepted the token, awaiting further instruction. An explanation. Didn’t get one. Blain simply dusted himself off, gathered his followers like a telepathic sheepdog. Corralled them up the steps, one by one, out into the dusk.

The rain had stopped.

“When did that happen?” I asked.

Zephyr slapped down a stack of tens and singles on the counter.

“What’s that?” I asked, equally surprised.

“Your cut, Lucky,” he said. “He tipped us one hundred dollars.”

“Huh?”

“Did you not see all those people he brought down?”

“Yeah, but those others already… and, I mean… all I did was show up today.”

“And that’s all it took…” He nudged the money in my direction, took a ten-spot off the top. “And I’ll just trade this in for a double of Jack?”

I bit my lower lip. “The rain stopped.”

“And you’re still waiting for your phone call.”

I took a look at the battlefield of empty bottles, glasses left behind by the world’s economic superpowers. “Guess I should help you clean up first.”

“That’s fine too,” Zephyr said. “No reason for you to leave, right?”

My reply was a collection empty remnants.

I got my drink and waited.

***

It was approaching eight, when what shouldn’t have happened, happened.

Nothing more than a weak mix of regulars and randoms. Clothes barely dry. Shoes still damp, a duet of oversized slugs. Ice cubes protruding from an nearly wasted glass of Jack.

The bell above the door gave its ceremonial welcome. I’d given up on hopes of Helena stopping by and extracting me from my seat, and I didn’t turn to investigate. Lit another cigarette, and let me be me. I sucked back the icy remnants of my drink.

Felt an elbow rub against me.

One quick look to my left revealing a face I never thought I’d see again.

Surprised enough to make an exception to the rule of cool. “Blain? Christ, What the hell are you doing back down here?

His face had become an irreconcilable jigsaw. Pieces crammed together from competing sets. Happiness, dread, relief, bewilderment, a firewall of terrified resolution. Armani suit clamoring, ready to abandon ship. Steering the Titanic under cover of a perfect haircut, and eyes that had yet to catch up.

“It just occurred to me,” he said. “You never told me your name.”

“Going to have to beg your pardon there.”

“Your name. I introduced myself, told you to call me Blain. You made a little joke. Said, you can call me Blain too. And, I mean… your name’s obviously not Blain. So what is it?”

I had recovered enough to let the situation play itself out. “I’m Lucky. Lucky Saurelius. Feel as though Zephyr already mentioned it, back sometime there.”

He gave a weak smile. “Good to meet you.”

“Twice over.” I let the current of underground conversation do its thing. Let a few lines from Pharcyde’s Runnin’ take precedence over conversation. Bore witness to a couple walk through the door, take a good look at what they were getting into, then leave. “So that’s settled. Going to be taking off, now?”

“Don’t think so,” he replied, motioning for Zephyr.

“Seriously, where’s your guys? Your accounts, I guess, is what you called them, right?”

“At a restaurant,” he said. Strung Zephyr down the bar, ordered himself a beer and a pair of shots. Turned back to me. “Carmine’s up in midtown.”

“Are they still alive?

“I didn’t kill them, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Came back to see you.”

Interesting.

Leaning in no small measure towards appalling.

“Wait, what?”

Our drinks arrived.

“Yeah,” Blain said. Picked up his shot. “Just sat them all down for their antipasti. Told them their Caesar salad was legendary, not any of that creamy shit the commoners dip their shit into. I don’t know.” He sighed. “And I just had to leave. For some reason I just had to come back and ask you your name.”

I reached for my shot. A little sick to my stomach. Raw admiration colliding with certain realities. “You just left them?”

“Just left them.”

“Can you do that?”

“No.” He took back his shot.

Not wanting to be impolite, I hurriedly followed him. Wiped my lips free of agave. “What do you mean, no?”

“Yeah, I’m probably getting fired tomorrow.”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Why?”

“I mean…” I paused. “No, wait. Really, now: Are you out of your mind?”

“What are you actually trying to ask me?”

I was about to repeat myself once more, when I caught him grinning at me.

Drunk, no doubt. And in an undeniable sort of way, yes, clearly out of his mind for the time being.

He raised his eyebrows suggestively.

I gave my own skinny, weather-beaten body the once over.

Didn’t like what I saw, but had a feeling he didn’t agree with me.

“Oh.”

He nodded, knowingly. “And here I am.”

“Can’t say I’m happy about that.”

“Do gay people make you nervous?”

“No.”

“Do I make you nervous?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, come on. Gay people make you totally nervous.”

“You were gay a few hours ago,” I told him. Thinking of all that money, crammed at a table, lost amongst family portions of puttanesca and veal scaloppini. “Now you’re gay and about to lose your job because you thought the prudent thing to do would be to come on back down here and ask me what my name was. A gay madman, yes, sorry, makes me a little nervous, because here you am.”

Blain found this incredibly funny, laughed and ordered us some drinks. “Well, thanks for that. I guess you’re right. But please don’t just think that I’m down here because of you.”

“You’re about to lose your job, who cares what I think?”

“That’s the point, I guess…” Blain sighed. “Oh, look at this suit.”

“Ok.”

“Just look at it…” He tugged at his tie, yanked it over his head. Gave it a home in his pocket. “I don’t know, I’m so tired of my job, my life. I needed a change. I saw you. I used you to come back down here. Hell, I want to get fired. I can’t stand my job.”

I sighed. “But if I hadn’t been here?”

“What if it hadn’t rained?” he asked.

“Then neither one of us would’ve been down here.”

“So it’s not your fault.”

“But once it started raining?”

“Hey, I don’t know about tomorrow.” He reached for his drink. “Time being, I noticed you haven’t left. What’s keeping you here?”

“Waiting for a call from my girlfriend.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re all waiting, all waiting. Grab your drink, let’s get drunk. You owe me that much.”

I didn’t think I did, but couldn’t argue the point. Reached for my drink. “Here’s to you, Blain.”

“Here’s to you, Lucky.”

Daylight was gone, baby, gone.

***

The three of us were seated at a table.

Myself, Blain, and Helena.

She hadn’t bothered to call. I guess she knew me too well. Knew that I would still be underground, working my way through an armada of drinks. Wandered through the door around ten. Took it all in stride as I introduced her to Blain, illuminated through drunken lips the implosion of a once great executive lapdog.

She was used to this sort of thing from me.

Not a second thought as Blain offered to buy us dinner.

Helena opened her arms. “First, my hug.”

She came in at five foot one, a collection of impossible, thrilling curves. White button-down shirt meeting a pair of black slacks. Face made up from her hosting shift at Bolo. Red lips stretching out across her face in an entertained, harlequin grin. Oval eyes glittering green, the massacred colors of happy confusion, genuine interest and naïve confusion.

I have to admit, it wasn’t a bad night. Not at all what I expected. Helena and I shared a plate of plantains, beans and rice. Blain had a dose of pork, seasoned two steps short of what he claimed was pure heaven. Rice and beans.

Bottle of wine for the three of us.

“So this is like your last meal,” Helena said, still giggling over a recent joke. “Huh, Blain? Condemned man, spending his last night here?”

“Yeah, looks like that.”

“You don’t seemed so bummed about poor Blain,” I told her, squeezing her thigh.

She patted her belly. “A receding tide sinks all boats.”

Blain laughed, almost cried as he wiped his mouth, downed his wine.

Topped us all off.

From the kitchen, Jason stopped in to inquire about the meal. Bald head and thick lips decorating a prominent shelf of white, spaciously stationed teeth.

We gave him the ok.

“You know, I’m going to start culinary classes in just a few months,” he told us.

We raised our glasses on his behalf with unbridled cheer.

Jason grinned bashfully. “Yes, thank you. Thank you.”

“Culinary classes!” Blain proclaimed. Jacket hanging on some forgotten barstool, shirt unbuttoned down along a perfectly waxed chest. “That’s wonderful, my friend. You follow that dream, do what you want to do. What you were meant to do.”

He made to put a hand on Jason’s arm, and slid out of his seat in the process.

We helped him back to the table.

Jason did his share, promptly retreating back to the kitchen.

“Maybe it’s time we all went home,” Helena suggested, laughing. “You ok, there?”

“Yeah,” Blain said. Leaned back and stole one of my cigarettes. “You have any brothers or sisters, Helena?”

“Older sister, younger sister.”

“Ah. Classic middle-child syndrome.”

“Yeah, I guess.” She laughed. It was perfect, melodic. A reminder of what had kept me from slipping off the deep end, something along the lines of a wish. “Classically in the middle of my older and younger sister, sure.”

“I had a brother, you know.” Blain took a drag of his cigarette, coughed. Coughed some more, waving away our concern before taking another hit. More balanced this time. Picked up his glass of wine. “Had a twin brother.”

Helena and I glanced at each other. By default, she knew it was my turn to ask. “Had?”

“Oh, he died.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“No big deal. Never even knew about him. Found out the day I told my parents I was gay.”

Even with this grim revelation, Helena couldn’t stop herself from reaching for a plantain.

I gave her a look.

She gave me shrug, popped it in her mouth.

At that moment, I couldn’t have loved anyone more.

“No big deal,” Blain repeated. “I got kicked out of my house. My mother, a fine upstanding Catholic, told me that the very sight of me made her want to vomit. A fag for a son. A degenerate fag, that was me. And my father just went on a litany, speculating, listing in surprisingly graphic detail all the nasty things I had probably done with other men. And with surprising accuracy…”

Blain sniffed, almost smiling. “And then they added… your brother would have never done this to us.”

“And suddenly, it turns out you once had a brother,” I said.

“For about five minutes… guess it was enough for them to know God had made the wrong choice.”

The Erikah Badu mix slipped into rotation, encouraging us all to catch a four leaf clover.

“In one of those strange twists, I guess I owe them,” Blain slurred. “I was out on my own, but I made it into the Wharton School. All on my own. Had to deal with the men who run this planet, the guys who… I don’t know, could be worse. Could have ended up trading securities, those guys…” he was mumbling, then suddenly brought back to the moment. “Kicked my parents in the balls, though. Rose up, worked my ass off. Ended up where I am.” He took a look around. “Ended up down here.”

“And now you’re going to end up fired,” I concluded. Sighed. “I really am sorry, Blain. Sorry about this whole mess.”

“What for?” He lifted a glass of scotch, paused before drinking. “Someday, your life will change.”

The drink never made it to his lips, suit drenched in Black Label as Zephyr sent me the signal.

Cut off.

***

We stood on Macdougal, a thoroughly s aturated city now breathing in the empty skies.

Reborn.

“How you getting home?” I asked. One arm wrapped around Helena’s waist, the other shaking his hand. “Want us to call you a cab?”

He shook his head, eyes closed against the bright yellow sign of Creole Nights. “No.”

And that would have to be the last word he ever said to me.

As for the last I ever saw of him, it was his uneven steps, slouching his way towards Bleeker Street. Arms limp and pendulous. Turning the corner to see what was waiting around that bend.

***

Helena’s room was dark, save for neutral streetlights, forcing their fingers through plastic shutters.

She held me close, curled in her bed. Face to face.

Her eyes were closed.

Mine simply would not shut. “Maybe it’s not so bad.”

“Hmm?”

“Maybe he heads down to work tomorrow,” I whispered. “Walks into that ugly fucking tower, takes the elevator up into the skies, and maybe he salvages something. Maybe those overseas accounts had the adventure of a lifetime, just like us.”

“It wasn’t the adventure of a lifetime.”

“You know what I mean.”

She sighed. Opened her eyes.

As the exceptional quality of our evening began to fade, her eyes grew sad. “Maybe he’ll never go back. And maybe it was the best thing that ever happened to him.”

I gave her a light kiss. “I really did try.”

“Huh?”

“Or maybe I didn’t.”

“Lucky. It’s late.”

“Ok.” I kissed her forehead. Stroked the back of her neck. “Goodnight.”

She smiled. Giggled a little.

“What?”

She sighed. “One day, your life will change.”

Helena fell asleep on the promise of those words.

I remained awake on the wings of that same rainy wish, frightened into watching the sunrise, eyes dry and bleeding, all the while asking myself, Lucky Saurelius, what have you done?

 

 

Mistaken Identity.

 

it was day four of my bender on that second day of 2001. same horizon on either side of the equator. hideous daylight. ruthless nights projected along Verona streets. fresh enemies. tragic rounds of one-pocket. shattered fifths of Kentucky Gentleman. bruised ribs. the sad laughter of a busted house, queens full of bullets. death threats. nameless psychopaths in the parks and winding side roads. this is what it meant to lay low. no occasion to come up for air. there were creatures waiting just above the surface. wild animals, sirens, corpses, spiders, misshapen dolls. sentient balloons. a sea of lethal imagination. best to stay beneath with the liars, drunks and thieves. lungs bleeding. aching joints held in place with tar and cotton filters. smoke curling from my lips, up towards the stucco ceiling. head resting against a floor-bound mattress. one hand curled around a bottle of flat Korbel. the other scribbling a couple ill-chosen words along a yellow notepad. something about Sonia’s window. mellow hue of a soft bulb by the desk. sixty watts reflecting off Joel’s midnight skin as he popped in another track from the rack. Band of Gypsies. watched him lay back in his chair. arms crossed. a six-three arachnid, sending a smile to Bianca. let my own eyes drift towards her, seated alongside my ratty dress shoes. raven hair, eyes like inkwells. breasts nestled in a navy long-sleeve. thighs painted in a light blue jean dream. legs crossed, Indian style. she smiled at me. tapped her cigarette into our shared ashtray. asked me what i was writing.

something about a room, i told her. in Santiago. it once meant something to me.

i told you, Joel told her.

Joel told me you were from Chile, she said.

that’s oversimplifying just a bit, I said. but… sure.

Bianca’s from Chile, Joel volunteered.

i raised an eyebrow.

over simplifying it a bit, she said. my parents are from Chile.

well, here’s to birds of a father … i raised the Korbel. realized she didn’t have much to drink. i stretched out, passed the buck. another drunken smile as she brought the bottle to her mouth. milked. swallowed. handed it back. i responded in kind.

transaction complete.

write something about me, she said.

anything specific?

i want you to write about now. right now.

he’ll do it, Joel warned. lit a joint and gave a lazy grin. he’ll make you more immortal than you ever cared to be…

you sound a little immortal yourself, there, Joel.

kind of.

she straddled my shins, reached for the roach. took a drag. leaned back, perched on one arm. tits rising, held aloft. she exhaled: kind of? returned the jay to its rightful owner. disengaged from my legs and sat back down.

nestled a little closer this time.

Joel took another hit. Lucky based one of his characters on me, in a wild kind of novel. however, he dies in the end. he let his enormous eyes walk on along the ceiling. i die in the end.

what was it about?

Joel glanced at me.

i tilted my head. why don’t you tell it? picked up my pen. i’ve got to see about a strange request.

Joel filled her in on my behalf, as i began to write.

the first sentence was already a lie: i was already running my lips along her thighs when she asked me to keep going.

but it was a flying start, and there was no stopping. black ball point racing across college ruled pages. absorbing every detail of her face, body. clothes. i gladly stripped her of those. imaging what lay beneath. framed her against the rudimentary features of the room. details of everyday delirium. brought Joel into the fold. built myself a perfect sanctuary. lounging alongside my childhood friend, inundated in the body of a broken, flawless woman. the three of us living in perfect harmony. warm, safe. alcohol in place of plasma, fuel for the fire, seven pages deep before my mind could bother to count the eighth. words traveling back up my arm in left-handed spirals, reprogramming landscapes. accepting my interpretation of the evening. welcoming the protection.

ending on a sentence fragment before dotting my own wrist in dogged ellipses…

i broke free to find that Bianca had drawn closer. leaning against closet doors, her legs draped, back of her knees resting on my featureless chest. the bottle had magically relocated into her arms, my neck resting happily between her tits.

you finished? she asked.

Swedish, actually.

Joel burst into a violent cough.

yeah, i amended. all done.

can i read?

can’t guarantee you’ll like it.

is it dirty?

it’s intimate.

too bad. she raised the bottle. jiggled it. trade you?

someone had finally agreed to buy one of my stories, and i didn’t hesitate.

i sent three swigs down my throat. warm champagne joining rush hour. lit a cigarette. smoke escaping through my teeth, swirling its way towards Joel. he viewed the scene with placid detachment. turned his seat towards me. didn’t say a word. something in those eyes between encouragement and accusation. then, another smile. he flattened the lapels of his black trench coat and silently suggested i turn my head. i did. watched Bianca devouring my broken prose. turned back to Joel. he graced me with another benevolent smile. sealed with a wink.

did my best to send him a mental message.

he blinked, softly.

hey.

i turned to Bianca.

her palm pressed flat against that last page. fingers spread wide.

can i keep this? she asked.

yes.

you sure?

i nodded, head bouncing in yo-yo patterns.

this isn’t just something you do? she asked.

everything is just something i do. you’re going to have to rephrase the question.

she peeled her palm from the page. reached out. begging for the bottle. freshly tattooed ink on her hands. words imprinted along her lifelines. mirrored, backward vowels and dyslexic consonants.

i handed her the drink.

our fingertips touched, sixty watt bulb at the desk flickering for just a moment before the connection broke. she had herself a healthy pull. i turned to Joel. he was examining his lamp, puzzled as anyone.

back to Bianca. she was staring at me.

i held her eyes.

she drank, slowly. throat working.

handed me the bottle.

not much of a reach; she was sitting right next to me.

Gordon burst in with his customary grace. garish New York accent all set to shatter the walls of my halfway house.

i was wondering where you horrible fuckers were, he said. laughed. reached down and snatched the champagne from my hand. downed it. killed it. Milo and i are going to Chet’s house. any of you assholes interested?

i nodded.

Joel was happy where he was.

Bianca folded my notebook into her arms and agreed it was an adventure worth having.

i checked to see if Joel might change his mind.

he was busy changing the light bulb and waved my psychic powers off with a dismissive flick of his wrist.

***

those were the dying days of Milo’s ’82 Corolla.

we bumped along potholes and savage pavement, through the ghettos of Verona. closest distance between two points. streetlight wonderland sweeping through the windows. casually illuminating the back seat. Bianca behind the driver’s side. myself, cramped behind Gordon. passenger’s rolled way back to make room for his insidious, goblin legs.

Milo hung a left, took that one magical block back into respectable neighborhoods. i felt her right hand wrap around my left. fingers interlocking. heat blasting, palms slick with wet encouragement. both our thumbs sliding, pressing. either one of us looking out at passing scenery.

certain we were both hoping to catch glimpses of a graveyard.

***

after a few rounds and well-placed cigarettes, Chester Springs suggested we watch a movie. grin spread wide beneath an overachieving nose. fingers calloused, courtesy of too many guitar chords. sliding in a bootlegged copy of Mystery Science Theater 3000. the Mitchell episode. mainstay.

it was Chester, Milo, Gordon, and Bianca.

i think Korben, possibly, along with Jeff and Delilah, but those were some interchangeable nights, back in early 2001.

five minutes in, i moved to an adjoining living room.

didn’t bother turning on the lights. just sat on the couch. taking long, lectern sips from a bottle of Gato Negro. wide threshold between worlds giving a glimpse of the rest. laughing their asses off. pounding tall boys and wondering what it was that made them so distinctly unique.

after a few minutes, Bianca joined me.

broke the quarantine. sat next to me on the couch.

what are you doing here? she asked.

carrying my cocoon, i said. a kind of tribute to being safe. ignoring the world.

you talk like someone spitting game.

seems that way, doesn’t it?

what you wrote?

yes.

it felt really honest. what you wrote. she lifted the bottle from my lap. drew herself close. knees bent, curled. head nestled against my shoulder. is it lies?

it’s fiction.

but is it lies?

i unsheathed a cigarette, lit it. no. never. unequivocally, never. please don’t tell.

i took hold of her wrist. guided it, lifting the bottle to my lips. a little spilling out over the both of us.

she laughed, gently.

i guided her hand, fed her some wine.

she laughed, a little louder this time.

drowned out by matching sounds from the next room.

tell me about Chile, she said.

what do you want to know?

i’ve never had the chance. tell me everything.

my best friend’s name is Blondie, i said. still engaged with the netherworld from my notebook. he’s bright. effervescent. charismatic. don’t think there’s another person like him on the planet. don’t think there ever will be. i lit a cigarette. took a drag. saw her mouth tilted in my direction, urgent lips insisting. i brought the cotton filter to her mouth. felt the touch against my fingers as she pulled. the lights in Chester’s house flickered as she let the smoke trickle, took another hit from the bottle. he’s the gatekeeper. the only one willing to bridge the gap between myself and this other word. this other universe, other planet in the southern hemisphere. if i have any friends down there, it’s because of him. his goddamn humanity. i took a drag. felt her breath on my neck. eyelashes fluttering against my jugular. she took hold of my hand, brought the bottle up for a lick of red. opened her mouth for a dose of cured nicotine. urged for me to keep going. without him, there is no connection. it’s a dangerous place, with a history that bleeds. spray painted along every surface. and occasionally miraculous. you can hail a bus like a cab on Forty-second Street. tell the driver you just need to go a couple of blocks. please, mister, mister? and he’ll often comply, never mind the need to make bank. the mountains are never too far from your line of sight, and if you go far enough downtown, you’ll find them painted on the burgundy walls of private property. dogs roam the streets and everyone owns them. they pad over towards you as though you’d known each other for years. friends for life, and the sun is starched in a desert white that creates… I took a drag… creates a glare that blinds you, makes colors pop. and it’s dry and interminable, but they make it work. like Blondie says, we’re all in this together, and that sense of camaraderie will spill out into the massive highways and byways. roads, if you let him let it. a man in a pickup truck done with his delivery will stop. let Blondie, let me and my friends pile into the back, all because we had the audacity to stick our thumbs out in the open. and under that sky of brilliant apostrophes, we all made our way east. lips cracked with cheap red wine, wind in our bloodshot eyes. looking over and smiling at Blondie. dirty hair running wild, painted grin right back at me. telling me everything is going to be just fine, always, and this was where i belonged.

that last syllable wrapped in Bianca’s tongue, as our mouths pressed close. breathing in. deep. both of us rising several feet above the couch and staying there. breaking apart with a wet, worthwhile smack. enough understanding to allow for another shared cigarette. another pull from a nearly wasted bottle.

let’s go upstairs, she whispered into my mouth.

some sort of natural instinct guiding her, all of us. upstairs.

***

a wasteland of spit and wandering hands covered our bodies.

myself, i couldn’t have been more thankful. after all this time, these misadventures and splitting headaches, finally, something of value. pure precision, even in this virtual recreation. both topless. bodies reaching upwards of one hundred-seven degrees. a flat one-eighty against Chester’s bed.

she ran her tongue over my face. i want to go there.

yeah?

i want to be where i’ve never been. take it all in.

she lowered herself down the bed. along my body. graciously ignoring my ribs, and malnourished, concave stomach. undid my jeans.

wait, wouldn’t you rather –

no.

i could –

nuh-uh.

seriously, i’m actually pretty good at –

no, you’re probably not, shh…

and we were both rendered mute as she wrapped her mouth around me. taking in what must have surely been the most putrid cock she had ever tasted, four days worth of park benches and mangled limbs. memories plastered across the windows. spirals before my eyes. ecstasy mixing with the welcomed feel of her mouth as she arched her back, reached up and moved her tits against gratitude. moved back down. she grabbed my hands. moved them, tangled my fingers in her hair. forcing the situation. driving my mind deep into pillows that reeked of old spice and anonymous hair product.

she slid up for one brief moment.

licked my lips. come for me soon, ok?

i wanted more. tried babbling the sentiment through crippled lips.

gave into her mouth and the best thing that had happened to me in the seven or so years since the start of this new one.

gave into her mouth and tongue, hips unchained, bucking upwards as

Gordon did us both the favor of not knocking.

massive body barging in. slaughtered words mentioning something about the Waffle House. catching sight of our half-assed coupling. the sight of Bianca wiping her lips with the back of her arm proved too much for him. he began to blather in inconsistent simulations. closed the door. heavy footfalls heading downstairs, shaking the house to its foundations.

Bianca laid herself across me.

we kissed. i ran my hands along her body, signaling for another opportunity.

is there anything –

just fine, she said.

really?

i want to go there, someday.

i gave in. wrapped myself around her, blood on a burner. heart racing, fine with the feel of her back against my arms. she licked my chin a few times. i kissed her forehead.

seems like your friends want to go somewhere, she said.

we don’t have to go anywhere.

think so?

we can stay here. curl up, never leave.

she smiled against my neck. maybe next time.

you have to go, don’t you?

need to get back. i have class tomorrow.

want us to take you home?

you’ll see me again.

hope so.

soon, i hope.

soon.

she brought me in for a deep kiss, and i tricked myself into an endless symphony.

even after we separated, put our clothes back on, shared a cigarette, went down the stairs, got Milo to drive us into Chapel Hill, dropped her off, allowed for a goodnight kiss, headed back into Verona, stuck at the Waffle House while Gordon did his best to keep it together through bloodshot eyes, his fork hovering over a plate of slowly cooling hashbrowns, back to Milo’s place, where I gave into sleep, i carried a Cheshire grin, surrounded by the sanctuary of what couldn’t possibly be considered a lie.

***

i woke up to the sound of a phone.

picked up the cordless.

Joel on the other end. hey.

Joel?

yeah.

morning.

it’s two in the afternoon.

i don’t have a watch.

anything you want to tell me? he asked.

huh?

Bianca? last night? don’t think you should have told me?

i wiped my face clean, reached for a cigarette. stepped outside. underwear protesting against frosty temperatures. didn’t think i needed to.

you sure?

you told me she was one of your women. one of. i stopped. hacked out half a lung onto the stoop. if i didn’t immediately contact you about it, it’s only because i didn’t think you’d mind.

i don’t, he said, and only you could get away with that argument.

because it’s true.

because you are you.

we good?

always. i heard the spark of a lighter over the phone. want to come out with me tonight?

i had a pull of wine. sure thing. where?

back in Chapel Hill. my friends run a speakeasy out of their place. nothing fancy. just a fun place to hang out.

sounds good.

Bianca’s going to be there. that a problem?

why should it be?

i don’t know.

how did you find out about us?

she told me.

is it going to be problem for her? i asked. took a drag. this is a little in the way of the best thing that’s happened to me in a while.

you’d have to ask her. beat, as he tugged on his own choice. and i’m glad you like her. i’m happy for you.

tonight, then.

tonight.

we hung up on each other, and i finished my cigarette.

caught an ambulance wandering past. resting.

saved the image for a later date.

***

it was the grubby basement of a dilapidated house along the outskirts of a college town. cinderblock walls, pillars digging into a floor of finely shaved gravel. worn squares of plywood leading a path along the bar. red lights. a few pale yellows and mismatched greens cutting through the smoke. music blaring from naked speakers.

wasn’t quite like anything i expected, or even wanted.

Joel and i slid on down the bar. got the nod from a prematurely balding redhead. we put in our orders. couple of bourbons on ice, wrapped in plastic cups.

i saw Bianca at the end of the bar, chatting it up with a stranger.

Joel, can i have a minute?

from some thousand miles above the sky, he put his arm around me. Lucky, are you sure?

i told him i didn’t understand.

he let me go.

i parked myself next to Bianca with a nod to her friend, and a smile for her.

must have been one ugly sort of smile. her response was a minor motion of her head, sip of a rum concoction. got north and south all twisted. only able to manage a clumsy hello and how are you? turns out she was fine. telling her it was good to see her, that it had been good seeing her, that it was nice to be underground with her. same stilted reaction. the music blared and at a nearby table, something funny enough to set an entire table on its side. i lit a cigarette. offered her one. she pointed to the one in her ashtray. brow slanted over large brown eyes, a birthmark on her right cheek twitching in concentration. focusing on anything other than me.

meaning to ask her about that birthmark, i managed what was next instead: you ok?

she shook her head.

are you mad? i asked.

she shook her head.

what are you? i asked.

what are you[_?_] she repeated, emphasis on the once and future me.

i didn’t answer. let her get back to her conversation. boyfriend, gay friend, lover, brother or any other. didn’t much matter. i stood by for another moment or so, then slowly separated myself from another chapter. couldn’t have been more than twenty people in that horrid makeshift speakeasy, and i managed to bump into each and every one on my way back to Joel.

he ordered me a drink. let me finish mine in peace, just in time for a fresh start.

sorry, he said.

i started in on my second one. what do you know that i don’t?

you gave her your notebook, he said.

what’s that?

he leaned down. leaned in closer. not just the story you wrote about her, the whole notebook. he lit a clove, breathed exotic spices into my face. you didn’t think she wouldn’t read every goddamn thing you wrote?

i sniffed. so?

so she knows about what happened to Blondie, he said. screamed into my ear. that fucking morning, that car, split in half. the end of the fucking world for you and him, how do you think that looks, to a woman like her. to a woman as confused as her? and here you go parading around as though he’s just a phone call away.

I don’t know what’s in that fucking notebook.

she does. i do.

i nodded. too used to this side of the sun. because she told you.

Joel nodded. why didn’t you just tell her?

why didn’t you?

he furrowed his brow. furrowed his entire black shiny dome. i wasn’t there when she blew you.

i laughed. came dangerously close to a wail, but the bourbon made quick work of that. guess she thought i was someone else.

you are.

yeah.

Lucky?

yeah?

you mind if i go talk to her?

i glanced up at his wild eyes, flashing beyond the reach of a strobe light. thanks for asking.

you’re welcome.

tell her i said… i coughed, accidentally sent something sticky into my drink. washed it down. actually, don’t tell her anything. let her keep on thinking…

Joel nodded. will do.

he left my side.

i watched him cozy on up to her. she didn’t seem to be any more receptive to him as anyone else in the room. but she listened to him at least. took the time to slide a hand along his arm. testing. happy to let him make his case. drawing closer as the music grew louder. making sure all details were heard. all avenues explored. comfortable with what they knew. like another throwback from behind the bar. another drink back in my hand. another cigarette. it was something else, those days. leaning on the bar. waiting for more. wishing for moments some twenty-four hours past. one day you wake up with all the answers wrapped around your ugly little member. twenty-four hours later, you wonder what the hell else 2001 has in store beyond jokes, tinctures, dead friends and bad dreams of burning cities.

 

 

Nigger Pool.

 

Alex was everything I wasn’t, and twice as good at everything I was. Tall, all-American suburban prep. Athletic. Overconfident. He paid for his own haircuts. His smile was wide and symmetrical. Eyes an infuriating watercolor of gemstone green. He was the ideal. Catch of the day, the one who got to fuck the bartender, then shrug it off as another story.

Exception the to the rule being that I was a better writer than him. But we were kids at the time, babies, and there was no way to prove it, really.

And it was September of 2002.

The stars shone in delirious fits of blush and preordained shapes. Bombs raining down on Afghanistan, on the radio, and Alex took a left turn at the closest bar on Emerald Isle.

A pair of sliding doors welcomed us into the Palm Club. Dark carpet spread out over a magnanimous floor, dotted with upright tables, mostly empty. Pair of wooden steps leading down to a pool table, upper level cordoned by a wood railing, last line of defense between a three-foot drop and a tumbler of whisky .

A series of weathered sunburns glanced up from their game. Sleeveless shirts, upholstered skin. Hair gone white beneath dirty baseball caps.

Alex was dressed in khakis and a navy polo. I had my battered grey leather jacket, jeans and white crewneck to represent the other half of the equation.

They sent their daggers in our direction.

Alex saw his chance to show and prove, walked right on down and laid a couple of quarters on the top left diamond.

First round would have to be on me.

The bartender was Mike, co-owner along with his wife, Molly. Their smiles were warm, sincere, synchronized in the best of all possible ways. One with a grey mustache, Molly with tiny matching moles on either side of rosy, piglet cheeks.

“What do you think of the lights?” he asked, gesturing towards a string of luminous red peppers hung over a yellow backdrop of anxious bottles, each waiting for what might come next.

“Love them,” I said. “They remind me of a bar I used to live in.”

“We got lots of room beneath the counter,” Molly said.

“Yeah?”

“Do a little housework, you can set up shop in the back. Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Dolly, all of them on the jukebox. You’ll never be lonely again, Lucky.”

“How did you know my name?” I asked.

Mike sent a gnarled carpenter’s finger pointing towards the back.

I turned in time to catch Alex repeating himself. “LUCKY!” he was chalking up a stick, balls already racked. “Got a game, let’s go!”

Back to Mike and Molly, and I still felt the need to stifle the obvious. “He’s with me.”

Mike nodded. “What’s he drinking?”

I laid down the exchange. Picked up two beers, sidecar of beam for each.

Grains of sand shone intermittently from the carpeted floor.

And I carried myself across the face of that twinkle, twinkle little universe.

***

They did not like us.

Bad enough this frat boy was dipping into their till, but his ugly little sidekick, an ugly sun baked brown, he knew how to bank a shot. Played frequently enough, not nearly as brash as they would have liked, Southern hospitality and all that modest madness. Another trip to the bar, and Mike verified my concern with a thinly veiled piece of advice:

“Might want to consider pulling a punch or two.”

I nodded. Took a quick look around to gauge a possible exit strategy.

Had myself a helping of the only woman in the joint at this early hour. Body of a blue heron. Legs stretching somewhere past infinity, mini skirt that understood what was at stake. Dirty blond hair laid flat. Cut close. Black leather vest with nothing but a bit of laughter underneath.

She made a move, lengthy arm reaching for her cigarette.

Caught me watching.

“What’s your friend’s name?” she asked.

“Alex,” I said, inoculated to this line of conversation . “Put something nice on the jukebox for him, and he’s all yours for the evening.”

She smiled.

Not at me, though. Never at me, and that’s just the way things went.

***

I got back to the table just in time to catch Alex pulling a safety. Kiss off the thirteen, resting calmly behind the eight.

A bit too brilliant of a move. The locals took immediate offense, citing some sort of etiquette neither one of us had ever come across.

They got in his gorgeous face, but good.

He threw their shade right back. “What do you mean, no safety?

Their point man adjusted his Vietnam vet cap and stepped up . “You can do it if you like. It ain’t against the rules.”

“You gonna tell me a hold ‘em player’s not allowed to bluff?”

“Not the same thing, man.”

“It’s part of the game, MAN.”

The woman at the bar must have taken a page from my brain, Brenda Lee coming on strong. I took the melody by its reins and stepped in. “Look. We’ll give you ball in hand, how about that?”

“We don’t want ball in hand,” the man insisted. “We just thought we was having a friendly game, not playing fuckin’ nigger pool.”

…On the bright side, Alex was speechless.

I crammed a childhood worth of rage down my throat and puked it back up with a last minute negotiation: “No ball in hand, next game is on us, you keep the table no matter who wins.”

He hesitated. “Still…”

“And no more safeties,” I added. “Tell him you’re cool, Alex.”

Alex wanted a fight, and I couldn’t say that he hadn’t earned his share of wild swings. Knocked to the ground more than once, by more than a couple of hardened halfwits. Just never quite hard enough. Didn’t understand this wasn’t his world. Too good looking, too fucking perfect, the whole goddamn situation wasn’t his world.

“Tell him you’re cool, Alex.”

He was pissed, but he was also without a friend. Relented with a offended handshake.

“Fuck, yeah,” I said. “Let’s play some pool.”

It was scratch for them, shot on the thirteen for me, shot on the nine for me, and since I didn’t feel like getting killed, sunk the eight in the corner right, with the cue sent right down the corner left.

Alex couldn’t deal. Madly competitive, something I never understood. Though he came by it honestly. Family vacations structured around the mythos of Olympic lore. Up at nine in the a.m. to play volleyball. Break for lunch, then it was ultimate Frisbee, then synchronized napping and extreme board games after dinner.

Alex was a winner, was the problem.

I was a loser, and could let the world slide.

Only thing was, there was something different about this one drunken calendar date.

Trying to get Alex to cool his jets by the easy color of Bud and Beam.

“So we lost, so what?” I said. “It happens, time to time.

“You gave them the game.”

“It’s not our house, Alex.”

He tossed his shot back. “They don’t get to make up the rules as they go along, it’s not their game.”

“It’s only a game.”

“Whatever.”

“That’s exactly what I mean.” I raised my shot, toasting Mike and Molly. Got a gracious nod, and moved to bring my lips in for another belt of what did it, when my phone buzzed.

I paused.

Put the shot down and checked the number.

An endless stream of digits with no dashes, dots, no point of reference.

“Hang on,” I said.

I stepped outside and answered a call that would send my life down the wrong path for the next ten years.

***

I flipped my phone shut.

Felt the breeze.

Gave into the air.

Tasted the salt, tire treads on the tip of my tongue.

“Now what?” I asked.

Nothing to distinguish the answer from the roll of distant waves.

Stepped inside. Slid the door shut.

Alex had taken a seat at one of the tables. The towering blonde had joined him, along with a new friend. Brunette. Thick thighs and a jukebox bottom making this rockin’ world go ‘round.

Couldn’t care less.

I stepped to the bar.

Molly took her cue, got me two more beers and a couple of shots.

Mike reached over some empties and gave my arm a pat. “You good there, Lucky?”

“Yeah.” I lit a cigarette. Blinked. “My book’s getting published in the UK.”

“No kidding?”

“Don’t feel that way.”

“Congratulations, son.”

Molly served it up, and Mike filled her in. She reached over and gave me a hug.

“Yeah,” I said. “I really just kind of figured I would be pocketing the advance, then never seeing print, not even once in my life…”

“Well, you were wrong. Welcome to the rest of your life.”

I shook my head. “Mike? Molly?”

“Yeah?”

“I never thought I would have the scratch to do this, but I’d like to buy a round for the bar.”

Mike smiled. “Don’t know if any of our boys are going to accept. Your friend Alex ain’t exactly man of the hour.”

“Sixty minutes,” I mumbled, before coming to. “So don’t tell them it’s from me. Just tell them it’s on the house.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“There isn’t one,” I said. Snatched a stack of napkins off the bar. “Can I borrow a pen?”

I opened a tab for the angry and ungrateful.

Sat down with Alex, his date for the evening, and her restless wingman. She knew why she was there, and I didn’t feel like make believe.

“What’s up?” Alex asked.

I spread out a few napkins. “They’re publishing it.”

Alex blinked. “Really?”

“Yup.”

“Good for you.” He went ahead and did his shot.

The brunette thought it was time to care. “You’re a writer?”

“He’s a dynamite writer,” Alex said, sticking to the code.

“I’m ok,” I told her.

The blonde smiled. “Why aren’t we celebrating?”

“I’ve got to take care of a thing or two,” I said. Reached for my shot. “They might want another one after this.”

“You don’t know that,” Alex said.

“I don’t know anything.”

“This is a blip on the radar. A stopgap bandaid for the economy. You going to write young-adult fiction for the rest of your life?”

“It’s a gig.”

“It’s a market.”

“And I’m a little piggy, it would appear.”

The brunette brandished her cigarette in Alex’s face. “Your friend is weird.”

“He really is,” the blonde echoed, but she wore a smile when she spoke. I caught a small, diamond crucifix winking at me from between her sun-freckled tits.

“I’ve got work to do,” I said, and began to lay down some foundation. Reached for my beer.

It was half gone in a half second.

So was the brunette.

Alex let his hands wander over what was left of our double date. Kissed her neck. He’d steal glances over towards the locals. Let them know who was running things, who had stepped in to take what was theirs.

I let my pen blaze a trail, then closed out an eighty-six dollar tab.

***

Alex’s family was away for the weekend.

Had the beachfront house to ourselves, though three was crowding the four-story rental.

I cracked open a bottle of red.

Handed it to the blonde.

She tried to make me feel better with a few strokes along my ribcage. I was familiar with the code and pretended to tend to some business outside.

Watering the plants, or some such fucking thing.

***

I sat out on the deck, and wondered where the moon had gone.

Drank deep, choked on sleep.

Let the sounds play catch, cashing in on hopeless nights. Those years spent drinking underground, uptown, winding my way parallel, always wondering. Now this. Now a book, now, maybe, an opportunity. Made a mental note of the rejection slips, form letters from rags, riches, everything in between.

I lit a cigarette.

Didn’t feel like vengeance.

Didn’t feel much like a chance for all those stories from a bar with no doorknobs.

I stood.

Belted to the left by a gust of wind. Down the wooden steps.

Turned at the landing, stairs leading back towards the house.

Paused halfway down.

Faced with sliding glass doors. Panoramic view of a third-floor bedroom.

Lights on. Noises off.

No small surprise, Alex had led his lady down to where the magic happened.

Sat down. Kicked my legs, stretched my arms out. Made the most of my balcony seat.

Remembering that one time spent wandering the surface of Appolonia’s roof.

I watched as he moved his mouth along her body. Technique not half bad, but I was starting to think maybe there were two exceptions now.

I got bored. And half a bottle in, I realized it was done. She was asleep on a mountain range of pillows. One boot off, the other toe grazing the floor. Mini skirt hiked up her bare ass, arm hanging off the bed.

I sniffed. Lit a cigarette.

“Got one for me?”

Without looking, I tossed the pack up the steps. Sent the lighter in for reinforcements. Heard him snap a few sparks before burning the tip and exhaling. He threw the pack back down. It hit me in the head. I didn’t take my eyes of the bedroom, that woman.

“Congratulations, again,” he said.

I took a pull of wine. “Thank you.”

“Still, you did kind of stumble over your own dick into this. What about you short stories? What about your plans?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fine.”

“How was she?” I asked.

“She’s an heiress.”

“Huh?”

“Her family is Emerald Isle.”

“She owns the island?”

I heard him nod. “And a boat.”

Alex always was the one to get the girl. “Get her to take us out on it tomorrow.”

“Maybe.”

“She owns an island.”

“You’re getting published.”

I drank some wine. “You are elegant, sometimes. You know that?”

“Spare me.”

“Ok.”

“I’m not your enemy,” Alex said.

“You treat me like one.”

“That’s because you’re my only real friend.”

“Alex?”

“Yeah.”

“Nigger pool,” I said.

He didn’t reply.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yeah.”

“Nigger pool,” I told him, one more for the road, just to make sure he understood. “That’s how you tell a fucking story.”

“Yeah. Goodnight, Lucky.”

“Night, Alex.”

I don’t know where he wound up. But he certainly didn’t end up in bed with the island heiress. Made sure of that. Saw her body rise and fall with every breath, perfect time with every wave.

Alex.

He didn’t know it, but he had his own set of rules.

And he would never be anything other than a winner.

The ocean said goodbye, somewhere from inside the bottle, blameless and never ending.

 

Henry.

 

First and only time Finley ever cut me off, Gordon made fifty dollars on the deal.

It was a Tuesday, and it was cold outside.

Inside, The Bishop was wall to wall. Packed with ex-pats, professionals, leathery regulars, preppies and prelims. Finley and Shane taking all orders. A dozen different fingers molesting the jukebox. Cigarettes festering like rotten boils. Television a cross section of college hoops and rugby.

I had colonized my own seat hours ago. Sat staring at a bottle of Bud and an empty shot of once was. Fresh off a disastrous gamble involving an ex-girlfriend, a battered passport and a dog named Chevalier. Nauseating ache wallowing below my ribcage. Tasting anger on my lips. Cigarette dwindling, waiting for another belt of Beam.

Got my wish, along with another beer.

Quick appraisal from Finley. “You don’t look so hot tonight, Lucky.”

“Yeah.”

To my right, a rugby fan with purple gums pounded the bar with his pint. Got his suds all over me. To my left, a broad-shouldered bruiser in a black leather jacket put the moves on his date. Bumped my arm as I moved to take my shot. Threw an apology over his shoulder. Slow burn, my eyelids twitching as I licked the bourbon off my wrist. Took it down. Drank the first third of my beer and went to the men’s room. Waltzed around the urinal, sheathed my useless pecker back into its nest. Washed my hands. Took pains to avoid the mirror. Didn’t need to reflect on that particular half of the world.

Stalked back to the bar.

Caught sight of the leather jacket parked in my seat.

In. My. Seat.

Saw the flash of an enchanted smile from his date.

Lost control for a moment. Eyes glazed with bloodshot clockwork.

Third person perspective, as this lunatic named Lucky strode towards his seat. Reaching out with both arms. Taking hold of the chair. Shaking. Shaking hard. Unsolicited aggression as the bruiser stood from his post, turned to face his aggressor.

I dropped back into my first person body.

Toe to toe with the man who would put me in the hospital.

Welcoming the opportunity.

Nothing doing, though, this time. Nothing but apologies. “Sorry, man.”

Shit. I felt my misdirected rage subsiding. “Yeah, well –”

“Can I buy you a drink or something?”

“No, I’m fine, just…” I muttered something else. Took my seat. Went back to ignoring him.

Sat and waited.

…Got myself a pair of useless friends for my efforts.

***

“Look at this sorry piece of shit,” Gordon said, grinning.

“Yeah. He don’t look so hot,” Korben agreed, toying with his dreadlocks.

“I once vomited on a pecan pie,” Gordon continued. “Don’t remember the circumstance, doesn’t matter.”

“It really shouldn’t.”

“But I did. And the result was a finer, infinitely more charming entity than this thing sitting here.”

“A little harsh.”

“But honest…” Gordon threw Finley a semaphore wave. “Barkeep! Pint of Guinness and a shot of Knob Creek for me. A pint of Newcastle for my friend here. And get this sorry creature another of whatever he was having.”

Finley trotted on down. “Good of you to show up…” he sent a quick nod in Korben’s direction. “Dreads.” Got his due respect from Korben, then got around to the black sheep in the room. “You buy Lucky his drinks, you best be ready to look after him, there, Gordon.”

“I ain’t doing your job for you, Finley,” Gordon proclaimed, then bellowed with laughter. Noticed a sly suggestion, and leaned in close. Let Finley whisper in his ear. Nodded. Pulled back. “Team effort then, we have an agreement.”

My curiosity was sated by a fresh round.

Gordon raised his bourbon. “To Lucky Saurelius… the sorriest asshole this side of the Mason-Dixon line.”

Korben raised his glass. “Don’t forget about the other side.”

“Yes, correct. I always forget about the other side.”

“And the line itself.”

“Yes. At the very least, we can say he walks it with perfect grace.”

“That’s unless Grace decides to go home with another man.”

“Ah…” Gordon scratched his head. “Is this before or after he vomits all over her?”

“Depends on the girl. Or the pecan pie.”

I listened to them talk. Skipped the ceremony and downed my Beam.

Eventually, they remembered why they were there, and toasted without me.

***

Gordon had been feeding me drinks for an hour or so, when Danny Nellegan staggered in. Tie askew. Couple of buttons undone. Waxed chest a tasteful, salon tan. Arm in arm with a page torn from Vanity Fair. Introduced her as Ana, then went about slinging our names at random. Ana was far more deliberate in her choice. Picked Korben from the lineup and led him to a nearby booth.

Nellegan joined us. Bought a round. Spouted a few words about working for Fox News, something else about how Ana had chosen wrong. Went to run some interference on Korben’s catch of the day.

“Looks like Nellegan’s lost his girl to Korben,” Gordon said, stealing one of my cigarettes.

I had one for myself. “Nellegan’s gay, you enormous idiot.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“What you don’t know could fill –”

“Why’s he trying to cock block K?”

“You smell like cheese.”

“How else you want me to smell after a day at the cheese counter?”

I coupled my mumbled response with a swift loss of balance. Saved by a fresh bottle of beer. Taking it down. Suds trickling down my cheeks.

“Best watch yourself, son…” Gordon said. “Finley is liable to cut you off.”

“Nope.”

“Care to place a little wager?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you think you’ve lost enough?”

“Name the last time I lost a bet to you.”

“I meant in general.”

I sucked on my cigarette. “Fifty?”

“Deal.”

We had ourselves a shake.

Danny stumbled back to the bar. Just long enough to order a fresh drink, then back to the table. He mentioned something else about Ana, wrong choice. Blew past my reply. I shrugged. Thought I’d flaunt my wager with another call for beer and Beam.

Slow burn.

***

Gordon grew bored with me and hatched a plan. Fresh off his weekly paycheck, he ordered a Midori sour. Picked up the green concoction and solemnly walked it to Korben’s table. Interrupted their game of footsy with the humble accent of an English butler.

“Your Midori Sour, Sir,” he informed Korben.

Set the drink down and returned to the bar. Guffawed with childish glee and ordered a Bay Breeze. Escorted shades of cranberry red to the table with the same loyal panache. Same dry, British delivery:

“Your Bay Breeze, Sir.”

Back again; this time making it a Fuzzy Navel.

“Your Fuzzy Navel, Sir.”

On and on, not planning to stop until Korben’s playing field was leveled with effete, multicolored landmines. I glanced behind my shoulder. Saw Ana doing her best to ignore the dodge. Caught Korben’s smile catching up with his frustrations.

I turned back to the bar.

Realizing the giant in the leather jacket had nuzzled close to my seat, once more. His back turned. Still hitting his stride with that nameless beauty. An occasional glimpse around his six-five frame revealed the trusting smile of a woman who was having the time of her life.

I was overcome with the urge to slash throats and crush the smiles of innocent chameleons. Storm clouds in my head, flattened Midwestern landscapes. Music and eleven o’ clock laughter replaced with the rumble of a Greyhound bus. Colorless and kinetic. I lit a smoke. Pulled deep. Watched the cherry blossom brighten. Elbow perched on the bar as I absently pressed the cigarette tip against the giant’s leather jacket. Watching from another plane as the ember ate through some six hundred dollars’ worth of cowhide.

Heard the sound of hesitation to my right.

Korben was watching me. Mouth open, deliberating between a smile and reproach.

I raised an eyebrow. Took another drag.

Tilted my cigarette back towards the bombing range. Landed another hit. Turned back to Korben, who let out two syllables worth of a muted laugh. Followed by an equally toothless attempt to keep me from going again, dude. Unable to halt the show anymore than I was willing to stop. Watching as seven or so tiny foxholes scared the surface. My own personal graffiti. Punishing a perfectly innocuous human being for the simple act of showing up.

“No,” I said. “You’re right, Korben.”

I put out my cigarette.

Or maybe it happened in the opposite order.

No reason to think I had grown a soul in those few moments.

It probably just so happened that it was time for a fresh Marlboro, and I wanted that one all to myself.

***

I was seized with a savage hunger, some two days old.

Unable to think or do, or concentrate on myself without some kind of cheap fuel.

Pushed back against my barstool.

Gordon was sipping on a Melon Ball, done with playing butler. “Calling off the bet?”

“Grabbing a bite.”

Finley called me out, powered down the bar. “You stepping out?”

“For a second. Two seconds. Grab a slice or something.”

He reached back. Dipped into the tips. Shoved a fiver in my hand. “Get me a slice of pepperoni, would you?”

“Back in a second.”

I stumbled past Korben’s table, where him and Nelligan now sat. Both alone. Drunk and commiserating. Reaching out at random for whatever drink might get them to the end of the rainbow.

Crossed a frigid Third Avenue. Gave myself seconds between cars. Kept my lids half shut against my destination, busted neon typo reading Rasta, Pizza, Subs. Shut them entirely upon entering. Bright lights tearing into my skin.

Gave into the hunger and queued up. Feet anchored to the floor. Swaying in what felt like perfect tempo to the smell of garlic, oregano and grated parmesan.

Ordered myself a slice of plain.

Pulled out the fiver and remembered Finley’s parting words.

Put in a last-minute order for a slice of pepperoni.

***

Sat down at a table. By the window. Red hum balancing out the fluorescent headache. Tore into my slice. Disagreeable bites. Indiscriminate. Just enough to taste, followed by sky full of green. Halfway down my drunken craw before taking the next mouthful. An entire slice gone missing. Milk cartons across the world wide wondering as to its whereabouts. Smearing the grease from my lips with a swift backhand, then moving in on the second slice. Barely enough presence of mind to mutter, Sorry, Francis, as I went to work.

Damp chewing. Wet cement, loud in my ears.

Wondering what to do with the rest of my night as I glanced up.

Sniffed.

The albino gentleman sitting at my table smiled. A single, pallid eye coming in for a wink. Early thirties was my first and final guess. He lifted marinara soaked bread to his mouth and took a bite. Chewed. He encouraged me to do the same.

So we sat and worked our way through that mouthful.

Myself, a little more deliberately than before.

Swallowed.

Reached for my napkin.

He licked his fingers with lonely satisfaction. Pleased. Tugged at his black t-shirt. Had a sip of what looked to be a Coke. Dr. Pepper, maybe. Washed it down.

“I’m Henry,” he told me.

“Lucky.”

He smiled. Nearly invisible eyebrows arching sadly. “The meatball sub here has to be my favorite meal. I mean, ever.”

I nodded. Not in agreement. Just following the miniature spots, doing their dance before my eyes.

His own lit up. Well past their transparencies. Alive with recognition. Turned sad, then happy. Then hopeful. “Lucky… do you want to know a secret?”

I nodded.

He leaned in close.

“Do you promise not to tell?”

I nodded.

Took another bite of pepperoni, then nodded off.

***

My eyes rattled along their hinges.

Lashes wet against corduroy pillows.

I rolled over. Gave the couch a swift goodbye as I hit the floor.

Felt my head bounce off the hardwood.

Sat up and wondered why.

Stood up and wondered where.

It looked to be a one bedroom apartment.

Furniture.

Kitchen.

Windows facing a brick wall.

The shallow scent of fabric softener and bile.

“Hello?”

No answer.

Did a double check. Every last article of clothing accounted for. Left shoe untied. I reached down. Did what I could. Reflexively picked up a glass of water from the wooden coffee table. Downed it.

Moved to the kitchen. Clean sink. Polished dishes. Spotless counters. Cabinets gleaming a heather grey.

I opened the fridge. Pulled a few drawers. Just enough spare parts to assemble a ham and cheese on rye. No mayo, but the last traces of butter from a swan-shaped dish did the trick.

And I did a little rerun.

Glanced at the fridge.

Henry stared back at me. Polaroid dimensions. His adoring face staring through the lens. Meant for eyes other than mine. What looked to be the Metropolitan Museum in the background.

I took a bite of my sandwich. Wondered who had taken the picture.

“Hello?” I asked again, through a mouthful of sandwich. “Henry?”

Noticed a fish tank in the living room.

Don’t know how it had escaped my attention. Creation coming to life without warning. Hello, reality. I watched a single betta fish swim circles. Wondered how I knew that was a betta fish. Maybe Henry had left, asked me to feed her in his absence.

“Guess you’re a lady fish,” I murmured.

Picked up a shaker of fish food, popped the top.

The scent of dried crustacean made me gag.

I dropped my sandwich into the tank.

“Shit!”

I reached in. Hands wrapping around the soggy bread right about the time the fish started nibbling at the crust. I paused. Let her enjoy a little something different. The same absent-minded misery as burning holes into the leather jacket of an innocent bystander.

I ran my tongue over my teeth. Found a bit of pepperoni lodged in there.

“Finley.”

The fish paused. Stared at me through the glass.

Yes, there I was. Standing in an unknown apartment. Elbow deep in a fish tank. Holding onto the disintegrating remains of sandwich fashioned from scraps of an absent stranger.

“Henry?” I addressed the emptiness with a casual wave. “I gotta cut out. If you need me I’ll be at The Bishop. Sorry about the fish.”

I let go of the sandwich and hustled my way into the closet.

Then I found the front door.

***

Stepped back into The Bishop. Clock putting it close to one in the morning, making it two hours erased from memory. Close to one in the morning. Two points merging seamlessly as Finley gave me the nod. Didn’t care where I had been. Henry, the fish tank. All secondary players to the slice of pepperoni I had finally delivered. Slipped it surreptitiously under the end of the bar.

I was back.

Seated next to Gordon, who filled me in. Something about Korben going home alone. Ana going home alone. Danny going home alone. Just the two of us and our pointless bet, waiting to see if we might finish what we started. Fresh round. I took my shot. Checked out the scene with slurred depth perception. The giant in the leather coat had disappeared. Good chance he was enjoying more than just a drink with his nameless encounter. Could be he’d wake up tomorrow to find his jacket pocked with juvenile vengeance. Though it could take as much as a week to discover the consequences of a single night.

No matter.

I barked for another drink.

Brought Finley up to the bar. “Sorry, Lucky. Going to cut you off.”

“Huh?”

“Go home, Lucky. Just do me this favor. Settle up tomorrow, and I’ll buy you a few.”

Hard to argue with that.

Hard to figure why Gordon wasn’t celebrating in my face.

Just smoking one of my cigarettes, casually watching women’s tetherball on ESPN 3.

“Told ya,” he muttered, reaching for his drink.

“I’ll slip you the fifty tomorrow…”

Wandered out the door with seven or so goodbyes glancing off my back.

***

95th Street sloped downwards between Third and Second Avenues.

I wandered on down, thinking I’d pass by Henry’s building, see how he was doing.

Wasn’t too hard to spot the place. The red and white flare of an ambulance posted outside. A couple of rollers joining in with brilliant blues. No crime scene tape, rubberneckers who had made it their business to maintain a safe perimeter.

I paused. Watched as a pair of paramedics wheeled a stretcher out of the building. White snowcaps on a motionless body.

I positioned myself near a beat cop. “What’s going on, Officer?”

Booze fumes made his nose wrinkle, but I think he sensed I was harmless enough.

“Got a guy offed himself up on the fourth floor,” he said. “Looks like an assisted suicide, though the paramedics aren’t saying much. You need an official statement, contact the precinct.”

“I’m not a reporter,” I told him.

“You smell like one.”

The ambulance doors slammed shut.

Not putting two and two together, I sent my own pair of dress shoes walking on down.

***

Didn’t figure it out until I settled into my room. Fresh beer resting on the fold-out bridge table. Notebook at the ready. Pen making a mockery of all things bright and beautiful, when I remembered I was a smoker. Looked out the window as I checked my jacket. Cautious headlights streaking along the Triborough bridge. Pulled out my pack of Marlboros along with the note.

It fell to the floor.

Figured it for some looseleaf ramblings and picked it up.

Undid the folding of fourths.

Found few words to fill the blanks, written in stunning, uppercase cursive.

THANK YOU, LUCKY, FOR YOUR BRILLIANT WORDS IN THIS FINAL HOUR

It was signed, Henry.

I felt my stomach lean in. Dropped the note. Throat constricting. Reached for a twenty-two of Budweiser. Tried to wash it down. Reached for backup in the form of a cigarette. Lit a match, hands trembling. Stood and pressed my forehead against the window. Even from thirty stories up, I could see the police lights glancing off of Henry’s building.

How had he done it?

Momentary jealously gave way to paranoia.

How had he done it?

I reached out, yanked.

Lowered the blinds and didn’t sleep for two days.

***

When I finally awoke, it was nighttime.

Felt considerably more confident the police wouldn’t come looking for me.

Then again, neither would Henry.

I threw my jacket over a shirt two days past due.

Made my way to The Bishop.

***

Took me less than a beer and two shots to relay the story to Gordon and Finley.

“Tough one, son,” Finley said. Shook his head. In no particular hurry to tend a near-empty bar.

“Yeah,” I said, motioning for another round.

“At least you weren’t raped,” Gordon said.

“Thank you?”

“Sorry about cutting you off that night, Lucky.” Finley served up my double dose. “Wouldn’t have done it, only there were a group of cops sitting down the bar. Can’t afford the fine, not with rent going up.”

“That reminds me…” I dug around in my pockets. Almost over my fear of finding another note. “Gordon, looks like I owe you a fifty.”

“Keep it,” he said. “Insider trading, I don’t deserve it.”

“How you figure?”

“Finley told me about the cops early on in the night. I knew it was special circumstances, just a matter of time…”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Misery solved.”

He smiled at me, raised his shot of Knob Creek. “No hard feelings?”

“I won’t have any if you won’t.”

“Cheers.”

I took it down. Slow burn.

“What do you think you said?” Gordon asked.

“What?”

“To the albino?”

“Henry. He has a name.”

“He had a name.”

“Henry.”

“What do you think you said to him?”

I lit a cigarette. Toyed with my empty shot glass. “Clearly, not enough.”

Gordon shrugged. “Or maybe too much.”

I gave a silent prayer for the man whose leather jacket I had riddled with cigarette burns.

Would have done the same for Henry, but then Korben strolled in with a lady. Redhead. Large nose. Glamorous face and a sweater bursting against the pressure of generous breasts.

He kept his distance this time.

These weren’t the days for taking chances on anything, never mind those final words, downtown morgues or the wild unwinding of my sad, slow burn.

 

 

Another One From Mister Joe Watson.

 

Tell you what, Lucky. Here’s a story for you…

It was divine as that first cigarette, another bottle from the bin, the solid crack of a cue ball as it sent numbers one through nine ricocheting at two-fifteen on a Sunday afternoon.

Casper Noel circled the table, sizing his next move.

Mr. Joe Watson to my right, leaning against the bar. Taking a moment to survey his kingdom. Shuffleboard meditating a wooden sheen, stretching from the bar to the back. Jukebox resting next to the men’s room. Bare tables and empty felt awaiting later hours.

He scratched at his beard, white trim still clutching to traces of basic black.

The original On The Rail was located down the block. Shady side of the street, some four doors down from Caliban’s Funeral Service. That ain’t news to most. Most every one of our regulars knows that when they walk on in here, they’re stepping into a second life… But the best kept secret about that first place is the first day I came to own the joint. That’s a clever little story you won’t hear from anyone but me. Because people miss the point. Because they don’t understand. But, son… I believe you just might.

Casper sunk the two. Top-left English, and the hollow plunk echoed up and across the ceiling.

This was back in the bad old days, when Verona was every bit the battlefield that it’s now only reputed to be. And I would know. Before I did the road, I was a cop, as I’m sure I’ve told you. So I was predisposed to the dangerous lives of others, on both sides of the law.

Joe lit a cigarette, had a pull of his beer. Watched Casper put number three away, straight shot to the top-right corner.

I’d snaked my way through all the continental states. Returned to Verona with a decent bankroll, and a suspicion that my misspent youth might not carry me through my older years. I was looking for a reason. I was looking for a risk. A way to lose it all, or take hold of all I could. An excuse, if you get me, to get out. And looking back, I think maybe that was exactly where Carl Traverse was at.

Now, Carl Traverse was the original owner of On The Rail. His father was a bookie, just like mine. Only Carl was some twenty-five years older than me. I cut my teeth on his tables. All four of them, the place was old school. Had a fifth was housed in the basement, along with a card table – that was where you went if you wanted to play for some real green. I’d seen men lose everything they had in less than twelve hours, son.

Casper sunk the four, drew the cue ball all the way back to the kitchen.

Well, Carl was looking for a game, it seems. Left his man, Charlie, in charge of the bar. Not that there was any reason to. The second we stepped to table five, everyone in the house went flying down those steps. Hadn’t even agreed on the stakes before those dregs started taking action on the outcome.

Those were the days no self-respecting hustler walked into a pool hall with his own stick. A sneaky Pete, maybe, but the better players could spot those a mile away. So I settled on a house cue. Carl busted out his McDermott, a real nice one you might have recognized once or twice, on those few occasions you and I had a chance to play.

I smiled.

So we settled on fifty dollars a ball. Straight pool. And I ran the first four racks. Gave up two and a half, only to come back with eight. He offered to raise it to one hundred, then two hundred. By the time we hit five, word had spread, and the basement was wall to wall. Some of those cats even crouching on the steps, balcony seats for the pool hall aristocracy.

Casper took the five, but got himself parked behind the seven. No clear shot to the six.

By the time we started racing to three hundred, he had already put up his cue. I did him the honor of not playing with it. Some two hours later, he went double or nothing. Race to one thousand. All I had, against his whole damn business. Almost thirty-six hours straight hours of nothing but straight pool. But you already know how that turned out. Once again, there are plenty who’ve heard how I ended up where I did. But it wasn’t until next day, ‘round about this time in the afternoon, when I realized what I had stepped into.

Giving himself time, Casper waded across a thick sunbeam. Slid behind the bar, served us up two more cold ones.

I walked into On The Rail. All things on schedule, as always. A pair of players at the back table, laying bets. Charlie at the bar. No guarantees he had even bothered to go home. He handed me a beer. Gave me a smile made mostly of missing teeth.

Casper gave the table a good look. Stretched his stick at an angle, counting the diamonds. Lowered himself. Closed bridge, and sent the cue ball up the table, back down, glancing off the rail before gracing the six, into the corner pocket.

Carl came out from the bathroom, and when he saw me, his arms went wide. Might be the first time I ever saw that son of a bitch smile. He shook my hand, gave me a bear hug. Congratulated me, proud as proud can be. Lost his pool hall in his own pool hall, and he was just ducky. Some small part of me was still stuck, still thinking this wasn’t happening. I was too used to playing it cool. A man can’t keep an even keel if he gives himself the chance to actually ponder, realize how fast his fortunes can change from one day to the next. And that’s for better or for worse… It’s only the millionaires and psychopaths that get to find comfort in the particulars of how life works.

This was a formality. A fresh look at the deal we had made, just a few hours later. Gentleman’s bet, I guess, if there is such a thing anymore. He told me he would get the paperwork drawn. Offered me the number of a decent lawyer. I was smokin’ and drinkin’ and doing what I could to keep up… And then those two cats in the back started arguing.

The seven was no problem for Casper. Gave himself a bit of a bad leave, cue ball resting impishly on the edge of a side pocket.

Now, much like me, or Casper over here, Carl didn’t care for that kind of trouble in his place. He turned, sweet as can be, and asked them to cool it. It was as though they hadn’t heard. So Carl loses the formalities, and doesn’t ask this time. Either settle this like men, or take it to the streets. And it wasn’t as though I hadn’t seen this before. I knew where this was going. Or where it was supposed to go…

Carl didn’t bat an eye. Turned to the bar and folded his arms.

Is the jukebox broken, Charlie?” he asked.

And Charlie replied in this thick, Irish brogue: “Nah, Carlton. Just needs some quarters.”

We got any quarters?” Carl asked.

Charlie popped the register. Old school piece of hardware, all curves and buttons. And Charlie said, “Might not be enough.”

The players at the back started shoving. Cue sticks clattering to the ground, beer bottles knocked onto the table, which, as you know, is the proverbial straw. And old Carl just shook his head, and said, “Make some change, Charlie.”

Casper unscrewed his cue. Broke it down the middle. Took the shaft and pointed it downwards, looking to give himself some serious masse. Got a perfect curve for his troubles, free from the pillow. Scooting on down the green, kissing the eight goodnight.

And Charlie strode out from behind the bar. Pushing seventy , wrinkles pulled tight like an old shoe, wizened by too many years spent sailing the seas. Well, Lucky, I watched that man walk on over and give them a second chance for maybe three seconds. And when those two tried to push back, it was as though someone had changed reels on us all. Man, he just went left, right. Down, upper cut, fists balled, I could see his veins bulging from all the way across the room. Can’t blame those poor dolts for not knowing what hit them, but I didn’t have a dog in that fight, and Charlie sent those two fuckers to the floor in the time it took to blink.

Casper put himself behind the nine, and it was a simple shot.

No parade, no applause. He leaned against the table and listened.

Charlie wandered on back. Left those cats lying on the floor, licking their wounds. Back behind the bar and up to the register.

Makin’ change, Carlton?” he asked.

Carl nodded. “Makin’ change, Charlie.”

And Charlie held his fists above the register, opened his hands, and slowly let two busted rolls of quarters rain down, save for fifty cents, which he handed to Carl. And Carl walked back to the jukebox, helped those two jerks up off their asses, and handed them fifty cents. Told them to put on something good, and get on with their game – or get the fuck out.

Joe lit another cigarette, finished his beer.

And that was really the moment. Wasn’t the night before. Wasn’t the game. That was when I realized, for the first time, from that moment onward, that this fucking place was my problem for the rest of my life. And I asked Charlie, “What the fuck have I gotten myself into?”

Casper lit a cigarette. Offered me one.

I accepted. Both of us willing to let the story come to an end without our blessing.

“Ran the table,” Casper said.

Joe nodded. “Way to go, son.” He turned to me. “Lucky?”

I took a drag, and gave Casper a smile. “Do it again. Double or nothing.”

Joe gave my shoulder a firm smack.

Casper got us a fresh round, and I stuffed two twenties into the bottom-left pocket.

Got the rack ready.

Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

Nine ball in the middle, center of the universe.

Answer to Joe’s question buried beneath a thunderbolt break, then resurrected as the regulars began to trickle in, set the stage for those regular business hours.

 

 

The Myth of Friendship.

 

So I was twenty-one and some years old. Not too far off from those Brooklyn years. Subleasing a one bedroom in a parallel universe. I was working as a waiter to pay my bar tab, and whenever I managed to sleep, my dreams were filled with faces I never once knew, remembering all that had never once happened, tangled bodies and sweat. The unit next to mine was room 18G, home to an old man, alone with his large brown dog. Saw them almost everyday, going for walks or sitting quietly in Rupert Park, watching the pigeons.

The old man was disfigured, though it might have taken a second glance to catch on. One arm slightly shorter than the other. One shoulder slightly higher. Broken stride in place of a seamless gait. His beautiful, brown dog would stroll beside him, pant patiently, adjusting to keep pace with his master’s impediment. A limp so slight that no one ever acknowledged the old man or gave him a second glance. Wet, grey eyes that had gone unnoticed his entire life, it seemed.

He would speak affectionately to his dog while they walked. Interpreting movements of the ears or certain chuffs with specific answers. When they sat, he would caress the dog’s back with long, adoring strokes. Scratch the top of his head. Rub the neck. They would sit, and sometimes they both smiled in unison at their invisible magic.

People on the street would stop and pet the dog. Peer into its eyes with adoring diatribes. Feed it a steady stream of baby talk. Times like these, the old man’s arm would retract, his smile disintegrating. He’d watch his dog spread pure fulfillment, the patch of sunlight in everyone’s life. The dog would lend himself to these invasions, cautiously allow for invaders, and once free from their probing, he would press his nose against his master’s leg. The old man would bring his hand back to his best friend’s awaiting head, but it was rare to glimpse a smile return to either of their faces.

At night, behind closed doors, the old man would rail against the dog. Curse and beat him. I could hear furious screams and the dog’s cries of pain as I walked past 18G, sat with a bottle of Gato, or lay by myself while the city sent callous moonlight through my window.

This would go on for hours, occasionally lasting until three or four in the morning. I was an insomniac. Never fell asleep without dawn’s blessing, so it’s unfair to say that they kept me up. I wondered about the other tenants, though. Not a soul intervened, not one person ever took their fist to the wall, or pounded the floor with wasted demands. Come daylight, there was never any mention amongst the chattering classes. The old man and his brown dog would once again find themselves in the park. Side by side, enclosed in a bubble of tenderness.

The last time I saw them together was the day Brianna appeared from out of nowhere with regards from the past.

It was a Sunday.

“Lucky?”

I looked up and saw her standing by my bench with those sandy freckles and perfect grin. Same song, different day. Childlike eyes of a waking dreamer and her hair shone a blinding white. No pigmentation, just stark sand dunes ever since awaking from that nightmare at six years old.

Though afternoons had always lent themselves well to Brianna.

“Hello, Brianna.”

She opened wide, body thin and inviting. “Come here.”

I stood up and wrapped this gift with my own spindly arms.

The swift memory of a childhood dance crept up on me.

Then vanished, as we parted and sat, side by side on the bench.

“You look good, Lucky,” she said.

“I look like shit.”

“Stop it.”

“What are you doing in New York?” I asked.

“Just visiting a friend. Sandy. Do you know her? She’s in the film program at NYU.”

“I dropped out of the program a few years ago…”

“That’s too bad. Everyone thought you were going to be a famous director.”

“That’s what I was worried about.” I peered up to the leaves. “That must have been it, right?”

She shook her head with courteous bewilderment.

We lapsed into silence. I looked into her eyes, almost sure I recognized the ocean somewhere in there. Her lips stretched into a smile. I let the exhaustion leave my face and returned the favor. A car alarm went off nearby, went quiet. Brianna looked away.

“Tell me a story, Lucky,” she said, hands on her knees. “What are you doing?”

“Waiting tables, writing…” I hesitated. “Not much of a story, Brie. I’m sorry.”

I nodded to myself. Lost count. Didn’t want Brianna to know how I had dealt with the years, or anything that might suggest the passage of time. My eyes fled across the park, sights landing on the old man and his dog.

“Has it been five years?” Brianna asked. “Since the last time I saw you?”

“Might even be seven…”

“No. Six at the most.”

“Long time, anyway you chose to remember it.”

“You ever visit North Carolina?”

“Used to. Summers and winters, but not so much anymore… you?”

“I’m living there. You should come down more often, Lucky.”

It was a beautiful day. A bird hopped up to my shoe. Bent close, then took flight.

“So much for me,” I said. “What’s Brianna got to say for herself? Go on. Impress me.”

She looked out to an elderly couple.

Considering.

Then: “I’m engaged.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Engaged…”

“Yeah.”

She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two. Maybe twenty-three.

“Engaged…” I repeated.

“Guess who I’m marrying.”

I blanked. “Who?”

“Guess.”

“Tell me.”

“Brian.”

My brain stammered. “Brian Daniels?”

She nodded, smiling bashfully.

The old timer and his dog were making their rounds now. Man’s best friend taking an occasional moment to sniff trace amounts of squirrel. Memory swelled in the wake of conversation and I chose to be polite: “How is he?”

“Wonderful,” Brianna answered, a terse pride edging into her voice. “He’s in advertising.”

“What about his music?”

“Hasn’t been doing that for a while…”

“The ad game seems fitting,” I managed. Felt there must have been more worth mentioning. “Brian always had a way of convincing people…”

“It’s an online start up, so it’s not really about face time, but pinpoint targeting.”

“I always thought he’d be too shy for the job.”

“Well, people get older. Grow.”

“I suppose that’s sometimes the case.”

“Milo’s going to be the best man.”

“Him and I never really hung out in high school.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”

“Milo?”

“Brian.”

“Maybe not shy,” I amended. “Maybe that’s the wrong word for Brian.”

“Lucky?”

“Rippling fields of entrepreneurs, online is the future, I hear.”

Brianna gave it another go. “Lucky?”

“Three years. I think.”

She looked at the ground. “You two were inseparable.”

I nodded, not in any mood to answer.

“Brian was wondering about you just the other day.”

“That right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well…” Another memory flew past. “Now he can stop.”

Her eyes changed. “You all right?”

“Always.”

I had lost my edge for deception over the years, and I don’t think she bought it.

Two middle-aged men with thick Irish accents walked past. One of them tipped his hat to Brianna, but I doubt she saw it. On down Second Avenue, a passing car blasted music from my childhood, and the driver couldn’t have guessed what I was thinking.

“It is a little confusing, though, isn’t it?” Brianna said, finally.

“How’s that?”

“Brian and Brianna.”

“A little unreal, sure.”

“That’s the word. Why us? Those names, getting married. Shouldn’t things turn out just a little less…”

I waited. Then ventured. “Redundant?”

“I was going to say perfect.”

“You would have remembered that word.”

“How about ironic? Brian was your best friend.”

“Friends disappear. It’s their most distinguishable trait.”

“You two were inseparable.”

“Again, pointed out. Not the most original sentiment.”

“Neither is irony, but I stick by my statement.”

I shrugged. “”Why ironic?”

“I was in love with you when we were shorter.”

“Shorter?”

“I don’t like to say younger.”

“And you were in love with me?”

She slapped my shoulder. “You knew that, Lucky.”

“I didn’t.”

Brianna refused my version of the past. “What do you think that dance was all about?”

“You never told me.”

“You should have known.”

“Should have known lots of things.” I couldn’t remember that one dance. Felt it in my stomach, a familiar bout of tired unrest. Rhythmic mistrust Brianna might have simply passed off as unreal. I wanted to let it out, but ventured a guess instead: “Brian always loved you…”

“He told me this.”

“Told you he never realized how beautiful you were, how he always wondered if you and him would finally get together…?”

“How’d you know?”

“Just seems like something he’d say.”

“He did.”

“I know…”

Brianna’s face grew serious.

The old man and his dog were slowly making their way across the park.

“I know friends drift apart,” she said. “Naturally. Over the course of time, as we grow taller –”

“Grow taller, I like that.”

“But what are we talking about, here…? Did something happen between you and Brian?”

“Fucked his woman,” I said, suddenly in the mood for a story. “Ex-girlfriend, actually. But Brian was still in love with her. I feigned ignorance, and when I began to notice that his once-was was digging me, I used every subtle trait at my disposal to make it seem like an organic event. I even asked one of Brian’s friends for advice, pretended I didn’t know if it would be right to fuck my best friend’s ex-girlfriend. I’d known Brian for fourteen years, and got everyone to believe that I honestly didn’t know the first thing about him. It was nothing short of genius. Made it look like his girlfriend’s fault.” The words came effortlessly, etched in stainless steel. “Fucked her a couple of times. She said we should tell Brian, and I kept telling her I will, I will. Didn’t even really like her that much, just wanted the conquest. I mean, with the effort it takes to pick up girls, a guy like me takes every chance he can get to put another notch in his belt… Could have kept it going longer with her, but one of Brian’s friends caught us in the act and pushed me into a corner. Couldn’t lose face, so I had to tell Brian. And Brian didn’t take it so well.”

I could feel my features growing cold and angry. Didn’t stop. “Then I tried to pin it on Brian, tried to tell him he was the one who had grown distant from me. That Brian had slighted me somehow, and there was nothing wrong with what I did. Even squeezed out a tear or so, but Brian saw right through it. He refused to talk to me again after that. Didn’t matter much to me, though. I had everyone else convinced I had made an honest mistake, and as a result I suffered no real consequences…”

I turned to Brianna, neck stiff. Jaw clenched. “And that’s what happened to Brian Daniels…”

I waited, only now aware of how loud my voice had become.

Searched for some kind of reaction.

Brianna took a breath. “Fuck you, Lucky…”

But Brianna was smiling.

“Fuck you, Lucky. When I asked you to tell me a story, I meant a real story.”

“Not real enough?” I asked.

“I can always tell when you’re telling a story.”

“How?”

“You’ve been sitting here still as a stone. I can’t get a word out of you, and all of a sudden, you talk and talk and talk and spit some ridiculous nonsense about sleeping with Brian’s ex-girlfriend…”

I smiled weakly. “Seems hard to believe, doesn’t it?”

“And Brian doesn’t ever talk about you that way…”

“You’re right.” I looked at the ground. “Friends don’t do that sort of thing. To each other…”

The conversation died for a moment. I don’t know what would have happened, what else I might have told her, if the old man hadn’t walked past. Brown dog matching him step for step.

Brianna’s eyes lit up.

“Puppy!” she exclaimed. Went to her knees, covered the dog in a thick lather of affection. Scratched its ears. Rubbed around the head and belly, delighting in its very existence.

The old man and me remained quiet. Faces on semiautomatic.

I was thinking about Brian. Don’t know what the old man was thinking about.

Brianna finally let up, and the old man departed. Brown dog padding along faithfully.

We were alone, once more.

“When’s the wedding?” I asked.

“Around a year. No set date.” Brianna was standing now. Floating above me, a marauding angel. “You should come. I think Brian would get a kick out of it. If you came.”

“Sounds like a good time.”

“I’ll let you know.”

“All right.

“Well….” She opened her arms.

I stood up and welcomed her goodbye. It lasted for a while. I soaked up the sunlight and closed my eyes. She rubbed my back, softly. I mirrored her movements, heard her murmur. Her lips brushed against my neck. Lightly, and I did the same too. Her petrified hair smelled clean and neutral. Neither one of us made the move to stop.

“I’m glad I got a chance to see you,” she said. I could hear it resonating in her chest, pressed close to mine. I opened my eyes and saw the old man and his dog exit the park.

“Wish we had more of a chance to talk,” Brianna added. Then, tightening her hold on me, said, “Or find some way into another world…”

Nobody else in the park had any idea what I was up to.

“A drink might help,” I told her.

She took her time answering, and I was willing to wait.

***

It was some violent fucking that night.

Ruinous and desperate. All kinds of damp excess soaking into clothes too bothersome to remove. Pinned to my cheap futon, the both of us. Movements slick and exacting. Thrusts that cut into the walls, her hands reaching back to scratch at my thighs. Not even willing to fumble for a contraceptive, just skin against skin. Remembering how Brian always kept a box of Trojans right next to his bed, still in a plastic shopping bag. Every man’s way of feigning seduction. Covering for his intentions. A regrettable attempt at pretending there might be some chance to a late night fuck, but sometimes, there were women who believed him.

And Brianna began to scream, WHO ARE WE? right about the same time that the dog’s high pitched yelps found their way to my room. That savage old man pummeling his faithful dog. Such a miserable disguise of friendship, and I pressed my way through the noise, genie out of the bottle, and Brianna’s screams kept on, wooden frame thumping, protests of a confused blanket left to fall to the floor.

And when I came, Brianna’s pleasant shuddering did nothing.

Touched me in no small way.

Eyes closed, and her face couldn’t have brought back anything to save the situation.

Just as I had always imagined it.

And without a chance to lie together, Brianna stood up.

Lifted herself off the futon and searched for her panties.

I watched from a half-reclined position.

Next door, nothing changed. I could still hear the old man and his dog.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Back to Sandy’s place,” she said, slipping into her jeans.

Brianna’s shirt was still lifted over her breasts.

She didn’t notice.

“I once had a dream about a cat named Sandy,” I told her. “Scratched me up pretty good…”

Brianna looked down at me. That angelic sheen had vanished.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Why would you do this to your best friend?”

I sat up. “My best friend?”

“Why would you do this?”

“Brian ain’t my best friend,” I said. “Sister, you’ve been away a long time.”

A monstrous yell from next door.

Couldn’t figure how Brianna hadn’t noticed, said something.

Tears joined what would be our first and final fight.

“Poor Brian,” she said.

“Don’t cry.”

“What do you mean, don’t cry?”

“Don’t cry over that piece of shit.”

Brianna snatched her purse off the ground and left the room, white hair trailing behind. I leaped from the futon. Didn’t have much to put on in the way of clothes. Made it to the elevators in time to stop the doors from swallowing her whole.

It was louder out there, the noise from 18G.

Brianna was pressed into a corner, arms crossed. Eyes a watercolor smear. Dark circles anticipating sleepless nights.

“Let go of the doors, Lucky.”

“I’m sorry I fucked up your side of reality…”

It wasn’t what I meant to say, but there was no time to make amends.

Brianna turned her back, voice muffled. “You’re a terrible friend.”

“No such thing as a good one, Brianna.”

“You’re a horrible, fucking excuse for a friend…”

I let go of the elevator. “Brianna…”

She turned, waiting.

“…What was your nightmare? Seriously, what did that to you?”

The doors shut before Brianna could throw her purse at me.

I heard the hollow sound of impact against the gray steel.

I was drunk.

Drunk and tired, empty hallway still under assault of the old man beating his dog.

I stopped at the door to 18G. Contemplated a knock. Action, putting a stop to this once and for all.

There was a stupendous crash.

A yelp.

A body dropping to the ground.

Silence more sinister than any disturbance I’d heard since moving next door.

And it kept on. And on.

Then, splitting the rails , I heard the old man wail. Anguish bled through his door and into the hallway. The old man wailed again. Then he screamed. He screamed, and screamed, and slowly, the screams were disrupted. I think sobs followed, the sound of pulp and damp eyes, but it was time I took this party to my own room.

I lay on my back the entire night. Brianna’s exceptional smell, still lingering. Listening to the old man’s vocal chords rip apart. Screams that shook the walls, resonated, and despite my heroic decision to do nothing, shadows took on shapes I didn’t want to see. Hideous teardrops traveled down the walls, all the time trying not to imagine the old man’s fists pressed against his head, kneeling over the body of his beautiful brown dog. He cried and cried and cried, and somehow, I fell asleep.

***

When I awoke, everything was quiet.

Nothing but the sounds of the city.

I glanced at the clock.

Eight in the am.

I rolled out of bed. Had a beer and stared out the window through cigarette smoke. Glanced over to the foot of the futon and saw Brianna’s panties. Morning light revealed Snoopy cartoons dancing across a background of black cotton.

Hard to feel any sort of pride.

But I had known someone years ago who might have.

I hung her underwear on the doorknob.

Showered.

Dressed, dismayed that I had lost more weight.

Put another notch in my belt.

Threw on my tie, and prepared myself for anther double shift.

Once in the hallway, I paused by the door to 18G.

Once again, I thought about knocking.

I didn’t.

Put my head against the burgundy wood, listening.

No sound.

Nothing.

Then, from somewhere beyond the door, barely audible through the cracks, came whimpering. Soft and gentle. At least, I thought I heard whimpering.

There was honestly nothing left to hope for anymore.

A door opened behind me.

I straightened myself out, strode to the elevator and pressed the arrow. Another tenant joined me, repeated the ritual. We didn’t say anything. Weren’t even waiting for the other to speak. The hallway remained flat and unchanging. Behind all those walls, everything else continued, almost the same, but not quite as it ever was.

I thought about Brian and found myself smiling for the first time in…

Three, four years?

The elevator arrived and I stepped in, doors sliding shut behind me.

And the radio that morning had assured us all that it was going to be a lovely day.

 

 

MoJo.

 

He wore his sport coat like a cape. Face all the worse for gravity’s ongoing story. Thin red lips stenciled across pancake batter, triplicate chins that spilled over a black bolo tie. Silver shock of greasy hair combed back towards sloping shoulders. Twin thistles arched over eyes with no apparent iris.

MoJo would hobble into Creole Nights, led by the scent of an empty seat. Find a perch with some difficulty. His massive gut kept him from sliding in, so he would sit with his legs to the side. Light a thin cigarillo. Order a carafe of sake. No reflection to speak of; his head hanging far below the horizon of barback bottles. Couldn’t prove he wasn’t a vampire. No way to prove he was a Navy Seal, either. All I had was his word that he was one of those two, and not a monster.

I never got the lowdown on where he was from. Where he lived. How old he was. Married, divorced, widower. Wasn’t sure of anything other than a single exchange one night in the dog’s asshole of summertime.

MoJo caught me staring past an empty drink.

He motioned for Zephyr to send a little extra heat my way.

I ended up with a helping of sake and that beady stare of his.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Your welcome.” His voice was raspy. Ludicrously high on the octave, especially for a man his size.

He began to pour into his ochoko.

Hand shaking, giving the bar more than its share.

I took the carafe from his hand and poured.

Set it down, poured my own.

I raised my glass. “Thanks again.”

“Yeah.”

I took the unwelcomed warmth down my throat. Bitter and recriminating. The grateful taste of bad leftovers.

I poured myself another.

Caught MoJo barely sipping on his.

Ripples of a damp August heat had made their way underground. Glistening dewdrops along the foreheads of regulars, clinging to the breasts of irregular women and the necks of dangerous parasites.

MoJo wasn’t sweating. His face one sweeping Saharan wasteland.

I pointed to my carafe. “There’s nothing refreshing about this shit.”

He nodded. “Got a taste for it when I was stationed in Japan for a spell.”

“Be sure and thank it for me.”

We drank for a while. Had another round. I poured both our helpings, lit our smokes.

He began to cough. Hacking away, jaw tearing at the seams.

A nearby table of bachelorettes turned up the volume on their conversation. Shared glances and omigods.

“You all right?” I asked.

He wiped a bit of saliva from his chin. Extracted a pocket square and cleaned his hands. Reached for his drink. “You know, it wasn’t Kennedy that created the Seals.”

“Sorry if you think I ever said so.”

He gulped down his sake. Hands on a more even keel, he poured himself another. “It was the UDTs in Korea that really got it going. They refined their skills. Expanded. Wasn’t just mine demolition anymore. Moved inland. Bridges, tunnels, railroads.”

“Yeah?”

“And all of it started with the Sea Bees. World War II. My father was there. D-Day. Normandy. Omaha Beach. Didn’t luck out like the boys at Utah.”

“Yeah?”

“Got my training back in ’62. Coronado. Me and my buddies set foot in Vietnam before anyone even knew there was going to be a war. Marines can go to hell. First to fight my ass.”

“Yeah.”

“Runs in my blood…” Mojo closed his eyes, gave his enormous head a shake. “Born to kill.”

I didn’t say anything. Had some sake.

“Think it’s not as real as all that?” he asked.

I didn’t answer.

“You want to tell me I did what I had to do…” He couldn’t bring his face to register the accusation. Made do with making his cigarillo sneer a bright red. “Tell me what’s what. What’s right. Help me rationalize. Make it good. Make it acceptable to you and everyone else down here in hell.”

It wasn’t the worst of questions. “Did you do what you had to do?”

“If you’re running a raid on a village. And it’s pitch black. And you round a hut and find yourself face to face with a four-year-old boy who crawled his way out of bed for God knows what reason…” He glanced up at the clock, then back to his drink. “You got less than one second to ask yourself what happens if this kid screams and wakes up the whole goddamn place. Gives us away. Am I going to feel bad? Yes. Am I going to pray that God forgive me? Yes. Am I going to be able to have a drink with my buddies afterwards? You better fucking bet.”

The memories weren’t enough to make him sweat, but his eyes were stuck in the swamps.

I tilted my head.

He took down the last of it. “Still want to thank me for my service?”

“Wasn’t planning to.”

“Thank you.”

But he was right about one thing.

He was right about the rest of us.

Even me.

“So what?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“So you sliced and shot your way through Vietnam.”

“I killed women,” he told me. Beaded raindrops all along his hideous face . “I killed children. Women and children.”

“And now it’s over.”

“It never is,” he said.

“Killing. You must be done.”

“I still do it,” he said.

I took another look at his overweight figure. “You think you do.”

“I train,” he said. “I train others. Young men. Lots of men. I tell them what I did. I tell them what I did wrong. And I teach them how to do it better. So much better than we were, and we were the best… Someday, they will be too. Better than we ever were.”

“Can you really kill better?”

“You can.” He reached out to touch the ashtray. Just touch it with a single, clubbed finger. “Because that’s what I am. It’s what I do.”

He was crying now. Rivers of saline watering his gut. Soaking into his white button-up. His whole face shone like a dying puddle.

I wasted several seconds searching for something else to say.

`“Stop making sense,” he told me. “Don’t make sense, because what comes next won’t. It just won’t bother. Stop making sense.”

“I’m going to have to go to the bathroom first.”

“Go.”

I went.

And when I came back, MoJo was asleep. Still trapped in the same position. Shoulders a little more hunched. Muscle memory assuring he wouldn’t slump over, seek any comfort. On watch, even in his dreams.

It ended the same as any other night for him.

Zephyr made his way over and snubbed his cigarillo. Tapped him on the shoulder a few times. Told him the bar was no place for sleep. Go on home, MoJo. Go home and we’ll see you tomorrow.

MoJo didn’t bother to say goodbye.

Left the way he came in. Retraced his steps back out into the jungle.

Zephyr gave me a look.

I sent it back with a request for a refill.

Our conversation left me with a taste for sake, so I ordered nothing but for well over a month, before Zephyr realized MoJo would never be coming back in.

Soon after, I walked down the stairs and saw the oversized sake warmer had been replaced with an extra seat at the bar.

I sat down. Ordered a Jack Daniel’s, and waited to see who would step in to finish MoJo’s work.

 

 

Crouched Below the Shoulders of Giants.

 

Remembering to breathe can become a back-seat priority on a dark and lonely beach. Must have been pretty damn lonely that night. One moment, I was planted in the sand, ending a liter of red and watching moonlit couples walk by. Another instant, and I was on my back, eye to eye with a curious ghost crab.

Albino shell guarding against unwanted predators.

“Hello,” I said.

The crab scuttled away, leaving me with my bookbag and empty bottle. I picked one of them up. Stood up. Legs wobbling. Slung the bag over my shoulder, second bottle of Gato hitting the small of my back. It would have to wait. I stumbled down the beach beneath a starless sky

Ran my tongue along the inside of my mouth .

Grains of sand cutting into my gums.

***

In his more settled years, Charles Bukowski owned four or five cats. Could never remember whether it was four or five. Maybe it was three. Wasn’t sure, or just plain didn’t know. Not the most pressing issue on my mind at the time. All I did know was that I was looking for some way to wash God’s litterbox off my hands, the left side of my face.

I made my way up the path, towards a random beachfront house. On either side of me, dune grass waved and rippled along with an easy wind. I muffled a cough against the sleeve of my jacket. The sand stuck to my lips. I spat into the dunes, kept on my way.

The gate was open.

Behind me, an ocean roared softly and spread itself out over the rest of the world.

I was met with a cement oasis. Skirted the edge of the pool, watching the reflections dance. All along the wood-paneled house, windows remained unaware of my movements, empty sockets; asleep, dreams floating somewhere inside.

It was late. No one was around.

Electric spheres adorned the poolside, peeking out between trimmed hedges. Within that carefully maintained foliage, something moved. I turned to the sound of branches parting.

From out of those shadows stepped a cat, superstition silhouetted against a dim lemon peel.

“Cat,” I murmured.

Those paws crept forward. Graceful, fluid, matching the wind gust for gust. It glanced in my direction. Casually wondering why it had it had called me into existence. Wandered to the edge of the pool.

I made room for a smile. Cats had it all figured out. No question. Bukowski’s cats didn’t know he was a writer. Celebrated poet of the broken and debauched. Didn’t care about that sort of thing. All four of them must have simply prowled his house, day and night. Hunting moths and unwelcomed roaches. Bellies full.

Or at least all three of them had…

Maybe it was five.

The sound of a compact splash snapped my thoughts back to the moment.

Water churned softly towards the deep end of this moment. Drawing closer, I saw that the cat had fallen in. Its head bobbed up and down, in and out of the water, clawing at the sides. Its eyes glinted, timed in seconds.

Wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Never occurred to me that a cat would get itself into such a situation. Not when a tree, box, or some kind of cabinet would do the trick just as nicely.

Those eyes shone, went under. Shone, went under.

The cat let out a pathetic mew.

“Fuck.”

I dropped my bookbag. I heard the bottle of wine clink, buffered by a few worn notebooks. Shook my head. Went down on one reckless knee, trying to bring things into focus. The cat continued to struggle. I held out my arms, plunged them into lukewarm water.

“It’s all right,” I whispered. “Come on. I’ll get you out of here, cat.”

My hands found hold beneath its front legs. Fur matted to its body.

“All right,” I said, and slowly began to lift, a furry infant raised from the tub.

The cat barfed out a screech, thrashed wildly against my arms. Its claws awoke. Crossed my left arm and right hand. Pain shot through me, sharp and perfect.

“Ow, fuck!

Blood seeped out from beneath fresh scars. I tried to maintain my hold. With another screech, the cat threw what I had to believe was a left hook to my face. Fire spread across my right cheek.

I lost my balance. Saw the darkened house turn sideways for one remote instant before the water closed over my head. Chlorine seeped into my ears, nose, mouth. I felt the sand wash away, as movement slowed. Sounds muted. The world around me left to a void of fluid imagination.

I didn’t think to let go of the cat, and we bobbed to the surface.

Spitting water, violently pawing each other.

“GODDAMIT!” I yelled as the cat swiped again, opening the skin on my temple. “I’M TRYING TO SAVE YOU, YOU DUMB FUCKING CAT!”

The argument didn’t land and down we went. All points of the compass left for dead. Sense of direction lost in an embryonic mess, and somewhere in there I swallowed water. Fluid pathways reaching into my lungs. I rose to the surface, gasping. Blindly reached for salvation. My hand closed around the concrete lip.

Coughing, retching, I hoisted myself on all fours.

Body betraying me. Clothes soaked through.

I gagged, vomited. Tasting the wine, seeing the red spread out in a shapeless birthmark. No food in there. There hadn’t been any food for a while. Leading me to wonder what the fuck I was doing.

From behind me, a voice echoed my very thoughts. “What the fuck are you doing?”

I couldn’t summon the strength to look up. Retched. The taste of chemicals tingled in my mouth. Saltine oxygen flowed into me, and I collapsed, rolled onto my back.

Standing above me was a girl with only one eye.

At least, to the best of my knowledge. The right one was covered with a white pad, held in place by intersecting pieces of medical tape. I locked my bloodshot sights on the bright blue that remained, cold and accusing.

She looked to be around fifteen. In her arms was the cat, calm and content.

“What kind of sick fuck are you?” she asked. “Trying to drown my cat?”

I coughed, tasting bile. “No…”

She didn’t say anything. Body cocooned by an indigo bathrobe.

Nearby, the ocean called me home.

I sat up, and she backed away.

“Don’t you fucking touch me!”

“Touch you?” The world went spinning, a deserted funhouse. “What are you talking about? I’m not going to do anything to you.”

“What were you doing with my cat?”

I stood up, slowly. Water squeezed from of my shoes in arterial spurts.

She backed up some more. “What were you doing to my cat?”

“I was trying to save it,” I said. Clothes soaked, weighing me down. “It fell in the pool, I thought it was going to drown.”

“Sandy likes to swim, asshole. She wasn’t drowning.”

“Is that its name?”

“What?”

“Sandy. Is that your cat’s name?”

“Yeah.”

Blood dripped into my eye. I blinked. “Well, Sandy looked like she could use a little help. I thought cats couldn’t swim.”

“What the fuck do you know about cats?”

She drilled into me, single eye luminous and unforgiving. Her brown hair was held up in a ponytail. One strand had managed to free itself, hanging loosely in front of the DIY patch.

Suddenly, I remembered something:

“I know Charles Bukowski had five of them in his more settled years…”

“Who the fuck is Charles Bukowski?”

“A writer.”

“I don’t read books.”

Sandy remained pressed against her.

Shiny oil slick against her robe.

I ran a hand down my face.

“You should be more careful,” she said.

“I know. I’m not very good at that.”

“I can tell that about you.”

“I know.”

“What can you tell about me?”

For the first time in years, I knew for certain there was a question that had only one possible answer. “I can tell you know a lot about cats.”

The girl gave nothing away.

“Sandy scratched you up pretty good,” she observed.

I looked down at my hands. They were covered with diluted blood. “I guess she did.”

I thought I saw her smile.

Wind swept past us, irritating the scratches on my face and arms.

Her bathrobe caught the breeze, lifted. Up past her knees, thighs, exposing blue panties adorned with white flowers.

She dropped the cat, Sandy, and flattened the robe. Done with what the wind had momentarily revealed. We stood at a distance, her hands pressed between her legs.

“Well, it serves you right,” she said. Bent over and picked up her cat, turning around.

Something wasn’t right. “Hey, wait.”

The girl turned about, staring me down as best she could. She looked sad. Sad and small, standing in the testimony of a collapsing moon, cat pressed close to her breast.

They bore an alarming resemblance to each other.

Nose, mouth, expression; practically identical with one exception…

“What happened to your eye?”

The girl blinked. “Which one?”

A wave crashed nearby. I saw her swallow.

“Never mind,” I said.

The girl bit her lip and walked away.

I stood for a while longer, face awash with blood and water. The wind carried with it a scent of curious shores. Time being, the water had taken care of the sand and I would have to find a place to sleep. I wandered out to the beach. Searching for God only knew. Up and down the coast, only houses and apartments with redacted windows. In quiet bedrooms, children slept, chased by dolls and paper demons.

I was only twenty and the only thing I knew about cats was that Charles Bukowski had owned five of them.

In his more settled years.

The bottle of wine dug against my back, reminding me.

Net wt. 26 oz.

 

 

The Sight of An Empty Glass.

 

I was in running out the last few weeks of my lease, down in Verona town, when I heard the news.

Inside a bottle when the phone rang.

Hadn’t heard from Wanda since the morning my train went missing.

Didn’t even know she had the landline number.

“So all of a sudden, we’re friends again,” I said.

“Finley died,” she replied.

“What?”

“Finley died.”

It was 2002. Two-thirty in the am. Just two weeks shy of moving back to New York. A few months past the psychopath who tore down my kitchen door looking for a man by the name of Julian Applebee. With one cigarette nearly done, I lit another. Chain reaction. Took a hit of Kentucky Gentleman. “What?”

“Finley died.”

Francis, Finley?”

“Bartender Finley, yes.”

“Train? Mugger? Cop?”

“Heart attack.”

“He was thirty-one.”

“Yeah.”

“How the fuck does a thirty-one year old in peak physical condition…” I waited for her to fill in the blanks. Gave up. “What now?”

“I don’t know.”

I reached for the fifth of Gentleman.

Popped the cap, watched it spin circles on the floor.

Took a hit.

Remembered who I was talking to.

“So how are you?”

“Nevermind me,” she said. “Are you ok?”

I absently adjusted my crotch. “Fine.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Same old Lucky, then.”

“How are Janet and Remy?”

“Getting divorced.”

I sighed. “Yeah, seems about where it’s all headed.”

“Focus, Lucky.”

“Finley died?”

“The services are this weekend.”

“I don’t get back to New York until March.”

“I heard.”

“Me too… Guess I’ll have to stop by The Bishop and pay my respects.”

“Want to give me a call when you get there?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a liar.”

“So are you.”

“You’re better at it.”

“Finley is dead?”

“He’s dead, Lucky. Have an emotion, why don’t you?”

I tapped the ash. Had another hit. “Ok. Thanks for calling.”

“You’re welcome, I guess.”

I didn’t know what else to do with her.

Hung up. Drank up. Had another cigarette and watched the shadows turn.

Forgot to cry that night, though I can’t say I remembered to write anything either.

***

I wandered into the Bishop.

Shane didn’t bat an eye. Tossed a coaster with a cautious Welcome back.

“Good to see you, Shane.”

“Yeah.”

He went about sidestepping. “What’s your drink these days?”

“Could stand a gin and tonic, if you’re headed that way.”

He nodded. Bypassed the usual chalices reserved for mixed drinks and served it up in a decent rocks glass.

“Thank you.”

He lit my cigarette, eyebrows twitching. Pair of caterpillars finding their way, any way to broach the subject. “You heard about Finley, then?”

I had a drink. Nodded.

“Yeah…” Shane put his hands in his pockets. “Service was beautiful, though.”

“Sorry I missed it.”

He leaned into the bar. “Come on. Don’t think you can hide in here. This is where we are.”

“How the fuck does a man his age die of a heart attack?” I asked.

“No secret. Fond of the white stuff, son. Got his ticker going too much, I’m afraid.”

“Goddammit.”

“Look who’s here, though.”

I glanced askance.

It was never too hard to spot Wanda. In a crowd, across a room, from seven blocks away. Blonde curls, blue eyes that shone like transparent dimes in dark hammocks, resting on her behalf. Soft features, pale lips like pink carnations.

And there she was. Striding in with the force of a category five. White shirt and blue jeans. Hips displacing entire galaxies. Green satchel thrown on the bar as she stood, waiting.

I stared.

“At least a hug,” Wanda said.

I stood. We fell into each other. Ran our hands along aching backs.

I closed my eyes and breathed in her neck.

But these things never ended well, and we split the difference.

“So you thought you’d give New York a second chance,” she said.

“Found a Post-it note on a stray dog… kind of had to come back.”

“I suppose you think I want to hear that story now.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“Because I don’t,” she said. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“I missed you.”

“Want me to say the same?”

“Wanda. Can I buy you a drink?”

She nodded.

Sat down.

We drank, smoked for a good few minutes.

“What are you smiling about?” she asked.

“I wasn’t smiling.”

“You were.”

“Is that what that was?”

“Tell me.”

I hesitated.

Wanda took that moment to shanghai my thoughts. Stepped in with her own brand of courage. “I’m not saying I didn’t want to go home with Finley,” she said. Smokey voice, Kentucky accent never straying too far from the campfire. “He was a beautiful looking man. Or maybe he was just how he was, I ain’t never been one to tell the difference… But the last time I saw him, I just wasn’t in the mood. He was closing up, house lights up and all that. I told him no. He agreed. But as we rounded the bar, he met me at the door…” She took back her Jack Daniel’s. “He reached out, grabbed my hand, and pressed it against his jeans, against his cock, said, Sister, you’re going to say NO to THIS?” She smiled sadly.“Of course, I’m not doing the accent right.”

“I think it’s fine.”

“You’re the only person I know who wouldn’t get angry he did that.”

“I just like a good story.”

“Not going to fuck it up by saying he molested me?”

“Did he?”

She put out her Camel. Lit another. “Got chased up a set of stairs once by a boyfriend who carried a .38.”

“I know.”

“So he was bold. He was brash. He was uncalled for. But he was also some kind of wonderful.”

“Yes.”

“When people die, the rest of us get to agree on things.” She drank deep. Did everything deep, that was Wanda.

She kicked the duffle bag by my chair. “Now that I’ve done the heavy lifting, it’s your turn.”

“Want to take a belt of Jack with me?”

“Yes.”

Shane served it up.

I looked down the bar. Saw a couple crying into their Guinnesses.

I toyed with my gin and tonic. “Long as you’re trying to make me jealous,” I lit a cigarette, “and I suspect you are not,” took a drag. Sent smoke into the air, remembering. “Was drinking here one night, and struck up a conversation with a girl. She was a nurse, it turns out. Dark skin. Italian in origin, some one or two generations past Ellis, but a New Yorker, through and through. We made out at the bar. This bar, how about that?” I did that smiling thing, whatever that was supposed to look like. “On the cab ride back to her apartment she stopped to pick up a six pack of Red Stripe. We drank and smoked at her place. Got it on. She fell asleep while we were having sex. I came right about as I noticed this, and left myself with a sky of empty thoughts.”

“Mm.” She signaled for another Jack, rocks. Our shots remained untouched. “I love the feeling of a man coming inside me. Strange sensation, but it’s a specific touch.”

“We should have,” I said.

“I’m not happy about how it ended.”

“The part where it ended, or the part where we got into a screaming match over who got to give the other oral sex?”

“We should have taken our predilections for what they were, 69ed for a bit, then fucked.”

“And now we’ll never know.”

“Yes.”

“Missed my train, thanks to you.”

“Go on with your story about Finley that’s somehow about you.”

“Huh.” I signaled for another gin and tonic. Got what I needed. “We woke up, got dressed. Turns out we were on the West Side, across from the UN. She took me to a bar. Bought me four Bloody Mary’s, two shrimp cocktails. Guess that’s what I liked best about that afternoon, was that someone, for once, actually wanted to take care of me. We sat, smoked. She gave me her number. I wanted to call her, but I was so fucked up in those days…”

“Yes. Sure. Those days.”

“Yes…” I had a drink. Struggled against the glare of the television screens. “One month later, she was back in the bar. We talked. Did some shots. Tequila. Started making out. I walked her outside. She hailed a cab. Wanted us to go home together, but she kind of stopped short. Told me, said, You never called. I didn’t have any defense, and I don’t think it mattered. She was seeing someone now. And she got in the cab and disappeared.”

I cleared my throat. Wanda took it as a sign and offered me a Camel.

Sparked the match and everything.

“Well… ” I sighed, “Walked back into this old place and sat my ass down. Finley came on over and asked what happened, how the fuck had I managed to screw that one up? Told him she told me I never called. He walked away. Popped the register. Came back at me and slapped his hand on the counter. Here’s a fucking quarter, Lucky, he said. Got a payphone in the back and everything, you fucking idiot. Next time ask me for one, it’s just twenty-five fucking cents.”

“Ha.”

“Yes.”

“Finley.”

“And now he’s dead.”

Wanda reached out to rub my back.

I brushed some hair that had found its way between her lips.

Found the time to run my thumb along her mouth.

She turned back to her drink. “I am seeing someone now, Lucky.”

I gave my drink its own due. “Yeah.”

“Same old.”

“Yeah.”

“Same deal though?”

I nodded. “You die first, I take all your stories and get them published.”

“Same goes for you…” She smiled. “Though you seem to be on your way up. Soon to be published, and all that.”

“There’s nothing I can’t fuck up.”

She agreed.

We remembered Finley and drank, hours growing heavy.

“Didn’t we almost have it all though?” I asked. “You and I?”

“Almost.”

“Or at the very least, most of it.”

“Almost.”

I nodded.

She reached for her shot.

I did the same.

Well, I broke down in East St. Louis,” she recited.

On a Kansas City line,” I replied.

And I drunk up all my money,”

That I borrowed every time.”

We toasted. Took the shots down.

“I’m going to leave before I fall in love with you again,” she said.

I doubled over, silently. “You could stay and do the same.”

“Or we could both stay and fall in love with Finley… but he’s dead.”

I nodded. Polished off my gin and tonic. “You should have gone home with him that night.”

“You should have called that girl.”

“Either one would’ve make a hell of a good story.”

“Race you,” she said.

And the distance between us swelled.

Could swear I heard the ocean in my glass.

“I do love you,” I told her.

“One of these days, I’ll believe you,” she said. “I promise.”

“One last kiss?”

“No.”

“Hug, then.”

“It’s too much…” She shouldered her satchel and walked away.

The door didn’t hit her ass on the way out, and nobody noticed my vacant expression.

I sat down.

Shane approached me, pointed. “You want another one?”

“There’s not another Wanda on this whole fucking planet.”

“I meant a drink, son.”

I nodded.

Shane reached for the gin. “Finley never could stand the sight of an empty glass.”

My eyes overcompensated in wet recollections and tears poured down my face.

Watered the bar.

It was ok, though. I wasn’t alone.

“Cheer up, son.” Shane put a caring hand on my shoulder. “Finley loved you.”

“You’re a liar.”

“I’m a bartender.”

“So was Finley.”

Shane sighed. Withdrew his hand and reached under the bar. “I know.” He served me up a gin and tonic. “We’re going to keep these drinks between you and me tonight, right, son?”

“Thank you.”

Didn’t realize it, but there was a fresh bullet of Jack before me.

Another one for Shane.

“You’re not supposed to drink on the job.”

“This ain’t my job.”

We toasted.

And I started thinking about where the fuck I was going to live now.

Sunset Park some two weeks before a rearview mirror.

 

 

God Had Other Plans.

 

I was halfway through the explanation, when those Latin hips slid close for a swift intervention. Corrected my posture, now dangerously slumped in a booth of dirty, cracked upholstery. Nose dipping into my tequila. She directed my face towards hers. Spanish words pantomimed under the blast of Reggaeton. Whether checking for a pulse or cruising for a kiss, I moved on in, closing my eyes and preparing my lips for the color of blue agave, when suddenly

I opened my eyes.

A pair of black, fuzzy ears were staring back at me.

Cat’s body, curled up against my face.

I couldn’t move just yet. Except for my eyes. Searching from the foot of the couch. Up to the walls. Stilted angles suggesting the floor as my final resting place. Half my mouth pressed against the wood. Mind shattered into derelict fragments.

This wasn’t a hangover.

This was a whole new world of pain.

Felt the feeling return to my legs. Spread to my pelvis, nerve endings like poisoned rose petals.

Rolled onto my back.

Open invitation for the cat to awaken.

She set her paws on my chest and began to lick my face.

“Why?” I croaked, sitting up.

The room took me for a ride. Forced my head down against an awaiting couch. Soft surface insufficient to cushion the pain. Chalkboard arias dragging their nails along my vertebrae.

I was two minutes from pissing my pants, ‘less I could wrangle all my parts.

Get something going.

I stood. Managed to waste a good minute remaining that way.

Checked the windows and recognized a seven a.m. shade of grey.

I was led to the bathroom by a single shoe and a filthy blue sock.

Left leg, right leg.

Still off balance, mistaking the door for the ceiling.

Sat my ass down, tucked and pissed.

Shook it off.

Stood. Worked my way towards the sink.

Washed my hands.

Glanced into the mirror.

Half my face crusted in dried blood.

Glanced down.

Not a trace of red on my hands, beneath my nails. No signs in the sink.

Pretty good chance I hadn’t killed anyone last night.

Good enough reason for a second look.

Yes. I had an superb masquerade going on.

Hard to tell what the source was.

Ran my hands beneath the water and bent low. Began to dab and caress my way towards closure. Watched the rusted colors swirl down the drain, getting a thick cocktail of blood and water along my lips. A taste of what I couldn’t remember. Straightened. Took a closer look at what was still my face.

A searing gash had extended my left eyebrow one good inch further down my temple. Skin split. Fully cauterized, but still gaping in a dark red smile.

That explained the pain. Disorientation. Nausea.

Didn’t explain much else.

Too many questions to put the pieces together.

Or not enough pieces to warrant enough questions.

I stumbled back to the couch.

Actually managed to nail the landing this time.

The cat followed me, zeroed in. Sniffed around.

“You were licking my blood,” I told her. “Never again.”

Closed my eyes.

The cat began to meow in my ear.

Not enough to keep me from spiraling.

Not enough to make me wonder if sleeping was really the best idea with a possible concussion.

Never mind.

***

Didn’t dream.

Woke up around noon.

A quarter pressed against my cheek.

Sent an arm out towards the bridge table. Got myself a cigarette. Couldn’t find a lighter. Remembered a pink one stashed in my book bag.

But I couldn’t find my book bag.

Gone.

Had I been jumped on the way home?

Taken for all I had?

I checked my pockets.

There was my driver’s license. Credit card. Business card belonging to an alcoholic magician. A couple of coupons from the local Gristedes. A pair of nearly identical receipts. My vision blurred. Now four receipts. Went to the kitchen. Turned on the electric stove. Opened the fridge. Pulled a 22 of Corona, too early for wine or rum. Popped the top. Had a few tugs. Caught the burners turning red. Bent low, lit my cigarette.

Back to the living room. Sat and gave the receipts a second look, now sticking to their story.

Both from El Mercurio.

One for fifty-eight dollars.

Time stamped at 5:18 a.m.

The second for twelve-fifty.

Clocking in at 6:20.

I took a swig of Corona.

Let a trail of smoke into my lungs.

Noticed a trail of blood leading from the door to my point of impact.

“What the fuck happened after midnight?” I whispered.

The cat jumped off the table and replied with a request for more food.

***

Northwest corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street.

El Mercurio was closed.

At least since six-twenty that morning, anyway…

I walked along 5th. Searching for any signs of my busted forehead.

Said my hellos to a couple of Dominicans waiting for the bus, just outside the Tap Room.

Figured a subway ride and a few drinks might just jog my memory…

***

The early afternoon drunks told me to get stitches.

Rowan served me a Corona and knocked on the counter. “Think you got rolled, then, Lucky?”

“Maybe.”

“Didn’t take your money?”

“Didn’t have no money.”

“ID? Credit cards?”

I smacked my ass. “Right where I left ‘em.”

“Just your bookbag?”

“Just my bookbag.”

“Anything important in there?”

“Notebooks.”

“Anything important in those?”

“Don’t remember.”

Reilly laughed. Moved in from two seats away. Blue eyes bloodshot and half dead, deep implants along a five-o-clock babyface. “The writer doesn’t remember what he’s written down!”

“I write it down so I don’t have to remember.”

He slapped my back.

DayGlo amoebas went spinning before my eyes.

Cleared the way for a pair of Yeager shots.

“You all right there?” Rowan asked.

I tossed back my shot. “Fine.”

“Really.”

“Fine.”

“You call the cops?”

“They’ll probably just blame me,” I said. “Can’t, even if I wanted to.”

“How’s that.”

“Can’t afford to get my name run. Not after impersonating Alex in that Red Hook courthouse.”

Reilly laughed again. “I remember that! How about it, Lucky? I remember that day!”

I gave him due appreciation.

Rowan paused. “Brigid was asking about you the other day.”

I pointed towards my eye. “Been busy.”

“Sure.”

“What do you want from me?”

Reilly swayed in his seat, into my orbit. “How’d you remember most of it?”

“I told you, I don’t. That’s why I write the shit down –”

“I mean last night, dummy. How do you remember last night?”

I brought the bottle to my forehead and did my best to remember.

Took a running start.

 

Ok. Walked into Castlebar yesterday. New guy was there. Asked me what I wanted. Corner of my eye, ears, whatever, a voice pipes up, Double of Jack on the rocks. I turn to find a chick with nubby hair, black frames, and dark, shiny skin. It’s Anika. Who I haven’t seen since the day after we slept together back in early ’99. We met at Creole Nights. Helena wasn’t too wild about it. This was before we were together, but that’s no excuse, really. I had told her I would go to her place after leaving the bar, and instead –

 

“Focus, Lucky.”

 

I get my double of Jack. Sit down beside her. We catch up. Turns out she has no qualms about our one-night stand. Even throws me a couple of sly compliments. Can’t say they had any basis in reality, but can’t say they didn’t do their part to make me smile. Just a bit. Remember thinking what this coincidence might mean. Why now? Maybe I read too much into it. Maybe I think I deserved more than I do. Either way, five doubles later and I move in for a kiss. Manage to land one on her cheek. Boyfriend, it turns out. She gives me her business card in lieu of meaning. I stay and watch the changing of the guard.

 

“Shit,” Rowan laughed, offered up another beer. Twin engines of Yeager for Reilly and me. “That was you.”

It was enough to get me mixing my tenses.

 

Not sure. Seventy-five percent chance? I was pretty well buzzed. Confused. Not sure. You have to understand, it was pretty awful what I did to Helena. But what Anika and I did, no regrets. So what was I left with? I caught the first N train down to Sunset Park. Up 34th. Along Fifth Ave. Knew most of those beer joints along that way. Never enough to get to familiar with anyone. Noticed the bar.

 

“He noticed the bar,” Reilly laughed. “The one with the receipts.”

 

Complicated system. Walk in through the doors. A ratty store front with a counter full of wedding cakes. Cup cakes. Paddy Cakes. Have to go to the end of the room. Turn right through a set of double doors and then you end up in a ramshackle canteen. Arena for pool tables on the left. Poorly constructed bar all down the right side. I sat down. Mexican beauty behind the bar automatically talks to me in Spanish. Doesn’t ask for ID. Serves up a Corona. Leans forward, bangs hanging. Intertwining with her mascara. Asks me what brought me in there. I tell her, in Spanish, best I could, that I wanted an experience. Wanted the night to mean something… Then she was next to me. We drank a few beers before hitting the pool table. She brought a friend of hers into the mix. I kept missing my pockets, nothing but cushion. Not my best game. Possibly my worst. Every time I went down behind the cue, they’d draw close. Whisper. Run their hands along their bodies and wink. Smile. Lick their lips.

 

The barflies all knew my name. Barked it out with solid approval. Forgetting that I had been knocked off my axis, crash landed back in their bar with a massive headache and a gash along my face.

 

Problem with you assholes is I agree. Felt so close to something. A reward. Wild night of threesomes and moresomes. On the fucking floorsomes. Goddammit, that need for a fucking story to tell. What the hell does God want from me?

 

Rowan tilted his head. “Lucky?”

 

I don’t even know if Anika, or Helena, or anything resembling regret was there. Backing up my drinks. All of us, we were seated in that booth. Ratty booth, brown vinyl. Table on an erratic wobble. Clubbed feet. Half our drinks spilling over the top. Leaving sticky trails. Rancid fingertips sticky with the smell of well. Downing shots. I remember being happy, thinking there was still some life left in this city. Still some stories to tell. That was when my lady asked me to explain myself. What a mongrel like me was doing divvying up my time between Spanish, English. Killing his liver in a Sunset Park dive, and I swear she asked me if she would ever see me again, like all the others.

 

“Like all who?” Rowan asked.

 

I was halfway through the explanation, when those Latin hips slid close for a swift intervention. Corrected my posture, now dangerously slumped in a booth of dirty, cracked upholstery. Nose dipping into my tequila. She directed my face towards hers. Spanish words pantomimed under the blast of Reggaeton. Whether checking for a pulse or cruising for a kiss, I moved on in, closing my eyes and preparing my lips for the color of blue agave, when suddenly

 

For a moment, I caught a glimpse of what lay beyond my last known moments. I saw a pale and frightening figure, clad in wild red tattoos and nothing else, flames leaping from open wounds, burning so bright that the darkness turned to light, bright and blinding, sending my mind into a sharp up-tempo seizure.

Eradicating Castlebar and all its lonely inhabitants from my broken little mind.

***

There was a minute there, where the train came to life. I woke up and the ceiling started breathing. Advertisements for laser eye surgery and shady class action lawyers worming inward. Walls like tin foil. Puffing back out in munificent distortion. In again. Out again. I took a swig of an inexplicably fresh bottle of rum. Absently touched the scar on my forehead and found the pain too much for my vision to agree with.

***

I opened my eyes.

A pair of black, fuzzy ears were staring back at me.

Cat’s body, curled up against my face.

I couldn’t move just yet. Except for my eyes. Searching from the foot of the couch. Up to the walls. Stilted angles suggesting the floor as my final resting place. Half my mouth pressed against the wood. Mind shattered into derelict fragments.

I sat up. “No. Not again.”

Went to the mirror in the bathroom.

Not happy with what I saw, but pleased enough to find no traces of blood.

No temporal loop.

No reset button.

It was good enough for me, peachy keen.

I let it slide, made up for unaccounted hours with another face plant into blue cushions.

This time, the cat ignored me.

***

Woke up.

Had myself a beer, cigarette.

All aches and pains subsiding. The worst over and done with, I had to hope.

Tried to peer past another set of lost memories.

It was Monday. Noon in Sunset Park.

Maybe I could finally pay El Mercurio a long overdue visit.

***

I walked past the pastry bar. Caught the eyes of a wary baker with bright tattoos. Behind him, one of the ovens gaped angrily, red hot irons from within. Kept moving.

Turned and went into the bar.

The daylight hours gave colors new meaning.

What was once a collage of jealous greens, purple and mellow yellows had now turned to a sandy tone of monochromatic pastels. Not a single patron to be seen. Barman I didn’t recognize. Locked in rapid fire conversation with a mustached man in a white tank top, seated at a nearby table, thumbing through stacks of flattened presidents.

From the doorway, I cleared my throat.

They stopped. Turned. Stared.

I heard the oven slam shut.

Glanced down and noticed my shoelace was untied.

Cleared my throat again.

Decided on English as a first language. “I’m looking for my bookbag.”

Their stares hardened.

I tried again. “I was here two nights ago. Saturday night. I think I might have left –”

“Get out,” the bartender said.

I shifted the weight from my left to my right. “I think I might have left my bookbag here.”

“We told you last night,” the bartender insisted. “There ain’t nothing here.”

“It was Saturday,” I told them. “It was Saturday I was here.”

“We took care of this last night, little man.”

A forgotten cigarette sent a smokescreen across the bar. Nearby fan creaking in a slow shake of its head.

Didn’t know why, but the bartender hated me. Eyes contemplating murderous scenarios.

I asked again, this time, in Spanish.

And this really pissed the bartender off.

Got him moving around the bar.

I remembered my brother. That bar in Tijuana. The Mexican who sent his nose halfway into his face with one solid kiss from a meaty fist.

Prepared myself.

Saw the man in charge of their bankroll hold up a hand.

Giving me what couldn’t have been more than a thirty-second lease on the situation.

“Better do what he says, friend.” He stood up. Maybe hoping I’d see the nickel-plated piece sticking out of his pants. Maybe just looking to make it plain as day he was only seven or so steps away from where I stood. “Just keep your mouth shut and don’t come around no more.”

Whatever it was I didn’t remember, it was clearly the only reason I was still alive.

I nodded. “Just wanted to make sure.”

Turned, invisible bullets shattering my spine with every step I took.

They never bothered to take it that far.

***

I walked out of that makeshift bar with no bookbag and less answers.

Everyone on the street a potential enemy.

Stopped wondering what it was God wanted from me, and tied my shoelace.

Both of them. Just in case the other decided to come undone.

I made my way up 41st street, waiting for the next domino to fall.

 

 

Psychopath.

 

Aces was halfway through a glass of water when the doorbell rang.

He undid the deadbolt. Removed the chain. Opened the door.

Tarquin was hovering near the entrance, jeans and a black cap.

“You’re late,” Aces told him.

“Game didn’t break up ‘til one.”

“Did you win?”

“I’m up three hundred.”

Aces nodded. “Come in.”

Tarquin unzipped his leather jacket, stepped through the threshold. Aces closed the door to his studio apartment, and together, they readied the table. Laid down the buy-in. Chips distributed, clay pigeons stacked like tiny silos. Aces poured himself another glass of water. Tarquin took a seat. He pulled a pack of Camels from his pocket, popped one in his mouth.

Aces stared him down through oval frames, “Tarquin.”

“Oh, come on…”

“I’m your elder.”

“You’re twenty-one.”

“It’s for the best.”

“Wait, these are bad for me?”

“When you bluff, you blow your smoke rings to the side.”

Tarquin adjusted his cap. “Liar.”

“Every time. Put it away.”

“Come bluff, or cold?”

“Put it away, Tarquin.”

Tarquin sheathed his cigarette. Aces popped the seal on a fresh deck of cards. Bicycle brand, blue backs. He extracted the jokers. Tossed out the rules. Shuffled the rest, each snap a deafening crack, sounds of Port Authority receding into a stalagmite skyline…

Aces dealt the first hand. Tarquin the second, and so went the minutes with no significant gain on either side. Aces managed a nice bluff on the turn. Two hands later, Tarquin took back his checks with an ace-high flush. Two hours, and they both took a break. Aces helped himself to sprouts on pita. Tarquin slithered into the stairwell, smoked a cigarette.

It was 3:25 a.m. in the city of Manhattan. The two sat back down to play.

Tarquin checked his pager.

The clock put in a good half hour. Tarquin managed to steal a fifty-dollar pot. Aces retaliated with another bluff, representing a straight with nothing but a suicide king. The cards practically dealt themselves. Aces let his ponytail out, his chestnut hair spilling past bony shoulders. Tarquin loosened his belt.

Aces popped some Beethoven into the CD player.

The duel continued.

It was Tarquin at the deal. “Do you know if Lucky’s been playing at all?”

“As far as I know, he’s still in hock from the Long Island game.”

“That was over a year ago.”

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

“Fifteen. Maybe two grand, don’t remember.”

Tarquin shook his head. “Most I ever lost in that game was a couple hundred.”

“Not his best of nights.”

Tarquin bet, Aces folded.

New round.

“You think he’ll ever get back in the game?” Tarquin asked.

“Hard to say… Lucky will always be stuck ‘til he gets over that goddamn tragic streak.”

“Imagine he’ll take any streak over nothing.”

“That’s why it’s a streak.”

“That why you always beat him?”

“That’s why it’s tragic…”

Tarquin shrugged. “Have you been back to the Long Island game since?”

Aces checked his cards. “Hell, no.”

“Wow…” Tarquin checked his own. “I know the rake’s a little unreasonable, but all in all, it’s a pretty soft seat.”

“Guess you didn’t hear.”

“Hear what?”

“They caught a cheat.”

“Yeah?”

“Evidently, this chick sits down to play, and someone figures her for a mechanic.”

“Was she working with a partner?”

“No. Got to figure she was base dealing to herself.”

“How? That game’s got a shoe.”

“I wasn’t there.” Aces bet out, fifty in purple chips.

Tarquin folded.

New shuffle.

“So what happened?” Tarquin asked.

“Way I hear it is they beat the shit out of her, took her money, dragged her to the kitchen, and burned her hands at the stove…”

“Christ.”

“Yeah, Christ. Then they sent her off into the night without a dime. Without a dime and crippled hands…”

“Shit… so we’re not going back to that game.”

“No, we’re not.”

Tarquin thought about it before dealing. “Think that really happened?”

“Hard to say… sometimes these stories hit the grapevine just to keep the swindlers away.”

“Still, though…”

“Yeah, still.”

They kept playing. Aces gained an edge with Kings up against Tarquin’s Queens.

Tarquin dealt a fresh hand. Early signs of dawn crept through the blinds. Less than a month ago, Aces would have been getting up to go to work.

“How’s it feel to be unemployed?” Tarquin asked.

“I am employed.”

“Bold statement.”

“I don’t have my mother staking me…”

“Screw you,” Tarquin spat. “Every penny I’ve won is my own, don’t even give me that bullshit.”

“Just trying to put you on tilt.”

“Well, don’t.”

“All right, relax…” Aces studied his friend, those angry eyes. “You want to take a break?”

“Fuck your break.” Tarquin’s pager went off. He checked it, set it on the table. Took the opportunity to peek at his hole cards, set them down. “You in for the Mayflower?”

“Yeah….” Aces checked his hand, waited for Tarquin to bet, then called. “Looks to be a pretty good game.”

Tarquin dealt the next three cards. “Hell of a pretty good game. Level up. I’m so fucking bored of five-ten, I could vomit.”

Aces checked the hand. Tarquin checked along, dealt the next card.

“Do you know who else is playing?” Aces asked.

“Jerry, probably.” Aces contemplated his hand, bet out. “Couple of squares from Queens. I’m guessing IQ is gonna take his shot.”

“Messner?”

“Maybe.”

“Bagels?”

“He’s on vacation.”

“We lucked out.”

“Yeah. Luck.”

Tarquin took his time, calculated his odds, called the bet. Dealt the last card. Ace of spades.

“Do you think Sally will be in the game?” Tarquin asked.

“The cancer woman?”

“Cancer, nothing. Fucking pisses me off.”

“I don’t think anyone isn’t pissed off by cancer.”

“Exactly. She just fakes to gain sympathy bets.”

“You sure about that?”

“That’s what I hear…”

“Well, you and I have lied to each other a thousand times since we sat down tonight. Winners and losers. Nature of the beast…” Aces put two stacks of fifty in the middle of the table.

“We really do have a shot at that tournament, Aces.”

“Do we?”

“Don’t we?”

“Last I checked, there’s no silver medal for second. You going to call, or are we going to call?”

Tarquin took a minute to think. Aces took a sip of water, quiet behind his glasses. Chips and cards stared up at them; kings, queens, and insignificant numbers. Tarquin pushed his chips to the center of the table.

Aces laid down his hand: “Trip fives…”

“Shit…” Tarquin tossed his cards into the muck.

The cards were collected, redistributed.

The tournament was less than twelve hours away.

***

Aces had never cared for sleep. At the least, nothing past sunset hours. Didn’t much enjoy the city’s waking hours, either. Mindless drones, the constant moan of activity. Still, this time he indulged in a few winks. He wanted to win. Wanted to grab that tournament by the throat and squeeze. With no job and his bankroll raided for rent and expenses, all he had left was riding on a first place finish.

A little rest wasn’t entirely uncalled for.

He ripped the electric clock from the wall. Killed the noise. Stared at his own eyelids for a while. The heater clicked its tongue. Aces rolled out of bed, fully clothed. Had a glass of water. He wandered into the bathroom, thought about shaving. Stared into the mirror, picturing those picturing him. Decided against it. Sat at the table. Chips just as he had left them, cards face up from their final hand.

Lot of paint laid out.

The match had ended with Aces up ten dollars. No better than breaking even, but it kept the gears oiled. Kept his merciless instincts primed for what was in store.

Aces was smarter. Better.

And he knew it. Had always known it.

A realization that was quite possibly his earliest memory.

Aces set his glass down, right next to Tarquin’s pager.

Shook his head and slipped it into his pocket.

Wandered to one of his bookshelves. He reached behind, felt around. Fingers brushing against the edges of duct tape. Reached further. His fist closed around the envelope. Tore it from the back of the case and came back with a stack of twenties, bound in a red rubber band.

Ran his fingers along his books, past the cornerstones of his education.

Skylanskies’ Poker Theory, Mike Carow’s Pro Poker Tells, Doyle Brunson’s Super System.

Skipped them all, and settled on a weathered copy of the Holy Bible.

Pages hollowed out, right down the middle.

Starting at Leviticus.

He slipped his bankroll into the carved alcove, snapped the good book shut.

Not a mugger, thug, punk or prick on this planet who would ever bother to lift a piece of literature off their victims.

Let alone this particular pack of lies.

Aces took one last look at the apartment.

With the tournament purse well within reach, it would be well over a week before he returned.

If ever.

Aces walked out the door. Locked it, headed for the stairs.

Halfway down, he saw a quarter lying on the concrete steps.

He picked it up.

Continued his decent, through the exit and into the January chill.

***

Aces was a vegan.

No meat, dairy, not even chocolate; too much of it was riddled with clandestine ingredients or rendered with animal fat.

One memorable game at the Mayflower, Aces had been called out. One of those nights where the cards ran a cold solstice. Nothing but rags. Wired aces crushed by runner-runner straights and phantom boats.

Some Jersey day trader had offered Aces two grand to eat an entire steak.

Aces had counted his chips, several hundred in the hole, then politely declined.

Tarquin had once posited the desert island scenario.

If you and I were stranded along with an animal, any animal, and no food… which one would you kill and eat first?

Aces had never answered the question, and to tell the story brought nervous laughter to lips of anyone listening. This ambivalence made the game a natural fit. A world of cutthroats, false prophets, and anyone who stepped into the ring and what was coming to them. Free from the irredeemable evils of a constricting world. Taking a seat at that table was the closest thing to a choice anyone would ever have the chance to make.

Aces strolled along the featureless buildings of Hell’s Kitchen.

Bible clutched in his left hand.

Stopped to pick up a copy of the Times.

Popped into his favorite restaurant, two blocks east of the bus station.

Entirely vegan menu, Midtown oasis.

Shiny wooden tables, lunch specials scrawled in chalk.

He ordered a bean-curd sandwich on pita. With sprouts. Lettuce and tomato.

Carrot-ginger dressing.

The good stuff.

Aces took a seat by the window.

He moved in on his sandwich.

Took an enormous bite. Breathed in, out.

Mandibles working.

Chewing his way towards nirvana, reveling in the purity of now.

“Hey.”

Aces looked up from his feed.

It was Sally.

Cancer woman.

She stood above him, clutching a salad bowl. Shaved head wrapped in a lavender scarf. Her lips were dry. Eyes blue and dying. Nothing about her to suggest a player, but Aces had always suspected that was her angle. Innocence. Pity. Kept the bets away, let the mice play.

“Hello,” Aces said.

“Mayflower, right?”

“Yeah. Also, the Diamond Club.”

“I’ve seen you there.”

“I’ve seen you, too.”

“I actually think you busted me out on a house sometime last year…”

“Sixes full over fives full?”

“Yeah that was the one…” She smiled. “It’s always the medium pairs, am I right?”

“Plenty of times on this end, yes.”

“How big was that pot?”

Aces took a moment, wondering what kind of player didn’t remember every last detail of every bad beat they had ever been handed. “Hundred, hundred-fifty,” he said, rounding in either direction.

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Go ahead.”

Sally took a seat at the table. Aces left the sandwich to rest by his elbow. He examined her salad. One of those Greek ones. No feta.

Then he focused on her hands.

Wrapped in gauze. Thumbs free, fingers still capable of minor movement.

But not much.

They sat in silence for a while.

An armored truck roared past the window.

She finally took a bite. “So, Aces…” she began.

“You know my name.”

“Do you know mine?”

Aces sipped his water. “You’re Sally.”

“Yeah.”

They sat, vegan meals mirroring each other.

The rest of the regulars shoveled tofu, tempeh, shaved radishes down their throats.

Lunch hour.

Normal jobs.

Nine to five.

Living the basest of lives to fulfill the basest of all needs.

Sitting across from Sally, Aces could think of little else.

“What happened to your hands?” he asked.

“Burned.”

Aces kept a straight face. “How did that happen?”

“I’m kind of cursed.”

“Know a player named Lucky who says things like that. Screws with his game something fierce.”

“I can imagine.”

“He thinks he’s a writer.”

“He any good?”

“No…” Aces reached for his napkin. “What’s your excuse?”

“Nobody believes me.”

“In general?”

“When I tell the truth…” Sally took another stab at her salad. Awkward bite, hands unaccustomed to their gauze cocoons.“When I need someone to believe me, nobody does. Makes for more conflict than I would prefer. A strange sort of life.”

Aces took a sip of his water.

“You must know about me,” she said.

Aces made his move. “The cancer or the cheating?”

“You heard about that?” Sally asked.

“The cancer or the cheating?”

“I’m not a cheat.” Her shoulders straightened. Gave something away. “I’m not a cheat.”

“That’s fine.”

“As for the cancer…” She shrugged. “Well, whatever.”

She stood up, took her salad.

Aces didn’t budge. Didn’t try anything.

“I’ll see you at the tournament, Aces,” she said.

“Let’s not look too hard.”

Sally relocated to another table.

Aces had been there first, and stayed where he was.

His thoughts traveled back and forth between Sally and the tournament.

He finished his sandwich. Pushed his chair back.

Sized the room.

Didn’t see cancer woman anywhere.

Aces stepped out into the streets.

Grey monoliths set against a flat sky

Found a payphone.

Dug into his pocket for change. Felt around.

Got hold of the quarter he’d found on the steps.

Dialed Tarquin’s number.

Tarquin picked up on the second ring: “Yeah?”

“It’s Aces.”

“What’s going on?”

“You get some rest?”

“Yeah. You?”

“I got enough.”

“I think I left my pager at your place.”

Aces figured it couldn’t hurt to have a little something extra gnawing at Tarquin’s mind. “If you did, I certainly didn’t see it.”

“Looks like I’m calling the cabbies, then.”

“That’s what I’d recommend.” Aces looked up and down the street. Then: “Were you bullshitting me? About Sally?”

“Sally?”

“The cancer woman. You sure it’s a front?”

“Sure I’m sure. Rumor like that’s too true to not be true.”

“All right.”

“Why?”

“I don’t like being lied to… see you tonight.”

Aces hung up.

The plunk of the receiver was coupled with melodic news from the coin return.

Aces stuck a lengthy finger into the slot.

Felt around.

Pulled out what was fast becoming his lucky quarter.

Stuck it right back in his pocket and headed for the ACE.

***

Daylight was done, and Aces walked into the lobby of Mayflower Apartments.

Made his way left, pushed against a door reading EMPLOYEES ONLY.

Went down two flights’ worth of aging concrete stairs.

He took them one by one. Taking his time.

Breathing in, breathing out with each foot forward.

Aces arrived at a door of reinforced steel.

Pressed the button. The security camera whirred. A muted buzz signaled his cue, and Aces walked into harsh fluorescent lights.

There was nothing aesthetically romantic about a real-life card room.

Devoid of nuance and none of the noir.

Half the players had been up for over twenty-four hours and nobody was looking for soft light, contrast or deep shadows. Sharp wits and a thousand cups of coffee each, they were all there to bust out anyone with money and a pulse. If it took a ceiling lined with tubes of mercury vapor to keep concentration in their corner, then so be it.

Aces strolled up to the counter.

The sound of chips and fast snaps soaked into his skin.

Eddie poked his head from around the outdated monitor. Forged an ironic smile, rodent features topped by a razed flat top of curly hair. “Aces… so you’re actually making a run.”

“Eddie. Can I get my chips, please?”

“Really think you’re going to win this one? Maybe pull out another set of sevens on fifth street against wired cowboys?”

“Eddie… Can I get my chips?”

“Sure thing.”

Eddie ducked below the counter.

Aces ran a little recon. Said hello to a few of the rounders.

Eddie returned with his chips: “There you go, Aces… Two thousand in tournament chips.”

“Thanks.”

Aces stepped into the tournament room.

The rest of the players were lined against the wall, chips cradled in their arms like newborns.

Awaiting seat assignments. An initial condition that could change everything before a single card was even dealt.

Butterfly effect.

Aces caught Tarquin’s eye across the room.

Made his way over.

“See any heavies tonight?” Aces asked.

“ Just the regulars far as I can tell… and the cancer woman.”

“Sally?”

“Yeah. She’s got these gauze bandages around her hands.” Tarquin shook his head. “I suppose her hands have cancer now. Unbelievable, really. Really makes you wonder…”

“Wonder what?”

“Nothing.”

And sure enough, Sally walked into the room.

Same outfit as earlier.

Same scarf, same crippled hands.

She caught him staring. Gave him a pathetic smile.

Sort of.

Aces averted his eyes. Double counted his chips. Just to be sure.

Seating schedule announced.

Dealers popped the seals on newborn decks.

The tournament was on.

Bet, raise, pass, fold, call; fast action. Blinds going up every half hour. Aces played tight. Picked his fights, moderated his moments. Feeling out the competition. Seeing what was what, and who had really shown up that night to play.

His first big win was courtesy of a house against a smaller boat. Tens full good enough to knock another one out of the running.

Aces helped himself to the other tables, caught Tarquin’s face indulging in a wicked grin. Eyes sparkling, raking it in.

Didn’t matter.

Tarquin was no favorite to make it to the final round.

Aces survived the first table.

As did Tarquin also made it past the first table.

As did Sally.

All of them assigned separate seconds.

The tournament continued on its slow grind.

Men and women with dark sunglasses, baseball caps, headphones.

Chips went flying, back and forth.

Nails were bitten.

Coffee consumed by the gallon, ulcers intensified.

Aces kept a close watch on his opponents. Studied their every move.

This one unknown, some NYU prick, moved all in on a bluff. Happily plowed his whole stack to the center on a whim.

Against Aces.

Aces asked for time.

A few seconds to ponder.

He glanced over to a nearby table.

Happened to catch Sally pushing her chips into the pot with a sad look on her face.

Aces returned to the moment to lock eyes with his opponent.

Caught him drinking from the rim instead of his straw.

“I call.”

The prick cursed, turned his cards over.

Nothing. King high.

Aces turned his cards over to reveal a pair of twos.

For the benefit of all who might even dream of pulling that kind of kindergarten bullshit on him.

The prick rushed him. Didn’t understand just how far from home he was. A few of the other players stopped him. Aces just sat, watched that square foam at the mouth, screaming mad accusations of a rigged game.

Well, nobody believed him and he was thrown on his face, out into the night.

Aces was in the lead, and he made it to the next table.

As did Tarquin.

As did Sally.

***

The line up for the final table didn’t make a rich man of anyone.

Confounding all side bets, it was Tarquin, Aces, Sally: final table.

One of them called for a break thirty minutes into the action.

Tarquin went into the hallway to smoke a cigarette.

Aces joined him, had a glass of water.

Sally had gone to the bathroom.

Tarquin and Aces stood side by side.

But ally was just a word used between games.

There were no friends at the tables.

Couldn’t be.

Aces kept drinking his water.

Tarquin smoked his cigarette, reveled in embellished tales. Some amazing bluff he’d pulled off at some earlier juncture.

Aces pretended to listen.

Kept focused, kept breathing.

Sally emerged from the bathroom, gave Aces a fragile smile.

Aces took the favor. Didn’t return it.

Tarquin muttered something, put out his cigarette.

Aces finished his water.

The three remaining players settled in to finish each other off.

***

Green felt gazed up at them. The rest of the once-contenders kept watch.

A mighty thick audience.

It was between Tarquin and Aces.

Sally had folded early in the hand

The last card had been dealt.

Aces had a pair of threes.

He wasn’t sure what Tarquin had.

Whatever it was, Tarquin had moved all in with his chips.

Not a life or death decision for Aces. He had Tarquin out-stacked by at least a third. Calling to lose wouldn’t take Aces out of the equation, but it would certainly hobble him for some time. Perhaps fatally.

Aces knew this.

Tarquin knew this.

Aces knew Tarquin knew this and Tarquin knew Aces knew this.

Aces knew Tarquin knew Aces knew this, and the deception was never ending.

Aces narrowed his eyes

The air surrounding them grew fat with expectations. A few whispers from the onlookers. The demonic hum of overhead lights. Sounds of a fresh kill.

Aces stared Tarquin down.

Tarquin returned the favor with little to no fanfare.

They kept this up for a minute or so.

Then Aces recalled Tarquin’s pre-flop raise, followed by a bet, check on the turn and finally…

“I call.”

Tarquin didn’t even bother to flip his cards.

Mucked his hand, admitted to the bluff.

The audience let the air out from their lungs.

Aces took note of who had bet against him.

Tarquin tried to shake it off.

Met his best friend in an rushed, amicable handshake.

Joined the rest of the losers in the crowd.

Aces took a sip of his water.

Set his sights on Sally.

Strange look on her face.

She tore herself away from her chips, and gazed across the table.

Locked in.

Brown eyes versus blue, and the hand hadn’t even been dealt.

“Looks like it’s you and me, Aces.”

“Yeah, looks like.”

“Good luck.”

“Likewise.”

The conversation turned cold.

The crowd settled in.

It wouldn’t be long now.

***

And it finally came down to this. Aces was looking at their river, and a full bet from Sally.

Put to a decision for all his chips. A possible death knell.

Aces had a pair of tens, but he wasn’t sure if they were any good.

Sally laid back in her chair, staring him down.

Sad crystal, the eyes of a dead person.

He wanted to destroy her, and the raw desire corroded the lining of his stomach. No prize for coming in second. Just a plastic trophy everyone pretended was gold, and Aces had gambled his job on the promise of that final hand.

No wilds in the deck. Just Sally.

Aces replayed every step of the hand.

Brilliant, untouchable mind stretching back to every previous hand.

Going back even further.

Alien features, those crying moments of self hypnosis, and she had gone out of her way to sit with Aces that morning. Running a play before the game had even started. Planting thoughts that didn’t need to be there. Expecting him to remember.

Then again, maybe she was just a polite kind of person.

Or even worse, just some kind of human being.

There was nobody left to believe…

Aces let the silence drag on for another thirty seconds.

Then, “Call it…”

Sally turned over her cards.

Two pair.

Tens over fours.

***

Aces didn’t even want to look at her.

Calculated his reputation against it, and shook her hand.

A couple of newcomers followed suit, but most of the regulars stayed away.

They bitched and moaned under their breaths.

Aces couldn’t understand how it happened.

Couldn’t understand a world in which Sally had won.

Numb for the few seconds it took to recognize his lunch.

He went to the bathroom, threw up.

Vomit caked the toilet, and with the slow passage of time, he managed to flush it down.

Walked back into the club.

The crowd had thinned.

Aces didn’t see Tarquin anywhere.

Had he left already?

Gone on without him to grab an early breakfast, gone to another game to see if he couldn’t rebuild his bankroll?

Or maybe Tarquin didn’t worry about that shit. Steely son of a bitch, just as happy splitting the winnings –

Aces recognized the thought before it had even managed to land.

Never sure how it came to him, but now never more certain of anything.

And now, Aces really did want to give Sally a second look.

He walked up to the counter.

“Aces…” Eddie greeted him with a smirk. “Sorry you got busted out. I had my money riding on you.”

“Eddie, where’s Sally?”

“No, I really am sorry for you, Aces.”

“Eddie. could you tell me where Sally is?”

“Little Miss Cancer? Took the money and ran. Just a minute ago.”

Aces didn’t bother saying goodbye to that sack of shit. He bolted up the stairs, out into the street. It was cold outside. Cold, even for the new year. Cold and somehow humid, mist swirling along the curbs and storm drains.

No Sally.

Not even a ghost left to lead the way.

So Aces took that left, copped a long walk over to Fifth Avenue. Sidewalks empty, deserted. Quiet manholes and dismal streetlights. He scanned the stoops and storefronts, glimpsed at the rudimentary outlines of a shadow, just one block away.

She was walking out of a corner bodega. Oblivious to her surroundings.

He kept his distance.

Counted backwards from ten, running the numbers.

Got his payoff just shy of eleven.

There was Tarquin. Staging his own casual exit.

Slapping a pack of Camels against his palm.

Exchanged a few words with her, traded smiles.

Aces couldn’t remember the last time he saw that kid smile.

Laughter maybe, set off by the fuse of a dirty joke, anecdote, but nothing close to the lupine grin, so wide it crawled into the shadows where Aces stood.

Tarquin lit up.

Aces checked his pocket.

Fiddled with Tarquin’s Motorola, unable to get the hang of it, until he happened upon the message. Delivered at four-fifteen a.m. that previous night, right in the middle of their felt-tipped rehearsal.

Digital grey spelling out his reply STARTING NOW.

By the time Aces looked up, Tarquin was gone.

Only Sally, shoulders lifting, cresting in a satisfied sigh.

Aces started to walk over, then noticed something. Stopped. Out of her pocket came a pack of cigarettes. She pulled out a smoke, brought a zippo close to her face, lit up. Lit that cigarette and let the smoke trickle from her lips. Aces was half a block away, but he could see a change. Her eyes had turned to steel. Brimming with venom. Triumphant.

Sally took another drag, smiled.

Nothing sad or slight about it.

So casual in her conquest, that Aces was seized with a sudden urge to rape Sally.

Those base desires best left to others.

Rape Sally, rape anything human.

He stayed put.

Sally turned and walked away, due east.

Aces watched her, that trail of smoke clutched between middle and index fingers.

Sally took a left, disappeared.

Aces stood for a while longer. Made a right, headed for the subway. He was four or five hairs away from penniless. Had some change in his pocket. It jingled with flat reminders. He punched in some fresh calculus, turning coins into dollars. Aces stopped at a phone booth. Slipped his lucky quarter into the slot, thankful for a second chance to be rid of it. Picked up the receiver and dialed a mnemonic device. The phone rang a few times.

Greeted with a familiar voice, hoarse and painfully alert. “Yeah, what is it…?”

“Lucky?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“Aces.”

“Hey, Aces.”

“How are you?”

“Drunk. What are you doing?”

“Nothing much…”

“Hey, let me ask you something.” Lucky coughed on the other end. “I’m staring at this sentence and wondering…”

Aces kept quiet. Watched a homeless man root through garbage for recyclable goods.

“Never mind,” Lucky said. “I got it. Thanks, though.”

“So, Lucky,” Aces said, ignoring his name in the closing credits. “I was wondering if you wanted to play some cards tomorrow. Heads up, possibly no-limit. Thought you might like to get another taste of the game.”

He heard Lucky sigh. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

“Sure?”

“I’m no poker player. I thought I might be, but I think I’m beginning to realize certain things.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing you’d be interested in.”

Aces let the disembodied conversation lag.

Thought he heard the pop of a wine cork on the other end.

“Hey, Lucky?”

“I’m still here.”

“You know that woman who plays at the Mayflower? Sally?”

“Who?”

Aces hesitated. “She has cancer.”

“The bald woman?”

“Yeah.”

“She has cancer?”

Aces covered his left ear as a garbage truck rolled by. He waited for its roar to settle before saying: “Well, that’s what I heard…”

“That stinks. It really does…” A cough at the other end. “What about her?”

“Nothing… You sure you don’t want to have a game tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

“Well, all right,” Aces said. “Have a good night, Lucky.”

“Always. You too.”

Aces hung up. The phone puked his quarter back out. Sure, why not? Aces left it behind, didn’t give it a second thought. He continued his trek towards transportation. The sun would be rising soon, somewhere in the east, and at least that was something to rely on. Aces made it to the ACE. Refused to descend. Waited, hands cold and sore.

There was one bright side to be had.

Tarquin didn’t know Aces knew.

And there would come a day, one single night, huddled over the felt, surrounded by the silent stare of players, rags and royalty, when Tarquin would be wondering what to do next.

And depending on what Aces was holding, that would be the moment to let slip this little secret.

Aces thought about Sally. Aces thought about Tarquin’s question, the deserted island. He thought about the possibility of devouring another human.

He tossed the pager into a nearby garbage can.

As dawn drew close, Aces slowly realized how this next hand would have to play out.

Inevitably.

 

 

Chaos Kitten.

 

After Steffi went on maternity leave, then left Castlebar for maternity life, Brigid promptly stepped into mine. An Amazon blonde with a full body of hairpin turns. Round face. Barberry cheeks. Large, powder blue eyes.

God introduced us on a Sunday afternoon. A platoon of regulars dotting the bar, drunken polka dots. Jukebox on break. Oasis playing on the company iPod. Back room a nest of empty tables, naked stage awaiting the call to open mic night.

She tossed a coaster on the counter. Irish brogue dancing lightly off her tongue. “What’s good for you, then?”

I set my notebook down. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

“Take your time, dear.”

She coasted down the bar, threw a look over her shoulder.

Pair of lengthy braids going along for the ride.

I lit a cigarette, and thought about my options.

She returned with a wine-stained take-out menu in her hands. “Any decisions, stranger?”

“Not yet.”

“I was going to order some food from the deli on the corner. You know it?”

“I do.”

“You want anything?”

“I’m ok.”

“That mean you know what you’re drinking, then?”

“No. You keep giving me things to think about.”

“Wouldn’t want to do that. Not on a Sunday.”

“Tell you what, though…” I took drag. “You trust me to do as much, I’ll pick your lunch up for you.”

“Maybe.”

“Eventually, it’s going to be a yes or no question.”

She grinned. Crossed her arms as she leaned over the bar. Gave her breasts some heft, and for a moment I was petrified she was already scrounging for a tip. “Then how about an arrangement?”

“Yes?”

“I’m new here.”

“Hello.”

“Hi. And I’m guessing you’re a regular.”

“Yes.”

“So, what? Your usual pleasure, I’m also guessing, is something along the lines of a bottled domestic? Or maybe a pour of whiskey, vodka, something on the rocks?”

“Sometimes. Occasionally, always.”

“Ho-hum…” She put her hand to her mouth in a contrite yawn. “Ho-hum-de-hum.”

“Probably, yes.”

“I want to cut my teeth. Expand my horizons.”

“You remind me of me when I was you.”

“That was a long time ago,” she said. “I’ll allow you to fetch my food, if you’ll allow me to make you my lab rat.”

“Grease the squeaky wheel.”

“I need practice and you need a drink. Perhaps many drinks. No charge. Long as you’re willing to swallow whatever I’m serving…” She tilted her head, mimicking a keen observation. “And my guess is you’ll say yes.”

“Yes.”

“You must be Lucky.”

“You must be psychic?”

“Actually, I’m Brigid.”

“With a D?”

“And it was a fellow named Lincoln who said you’d be the man for this job.”

“Lincoln said that?”

Brigid nodded. “So what’s good for you?”

“Whatever’s good for the gander.”

She winked.

I did my best not to stare as she shook the concoction. Poured a stream of watered down B-negative into a martini glass.

“One cosmopolitan for Mr. Lucky Aurelius.”

“Saurelius.” I took a sip. A few large swallows. Wiped my lips, lit a cigarette. “And I think we’ve got ourselves an arrangement.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.” Brigid tossed a bar ticket in front of me, scrawled with an order for hot pastrami on rye. “Now fetch me my meal, lab rat.”

I polished off the cosmopolitan, and let her pick my poison.

***

It was a couple of weeks after that afternoon with Lincoln and the Blue Label.

Rowan had tagged in for Brigid, and Brigid had taken it upon herself to cop a seat alongside mine. Her presence took precedence. Rowan breezed past the other customers, tossed a coaster. It slid to a stop at her elbow.

“What’ll it be, Brigid?”

“Pint of Bass, please.” Her eyes shifted towards my notebook, for just one split – “And a shot of Jamison’s as well.”

Rowan propped his spindly body against the bar. Playful eyes and a wicked grin channeling the charm, his beak pointed at my remainders. “What you got there, Lucky?”

I grit my teeth. “Girl’s Night Out.”

“Yes, I imagine you and Brigid have quite the evening planned.”

“You know what I mean.”

Vodka, peach schnapps and cranberry juice,” he recited. “Why do I always catch you drinking all these bitchy little drinks, Lucky?”

I felt Brigid’s hip brush against mine.

Our arrangement was secret. Sacrosanct. “Just have me what she’s having, would you?”

“Two Bass, two Jamison’s, for one girl’s night out.”

We got our due.

The jukebox broke its silent streak with Billie Holliday’s End of a Love Affair.

She raised her glass. “Slainte.”

Slainte.”

Clink, drink, down they went.

“What are we doing tonight?” Brigid asked.

“Meeting Paco and Trudy over on the east side. Said they were celebrating something.”

“What time you heading over?”

“What happened to we?”

“It was the colloquial.”

“You don’t want to come?”

Brigid took a sip of Bass. “Drink up.”

We never did come to an agreement.

Though neither one of us can say the music didn’t give us fair warning.

***

We took things east. Heading along Third Street, becoming Great Jones, back into Third. Into alphabet city. Watched the bar signs turn a thematic red. Last of the remaining dives overtaken by ant colonies, hipsters and young professionals descending in leather –clad swarms. Night rhythms blasting b-sides form every doorway.

Corner of Third and Avenue A, Brigid zipped up her black hoodie. “I’m excited.”

“Me too.” I stooped down, picked up a quarter. “You first, though.”

“Year and a half since that Sunday, finally heading out on the town with Mr. Lucky Saurelius.”

“Finally.”

“Always wondered what you did with yourself outside Castlebar.”

“Porn. Masturbation. Writing.”

“I don’t mind any of those things.”

“I’m excited, too.”

An inebriated couple tipped into our wake. Living mannequins, the beautiful people. Artificial tans and smiles a wasted white. The male half of some future star child reached into his jacket and handed me a pint of rum.

“We’ve had too much, man…” he laughed. “You’ve got to help us get out of here.”

His lady giggled, and as they walked away, I heard her garble and Oh my god, you just gave them your rum, you are so crazy!

I unscrewed the cap. Took a hit of Bacardi.

Handed Brigid the pint. She indulged. Let a little escape down her chin. Wiped satisfaction from her lips. “Now I have become very excited,” she said.

“Also, I found a quarter back there.”

We went north along Avenue A.

***

I ducked into a tiny deli for a pack of cigarettes.

Left with an eighty-year-old woman on one arm, a bag of groceries in the other.

Brigid was waiting outside, eyes wired with surprise. Mid drag. Tossed the cigarette aside as though caught behind the barn.

“Brigid, this is Millie,” I said. “She lives one block up.”

“He bagged my groceries,” Millie told her. White curls tight over a face of grey wrinkles, mercifully free of rouge or horrid foundation. “It’s Brigid, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Brigid shook her hand, slipped in with her arm. “Happy to help.”

We escorted Millie, bent back and all, towards her apartment of sixty-two years. Once home to a husband and World War II vet who had lost his left arm when a surrendering Japanese soldier, hands behind his head, pulled the pins on a pair of grenades. It was a casual canter along the sidewalk, and boys in skinny jeans muttered complaints to retro girlfriends about the slow pace of these three tourists.

Empty tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon adorned the steps to Millie’s stoop.

She sighed, gave us a smile. Told us she’d take it from there.

“You’ve got yourself quite a fine man, young lady.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Millie.”

“Don’t ruin a nice gesture with stupid remarks, Lucky.”

“Thank you,” Brigid said. Gave Millie’s arm a squeeze.

I handed Millie her groceries. Romaine tips tickled my nose, and I held back a sneeze.

Small bite from the Big Apple. Teeth marks in the shape of a half-hour.

***

We figured the sign knew what it was talking about. So we peeked into the window, hoping to settle an argument. Bar or restaurant. Or possibly diner. They caught our noses pressed against glass and waved us in.

A six-five monster with a broken nose and thin widow’s peak unlocked the door. Ushered us in to a round of applause. A private party of twenty-some Russians, celebrating someone’s birthday. Didn’t seem to matter whose anymore. Empty fifths of vodka littered the tables in irrational numbers.

“WELCOME TO SIBERIA!”

Within seconds we were juggling five or six disposable cameras. Freelance photographers. Cries of exiled madness washing across the empty bar and barren tables, stretching towards the back. Vibrations rattling red light bulbs from their lanterns. Turning off one by one. Five fresh bottles cracked open. Shot glasses overflowing.

Brigid and I joined them for a round. Then another.

One of the bottles got knocked good and sideways. rolled its way to the floor.

Shattered.

Under the cover of wild applause, Brigid put her arm around my torso. Still a good half foot taller than me. Leaned in and whispered in my ear. “These are Russians, Lucky. We can’t keep up with them.”

I leaned right back. Slid my hand past her waist, along her back. Tilted my lips upwards, “Aren’t you supposed to be Irish?”

“Admittedly.” We were locked in an embrace, then. Somehow. “But when was the last time Russia was colonized?”

“So how do we get out of this?”

“This is your doing, Lucky.”

“How is this my –”

A swift fist sent one of the revelers across the table and onto the floor. In a dazzling display of mitosis, one dispute begat two, four, split into eight people shoving their way down the bar. Followed by the whole lot of them.

In the ten seconds it took us to spot our moment, everyone apologized. Bear hugs all around, some seven words of muddled Russian before they were at it again. Vicious blows to the body, face, fingers wrapped around soft necks. Bodies thrown against barstools, and when it ended, if it ever did, they would have seen the last of the their photographers.

Documenting their way north and taking a right on Tenth.

***

Lou’s 649 was an easygoing sort of cocktail joint, bathed in streaks of violet and yellow. Artisanal tables clashed with the bar’s modern fixtures. Tenders decked out in black ties. A Lower East Side identity crisis held together by a disco ball rotating some ten feet above the floor.

At least, that’s what it looked like by the time Brigid and I stepped in.

Up three vodkas, and one pint of Bacardi.

I spied Paco and Trudy at a corner table. Brigid missed by a mile, unaccustomed to seeing them outside Castlebar. Rounded glasses on the left, encased in long black hair and a lengthy beard. On the right, purple plastic rims. Curly hair, shoulder length. Plush features, sturdy chin.

We sat down.

Paco and Trudy ran a business out of their home. An inexplicable service of sorts involving the internet. None of which I understood. They never held it against me, and would frequently take me out for drinks.

Thought there was something different about them that particular evening. Their mood, their roaming hands, the caliber of the cabernet, a pricy bottle that didn’t quite fit the profile.

“We read your book, Lucky,” Trudy said.

“We did,” Paco added. “First page through the last, as per your instructions.”

“Didn’t actually think you’d do it,” I said.

Brigid leaned forward. “Was it good?”

“Of course,” Trudy said.

“Of course,” Paco said.

“Of course they’re going to say that,” I said. “What’s the real reason we’re all here?”

“We’ve sold Chaos Kitten.”

I kept the wine along the right pipe by taking a second swallow. Wiped my mouth against my shoulder. “You sold the company?”

Paco nodded, “Don’t tell nobody, but we’re rich now.”

Brigid stood and hugged them both with loud congratulations.

I stayed put. Unsure what good news looked like. “You sold Chaos Kitten.”

“Yes,” Trudy said.

“But that was your…” I paused, poured myself the last of the wine. Put the bottle down. Paused. “What is it you all do, again?”

“See, he doesn’t even know,” Paco told Brigid. “Doesn’t even know what Chaos Kitten was.”

Trudy disguised a caring smile behind a survivor’s smirk. “What’s got you so frazzled Lucky?”

“Lucky thinks we’ve sold out,” Paco said, stroking his beard.

“Lucky thinks we’ve given away our lives,” Trudy replied, both of them involved in their own conversation now.

“He doesn’t know yet.”

“Think he ever will?”

“Depends. Think Lucky can ever give it up?”

“Settle down?”

“Stop being Lucky?”

Trudy stuck out her tongue. “Bleah.”

“Bleah.”

“Bleah.”

“Bleah!”

“Yes, sorry,” I polished off the wine. “Clearly I was wrong. In fact…” I turned in my seat, calling out to all customers. “Everybody, if I could have your attention! All of your drinks tonight are courtesy of Paco and Trudy!”

The second half of my announcement was lost as the disco ball hit the floor. One foot from my chair, shattered into one thousand pieces. An abrupt suicide sending a collective cry of surprise, saving Paco and Trudy from blowing their hard earned millions on a single night in Manhattan.

Paco shook his head. “That was a close one, Lucky.”

“Pulling a wild stunt like that,” Trudy said.

“For fuck’s sake, Lucky…” Brigid slapped the back of my head. “Can’t you let them be happy?”

“Never,” I said. Finished my glass, and sighed. “Next bottle’s on me.”

Trudy rolled her eyes. “You’re drunk, Lucky.”

“I am how I am. Next bottle’s on me. Next two.”

The bartender had rushed to my side. Dust pan and no broom. Unable to fulfill his task, he went about checking on my relative well-being. Raining down apologies. Leaning in close, tie dipping in and out from between my legs. Assurances that my tab would be taken care of for the evening, and what else could they provide me and my friends?

“No worries,” I told him. “Just going to need two more of this Cabernet. We’ll use the same glasses.”

He ran off for two bottles and a broom.

I turned back to the table. “What are you thinking of doing now? What’s next?”

Trudy gave Paco’s cheek a warm kiss. “We’re going to open up a barbecue pit upstate.”

“Barbeque?”

Paco smiled affectionately. At his wife. At the entire table. “Some of us have more than one dream.”

“A toast, then. To the both of you,” I said. “In exactly one minute and thirty seconds.”

The time it took for the wine to arrive, poured evenly amongst us.

Brigid slid close and put her arm around my waist.

I held up my glass, said something honest and sad that was best left to the walls and empty tables.

Wouldn’t see Paco or Trudy ever again, but it was fine, at the time, to simply brush stray shards of disco ball from my lap as we dug into both bottles with savage glee.

***

Brigid and I stumbled out of Lou’s, no stopping this chain reaction.

Arm in arm. Down Avenue B, skirting the iron fences of Tomkins Square Park. Laughing soundly to a botched punchline. Ripe springtime smells from the gutters.

“Is this how your life works?” Brigid asked. “You go out for an evening stroll, and the events just explode around you? Shrapnel from every corner of the city?”

“Maybe.” I paused to light a cigarette. “Either way, I’m stealing it.”

“What?”

“What you just said.”

“You can’t, it’s mine.” She lit one of her own. Put a hand to my face. “It’s mine. This evening is mine. So are you.”

“You have me for the evening.”

“Reach out.”

I did. Palm against her face, thumb resting against the corner of her mouth.

“Chaos kitten,” she mumbled, closing her eyes.

Leading the way for mine. Paving the way for infantilized kisses.

Wet, loose. Unconcerned with technique. Thrown violently against early memories, to the earliest addictions of the everyday. Exploring.

“I love your tongue,” she murmured.

I replied with the first few words of a joke that never made it past her lips.

Subtle tones of plum and red cherry…

We pulled apart for just a moment.

“Don’t think I need to tell you this,” she said, eyes still closed.

“Then don’t.”

She smiled, was about to ignore my request when

An old man with rags for clothes walked past us. Caught the pure appreciation in my eyes. Momentarily met them with a smile. It wilted. Disintegrated into raw hatred as he continued north, shoes stuffed with yesterday’s headlines.

“Why are you sad?” she asked.

Took a time out from what was. “I’m actually ok.”

“Ok?”

“Ok.”

“Me too.”

We pressed against each other. Obnoxious kisses in plain view of turning seasons. I made the mistake of opening my eyes for just a moment. Caught a man rushing past, purse clutched in his left hand.

Chased down by the cries of someone who had just been robbed of all they had.

***

A spindly punk rocker had parked himself in the middle of the sidewalk. Knees close to his chest. Ankles crossed. Arms wrapped around his shins. Fair skinned, not a bruise or scar that couldn’t be explained by tattoos or barbell piercings.

I noticed him first. Brigid noticed nobody else noticing him.

We both bent low. Heads tilted to better check his eyes, those wide, engorged pupils.

“You ok?” I asked.

“I’m fine to stay,” he said, few consonants managing to stick their landing.

“You’re in the middle of the street,” Brigid said, voice loud, looking to make an impression. “Do you need to be taken somewhere? Is there someone we can call?”

Our concern was attracting more attention than our actual patient.

We rephrased the questions in as many ways as we could. Got nothing back but a blank stare, bad trip gone worse. But not as bad as it could have been.

“He doesn’t want to change,” I told Brigid. “Let’s move on.”

“He doesn’t want to change?”

“Happy where he is, slice it any way you like. We stay here any longer he’s going to be our responsibility when the cops roll by.”

“We’re leaving now!” Brigid shouted into his face.

“Come on, Brigid. No kidding. Now.”

We left him behind.

“You sure he’s going to be ok?” she asked, checking street signs for our way forward.

“We did what we could.”

“Sure?”

“Just drunk enough to not make a serious mistake.”

She didn’t reply.

“Did I ruin the mood?”

Brigid smiled. “We had a mood going, did we?”

“Had. Past tense. I was right.”

“Easy way to solve that…” She gave me a swift kiss on the lips. “Easy way.”

“Drinks?”

“Drinks, drinks, drinks.”

We kissed our way through any misgivings and went to continue the cycle.

***

The Castlebar crew looked on with buzzed disapproval as Brigid and I knocked back tequila, Jamison’s, Yeager Bombs, Skittle Bombs, laughing before the jokes had bloomed and spilling ice cubes all over each other.

***

We were half way to the N, when someone shoved a bowie knife right into the sky, split its belly apart and unleashed a thunderstorm onto the streets.

Brigid screamed. For a moment I thought she’d want to run. And she did. And we did. But not to get out of the rain. Not even to where we needed to be. We tore across the mine fields, dove into puddles, never once taking our eyes off the rainclouds.

Save for one moment, where I happened to look over. Catch her jacket tied around her waist. White shirt soaked through. See-through, wet to the point where the water appeared to be running down her face and along her bare breasts, down to the very foundation of our time together.

She caught me staring and drew me close.

We kissed in the rain, until we ran out of air,

and when we ran out of air, our memories ran out of use.

***

My basement apartment. Both of us surfacing for seconds, then back under in black immersion. Bodies wet, slithering along the bed. Misguided heel smashing against a lamp. Head down, my face between her legs. Early morning birds tapping at the window. Neither one of us interested in impressing, as though this were the greatest of all adventures that needed to be gotten over with.

***

I awoke to an infuriated cat, repeatedly collapsing onto my face.

Desperate meows.

Dragged my face across the pillow, over to where Brigid lay sleeping. On her back. Naked from the waist down. Black socks pulled up to her knees.

I sighed. “All that, and I never even got to see your tits.”

“Hmm?”

“Brigid, I have to feed the cat. You working today?”

She turned her head to kiss me. Perfect scent of a sour depth charge. Moved my hand up along her body. “These tits, Lucky?” she whispered into my mouth.

“Hello.”

Then she stiffened.

Shot up, top set of teeth banging against my cheek. “Shit, I do have to work today.” She glanced around. Put a hand absently against her pussy, brief snooze button. “Time, Lucky? Time, please?”

I glanced at the radio. “Ten. Morning, in case you were –”

“Shit!”

She scurried after her pants. It gave me the chance to realize I had been liberated from my own pair at some point. Realized Brigid wasn’t in so much of a hurry, she couldn’t pause, and send my windsock a quick wink and a sly Hello.

She barreled past me, into the bathroom.

The living room was a disaster.

Pants hanging off the back of the couch.

With that mystery solved, I opened a tin of tuna, looking to make amends.

My cat howled in anticipation, then set about wolfing it down.

In all the rush, I forgot to wonder whether I was supposed to be smiling.

***

The custodian had opened shop for Brigid. Gotten her chores started with enough speed to allow us to charge through the door, send her behind the bar, just before the regulars came crying their way from the sun.

We stared at each other ruefully. Back to where twenty-four hours had first found us.

“Amazing,” she said.

“I’m surprised you remember,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Shut your stupid face.”

“Face?”

“It’s as though last night’s madness won’t let go,” Brigid mused, pouring us a pair of waters. “Followed us right back in here. I thought for sure I’d be fired.”

“I won’t tell.”

She reached over and held my hand. Felt nice, comfortable. “Want a drink?”

“Greyhound?”

“Do we not have an arrangement today?”

I smiled through my headache. “Surprise me.”

“Want to help me cut some lemons?”

“I would love to help you cut some lemons.”

She hoisted a mesh bag of yellow stoplights onto the bar, and we began to slice.

***

I spent the morning with Brigid. I spent the afternoon with Rowan and some of the regulars, sipping whiskey outside a bar in the West Village. Back in time to see Brigid off work. She invited me to dinner with her friends. I had a birthday to tend to in the unfortunate bars and Karaoke slums off the L train. She kissed me goodbye. Thanked me for a perfect evening. I told her we would see each other soon, left out the details.

After all, we had an arrangement.

Problem was there were still disco shards in my shoes. They followed me to the party, where the best friend went into Nitrous seizures. They dug into my heels when the thieves came looking for whatever they could steal. The incident on the Upper West Side. The illegal impersonation of Alex in a Red Hook courthouse. Waking up at six in the morning to find my face caked in blood, one inch gash stenciled along my left eyebrow and no memory of where my bookbag had gone. The wounded bird. The magician. The mad rush to write it all down taking me one month past our potential, when I finally synched my schedule to hers and sat down, only to have her ask what I’d like to drink.

“Not sure,” I said, resting my notebook on the bar.

“I’ll come back when you’ve decided,” she said.

I pulled out the crossword and let the regulars distract themselves further.

She came back with the same question.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

“You could have called,” she said.

“You didn’t get my notes?”

“You can’t just leave notes behind and assume that I’ll assume the best.”

“It never occurred to me to call. You’re right. Cell phones are stupid, but you are right.”

Brigid let the honesty ease the anger. Left the pain right where it was. “I think you must know I fancy you. That I always have.” She threw a look back over her shoulder, then continued. “But that night was a mistake. I made a mistake.”

“Nobody made any mistakes.”

“I didn’t see it.”

“See what?”

“Maybe Lincoln was right about you.”

“What’s that?”

“Even with luck on your side, you’ll never stop.” She reached out to grab my hand. Smiled to herself for even trying and withdrew. “And now I’ll always feel like I was just another part of it.”

“Another part of what?”

“Chaos Kitten,” she said. Gave me a sympathetic frown. Lips parted. “There’s not a woman alive who’s going to stick around for what you have to offer.”

It was my turn to do something with my hands. Made it about as far as she had. Picked up a pen instead and tapped it on my wrist. “We can rebuild.”

“It’ll take some doing.”

“We can try. Starting now.”

“Ask me for a drink, and I’ll get it for you. That’s generally how it goes.”

“Jack Daniel’s, rocks. Please.”

Our arrangement at an end, she fulfilled her obligation and accepted my tip with a rehearsed smile.

The cubes cut like glass along sore gum lines. And while that may have been our last conversation, I did finally find those disco shards buried deep in my shoes. Put them in a tiny box. Put the box in the closet, where the cat wouldn’t bother to look.

Even still, I lost the box.

And years later, when I went looking for it, I found something else instead.

And I’d say you have to believe me, but I don’t know what time it is where you’re living.

And wherever you’re living, I hope you are able to sleep.

And if you can, finally, sleep

could you tell me what it’s like?

 

 

Tobacco Roadhouse.

 

Just as the oceans rose to cover the last red stretches of southwest desert, I opened my eyes.

Pupils adjusting to coral skies beyond a canopy of tangled trees.

Rolled onto my side, off the picnic table. Landed hard on the adjoining bench. The air rushed from my lungs in ashen emancipation. I drew in whatever I could. Inhaled a rush of pine cone and glittered humidity. Lifted my head just enough to find two children staring down. A pair of hazel-eyed twins awaiting answers.

“Hello,” I said.

They offered the same in disturbing unison.

“Got the time?” I asked.

One of them lifted the other’s wrist. Checked the Hello Kitty timepiece. “Ten-thirty.”

“Fuck,” I mumbled, dropping my head. Heard them gasp. Felt the bench retaliate with wet splinters under my cheek. “Sorry,” I amended. “Shit. I meant to say shit.”

From across Oval park, a mother’s impeccable timing called out.

The twins scattered.

I rolled over once more. Hit the soft sand. Unable to fall any further, I retreated into what felt like a standing position. Strode past the swings and seesaws, and searched my pockets for a phone call.

***

Nick Reckless picked me up in his dusty station wagon.

His savage grin had lost a few pounds over the summer. Almost hard to catch through the windshield.

I slid in and we pulled out.

Bounced along the morning glare of Verona street signs.

AC busted. Windows down. His fine blond strands doing a little fan dance, weightless, as he took a left.

I lit a cigarette.

“How’d you end up on this side of town?” he asked.

“Reliving some old rivalries.”

He reached out. Ruffled my hair. Sand flying from the roots.

We crept up on the downtown loop.

“It’s getting hotter,” I said.

“It’s almost eleven.”

“Not what I meant.”

“It’s almost August.”

“Also, not what I meant.”

“You should have a mint,” he said. “You reek of beer.”

I stuck my head out the window and breathed in.

The radio played a little Prince, the DJ echoing the same vapid sentiment as countless others across the country: the calendar had finally come around to devour its own tail, and this was, at long last, the year to party like it was 1999.

***

Nick pulled into the parking lot.

The two-story, quarter-block behemoth greeted us with a red brick sneer. Some bad shit must have gone down in those early warehouse days. Five businesses had come and gone in the past ten years, cursed, even in the closing months of the twentieth century, a dying monster rejecting every last donor.

We walked up the ramp. A refurbished loading bay for trucks and tobacco pallets, now replaced by cramped outdoor seating. Empty stage resting, resigned to an approaching evening of cover bands. Birds feasting on what was left of yesterday’s crusts and chicken bones.

Large bay windows led us into the first floor. Main bar. Scant tables, a few tall ones reserved for the regulars. Saw Jonny taking inventory. Manager number one and investor number three. His one good eye looked up. Lazy left keeping track of his clipboard.

“Fellas.”

We managed a good morning. Cut through a back door, into the back passageway.

White cinderblock, no coat of paint that could possibly cover the stale smell of back end. Damp vegetation, sweat, and yeasty composites, the molted skin of processed grease. We stopped by the lockers. I opened mine, peeled off my white tee.

Dino slid around the corner, prepping for his shift. His perfectly parted black hair matched a glistening smile, perfect for weaning tips from unsuspecting five tops. To have him tell it, waiting was the one profession where it paid to be playing for the other team. Women adored homosexuals, and even the staunchest good ol’ boys managed to over tip, as though taking pity on a retarded employee. Twenty percent and up in hopes that he might someday afford the cure.

He glanced at my scarecrow torso. “You sure you two ain’t gay?”

Nick lit a cigarette, shrugged.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty sure.”

“You do make quite a couple.”

“We are quite a couple,” I said. “Just not a couple of queers.”

He laughed. “I’m gonna let you get away with that one, just on points.”

“Don’t start nothin’, there won’t be nothin’.”

“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“Bench,” Nick corrected.

“Never mind,” I said. Slipped on my work shirt, green with stenciled letters promising that DOWNTOWN ROADHOUSE was THE PLACE TO BE. “Let’s get this over with.”

Dino laughed and smacked my head.

I closed my eyes and sighed, drew it in, same air as the rest of us and got to work.

***

Rudy was waddling his way past the fryers. Hulking frame of a high-school linebacker, now a catalogue of fat rolls. Thinning afro, patchy beard, spectacles buried between paunchy cheeks. Waving his spatula above his head to the salvos of the Gospel station.

“Salads done?” I asked.

He nodded, wheezing with the effort.

Nick and I went past the ovens, racks of pots, pans, ladles and sharpened knives.

Heavy hiss of a stainless steel door.

The freezer greeted us with permafrost and the lingering wishes of rotten milk. Condiments trapped in oversized tubs. Last week’s desserts covered in saran biodomes.

We diligently went about removing two trays of pre-made house salads. Wilted lettuce, shaved carrot, tomato wedges like swollen gum lines.

“This place is a shit hole,” I said.

“Keep it under your hat,” Nick said, hoisting a tray. “Otherwise everyone’s gonna be gunning for our jobs.”

“Let’s get to work.”

We set up our space next to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the kitchen’s east wing. Said our hellos to the Mexicans cradled close to the pizza station. Welcomed the rest of the line cooks and waited for Louis to make his appearance.

***

Louis was late.

I ran expo for a few orders. Helped Nick dress the salads. Ran what food I could. Got some flack for a plate of stuffed peppers that I was told, quite plainly, smelled wrong. Hard to argue with empirical evidence. The kitchen answered with a fresh slather of canned marinara and sent it off on its second maiden voyage.

Louis rolled in and took charge. He was a grotesque six-foot-four teddy bear. White crown of hair that was once a soft bed of what difference does it make. Pot belly in full bloom. Legs hanging on, still sinewy from his days in the service. Navy Seal, he would like us to think. Supposed to have come close to assassinating Saddam Hussein, as far as the story went. With the Gulf War now a footnote in our nation’s conscious, Louis made do with barking orders for mozzarella sticks, overdone burgers, lukewarm New England, and living paycheck to paycheck.

We all did what we had to.

***

It was order up, runner-runner, serve, move, move, thank you and have a nice day.

Nick and I would prop a tray’s worth of seven or so entrees onto our shoulders. Take a left. Sharp right.

“CORNER!”

Sharp left down the corridor.

“CORNER!”

Sharp right. Out onto the deck, now filled with rowdy kingpins and working class fractures, howling along to a bare-knuckled band. Bad riffs, bitten from four-bar blues. All the easiest listening of the worst rock ’n’ roll had to offer.

More than a feeling.

Fielding requests for steak sauce as a pizza pan slid across the tray, stuck to my face, sizzling against my cheek. Making mozzarella of my skin.

The clouds were pink with the final curtain call of another Carolina sunset.

Wet sounds of fried appetizers and ribs between carnivorous mandibles as the band played on.

***

Halfway through the chaos, Martin Nestle put in his obligatory appearance. Manager number two by way of shareholder. The equivalent to an associate producer. Something to put on a vanity plate. He had once been a bench warmer for the Pantheon Devil Dogs. At this late date in life, nothing more than a seven-foot saline bag of dinosaur bones. A career-shortening injury had him limping on the sidelines, along rows of cooks and burners, under the auspices of a toucan nose, damaged mustache. Taking the time to dip a chicken wing into a vat of sauce. Sucking the meat right off the bone, before loping towards another station of deep-fried goodies and having his fill. Never quite knew what he was doing past those moments. Even at the toughest of times, slammed with orders left and right, we would catch him staring at a stove top. Enraptured by the flames. Breathing through an open mouth, lips puckered, a pair of failing kidneys.

***

“How does this soup taste?” a customer asked me.

“Like homegrown NC white bean,” I said, not entirely sure what I meant by that. Comforted by the inanity, certain it would makes sense to anyone not willing to listen.

“But how does it taste?” he asked. “How does this bowl of soup taste?”

From across the table, his dinner companion stifled a grin beneath his meaty palm.

I kept my eyes from rolling, familiar with this particular gem. “I don’t know.”

“Want to taste it?”

“Oh, no,” I telegraphed. “I can’t taste it. I can’t taste it because you don’t have any silverware.”

Our comedic impresario leaned back and crossed his arms. Pleased as can be. Winked at his friend, who was finally able to let go with a simpering, post-nasal laugh.

I strode across the main dining room, past several thirty foot tall brewing tanks, each one watching me from beyond enourmous glass walls.

Reaching beneath the hostess desk, I snatched two settings of silverware. Unfolded the napkin, removed the spoons. Rolled the knife and fork back into their white cocoons. Dropped them off with Flywheel and Ravelli, and hustled my way back the kitchen, now three minutes behind schedule.

Tapped Dean on the shoulder as I walked by. “Might want to check in on seventeen,” I told him. “One of them seems to think you’re kind of cute.”

Dean made tracks towards the trap I had set for him.

Acquiesce was our trade. Pettiness was our currency. Payback was always just around the corner, and my prank would have me looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night.

***

Coriander and Micki were working the front end. Mother and daughter team. Blonde curls, bodies echoing the same slender genes, blue eyes, and crooked smiles.

Had a moment between the dinner rush and late-night madness where Coriander had me cornered to one side of an industrial coffee maker.

“You’ve never been to Burning Man?” she asked.

The way she put it took me back to being a seventeen-year-old virgin. “No.”

“Mom, stop,” Micki said, swooping past and marrying a pair of ketchup bottles. “Nobody cares about Burning Man.”

“Oh, honey…” Back to me, as I snubbed a cigarette. “There’s this festival in the desert. They just kind of go crazy and let loose. They burn a giant man made of sticks.”

“Where do they get the sticks?” I asked. “Where do they get the desert?”

“It’s everyone,” she said.

“Are you stoned?”

Her reply was buried under a commotion in the kitchen. All it took for me was one step back to listen in. Check the scene.

Marco was our commander in chief. Like most restaurateurs, he was in over his head. Over the hill, loans over-drafted. A rat-faced imposter, yet one more mustache with no notion what his enterprise was up to, so it was anyone’s guess what hadn’t gone wrong that night.

Stuck in a give-and-take between him and Rudy.

Louis standing by, avoiding all eye contact, idly digging into his left ear.

Martin chewing on a chicken bone, lost in his own thoughts.

“It goes waitress, expo, kitchen!” he yelled. “We only take our direction from the people just below us, or we get stuck with some fucking table telling us they refuse to pay for their fucking meal!”

Rudy wasn’t about to lose his job over this, doing what he could to clear the air. “Boss, I got fifty different tickets up at once sometimes, and if I got to get around the chain when someone needs something on the fly –”

“I’M TALKING ABOUT BASIC FUCKING COMMUNICATION!” Marco screamed. Reaching out for the first thing he could find. Fuzzy knuckles wrapped around an ashtray, thrown violently against the wall. Ashes and butts scattered along the floor. “NO, FUCK IT! I’LL CLEAN IT UP!” He brandished a broom and stabbed at the mess he’d made. “I’LL CLEAN YOUR SHIT UP FOR YOU, HOW’S THAT SOUND?!”

A regiment of waiters and waitresses had set up shop at the entrance. Orders backing up, waiting for a chance to do their jobs. Taking their first tentative steps to the window, before Marco let loose with another invective. Keeping us all in a holding pattern, no choice but to wait until he realized the dustpan he was searching for was attached to the base of the broomstick.

Nick tapped me on the elbow and motioned with his face.

Marco’s fly was open.

I turned to him and nodded.

A small, meaningless victory as the clock crept towards nine fifteen.

***

Jonny pulled me out of rotation to bar back. This wouldn’t make life any easier for Nick, but those were the realities. Only thing worse than poor service and sub-par food was an under-stocked bar. I stuffed myself into the moldy service elevator and held my breath up to the second floor.

The top half of Downtown Roadhouse was divided into two sections. The Oak Room, reserved for private events ranging from bachelor parties to family reunions, to rehearsal dinners for doomed marriages. Room two was The Attic, a nightclub famous for people’s complete indifference for why it was famous. Occasion had it that we could draw a crowd, but for the most part, it was always a pedestrian settlement of cruisers and drunken opportunists. That particular night was no different, and the bartender let me back into the cooler.

I loaded the dolly with two cases of Miller Lite, two Rolling Rocks, one Corona Extra.

Made my way back behind the bar.

Heavy bass remixing some Notorious, outdated disco lights putting on a show. Dance floor dotted with sparse human shrubbery. Caught a middle-aged polo shirt dropping something into a drink. Glancing around. Waiting for his date to get back. I walked over and knocked the glass over. Apologized and told him I would alert the tender to the situation. Told the innkeeper what was going down, only to have him stare at me with incomprehensibly dead eyeballs: “So what?”

I was stuck cutting the quickest path through the jungle. “We got undercover five-oh in the house tonight,” I lied, patting the eight ball in his pocket. “They’re looking to search, so keeping trouble away might just keep us all out of trouble.”

He nodded and went about shutting down our would-be rapist.

I rolled my charge into the elevator. Reached into my jeans and pulled out a bottle of Bud. Twist of the cap, and I took down all that I could, on the way down, happy for the smell of cheap domestic to drown out the fumes and surrounding thoughts of an oncoming collision.

***

With a hefty grunt, laid the last of the bottles to rest. Duty discharged.

Bisected my way through the main dining room, crossing paths with Marco, his furious mouth chomping on a cigar. “Where do we keep our fucking emergency kit?”

“Under the bar,” I said, trying to stand clear.

“Which fucking bar?”

“Down here. The one down here. Ask Jonny or Carl.”

He put on a sour, petulant face. “Fucking clumsy bitch.”

Didn’t know what to make of that until I made it back by the first bend, caught Micki leaning against the wall. Face wet with tears, shirt lifted, hands pressed against her soft, white belly.

“What the hell, Micki?”

She blinked a few bloodshot stanzas, and peeled her hands away, revealing a peninsula of bright red flesh. Skin festering in early signs of milky white, second degree boils. Seems she stretched for a pitcher stationed above the coffee maker. Bit of a reach. With toes firmly tipped, one of her tits had pressed the brew button, sending a stream of boiling water down her body.

“Fuck.” I reached out. Realized it wouldn’t make a damn difference. “You ok?” Realized she wasn’t. “Want to squeeze my arm?”

She nodded.

I reached out. She dug her nails into me and cut off my circulation.

I drew in a breath, flashing back to that morning on the bench.

She laughed through the tears. Blue eyes blazing with endorphins and broken capillaries. “Jesus, Lucky, are you enjoying this?”

“No,” I lied.

“It’s nice of you,” she said. “You are so fucking nice right now for this.”

Coriander rushed over with an ice pack, just as Marco made his way back with the elusive first aid kid. The two started screaming at each other, and Micki maintained her grasp, the two of us staring at each other in unspoken lockstep.

“Get back in the fucking kitchen, Lucky!” Marco yelled. “Come on, come on, we’re fucking backed up down our own asses here!”

“Such a way with words,” Micki smiled, several times removed now.

I reached down and removed her hand. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

But it was double overtime at that point, and after seven or so runs out onto the floor, Micki and her mother had already left for the emergency room.

Marco was stuck with their tables.

He located a baseball cap and wore it backwards on his head.

It didn’t make him any better at our job.

It did give us something to laugh about, as everyone in the back end who wasn’t wearing a do-rag turned their baseball caps to show solidarity with their empty, meaningless leader.

***

Nick lit a cigarette and passed it over to me.

The kitchen had slowed, winding down. Didn’t have to scream over the commotion when he asked, “When you headed for New York?”

“Week from today.”

“Got your bankroll ready?”

“One thousand, tucked in twenties.”

“I really hope you take them for all they’re worth,” Nick said. Took the cigarette and exhaled. “I want you to come back up some ten large or so. Get us out of this mess before summer ends and we’re all stuck waiting for the end of the world.”

“Got the Long Island game, then hoping to catch a few high-limit tables at the Diamond Club.”

“You don’t seem too into it.”

I stole, took a drag. “I’m actually ok.”

“Is Katie ok?”

“Who knows?”

“Don’t be cool.”

A busboy dropped off another stack of remnants.

Nick and I wandered over.

Saw a pepperoni pizza with only one slice missing.

We shrugged. Reached in, and picked out a few pieces for ourselves.

Chewed on the dough, undercooked and sticking to our teeth.

“She’ll be ok,” I said. “She has to be, anyway. What’s she going to do otherwise?”

Rudy wandered by, dabbing his forehead with a moistened towel. “We’ll all be fine. My father is the King, and the King takes care of his children.”

“My father is Prince,” I snapped. “Pop sensation, and his albums outsell your dad’s.”

My father will damn you straight to hell, boy.”

Nick laughed. Rest of the line went along for the ride.

Rudy didn’t seem too happy with winning the argument, then asked if I could give him a ride home.

***

Nick had to get back to his house early, take care of the dogs.

Had Chester Springs pick him up and had me take Rudy home.

Or whatever that passed for in those days.

We went deep into East Verona, where the streetlights ceased to work and gas station signs had lost their lettering…

He pointed to the left.

I waited for a low rider to pass on by, then pulled into the parking lot of a single-story motel.

The parking lot was half empty, half destroyed.

A few traffic cones forming a police tape perimeter around a gaping hole.

I parked, pulled the brake. “You living here, Rudy?”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “I was unfaithful to my wife, and now she’s got me living here.”

I lit a cigarette. “Not great.”

“I don’t mean to stray.”

I nodded. Caught him eyeing my cigarette. Let him take a drag.

“Now I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” he said. “What I’m supposed to do. I get so angry when I wonder why I can’t do better by her or me. How I’m going to end up doing this for the rest of my life? Why isn’t there something better waiting for me after all this?”

“She’ll take you back,” I said.

“No, she’s mad, son. She is angry.”

“Want me to be blunt?”

“Go ahead.”

“Divorce is expensive.” I shrugged against my own callousness. “And Jesus wouldn’t approve anyway, right?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow any such way, Rudy.”

“Thanks for the ride, Lucky.”

“Get some sleep.”

“I am so damn tired.”

He sighed and got out.

I kept watch as he elbowed his way past a stuck door, into his room.

Waited for the door to close.

Got out when it didn’t, and wandered over.

Saw Rudy sleeping in a chair by the bed.

Don’t know who he was saving the sheets for, but that wasn’t any of my business.

I closed the door, tried the knob.

Locked.

We were all safe for another evening.

***

Nick’s parents were away on a work weekend, and we all gathered there.

Outside. Stuck a dome of wet stars, and as far as the temperature went, we were certainly at the top of that particular lader.

It was ok, though. Korben with his job. Milo with his own nine-to-whenever. Chester, Rome, Jeff, all of them, all of us, with placid understanding that something had to change.

So hey, did I ever tell you about the time the time the guy got shot out in the parking lot? Or maybe the mass catastrophe when one of our own got thrown down the stairs? Or the aftermath, when Marco skipped town with several hundred thousand dollars of debt hanging from his neck?

No difference.

No worries.

Next time, there would always be a next time.

Someone else, some manager, some psychotic owner thinking he could turn it all around by sheer will to power. We would never be left wanting for tyrants. Not as long as the wheel kept spinning, and the world chose its gods with green.

Time being, none of us were going anywhere.

 

 

Sucker Punch.

 

When stripped of their brash and dismal tomorrows, they weren’t all bad memories.

Every time and again, it was a peaceful buzz in place of endless tempest. Resting comfortably with my back to the bench, rather than waking up to a uniformed request for some form of ID. The perfect sunsets before vagrant dawns spent stranded some twenty miles from home. Rare moments when city streets, the significance of pedestrians, details and the color of stray cats sent dead friends and miscarried affairs scurrying to their cave.

Sitting in Battery Park City as September took a bow. Elbow propped on the back of my bench. Cigarette tip a distant relative of the westbound sun. Reserved sips of Jack Daniel’s from a dented flask. Content with letting the scenery stroll past. Watching the giant clock across the Hudson tick towards six-fifteen.

World Trade Towers peering over the tops of lesser buildings.

Enjoying seventy degrees of gentle breeze.

Eyes closed for just a moment. Primed for further, inexplicable outcomes.

Never mind that for a few days now, legions of random men had been trying break my nose.

I took a moment to reach into my jacket. Notepad, pen, quick dictation –

He passed a sign to his right reading LOS ANGELES, 350 MILES. To his left, a deer, dead on the side of the road. Probably clipped by a passing truck. Its insides poured onto the tar, and flies cautiously walked along the surface of its lifeless eyes.

– didn’t know what it meant, and maybe that had been the sole reason for this field trip to Tribeca.

End of story. I snubbed my smoke, took another pull from the flask. Settled up and stood. Paused for a couple pushing a stroller of triplets. Got moving.

Still dazed with irreconcilable levity when I

made the mistake of one casual glance towards another bench. Saw her lacing up a pair of roller skates. Caught in the middle of a similar blunder, her gaze reaching to meet mine. Only half an opportunity for me to think I recognized those features. Dark skin, cushioned eyes, thick hair reaching down to rest upon her knees. Small mouth, abbreviated lips that bordered on violet dusk.

White t-shirt blessing lovely overtures, torn jeans stopping watches up and down the east side of Manhattan.

Sensed my stare wasn’t welcomed in those parts, and I kept walking.

Kept walking. Carrying that uncertain moment on my back.

Unacceptable.

I turned, expecting a brisk walk back to ground zero.

Only two steps to find her roller skating towards me.

Legs spread too far. Arms held out like a model airplane, pinwheeling.

Eyes remaining on mine this time. Her head tilting, matching my own impossible recollection.

“Are you Lucky Saurelius?”

I nodded. “Are you Zelda?”

She grinned, dazzled the scenery with her smile. “Wow. Lucky.”

“Zelda.”

“I saw you walk past.”

“Yeah, gave my eyes some liberties. Sorry.”

“Wondered why this creep was staring at me like that.”

“That creep was me.”

“I know, stupid.”

“Hello.”

“Hi. Give me a hug.”

I did. She agreed, roller skates sending her body against mine. Arms draped around my neck. I brought my own around her waist, keeping her afloat as her wheels found traction.

Came face to face, holding her hands in mine.

There was that same tiny scar on her cheek.

Zelda grinned. “Wow, again.”

“Yeah.”

“How long has it been, do you think?”

“High school,” I said. No hesitation, a database of previous lives always at the ready. “It was after you left Verona. You were visiting. There was a school dance. We were sitting in your car. You were smoking a cigarette. I didn’t smoke yet. You told me about the scar on your cheek. It was quiet. We were listening to Erika Badu.”

She smiled. “How did you do that, just now?”

“I have trouble letting go.”

Zelda released me from her hands. Watched my arms drop against my hips. “There.”

“That was easy.”

“Where are you going?”

“North.”

“Me too.”

“Thank God…” She took hold, hooked on, and we shuffled forward.

To our left, the sky was blue, orange, pink. Garish. Perfect.

***

We hooked a right across the West Side Highway.

Her wheels a set of untamable, wild horses.

I insisted we could make the light.

“What if we can’t?” she asked.

“We’ll be the first to know.”

We did. And we were. And we slow-rolled our way along Harrison Street, below a short tunnel built between two wings of the BMCC. Half a block of darkness as cars cautiously ambled past.

“How did I not know you were in still New York?” I asked.

“You didn’t know where to look.”

“Maybe you didn’t know where to be.”

She smiled askance, raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you going to be a famous director?”

“Still could be.”

“But will you be?”

“No.”

“So what’s left?”

“Been thinking…” and thinking about it made me smile for the first time in a while. “Writer, maybe.”

“If it’s maybe, then it’s never.”

“Well, then. Writer. Only.”

“Only?”

“Why the hell not?” I glanced up at the dimming clouds. “Writer. Only. That’s all there is.”

We paused at the corner of Greenwich Street.

Red light.

I pulled out my flask. Had a hit. “Want some?”

“Jack Daniel’s?”

“Not a bad guess.”

“I could taste it on your breath.”

“You mean smell.”

“I mean taste.”

“Want some?”

She had a tug. Winced. Smiled. “Writer juice.”

“At least you understand.”

She stared up at me. “So far, so good.”

The light turned green.

“Careful. There’s some glass.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait… there’s a lot of it. All over the crosswalk.”

“Piggy back?”

“Hop on…”

Zelda leapt onto my back. Crushed my neck in a tight chokehold. Tested me all the way towards higher ground. I set her down, gently.

She gave my arm an appreciative squeeze.

A passing ambulance gave two whooping coughs. Set its siren ablaze and barreled down the street.

I nodded. “Shall we beat on?”

Boats against the current?” She quoted. “Borne back ceaselessly into the past?

I was left with nothing to say, other than Uh-huh.

“Thought so.”

She took hold of my arm, and soon we hung a left, shambling our way up Hudson.

***

We were at the corner, split junction of Sixth Avenue and Sullivan.

“This is a Chilean restaurant,” I said, pointing to an awning, brown and yellow tiger tail. “Only one in Manhattan, near as I can figure. Named after a river. In Santiago.”

“Any good?”

“Never been. Always mean to, never do.”

“We should go sometime.”

I kept the possibilities close to my salty heart, as the buildings receded to a blueberry-grey.

Caught sight of a man walking towards us. Frame of a healthy marionette. Grey beard grizzled against muddy skin. Dressed in teak colors, head to toe. Counterpoint steps, as he turned his moistened eyes upon me. Stopped short. Glared at me as we walked by.

“Boy,” he said, “I want to smash your face in, and I don’t even know why…”

I kept on.

Fortunate enough to have Zelda on my arm, tugging along like a red wagon as she kept watch over her shoulder.

“What the fuck was that about, Lucky?”

“Just the universe. Sending a message.”

“You know that guy?”

“No.”

“But?”

“But he thinks he knows me…”

“How you figure that out?”

It was getting dark. “I know a place where we can get some coffee.”

“Hmm.”

I pointed to the ground. “Dog shit.”

She clomped her way around it, wheels misunderstanding their purpose.

***

“It’s a little hard to explain,” I said.

“What’s hard about it?”

Café Gina, Prince Street between Thompson and Sullivan.

White marble tables, carved into tiny circles. Seasonally misplaced Christmas lights hanging from the walls. Large doors opened out onto the streets, letting the urgency of city life stream in. Below the counter, bright lights bounced off decadent pastries.

The harmonic sounds of coffee cups mingled with our own as we sat.

One of us waiting for the other to speak.

I remembered the question, and laid down my answer.

“Yes… My parents. On my father’s side. All the men on my father’s side got their nose broken right about their early twenties. My grandfather, a mishap in Odessa, back in Russia. My father, rugby game in Chile. My brother. Twice. Once while driving along the LA freeway, last-second swerve onto an off-ramp that sent his car into a divider. Second time, a bar in Tijuana. Put his arm around some drunk Mexican and began speaking to him in Spanish. Never mind it was my brother’s first language. Depending on who you are, he passes for almost whatever race you peg him.”

“Like you.”

“Like me… So this cat thought my brother was being disrespectful, some gringo bitch making fun. Fast as you can, pops my brother right in the weathervane.”

“Ouch.”

“My brother can be an idiot.”

“Like you?”

“I’m more of a fool.”

“Difference?”

“Fool doesn’t get executed for making fun of the king.”

Ovidio slid back to our table. Hair cut in a jet-black helmet, parted to the left. A pale baby with premature creases and an eager grin. Twenty-seven-year-old Italian import. “More coffee for you and your friend, Lucky.”

“Thank you much.”

He crouched low. “You, eh… maybe want a little bit of the wine?”

“I want all the wine.”

“We got a bottle open in the back. Maybe a little bit in a coffee cup? Our little secret?”

I gave Zelda the silent question. She nodded.

I relayed the message to Ovidio. “Two cups of our little secret. Please.”

He scurried back behind the counter.

Zelda poured some sugar, stirred. “You still haven’t explained yourself.”

“So every man on my father’s side had his nose broken. Right about when they were twenty years old.”

“I’m guessing that’s you.”

“For the past week at least.”

Ovidio dropped off our clandestine red, and scuttled to the next table.

“For the past week?” Zelda asked.

“Random men, strangers in the streets. All of them have been picking fights with me. Swinging wildly. Had some Jersey asshole body check me outside Bobst Library just yesterday. Practically knocked me into a wall, then started screaming, What, want to start something? Want to start something, bitch?

“And the guy in the hat earlier?”

“The guy in the hat earlier, yeah.”

I pulled out a pack of Marlboros. Offered Zelda a stick. She shook her head, pulled out a pack of Parliaments. We lit up, sipped some wine. Chianti, from what I could taste.

“So it’s inevitable?” Zelda asked.

“Maybe.”

“You believe in destiny.”

“That’s hard to say.”

“What’s hard about it?”

“Lot of chance out there…”

“Yeah, ok. The chances of so many random people looking to punch you in the face, break your nose. What do you figure that figure that comes out to?”

“Gastronomical.” I took a drag. “Don’t look like the curse is in any mood to be broken.” Drained my wine and exhaled.

Zelda did the same. Pointed with her chin. “You’re smoking.”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t used to do that, last time we saw each other.”

“Would you have remembered if I hadn’t reminded you?”

“I do remember you, Lucky.”

Our smoke mingled in the air between us.

She ran a finger along the scar on her cheek.

Ovidio swept in to keep the moment from coming into focus. “Oh, no! Your cups are empty! Let me take them, I will refill them for you.”

Zelda watched him leave. Shifted her eyes back to me. Christmas lights dancing off her skin. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to know more.”

“I know a bar on Macdougal that caters to the underage.”

“And to think, all I did was wake up this morning.”

From beneath the table, I could hear her wheels rolling back and forth along the tiles.

***

It took another piggy back ride to get her down the steps of Creole Nights.

Greeted by the ring of a silver bell and sounds of a dozen jaws dropping. Regulars unable to comprehend what had got drug in by what the cat dragged in.

I set Zelda down at a table by the mural, and headed to the bar.

Aiysan gave me a wink. “Lucky, Lucky, Lucky.”

Joined by Zephyr, Evan, Orlando and company:

“Nice.”

“Somebody’s got a live one tonight.”

“Mr. Lucky Saurelius, the man.”

“Enough.” I accepted a gifted cigarette and a light. “You do realize this joint’s the size of thimble.”

“I can hear you!” Zelda called out from the table.

Zephyr laughed, brought his hands together. “Busted!”

Served me up a pair of Coronas. On the house.

I took them back to the table. She was seated on the bench, back to the wall. I sat across from her, my own back to the room. We both worked the limes down our longnecks and toasted.

Zelda was good with the drink, already halfway through.

She burped. “Excuse me.”

“No need.”

“Hm.” She lit a cigarette. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“Which one?”

“Any of them.”

“Starting now.”

“You are destined to get your nose broken. But you haven’t. Because there’s a lot of chance out there.”

“There is.”

“What’s holding it back?”

“You’re familiar with chaos theory.”

“No.”

“No?”

“You ever heard of Steles?” she asked.

“No.”

“No?”

“Ok.”

“So we all know what we know.”

I took a sip of beer, had a drag. “You ever think what might have happened if only?”

“All the time.”

“Imagine if only, then take it down to the smallest of events.”

“Wait, is this the butterfly thing?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Yes…” I lifted my hand. Stuck my pinky out. “This is my pinky.”

“I know.”

“Just a pinky.”

“Yeah. Keep on.”

“And now…” I began to move my little finger in slow, semicircles. “There I go. I’m changing the air around us. True, the door is closed, and it’s a long way from here to Melbourne, but like it or not, I may be affecting the weather half way across the world. Just by this. Just by doing this.”

Zelda gave me a look. “Then stop doing it.”

I paused. Withdrew my hand. Reached for my beer. “Never thought of it that way.”

“See, you can make room.”

“Think so?”

“Double edge. Before I left the house today, I put on roller skates.”

“So now there’s us.”

“Here.”

“Destiny?”

“Any chance I could get another drink?”

I held up my pinky.

Zelda shook her head. “I told you to stop doing that.”

“Not what you think.”

Zephyr coasted by with another pair of Coronas. “Here you go, Lucky…” He smiled at Zelda. “Good to see you again. Love the roller skates.”

She gave him a wink.

I lit another cigarette. “Yeah, Zelda. Good to see you again.”

“You heard of Prince Wesley?”

“Yeah. Reggae singer. Big fellah, gray dreads?”

“Yeah. Used to date my mom.”

“You’ve been here before.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t tell me I don’t know where to look.”

“What about when?”

“Saturday, right?”

“Yes.”

“Saturday, then.”

We toasted. Quietly swept the unspoken coincidences aside.

***

Half past midnight, and it was the same scene. Six drinks later. The live music had canceled, leaving room for softer sounds. Tables topped with drinks, conversation. Music dressed in shades of late-eighties reggae.

Zelda and I were smiling.

A little unbelievable, even to myself.

“I remember the day,” I said.

“More,” she said.

“I was lying with my head in your lap. You were touching my temples.” I reached up with my fingers. About to demonstrate, when –

“I told you to stop doing that.”

I put my hands down. Had a drink. “ – you were touching my temples.”

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“You seem… irritated.”

“I’m irritated that nothing ever happened.”

“A little irritated myself.”

“Your fault,” she said. Lit another cigarette.

“Yes, I know.”

“Do you remember why?”

“Because I’m a fool.”

“A fool can insult the king without worry of execution.”

“But me?”

“You told me, a few days later, that I was like a virus.”

“Yes.”

“Prove it. Prove you remember, because it’s stuck with me all these years.”

The speakers tuned themselves to No Doubt, Underneath It All.

“I told you I liked you. Short sold it. It was more than simple affection. But I wasn’t ready to try for anything. With anyone, what it meant to mean something. Or anything. You got to me too late, I guess. And I told you, that ever since I met you, I internalized you. And it was like a virus. You get it. You deal with it. You beat it. Then it stays in your body. Never leaves.”

“Yeah.”

“Not the best way to describe how I felt about you, agreed.”

“You compared me to chicken pox.”

“To be fair, I compared you to shingles.”

“Yum.”

“I regret it, wholesale.”

“Me too.”

“Yes.”

“I think of the music, and I get…” she shook her head. Cigarette, beer. “I just get how I am right now.”

“Yes, but we’re here right now,” I said. “So one thing leads to another.”

“Mm.”

“Want me to take you home?”

“I want to keep talking.”

“Me too.”

“And send another drink our way. Who do you have to fuck around here to get shot of tequila?”

“Nobody.”

I went to the bar and placed my order.

Ignored the regulars. Looked over my shoulder.

She was playing with her hair…

***

Side by side.

Both of us on that bench, four shots deep. Beers cleared, moved on, long since ignoring the count. Cigarettes nearing empty. Budweiser clock reading 4:15. Only a couple of stragglers left behind.

We were shoulder to shoulder.

One of her legs resting on a chair. Wheels wondering what happened, remembering when they used to matter. I watched the contours of her thighs press against whitewashed jeans.

No doubt we were staring at the same sad scene. Focusing on the same collection of martini glasses left behind by those who were done with stories.

“So when does it end?” she asked, quietly. Lit a cigarette with a misshapen candle. “When you turn twenty-one? Twenty-two? Ever?”

“How old are you, these days?”

“That’s a good question.”

“More of a common question.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“You know I’m adopted.”

“Yes.”

“So my official date has me at twenty. But when I went back to visit the village where I was born, in Ethiopia, they said otherwise.”

“Otherwise how?”

“They remembered the night I was born. They knew me. Said that the moon disagreed. Said that I must be at least twenty-four. Could be I’m old enough to be having a drink without worrying about what my ID has to say about it…”

“Wow.”

“A good story.”

“It belongs somewhere.”

“Maybe that was the point,” she said. “Maybe we were only supposed to meet for this one story. This one idea, right?”

“Maybe. But I don’t like it.”

“There’s a butterfly in Japan laughing at you.”

“Don’t speak Japanese.”

“You make sense, though, in a strange way.”

“Don’t know no other way to do it.”

“The scar on my cheek.”

“Yes.”

“You know how I got it?”

“You told me that night in the car.”

“You need to hear it again, though. Right?”

“Yes.”

“They crept into my house and killed my mother,” she said. “It was during the Ogaden War, or thereabouts. I was a baby. Can’t say I remember. Story goes I was lying in bed with her. They put a bullet in her head, and that bullet scratched my cheek… Whether on its way in or out, I don’t know…” She picked up a shot glass and licked at stray grains of salt.

“What a stupid world.”

“You want to talk about the smallest of initial conditions. Half an inch, a nervous twitch from the hit man,and I wouldn’t be here. Random, random.” She hummed along as Jonny Nash began to sing I Can SeeClearly Now. “Do you think we can we do anything to stop it?”

“Got a quarter we can flip?”

She dug into her pocket. Lifted her lap from the bench as she did. Hips rubbing against mine. Withdrew a twenty-five cent piece. Placed it on the table. I picked it up and threw it across the bar.

She gave me the favor of a deep kiss.

I tasted tequila and unscented candles.

“What did that mean?” she asked.

“Just… I don’t know.”

“Hey!” Zephyr looked up from his totals. Spectacles gleaming with perfect reflections. “If you two want to fuck, you have to go home!”

“Poetry,” Zelda said.

“Can I walk you back to your place?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve got wheels on my feet… you can roll me there.”

Before that, we had some stairs to contend with.

***

Pale blue and luminous greys acted as escorts.

Up along Third Street. Past Castlebar, the Beantown Comedy Club, several years shy of knowing either one. Past LaGuardia place. A city coming to life, second chance in every last living thing. Zelda by my side. Arm linked with mine, my own little sidecar.

She stopped before the Washington Square Village apartment complex.

“You’re kidding.”

“What?”

I lit a cigarette. “This is where you live? This whole time? Right around the corner from where I pretend to learn?”

“My mother is a professor in African studies.”

“If that don’t beat all.”

She lit her own cigarette. “It don’t.”

“Says you.”

“Says me.”

No stopping the sun. Blue might soon give away to pink. The nearby roar of a garbage truck signaling the start of a new day in Manhattan.

“I don’t think it’s true,” I told her.

She bent down to unlace her skates. “What’s that?”

“I’m not fucking around, Zelda. Stand up and talk to me.”

“In a minute.”

I waited. Counted down the full sixty seconds.

Sure enough, time enough to get those skates off.

Zelda slung them over her shoulder.

First glance at tie-dyed socks. Toes wriggling against the concrete.

“It can’t just be that you don’t know how old you are,” I said. “It has to be more. The reason we met. The reason we’re standing here in the cold, right?”

“Maybe.”

“It’s not good enough.”

“We can always see each other tomorrow.”

“It is tomorrow. Already.”

“Yeah…” She put her palm along the back of my neck. “Another day without getting your nose broke. Why not take the same chance with us?”

“I should warn you, if I see you again, I’m going to kiss you.”

“You already did.”

“You kissed me.”

“Say it again.”

“I’m going to kiss you. I’m going to mean it. And it’s going to be endless.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.” She paused. Glanced down the street. “Hug me already.”

I did as I was told.

“Perfect day,” I said.

“Yes.”

She drew back. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes.”

Zelda gave me a smile to remember her by and walked away.

I took a breath and popped my last Marlboro. Walked east towards the 6 train. Searching my pockets for a light. Thrown off my stride as an NYU janitor shoved me against a chainlink fence.

“What!?” he cried out. “Want to fight? Want to fuckin’ fight?”

I stepped up to him. Face to face.

“Yes,” I said.

And it would be years before I saw Zelda again, and the flush would have faded, neither one of us understanding what we had started or stated. But for the time being, I had the second greatest day on my side.

I stepped close, wondering if he could taste the Jack Daniel’s. “Today, I’m fucking invincible.”

He thought about it, then kept on his way.

Sent a few glances over his shoulder. Uncertain as I was.

I changed my heading towards Washington Square Park. Another calendar moment revealing its hand. But at the time, tomorrow was beholden to sleep.

And I walked home, following my nose, unable to imagine a more perfect fucking day.

 

 

Sci-Fi.

 

It was a Tuesday in mid September, on a planet in its final throes . An entire population in perfect sync. Transfixed. Eyes on broadcasted skies, awaiting the moment of First Contact.

Several weeks had passed since the government’s revelation, and humanity remained unchanged. Citizens stuck with their jobs, second and third shifts. Factories kept churning out sneakers, chairs, action figures, and the people kept on buying every last bit of it. Families continued to eat and scream at each other while couples pored over receipts, counted dollar after dollar. Everyone still drank, starved, screwed, watched television, stepped in front of stray bullets and did what they did.

Only now, there was something to look forward to. A common thread linking all of humanity, that’s how most everyone handled the news. And on the day of the arrival, most everyone wanted to be someplace on purpose. The younger set above all others. The Greatest Generation had Pearl Harbor. The Boomers, JFK. And now history was back to claim their children in those waning summer weeks of 2001. A fresh generation, anticipating the shape of their memories. Televisions cranked to capacity.

Poised on the brink of a brave new world.

Still, the only thing Tess Newhart would care to remember was sitting at the end of a bar in Verona, North Carolina. Cradling a double of Irish whiskey. One-fifteen in the afternoon, and not giving a fuck about any of it.

She gazed across the room, connections never quite landing. Staring through walls. It wasn’t a typical day for The Aussie, or the world for that matter, but all roads led to the same destination. Bars up the block must have been packed. University crowd spilling into the streets, into her bar. Too many young people. People her age, people she couldn’t stand. Her mind buzzed. Wandered, took sharp left turns.

Eight separate screens were splashing CNN’s coverage from the capitol. Pundits killing time, recombining words in every possible way to inform the public every five minutes that the aliens had yet to arrive.

…The announcement of their impending arrival, three weeks ago to the day, reached the ears of the world with a message of peace and a claim to the answer to – and I’m quoting the translation, here – “all of life’s mysteries and miseries…”

Tess took a pull of her cigarette. Loosened her tie, unbuttoned her collar. Killed her double of Jamison’s. Scored another round, a minor miracle from an overworked barkeep. Had a sip. Took a lazy look beside her. Last seat in line occupied by a college senior, all smiles and bubbly as her drink. Her straw was stained with an excess of lipstick. Platinum highlights. A trail of glitter winked playfully along her neck, across her tits. There was something moderately beautiful about her, Tess supposed.

College girl caught Tess staring.

Then, for some reason, she spoke: “Exciting, right?”

“Not really.”

“Oh. I see. You’re one of the cool ones.”

“Nope.”

“How can you not be excited?”

Tess hadn’t really thought about it. “I haven’t really thought about it,” she said.

“That answers my second question.”

“Which is?”

“Now I feel stupid asking it.”

“Which was going to be, then?”

The girl sighed. “I was going to ask you if you had dressed up. For the occasion… for the aliens.”

“No.” Tess popped her neck. “I got out of work early. Everyone did. Guess a five-star restaurant ain’t the place to be today. Even the elite are slumming it.”

“Well, forgive me for thinking aliens are a big deal.”

The answer to all of life’s mysteries and miseries, is that it?”

“Their words. Not mine.”

Tess snubbed her cigarette. “There are no answers.”

“Everyone else seems to think so.”

“I never even met these aliens.”

“You’re not excited.”

“Not really, no.”

“Are you scared?”

“No.” Tess took a swallow of whiskey. Tried again. “No. Are you?”

“For a few years now.”

The telecast was replaced with a commercial for the Conair Cord Keeper. Tess pretended to be enraptured by the bouncing blonde, hairdryer to her temple like a loaded gun. The college girl stared into the blue skies of her drink. Tess knew that was it for their conversation. She slid out of her barstool. Battled her way through the bar, catching the chatter.

Vested hopes.

Two steps behind a flock of chickadees on a little field trip to the lady’s room.

Tess helped herself to door number two.

She breathed in the putrid stench of the men’s room. A pair of frat boys kept right on with their hair, sharing the mirror. Tess walked into the stall. Wiped the seat. Had a squat. Listened in, kids telling tales out of school. Saturday night conquests. Multiple positions, countless orgasms, gallons of cum all over those tight, coed bodies. Their conversation seemed to lack a certain honesty. She finished and waited for them to leave. Flushed the toilet and went to wash up.

Ran wet hands down her face.

Stared at the mirror.

Doe eyes gazed back with wasted longing. Porcelain skin. Black hair cut close, front end gelled to full attention.

Tess reached for the towel dispenser. Pumped it once, twice. Turned to the left, regarding a railway body, shapeless beneath her white dress shirt and black slacks. Tugged at her belt. Pumped the handle ten more times. Tore at the winding paper curtain, wrapping recycled brown around her hand. Moving fast. Took the impromptu bundle and slid it down her pants.

Put on a profile pose. Gave her new bulge a tiny pat.

Pendulum swinging to the right.

Tess made her way back to bar’s end, stumbling slightly. The Aussie had doubled its numbers, a thick net of tuna-safe dolphins struggling to make room. She slumped into her seat. The girl with the painted smile was glued to the tube.

Tess gave the bartender a wave, before catching sight of her glass.

“I got you another drink,” the college girl said. “Got one for me, too. Jamison’s, right?”

“Yeah.” This was different. “Thanks, you.”

“And my name is Lisa.”

“My name’s Tyler,” Tess said. “And thanks, Lisa.”

“I have a big heart.”

“Careful, then.”

“I suppose.”

“The bigger your heart, the more likely you are to choke on it.”

“I’m sorry you think that.”

Tess glanced up at the television. Another rundown of the dais; all the leaders, authorities and dignitaries chosen to best represent this blue planet.

Camera holding tight on the face of a nervous chaplain.

“Ha.” Tess raised her glass in a toast no one was sharing. “You want to feel sorry for somebody, feel sorry for those poor assholes. Genesis ain’t going to rewrite itself.”

Lisa ambushed Tess with a quick clink of her glass. “You don’t believe in God?”

They drank, wiped their lips in unison. “I do, actually.”

“You don’t seem to be on very good terms with him.”

“I am.”

“Is that right?”

“It’s his friends that I don’t get along with.”

“That’s a lot of people.”

“I know.” Tess lit a cigarette. “And that many people couldn’t possibly be right.”

“Never been to church?”

“Used to. Every Sunday, dressed in my best. An outfit my mother used to keep in her own closet, keep me from getting grass stains all over those pretty colors.”

Lisa helped herself to a cigarette. “What happened?”

“I got sick of all that truth.”

Lisa laughed.

Tess liked how it sounded, clean and frightened.

But the music sort of went away before it was done.

Tess was having trouble keeping her eyes from a blatant stare.

Lisa toyed with her hair. Turned to face Tess. “You’re not like other boys.”

“I know.”

“Can I show you something?”

“Yeah.”

Lisa pulled at the neckline of her shirt. Wasn’t wearing a bra, right breast laid bare. A single, light brown nipple peeked up at Tess. Sharing the stage was a tattoo of a miniature crucifix. Size of a thumbnail, just a pair of intersecting lines. No one else to witness. All eyes on the television.

Tess reached for Lisa’s shoulder, and Lisa quickly covered herself.

Beating a quick retreat, Tess finished her drink. “I think tattoos are the lowest form of self expression possible.”

“I know, right?”

“How old were you when you got it?”

“Ten, maybe. Ten, something like that.”

“That’s… early. For tattoos.”

“Wasn’t a choice,” she said. Finished her drink, and reapplied her lipstick. “I’m not so fond of truth myself.”

Tess ordered another round. They sat without speaking, ignoring the television and massive crowds stationed at the nation’s capitol. Tess nudged her pack of cigarettes towards Lisa.

Lisa took one and lit it with a broken match. Helped Tess get her own going. Fresh drinks arrived. There wasn’t much to go with in the world, Tess felt. Not much of anything, really.

“Hey, you,” Lisa said.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for the cigarette.”

Everything had grown quiet somehow, and Tess thought of kissing her for the length of an entire week, taking her to bed and never leaving. She didn’t, though, because they most likely didn’t have more than a few minutes left between the two of them.

“You know what you need?” Tess asked.

“What?”

“Hold on to whatever uncertainty you can get your hands on.”

Lisa laughed, this time letting it ride. “I’m sorry. What was your name, again?”

And Tess would have told her that second time around. Confessed to everything, but the moment was stolen as a scream ripped the walls apart.

All heads caught on fishing lures, yanked towards the television screens.

Live and direct, as a silver orb floated innocently towards the reflecting pool. Settled on the manicured grass. The legions of officials, leaders, advisers, and common folk all took two reflexive steps back.

Overhead, a flock of geese made their way south, sensing an early winter.

The bar went quiet. Bodies leaning forward, pressed together. Waiting. A silence heard the world ‘round. Everybody’s mind one massive question mark.

Tess felt the early stirrings of a headache.

The orb began to split apart along a vertical seam. Opened wide to reveal an interior of sunburst yellow, free of all depth. Window to an endless sky. No point of reference for the staircase that unfurled towards the ground like a beaded, metallic tongue.

From the back of the bar, a woman began to sob.

Nobody made a move to comfort her.

Tess was filled with an inexplicable rage upon discovering that the alien looked remarkably human. Explicitly human, the last thing on everyone’s mind. Dressed in androgynous reds. A computer simulation of every race, poured into a single, six-foot vessel.

The woman’s cries turned to wails. Murmurs erupted across the bar, as the alien coasted gracefully towards a wooden lectern. It leaned into the microphone. Translucent eyes maintaining their distance.

Tess’s stomach folded into fourths.

Outside The Aussie, traffic stalled.

Lisa bit her tongue, and Tess could hear the blood begin to trickle along her teeth.

Field reporters watched in wonder, and the nervous chaplain remained stiff, his face ashen, damp.

Finally, the alien opened its mouth. Didn’t take a breath. Lips unmoving as he spoke his first words, each one in crisp, artificial English.

“Citizens of your Earth…” the announcement bypassed the amplifiers, echoed over the buildings of downtown DC. “I bring you the answer you have all been searching for… the purpose… the answer to all of life’s mysteries and miseries…”

Tess left her bloodlines behind. Began to fade away in the face of future history.

The alien held out its palm. Within seconds, a thick black book had manifested, held aloft for everyone to see. Childish confusion spread as everyone tried to make out the letters on the cover. A quick bit of focusing from the lens at CNN took care of that, and suddenly the title jumped into sharp focus.

Twelve letters, etched in gold, all in a very specific order to spell out a very specific phrase:

THE HOLY BIBLE

Tess felt a lonely, horrified tear wander down her cheek.

Lisa reached out to grab Tess’s thigh, oblivious to the papery bulge in her pants.

Both of them the first to speak in perfect unison:

“Oh, fuck.”

Live and direct from the centerpiece of history, the chaplain relaxed, a tranquil smile now resting on his face.

 

 

Grey Was the Color of My Resolution.

 

Not a lot of people can say they woke up in Scotland.

A handful of Scottish people, maybe.

But then again, most of the Scots I’ve met don’t describe it that way.

Admitting the world is grey, that’s how I’ve heard it.

And grey was the word for the day. Color of the light, dropping its mention through the window, dimensions one by one. A reminder of where I was. Couple empty bottles in my head, open transcript of what went right the previous night. Half covered by a dusty quilt, sprawled over a spongy mattress, springs phoning it in. Boxes piled high against the wall. Consequent rows gradually stacked lower, meeting the bed in single units. A storage deposit for what must have been an amazing life.

Half naked body next to me, reminding me of all that was left to be thankful for.

Three hours of sleep tucked under my belt, and I sent my hands over her body, if only to assure myself this was the one thing I didn’t deserve.

Kate stirred. Took hold of my arms, wrapped them around her breasts, then sent them down her body. My lips pressed against her neck, and I sensed the two of us anxious to rid ourselves of the same thoughts. Tight knit haircut giving room for my breath to accelerate along her shoulders, down her back, tongue looking to perform a soft, wet spinal tap. She turned towards me. Turned towards me, and through the headache and misunderstanding of what had brought me there, she smiled. Grassy eyes wide, flecks of a Celtic sky matching our surroundings.

“Please tell me you slept,” she said.

I brought my fingers up to her forehead.

Wished there was some other chance for a better tomorrow: “I slept.”

She kissed me.

I kissed her back, and it filled in for absent hues.

And grey was the color of the sky, and sunshine, a spotlight, highlighting a room on the outskirts of a strange Scottish city.

 

 

Church Mouse.

 

It was a slow reckoning before realizing I had made a mistake. Went back to the Church of St. Anthony, crossing Houston in broad daylight, this time. Very little chance it would work out the same, this time. And this was how time let lovers make fools of themselves, idiots of each other. Trust and embittered hope.

I stepped onto the small patch of grass. Bent low. Ran my hands over what must have been where I landed from some five blocks away, some million years ago. Straightened. Looked around. Unfamiliar sun sweeping dual traffic lanes, refining its search. Reached into my jacket. Pulled out my flask. Had a few bombs of Boca Chica.

The rum went down something rotten.

I skipped the front steps, dipped down into a second set.

Paused at the wooden door, embedded into a squat stone archway.

I pushed.

The door didn’t budge.

I sent paranoid glances back up behind me.

Pedestrians, tourists, names from a list. Anyone of them capable of killing me if they knew what I was thinking. I pressed my palm against the wood, just as Eclipse had, remembering his fingers, spread far as they could go, though clearly not as far as they could stretch. The low warble of an angry insect as the thick panels had begun to warp, just enough to hint at a heartbeat, before the door creaked open. Swinging inwards, rather than out.

I pushed again.

It didn’t happen.

Gave up and pulled.

Nothing.

Wondered if maybe there might be a back entrance to this back door. Rude logic, sullied reasoning insisting that if I could only push from the inside back out, I still might find entrance to the underworld.

Returned to the sidewalk. Walked up the steps, a casual churchgoer looking to confess.

Whatever that might look like.

I was given three doors to choose from, each one a thin, ten-foot-tall Hershey bar.

I chose the center square, pulled. Up another flight of steps, each one leading me further from where I needed to be.

Stood in the lengthy vestibule, green carpet stretching to either side.

I moved in on a pair of glass doors, stepped through.

Found myself in unfamiliar territory, a mix of the modern and medieval. Jade pillars supporting a domed ceiling. Yellow walls painted to match the lighting, stained glass saints staring down. To my right, a white marble basin of holy water alongside a stocky, well-fortified confessional booth.

As before, my only course of action was to go deeper down the devil’s throat. Cautious steps took me past four lines of pews. Twelve rows that dominoed towards the front. From above, empty balconies stared down in honeycombed tiers. To be sure, the entire church was empty. An abandoned impossibility. I slid my shoes across the polished floor, unwilling to add my echo to the description.

Made it to the front and tried to figure my next move.

Still nobody around.

I couldn’t figure out why.

Beginning to believe that I might very well have free reign for whatever mad impulse struck my senses.

Felt a hand on my shoulder.

Whipped around with my fists at the ready.

Glad I didn’t let those little losers fly on their own. Didn’t know what the penalty was for punching a priest in the face, though he seemed like he could have handled it.

“My son?” he asked.

Not really. “Yes?”

“Have you come to confess?”

He had lazy eyes, a well placed scar along his temple, matching mine. Widow’s peak, already in his early thirties, pointing down between eyebrows that were barely there. Must have been one hell of a childhood, based on the size of his nose, and the strange, recessive nature of his chin. A lump of sculptor’s clay, abandoned mid-production in favor of a coronary, seizure, suicide.

Small wonder he’d chosen to seek God’s love, I concluded, out loud. Not much chance anyone else would have him.

He let it roll off his shoulders. “Which I’m sure begs the question, if God loves us all, what’s so special about it in the first place?”

“I don’t believe in God,” I told him.

“We get a lot of those.”

“In a church?”

“Where else?”

“That’s funny. You know your jokes.”

“Yes. We do that, every now and again.”

“I’m not here to confess.”

“Want to?”

I glanced up to the ceiling. “You make it sound like we’re going to grab a cup of coffee.”

“Tea, actually.”

“We’re going to have tea?”

“If you’re looking to.”

“Sure.”

“Well, now or not at all.”

For a moment, I played with the possibility that this was all a guise. Some kind of test, second chance to make a worst impression. “What?”

“Follow me.”

I let my heart have a walk in the park, a seaside vacation, another kiss with the departed.

***

Shouldn’t have set my hopes quite so high.

Escapism wasn’t in the cards.

The imaginary bar I had found miles beneath this Church was replaced with what looked like a receptionist’s room. Low ceilings, lavish extravagance forgotten for a desk, sink, cabinets. Glass coffee table moderating between a brown armchair and simple couch with red tasseled cushions.

Leaning against the water cooler, a hideously rendered watercolor of the Madonna herself.

I sat on the couch.

He had one of those electric kettles.

Set the water brewing. Went to ready a pair of mugs, sugar. Half and half.

Cabinets stocked with the mundane order of any another office space.

“Shouldn’t you be checking to see if someone else needs you?” I asked.

He didn’t answer.

I waited for him to make the tea.

A little surprised when he took a seat alongside. Handed over a mug representing the Yankees. His, a crudely drawn rabbit with a demanding ultimatum: Quit staring at my ears. The priest sat with tea in hand and stared across the room. Eyes situated, I had to believe, on that tacky painting of a lily-white Mary Magdalene.

“You ever think she was just lying?” I asked.

“How’s that?”

“Mary. Ever think she just got knocked up and stuck to the immaculate conception line? You know, just to keep from getting her head bashed in by a well-deserved stoning?”

“Do I ever wonder?”

“Yes.”

“All the time.”

“Wasn’t expecting that.”

“Also, the painting is courtesy of my niece.”

“You know there’s no way she wasn’t black, right?”

“What do you want to tell me?”

I took a sip of tea. Too hot to handle, and I felt my gums fuse to my teeth. Throat dissolving in a chamomile wonderland.

“Gordon and Skippy had their pants off,” I said.

“This is going to be good,” he said.

I shook my head. “Going to be bad.”

“Gordon and Skippy had their pants off,” he said.

“It actually started when I was thirteen.”

“Also acceptable.”

“I was in Florida. Don’t remember the beach. Last night of a two-week field trip through America’s penis.” I had a sip of tea. “Sorry about that.”

“Go on.”

“So it was freshman year of high school. I was on an excursion with my school chums. Mates? Chums. Chums, I guess that’s how the word goes. I was one of four boys. The rest were women. Well, girls, maybe more appropriate. Except for one, I always saw her as more of a woman. Melody P.D.”

He smiled.

“You’re smiling.”

“I’m sure you think of me as some sniveling, medieval idiot –”

“Yup.”

“– but I have heard more in this place than your little narcissistic brain could possibly concoct. I have heard it all. I know what comes next.”

I leaned back, reached in and pulled out my flask. “Do tell.”

“She was several inches taller than you,” he said. Ignoring my nip at the sugarcane game. “Probably more. One foot, one, from the way your eyes are moving. Older, too, though not a senior, by any means. Too much hope at future possibilities for that. Sophomore, probably. I imagine she would parade around in cutoff shorts. Frayed hems. You’re not a boring person to say the least, so I imagine her eyes must have been something special. Grey, right. Something vicious. Even now, when you try to recall her, she doesn’t seem fifteen. She’s always an older woman, somehow, in your head. Gatekeeper. Home to all the mysteries and miseries you still wish you understood.”

I had sip of tea. “That was really good.”

“Good. Tell me more.”

“Why bother. You know already, don’t you?”

“That’s not what this is for.”

I sighed.

“Go on,” he said.

“Yes, I worshipped this woman. So fucking stupid. Now, as it was then, so fucking secretly. It was high school. There was nobody to trust. She was tough, and mean, and outspoken. She was a woman. And yes, she was on that trip. So was my best friend at the time, Alex. He was a fucking all-American dream. He would eventually go on to MIT. Join a fraternity. Design submarines. Join walkathons on acid, without worries of arrest, or prison. And I was just this kid. Glasses so thick they bordered on bullet proof. Head a rat’s nest of curls. Grin like an expectant donkey, round about feeding time.”

“That was you, all right.”

“Well it was still me, and it was still all of us. One last night, camping out on the beach. Playing truth or dare. Had ourselves a few naked people, a few stories. Tales told out of school.” I had another hit of rum, chased it with some tea. Shuddered, feeling the wind from that peninsula swirl around us. “Then someone asks Melody, of all the boys on this trip, who would you most want to sleep with…?”

“Alex,” the priest told me.

“Yeah, you’re a genius, Father.”

“Far as storytelling goes, you’ve got to bury your lede just a bit better.”

“Yes, Alex was the frontrunner.” I smiled, not all that well. “We all knew that. Melody knew that. But she had to run down the list. Process of elimination, see? Even that hardened broad had to play it cool. So she says she could never sleep with Nicky, because he reminded her of her sister. Which was all good for a laugh, though Nicky must have felt the sting on that one. Probably more than Tim, but looking back, I can’t even remember her sexcuse for him. Must have not been nearly as harsh.”

“Sexcuse…” The priest nodded. Smiled and added more sugar to the mix. “That’s not a bad word. Mind if I steal it?”

“I really don’t want to help you do God’s work.”

“I really don’t want your help. Tell me what happened when she got around to you.”

“It’s all so stupid, when I think about it…” I had another pull of rum, sighed. “She gets to me and says, well, as for Lucky… I mean, as you know, as I’ve said, as we’ve both said, I was already out of the running. But what she said next was so specific, so damaging, that…”

I had another hit from the flask.

The priest folded his hands. “That you ended up telling me about it.”

I couldn’t have sex with Lucky, because I would probably break him, is what she said.”

“Ouch.”

“Give me a break,” I said. “How could you possibly commiserate?”

“Easily,” he said. “I think what you mean is how could I relate?”

“Well, either way, that’s what she said.”

“Ouch.”

“Yes. And you’re right, it did stick with me. Something fierce. I went into that summer vacation with one of those idiotic teenage vocations. Go to the gym, work out. Improve yourself, your body, your face –”

“Improve your face at the gym?”

“Shut up, Your Eminence. If you want to know how this ends –”

“You went to the gym. You read up on your sexual anatomy. You found the clitoris.”

“You can’t say clitoris in a church.”

“Spent all that time thinking when school was let in, that you would show that girl, or woman, or however you saw her, that you were a man. Or however you saw yourself. You dropped the glasses, got yourself a pair of contact lenses, cut your hair, got yourself some new clothes. All ready to blow young Melody’s mind, only to get back for sophomore year and realize she was gone. Transferred to another school, or gone out of state, right?”

I stretched. Went boneless for a moment, then stood. Walked away, towards a window facing an alleyway, a redbrick building with barred windows. “Yeah, you guessed right. Figure it has to be because I wouldn’t be telling you this unless there had been some kind of conclusion. Either she wanted me, or didn’t. Now we’ll never know, and now we’re having this conversation.”

“Confession,” he said.

“I’m not doing that,” I said, turning. “This isn’t some fucking thing where your God gets to speak through some emissary, which, by the way, you were lucky enough to arbitrarily be. I don’t want my sins cleansed, and when this ends, there will be no Hail Marys. Ave Marias. I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”

“Because you’re not an Atheist.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Because atheism bores you.”

“It really does. So do you, by the way. So does this whole conversation.”

“Want me to skip ahead?”

“To what?”

The priest cleared his throat. Downed his tea. “You’ve done worse things. You know you have. You’ve cheated, lied. You’ve stolen. You’ve hurt people. And for the most part, it’s omission. You never meant any of it. But if you want to consider sin as an interplay between pleasure you receive against the pain it causes others, then this is why you’re here. Because you’ve done something. You did something to retaliate against what Melody said about you. You did something, on purpose to someone. My guess is you didn’t even know them. Right? Evil is about asserting yourself, planting flags. Evil is about intention. At some point you did something to someone, and it was purely for the singular purpose of hurting someone else.”

I killed the flask, shelved it back into inner pockets. “I’m not telling you that.”

“But you know you did something.”

“I’m not giving you the pleasure. The perverted gratification you people get from hearing about the ruined lives of others. All the while, enjoying the privilege of the untouched. You make me sick.”

“Just give me a name, and then you can be on your way.”

“I can go whenever I want to.”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”

“So?”

“So tell me who you think is out there, waiting for you.”

“His name is Bobble.”

From some other room, a phone rang.

The priest stood, left me.

I went and sat at the desk, kicked my feet up. Lit a cigarette. Adjusted my ass and farted. Spat on the floor. Was thinking about setting the whole room on fire, when the priest returned.

“No smoking,” he said.

“Want me to put this out?”

“No,” he reached down, took my cigarette. Took a drag. Breathed in, eyes closed. Exhaled. Put it out in my tea. “I got the name. Bobble.”

“That was his nickname,” I managed.

“And he’s out there, somewhere,” the priest said. “Brain on a burner. Yes? He’s just waiting for you walk back into his life so he can do whatever he needs to take care of you. Stuck in another room like this, waiting for his chance at absolution.”

“His name was Bobby, actually. Christian name, if you prefer. His girlfriend called him Bobble. We all did. For the hour or so that the rest of us spent with him.”

“He was just visiting.”

“From out west. California boy. Visiting his girlfriend. He traveled across the country, just to see the girl he loved. For Valentine’s day.”

The priest smacked a hand down on his thigh. “Confession is from three to five.” He rose up, stood. “Come back when you’ve got nothing left to prove.”

“That’s it?”

The church bells started to ring. “I’ve got people to take care of,” he said. “People who aren’t you.”

“Sitting in a booth and giving out free advice.”

“Gets mighty lonely for me, this time of day.”

“You did it to yourself.”

“Oh, my, yes. I know this much is true.”

“Well. Hope it was worth it.”

“How are you doing these days, Lucky?”

I stood. Walked towards the door. Stopped. “I’m doing great. I have a book I just published in the UK. They want to release it here in the States. Made myself a bit of a haul writing for HBO just recently. Nothing that saw the screen, but I’ve made enough connections to last me a lifetime, and less’n four years ago I was flat on my back, sleeping on a rock in Central Park, so, yes, I’m actually the best I’ve ever been.”

“Clearly, you deserve it. Correct?”

I walked away.

Back through the cavernous church, where the masses had begun to converge. Sad singles, perched in scattered pews. Eyes closed, lost in prayer and other dubious absolutions. Indifferent to the slow trickle of sinners seeking an easy fix.

I parted the seas. Swift steps echoing this time, imagining the priest chasing after me, on all fours. Transformed, a wolf well past the door. Looking to take a fresh bit of flesh from my neck.

Outside. Down the steps.

Paused as a kid skateboarded past.

I waited for him to get some air. Ollie off the curb, maybe misjudge the landing by just enough to break his wrist. But he didn’t. Curved his destiny up towards Broadway traffic.

With a cautious cry, I ran back up the steps. Took the doors one by one, this time. Right to left. Pushing. Pressing hard, waiting for the secret to reveal itself. Another chance. A second step into the inner workings of the world. Whack-a-mole. Each door left untended allowed any number of people to wander in. Lining up to cleanse themselves of themselves. Got to door number three when one of those people burst back out. Made me some seven pounds lighter, some twenty tons of doorway smashing into my face, sending me down the steps, head over heels in love with this sad trajectory, remembering a chance I once had at another life, this one opportunity to get things right.

An LA memory, standing alone on the top of a San Fernando rooftop.

Swearing I could hear a distant piper, lights in the distant Valley, notes to Amazing Grace.

Landed flat against the sidewalk, not one bone broken, and another doorway opened in my mind. Leading too many years into the future, trapped in a windowless room, Bobble telling me that none of it mattered and that the worst moments of my life were of no greater consequence, even less significance, than taking the name of the Lord in vain.

 

 

Dirty Day.

 

From what the windows had to say, it was going to be another lovely morning in Sunset Park.

Thought I’d give it a spot test.

Rolled out of bed. Headed for the front door of my basement rental.

Carful to avoid the empty bottles, tiptoe around incomplete notebooks and pornography.

Paused at the door.

Little bit of backtrack to the bridge table. Snooped around. Brushing aside pens, paper clips.

Bottle of Boca Chica catching my eye.

Let the hangover execute justice in its own time.

Found a book of matches before snagging the cigarettes. Popped a Marlboro into my mouth. Took another look out the nearest window, level to Brooklyn’s 41st Street. Sunrise catching up to my side of the house, just barely.

One or two sets of sneakers. Workmen’s boots plodding past.

Occasional sandals that promised better times.

I sparked my smoke, then back towards the door.

Clad in boxers and a white crew-neck tee.

Opened the door to find Hank waiting for me on patient paws.

Bad luck cat with white socks. Proud pair of evergreen eyes offering up the soft body of a baby bird. Talons twitching. Tiny wings shuddering. Needlepoint beak open, one eye punctured. Pinpricks of blood already drying, turning an oxidized color along trembling feathers.

Hank stared, expression of love and whatever loyalty cats were capable of.

Not her fault, and it was a matter of Thank you, Hank, before she dropped it to the ground.

Let that little bird tumble from her mouth, to my feet.

Hank slipped past my bare shins. Meowing for a decent meal.

I watched the bird convulse on the concrete patio.

Another litany of complaints from my cat. Impatient. Asking how, after all this time, I still hadn’t figured out how this whole arrangement worked.

Welcoming the delay, I went to the kitchen.

Out of cat food. Reached for a can of tuna.

Halfway through my waltz with the opener, when I noticed the knife.

Reached out. Ran the blade across my palm. Checked for blood. Gave it another go, pressed with precision this time. Nothing. Lifelines sticking to their scripts. Too dull to risk the results.

You get what you pay for.

Scratched another street vendor off my list.

Kept on turning that key, smoke in my eyes, tin cracking.

Hank’s cries reached a fever pitch.

I dumped the contents into her bowl. “There. Just eat, would you?”

She buried her snout into flaky components with wet, satisfied smacks.

I paid the dying bird another visit.

Crouched close. Its beak worked. A well-placed tooth must have severed something. Bird song gone missing, robbed. I reached down with an index. Stopped short. Crazy for thinking that this repulsive colossus at the gates might provide even a modicum of comfort.

No way around it.

Walked inside, opened the closet.

Found what I was looking for on the bottom shelf.

Sat on the tattered blue couch, boosted from the block two weeks after moving in.

My breath came in tiny bursts as I slipped into my worn hiking boots.

Laced them tight. Double knots tripling.

Toes wiggling against steel tips.

Walked past my cat, happily devouring her meal.

Reached below the sink. Found my collection of plastic bags, reserved for scooping clumps of cat shit.

Tore one loose. Marched back to the doorway, with what I assumed was brave determination.

Dawn was coming upon me now with side winding aggression.

Its one decent eye stared up at me, a throbbing, black boil.

Still struggling to comprehend.

“It’s ok, little bird,” I murmured, reaching down. “We’re going to make you stop.”

I wrapped it in plastic.

Felt a tiny leg kicking against my wrist.

Set the whole bundle down on the ground.

Propped my arm against the threshold and raised my foot.

Brought it close, hovering above where its head lay.

Dug my nails into the chipped paint.

Rested my foot back on the steps.

Watched the plastic quiver, printed letters bunched in a cluster of meaningless consonants.

I bit down on my tongue, gave myself a taste for blood.

Raised my foot once more.

Felt my lips fold taught against my gums.

“Please, and I’m sorry,” I managed.

Felt a hand reach down from the sky and send my best foot forward with the force of a thousand atmospheres, sound of a crushed skull rocketing past the boot heel, through my body, transmitting empty frequencies, heartbleeds, an end to all things that sent sparks from my fingertips, incinerating the sky with blue fire, fuming, teeth clenched, moistened flecks of saliva gathering at the corners of my mouth as I raised myself upon that one inconsolable leg.

Grinding.

Finishing the job.

I dropped my cigarette to the ground.

Eight minutes since lighting up.

Hank rubbed against my ankle for a moment, curious to see what else there was.

I picked up the plastic, fingertips searching for movement.

Opened the gate. Stepped to the curb.

Raised the garbage lid and let the shapeless mass drop.

Continued to exhale, never once breathing in, as I retreated to my cave, retrieved the bottle of Boca, and collapsed across the bed.

Drank deep and sent myself spinning.

Laid there for several hours.

Wasn’t until Hank crawled into bed, brought her nose close to mine, complete with the smell of canned tuna, that I was able to sleep. And as I went that way, the birds outside my window gave thanks to the sky, the sun, the breeze and the branches, the slither of worms, and the leaves in the trees.

 

 

Christmas in a Laboratory.

 

Two sub-levels down, the little robot quietly raised his head.

He counted the minutes.

Kept an eye on the door.

On the keypad, its digits a calculus red.

Once convinced, he stretched his set of mismatched wheels and went for a walk.

As always, he reached his destination within seconds. Ends of his rubber-lined, caterpillar tracks hanging over the edge. Automated hums and rhythmic clicks joined him in quiet meditation. He turned, and wobbled his way back across the stainless steel. Other end of the table. Same situation.

He turned once more, revisiting familiar territory…

It had been months since his awakening, and still, there was only the room.

He knew the tables, the counters. He knew the walls, the ceilings. The glare of florescent grids. The vials, agar plates, the biological storage system. He knew the equipment. Knew the computer terminals, monitors, air displacement pipettes, thermal cyclers, confocal microscopes. Something called the BACTEC MGIT 960. He knew he had somehow been pieced together from select sections of their obsolete cousins.

He knew the men in white.

…The little robot changed directions…

He knew that none of the men in white knew he was alive. One of them had assembled him as a pet project. Something to pass the time by the quiet spin of the centrifuge. He knew there were no other robots. Knew he wasn’t the reason for the room. He knew his awakening had never been part of the plan. And he knew, somehow, that he could never let them find out.

They would flip the switch, and he would pretend to activate. When they spoke to him, he replied, responded within the parameters of his programming. Listen closely, stare vacantly. Learned to learn.

Learned to survive.

Whenever they left him alone, he would roam the narrow surfaces. Tables, countertops. Wherever the last man had left him. Weeks spent moving back and forth. Depending on the location, he would sometimes stand before sleepy flat screens. Stare for hours on end at what he came to recognize as his own abstract reflection. Body a set of exposed circuit boards. Lone appendage sprouting obliquely to the left. Conical head ending in a single, puckered lens.

Always keeping his eye on the keypad by the door. Waiting for the numbers to turn green. Ready to wobble back to his mark. Just as the men in white remembered him. Stand by, and prepare for them to flip the switch.

Practice replaced subroutines. Recall replaced memory.

…The little robot began to turn circles. Spinning on his axis, arm extended in a crooked pirouette. Searching for his center…

His only friend in that white-washed prison was a turkey named Hamilton.

For the first few months after the awakening, there had been several turkeys. It took him a good while to understand what they were, what he was seeing. The men in white would haul them in, their plump bodies filling transparent polymer cages. Some of them thrashing about. Lively and alert. Others languishing like deflated pump bulbs. Eyes caked with broken yellow varnish.

It wasn’t until he began to record the numbers printed along their tags that he realized they weren’t just one, but many of these creatures. Temporary visitors. Hardly enough time to become familiar, before they were carted away.

He was never sure what made Hamilton the exception. It wasn’t until the third or fourth visit, same tag reading TS-142 that he knew this one was special. Finally. Here to stay.

The men in white seemed to agree with him.

It was on one of those occasions that he let Hamilton in on his secret. Rolled his way to the edge of the table. Caught Hamilton staring at him. He raised his arm and waved. Hamilton followed the motion, head cocked. Red wattle bobbing.

A pact had been forged. The little robot bounced lightly on his treads. For the first time in his short little life, no longer lonely.

The men in white never referred to the turkey by anything other than his tag.

The little robot named him Hamilton.

Taken from the letters embossed on their mammoth biological storage unit.

On better days, they would place Hamilton’s cage on the same table as him. The little robot would play dead. Wait for the men in white to turn their backs, then raise his head in what he presumed was a wink. Hamilton would respond with a twitch of his head. Nobody the wiser.

There were times they would be left alone together, and those were the best of all days.

He would approach Hamilton’s cage. Up close. Marvel at the shades of grey, an intricate binary of black and white flanking those majestic wings. At certain angles the soft slope beneath his neck would even shimmer a silver blue. His tail looked as though it was missing some feathers. Bare bottom leveling into a sallow shade of pink.

The little robot would place his tiny claw through the narrow slits, as far as it could go.

Hamilton would peck away, eyes awash with life and dark eternity.

It was on one of those days that Hamilton had told the little robot his first joke.

A series of garbled noises the little robot hadn’t understood. But the absence of logic seemed to do something to him. Sent his wires crossing in an infinite, blinding paradox. Circuitry glowing, and he pressed close to his best friend, wanting to share the warmth.

Then there were days, brutal times, when they did things to Hamilton.

It would start with the men in white. Their faces would disappear. Retreat. Replaced with shapes that held no meaning, signified nothing. They would float across the room. Lay syringes along steel plates, one after another with rote precision.

Hamilton would begin to pace in his cage. Or try. Bright, weathered talons marching in place as he pressed his feathered folds against the immaculate plastic. Retract his neck. Head nestling, convulsing in all directions. The men in white would lead with a needle, wait for Hamilton to shut down. Still awake, though miles away, as they injected, extracted. Hamilton’s eyes would stare out across the room. Beady eyes glazed with a mournful, shimmering acceptance.

And the little robot would watch from his sanctuary. Powerless. Certain the men would turn, any moment now, and catch his tiny body trembling with violent rage, flush with anguish at a room that would allow his friend to be treated so shamefully.

Each time, there were more needles. More tests, more pain.

And during the in-betweens, when the little robot had a chance to approach Hamilton’s cage, he found his friend growing distant. Hovering just above his own body. Wishful wings unable to fulfill their purpose.

…The little robot stood in place. Checked the door. Began to hop, lightly. Up and down. Each time determined to jump a little higher. Certain this was the first step. Positive that with enough momentum he would soon be able to jump from surface to surface. He could visit Hamilton whenever he wanted. And if he could learn to leap, he could learn to climb.

Given enough time, they might even make it out of the room, someday.

Beyond the steel door, behind which glorious unknowns would open up before the both of them.

The keypad turned green.

And the little robot didn’t bat his eye. Swerved backwards, forward. Parked himself right where he belonged. Adjusted his head, appendage, to match his last known location.

Checked the digital readout above the keypad.

12.25.16.03.14.05.

The door slid open. A pair of men strolled in.

One of them in white.

The other in a suit. Toting a tinted bottle of tiny bubbles. His head bundled in an outlandish cap. Red with white trim, topped with a powdery puff. The little robot had never seen him before. Or any man like him.

It wasn’t only the alien nature of his shell. His face, demeanor, was entirely different from the men in white. Purpose unknown. He strode about the room with a mechanical grin that threatened to devour all knowledge.

The little robot was so bewildered by this new arrival, that when Hamilton was placed at his table, he almost jumped back. So close to giving the whole game away. Dared to scoot forward a few centimeters. Raise his head just north of south-west.

Hamilton looked equally confused. As though the familiar were folding upon itself. Something about this night that didn’t match previous weeks, months. He cocked his head towards the man in the suit.

The little robot couldn’t risk turning around.

Felt himself yanked from the table. Flipped on his back, suspended in midair. Resting in the palm of that terrifying man, his teeth gleaming. Jaw working, chewing loudly on a series of fattened question marks.

The man in white intervened. Removed the little robot from manicured claws and set him down.

It only took a moment for him to realize that he had been placed at another table. Just one table away from Hamilton, but stuck facing the other way. The little robot’s dismay ran deep. Electronic tantrums building up. Held in check by the mention of TS-142.

The little robot remained in stasis as he listened in. Searching for patterns, explanations.

What little he managed to glean made his rotary joints go numb. There were more men, somewhere beyond that room. Men without homes. Hungry subjects. Plucked from some awful existence. Waiting for the arrival of TS-142.

Afterwards, there would be questions.

Further tests.

But not on Hamilton.

The man in the suit laughed. Bent over and began to fiddle with the computer.

The man in white placed a diplomatic hand on his shoulder.

The gesture was violently shrugged aside, as the suit man clicked a few times, then straightened. Waiting.

The little robot found himself leaning forward.

He nearly shut down as the sounds washed over him. Mathematics crystallizing, drifting across the room. Waves of soft melodies embedding themselves in his emotional codes.

His first song. His first time hearing the music.

Lush, flowing words telling him to Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It was almost too much, as the man in the suit reached down once more. Swept him up and across the table, dangled him in front of Hamilton’s cage. Telling him to say goodbye, to say goodbye to his friend, half his words garbled in a solution of laughter and high-pitched whines.

Hamilton cringed, feathers bristling.

The little robot was snatched away, once again, by the man in white.

Set down, once more. One table away from Hamilton.

The man in the suit took a drink from the bottle.

Insisting that it was Christmas, and soon, they would all be rich.

The man in white reminding him of something, both of them stepping out of the room.

The door closed with a strange hiss.

Locked. Keypad keeping to its typical red.

The little robot turned. Overwhelmed with movement, information, and the sounds of a rich, bittersweet vocalist filling every corner of the room. He sped towards the edge. As close to Hamilton that distance would allow. Motioned with his arm. Moved his head in pantomime circles.

Hamilton stared back. Feathers fluttering. Beak reaching out past his confines.

It was true. The little robot knew this. Just as he had come to know the room, the equipment. Just as he had grown to know Hamilton as his only friend within the sanitized cube that was his world.

He turned. Began to pace. Heard Hamilton calling out to him. Telling him not to be afraid. Warbled sounds mixing with harmonies, insisting there had to be more for the two of them.

The little robot began to spin, arm extended. Searching for his center.

Finding it in the music, and a sudden realization that everything would be all right.

There was still another way out.

He turned to Hamilton.

Reached out with his arm.

Forcing perspective, running his tiny claw along his best friend’s soft, yielding feathers.

Backed up. All the way back, until his treads reached the table’s end.

Hamilton began to claw at the bottom of his cage. Cried out.

The little robot understood. If the men came back to find him by Hamilton’s side, or flat on the floor, then alarm bells would go ringing. Warrant further investigations. Experiments. The room had been a prison, but the alternative would most certainly be his tomb. Subject to the same atrocities endured by Hamilton, and all those unfortunate creatures who had come before.

The little robot didn’t care.

He knew there was a world out there. He knew there had to be a place where they could be together. Be happy. Spend every waking hour resting on the notes of this new, inexplicable gift. He imagined endless years nestled close to Hamilton, staring out over a landscape for which there were no definitions. No images, temperance or colors.

Not yet.

The little robot’s treads began to spin. Rocketing him across the table. Unquestionably faster than he had ever moved. Bouncing along on those tragically inefficient wheels, cobbled together at the whim of an indifferent creator.

What he didn’t know was that beyond that door was a hallway. A hallway lined with innumerable doors. Leading to innumerable rooms just like this one. Stairways leading to another level, mirroring the same dispassionate floor plan. And above that, a lobby lined with security cameras, metal detectors. Men with guns. Windows that looked out onto an infinite parking lot, a thousand miles between solitude and salvation.

The world became a blur. Lights flickering in reassuring patterns. Test tubes turning red and green. Microscopes and monitors now wrapped in brilliant tinsel. Surrounded by the velvet assurances of a disembodied voice, promising that through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow.

The little robot didn’t know it was hopeless.

But he knew who he was. He knew music. He knew the tickle of feathers, the feel of a sad pirouette. The comfort of conversation in a room with no windows. He knew Hamilton, he knew love, and he knew that no matter the outcome, he would soon be at his best friend’s side.

And as he reached the edge, readied himself to jump, he knew it would all be worth it.

Because it was Christmas, and Hamilton had once taught him what it meant to laugh.

 

 

Super Hero.

 

An entire evening’s worth of liquor was always well and good, and always best when paired with a good head start.

Two in the afternoon, parked in my seat. Meter running. Double greyhound. Grapefruit juice refracting against Castlebar’s narrow windows. Taking the initial steps towards curing what ails. Brilliant exchanges with the bartender, first-shift regulars. Enjoying the occasional fresh face. Sending the occasional barfly home for a nap, and taking bets on how many hours, maybe minutes, before we would see his sorry face again. Never too many words away from laughter. There was a transcendent joy in taking it from the top, reassigning hangovers under the accumulated weight of our yesterdays.

A few drinks down the assembly line, though, and venom would steep into the foundation. A calibrated dismay, free of form, sense or center, that nobody in those sunset hours knew exactly who I was. What I was really thinking, saying, or seeking to accomplish. Further drinks accompanied by the cagey certainty that I had no idea either.

I would strong-arm my way into conversations, spout predictions. Soliciting the future, what lay in store for all of us. A scorched planet, the end of all personal interaction, floodwaters that would send cities fleeing.

And from there, more drinks. Rungs slipping past my palms as the ladder rushed past, light at the end of the tunnel narrowing to a distant star. Sending all superfluous life to the outskirts, only to be told by the bartender that it was time for me to go home.

The one everlasting truth they always seemed to know.

“Brigid would never cut me off,” I could have been heard to say.

A sly look from Rowan. “Who the hell is Brigid, Lucky?”

And maybe I would squint as I laid down my tip. “I don’t know.”

And it was July when I found myself stumbling westward. Trying for a sober stride while my left and right fought over whose turn it was to pay. Possibly mumbling to myself. Most certainly not listening to either one. Patting down my pockets. Finding the flame stick. Thinking maybe I had left my cigarettes at the bar. Body doing a one-eighty. Feet just a little late on the uptake as I marched backwards into the crosshairs of Third and Sullivan.

Pinned by the yellow burn of gleaming monster eyes.

No time for the driver to hit the brakes.

Hardly time to wonder whether death might have a particular taste, when someone grabbed hold of my shoulders. A rough moment of clarity that gave strange constancy to those digits. Three fingers from each hand wrapping themselves around my chest, down under my arms, back around, over and under, creating a biologically impossible harness…

Then I was yanked.

Soaring backwards through the air, extracted with a velocity that left trails of vomit shimmering in a rotten, pastel rainbow. Not one drop landing on my jacket or faded jeans. Felt my ass hit the sidewalk. Expecting to see the face of my savior hovering above mine with sober concern.

But the ride didn’t end there.

Didn’t stop. Sliding on my back now, legs flailing. Still in the grasp of those irrational tendrils as I was dragged along Sullivan. Enough speed to lift me from the ground, flying parallel to the sidewalk, bobsledding upside down. Storefronts and stoops a pinwheel blur. Wearing my entrails for shoelaces, confident they would be decorating the streets within a few short seconds.

And within those seconds, I cleared Bleecker Street. Massive acceleration slowing the skinny hand. Traffic on West Houston reduced to a relative crawl. Both lanes home to ambling beasts, a great migration of reinforced steel and lazy headlights.

Felt my mind begin to slip, stretch. Irreversible.

Saved by a dull thud. Body meeting some malleable barrier, rising, turning summersaults through the air. I went flying. Got a glimpse of someone flying with me.

Copilot were the final syllables I managed before slamming against the wall of St. Anthony. Wind knocked out of me for a second time as I fell face down in a damp patch of grass.

I managed to get on all fours. Waiting for my lungs to decompress. Hiccupping, half retching. Finally getting in a good one. B-sides scratching against my throat as I breathed in. Coughed. Next one coming easier, lifting me to my feet.

Said feet stumbling forward, side to side.

Twirling around, just once.

Toe to toe with a superhero named David.

Known to himself and his friends as Eclipse.

He was five-five, nice symmetry to the height as well as the face. Though that symmetry was nothing to brag about. Balding, face a middle-aged network of dried riverbeds. The kind of ears you tell stories about. Hypnotized eyes of a subway conductor. Arm extended, inviting mine for a perfectly normal shake, and I had to wonder how it was we had made it this far.

“I’m David,” he said.

I nodded. Twisted my shoulder, felt a joint pop. “David, huh?”

“My friends call me Eclipse.”

“Ok. Why is that?”

“Because I can bend. My arms, lengthen them. Like light. Eisenstein’s theory of relativity, proven by Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse, caught the sunlight bending –”

“Yes,” I interrupted. “That’s a bit of a stretch. Also, how come they don’t call you Stretch?”

He shrugged. “Can’t give yourself a nickname.”

“Well, thanks anyway. I suppose I owe you for saving my skin.”

“You really haven’t thought twice about it, have you?”

“Thought?”

“You just got dragged some hundred yards by retractable arms.”

“Yes.”

“By a man named David who calls himself the Eclipse.”

“At least that last part wasn’t your idea.”

His smile was a bargain at half the price. “Want to see more?”

I watched as a teenager coasted past on his skateboarded. Had a moment there where I saw him ollie off the curb, try to stick the landing. Fucking up. Back wheels hitting a crushed soda can. Landing on his side. On his side, on his arm. Snap of the radius as bones splintered in two.

Two seconds later, I saw him ollie off the curb.

Turned away.

Wasn’t enough to muffle the skater’s screams as his wrist lost all meaning.

“Why did you do that?”

I glanced over to find David sizing me up. “Huh?”

“You turned away. Why?”

“Because…” There was the kid, sitting in the gutter. Clutching his arm, shrieking. Staring at what used to be a given set of instructions. I began to walk towards him.

“Wait,” David insisted. “Answer the question.”

“What?”

“Why did you turn away?” David repeated, voice loud over the screams. “Tell me.”

“Jesus, David, come on.”

“Here come the others…” Small tribes of concerned citizens were already congregating from all sides of the street. “It’s actually our best chance.”

“Best chance for what?”

“Quickly.”

He motioned for me to follow him past the church steps, and down a second set. Paused at the wooden door, imbedded into a squat, stone archway. Sending me a second cue, this time with a circumspect urgency. “They aren’t looking at us. They won’t see. This is it, Lucky. Now, or not at all.”

I turned back to the kid, now the focal point of Houston street.

Every last soul gathered by his side, watching from a distance, or ignoring the tears and all that surrounded them.

I trotted down steps. Gave David a vigilant frown.

He pressed his palm against the door. Fingers spread far as they could go, though clearly not as far as they could stretch. The low warble of an angry insect flooded my ears. The wooden panels began to warp, just enough to hint at a heartbeat, before the door creaked open. Swinging inwards, rather than out. And rather than a rec room or dingy boiler, a metal staircase that led further into a faraway shade of aqua blue.

“Now, Lucky,” David said. “Right now.”

I stepped through the stone arch. Giving up on the outside as I took several rusted steps down into the dwelling. Heard the door close. Waited for David to join me.

“You did good, Lucky,” he said. There were no walls, no ceiling, but his voice still managed to find its echo in the rippling light. “Matter of fact, you just won me five hundred bucks.”

“So can I go now?”

“Not the way you came in.”

He was right. The door had vanished. Replaced by the same velvet darkness on either side of the stairway. “Where do these stairs go?”

“They go down.”

“Fine. Where do they lead?”

“Same place.”

I got to moving.

Hollow footfalls along a subterranean fire escape.

A seven-minute hike that ended in a steel catwalk. Mesh pattern hovering two feet above a pool of brilliant turquoise. We crossed those lonely waters in silence. Not long before we hit another door. Metal this time. Black paint job, dented in certain spots. From the other side came the muted wail of a saxophone.

“We’re here.” David said.

“Ok.”

It was as easy as turning the knob.

We stepped into a burning replica of every bar I had ever set foot in. Total identity crisis, from the clash of neon signs to the black and white frames of Irish immigrants. Every color in the visible prism represented by naked bulbs. Mismatched barstools adorning a bar that cut out at obtuse, impossible angles. Floor tilting upwards, ninety degrees, towards a jukebox with no buttons or speakers.

Miraculously managing to belt out Boogie Woogie Boo.

Bright flames leapt from the walls with no apparent origin.

I felt my new comrade wrap his arm around my shoulder.

And around and around.

“Hey, everyone!” he called out. “Say hello to Lucky Saurelius!”

The patrons all turned, joined together in a greeting both joyous and brooding.

Didn’t take a mastermind to notice there was something wrong with each and every one of them. But David was quick to notice that I had more pressing issues on my mind.

“Who’s in charge of drinks?” I asked.

David withdrew his arm with an elastic snap. “As you pass yet another test.”

He led me up the wall, sideways along a mural of Guernica.

Wild angles vandalized, spray paint outlining exposed tits and erect cocks.

Made our way back down to what could barely pass for the floor. Had a seat.

The bartender slid on up. Or what the bartender was wearing did, at any rate.

Nothing but a bowtie was floating before us, surrounded by an pale, industrial mist.

“This is Spectrum,” David told me.

The bowtie bobbed slightly. “Lucky Saurelius. Pleasure to meet you.”

I extended my hand. Felt an electric tingle as he shook mine.

David signaled for a pair of drinks. “His thing is he’s invisible.”

“You don’t fucking say.”

“I do.” David reached for a pair of floating glasses, doubled with ice and Jack Daniel’s. Set them down. Stretched his arm out to a rusted cigarette machine. Pulled a knob and reeled in a pack of Dunhills.

Struggled with the cellophane.

Ignoring the vertigo of odd dimensions, I took a moment to take in the regulars.

Saw a fellow floating placidly above his table. Laid flat on an imaginary mattress, one arm behind his head. Mouth open. Voraciously taking down a stream of whiskey, poured by a woman with ebony skin and bright lipstick; dressed in full denim, with bare feet and her remaining hand stuck to the ceiling.

In the corner, a pair of identical twins sat concentrating over a chess set. Matching scuba suits doing what was possible to imprison their curves. Miniature ice sculptures in place of knights, rooks, and bishops. Every so often, one of the twins would unzip to the valley between her breasts. A select figurine would melt, crawl towards another square, and reconstitute. Sometimes as the same creature. Occasionally, as another beastie, only to take a bite out of some unfortunate statuette in a bright spark of cold fusion.

A weathered face stepped into my line of sight. Hawkish features, stern smile. Celestial blue against a wrinkled face cut from the Dakota badlands.

“Huh?” I asked.

“He’s got questions, Eclipse,” the old timer said, helping himself to David’s cigarettes. “Don’t be fooled by his cool.”

David nodded. “He’s got questions, then, Ksa.”

“Yes.”

“Seeking the answers to life’s mysteries?”

Ksa borrowed the arm of a passing drunk, who barely took notice as his palm was used to light the old timer’s Dunhill. “I don’t recall life’s mysteries asking him anything.”

Then Ksa went on his way, copping the gin and tonic from a distracted patron and knocking it back.

David offered me a Dunhill.

I popped it in my mouth. Turned and borrowed an arm, lit up.

Smoke mingled with the strange taste of burning flesh.

“You got questions?” David asked.

“Who was that character, just then?” I asked. Took a sip of Jack. “You called him Ksa.”

“His thing is he reads minds,” David said. “Pretty much runs this place.”

“He’s your leader.”

“He runs the place. We don’t have one of those.”

“Ok.”

“So you figure we’re a group?”

“There’s a group of you, no doubt.” I took down a bit more of my Jack. “Group of who, more like, is what my question is.”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Yes. So obvious I don’t actually know the answer.”

“We’re super heroes.”

I polished off my Jack. Motioned in the general direction of that floating bowtie. Got another double for my doubts. “No, you’re not.”

“Well, let’s see…” David turned in his seat. “Jamie over there can glide through the air. We call him Magnet. The lady on the ceiling? That’s The Spin. She can crawl up and along any surface. The Gentleman, he’s not here right now. But he might be. He can walk through things, likes to hang out in crawlspaces. Whenever he’s not sojourning in women’s locker rooms. The twins? We call them the Absolute Zygotes. Got a way with temperatures…”

“Yeah,” I lit a new cigarette off the end of the other. “I get it. But what do you all do?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Have you stepped outside this bar lately?” I made to gesture towards a window. Realized I was several miles underground. Made do with pointing towards the ceiling, where the face of a well-trimmed gentleman in a top hat melted through the panels just long enough to realize he’d been made, then withdrew from sight. I ignored it, soldiered on. “We’re sitting on a caldera.”

“What’s your question?”

“What the hell have you all done?” I asked. “Haven’t read anything in the papers recently.”

“You familiar with comic books?”

“No.”

“X-men?”

“No.”

“DC comics?”

“No.”

“But you understand the concept.”

“Yeah, I do.” Thought about refreshing my drink, got one courtesy of Ksa. Some kind of rum concoction that burned my throat. “And where were you when Amadou Diallo got shot? Columbine? Or fucking Rawanda? All this talent, and what?”

“Well, it’s complicated.”

“Not in the comic books.”

“I thought you didn’t read those.”

“Other people do. Have to sit and listen to their bullshit sometimes.”

“And that’s how you know they’re not complicated.” David said. Lit another cigarette, and as though on cue, the music died. Got every one of those eyes focused on us. Cyclops at the corner table included. “You think we haven’t done our share of interventions? Wiped out a good old-fashioned fascist or two? It never works. You know this.”

“I don’t know shit.”

“Well, stop asking why we don’t just take down every super villain that comes along.”

“So I shouldn’t even bother to ask about the usual street crime?”

“Well, the Gentleman can walk through walls, but so what? People see him the instant he pops out of hiding.”

“Don’t you have an invisible guy –”

“Eclipse?” David laughed. Joined by the rest of the freaks, all gathered around with their various drinks. Cigarettes. Floating in the air. Hanging of the wall. Orbiting the crass angles of this impractical bar, drunk smiles and tired eyes. “Think about it. Can an invisible man really manipulate anything if he can’t see his own hands? And how invisible can you be when your digestive tract is visible to everyone.”

“He serves drinks pretty well.”

“It’s the only constant. The bottles and glasses are always where they are.”

“Blind people seem to do ok.”

The bowtie slid by, served me another drink. Told me: “Their eyelids aren’t transparent.”

David nodded. “We have to put him in a coma every night just to make sure he can sleep.”

The bowtie bowed with a certain sadness. “Eye masks make me itch.”

“Want me to go on?” David asked. Drank. Got a rousing chorus of murmurs from the rest. “The Arachnid can climb anywhere she wants, but the second she loses contact with a surface, she goes hypoglycemic. Ignition, the guy whose palm lit your cigarette a couple of minutes ago? He can only work his magic when touching easily combustible material. The twins? Well, the scuba gear says it all…”

“Tell it!” one of the twins called out.

“Tell it!” the other echoed.

The bar erupted into drunken revelry, shot glasses manifesting from the clear blue. Each one taking theirs out without a second thought.

I sighed, plucked my own drink out of the ethereal plane.

Took it down.

“You see,” David said, wiping his lips. “We’re not prognosticators, Lucky. We don’t know how our actions play out. The results. Unintended consequences. And we have no way of knowing who is going to be needed in the short term. No way of telling who’s getting mugged when or where…”

“You don’t have a guy small enough to change things on a molecular level? Genetically enhance wheat fields, food supplies. Find a cheap way to desalinize seawater? Create a cleaner fuel.”

“Sure, that never goes wrong. Split the atom. Radiation. Science. Mary Shelley.”

I smirked. “She one of you, too?”

“Wish she had been.”

“Say what?”

“We weren’t accepting women in those days.”

“Wow. So you really are all useless.”

“I’m sure you can relate…”

I sipped my Jack. Didn’t argue.

David waved everyone off.

They scattered. A lanky man with blue fingertips stuck his digits into the jukebox. It sprung to life, Fantasy is Reality.

“Well, yes,” David said. “We are all just a few minutes to midnight. We can’t contribute to innovation. We can’t kill Hitler. And we don’t know when Joe Average is planning to attack… until now.”

“How you figure?”

“You.”

I rubbed my nose. Saw a plume of black smoke, abstract and lively, floating just inches away. Felt carpeted lips kiss mine. Breasts rubbing along my cheeks. Then it was gone.

“That was Shadow,” David said.

“Don’t care.”

“I’m going to answer your final question and save you the embarrassment asking.”

“That’s not a sentence.”

“You want to know what you’re doing down here.”

I toyed with my glass. Would have done the same with the ashtray, but it was already spinning of its own accord. “I want to know how I can get out of here…”

“Do you know what’s going to happen in the future?”

“No, but if you hum a few bars, maybe –”

“You can see. Can’t you?”

“Make a shot appear in front of me again, could you?”

“You don’t know it, but you do…” David wasn’t being dramatic. He wasn’t even that interested. The empty panacea of any lifelong bender setting in. Eyelids drooping, stretching down, dipping into his drink before snapping back up. “You tell things. Come up with scenarios that aren’t scenarios. Nobody listens to you.”

“Nobody listens to me because I am genuinely unpleasant to be around,” I said. Drank hard this time. Motioned for Spectrum to bring on the booze. “I’m entertaining. A cautionary tale. Doesn’t prove a thing.”

“Your project,” David said. “The one you’ve been working on since you were fifteen. Came to you out of the blue, right? At The Blue Note, listening to Herbie Hancock’s first concert in years. Pulled out a notepad and just started writing. We’ve kept tabs and it all points to something. A hurricane. An enormous wave. An oncoming disaster somewhere in these United States that is going to change everything.”

I kept cool. “You’ve been reading that nonsense.”

“Yes.”

“You, in particular?”

“The Gentleman helped a little.”

“I hate that guy.”

“You know what comes next.”

I shrugged. “So the words are written proof that I’m some sort of soothsayer?”

“Better hope so,” David said. “Your writing isn’t very good.”

I smiled.

“Want proof?” he asked.

“I would love proof.”

He pulled out a quarter. “TAKING ALL BETS!”

Once more, the jukebox cut out. Halfway through Allen Toussiant singing Mother in Law. Everyone gathered around. Started exchanging money, pink slips, with ice cubes for markers.

David told me to call the coin toss.

“Really?” I laughed. Unconvincingly, washing down my cigarette with Jack. Ice cubes changing shapes against my lips. “Fifty-fifty shot, that’s going to settle it for you?”

“Yes.”

“Bullshit.”

“Every one of us started same as you.”

“Good for them.”

“We all know you’re a gambler by nature. Call it.”

“Call my balls.”

“Heads or tails.”

“No.”

“Let go and call the fucking flip.”

Fuck you, and fine!” I took down the rest of my drink and slammed it against the bar. “Chicken!

He flicked his thumb. Sent the coin flipping. Up towards the ceiling, where a chicken happened to be soaring past. Plucked the quarter right out of its arc and swallowed it. Dissolved into thin air along with a rousing chorus of wan disappointment. Everyone handed their money to the Cyclops, and there was another question that would always remain unanswered.

I turned back to David as the music started up. “Come on.”

“You called it. Heads. Tails. Quantum chicken.”

“You planned that.”

“So those are your options,” David sighed, drank. “Either we’re the most brilliant, conniving people you’ve ever met…” A nearby regular passed out in a plate of lentils. “…or you can see the future, and you belong down here with the rest of us.”

“I don’t belong anywhere.”

“Neither do we.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Glad you think so.”

“About me…” I put out my cigarette. “You’re wrong about me. You made a mistake.”

“We need you, Lucky…” David lit a Dunhill. Took a drag. “We need someone to absorb our sadness and turn it into something else. We need direction, Lucky. We need a Heyoka.”

“A what?”

“Ksa’s idea.”

“So that’s my new designation?”

“Can’t give yourself a nickname.”

“I’m going.”

“Don’t.”

“I’m going.”

David nodded.“Fine.”

“Really.”

“Yeah.” He sent his thumb towards the back. “There’s the exit.”

What I had assumed to be a portal to the kitchen slowly morphed into a set of velvet doors. A thuggish bouncer, skin covered in reptilian scales, stood watch. Arms crossed. Muscles bulging beneath a white t-shirt.

“Let me guess.” I stole one last cigarette . “He can eat bugs, but can’t tell you if crickets go home.”

“He has Ichthyoisis Vulgaris. That’s not funny, Lucky.”

“Well, ok. That one’s on me.”

“You walk out that door, you will never find us again.”

“Fine.”

“You really don’t care?” Tears formed in the corner of his eye, drifted across the air in oblong shapes. “You honestly don’t realize this is where you belong?”

“Whatever Heyoka is,” I said, “he doesn’t belong anywhere.”

“There’s not belonging anywhere, and there’s belonging nowhere.”

“That’s stupid. You’re boring. And I’m going.”

“Goodnight.”

I fell out of my seat. Caught the Gentleman looking up at me from the floor.

“Stay out of my goddamn life,” I told him.

Shook it off and went to the door.

The Bouncer stopped me in my tracks. “ID?”

“Excuse me?”

“Need to see some ID.”

I felt myself vomit a bit in my throat. Held it down. “You need to see my ID to go outside?”

“ID please.”

I sighed.

Pretended to reach into my pocket.

Punched him in the face.

Was planning to, anyway.

His mouth opened, jaw stretched several fathoms beyond my worst nightmares.

Devoured my hand. Wrist. Elbow. Had to stop being cool at that point and scream. Tilted my head towards a ceiling that should have rightfully been a floor. That woman, the Spin, stared down at me with worn disgust. Felt my shoulder meet razor blade teeth before that mouth opened just a little wider. Hollowed sensation of a wet sleeping bag against my head as I caught one last glimpse of David.

He stuck his middle finger out, raised it high. “You didn’t think I meant the door, did you?”

My mind compiled a list of retorts, and I kept screaming.

Acetone mucous dripping into my eyes as I slid down the bouncer’s throat.

The jukebox started up again, a little number by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Not one of those elements available for comment as I slid into yesterday’s throat.

***

Stepped through the door to Creole Nights.

My ears popped.

I checked myself.

All appendages present and spoken for.

Took a look around.

All dimensions reset to their manufactured settings.

Tangerine lightbulbs. Straw hats stapled to the ceiling. Caribbean mural painted on the wall. Earth, Wind & Fire on the speakers urging me to do a little dance, make a little love…

“Get down tonight!” Zephyr cried out from behind the bar.

I sniffed. Air passages clean.

Glanced around once more. “What day is it, Zephyr?”

“It’s not day,” he told me. “It’s night! To-night!”

Ok.

I slid past a couple, drunk way too early to know their hours were numbered.

Took a seat.

“Let me get a double of Jack, please.”

“Double Jack.”

I watched, so happy to see his dark hands doing those lovely, unspeakable things he did best.

“You ok?” he asked.

“I think I was,” I told him.

“You’re home.”

“Yes. That much has to be true.”

He smiled past his glasses. Graying mustache doing a little jig.

There were untold miseries playing out in the world, but the television was off that evening. Eventually, the jazz band set up. Replaced proper hallucinations with improvised progressions. Murder, rape, and an oncoming catastrophe took to their place, back seat of my imaginary Jeep. The world was ending. Unwinding. Spinning counterclockwise. I told the woman next to me as much. She didn’t believe me, but figured nodding was good enough.

And it was.

Good enough for me, anyway.

We had ourselves a time, and I never thought twice about what happened that night, miles below the steps of St. Anthony.

I kissed her in her sleep, then left the way I came in.

 

 

Lemon Drop.

 

It was shaping up to be one hell of a perfect night.

My experiment in reckless optimism did not go unnoticed as I made the scene at Creole Nights. Shoulders thrown back. Scuffed shoes bounding merrily along the sunny side of the street, even at this midnight hour. Jeans bulging with a touch of extra green, courtesy of a poker game with an exceptionally dim cartel of Stern students. An insignificant haul by professional standards. But after less than half a year at the tables, three hundred had me reading my own tea leaves. Head brimming with ambition. Gridlocked fantasies of days and nights in the neon casinos of Atlantic City, bouncing around Manhattan from one game to the next. Check-raising and calling all bluffs like numbers in a little black book.

Never mind my negligible grasp of poker theory. Never mind that mathematics and I hadn’t spoken since we broke up in high school. What I had was a real knack for reading the table. Sensing the flow, feeling the pulse. The raw essentials of psycho-strategy.

Again, never mind that getting a bead on a handful of business majors with money to burn was hardly a true test of one’s mettle.

At the time, it was all coming up aces.

The silver bell above the door harmonized with a raucous welcome from the regulars.

“Lucky Saurelius!”

“The man!”

“Hey, look at that!”

“Somebody’s having a good night!”

With an idiotic smile welded to my face, I made my way across the tiny, festive dive. A little slide in my stride. Gave the band a quick nod as they tuned up, sat down to a set of friendly faces. They wrapped up their conversation with a few quick turns of indecipherable Creole. Zephyr threw me a wink from behind the bar, as Ayizan scooted his chair a few feet to the left, making room. Draped his arm over me. The key to his bike lock dangled from a silver bracelet, tickling my arm.

“So what’s all this?” he asked. “Our sad and sorry poet has found his smile somewhere out there.”

Zephyr giggled. “End of the fucking world, man.”

“So I had a bit of a run tonight,” I said, pulling out my smokes. “Doubt you’ll be cracking wise when I buy this next round.”

I expected an onslaught of drink orders; Red Stripes, Coronas and cognac. Instead, Zephyr placed a bottle on the bar. Gold label paired with the easy curvature of tinted glass.

“We’ve got some Rhum Barbancourt,” Zephyr announced. Surely not for the first time that evening, but it was well worth repeating. “Estate Reserve, aged fifteen years. Evan brought it in from his trip, just handed it over…” The regulars nodded with solemn approval. “You want some?”

“God. Yes, please.”

Zephyr poured me three fingers. Refreshed our surroundings. Raised his glass. Led us all in a twisted, unholy prayer breakfast, raising his glass. “To love, peace and FUCKING!”

We made as though to knock them straight down. Handicapping the tilt at the last second, chins bent back just far enough to take in a measured taste. Even an underage drinker such as myself could tell that this was sipping rum. Dynamite palate, citrus mingling with what could only be fire-roasted pear. Pepper-flavored footprints waltzing along my tongue. A finish long as winter nights.

Hardly a burn to speak of as warmth spread its wings.

I set my glass down gently.

Far as the bar flies, things didn’t get much better than that.

“Thank you,” I said.

Zephyr nodded. “So it seems you have had yourself a bit of luck there.”

Creole Nights was experiencing a severe deficit of female clientele. Everyone looking for a little distraction, something to fill the time between the random approach of scandalous fishnets. So I let them all lean in. Heads bobbing to a cover of Tell Me Something Good. Regaled them with a story of seven-stud. Some fat fish whose daddy worked for Lehman Brothers, trying to play a set for a flush, triple betting me on fifth street and all the way down the river.

Rocked back by my made straight, no improvement for him on seventh.

Whether or not they knew what the hell I was talking about, didn’t matter. Lucky Saurelius was on a roll. Three hundred bucks all the richer, a second glass of aged Haitian rum stretching my grin to the limit. Surrounded by candlelight, live jazz, and a cavalcade of regulars who seemed perfectly happy to let me keep on smiling.

Last call could not have been farther away.

***

Time went this way and that. The band capped off their final set with a heartrending cover of Redemption Song. Passed the tip jar around. Select strangers walked in; some half-hearted, some ready to wholly invest in the experience. A fresh young couple made out in the corner. Snifters of cognac served alongside Lynchburg Lemonades and Long Island iced teas. An ex-Seal wandering in, drinking his share of sake, then nodding off. Benson & Hedges dying in the ashtray before Zephyr was forced to wake him up, send his ass home.

All things as they should be, exception being that I was still smiling.

Riding the wave. Unhinged confidence leading to otherwise unthinkable transgressions. Seated halfway down the bar. Glass half full with exquisite sugar cane. Chatting up a couple who would ordinarily turn my stomach with sour jealousy.

They were in their mid-to-early twenties. Or at least old enough to remind me I shouldn’t be there. A man with dark hair, two inch ‘do spiked with generous amounts of product. Skin the color of banana bread, even in the folds of December. Not a single misplaced fiber hanging from his jeans. Light blue, button up CK shirt hugging his torso, sculpted somewhere at the crossroads of casual and conceit.

His woman was no less worn for the wear. Hair a spotless shade of onyx. Genes working to preserve some sort of East Asian ancestry. Slender body painted in a shimmering green dress. Hips sticking to their script, legs loving their very existence. Genuine smile, makeup two splendid shades past the line of good taste, one peach of a paint job.

They had come in round about one in the morning. Ordered a couple of beers. Well on my way to wasted, flush with money and free rum, I offered to buy them a drink. Buy the three of us a round. Of whatever. On me.

The decision was delegated to the lady.

Ordinarily, dry ru n on a Lemon Drop would have been chilled vodka. Garnished with a lemon caked in granulated sugar. More than a few bars tended towards Absolute Citron, and Creole Nights had no problems being part of that particular lineup.

We sent our shots straight down.

They sucked on their chasers.

I washed it back with another taste of Barbancourt.

And then we got to talking.

Rick was born and raised in Montclair, New Jersey. Currently an ad man working for Stanton, McGregor and Plymouth. Living with his girlfriend in Hoboken, New Jersey. Tamara was studying to be a paralegal. Moving on up, well past her humble beginnings in a Pennsylvania town she kept insisting I’d never heard of. Point proven when I promptly forgot the name over a fresh round of Coronas. On me.

We shared a toast, lounging in our chairs, wooden barstools massaging our backs. I got us another set of Lemon Drops. Another trio of Coronas. Another round of Lemon Drops. Zephyr set us up from left to right. Myself, Rick, and Tamara. No accident in our seating arrangements; I knew better than to approach a couple from the female side of the equation. We murdered those drinks, ripped the meat right off the rinds.

The underground was packed solid for two-thirty in the morning, and our voices rose above the clamor.

Rick glanced back at the television, then back to me. “So, Lucky! Who you liking this year? Only two and a half months ‘til March Madness!”

“Search me if you think you’ll find anything!” I replied. “Don’t follow sports!”

“Really?” It wasn’t even rhetorical, he honestly figured I had misspoken. “That’s a little hard to believe!”

From the look of things, Tamara was equally skeptical.

“Believe what you like!” I told him. Gave Tamara a nod, let her know this wasn’t a closed circuit between two dudes. “No basketball, baseball, football, no balls of any kind!”

“Well, that’s cool, dude!”

I couldn’t tell what he meant by cool.

“It’s kind of interesting!” Tamara joined in. “I don’t know a lot of guys who aren’t into sports!”

“What can I say? I guess I’d rather spend my time looking at naked women in magazines than a bunch of men sweating it out in basketball shorts, or piling on top of each other in the middle of a field! I know how gay that must sound!”

Tamara smiled.

It was Rick who blindsided me with his laughter. Threw his head back, howling at the straw hats stapled to the ceiling. Brought his palm to my shoulder with a hearty smack. “That’s not a bad point, Lucky! Pile of dudes in a field! Hard to argue with that, I can’t deny it!”

I picked a bit of lemon from between my teeth.

Tamara excused herself to go to the bathroom. In her absence, there was a sudden exodus of patrons. Out the door and into the streets. Not the most unusual of events; underground had a way of happening in inexplicable clusters. One couple takes leave, a single ring of a silver bell.

Instant Pavlov.

A once vibrant base stripped to its essentials; two or three tables of close-knit friends and a smattering of endurance runners at the bar.

Unaware of the abrupt shift, Rick gave my back another slap. “So what’s up with you, Lucky?!”

“Inside voice, Rick.”

“Oh…” Rick turned cagy, took a hit of Corona. He smiled with a dramatic sense of his own humility, lowered his voice. “What’s up with you, Lucky?”

“You mean right at this very second?”

“I mean, what are you doing down here?”

Still no real sense of what he meant. I decided to go for the best of all possible answers. “Just got out of a poker game with some Stern kids. Gave them a run for their money, and from what I can tell…” I polished off my Barbancourt. “…Still running, Rick. Still running.”

“That’s killer, Lucky. Freakin’ killer, an honest-to-God poker shark sitting right next to me.”

His unexpected admiration allowed for a moment of soul searching, brought out a bit of honesty on my behalf. “Well, might be some day… A card shark, by the way, Rick. Card shark, not poker shark.”

“Card shark, yeah. I think I knew that.”

“And I’m really just starting out. Currently in the process of dropping out of film school. Not really a golden boy to speak of.”

“Oh, shit, bro. Why dropping out?”

I lit a cigarette, shrugged. It was a long story, but the two of us were already drunk, and I settled on the easy answer. “Just got tired of the insincerity. Everyone looking to get theirs. Don’t know if a guy like you knows what I –”

“Oh, hell, yes,” he interrupted. Shook his head. “Yeah, man, I work in freakin’ advertising. SM and fucking P. You want to talk about insincere. That place is a feeding frenzy. Shit, bro.” He put an empty bottle to his lips. Noticed this, then motioned for Zephyr.

I informed him his money was no good. Rick fought me. I fought back. Something about this encounter messing with my mind. Bringing me down off my cloud. Best way to keep it going was to spend with impunity. Keep on fronting, let the drinks flow.

I manifested a family of Coronas and Lemon Drop triplets.

Gave Zephyr his due thanks.

Zephyr hovered around us, listening to our conversation. Rinsing glasses on the sly.

I turned to Rick. “You want we should wait for Tamara to get back or –”

No, Rick didn’t want we should wait for anything. He threw his shot back without removing the lemon from the rim. The wedge stayed glued to his upper lip in a moment of pure, unintentional comedy, before falling into his lap.

“Ah, shit…” He reached down around his crotch. Picked up where he’d left off. “Yeah, it’s a bitch working as an ad man. You know what SMP’s motto is? Its brilliant freakin’ contribution to the world?”

I shook my head.

Truth Is Bold.” Rick grimaced. Shook his head in a forty-proof time delay. “Truth is bold. You know what the inside joke is around SMP?”

“No.”

Bullshit, well sold.”

Not bad. “Not bad.”

“Yeah, it’s bad, alright… Wish I could do what you were up to. Just chuck the whole thing, go out there on my own.”

“Look, Rick, it ain’t as romantic as all that…”

Even as I tried to improvise a few comforting words, he straightened against his chair. Brought his fingers up to this throat. Bisected his Adam’s apple with a swift back and forth.

The universal sign, and I kept it to myself as Tamara slid back into her seat.

Rick made a big production of her return. Put an arm around her. Apologized for jumping the gun on the shots. Recommended me as a willing partner for the remainders as he took his own trip to the little admen’s room.

Tamara and I shared an uncommitted smile. Rick’s empty seat stood between us, playing chaperone. I shrugged, reached for my shot. She did the same. Without any specifics, we toasted, had ourselves a time of it.

“So what did you and Rick talk about?” she mumbled against the rind.

The bar had lost a few people, found another batch. Refreshed. All things brought to a low boil as I reached for my beer. “This and that.”

“Yeah.” She drank along with me. Moved her head side to side with the music, oddly enough very familiar with the lyrics of Night Nurse. “It’s been a hell of a night.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Really, tell you about it?”

“Just an expression.”

She added a wrinkle to her pert nose, took a deep breath. Small breasts lifting for a moment before relaxing. “Nah, I know you boys. Think I’ll just keep things to myself.”

“Yeah, we got a secret. Handshake n’ everything.”

“Nothing.” She appeared to be mildly drunk. Couldn’t blame her. My silence wasn’t part of her play book and she willingly tipped part of her hand. “So you dropped out of film school?”

“How exactly did you –”

“One of the Haitian guys told me. While I was waiting for the bathroom.”

“Can’t listen to everything you’re told. Not down here, not always.”

“Interesting…” She twitched her head, one swift motion sending folds over one shoulder. The better to look at me, as she smiled through dark, narrow eyes. “He also said I should ditch Rick and go home with you, Lucky…”

My eyes took an unsolicited road trip along her exposed legs.

“Yeah,” she agreed. Sucked back on her beer, eyes afloat. “Still think maybe I shouldn’t listen to what I’m told?”

“It’s just a thing,” I said, reaching for my cigarettes. “Just a little running joke in these parts. Playful, is what it is. Funny little suggestion. Thought experiment, no different from asking a friend if they could fuck any celebrity –”

“Sure, well, you’re no celebrity.”

You got that right.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” she said. “I mean, are right. The possibility is pretty damn for real. I mean, I really could leave here with Rick, walk him to a cab. Send him away, come right back. Help myself to some other drink besides these fucking Lemon Drops. Leave Rick behind, never have to ask myself what if I had said –”

“Hold up…” I tossed my lighter aside. Took a drag, distracted by a singular detail. “I thought you liked Lemon Drops. Thought that was your drink, Tamara.”

“That’s Rick’s drink.” She laughed. Pleasantly, free of derision. “I just kind of go along with it. Provide cover for him… not really a man’s drink, you know?”

“Drink’s a drink. What’s a man got to be worried about?”

“Yeah, you can say that…” Tamara polished off her Corona. “After all, you are you. Rick, on the other hand, is Rick.” She motioned for me to drink up.

I did as I was told. Right at the tail end of my fifth straight swallow, a hand landed hard between my shoulder blades. Threatened to send the whole ordeal back up my throat.

I coughed, struggled against a constricting alimentary canal, as Rick flopped back into his seat. “Easy there, buddy!”

I nodded, sure, easy. Held up a finger, asked for time.

Zephyr took it as a sign for a fresh round of Corona and lemon drops. Either honestly mistaken, or having a bit of fun at my expense.

Probably the second one.

Rick hunched over, eyeing my profile. “You all right, Lucky?”

“Yeah…” I gathered myself, straightened. “Yeah, I’m fine, Rick.”

“Must have gone down the wrong pipe.”

“Pipe.”

“I’ll let you two men sort this out,” Tamara said, dislodging herself and heading for the bathroom once more.

I watched her through watery eyes, craned my neck as she staggered between a pair of empty tables. Turned back to find Rick taking care of his Lemon Drop. A good quarter escaping down his chin, neck. Spreading across his Perry Ellis as he slammed the glass down on the counter.

“You like Lemon Drops, do you?” I asked.

Rick sucked on the lemon, managed a casual shrug that sent his eyes rolling back. Dropped a damaged, half-moon rind into my ashtray. “Ah, you know. Whatever I got to do to keep her happy, you know?”

I nodded. Lit a fresh cigarette. Chased down the bile with a dose of beer. “Never kept a woman happy long enough to know, sorry.”

Rick laughed. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything I could say that wouldn’t please him. “So what’d you two get up to while I was gone?”

“Not a lot.” I coughed, had another sip of beer. Head buzzing, I figured I might as well come clean. “Planned our getaway. Thought maybe we’d find a way to ditch you. Spend the rest of our life together, down here.”

“Yeah,” Rick mused. “Got to wonder how this is going to work out.”

I gave him a quick study. Stacked all that baggage right into the corner of my eye. He was drunk, no doubt. Signs hung from his neck, bringing his shoulders down to a bronzed arch. Typically spiked hair gone horizontal. One too many swipes from his hand, a forest razed, leveled. Confident eyes remaindered. All this topped by a violent dip as he rammed his shoulder against mine, informed me that You’re the man, Lucky.

“I ain’t the one with the girl, Rick,” I reminded him. “Tamara’s something else, really. Nice, friendly. Easy on the eyes.”

“Easy on the dick,” Rick insisted, laughed.

“What’s that?”

“She can suck a cock like no other girl I’ve ever met.” Rick winked at me, eyeball bursting under his lid. Unconvinced I understood, he kept right on. “I mean it’s like porno land when she goes to town. Just when you think she can’t cram any more down her throat, she does this kind of…” Rick made a gagging sound, stuck his tongue out at an unflattering angle. “I mean, you know what I mean.”

I took a look around, wondering what the empty tables might have to say about it.

“This one time, I had her up against the wall,” Rick said. “Guess she’d never had it like that, whatever. She’s screaming her dumb fucking face off, loving every second. Tells me she wants me to flip her over. Like up against the wall, and…” He lowered his voice, though where this sudden sense of reverence came from was anyone’s guess. “She wanted me to put it in her ass. How’s that for you? Not bad, am I right?”

Truth be told, it all sounded peachy. I replicated the exact same scenario, jealously guarding images. Rick’s part in the play outsourced to me. Shoving her hard against the far wall, arms spread out against the mural of a colorful Caribbean village.

No, not bad at all. Except, why tell me, and what about Tamara?

“What about…” I hesitated, put the truth out there first. “Yeah, great, can’t say I don’t… it’s good, all good. I mean, what I was saying earlier was that she really seems like a nice girl. You two, together, nice couple…”

“Nice girl, yeah.” Rick guffawed, drank his beer. Words slurred, out of sequence. “You and me we don’t need nice girls. We’re predators, you and me. Hunting and stuff our way through the plains of Africa. What’s that place? Supposed to be good?”

“Serengeti?”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I mean, someday, maybe some woman. I don’t know. Tame us, take us down. Declaw us. Lose our fangs. Settle down…” He bit down on his forearm, hard. Shook his head, gave me a drunken grin. “Men like you and me, we know how to deal with bitches.”

I wasn’t sure we did.

“If they don’t think we’re good enough for them…” Rick didn’t look to be talking to anyone anymore; one long, lonesome soliloquy. “Then we have to take what’s ours… Hit it…. And quit it.”

As he gave himself a solemn amen, Tamara made a regrettable reentry into our conversation. Slid herself into a naked barstool. Eyes alight at the sight of another shot, even though it clearly wasn’t her drink of choice. I did what I could to disassociate myself. Locked in a staring contest with my beer as the two of them exchanged inebriated, romantic whispers.

Felt as though the evening could end right there.

The two of them, perfectly soused, excusing themselves. Same as a thousand other couples. Drunk out of their skulls, heading home to enjoy some wasted, outlandish sex.

Up against a wall, flipped over, asking me to put it in her ass…

My prayers were only half answered.

Rick muttered a polite standard and stumbled towards the back.

Tamara slid on down, occupied his seat nicely. “Hey, there, sailor.”

I didn’t reply.

Glanced up at the clock. Budweiser glare reading ten ‘til four.

“Seriously, what’s eating you?” she asked. “You given any thought about what I –”

“Yeah, I thought about it…” I said. “But if I could… Maybe, if I could just say this… I don’t want you to think that what you told me earlier has anything to do with this, but… I think Rick’s playing you for a bit of a chump.”

“What?”

“I don’t want you to think I’m saying this because I want you to stay with me.”

She seemed between two worlds. A moment of pure pleasure. “You want me to stay with you?”

No.” I shook my head. Retraced my steps. “Yes. Doesn’t matter, look…”

I gave myself a moment to consider it. None too clear on protocol. Whether it was my place to tell her what Rick had told me. I was hardly a state witness. My testimony wouldn’t topple organized crime or Colombian drug cartels. Then again, last I checked I was neither Woodward nor Bernstein. My unnamed source wasn’t Deep Throat, it was some jackass by the name of Rick.

“Hey.” Tamara nudged me with her elbow. “What do you mean, whether it’s your place to tell me what Rick told you? What did Rick tell you?”

And apparently, I had been speaking out loud the whole time.

“Fine.” I drank my beer, stared at my reflection in the barback mirror for just a second. Turned to her. Felt my knee rub up against her, lifting her skirt up along her thigh. “I can’t say what’s in Rick’s heart, but his mouth’s crammed full of shit. He seems to think you’re some kind of dumb fuck-slut, or something equally as poetic. He was talking about how you suck cock, how you like it up your ass. Sorry if I’m being a bit brash, but… Also, you clearly aren’t the one, far as he’s concerned. Doesn’t want to be declawed, is how he put it. He’s some kind of creature out on the Serengeti. Which, apparently, he can’t name off the top of his head –”

I’m not sure who stepped in to edit the rest. One sip of beer, and the bottle was tapped. One look to the right of me, and Tamara was gone. Had to turn around in my seat, and there she was. Out in the middle of the floor. Lights dimmed in anticipation of closing time. Soft focus on her and her boyfriend. She was screaming at him, slapping him. Batting his head around like a catnip mouse.

Free show for the regulars.

Caught a side glimpse of Zephyr, one step shy of finishing an electric lemonade. Curacao cradled to his chest like a blue, misshapen baby. Wicked grin gleaming with devilish entertainment, Oh, SHIT!

I watched on, sutured to my seat. Stomach constricting. Past the point of no return. Tamara screamed. Rick pleaded. An overdose of Lemon Drops effectively murdering all communication.

“You want an ANSWER?!” Tamara screamed at him, pulling a wandering strap back up to her shoulder. “Here’s your answer, Rick! No! Never! Last man on EARTH never! FUCK YOU!”

She ran for the door, yanked. The bell jingled with glee, ever the optimist, as she tripped her way up the stairs. Rick gave chase. Sent a chair skidding clear across the room with a spastic kick, managed to stumble on the same three steps as his girlfriend.

Every last sound had been sucked out with their departure. Left us with a hollow, slow-motion vacuum. Their outlines danced along the edges of every detail, replaying what couldn’t have been more than ten seconds of pure pandemonium.

Then, with a pop of our collective ears, all depth returned. Chairs scraping, scattered laughter, ice rattling around as the remaining regulars and a few lucky visitors launched into their post-game analysis.

Happy organ licks from the stereo; Bob Marley assuring us that every little thing’s gonna be alright.

“What the fuck, Lucky?” Ayizan laughed, neck stretched out over the bar, led by a wide grin. Dreadlocks dipping into his drink. “What the hell was that?”

“Yeah, Lucky,” Zephyr giggled. “I know you drive the ladies crazy, but what the fuck did you do, man?”

Without realizing it, I had walked out to the middle of the floor. Left foot crushing a nest of cigarette butts, casualties from the altercation. Eyes on the door, I turned in a slow, waltzing circle. Reconstructing the crime scene against a backdrop of giddy regulars. By the time I came to face them, their mood had changed significantly.

Something in my eyes, maybe, giving it all away.

They repeated their previous words, same words. Different questions.

“What the fuck, Lucky? What the hell was that?”

“What did you do, man?”

I coughed. “Didn’t really do much of anything?”

“Bullshit,” Zephyr said. Eyes stern behind his glasses. “What was that?”

“I… may have spoken out of turn.”

And I didn’t hesitate to do it again. Fast and loose, an incomplete explanation spilling. Each sentence punctuated with a desperate tone of justification. Wringing my fingers, knuckles a chalky white. Conclusion capped with a lethargic non-apology. “I mean, she had a right to know.”

Ayizan shook his head. “Shit.”

Zephyr nodded grimly, unhooked the keys from his belt loop. “Clarence, lock the door.”

With the frightening efficiency of a CDC lockdown, Clarence scooped the keys off the counter and strode towards the front door. I caught his face in the lamplight as he passed by. Cherub cheeks retreating into a hard, almost resigned expression that read, all right, looks like we’re doing this again.

Right down to the wire, it turned out.

With a nervous rattle of keys, the bolt slid into place just as a pair of legs came pounding down the steps. With the driven speed of a living storm surge, Rick was at the door. He took hold of the handle. Pushed. Figured it out real fast, then kept right on pulling. His whole body thrashed against the strength of the door. Mouth an oval grimace of fury. Lips spread so thin, his teeth seemed to be growing right out of his face.

He slammed his body flat against the door, eyes furiously straining inwards past rectangular glass panes. “LUCKY!”

“Go home, man!” Clarence called out. Slowly backing away.

“LUCKY, YOU FUCK! WHAT DID YOU DO!?”

I began to move forward. Slow steps of a novice zookeeper. Arms at my side, fingers curled into terse, frigid claws. Bob Marley sending me down the path.

baby don’t worry…. ‘bout a thing…

As my body came into focus, Rick’s assault softened. Still pressed against the window, bug on a windshield, his mouth melted into a miserable pout. Lower lip sticking out. Fists slowing, growing mushy against the glass.

“Ah, Goddamnit, Lucky, why?” he cried out. “Why, dude? Why?”

The rest of the bar faded. Drew back, dimmed in a backstage gloom.

“You didn’t have to do that, Lucky!” he wailed. Reached into his jacket and pulled out a small blue velvet box. Popped it open and pressed it up to the glass. Nestled in its satin bed, a platinum ring rested, its bright diamond eye wide awake. Glinting in the foyer’s overhead light.

For an instant, completely divorced from reality, I was actually contemplating saying yes.

My eyes met his.

“She was thinking about it!” he cried. Tears began to roll down his sculpted cheeks. “She was THINKING about it, and she would have SAID YES!”

I opened my mouth. A few senseless, dried croaks clearing customs before I managed to say, I’m sorry.

Not enough air in my lungs to possibly have penetrated the barrier between us.

Don’t know if he managed to catch my lip service. Saw him snap the box shut. Return it to his pocket. A moment or so of inward reflection. He reached for the handle, gave it one last yank. Turned away before his fingers had even slid from the brass. Went plodding up the stairs, with long, overdrawn steps.

So long, Rick.

I turned to the bar. Walked back along what felt like a dark corridor and back to my seat. Surrounded by the disappointed mumbles of the Creole all-stars, I found a Lemon Drop waiting for me.

Shot glass rim mimicking the circumference of a wasted engagement ring.

In a moment of depressing clarity, I recollected something Tamara had told me.

It’s been one hell of a night.

Another turning point in someone’s life, unfortunate enough to coincide with Mr. Lucky Saurelius.

Each rationalization came to the surface, dead on arrival; to listen to them, neither one of them was happy; they looked right, acted right; had done everything right, it would appear. Maybe it hadn’t been such a bad thing. Could be I was the best thing that could have happened to them.

Yeah. That was it, no doubt.

Everyone in the world would be much better off if only they’d taken the time to be a little more like me.

I took down Tamara’s shot and readied the one that was meant for me.

***

Over the next hour, the regulars filtered out.

As dictated by our underground gospel, the slate was already being wiped clean. The bottles remained where they were, ashtrays choking with an excess of cancerous leftovers. Bar sticky with worthless overflow. Teardrops left to dry until tomorrow’s opening moments.

In the meantime, each one of my part-time friends made their way past me. Gave me an affectionate pat, quiet shake of the hand. Eyes brimming with regret, sorrow, and painful understanding. The young amateur had blown the call, sideswiped an entire lifeline with careless words, but the rest of us would live to fight another day.

Lights extinguished. Noises off.

Zephyr wandered over, saw me nestled with a collection of shot glasses and empty bottles.

He set a glass before me. Rocks glass, free of ice.

Poured a thin stream of rum, what amounted to a third of an ounce.

“Don’t feel too bad, Lucky,” he said. Soft words resonating in the empty space. “You fucked up, real good. Next time you’ll know better.”

I took hold of the glass. Swirled the rum around, making myself dizzy. “All those things Rick said. Why would he say those things if… I mean, why would a man talk about his future wife that way?”

“Because he’s a man. A real simple man, is the problem.”

“But why?”

“Because he was trying to impress you. That’s what men do. You think the assholes that come in here talking about, man I fucked this bitch the other night, and she let me do this and let me do that…” He trailed off. “Men worry about what men think about them.”

“You don’t. I don’t.”

“Well, there’s all sorts of men. You can care about pussy, or you can care about other men. You’re you. Rick was Rick. He just thought that’s what it took to get you to like him.”

I lit a cigarette, downed the last of that perfect, twelve-year rum. “How the hell was I supposed to know that?”

“You weren’t. You didn’t. You haven’t been down here long enough to know. You’re not good at this yet. It’s going to be a long time before you are.”

Didn’t bother to ask him what I was supposed to be getting good at. In a rare throwback to my earlier optimism, I felt as though I might have actually understood what he meant.

But not nearly enough.

“Why the hell would someone like Rick want me to like him?” I asked.

“Unless his woman takes him back, he is going to be asking himself the same question every day for the rest of his life…” Zephyr let a smile slip on that last note. Corrected himself, and added. “You and your friends owe me two hundred and thirty dollars.”

“Don’t got no friends.”

“Then I guess it’s just you.”

I felt my poker winnings cry out from my pocket. “Lucky for me, I had a bit of a run at the table earlier.”

“That was a hell of a good story. The way you called that rich kid out on his bluff. Good eye, is what they say.”

“They sure do…”

“Want one last drink while I figure out this paperwork?”

The rum was gone, and I had to order myself the standard fare.

Jack on the rocks.

My bankroll was gone, and I had to start a fresh tab.

Down payment on an education still years in the making.

Zephyr took his post by the register. Took a handful of impaled tabs, rummaged around for the calculator, and began to assess the damage.

I took a sip of Jack and silently prayed for Rick and his once and future girlfriend.

 

 

Witness.

 

Janet was dancing in my dream. It was her birthday, in my dream. And despite the occasion, she hadn’t changed a thing. No place to go but down, into the depths of Creole Nights, where she spent most every evening. Tuesday through Saturday. Stationed behind the bar, her own foxhole, pinned down by dueling requests for drinks, refills, and the roaming eyes of men who could benefit from a sly castration or two.

The last night of Voodoo Fete. What was once a weekly tradition of drums, music and rhythmic hips, all coming to a close. Combined complaints from the people two floors up, and a new city dictum forbidding six or more people from dancing in any bar, pub or watering hole that wasn’t a licensed nightclub.

“AYIBOBO!”

The subterraneans cried out in kind.

I was seated at a table, for once. For some reason.

Popped a Marlboro. Had a bit of chilled Jack. Ice cubes fleeing.

Ayizan raised his arms. “God bless us all, the world has brought us all here. AYIBOBO!”

I kept drinking, in this dream.

This infuriating, superlative memory.

Ayizan pointed, the full length of his arm. “We’ve got Zephyr and Evan behind the bar!”

Cheers. The two brothers raised it up, applauding over their heads.

“Janet, so beautiful! It is her birthday tonight! Thank you, God, for such a wonderful woman!”

Cheers.

From her station at bar’s end, Janet lifted a bottle of sweet dynamite. Slender arms. Athletic build. Eyes an adopted flare of Korean madness.

Ayizan pointed in my direction. Eyes smiling through his dreadlocks. “We’ve got Lucky Saurelius, smoking on his cigarette, AYIBOBO!”

I raised my glass.

The drummers railed against the approaching city ordinance.

One last weekend.

Ayizan went from table to table. Swinging a censer of incense. Pungent smoke reinforcing the musty scent of underground sweat, tears and body heat. He went from table to table, from friends to perfect strangers. Slid on over my way. Hovering before my seat, the two of us, eye to eye. Shadows scuttling along the walls and ceiling.

I finished my cigarette.

Finished my Jack.

Held out my hand and met his. Let the eucalyptus oil slather its way from his palm and down my arm.

When I looked up, Wanda was standing above me.

Dirty blonde hair coming down in shoulder-length curls, where black bra straps wrapped over pale shoulders, beneath a white tank top. Hands on her hips. Their circumference encircled by a black belt; double notched, leather cracked and peeling. Bottle of Jack in her hand.

With my face inches from her belly, I raised my glass again with blind expectations.

She lifted, tilted. Sent a stream of sour mash swimming, right up to the rim.

I set my refill down, and then Wanda was straddling me.

Denim thighs wrapped around my waist.

She curled her fingers around my neck. Thumbs pressing up beneath my chin. Drumbeat coursing through her nails as they dug in. Lifted, tilted. Brought my eyelashes to meet hers. Crystal blue bearing into me. Mouth parted in a tiny, prepared invitation.

When I closed my eyes, Wanda was pressing her lips against mine.

***

And when I woke up, Wanda was standing above me.

“You were talking in your sleep,” she said.

I shifted against the grain of my open futon. Windows host to the flu-colored sunlight, typical of winter mornings. Jazz station playing Wynton Marsalis, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” “You went to go sleep under the coffee table.”

She shrugged. “Yeah.”

“You fell asleep next to me.”

“I know.”

“Well…” I stood up. Bent low and reached beneath the wooden frame. Pulled that worn contraption back into its full, upright position. Room for none more. “There. That looks a little more honest.”

Wanda didn’t comment.

I was spoiling for a fight and she knew better. “You going to throw on a tie?” she asked.

“What are you going to wear?”

She gestured along her body. Feet planted, catwalk spiraling around bare feet. Worn jeans. Black, double notched belt. White tank top. Black bra strap visible over a single, pale shoulder.

“That’s it?” I asked, remembering my dream.

“Sweater, sure. Jacket, too, should do the trick.”

“And then?”

“It’s a casual affair,” she said.

“And yet, I should throw on a tie…”

“Because if you don’t, you’re going to wish you had.”

I opened the mini fridge. Helped myself to a tallboy. Swished a mouthful of watery suds. Offered it over. She took a few swallows. I followed up with my own rhythmic timing. Set it down.

Caught a flicker in her wild blues.

I traced the momentary blip, down past my body.

Faced with a discouragingly slight morning erection. More of a benign tumor, poking from the corner of chastened boxer shorts.

“Maybe some pants, too,” she suggested.

I rubbed my eyes. “A little privacy, please?”

“Sure.” Wanda stole the beer from my table and left me alone.

I struggled with my pants. Struggled with my tie.

Realized I needed a shirt to go with it.

Glanced at the futon.

Tore at the noose around my neck and hit reset.

***

The N train tossed us onto the steps of City Hall. A few wayward protestors were posted a few yards away. Placards raised, commemorating the slaying of Patrick Dorismond. It was almost one year later, March 2001, and public interest had waned.

And Wanda paid for our coffee.

We sat on a park bench and counted squirrels. Caught somewhere between frozen headaches and genuine appreciation for sunlight. The space between us was authentic and casually painful.

“What were you dreaming about?” Wanda asked.

“Mm…” I popped a Marlboro. Offered her one. Lit hers, then mine. “Janet’s birthday.”

Wanda smiled, only with her eyes. “That was a good night.”

“Yes.”

She took a strong puff. I could hear her lips tugging. “What was the dream about?”

“Janet’s birthday.”

“What was it about, though?”

“More of a memory.”

“Just in a dream.”

“Yes.”

“Nothing different?”

I glanced over. Just slightly. “Why do you ask?”

She tapped her nails against the coffee cup. “You were talking in your sleep.”

Janet jumped out from behind a tree.

Did a little high kick, her thick boot-heel coming an inch from my face.

Came so close to ripping her silver strapless dress in half.

“What’s up Scooter-Pie?” she crooned. Hair pulled in a sloppy cinnamon roll. Pair of curls falling on either side of heavy eyeliner and rouge. Opened her arms and scooped me up.

Tossed me aside for Wanda.

Remy Love joined in. Smiling. Quiet. A foot shorter than his future wife. Dressed in a slick, burgundy suit. Matching tie and cufflinks. White pressed shirt popping nicely against his dark skin. We shook hands, went in for a half embrace.

“Hello, Lucky.”

“Glad I could make it, Remy.”

He laughed, rubbed a hand along his shaved head.

“What did you two kids get into last night?” Janet asked.

“It was Lucky’s belated birthday celebration,” Wanda said.

Remy gave me another hug. “Happy birthday.”

“Belated,” I told him. “They tricked me into celebrating.”

“What’d you give him?” Janet asked Wanda.

“Three rounds of truth or dare with me and my girlfriends.”

Janet snagged my cup. “Ooh. Nice n’ hot.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Coffee ain’t bad either.”

Janet took a sip. Frowned. “I expected a bit more of a kick…”

I reached over, patted Wanda’s green canvas satchel. “Slipped a fifth of Jack in here. We’re good.”

“We are good,” Janet said.

“Ready to do this?” Remy asked.

Janet bent low. Kissed him full on the lips.

They held it.

A blast of frigid wind found its way around them; lifted my tie, tossed ragtag curls against Wanda’s lips.

I dropped my cigarette on the ground. Crushed it. “Can we all go get married now? It’s cold out here for the rest of us.”

They broke apart.

Hands clasped, Janet and Remy began to walk towards City Hall.

Wanda and I watched them for a few seconds.

I gave her an elbow to the ribs. “Thought you said this was going to be a casual affair.”

“Good thing you wore a tie.”

She held out her hand, palm facing the treetops. Smiled in a southerly direction.

“Goddamn you, Wanda,” I said, and wrapped my fingers around hers.

We followed them up the steps and into the machinery of New York City.

***

Emptying my pockets was never a problem.

Took less than three seconds of crumpled bills and confused apartment keys.

Sent my bookbag through the x-ray.

Walked through the metal detector without a care in the world.

The security guard on the other end had taken the liberty of unzipping what was rightfully mine. Rifling through notebooks and worn Post-its.

Domingo was the nametag, embossed in brass.

His eyes were large, set against Dominican bronze. “What’s this?”

“Bad writing,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” he replied. Before I could praise his read on the situation, he lifted the fifth of Jack from my bag and gave it a shake. “I mean, what’s this?”

Wanda must have slipped it back into my bag sometime earlier.

“Fourth floor,” I told him.

“Wedding?”

“Yeah.”

“Shoot…” He shook his head, smiled sadly. “Go ahead, man.”

“Thanks.”

I collected my twelve or so Washingtons, keys to the kingdom.

Watched them run the wand up and down Wanda’s body.

They smiled while she remained rooted, arms held out.

***

So there was a six-foot blonde seated next to a man matching her in every last detail. Dress and all, matrimonial twins. There was a Jamaican with his arms wrapped expectantly around a diminutive brunette, hair cut so close that a red birthmark, fashioned after a tired armadillo, could be seen at the roots. There was a white teenaged punk with pink hair, nipples so clearly pierced, arm-in-arm with a Japanese man in a fresh pressed suit. There was a cancer patient in a wheelchair, her husband-to-be decorated in multi-colored tattoos of B-17s, P-40 Warhawks, F4U Corsairs. Two teenagers mixing it up between hopeful smiles, nervous glances towards the door and deep, wet kisses, tongues triangulating.

Waiting for their number to be called, like patrons at the local butcher shop.

Wanda stole my thunder with a quick whisper: “This may be the most honest place on the entire planet.”

I leaned close to her ear, unconcerned with proximity: “I thought of it first.”

“Maybe.”

“And I’ll beat you to it, someday.”

“Do your worst.”

“And I’m going to call it, If Found, Return to Wanda.”

She smiled with her eyes. “What makes you think they’ll ever find me?”

Janet hijacked our moment and dragged us into the hallway.

***

Surrounded by dull tiles and navy nameplates on endless doors.

Cracks in the ceiling. Splintering along the walls, paint job the color of mulch and worn Astroturf.

Janet dug greedily into Wanda’s satchel.

Extracted her Excalibur and unscrewed the cap. Took a double dose in two happy swallows.

Wanda threw me an eyebrow or two, wondering when I had planted it back in her bag.

Janet handed me the bottle. “There you go, Scooter-pie. Go deep.”

I did. Wiped my lips. “So are you going to be Janet Love?

“Yes, god, yes!” She took another belt. Sent the bottle back my way. “Janet Love!”

“Then what?”

“Do I look like a goddamn fortune teller?” she asked. Pretended to hand me the bottle. Drew it back and sucked down some more as I fought to reclaim what was rightfully mine.

From somewhere off screen, Wanda smiled: “Snap.”

We both turned.

Caught her with a disposable camera.

Eyes peeking over the rectangular box.

We traded her. Bottle for camera. Took shots of her taking shots. Sent the merry-go-round from each one, to each other.

Janet drinking with Lucky.

Wanda drinking with Janet.

A still shot of Lucky drinking with Wanda, which I would never have the chance to throw away.

Both of us reaching with eager tongues towards the same end.

Remy poked his head out from the waiting room. “They’re ready for us.”

There was a quick scramble to see who would get the last belt.

Remy waited patiently as we drank through a tangle of arms and Tennessee-tipped lips.

***

The chaplain was dressed in a simple tweed suit.

Protruding lips, sad and moist, clashing with his pleased brown eyes.

An agent of happier days. Day in, day out.

Because we were gathered there today to witness the union of Janet Banks and Remy Love. No vows. No invocation of the Lord from his unfortunate bureaucracy. An exchange of rings. A request for the witnesses to sign there, and there. Light shining through a stained-glass, nondenominational window, into the strangely triangular, nondenominational room. Pronounced husband and wife. Janet and Remy coming in for a kiss. Wanda bringing her fingers to an otherwise cynical mouth.

Myself standing there with a drunken, stupid smile on my drunken, stupid face.

Stupid, unreliable present, and when Wanda hugged me, I had the presence of mind to keep it to myself.

***

We celebrated in an empty bar across the street.

Remy ordered us a round of Cognac.

Janet ordered loaded potato skins and mozzarella sticks.

Just a little past noon, and the brilliance of the day wormed its way along the floor and wobbling barstools.

We raised our glasses in a toast to the newlyweds.

“Lucky…” Janet dumped the contents down her throat. Raised her glass once more. “I’ll never forget the night of my birthday…”

In a rare moment of gratitude, God had the presence of mind to get Wanda choking on her drink.

Janet remained stalwart. “I sent Lucky out. Out onto the streets. Out on a mission to fetch me a chicken shawarma. From Yatagan’s, across the street. He left, and with my drink in hand, I had to wait. And I thought he was gone. Wouldn’t come back. But he did. And when he did, he had twenty chicken shawarmas. Came down into Creole Nights and just started slinging those shits everywhere. I don’t think I ever saw the losers so happy. Everyone eating and pounding their Red Stripes. Happy and dancing, end of the fucking world… Thank you, Lucky.”

We managed to bring our glasses together, drink.

Wanda stared at me over her glass, question directed at Janet: “And then what happened?”

“What do you mean?”

Wanda shook her head. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

“Me too,” Remy echoed.

I took an oversized bite from a rubber mozzarella stick.

Lit a cigarette.

“Good about her and Taylor,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Getting back together?”

Without thinking, I put out my cigarette. Realized the mistake and lit another one.

The bartender was a blonde. Straight hair, typical grin. Tits meant to entice tips from lonely number-crunchers, paisley ties and early afternoon knock-offs. I motioned towards my glass. Got a nice dose of Hennessy for my troubles.

“I turned twenty-two again last night,” I told Janet.

“Good for you, Scooter-Pie.”

“Yes.”

“What did those dirty girls make you do?”

“All kinds of things,” I murmured.

“Now I’m married.”

“Yes.”

“Want to do a shot?”

“Tequila?”

“Yes!”

We gave ourselves a round, chased it down with cognac, and the world got a little easier for the two of us.

Wanda and Remy showed up at precisely the right time.

“Should we go?” he asked.

“One more drink,” Janet said.

I turned to Wanda. “What do you think? One more?”

Wanda let her lids rest, then shot back to the now. “One more for the newlyweds.”

And that was what we toasted to.

Another meaningless bar in the middle of New York City…

***

Wanda and I stumbled into the apartment.

A rare moment where all the squatters, deadbeats, and so-called friends had found something to do with themselves beyond the walls of 30k.

I took a quick glance along the empty 40s, bottles of vodka, bourbon and scotch.

Reached down for the last fifth of a fifth.

Had a few draws and let exhaustion set the agenda.

Stretched myself out on the couch. Black vinyl sticking to my skin, forgetting that summer was several seasons away from a violent, cataclysmic ending.

“I hear you,” Wanda said. Stretched her arms high above her head. Gave her navel a quick lay of the land.

I motioned with my head. “Coffee table’s right over there.”

“Shut up.” Wanda brought the moxie along, into our bed.

Couch. Whatever the case may be.

Stretched out alongside me.

Face to face.

Eye to eye.

“That was a good night,” Wanda said. I felt the Jack Daniel’s hot against my face. Knew her lips must have carried the same dangerous taste. “Janet’s birthday.”

“Yeah.”

“Was I there?”

“Of course.”

“I mean, was I there? Was I in your dream?”

I was tired. And it was nice to have Wanda’s leg casually nesting my knees.

“Yes.”

“It was different though, right? It was how it should have been?”

“Helena.”

“Yes.”

“And now that she’s gone off to wherever people go when they go to France –”

“Paris.”

“ – yes, now that she’s gone –”

“Taylor.”

“You’re not on the rag, are you? That was just your excuse.”

“We’re getting back together.”

“It’s a mistake.”

“I like that you can say that without sounding desperate.”

“It’s still a rotten thing for me to say.”

Wanda smiled sadly. “I get tired of adoring you.”

“Me too.”

“I know what you really meant, so don’t expect the joke.”

I put my arm around her.

Wanda sent those eyes though me one last time. Wider than I had ever seen them. She shifted. Turned. Nestled in close with her back to me. Clasped my hand in hers, against her breasts. Didn’t seem to mind the mid-afternoon erection digging into her back, because what I said was really the long and short of all things.

Whispered into her ear: “It’s never going to be our time, is it?”

“Never.” She kissed my hand. “After all, we’re perfect for each other.”

“Sleep well, Wanda.”

“You too, Lucky.”

’Til death do we part would have been a nice way to end this story.

“You’re talking in your sleep again, Lucky,” Wanda said.

Much better.

I dropped out, drunk and in love with the way Wanda walked into a room.

 

You Have To Earn It.

 

Alex was four or five limbs above me, swearing as the branches scratched his face. I followed at a more cautious pace. Careful not to drop the half-empty bottle of wine in my left hand.

The one light in the alleyway filtered through the leaves. Woodland spirit just out of reach. It must have rained earlier; limbs to our destination repeatedly squirmed free from my damp grasp.

Nineteen years old, and the entire world seemed to be running away from us that summer.

“I made it!” Alex called down.

Another minute, and I was able to say the same thing.

Apolonia’s roof was ours for the taking.

I handed Alex the bottle. He took two gulps, sent it back my way.

We started to roam the slippery plateau. From inside, mingled voices seeped up past the shingles, laughing, telling stories. Alex muttered something and walked to the northeast edge overlooking Montague Street. Stood in a streetlight hallo, six-one frame of genetic athleticism. He watched the neighborhood settle.

I wandered around and drank more wine.

Santa Rita 120.

It was red. Chilean. Good. My grandmother used to mix it with coke.

Alex coughed through a fresh-lit cigarette. His vicious hack reminding me to help myself. I thumbed my lighter into ignition. My brain thanked me and my lungs despaired. I never listened to my lungs, though, so that was all right.

We stood at twelve paces, back to back.

I heard him ask, “How are we on cigarettes, Lucky?”

“Half a pack.”

“I’m out.”

One of the neighbor’s lights went out.

“You can take from me,” I said.

“How long is that going to last us?”

“Not long.”

“We’ll have to get more… Are you too drunk to drive?”

“Yes. You?”

“I drive better when I’m drunk.”

“So it’s settled.”

I strolled over to the edge of the roof. Joined Alex, his hands crammed into grey Dockers. Foot tapping. His brilliant eyes stared with green venom through the leaves of oak and pecan trees. I handed him a cigarette. He accepted. A burst of laughter erupted beneath us. We looked past our sneakers, envisioning candied smiles by the kitchen sink.

“How about wine?” Alex asked.

“How about it?”

“Do we have any more?”

I raised the bottle high. Glass curvatures warping the brightest stars, drowned in fermented red.

“Three quarters drained.”

“What about inside?”

“This is our third, Alex… might be the last of it. Unless we get down from here.”

Alex looked around. “How are we going to do that?”

“Back the way we came?”

“There’s always the expressway.”

We stared down, past gutters clotted with dead leaves, forgotten seasons. The front yard winked at us. Premature dewdrops gathered on overgrown blades, awaiting our decision.

“What do you think, Alex…? Twenty, twenty-five feet?”

“Maybe thirty…”

“Thirty?”

Alex coughed, doubling over, almost losing his balance. He straightened and spat over the edge. We watched that little golden treasure fall, fall, fall, then splat.

“That’s definitely thirty feet,” Alex concluded.

“So do we jump?”

“What time is it?”

“Twelve-thirty.”

“How long ‘til the blue laws bite?”

“Two in the morning. Hour and a half down the line.”

Alex was pleased. “Plenty of time.”

“So it’s settled.”

We puttered about, kicking at random acorns. I took a few pulls, sent myself back to seven years old, first time tasting my grandmother’s wine and coke. Back then it hadn’t been so bad. Roaming the waterlogged surface of Apolonia’s roof, full taste of currant with every sip, I couldn’t summon the appreciation.

Wine and Coke.

Coke and Wine.

Terrible.

Given the chance, I would’ve set my grandmother straight on that issue.

“Given the chance…” I murmured.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. Let’s have a seat.”

Alex and I ungraciously sat our asses down. Rainwater bled through and our clothes turned moist. We ignored the unpleasant sensation, didn’t think about tomorrow.

“What time is it, Lucky?”

“One in the morning, judging from the position of the street light.”

“We should get down from here…”

“Ready to jump?”

“Let’s have another cigarette first.”

I slipped him a Marlboro, had one of my own.

“One step closer to death, Alex.”

Alex shrugged, drunk.

I agreed, silently.

We smoked and drank.

“You were smart, Alex,” I told him. “You’re smart now, but you were smart leaving school when you did.”

“I don’t think I was.”

“You were.”

“I left my friends behind.”

“They left me behind… you got out before they had a chance to dump you in a ditch with your throat sliced open.”

Alex turned to study my face. This was our first conversation in four years. He seemed to be judging me. Searching for something. I wasn’t entirely compelled to give him anything.

“So our friends left you, Lucky?”

I nodded, laid back, watched the moon slowly melt out of the sky. I felt the wet roof grind into my back, pine needles and dirt. There weren’t any pine trees around, so I really had to wonder whether there might be other factors past this rooftop trap.

I wasn’t ready, clinging to the protests of our simple exchange. “Life isn’t,” I said.

“Isn’t what?”

“Life just isn’t…” I thought about this. Then, “And if it is, then it’s all nothing more than varying degrees of the same thing.”

“Oh, shit, man…”

“I know, it sounds so good.”

“No, you stupid cunt, not you –”

I tore my eyes from the heavens, and noticed Alex looking past me, across the roof.

“What is it, Alex?”

“Shh…”

I shrugged, drank some more wine. Alex had landed at MIT, studied engineering. Claimed to hate it. From below, people joined together in a song. Alex kept staring and finally, I grew curious. Rolling onto my stomach, I was able to look through the neighbor’s window, and the details of a lit room.

“Fuck…”

I didn’t know Apolonia’s neighbors. Didn’t think anybody knew really knew their neighbors, too many secrets for a simple potluck to illuminate. But from what I saw, I knew that he had brown hair and a square, manicured body. The woman may have been his wife, mistress. Jane Doe. Couldn’t see a ring. Her blond hair was plastered to the sides of her face, wet with sweat and beaded encouragement. She had small, genuine breasts and I thought that if I had myself a woman like that, I wouldn’t bother to turn the light off either.

Very flexible.

“My God,” Alex said.

“Look at them go, man…”

The woman’s face contorted.

The man stole occasional glances to his own penetrating member as he worked away.

“My God…”

Someone had once told me that dolphins were the one of the few creatures other than humans who indulged in recreational sex. Stood to reason. There was something ugly about human sex. That must have explained arousal; the repulsive brought us all closer to truth, and suddenly, it hit me:

“She knows.”

“What?”

“Alex, she knows we’re watching her.”

“No she doesn’t.”

“She does.”

“I’ll bet you she doesn’t.”

I didn’t take my eyes of the window, “I’ll bet you twenty she does.”

“You’re on.”

“So it’s settled.”

Alex nudged me: “Lucky.”

“Shh…”

“What time is it?”

I didn’t answer, just kept watching the sex thing happen. The entire world taking place in that one bedroom, and I thought about abandonment. Shipwrecks. Bodies left behind in the desert. New thoughts, ideas. The next step, and I laughed at my own brilliance, checked my wrist.

“One-fifteen.”

“Should we jump now?”

I frowned at the digital numbers staring up at me. “Do you know whose watch this is?”

“Lucky, let’s jump.”

“I don’t own a watch. Always lose them, somehow…”

“Oh, look at that, he’s about to come. I’d put a twenty on it, he’s close to the edge.”

“Who the fuck does this watch belong to?”

“Check it out, Lucky, it’s going to happen…”

I forgot about the numbers and inched forward. Through the pane I saw the woman scream, the man’s mouth contort, a pair of demons or tortured informants. Ignoring the act, all I could see was agony. People fucked the life out of each other. The man collapsed on the woman, and she spread her arms across the bed, almost motionless. Elegant corpses, pristine, dead in the house next door.

“Was it as good for you as it was for them?” Alex asked me.

“I don’t know how good it was for them.”

“You know what you saw.”

“I don’t know shit.”

I stood up and walked to the edge of the roof. There was some kind of uproar happening from within, but it didn’t sound urgent. Just a group of drunken fools, the few friends I had left and there was always the chance I was lying to myself. There was so much to be wrong about.

“Alex?”

From behind me: “Yeah?”

“Just what the hell have you been doing with yourself for the past couple of years?”

“We should jump now, Lucky.”

I took a pull of wine, thought about my grandmother. “Answer my question.”

Alex was looking at the sky.

I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was.

So I lit a cigarette, tossed it over my shoulder. I heard a hiss of pain, silence.

Then, “Thanks.”

I sparked my own.

“I was at a party, Lucky.” Alex sniffed with a certain disdain. “And I saw this blonde dye-job on the lawn, sitting by herself. Recognized her as a girl I’d once made out with at some other party…”

“I hate parties.”

“Shut up…” A pause then, and I guess Alex was taking a drag. “I walked up to her and started talking. We talked and talked, some fucking awful conversation. And then we went back to my room. We were on the bed, half naked, and I’m sure she was drunk as I was. Turns out she had just gotten implants, and her tits were sore. Didn’t want them touched. Guess to make up for this, she went down. Started to give me head. Then she stopped, looked at me and asked, Do you even remember my name? And I looked down at