Air in the Deck

[This is chapter 10 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 9, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was stabbing a man, but then it turned out to be a goat, and then he wasn’t stabbing it, he was fucking it, and then Father Iturbide was intoning, “Do you take this beast to be your lawfully wedded husband?” because the goat was pregnant now and he was a girl and gossipy old bitches were hissing, “It’s an abomination!” and then he realized that the priest’s words meant he was a girl now, and then he was a snake eating its own tail and it tasted like chicken.

Evan opened his eyes to tubes biting into his veins like leeches and John hovering above him with Apocalypse on his face and he didn’t know whether he was awake or in a nightmare, because John’s was the wrinkled and unhappy face of all his worst imaginings, plus he didn’t want to hear what John might say, he just wanted to know where his own Springfield EMP was, and then he got the idea of running out to the car, wherever it was, and getting it from his trunk, but he didn’t get further than lifting his upper body before a level 10 muscle spasm laid him out like a slaughtered cow so he closed his eyes and let The Raft take him down the River of Chartreuse Pharmaceutical Dreams once again, with arrows shooting at him from the shore, where indigenous warriors jeered at him: Ai, coward!  Aiee, coward!

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Days passed.  Leeches were attached and detached.  A shady doctor with platinum-blonde hair and putrid cologne showed up and evaluated Evan’s chart.

“When you fell onto the driveway, you sustained a concussion,” the doctor said.

Then he primped his hair and left.

Machines pumped, breathed, hiccupped, essayed.  Finally, Evan opened his eyes.  Kara, standing next to Evan’s hospital bed, gasped.  He worked to focus on her face.  She began to silently weep.  It had been three days.

Evan turned his head and closed his eyes.  Something within him shrugged and shrank, and he suspected it might be his reason for living.  That reason had always driven him, but it was all tangled up now, like the roots of something, he didn’t know what.  His parents had once been his roots, but the idea of parentage had now been ground into mulch.  His purity had once been a part of his roots, too, but that was mulch, as well.  He wasn’t much in pain, but he also couldn’t move much, either, and soon realized it was the numbing power of the drugs.

“Where am I?” Evan asked.

“In the house,” Kara finally said.

“What house?”

“John’s house.”

“You mean…the gambling house?”

“Yes.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“It’s the basement.”

“Where’s John?”

“Upstairs sleeping.  It’s like three in the morning, honey.”

Kara helped him sit up.  It was an arduous task, slow and painful, but when it was all accomplished, he had a view of his living quarters.  There were no windows.  Across the room was a stairway that led upstairs.  There were paintings stacked against the walls and bronze statuettes scattered about.  He could see a couple of them from his bed.  They looked pretty damn good.  One rang a bell, although he couldn’t remember the name of the painter.

“Did they look in my car?” Evan asked.

“Your car?  No, why?  Do you want me to get something from it?”

“No, no, no.”

“It’s still out there in the driveway, parked sideways.”

“East to west.”

“What?”

Evan closed his eyes to summon the energy to express a more complex thought.  It was like moving iron furniture.

“I parked east to west, not sideways.”

“Why did you park it that way?”

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He tried, but moving this particular iron sofa was too much for him.

“For luck,” he finally said.

Two days later, Evan woke up to John’s red face peering down at him.

“Who the fuck was it?”

Evan’s mind was running on a single rat on a single treadmill.  He felt transparent, as if John’s eyes were looking into his soul trapped in a mayonnaise jar and seeing his intentions and everything ugly about him.  Evan’s hands began to tremble.  His voice was weak.

“What do you mean?”

“Who the fuck got to you?  Was it Zinszer?”

“What?”

“Who beat you up?”

It was an amazing moment in which things turned, like the moment when a spectator sitting across from you realizes that you’ve changed a two into an ace and the whole dynamic has changed, the whole sky is now purple and the highway orange, and many forks in the road are now opening up to you.  Evan had expected that John would know exactly what Evan had been planning.  But now, it became clear that John had misunderstood.

“I—I’m not sure who it was.  It was dark.”

“Man, this ain’t how it’s done,” John said.

“You lose or you lose, that’s it,” Pancho said.

“So tell me the story.  What did he look like?”

So Evan came up with a story, as best he could at a moment’s notice, about who jumped him.  Who beat on his midsection and broke his ribs.  Who muttered, “You took our money, asshole, and now you’re going to pay.”  It sounded corny, but it was the best he had.  When he ran out of lies to tell and began to stammer, he played it like pain.

John looked at Pancho.

“Last time I saw Zinszer, he was looking a little piquéd, don’t you think?” John said, a knowing look on his face.

“Oh yes, piquéd indeed,” Pancho said.

The silence that ensued was unnerving.

“What do you mean?” Evan finally said.

John looked down at him.

“Piquéd is a condition that is immediately fatal,” John said simply.

Sometimes, Evan woke up and nobody was around but the leeches.  Other times, there was a large black nurse named Jolie who fed him.  She was a woman who seemed divorced from her face.  At other times, Kara was in the room.  But there was always one thing on his mind, and it wasn’t sex, it was the other thing.

So one day or night, Evan didn’t know which, he decided that he would find his father and do what he had to do.  He didn’t have his gun, so he would use whatever he found, his hands if he had to.  He struggled to roll over on the bed, the pain baiting him like some schoolyard bully, and then struggled even more mightily to sit up, as if he were rolling a boulder up a hill, and then he was panting hard and it seemed impossible that he would be able to stand, but he punched through the pain with iron fists and finally he was peering across the room to the foot of the stairs, that was his goal, just the foot of the stairs, and he started putting one foot in front of the other and packing the pain away into a backpack, he was walking slowly and painfully on sore feet and achy ankles and pulsating temples and screaming ribs and trying to forget that he was carrying that fucking backpack of pain.

“Oh, Mr. Evan.”

Jolie stood behind him with her fists on her massive hips.  Then she walked over, gently turned him around, and walked Evan back to the bed.

Two days later, Evan tried it again, but Jolie had some kind of sixth sense.  After that, she slapped padded restraints on his wrists and ankles.

“You are such a bad boy,” Jolie said, a shade of disgust in her voice but her face impassive.

Evan had been at the Magic Castle the night they discovered Daryl’s body.  Police cars rolled up en masse, maybe a dozen or more.  They didn’t know if it was a murder or what, so they locked it down, nobody in or out, 490 people in suits and evening gowns locked in this big old Victorian nightclub, most of the shows cancelled, people with $16 drinks in their hands saying, “What the fuck is going on?”  That’s what the padded restraints were like.

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Kara brought a copy of The Hobbit and started reading aloud.  Evan didn’t follow the plot, but liked the sound of her voice.  She always had a lovely voice.  When she reached the end of a section, they would sometimes talk.  About what kind of day it was outside, how searingly hot, which convention was in town, what her band was doing without her now.  Somebody had come up to Kara in a grocery store and mistaken Kara for Kendra.

“Happens sometimes,” Kara said.  “They’re strangers to you, but they talk to you like they know you.  I just listen.  I’ve always liked the idea of passing.  It’s kind of the thrill of a magic trick.  You know?”

“Yeah.”

“Like, the first time you pulled off a magic trick, did it give you a thrill?”

“Yeah, made me misty eyed.”

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

“It is.”

“Like the first time we pulled off a deck switch.”

“I remember.”

“That night, I cried.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.”

“Did you know that birds deceive other birds?”

“Really.”

“Deception is shot through nature.”

Later that afternoon, the conversation veered to childhood.

“I was a quiet child,” Evan said.

“I can see that.”

“I couldn’t engage in smalltalk.”

“I hate to tell you, baby, but that’s still a problem.”

“All right.  Anyway.  At some point, I realized that I would need some attitude to get things in life.  So I started doing these tricks that I read in books, and the tricks had attitude.  So I slipped into those tricks like a jacket.  It was my first attempt at getting a personality.  Then things happened to me and I put on those jackets, too.  And people hurt me, and I put on those jackets.  And gradually, all those jackets became, like, a skin.”

“That’s weird.”

“What?”

“Well, I never put on any jackets.  I’m just me.  Can’t be anything else.”

Evan didn’t say it, but it seemed that from what she said, she had always grasped things, but never the ideas behind things.  He had sensed it, of course, but now it all fell into place.  It made him sad.

Sometimes while Kara was reading, Evan fell asleep.  When Kara saw his eyes close and sleep kick in, she would stop reading and set down the book.  She would smile sometimes, her eyes drifting to the Tramadol on the bedside table.  She had tried that once, and it had been a smooth ride, sleighing through the powder with no bumps, no possibility of wiping out.  Once, she picked up the bottle and shook it.  There were a whole lot of rides in there.  A whole lot of problems solved.

“Jesus help me,” she muttered softly, her eyes closed.

“I have something to confess,” Kara said.

“Okay.”

“Like in a Catholic church.”

“Right.”

“Like a priest listening to what you did.”

“Uh huh.”

But then she didn’t say anything, she just sat staring into space as if something out there was the source of everything bad in the world.  Her face looked puffed up with emotion and red and ready to burst.

“What?” Evan asked.

But her face didn’t burst, it subsided.

“No,” she finally said.

Kara was thinking about the priest she had fucked, and then the blow they had done afterwards.  And the three other times she had gone back.  But fuck it, she thought, I don’t want to spill all my secrets.  It’ll take away all my mystery.  I’m a magician now.

Evan remembered his phone.  He fished it out of  his jacket pocket and went to the web browser.  It had only 3% battery left.  He googled “stolen art,” and there it was on the Houston Chronicle site.  Five months earlier, 11 paintings and 12 sculptures had been stolen from a Houston museum.  A few of them were Rodins, a few others, Rothkos.  They still hadn’t found the thieves.  Then his phone died.

It was an endless cycle, day and night, and then day again and then night again.  But then Evan realized.  It had always been.

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The strip-out false shuffle was a move of unsurpassed beauty, like Beyoncé.  It looked like you were shuffling, but you were really just setting up the deck for cheating.  You knew the location of every single card in the deck.  It was a door opening onto immense possibility.  It made everything that followed it more stunning.

Back when Evan was working on it, though, there had been one last little bit that had

eluded  him.  In doing the move, you have to remember three things.  First, make it look like you’re shuffling fairly.  Second, make the moves look like they’re not even moves.  And third, don’t hesitate, never hesitate.  Relax, be chill, don’t ever pause.  If they see you think, you’re dead.  So he practiced it over and over again, but he ran into trouble on that last little bit.  He had trouble bringing it up to 100%.  So he had asked his mentor, Bodine, the dude with all the moves and every minute slice thereof.

“Why can’t I get it up to 100%?”

Bodine had sat back in his chair in his sunny dining room and sighed.

“You got to get some air into the deck,” Bodine had said.  “Squeeze the deck back, squeeze forward, and that puts some air back into the deck.  Then the cards will strip out like hovercraft.”

Air, that was the thing.  It made the cards slicker, the strip-out reliable.  And that’s what he was trying to do now with John.  Get some air back into the deck.  Sometimes, all the answers to all the questions in the world were contained within a single deck of cards.

Evan thought about John sleeping upstairs.  He thought about climbing the stairs.  Peering into the dark bedroom.  The sound John would make while sleeping.  He thought about standing over John’s body.  He thought about waking him up with a whack to the face.  Maybe he would use the Rodin ballerina.  Maybe it would break his cheekbone.

“I’m your son,” Evan would say.

Evan would have to wait for the look on his face, that was everything.  John would be  holding his bloody face, and then, through the pain, Evan would see the look on his face.

“I’m your what?!”

That look would be payback.  Then, the sound of the gunshot echoing through the bedroom would give him such deep and intense pleasure.

In his hospital bed, Evan turned his head towards Kara.  He suddenly realized what the ancients had meant when they wrote that “the scales fell from his eyes.”  Everything was different now that he had a plan.  He could see clearly.  All that was false was suddenly laid bare.  Jolie and her bogus quietude.  She hated Evan.  All the food they brought him.  Food was bullshit.  All the cash he had pulled in.  Just green stuffing.  Pancho and his silence.  Aka rage.  Sebastian and his bad jokes.  A middle finger to the world.

Only one thing seemed true.  Kara had laid her heart out on a slab for him.

She was staying with him day and night.  She was the only faithful thing in his life.  He could see the vast faithfulness in her eyes.  They were puppydog eyes, trusting everything.  It might also be hurt, and a bad childhood, and being buffeted by the winds of her lack of discipline, but what he was entirely sure of was her fidelity.  So he looked her straight in the eyes like he had never looked at her before, unafraid, all there.

“Honey, I’m going to kill John,” he said flatly.

Kara blinked.  She stared at Evan for a long moment.

“Don’t joke about that,” she finally said.

“I’m not joking.”

“You better be joking.”

“I’m not.”

“Honey, it’s the drugs talking.”

“It’s not the drugs.  I have a gun in the car.”

“That’s ridiculous.  I’m not listening.  I’m going.”

Kara walked out the door and up the back stairway and she was gone.  It was another half-hour before he realized that all the pills were gone, too.

Evan was dead.  Surely Kara would tell John.  He was so stupid, so fucking stupid.  Or, at best, she would never return.  Leave him to rot in his padded-restraint prison, to kill his father himself, an act that was nothing less than a gravestone.  He tried to lift himself up, but his muscle spasm laid him out again.  He was like a rabid dog on a chain.

This must be how Dai Vernon felt when he had that famous accident, Evan thought.  Vernon had been a successful closeup magician in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, and in 1926, had become known as The Man Who Fooled Houdini.  He was a brilliant thinker, perhaps the best of all time.  But by 1932, work had become scarce for everyone and he took a construction job.  He was working high up on scaffolding.  He was carrying a heavy pail in each hand across a wooden plank when it cracked and broke, and he began hurtling through the air.  On the way down, he hit other planks with his arms and hands, the nexus of his art, the focus of all his musculoskeletal accomplishment, destroying all that his life had been about, plunging six floors down and into the icy East River.  When he woke up, he was in the hospital and the doctor was telling him that they wanted to amputate his arms.

That’s how Evan always felt lately, hurtling through the air and hitting things on the way down.

Three hours later, just when the lack of painkillers was starting to whip Evan’s ass, Kara returned.  She stared down at him, her eyes suspicious, as if seeing him for the first time.  She didn’t even say anything, just stood there.

“Why?” she asked.

“You know why.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“It’s what I’ve been silent about for weeks now,” Evan said.  “It’s what came between us.”

“And?”

“Because….”

And then Evan was stuck in his lies again.

“Because he’s a bad man,” he said.  “He’s everything that’s wrong with the world.”

Kara looked at him sideways.

“Or is it because your uncle is your father.”

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Evan looked away, and there was a silence that lasted for about 99 hours.  Kara just staring at him.  Finally, she reached into her purse and took out a knife.  It was one of those big, long knives that you buy at Bed & Bath and that you chop bell peppers with.  The moment foreshortened for Evan, like the way time slows down when you’re in a car crash, the way that each moment breaks down into little eternities that can be examined minutely, like an insect pinned under a microscope, and he realized that this was how he was going to die, restrained to a hospital bed and not really having much hope left, anyway, in fact, part of himself welcoming blackness with open arms, like all of this suffering would finally be over.

“There was something I didn’t say to you earlier,” Kara said.

“What?”

“That sometimes, I want to die.”

Evan opened his eyes and their eyes locked.  They were twins, if just for a moment.

“I love you too much,” she said in a thin voice that was from somewhere far, far away.

Kara moved towards him and he flinched, closing his eyes again.  But when he opened his eyes, his restraints had been cut off and she was holding out Swann’s pistol.

“Let’s do it tonight,” Kara said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

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Everyone Dies

[This is chapter 9 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was driving on the interstate at 75, his mountain bike strapped to the trunk, having emptied a bottle of wine and another one open on the passenger seat.

“It’s the Russians again,” John was saying on the phone.  “You got five days and then we’re on.”

“All ri’,” Evan said, hitting SPEAKER and holding the phone between his hands above the steering wheel.  There was a wall between Evan and his body, and a ringing in his ears that reeked of sulphur.

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“But it’s a different deal,” John said.  “We aren’t in it to win this time.”

“Whaddyu mean?”

Evan had been drinking in his apartment when he suddenly wondered how fast his car could go.  He wanted a number.  It was a leech that attached itself to his brain.  At the steering wheel, he was still wondering, squinting his eyes at the speedometer.  Suddenly a car cut in front of him and he flinched and the phone clattered off the steering wheel and onto the car floor.

“I mean, this time we lose 75% of the time,” John said.  “Have you been drinking?”

“What, so I can’t drink anymore?”

Evan, still cruising at 75, one car riding his ass, was reaching down and feeling for his phone, swerving over the line, then glancing up and straightening up, then swerving again, but whatever, life is for living.

“I give you the signal,” John said, “and you fold.  You’re going to do a lot of folding.  And a lot of losing.”

Evan found the phone and lifted it up to his mouth.

“Why?”

John gave him his typical silence, and instead of trembling, the way Evan usually did, he had a mouth full of shit that he was waiting to spit out.

“Why do you need to know?” John finally said.

“Cuz I fuckin’ wanna know, what kinda question is that?”

“See, I wouldn’t normally tell a guy why.”

“Okay, fuck it, don’ tell me.”

Evan knew he’d overstepped some boundary, but fuck it.  Evan was amazed how much courage he now had against his uncle, although perhaps it wasn’t courage, perhaps it was an unbridled horse called rage, or perhaps it was just the wine talking.  There was a long silence, but finally, John took a deep breath and lowered his voice.

“Okay, I tell you this and you’re in on something,” John said.  “These dudes we’re playing next aren’t whales to take down.  The Russians have to get their money out of their own country.  They don’t trust their own banks, because they’re not really banks, they’re just people who take your money.  Plus, it’s not the Russians’ money to begin with, at least not legally.  So they come here with all their fucking cash and they lose it at our private

game.  If anybody gets wind of it, like really looks into it, we’ve got a couple of witnesses who are in on the game and it checks out.  So then they come to the casino and I’ve got another Evan to help win it back for them.  Minus a commission, of course.  It’s a fucking win win.  Except for the Russian people, but who gives a shit about them?”

“Laundering money,” Evan said.

“Oh, you own a dictionary.”

“The thing that Trump does.”

“Don’t slander my man, I’m warning you.”

“Got it.”

“So are you happy now?” John said.  “Now you know everything.”

“Ecstatic.”

Evan hung up and tossed the phone against the door panel.  That’s how it was now.  Everything was difficult.  The world sped by at 85.  His head seemed separated from his body, like Ichabod Crane’s headless horseman.  His mouth was emanating things that his brain couldn’t quite grasp.  He hoped John didn’t notice, but of course, John noticed everything.  He grabbed the bottle and took a swig.  His eyes felt puffy and tired.  He felt woozy.

Maybe I need eye surgery, he thought.

That was the last thought Evan had before he passed out, and soon after that, hit the center divider, ricocheted, bounced into a second car, and rolled three times.

Φ

Kara had called Evan ten or twenty times over the last couple days, no dice, straight to voicemail.  She hung up the phone once again.  She had been over to his apartment and knocked, but no answer.  He had been getting distant, but this was ridiculous.  It hit her deep.  She looked at herself in the mirror.  This was the girl that Evan didn’t want.  She slathered on the makeup as if it were a mask.  She drew on the lipstick with a hand that drew perfectly, but deep down, wanted to create just a red slash.  She imagined taking a razor to her cheek.  She imagined blood.  She didn’t know what that was about, never had, but it was never a good sign.

Kara slumped down on the sofa in her silk offwhite blouse, tight black skirt, and fuck-me pumps.  Still was hotter than August in Manhattan, but still and all, she felt ugly.  She had called Evan, but he wasn’t answering his phone and she knew she was heading for a dive.  “Downton Abbey” was playing on her widescreen, a show that always depressed her even more, pretty people in a simpler time, when Kara herself was just an ugly girl living in a lonely world, don’t stop, don’t ever stop.  Kara had tried calling Evan a dozen times or more, which made her feel like a fucking toddler.  Kara had been dealing with dives since adolescence, when they had first hit her bigtime, and she was experiencing a kind of déjà vu familiarity, thinking of Billy Meister, the first boy who messed with her self-esteem big-time.  Looking back, it must have been the narcissistic mother.  Or an asshole father.  Or maybe just bad chemicals inherited from her grandfather, who was sent to an asylum at age 17.

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Kara’s older cousin told her that in 1920, her great-great uncle Frank Elmer had committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun.  Four months later, his twin brother Orland Alexander had killed himself by hanging, despondent over his twin’s death.  Kara felt a bond there.

On a whim, Kara dialed her sister, closing her eyes while it rang.

“You can’t call me,” Kendra said, no hello.

“Kendy, listen….”

“You forfeited that right when you took what was mine.”

“Sis, I’m so sorry, I—”

“He was mine.”

“You took what was mine before that.”

“This can go back and back to Adam and Eve,” Kendra said, “so make it quick.  What the fuck do you want?”

“I miss you.”

“Apparently, your boyfriend does, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

“I saw him the other day.”

Kara sat up on the sofa a little straighter.

“You what?”

“He came into the office.  Wanted to talk about his new problem with his uncle.  You know his uncle?”

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“Yeah.”

“Yeah, so he told me all about it.”

“It is kind of a problem.”

“Yeah, the kind of problem that makes you want to sleep with your ex-girlfriend.”

It took Kara’s breath away, her eyes widening.  No matter that it wasn’t true.

Φ

Evan lay in a rotten Vegas hospital with a semicoherent elderly roommate thankfully drugged up beyond coherence, but a British nurse with an erect accent who was much too coherent.

“…Because I came here ten years ago, but I still miss my country terribly….” she was saying as she tidied up the room.

Some lovely painkiller was pumping into Evan’s veins to keep his mind off the broken leg, broken rib, and black eye, and one ragged, underfed coyote was running kind of sideways through his brain.  It was a complex coyote, even pointillist.  It ran like this:

Everyone has to die sometime.  Most people die for nothing, in convalescent homes or in traffic accidents or at dinner eating shrimp or peanuts.  They die of nothing and their life ends up signifying nothing.  They work at nothing jobs manufacturing nothing products for other nobodies.  Insurance, software, government.  They’re ball bearings in a machine that does nothing.

At most, they’re proud to be parents, that’s it.  They look deep into their children’s eyes, and in a cracking voice and with wet eyes, they say, “You are the best thing I’ve ever done.”  What bullshit.

But Evan had the chance to die for something.  The game was in four days.  It didn’t matter if he was healed.  He’d be there.

“…I was up in Leicester Square….”

In his morphine haze, it was like a dream, but it had been that way before the tumble.  There had been times in his life when nothing meant anything.  Climbing stairs was just climbing stairs.  Smiling at the woman in the next car was just smiling at the woman in the next car.  But this was not one of those times.  Now, focusing on the television was the effort of the mighty Achilles.  Smiling at a chatty British nurse was the mighty Achilles about to wield his fucking sword.  That weapon was brandished high.  There were classical brushstrokes on his face and body.  There was a gilt frame around the things that he had planned, and plaques beneath each.  He blinked.  He blinked again.  The morphine wasn’t enough to keep him down.  Everything was a pulse, his sanctified skin pounding with blood.

“…that the old English way of fixing Christmas pudding is best,” the nurse was saying now.  “In this day and age, it’s important to remember that there’s this lovely thing called tradition.  When you’re fixing your pudding, you have to stir it from east to west.  People ask me, they say, Why east to west?  That’s very important, east to west, because that is, of course, the direction that the wise men traveled to bring all their lovely gifts, their frankincense and myrhh, to the baby Jesus….”

I will meet him very soon, Evan thought.

Φ

The day of the game, Evan walked out of the hospital through the back door.  He threw a couple bottles of painkillers into his bag.  They’d taken away his driver’s license because of the open container, but he didn’t need a license to drive, he just needed it if he got caught.  He drove through the streets of Vegas wobbly, because the double-yellow line kept shifting like an article on fucking dailybeast.com.  When he finally got to Pancho Villa’s warehouse, he picked up the car and drove to the game with the Russians in his Mazerati.

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The doctors said that if Evan hadn’t been so drunk, he wouldn’t have survived.  A rib and a leg were broken, but he had ripped off the braces because that wouldn’t do in a real game.  He didn’t need any major questions.  He also didn’t need a slur in his voice, so he was letting the drugs wear off.  He’d explain away the black eye somehow.  As he drove to the game, he began hurting in a major way, in the way that people who are not used to pain realize that pain is a real thing and not just an excuse not to live.  He tried to suppress the pain, but it kept coming to the surface like a dead body.  He needed to weight it down.  If he didn’t, John would hear it in his voice and send him home because he couldn’t pull off the sleights.  He needed to pull off the sleights.  He needed clear elocution and a relaxed face, but without drugs.

Parking the car, Evan parked it against the grain, blocking 2 ½ parking spaces.  He was thinking it was good luck.  Everything was boiling down to premonitions and luck now, so he followed his instinct and parked the car east to west, just to snatch the luck of the baby Jesus.  That fucking coyote was running sideways through his brain again: Everybody dies, the coyote was saying, a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.  This is your moment to shine.

Evan opened the car door and faced the task before him, which was simply to pull himself out of the driver’s side.  He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth against the pain, and pulled his sore body up against everything that was working against him.  There were muscles all over his body that were spasming, but he held steady.  It was an incredible effort just to stand upright, and a separate Herculean effort to focus.

Finally, Evan just stood there and looked at the house.  He had it all planned out.  Swann’s pistol was in the trunk.  Evan would go into the game and begin playing his part, splitting his two selves.  He would keep an eye on Pancho, because that was his major impediment to pulling this off, plus the Russian bodyguards, and they were an even bigger wild card.  It was all about a moment, just like a magic trick.  You look for the moment when everybody was relaxed.  You made an excuse to go to your car.  A special bottle of Champagne, say.  An antique deck of cards.  He would come back shooting.  He doubted he would get out of it alive, but if he did, he would hobble back to the Maserati and hit I-15.  At the Summerlin turnoff, he would dump the Maserati and jump into a rental compact that was parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  He would transfer four suitcases that he had packed, two of which contained pounds and pounds of cash, in fact, nearly $240,000.  Then he would head east until he got to Arkansas and lay low.  Maybe Kara would be next to him, maybe not.

The drugs were wearing off.  The pain was coming back.

Φ

Kara was standing at the window watching Evan.  She felt like running out to him, but she didn’t want any more pain.  It was like touching a hot frying pan.

There were tears in her eyes.  She couldn’t figure out why he had a black eye.  Plus, he was standing kind of funny.  She knew he loved him because just seeing the way that he was standing hurt her.  She also couldn’t figure out why he was just staring at the house.  Something seemed terribly wrong, but she couldn’t figure out why.  So many things swirled around in her head, her sister, them fucking, Evan not talking to her, who he belonged to, DNA, who she belonged to, twins, everything.  They were swirling like blood down a shower drain.  She felt that her heart was collapsing, that she had never felt pain like this before.  She wished there was a drug that could fix it.  She wished she was anaesthetized.  She wished that she could sleep.

Mentone party 1979b distressed 1a

Kara placed her hand against the window.

That was the moment that Evan collapsed onto the cobblestone driveway.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

Dying Slowly in the City of Bad Thoughts

[This is chapter 8 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 7, see here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/hurtling-through-the-air-and-hitting-things-on-the-way-down/]

There were a few things Evan had to do before he died.  He had an aching in his heart for one more cupful of Rocky Road ice cream.  He hurt for one last glimpse of the colors of the Bellagio.  He would miss music worst of all.  He sat in the middle of his living room and listened to Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” five times and imagined that he knew Cat Anderson, the only one who could hit that high, high note.  It was the most incredible note he had ever heard.

And there was the girl.  He didn’t know her name.  The girl might not even remember him.  She probably wouldn’t even want to talk to him.

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She worked at an entertainment agency on West Sahara Avenue that booked Hawaiian entertainment, which was all the rage that month.  She was slender and dark haired but definitely not Hawaiian.  She wore the type of clothes that flattered her but didn’t make her look cheap, which was a tricky line to walk.  He’d first seen her in the darkness of a club with Bruno Mars blasting.  He hated Bruno Mars and all he stood for.  She had been walking through blue and purple flashing lights to shit music.  That was the vision, flashing lights and shit music.  The bouncer had told Evan a little about her.

“She ain’t a cunt,” the bouncer said, which to him was a supreme compliment, that’s just the way he was.

Nightclub 1a

It was a couple months before he’d met Kendra and he thought he should be cruising a little.  There was something in her eyes, it was hard to put his finger on, Evan seeing her only from a distance, but it was just in the way she talked over the house music to a friend, like, Don’t hurt me, not like anyone was about to hurt her, just that in every move she made, talking to this girl or ordering a drink or just taking in the dancing bodies, whether she was happy or having fun or whatever, there was always a little touch of Don’t hurt me. 

Five years ago, a girl had told him that he liked wounded birds.

“That’s not true,” he said.

“E, trust me, just look at the girls you choose.”

Φ

The agency was a small office in an industrial mall.  Evan walked in the door, but nobody was there.  It was just shelves full of DVDs and posters on the wall of hula dancers and luaus and big, fat Izzy.  Evan poked his head into an office door and there she was at a desk, dressed all professional, turning her head, her mouth and smile saying May I help you, but her eyes saying Don’t hurt me.

“Uh…I was thinking…” Evan started, then stopped.

She waited for him.  You could see in the set of her face that she had dozens of things lined up on her to-do list, but she waited.

“Luau?” he finally said.

“Okay,” she said.  “Have a seat.”

Evan sat down.

“So tell me about your party,” she said, her pen steadied above a clipboard.

“Well….”

Girl 3a

Evan knew he was chickening out, and he tried, like a lost motorist, to find a route out of his cowardice.  You just have to find a street that you know.  Follow that street.  You’ll come to something you recognize.  Evan looked at her hands.  He remembered those hands.  He remembered thinking at the time that they were short and ugly.  Not ugly exactly, but not gorgeous like the rest of her.  Months ago, when he had seen those hands, he had thought about mighty Achilles, who at birth had been dipped in the River Styx by his heel to make him invincible, but his mother had neglected that heel.  Evan thought, Those hands make her real.  It touched him.  Evan looked up at her.  Something had changed and she knew it.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m the guy.”

“What guy?”

“The guy who chased those guys off.”

She looked at him and her smile began to fade.  He couldn’t tell whether it was okay or whether she was going to call the cops.

Φ

It had been after 3 am, and he’d seen her a couple hours after his conversation with the bouncer.  Suddenly, he caught sight of her being rushed out a back door by two guys, and she didn’t look terribly ambulatory, much less conscious.  In all the noise and hubbub, nobody seemed to notice.  He walked over to the exit and walked out after them.  Suddenly, he was in a messy back alley.  They had her draped over a table in the dark and her skirt pulled up.  She was passed out.  Their eyes were turned towards him.

“S’none of your business!” one of them said.

“You’re saying my sister isn’t any of my business?” Evan said.

It was the first thing that came into his mind.

“She’s not your sister,” the other said.

“Yeah, she’s not,” the first one said.

“So get the fuck out of here.”

“Yeah, get the fuck out of here.”

Earlier in the evening, Evan had been doing this card trick.  You have a card chosen, signed, then returned to the deck, shuffled and lost.  You spread the cards out face-down on the table in a big mess—a shmear, as they call it.  Then you blindfold yourself and take out a knife.  Wearing that black blindfold, you are able to stab the signed card.  It’s a killer trick because of the knife.  Knives focuses the audience’s attention, as does fire, cursing, and flirting.  That knife was a crowd pleaser.

That’s why he had a 7-inch knife in his pocket.  Don’t hurt me was why he pulled it out.

Evan donned his best Raylan Givens face and strode purposefully towards them, his knife held in front of him at the ready, because he knew that attitude and intention were required to pull off this particular trick, although he had not thought through what he would do if they didn’t buy it, he just walked forward, knife in hand, on instinct.  The young idiots ran.

In the car, her eyes opened barely halfway.

“Thangew,” she said in a voice that was so soft and slurred that his first impulse was to turn up the VOLUME knob, and then he immediately laughed, because, as he termed it in his head, There is no volume knob on life.

“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.”

Some girls you really don’t want to see hurt.

Φ

“You were that guy?” she said.

“Yeah.”

She lowered her head.  She became strangely immobile and quiet.  Finally, she took a deep breath.

“It’s all a blur,” she mumbled.  “They must have slipped me something.”

“I figured.”

“You drove me home.”

“Yeah.”

“You tucked me in.”

“Yeah.”

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Finally she lifted her head.

“You put a barf bag next to my bed.”

Evan laughed.

“I was sure you would need it.”

“And you didn’t take advantage.”

Evan just smiled warmly.  Tears were filling her eyes now and she tried to wipe them away but they kept coming.

“I don’t drink anymore,” she said.

“That’s a good idea.”

“I wanted to thank you, but I didn’t have your number.”

“I thought it might embarrass you.”

She smiled, and it was a smile that, he realized, he’d been waiting months for.

“No, it doesn’t.”

Φ

When she got off work at 5:30, they caught a meal at the Peppercorn Mill on the Strip, with its screaming highway of blue and green neon lighting everything up.  They had great booths in there, cushy, curvy, and spacious.  Lilibeth had come to Vegas several years ago from Dayton.  She liked the lights of this city.

“Incredible lights,” Lilibeth said, “I mean, it’s the only thing, really, that makes me stay.”

In those days, Lilibeth was young and fun loving and even printed up a sign for her bedroom door, PARTY ANIMAL.  Gradually, though, she realized that wasn’t where she wanted to land.  People don’t always land on their feet.  Vegas will teach you that much.  So will a back-alley attack.

Evan showed her a few magic tricks.  He floated her ring, which was some costume jewelry she had gotten for a play she had acted in after college.  He brought out the cards.  They laughed.  Laughing with someone, Evan thought, is an extraordinary thing.  He was seeing everything differently now, as if he were a Martian who was examining Earth customs.  Laughing seemed like this incredibly intimate disruption of the face, an emotional explosion, and it suddenly struck Evan as the most wondrous event in the world.

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Lilibeth asked what it takes to be a magician.  Evan said it was a way of thinking around corners.  You had to have a sense of what was around that corner waiting for you.  It could be happiness or it could be a hole in the ground.  It could be anything around that corner and you had to be prepared for it.  To be prepared, you had to think of motivations.  That’s one thing his parents had never taught him, and they were still stupid about it.  You had to watch their eyes, because eyes tell you much more than you realize.  It tells you what people suspect.  It tells you how much a pushover they are.  Belief is a building, and you have build it brick by brick.

Then Evan looked at his plate, the food all eaten now, and from the look in his eyes, she knew he was going to talk about what had happened months ago.

“I saw it on their face before they even saw you,” Evan said.

“Saw what?”

“They just wanted to…fuck somebody.  Not necessarily sex, but fuck somebody up.”

“You could see that in their face?”

“I can see those things.”

She smiled, then placed her hands on top of his, their eyes meeting.

“You’re a good man.”

Evan hung his head.  Her words had triggered a small chain reaction in his head, and it was like somebody stepping on his neck while he was down.

“I don’t know about that.”

“I do.  I know it like I know how to breathe.”

Evan was quiet for a long time.  Part of him was savoring it, because he’d waited a long time to hear that, but part of him was ashamed, because he knew what lay in his future.

“Well, I have to confess something,” Evan finally said.  “Lately, I’ve been having bad thoughts.  I’m sorry, I just feel I can be honest with you.”

She squeezed his hands.

“Yes, but you’re capable of such good things.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Seriously, I’m not always good.  A few months ago, I made a compromise, and ever since, it’s affected everything that I do.”

“What kind of compromise?”

“In my job, we’re cheating people.”

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Lilibeth stared at him.  She was weighing and considering.  Finally, she lowered her voice and leaned in.

“Well, I have a confession, too.  In my job, we cheat people, too.”

“Trust me, we’re bigger cheaters than you.”

“Well listen, Evan, you know that this is the city of bad thoughts.”

“Sometimes, it seems like the only way to be good is to be bad.”

Evan looked at her hands again.  She didn’t paint her nails.  She didn’t grow them long, like some girls who wore lavender silk blouses and too-short skirts.

“You were good that evening,” she said.  “I know that you’re capable of being good.”

“It’s confusing.  What I’m saying is that maybe I don’t want to be good.”

“You’re not going to rape anybody, are you?”

Evan smiled.

“I’m not the raping kind.”

“Well then.”

Φ

They went over to the Bellagio and looked at the fountains.  Then they went inside and looked at all the Monet colors.  It was the most beautiful spot in all of Vegas, he told her.

“I like to just sit here for an hour or two sometimes,” Evan said.

“I know what you mean.”

“You don’t have to spend anything to be here.  You can be poor and still sit here and enjoy all the colors.  Sometimes, that’s all I need to be happy, is colors.”

“It’s so simple sometimes, isn’t it?”

Evan thought, There is no REWIND button on life, although he certainly wished he could play this back again and again.

 

Φ

By 1 am, they were at her apartment, slumped back on a dark leather sofa, Miles Davis playing in the background, and eating Ben & Jerry’s out of the carton, two spoons.  From the kitchen, she called out.

“You want a glass of wine?”

“I thought you didn’t drink anymore.”

“Wine doesn’t count.”

“No thanks.”

So Lilibeth poured her own glass of white and walked back to the sofa.  She stood above it for a long moment, looking down at him, an imposing pov that she held for the longest time.  It was like the Incredible Hulk’s daughter standing above him.  Finally, she downed the rest of the wine in one toss and sat down in his lap.  Evan breathed in the aroma of her makeup.

“Hello, sailor,” Lilibeth said.

She leaned in.  She tilted her head.  Then the other way.  Finally she kissed him, the empty wine glass still in her hand, her mouth relaxed and open and wet.  He went with it, but after the moment was complete, he gently pulled away from her lips and looked into her eyes, which were inches from his.

“It wouldn’t work,” he said softly.

Lilibeth shrunk back into herself.  It wasn’t so much Don’t hurt me now as much as it was Shit, I always screw things up.

“You’re fine, Lilibeth.”

“Not attracted to me?  I don’t see why you would be.”

“No, I am.”

“You don’t have to lie.”

“You’re very attractive.”

“Theoretically attractive, but you don’t feel it.”

“Fact is, I’m in love with you.”

That stopped her.  There was a question that appeared in her eyes.  She had wanted to make love in a teacup, while he was going to a place that was expansive and arid, like a desert, a road that suddenly had no road blocks anymore and infinite rainbow skies, a highway to all the secret places, that if she just looked, would reveal everything about him: his abomination, his shame, all the sins he intended to commit.  His voice was suddenly aglow with motivations.

“I’m in love with who you were that night,” Evan said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m in love with who I was, too.  And what I did.  I’m in love with it all.  And I had to come to see you.  I needed to fill myself up with that love.”

Evan grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“Then why can’t we do something about it?” she asked, and then she leaned her body into his and he felt the room go electromagnetic again and her voice became a pussycat whisper.    “I’m a hellcat in bed, I promise.”

“Hellcat?” he said, the smallest smile like a spider creeping onto his lips.

“That’s right, baby, hellcat.”

“Okay.”

“So why can’t we?”

“Because I’m dying.”

“What?” Lilibeth said.

“Dying.”

Evan watched her face change.  It was like the changing part of the day, dusk just before night, when you can see unbelievable shapes and colors move in and phase out.  He saw bruised clouds drift in front of her mood, darkness falling like a hammer, tomorrow crumbling like dried leaves.

“What are you dying of?”

Evan paused, then said, “You couldn’t pronounce it.”

There was a silence that sat down between them for a while.  She didn’t seem to want to let go of the intimacy, but after a while, it just died and she scooted off Evan’s lap and back onto the sofa.  After a while, she stood up.

“I need another drink,” she said.

Lilibeth walked into the kitchen again and filled her glass, downed it again.

“Man, you are full of surprises,” she said.

Finally, she sat down next to him again.  After a while, she reached out and held his hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I can’t seem to focus.  Is—is there anything I can do?”

“Well, in fact, yes there is.”

Evan reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a letter.  It was sealed and stamped, all ready to mail.

“When you hear that I’m dead, can you mail this?”

Lilibeth took the letter with a touch of reverence.  It was buff stationery and had red sealing wax on the back.

“Of course.”

“You’ll get a call about it.  I’ve seen to that.”

Lilibeth smiled, and this time, he realized, she had solar systems of expression in her face, it wasn’t just Don’t hurt me.  Some people, he thought, are infinite.  Or maybe all people, Evan wasn’t sure.  He hadn’t met everyone.

Φ

Eventually, Lilibeth left the sofa and visited the restroom.  In that moment, Evan got up and did what he had been waiting to do.

All those months ago, on that difficult night, Evan had helped Lilibeth into bed.  She had crawled into bed without removing her clothes and had fallen immediately into the sound sleep of the inebriated.  Evan had looked at her on that bed for a long moment.  He had a surge of emotion.  He wanted to make sure she was okay.  Then he wanted to disappear.  He didn’t need that responsibility.  Finally, Evan figured that she didn’t have enough blankets.  He walked over to the closet and grabbed another one.  As he was about to close the closet doors, Evan had looked up and seen something on the top shelf that caught his eye.  It was an old box with printing on the side— “Springfield EMP”—along with a photo of a small pistol.

While Lilibeth was in the restroom, Evan pulled the box down, set it on the bed, took the pistol out, and quickly put the box back.  He quickly glanced at the restroom door, where he heard noise, but the door wasn’t opening just yet.  Evan went back to the bed and stuffed the pistol into his waistband in the back, where it was hidden by his jacket.  Then he returned to the sofa and sat down.  When Lilibeth came back out, Evan stood up and said his goodbyes.  They hugged.

“Stay safe,” he said.

“You too,” she said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

You Can Be a Republican or You Can Be a Patriot, But You Can’t Be Both

This is not going to be a well written post.  It’s a moment in history and I wanted to catch it, like lightning in a bottle.

All weekend, the media told us to expect the first charges to be filed in the Trump Collusion with Russia case, so we speculated.  On Saturday, I volunteered some time for the Boys & Girls Club, and nobody mentioned Bob Mueller, but I kept thinking about him.  These days, I think of him as our savior, the one who can bring back honesty in government.  He’s the guy who can make public officials afraid of getting caught.

My mother left a voicemail message for me.

Trump 1d

“Who do you think it will be?”

I called her back.

“It could be Paul Manafort, but this woman on television said probably no, so I don’t know.  This article in the Daily Beast said it might be Trump, but it was a longshot.  They usually start at the lowest levels and work their way up.  Anybody who doesn’t cooperate, they charge.”

I’ve been calling my congressman Ed Royce’s office nearly every day for months now.  The crooked interns who answer the phone (they have to be crooked to continue working for a Republican at this point) know my voice.  They don’t even ask for my address anymore.  Sometimes, my phone calls are more biting than at other times, but they’re always civil and never use cursing.

Trump 1b

“You can be a Republican or you can be a patriot,” I once said, “but you can’t be both.”

Most of the time, though, I mention a specific issue.  Dana Rohrabacher must not head up a subcommittee because he’s being investigated.  Firing James Comey is an impeachable offense.  Don’t you dare take away my Obamacare.  If I mention a specific issue, it gets tallied and counted.  If I just rant, it doesn’t count for as much.

When I think about Trump, I also think about my few friends who remain with the president.  Like Tom, who’s a smart guy, but for some reason, buys all that right-wing crap.  I try to talk to him about it, but he always brings up something he heard on Fox News that I can’t immediately refute.  Then I go off and look it up and what he’s been told is bullshit.  It’s amazing that the Republicans can fool so many smart people, but it owes something to other issues, too.  They support Trump because they hate abortion, or because they hate homosexuality, or because they want to keep their guns.

Finally, the weekend ended.  At midnight on Sunday, I went to sleep thinking, “We’ll get an answer tomorrow.”  And this morning when I awoke, there was a barrage of news stories from the East Coast, 440,000 results on Google News for the term Manafort.  Turns out that Paul Manafort had been charged with laundering $18 million.  He had earned the money in the Ukraine (from Russian fronts), funneled it down to Cyprus (a common money-laundering center), and then not reported it to his tax preparers.  Just like Al Capone, they’re getting this guy on his tax omissions.

They had also charged another campaign official, George Papadopoulous, somebody we’d never heard of, for making false statements to the FBI about receiving information from Russia about Hillary Clinton’s emails.  He’s part of a cast of previously unknown characters that will now become household names, like John Dean, Chuck Colson, and Jeb Magruder back in the 1970s.  Their lives were ruined, and rightly so.  This new crop deserves ruined lives, as well.

I called my mother.  A disdain of the Trump swamp is what Mom and I have in common these days.  It helps our relationship.  She mentions Hitler a lot.  I mention Stalin and Mao.  We chatted for a while about the details, and then I said something that I will remember forever.

“It’s finally starting,” I said.

Be the Pin, Not the Balloon

[This is chapter 7 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 6, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

“Why did we leave so fast?” Kara said in the car.

Evan, at the steering wheel and staring straight ahead with a strange look in his eye, mumbled something that sounded like, “Brad Pitt is thirty savior,” but really, could have been anything.

“Seriously?”

It was a long, quiet drive back.

Φ

Evan jumped onto his bike.  Knobby tires and shocks were his route into that sin.  Lift his all-terrain Bontrager onto a bicycle rack, drive out to Red Rock Canyon, pedal through the desert.  Three hours in the hot sun, skin slathered with Banana Boat, the sun flogging him, sweat dripping off his helmet, his nose, his chin, tasting the saltiness on his tongue, thinking about that sin.  Temps in the high 90s and climbing, he didn’t care.  He liked the heat.  One day, it was 101, the next day, 110.  When the sweat stung his eyes, he stopped, poured water over his face, and continued.  Bargained with the pain in his hams, his delts, his lungs.  Pushing and pushing, never backing off.  Single trail, sailing through saguaros and sagebrush, past hares and iguanas and rattlesnakes.  He liked climbing more than coasting downhill because climbing was pain and roar and coasting was a sign that you had given up on living, so never coast, only roar.

Evan needed high mileage to figure out his toe tag.

IMG_2004Once, pushing 110% or 111%, Evan went over a root just a tad too far to the left.  His balance buckled and he fell right, down a dusty ravine, over scrub brush and red sand, and all the way down, he was thinking, Good!  Bring it!  Fucking bring it to me!  He was hurtling through the air and looking forward to the things he would hit on his way down.  Finally, his left cheek hit the dirt and his bike landed on top of him.  At first, he lay still.  Everything is numb after a fall.

20160926_175033I must have broken a cheekbone, he thought.

After five minutes, Evan slowly clambered up.  Took inventory for an eternity.  Found himself astonished and a little disappointed that his only souvenirs were road rash, sundry bruises, and pebbles embedded in his forearm.  Dust in his mouth, spitting to get it all out.  He loved the hell out of every wound.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Kara said when she saw his cheek.

Bicycle tire filtered 1b

20160921_174650cBut it wasn’t about answers, it was about looking for that high again, not whimpering, until he fell again.  He liked punishing himself.

Builds character, he thought while pedaling.

“Can I go?” Kara said.

But it wasn’t about being with a girl.  It wasn’t about going slow.  It wasn’t about chit chatting about the pretty Desert Canterbury Bells along the way.  It wasn’t about fitness and reducing hypertensive risk.  It wasn’t about reducing LDL cholesterol.  It was about abomination.  It was about sin.  It was about landing hard.  It was about the long, red, irritated desert stretching into the horizon of his heart, where the sun was dying of neglect.  It was about the raw, red skin inside his mind.

Bicycle gears filtered 1bThere is a moment when you say goodbye to someone and hug them.  If you hug them too early, it becomes awkward, because then, you have to hug them again.  So you wait for the last moment, and then you hug.  It’s just manners.  But Evan had missed that moment with himself entirely.  There were no hugs at all.  Hugs were for believers.

Φ

Kara was trying to get something out, but the crying was getting in the way.  More like sobbing or even blubbering, Babylynn thought.  Babylynn was sitting across from her on a chair, holding her hands, while Kara was bent over nearly horizontal in the seat across from her.  Babylynn didn’t want to say anything, because it wasn’t about talking, it was about being with her.

The sobs were coming out of Kara from a place way down deep, like a well with a girl stuck in it.  The girl had been waiting down there for years.  She was a-scared.  She had bad memories.  She had things to yell out.  She had wounds on her heart.  Kara tried to tell Babylynn that it was okay, don’t worry, that sobbing was nothing to be afraid of, it was just something she was doing, like breathing or starting a car, but just thinking about saying that made Kara cry even harder.  She was tired of excuses, even if they were her own.  She’d been making excuses all her life.  It wasn’t about apologizing, it was about what was she knew was going to happen because it had happened before and it was the deepest fear of the little girl in the well.

Distressed child 1bKara grabbed a Kleenex and wiped her face, but it took five or six, and afterwards, she was still blubbering.  Her aunt’s face appeared to her as if in a cloud.  It was from long ago, when she was six.  Her parents had sent her and Kara away to live with that bitch aunt.  She didn’t know why at the time.  Why was a fountain of pain.  Why was with her every day like a creepy old man.  Why had dismantled her piece by piece.  First, she lost the piece called safe.  Later, pieces that keep a boat from blowing out to sea.  Ever since then, Kara had always been prone to blowing out to sea, driven by currents and bad weather.

Much later, Kara pieced together that her mother had suffered what her hard aunt referred to as “a break” and had been checked into a hospital.  She had taken off her clothes in the grocery store.  She had sat down in the middle of the produce section, pulled her knees into her chest, rocked back and forth, and said, “Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.”  It took a year for her mother to stop rocking, and two for her to want her twins back.  By that time, though, the damage had been done.

Crying blur 1a

Kendra, on the other hand, had gotten stronger.  A fist to the jaw will destroy some people and galvanize others.  From the day that her mother had taken them back, Kara knew that she was of the former persuasion.  Like the cotton dress that she had bought in Tijuana, offwhite with little collections of flowers, something she looked forward to wear to tell her friends that she had gone somewhere, but after the first wash, it had basically fallen apart.  Kara was the type who needed someone or she was nobody, and nobody meant out to sea with no sunscreen.

Kara grabbed Babylynn’s arms again and looked into her eyes.  There were words she wanted to get out, but then the water works were coming again.  It always happened this way.  Babylynn had seen it before.  She took a deep breath and held tight.  They stayed that way for another twenty minutes, just holding each other, and then, an hour later, with the help of a couple pills that she had in the bottom of her purse, ended up nestled into each other on the sofa, Kendra falling asleep in the crook of Babylynn’s arm, and the words she wanted so desperately to say—I’m losing him—still buried deep within her.

Φ

One morning, Evan found himself knocking on an office door.  He didn’t know what Kendra would say.  He didn’t want to start trouble.  He just wanted to know things.  Finally, she answered.  It was strange to gaze at that face.  It was the same and yet it was so different.  She didn’t speak right away.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she finally said at a volume that would have fucked the sound man.

“Can I talk to you?”

“What I mean is, what in the holy fuck possessed you to come into my fucking territory?”

Evan looked down at his shoes.

“I don’t know.”

Kendra stared at him for a long moment.

“Does my sister know that you’re here?” Kendra said.

“No.”

“You should tell her.  You’re her poodle now.”

“Listen to me.  Please.  I need to talk to a professional.”

For a long moment, Evan thought she would hit him.  He didn’t care.  If he could fall off a bike, he could take a hit.  He tried to read her face, but it was all stone and flaring horse nostrils.  Finally, Kendra opened the door slightly.  Evan entered silently on radioactive wings.  He sat down in the client chair and Kendra took the therapist’s chair.  Then he realized the symbolism of those positions and stood up.  He didn’t want symbolism.  He didn’t want meaning.  He just wanted her to tell him what to do.

“I have a client in a few minutes,” Kendra said.  “So what the fuck do you want from me?”

Evan told Kendra about what he had discovered, everything.  Kendra’s eyes suddenly focused and everything changed.  He didn’t know how much time it took, but it was long.  He wanted to include everything.  When he had gotten near the end of his story, he looked up at her.

“So I’m, like, sick all the time.  Not virus sick, but, like, head sick.  And I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be sick.”

Angry Kendra 1a

Kendra said nothing.

“I need to talk to someone.”

Kendra took a deep breath, looked out the window.

“Why don’t you talk to my sister about it?  She’s the one who bought your contract.”

“She’s not up to it.”

“She’s not up to taking care of herself, even.”

Kendra glanced at her watch.  Her client had been waiting now for 20 minutes.

“Do you have to go?” Evan asked.

“So do you fuck a lot?” Kendra said calmly, as if she were asking about washing the dishes, like, Do you do the dishes a lot?

“My heart is sick.”

“Do you fuck at all?”

“Not lately.”

“Because she’s bad in bed.”

“No.”

“Because you miss me.”

“No.”

“Because you made the wrong decision.”

“No.”

“I’ve got a client.”

Evan looked straight at her.

“Listen, just tell me what it all means.  Am I a freak?  Like an albino?  Like a dwarf?”

“You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.  You’re not anybody else.”

“I don’t feel like Evan anymore.”

“I’ve told you what you need to know.  A good doctor would drag it out for six months, collect all that money, but hey, this is my gift to you, I’m laying it all out, like instant coffee: You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.”

“But I feel so awful.”

“I’m telling you what I tell all my clients: Don’t let it get you down, bro.

“You look like shit, too.  You’ve lost weight.”

“I’m not eating.”

“To be expected.”

“I’m not sleeping, either.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Kendra said.  “Now get the fuck out of here.  You’re cured.”

Evan stood up and started for the door.

“Hey, I’m just curious,” Kendra said.  “Why didn’t you just find an appropriate therapist?”

“What?”

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“Just pay $150 to another therapist.  Someone who wasn’t your ex?  Someone who would do the job correctly?  You’ve got the money.  You’ve got so much money, it’s killing you.  So why didn’t you do that?  Answer that question and you’ll know what’s really eating at you.  Now get the fuck out of here.”

Φ

Evan wasn’t much for kissing Kara when he came in the door.  It seemed cliché.  He didn’t like calling her sweetheart or honey.  What he did like was waking up in the middle of the night next to her, like 3 or 4 am, just barely awake, and whispering in her ear, I love you, you know that?  It was like talking to her unconscious.

“Really?” Kara said, bleary eyed.

“Definitely.”

“I thought you had gotten tired of me.”

“I’ll leave you a post-it when I do.”

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Kara smiled, then drifted back to sleep.  Evan couldn’t, just laid there.  He listened.  There were shadows within shadows cast across the ceiling.  The faintest humming sound in the wall.  When Evan was certain that Kara was asleep, he spooned up to her again, their naked bodies fitting each other perfectly.  He needed this.  He stroked her hair and then whispered in her ear again, quite softly this time, but still, out loud, as if that were required to make it real.

“I’m going to kill my father, okay?”

Kara’s breathing didn’t change at all.

“People been doing that for thousands of years.  Sons killing their fathers.”

That time, Kara stirred.

“What?”

“Okay?” Evan said.

Kara shook her head in confusion.

“Okay,” she said.

“All right,” he said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/dying-slowly-in-the-city-of-bad-thoughts/%5D

On Reaching My Dad’s Age

When I woke up that morning before 7, there was already a message on my phone machine.  I had unplugged it because, as I liked to say jokingly, “No emergency is so dire that it can’t wait until I’ve had eight hours of sleep.”  It seemed like the most reasonable philosophy.

Donald Groves Positive Thinking

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

“Your father has been admitted to the hospital,” my mother’s message said.

I hadn’t counted on that kind of emergency.  I cancelled everything on my schedule and drove across town to the Kaiser Hospital in Bellflower.  While I drove, I focused on what would be best for my father: a cheerful, optimistic attitude.  Whatever the prognosis, it was best to present a face that said, “This is nothing.  You will get better,” but without coming right out and saying that.  I was wearing my black long-sleeved shirt in which I felt like a real man, a Clint Eastwood man, even, a guy who could roll up his sleeves and show everyone his muscled forearms.  I was 33, after all.  I was a man.

And when I stepped up to his bed in ICU, with my mother standing next to him, holding his hand, I tried.  But the moment I saw him, it hit me out of left field, from somewhere deep in childhood, perhaps, or deep in my child’s heart, or maybe deep in my forest of fears, I don’t know, from somewhere it hit me, and on a dime, my face turned from a smiling shield to a crying mess.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I’m sorry….” I said.

My father had spent the past 20 years getting more bitter and more distant from us, and as a result, I had become increasingly unable to speak to him.  But still, when it came down to it, I loved him from a place deep down.  In sickness, he became a bit more real to me.  He was vulnerable.  In fact, being in a hospital gown with tubes down your throat is about the very definition of vulnerable, with doctors pronouncing your fate and depending on straight-faced nurses for nearly every biological function.  I remember the look on his face, like, What’s going to happen to me?

Donald Groves in his fifties smaller

My father in his fifties, when he was increasingly sick with lung disease.

I had given him that cold.  A couple weeks before, I had visited him, my nose running and feeling lethargic, and predictably, he came down with it, too.  But there was a difference between us: I wasn’t hiding advanced lung disease from everyone around me.  That cold, combined with his silent killer, felled my father in March, 1989.  All that anyone could say was that he was gone too young, that he had a lot of living left to do.

He died the month he made the last mortgage payment on his house.

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In the years since, my father has become a memory more than a person.  I wonder if he really was the person I remembered, or whether my memory had distorted it.  Or perhaps the person I was at the time had distorted it.  As an adult, I had become increasingly unable to connect with him, because being positive and hopeful wasn’t something we had together.  He had become someone who expected the worst, thought everything was stacked against you.

My father’s politics were pessimistic, too.  Politicians were all corrupt, so just don’t give them any money to steal.  Starve government.  Cut taxes to the bone.  Rapid transit is a scam.  He bought all that self-serving Republican crap.

“I don’t know what they’re talking about when they say we’re overpopulated,” he said.  “When I fly to jobs, most of the time I look down and it’s just empty land.”

As I lived my life, I chose a different path.  I followed that positivity thread as far as it could take me.  In fact, it became what I had instead of religion.  As a freelance journalist, I believed in a better world.  I believed in progress.  Later, when I became a professional magician, I ignored hecklers, never struck back at them.  Always, I try to surround myself with only good people, so that I can feel comfortable giving, knowing that I will always get things back from them.

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But as the years marched on and I got further and further from my father’s death, I began to wonder one thing.  Will I outlive my father?  In some weird way, it seemed like I might die on the day that I turned the age he was when he died.  It wasn’t a rational thought, to be sure–it was wacky, even–but it was a thought that occurred to me, nonetheless.  Die on the day.  We are each allotted a certain number of years, and it just seems fair that you shouldn’t–be allotted more years than your father.

As that day approached, my mother grew increasingly depressed.  Of course, her depression has been her constant companion in the years since he died.  Every March 9, she was depressed, because that was the day that he died.  We had to be with her on that day.  Then we realized that she became depressed in the month before March 9, and we increased our time with her during all of February, too.  Then we realized that she became depressed in the months approaching Christmas, so we increased our time with her during that time, too.

Basically, we just paid more attention to Mom.  I was visiting her once a week and called her every other day.  Then I increased it to every day.  Then to twice a day.

“I’m just checking in, Mom,” I would say on the phone.  “How are you?”

But How are you isn’t really sufficient, because she would always say Fine.  You had to dig.  You had to spend time with her.  Sometimes, after four hours in her house, she would break down and start crying.

“I just miss your father,” she would say.  “I miss him every day.”

I missed him, too, but in a different way.  I wondered what he would have said to me.  I wanted to hear about his Korean War service, because he had never talked about that.  I wanted to hear about what he saw, the friends he’d lost, the gooks he’d killed, and how badly he felt about that.  I wondered about his mentally ill mother, because he had never talked about her, either.  Plus, I just wanted to sit with him.  Watch bowl games with him.  Watch him play with his dog.  Go to a coffee shop and have eggs and bacon and hash browns with him.  An oily, unhealthy breakfast with lots of ketchup.  He really liked that.

In 2012, I began calculating the months and days until I turned his age when he died.  His death day.  Turned out it was August 9, 2015.  I wondered what I would do on that death day.  Wait for a lightning bolt to kill me?

A month before, I called my mother and told her all about my feelings about August 9.  I asked her to be with me on that day.

“Why is that date important to you?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  But will you go out to the gravesite with me?” I said.

“Okay.”

So when the day approached, I cleared the calendar.  That morning, I woke up with a purpose.  I drove to my mother’s house and gave her a big hug.  Then we went out and bought some flowers.  We drove to Forest Lawn in West Covina, which is all rolling hills and grass as far as you can see.  I helped my mother up the stairs.  We stood above my father’s gravestone and thought about him.

He was the man who coached my Little League baseball team when I was 12.  I loved playing catch with him.  We were connected, it seemed, by the flight of the ball and the plunk of the ball into the mitt, and that pleased me so that I cannot adequately express it.  I was playing catch with my Dad.

Donald Groves and kids David and Diane and friend Dana Crague

My father coaching my Little League baseball team when I was 12, with my sister and her friend behind him and me in the background.

He was the man who taught me how to be good.  My mother was the strategic one, the one who was always figuring out how to get ahead, but my father was the one who didn’t have any angles on anything, he just worked hard and loved us.  He turned down promotions so that he could spend more time with his family.  In his fifties, he would always sit slightly outside of the circle of the family and watch quietly.  It was his angle, outside looking in, as if he were saying to himself, I want to remember this moment forever.

David Groves age 8

He was the man who was the smartest, the wisest, the best.  He never gave me worldly advice, like, To thine own self be true or Neither a borrower nor a lender be.  His wisdom was more everyday.  Like when I hit adolescence and began developing the upper-body physique of a mesomorph.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’re not going to grow breasts.  That’s what I thought when I was your age, but don’t worry about it.”

Or when I got angry at somebody at school, he would say:

“Remember, you can attract more bees with honey than you can with vinegar.”

That was his wisdom: breasts and vinegar.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

In many ways, he was me.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

There was a time, before I arrived, when my parents’ marriage was shaky.  He was thinking about moving out of the house and divorcing her.  There may have been another woman involved, I’m not sure.  But then, Mom told him that she was pregnant.  He moved back in and made the marriage work.  He wasn’t going to desert his child.  That’s the kind of man he was.  He wasn’t going to leave a child without a father.

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On that day at the cemetery, we placed flowers at my father’s grave.  We lingered and talked about him.  We meditated on his life.

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David at Dad's Grave 2015 1a smaller

Once, I asked my father what he wanted for Christmas, but his tastes were spartan.  He asked so little from life.

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

“No, I’m going to get you something, so tell me what to get you.”

“I’m serious.  Don’t get me anything.”

“Dad, I’m going to get you something.”

“No.”

So I asked my mother, and we came up with something: He loved macadamia nuts.  It was his only luxury, it seemed.  I had made a fair amount of money that year, so I splurged and bought him four bottles of macadamias.

“Oh, no!” he said when he opened the present.  “This is too much!”

Even though he complained, though, I was happy.  He deserved it.  I loved him four bottles’ worth of macadamias.

I was thinking about this during our visit to his grave.  Afterwards, we left and sat in the car.

“You want to go out for lunch?” my mother asked.

“Sure.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I have an idea,” I said, smiling.

We went to Carrow’s.  I’m not a fan of the place, but this was Dad’s day.  He was a cheap bastard and would have liked us eating at a restaurant whose food is unremarkable but whose bill makes you happy.  He would have smiled.

In the Labyrinth of Selves

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 4, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/%5D

There was a Russian oil executive’s son.  Then there was a South African who had something to do with diamond mines.  Then there was a New York investment banker.  It didn’t really matter what they did.  What was important was that they were all loaded.

Evan played the part.  Over weeks, he began to understand the fields that Anthony Hopkins ploughs.  And David Haselhof.  And Donald Trump, too.  Evan had two selves, and he had to keep track of where they were at all times.  It was like they were tethered to each other by elastic.  Sometimes the selves were one person, but at other times, his real self stepped outside and watched the other one play the part.  Sometimes Evan watched it lie.  But the nub of lying was that he had to lie from truth.  Otherwise, suspicion would fester like a sore, and was liable to be fatal.  There’s a beautiful state park in Washington called Deception Pass, a beautiful bridge that stretches over a lovely forest and beach, and whenever he had to deceive, Evan said to himself: I’m driving over Deception Pass again.

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“Where’d you go to school?” the investment banker asked.

“Dropped out of Princeton.”

“I mean before that.”

“Oh.  Prep school in New Hampshire.”

“Which one?”

“Exeter.”

“Oh, my kid goes there.  Kid from my first marriage, before I discovered I wasn’t a breeder.  Did you like it?”

Evan stepped outside of himself and watched his other self panic.  He had done the research, but he didn’t want to get into too much detail.

“Hated it.  Hated the teachers, hated the kids.  It would be great if I never ever thought about it again.  Ever.”

That shut him up.  Only gradually did his two selves veer together again.  Hate was great misdirection.

The investment banker loved male strippers, which made the dirty work easy.  Sometimes he disappeared into a bedroom with one.  Over eight straight evenings, John took $2.4 million from the guy, and without protestation.  Evan decided not spend his share.  He was saving for a down payment on a house, but was unclear how he would do that in cash.

Φ

With that kind of green stacked onto the table, John needed a bodyguard, too.  He was a muscled guy with hard eyes who called himself Pancho Villa.

“I know this is a stupid question,” Evan said between games, “but is that your real name?”

“Let me tell you a little piece of wisdom you never learned in college,” Pancho said.  “Never use your real name.”

Drunk 1a

The young Russian brought in his own security, which John told him was an FSB officer.  The mark himself was so impatient that it was easy, but then Evan turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away, at the FSB guy, whose eyes he also met, and so in desperation, he looked out the window.  He began to sweat.  Russian eyes were scary because Evan didn’t know where they were coming from.  They seemed frighteningly unsentimental.  He looked over at John, whose eyes were averted but who was still looking.  Evan thought about what he knew about Russia, that they were an alcoholic society, that they had been ruled for years by gangsters masquerading as communists, and now, gangsters masquerading as democrats, that they had been undergoing a brain drain for years and that natural selection had probably taken its toll.  They were such a corrupt society that they had to deal with loser American millionaires like Mr. Orange Hair.

A long minute passed.  The bodyguard looked away.  Eventually, it became clear that the Russian was drunk.  He had seen something, but he didn’t see, the brain being a funny thing.

I’m thinking too much about my mistakes, Evan thought.

Almost everything is going right.

Over Deception Pass, almost isn’t good enough.

It was a challenge that he hadn’t expected, where to store his cash.  Evan wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spending it all.  He had self-control.  He knew that about himself.  After five weeks, he had bought a new car, but it was a two-year-old bargain, an Acura, nothing fancy.  On game nights, he would roll up to the house in some red racecar that he’d picked up from Pancho’s garage, and then afterwards, drive it back to the garage.  As soon as he could after a long game, he would take Kara out and blow a few hundred on a great evening—dinner, dancing, a penthouse room somewhere, sweating on top of her, hands gripping her wrists, iced Champagne in bed after, club sandwiches and Truffle French fries for two, the works.

Φ

One night, John built a game around a Midwestern bakery millionaire’s son.  He was impeccably handsome, like Ryan Reynolds but without the kind eyes.  Evan stared at him for a while from a distance, deconstructed his look, and finally concluded that he wasn’t really gorgeous, after all, that it was mostly just a construct built on expensive tailoring and careful dermatology, like Ivanka.  The guy called over Kara and asked for a Quaalude or two, which John had conveniently stocked up on, and Evan realized it was going to be an easy evening.  There were two other guys at the table who liked to dream big but didn’t have the deep pockets to back them up, classic losers.

Around midnight, during a break in the action, Evan walked up to Baptiste in the other room.

“Rum and Coke, hold the rum,” Evan said.

“Hey listen, she turned me down,” Baptiste said, fixing the drink.

“Who?”

“The bitch.”

“What, Kara?”

“S’what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that, bro.”

“But I got a fix for it.”

“What’s that?”

Baptiste opened his palm, and there were two pills in it.

“What is it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Baptiste said with a grin.

“What is it?”

“Let’s just say I bought it from one of Bill Cosby’s friends.”

David and Angela drunk 1a

Evan’s first self was red-faced and fuming, but his presentation self remained quiet and mildly amused.  Baptiste was cool, too, smiling the widest disgusting smile that had ever been disgustingly smiled.  Evan turned and looked out the window at nothing.  It was nothing, his public self was saying, she was just a silly bitch.

Φ

When the morning dawned, the bakery heir’s cell phone woke him up and he staggered back to the game.  Soon, the table was swimming in a cloud of smoke and their sweaty clothes stank of tobacco.  Kara pushed Sex on the Beaches hard on bakery asshole and he dug himself further and further into the hole.  To amuse himself, Evan rolled a half-dollar on the backs of his fingers.  It seemed like a smart-ass thing to do, something he might have learned from the bad boys at Exeter.

At 9:30 am, the two losers were in the other room with a couple strippers while the bakery boy was passed out on the sofa from too many hookers and Stolichnaya.  Evan looked at the kid’s face.  It was like seeing track marks on him, a face full of affluence and pampering, pink cheeks and perfect hair.  He didn’t feel sorry for him at all.  The kid had never had a day’s struggle in his life, that much was clear.  Growing up, Evan had had to save up for magic, tricks that cost $15 and $20 and each purchase felt like you were sacrificing something for it, a pound of flesh or something, but this guy could have bought Magic City, Inc., with his weekly allowance.  He was pissing it away.  Evan had no sympathy for bladder problems like that.  He didn’t know if it was affluenza or self-destruction or just a urinary infection, but Evan wove these moments into a narrative, like what he was doing was kind of like, not exactly like, but in a way like class warfare, like Karl Marx or FDR or Bernie Sanders.  He was doing a good deed.

Body art 1c

“I wann’ sleep for coupla hours.”

“What about coming back tomorrow night?”  John asked.

“Naw, sleep for coupla hours.”

“You guys up for that?”

The other two guys had been eyeing the scion’s cash all night and morning.

“If he can take it, I can take it.”

“I’m with him.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

While bakery scion slept, Evan closed his eyes in one of the bedrooms.  It was a gorgeous high bed with a beautiful bedspread.  It yawned before him.  Four hours later, he woke up to discover that he worked his way under the sheets fully clothed and still wearing shoes.  The sheets were fabulous.

“I never had a son,” he heard John say.

Evan looked up and spotted John in the doorway eyeing him, he didn’t know for how long he had been doing it.  Then he rubbed his eyes and looked at him more closely.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Hate kids.  They steal your life away.  There are a few I’d like to have killed, Jesus.  But even so, it’s nice to have somebody grown who knows what the score is.  Somebody who’s blood.  Somebody who isn’t a fucking round roast.  And somebody who can muck cards, if the occasion arises.  Where’d you learn to do that?”

“From books and other guys.”

“Not from your father.”

“No.”

“I’d like to meet those other guys.”

“It took me ten years or more.”

“No denying you got a talent.  You don’t take after your Mom, that’s for sure.  She was devoid of talent, even in the kitchen.  Hell, she could burn water.”

“She’s never been a good cook.”

“Listen, we’re going to do see how deep we can bury this guy, all right?  Wake up and suit up.”

Evan sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes again.  Taking after people was a naval to gaze into.  It was like having a twin, like looking into a mirror and seeing something familiar, or even something that you hated.  It was like Kara and Kendra wrestling with each other.  Evan had John’s knowing grin, but he didn’t know whether that was venality or physiology.  A knowing grin seemed to be an iceberg, with seven-eighths under the water.

Maybe I hold back like that, Evan thought, splashing water onto his face and looking into the mirror.  Or maybe holding back is a reason to go to hell, too.

Φ

When they all knocked off at 3 pm, Evan sidled up to Kara.

“Don’t drink anything that Baptiste gives you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just promise me.”

“I promise.  But why?”

“Have you taken any drinks from him last night or today?”

“Just hemlock,” she said with a grin.

“I’m serious.”

“All righty, then.”

“Have you?”

“Just water.  Only water.”

“Come crash at my place.”

“What, you want us to babysit your cash?”

“Something like that.”

Evan started walking away, and then it dawned on Kara.

“What, you mean Baptiste….”

Their eyes met.  She got it.

Φ

Three weeks later, Evan showed up for a game with a Brazilian soccer star’s brother.  Strangely, Pancho Villa wasn’t there to greet him, so he just walked in the front door, saw that the front room was empty, and then walked into the other room to get a Diet Coke at the bar.  He stopped.  Stared at a prop dummy hanging from the ceiling.  One of Baptiste’s practical jokes.  It was hanging from a strong reinforced trestle that held up a heavy curtain.  From the neck.  Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

Evan called John’s cell phone.  He discovered that he was out of breath when he talked.

“Where are you?” Evan finally managed to utter.

“Hardware store.  Why?”

“Listen, you better get to the house fast.  There’s a body hanging behind the bar.”

“You’re at the house?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long pause.

“What the fuck are you doing at the house?”  John finally said.

“We got a game tonight.”

“I texted everybody.  The game’s off.”

“My phone’s been off.”

“I told you never to turn your fucking phone off.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Don’t contradict me.  Get the fuck out of there.  Now.”

John hung up on him.  Evan looked down and stared at the phone.  One self wanted to follow orders, but his other self wanted one last look.  The tension between the two made his heart beat like he was a scared bird or something.

He said to get the fuck out of there.

Nobody will know.

This isn’t going to end well.

Everything will be fine.

It took him a minute or two, but Evan floated over to the bar again.  Looked at the body closely.  It was a strange feeling.  He wasn’t used to seeing bodies dangling next to him.  It was an intense feeling, like his other self, the innocent self that believed everything would be all right, were hanging up there.  Then he looked more closely.  Somehow, something wasn’t right.  He moved behind the body.  Suddenly, he noticed.  The hands were handcuffed behind him.  He drifted back in front to look at the face, which was tilted upwards so far that he couldn’t be sure.  But he knew.

Φ

The newspaper reported that Baptiste’s body had been found in his studio apartment in Henderson.  Death certificate said the same thing.  Inquest revealed that Baptiste had been depressed for years and was taking medication for it, that a pharmacopeia of illicit drugs had been discovered in his apartment, and that he had been selling them to junior high schoolers.  As if.

The games went on, though, no big deal.  Money kept flowing like a dirty river.  Kara kept serving drinks and drugs.  The new bartender had the unlikely name of Boaz von Diebenkorn, a smiley Austrian chap with bad teeth.  After introductions, Evan wandered away, but John caught up with him.

“Tough about Baptiste.”

“Yeah.”

Evan looked at John, straight at him, even though he was afraid to, and there was something in his eyes that Evan had seen before but hadn’t correctly identified.  He hadn’t realized how malignant it was.  The first time he had seen it, it was roguish and charming, like Bogie, the lone wolf with a heart of gold, but now, it was like the pretty mask had been torn off and it was a wolf underneath and Evan tried his best to act like a good boy, I won’t tell, I won’t rat, don’t kill me, tethered by a thread above Deception Pass.

“Do I need to ask the question?”  John said in a low voice.

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me closely.”

“All right.”

John raised his finger sternly in front of Evan’s eyes.  It was as good as waving a hunting knife.

“You.  Don’t.  Steal.  From.  A mark.  The bakery guy was passed out and it was an easy roll, just a few thousand, but that wasn’t Baptiste’s juice, baby, it was mine.”

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 6 is here: ]

55 Days in Las Vegas

[This is chapter 4 of an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 3, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/five-meanings-of-i-love-you-2/%5D

The 1st day was a loaded moment.  They both knew that.  It was their first December 24.

In the absence of family, Evan wanted to create something familial, so he bought a tree.  Kara bought egg nog and dug out an old motorized Santa Claus.  The shadows were long and the traffic intense.  It felt like December 24 always feels, a rarified time, like everyone is breathing expensive air.  Evan had planned lovemaking for later, with cinnamon-scented candles and Kind of Blue loaded into the stereo system.

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But after dinner and rum balls, in the middle of a langorous kiss and Evan’s hand down reaching into Kara’s blouse, there was a knock at the door.

Evan was suddenly stricken with the thought that it might be Kendra.  Then again, he worried that every unexpected knock or ring might be Kendra.  It had been over three months now, and Kara and he were now exchanging I love yous, but beyond saying it, he was surprised to realize that he truly meant it.  He loved her in a way that was different from the way he had felt about Kendra.  He was afraid for Kara.  He didn’t want to hurt her.  He didn’t like that look on her face.  That hurt look.  He believed that Kara didn’t want to hurt him, either.  That she was incapable hurting him.

In the last two years, he had stopped believing in love.  It was an evil little trick that biology played on us to make us procreate.  Evan had lost his belief in love down the same hatch that he had lost God.  Life was all just a flat, dusty dustbowl of unwanted truth.

When Evan opened the door, though, he stepped back.

“Hey, what the fuck,” his Uncle John said.

“Hey.”

“So what’s up?” John said.

“Wow, I thought I’d never see you again.”

“Hoped?”

“No no.”

Evan couldn’t figure out what to say.  Kara was still buttoning up her blouse and straightening her hair.

“Was it something I said?” John said.

“What?”

“You busy or something?”

Evan had so looked forward to those candles.

On the 2nd day, the three of them walked down the Strip together.   They stopped in at a big casino and were railroaded into their most expensive restaurant.

“Order some expensive shit,” John said.  “The owner’s spotting us.”

The chef was a genius.  The bill came out to over $500, but John just signed for it.  They were stuffed like favorite Airedales.

On the 5th day, John and Evan were standing in a huge house in a gated community.  It was John’s new home.  There was a living room that was six times the square footage of Evan’s whole apartment and seven bedrooms and four bathrooms.  Everything was new.  On a table across the room sat an open book larger than a computer tower, who knows how much it cost, with thick, expensive color pages that were lovely to turn.  They all sat on the long sofa and chatted while Amy Winehouse belted it out of the park.  After Kara left to make her shift at the casino, John lowered his voice and leaned towards Evan.

“I have a proposition for you,” he said.

On the 7th day, New Year’s Eve, Evan and Kara toasted at midnight with French Champagne.

“It’s been a helluva year,” Evan said.

“This one will be better.  I’m trying to convince myself of that.  It’s against my nature, though.”

“Listen, I’ve got to run this past you,” Evan said.  “John wants to bring me in on this project.  Apparently, he’s in tight with the owner of that casino—you know, where we racked up that big dinner bill.  He has access to a lot of high rollers who want a private game.

“A private game?”

“A game that breaks the rules.  He’s talking Saudi princes, Russian billionaires, that sort.  He needs someone at the table who can handle cards.  And I guess someone he can trust.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“Yeah, probably.  But it pays $4,000 a day.”

Kara set down her Champagne glass.

“Whoa.”

“Yeah, whoa.”

“I don’t mean whoa as in what you say to a horse.  I mean, dude, giddyup.”

“But…it’s not exactly….”

“What?”

“Legal.”

“Yeah, but didn’t you say 4k a day?”

“Yep.”

“Plus, he needs a girl.”

“To do what?”

On the 15th day, Evan was learning the system.  It was going to kill some brain cells.  The deck was marked, but it was so subtle, it was going to take a month to fully learn it.  There were other chisels in the toolbox, too, like daub.  John preferred a Revlon blush.  During play, Evan would secretly steal some daub onto his middle finger and then secretly smudge it on the back of, say, an ace.  Deck gets shuffled, and then when you need an ace, you spread the deck and locate it by feel.  Plus, John taught him how to nick cards.  Use his fingernails to place secret nick marks on the sides of certain cards.  He had to memorize secret signals that John, who would be sitting at the table across from him, would give.  Play, trade two, fold, whatever, John was the pro, John knew how to play it.

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Kara’s job was to dress like a cocktail waitress, serve drinks, and help ring in coolers.

“Coolers?”  Kara asked.

“Switch in decks,” John said.

Finding a moment was an art.  The biggest part of the art was waiting, but the other part was knowing the moment to act.  One great magician had some wise words on the subject decades ago.

“How long do you wait?”  one of his disciples had asked.

“As long as it takes,” he answered.

But this was a different context.  If you screwed up a magic trick, people snickered.  If you screwed up in this arena, somebody could pull a gun.  You had to be good.  It came down to looking and listening, which Evan saw as one of those priceless Ming vases that became more complex the more you looked at its design.  There were worlds within worlds within worlds.  Motifs could mean this or they could mean that.  They looked like one thing but had a different meaning when you knew the historical background, like what a particular hand position meant in 1422.  People, too, have historical backgrounds.  Same for listening.  You had to be a scholar to interpret it, like a scholar of the soul.  Same for looking.  You could look and not see.  You could be looking and not really looking.  Zero in on the vase.  The vase was the basis of everything.

Evan had always seen himself as being moral, more or less.  Then John had waved some money in front of his eyes and everything had changed.  The way he saw it, there were ways of thinking about it that didn’t even involve the term moral.  He now preferred the term experimental, as in, I’m just going to experiment with this thing for a while because the opportunity fell on my lap.  People, he now felt, don’t experiment with their lives as much as they should.  Their lives are filled with rules and rigidities.  The tree that doesn’t bend will break, as the ancient Chinese used to say.  It won’t just break, it will be ground into sawdust.  The ancient Chinese knew a thing or two.  You don’t see the Chinese turning down an opportunity.

Evan was playing a part.  He was a Silicon Valley millionaire, so John gave him 10k to blow on a wardrobe.  The marks themselves were a certain type: men with a fatal combination of too much money and not enough maturity.  It wasn’t a hard combination to find.  Trawl the hallways of any popular prep school.  The high-roller manager at the casino would herd them over like prize cows, their udders swinging.  The first evening, John and Evan would cheat in favor of the marks.  Pretty quick, though, everything would go south on them, like Tierra del Fuego south.  It was an art to keep a mark’s attention riveted over a period of days, and John, apparently, was an artist.

“I don’t want anybody knowing that you’re doing each other,” John said.  “Not the marks, not the bartender, nobody.  The less they have on you, the better.”

“All right.”

“Okay.”

“But kids, listen, your main job is to stay cool, as in what a cucumber salad does, John said, squinting through his own Marlboro smoke.  Can you do that?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“When things get heavy, how chill can you be?”

Their eyes traded looks.

“We’ll fucking see,” John said before they answered, and walked into the other room trailing Marlboro smoke.

On the 22nd day, Kara met the bartender, Baptiste, who would be working with her.  He was a tall dude had a major twinkle in his eye and who slurred his words even when he wasn’t drunk.

“That’s what she said.”

He dropped that line in response to something she said, and he flashed an eye-fuck.  Normally, that would work with Kara.  She would be in bed with him within an hour.  But this time, she recoiled.  She didn’t know why.  Perhaps it was because of a fleeting thought she’d had about Whitney Houston.  That girl had such a voice.  She had a shot at happiness on a towering scale if only she could give up her Loki.  And then she died in a bathtub or something.  Those great pipes.  That fabulous contract.  What a waste.

On the 30th day, Evan and Kara got their second training payment, all in cash.  They celebrated at a French restaurant for tourists.  Evan was wearing his new clothes was starting to feel very Silicon Valley.  The crabcakes were to die for and the sea bass was fabulously subtle.  Evan had never paid this much for a meal.

Over her Cherries Jubilee, Kara leaned over and whispered in urgent tones: Dude, I’ve got 5k in cash in my closet!

“Yeah, I got 7.”

“What am I gonna do with all that money?”

Evan smiled.

“Spend it.  You got a problem with that?”

“Yeah, I kinda do.”

Kara never said that last bit, she just thought it.

On the 47th day, Evan met Simon—his American name—who was the son of a man who owned a grocery empire in China.  Just the clothes on Simon’s back must have set him back $5,000.  His hair was bleached blonde, moussed, and waved in a way that made it look at once overproduced and yet absolutely forgotten about.  He walked in—made an entrance was a better term for it—and didn’t shake anyone’s hand.  It all seemed personal.  He seemed to dislike Evan from the start, you could see it in his face.  It seemed to be his way of addressing the world, because he didn’t need to like anybody.  He had a shitload of cash with him, plus markers up the ass.  There were two other moneyed players at the table, but it was Simon who had the bull’s-eye on his back.

After the third hand, Simon turned to John.

“You got some blow?”

“As much as you want.”

“I want it all.  I want to win.”

John led Simon into another room, and he came back with his eyes all lit up like the Binion’s sign.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!”  Simon said.  “At the casinos, they don’t give us these kinda perks, fuckin’ bitches.  Dude, I’m cocked and loaded and I’m ready to pull the trigger, I’m a winning winner, bring it on!”

The first night, Simon was up 10k.  The third night, down 70k.  Fifth night, down 110.  The more he coked up, the easier it was for them to run their game.  Kara served everybody stiff drinks except for Evan, who got water disguised as vodka and water.  Every so often, she rang in a cooler.  It was so easy.  Daub, nicked cards, hand signals, all functioning as efficiently as a gun without serial numbers.  The hard part for Evan was staying awake without drugs.  Caffeine helped.  So did catnaps.

The 49th day, Evan strolled over to the bar.  Baptiste wasn’t there, so Evan moved behind the bar to get some orange juice.  It was sitting next to a pistol.  It all made sense.  Baptiste was a shitty bartender.

Three hours later, after Simon had left, and just after Kara was pulling away, Baptiste opened up to Evan.

“Man, that Kara could crack walnuts,” he said.

Evan saw red for a moment, but he didn’t dare show it.

“She’s a babe, that’s for sure,” Evan said.

“I’m going to make a play for her.”

“I’ll put in a good word for you.”

“You’re a bro.  Hey listen, you got really good hands.  Where’d you learn those big-league moves?”

Evan just smiled and looked at his virgin Scotch.

“Oh, okay, listen, I understand, homie.  I talk too much.  Always have.  It works for me and it works against me.  Bartenders are supposed to listen, but I’m not that good a listener, I admit it.  But hey, a couple hours ago, when the deck was in your hands, I saw you dealing seconds.  I recognize it.  That’s a major move, homie.  Did you have a mentor?  Was it John?  Because John is a major dude.”

“You’re right,” Evan said.

“About what?”

“That you talk too much.”

Evan threw his $500 muffler around his neck, walked out to his rented Lamborghini, and sped home at high volume through the quiet Las Vegas streets.

On the 53rd day, Simon handed over 925k and everyone was happy.

“Bitch, you gots a great coke supplier.  Don’t suspect you’d give me a name.”

“Naw.”

He didn’t even seem to be pissed off.

On the 55th day, Kara was staring at all this fucking cash on her kitchen table, all hundreds.  P!nk was playing on the stereo and she was getting the party started.  The bills were crisp and new, 15k rolled up in rubber bands.  Kara’s heart was beating like it did when she was looking at some guy she wanted inside of her.  P!nk knew the feeling.  Kara had her cell phone in front of her, her eyes flipping from the money to the phone and back again.  P!nk was belting it, keeping it going.  Kara was ready to call her dealer, but something was stopping her.  It was strange.  In fact, it was a supreme mystery, like the Trinity or something.  There was something inside her that had turned off, that was the best way to describe it.  Like when you finally get the willpower to lose weight, and you don’t know where the hell it came from.  Maybe it was being with Evan that had turned it off.  Maybe it was the new job.

But somehow, she felt it was deeper than that.  It was like something that lay beneath the bark on the trees, like the rings or the sap or even just the idea that the tree’s Momma had when she was thinking about conceiving that tree.  Beneath beneath the beneath.  Maybe it had to do with failing at being a big-time singer, and now, suddenly, having a shot at it again.  Maybe it was the prospect of becoming a Whitney Houston, a bloated damp corpse in a bathtub.  Maybe it was desperation and hope, that Yin Yang, because she’d had so much desperation in the last couple years, but an injection of hope always put her on top of things, no other way to describe it, on top of things like a little girl on a horse, the leather reins in her hands.  She was riding.  She was galloping again.  Maybe Kara could win the race after all.

P!nk went onto another song, and then another, and then the moment changed and a thought slowly crept into her head like a tarantula, a creature as cool as P!nk herself, wove a web, and suddenly, she was reaching for the phone.  Dialing.

But that last part happened only in her head.  She was playing games with her own damn self. Something was holding her back, it was weird.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 3, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/five-meanings-of-i-love-you-2/.  To see chapter 5, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/in-the-labyrinth-of-selves/%5D

A Nightmare Unfolding

On Friday evening, I was performing a show at the Magic Castle when the dead body of the magician Daryl was discovered hanging backstage.

daryl11It suddenly became a crazy and nightmarish evening. Shows were closed down in two theatres and those crowds were set loose in the Castle with nothing to do. We had to redouble our efforts to entertain the 480+ guests and not tell them anything. We heard whispers from the guy who found the body. We didn’t know what to believe.

One guy shouted out during one of my shows that somebody was stabbed in the Castle, which was incorrect. Magicians were starting to cry. One magician friend started performing his show, and then six minutes in, found he couldn’t continue. Incorrect TMZ reports were appearing on guests’ phones and they were starting to realize something was wrong. They were amazingly understanding. The Castle shut down early, at 11:30, and I performed the last show there.

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The author standing in front of the Magic Castle in a happier time.

In the ’90s, Daryl was so clever, so articulate, so much the magician I wanted to be. This is the most tragic death I’ve ever experienced, and along with Ted Anneman and Chung Ling Soo, the most tragic magic death I’ve ever heard of.

[BTW, TMZ got it all wrong. They wrote that he was discovered in his underwear. I talked with the guy who found the body, and he was fully clothed. TMZ invents alternative facts. I won’t trust anything they write ever again. It’s astonishing how dishonest that is.]