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Wyoming was good to us

University of Florida Institutional Repository

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WYOMING WAS GOOD TO US By JONATHAN BROWN A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2005

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Copyright 2005 by Jonathan Luke Brown

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This collection is dedicated to Charlotte Tucker, and Allie Sue, my little girl.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I want to thank Charlotte, Tucker, and Alexandra Brown for allowing me the time and space to write when clearly I did not deserve it. I am forever indebted to Charlotte for her encouragement, compassion, and heart. I also thank Mary Robison whose help and influence came to me when I needed it most. Finally my appreciation extends to Antonio Garza whose intelligence and sincerity pushed me to write. iv

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TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................................iv ABSTRACT.......................................................................................................................vi WHAT YOU LEFT.............................................................................................................1 THE WOODS......................................................................................................................8 THIS IS HOW TO LISTEN TO MUSIC..........................................................................31 SHOTGUN........................................................................................................................32 JELLY BEAN....................................................................................................................47 MINNOWS........................................................................................................................59 EQUATIONS.....................................................................................................................69 THE HOLE IN HER MOUTH..........................................................................................77 WAIT HERE......................................................................................................................90 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH...........................................................................................101 v

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Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts WYOMING WAS GOOD TO US By Jonathan Brown May 2005 Chair: Mary Robison Major Department: English This collection of nine stories pivots on the notion of characters moving emotionally and physically from one landscape to another. Throughout each fictional piece I tried to give a voice to characters who are incapable of separating themselves from the past. Many of these stories open with absurd, almost ludicrous circumstances, and move into a deeper state of suffering. However, in other stories, I began with a serious tone and later brought comedy into focus. My intention in this collection was to verbalize the diversity of human emotion, while recognizing the impulse, the need, to appreciate life. The purpose of this thesis was to artistically express how human thought and human emotion do not exist in a vacuum. vi

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WHAT YOU LEFT I leave the baby in the backseat of the car by accident. You come home from work with our two-year-old son squeezing your shins and you ask me, Where is she? I rub my palms together and I say In the backyard? because I dont remember where I left the baby, and I want to be funny, and I think funny might fix this. But it doesnt work that way. Did you leave her in the car? you demand. But you dont wait for an answer. You turn and you power down the hallway and the front door swings open and it doesnt shut. When you walk into the kitchen, the baby on your hip, you close your eyes and say, You forgot her. And thats when I know that we are done. Before you leave for Chicago I catch you packing one of my t-shirts into your suitcase. I sit on the bed and say, This cant be right, you leaving like this. No, it cant be, you say. You press down on your bras, your diaphragm, your spaghetti noodle dresses, and you zip the luggage. The taxi picks you up and a man with a moustache loads the suitcase, the stroller, and your handbag into the trunk. The cab drives off and no one waves out the back window. After youre gone, I stand and wait in the driveway and think of you: 1

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2 At the airport you board a flight for Chicago. In the sky you hold our two kids on your lap. Your mother waits for you at the baggage carrousel and when you arrive she kisses you on the cheek and pulls the baby out of your arms and says, I cant believe this. You bend over the spinning luggage and pull your suitcase up off the carousel and say, Mother, please. That evening I teach my night class at the community college. I write a few sentences on the blackboard and I make my students repeat them. The town was destroyed by the storm, I say out loud. A girl in a pink miniskirt raises her hand and wiggles her fingers, and I call on her with a ruler, and she repeats the sentence and makes it active. Youre quick, I say. I erase the form of to be and replace it with destroy. After the bell, the girl in the pink miniskirt walks up to me with a spiral notebook pressed to her chest and touches my hipbone and says, I see what youre up to. You do? I ask. Youre trying too hard. As I walk out of class she surprises me by giving me a pinch on the butt. Im walking home when I start thinking of you again. Only this time you are at your mothers house, your feet on her lap, a wine glass in hand. She is rubbing your calluses and it makes you squirm. You take a sip of wine and your mother tells you to relax, to let it ride. Then she says, You have so much more ambition than that guy.

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3 When I get home I see something horrible. The toys are unused and scattered everywhere. A bulldozer on the rug, a rubber duck stuck to an ice tray, a fire truck in the sink. I go to the bathtub and sit inside it with all my clothes on. Then I squeeze off my shoes and fill it up. That night I go to a rooftop bar. People talk in cigarette voices, a glass of beer spills on a fog machine, a dancer jiggles her boobs. I sit down at a table with a woman who replies, No, weve never met at the Pizza Hut. Im sure of it, I say. She dips three fingers into a daiquiri and scoops up a wad of cream and licks it off and dives two knuckles back in and pinches out a cherry. Then she pulls it off the stem with her two front teeth and looks at me closely. You look like a ghost, she says. She picks up her purse, sticks a dollar bill under a saltshaker, and scoots off. A waitress in a tube top walks up to my table and asks me if I need something. Im not sure, I say. To drink, she adds, and she pulls her tip out from under the saltshaker. Something about the direction of the conversation feels tricky, but I say yes, and she comes back with a pitcher of foamy beer. Keep them coming, I say, and she does.

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4 I get drunk immediately and tip her enormously. When I run out of cash I spread open my wallet and empty out all the change onto the table. I ask the waitress for the ATM and she points to a machine and I withdraw everything from our account. But then, when I get back to the table with two fives, a different waitress is standing there. Only this one is wearing a paper apron and holding a barbeque sauce tray. She smiles halfway and her braces make everything inside her mouth look mechanical and gummy. She stacks the empty beer glasses on a round tray and says, Ill be your server now. No, I say. What about the one in the tube top? Her shift is up, she says. Then the lady with the braces walks off and I nod my index finger at her back and I say, Dont you do this to me. After the rooftop bar I take a cab home and fall into the house. Thats when I discover that my left foot refuses to move in front of the right foot. So I give up on my feet and I take to the floor and I drag myself around the house with my hands. I haul my body through the kitchen and flop onto my back and pick up the phone and try to dial your number. The battery is dead. Then I flip back over and get on my knees and dig through the laundry basket and fish out your ventilated jogging shirt and I press it around my face. I can sniff you, the sweetness, and I crunch my eyelids shut and try to will you home.

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5 When I call you the next morning, I ask you to come home. The grass is yellow outside. It hasnt rained in months. It refuses to, you say. After that, we dont get past the kids before arguing. For a very good reason, I call up my student in the pink miniskirt. I cant explain it to her, so I just say, Could you just do that? Come over? She answers, No. Ten minutes later she arrives in a black convertible. I open the front door to my house and she walks under my arm and through the doorway. Have a seat, I say. Is there something wrong, Teach, she says. Possibly. She sits on the armrest and snaps off her heels. She is wearing pantyhose. Youre married? she asks, and points her toe at the wedding photo. Oh, that old thing. Its staged, I say. You, like, have kids dont you? She picks up a rag doll and dangles it by its red hair. I love kids so much. Then she lets go of the doll and it drops to the carpet. Uh huh, me too. Right. So. I know why you called me, Teach. You do? Well, we can go over that. Look, this is the deal, Teach. Right. The deal.

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6 Wheres your wife? Out to lunch. And the kids? Daycare. Its got be fast and I need an A out of it. I agree with that. Perfect, she says, and claps her hands and pulls off her pink miniskirt. I sit and wait and look out the window. Then she bends over and hugs my neck and her arms feel thin and I dont like it. You are so hot, she whispers into my ear. She is only wearing a bra. Thanks, I say. I mean, like, so hot. Okay, youre overdoing this. Sorry, Sorry. After it is done we shake on the A and she hops into the convertible and drives off and her hair blows to one side of her face and she honks. I sit down at my desk and fire up the computer. I try to write a letter to you but all that comes out is the word stop. I type it out, look it over, and decide this will work. When Im done I print, I fold, I lick, I send, I wait.

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7 Im not sure how long it will take for my letter to reach you. But when it comes through the mail you will notice that it is from me. Our son will be running around your mothers house. The baby will be crawling and have one more tooth. You will pat her back and she will fall asleep on the floor. Your hair will be slightly longer and your skin slightly more fair. You will sit down at the table with a cup of tea. Then, at the right moment, you will take out my letter, unfold it, read it out loud, and the next word that comes out will be for me.

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THE WOODS People walked on the sidewalk with plastic cups of beer. That meant it was around 2 when we left, because that's when bars unload, and that's when we thought we could blend into the crowd and go up into the hills unnoticed. I have no idea what people do after the bars close, but it has something to do with snow covered cars and driving too fast and music and tires and being alone and loaded and feeling fuzz in your head. On our way to the hills we drove past a beer joint where I saw my father, Doug, in a hurry. He was walking on the sidewalk on his knees for a couple of girls. He is a true dumb fuck, but I like him for the most part, because unlike myself, hes not afraid to shed his shit. I like my father and I dont want to go into it. In Wyoming people take after my father: they sing, perform, dance, get drunk. Or they wail and moan straight from the gut. I'm exaggerating. But that's what we do here. We juice things up and then get drunk. That's Wyoming. People exaggerate and get drunk and do whatever it takes to get as fucked up as humanly possible. Which, believe me, is the best you can do for yourself. Tonight Cindy and I are trying to find out what perfect feels like. That's why we park in the snow at the top of the mountain and look out at the Wyoming sky and the Wyoming moon and the Wyoming clouds. Out front the pine trees are stuffed with snow. Cindy takes my hand in hers and says, Do me. I am promising myself I will never live anywhere outside of this state. I will never live outside of this state, I say. 8

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9 Me neither. I'll do you, but on one condition. We have to stay in this car, right here, all night, I say. Cindy squeezes my hand. I've known Cindy since I could count fingers. The thing is, Tom, Ive got to talk about something. About Joe. The prairie nigger? Right. But don't say that. One thing about Cindy is an ex-boyfriend she had. Joe was what in Wyoming we call a prairie nigger. Im sure that in other states they call them that too, but here it sounds worse. So the prairie nigger, Joe, Cindys ex-boyfriend, turned up dead in the hills. They found him lying on a plastic bag and some rocks. And when they flipped him over, blood was coming out of his eyes. He was involved in something, but no one knew what, and then they found him dead, and they figured it out quick. Meth, they thought. But it wasnt Meth because Indians dont do it. That much should have come easy, but it didnt. The next day the police brought in ten people. I was one but then they let me go after they had a look into my eyes and determined they werent yellow from fertilizer. So Cindy was the target. But she turned up spotless on the pisser and blew a clean blow. She was questioned and brushed off into rehab for the next six weeks even though she had nothing to do with it. In Wyoming its easy to be thrown into rehab. And so that's what happened to Cindy. Around that time she started putting a lot of dick in her mouth. One blowjob, she told me, was with a man from rehab. He was nice to her when it served him. Then one night, Cindy said, Sure, sure, fine, fine, whatever, and gave him a blowjob in the back row of the Valley City Cinema.

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10 After that she wiped her face with her palm and they took off to his friends house. The friend lived in a basement. But the basement had no windows or stairs and so they had to open a latch and climb down a ladder to get inside. Down in the basement, a man Cindy had never seen before turned on a light and looked at her from behind the lampshade. This surprised Cindy and she stepped back. The man said, Hello, Cindy. There were beer cans stacked in a pyramid on a green pullout poker table. The concrete floor was covered in liquor bottles. A Styrofoam egg crate was spread out in a corner and had dog bites and holes in it. He told Cindy to Simmer down. The boy from the movie theater said, Here you go, man. Then the man who said, Hello, Cindy, took out a three-foot bong, flicked a lighter, and pulled up bubbles and smoke. He took his lips up off the ring, tilted his head back, held in the smoke, and blew out a tunnel across the room. Cindy said, Give me one, and pulled one up too. That's when the guys started getting ideas. And the two guys had a buzz going and they were taking down beers and cracking jokes and this made everything seem doable. So the guy that said, Hello, Cindy, tells her to come over here. He pulls out a wooden chair for her to sit down on and kicks it over to her. Then he cuts up a big, fat line of Meth with a razor and offers it up. It's yellow and chunky and it would kill a grizzly bear if it got a whiff of it. Cindy says, I'm feeling kind of sick. Which she was. She was feeling faint and dizzy and she got on her knees. Then the guy who said Hello, Cindy, unzipped his fly and put it in her mouth.

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11 When he was done, the guy who said, Hello, Cindy, zipped up his fly and goes, Dont do a bump if you dont want to. I'm just tryin' to get you relaxed. And he sniffed up the line and stood up. He didn't have a shirt on and his leather wallet was hanging down from a chain and he had two nipple rings and a tattoo of Jesus on his back. But Cindy was already up the ladder, and she shut the latch and disappeared into the prairie. So that's the guy that killed him, Cindy tells me. I know it. The prairie nigger you mean? Don't call him that. Youre kidding. Don't call him that. Sorry. But I believed her. One thing Cindy is not, is some broken up, nasty, lightbulb smoking crank head. I can pretty much let the other stuff fly. She has a good eye, that much I know. Also, I trust her when it comes to people. Not so much judgments, but people. I'm staring at the moon and sky and it feels empty, like you could make an echo from up this high, hear a thousand voices yelling back at you, one big Hello, Wyoming. I want to turn the subject away from murder and drugs, either to echoes or the do me thing. Cindy pulls out a Twizzler from her purse and peels off the plastic package, takes a bite, chews on it.

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12 Thats the one who killed him, she says, and nibbles softly and swallows some of it down. Then she zips her purse. It's freezing, she says. Her hair is hay-colored and long and some it is sticking out from under her scarf. Hold on, baby, I say, my Mafia voice. I turn the car back on and throttle the engine and hot air pushes out of the vents. I crack the window and blow out smoke. It's windy outside so the smoke vanishes. The headlights are on and they purr and illuminate the snow and the pine trees in front of the car. Okay then, baby, she says, mocking me. Once, I had a robot voice going for over a year and she let it slide. I respect that, she told me. Another time I saw her at the public pool in a bikini talking to a lifeguard with muscles and hamstrings and a six-pack you could strum a spoon down. I walked over to them and poured a carton of milk over the lifeguard's head. That was fucking funny, Cindy said, in her bikini. And the lifeguard was all white and wet and ghost colored and opening his hands and reaching for me. Feel warmer, I say. I want to see if her face says, Take me home, so I look at her hard. It doesn't. It says, Keep me here. I smoke to the butt and I light another. I smoke and look at her. I smoke and I smoke and I smoke. Cindy says, This car is a piece of junk. Shes rubbing her hands together. It's a junk car, admittedly, and I know that. The drapery hangs from the ceiling. The oil leaks. And the car is only fast down hills and you have to pump the brakes to play it safe. But I'm relatively happy with it. I'm relatively happy with it, I say.

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13 I'm happy with it too, she says, and smiles. I can tell she means it because when she smiles like that for no reason she is really, truly, absolutely happy. Outside, the wind is spraying snow into the headlights. This makes two tunnel shapes that dart out and dead-end in the sky. A breeze plows through the trees and the snow dumps off the branches in large bread loafs. Then the wind picks up and tosses the pine trees back and forth. The car windows vibrate. Cindy catches a chill and she shakes it off. It'll heat up soon, I tell her. She loops the scarf around her neck a couple of times and tightens it with a tug. I'm not cold. Cold does not register for me. I am immune to cold. Cindy is next to me. I am not cold. I could give a fuck about the cold. Better, she says, and stuffs the twizzler into the ashtray and shuts it. Let's do it, she says. Just to say we did. She pinches the skin on my knuckle. Okay then, I say, and I touch her thigh. She has said this to me before and will probably say it again. All right, she says. Good. I've got to warn you. I'm a bit rusty at this, she says. Which is a lie, but I appreciate a lie from time to time. Right. Me too. Which isnt a lie. This is as nice of a place as any, right? Cindy says. She is petting the inside of my wrist.

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14 There is nothing here, I say, which is also true and the reason I chose this spot. No people. I don't want to be around people. I never want to be around people. People, if they could, would pick Cindy up by the ankles and dangle her off a bridge and then let her drop. They would do that because in Wyoming, in the valley, Cindy has a reputation for putting dicks in her mouth. And when you have a reputation for putting dicks in your mouth, people have problems with you. You make enemies, burn bridges, lose power. I don't care if she puts dicks in her mouth. That's her choice. All I care about is that we are out here in nothing land. I like it, Cindy says, and puts her head on my shoulders. Good. Stay there. Keep your head on my shoulder. It's kind of out of the way, I know, I say. I want her to laugh, but she doesnt. She keeps her head on my shoulder and sighs. There are mountains and woods and snow and sky. I roll the window down a crack and hold the lit portion of the cigarette outside. Then I roll the window back up and the glass cuts the cigarette in two and the ember falls off into fluff and I rotate the handle all the way back up and the glass seals and vibrates. Cindy shivers and her head bumps against my shoulder. Then I put a fresh cigarette in my mouth and let it dangle from my lip. Let's do this, Cindy says. All right, I say. She looks down at my crotch. Not there, I say, and spit the cigarette on my lap. I want to do it the real way.

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15 Me too, I say, but I have no idea what I mean by that. Her face moves to mine. Her eyeballs zoom up closer and they are white and solid with little red wiggles. Her breath is sweet and taste likes milk coffee. Her lips are pink and quick and thin and suckable. Her breath slows down and touches my nostrils and lips and eyelashes. I like this kind of thing. Give me sugar and snow and night and girl breath and I will be in fucking heaven. Should I turn off the lights? I'm worried, she says. You think my parents know? They do, she says, and she touches the back of my neck with fingernails. A witchs touch. Certainly. All right, I say, and wipe her hand off my neck. She moves closer. Her hair is wavy and tan and smells like shampoo. Her eyes are puddle gray and I want to see myself in them. She kisses me and slips her tongue in a little. Then she stops kissing, leans back, and looks down. I take the time to look her over: white shoulders, collarbone, skin, squeezables, firm runs, soft spots, seams. She is warm and close and I can smell her shampoo hair. Outside, the mountains and snow and trees and wind are making crackling sounds and that fits in too somehow. I pull at her scarf, down to the thin spot on her neck, right above the chest plate. I want this, I say. I know, she says.

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16 We are speaking in code. I hate code talk, but I talk it anyway. I reach down and slide my hand between her thighs. This makes her eyes open and her legs spread a touch. Then she pinches my hand with her legs and the pressure of it feels good. So I keep going with it and move my hands to Cindy's side and up her ribs. Lift the shirt, feel the skin. She stops. If we are going to run away somewhere, it might as well be now, she says. Where to? I say. Take me anywhere. Lets go. Lets run. Lets drive. There, she says. She nods her head at what looks like a cloud behind a frosted window. I don't see it, I say. She pushes my chin in the right direction and wipes the window with her palm. There, she says. I see a white puff of industrial light. A city. Fuck no, I say, and look at the side of her face. I know where she is pointing. I recognize the glow. I know that is a place we do not need to be, but that is where we will go. Because that is where we can check into a motel room and have sex together and sleep it off: skin, kiss, spread, scratch, hair, liquid seam. Crystal City, she says. With its beer joints and neon lights and prairie niggers and middle school girls who pull up their plaid skirts to their hip bones and flip their tongues at you.

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17 Sort of like a honeymoon, Cindy says. And sticks her finger into my side and tickles me on the rib. I stare at her. No. Not really, Cindy. I hear a pile of snow drop from a tree and thud on the roof. Cindy snaps her fingers and says, Your move. Her legs are crossed. I snap my fingers back at her. Her mouth opens and I see the tops of her teeth. Drive, she says, and points to the city. No, I say. She smiles, holds it, touches my cheek. We go. * I know Doug like the back of my mouth. After the bar, he would make it through the frozen prairie and to the porch and hold on to the railing and climb the steps. There's a swing chair hanging on chains and Doug would find it with a hand and sit down. Hed catch his balance and jiggle his foot inside his boot and attempt to pull it off. But the boot wouldnt budge and he would tip over. Goddamn it, boot, hed say. This would go on for a while: falling on his ass and cussing the boots and laughing out loud. Out in the prairie there would be a zigzag trail carved out from the snow. That would be the path that Doug cut out on his way home from the bars. There would spots in the snow where the boots punctured the crust, and then there would be craters where Doug struggled and fell over and fished around on his back. A tiny herd of elk would

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18 graze the prairie, white steam blowing out their nostrils. They would notice Doug, turn their heads, sum him up, and go back to pulling grass and snow with their teeth. Doug would pull the boot again and this time it would slide. So there's Doug sitting on the porch, cussing at himself. And there's the zigzag path out in the prairie with the elk eating the grass under the snow. And my mother would open the door and add it all up. It's a giveaway. She would pull a string and a naked light bulb would twinkle and she would walk right up to him. You're drunk, my mother would say, and slaps him across the face. Well, yeah, sure. There's circumstances involved, Doug says. Steam clouds his face. He would stand and wavers and looks at my mother. Like what? my mother says. Well there's Tom, for instance. Take our son and the deal he's in. Chasing after Cindy, trying to get in her underpants. Hes going to wind up with someone elses baby. You watch. What deal? He doesn't like school, Doug. He doesn't like you, Doug. So what? He doesn't like cows or guns or potatoes or hunting or any of that. He is a typical seventeen-year old boy who likes a girl. Give him credit. You, on the other hand, are a fat, old cow: moping around from one bar to the next, spilling your guts, running your lips, coping a feel. The nerve. That's a tad harsh, Doug says, and holds in a belch. I bet you were even doing the walking-on-the-knees routine. Weren't you, Doug? I bet you were. I was shooting pool.

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19 Ugh, my mother exhales, and slams the door. The light bulb would spin on the cord. Doug would hear the dead bolt and dig inside the tube of his sock and fish out the house key and jiggle it in the keyhole and roll the doorknob and pop it open and stagger inside and un-loop his belt and fall to the couch. The television would be on and he would leave it that way. On the couch, his smooth, whale belly would rise. His chest would inflate with air. His little male tits would slump down and hed pick one up and squeeze it. His face would itch and he would paw at his cheek. The television would be on, something about a car bomb exploding in the desert. Doug would turn on his side and push a pillow between his knees, and he would snore and choke a little bit and regain his breath. At some point during his sleep his penis would engorge with warm, thin blood that would flush to the crown and harden into a flagpole, and then within seconds would soften into a tube of limp skin. * Cindy and I are standing in nap weed next to a creek. Water is tumbling and bubbling up under the ice along the bank. We're just outside of Crystal City and I can see factories and buildings with pollution hovering above. The wind is warm and sluggish and the snow is melting. Cindy and I are waiting for someone. I don't know exactly who or why, but we are. Cindy says, It won't take long. We should check into a motel, I say. Drink some beer. Get some sleep.

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20 Tom. It'll just be a minute. She puts her lips up to my ear and whispers, He'll be here soon. Then we can go. Her breath tickles. Who? They guy from the basement. Im going to ask him a couple questions. Cindy reaches for my hand. It is soft. The clouds roll off the mountains. I dont want to meet him. I dont want that. I am a coward and always will be. He knows what happened. I can tell. I'll talk to him and figure it all out and then we can go. Deal? Fine, deal, I say. And leave it at that. Whatever the deal is I don't want to be a part of it, but I'm stuck. I pull out a cigarette and smoke it and look at the creek. The nicotine is not as good as the kissing and the whispering, but it's a buzz, and the best I can do for now. I spit something brown into the pebbles. The ice water from the creek washes over it and melts it away. Is this going to be good or bad? I say. Mixed up, Cindy says. What does mixed-up mean? It's means neither good nor bad. It'll be quick. If he killed him, he killed him. If he didn't, he didn't. I just need to know, you know? What will be quick? She's frustrated. Our talk. It'll be quick. She turns. I hear gravel and a car pulls up and parks by mine. A man shuts a door and walks up to us in the nap weed. He's got a diamond stud stuck to his ear, and a beeper and a cell

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21 phone attached to his belt. His Adams apple looks like a rock. He's wearing combat boots and a black jacket. To be honest, I expected more from him. Who's this? he says. Tom, I say. "I'm hungry. Let's go somewhere, Cindy says, and pulls my sleeve. "Funny," the man says. Because you called me, Cindy. He pulls the cell phone off his belt and looks at the screen for calls. Satisfied, he slides the phone back into his back pocket as if it were some kind of gun. He is wearing a fake gold watch that is heavy and fat and sparkles. The wind pulls a piece of plastic out of the nap weed and into the creek. I follow the wrapper downstream until the plastic presses into the water and disappears. Is he getting the royal treatment or what? the man says, rubbing his hands together, staring at me. There are people who take matters into their own hands. Then there are people like me who leave their arms wide open and watch everything fall through. Did you do him in? Did you kill him? Cindy asks, and starts to break a little, and kicks at the sand. He crumples a Burger King Whopper wrapper up in his hands and throws it in the water, as if this proves things. The wrapper soaks up and turns soggy and sinks. No, I didn't, he says. I wouldn't be here if I did. Then he pauses. I like you, Cindy, he says, and he means it. He puts his hand in the nap weed and picks at it.

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22 Cindy's face begins to heave. Her eyes are wet and she is standing in the sand shaking. "I'm going for it," I say, and I start into the water for the Whopper wrapper. Cindy chews her knuckle. Then the man with the combat boots sees me up to my shins in ice and water and pulls me back by the forearm. I say, Cindy, lets get out of here. Anywhere. The fanciest hotel we can find. A suite with caviar and a Jacuzzi and champagne glasses and a big, fat bed. That's what we need. And a pair of fluffy pillows. You know what I mean, man? I look at the guy with his beeper and his combat boots and his fat, fake gold watch. I do. I know exactly what you mean, he says. Good, I say. Because I am this girls neighbor and she wants to be with me and I want to take her home. Who did it? Cindy says, and she starts crying and punching the man's chest. No clue, he says. I pull Cindy off him and drag her to the car. Let go of me, Tom, she says, and jerks her arm free. Cindy ducks into the passenger side, stands the purse between her shoes, crosses her arms. Then she wipes the back of her hand across her eyes and says, Get going, Tom. We're wasting valuable honeymoon time. She slams the car door. The man in the nap weed squats down and looks at the creek. I start up the car and spit up some gravel and we coast down the road. Cindy watches trees and rocks and trailers move past us out the window. I need to smoke when I

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23 drive, so I do. Cindy needs to sit and stay quiet, so she does. No more blow jobs, no more dead Indians, no more mountains, no more chunky lines of Meth, no more waiting around, no more Wyoming. Just the sound of the car and the road falling behind us. * Tom isn't here, my mother would say, shaking Doug off the couch. Huh. Tom's is missing. Get up, Doug. Get up. The room is black. My mother flicks a switch and the light explodes into Doug's pupils and he rubs his eyes with the butt of his fists. He's probably under the covers. Check there. He's not Doug. I called Cindy's already. Up, up, up, she screams, and shovels the air with her hands. Call the school. Maybe they're at school. It's Saturday night, Doug. Don't jump to conclusions. I'm up. My mother hands Doug a cup of hot coffee. He takes the cup, sip its, burns the tip of his tongue. The caffeine jumpstarts his body and he pull his pants up. When he's done buttoning his shirt he would take another sip. My mother would take his hand in hers and looks up at him.

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24 Okay, okay, Doug would say. I'll get him. * Cindy is examining her finger. She has string wrapped around it and the tip is turning purple. Youre going to cut off your circulation, I say, and look back at the road. You missed the turn, she says, untangles the string from her finger, cracks the window, and lets the string fly out. I look in the rearview mirror and I see the Flamingo Motel sign flashing. It is pink and flamingo shaped, with a couple of light bulbs missing. The building is made of pink stucco and has antennas poking out from the roof. The Flamingo Motel in all its fucking glory. Cindy sucks the blood up her finger and reaches into her purse. I pull a U-ee and turn into the pebble parking lot. There is a plastic flamingo outside our motel room in a square spot of gravel. Its standing on two legs fashioned out of wire. How tacky is that? Cindy says, and tries to laugh. Cindy has the key because she looks older and she pushes the door open. Inside the ceilings and walls are pink, and everything is flamingo colored, including the lampshades

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25 and curtains and bedspread. All of it seems unnecessary and ridiculous and just right. I walk in and fall on the bed. Cindy picks up the remote control and starts jabbing it at the television, but there is no reception, just fuzz, and she gives up and throws it. "I'm taking a shower," she says. She looks down at me on top of the covers, my arms crossed behind my head. Is he coming here, you think? I ask. No. Tom. He's not. Why did you get me involved in all this? She pushes her palms on the bed and the motion bounces me. My body rises and falls with the mattress springs. Then she stops and stares and straightens her back. I'm not getting you involved in anything, she says. Youre not? I say. Then she does something unexpected. She slips her jeans down, with the underwear bunched up inside them, to her ankles. No, I'm not. I should be flattered, but I'm not. I want to walk to my car and leave her here. I want to drive and think this over. Doug, if he were here, would blow a kiss and unbutton his shirt and kick off his boots. I want to go. I want to run. But then I want to touch her, and make her breathe hard, and reach around her, and slide my hand down her back. I need to run. I have to run. Cindy picks the controller up off the carpet and zaps the television off. Her white T-shirt hangs down to her waist. Her jacket and scarf and pants are clumped up in a pile

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26 by the bed. The television sizzles and an electric rainbow twists and pops off the screen in a white dot. I want to be somewhere else, you know, Cindy says. Outside of this, she says. I do know. This is what we do in Wyoming. We do everything we can to get as fucked up as humanly possible. She pulls her shirt up over her head so that her face is captured behind a cone of cloth. Her tummy is soft and firm at the same time, and she yanks the shirt off her head, lifting her hair. On her stomach there are several wild pubic hairs that crawl up toward her bellybutton. Down below, a patch of hair is bunched up in a triangle between her legs like soft moss. I dont want to mess with you and I dont want to mess with me, I say. "Lets just get it over with," Cindy says. She unsnaps her brassiere so that her boobs fall out. I'm sure about this. This is what I need. This is what I want. I lean forward and touch my toes. "'How sure?" Enough sure. That's a disclaimer. "Oh come on," Cindy says, and rests her hands on her hips. But it's too late to take it back. I don't want it this way. You sound childish, she says. You sound cold, I say. I want to take that part back, but I don't. I want to say that I am sorry that she has had abortions and dead boyfriends and dick after dick in her mouth. I want to say I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Cindy. But I don't.

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27 Ill get a condom, she says, and flicks the light switch off. The curtains are closed so everything is dark and shaded and enclosed. I hear her unzip her purse. I see her pull out a little square package and hear the metallic foil crinkle. She slides into bed with it. Her legs are cold and smooth. She pulls my pants off. We both go under the flamingo sheets. You are my neighbor, I say. Excuse me? she says, and pushes my chest. You are my mixed-up neighbor, I say, which sounds silly and dramatic, but that's what I say. This is bad. Fine, I'm taking a shower, Cindy says, and slides out of bed and picks up her clothes and I watch her white butt as she walks off. I point a finger at her back. You are my neighbor and nothing we do is fixable. I know that, she says, and slams the bathroom door. A bar of light illuminates the space between the door and the floor. I hear the shower run and I close my eyes. I can still hear the shake of the trees and the tumble of the creek. I can feel it. And I can see her dead boyfriend up in the hills. It makes me want to vomit. I want to push this image out of me. I want to get out of these sheets and get into my car and drive home and open the windows and get it all out of me. I live in Wyoming and thats what I want. The shower stops and dribbles to the floor. I sit up and find my shoes. Doug, if he were here, would pull the flamingo sheet up over his gut and yawn into his shoulder. I open the phonebook, put it on the bed, pick up a pen, circle a taxi number, lay down a twenty. Goodbye Cindy. Then I split.

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28 * I had a wonderful time, I tell the motel manager. He raises his eyebrows at me. The manager has donut powder speckled on the corners of his lips. Good for you, kid, he says. And sips from his Styrofoam cup of coffee. I flip him the cash from my wallet. I will go back home now. Back to my parents who are nibbling their fingers, couched in the living room, worrying and shaking over me. I will tell them I am sorry. I must have lost track of time. And they will know that I am lying, but I won't care. I open the motel lobby door but before I go I look back at the manager. He is holding a donut up to his lips and is about to chew into the side. I'm leaving now, I say to him. He raises a hand to acknowledge my departure. I turn and walk out the door. The plastic flamingo is under my arm and I have it by the head. The wire legs are sticking out behind me. I take my time and continue to the car in a nice, warm, even stride, the flamingo under my arm. Cindy is still in the motel room. She can figure out what she needs to figure out on her own. I am leaving. I get to my car and the manager screams Stop, stop you little shit! But I ignore him. He is trying to convince me to give up my flamingo. That I wont do. I keep going and open my car and get in and wave at him through the window, because I want him to know, for certain, that I am stealing this.

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29 * When I get home it is late and my parents car is gone, so I park the car in the port. The wind is shaking the metal roof and rattling the poles. Inside, the house is empty and quiet and dead. I walk into the kitchen with my flamingo and there's a note scribbled on a piece of notebook paper stuck to the refrigerator door. It reads: Tom, if you are reading this, you are in a heap of trouble. Stay where you are. Don't move a muscle. We will be back to deal with this. Doug I take the note off the refrigerator and the magnet falls to the floor. I hop up on the kitchen stove and stare at the sink, the note in my hand, the plastic flamingo beside me on the coils. I look at the last part again. Doug, I repeat. Doug. What a good name. I hop off the stove and look inside the refrigerator for something to eat. There's a cold six-pack of beer on the bottom shelf. It's Doug's. I reach into the plastic holes and pick the pack up with my fingers. The plastic cord feels fake and stiff and I like holding the beer, the weight of it. I've got half a pack of cigarettes in my pocket. So I take the beer and reach up in the pantry and pull out the flashlight and I walk outside. Beer, cigarettes, flashlight. The flamingo is still on the stove. It's just a piece of junk: pink plastic, wires, ribbed wings, fake eyes. Fuck you, flamingo. Arrivederci. It's windy and cold and I walk straight into the woods. There's a trail that I like and I follow it. That's what's important: doing what you need to and following through with it.

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30 The sticks and pine needles crackle under my shoes. I can't see anything except a faint opening where the trail goes. When I get far enough in I stop and walk to a tree and place the six-pack on the ground. Then I feel around my pocket and pull out the flashlight. I turn on the flashlight. I shine it back up the trail where I walked. Nothing. Then I turn and face the tree and point the light directly on the bark and look up. And everything I'm thinking and feeling and seeing and wanting to get out me just kind of stops. My parents car pulls into the driveway. The headlights beam into the woods toward me, into the spaces between the trees, and the light finds me, and flashes over my face. Then it retreats, disappears, and I hear the car door slam shut and I stand perfectly still.

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THIS IS HOW TO LISTEN TO MUSIC In the morning, wake up, the rain stoning the yard. Down the hallway the stereo blinks. Pick a record, something good, evil even, and press the arrow. If it sounds too loud, dont worry about the neighbors, they can deal, you cannot. The music swells and bangs out of the speakers. Pay attention to this: it didnt turn out the way you wanted it to; people hurt each other to recuperate; you are a surprisingly astute dancer. Find the keys, a soft pack of cigarettes, a jug of cold coffee. Now drive somewhere, it doesnt matter where, the river maybe, just go. But before you walk out of the house, soak up the music and turn your chin toward your shoulder. On the kitchen table a head of a flower has detached and dropped from its stem; the water in the glass vase has turned milky. But dont throw them away, not yet. These flowers still belong here, in this house. The music on repeat, walk out. And when you return, the silver key into the knob, the knee push of the door, the music will still be there, waiting for you. 31

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SHOTGUN In Bed Ted is sitting on a bed with a shotgun on his lap. He lives in a one-room cinderblock house in Florida. Linda is lying next to him in a black dress and heels. Im dead, Linda says. She is hung over and she sighs and she will refuse to get up. Ted rests the barrel of the shotgun on his shoulder. What happened to you? Ted asks. The dress? I went out. Then what? Linda sits up, rolls her neck, places a blue plate on her lap, dumps a bag of marijuana over it. On the bedside table a cigarette sits on top of a paperback and Linda takes it and taps it and scratches a match and smokes it. Did you sleep with anyone? Ted asks. Linda hands him the match. Ted shakes it out. Yes, she says. Put that shit away. No, Ted says, and cocks an empty round. Well, I thought I might run into my parents. Thats how it started. They have a house out on the coast and its something to see: near a golf course, pretty beach, a water fountain in the driveway, that sort of rich. But the Toyotas were missing. So I went to a 32

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33 bar and I found a man who looked drunk enough and I asked him if he was ready for this, if he was ready for me, and I took him into a bathroom stall and he unzipped my dress. Lindas hair hangs over her face and she clutches a handful and stretches it back. She pushes off her heels with her toes and the shoes clunk on the floor. Then Linda twists the joint, licks the paper, and looks at Ted with one eye. I see, Ted says. The Way Ted Met Linda On the beach Linda was smoking weed with the surfers, throwing palmetto stalks into a bonfire. The surfers had Teds shotgun and they were taking potshots at the ocean. Ted smoked from a glass bong and it bubbled up and he did a keg stand and a surfer held him up by the legs. When he came back down Linda pulled at his beer soaked t-shirt and spoke to the side of his head and they left. They walked into the dunes with a bottle of rum. The wind in the sea grass smelled like salt, sun lotion, skin. The moon made the foam on the beach look fluorescent and they decided to go in. Linda ran into the ocean and dove. Ted did it by falling in on his back. The ocean was deep and swirled and they went out to the undertow and Linda held on to Ted with her entire body. A wave moved in and they separated and they waited for it and they pointed their hands and they took it. Afterwards, Linda walked up the beach and laughed and spit a seashell out of her mouth. They sat down in dried foam and seaweed. The tide moved in and dissolved the sand underneath them. Then the tide washed back into the ocean and the sand hardened.

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34 The bottle of rum was still on the beach, so Ted picked it up and walked with Linda. A dead shark had washed up on the shore and they stared at it and poked it with sticks. Ted could hear the surfers clapping and screaming around the bonfire. He could see the glow of the fire and the smoke twirls and so they kept walking. After a while Linda said, Im exhausted, and fell down on the side of a dune. Just so you know, my parents are loaded, she said. Ted sat down in the sand beside her and his elbows sunk into the dune. Turn around-driveway, wine cellar, three cars, folded linen. That kind of loaded, she said. Ted had the bottle of rum in his hand and they passed it back and forth. Thats when Linda told him a story. Lindas Story Linda dropped out of college during her first year at school because she could. She mailed her mother fake transcripts, bullshit-ed her grades, wasted her fathers tuition money. When her parents came to visit she walked them around campus and pointed at the gothic buildings and told them that that was were she went to class. They said they were proud of her. And for a minute Linda believed it. She had to believe it. When it came time to graduate Lindas parents called and said that they were flying in. They wanted to be there. We cant wait to see you, darling. That was the way her father talked. So Linda said, Dad, I dont want you here. Please, please, please do not come. But they flew into town anyway. Just because they wanted to see her walk in a black robe. Just because parents expect children to continuously push forward.

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35 When they called from the airport her father said, Well see you soon, Linda. But then Linda, instead of going to pick them up at their terminal, got into in her car and flipped the visor and put on sunglasses and drove for hours on a sun-baked highway. For a week she lived in a small city without trees and stayed at a youth hostel. At the hostel Linda met a man who wore combat boots. He read almanacs and showed Linda photographs of the earth from outer space. She told him, Beauty is wisdom. During the day Linda stayed inside her room and read magazines and travel guides and horoscopes. At night she watched pornography with the man in combat boots. He found it, Entertaining. Linda said, I can see that in it too, because she wanted to agree with him, because she wanted him close. One night they were sitting in a small room on the couch eating bowls of popcorn, drinking coke through straws. A woman from Budapest cracked opened the door and saw them watching porn and she sat down beside Linda. This woman had an accordion and she said, Its better, you see, in Budapest. The women have more of the hair on the vaginas. Much better. After the porn and the popcorn, the three of them sat around a table and took shots of Vodka from Styrofoam cups. They made up stories and slapped knees. At one point a chair broke apart and the woman from Budapest fell on her accordion. It will be fun. A good time, the women from Budapest told Linda. But Linda said, Im not that kind of girl. Not normally. But she was slurring and no one understood a word of it. The women from Budapest said, Ahckk. Who cares? Then the Budapest woman closed the door to the room and locked it and the man with the combat boots said, This will be good. The two of them stripped and hung their

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36 clothes on the television antenna. The woman from Budapest took Linda by the shoulders and bent her over the couch. She put her hands up her skirt and pulled her underwear down to her feet. After that she strapped on a plastic dildo and railed her to the couch. Linda cocked her head back, fisted the couch, and grinded her teeth. She wanted to deserve it. After that the woman from Budapest switched off with the man in the combat boots. He pumped her slowly, mechanically, carefully, like it mattered, like it was important, like it had to be done just right. When it was over Linda pulled up her underwear and stumbled out of the room. She locked herself into a tiny bedroom that was just big enough for a bunk bed. She sat on the top bunk and bit her palms and put her mouth on a window. The owner, he heard her, and he knocked on the wall, and Linda yelled back, Go the fuck away! Outside of the youth hostel was a community-shared spa. Backpackers were sweating and steaming in the water. The woman from Budapest, her feet in the bubbles, squeezed music out of her accordion. The people in the spa laughed and splashed because she had a bleached moustache and her music was horrible. The man in combat boots was in there too, smoking a cigarette, his arms spread out. And then Linda remembered her parents. How once, at the YMCA pool, her mother refused to go underwater. How her mother said, No way. Im not doing it. You couldnt pay me. But Linda wanted her to, and she said, Its easy. Just once. And her mother said, Just once. So they took a breath, held on to each others forearms, sunk to the bottom, popped open their eyes, and their hair was standing up, moving around in all directions.

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37 How they Left the Beach After Lindas story Ted said, Im going back to the surfers. He knew that by the time they got back, the surfers would have already piled into cars and driven out drunk into the night. But he said it anyway. You cant leave me here, Linda said. So Ted flung his arm over her shoulder and they walked back together like that. At some point they stopped, looked at the wide-open ocean, and Ted tossed the empty bottle of rum on the washed up shark. Linda moved out from under his arm and said, What the fuck was that for? Get Back in Bed Lets get out of here, Ted says. He sits on the side of the mattress and pulls up his socks. Why get up? Its stupid. Why do it? Linda puffs the joint and it fuses down. Youre right. Its stupid. Its stupid to worry, Ted says. Im just a fucking idiot. Youre right. You nailed me on that one. Get in bed, Linda says, and grabs his forearm and pulls him onto the mattress and rolls on top of him and giggles smoke into his face. And the weight on top of Ted feels good. Feels right. So he reaches around her and unzips her dress and it spreads out from her spine and it opens up and she slides out.

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38 Teds Story Ted also has a story but it is the kind he cant talk about. It is the kind you cant talk about. Ted loves Linda and he thinks that he will forever, and that this has to do with the fact she saved his life. But it doesnt. It has to do with the fact that she comes to see him in his cinderblock house. And thats what she was doing when she saved him. Ted was sitting in his underwear on the couch watching the television, drunk, fucked up, hypnotized from the electronic pulse of the screen. No, Linda said. She was in a bathing suit and barefoot and she kicked open the screen door, because she had come to visit, and she saw him and she rushed into the concrete house. Ted pushed the handgun into his mouth. No, not that! His finger was on the trigger. He leaned over his legs. His chest thumped. His knees knocked. He could do it. Ted, he had a worry condition, and it would never go away. A game show flashed on the television screen. The audience laughed and clapped and a silver wheel circled around. Ted stared at the television screen and Bob Barker smiled at him and Ted started to squeeze the trigger. Dont! Linda said. She was standing in front of him with her hands over her mouth. She dropped to her knees and squeezed his feet and her hands felt warm and it made him stop. The gun slipped out of his fingers, bounced onto the cushion, and Ted felt the tightness of his underwear, soaked in piss.

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39 Get Out of Bed That was perfect, Linda says, and kills the joint and balls up her dress in her fists and mashes it to the side of her head. Ted is naked except for socks. Just plain perfect, Linda says. It might have been everything else, but it was not perfect, Ted says. Whatever, Linda says, and smoke slips out of her nose. It was perfect. Im getting up, Ted says. Help me. Linda says, and raises her arms above her head. I cant, Ted says. And he drops down onto the wooden floor and lies on his stomach. Linda snakes through the sheets, slides out of the bed, and reaches for his face. Breakfast Ted is frying eggs when Linda taps the kitchen window. She has been driving up the coast all morning looking for her parents. Ted holds up a finger for her to wait and unhooks the screen door. Had enough of me? The screen door slaps shut. Probably, Ted says. The eggs fizzle and pop and he flips them. Linda sits on the washing machine and the laundry tumbles and she lights a cigarette. Theyre not there, she says. Call them. It has to be for a reason.

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40 No, it doesnt. Ted pinches her cigarette, pokes the egg yolk with the corner of a spatula, pulls on the smoke, and passes it back. Ill call. Never, she says. The laundry rolls and swoops and cuts out with a thud. Linda turns the dial, bangs the top, and the dryer starts up again. Want to go to the beach? Ted asks. Sure, she says. Good, Ted says. He twists a knob and the blue flame dissipates. He lifts the pan from the rails and reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a plate and the eggs slide. They hate me, Linda says. She holds the plate for him. I cheated them. I squandered their affection. Ted takes out a fork and a knife and holds them in both hands. I doubt it, he says, and takes the plate back. I dont, she says. Then Linda pushes Teds shoulder because she wants him to think she is being funny. She wants him to think that she is just joking around. That she is always like this. That she is wearing heels, hoop earrings, a hair clip, a squirt of perfume, and a black dress just because she can. Not because she plans to face her parents. You shouldnt agonize, Ted says. You agonize. Mines different, he says. Its not.

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41 Linda shakes out her hairclip and digs the plastic teeth back in and pushes it back tightly, so it will stick, so it wont come out in front of her father. We need weed and sunglasses. Ted nods. Alright then, Linda says. And she knows now that she can trick Ted. She knows that she will not go to the beach. She will find a way out. She will locate her parents at their house. She will knock on their front door and they will wait to open it. They will pretend not to hear her voice. Not to recognize Linda. They will stand behind the wooden door and wait and shake their heads. Linda will press her forehead to the door, bang the wood with her fist, and tell them that she hates this. That she cant stand this. That she refuses to let this go on. Then they will open the door and let her in. That much feels certain. Linda tucks a paper towel into Teds collar and smiles at him. There is a plastic tablecloth over a stack of red milk crates and they sit down with the eggs, a watermelon, white bread, and a glass of milk. Ted moves it all in front him. He wants to devour it. Consume everything. Feed. You all right? Linda asks. Ted ignores her. He pounds a butcher knife through the watermelon and cuts it in half. He runs a fork through an egg and the yolk splits and spills out. He scoops the egg up to his mouth and the egg dangles on the fork spokes and he slurps it up. He stabs into another egg and eats that one too. Linda unrolls a bag of white bread and pulls out a square piece and hands it to him. Ted takes it and stuffs it in his mouth and swallows. He starts to slice the

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42 watermelon in quarters but he gives up on the knife and he chucks it across the room and it sticks out of the dry wall. He looks down at the watermelon and lowers his face into it. He chomps and sucks and slowly he gets deeper. All the way to the rind. Then he cracks the shell and sucks the juice out of the white parts. Linda hands him the glass of milk and he chugs it. Some of the milk leaks out of the corners of his mouth and dribbles down his cheeks. Linda hands him more bread and he sponges up the yolk on the plate and he sticks it in his mouth. He chews. He swallows. He opens his hand for more. She gives him the bag. He dumps the bread out on the plastic plaid tablecloth. He picks up the bread and punches it flat on the makeshift table and stuffs as many pieces into his mouth as he can fit. Yummy, Linda says. He lights her cigarette. More, he muffles. Give me more. She shakes a box of cereal into a bowl and pours milk over it. Ted takes it from her and spoons it. Then he tips back the bowl and finishes up the milk. Linda rubs her cigarette out in an ashtray and says, Lets go. Drive No. Dont get that near me. The shotgun is wrapped up in a towel under his arm. Were bringing it. She punches his shoulder and they walk outside and the clouds are flat. The car is parked next to an empty swimming pool. Ted lays the gun in the carpeted trunk and shuts the top. Linda says, I want to surprise you. They shoot off down the road: past fields

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43 and fishponds and wooden canopies and sinkholes. At a stop sign Ted rolls down the window and the insects in the trees buzz. After a while, they stop at a gas station. The metal sign: a horse with wings. The pump makes a tic-tic-tic sound as the gas tank fills up. Ted wants to get drunk and he tells Linda that. He goes and pays for the beer and the ice, and a man with a toothpick takes the bills and counts it all out in his hand. Ted cracks the trunk and dumps the beer into a Styrofoam cooler. Then he bites open the bag and pours the ice in a circle over the beer. Lets hurry, Linda says. Linda digs her hand into the cubes and pulls out three bottles of beer and shuts the trunk with her ass. She carries the beer with both hands and sits down in the car and squeezes the bottles between her thighs. For the ride, she says. Right, Ted says. He opens a beer between her legs and turns on the radio. She points down a road with a dog walking across it. He goes that way. When hes done with his beer she hands him another. They are driving alongside a river and Ted mentions to her that he is drunk. Thats when Linda tells him that they are not going to the beach anymore. Ted swerves off the highway and takes a bridge and it lifts them high above the water. Ships and barges float by. Industrial cranes stand alongside the banks, high up into the air, motionless, like constructed dinosaur bones. Ted lights a cigarette and looks at her. What do you mean? he asks. I mean I want you to come with me to my parents house. Keep driving.

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44 Teds jaw slackens and the cigarette flies out the window. At Lindas Parents Lindas parents house has stonewalls and a gate and a tiny black speaker box and the place looks like a mansion, not a house. He parks the car in the road and flicks the headlights off. A few windows in the house glow. Wait, Linda says, and holds him down by the thigh. They can see someone inside a kitchen pulling drawers open. Ted asks Linda, Whos that? My mother, she says. They sit in the car and watch her mother and wait. Im going in first, she says. Dont do that, Ted says. The garage illuminates and the door retracts and folds. A Toyota backs out and reverses down the driveway. Thats when Linda closes her eyes and covers her face and says, Shit. The Toyota moves down the driveway, but its dark and they cant see in the window. All they can see is a reflection of silver-colored trees on tinted glass. Thats my father. Dont get out, Linda says. Ted wants to talk to him. Ted wants to run to the window and tell her father that his daughter is in his car. He has to tell him that. He needs him to see her. He puts his hand on the door latch. Dont, Linda says.

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45 The Toyota stops at the end of the driveway and the window cracks an inch. They see an orange flicker and the outline of a head and a plume of smoke and they realize that he is stopping to light a cigarette. The smoke trails up along the side of the car and the Toyota moves forward the smoke blows off the roof. The Toyota coasts up a small hill, through the woods, out of sight, and they watch the taillights flicker and disappear into the trees. Linda bites her knuckles. And Ted wonders if her parents fight. If they ever curse, throw plates, sleep apart. If Lindas name ever comes up in a conversation and both of them have to look away. If it is even possible for Lindas parents to sit down at the couch and zap on the television and have a meal and cut the food into cubes and not think about their daughter. But Ted keeps that thought away from Linda. Not because he doesnt think she should hear it, but because in a small, small way Ted wants it to be true. Linda says, I want to go home. She climbs into the backseat and Ted drives and she falls asleep. The suburb, the bridges, the boats, the trees with insects, all of it moves past the window. It is a fast drive and it doesnt last long except for one minor stop. Ted pulls up to a sinkhole, pops the trunk, takes the shotgun out and throws I in. Home Ted wakes Linda up by the shoulder when they back to his cinderblock house. Linda walks inside and sits on the side of Teds bed and looks at her feet. Just to look at them. As if thats all she can possibly do. Ted stands next to the bed and stares at her.

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46 I have huge feet, Linda says. She says this because she doesnt want him to go. Clown feet. Thats because youre looking down on them, Ted says. Then he walks out of the bedroom and leaves her there and he sits on the kitchen floor and he asks her how things were for her. Before she lied. Before she cheated her parents. Thats how he says it too. Just to see. Just to test the waters. And she doesnt respond. But Ted wants to keep talking. He wants to press her for information. He wants to get it all out of her. He wants to talk for hours. You have no idea, Linda says. Then Ted hears her start the shower. And he thinks about getting up off the floor and walking in on her and opening the curtain and firing off a round of questions. But instead he just stands up and walks to the kitchen sink and outside the window something wild stirs.

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JELLY BEAN I dont think I will ever die. After dad tipped over, my aunt told me she wanted to be cremated, and how upsetting it was that we actually went to see my father in his open coffin, and how he looked fat with glycerin, and fake with clown makeup, and stupid with glasses, and how awful that is, and how when she dies, when she really dies, she wants her ashes to be sprinkled in the ocean with the fish and sea shells, and I said to her at the time, me too, but the truth was I was lying because I never think about that sort of thing. I dont even start to imagine myself dead. She used to make jellies. In the morning we would float in a rowboat out on a tiny canal behind her house, which was thick with thorns, magnolia, and cypress trees. The canal was a natural one, which snaked down to a group of bushes where we picked berries for mayhaw jelly. If you ever taste a mayhaw plain it is sick and bituminous. However, as soon as it solidifies into jelly, the neighbors knock at your door and start following you around town for a spoonful. The company I work for pays me to check movie theater revenues to see if they are paying the appropriate amount due to Hollywood production companies. When I arrive the owners are up front and they usually give me free tickets, goobers, popcorn, or whatever I want, no hassle. I dont wear my sunglasses until I get into the picture show. The glasses stay parked on my forehead while I drive through marshes, and ponderosa pine tree farms, and I dont slide them on until I arrive at my job. After I enter the theater, and take care of the little business part there is, I settle down with a coke, the previews 47

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48 pop up out of the black, and I go blind with yellow circles for the first three seconds. I then tip the sunglasses down over my eyes. When the movie ends I stand up, my chair flips, I keep the sunglasses on, and I wait for everyone to leave. Once they exit, I walk down the red velvet aisle, face the screen, and stare inches away from the plastic dots. I dont know why but the screen has this force near it, which makes it spine-chilling to touch. When I do touch it the screen itself feels like hot vinyl. The possibility that someone watches me from the booth devours me. They could switch on the projector, spot me out, and I would sweat out ice. I then leave out the back door and drive to a highway hotel with some lousy food and sleep with the TV on. The theater I had to go to that day was in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. At one point my distant family all lived here but now only my aunt remains. Everyone moves away from towns like this. In this town the only things permanent are the daiquiri drive-throughs, a Bootsies twenty four hour diner, billboards advertising strawberries, one movie theater, and in the center of town, the alligator cage. The green cage sits in the sun by the railroad tracks, under a giant flagpole with a limp strawberry banner. The cages roof is covered in tarp and inside is a small pool. An alligator with pennies on his back lies half emerged in the water. His tail has a hole in it and the pool is littered with straws and pennies where the kids missed their shot. His limousine shaped head is snapped shut. There is a palm tree for him and the only way you know he is alive is that the pennies on his back rise up every ten seconds with his alligator breath. When my aunt took me to the

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49 cage when I was seven it was the same alligator and he was in the other corner of the pool. It is good to see he has moved. I was not expected at work until that evening. I imagined my aunt would be frying chicken or working in the garden, digging holes for seeds, when I knocked on her door. But I heard her come to the door slowly, as if she were taking her time. She was not taking her time. She was making her way to the door. Hello sweet-pea, she said when she opened the door and the lizards scattered off the cement porch. Come on in. Her back was hunched over and there was too much skin for her body and it hung on her like ice-cycles. She was pale now, and the politeness in my voice was a giveaway that I had noticed the walker. She sat me down in the kitchen. The shape of her back was no longer straight and flat but was bent over like a cave. Her shoulders were two bones sticking out underneath cotton. She looked like a lizard ready to shed. Tell me about your job, she said. This was routine. I should have left her alone but I followed the conversation like I was supposed to do. I basically make sure the companies are paying what they should. I travel from town to town, and there are benefits like free movies. I do consider myself lazy but this job was a killer. I cant stand for more than two minutes. That is wonderful. That is just wonderful, she said. There is nothing wonderful about myself anymore. Do you like the picture show? I haven't seen a picture show in years. Im afraid it would just make me dizzy now, she said. Actually, I am a bit tired of movies, I said. She looked exhausted and rubbed her eyes. But she laughed and asked me if I

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50 needed anything. I said no thanks, and she reached down and squeezed my fingers in hers and smiled at me. That is when I knew, she knew, that I had not forgotten how she used to be young and collect rocks, and pick berries, and cook church dinners. She filled up a glass of buttermilk for me and sat down. Do you want to see your daddy? she asked. Without tasting the milk I said, Not really. She told me to drive her car, and when we walked outside she wore a heavy sweater that I thought would be too muggy, and she used a cane to brace herself. I imagined how she must have felt on the hospital bed when the doctor came in with a cane and told her she could probably use this. I opened the passenger door and she used her hands to get in the car. The kind of care Id use if I were climbing into bed with a girl. She dropped her body in the seat, it crunched like uncooked rice, and she put the cane between her legs. I reversed out of the driveway, which had a strip of grass running down the middle. Once on the road, I spun the wheel with both hands. The car felt wobbly from my driving and that was because I had someone beside me who looked famished. She told me where to turn and on the second right she missed it and I had to back track. The cemetery was called Garden Meadows. Somewhere out there was my dad waiting in his coffin for us. The majority of the resting spots were mausoleums, which were above ground in case of flood. We walked out of the car and paced down the lanes of graves, inching past tiny castles. The mausoleums differed in height, but most of them

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51 were waist high. In general, the graves were black, sad things, and I walked slower to pay some sort of respect. In general, I dont believe in respecting things out of principle. It is sort of a principle of mine. However, the taller gravesites looked quite impressive, and the slots where the deceased go were exactly sized for coffins. After about a hundred feet the mausoleums ended and the rest were tombstones stuck halfway in the ground. My aunt told me that it was now illegal to bury the dead and that you had to be raised above ground. I asked her if my dad fit that bill, and she said at the time it wasnt clear, and that he was buried. She said this as if it was perfectly normal that I didnt know the particular mode of depository for my father. We walked through the fingernail-cut grass and tomb markers and it felt like we were walking on a giant stage with props and people underneath. My dads tombstone had an empty space reserved for someone elses name beside his. My mom was meant to wait and lie by his side. My aunt stood her distance and I walked up to my dads grave. The dates and his full name were encarved in the stone. The brown marble was smooth like an apple but I decided not to touch. I didnt even bend down and kiss his spot of earth. I just stood there, and looked at the grave, and thought how my dad was enclosed in Styrofoam underneath me with his eyes up to me, and that he probably had longer hair now. When I looked back at my aunt she was holding her cane in her two hands and she wasnt crying. She looked at me. I was between her and the tombstone and I looked back at the grave. My aunt did not look surprised or saddened that I was in front of her brothers grave. She was not drawn to tears, or shaking, or coaching me through this. Why should she? This might not have even been her brother or my dad. He certainly wasnt now. It could have been anyone.

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52 Behind my dads rectangular house stood a bird pool which had caught rain and had collected some pollen along the inside rim of the dish. The entire place looked asleep. I suppose that is the point of the complex, to rest in peace. I dug my hands in my pockets. Here is the story: I am not ashamed of myself for being this way and I do not hold grudges. Its not my style. My dad left my mom when I was six. He had no hair at the time, and he told her, I have brain cancer, and I just want to spend the rest of my life with the woman I love, who wasnt my mom. The woman he loved was the mother of his two illegitimate children, who he assured me before he died were waiting to see me in the city of Chicago. When I think of Chicago I think of an old man, the kind whose hands are withered, wearing a blue hood, he cant talk, and he is standing in a puddle of gasoline. I am watching him. A women with a purse walks between us and the puddle doesnt ripple. I dont know why I imagine this. I also imagine a penny falling from the Sears tower and bulleting through a taxicab. After my dads funeral, at the reception, we all stood by my aunts garden, our arms linked, and smiled for the camera in our black suits, tuxedos, and dresses. My aunt, she wore a laced dress and drank fruit juice. The cameraman even said, say cheese. I said cheddar and disappointed the photographer because I didnt smile. I mean, I didnt even know this man but I felt guilt for being a poor sport. Then we went back to the porch. My cousin, whose lips are too big for her face, talked about her boyfriends goatee. My dad was missing, and I got plenty of condolences and pity, not as much as

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53 mom, but that was to be expected. My aunt spent most of the time on the porch drinking punch out of a margarita glass, speaking to people I didnt know. The thing about it was I knew her. Eventually, when I wasnt thinking about her she came up to me by the tire swing and said something which was not important. What was important was that she saw me and we were alone. I think what she said was Im with you. The other woman from Chicago, of course, didnt show. That's how it went. My aunt looked better now and she did not use her cane for support. We walked back to the car and read the epigraphs on the way. One mausoleum was purple and orange and had confetti at its head. It read, Here lies a clown. A sporty lad who left behind a cherry nose and a fighting chimpanzee. Another: Here lies Sir, William the third. Brave at the time of death. The last one said, Here lies Doctor Irwin the Dentist, having filled his last cavity. My aunt took the wheel. Lets go to one of your movies, she said. All right, I said. Its a block past the gator, she said, pointing the grip of the cane in that direction. I turned the ignition.

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54 The movie was about fat people who love to eat. Felda and her mother Maureen eat anything. Maureen is generous, and humongous. In the movie she says, You know me, Im happy wherever I go. You can drop me off in a Kansas prairie and Id be divine. Throughout the film she says, You know me, to anyone, but dropping her anywhere would be a mess, especially from a high distance, unless you enjoy a body-made-crater followed by a splash, which I would have. Felda, the daughter, lives with her mother Maureen. Unfortunately they consume the little bit of money they receive from disability, child pension, and social security checks on Snickers, Ben and Jerrys Wavy Gravy ice cream, and an assortment of Doritos. Felda is only thirteen. She alone could wipe out the monkeys if she were air lifted and released over a jungle. Felda, against her mothers advice, goes on a diet. The food stamps run out. Way to go Felda, the children beneath her say to her at school. Youve lost about a pound and a half. Go big-mix. They aren't really her friends. After school lunch, which unlike the other kids Felda actually enjoys, she ties on her old Reebok-pumps, plugs her body through the chained-linked door, and thumps out to the black top. The black top is hot and the tennis court is turning into desert. Surrounding the recess area is a barbed wire fence, which prevents middle school kids from running off and killing themselves. Felda watches her friends play basketball and she whisks around the playground in her pink dress and braids, sticking her fingers in the fence holes. She chews on her thumb until it becomes tender and purple.

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55 My aunt looked at me in my seat and raised her eyebrows. Hungry? she asked. I dont think so, I said. She smiled and resumed watching the movie vigilantly. Under her breath she said, This is something else. One day while Felda sucks on a number two pencil, a man with a turban walks around the recess area and looks for coins on the ground. He is skinny and malnourished by Feldas standards. He nods at the teachers, looks back down at the pavement, and roams the recess area like a metal detector. Felda watches him and decides to help. He suggests she quits eating, which she does, and she starves herself. They become best of friends. Her Mother, Maureen, finds out about this from a teacher. She starts to resent her daughter for dieting and takes her out of school. You know me, the mother says, I am fat and we must stay that way. Im ashamed of you. Skinny people are useless. The mother gorges herself even more and ends up being rolled down the street by her splintery daughter who then sails her down a river of Jell-O. Well, Felda feels bad about all this and eats her way through the Jell-O to save her mom. In movie theaters people look better in shadows. I looked at my aunt and she was sucking on a Gobstoper. She turned to me and ran her milky fingers through the buttered popcorn. When the credits rolled, I took a while, leaned back in my chair, and discovered my sunglasses. I slid them on because I had forgotten earlier, and my aunt stared at me.

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56 What did you think of the movie? she said. It was kind of funny. What did you think? I said. She then stuck two jellybeans in her ears and told me that if I did this I could hear the ocean. I popped in two red ones and sure enough I heard the arctic. She smiled at me and I hooked her arm in mine and we fingered out the beans. The movie room was dark and they had forgotten to twist the lights on. She told me that when we got home I could have a jar of her reserved jelly. She quit picking mayhaw around the time I moved, she said. She told me, on our way out of the theater, that she didnt like followers. Me neither, I said, though I don't have any, and we walked outside. The road was orange from the heat and we stole some shade beside the alligator cage. The pennies on the alligator were rusting. Inside the reptile looked cooler than we were. A fan above him waved the palm tree. My aunt tapped her cane on the cement and whispered to me that she didnt think that alligator would ever die. I told her I didnt either. My aunt and I stood up and the alligator sunk down deep into the pool. On my way out of town there was a sign in my rearview mirror that read, Entering Ponchatoula, so sweet youll never leave. Actually there wasnt a sign that said that. I made that up. The road I had to take to my next theater was a ten-mile bridge that stretched over marshes and rivers. The entire landscape was soaked in water with cypress tree skeletons poking out. I stopped my car and looked over the bridge into what is known as the Tickfaw river. The Tickfaw has salinity content of 75 percent fresh, 25

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57 percent salt water. Near the mouth of the river the contents reverse and the water turns the color of milk. This is where the alligators pop up. I looked out into the white water spying for green flashes. All I saw was mud and seaweed swirling underwater, but I knew they were out there.

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MINNOWS I count people. My job involves checking the blue monitor for evening flight numbers, slipping behind a magazine, and jotting down the number of people who arrive and depart on American Airlines. One is a girl hanging on chairs. Two is wearing a baseball cap. He is laughing with number three and four about a guy who didnt make the trip, whose arm got cut off in a tractor. Five is divorced. Her arms are crossed. Six, seven and eight are crammed together on a leather chair watching a coin operated black and white television. At about fifteen, a handicapped woman spinning herself in a wheel chair, I stop. But then I notice number sixteen. She is wearing an orange sundress and a pearl necklace and I have seen her at my neighbors house, the old lady next door. The intercom signals medallion members to board first. The people Ive just counted do not look over to see what medallion members look like. The girl in the orange sundress walks over to me and sits down by the window. Im pretending to read a magazine. There are ten medallion members and six first-class passengers. They board the airplane, and then all the people in coach follow. The plane detaches from the accordion terminal, rolls down a runway, and then, poof, they disappear, and whats left is the number 52 written in Sharpie on the magazine cover. The girl in the orange sundress watches the planes lift into the air, her palms stuck to the window, and she doesnt notice me. At work Im someone else. I never see myself in glass reflections or consider that I am counting people unjustly. Her fingertips tap the glass. It sounds hollow 59

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60 out there. The planes blink off into thick black clouds. The old lady next door sits in her truck all day and stares at me. The broken down truck is peeling with rust and is camped out in her backyard. She lives by herself and wears the expression of someone who has been waiting around since the last time someone visited her. It is the look of empty-nest-syndrome. The same face which doesnt want you to leave when you get there, and after you do, she waits as long as it takes for you to come back: days, months, years, never. She doesnt see me even when I wave to her. She just stares from the passenger seat of the truck at a pear tree. Today I will get her out of that truck. I walk into her yard to see her. How are you? I ask, faking a window-handle-rotation with my hand. She rolls down the window halfway and says, Fine. Help yourself to some pears. Her voice sounds like a food processor slowed down. I nod without picking a pear. The pear tree hangs over the wire fence into my yard and the limbs are weighed down like dumbbells. Some of the pears look like disfigured grapes, but most of the pears are shaped like lop-sided tennis balls and are the color of bruised muscles. The thought of eating them, with their squishy insides, makes my stomach turn. What time is school? she asks. I dont go to school. I say. I count people. Its a job. Do you need to go

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61 anywhere right now? How about groceries? How about the doctor? In her truck she rubs her lips. Someone does that for me. I start for the silver door handle with my left hand and she watches it approach. I pull back. But if you need anything? If you need anything, I say, and I step on a pear. Im alone and I like it that way. I dont need help, she says. Youll be fine. I say, and instantly regret it. On Sundays a man mows her lawn and the girl in the orange sundress hold hers by the elbow and walks her around the neighborhood. Old people get attention somehow. She steps carefully out of her car, balances herself with a cane, and picks a pear at eye level. She says, It might be wormy but lifts it up to me to eat anyway. Thanks, I say and I squeeze it. It is hard and pale. My son is a lawyer. I haven't seen him in three years, she says. I dont say anything to that because lawyers dont count. Its time for my walk. May I come? I ask politely. No, she says. Sleep is my favorite part of the day, but today I watch them walk. The girl in the orange sundress knocks on the front door of my neighbors house. Its Sonya, she says, and the door opens and they grab hands. Outside it looks like it is going to sprinkle. In this town every day looks like it is going to rain but it never does.

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62 The old lady walks beside Sonya. This time she holds the old ladys hand in hers. Sonyas fingers would feel smooth on skin. They walk slowly, their hands fit together. After they are gone I hear kids and small rubber shoes beat down the pavement and I hate myself for counting the steps. The school is close enough for me to hear the roar of recess, kick balls, and slides. Three girls with orange straps over their shoulders run down the sidewalk. A boy skips after them in a one-two, one-two rhythm. I stop counting. After Sonya drops the old lady off at home, she walks into my front yard and stands there, Nice day for a walk, I say, from the porch. I dont like stalkers. Im not a stalker. Im a counter. I work at the airport She jiggles the air in her palms by her little breasts and says, One plus one is two. You want to come upstairs? I ask. I dont know. I dont think so, she says, and I dont either. Why dont you ask me to dinner or lunch. That would be a good thing to do. We could talk about your neighbor and how she thinks your are a sweet young man. She says sweet as if it were sour and walks to her car. The next thing she does bothers me. She gets into the car and then pushes the passenger door open. Come in.

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63 Her dress rises up her thigh and she pulls it back down over her knees. She starts up the car and drives us to a highway that I didnt know existed. It is getting late and she weaves in and out of slower traffic barely nicking a school bus. I dont comment on her driving because if we are going to die it might as well be now. She pulls off on a gravel road and kills the car. The trees shake around us and the wind picks up. A plane climbs up in the air above us and we both wait for the Doppler effect to dissipate before we get out. I dont know how many people are up there and it bothers me. I follow her into the woods and I think that there is a chance we could kiss here. Ive been with three girls. After the second one, who I never had sex with, I tried to die. Not over her, but because I wanted to die and when you want to die, like I did, you cant. If you dont want to die then you can do it. When you die you dont feel weightless. When you die you feel pressed down for good. That much you can count on. The first time I tried to kill myself I loaded a nine millimeter I stole from my uncle, went into my old bedroom in my parents house, took three pain killers, drank two Coors, rested my head on a pillow, and bit down on the muzzle. I waited for ten seconds with the gun in my hand, the barrel in my mouth, sweating though my fingers. When I pulled the trigger, it clicked, and nothing fired. I heard a tumbling sound on the stairs so I hid the wet gun under my mattress. In the bathroom mirror I smiled at someone whose teeth were black on the bottom edges, whose face was pale, and who looked like a wet corpse, and it smiled back at me. Once out of the car, I followed Sonya through the woods and towards a lake. It

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64 was dark and the flashlight tunneled over to a patch of grass by the bank. Mosquitoes were dead this time of the year. I dont understand why we were suddenly alone in the woods together, except that maybe she was used to having sex with strangers. I had never met someone who could do that so I went with it. The woods were quiet except for the wind hissing through the trees. Near the water we sat cross-legged. She had been here before, maybe another boy showed her this lake, but I didnt mind. I could see the white triangle of her underwear and she didnt care. You know that I own this lake, or at least I will when Mary dies, she said. I had never heard the old lady next door to me referred to as anything. All of it, Sonya said and she shined the light from one bank, over the water and rocks, to the other bank. I dont want it, she said. Ive also never met someone, or even thought of someone, owning a lake but it seemed like a good thing to have. All of it? I said. Every drop. Im not related to her. I just work for a company that takes care of old folks, that's it. Meals-on-wheels sort of a deal. She thinks I should have the lake when she dies. She thinks I deserve it because we go on walks. She thinks I could swim in the Olympics. Take it, I say. Sell it after she dies. Im kidding here but its not funny. What if somehow wanting the lake kills her? It could happen like that. Suppose, I want the lake and then shes flat out dead the next morning, she says. Little steeples of waves crash under a dock and I like the idea of lying next to her on the grass and listening to water hit wood, her skin by mine. We are supposed to be

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65 able to do this kind of thing. We are supposed to be new enough to the world to allow ourselves that. You dont seem like a killer, I say. Maybe, she says. She stands up and directs the tube of light from her flashlight towards the dock and we walk that direction. Its raining now and we walk up the dock. It extends far into the lake and we keep going. A trash can lid is nailed to a post and is spinning from the wind. An abandoned canoe is bobbing up and down in the water with its nose sticking out. Sonya sits on her knees at the tip of the dock and the sky turns and the forest around us becomes dark blue. You want to go swimming? I ask her. I dont want to do anything, she says. She presses the flashlight on the dock and it makes a red circle on the wood. I look with her in between the wood panels. The light beam between the crack tornadoes down into the water. In the beam of light thousands of minnows swim and dart over each other and I start counting instinctively. Ten of the minnows catch the light and reflect back silver. Eleven is a bigger minnow whose eyes I could scoop out with a spoon. I recount her several times and make it to twenty before I catch my breath, rub my eyes, and move closer to the space between the wood. The light illuminates thirteen more minnows that barrel into the group and stroke in circles. The thirty-three minnows Ive counted swerve aside from each other and never collide. I count forty more but I might be recounting. I reach my fingers over the dock to shovel up the goggle eyed fish whose eyes look like the number 8. They dart away from my hand and the space they leave for me fits like a glove of water. I lose count now. They look like sparks and I cant count

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66 fire. Pellets of water bounce off the dock like thrown gravel and the rain comes down. The sky zips open and raindrops fall on us like marbles, and the minnows swarm off beyond the light. A bead of rain drips off Sonyas chin and slides down her chest. We should probably get going, she says. We could get struck, she says. But neither of us move. I can feel the heat of her face near mine. Our heads are close enough that we could suck rainwater off each others lips. She turns off the flashlight and I cant see anything except the outline of her face. And right at the right moment, when I imagine it happening, when risk turns into touch, her breath against my lips, soft near soft, and I look right at her, and she does the same, and right when it will happen, it doesnt. I cant bring her in or count the seconds between us fast enough. We run back to the car and the actuality of not kissing temporarily erases everything positive that could of come out of being with someone in the rain, watching minnows, and running back drenched to a car. Mary is not dead. I go and visit her just in case. From the bathtub, she calls for her son, the lawyer, but hes not here. Im worried about her so I walk in and reach into the water, find her armpit, and lift her up. She makes it and steps out of the tub. I stand her up and take her in both my arms, her aging wet body pressed to my chest. Then I brace her with my hand on her back and wrap a towel around her. Her skin feels like thin paper. She is going to die soon.

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67 I help her put her pajamas on and she tells me she cant afford another fall. When old people fall by accident, which happens frequently, they break hips and shatter bones. If no one sees this happen and the paramedics arrive late, they look like spilled milk on the kitchen floor. This makes me worry. I realize Mary would be a good grandmother and I love her for that. Everything in her house, unlike mine, has been accounted for: the framed pictures of family, the biblical-verse-magnet on her refrigerator, and all the kids drawings on the freezer. I think she has counted them all in her spare time, which is probably most of the time. She offers me a cookie, which I eat in a napkin there, and then I go back to my apartment. When I open the door Sonya is holding a butcher knife inside my kitchen, looking down at my silverware. Hi, she says raising the knife by her head, faking a stab, and then placing the knife down on the counter. I like knives. she says. Do you like breaking in? She walks over to me, grabs me from behind my head, and brings me into her. Her small fingernails touch the back of my neck. We kiss and her lips are as cold as knives. Her hair smells like shampoo. After a few seconds of kissing our lips warm up and I imagine slitting off her dress with a knife shaped like the number 7. When we break I feel ready. We dont have sex. She likes to do something else. She lays me on the floor and gets on top of me. Then, without making much movement, she spreads out all of her weight on me evenly, her arms on top of my stretched arms, and her legs directly on top of mine. The best feeling in this world is someone's weight on top of you. On the

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68 floor, with her weight pressed on me, we lie motionless. Then she counts my breaths rising underneath her ribcage. One...two...three...four...

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EQUATIONS The night Travis was granted the John A. Phillips Mathematics Education Award, he walked home under a Montana sky, his gold medal looped around his neck, the moon looming over the bald hills, listening, as he staggered home, to the flap sounds of porch awnings tossed about from the wind that blew down the mountains. At his apartment building, a ranch house that stood beside a pastry bakery, he found an envelope on the rough doormat postmarked Seattle. Travisa cigarette nudged between his knuckles, the smoke floating up the hallwaypicked up the letter and stepped into his open apartment. In the kitchen he cut into it with a butter knife and the paper crackled in his fingers. They had slept with each other on sleeping pills, he remembered, but she was not a stunt, not anymore, because Travis was, the letter read, a father. He sat on the floor, no furniture, and thought this word over. How to him, father sounded more like mortgage, a family car, an old, leftover oak tree, a dead persons name. Then he read on: She was suing him for child support. He owed thousands in payments. The tone was conventional: unnecessary exclamation points, lipstick anger, uneasy demands. She wanted him to return to Washington State and appear in Seattle City Court within thirty days. What a cutthroat presentation, he thought. This woman, as he remembered her, was curled up inside his friends houseboat that floated off the Pudget Sound; how she had poured over his mathematics books in the 69

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70 bobbing corner of the boat; how he hardly knew this girl; how she listened to him talk, swallowed pills, rocked her head to death rock; how no one on the boat the next morning could place her name; how in a terrible reversal of fate she was prepared now to destroy him. A square photograph fell out of the letter and on to the linoleum floor. He looked down at the snapshot of a six-month-old boy sitting on fake grass in floral trimmed pants, a forest of Beech trees poster-ed behind. The child looked up at him from the picture, an optimistic smile on his face, and Travis peeled the photograph off the floor, held it in his palm, this creature, his baby, slanted eyes like his own. Then he flipped the photograph over and written on the backside was the boys name: Derrick. He placed the photo down on a stack of graded quizzes. Then he detached a dry-eraser board off a thumbtack, set it on the floor, and scrawled out an equation: integrals, polynomial rings, variables. And as he swallowed down a glass of faucet water, the numbers surfaced, the problem gave in, and he solved it. Afterwards, he tore out a piece of notebook paper and wrote, Not to worry. Followed by, Come and visit. Ill have the money for you by then. And then he signed it, Thanks, folded the paper, licked a stamp, walked out into the road the smell of warm pastry ovenslifted the metal latch to a blue box, and mailed it off. The girl from Seattle arrived at his apartment building in a coat, a slip dress, knee-high combat boots. In her arms was Derrick. It had snowed that night, then hailed, and now, teeming sheets of sleet.

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71 Come in, Travis said. And squashed a cigarette out on the porch step with the ball of his foot. I need the money or you are going to jail. For the life of me, I promise you that. The baby was bunched up inside a blanket, a breathing lump. Here, come inside . the winter. So she followed him into the building and Travis led her up the hard wooden steps to his one-room apartment. She put the baby on the floor, and with the back of her hand she fluffed her hair out from the inside of her coat collar, and the hair landed on her shoulders in curls. The heater was broken so Travis had the oven on high, steaming up the windows. Two wooden planks sat on top of cinderblocks and served as a table. A Spider plant hung from a nail punched into the ceiling. The rest of his apartment was empty. His lack of possessions equaled mathematician. And he assumed shed pick up on that, respect him, give in a little. Sit, he said. Though there was nothing to rest on except the broken radiator. Take him, she said, and held out the limp child. Travis took the baby in his stiff arms and there it dangled. It had his looks: large eyes, knotty wrists, a soft, doughy tummy. But the hair was from someone else, curly like monkey tuft, but softer. Then the baby farted and Travis handed him back to her. Stay here for a while, Travis said. She reached into a leather purse, pulled out a baby bottle, crossed her legs, and said, For a week.

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72 That night, the baby lying in a bed Travis had constructed out of a cardboard box, a flattish pillow, and a damp towel, he told her that he was broke, but that if she wanted they could play some music, fuck around, talk this over. Talk what over? Im not sure exactly, he said. Youre not sure exactly, she said. Thats your problem, isnt it? But he said he couldnt respond to that. And for a moment he remembered the houseboat, the side of it rubbing up against the dock, and how under a heavy blanket he had touched the inside of her wrist and said, Hello. At the all night gas station he bought her a few things she said she needed: tampons, a bag of potato chips, a half-gallon of milk, and one more item she hadnt asked forhis ideacondoms. Inside his apartment, Travis spread the items on the floor. She pointed with her socked foot at the condom box. What are those for? Travis pulled off his gloves. For us. Just in case. You expect me to sleep with you. She giggled. And she crushed a potato chip in her lips. Stay here with me, Travis said. Then he pushed her shoulder, a joke, and she stiffened.

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73 He told her his schedule, included his office phone number, the best times to reach him, and so forth. He was rarely available, he admitted, because he did things on the run, or wherever possible: the bar, the classroom, an open field. He said, getting math done was important to him, more so than to others, it was a place to be ones self, to do things right, to think out loud. Ah, she said. Enlightening. The baby whirled awake inside the cardboard box. Is he hungry? Travis asked. His name is Derrick. Derrick. Its my fathers name. Thats nice. I like it. You dont know my father. Dont pretend to. You want a drink? And I dont want Derrick to know you. Thats not why Im here. You seem proud of yourself. Go to hell. A proud little girl. Later he said she could sleep on his futon. He didnt mind, his back could use it, not a problem. She said, Then thank you, and she pulled off her dress, scooped the baby up out of the box, got in the bed in her underwear, and laid the child on her chest. If

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74 she needed anything there was milk in the refrigerator, cash on the table, tea in the closet, a cigarette on the radiator. Ill be fine, she said. Good. Im going out for a little, he said. Go, she said. Forgive me for my shortage of funds. Huh? Right. Theres a bakery next door. Maybe you want some croissants? Maybe a cup of coffee? Would you like something like that? Im a big girl, she said. Ill be back soon. Dont worry. Im not going to rob you. I wasnt worried. You should be. Im not. But you might not see your son again. We could leave just like that. That should hurt you. That should pull you under. How do you know its mine? Youre hilarious, she said. Then she stroked the babys small back. And the baby turned his head, yawned into her chest, and gripped his mothers finger in his tiny, primordial fist. Do the math, she said.

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75 Out on the road, the sky was black, with clouds underneath, the color of fresh smoke, spreading apart. Behind the bakery, two homeless women stood in a rusty kitchen light, leaning against a hollow dumpster, holding beers in paper bags. One had hair the texture of broom needles that stuck out from her headband. The other wore a hat made out of a grocery bag. The baker stepped outside, pointed down the alley, and the women stumbled off. A car drove down the street and the headlights swept over the road. Travis stared down at the tops of his shoes and no equations came to him. Instead he thought about going back to his apartment, taking the baby, holding him close, even if he cried, even if his mother woke up. It didnt matter. Just as long as he could make this baby his own for a little while, rock him back to sleep, say the word, Goodnight. And so he turned around, climbed the steps back up to his apartment, and opened the door. Youre back, the woman from Seattle said. She was sitting on the floor, Indian style, smoking a cigarette, a piece of ash, the texture of pollen, rubbed into the waistline of her underwear. Put that out, he said. I cant sleep, she said, and dropped the cigarette into a jar. I changed my mind, he said. She moved her hand inside a lampshade, pulled a loose chain, and the light popped off. Believe it or not, she said in the half-dark, I thought I might convince you.

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76 That somehow youd come back to Seattle with us. Start over. Begin a life. That is what I thought. Surprise, he said. Im not, she said. I knew you wouldnt. And then, as she stood up, reached for his forearm, a loud thump at the door. Travis stood up, turned the knob, and the homeless woman with the headband and the broom hair rolled over on her side, stood up, and stumbled inside. I use your bathroom? the homeless woman slurred. No, Travis said. Ill be in and out, no thing at all. Promise. And the woman took Travis by the shoulder, squeezed it, and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. Her eyes were watery, not from crying, but from a lack of sleep, a need to see all things before her. I cant, Travis said. Get out. And then the woman from Seattle stood up, walked over to the homeless lady, looked her over, took her by the wrist, turned to Travis, and said, Let her in.

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THE HOLE IN HER MOUTH I met Anik at the public pool where I used to take my brother. The man ahead of me, a black guy, climbed up the diving board ladder. Two bullet wound scars, the size of pancakes, streched across his back. He ran down the board, spanked into the sky, spread his arms, flipped around, and cut into the pool like a switchblade. Not everyone, but most of us, gazed in after him I bet you cant pull that off, a voice said behind me. And I turned my eyes from the water. The voice belonged to a fat girl in a bikini with belly rolls that jiggled. It was cold and lumpy like a bag of potatoes. Something I could poke my hand into and grab a fist of. I ignored her and stepped up the ladder. If my three-year-old brother had been there he would have waved at me from the kiddy pool. But he was not there. He was dead. All I saw up on the board was the sun on the water and women in blue miniskirts holding tennis rackets. The kiddy pool was drained and empty. It is important for me to mention my brother, Robby, because he was the first person I ever met who at one point existed, and then did not. He never counted to ten, ran through the street, lit a fire, got drunk in the woods, fucked a cheerleader, tied a tie, flew across the country on a jet, or attended a funeral. Those things never happened to my brother. They happened only to me. It happened like this: someone tossed a white sheet 77

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78 over my brother, let it sit there, yanked it off, and my brother disappeared. Pellets of water dropped off the diving board and dotted the pool. The board was hot and granular like an unshaved face. Then I spun the wheel, tested the spring, and walked to the tip. I always tested the spring and walked to the tip. My brother never got a chance to do that. I would have taught him: Test the spring, walk to the tip, and dive. He did whatever I told him. That was what made him my brother. Just dive you loser, the fat girl said behind me. I leaned over the board, looked into the water, and the black man hiccup-ed out of the deep end. Hows it done? I asked him. He opened his eyes. I couldnt tell you. Just got out of prison, he said. Then he stroked to a spot directly under me and treaded water. The pool was stuffed with people that afternoon. It looked like an aquarium packed with human fish. First dive in about thirty years, he said, still treading. His hands, the size of plates, padded at the surface, and his legs wiggled underneath like large tentacles. A lifeguard with nothing productive to do whistled. Swim to the side, the lifeguard yelled. My name is Daryn, the black man said to the lifeguard. But that was all he said. Daryn could have done something else, something more aggressive, but he didnt.

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79 Then he floated across the water and pulled himself out of the bubbles. He didnt go up to the lifeguard. He went back to the diving board line. I decided right then that if I died my life would have almost been worth it. My brother might have agreed. Although my brother never had a chance to see what my life was worth, Im sure he would have endorsed me. Only thing is-, Daryn said, before I jumped off the board Daryn was not in line anymore. He was off to the side, shaking water out of his ear. An open spot in line was available for him if he wanted it. That was a given. Everyone knew what it meant to dive the way he did. So I listened. I dont fear shit, he said. And he hammered out the drops from his ear. Except the lord, he said. I didnt believe him. How about bullet shots? I called down. But Daryn did not hear me. And he walked to the front of the line. A belly sucked in and Daryn tucked into a vacant spot. Good, I thought. I can do this. I stomped on the tip of the board, sprung into the air, kicked my legs up toward a cloud, and waited for my body to rotate. Unfortunately, my body did not respond, and my hands scrambled for something to grip. On my way down, I saw a collage of upside down heads. Then I heard a giggle and I splashed. Underwater a hand pressed against my back. I opened my eyes, but all I saw were flecks of light. I flapped my feet, spread the water open, and sucked in the air. A lifeguard stood on top of his red chair, blew his whistle again, and I looked around the pool, dumbfounded.

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80 Then I saw what I had done: a woman popped up beside me and a red dot trickled out of her nose. Forgive me, I said to the woman I had dived onto. We were both on the concrete now, dripping in the sun. You didnt mean it, she said. She took my hand in hers and sandwiched it. Her fingers were long and pull-able. Her name was Anik. Water dribbled off her legs and formed a pond below her feet. Her bathing suit was the color of wood. She reached down, pinched a wad of it, and the nylon snapped against her hipbone. Her lips were the texture of a grapefruit peel. Her mouth was open, just barely; a soft hole wide enough to poke a pinkie through. The lifeguard said something into my ear but I ignored him. Then Anik did something that made me want to hold her. She pressed the napkin she had dabbed her bloody nose with into the lifeguards palm. The lifeguard looked into his hand, as if he had just been given poison, his hand stiffened, and he shook the Kleenex off. At that moment, Daryn flipped off the board and slugged into the water. He spiraled down, pushed the water to his side, and skimmed across the bottom. The locker room smelled of chlorine. I twisted my towel into a screw and the water seeped out. I heard a toilet flush inside a stall, and when I looked up I saw a naked boy. His penis looked like a shriveled up hotdog. He smiled at me and said, "Hello,

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81 Sparky," but I did not respond. Instead, I dropped my towel in a puddle, walked out of the public pool, and hacked into the hedge. The little boy from the bathroom stall knew my brother. And as I stood in the bushes, forcing the liquid up from my chest, rhythmically gagging, little flashes of my brothers image came back to me. And the more I puked the more my brother appeared; jumping on top of my stomach in his diaper with a cowboy hat pulled over his head. When I got to my car the windows had clouded up into pools of platinum. A car engine ticked under a Sycamore tree. I was tired and my chest stung from the up-chuck. Crows hopped in the Sycamore limbs and tickled through the leaves. I slipped my car keys out from under the windshield wiper. Then, as I gloved the door handle, Aniks finger came down and tapped me on the shoulder. Everything after that was meant to be. Anik needed a ride back to her apartment and I obliged. Its the least I can do, I said stupidly. Electricity lines laced from pole-to-pole alongside the road. Yellow lines shot back. Speed limit signs shuffled after them. Anik cracked the passenger window and the air gushed in. Then she pointed her finger at her apartment building, and I turned. Accidents can kill, Anik said. Thats what Ive heard, I said, and I pulled to a stop. Anik got out of the car and shut the door with the back of her foot. Then she walked up to the drivers side window, squatted her legs down like a

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82 frog, and faced me. Walk me in, she said. When we got to her apartment, her cat was curled up on the kitchen floor. Suddenly, it jaunted up on all fours, hissed though its curled tongue, and hopped on top of the washing machine. Anik opened the refrigerator and tossed me a bottle of beer. I plucked it from up in the air and the glass sweated in my palm. Youre my first crush, she said. I must have really fallen for you, I said. We were on a roll. Then the cat jumped on top of the table, right in between us, and Anik brushed it off with the back of her hand. Anik and I whirled back and forth with each other. We stood together in lines, bumped into each other as we walked under doorways, tugged each other into closets, kissed at the top of stairways and looked at each other across large dining rooms. One night I told Anik something that made my stomach twist. Outside the rain poured out of the sky and spilled down metal steps. The water swiveled through the gutters, rattled like hard candy; dumped out the chutes, and spread across the white sidewalk. I used to have a brother, I said.

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83 Anik sandwiched my knees between her legs and flipped my hand over in hers. Thats a good thing, she said. Then she swirled her fingertip into the hard part of my palm and looked at my mouth. I was still watching the water drip off the rooftop. Her fingertip was warm and incandescent, hot enough to burn through plastic. The tendons in my wrist tightened. That was when I slid my hand out from hers and placed it directly on her hip. One day Anik took me to the grocery store. Metal carts clicked, cash registers opened, ice-smoke spilled from freezers, buggies wobbled down aisles, and old ladies squeezed fruit. As we walked through the store a camera zoomed in on the two of us and projected our image on a black and white television screen. A man in the customer service box, behind tinted windows, looked at the image of us, and bit into his pear. The cashier swished our groceries over the scanner. I listened to the items beep: a banana, a coke, a box of cereal, and a magazine. They zapped, slid down the belt, and were stuffed into plastic bags. Anik dropped a chocolate bar onto the conveyor belt and the candy floated up to the cashier. The total rang up and the price triggered up onto a green screen. I opened my wallet and unfolded a bill. Sparky? Youre Sparky. Arent you? A boy said behind me. It was the boy from the locker room. My body froze. The cashier plucked the bill from my fingers. Sparky, he coughed. Zzzz, he said. And he poked his finger into an imaginary socket. I know who you are.

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84 I can safely say one thing about children. Stories are passed along to where they shouldnt go and are stored like weapons. I considered kicking him with my leg. But instead I twisted the plastic bag around my wrist and walked off. A red, eye dot flashed and the automatic doors slid open. A little girl beside the coin machine pulled her helium balloon down by the string. In the parking lot, the pavement sizzled under my sneakers, and the sliding doors clapped shut. Whats wrong with you? Anik asked. I stared out at the orange dumpster where I parked. Im not a good person, I said, and I took her by the arm. Im not either, she said. Though, Im glad you told me. Just in case. I didnt mean to. It was an accident, I said. Then I told her about my brother: One night in bed I heard something pop, and I opened my eyes. The lights outside my door pulsed, blacked out, and I sat up. I flicked the switch but nothing happened. I walked to my brothers room and his window was open, the wind blowing in, and a breeze picked up the curtain and twirled it in the air. When I found my brother he was on the floor holding a fork. The fork was connected to an electric socket. The hair on his arm was standing up. He had electrocuted himself. That was how he died.

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85 After I was done with the story I told Anik that I wished my brother was still alive. Take me home, Anik said. And so I did. When I got back to my apartment I picked up a t-shirt and held it out in front of me. Then I thought of my brother poking his arms through the holes and filling up the shirt. But that was just wishful thinking. My brother could not have worn shirts that large. The telephone twittered on the floor. I beeped the talk button and said, Yes? You sound different, my mother said. A cigarette-voice. Youre probably right, I said into the receiver. My mother lived by herself. After my brother died she divorced my father and moved to a beach. I am right. I am always right about you, my mother said. Dont you realize that by now? How long does it take for you to get to the beach? Each time she asked me that I was expected to give her a fresh reply. Four hours, I answered. On the dot, she said. Exactly four hours. Then she said, You have someone, dont you? I can tell, she said. No you cant, I said. Bring her with you, she said.

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86 Then she hung up the phone. The next morning I opened Aniks screen door and walked into her kitchen. Anik was standing beside the refrigerator, holding her cat. Her arms unfolded and the cat dropped to the linoleum like a wet mop. Then her eyes split into popcorn. She still had that space between her lips, that lovely little hole the size of a pea. I reached over, stuck my finger into her mouth, and her face bucked. Then I popped my finger out. I walked over to her refrigerator, cracked open a bottle of milk, and poured myself a glass. The cat leapt up on my lap and licked at my lips. An hour later, Anik and I left for the beach. Fog crumbled over the rocks, tumbled across the bank and floated across the sea. Sailboats bobbed along the shore. Birds swooped down, bounced off the water, and trampolined into the air. Anik unzipped her purse, pulled out a tube of Chap Stick, and carved a bar of pink petroleum over her lips. Then I drove the car down a trail covered in sea grass. When the tires hit the sand, I flipped on the headlights, and ground to a halt. The waves snapped against the shore, but it was behind the dunes, so I couldn't see them. Then my mother appeared in the high beams, under a palm tree. I killed the engine and Anik stepped out of the side door. I love her already, my mother said, and she nodded at me. That was her style. The ocean smelled salty, like the past, like memory.

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87 My mother took Aniks hand in hers. Her fingers wrapped around Anik's palm like a tight shoelace and then unraveled. I had never seen hands shake that way before. The three of us hiked up a dune, sat on the top and watched the ocean slosh. My mother uncorked a bottle of wine and rummaged through her tote bag. The water flogged the sand, fizzled, and reversed into the ocean. My mother pulled out three plastic cups, kissed the bottle to the brim, and poured clear liquid into the glasses. Im happy for the two of you, my mother said. She passed each of us a cup full of wine and we clicked them together. Then she tilted hers back and the liquid flowed down her throat. Up above the ocean, a black cloud scudded across the sky, slid over the sea, and hovered over a city, somewhere like Hong Kong. Cheers, I said. The sun gurgled into the ocean. Anik ran her fingers through the alluvium and sunk her plastic cup into the sand. Be good to each other, my mother said. She pointed her two index fingers at my head and dabbed it. A wave rolled up the shore and broke apart. The sand on the beach sponged up the water and then dried into toast. It comes from up top, my mother continued. And she touched her bangs to her forehead. What? I asked. The inspiration to understand each other, my mother said. Right, I said. My mother thinks that humans are predisposed to creative relationships. They arent. Humans are prone to private embarrassment, public tiffs, and spontaneous dancing.

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88 He is my only son, my mother said. And she looked at Anik. I didnt think Anik would respond to that, but she did. And he is my only boyfriend, Anik said. That might have passed over most people, but I heard what she said, and I pulled it out of the air, and stored it into my heart. After my mother was done with her glass, she handed me the empty bottle. I dropped it in the sand and it flashed. My mother opened another bottle and gave me the cork. I pushed it down into the dune with my finger. The sky looked obsidian. That was when I stood up and stepped off the dune, crossed the beach, and walked and into the ocean. The foam popped against my shins and spread along the shoreline. Come in, I hollered up at Anik and my mother. But neither budged. They couldnt hear me. You are shark bait, Anik yelled. And she fell back into the sand. When Anik spoke she mocked me and I liked it. Your loss, I said, but they did not hear that either. I swam into the water and dunked under the waves. Once I was out far enough I floated on my back. When I looked at the beach I couldnt make out the dunes. All I saw was the chop of white caps and the spread of bubbles. The water rolled under me, wave after wave, and I considered falling asleep to it. Then I wondered what it would be like if I did fall asleep. Floating across the sea above a hidden ocean kingdom. Millions of tiny fish mouths sucking my back. Coasting up to the Poles and bumping off the icebergs. Then I rotated and swam back to the beach.

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89 Weve come to rescue you, my mother said. Anik and my mother were standing on the beach. I stepped on the sand, faced the two of them, and sank down an inch.

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WAIT HERE On the ride to the Jacksonville airport my wife pulled on a cigarette and said, I want to be cremated. Is that right? I asked. Thats exactly right. It didnt bother me, the talking about dying part, because it seemed unlikely, and the conversation was appropriate, since Henry, our friend from Idaho, had just died, and that was what they were doing to him. Chloe was flying to Minneapolis by herself for the ceremony; she loved Henry to pieces, and I to death, but we were deplorably poor. So I imagined her there, on the bow of the boat, lined with women in white pearls, and the men in starched shirts and wind-whipped pants, and the captain of the boat would say a few words, and a gust would splash water up on board, and then theyd all watch, as the girl in the diamond encrusted dress dumped our friend Henry out of a porcelain pot and into the open water of Lake Minnetonka. You should come with me, Chloe said. Then she looked down at her lap, as if there was something important there, which there wasnt, just her e-ticket. And she moved her hand to the soft part of her neck, and squeezed her throat a little, not that she was choking, but just checking her breath, as if there was a knot tied up somewhere inside there, and then she let go. 90

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91 The airport was close and the planes rumbled over the traffic. It was rainy so the jets disappeared quickly into thunderclouds. We only had a few moments left, and I wanted to dare her, so I asked: And where would you like to be spread? In a river, she said. In a river in Idaho. Thats a good place. And then she bumped my shoulder with her pack of cigarettes and made me promise not to bury her. I took a hand off the steering wheel, held the back of hers, and said, I promise. Then she made me swear on it again, just to make sure, so I squeezed her thigh, and she nodded. * The night we found out about Henry we couldnt talk and so we just sat there on the bed without moving. The next day we had sex, the morning sun lightening the windows, and when we were done, Chloe got of bed, and her head left a crease in the pillow. I heard her run the faucet in the bathroom. So I stood up and walked over to the door and it was half-open. She was sitting on the toilet, her knees touching, her underwear pulled around her ankles. I took a white t-shirt off an adhesive hanger, looked down at her, and pulled the shirt over my head. She smiled, as if that expression alone made up for the fact that Henry was now dead, and she said, Idaho was good to us. Henry, I said, was good to us. *

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92 I followed the signs to the passenger drop-off lane and the cars ahead scrambled for spots. Youre making me fly out there alone. Youll be fine, I said. But dont look down. And I squeezed into the curb. Thats not what I mean. I know, I said. Then circle around and walk me into this fucking airport. That, I think, is the least you can do. Look, I said, because we were there now, and the cars had piled up. But she didnt wait for me to finish. For Gods sake, she said, and opened the passenger door and stepped out on the curb. A van full of basketball players unloaded. Businessmen rolled luggage across the street. Then a baggage clerk pulled Chloes suitcase out of the trunk. I opened the door and an empty plastic bottle fell on the road. Then I walked around the car to Chloe, pulled her up close, and kissed her on the lips. But her arm was shaking, and she moved her head to the side. I leaned against the car and she walked into the glass terminal and then she was gone. *

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93 On the highway I sucked on a cigarette and the smoke sunk deep, filled up the vacant parts. But when I breathed the smoke out, it slithered through my nose and left the taste of bark inside my mouth. I flicked the butt out the window crack and it caught air, lobbed back, bounced off a windshield, and the cherry burst into a thin trail of sparks on the pavement. The car behind me, a low-rider with titanium spinners, pulled up alongside my Pontiac and honked. The driver, a black man with two gold teeth and a skull wrap, made his fist into a gun, aimed it at my head, and said, Bang. I pressed on the brakes and melted back into traffic. I drove the rest of the way through the soft Florida scrubs, under an outrageously orange Florida sky. The seat next to me was empty, so I put my hand there, on the fake leather, and it felt ice-cold and terrifying. * We worked on the border of Idaho at the Snow Rabbit Ski Resort. Henry ran the kitchen. I was a ski instructor but not very good at it; the kids fell too much. Chloes job was to stand by the chairlift, check tickets, and brush the snow off the nylon seats with the back of her mitten. Good luck, I remember she said once, as she pushed my kids in the iron chairs up the mountain. Henry, hed come out of the kitchen for cigarette breaks once in a while and look for us. I remember him too, but not as clearly, only that he was alone, and that he wore his paper chefs hat out in the cold, and that he always squinted up at the mountain.

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94 When the ski resort closed for the day, Chloe and I would pull Henry out of the kitchen and tell him, Its now or never. Hed drop the dirty dishes in the sink, walk out of there in a stained apron, and wed put on gloves and warm coats and snow hats and snap on skis and glide to the lift. The chairlift clacked around, Chloe always sitting between us, and we climbed up the side of the mountain. Up on that lift, Henry would unzip his parka, pull out a flask of liquor, and wed throw a few drinks back, the three of us ascendingthe snow covered trees slumbering underneath us as we sipped the boozeuntil the cold wind slapped our faces, and wed cover up our runny noses and chapped lips, swoop off the lift, and ski down the hill. * One night in Idaho Henry showed up at our house on the back porch. Chloe and I lived in the valley in a bungalow with a sloped roof, surrounded by potato farms. He knocked on the glass door with his fist and Chloe got out of bed in her long underwear, put on a robe, and slid the door open. The cold blew in. The snowflakes twirled under the porch lights. I was naked because that was how I slept, and I sat up in bed. Henry clicked off his boots, stepped inside, and took a seat on top of the stove. Our bed was next to the kitchen, and he looked at me under the covers, and he said, Im sorry, Jim. I asked him, About what? And he said, I hit a deer, blew it apart, and its alive in a ditch, breathing.

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95 No, Chloe said. Henry looked at my face, even though I was naked and standing up now, and he said, Jim, the two of us have to go back there and finish him off. Because he couldnt do it alone, refused to put it out. And then he did something surprising. He slumped over, put his face in his gloves, and sniffed as if he might cry. Chloe threw her arm around his neck and tugged him close to her collarbone and said, Just leave it. * We tracked out into the snow in boots. A storm had dumped down all night and my truck wouldnt start, so we walked the road. We carried a chain, a scoop shovel, and, over Henrys shoulder, a sledgehammer. When we got there, Henrys pickup truck was parked off to the side, the bumper caved in, the windows shattered, the hood popped, the light on inside, the snow falling down like pieces of tissue paper, melting on the engine. See it? Henry asked. Nope, I said. The blood. He pointed. Shes vanished. The deer is gone, I said, and I scanned the potato fields. We followed the drops of blood in the snow out past a ditch and into an empty field. By a pool of blood we squatted and pressed our hands into the white fluff. Henry picked up a clump of fur, rubbed it in the palm of his glove, opened his fingers, and let it

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96 fall. Then we found some more blood that led out toward a barn. Near the barn, a pile of white swelled and stuttered, and we walked over to the lump, gave it a kick. Steam shot out the nose, and it was the deer. You kill it, Henry said, and he brushed the snow off the deers head. Give it to me, I said, but he handed me the shovel. The hammer, I said. I cant, he said. Then step back, I said. I pulled the sledgehammer out of Henrys arms, swung it over my shoulder, brought it down on the skull, and smashed the lifefragile as glass out of the animal. * After I dropped Chloe off at the airport, I got lost in Lake City, Florida. And I thought, as I drove, about Idaho. Our old house would still be there, covered and caked in snow. The Snow Rabbit Ski Resort, no doubt, would have expanded, with more lifts, more trails, more places for the tourists to shop. And the workers would be younger looking, in their twenties maybe, with a different taste in music than we had, I dont know, and maybe theyd smoke pot, but who can tell? Part of me thought that Henry, if he were still alive, if he were still in Idaho, could adapt to all of that. Im sure of it, actually. And when I got tired of driving around endlessly, of dreaming of Henry in Idaho this way, I turned the radio all the way up so that the thoughts would rush out of me. But it didnt work that way and the radio signals crackled. So I pulled over at a run-down gas

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97 station, the worst one I could find, the kind with bars on the windows, grocery carts tipped over on their sides, an old black guy standing by a lit door. And then I flipped the engine off. * The way Henry croaked out on us was stupid. Years ago he liked heroin. The bus pulled up, I stepped on board, and I didnt get off; that was how Henry talked to Chloe about addiction. Addiction? I said. Thats the rehab in him. Certain people have addictive personalities, Chloe said. Everybody has an addictive personality, I said. At least Henry admitted it. At least Henry got to the heart of the matter, she said. And then Chloe shrugged her shoulders, and did the dishes. * I know that in Idaho things were right for Henry. In Idaho, he had his own house, his own kitchen, body building equipment rigged up in the basement. In Idaho the city of Minneapolis forgot all about him and it didnt matter. In Idaho he was content, awake. Probably more so than ever. On top of that, a chef, in my mind, is a respectable job. So of course he should have stayed.

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98 Chloe and I didnt. We moved around the country, picked up jobs, got a dog, and eventually got married. Thats natural. Thats how it is supposed to work. But Henry, he quit Idaho and moved back to Minneapolis. Which Chloe said was a dead end. But why should he listen? And then one night in Minneapolis, Henrys father couldnt get ahold of him. And he knew something was off. So he took a taxi to Henrys building, climbed the steps up to his apartment, pushed the door in, and a compact disk was skipping, but nothing else, no answer. And his father was terrified, searching in the closets, pulling the sheets off the bed, crawling on his hands and knees, because he knew what to expect, he had to know what was next. And then he opened the bathroom door and the tub was overflowing, and one of Henrys legs was hanging over the side, his head slumped on his chest, a needle stuck out of his right arm, and thats so fucking ridiculous, the whole thing. He probably deserved it, Henry did, for being such a fuck. * I got out of my car and stood in the gas station parking lot and listened to the trucks thundering by on the interstate. A barbed wire fence surrounded most of the plot and a bird I couldnt find twittered inside a patch of thorns and thickets. Out in the road, in the median, the palm trees were on crutches, and the tops of the trees swooshed around in the dark as if someone had come down from above and blown into them. At the illuminated door to the gas station, the black man had a cigarette between his fingers, and

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99 a stream of smoke rose in a thin line, and I thought about asking him for directions home, but I didnt. And it occurred to me, for the first time, the amount of awful people are willing to hold inside themselves: Chloe up in the sky, speeding through the clouds, toward Minneapolis, toward our dead friend Henry. And then there was Henry, and the way he carried the word addiction inside of him, while secretly it was a burning sensitivity to the world. And for this reason, I probably avoided the funeral. It seemed like the right thing to do. To take what was dealt, soak it up, and keep it there. I think thats reasonable. Human even. But perhaps even more that that, the only other possible explanation, was that I did not want to see Henrythe only friend that Chloe and I ever shared togetherdead. * One night in Idaho, just before we left it for good, Henry pulled up to our house in his truck to wish us well and send us off. Chloe invited him in and immediately got drunk, because that was her way of saying goodbye. She must have been happy that night, because she was smoking in her long underwear, and singing to Henry, pulling the collar of his shirt, making him swallow down more wine. And then Henry said, Wait here, and he put on a James Brown tape. And I heard the music, which was quick at first and then softened, so I sat up in bed and I watched them: the lights off except for the orange glow of the wood burning stove, Henry and Chloe dancing, their hands squeezed tight, warm blood passing through

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100 them, the music swelling up and receding, moving the two of them in circles around the room. And Chloe watched her feet, so as not to step on Henrys cowboy boots. And I considered cutting in, taking Chloe by her elbow, and saying, Now, dance with me. Instead, I kept to the bed, and watched the two of them. And when the music was over and it was quiet again, Henry let go of Chloe, and this, I admit, made me smile. After Chloe came back to bed, I saw Henrys truck lights pass through the windows as he backed out of our driveway, headed through the potato fields, and disappeared down the snow packed roads for good. And so I curled up close to Chloe, and she moved on her side, and pushed her back hard against me, and she was warm, and I slipped one hand under her head, the other on her ribs, and she turned around, and faced me. * In the gas station, the cashier, a woman with four fingers, pulled a map of Florida off a rotating rack, spread it open, and drew a line with her thumbnail indicating the way I had to go. I told her, Its nice of you to do that for me. And she said, without moving her thumb, Its nothing. Then I stepped out into the parking lot, heard a girl shout in the street, and I turned toward my car.

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Jonathan Brown graduated from the University of Montana in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He lives with his wife and two children. 101


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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0010529/00001

Material Information

Title: Wyoming was good to us
Physical Description: vi, 101 p.
Language: English
Creator: Brown, Jonathan L. ( Dissertant )
Robison, Mary ( Thesis advisor )
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 2005
Copyright Date: 2005

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords: English thesis, M.F.A   ( local )
Dissertations, Academic -- UF -- English   ( local )

Notes

Abstract: This collection of nine stories pivots on the notion of characters moving emotionally and physically from one landscape to another. Throughout each fictional piece I tried to give a voice to characters who are incapable of separating themselves from the past. Many of these stories open with absurd, almost ludicrous circumstances, and move into a deeper state of suffering. However, in other stories, I began with a serious tone and later brought comedy into focus. My intention in this collection was to verbalize the diversity of human emotion, while recognizing the impulse, the need, to appreciate life. The purpose of this thesis was to artistically express how human thought and human emotion do not exist in a vacuum.
General Note: Title from title page of source document.
General Note: Document formatted into pages; contains 106 pages.
General Note: Includes vita.
Thesis: Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of Florida, 2005.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
General Note: Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.

Record Information

Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0010529:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0010529/00001

Material Information

Title: Wyoming was good to us
Physical Description: vi, 101 p.
Language: English
Creator: Brown, Jonathan L. ( Dissertant )
Robison, Mary ( Thesis advisor )
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 2005
Copyright Date: 2005

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords: English thesis, M.F.A   ( local )
Dissertations, Academic -- UF -- English   ( local )

Notes

Abstract: This collection of nine stories pivots on the notion of characters moving emotionally and physically from one landscape to another. Throughout each fictional piece I tried to give a voice to characters who are incapable of separating themselves from the past. Many of these stories open with absurd, almost ludicrous circumstances, and move into a deeper state of suffering. However, in other stories, I began with a serious tone and later brought comedy into focus. My intention in this collection was to verbalize the diversity of human emotion, while recognizing the impulse, the need, to appreciate life. The purpose of this thesis was to artistically express how human thought and human emotion do not exist in a vacuum.
General Note: Title from title page of source document.
General Note: Document formatted into pages; contains 106 pages.
General Note: Includes vita.
Thesis: Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of Florida, 2005.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
General Note: Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.

Record Information

Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0010529:00001


This item has the following downloads:


Full Text












WYOMING WAS GOOD TO US


By

JONATHAN BROWN

















A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF FINE ARTS

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


2005





























Copyright 2005

by

Jonathan Luke Brown

































This collection is dedicated to Charlotte, Tucker, and Allie Sue, my little girl.















ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I want to thank Charlotte, Tucker, and Alexandra Brown for allowing me the time

and space to write when clearly I did not deserve it. I am forever indebted to Charlotte for

her encouragement, compassion, and heart. I also thank Mary Robison whose help and

influence came to me when I needed it most. Finally my appreciation extends to Antonio

Garza whose intelligence and sincerity pushed me to write.

















TABLE OF CONTENTS

page

A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv

ABSTRACT ............... ...................................... vi

W H A T Y O U LEFT .................... .. ............................ .. ......... ............. 1

T H E W O O D S .............................................................................. 8

THIS IS HOW TO LISTEN TO M USIC ........................................ ....................... 31

SH O T G U N ...........................................................32

JE L L Y B E A N .........................................................................................4 7

M IN N O W S ............................................................................................................5 9

E Q U A T IO N S ................................................................................................................ 6 9

THE HOLE IN HER MOUTH ............................................... ...............77

W A IT H E R E ................................................................................................................. 9 0

B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ...................................................................................... 101





















v
















Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts

WYOMING WAS GOOD TO US

By

Jonathan Brown

May 2005

Chair: Mary Robison
Major Department: English

This collection of nine stories pivots on the notion of characters moving

emotionally and physically from one landscape to another. Throughout each fictional

piece I tried to give a voice to characters who are incapable of separating themselves

from the past. Many of these stories open with absurd, almost ludicrous circumstances,

and move into a deeper state of suffering. However, in other stories, I began with a

serious tone and later brought comedy into focus. My intention in this collection was to

verbalize the diversity of human emotion, while recognizing the impulse, the need, to

appreciate life. The purpose of this thesis was to artistically express how human thought

and human emotion do not exist in a vacuum.
















WHAT YOU LEFT

I leave the baby in the backseat of the car by accident. You come home from

work with our two-year-old son squeezing your shins and you ask me, "Where is she?"

I rub my palms together and I say "In the backyard?" because I don't remember

where I left the baby, and I want to be funny, and I think funny might fix this. But it

doesn't work that way. "Did you leave her in the car?" you demand. But you don't wait

for an answer. You turn and you power down the hallway and the front door swings open

and it doesn't shut.

When you walk into the kitchen, the baby on your hip, you close your eyes and

say, "You forgot her." And that's when I know that we are done.



Before you leave for Chicago I catch you packing one of my t-shirts into your

suitcase. I sit on the bed and say, "This can't be right, you leaving like this."

"No, it can't be," you say. You press down on your bras, your diaphragm, your

spaghetti noodle dresses, and you zip the luggage.

The taxi picks you up and a man with a moustache loads the suitcase, the stroller,

and your handbag into the trunk. The cab drives off and no one waves out the back

window.





After you're gone, I stand and wait in the driveway and think of you:









At the airport you board a flight for Chicago. In the sky you hold our two kids on

your lap. Your mother waits for you at the baggage carrousel and when you arrive she

kisses you on the cheek and pulls the baby out of your arms and says, "I can't believe

this." You bend over the spinning luggage and pull your suitcase up off the carousel and

say, "Mother, please."





That evening I teach my night class at the community college. I write a few

sentences on the blackboard and I make my students repeat them. "The town was

destroyed by the storm," I say out loud. A girl in a pink miniskirt raises her hand and

wiggles her fingers, and I call on her with a ruler, and she repeats the sentence and makes

it active. "You're quick," I say. I erase the form of"to be" and replace it with "destroy."

After the bell, the girl in the pink miniskirt walks up to me with a spiral notebook

pressed to her chest and touches my hipbone and says, "I see what you're up to."

"You do?" I ask.

"You're trying too hard."

As I walk out of class she surprises me by giving me a pinch on the butt.





I'm walking home when I start thinking of you again. Only this time you are at

your mother's house, your feet on her lap, a wine glass in hand. She is rubbing your

calluses and it makes you squirm. You take a sip of wine and your mother tells you to

relax, to let it ride. Then she says, "You have so much more ambition than that guy."














When I get home I see something horrible. The toys are unused and scattered

everywhere. A bulldozer on the rug, a rubber duck stuck to an ice tray, a fire truck in the

sink. I go to the bathtub and sit inside it with all my clothes on. Then I squeeze off my

shoes and fill it up.





That night I go to a rooftop bar. People talk in cigarette voices, a glass of beer

spills on a fog machine, a dancer jiggles her boobs. I sit down at a table with a woman

who replies, "No, we've never met at the Pizza Hut."

"I'm sure of it," I say.

She dips three fingers into a daiquiri and scoops up a wad of cream and licks it off

and dives two knuckles back in and pinches out a cherry. Then she pulls it off the stem

with her two front teeth and looks at me closely.

"You look like a ghost," she says. She picks up her purse, sticks a dollar bill

under a saltshaker, and scoots off.

A waitress in a tube top walks up to my table and asks me if I need something.

"I'm not sure," I say.

"To drink," she adds, and she pulls her tip out from under the saltshaker.

Something about the direction of the conversation feels tricky, but I say "yes,"

and she comes back with a pitcher of foamy beer. "Keep them coming," I say, and she

does.









I get drunk immediately and tip her enormously. When I run out of cash I spread

open my wallet and empty out all the change onto the table. I ask the waitress for the

ATM and she points to a machine and I withdraw everything from our account.

But then, when I get back to the table with two fives, a different waitress is

standing there. Only this one is wearing a paper apron and holding a barbeque sauce tray.

She smiles halfway and her braces make everything inside her mouth look mechanical

and gummy. She stacks the empty beer glasses on a round tray and says, "I'll be your

server now."

"No," I say. "What about the one in the tube top?"

"Her shift is up," she says. Then the lady with the braces walks off and I nod my

index finger at her back and I say, "Don't you do this to me."





After the rooftop bar I take a cab home and fall into the house. That's when I

discover that my left foot refuses to move in front of the right foot. So I give up on my

feet and I take to the floor and I drag myself around the house with my hands.

I haul my body through the kitchen and flop onto my back and pick up the phone

and try to dial your number. The battery is dead. Then I flip back over and get on my

knees and dig through the laundry basket and fish out your ventilated jogging shirt and I

press it around my face. I can sniff you, the sweetness, and I crunch my eyelids shut and

try to will you home.









When I call you the next morning, I ask you to come home.

"The grass is yellow outside. It hasn't rained in months. It refuses to," you say.

After that, we don't get past "the kids" before arguing.





For a very good reason, I call up my student in the pink miniskirt. I can't explain

it to her, so I just say, "Could you just do that? Come over?"

She answers, "No."

Ten minutes later she arrives in a black convertible. I open the front door to my

house and she walks under my arm and through the doorway.

"Have a seat," I say.

"Is there something wrong, Teach," she says.

"Possibly."

She sits on the armrest and snaps off her heels. She is wearing pantyhose.

"You're married?" she asks, and points her toe at the wedding photo.

"Oh, that old thing. It's staged," I say.

"You, like, have kids don't you?" She picks up a rag doll and dangles it by its red

hair. "I love kids so much." Then she lets go of the doll and it drops to the carpet.

"Uh huh, me too. Right."

"So. I know why you called me, Teach."

"You do? Well, we can go over that. "

"Look, this is the deal, Teach."

"Right. The deal."









"Where's your wife?"

"Out to lunch."

"And the kids?"

"Daycare."

"It's got be fast and I need an "A" out of it."

"I agree with that."

"Perfect," she says, and claps her hands and pulls off her pink miniskirt.

I sit and wait and look out the window.

Then she bends over and hugs my neck and her arms feel thin and I don't like it.

"You are so hot," she whispers into my ear. She is only wearing a bra.

"Thanks," I say.

"I mean, like, so hot."

"Okay, you're overdoing this."

"Sorry, Sorry."





After it is done we shake on the "A" and she hops into the convertible and drives

off and her hair blows to one side of her face and she honks.





I sit down at my desk and fire up the computer. I try to write a letter to you but all

that comes out is the word "stop." I type it out, look it over, and decide this will work.

When I'm done I print, I fold, I lick, I send, I wait.






7


I'm not sure how long it will take for my letter to reach you. But when it comes

through the mail you will notice that it is from me. Our son will be running around your

mother's house. The baby will be crawling and have one more tooth. You will pat her

back and she will fall asleep on the floor. Your hair will be slightly longer and your skin

slightly more fair. You will sit down at the table with a cup of tea. Then, at the right

moment, you will take out my letter, unfold it, read it out loud, and the next word that

comes out will be for me.















THE WOODS

People walked on the sidewalk with plastic cups of beer. That meant it was around

2 when we left, because that's when bars unload, and that's when we thought we could

blend into the crowd and go up into the hills unnoticed. I have no idea what people do

after the bars close, but it has something to do with snow covered cars and driving too

fast and music and tires and being alone and loaded and feeling fuzz in your head.

On our way to the hills we drove past a beer joint where I saw my father, Doug, in

a hurry. He was walking on the sidewalk on his knees for a couple of girls. He is a true

dumb fuck, but I like him for the most part, because unlike myself, he's not afraid to shed

his shit. I like my father and I don't want to go into it.

In Wyoming people take after my father: they sing, perform, dance, get drunk. Or

they wail and moan straight from the gut. I'm exaggerating. But that's what we do here.

We juice things up and then get drunk. That's Wyoming. People exaggerate and get drunk

and do whatever it takes to get as fucked up as humanly possible. Which, believe me, is

the best you can do for yourself.

Tonight Cindy and I are trying to find out what perfect feels like. That's why we

park in the snow at the top of the mountain and look out at the Wyoming sky and the

Wyoming moon and the Wyoming clouds. Out front the pine trees are stuffed with snow.

Cindy takes my hand in hers and says, "Do me." I am promising myself I will never live

anywhere outside of this state.

"I will never live outside of this state," I say.









"Me neither."

"I'll do you, but on one condition. We have to stay in this car, right here, all night,"

I say.

Cindy squeezes my hand. I've known Cindy since I could count fingers.

"The thing is, Tom, I've got to talk about something. About Joe."

"The prairie nigger?"

"Right. But don't say that."

One thing about Cindy is an ex-boyfriend she had. Joe was what in Wyoming we

call a prairie nigger. I'm sure that in other states they call them that too, but here it sounds

worse. So the prairie nigger, Joe, Cindy's ex-boyfriend, turned up dead in the hills. They

found him lying on a plastic bag and some rocks. And when they flipped him over, blood

was coming out of his eyes. He was involved in something, but no one knew what, and

then they found him dead, and they figured it out quick. Meth, they thought. But it wasn't

Meth because Indians don't do it. That much should have come easy, but it didn't. The

next day the police brought in ten people. I was one but then they let me go after they had

a look into my eyes and determined they weren't yellow from fertilizer.

So Cindy was the target. But she turned up spotless on the pisser and blew a clean

blow. She was questioned and brushed off into rehab for the next six weeks even though

she had nothing to do with it. In Wyoming it's easy to be thrown into rehab. And so that's

what happened to Cindy. Around that time she started putting a lot of dick in her mouth.

One blowjob, she told me, was with a man from rehab. He was nice to her when it

served him. Then one night, Cindy said, "Sure, sure, fine, fine, whatever," and gave him

a blowjob in the back row of the Valley City Cinema.









After that she wiped her face with her palm and they took off to his friend's house.

The friend lived in a basement. But the basement had no windows or stairs and so they

had to open a latch and climb down a ladder to get inside.

Down in the basement, a man Cindy had never seen before turned on a light and

looked at her from behind the lampshade. This surprised Cindy and she stepped back.

The man said, "Hello, Cindy." There were beer cans stacked in a pyramid on a green

pullout poker table. The concrete floor was covered in liquor bottles. A Styrofoam egg

crate was spread out in a corer and had dog bites and holes in it. He told Cindy to

"Simmer down."

The boy from the movie theater said, "Here you go, man."

Then the man who said, "Hello, Cindy," took out a three-foot bong, flicked a

lighter, and pulled up bubbles and smoke. He took his lips up off the ring, tilted his head

back, held in the smoke, and blew out a tunnel across the room. Cindy said, "Give me

one," and pulled one up too.

That's when the guys started getting ideas. And the two guys had a buzz going and

they were taking down beers and cracking jokes and this made everything seem doable.

So the guy that said, "Hello, Cindy," tells her to come over here. He pulls out a wooden

chair for her to sit down on and kicks it over to her. Then he cuts up a big, fat line of

Meth with a razor and offers it up. It's yellow and chunky and it would kill a grizzly bear

if it got a whiff of it. Cindy says, "I'm feeling kind of sick." Which she was. She was

feeling faint and dizzy and she got on her knees. Then the guy who said "Hello, Cindy,"

unzipped his fly and put it in her mouth.









When he was done, the guy who said, "Hello, Cindy," zipped up his fly and goes,

"Don't do a bump if you don't want to. I'm just trying' to get you relaxed." And he sniffed

up the line and stood up. He didn't have a shirt on and his leather wallet was hanging

down from a chain and he had two nipple rings and a tattoo of Jesus on his back. But

Cindy was already up the ladder, and she shut the latch and disappeared into the prairie.

"So that's the guy that killed him," Cindy tells me. "I know it."

"The prairie nigger you mean?"

"Don't call him that."

"You're kidding."

"Don't call him that."

"Sorry."

But I believed her. One thing Cindy is not, is some broken up, nasty, lightbulb

smoking crank head. I can pretty much let the other stuff fly. She has a good eye, that

much I know. Also, I trust her when it comes to people. Not so much judgments, but

people.

I'm staring at the moon and sky and it feels empty, like you could make an echo

from up this high, hear a thousand voices yelling back at you, one big "Hello, Wyoming."

I want to turn the subject away from murder and drugs, either to echoes or the "do me"

thing.

Cindy pulls out a Twizzler from her purse and peels off the plastic package, takes a

bite, chews on it.









"That's the one who killed him," she says, and nibbles softly and swallows some of

it down. Then she zips her purse. "It's freezing," she says. Her hair is hay-colored and

long and some it is sticking out from under her scarf.

"Hold on, baby," I say, my Mafia voice. I turn the car back on and throttle the

engine and hot air pushes out of the vents. I crack the window and blow out smoke. It's

windy outside so the smoke vanishes. The headlights are on and they purr and illuminate

the snow and the pine trees in front of the car.

"Okay then, baby," she says, mocking me.

Once, I had a robot voice going for over a year and she let it slide. "I respect that,"

she told me. Another time I saw her at the public pool in a bikini talking to a lifeguard

with muscles and hamstrings and a six-pack you could strum a spoon down. I walked

over to them and poured a carton of milk over the lifeguard's head. "That was fucking

funny," Cindy said, in her bikini. And the lifeguard was all white and wet and ghost

colored and opening his hands and reaching for me.



"Feel warmer," I say. I want to see if her face says, Take me home, so I look at her

hard. It doesn't. It says, Keep me here. I smoke to the butt and I light another. I smoke

and look at her. I smoke and I smoke and I smoke.

Cindy says, "This car is a piece of junk." She's rubbing her hands together.

It's a junk car, admittedly, and I know that. The drapery hangs from the ceiling. The

oil leaks. And the car is only fast down hills and you have to pump the brakes to play it

safe. But I'm relatively happy with it.

"I'm relatively happy with it," I say.









"I'm happy with it too," she says, and smiles. I can tell she means it because when

she smiles like that for no reason she is really, truly, absolutely happy.

Outside, the wind is spraying snow into the headlights. This makes two tunnel

shapes that dart out and dead-end in the sky. A breeze plows through the trees and the

snow dumps off the branches in large bread loafs. Then the wind picks up and tosses the

pine trees back and forth. The car windows vibrate.

Cindy catches a chill and she shakes it off.

"It'll heat up soon," I tell her.

She loops the scarf around her neck a couple of times and tightens it with a tug. I'm

not cold. Cold does not register for me. I am immune to cold. Cindy is next to me. I am

not cold. I could give a fuck about the cold.

"Better," she says, and stuffs the twizzler into the ashtray and shuts it. "Let's do it,"

she says. "Just to say we did." She pinches the skin on my knuckle.

"Okay then," I say, and I touch her thigh. She has said this to me before and will

probably say it again.

"All right," she says.

"Good."

"I've got to warn you. I'm a bit rusty at this," she says. Which is a lie, but I

appreciate a lie from time to time.

"Right. Me too." Which isn't a lie.

"This is as nice of a place as any, right?" Cindy says. She is petting the inside of

my wrist.









"There is nothing here," I say, which is also true and the reason I chose this spot.

No people. I don't want to be around people. I never want to be around people. People, if

they could, would pick Cindy up by the ankles and dangle her off a bridge and then let

her drop. They would do that because in Wyoming, in the valley, Cindy has a reputation

for putting dicks in her mouth. And when you have a reputation for putting dicks in your

mouth, people have problems with you. You make enemies, burn bridges, lose power. I

don't care if she puts dicks in her mouth. That's her choice. All I care about is that we are

out here in nothing land.

"I like it," Cindy says, and puts her head on my shoulders. Good. Stay there. Keep

your head on my shoulder.

"It's kind of out of the way, I know, I say. I want her to laugh, but she doesn't.

She keeps her head on my shoulder and sighs. There are mountains and woods and

snow and sky.

I roll the window down a crack and hold the lit portion of the cigarette outside.

Then I roll the window back up and the glass cuts the cigarette in two and the ember falls

off into fluff and I rotate the handle all the way back up and the glass seals and vibrates.

Cindy shivers and her head bumps against my shoulder. Then I put a fresh cigarette in my

mouth and let it dangle from my lip.

"Let's do this," Cindy says.

"All right," I say.

She looks down at my crotch.

"Not there," I say, and spit the cigarette on my lap.

"I want to do it the real way."









"Me too," I say, but I have no idea what I mean by that.

Her face moves to mine. Her eyeballs zoom up closer and they are white and solid

with little red wiggles. Her breath is sweet and taste likes milk coffee. Her lips are pink

and quick and thin and suckable. Her breath slows down and touches my nostrils and lips

and eyelashes. I like this kind of thing. Give me sugar and snow and night and girl breath

and I will be in fucking heaven.

"Should I turn off the lights?"

"I'm worried," she says.

"You think my parents know?"

"They do," she says, and she touches the back of my neck with fingernails. A

witch's touch. "Certainly."

"All right," I say, and wipe her hand off my neck.

She moves closer. Her hair is wavy and tan and smells like shampoo. Her eyes are

puddle gray and I want to see myself in them. She kisses me and slips her tongue in a

little. Then she stops kissing, leans back, and looks down.



I take the time to look her over: white shoulders, collarbone, skin, squeezables, firm

runs, soft spots, seams. She is warm and close and I can smell her shampoo hair. Outside,

the mountains and snow and trees and wind are making crackling sounds and that fits in

too somehow. I pull at her scarf, down to the thin spot on her neck, right above the chest

plate.

"I want this," I say.

"I know," she says.









We are speaking in code. I hate code talk, but I talk it anyway.

I reach down and slide my hand between her thighs. This makes her eyes open and

her legs spread a touch. Then she pinches my hand with her legs and the pressure of it

feels good.

So I keep going with it and move my hands to Cindy's side and up her ribs. Lift the

shirt, feel the skin.

She stops. "If we are going to run away somewhere, it might as well be now," she

says.

"Where to?" I say. Take me anywhere. Let's go. Let's run. Let's drive.

"There," she says. She nods her head at what looks like a cloud behind a frosted

window.

"I don't see it," I say.

She pushes my chin in the right direction and wipes the window with her palm.

"There," she says.

I see a white puff of industrial light. A city.



"Fuck no," I say, and look at the side of her face. I know where she is pointing. I

recognize the glow. I know that is a place we do not need to be, but that is where we will

go. Because that is where we can check into a motel room and have sex together and

sleep it off: skin, kiss, spread, scratch, hair, liquid seam.

"Crystal City," she says.

With its beer joints and neon lights and prairie niggers and middle school girls who

pull up their plaid skirts to their hip bones and flip their tongues at you.









"Sort of like a honeymoon," Cindy says. And sticks her finger into my side and

tickles me on the rib.

I stare at her. "No. Not really, Cindy." I hear a pile of snow drop from a tree and

thud on the roof.

Cindy snaps her fingers and says, "Your move."

Her legs are crossed. I snap my fingers back at her. Her mouth opens and I see the

tops of her teeth.

"Drive," she says, and points to the city.

"No," I say.

She smiles, holds it, touches my cheek. We go.



*




I know Doug like the back of my mouth. After the bar, he would make it through

the frozen prairie and to the porch and hold on to the railing and climb the steps. There's a

swing chair hanging on chains and Doug would find it with a hand and sit down. He'd

catch his balance and jiggle his foot inside his boot and attempt to pull it off. But the boot

wouldn't budge and he would tip over. "Goddamn it, boot," he'd say.

This would go on for a while: falling on his ass and cussing the boots and laughing

out loud. Out in the prairie there would be a zigzag trail carved out from the snow. That

would be the path that Doug cut out on his way home from the bars. There would spots in

the snow where the boots punctured the crust, and then there would be craters where

Doug struggled and fell over and fished around on his back. A tiny herd of elk would









graze the prairie, white steam blowing out their nostrils. They would notice Doug, turn

their heads, sum him up, and go back to pulling grass and snow with their teeth.

Doug would pull the boot again and this time it would slide. So there's Doug

sitting on the porch, cussing at himself. And there's the zigzag path out in the prairie with

the elk eating the grass under the snow. And my mother would open the door and add it

all up. It's a giveaway. She would pull a string and a naked light bulb would twinkle and

she would walk right up to him.

"You're drunk," my mother would say, and slaps him across the face.

"Well, yeah, sure. There's circumstances involved," Doug says. Steam clouds his

face. He would stand and wavers and looks at my mother.

"Like what?" my mother says.

"Well there's Tom, for instance. Take our son and the deal he's in. Chasing after

Cindy, trying to get in her underpants. He's going to wind up with someone else's baby.

You watch."

"What deal? He doesn't like school, Doug. He doesn't like you, Doug. So what?

He doesn't like cows or guns or potatoes or hunting or any of that. He is a typical

seventeen-year old boy who likes a girl. Give him credit. You, on the other hand, are a

fat, old cow: moping around from one bar to the next, spilling your guts, running your

lips, coping a feel. The nerve."

"That's a tad harsh," Doug says, and holds in a belch.

"I bet you were even doing the walking-on-the-knees routine. Weren't you, Doug? I

bet you were."

"I was shooting pool."









"Ugh," my mother exhales, and slams the door. The light bulb would spin on the

cord.

Doug would hear the dead bolt and dig inside the tube of his sock and fish out the

house key and jiggle it in the keyhole and roll the doorknob and pop it open and stagger

inside and un-loop his belt and fall to the couch. The television would be on and he

would leave it that way.

On the couch, his smooth, whale belly would rise. His chest would inflate with air.

His little male tits would slump down and he'd pick one up and squeeze it. His face

would itch and he would paw at his cheek. The television would be on, something about a

car bomb exploding in the desert. Doug would turn on his side and push a pillow between

his knees, and he would snore and choke a little bit and regain his breath. At some point

during his sleep his penis would engorge with warm, thin blood that would flush to the

crown and harden into a flagpole, and then within seconds would soften into a tube of

limp skin.

*




Cindy and I are standing in nap weed next to a creek. Water is tumbling and

bubbling up under the ice along the bank. We're just outside of Crystal City and I can see

factories and buildings with pollution hovering above. The wind is warm and sluggish

and the snow is melting. Cindy and I are waiting for someone. I don't know exactly who

or why, but we are.

Cindy says, "It won't take long."

"We should check into a motel," I say. "Drink some beer. Get some sleep."









"Tom. It'll just be a minute." She puts her lips up to my ear and whispers, "He'll be

here soon. Then we can go."

Her breath tickles. "Who?"

"They guy from the basement. I'm going to ask him a couple questions." Cindy

reaches for my hand. It is soft. The clouds roll off the mountains.

"I don't want to meet him. I don't want that." I am a coward and always will be.

"He knows what happened. I can tell. I'll talk to him and figure it all out and then

we can go. Deal?"

"Fine, deal," I say. And leave it at that. Whatever the deal is I don't want to be a

part of it, but I'm stuck.

I pull out a cigarette and smoke it and look at the creek. The nicotine is not as good

as the kissing and the whispering, but it's a buzz, and the best I can do for now. I spit

something brown into the pebbles. The ice water from the creek washes over it and melts

it away.

"Is this going to be good or bad?" I say.

"Mixed up," Cindy says.

"What does mixed-up mean?"

"It's means neither good nor bad. It'll be quick. If he killed him, he killed him. If he

didn't, he didn't. I just need to know, you know?"

"What will be quick?"

She's frustrated. "Our talk. It'll be quick." She turns.

I hear gravel and a car pulls up and parks by mine. A man shuts a door and walks

up to us in the nap weed. He's got a diamond stud stuck to his ear, and a beeper and a cell









phone attached to his belt. His Adam's apple looks like a rock. He's wearing combat

boots and a black jacket. To be honest, I expected more from him.

"Who's this?" he says.

"Tom," I say.

"I'm hungry. Let's go somewhere," Cindy says, and pulls my sleeve.

"Funny," the man says. "Because you called me, Cindy." He pulls the cell phone

off his belt and looks at the screen for calls. Satisfied, he slides the phone back into his

back pocket as if it were some kind of gun. He is wearing a fake gold watch that is heavy

and fat and sparkles.

The wind pulls a piece of plastic out of the nap weed and into the creek. I follow

the wrapper downstream until the plastic presses into the water and disappears.

"Is he getting the royal treatment or what?" the man says, rubbing his hands

together, staring at me.



There are people who take matters into their own hands. Then there are people like

me who leave their arms wide open and watch everything fall through.

"Did you do him in? Did you kill him?" Cindy asks, and starts to break a little, and

kicks at the sand.

He crumples a Burger King Whopper wrapper up in his hands and throws it in the

water, as if this proves things. The wrapper soaks up and turns soggy and sinks. "No, I

didn't," he says. "I wouldn't be here if I did." Then he pauses. "I like you, Cindy," he

says, and he means it. He puts his hand in the nap weed and picks at it.









Cindy's face begins to heave. Her eyes are wet and she is standing in the sand

shaking.

"I'm going for it," I say, and I start into the water for the Whopper wrapper. Cindy

chews her knuckle.

Then the man with the combat boots sees me up to my shins in ice and water and

pulls me back by the forearm.

I say, "Cindy, lets get out of here. Anywhere. The fanciest hotel we can find. A

suite with caviar and a Jacuzzi and champagne glasses and a big, fat bed. That's what we

need. And a pair of fluffy pillows. You know what I mean, man?" I look at the guy with

his beeper and his combat boots and his fat, fake gold watch.

"I do. I know exactly what you mean," he says.

"Good," I say. "Because I am this girl's neighbor and she wants to be with me and I

want to take her home."

"Who did it?" Cindy says, and she starts crying and punching the man's chest.

"No clue," he says.

I pull Cindy off him and drag her to the car.

"Let go of me, Tom," she says, and jerks her arm free.

Cindy ducks into the passenger side, stands the purse between her shoes, crosses

her arms. Then she wipes the back of her hand across her eyes and says, "Get going,

Tom. We're wasting valuable honeymoon time." She slams the car door. The man in the

nap weed squats down and looks at the creek.

I start up the car and spit up some gravel and we coast down the road. Cindy

watches trees and rocks and trailers move past us out the window. I need to smoke when I









drive, so I do. Cindy needs to sit and stay quiet, so she does. No more blow jobs, no more

dead Indians, no more mountains, no more chunky lines of Meth, no more waiting

around, no more Wyoming. Just the sound of the car and the road falling behind us.



*




"Tom isn't here," my mother would say, shaking Doug off the couch.

"Huh."

"Tom's is missing. Get up, Doug. Get up." The room is black. My mother flicks a

switch and the light explodes into Doug's pupils and he rubs his eyes with the butt of his

fists.

"He's probably under the covers. Check there."

"He's not Doug. I called Cindy's already. Up, up, up," she screams, and shovels the

air with her hands.

"Call the school. Maybe they're at school."

"It's Saturday night, Doug."

"Don't jump to conclusions. I'm up."

My mother hands Doug a cup of hot coffee. He takes the cup, sip its, bums the tip

of his tongue. The caffeine jumpstarts his body and he pull his pants up. When he's done

buttoning his shirt he would take another sip. My mother would take his hand in hers and

looks up at him.









"Okay, okay," Doug would say. "I'll get him."



*




Cindy is examining her finger. She has string wrapped around it and the tip is

turning purple.

"You're going to cut off your circulation," I say, and look back at the road.

"You missed the turn," she says, untangles the string from her finger, cracks the

window, and lets the string fly out. I look in the rearview mirror and I see the Flamingo

Motel sign flashing. It is pink and flamingo shaped, with a couple of light bulbs missing.

The building is made of pink stucco and has antennas poking out from the roof. The

Flamingo Motel in all its fucking glory.

Cindy sucks the blood up her finger and reaches into her purse. I pull a U-ee and

turn into the pebble parking lot.








There is a plastic flamingo outside our motel room in a square spot of gravel. It's

standing on two legs fashioned out of wire.

"How tacky is that?" Cindy says, and tries to laugh.

Cindy has the key because she looks older and she pushes the door open. Inside the

ceilings and walls are pink, and everything is flamingo colored, including the lampshades









and curtains and bedspread. All of it seems unnecessary and ridiculous and just right. I

walk in and fall on the bed.

Cindy picks up the remote control and starts jabbing it at the television, but there is

no reception, just fuzz, and she gives up and throws it.

"I'm taking a shower," she says.

She looks down at me on top of the covers, my arms crossed behind my head.

"Is he coming here, you think?" I ask.

"No. Tom. He's not."

"Why did you get me involved in all this?"

She pushes her palms on the bed and the motion bounces me. My body rises and

falls with the mattress springs. Then she stops and stares and straightens her back.

"I'm not getting you involved in anything," she says.

"You're not?" I say.

Then she does something unexpected. She slips her jeans down, with the underwear

bunched up inside them, to her ankles. "No, I'm not."

I should be flattered, but I'm not. I want to walk to my car and leave her here. I

want to drive and think this over. Doug, if he were here, would blow a kiss and unbutton

his shirt and kick off his boots. I want to go. I want to run. But then I want to touch her,

and make her breathe hard, and reach around her, and slide my hand down her back. I

need to run. I have to run.

Cindy picks the controller up off the carpet and zaps the television off. Her white

T-shirt hangs down to her waist. Her jacket and scarf and pants are clumped up in a pile









by the bed. The television sizzles and an electric rainbow twists and pops off the screen

in a white dot.

"I want to be somewhere else, you know," Cindy says. "Outside of this," she says.

I do know. This is what we do in Wyoming. We do everything we can to get as

fucked up as humanly possible.

She pulls her shirt up over her head so that her face is captured behind a cone of

cloth. Her tummy is soft and firm at the same time, and she yanks the shirt off her head,

lifting her hair. On her stomach there are several wild pubic hairs that crawl up toward

her bellybutton. Down below, a patch of hair is bunched up in a triangle between her legs

like soft moss.

"I don't want to mess with you and I don't want to mess with me," I say.

"Let's just get it over with," Cindy says. She unsnaps her brassiere so that her

boobs fall out. "I'm sure about this. This is what I need. This is what I want."

I lean forward and touch my toes. "'How sure?"

"Enough sure."

"That's a disclaimer."

"Oh come on," Cindy says, and rests her hands on her hips.

But it's too late to take it back. "I don't want it this way."

"You sound childish," she says.

"You sound cold," I say. I want to take that part back, but I don't. I want to say that

I am sorry that she has had abortions and dead boyfriends and dick after dick in her

mouth. I want to say I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Cindy. But I don't.









"I'll get a condom," she says, and flicks the light switch off. The curtains are closed

so everything is dark and shaded and enclosed.

I hear her unzip her purse. I see her pull out a little square package and hear the

metallic foil crinkle. She slides into bed with it. Her legs are cold and smooth. She pulls

my pants off. We both go under the flamingo sheets.

"You are my neighbor," I say.

"Excuse me?" she says, and pushes my chest.

"You are my mixed-up neighbor," I say, which sounds silly and dramatic, but that's

what I say. "This is bad."

"Fine, I'm taking a shower," Cindy says, and slides out of bed and picks up her

clothes and I watch her white butt as she walks off.

I point a finger at her back. "You are my neighbor and nothing we do is fixable."

"I know that," she says, and slams the bathroom door. A bar of light illuminates the

space between the door and the floor. I hear the shower run and I close my eyes.

I can still hear the shake of the trees and the tumble of the creek. I can feel it. And I

can see her dead boyfriend up in the hills. It makes me want to vomit. I want to push this

image out of me. I want to get out of these sheets and get into my car and drive home and

open the windows and get it all out of me. I live in Wyoming and that's what I want.

The shower stops and dribbles to the floor. I sit up and find my shoes. Doug, if he

were here, would pull the flamingo sheet up over his gut and yawn into his shoulder. I

open the phonebook, put it on the bed, pick up a pen, circle a taxi number, lay down a

twenty. Goodbye Cindy. Then I split.









*




"I had a wonderful time," I tell the motel manager.

He raises his eyebrows at me. The manager has donut powder speckled on the

corners of his lips.

"Good for you, kid," he says. And sips from his Styrofoam cup of coffee.

I flip him the cash from my wallet. I will go back home now. Back to my parents

who are nibbling their fingers, couched in the living room, worrying and shaking over

me. I will tell them I am sorry. I must have lost track of time. And they will know that I

am lying, but I won't care.

I open the motel lobby door but before I go I look back at the manager. He is

holding a donut up to his lips and is about to chew into the side.

"I'm leaving now," I say to him.

He raises a hand to acknowledge my departure. I turn and walk out the door. The

plastic flamingo is under my arm and I have it by the head. The wire legs are sticking out

behind me. I take my time and continue to the car in a nice, warm, even stride, the

flamingo under my arm. Cindy is still in the motel room. She can figure out what she

needs to figure out on her own. I am leaving.

I get to my car and the manager screams "Stop, stop you little shit!" But I ignore

him. He is trying to convince me to give up my flamingo. That I won't do. I keep going

and open my car and get in and wave at him through the window, because I want him to

know, for certain, that I am stealing this.









*




When I get home it is late and my parents' car is gone, so I park the car in the

port. The wind is shaking the metal roof and rattling the poles. Inside, the house is empty

and quiet and dead. I walk into the kitchen with my flamingo and there's a note scribbled

on a piece of notebook paper stuck to the refrigerator door. It reads:

"Tom, if you are reading this, you are in a heap of trouble. Stay where you are.

Don't move a muscle. We will be back to deal with this. Doug"

I take the note off the refrigerator and the magnet falls to the floor. I hop up on the

kitchen stove and stare at the sink, the note in my hand, the plastic flamingo beside me on

the coils. I look at the last part again.

"Doug," I repeat. "Doug." What a good name.

I hop off the stove and look inside the refrigerator for something to eat. There's a

cold six-pack of beer on the bottom shelf. It's Doug's. I reach into the plastic holes and

pick the pack up with my fingers. The plastic cord feels fake and stiff and I like holding

the beer, the weight of it. I've got half a pack of cigarettes in my pocket. So I take the

beer and reach up in the pantry and pull out the flashlight and I walk outside. Beer,

cigarettes, flashlight. The flamingo is still on the stove. It's just a piece of junk: pink

plastic, wires, ribbed wings, fake eyes. Fuck you, flamingo. Arrivederci.



It's windy and cold and I walk straight into the woods. There's a trail that I like and

I follow it. That's what's important: doing what you need to and following through with it.









The sticks and pine needles crackle under my shoes. I can't see anything except a

faint opening where the trail goes. When I get far enough in I stop and walk to a tree and

place the six-pack on the ground. Then I feel around my pocket and pull out the

flashlight.

I turn on the flashlight. I shine it back up the trail where I walked. Nothing. Then I

turn and face the tree and point the light directly on the bark and look up. And everything

I'm thinking and feeling and seeing and wanting to get out me just kind of stops.

My parents' car pulls into the driveway. The headlights beam into the woods

toward me, into the spaces between the trees, and the light finds me, and flashes over my

face. Then it retreats, disappears, and I hear the car door slam shut and I stand perfectly

still.















THIS IS HOW TO LISTEN TO MUSIC

In the morning, wake up, the rain stoning the yard. Down the hallway the stereo

blinks. Pick a record, something good, evil even, and press the arrow. If it sounds too

loud, don't worry about the neighbors, they can deal, you cannot. The music swells and

bangs out of the speakers. Pay attention to this: it didn't turn out the way you wanted it

to; people hurt each other to recuperate; you are a surprisingly astute dancer. Find the

keys, a soft pack of cigarettes, a jug of cold coffee. Now drive somewhere, it doesn't

matter where, the river maybe, just go. But before you walk out of the house, soak up the

music and turn your chin toward your shoulder. On the kitchen table a head of a flower

has detached and dropped from its stem; the water in the glass vase has turned milky. But

don't throw them away, not yet. These flowers still belong here, in this house. The music

on repeat, walk out. And when you return, the silver key into the knob, the knee push of

the door, the music will still be there, waiting for you.
















SHOTGUN


In Bed

Ted is sitting on a bed with a shotgun on his lap. He lives in a one-room

cinderblock house in Florida. Linda is lying next to him in a black dress and heels.

"I'm dead," Linda says. She is hung over and she sighs and she will refuse to get

up.

Ted rests the barrel of the shotgun on his shoulder.

"What happened to you?" Ted asks.

"The dress? I went out."

"Then what?"

Linda sits up, rolls her neck, places a blue plate on her lap, dumps a bag of

marijuana over it. On the bedside table a cigarette sits on top of a paperback and Linda

takes it and taps it and scratches a match and smokes it.

"Did you sleep with anyone?" Ted asks.

Linda hands him the match.

Ted shakes it out.

"Yes," she says. "Put that shit away."

"No," Ted says, and cocks an empty round.

"Well, I thought I might run into my parents. That's how it started. They have a

house out on the coast and it's something to see: near a golf course, pretty beach, a water

fountain in the driveway, that sort of rich. But the Toyotas were missing. So I went to a









bar and I found a man who looked drunk enough and I asked him if he was ready for this,

if he was ready for me, and I took him into a bathroom stall and he unzipped my dress."

Linda's hair hangs over her face and she clutches a handful and stretches it back.

She pushes off her heels with her toes and the shoes clunk on the floor. Then Linda twists

the joint, licks the paper, and looks at Ted with one eye.

"I see," Ted says.



The Way Ted Met Linda

On the beach Linda was smoking weed with the surfers, throwing palmetto stalks

into a bonfire. The surfers had Ted's shotgun and they were taking potshots at the ocean.

Ted smoked from a glass bong and it bubbled up and he did a keg stand and a surfer held

him up by the legs. When he came back down Linda pulled at his beer soaked t-shirt and

spoke to the side of his head and they left.

They walked into the dunes with a bottle of rum. The wind in the sea grass

smelled like salt, sun lotion, skin. The moon made the foam on the beach look fluorescent

and they decided to go in. Linda ran into the ocean and dove. Ted did it by falling in on

his back.

The ocean was deep and swirled and they went out to the undertow and Linda

held on to Ted with her entire body. A wave moved in and they separated and they waited

for it and they pointed their hands and they took it. Afterwards, Linda walked up the

beach and laughed and spit a seashell out of her mouth. They sat down in dried foam and

seaweed. The tide moved in and dissolved the sand underneath them. Then the tide

washed back into the ocean and the sand hardened.









The bottle of rum was still on the beach, so Ted picked it up and walked with

Linda. A dead shark had washed up on the shore and they stared at it and poked it with

sticks. Ted could hear the surfers clapping and screaming around the bonfire. He could

see the glow of the fire and the smoke twirls and so they kept walking.

After a while Linda said, "I'm exhausted," and fell down on the side of a dune.

"Just so you know, my parents are loaded," she said.

Ted sat down in the sand beside her and his elbows sunk into the dune.

"Turn around-driveway, wine cellar, three cars, folded linen. That kind of

loaded," she said.

Ted had the bottle of rum in his hand and they passed it back and forth.

That's when Linda told him a story.



Linda's Story

Linda dropped out of college during her first year at school because she could.

She mailed her mother fake transcripts, bullshit-ed her grades, wasted her father's tuition

money. When her parents came to visit she walked them around campus and pointed at

the gothic buildings and told them that that was were she went to class. They said they

were proud of her. And for a minute Linda believed it. She had to believe it.

When it came time to graduate Linda's parents called and said that they were

flying in. They wanted to be there. We can't wait to see you, darling. That was the way

her father talked. So Linda said, Dad, I don't want you here. Please, please, please do not

come. But they flew into town anyway. Just because they wanted to see her walk in a

black robe. Just because parents expect children to continuously push forward.









When they called from the airport her father said, We 'll see you soon, Linda. But

then Linda, instead of going to pick them up at their terminal, got into in her car and

flipped the visor and put on sunglasses and drove for hours on a sun-baked highway.

For a week she lived in a small city without trees and stayed at a youth hostel. At

the hostel Linda met a man who wore combat boots. He read almanacs and showed Linda

photographs of the earth from outer space. She told him, Beauty is wisdom.

During the day Linda stayed inside her room and read magazines and travel

guides and horoscopes. At night she watched pornography with the man in combat boots.

He found it, Entertaining. Linda said, I can see that in it too, because she wanted to

agree with him, because she wanted him close.

One night they were sitting in a small room on the couch eating bowls of popcorn,

drinking coke through straws. A woman from Budapest cracked opened the door and saw

them watching porn and she sat down beside Linda. This woman had an accordion and

she said, It's better, you see, in Budapest. The women have more of the hair on the

vaginas. Much better.

After the porn and the popcorn, the three of them sat around a table and took shots

of Vodka from Styrofoam cups. They made up stories and slapped knees. At one point a

chair broke apart and the woman from Budapest fell on her accordion.

It will be fun. A good time, the women from Budapest told Linda. But Linda said,

I'm not that kind of girl. Not normally. But she was slurring and no one understood a

word of it. The women from Budapest said, Ahckk. Who cares?

Then the Budapest woman closed the door to the room and locked it and the man

with the combat boots said, This will be good. The two of them stripped and hung their









clothes on the television antenna. The woman from Budapest took Linda by the shoulders

and bent her over the couch. She put her hands up her skirt and pulled her underwear

down to her feet. After that she strapped on a plastic dildo and railed her to the couch.

Linda cocked her head back, fisted the couch, and grinded her teeth. She wanted to

deserve it.

After that the woman from Budapest switched off with the man in the combat

boots. He pumped her slowly, mechanically, carefully, like it mattered, like it was

important, like it had to be done just right.

When it was over Linda pulled up her underwear and stumbled out of the room.

She locked herself into a tiny bedroom that was just big enough for a bunk bed. She sat

on the top bunk and bit her palms and put her mouth on a window. The owner, he heard

her, and he knocked on the wall, and Linda yelled back, Go thefuck away!

Outside of the youth hostel was a community-shared spa. Backpackers were

sweating and steaming in the water. The woman from Budapest, her feet in the bubbles,

squeezed music out of her accordion. The people in the spa laughed and splashed because

she had a bleached moustache and her music was horrible. The man in combat boots was

in there too, smoking a cigarette, his arms spread out.

And then Linda remembered her parents. How once, at the YMCA pool, her

mother refused to go underwater. How her mother said, No way. I'm not doing it. You

could 'tpay me. But Linda wanted her to, and she said, It's easy. Just once. And her

mother said, Just once. So they took a breath, held on to each other's forearms, sunk to

the bottom, popped open their eyes, and their hair was standing up, moving around in all

directions.











How they Left the Beach

After Linda's story Ted said, "I'm going back to the surfers." He knew that by the

time they got back, the surfers would have already piled into cars and driven out drunk

into the night. But he said it anyway.

"You can't leave me here," Linda said.

So Ted flung his arm over her shoulder and they walked back together like that.

At some point they stopped, looked at the wide-open ocean, and Ted tossed the empty

bottle of rum on the washed up shark. Linda moved out from under his arm and said,

"What the fuck was that for?"



Get Back in Bed

"Let's get out of here," Ted says. He sits on the side of the mattress and pulls up

his socks.

"Why get up? It's stupid. Why do it? Linda puffs the joint and it fuses down.

"You're right. It's stupid. It's stupid to worry," Ted says. "I'm just a fucking

idiot. You're right. You nailed me on that one."

"Get in bed," Linda says, and grabs his forearm and pulls him onto the mattress

and rolls on top of him and giggles smoke into his face.

And the weight on top of Ted feels good. Feels right. So he reaches around her

and unzips her dress and it spreads out from her spine and it opens up and she slides out.









Ted's Story

Ted also has a story but it is the kind he can't talk about. It is the kind you can't

talk about.

Ted loves Linda and he thinks that he will forever, and that this has to do with the

fact she saved his life. But it doesn't. It has to do with the fact that she comes to see him

in his cinderblock house.

And that's what she was doing when she saved him. Ted was sitting in his

underwear on the couch watching the television, drunk, fucked up, hypnotized from the

electronic pulse of the screen.

"No," Linda said. She was in a bathing suit and barefoot and she kicked open the

screen door, because she had come to visit, and she saw him and she rushed into the

concrete house. Ted pushed the handgun into his mouth. "No, not that!"

His finger was on the trigger. He leaned over his legs. His chest thumped. His

knees knocked. He could do it. Ted, he had a worry condition, and it would never go

away. A game show flashed on the television screen. The audience laughed and clapped

and a silver wheel circled around. Ted stared at the television screen and Bob Barker

smiled at him and Ted started to squeeze the trigger.

"Don't!" Linda said. She was standing in front of him with her hands over her

mouth. She dropped to her knees and squeezed his feet and her hands felt warm and it

made him stop. The gun slipped out of his fingers, bounced onto the cushion, and Ted felt

the tightness of his underwear, soaked in piss.









Get Out of Bed

"That was perfect," Linda says, and kills the joint and balls up her dress in her fists

and mashes it to the side of her head.

Ted is naked except for socks.

"Just plain perfect," Linda says.

"It might have been everything else, but it was not perfect," Ted says.

"Whatever," Linda says, and smoke slips out of her nose. "It was perfect."

"I'm getting up," Ted says.

"Help me." Linda says, and raises her arms above her head.

"I can't," Ted says. And he drops down onto the wooden floor and lies on his

stomach.

Linda snakes through the sheets, slides out of the bed, and reaches for his face.



Breakfast

Ted is frying eggs when Linda taps the kitchen window. She has been driving up

the coast all morning looking for her parents. Ted holds up a finger for her to wait and

unhooks the screen door.

"Had enough of me?" The screen door slaps shut.

"Probably," Ted says. The eggs fizzle and pop and he flips them.

Linda sits on the washing machine and the laundry tumbles and she lights a

cigarette. "They're not there," she says.

"Call them."

"It has to be for a reason."









"No, it doesn't."

Ted pinches her cigarette, pokes the egg yolk with the corner of a spatula, pulls on

the smoke, and passes it back. "I'll call."

"Never," she says. The laundry rolls and swoops and cuts out with a thud. Linda

turns the dial, bangs the top, and the dryer starts up again.

"Want to go to the beach?" Ted asks.

"Sure," she says.

"Good," Ted says. He twists a knob and the blue flame dissipates. He lifts the pan

from the rails and reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a plate and the eggs slide.

"They hate me," Linda says. She holds the plate for him. "I cheated them. I

squandered their affection."

Ted takes out a fork and a knife and holds them in both hands. "I doubt it," he

says, and takes the plate back.

"I don't," she says. Then Linda pushes Ted's shoulder because she wants him to

think she is being funny. She wants him to think that she is just joking around. That she is

always like this. That she is wearing heels, hoop earrings, a hair clip, a squirt of perfume,

and a black dress just because she can. Not because she plans to face her parents.

"You shouldn't agonize," Ted says.

"You agonize."

"Mine's different," he says.

"It's not."









Linda shakes out her hairclip and digs the plastic teeth back in and pushes it back

tightly, so it will stick, so it won't come out in front of her father. "We need weed and

sunglasses."

Ted nods.

"Alright then," Linda says. And she knows now that she can trick Ted. She knows

that she will not go to the beach. She will find a way out. She will locate her parents at

their house. She will knock on their front door and they will wait to open it. They will

pretend not to hear her voice. Not to recognize Linda. They will stand behind the wooden

door and wait and shake their heads. Linda will press her forehead to the door, bang the

wood with her fist, and tell them that she hates this. That she can't stand this. That she

refuses to let this go on. Then they will open the door and let her in. That much feels

certain.

Linda tucks a paper towel into Ted's collar and smiles at him.

There is a plastic tablecloth over a stack of red milk crates and they sit down with

the eggs, a watermelon, white bread, and a glass of milk. Ted moves it all in front him.

He wants to devour it. Consume everything. Feed.

"You all right?" Linda asks.

Ted ignores her.

He pounds a butcher knife through the watermelon and cuts it in half. He runs a

fork through an egg and the yolk splits and spills out. He scoops the egg up to his mouth

and the egg dangles on the fork spokes and he slurps it up. He stabs into another egg and

eats that one too. Linda unrolls a bag of white bread and pulls out a square piece and

hands it to him. Ted takes it and stuffs it in his mouth and swallows. He starts to slice the









watermelon in quarters but he gives up on the knife and he chucks it across the room and

it sticks out of the dry wall. He looks down at the watermelon and lowers his face into it.

He chomps and sucks and slowly he gets deeper. All the way to the rind. Then he cracks

the shell and sucks the juice out of the white parts. Linda hands him the glass of milk and

he chugs it. Some of the milk leaks out of the corners of his mouth and dribbles down his

cheeks. Linda hands him more bread and he sponges up the yolk on the plate and he

sticks it in his mouth. He chews. He swallows. He opens his hand for more. She gives

him the bag. He dumps the bread out on the plastic plaid tablecloth. He picks up the

bread and punches it flat on the makeshift table and stuffs as many pieces into his mouth

as he can fit.

"Yummy," Linda says.

He lights her cigarette. "More," he muffles. "Give me more."

She shakes a box of cereal into a bowl and pours milk over it. Ted takes it from her

and spoons it. Then he tips back the bowl and finishes up the milk.

Linda rubs her cigarette out in an ashtray and says, "Let's go."



Drive

"No. Don't get that near me."

The shotgun is wrapped up in a towel under his arm. "We're bringing it."

She punches his shoulder and they walk outside and the clouds are flat. The car is

parked next to an empty swimming pool. Ted lays the gun in the carpeted trunk and shuts

the top. Linda says, "I want to surprise you." They shoot off down the road: past fields









and fishponds and wooden canopies and sinkholes. At a stop sign Ted rolls down the

window and the insects in the trees buzz.

After a while, they stop at a gas station. The metal sign: a horse with wings. The

pump makes a tic-tic-tic sound as the gas tank fills up. Ted wants to get drunk and he

tells Linda that. He goes and pays for the beer and the ice, and a man with a toothpick

takes the bills and counts it all out in his hand. Ted cracks the trunk and dumps the beer

into a Styrofoam cooler. Then he bites open the bag and pours the ice in a circle over the

beer.

"Let's hurry," Linda says.

Linda digs her hand into the cubes and pulls out three bottles of beer and shuts the

trunk with her ass. She carries the beer with both hands and sits down in the car and

squeezes the bottles between her thighs.

"For the ride," she says.

"Right," Ted says. He opens a beer between her legs and turns on the radio. She

points down a road with a dog walking across it. He goes that way. When he's done with

his beer she hands him another.

They are driving alongside a river and Ted mentions to her that he is drunk. That's

when Linda tells him that they are not going to the beach anymore. Ted swerves off the

highway and takes a bridge and it lifts them high above the water. Ships and barges float

by. Industrial cranes stand alongside the banks, high up into the air, motionless, like

constructed dinosaur bones. Ted lights a cigarette and looks at her.

"What do you mean?" he asks.

"I mean I want you to come with me to my parents house. Keep driving."









Ted's jaw slackens and the cigarette flies out the window.



At Linda's Parents

Linda's parent's house has stonewalls and a gate and a tiny black speaker box and

the place looks like a mansion, not a house. He parks the car in the road and flicks the

headlights off. A few windows in the house glow.

"Wait," Linda says, and holds him down by the thigh.

They can see someone inside a kitchen pulling drawers open. Ted asks Linda,

"Who's that?"

"My mother," she says.

They sit in the car and watch her mother and wait.

"I'm going in first," she says.

"Don't do that," Ted says.

The garage illuminates and the door retracts and folds. A Toyota backs out and

reverses down the driveway. That's when Linda closes her eyes and covers her face and

says, "Shit."

The Toyota moves down the driveway, but it's dark and they can't see in the

window. All they can see is a reflection of silver-colored trees on tinted glass.

"That's my father. Don't get out," Linda says.

Ted wants to talk to him. Ted wants to run to the window and tell her father that

his daughter is in his car. He has to tell him that. He needs him to see her. He puts his

hand on the door latch.

"Don't," Linda says.









The Toyota stops at the end of the driveway and the window cracks an inch.

They see an orange flicker and the outline of a head and a plume of smoke and they

realize that he is stopping to light a cigarette. The smoke trails up along the side of the car

and the Toyota moves forward the smoke blows off the roof. The Toyota coasts up a

small hill, through the woods, out of sight, and they watch the taillights flicker and

disappear into the trees.

Linda bites her knuckles.

And Ted wonders if her parents fight. If they ever curse, throw plates, sleep apart.

If Linda's name ever comes up in a conversation and both of them have to look away. If

it is even possible for Linda's parents to sit down at the couch and zap on the television

and have a meal and cut the food into cubes and not think about their daughter.

But Ted keeps that thought away from Linda. Not because he doesn't think she

should hear it, but because in a small, small way Ted wants it to be true.

Linda says, "I want to go home." She climbs into the backseat and Ted drives and

she falls asleep. The suburb, the bridges, the boats, the trees with insects, all of it moves

past the window. It is a fast drive and it doesn't last long except for one minor stop. Ted

pulls up to a sinkhole, pops the trunk, takes the shotgun out and throws I in.



Home

Ted wakes Linda up by the shoulder when they back to his cinderblock house.

Linda walks inside and sits on the side of Ted's bed and looks at her feet. Just to look at

them. As if that's all she can possibly do.

Ted stands next to the bed and stares at her.









"I have huge feet," Linda says. She says this because she doesn't want him to go.

"Clown feet."

"That's because you're looking down on them," Ted says. Then he walks out of

the bedroom and leaves her there and he sits on the kitchen floor and he asks her how

things were for her. Before she lied. Before she cheated her parents. That's how he says it

too. Just to see. Just to test the waters. And she doesn't respond. But Ted wants to keep

talking. He wants to press her for information. He wants to get it all out of her. He wants

to talk for hours.

"You have no idea," Linda says.

Then Ted hears her start the shower. And he thinks about getting up off the floor

and walking in on her and opening the curtain and firing off a round of questions. But

instead he just stands up and walks to the kitchen sink and outside the window something

wild stirs.















JELLY BEAN

I don't think I will ever die. After dad tipped over, my aunt told me she wanted to

be cremated, and how upsetting it was that we actually went to see my father in his open

coffin, and how he looked fat with glycerin, and fake with clown makeup, and stupid

with glasses, and how awful that is, and how when she dies, when she really dies, she

wants her ashes to be sprinkled in the ocean with the fish and sea shells, and I said to her

at the time, "me too," but the truth was I was lying because I never think about that sort

of thing. I don't even start to imagine myself dead.

She used to make jellies. In the morning we would float in a rowboat out on a tiny

canal behind her house, which was thick with thorns, magnolia, and cypress trees. The

canal was a natural one, which snaked down to a group of bushes where we picked

berries for mayhaw jelly. If you ever taste a mayhaw plain it is sick and bituminous.

However, as soon as it solidifies into jelly, the neighbors knock at your door and start

following you around town for a spoonful.

The company I work for pays me to check movie theater revenues to see if they

are paying the appropriate amount due to Hollywood production companies. When I

arrive the owners are up front and they usually give me free tickets, goobers, popcorn, or

whatever I want, no hassle. I don't wear my sunglasses until I get into the picture show.

The glasses stay parked on my forehead while I drive through marshes, and ponderosa

pine tree farms, and I don't slide them on until I arrive at my job. After I enter the theater,

and take care of the little business part there is, I settle down with a coke, the previews









pop up out of the black, and I go blind with yellow circles for the first three seconds. I

then tip the sunglasses down over my eyes.

When the movie ends I stand up, my chair flips, I keep the sunglasses on, and I

wait for everyone to leave. Once they exit, I walk down the red velvet aisle, face the

screen, and stare inches away from the plastic dots. I don't know why but the screen has

this force near it, which makes it spine-chilling to touch. When I do touch it the screen

itself feels like hot vinyl. The possibility that someone watches me from the booth

devours me. They could switch on the projector, spot me out, and I would sweat out ice. I

then leave out the back door and drive to a highway hotel with some lousy food and sleep

with the TV on.





The theater I had to go to that day was in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. At one point

my distant family all lived here but now only my aunt remains. Everyone moves away

from towns like this. In this town the only things permanent are the daiquiri drive-

throughs, a "Bootsies" twenty four hour diner, billboards advertising strawberries, one

movie theater, and in the center of town, the alligator cage. The green cage sits in the sun

by the railroad tracks, under a giant flagpole with a limp strawberry banner. The cage's

roof is covered in tarp and inside is a small pool. An alligator with pennies on his back

lies half emerged in the water. His tail has a hole in it and the pool is littered with straws

and pennies where the kids missed their shot. His limousine shaped head is snapped shut.

There is a palm tree for him and the only way you know he is alive is that the pennies on

his back rise up every ten seconds with his alligator breath. When my aunt took me to the









cage when I was seven it was the same alligator and he was in the other corer of the

pool. It is good to see he has moved.

I was not expected at work until that evening. I imagined my aunt would be

frying chicken or working in the garden, digging holes for seeds, when I knocked on her

door. But I heard her come to the door slowly, as if she were taking her time. She was not

taking her time. She was making her way to the door.

"Hello sweet-pea," she said when she opened the door and the lizards scattered

off the cement porch. "Come on in."

Her back was hunched over and there was too much skin for her body and it hung

on her like ice-cycles. She was pale now, and the politeness in my voice was a giveaway

that I had noticed the walker. She sat me down in the kitchen. The shape of her back was

no longer straight and flat but was bent over like a cave. Her shoulders were two bones

sticking out underneath cotton. She looked like a lizard ready to shed.

"Tell me about your job," she said. This was routine. I should have left her alone

but I followed the conversation like I was supposed to do.

"I basically make sure the companies are paying what they should. I travel from

town to town, and there are benefits like free movies." I do consider myself lazy but this

job was a killer. I can't stand for more than two minutes.

"That is wonderful. That is just wonderful," she said. There is nothing wonderful

about myself anymore. "Do you like the picture show? I haven't seen a picture show in

years. I'm afraid it would just make me dizzy now," she said.

"Actually, I am a bit tired of movies," I said.

She looked exhausted and rubbed her eyes. But she laughed and asked me if I









needed anything.

I said "no thanks," and she reached down and squeezed my fingers in hers and

smiled at me. That is when I knew, she knew, that I had not forgotten how she used to be

young and collect rocks, and pick berries, and cook church dinners. She filled up a glass

of buttermilk for me and sat down.

"Do you want to see your daddy?" she asked.

Without tasting the milk I said, "Not really."





She told me to drive her car, and when we walked outside she wore a heavy

sweater that I thought would be too muggy, and she used a cane to brace herself. I

imagined how she must have felt on the hospital bed when the doctor came in with a cane

and told her she could probably use this. I opened the passenger door and she used her

hands to get in the car. The kind of care I'd use if I were climbing into bed with a girl.

She dropped her body in the seat, it crunched like uncooked rice, and she put the cane

between her legs. I reversed out of the driveway, which had a strip of grass running down

the middle. Once on the road, I spun the wheel with both hands. The car felt wobbly from

my driving and that was because I had someone beside me who looked famished. She

told me where to turn and on the second right she missed it and I had to back track.

The cemetery was called Garden Meadows. Somewhere out there was my dad

waiting in his coffin for us. The majority of the resting spots were mausoleums, which

were above ground in case of flood. We walked out of the car and paced down the lanes

of graves, inching past tiny castles. The mausoleums differed in height, but most of them









were waist high. In general, the graves were black, sad things, and I walked slower to pay

some sort of respect. In general, I don't believe in respecting things out of principle. It is

sort of a principle of mine. However, the taller gravesites looked quite impressive, and

the slots where the deceased go were exactly sized for coffins. After about a hundred feet

the mausoleums ended and the rest were tombstones stuck halfway in the ground. My

aunt told me that it was now illegal to bury the dead and that you had to be raised above

ground. I asked her if my dad fit that bill, and she said at the time it wasn't clear, and that

he was buried. She said this as if it was perfectly normal that I didn't know the particular

mode of depository for my father. We walked through the fingernail-cut grass and tomb

markers and it felt like we were walking on a giant stage with props and people

underneath.

My dad's tombstone had an empty space reserved for someone else's name beside

his. My mom was meant to wait and lie by his side. My aunt stood her distance

and I walked up to my dad's grave. The dates and his full name were encarved in the

stone. The brown marble was smooth like an apple but I decided not to touch. I didn't

even bend down and kiss his spot of earth. I just stood there, and looked at the grave, and

thought how my dad was enclosed in Styrofoam underneath me with his eyes up to me,

and that he probably had longer hair now. When I looked back at my aunt she was

holding her cane in her two hands and she wasn't crying. She looked at me. I was

between her and the tombstone and I looked back at the grave. My aunt did not look

surprised or saddened that I was in front of her brother's grave. She was not drawn to

tears, or shaking, or coaching me through this. Why should she? This might not have

even been her brother or my dad. He certainly wasn't now. It could have been anyone.









Behind my dad's rectangular house stood a bird pool which had caught rain and had

collected some pollen along the inside rim of the dish. The entire place looked asleep. I

suppose that is the point of the complex, to rest in peace. I dug my hands in my pockets.





Here is the story:

I am not ashamed of myself for being this way and I do not hold grudges. It's not

my style. My dad left my mom when I was six. He had no hair at the time, and he told

her, "I have brain cancer, and I just want to spend the rest of my life with the woman I

love," who wasn't my mom. The woman he loved was the mother of his two illegitimate

children, who he assured me before he died were waiting to see me in the city of

Chicago. When I think of Chicago I think of an old man, the kind whose hands are

withered, wearing a blue hood, he can't talk, and he is standing in a puddle of gasoline. I

am watching him. A women with a purse walks between us and the puddle doesn't ripple.

I don't know why I imagine this. I also imagine a penny falling from the Sears tower and

bulleting through a taxicab.

After my dad's funeral, at the reception, we all stood by my aunt's garden, our

arms linked, and smiled for the camera in our black suits, tuxedos, and dresses. My aunt,

she wore a laced dress and drank fruit juice. The cameraman even said, "say cheese." I

said cheddar and disappointed the photographer because I didn't smile. I mean, I didn't

even know this man but I felt guilt for being a poor sport. Then we went back to the

porch. My cousin, whose lips are too big for her face, talked about her boyfriend's

goatee. My dad was missing, and I got plenty of condolences and pity, not as much as









mom, but that was to be expected.

My aunt spent most of the time on the porch drinking punch out of a margarita

glass, speaking to people I didn't know. The thing about it was I knew her. Eventually,

when I wasn't thinking about her she came up to me by the tire swing and said something

which was not important. What was important was that she saw me and we were alone. I

think what she said was "I'm with you." The other woman from Chicago, of course,

didn't show. That's how it went.





My aunt looked better now and she did not use her cane for support. We walked

back to the car and read the epigraphs on the way. One mausoleum was purple and

orange and had confetti at its head. It read, "Here lies a clown. A sporty lad who left

behind a cherry nose and a fighting chimpanzee." Another: "Here lies Sir, William the

third. Brave at the time of death." The last one said, "Here lies Doctor Irwin the Dentist,

having filled his last cavity."





My aunt took the wheel. "Let's go to one of your movies," she said.

"All right," I said.

"It's a block past the gator," she said, pointing the grip of the cane in that

direction. I turned the ignition.











The movie was about fat people who love to eat. Felda and her mother Maureen

eat anything. Maureen is generous, and humongous. In the movie she says, "You know

me, I'm happy wherever I go. You can drop me off in a Kansas prairie and I'd be divine."

Throughout the film she says, "You know me," to anyone, but dropping her anywhere

would be a mess, especially from a high distance, unless you enjoy a body-made-crater

followed by a splash, which I would have. Felda, the daughter, lives with her mother

Maureen. Unfortunately they consume the little bit of money they receive from disability,

child pension, and social security checks on Snickers, Ben and Jerry's Wavy Gravy ice

cream, and an assortment of Doritos. Felda is only thirteen. She alone could wipe out the

monkeys if she were air lifted and released over a jungle.

Felda, against her mother's advice, goes on a diet. The food stamps run out. "Way

to go Felda," the children beneath her say to her at school. "You've lost about a pound

and a half. Go big-mix." They aren't really her friends. After school lunch, which unlike

the other kids Felda actually enjoys, she ties on her old Reebok-pumps, plugs her body

through the chained-linked door, and thumps out to the black top. The black top is hot

and the tennis court is turning into desert. Surrounding the recess area is a barbed wire

fence, which prevents middle school kids from running off and killing themselves. Felda

watches her friends play basketball and she whisks around the playground in her pink

dress and braids, sticking her fingers in the fence holes. She chews on her thumb until it

becomes tender and purple.











My aunt looked at me in my seat and raised her eyebrows. "Hungry?" she asked.

"I don't think so," I said.

She smiled and resumed watching the movie vigilantly. Under her breath she said,

"This is something else."

One day while Felda sucks on a number two pencil, a man with a turban walks

around the recess area and looks for coins on the ground. He is skinny and malnourished

by Felda's standards. He nods at the teachers, looks back down at the pavement, and

roams the recess area like a metal detector. Felda watches him and decides to help. He

suggests she quits eating, which she does, and she starves herself. They become best of

friends.

Her Mother, Maureen, finds out about this from a teacher. She starts to resent her

daughter for dieting and takes her out of school. "You know me," the mother says, "I am

fat and we must stay that way. I'm ashamed of you. Skinny people are useless." The

mother gorges herself even more and ends up being rolled down the street by her

splintery daughter who then sails her down a river of Jell-O. Well, Felda feels bad about

all this and eats her way through the Jell-O to save her mom.





In movie theaters people look better in shadows. I looked at my aunt and she was

sucking on a Gobstoper. She turned to me and ran her milky fingers through the buttered

popcorn. When the credits rolled, I took a while, leaned back in my chair, and discovered

my sunglasses. I slid them on because I had forgotten earlier, and my aunt stared at me.









"What did you think of the movie?" she said.

"It was kind of funny. What did you think?" I said.

She then stuck two jellybeans in her ears and told me that if I did this I could hear

the ocean. I popped in two red ones and sure enough I heard the arctic. She smiled at me

and I hooked her arm in mine and we fingered out the beans.

The movie room was dark and they had forgotten to twist the lights on. She told

me that when we got home I could have a jar of her reserved jelly. She quit picking

mayhaw around the time I moved, she said. She told me, on our way out of the theater,

that she didn't like followers. Me neither, I said, though I don't have any, and we walked

outside.

The road was orange from the heat and we stole some shade beside the alligator

cage. The pennies on the alligator were rusting. Inside the reptile looked cooler than we

were. A fan above him waved the palm tree. My aunt tapped her cane on the cement and

whispered to me that she didn't think that alligator would ever die. I told her I didn't

either. My aunt and I stood up and the alligator sunk down deep into the pool.





On my way out of town there was a sign in my rearview mirror that read,

"Entering Ponchatoula, so sweet you'll never leave." Actually there wasn't a sign that

said that. I made that up. The road I had to take to my next theater was a ten-mile bridge

that stretched over marshes and rivers. The entire landscape was soaked in water with

cypress tree skeletons poking out. I stopped my car and looked over the bridge into what

is known as the Tickfaw river. The Tickfaw has salinity content of 75 percent fresh, 25






57


percent salt water. Near the mouth of the river the contents reverse and the water turns

the color of milk. This is where the alligators pop up. I looked out into the white water

spying for green flashes. All I saw was mud and seaweed swirling underwater, but I knew

they were out there.


















MINNOWS

I count people. My job involves checking the blue monitor for evening flight

numbers, slipping behind a magazine, and jotting down the number of people who arrive

and depart on American Airlines. One is a girl hanging on chairs. Two is wearing a

baseball cap. He is laughing with number three and four about a guy who didn't make the

trip, whose arm got cut off in a tractor. Five is divorced. Her arms are crossed. Six, seven

and eight are crammed together on a leather chair watching a coin operated black and

white television. At about fifteen, a handicapped woman spinning herself in a wheel

chair, I stop. But then I notice number sixteen. She is wearing an orange sundress and a

pearl necklace and I have seen her at my neighbor's house, the old lady next door.

The intercom signals medallion members to board first. The people I've just

counted do not look over to see what medallion members look like. The girl in the orange

sundress walks over to me and sits down by the window. I'm pretending to read a

magazine. There are ten medallion members and six first-class passengers. They board

the airplane, and then all the people in coach follow. The plane detaches from the

accordion terminal, rolls down a runway, and then, poof, they disappear, and what's left

is the number 52 written in Sharpie on the magazine cover. The girl in the orange

sundress watches the planes lift into the air, her palms stuck to the window, and she

doesn't notice me. At work I'm someone else. I never see myself in glass reflections or

consider that I am counting people unjustly. Her fingertips tap the glass. It sounds hollow









out there. The planes blink off into thick black clouds.





The old lady next door sits in her truck all day and stares at me. The broken

down truck is peeling with rust and is camped out in her backyard. She lives by herself

and wears the expression of someone who has been waiting around since the last time

someone visited her. It is the look of empty-nest-syndrome. The same face which doesn't

want you to leave when you get there, and after you do, she waits as long as it takes for

you to come back: days, months, years, never. She doesn't see me even when I wave to

her. She just stares from the passenger seat of the truck at a pear tree. Today I will get her

out of that truck.

I walk into her yard to see her.

"How are you?" I ask, faking a window-handle-rotation with my hand.

She rolls down the window halfway and says, "Fine. Help yourself to some

pears."

Her voice sounds like a food processor slowed down. I nod without picking a

pear. The pear tree hangs over the wire fence into my yard and the limbs are weighed

down like dumbbells. Some of the pears look like disfigured grapes, but most of the pears

are shaped like lop-sided tennis balls and are the color of bruised muscles. The thought of

eating them, with their squishy insides, makes my stomach turn.

"What time is school?" she asks.

"I don't go to school." I say. "I count people. It's a job. Do you need to go









anywhere right now? How about groceries? How about the doctor?"

In her truck she rubs her lips. "Someone does that for me."

I start for the silver door handle with my left hand and she watches it approach. I

pull back.

"But if you need anything? If you need anything," I say, and I step on a pear.

"I'm alone and I like it that way. I don't need help," she says.

"You'll be fine." I say, and instantly regret it. On Sundays a man mows her lawn

and the girl in the orange sundress hold hers by the elbow and walks her around the

neighborhood. Old people get attention somehow.

She steps carefully out of her car, balances herself with a cane, and picks a pear at

eye level. She says, "It might be wormy" but lifts it up to me to eat anyway.

"Thanks," I say and I squeeze it. It is hard and pale.

"My son is a lawyer. I haven't seen him in three years," she says.

I don't say anything to that because lawyers don't count.

"Its time for my walk."

"May I come?" I ask politely.

"No," she says.





Sleep is my favorite part of the day, but today I watch them walk. The girl in the

orange sundress knocks on the front door of my neighbor's house. "It's Sonya," she says,

and the door opens and they grab hands. Outside it looks like it is going to sprinkle. In

this town every day looks like it is going to rain but it never does.









The old lady walks beside Sonya. This time she holds the old lady's hand in hers.

Sonya's fingers would feel smooth on skin. They walk slowly, their hands fit together.

After they are gone I hear kids and small rubber shoes beat down the pavement and I hate

myself for counting the steps. The school is close enough for me to hear the roar of

recess, kick balls, and slides. Three girls with orange straps over their shoulders run down

the sidewalk. A boy skips after them in a one-two, one-two rhythm. I stop counting.





After Sonya drops the old lady off at home, she walks into my front yard and

stands there,

"Nice day for a walk," I say, from the porch.

"I don't like stalkers."

"I'm not a stalker. I'm a counter. I work at the airport"



She jiggles the air in her palms by her little breasts and says, "One plus one is

two."

"You want to come upstairs?" I ask.

"I don't know. I don't think so," she says, and I don't either. "Why don't you ask

me to dinner or lunch. That would be a good thing to do. We could talk about your

neighbor and how she thinks your are a sweet young man." She says sweet as if it were

sour and walks to her car. The next thing she does bothers me. She gets into the car and

then pushes the passenger door open. "Come in."











Her dress rises up her thigh and she pulls it back down over her knees. She starts

up the car and drives us to a highway that I didn't know existed. It is getting late and she

weaves in and out of slower traffic barely nicking a school bus. I don't comment on her

driving because if we are going to die it might as well be now. She pulls off on a gravel

road and kills the car. The trees shake around us and the wind picks up. A plane climbs

up in the air above us and we both wait for the Doppler effect to dissipate before we get

out. I don't know how many people are up there and it bothers me.

I follow her into the woods and I think that there is a chance we could kiss here.

I've been with three girls. After the second one, who I never had sex with, I tried to die.

Not over her, but because I wanted to die and when you want to die, like I did, you can't.

If you don't want to die then you can do it. When you die you don't feel weightless.

When you die you feel pressed down for good. That much you can count on.



The first time I tried to kill myself I loaded a nine millimeter I stole from my

uncle, went into my old bedroom in my parents house, took three pain killers, drank two

Coors, rested my head on a pillow, and bit down on the muzzle. I waited for ten seconds

with the gun in my hand, the barrel in my mouth, sweating though my fingers. When I

pulled the trigger, it clicked, and nothing fired. I heard a tumbling sound on the stairs so I

hid the wet gun under my mattress. In the bathroom mirror I smiled at someone whose

teeth were black on the bottom edges, whose face was pale, and who looked like a wet

corpse, and it smiled back at me.

Once out of the car, I followed Sonya through the woods and towards a lake. It









was dark and the flashlight tunneled over to a patch of grass by the bank. Mosquitoes

were dead this time of the year. I don't understand why we were suddenly alone in the

woods together, except that maybe she was used to having sex with strangers. I had never

met someone who could do that so I went with it. The woods were quiet except for the

wind hissing through the trees. Near the water we sat cross-legged. She had been here

before, maybe another boy showed her this lake, but I didn't mind. I could see the white

triangle of her underwear and she didn't care.

"You know that I own this lake, or at least I will when Mary dies," she said. I had

never heard the old lady next door to me referred to as anything. "All of it," Sonya said

and she shined the light from one bank, over the water and rocks, to the other bank. "I

don't want it," she said.

I've also never met someone, or even thought of someone, owning a lake but it

seemed like a good thing to have.

"All of it?" I said.

"Every drop. I'm not related to her. I just work for a company that takes care of

old folks, that's it. Meals-on-wheels sort of a deal. She thinks I should have the lake

when she dies. She thinks I deserve it because we go on walks. She thinks I could

swim in the Olympics."

"Take it," I say. "Sell it after she dies." I'm kidding here but it's not funny.

"What if somehow wanting the lake kills her? It could happen like that. Suppose,

I want the lake and then she's flat out dead the next morning," she says.

Little steeples of waves crash under a dock and I like the idea of lying next to her

on the grass and listening to water hit wood, her skin by mine. We are supposed to be









able to do this kind of thing. We are supposed to be new enough to the world to allow

ourselves that.

"You don't seem like a killer," I say.

"Maybe," she says. She stands up and directs the tube of light from her flashlight

towards the dock and we walk that direction. It's raining now and we walk up the dock. It

extends far into the lake and we keep going. A trash can lid is nailed to a post and is

spinning from the wind. An abandoned canoe is bobbing up and down in the water with

its nose sticking out. Sonya sits on her knees at the tip of the dock and the sky turns and

the forest around us becomes dark blue.

"You want to go swimming?" I ask her.

"I don't want to do anything," she says.

She presses the flashlight on the dock and it makes a red circle on the wood. I

look with her in between the wood panels. The light beam between the crack tornadoes

down into the water. In the beam of light thousands of minnows swim and dart over each

other and I start counting instinctively. Ten of the minnows catch the light and reflect

back silver. Eleven is a bigger minnow whose eyes I could scoop out with a

spoon. I recount her several times and make it to twenty before I catch my breath, rub my

eyes, and move closer to the space between the wood. The light illuminates thirteen more

minnows that barrel into the group and stroke in circles. The thirty-three minnows I've

counted swerve aside from each other and never collide. I count forty more but I might be

recounting. I reach my fingers over the dock to shovel up the goggle eyed fish whose

eyes look like the number 8. They dart away from my hand and the space they leave for

me fits like a glove of water. I lose count now. They look like sparks and I can't count









fire. Pellets of water bounce off the dock like thrown gravel and the rain comes down.

The sky zips open and raindrops fall on us like marbles, and the minnows swarm off

beyond the light.

A bead of rain drips off Sonya's chin and slides down her chest.

"We should probably get going," she says. "We could get struck," she says. But

neither of us move.

I can feel the heat of her face near mine. Our heads are close enough that we

could suck rainwater off each other's lips. She turns off the flashlight and I can't see

anything except the outline of her face. And right at the right moment, when I imagine it

happening, when risk turns into touch, her breath against my lips, soft near soft, and I

look right at her, and she does the same, and right when it will happen, it doesn't. I can't

bring her in or count the seconds between us fast enough.

We run back to the car and the actuality of not kissing temporarily erases

everything positive that could of come out of being with someone in the rain, watching

minnows, and running back drenched to a car.





Mary is not dead. I go and visit her just in case. From the bathtub, she calls for

her son, the lawyer, but he's not here. I'm worried about her so I walk in and reach into

the water, find her armpit, and lift her up. She makes it and steps out of the tub. I stand

her up and take her in both my arms, her aging wet body pressed to my chest. Then I

brace her with my hand on her back and wrap a towel around her. Her skin feels like thin

paper. She is going to die soon.









I help her put her pajamas on and she tells me she "can't afford another fall."

When old people fall by accident, which happens frequently, they break hips and shatter

bones. If no one sees this happen and the paramedics arrive late, they look like spilled

milk on the kitchen floor. This makes me worry. I realize Mary would be a good

grandmother and I love her for that. Everything in her house, unlike mine, has been

accounted for: the framed pictures of family, the biblical-verse-magnet on her

refrigerator, and all the kid's drawings on the freezer. I think she has counted them all in

her spare time, which is probably most of the time. She offers me a cookie, which I eat in

a napkin there, and then I go back to my apartment.

When I open the door Sonya is holding a butcher knife inside my kitchen,

looking down at my silverware.

"Hi," she says raising the knife by her head, faking a stab, and then placing the

knife down on the counter. "I like knives." she says.

"Do you like breaking in?"

She walks over to me, grabs me from behind my head, and brings me into her.

Her small fingernails touch the back of my neck. We kiss and her lips are as cold as

knives. Her hair smells like shampoo. After a few seconds of kissing our lips warm up

and I imagine slitting off her dress with a knife shaped like the number 7. When we break

I feel ready.

We don't have sex. She likes to do something else. She lays me on the floor and

gets on top of me. Then, without making much movement, she spreads out all of her

weight on me evenly, her arms on top of my stretched arms, and her legs directly on top

of mine. The best feeling in this world is someone's weight on top of you. On the






68


floor, with her weight pressed on me, we lie motionless. Then she counts my breaths

rising underneath her ribcage. "One...two...three...four..."















EQUATIONS

The night Travis was granted the John A. Phillips Mathematics Education Award,

he walked home under a Montana sky, his gold medal looped around his neck, the moon

looming over the bald hills, listening, as he staggered home, to the flap sounds of porch

awnings tossed about from the wind that blew down the mountains.

At his apartment building, a ranch house that stood beside a pastry bakery, he

found an envelope on the rough doormat postmarked Seattle. Travis-a cigarette nudged

between his knuckles, the smoke floating up the hallway-picked up the letter and

stepped into his open apartment. In the kitchen he cut into it with a butter knife and the

paper crackled in his fingers. They had slept with each other on sleeping pills, he

remembered, but she was not a stunt, not anymore, because Travis was, the letter read, "a

father."

He sat on the floor, no furniture, and thought this word over. How to him, "father"

sounded more like mortgage, a family car, an old, leftover oak tree, a dead person's

name. Then he read on:

She was suing him for child support. He owed "thousands" in payments. The tone

was conventional: unnecessary exclamation points, lipstick anger, uneasy demands. She

wanted him to return to "Washington State and appear in Seattle City Court within thirty

days." What a cutthroat presentation, he thought.

This woman, as he remembered her, was curled up inside his friend's houseboat

that floated off the Pudget Sound; how she had poured over his mathematics books in the









bobbing corer of the boat; how he hardly knew this girl; how she listened to him talk,

swallowed pills, rocked her head to death rock; how no one on the boat the next morning

could place her name; how in a terrible reversal of fate she was prepared now to destroy

him.

A square photograph fell out of the letter and on to the linoleum floor. He looked

down at the snapshot of a six-month-old boy sitting on fake grass in floral trimmed pants,

a forest of Beech trees poster-ed behind. The child looked up at him from the picture, an

optimistic smile on his face, and Travis peeled the photograph off the floor, held it in his

palm, this creature, his baby, slanted eyes like his own. Then he flipped the photograph

over and written on the backside was the boy's name: "Derrick."

He placed the photo down on a stack of graded quizzes. Then he detached a dry-

eraser board off a thumbtack, set it on the floor, and scrawled out an equation: integrals,

polynomial rings, variables. And as he swallowed down a glass of faucet water, the

numbers surfaced, the problem gave in, and he solved it.

Afterwards, he tore out a piece of notebook paper and wrote, "Not to worry."

Followed by, "Come and visit. I'll have the money for you by then." And then he signed

it, "Thanks," folded the paper, licked a stamp, walked out into the road -the smell of

warm pastry ovens-lifted the metal latch to a blue box, and mailed it off





The girl from Seattle arrived at his apartment building in a coat, a slip dress, knee-

high combat boots. In her arms was Derrick. It had snowed that night, then hailed, and

now, teeming sheets of sleet.









"Come in," Travis said. And squashed a cigarette out on the porch step with the

ball of his foot.

"I need the money or you are going to jail. For the life of me, I promise you that."

The baby was bunched up inside a blanket, a breathing lump.

"Here, come inside the winter."

So she followed him into the building and Travis led her up the hard wooden

steps to his one-room apartment. She put the baby on the floor, and with the back of her

hand she fluffed her hair out from the inside of her coat collar, and the hair landed on her

shoulders in curls.

The heater was broken so Travis had the oven on high, steaming up the windows.

Two wooden planks sat on top of cinderblocks and served as a table. A Spider plant hung

from a nail punched into the ceiling. The rest of his apartment was empty. His lack of

possessions equaled mathematician. And he assumed she'd pick up on that, respect him,

give in a little.

"Sit," he said. Though there was nothing to rest on except the broken radiator.

"Take him," she said, and held out the limp child.

Travis took the baby in his stiff arms and there it dangled. It had his looks: large

eyes, knotty wrists, a soft, doughy tummy. But the hair was from someone else, curly like

monkey tuft, but softer. Then the baby farted and Travis handed him back to her.

"Stay here for a while," Travis said.

She reached into a leather purse, pulled out a baby bottle, crossed her legs, and

said, "For a week."











That night, the baby lying in a bed Travis had constructed out of a cardboard box,

a flattish pillow, and a damp towel, he told her that he was broke, but that if she wanted

they could play some music, fuck around, talk this over.

"Talk what over?"

"I'm not sure exactly," he said.

"You're not sure exactly," she said. "That's your problem, isn't it?"

But he said he couldn't respond to that. And for a moment he remembered the

houseboat, the side of it rubbing up against the dock, and how under a heavy blanket he

had touched the inside of her wrist and said, "Hello."





At the all night gas station he bought her a few things she said she needed:

tampons, a bag of potato chips, a half-gallon of milk, and one more item she hadn't asked

for-his idea-condoms.

Inside his apartment, Travis spread the items on the floor.

She pointed with her socked foot at the condom box. "What are those for?"

Travis pulled off his gloves. "For us. Just in case."

"You expect me to sleep with you." She giggled. And she crushed a potato chip in

her lips.

"Stay here with me," Travis said. Then he pushed her shoulder, a joke, and she


stiffened.









He told her his schedule, included his office phone number, the best times to

reach him, and so forth. He was rarely available, he admitted, because he did things on

the run, or wherever possible: the bar, the classroom, an open field. He said, getting math

done was important to him, more so than to others, it was a place to be one's self, to do

things right, to think out loud.

"Ah," she said. "Enlightening."

The baby whirled awake inside the cardboard box.

"Is he hungry?" Travis asked.

"His name is Derrick."

"Derrick."

"It's my father's name."

"That's nice. I like it."

"You don't know my father. Don't pretend to."

"You want a drink?"

"And I don't want Derrick to know you. That's not why I'm here."

"You seem proud of yourself."

"Go to hell."

"A proud little girl."





Later he said she could sleep on his futon. He didn't mind, his back could use it,

not a problem. She said, "Then thank you," and she pulled off her dress, scooped the

baby up out of the box, got in the bed in her underwear, and laid the child on her chest. If









she needed anything there was milk in the refrigerator, cash on the table, tea in the closet,

a cigarette on the radiator.

"I'll be fine," she said.

"Good. I'm going out for a little," he said.

"Go," she said.

"Forgive me for my shortage of funds."

"Huh? Right."

"There's a bakery next door. Maybe you want some croissants? Maybe a cup of

coffee? Would you like something like that?"

"I'm a big girl," she said.

"I'll be back soon."

"Don't worry. I'm not going to rob you."

"I wasn't worried."

"You should be."

"I'm not."

"But you might not see your son again. We could leave just like that. That should

hurt you. That should pull you under."

"How do you know it's mine?"

"You're hilarious," she said. Then she stroked the baby's small back. And the

baby turned his head, yawned into her chest, and gripped his mother's finger in his tiny,

primordial fist. "Do the math," she said.









Out on the road, the sky was black, with clouds underneath, the color of fresh

smoke, spreading apart. Behind the bakery, two homeless women stood in a rusty kitchen

light, leaning against a hollow dumpster, holding beers in paper bags. One had hair the

texture of broom needles that stuck out from her headband. The other wore a hat made

out of a grocery bag. The baker stepped outside, pointed down the alley, and the women

stumbled off.

A car drove down the street and the headlights swept over the road. Travis stared

down at the tops of his shoes and no equations came to him. Instead he thought about

going back to his apartment, taking the baby, holding him close, even if he cried, even if

his mother woke up. It didn't matter. Just as long as he could make this baby his own for

a little while, rock him back to sleep, say the word, "Goodnight." And so he turned

around, climbed the steps back up to his apartment, and opened the door.





"You're back," the woman from Seattle said. She was sitting on the floor, Indian

style, smoking a cigarette, a piece of ash, the texture of pollen, rubbed into the waistline

of her underwear.

"Put that out," he said.

"I can't sleep," she said, and dropped the cigarette into ajar.

"I changed my mind," he said.

She moved her hand inside a lampshade, pulled a loose chain, and the light

popped off. "Believe it or not," she said in the half-dark, "I thought I might convince you.









That somehow you'd come back to Seattle with us. Start over. Begin a life. That is what I

thought."

"Surprise," he said.

"I'm not," she said. "I knew you wouldn't."

And then, as she stood up, reached for his forearm, a loud thump at the door.

Travis stood up, turned the knob, and the homeless woman with the headband and

the broom hair rolled over on her side, stood up, and stumbled inside.

"I use your bathroom?" the homeless woman slurred.

"No," Travis said.

"I'll be in and out, no thing at all. Promise." And the woman took Travis by the

shoulder, squeezed it, and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. Her eyes were

watery, not from crying, but from a lack of sleep, a need to see all things before her.

"I can't," Travis said. "Get out."

And then the woman from Seattle stood up, walked over to the homeless lady,

looked her over, took her by the wrist, turned to Travis, and said, "Let her in."















THE HOLE IN HER MOUTH

I met Anik at the public pool where I used to take my brother. The man ahead of

me, a black guy, climbed up the diving board ladder. Two bullet wound scars, the size of

pancakes, streched across his back. He ran down the board, spanked into the sky, spread

his arms, flipped around, and cut into the pool like a switchblade. Not everyone, but most

of us, gazed in after him

"I bet you can't pull that off," a voice said behind me. And I turned my eyes from

the water. The voice belonged to a fat girl in a bikini with belly rolls that jiggled. It was

cold and lumpy like a bag of potatoes. Something I could poke my hand into and grab a

fist of. I ignored her and stepped up the ladder. If my three-year-old brother had been

there he would have waved at me from the kiddy pool. But he was not there. He was

dead. All I saw up on the board was the sun on the water and women in blue miniskirts

holding tennis rackets. The kiddy pool was drained and empty.





It is important for me to mention my brother, Robby, because he was the first

person I ever met who at one point existed, and then did not. He never counted to ten, ran

through the street, lit a fire, got drunk in the woods, fucked a cheerleader, tied a tie, flew

across the country on a jet, or attended a funeral. Those things never happened to my

brother. They happened only to me. It happened like this: someone tossed a white sheet









over my brother, let it sit there, yanked it off, and my brother disappeared.





Pellets of water dropped off the diving board and dotted the pool. The board was

hot and granular like an unshaved face. Then I spun the wheel, tested the spring, and

walked to the tip. I always tested the spring and walked to the tip.

My brother never got a chance to do that. I would have taught him: "Test the

spring, walk to the tip, and dive." He did whatever I told him. That was what made him

my brother.

"Just dive you loser," the fat girl said behind me.

I leaned over the board, looked into the water, and the black man hiccup-ed out of

the deep end.

"How's it done?" I asked him.

He opened his eyes. "I couldn't tell you. Just got out of prison," he said. Then he

stroked to a spot directly under me and traded water.

The pool was stuffed with people that afternoon. It looked like an aquarium

packed with human fish.

"First dive in about thirty years," he said, still treading. His hands, the size of

plates, padded at the surface, and his legs wiggled underneath like large tentacles.

A lifeguard with nothing productive to do whistled. "Swim to the side," the

lifeguard yelled.

"My name is Daryn," the black man said to the lifeguard. But that was all he said.

Daryn could have done something else, something more aggressive, but he didn't.









Then he floated across the water and pulled himself out of the bubbles. He didn't

go up to the lifeguard. He went back to the diving board line.

I decided right then that if I died my life would have almost been worth it. My

brother might have agreed. Although my brother never had a chance to see what my life

was worth, I'm sure he would have endorsed me.

"Only thing is-," Daryn said, before I jumped off the board

Daryn was not in line anymore. He was off to the side, shaking water out of his

ear. An open spot in line was available for him if he wanted it. That was a given.

Everyone knew what it meant to dive the way he did. So I listened.

"I don't fear shit," he said. And he hammered out the drops from his ear. "Except

the lord," he said.

I didn't believe him.

"How about bullet shots?" I called down.

But Daryn did not hear me. And he walked to the front of the line. A belly sucked

in and Daryn tucked into a vacant spot.

Good, I thought. I can do this. I stomped on the tip of the board, sprung into the

air, kicked my legs up toward a cloud, and waited for my body to rotate. Unfortunately,

my body did not respond, and my hands scrambled for something to grip. On my way

down, I saw a collage of upside down heads. Then I heard a giggle and I splashed.

Underwater a hand pressed against my back. I opened my eyes, but all I saw were

flecks of light. I flapped my feet, spread the water open, and sucked in the air. A

lifeguard stood on top of his red chair, blew his whistle again, and I looked around the

pool, dumbfounded.









Then I saw what I had done: a woman popped up beside me and a red dot trickled

out of her nose.





"Forgive me," I said to the woman I had dived onto. We were both on the

concrete now, dripping in the sun.

"You didn't mean it," she said. She took my hand in hers and sandwiched it. Her

fingers were long and pull-able. Her name was Anik. Water dribbled off her legs and

formed a pond below her feet. Her bathing suit was the color of wood. She reached down,

pinched a wad of it, and the nylon snapped against her hipbone. Her lips were the texture

of a grapefruit peel. Her mouth was open, just barely; a soft hole wide enough to poke a

pinkie through.

The lifeguard said something into my ear but I ignored him. Then Anik did

something that made me want to hold her. She pressed the napkin she had dabbed her

bloody nose with into the lifeguard's palm. The lifeguard looked into his hand, as if he

had just been given poison, his hand stiffened, and he shook the Kleenex off.

At that moment, Daryn flipped off the board and slugged into the water. He

spiraled down, pushed the water to his side, and skimmed across the bottom.





The locker room smelled of chlorine. I twisted my towel into a screw and the

water seeped out. I heard a toilet flush inside a stall, and when I looked up I saw a naked

boy. His penis looked like a shriveled up hotdog. He smiled at me and said, "Hello,









Sparky," but I did not respond. Instead, I dropped my towel in a puddle, walked out of the

public pool, and hacked into the hedge.

The little boy from the bathroom stall knew my brother. And as I stood in the

bushes, forcing the liquid up from my chest, rhythmically gagging, little flashes of my

brother's image came back to me. And the more I puked the more my brother appeared;

jumping on top of my stomach in his diaper with a cowboy hat pulled over his head.



When I got to my car the windows had clouded up into pools of platinum. A car

engine ticked under a Sycamore tree. I was tired and my chest stung from the up-chuck.

Crows hopped in the Sycamore limbs and tickled through the leaves. I slipped my car

keys out from under the windshield wiper. Then, as I gloved the door handle, Anik's

finger came down and tapped me on the shoulder.





Everything after that was meant to be. Anik needed a ride back to her apartment

and I obliged. "It's the least I can do," I said stupidly. Electricity lines laced from pole-to-

pole alongside the road. Yellow lines shot back. Speed limit signs shuffled after them.

Anik cracked the passenger window and the air gushed in. Then she pointed her finger at

her apartment building, and I turned.

"Accidents can kill," Anik said.

"That's what I've heard," I said, and I pulled to a stop.

Anik got out of the car and shut the door with the back of her foot.

Then she walked up to the driver's side window, squatted her legs down like a









frog, and faced me. "Walk me in," she said.





When we got to her apartment, her cat was curled up on the kitchen floor.

Suddenly, it jaunted up on all fours, hissed though its curled tongue, and hopped on top

of the washing machine. Anik opened the refrigerator and tossed me a bottle of beer. I

plucked it from up in the air and the glass sweated in my palm.

"You're my first crush," she said.

"I must have really fallen for you," I said.

We were on a roll.

Then the cat jumped on top of the table, right in between us, and Anik brushed it

off with the back of her hand.





Anik and I whirled back and forth with each other. We stood together in lines,

bumped into each other as we walked under doorways, tugged each other into closets,

kissed at the top of stairways and looked at each other across large dining rooms.



One night I told Anik something that made my stomach twist.

Outside the rain poured out of the sky and spilled down metal steps. The water

swiveled through the gutters, rattled like hard candy; dumped out the chutes, and spread

across the white sidewalk.

"I used to have a brother," I said.









Anik sandwiched my knees between her legs and flipped my hand over in hers.

"That's a good thing," she said. Then she swirled her fingertip into the hard part

of my palm and looked at my mouth. I was still watching the water drip off the rooftop.

Her fingertip was warm and incandescent, hot enough to burn through plastic. The

tendons in my wrist tightened. That was when I slid my hand out from hers and placed it

directly on her hip.





One day Anik took me to the grocery store. Metal carts clicked, cash registers

opened, ice-smoke spilled from freezers, buggies wobbled down aisles, and old ladies

squeezed fruit. As we walked through the store a camera zoomed in on the two of us and

projected our image on a black and white television screen. A man in the customer

service box, behind tinted windows, looked at the image of us, and bit into his pear.

The cashier swished our groceries over the scanner. I listened to the items beep: a

banana, a coke, a box of cereal, and a magazine. They zapped, slid down the belt, and

were stuffed into plastic bags. Anik dropped a chocolate bar onto the conveyor belt and

the candy floated up to the cashier. The total rang up and the price triggered up onto a

green screen. I opened my wallet and unfolded a bill.

"Sparky? You're Sparky. Aren't you?" A boy said behind me. It was the boy

from the locker room.

My body froze. The cashier plucked the bill from my fingers.

"Sparky," he coughed. "Zzzz," he said. And he poked his finger into an imaginary

socket. "I know who you are."









I can safely say one thing about children. Stories are passed along to where they

shouldn't go and are stored like weapons.

I considered kicking him with my leg. But instead I twisted the plastic bag around

my wrist and walked off. A red, eye dot flashed and the automatic doors slid open. A

little girl beside the coin machine pulled her helium balloon down by the string. In the

parking lot, the pavement sizzled under my sneakers, and the sliding doors clapped shut.





"What's wrong with you?" Anik asked. I stared out at the orange dumpster where

I parked.

"I'm not a good person," I said, and I took her by the arm.

"I'm not either," she said. "Though, I'm glad you told me. Just in case."

"I didn't mean to. It was an accident," I said.

Then I told her about my brother:

One night in bed I heard something pop, and I opened my eyes. The lights outside

my door pulsed, blacked out, and I sat up. I flicked the switch but nothing happened.

I walked to my brother's room and his window was open, the wind blowing in,

and a breeze picked up the curtain and twirled it in the air.

When I found my brother he was on the floor holding a fork. The fork was

connected to an electric socket. The hair on his arm was standing up. He had electrocuted

himself. That was how he died.









After I was done with the story I told Anik that I wished my brother was still

alive.

"Take me home," Anik said.

And so I did.





When I got back to my apartment I picked up a t-shirt and held it out in front of

me. Then I thought of my brother poking his arms through the holes and filling up the

shirt. But that was just wishful thinking. My brother could not have worn shirts that large.





The telephone twittered on the floor. I beeped the talk button and said, "Yes?"

"You sound different," my mother said. A cigarette-voice.

"You're probably right," I said into the receiver. My mother lived by herself.

After my brother died she divorced my father and moved to a beach.

"I am right. I am always right about you," my mother said. "Don't you realize that

by now? How long does it take for you to get to the beach?"

Each time she asked me that I was expected to give her a fresh reply. "Four

hours," I answered.

"On the dot," she said. "Exactly four hours." Then she said, "You have someone,

don't you? I can tell," she said.

"No you can't," I said.

"Bring her with you," she said.









Then she hung up the phone.





The next morning I opened Anik's screen door and walked into her kitchen. Anik

was standing beside the refrigerator, holding her cat. Her arms unfolded and the cat

dropped to the linoleum like a wet mop. Then her eyes split into popcorn. She still had

that space between her lips, that lovely little hole the size of a pea. I reached over, stuck

my finger into her mouth, and her face bucked. Then I popped my finger out. I walked

over to her refrigerator, cracked open a bottle of milk, and poured myself a glass. The cat

leapt up on my lap and licked at my lips. An hour later, Anik and I left for the beach.





Fog crumbled over the rocks, tumbled across the bank and floated across the sea.

Sailboats bobbed along the shore. Birds swooped down, bounced off the water, and

trampolined into the air. Anik unzipped her purse, pulled out a tube of Chap Stick, and

carved a bar of pink petroleum over her lips. Then I drove the car down a trail covered in

sea grass.

When the tires hit the sand, I flipped on the headlights, and ground to a halt. The

waves snapped against the shore, but it was behind the dunes, so I couldn't see them.

Then my mother appeared in the high beams, under a palm tree. I killed the engine and

Anik stepped out of the side door.

"I love her already," my mother said, and she nodded at me. That was her style.

The ocean smelled salty, like the past, like memory.









My mother took Anik's hand in hers. Her fingers wrapped around Anik's palm

like a tight shoelace and then unraveled. I had never seen hands shake that way before.

The three of us hiked up a dune, sat on the top and watched the ocean slosh. My

mother uncorked a bottle of wine and rummaged through her tote bag. The water flogged

the sand, fizzled, and reversed into the ocean. My mother pulled out three plastic cups,

kissed the bottle to the brim, and poured clear liquid into the glasses.

"I'm happy for the two of you," my mother said.

She passed each of us a cup full of wine and we clicked them together. Then she

tilted hers back and the liquid flowed down her throat. Up above the ocean, a black cloud

scudded across the sky, slid over the sea, and hovered over a city, somewhere like Hong

Kong.

"Cheers," I said. The sun gurgled into the ocean. Anik ran her fingers through the

alluvium and sunk her plastic cup into the sand.

"Be good to each other," my mother said. She pointed her two index fingers at my

head and dabbed it. A wave rolled up the shore and broke apart. The sand on the beach

sponged up the water and then dried into toast. "It comes from up top," my mother

continued. And she touched her bangs to her forehead.

"What?" I asked.

"The inspiration to understand each other," my mother said.

"Right," I said.

My mother thinks that humans are predisposed to creative relationships. They

aren't. Humans are prone to private embarrassment, public tiffs, and spontaneous

dancing.









"He is my only son," my mother said. And she looked at Anik. I didn't think Anik

would respond to that, but she did.

"And he is my only boyfriend," Anik said. That might have passed over most

people, but I heard what she said, and I pulled it out of the air, and stored it into my heart.

After my mother was done with her glass, she handed me the empty bottle. I

dropped it in the sand and it flashed. My mother opened another bottle and gave me the

cork. I pushed it down into the dune with my finger.

The sky looked obsidian. That was when I stood up and stepped off the dune,

crossed the beach, and walked and into the ocean. The foam popped against my shins and

spread along the shoreline.

"Come in," I hollered up at Anik and my mother. But neither budged. They

couldn't hear me.

"You are shark bait," Anik yelled. And she fell back into the sand. When Anik

spoke she mocked me and I liked it.

"Your loss," I said, but they did not hear that either.

I swam into the water and dunked under the waves. Once I was out far enough I

floated on my back. When I looked at the beach I couldn't make out the dunes. All I saw

was the chop of white caps and the spread of bubbles. The water rolled under me, wave

after wave, and I considered falling asleep to it.

Then I wondered what it would be like if I did fall asleep. Floating across the sea

above a hidden ocean kingdom. Millions of tiny fish mouths sucking my back. Coasting

up to the Poles and bumping off the icebergs. Then I rotated and swam back to the beach.






89


"We've come to rescue you," my mother said. Anik and my mother were standing

on the beach. I stepped on the sand, faced the two of them, and sank down an inch.















WAIT HERE

On the ride to the Jacksonville airport my wife pulled on a cigarette and said, "I

want to be cremated."

"Is that right?" I asked.

"That's exactly right."

It didn't bother me, the talking about dying part, because it seemed unlikely, and

the conversation was appropriate, since Henry, our friend from Idaho, had just died, and

that was what they were doing to him. Chloe was flying to Minneapolis by herself for the

ceremony; she loved Henry to pieces, and I to death, but we were deplorably poor. So I

imagined her there, on the bow of the boat, lined with women in white pearls, and the

men in starched shirts and wind-whipped pants, and the captain of the boat would say a

few words, and a gust would splash water up on board, and then they'd all watch, as the

girl in the diamond encrusted dress dumped our friend Henry out of a porcelain pot and

into the open water of Lake Minnetonka.

"You should come with me," Chloe said.

Then she looked down at her lap, as if there was something important there,

which there wasn't, just her e-ticket. And she moved her hand to the soft part of her neck,

and squeezed her throat a little, not that she was choking, but just checking her breath, as

if there was a knot tied up somewhere inside there, and then she let go.









The airport was close and the planes rumbled over the traffic. It was rainy so the

jets disappeared quickly into thunderclouds. We only had a few moments left, and I

wanted to dare her, so I asked: "And where would you like to be spread?"

"In a river," she said. "In a river in Idaho."

"That's a good place."

And then she bumped my shoulder with her pack of cigarettes and made me

promise not to bury her. I took a hand off the steering wheel, held the back of hers, and

said, "I promise." Then she made me swear on it again, just to make sure, so I squeezed

her thigh, and she nodded.



*




The night we found out about Henry we couldn't talk and so we just sat there on

the bed without moving. The next day we had sex, the morning sun lightening the

windows, and when we were done, Chloe got of bed, and her head left a crease in the

pillow. I heard her run the faucet in the bathroom. So I stood up and walked over to the

door and it was half-open. She was sitting on the toilet, her knees touching, her

underwear pulled around her ankles. I took a white t-shirt off an adhesive hanger, looked

down at her, and pulled the shirt over my head. She smiled, as if that expression alone

made up for the fact that Henry was now dead, and she said, "Idaho was good to us."

"Henry," I said, "was good to us."


* *












I followed the signs to the passenger drop-off lane and the cars ahead scrambled

for spots.

"You're making me fly out there alone."

"You'll be fine," I said. "But don't look down." And I squeezed into the curb.

"That's not what I mean."

"I know," I said.

"Then circle around and walk me into this fucking airport. That, I think, is the

least you can do."

"Look," I said, because we were there now, and the cars had piled up. But she

didn't wait for me to finish.

"For God's sake," she said, and opened the passenger door and stepped out on the

curb.

A van full of basketball players unloaded. Businessmen rolled luggage across the

street. Then a baggage clerk pulled Chloe's suitcase out of the trunk. I opened the door

and an empty plastic bottle fell on the road. Then I walked around the car to Chloe,

pulled her up close, and kissed her on the lips. But her arm was shaking, and she moved

her head to the side. I leaned against the car and she walked into the glass terminal and

then she was gone.


* *









On the highway I sucked on a cigarette and the smoke sunk deep, filled up the

vacant parts. But when I breathed the smoke out, it slithered through my nose and left the

taste of bark inside my mouth. I flicked the butt out the window crack and it caught air,

lobbed back, bounced off a windshield, and the cherry burst into a thin trail of sparks on

the pavement.

The car behind me, a low-rider with titanium spinners, pulled up alongside my

Pontiac and honked. The driver, a black man with two gold teeth and a skull wrap, made

his fist into a gun, aimed it at my head, and said, "Bang." I pressed on the brakes and

melted back into traffic. I drove the rest of the way through the soft Florida scrubs, under

an outrageously orange Florida sky. The seat next to me was empty, so I put my hand

there, on the fake leather, and it felt ice-cold and terrifying.



*




We worked on the border of Idaho at the Snow Rabbit Ski Resort. Henry ran the

kitchen. I was a ski instructor but not very good at it; the kids fell too much. Chloe's job

was to stand by the chairlift, check tickets, and brush the snow off the nylon seats with

the back of her mitten. "Good luck," I remember she said once, as she pushed my kids in

the iron chairs up the mountain. Henry, he'd come out of the kitchen for cigarette breaks

once in a while and look for us. I remember him too, but not as clearly, only that he was

alone, and that he wore his paper chef s hat out in the cold, and that he always squinted

up at the mountain.









When the ski resort closed for the day, Chloe and I would pull Henry out of the

kitchen and tell him, "It's now or never." He'd drop the dirty dishes in the sink, walk out

of there in a stained apron, and we'd put on gloves and warm coats and snow hats and

snap on skis and glide to the lift.

The chairlift clacked around, Chloe always sitting between us, and we climbed up

the side of the mountain. Up on that lift, Henry would unzip his parka, pull out a flask of

liquor, and we'd throw a few drinks back, the three of us ascending-the snow covered

trees slumbering underneath us as we sipped the booze-until the cold wind slapped our

faces, and we'd cover up our runny noses and chapped lips, swoop off the lift, and ski

down the hill.



*




One night in Idaho Henry showed up at our house on the back porch. Chloe and

I lived in the valley in a bungalow with a sloped roof, surrounded by potato farms. He

knocked on the glass door with his fist and Chloe got out of bed in her long underwear,

put on a robe, and slid the door open. The cold blew in. The snowflakes twirled under the

porch lights. I was naked because that was how I slept, and I sat up in bed.

Henry clicked off his boots, stepped inside, and took a seat on top of the stove.

Our bed was next to the kitchen, and he looked at me under the covers, and he said, "I'm

sorry, Jim."

I asked him, "About what?"

And he said, "I hit a deer, blew it apart, and it's alive in a ditch, breathing."