Black sunglasses on the dresser, neatly folded, left lens spiraled with spidery letter-shapes written in white. Spidery letter-shapes inked across the mirror above it, an elegant shambles of a paragraph, each line cramping, curling downward to the right, and the last of it trailing in curlicues down toward the bottom of the glass. Behind those lines his reflection, the massy bulk of him fitted in a black T-shirt, his beard a matted mahogany bush in the flat white light of the room, his hair, loosed, eaves of faintly waved curls still crimped from long confinement, all of it a leafless thicket about the upturned plug of his nose, round hillocks of his cheeks, the narrowed eyes, red and brown. “You didn’t tell me,” he says, a rusted croak.
“You didn’t want to know,” he says.
“How can you say that,” he says.
“You turned away,” he says.
“That’s a lie,” he says.
“You know that’s a lie. How can you say that.”
“You said that.” The tempo of his breathing’s picked up, tendrils of beard and mustache lofting, fluttering with each blowsy exhalation, until it catches, with a hitch. “You did it,” he says, a thready whisper, and his breath seeps from him in a slow settling sigh. “You did it,” he says. “You kept doing it. You knew. You always knew. You just didn’t want to know.”
He stands. He’s been sitting on a narrow bed, discreetly made, a threadbare blanket, beige, folded neatly at the head of it about a single pillow. The walls a dark green rumpled by old over-painted cracks and sagging plaster, the single window bare, warmed by pulsing neon light outside, then off, then on again, and when it’s off the weaker, palely yellow streetlight. Through that shifting scrim can just be seen the unlit windows set in other buildings. “You should’ve said,” he says, looking back and forth, his reflection, his shadow, on the glass.
“You stayed,” he says, stepping to one side. Away from the window, hand against the wall. There the bed, there the dresser, there the door, before him. “You didn’t leave,” he says. Another step. “You did not leave,” he says.
Those sunglasses tremble on the dresser, bounce, flip over as an arm springs up. His hands up pressing back his stiffly outright hair, as he watches the sunglasses rocking, slowing, stop.
“You need to get out of here,” says Philip Keightlinger.
Wings flutter and settle, a chirrup, a chime, the crackle of straw, a shift of weight, seed scatters to the floor. “Boy?” says a gruff voice. Hootings erupt, whitterings and clucks, a crowing whoop, chains rattle, wood creaks, shadows coil and lurch and spread, like wings. “Boy, it’s after six. I already got the coffee.” Hunkered over a figure shuffles under the low-hanging cages swaying, settling. Seed crunching under a heavy step. At the end of the sleeping porch a low table, a sleeping bag neatly rolled beside it, and on it a radio alarm clock, silent, unplugged. He rubs his bare head darkly bald over a crisp circle of white curls. “Right,” he says, turning, “he isn’t,” and stooped, shuffling, makes his way back through the sleeping cages.
Outside the susurrus of fallen rain, the dripping trickles, crinkling seep, the plops and chimes and a shivering gust-blown spatter from the trees, over the fence. By the door a cardboard box, under that flight of stairs bolted to the back of the old brick building. He leans out from under them, hand out, palm up, looking up, into the soft dark starless sky. A sullen haze, off that way, the lights of downtown. He squats, mindful of the mud, wrestling up the rain-soft box, squelch and plep, duck-walking back, pulling him upright, groan and glower.
Inside, through a cramped kitchen all scarred linoleum and dark cabinets, down a narrow hall lined with shelves, partitioned into cubbyholes, stuffed here and there with mismatched pairs of shoes. Clatter of a beaded curtain and up to a worktable mounded high with more shoes, where the old man sets the box. Brushing down the front of his coat. He gingerly pries up a soggy flap, reaches in to pull out a shoe, a black and brown leather football shoe, filthy, the collar of it worn to shreds above the heel. He tosses it on the pile, pulls out another, a cognac-colored wedge-heeled pump. Someone’s tapping at the door.
“Here,” he says, unlocking the door, swinging it open with a jingle of the bell, “here,” switching on the lights in the front window, George’s, say the letters painted in red and yellow in an arc across the glass. Shoes Repaired. A man in a brown and orange ski jacket pushes through the doorway, dingy red cooler in his hands, followed by a woman in a green rain slicker, carrying a plastic storage tub lined with custard-laden ramekins. “Over there,” says the old man, “on the counter,” as he steps out onto the sidewalk, “Hita!” he calls, to a woman coming down the sidewalk, brown coat wrapped about blue coveralls, long black hair under a kerchief. “Lend a hand?” He’s shaking out a ring of keys to find the one that opens the door of a powder-blue town car. The light of downtown off that way fading into the lightening overcast. He lifts a cardboard box from the front seat, printed over with little running coffee cups, and a spigot on one side. Hands it to the woman in the kerchief, and leans in to fetch out another. “I’ll get the donuts,” he’s saying.
The front room of the shop’s now filled, raincoats and overalls, uniforms brown and taupe and beige, styrofoam cups a-steam. “Better than ever I can remember,” says a man, his navy workshirt blazoned with a white patch, Atlas Facilities Maintenance, it says, under a stylized globe.
“First flush,” says a woman with grey-tinged curls, lifting a bar-shaped pastry from a big pink box. “It’ll all settle down, soon enough.”
“She’s been flushed all winter,” says a man in a denim jacket, munching something darkly chocolate under a white piped-icing pentagram, and “Have you seen the Bride?” says a man in brown and orange polyester, and “She’s no Bride,” says someone, and “No one sees the Princess,” says someone else, and “I hear she likes butterflies,” says a woman in a white formal shirt, bow tie unclipped about her neck. “I hear she’s beautiful,” says the man in brown and orange.
“Course she is,” says the old man to himself, filling a cup with coffee from one of the boxes on the counter.
“How are you, Gordon,” says the woman in the kerchief, her hand on his. He grunts, a gesture of his cup at the work table back there, the shoes, the half-open box. “Too much to do, and more on the way,” he says.
“You need some help,” she says, and he snorts. “Don’t we all,” he says, but the door’s opening again, the bell’s jingling again, and the laughter’s dying, sentences falter, stop, they’re looking down, away from the four men pushing into the front room. “Gordon,” says the one at the head of them, short and wide in a bulky cardigan, bald head ruddy.
“Dogstongue,” says Gordon. “You’re with the Gaffer now?” A man in a pea coat nods once, crisply. “Moving up in the world,” says Gordon.
“We just got done, putting a rose garden back together?” says Dogstongue. “For the Duchess?” He isn’t looking at Gordon, but about the room, the men and women in coveralls and uniforms, cups in hands, napkins, donuts. “And while I know you prefer the company of domestics,” he says, and none of them meet his gaze, “well.” Dogstongue smiles, then, at Gordon. “You always did have the cheapest coffee.”
Gordon looks about the room, at all of them silent, looking to him from the corners of downturned eyes. He sighs, turns his back, stumping around behind the counter. “Free country,” he says.
He isn’t the first person off the bus. He isn’t the last. Right there in the middle of them, coming down the steps, brown dungarees and a jacket of army-surplus green, an emaciated duffel slung from his shoulder. Rain loud on the great awning over them, and another bus snoring in the stall beside, all dark blue and grey, a leaping hound painted on the side. Seattle, says the sign on the front of it. Portland, says the sign on the front of the one they’re disembarking.
Around the corner of the low brick terminal, the flat roof extending out over the red brick sidewalk, glassy wet in streaks. He runs a hand through his black hair, looking about, greyly morning light, a woman dragging away a wheelie suitcase draped with a plastic garbage bag, somebody sitting over there, on a dry patch of brick, faded black denim and mud-caked boots, a big black broad-brimmed leather hat. A pale grey scrap of kitten tumbles about a bit of string before a cardboard sign. So he turns up the ragged collar of his jacket, heads down the sidewalk to squat, hold out a hand, wriggle his fingers. The kitten rears up paws spread to fall back against the sign. Letters carelessly scrawled across it say, Will Drink for Money.
“Cute cat,” he says.
“Oh, hey,” says the kid in black denim, looking up. Under that floppy brim a round face fuzzed by a sweep of ginger beard. “Thanks.”
He leans back, reaching into a pocket of his jacket, army-surplus green. Under the beak of his nose a pointed smile. He’s pulled out a pale green nylon wallet, ripped it open, the inside of it black, card slots empty, nothing tucked in the photo ID window. Slips from it a crisply single twenty-dollar bill and holds it up between them, his smile sharpening as the kid’s eyes widen.
“Nice hat,” he says.
Shining in the rain a silver egg of a trailer, there at the back of the mostly empty parking lot. In her long black coat she’s knocking at the door of it, rattling the aluminum shell, “Luys?” she says. Red hair a vivid shock in all that grey-white light. “You home?”
The handle turns, the door jerks, opening enough to reveal him big and brown, black hair, blinking, “Your grace?” he says.
“Breakfast,” says Jo. “Remember?”
Inside it’s dark, the only light from without, and hazed by gauzy curtains over slender windows there and there. “I called,” she says. “Your phone must not be on.”
He’s stepping toward the back, out of the way, sitting on the low bed there in a sort of alcove, umber comforter rucked over yellow sheets. His black hair wet, chest bare, a white towel about his hips. “I suppose,” he says.
“We’ve talked about that,” she says, latching the door shut. Head bowed, against the curl of ceiling.
“Yes, your grace.”
“I need to be able to get a hold of you guys whenever I, might, need,” she says.
“Of course, your grace.”
“That’s not what I,” and she steps into the middle of the trailer. Behind her a booth in the nose of it, two benches, a table bolted between them. “Well. Breakfast.”
“Of course,” he says, leaning forward, opening a cabinet at the foot of the bed. Pulling out a neatly folded pair of pants. “Wait,” she says.
He looks up.
“Before,” she says, “you know. I don’t know.” Hands at the buttons of her coat. “I thought, maybe. Unless you’re hungry, I mean.”
“I just, woke up,” he says, brow furrowed.
“I shoulda got some coffee,” says Jo, undoing her buttons, one by fumbled one. “Or tea. Tea. I should’ve brought some tea.”
“My lady,” he says.
“I just figured,” she says. “You have the food carts next door.” Looking over her bared shoulder at him as she lets the coat slip down her arms. “Whatever we decide to do.”
“Jo, I don’t,” he says, as she lays the coat over the table, “what are we,” he says, as she turns to face him, hands on hips wrapped in a short kilt, black plaid shot through with red and white, between a sleeveless black turtleneck and black knit stockings. “Are we,” he says, “to go dancing?”
She hikes up the hem of the kilt an inch and there, the tops of the stockings, bare skin above. Her lip-bitten smile, eyes wide, brows up, uncertain, “You like?” she says. Luys blinks. “Borrowed ’em from Ysabel,” she says, letting the hem drop. “Not that I have her legs.”
“I like the legs you have, your grace,” says Luys.
She blows out a little laugh. “I cleared the morning,” she says. “Nobody on deck. Nothing on tap. Just,” a little shrug. “You and me.”
“Yes,” he says. “Breakfast.” He shakes out that pair of pants. “Luys!” she says, and he halts, pants a-dangle, frowning. “I,” she says, and then, a deep breath, eyes squeezing shut, she grabs the kilt again, lifts the hem again, up and higher up. He drops the pants, his jaw, eyes widening, “My lady,” he says, “you came, all this way, here, like, like – “
“No,” she says, rolling her eyes, “I yanked ’em off in the parking lot, where anyone could see. Luys, I just,” letting go of the kilt, a shake of her head, looking away, “I wanted to be sexy,” she says.
He leans forward, elbows on bare knees. Looking softly up. “Your grace,” he says, “does not need to be sexy.”
“My grace is horny,” says Jo. “We got,” she says, “I just thought, we were interrupted, last night, so I thought, we could take the morning, we could, jump each other, we, and I tried, to call, and you opened the door in just a, a towel, and that was, that was,” her hand up, weighing the next word.
“I had just,” he says, hoarsely, “woken up.” Looking to the narrow stall that alcoves off the bed. “I took a shower.”
“Which, is fine!” says Jo. “Just what I would’ve – thought. But then, you,” that hand, lowering. “Walked away.”
“I,” he says, and he swallows, “I didn’t mean,” but “Ah, fuck it,” says Jo, reaching for the kilt, yanking something, and it swings loose, falls open, down, she lets it go. “My lady,” he says, but one step, two steps, three down the cramped length of the trailer lifting a knee to plant it on the bed leaning to lift the other kneeling a-straddle him kissing, kissing his mouth, his head in her hands, her fingers in his thick black hair, his hands a bit of leather tied about his wrist on her bare hips, brown thumb along the blued shadow of her belly just above an edge of dark curled hair, lifting away as she yanks away his towel, “Oh,” he says, and she kisses him again, pushing him back, down, leaning over him, “oh,” he says, she’s kissing his hairless chest, tilting to run her teeth along the firm undergirding of a pec, he hisses, her hand about lifting the flop of his cock which stirs and swells in her fingers and his head lolls back against the pillow blue and both hands high and “Hanh,” he says, and “hup,” slapping his forehead sweeping back what little hair he has left and grinning, he’s grinning, opening his mouth to let out a whoop, drinking the air in, “ha, heh,” the rise and fall of his soft chest sparsely haired, “whoa,” he says, looking down, to those grey mustaches between his knees. “Now this,” he says, says Arnold Becker, “this alarm clock I could get used to.”
“What, every morning?” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, dull beads of pewter at the ends of his mustache swaying as he pushes to his feet, his belly a thin softening of fat laid over muscle, chest fuzzed with iron-colored hair.
“We could take turns,” says Becker, sitting up on his elbows. “I have no qualms about waking you up. I mean, I owe you one,” and Pyrocles smiles as he stoops to pick up a salmon-orange towel. “Actually,” says Becker, frowning, “if we take last night into account, I’m pretty sure it’s two. At least two.”
“We’ll settle accounts tonight, or tomorrow,” says Pyrocles, wrapping the towel about his waist. “Or the day after. But today, this morning, I have a valve adjustment, I have two tune-ups, I have a fifty-year-old Galaxie that needs a new suite of belts.”
“What,” says Becker, flopping back on the bed, “no swords to forge? No, no breastplates to pour?”
“Cast armor would be too heavy,” says Pyrocles. “And much too brittle.”
“It was a,” says Becker, rolling over, “it’s a joke,” pulling the heavy blue blanket over himself. “My jokes have to be technically accurate?”
“You have to be getting up,” says Pyrocles, “you’re going to be late.” Padding away from the bed there in the corner of the white-painted loft, and all that light cascading down from the clerestory lining one long wall. “Not today!” calls Becker, snuggling under the blankets. “Finals are over. New term begins next week!” At the other end of the loft Pyrocles draws back a white curtain, behind it a toilet, a sink, a glass-walled shower stall. “But,” says Becker, sitting up, as water starts to fall in the shower. “Oh, shit.” Lunging over the side of the bed, reaching around for a pair of pants in the tangle of discarded clothing, coming up with a phone. He thumbs it on. “Shit,” he says, hauling himself out of bed.
Pyrocles soaping himself turns with a jerk as Becker opens the dappled glass door to the stall, crowding inside, “Sorry,” he’s saying, “sorry,” ducking to wet his head as Pyrocles leans back, blinking water out of his eyes, and the pewter weights swaying and tocking together. “I just,” Becker’s saying, “I have a shift, at eleven, but I was gonna do some shopping first – “
“Becker,” says Pyrocles, hands on his shoulders, water streaming over them both. “Forget the shopping. Take it easy.”
“We have,” says Becker, “maybe two lemons left? I could make omelets for dinner. Very plain omelets. A little salt,” and Pyrocles leans close to kiss Becker’s forehead, and then his lips. “Forget dinner,” he says. “I’ll take care of dinner.”
“You’re not cooking again, are you?” says Becker, and Pyrocles laughs, sluicing suds from his arms, his back, “Go to work,” he says. “Meet me at the garage when you’re done.” Leaning close again. “Trust in me.”
“I do,” says Becker, smiling. Kissing him. “Of course I do.”
Four of them about a round table, and in the middle a dull grey lily pad of a speakerphone. It’s saying, “What? Who was that?”
The man in the striped shirt sits forward. “It’s David, George,” he says. “That’s a list, of key terms, we’re gonna want to – “
“What?” says the phone.
“Key. Terms,” says David Kerr. “We want to salt ’em in any upcoming statements, go over the stump, then a couple of weeks, we get new numbers, we can assess performance and tweak and tune going into the City Club debate – “
“You don’t handle communications,” says the phone. The woman by the door, in her pearly grey pantsuit, folds her arms at that. “This is based on Bob’s work,” says Kerr, and the man leaning against the table might’ve shrugged at that.
“Avery handles communications,” says the phone.
“I’m gonna talk to Avery about this,” says Kerr.
“Avery’s right here,” says the phone. “She’s not happy with the list.”
“And I’ll talk to her about it.” Kerr looks at the watch on his wrist, heavy and gold, a big flat dial. Twenty of ten. “This is the Barshefsky polling, George, and the social media analysis. It’s, it’s impeccable.”
“The corpus is solid,” says the man leaning against the table. “Nothing more than two months out across the Twitter, the Facebook, the comments sections, message boards, it’s,” he opens his eyes, looking for a word, “actionable.” His suit a dour brown, his shirt ecru, his tie burgundy.
“Avery thinks it’s stilted,” says the phone. “Awkward.”
“Avery,” says Kerr, leaning over the phone, “wants to swing for the fences every time you step up to the plate, George.” The stripes of his shirt are slate and gold on white, the collar and cuffs starkly white, his carefully loosened tie of white and blue. “She wants the three pointers, no net, every damn time. But you don’t get those hero moments without the grunt work. Without paying your dues. That’s what this is. These are the dues.” Dark circles under his dark brown eyes. “Every time you use one, you remind them out there, whoever’s listening, of that term, that phrase, that thought, they’ve already had. You’re saying, we’re on the same page. Making a connection, but wholesale, not retail.” Cheeks hatched with stubble, untrimmed, black. “Long run? Makes her job easier. Makes you a winner.”
“I suppose,” says the phone, “it’s hard to lead, if no one’s following.”
“That’s right, George,” says Kerr.
“And you’ll talk to Avery. Convince her, David. Don’t steamroll her.”
“I’ll talk to her.”
“I need her buy-in.”
“Understood, George,” says Kerr.
“All right,” says the phone, and a click, and a burr. The fourth of them, a woman in a frilled white blouse, shuts the speakerphone off.
“Okay then,” says the man in the dour brown suit. “Ms. Upchurch, I hope that was – enlightening?”
“Of course,” says the woman in pearly grey, her voice at once rich and hoarse, but she’s looking down at her folded arms.
Out in the main room of the office Kerr sits at an empty glass-topped desk, white-framed platter of a phone in his hand, scrolling through messages, swiping, tapping, sweeping them here and there. “Give me just a minute,” he says, without looking up, as the woman in pearly grey looms behind him. She plants a hand deep brown against the white vinyl back of his chair, and he sighs, “Okay, okay,” he says, swiveling the chair around against her grip, and she lets go, lets her hand fall away as he looks up at her, phone still at the ready. “It’s gonna be like that,” he says. Looking past her to see the woman in the white blouse busy with the printer on the other side of the office. “There is no way in hell,” he says, quietly, “your name’s really Frances Upchurch, and if you actually have anything at all to do with the Democratic Party of Oregon, I’ll buy a hat just so I can eat it.”
She steps back, looks about. Pulls a chair from the desk across the way and lowers herself into it, nodding to herself, leaning forward, leaning close. Her hair all tiny corkscrew curls, brown and gold, swept back, pinned up. Squeak of the wheels of the chair as she pulls a little closer, even. “What you should ask yourself,” she says, “is this: how does a woman, that is so large, enter in through the eyes that are so small?”
Whatever he was preparing to say melts in his mouth as his shoulders sag. He turns away, to set his phone down on the desk. “If this is about that call,” he says, very quietly, “it’s just a simple objuration. I have some clients, some other clients, who want to change the city’s temperature on a couple of issues? If you want, if you want a cut, if you want in, on the wording, we can talk, we can negotiate that.”
“Tell me about Charles Lier,” she says. Her lips carefully painted the color of brick.
“Lier?” says Kerr. “Dabbled a bit. Fixed things, for powerful people.”
“Did he ever fix anything for you?” A thread of startling blue limns each of her eyes.
“We did, favors, for each other, yeah.”
“You speak in the past tense.”
“Well,” says Kerr, and a hint of a shrug. “Haven’t heard from him since December. End of November. Now you guys are asking questions? Doesn’t seem unwarranted to assume, well.”
“The worst?” she says, and she pushes herself to her feet. “Stay out of our way, Mr. Kerr.”
“You, your,” he says, as she turns, as she’s walking away, “what way?”
“You’ll see,” she says, over her shoulder. He watches as she nods to the woman pulling pages from the printer, as she says something genial to the man in the brown suit, as she opens the door to the office, as it shuts behind her, and then he lets out the breath he’d been holding with a “Shit.” His hand trembles as he picks up his phone.
“Excuse me?” says the woman behind the counter. “Sir?” A couple of people look up from their plates of waffles, scrambled eggs, the woman at the corner has a half-eaten burger in her hands, the man there at the end in a ragged jacket, army-surplus green, only a cup of coffee. “You’re gonna have to step outside,” says the woman behind the counter.
“It’s,” says Mr. Keightlinger, “cold.” He shakes his head. “Wet,” he says.
“Go on,” says the woman behind the counter. “You find some shoes, maybe some pants, you can come on back.” Eggs sizzle on the griddle before her, and the ring and scrape of her spatulas as she stirs them about.
“I,” says Mr. Keightlinger, “I left, in a hurry. Not now,” he snaps, to his right. He’s wearing a black T-shirt, and pale blue boxer shorts, and his legs and his red raw feet are bare.
“Go on now,” says the woman behind the counter, and then she points to a man in a blue meshback cap, a phone in his hand, “I’d rather you didn’t,” she says.
“What if he needs help?” says the man, a finger poised over the phone’s keys.
“I don’t want to involve the cops if we can at all help it,” says the woman behind the counter.
“Look, I really think we,” says the man, and “I asked you nice,” says the woman, and “No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, shaking his brown shaggy head, and the man in the ragged green jacket’s getting up off his stool, and Mr. Keightlinger turns back crashing through the red-framed door to the diner with a wordless bellow, out onto the sidewalk, under the rain, wheeling about and about again, “What?” he’s saying, “I can’t, what?” Out in the street a primly nondescript white sedan is slowing to a stop, turn signal blinking, and bouncing off a Willamette Week newspaper box he lurches from the curb, grabbing the handle of the door of the sedan, wrenching it open as someone inside screams. “Sorry,” he says, as he falls into the passenger seat, “this isn’t, I don’t, you have to,” as the driver’s screaming “What the get the fuck out of my car,” a woman, black hair, intricate tattoos crawling up her neck, one hand held up curled in a fist a blow that doesn’t land as he’s looking at her, as she’s looking at him, his draggled hair, his rain-wet beard, “Ell,” he’s saying, and a look of such wonder passes over him, “Ell,” he says again.
“Jesus,” she says. A car behind them honks once, curtly. “Jesus fucking Christ. Phil. Is that you?”
“Berlin,” he says, huddled unbelted in the passenger seat, head against the window, loose hair stirred by the howl of a heater on high, his bare legs, bare arms pricked with gooseflesh, wet bare feet clutched one over the other on the floorboard.
“I thought it was Dubai,” she says.
His head rolls side-to-side against the glass, “I was never,” he says, and then “stop it,” and “What?” she says, the car, slowing. “Not you,” he says. “Not you. I was never in Dubai.”
“I could’ve sworn,” she says.
“The abandoned,” he says, “limousines. Himmelblau. Ellenellenellen Ell,” he says.
“The show, right, that was the summer Katarci had that amazing,” and “Please,” he says, quietly, “that sublet,” she says, “down by Yaam Beach.” Clack and swipe of windshield wipers. She’s made a turn, they’re sweeping up a ramp. “You’d just met that guy, what was it – that obnoxious little fucker?”
“Charles,” says Mr. Keightlinger.
“Really?” Her black hair’s spiky short. Her hoodie’s black, of some rubbery felted stuff. What can be seen of her tattoo, stretched up along her throat toward the point of her jaw, leaves, branches, a songbird’s beak, all sharp black lines. “I thought it was weirder than that.”
“No,” he says, folding his arms about himself. “It was only ever really Charles.” They’re going across a bridge. Through the rain-smeared glass behind his head the city, stood up about a curl of river, and more bridges, there and there and there.
When he opens his eyes, he says, “Why.”
She’s shutting off the engine. “We’re here.”
“No, there,” he says. “Why were you there.”
“I want to get you inside,” she says.
“At that moment, at that corner,” he says, and then, “shut! The fuck! Up!”
“Phil,” she says, pulled back, pressed against her door, and “Sorry,” he says, “I’m sorry, that wasn’t, I didn’t, but why. Why then. Why there.”
“Three years,” she says.
“Why now,” he says.
“Three fucking years,” she says, “and you, you’re a, you, you don’t even have any goddamn pants.”
“Someone’s after me,” he says.
“Jesus,” she says, sitting up, peering at him. “Who?”
“All winter I spoke to no one,” he says, “and then this morning and now that, then, and I, I need to know. How. Why, you were there.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I wasn’t paying attention, I got turned around. I just, happened to be there.”
He’s tipped back his head, looking up at the finely nubbed beige ceiling, under the faint patter of rain.
“It’s not my car,” she says, handing him a steaming mug. He’s sitting on the bottom steps of a grand staircase, dull dark wood the color of his beard, a green towel about his shoulders, legs wrapped in a rainbow-colored God’s eye afghan. He takes the mug in both his hands but doesn’t lift it to his lips. The staircase climbs the side of a low broad room columned and beamed with more dark wood. Over there a sofa, a beanbag, a couple of chairs, all crouched before a big black flatscreen television, snarled in a nest of cables and consoles and decks. “Okay,” he says.
“It’s my cousin’s,” she says. “He lives out in Gresham.”
“Cousin,” he says.
“Ben?” she says. “You never met him.”
“In Khartoum, it was your aunt.”
“Yeah,” she says.
“Great-uncle, in Quito.”
“Jusshi’s more my grandmother’s, ex’s,” she’s waving a hand, “what’s the point? Here?”
“You got family everywhere.”
His mustache lifts a little, under it his lips spreading, in a, almost, but he ducks his head, a chuckled cough. Lifts the mug, and sips. “Might,” he says. “Be okay.”
“You don’t mean the tea,” she says, and he shakes his shaggy head. “No,” he says. “Tea’s good.”
“Good things do happen,” she says. He takes another sip. “Anyway. I borrowed Ben’s car because I had to haul some stuff out to Metro to recycle. Today’s, like, my Saturday? And I got turned around, on the way back, trying to remember how to get on the Steel Bridge. Which is why I was there, when you were.”
“What,” he says, and then, “I am,” and then, “what was it? You were taking back?”
“Paint,” she says.
She holds out her hand. “Come,” she says. “See.”
Up those stairs, and up another flight, up under the very peak of the house. She opens a door for him, the top of it cut at an angle to fit under the slope of the roof. “Go on,” she says.
“What is this,” he says, wrapped in that green towel, the tea mug in his hands. “Gonna,” he says, and then, “yes,” he says. “Okay. Good.”
“Go on,” she says.
The room within, stretching half the length of the house or more, the plaster of the attenuated walls and the long angled ceilings above, the evened planks of the floor planed smooth, all of it painted a flawless eggshell blue, a clear plain cloudless blue, seamless, depthless, clean and gleaming, fresh, the only shadows from the pallet in the middle of it, and the mattress atop that, pillowed in white. Hung to one side a photograph, out in the air of the room, a picture of a hand, the back of it roped with veins in rich greys, crisp blacks, reaching for something, or warding it off. “Oh,” says Mr. Keightlinger, stepping into the room, “oh, Ellen,” turning about, and again, “Yes,” says Phil. “Yes.”
A large squared-up white tent over rows of ruddy picnic tables, lit against the midday gloom by strands of yellow lights, each in its own bead-strung little copper-wire cage. Murmurs and low converse here and there, swaddled and slicked in rain gear, the clink of forks and spoons, the clack of chopsticks, white paper cartons of noodles, wraps bound in foil, and sprigs of cilantro and sprouts popping from their seams, red and yellow plates of waffles, fish tacos, slices of pizza yellow and white, studded with mushrooms, bacon, shriveled kale, neatly rounded heaps of mac and cheese. There in the back, by a table fixed up with taps, sits Jo in her black coat, short red hair pressed back, tearing a bite from a sloppy big-bunned sandwich. Looking up as she chews, swallows, waves him over, Christian in his grimy hoodie, carrying a paper bag, eyes narrowed over those hunched-up cheekbones. “You’re late,” she says, as he climbs onto the bench beside her.
“Busses,” he says, stashing the bag down between his feet as she takes another bite. “I see you went ahead and tucked in.”
“Yeah, well,” she says, chewing, swallowing, “the day I’m having. You want something?”
“Nah,” he says.
“Because the food carts here, anything you could want.” Putting her sandwich down, shreds of pulled pork glistening on the wrapper, “I swear,” she says, “I’m fine with the whole vegetarian thing, but every now and then?”
“I ain’t hungry,” says Christian.
“Big breakfast? You sleep all right?”
“Well enough,” he says. Looking about the tent. She’s taking a drink from a plastic cup, “He’s got this,” she says, gesturing at the table fixed up with taps, “beer? Brewed with chamomile, which, I mean, you’d think, but it’s great.”
“Hippy-dippy foodie crap,” says Christian. “Why’m I here, Jo-Jo.”
“Thought you might like some lunch,” she says, scooping up some loose pork.
“I work for you now, is that it?”
“You been working for me,” she says, licking her fingers clean. “I want to make good on that.” She reaches into her black coat, pulls out an envelope, manilla, thick, a little longer than her hand. Holds it out to him. After a moment, looking down at it, he takes it. Reaches in, pulls up a roll of worn bills, then tips out a phone and a slither, a chime, a key on a red plastic tag bouncing out that he manages just to lean over and catch.
“How’s that for good,” says Jo.
He’s shoving the roll of bills back into the envelope, quickly, “What is that,” he’s saying, “two hundred?” Dropping the envelope to the table, over the phone, the key.
“And a place to stay,” she says, shifting the envelope over, nudging the key. “It’s kinda easier, covering room, and board, than cash? This is just, walking around money. Buy yourself a coat or something.”
“You know me,” he says. “I like the rain.” He’s looking about the tent, at each cluster and knot of diners in turn. “Hey,” says Jo. “Christian. Christian.” He looks at her, those darkly narrowed eyes. “What’s in the bag,” she says.
A sheepish look, almost a grin, he looks away. Sucks his teeth. “That suit,” he says.
“Nah,” he says. “It ain’t.”
“Christian,” she says, but he’s saying, “How was this going down, in your head? You buy me a suit, you buy me a beer and I just, hang around, do whatever?”
“And a place to stay, with a bed, and a shower – “
“I can get that shit whenever I need it,” he says.
“You can’t just, keep doing favors for Sweetloaf, or whatever,” she says.
“Why, because you say so?”
“Pretty much,” she says. “Yeah. What I’m talking about, listen, you know how, like, Luys has a title? The Mason?”
“Jo,” he says.
“We’re talking about maybe getting, giving, giving you one.”
A snorted laugh, shaking his head, “You’re trying to, this, this is how you give somebody a promotion?”
“I’m trying to do you a favor,” she says.
“By dragging me into this, whatever this,” he says.
“It’s a better deal than I ever got.”
“And look at you now.”
“The hell is that supposed to,” she says, but he’s leaning back, spreading his hands, “What are you doing here,” he says. “Jo-Jo. That shit, last night, your roommate, the Queen, whatever, and this, the fuck is this. It’s all like, I went on a run up the Stadium Fred’s, come back to find Bambi’s the jefe now or something.”
“I am not some goddamn Bambi,” says Jo, her hand to her chest, her black turtleneck under the long black coat.
“Everybody’s Bambi, in the right woods,” says Christian. “And you sure as shit ain’t no fucking Duke.” He’s pushing up, off the bench, but she reaches for his arm, “Frankie’s dead,” she says.
“I heard,” he says, braced there, half off the bench, her hand on the sleeve of his sweatshirt, “Dammit, Christian,” she’s saying, “this isn’t a game. This is for your own – “
“And how deep in it did he get?” says Christian, tugging his arm free, stepping away from the picnic table.
“Christian,” she says. “Christian!” People around them looking up at that, watching as she tosses the envelope flopping at him, and he just manages to catch it. “At least take that,” she says. He’s glaring, but he’s folding the envelope, twisting it about, stuffing it in a pocket of his dungarees. “Come back in a couple weeks,” she says, “I’ll have more.”
“If you’re still here,” he says.
“Fuck you,” says Jo, as he turns and walks away, through the tables, toward the open door of the tent. She looks down, at the paper bag on the pavement beside her. Sweeps the phone and the key off the table and drops them both inside.
Christian heads toward the back of the bus, standing room only, hooks a hand about a pole there by the rear door, lowers his head as they get under way. When the bus says Southeast Belmont and César Chávez Boulevard, transfer to the 66, the 75, the crowd shifts, moving toward the front door, the rear door, and Christian worms his way through them, up into the elevated back end, swinging into a seat by a window. Two Brothers Cafe & Grill, says the sign painted on the red wall outside. Homemade Balkan Food. The envelope’s in his lap. That roll of bills in his hands. He’s skinning the rubber band off it, undoing and unfolding them, turning them about and folding them up again, all the while looking over the depleted crowd of passengers as the bus trundles on. The man, up front in the feathered trilby, loudly asking the driver about the MAX. Two women just below, draped in red abayat, black cloth shopping bags nestled at their feet. Christian’s shifting about, dipping a hand into this pocket, that. The bulky guy across from him, one hand holding a ribbon-bedecked hoop upright in the aisle, long grey socks and a corduroy kilt. Christian leans over to adjust the fit of a filthy blue running shoe, sits up, clapping dust from empty hands. The man in the oilskin duster, laid out across the last row of seats, eyes closed, lips pursed. Christian reaches into one more pocket, pulls out something clamped between thumb and palm, quickly covered by his other hand. One more look about, and then he parts them just enough to reveal a glimmer of gold, lighting the shadows cupped in his hands, a fingertip of dust, caught in a small plastic baggie.
His hand, back in his pocket. His eyes, closed.
It isn’t raining when he steps off the bus, onto slick wet brick, under the corner of an office tower. Slender grey columns and the glass sweep of a lobby, Key Bank, say the signs here and there. Over across that street a Chase Bank, and he makes his way behind the bus, jogging through stalled traffic toward awnings that say E-Trade Financial. On down the sidewalk, past the Sterling Bank, the Red Star crowded with diners and drinkers, a piano showroom, nearly empty, mannequins in the windows of a department store, neon-slashed running togs, dresses and skirts in pastels that froth about clean-limbed plastic, business suits in a bewildering variety of greys, stone and cloud, ash, herringboned water. Around a corner, across a street, a nod for a man sitting on a white plastic bucket, blurred sticks whipping a rattled tattoo from the white plastic buckets overturned about him. A bit of greensward slopes up sharply behind a wrought iron fence, and a grey stone pile of a courthouse, and then, there, opening out under the high grey sky a brick-paved plaza, hemmed by low walls and more wrought iron, the wide steps climbing the far side, the cyclopean blocks of a low concrete bunker at the head of it. People dot it, here and there, most of them clustered about food carts at the top of those steps, Shelly’s Garden, Cheese Steaks & Burgers, The Completo, say the signs above and about them. Christian turns about there on the corner in his grimy hoodie, jostled against a sudden rush, a dozen or so setting off as the light changes, but he’s looking off down the sidewalk after someone turning away, setting a broad-brimmed black leather hat in place, a narrow back in a ragged jacket, army-surplus green, an emaciated duffel, swinging from a shoulder. Christian frowns, shaking off a notion. Sets out across the bricks.
Up the steps to the far corner of the square, a low brick wall under glass awnings. Slouched back against a pale stone column a man in a fur-hooded anorak, dappled in a chocolate-chip desert camouflage, and his face brightens as Christian comes toward him, and he leans up holding out a hand for Christian’s hand held out, a slap and a clasp, “My drow!” he bellows, settling back against the column as Christian’s cheekbones hunch. “The hell are you?”
“Okay,” says Christian, sitting back against the brick wall.
“Yeah?” says the man in the anorak. “How long’s it been? Six months? How long you been back?”
“A week?” says Christian, with a shrug. “I figured, if you was still here, you’d be here.”
“You know it,” says the man in the anorak. “You got a place to stay? You doing all right?”
Christian shrugs. “Could be better.”
“I hear that,” says the man in the anorak. His jaw salted with stubble, along the one side a white stretch of skin, a scar that skews his smile. Under his anorak brown denim overalls and a faded pink Henley shirt. “Don’t know what to tell you, though. Might want to stay put.”
“Sorry,” says Christian, looking at him squarely now. “Thought I was talking to the XO.”
“Hey,” says the man in the anorak. “Hey. You go away, you come back – you’re in early, and that’s good, but you’re still at the back of all the lines. And everything’s all shook up, fuck knows where it’s gonna end up. You like boosting bikes?” Christian shrugs. “Kids over, down by the Esplanade? It’s what they’re working, these days. Open-air chop shops under I-5. How about the Copper Boys? Foreclosures, man, it’s a goddamn growth sector. Though I can’t keep straight who they’re turfing with anymore. Guy gets stabbed over some fucker’s drainpipe.” That scar dragging at his mouth as he squints. “Pity you was never any good at the double-tap game, no offense.”
“Yeah, fuck you,” says Christian, looking away.
“I’m not,” says the XO, lifting placatory hands, “I’m just saying. I’m not a racist here. You draw attention, is all.”
“I don’t need to be told,” says Christian.
“It’s all unsettled, is what I’m saying. They’re trying to pass another law to make it illegal to sit on the sidewalk, you know? And meanwhile damn near every empty lot in town it feels like, somebody’s started to build something. Where you gonna go?”
Christian’s pulled some money from a pocket of his dungarees, a few bills folded together and folded about again, and the XO his lips pursed, tautening that scar, sits up to take them, unfolding them and turning them about, counting them ostentatiously, one, two, three, four twenties. “Okay,” he says, slipping the bills into the bib pocket of his overalls.
“I know it’ll be safe,” says Christian.
“And I know you’ll be back for it,” says the XO, nodding. “Oh, hey,” he says, as Christian gets to his feet. “You hear Moody’s back?”
And Christian steps back, steps away, half a turn, looking back down along the plaza, “No,” he says, and then, “no. He,” looking back to the XO, “he got, like, ten years.”
The XO shrugs. “Angie Lil saw him getting off a bus from Salem this morning. The Dread Paladin, his own damn self.” That lopsided smile. “Man. Talk about the bad old days.”
A four-digit code, entered on a keypad, “Hey, Becker?” says the woman leaning in the doorway. “You clocked in?”
“Just about,” he says, pressing enter. Arnold Becker, says the screen, the computer a rounded blob all smoked plastic and bondi blue. 11:03 AM 03/21.
“Help Dorena get the lunch out,” says the woman in the doorway, “but then you and Tish are on Trans this afternoon.” Orange cats-eye glasses hang from a strand of beads about her neck.
“I thought,” he says. It’s a small room, not much more than a closet, and the wall behind him looming metal shelves, stuffed with jugs of soap and bundles of paper napkins and tubs of powdered milk. “I was on Wobblies this week. With Rose.”
“Sam’s out early today,” says the woman with the glasses, “and no way can Tish handle them by herself.”
“Okay,” says Becker, pulling on a dark blue apron, the front of it printed with a stylized Y in purple and white. Child Development Center, it says.
“Okay,” Becker’s saying, “okay,” as children swarm about, red and white stripes and blue and green stripes, blue and purple, wild bright blue shirts and solid reds and purples from royal to lavender, flower prints and appliqués and comic book prints and calicos and robots in orange and red, all of them hastening to sit in low little plastic chairs at low wide round tables that come up to about Becker’s knee. He’s holding up a plastic tray loaded with plates, each with an identical scoop of spaghetti in tomato sauce and a precise wedge of apple, white-fleshed, red-peeled. “Who’s ready for worms?” he says, and a lusty chorus of “No!” and “Eww!” erupts. “Who ordered the toad? Anybody?” Beaming as he leans over, setting a plate before each child.
Leaning back against a credenza, paper towels ready in either hand, “Spaghetti,” he mutters. “Why’d it have to be spaghetti.”
“You know the menu,” says the older woman beside him, in a similar dark blue apron, her short black hair caught up in hundreds of tiny braids. “Wednesday is spaghetti day.”
“Cobb,” says Becker, starting forward, towel up, “not in Brooklyn’s hair, not in Brooklyn’s hair – “
He’s wiping a boy’s hands, “If you need help with your juice,” he’s saying, “use your words,” when somewhere up behind him someone’s saying, “our Transitional group, between Toddler and Pre-K,” and someone else says, “Oh, it’s very impressive, a very impressive facility,” and Becker stiffens. “And the staff, too,” says that voice, deep, about to laugh at itself. “Impressive. Little Kayden’s going to love it here.”
Becker’s standing, turning, as there on the other side of the credenza the woman with the orange cats-eye glasses is saying, “I’m sorry, I thought it was, Hayden?” to the tall man, his back to Becker, a beige fleece pullover, a dress shirt under it, slate and gold stripes on white, and white cuffs. “Hayden, yes, of course,” he’s saying. An irritated shake of his head, dark hair carefully swept back. Looking down at the watch about his wrist, heavy and gold.
“Well,” says the woman with the glasses. “Why don’t we head back to the office and take a look at the schedule.”
Becker watches them go, down the corridor between credenzas and cabinets, bedecked with crayoned and finger-painted drawings and construction paper gee-gaws. Someone’s tugging on his apron, a girl in a blue tunic dress, a yellow lightning bolt zigging the front of it. “Becker,” she’s saying. “Becker. Teacher Tisha says. It’s time a do the cots.”
“Okay,” says Becker.
It’s dim now, mostly quiet, the muttered fluting of lullabies here and there from discreet speakers. Low plastic cots laid out on the floor and on each tiny forms under blankets, quietly restless, deathly still, there’s Becker, sitting between two of the cots there by the window, and outside pedestrians hastening past on the sidewalks, and traffic taking its turns through the intersection. He looks to his right, his hand cupping the the pale-haired head of a girl, eyes closed, jaw slack, a tiger clamped under one arm, and he pulls away, gently. She doesn’t stir. To his left, his hand clutched by a small boy, large dark eyes looking up through floppy bangs. Becker turns his hand in the boy’s hands, tugging it lightly, cocking an eyebrow, and after a moment the boy nods, gravely, lets go, burying his face in his light blue blanket. Becker slowly pushes himself to his feet.
“Hey,” he says, quietly, to Tish, sitting at one of those low round tables, papers spread out before her. “I need to take a minute.” Distracted, she nods.
Past sleeping toddlers, the corner chock-a-block with cribs, the cramped office, where the woman with the orange cats-eye glasses about her neck peers through a black-rimmed, thick-lensed pair at a computer screen, out through the cramped foyer lined with photos of children, children with their parents, with each other, portraits, holding basketballs or baseball bats, toys, with dogs, with a horse, with a clown. Out the high wood-paneled door into a high wood-paneled lobby, lunch counter to the left, and a great glass wall looking out on the sidewalk, and there, at a table on the other side of the revolving door, that beige fleece pullover, the heavy gold watch, reading a plastic-wrapped hardbound book. Adventures in Unhistory, says the cover. He closes it, sets it on the table as Becker pulls out a chair across from him. “Took you long enough,” says David Kerr.
“Why are you here,” says Becker.
“Wanna offer you a job,” says Kerr, and “I have a job,” says Becker, as Kerr’s saying “It’s a perfect match. In fact, you’ve done it before. In fact, you walked out on this very job last year with five minutes’ notice, but don’t worry. I know the boss. I’ll put in a good word.”
“I have a job,” says Becker.
“You change diapers,” says Kerr.
“Most meaningful work I’ve ever done.”
“Oh, I get it, I do.” Kerr leans back, arms folded. “Hubby earns the daily bread, so you can afford to go back to school, find yourself, make a difference. How wonderful.” Leaning forward, as Becker blinks, “Doesn’t it even begin to bother you? That you don’t know why? You don’t know how?”
“How, how what,” says Becker.
“Tell me, does he stir a pinch in your juice every morning? Your coffee? No, wait – he’s a mechanical type, our Pyrocles. A tinker. I bet he’s measured out precise doses in proper little pills for you, hasn’t he. All lined up in the medicine cabinet, one a day. Am I right? Tell me I’m right.” Sitting back, a finger to his lips, all hatched about with stubble. “And you have no goddamn idea what it’s doing to you. Or what it is inside you, that it’s doing it to. Or what else it might be fucking up, along the way. Your liver? Kidneys? Your blood, your brain,” and “Shut up,” says Becker, as Kerr says, “your heart? Tell me. True love. What’s that worth – cirrhosis? Stroke?”
“What the fuck do you want,” says Becker, leaning over the table.
“What’s in you,” says Kerr. “What forgets. What doesn’t want to know. It’s still in there, just, held at bay, by those little,” he taps the table, “yellow,” tap, “pills.” Tap. “And I’m gonna need it, sooner than I’d thought. Which means, I need you.” A sigh. “I don’t like needing people. I have this weakness, where I want to make sure the people I need are safe? Comfortable, even. So I do stupid things,” and he picks up his book, tucking it away in a sleek leather bag, “like call in favors to set up cushy jobs with grotesquely swollen paychecks.”
“I’m not interested, David,” says Becker, as Kerr gets to his feet. “I know,” says Kerr. “I’m not an idiot. But. When you need me, and you will,” he smiles, “don’t worry about a phone call, or an email. Just,” and he’s turning, he’s walking away, “say my name,” he says, over his shoulder. “I’ll be there,” and Becker watches him push through the revolving door, out onto the sidewalk.
He sits up on that white-pillowed bed in the soft blue room, his beard, his hair now dry, spread out ruddy brown about his head, his shoulders, his chest, his back hatched with darker hair the curves of sagging muscle, thick round waist. Rubbing an eye with the heel of his hand. “Time’s it,” he says, a gravelly rumble.
“After two,” she says. Sitting tailor-fashion on the soft blue floor. “Go back to sleep.” Wearing loose black yoga pants, reading a tablet computer resting on the floor. “You need it.” Tattoos in black ink swarm over shoulders, her upper arms, down her back and over around her breasts, calligraphic vines and branches, leaves and flowers, birds and animals, magpie and owl, a fox, a crane, rabbit, maple and oak, pear blossoms, pine cones, katsura, elm.
“I’m not asleep,” he says.
She looks up, sets the tablet aside. Standing stepping up to kneeling on the bed, straddling him to kiss and kiss him again, taking his head in her hands as she sits on his white-pillowed lap and kisses him once more. “I didn’t,” he says, between them, “I’m not, I don’t,” and he kisses her, his hands on her waist, her sinewy ink-shadowed shoulder, and “I don’t,” she says, “either, I just,” and one more kiss. “I missed this.”
“You,” he says, arms about her.
“You,” she says, forehead against his.
On his belly arms spread wide and she’s laid herself over him, wrapped around him, fingering the hair on the back of his shoulder. “I left him on the bridge,” he says, and she doesn’t say anything in return, she waits, as he licks his lips, ducks his head, shoulders rising tense beneath her arm a breath, taken in, and then, “It turned out not to matter but I didn’t – know that, when I did. And he wasn’t supposed to be a friend, but he was, but at that moment. I turned around. I walked away. I left him. On the bridge.”
“Who, him,” she says.
“Charles,” he says, “Charley, Doctor Charley. Charlock.” Lifting his great shaggy head from the pillow. “All one. He played me. He played everybody, but still. I didn’t know that, when I walked away. He wasn’t even real, but,” and “Phil,” she’s saying, “Phil,” stroking his shoulder, he’s looking up, all the blue above, “I left him,” he says. “I walked away.”
“From what,” she says, and “Listen,” he snarls, turning to her, and “I am,” she says, arm still about his shoulder, “I just don’t get it.”
“That’s not listening,” he says, fist clenching white sheets. “That’s hearing.” His head hung low.
“Magic,” she says, after a moment. “I hate magic.” Lying down on the pillow, looking up at him. He turns away, eyes clamped shut, “It is,” he says, “what it is. I can’t change it around just so you can follow.”
“All right,” she says. “Okay.” Stroking his beard, the curl of his cheek. “Just,” she says. “Answer one question? Try?”
He falls over, on his side, head on his folded arm, catches her hand, presses it to his lips. “This room,” he says. “Ellen, this room. I wish I could never leave this room.”
“Phil,” she says, taking back her hand. “You said he died. Did you, did, what you did, was that what, got him killed?”
He falls away onto his back, looking up at the blue. She watches him, closely, until under his mustache his lips purse and part and he says, “No.”
“So,” she says, stretching her arm across his chest, “there’s that,” but he’s sitting up, sweeping back his hair, “I should,” he says. “I should go.”
“Phil,” she says, falling back to the pillow, as he climbs off the bed. “Phil,” she says again, but he rounds on her, the hairy bulk of him naked in all that blue, “I can’t!” he roars. “Stay!”
She sits up, not looking at him. “You can’t,” she says, “you can’t go, Phil,” and she swings her feet to the floor. “Not like that. You need some clothes.”
“I’ll think of something,” he says. “Ellen. Nothing you have will fit.”
“I have housemates,” she says, padding away across the soft blue floor. When she opens that angled door, he winces.
Grey clouds now a chilly ceiling, high above. He looks away from it, tugging the broad brim of that black leather hat down over his eyes. Striding across the mostly empty parking lot toward a simple arch at the far corner, a green sign that says Springwater Corridor hung over a narrow paved path. Railroad tracks to the left, and the fenced-in yard of a gravel plant to the right, towering tanks and pipes, virgules of conveyor belts, all of it silent and still. Him, in his ragged jacket, army surplus green, duffel swaying, passing under the arch. Another sign, low, white, says Stop! Please Use Caution – Heavy Truck Traffic.
Past the plant the fence to the right is swallowed in brown vines dotted over with swollen buds, purpled, tipped with impossibly potential green. Over beyond it the river, dull steel scraped by wavelets rippled, dark. To the left now a slope rising steeply above the railroad tracks, grey and brown with mud, brushed with green. Shadows ahead, beneath a high bridge, and traffic hissing and booming over it, the concrete pillars of it tattooed with grubby rainbows of graffiti, signatures, sigils, cartoons. He lifts his hat, a salute, and pushes on.
Calved from the bridge an offramp on spindly pillars curls through the air above to merge with a freeway along the top of that steep slope. He’s eyeing it, as he comes out from under the bridge, every now and then looking down to the railroad track, and the fence along it. The river, ignored, runs sluggish, high. Down a ways something’s fastened to the fence, about the brightening grass, and he fixes on it: a green plastic cat bowl, set in a gap cut in the cyclone fencing, so it might be reached from either side, a clear plastic reservoir filled with kibble wired to the post above it. He stops there, nudging it with a worn black boot, looking up and down the paved trail. Back that way under the bridge a cluster of cyclists, headed his way. He tosses the duffel up and over the fence, then grabbing the fencepost wire ringing under his boots up it and over it after the bag. Looking up and down the railroad track he darts across it, into the brush, and up and up the muddy slope.
Halfway along there’s a path, running along a brow of earth, treacherous under his boots, high above the railroad and the bicycles passing below. Scrubby trees, bare branches touched with green, lean out over the drop. He braces himself against one, a balustrade to clamber the last steep hillock of path, onto the narrow top of the slope, there between the trees and the dark galleries under the freeway – regular bays between concrete walls that uphold the deck, floored with clayey dirt that’s studded with gravel, rising abruptly at the back to meet the thrumming, rumbling road above. The first gallery’s empty, and a great eye painted on one concrete wall, the iris of it elaborately paned, red paint squiggled over the pupil. A low flat rock’s been set at the edge of the overgrown path, and on it pebbles mark out a shape, a crude face, two eyes, the curve of a smile. He laughs, a quiet snort, and picks up one of the pebble-eyes, rough and black in his fingers. He whips it away, zip and slither, lost in the grass. Looks about. The river, so far below.
The next gallery, an old green tent, splashed with mud since dried. Stuffed black garbage bags arrayed before it. He passes by without a second look. Three figures in the next, a-sprawl on blue plastic tarps laid over the hard-packed earth, and here he pauses, tips back his hat. One of them sits up, a man in a long blue-black down coat, scratching his nose above a ragged beard.
“Winks,” says the man in the black hat. “Looking for Winks.”
The man in the down coat looks over at the figure beside him, a featureless bundle of old blankets, then waves a hand, go on, down that way, away, as he lays himself back down.
Murmurs still themselves in the next gallery, three, four kids in black denim and leathers tinged brown and red, hair shaved and shaped in drooping spikes, tufted braids, grimy hanks, bottles in hands. Past them the raw earth under the highway’s been tumbled, piled, a yawning mouth scratched at the base of the concrete piling. The man in the black hat steps off the path, heads up toward it. The kids watch. He looks back, a hand braced on the lip of the tunnel, “Winks?” he says.
No one speaks. Smoke unspools from the joint one of them’s holding. He settles the black hat more firmly on his head and ducks into the darkness.
Low, cramped, the floor uneven. He bumps the wall and loose dirt patters his shoulders, plops the brim of his hat. Down a ways a lick of light. “Winks?” he calls.
“Who’s that,” a gruff voice, muffled.
“It’s me,” he says, pushing on down the tunnel. “I’m back.”
“Who’s you,” that voice, light leaps, shadows jerk and lurch, “that’s back.” Light flares, a battery lantern held up, a beardless face, filthy, a squint over rounded cheeks. The lantern dips, the face draws back, up, “Paladin,” says Winks.
“They said you was up here,” says Moody, doffing his hat. His smile quite sharp.
“I kept her safe,” says Winks, backing away.
“Lucinda?” says Moody. “Well. Time I took her back.”
The lantern ducks, is lost in sudden darkness. A glimmer, there, off to the right. Moody stoops off toward it, a turning that opens into a low room, one wall of it pitted concrete, the lantern set on a tummock. Winks sprawls in the light of it over the uneven floor, a bundle of sweatshirt over sweater over coveralls, sodden with mud, rummaging through bags and sacks, plastic crates, one sagging cardboard box, all full of clothing, coats and blankets, empty cans, bottles, bundles of newspaper, “I thought,” says Winks, tossing a fluttering magazine, “you got the chair?”
“They don’t do that anymore,” says Moody. “It was only ten years.”
“Ten years?” says Winks, astonished, rolling over, sitting up. “Has it been so long?”
After a moment, Moody says, “Yeah.” And then, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Told you I kept her safe,” says Winks, handing over a slender package wrapped in grubby cloth. Moody takes it, unwinds it, tugs from it glinting a silver handle, wrapped in wire, snug in a black leather sheath. “Lucinda,” he says, slipping free an inch or so of the blade. Leaning down to sniff it.
“I am so glad you’re back, Paladin,” says Winks.
“The Sikes-Fairbourne,” says Moody, drawing the rest of the knife free, a tapered poignard. “Only fourteen ever made. MI6 gave ’em out to top operatives. I got one when I was over there, with Echo Force? That’s like, Delta, only even more top secret. Need to know.”
“Yeah,” says Winks. “Kids, these days.”
Squatting, leaning back against the muddy wall, blade in one hand, sheath in the other, “Thank you, Winks. For looking after my Lucinda.” His eyes quite serious now, and his mouth, under the beak of his nose. “But I’m afraid I’ve got another favor to ask.”
“What’s that,” says Winks.
The first cry’s thready, muffled, and the kids look up, out there under the highway. One of them hands the joint to the next in the circle but then a loud, a frantic scream claws up out of the hole in the mud, cut off in a gurgle, and almost as one they stand, they back away, they turn, flitting off along the top of the slope, some this way, some that. A minute passes, or three, and a scrabble, a hand, Moody pulling his muddy, dusty self out of that hole, straightening in the shadows, looking up at the concrete above. His mouth, his chin, his throat slicked dark with blood. The knife in his hand stained red with it. He wipes the blade on his thigh and slips it back into its sheath, drops it into his duffle. Sets off, picking his careful way downhill.
Adventures in Unhistory, written by Avram Davidson, ©1993 Owlswick Press.
A powder-blue town car swings a left turn under the yellow light, jerking to a halt there to the side of a green two-storey clapboard building, backing and filling into a space just past the corner as a couple of cars struggle around. Settling a good two feet from the curb. The old man with some effort climbs out from behind the wheel, closing the door firmly, wiping the chrome handle with a cloth that he folds and tucks into the pocket of his suit coat, a dark brown sharkskin gleaming in the dark grey evening light. The corner of that green building the angled foyer of a modest storefront, and hung above it a blue and orange sign, jutting out over the sidewalk, neon bright against the darkening, Alberta Rexall Drugs, it says. Scowling, he brushes down the front of his suit, his vest, runs fingers through his hair, that circle of crisp curls almost yellow against the reddish darkness of his bare bald head. Takes a deep breath.
Inside, round formica tables each with a candle guttering, some with diners, couples, glasses of wine, water, plates of bread, little bowls of salt, cruets of oil, vinegar, “layered with a pesto,” a woman’s saying, “of tarragon and parsley,” as she’s handing a wine list to a man sitting at one of the front tables, but “Excuse me, miss,” says the old man, door swinging shut behind him. “Where is she?”
“I, ah,” she says, looking up at him, startled. “Do you mind?” says the man with the wine list, affronted.
“’Fraid not,” the old man says to him, and then, “Miss?”
Wordless she points, back that way, to a door, painted red.
Through that door, a dim hall, clatter and rush of the kitchen to one side, a canvas curtain lifted to reveal an echoing room, opening out, the floor and walls painted an old thin dusty black, brightly lit. Folding chairs in rows on stepped platforms raised up, three sides about the room, and up there behind him, he’s turning about, a woman sits in the last row, draped in a thin white gown, her left arm sleeved in polished plate, cop and pauldron, vambraces and cowter. Her hair a close-shorn cap, gunmetal grey. “Gordon,” she says.
“Linesse,” he says.
“So. Now that you’re here,” faint squeak and scrape of metal as she gestures, clack, “what do you think?”
He shrugs. “Slap up some paint, pull in some tables, maybe a couple of four-tops, it’s a nice private dining room.”
“I like the theatre.”
“You’ll never make any money,” he says.
“That’s not why I like the theatre.”
He shifts, scuff of shoe. “I need a favor.”
Smiling, she stands, comes down the steps, whisper of gown, slip and snap of sandals, clank of plate about her arm. “So that’s why you’ve dressed,” she says, looking him up and down in his suit.
“This morning,” he says, as she passes behind him, “some of Tommy Tom’s bravos came to coffee. Boggs Gaffer, and also Swift, and Dogstongue.”
“It seems we’ve got off on the wrong foot,” she says, at his side, “if we’re to speak of boons. I should’ve named you Porter, and not encouraged such familiarity.”
He stiffens, draws an aggrieved breath, “That’s not what I am,” he says. “No drop, nor pinch.”
“But you did not renounce your office,” she says. “You still serve the court.” He flinches at the touch of her hand, a ghostly thing beneath the bright cuff of the vambrace. “I wonder,” she says, stepping back, and again, “were I to draw on you,” two more steps back, in a rush, plated arm lifted before her, shining in the light, and held low in her other hand a sword, the blade of it short, and broad, “were I to cut at your chest, your head,” a sliding sidelong step toward him, that sword swung out, and back, and up, “would you block it, with your mace?”
His eyes are closed, his head inclined. His hands at his side. “Marquess,” he says. “I would ask of thee a boon.”
Clank and squeak as she lowers her arm. “Speak to the Soames,” she says. “Your problem’s with his men, not mine.”
“You know I cannot do that,” he says. “But – from one peer, to another – “
“When I’ve no stake in the matter?” she says, stepping toward him.
“More domestics come to my house from your fifth, than any other,” he says. “Do it for them, if not – “ but she’s taken another step, another dismissive flick of her fingers, “You keep an open house,” she says. “Free to all. Even bravos.”
“There are limits!” he cries, words ringing in that space.
“Then make them known,” she says, moving past him, “and see that they are kept,” headed back to the stepped rows of folding chairs.
“If not,” he says, and he stops. His hands clasped together, lifted up before his chest, beneath his chin. “For what we’ve meant, to each other.”
One foot on a riser she stops, looks back, over her shoulder, “What’s that, exactly?” she says. Turning, when he doesn’t respond, to look at him there, in his brown suit, head bowed under all that light.
“I will speak with him,” she says, then. “Though it will do no good.”
“It is as you say,” says Gordon.
Wide noodles slippery under a dollop of red ragù, white feathery curls of cheese, a sprinkle of herbs, his fork, gleaming in his hand. “It’s, um, it’s fantastic.”
“The smell of it?” Pyrocles points with his own fork, a fat round ravioli hanging from its tines, dripping a plum-dark sauce. “You haven’t had a bite.”
“Sorry,” says Becker, scooping and twining up a noodle. “Sorry, I just, a – “
“Did you want something else?”
“What? No! No.” Becker takes his bite, slurping, chewing. “Hey,” he says, “so,” and swallowing, “now I know what wild boar tastes like.” A gesture of his fork. “How’s, ah, how’s your celery root?”
“Delicious,” says Pyrocles, forking up another ravioli. “You do not recall, but we met – the first time – at a boar hunt.”
“We, we did?” says Becker.
“One the old Duke called,” says Pyrocles, “for Erymathos Kernel-Hearted. I was to stand for the Hound, but,” a small smile, “the Mooncalfe drew on me, for no reason, and took me with his tricksy stop-thrust.” The pewter beads at the ends of his mustaches gleam in the candlelight. “And you, you came and held the cup that caught my offering,” and Becker looks away, blinking, and a clatter of dropped fork Pyrocles reaches for Becker’s hand, “oh, blast me for a fool – the last thing that I wanted,” and “No,” Becker’s saying, “no,” squeezing Pyrocles’s hand, “it’s, it’s,” and a sniff, “you don’t,” he says, “why would you, why hunt a boar? You don’t eat boar.”
“Of course not,” says Pyrocles, brows pinched. “He was a monster. One does not eat monsters,” and Becker laughs, a sputtering cough too loud, quickly swallowed. Works another noodle onto his fork but doesn’t lift it, yet. “David Kerr found me today,” he says.
“The melanchlœnidon,” says Pyrocles, and “Ah, yes,” says Becker. Pyrocles tosses his wadded napkin to the table. “I would do no murder, love,” he says, “but that man I’d leave bleeding in a ditch.”
“He didn’t do anything,” says Becker.
“He’s done enough,” says Pyrocles.
“He just, he wanted to talk. He let something slip, I don’t know. Maybe it was on purpose. He told me why it was he wanted me to have that awful job.”
“He wants you,” says Pyrocles.
“No, no, I mean yes, but, he also,” leaning forward, “he wants what I do. When I’m not – the thing that forgets, he said. That doesn’t want to know. That’s what he – wants.”
“He will not touch you,” says Pyrocles. “He will not approach you again – he came to your work? The day-care center? I will speak with the Viscount. We will have someone to watch over you, when we must be apart,” and Becker’s saying, “That’s, that’s, he just, he didn’t try to hurt me, or anything, he just – he rattled me – “
“He means to take you,” says Pyrocles. “I will not let that happen.”
Becker smiles, a little.
“What is it, love,” says Pyrocles a moment later, two.
“That’s,” says Becker, “that’s the question, isn’t it.” A hand to his temple, his thinning hair. “What is it, in me, that does that. Fucks things up. That he wants.”
“It is you,” says Pyrocles.
“But what about me,” says Becker. “If we could, figure that out, get rid of it – not just hold it off,” and he laughs, takes up his fork again. “I mean, it’s not like there’s a doctor I can see about this.”
“You are what doesn’t want to know,” says Pyrocles, gently. “You are what forgets. There’s nothing to get rid of. It’s, you.”
“But that’s why we, that’s why I take the stuff,” says Becker. “So I don’t lose me. So I don’t go away.”
“Yes,” says Pyrocles, frowning, looking down. “I, yes.”
He picks up a pair of sunglasses from the floor, the left lens of them spiraled with spidery letter-shapes written in white ink. “Let me guess,” says Ellen. “Those aren’t yours.”
“They’re mine,” he says. “But I left them over there. On the dresser.” He moves to tuck them into a pocket, but he’s wearing a bright aloha shirt, splashes of blue and yellow and white, and no pocket to put them in.
“So,” she says, looking about the grubby little room. “You get this by the week or something?” The rumpled green walls, the neatly narrow ned, thin beige blanket tucked and folded, neon blinking shining on and off and on again through the one lone window.
“I gave them a bunch of money a while ago,” he says. “They leave me alone.”
She’s looking at the mirror hung above the dresser, written over in curling, branching, slashed and dotted letter-shapes. “So it pays well, huh? This stuff?”
“You’re angry,” says Phil, sunglasses in his hand.
“You’re back,” she says, turning away from the mirror, “you’re safe,” heading for the door, “there’s no bogeyman or pea-soup vomit to clean up, so I’ll, just – “
“Dinner,” he says.
“I – should go, Phil. I’m sorry. I have to work in the – “
“Wait,” he says, “wait,” unbuttoning the wildly flowered shirt, “let me – “
“Keep,” she says, “the shirt. I never, I hate the way Dan looks in that damn thing.”
“You,” he says, and then, “you’re close.”
“You don’t get to ask that,” she snaps, and he starts to say “I’m” but “Goddammit,” she says, turning away. “I was really starting to like it here.”
“You don’t have to,” he says, but “North,” she says. “I’ll just go north. Keep going. All the way.”
“Ellen,” he says.
“What the hell, right? Yellowknife! I mean, what are the chances you’ll.”
“Ellen,” he says, again. “Don’t go. I’ll go.” Stepping toward her. “Ellen?” She doesn’t shift to follow him as he steps to one side, doesn’t finish her sentence, lower her hand, blink, doesn’t breathe. “It,” he says, looking from her to the window, red neon shining balefully, steadily, on. Just on. “Oh,” he says. He turns to look at the door. There’s a knock.
He opens the door on a woman pugnaciously short, all in pearly grey, who pushes past him into the room, right up to Ellen, hiking up on the toes of her sensible shoes. Peering at the fronds and feathers of black ink that curl about the collar of Ellen’s denim jacket. Stepping back the woman favors Phil with a look, brow cocked over blue-limned eyes, something skeptical about the set of her brick-painted lips. “You,” says Phil, but she’s moving on, peering a moment at the written-over mirror, sliding open the closet door. Rattle of hangers, crinkle of plastic. “Three,” Phil’s saying, “months.”
“Vacation is over,” she says, pulling out a suit wrapped in a clear dry cleaner’s bag. “Or did you think you’d been let go? Feet first. You know that.” She rips open and off the plastic.
“I thought you’d forgotten,” says Phil.
“Backlog,” she says, laying the suit out across the bed, flat, black, jacket and pants. “Which means work to be done. An entire verse of Antethesis, loose in the world.”
“That,” he says, and then “I,” and then, looking to Ellen, “well. I know where it must be.”
“Dormant in a heart, but which?” says the woman all in grey. “The Queen’s? Her pet’s? Or perfidious Lier’s?”
“You,” he says, a turn of his head, a shake of it forestalled. “You think Lier?”
“His name’s still known,” she says. “Antethesis didn’t take him. What else could?”
Leaning over the bed, he lays a hand on the black suit jacket, and a breath. Then Mr. Keightlinger takes it up.
He fills the little doorway, and behind him a wild bright blaze. Making way for her he backs into it, candlelight that soaks him golden, white, his plain white T-shirt, yellow cardigan, black hair gleaming, gentle smile. “Jesus, Luys,” says Jo all in black, red hair aflame, looking about the cramped trailer, and candles everywhere, along the little countertop, tapers lining the sills of the windows, and back there over the low bed in its alcove, votives scattered over the floor of the narrow shower stall, immensely glossy blocks with three wicks each or four clustered on the table there in the nose of it, and a small feast of take-out boxes arrayed with napkins, chopsticks, a couple of bottles of beer. “After this morning,” he says, as he lowers himself into the booth.
“That’s,” she says, “you didn’t, there was nothing to make up for – “
“I wanted to,” he says. “To do something romantic.”
“It’s certainly that,” she says, picking up one of the bottles. Taking a swig.
“Well sit down,” he says, “dig in. I got you a whole order of, of the garlic broccoli,” and he frowns. She’s still pulling at the bottle, great thirsty swallows, and most of it gone when she lowers the bottle, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Is everything all right, your grace?” he says.
“I lost Christian,” she says, and she polishes off the beer.
“Lost,” he says.
“He said no. He walked away. He took the money.” She’s shucking her long black coat, turning about, careful of all the candles, “Tell me something,” she says, her back to him, laying the coat over the low bed. “It’s a little weird, but, did you see him, eat? Anything? Last night?”
“At the party?” says Luys, sitting back. “I think so. Yes.”
“You think so.”
“Yes you think so, or yes you did?”
“Jo,” he says.
“Sorry,” she says, turning about, sitting there on the bed. “Sorry. It’s, it’s stupid, but.” Looking down, at her red shoes. “I had a dream, last night.” He leans forward, elbows on knees, intent on her. “More of a fragment,” she says. “An impression. I was, I was back at the bridge, at the World Trade Center, waiting for the sorcerer, and Ysabel, to come up the escalator, only, it wasn’t them, coming up? It was Christian, I could see his face, coming up, only he was dressed all in green, and I knew, the minute I saw him, it was too late. I wasn’t gonna be able to save him. That I hadn’t saved him, because it’d been too late long ago.” She looks up at him. “I think something happened, after what went down, last year. I think, I was thinking. Maybe he’s a ghost.”
“Christian?” says Luys.
“That’s a thing ghosts don’t do, right? Eat?”
He leans forward, reaches out for her hand. The bit of leather about his wrist, dull against his yellow cuff. “I’ve never met a ghost, my lady,” he says.
“Oh,” she says, “I thought,” sitting back, her hand slipping free, “I thought maybe,” and she sighs. “I don’t know,” she says. “I just don’t goddamn know.”
“Lady?” he says.
“Can I,” she says, “can I show you something? I just, I gotta,” all at once she lifts the hem of her turtleneck skinning it up and off to drop on the floor before her. “Right,” she says, eyes closed, “here,” fingertips pressed to her sternum, trembling, “just look,” she says. “It’s not,” twisting, wrist, hand, pressing again, “sometimes,” and she yelps, slumping, he’s swarming out of the both on his knees to catch her, hands on her shoulders, “Lady,” he says, and “Look!” she snarls through her teeth. Knuckled fist pounding her chest. “Look!”
He does, and he looks away, and again, and he sighs. “I see nothing that should not,” he says, and then, “oh.”
“You see it,” she says.
“I thought, perhaps,” he says, “a shimmer?” His hand, roughly brown, tenderly shades her skin.
“The shine, the rainbows, like, like soap,” she says.
“Like oil,” he says. She sags against him in his arms about her. “What is it?” he says.
“The, the, it’s the quicksmoke,” she says, against his chest.
“What is that,” he says.
“You don’t.” Leaning back she looks at him. “You don’t know what quicksmoke is.”
He shakes his head. “I’ve never heard the word before this moment.”
She leans back against the bed, out of his grasp, closing her eyes. “Well, shit,” she says.
What little light there is leaks in from other rooms to catch on dishes piled in the sink, dents in the counter’s aluminum trim, the chrome frame of a plastic-backed chair, and abrupt slashes shine across the black and white checkerboard floor, a warm glow struck from the doorknob there in the back, jiggling, rattling, a clank. It turns then, in that oblong of dim light, and the door, shivering, opens.
He steps through, ragged jacket, broad-brimmed hat, moving with quiet care. Slipping a contraption of snarled wire into a pocket. Looking about. A television’s burbling, somewhere else in the house. A table, there, piled with loose paper, stacks of mail. He sits, carefully, in one of the chairs beside it, slips the duffel from his shoulder, sets it quietly, on the floor. Doffs the hat, holds it a moment over the crammed table, then sets it in his lap. Leans back in the chair. It creaks. He cocks his head, listening. The television’s laughing at its own jokes.
Again, he leans back. Again, a creak. Then he pushes the chair back, a scrape, and listens. A murmur, a cough, something’s said, a sharp retort. A thump, a slam, heavy footsteps, coming closer. At the table he smiles, then swallows it, a hand up over his eyes.
Snap of a switch, light flares, “Son of a bitch,” says the man in the doorway up there, that awkward corner landing, behind a heavy bannister. “Moody?” His T-shirt says Still Haven’t Used Any Algebra Yet. His jockey shorts are purple. “The hell did you get in here,” he says. His jaw salted with stubble, and along the one side tight white skin, a scar that skews his scowl. “How the hell you even know where here was, to get into?”
“XO,” says Moody, hand still shading his eyes. “Mind turning off the light?”
“Fuck you,” says the XO. A short staircase at his feet, mostly covered over with a sheet of plywood, a makeshift ramp. “I told you where to find Winks,” he says, coming crabwise down it. A can of beer in his hand. “You’re overdrawn at the favor bank.”
“I spent seven months in solitary,” says Moody, putting his hat back on, “for killing a man on the chow line. He was a rapist and a pedophile and he deserved to die most cruelly, but it brought me to their attention. On my seventeenth day in the hole, a man came to see me.”
“I do not care,” says the XO, as Moody says, “This man had come up through the ranks in the black site prisons of Antaviliai and Djibouti, and was once in charge of Extreme Interrogation at Guantánamo. He invented half the tricks they use to cause excruciating pain without a single incriminating mark.”
“Moody, man, you cannot sit here and keep,” says the XO, but Moody’s rolling on, “Every day for five of those six months he used those tricks to ask me questions, over and over again, and I. Never. Answered. One.”
“The hell is that on your face,” says the XO. Somewhere else away off in the house another thump, a churning squeal, getting closer.
“But every single one of those questions,” says Moody, tugging down the brim of his hat, “was about you. And the CO. And the jefes. All the things, we used to get up to.” Up on that awkward landing a rattling clank, a squeak, a wheelchair backing out of the shadows, grey plastic push handles poking up out of a grey thermal blanket draped over the back of it, over the shoulders of the man glaring over his shoulder at them, “What on earth,” he growls, one eye squinted shut by the snarl of wrinkles that radiates from his sunken nose. “Who is this, Chad.”
“Just Danny Moody, Dad,” says the XO, and then, “sit the hell down!”
“I’m paying my respects,” says Moody, half out of his chair. He sits himself back down. “An honor, to finally meet the CO,” he says.
The old man’s chin juts up at that. “You a jefe?”
“He was, Dad,” says the XO, as Moody says, “The Dread Paladin, sir. I’ve been down in Salem the last little while. But I’m back.”
“And who was it, asking questions,” says the CO.
“The feds, sir,” says Moody. “My guess, a task force aimed at rolling up your whole network. But they didn’t get anything out of me.”
“Dad, he’s just,” says the XO, as the CO says, “What do you need.” The XO blurts out, “Dad!” Moody’s smile is pointed, there under the pointed beak of his nose, over his dark-scabbed chin. “A place to sleep,” he says. “I wouldn’t say no to a hot shower.”
“Make it so,” says the CO, setting himself to the wheels of his chair. The XO looks down, muttering something, bare legs knobby and pale in the light. “Thank you, sir,” says Moody, as the CO squeakily wheels away. “You won’t regret it.”
A running shoe in one hand, blue and brown, a square-toed Oxford black in the other, he stands there, looking from one to the other, “Where was I,” he says. Setting them both on the counter, he pushes the running shoe over to the woman on the other side, holding the mate, brown and blue. Her jacket and her long brown hair dark with rain. She puts hers by the one he’s given her, “So, now what?” she says. “Do I put them on?” and he shrugs. “You can, if you like,” he says. “They’re shoes.” He drops the lone black Oxford onto the jumbled pile of shoes at his feet. “Welcome to Portland,” he says.
Patter of rain against plastic tarps, blue and green, garbage bags stretched over flattened cardboard boxes, a lean-to strapped to the high wire fence along the sidewalk. A curl of freeway overhead, a shadowed mass above the streetlight, and the blank black sky beyond. His grimy hoodie blotched with rain, he kneels at one end of it, lifting a flap, “Hey,” he says. “I’m with the XO. Jefe’s here?” Three or four figures lying under the shelter, on old blankets, a sleeping bag, more flattened cardboard. One of them maybe nods. “So who are you,” says another one, but the fence rings as he curls up against it, sitting himself as much under the shelter as he can get. His eyes narrowed over cheekbones hunched. “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he says.
Spitting toothpaste into the sink, rinsing his brush, running it about his mouth, leaning over to spit once more. Stays there, hanging there, bent over the sink. A hand on his shoulder, firm, knuckles yellowed, nails cut short, “Don’t forget your medicine,” hale, good-humored, and he nods. He lifts himself as the hand’s lifted away, opens the medicine cabinet, plucks a blue plastic pillbox from among the bottles of cologne, the shaving bowl and brushes, the pomade-tin. Unsnapping the lid, the light changes about him, warming his face as he lifts it away. Within, clear gel caps each a pinch of glimmering gold. He plucks one up, lifts it to his lips, gingerly between his teeth. A moment, over the sink, hands braced to either side. He closes his mouth. He swallows.
Muttering, open shirt billowing as he moves about the cavernous room, feet bare on the unfinished wood floor. Undoing his white cuffs. The shadowy suggestion of columns about him, glints from the glass of the windows beyond. Throwing back his arms he lets the shirt slip down and off, “architectonically,” a word that can be made out of his glossolaly, and then, undoing the buttons of his fly, hopping awkwardly as he kicks one leg free, then the other, “environmentally,” and he leaves his pants behind him. Naked but for his heavy gold watch he moves to the middle of the irregular polygon he’s paced off in the dust, and kneels, undoing the latch on his watchband, slipping his hand free. “Syzygonomical,” he says, letting go of the watch, left hung in the air before him. He lets out a breath of relief. “All right,” he says. “Let’s see where you’ve gone.”
“Good God damn about anything happening,” she says, “in,” looking about the grubby, empty little room. “Yellowknife,” she says, perplexed. Neon shining on and off through the one lone window. Crimpled plastic, some discarded dry cleaning bags, splayed over the foot of the neatly made bed. “Phil?” she says. Turning about. There, by the door left ajar, splinters of black plastic on the stained carpet. She picks up a pair of sunglasses, one arm dangled awry, and the left lens cracked, gone smokey blank and grey.
Those blazing candles along the sills and counters juddering, flickering, something’s shaking the trailer. Under the tiny sink a cabinet door pops open, a worn black orthopædic shoe wiggling out of the narrow space, followed by another, legs in blue coveralls kicking, twisting to one side to allow the hips to fit, fingers wriggling around the edges of the cabinet gripping, pulling, a grunt and a gasp and she’s sitting on the floor, coughing once, lightly, tucking a long loose strand of black hair under the kerchief about her head. Grimacing she gets her feet under herself, pushes upright, working her head side to side, careful of the curl of the ceiling above. Looking about, sucking her teeth, clucking her tongue. Leaning over the bed in its alcove, there in the back, tugging the heavy umber comforter up over bare arms, smoothing over twined legs. Looking over them both a moment, the black-haired head on the pillows, the bright red hair spread over the shoulder, the broad chest. Then she licks her thumb and forefinger and sets to snuffing candles, one by one.