[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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“You were that guy?” she said.
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.”
“You drove me home.”
“You tucked me in.”
Finally she lifted her head.
“You put a barf bag next to my bed.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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?”
“I’m not the raping kind.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“So why can’t we?”
“Because I’m dying.”
“What?” Lilibeth said.
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.
“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.
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.]