“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.”