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.]

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Hurtling Through the Air and Hitting Things on the Way Down

[This is chapter 7 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 6, see here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/the-radioactivity-of-secrets%5D

“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.

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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

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.

IMG_1354.jpg

“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

The young Russian was easy, too, but then he turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away.  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 eyes 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.

Drunk 1a

A long minute passed.  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.

At home, Evan kept his cash in his shoes, and when he ran out of shoes, he bought more shoes.  After a while, he stuffed cash into socks in his drawer.  He bought somebody’s surfboard and had it hollowed out, stuffed that full of cash.  Then he found a metal panel behind the refrigerator, opened up the wall, and hid a big bag in there.  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 John had arranged for.  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.  He 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: ]

Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

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2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

I Feel Them Still

Image

In writing this novel, I sometimes drew from and embellished on astonishing real-life events.  The above passage was spun off the story of a man named Walter Irving Scott, a Rhode Island magician who stunned the magic world in 1930 with his offbeat methods that fooled even the greats of magic.  He taught many of his most secret moves to a street magician named Gazzo, but in 1994, Gazzo had a stroke and lost all the moves that he had learned with his left hand.  Since Scott died in 1995, those moves were lost forever.

In addition, I’ve mixed in some details from the life of Dai Vernon, generally considered to be the best technical magician of the 20th century.  In fact, the magic world has many fascinating stories that the wider world has not been exposed to, and which will make for excellent reading in my future work.

In my early years as a writer, most of what I wrote was pure fiction, perhaps because I had lived so little of life.  I didn’t have a terribly eventful early life like Mary Karr or Ernest Hemingway.  In addition, I was a bit ashamed of my mundane suburban upbringing.  I didn’t feel that what I had experienced was literary enough.

Today, however, what I write is a somewhat equal combination of fiction, real life, and historical anecdotes.  By now, many extraordinary things have happened to me and I’m not ashamed to talk about them.  Now, I realize that my one childhood encounter with my Uncle John, who was a gambling cheat, is worth writing about.  Now, I’m discovering parts of my childhood that people want to read about.  Childhood memories are a bit like lost fingers, I guess.  I feel them still.