You Have No Power Over Me

I was at Devon’s apartment, straight from the airport, looking for Devon and Kim. Using Keeth’s money they had bought me a plane ticket to Chicago but then, after inviting me to a party here, both of them dropped out of touch. Well, I got on the plane and showed up anyway. I went into the kitchen. There was a scrap of paper taped to the counter in front of the liquor which told me how to make a drink. Three parts tequila. Three parts?

“It means three shots,” said a man next to me.

“If you say so, it’s good enough for me. Do you know where Devon or Kim are?”

“Not only do I not know where they are, I don’t know who they are.”

“This is their party.”

He fluttered his arms and unfolded himself to his full height, seven feet into the air.

“No,” he said. “This is your party.”

*

Not too much later, the man found me again.

“How are we feeling?” he said.

“We are feeling good,” I said. “But I still can’t find Devon or Kim.”

“I was watching you from the couch,” he said. “You might want to calm down a little.”

“You told me this was my party.”

“I know what I said, but you are hugging everyone until their backs crack. You won’t stop bitching and moaning about some wife you got in Reno. You put a potato in the toilet.”

“So what? It’s a party. I, uh, well, I might as well not even be alive, is that what you’re saying?”

“We’re not talking about life or death.”

“We might be. Where are Devon and Kim?”

“Again, I don’t know who Devon and Kim are. Let’s get you some fresh air. Let’s get you outside. Let’s go out on the porch.”

These days, I was one hundred and ninety pounds and my hair was to my shoulders. I rotated my socks between feet to keep everything fresh. I had murdered the past two months in Los Angeles doing nothing but walking and walking until one night I looked back and my coyotes were dead. Now I was saying hello to anyone I passed on the street. Not only that, I was saying howdy instead of hello. But the tall man said let’s go out on the porch and I said, “This apartment doesn’t have a porch.”

“Yes, it does. Half the party is out there.”

“No, the porch collapsed. A woman killed a bunch of people by making it collapse. Now there’s nothing. Only a garden which the relations of the deceased peed on to death.”

“I’ve already been out there a couple of times,” he told me. “There is without a doubt a porch out there. I’ll show you. Let’s go.”

“Stop telling me to go out there. I don’t want to. I won’t.”

“It’s in your best interest. People are looking for the asshole who left a potato in the toilet. Listen.”

I listened. The word potato murmuring through the air. Fine. I would go with him. But only to the threshold of the porch. I would not go over the threshold. Could he understand that?

*

“See?” he said. “Porch!”

“Yes… I see it… I think I need to eat something.”

“No eating. Eating shaves twenty years off your life.”

It was a brand new porch. The wood was unfinished. Fifteen or so people were out there. ‘Having a good time.’ But none of them knew! The tall man stepped out but I grabbed his shirt and told him, don’t go out there, this porch is going fall off the building. He laughed and asked why I cared about that. I was the one who said I might as well not even be alive, wasn’t I? “And you’re not going to die,” he said. “No one is going to die out here. If this porch were about to fall we’d all sense it. The hive mind would kick in. The collective, uh… the collective subconscious… the hive mind hasn’t kicked in, so the porch won’t fall. Everything is fine.”

He smiled but suddenly got nervous.

“Stop it,” he said. “I can feel you trying to overwhelm the hive mind.”

If I was overwhelming the hive mind, it wasn’t specifically about the porch. It was about what I saw behind the tall man. The back corner of the porch. Devon and Kim.

“Ah-ha! See over there?” I told the tall man. “Those two are Devon and Kim.”

“The two over there who look like you?”

“Yes.”

“I know them. That’s not their names. Or at least they don’t go by those names to me.”

“What do they go by to you?”

“Keith and Beth.”

The porch tunneled down to the two of them. They spotted me and waved me over. It was clear they were not themselves. Their eyes were small and farther away than the rest of their bodies. Thwap! What was that? I looked down at my chest. It was the sound of invisible tethers snapping. I had had two tethers. One attaching me to Kim, the other to Devon. Thwap! I fell backwards and would have fallen completely if not for the tall man. He steadied me and tried to take me over to them.

“They want to talk to you.”

“I can’t talk to them,” I said. “This isn’t right.”

Being seven feet tall he was easily pulling me onto the porch. To make him let go I yanked a handful of flesh on his chest but this didn’t work. He used his free hand to haul a fist into my eye. “So sorry,” he said, and just as quickly he was pulling me back into the kitchen. “Let’s get you seated. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. I can’t believe I did that. Time to go back into my hovel for a few months.”

*

I was out front of the apartment building, the invisible tethers hanging out of my stomach like guts, one eye swollen shut, or really not swollen at all but I thought maybe it would be soon, maybe in the morning.

A man in a wheelchair called to me from the curb:

“Hello, the sir with the backpack.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

He waved a power drill at me.

“I need help getting into my van. The lift doesn’t work anymore unless you use a drill to twist this thing up here to make it rise, but I can’t reach it. Would you mind helping?”

I helped him.

In exchange he offered me a ride.

“Thank you, but I don’t have anywhere to go,” I said solemnly.

“I can still give you a ride. Get in the back. You can keep Duchess company.”

“Duchess…”

“That’s my son. My name’s Duke, his name is Duchess. Just kidding. His name isn’t actually Duchess. It’s just what I call him.”

I got in the back. Duchess was in a car seat too small for him. He was scribbling all over his own arm with a black marker.

“Hello,” the kid said. “Can you draw?”

“Yes, I can draw,” I said.

“I want a tattoo of a bug. Can you do that?”

“Oh, sure. I used to draw bugs all the time in high school.”

*

Duke said, “How’s it going back there?”

The boy had fallen asleep but I was still working on the bug.

“Going great,” I said.

“We’re heading to my place of work if that’s OK,” he said. “That is to say, me and Duchess live in the apartment above it.”

“Where do you work?”

“I own and operate a low-end pizza establishment.”

The van rumbled over some ice in the road. Another thing to note about this van was that it looked fire-bombed. The inside, blackened. Char lifting from the floor. Also, the only seat in the whole vehicle was the one Duchess was strapped into. I sat on the floor next to him. A pizza place. Me talking to a little boy. An extreme portion of my mind overwhelmed the rest and understood what was happening here. The last bits of my life stuffed into a capsule tumbling down death’s throat.

*

First I carried the boy upstairs. I set him down in the hall then went back down for the man.

“Which of us weighs less?”

“The boy.”

“He doesn’t have enough wrinkles in his brain, did you know that? In the summers I send him away to a camp. It’s hereditary in his mother. He had a twin but he met his end in the oil dumpster downstairs. Now I do what I can. I’m politically active.”

We went into their apartment which was foam green. Duke clapped and one dim light came on. There was a bird in the corner.

“Since I have you here, can you help me with something? I want to put my television on the wall.”

He showed me the television, turning it on and off.

“This television, but I want it up there in the corner.”

“I don’t know. I’m not particularly handy,” I lied.

He didn’t seem to hear me and rolled himself to two cardboard boxes. “The wall mount came today. Haven’t opened it yet. Let’s see…” He opened one box, but what he took out wasn’t a wall mount. It was a little plastic bubble, as big as his palm, which lit up red which he pressed it. A small red lamp. There were more in the box. Six more red lights. “I didn’t order these. What are these? Whatever.” He opened the other box. This one actually had the wall mount in it. “Here we go. OK. You take this. Slide it around on the wall up-and-down until I say stop and that’s where I’ll want it. Here’s a pencil. And then you gotta cut a hole for the cables.” There on the couch was a reciprocating saw.

*

In the end Duke didn’t like my work. He couldn’t stand, he explained, so it hurt his neck to have to look so high up at the television.

“And even if I weren’t bound to this chair, usually one sits down to watch television anyway, you know,” he said.

“I only put it where you wanted it.”

He wiped his hands on the wheels of his chair. He hesitated to say something but then he said it anyway, or at least he said something. Whether it was the thing he hesitated to say, I don’t know. This might have been something to replace the thing he hesitated to say.

“No one knows what they’re doing but me,” he said.

I coughed on some drywall dust. It must have been four in the morning.

“No,” I said. “You only know what you’re doing.”

A cloud wiped the moonlight from his face. He slumped over and left down the hall, rolling into another room.

“Hey,” he called.

“Me? What?”

“You sawed through the entire fucking wall,” he said.

I realized he was telling me this through the hole in the wall. I peered through it. There he was, in his bedroom.

“OK, look,” I said, “you made me do this.”

“What? I forced your hand?”

“No, you asked me to do this.”

“Stop looking through the hole.”

Now Duchess woke up. Earlier he had replaced the reciprocating saw on the couch with himself. His chin and one of his cheeks were shellacked with drool. I froze like he was a snake. But we had no problem. He looked at me pleasantly. He was in a good mood.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the guy who drew the bug on your arm.”

He studied his arms which were smeared in black marker.

“Where?”

“Right there, kind of under that smear.”

“That? That’s pretty spooky. Is it spooky?”

“No, it’s not spooky.”

He wanted to know where his dad was and I told him his dad was in the wall.

“I busted through the wall a bit,” I said, “so you can see him if you want.”

We went over to the wall. I lifted him up and we both looked through.

Duke had set himself up in a little tableau. The red bubble lights arranged around the bedroom. Him with a pillow on his lap, his hands arranged on it, upset but asleep in the chair.

“He’s asleep?”

“Looks like he’s asleep,” I said.

“Put me down.”

I put Duchess down and he bolted across the room to the front door, out into the hall. I followed him down the stairs and outside. He didn’t have shoes on and hopped along the frozen sidewalk around the side of the building into the alley. When I caught up to him he was at a dumpster trying to lift its lid. “Help me open this, please.” I pulled it open and held him up again so we could both look inside. It was full of black oil.

“After my brother they got a new dumpster,” Duchess said. “You know what that means.”

“What.”

“They got a new one because they want it to happen again.”

Then he tried to climb into the dumpster, but he was too small and had no arm strength to hike himself over the lip. I stood there until he got exhausted.

“Please flip me in. Flip me in there!”

“No.”

“Then just hold me over it.”

“You’ll squirm to make me drop you,” I said, picking him up anyway and holding him over the dumpster face-down plank-wise. Meanwhile I felt all right. My mind had thinned out to nothing. Whatever had happened earlier in the evening worried me not at all. It wasn’t even back there.

“All set, Duchess?”

“Look! It moved!”

“No, that was you spitting.”

I set him down and at the last second he tried to climb up my shoulders and jump into the dumpster. “Hey! No!”  It ended up I had to sort of fling him down to the pavement.

“Ow ow ow.”

“Sorry…”

“If you won’t let me go in then at least let me put something in it.” He took off his sweater. “I’m going to put my sweater in.”

“Do whatever. I’m not a parent.”

I held him up under the shoulders and he dropped the sweater in. It floated on top, then oil pooled in the center, then it sunk. I took him back up to the apartment and he ran off to, again, do whatever. I looked through the hole in the wall then sat down on the couch.

“Do you want some tea?” Duke said through the wall.

“Sure.”

“You can’t. The teapot melted.”

“How?”

“It just did.”

Unprompted he started describing the time he first met me which unless I was seriously mistaken had only been a few hours ago. The description was in extreme detail to the point of being totally unrecognizable. “One of the prides of my life is that it is built on solid ideas, ideas which, if you look at them, wisp into nothing.” I think this part was about how I put the television too high on the wall. Falling asleep. In my pocket my phone rang and I smiled to myself. One of those smiles where you try to break all your teeth. Relief! Who could it be except Keith or Beth? I didn’t pick up. If they were calling me tonight they’d call me tomorrow.

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Russell Is In The Other Room

“Put Devon on. I called Devon, not you. Where’s Devon? Put Devon on.”

“Not a great time for Devon to come to the phone,” Keeth said. “They’re halfway through a two-hour session in my sister’s rocking chair. I’ll get them if you need me to, of course, but do you really want to make them start the two hours over again after you’re done talking? Is whatever you have to say worth however many hours of Devon’s time? Three and a half, if you make them start over?”

I had him on speaker. I was trying to put in my contacts looking in the rearview mirror but my fingers were covered in chicken grease and after a few minutes of jabbing them into my eyeballs the contacts were ruined. I flicked them out the window one after the one.

“Yeah, go ahead and have them come to the phone.”

“Sure thing,” he said, but then the line went dead. OK. Where were my glasses? I didn’t know where I was parked, either. Squinting didn’t make it better or worse. The moon was a puddle. There were… let’s see, cars, and a street…

*

Kim, out of town, called to say she had a house-sitting gig for me. A rich folk house in Silverlake.

“Will they pay me?”

“No but you get to live in a nice house for free.”

Still nighttime. I was outside of my car but not going too far away from it.

“I think I’m already, I might be in Silverlake.”

There was a fence. I was next to a lake. Not a lake, a reservoir.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

There were three dogs on the other side of the fence. I whistled to them and they laughed at me. Not dogs, coyotes.

“You get to stay twenty days. That’s a long time.”

“How nice is the house?”

“Very nice. Wooden kitchens and all that shit. A surfboard stapled to the wall, that kind of thing.”

She hung up before I got to ask her how was Chicago. And wait, why couldn’t I stay at her apartment while she was gone? I talked myself through it. Sometimes there was no why. The situation was no I could not stay at her apartment while she was gone. “These are the facts!” The coyotes, there were three of them, didn’t like me shouting. My heart was pounding and I wondered why. Oh, I see. The coyotes are actually on this side of the fence. Still very blurry but one of them had some kind of satchel wrapped around its waist. A sack or something dragging behind him. They were coming closer, got between me and my car. “Hey there, slow down little pups,” I said. “You cute little… don’t eat me, now…”

*

I backed myself into the first building with an unlocked door.

A glass door and there were the coyote eyes, unblinking. All the coyotes but that one with the satchel sat down to wait for me.

I turned around to see where I was. A narrow room with a counter. Fluorescent hum. A chalkboard. Aldo’s Pizza. “You’ve got no shoes on.” Some guy with a gray beard behind the counter. The beard wasn’t naturally gray, I was close enough to see that. He had spray-painted it. The man was going for some kind of effect. “I see you squinting at my beard. That’s right, it isn’t normally this color. I dyed it for Halloween.” He took a square of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. “I went as a man in an old photograph I found in my parents’ basement. I painted my face white and wore dusty clothing, then sat in a chair at the Halloween party in the exact pose as the man in the photograph for the whole night. Head cocked sideways, like my neck had been snapped. I didn’t have fun at this party, of course, but sometimes you’re not supposed to have fun. Sometimes you’re supposed to make fun for others. You’ve got no shoes on.”

“Yeah, it happens I have no shoes on. I got separated from my belongings.”

He kept waving the square of paper at me, gesturing that I should take it.

It was the old photograph he had been talking about. A dead guy in a chair.

I looked at the photograph and then up at the man. Blurry, he might as well been the exact person in the photo.

“That’s a very good costume,” I said. “Halloween was a while ago, though.”

“Was it?” he said. “How long?”

“I’m not sure.”

We moved on. He asked what kind of pizza I wanted but I explained I wasn’t here for pizza unless he had samples. I was here to avoid those coyotes. He looked past me out the door and frowned. Coyotes don’t normally harass people, he said. Recently I was hypnotized into thinking I was a wolf, I explained. Every comment he said followed by a proper response from me. Maybe five or six comments followed by five or six proper responses. A good conversation so afterward I capped it with my stock good conversation finisher. Do you have a place where I could clean myself up real quick?

“Sure, the bathroom is back through the kitchen. No one’s gonna jump out at you, don’t worry. I’m saying that because you seem pretty shaken.”

“I’m not shaken I’m just blind.”

I shouldn’t have mentioned blindness. I cleaned up while thinking about blind Little Robert. Tug-of-War? The woods? Right this moment they could be digging him out of his new mother’s stomach. If I wasn’t going to help him why had I even suggested it was a bad thing he was in for?

Back at the front counter the man was halfheartedly taking an order over the phone. He was silent and listening for a long time. “That’s quite a lot of ingredients, sir,” he said finally, not having written anything down. “You what? Want me to repeat that order back to you? OK, let’s see…” he said, then hung up.

The coyotes were gone. “I saw them leave,” the man told me. “Yes. One of them was eating that cauliflower hemorrhoid hanging out of that other one’s ass. It started leaking and they dragged him off to safety. To safety, or to die. At any rate, away from here.” He clawed at his cheeks scratching his beard releasing the smell of paint into the air. “It was actually basically a tableau. If you replaced the coyotes with humans, I have a photo here, also from my parents’ house, that looks remarkably the same.” He patted his pockets.

*

There was a man in the house. At the kitchen table, clipping his fingernails. Could I hold on just a minute while he finished up? The nails needed to be clipped in a particular way and he wasn’t good at talking while doing it. Was he also going for some kind of effect, with this fingernail-clipping stuff? No. This was a practical matter. “They are cut to the contours of my nose,” he said. “For the plucking of my nose hairs, see.”

“I didn’t know anybody would be here,” I said.

“Did you find it all right?”

“No but my sister walked me here over the phone.”

“Your feet are bleeding.”

“I took my shoes off.”

“Where are your shoes?”

“I took them off on the front porch.”

“There’s no porch.”

“I didn’t know anybody would be here,” I said again.

“My husband and kids are already out of town. But listen, I need you to do me a favor.”

He dusted the nails off the table to the floor then brought me to the kids’ room which was in disarray. A pile of wood on the floor which used to be a bunk bed. Two mattresses  with their foam guts bursting out.

“Usually I let my side piece stay here when my family and I are out of town because he’s transient. Lately, however, he has consolidated his drinking. Only three nights a week but on those three nights he goes hard. You see.” He gestured at the mess. “Ultimately harmless. I suppose he doesn’t want me having kids but being only half a madman the best he can do is not let them have beds. What I’d like for you to do is throw away the old bed and put together the new bed, which arrived today and is in the garage.” He plucked at the foam, shaking his head. “Have you ever been sexually tested? Not in the medical sense. You know what I mean.”

“Sexually tested…”

“Not in the medical sense.”

“Who is to say,” I mumbled.

“You have your personal sexuality versus, you know, your sexuality when you engage with other people, and I’ve found that the two are impossibly different. Nary the two shall meet. It makes reality feel like a prison. And when you’re trying to actualize your personal sexuality all you’re doing is creating a bunch of detritus. Kids and side pieces and bunkbeds and families. What do you think?”

“What do I think of what?”

“Of what I just said.”

“Oh, I’m not sure any of that’s real.”

“It’s not real?”

“No, I think it’s all made up. I think it’s, you know, it’s nothing.”

He reached up to his nose and with very little effort was able to pull out a bouquet of wiry hairs. He held them to his lips and blew them into the air.

“Maybe so,” he said. “At any rate his name is Russell, the man who destroyed this room. I’m telling you this because he’s asleep in the master bedroom. He gets to stay as long as he wants. My husband thinks it’s just you here so don’t say anything.” He made a fist at me. “You can sleep on the couch, or the bunk beds once you’ve made them.”

*

Russell was not in the master bedroom. He wasn’t anywhere in the house. This was much later that same evening. I had thrown away the old beds then, half-blind, built the new frame in two separate pieces, and now I needed help lifting one frame on top of the other. But there was no indication Russell had ever been in the master bedroom. The room was spotless and the bed was tightly made.

Kim called.

“I checked on Devon for you. Keeth had them tied up in the rocking chair. It wasn’t a voluntary thing at all.”

“So what did you do?”

“Now Keeth is tied up in the rocking chair. We’re trying to figure out what to do with him.”

“I’m sure whatever you choose to do will have been the right choice.”

She asked how house-sitting was going and I began to tell her about meeting the husband-guy but then I petered out halfway through.

“Detritus?” she said.

“It’s… forget it. I’m real sick of talking on the phone about stuff with people. It feels like all we do is trade deeply unreal stories.”

“They’re not unreal. They’re happening.”

“Yeah but they’re happening across the country from each other. That’s hardly what I would call real.”

Real and unreal aren’t the words,” she said. “You’re thinking of here and elsewhere.”

A door in the bedroom led to the backyard. Not a backyard exactly but a porch the length of the house and six feet deep, bordered by a wall of ivy.

“He’s begging for his life,” Kim said. “It’s wild. We haven’t even done anything.”

“You tied him up, didn’t you?”

“So?”

“I bet most people who get tied up end up getting killed.”

“Maybe. But he’s tied up in a rocking chair.”

The wall of ivy shifted and loosed a pack of small birds which flew away over the roof.

Two coyotes at the far end of the porch.

“On the other hand now Devon is running around screaming, ‘It’s Devon’s Day it’s Devon’s Day,’ so it’s not unreasonable he thinks he’s going to die.”

One of the coyotes dropped something, a sack, out of its mouth, then dashed away around the side of the house followed by the other. I walked up to the sack and knelt close until it came into focus.

*

I woke up in the middle of the night to a drunken cough. The husband-dad guy.  He stood over me in the master bedroom, swaying.

“I told you, bunk beds or the couch,” he murmured.

“Aren’t you supposed to be out of town with your family now?” I said.

He grabbed me by my loose-skin lapels.

“I get the master bed! You get the bunk beds! Or the couch! You idiot! I am Russell! I am the side piece!”

“Owowow.”

Russell came to his senses for a moment and looked down at the loose skin oozing in his grip. Repulsed, he flung me across the room.

“I stay here,” he said. “Not you, me.”

“That’s fine with me. I didn’t think anyone was here,” I said. “The room was so freaking tidy. The bed was made.”

“I leave rooms in one of two extremes!” he yelled, advancing. “Disarray, or harmony! Hell, or utopia!”

“Hell or utopia? Come on now, Russell, it’s just a bedroom…”

He slapped me on the forehead.

“Ow.”

I had been sleeping and now a man was attacking me in the dark. He wanted me out of that bedroom, but anytime I dodged for the door, he blocked my way. Then we would stand across from each other looking dumb. Dodge again, block again. Look dumb again. I see. He wants me out but only on his terms. That’s fine, Russell. I’ll leave however you want. I gestured for him to approach like I wanted to fight him, but instead I let him wrap me up however which way he wanted. It ended up being like a kitten. He had me by the scruff of my neck skin. Chest skin lapels, gross. Neck skin scruff, fine. He carried me out of the bedroom. On our way out I saw the two coyotes in the window, on the back porch sitting and watching. Clacking their teeth.

*

The coyotes led me back to my car while I whispered placating messages to them. “Don’t hurt me pups. Just lead me back to my car. That’s it. We’re friends now. I ate that hemorrhoid you left for me in the backyard, just like you wanted. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? OK, I didn’t eat it but I did have to get real close to see what it was.”

When I got back to the car I turned on the dome light. One last look for my glasses but no luck.  However I did find my contacts. The ones I had flicked out the window. The window hadn’t been rolled down all the way and both of them got stuck on the glass. They looked almost perfectly spaced on the glass, meaning the space between them was level and equaled the space between my eyes. I pressed my forehead against the window to check. Yes, they were perfectly spaced. In the morning I needed to get back into the house for my phone and my shirt. “Don’t forget,” I said to myself.

The Death of Little Robert

Devon called to say I didn’t need to worry about finding money anymore. Keeth had bailed them out. Keeth, the one who had turned them in in the first place. “He means to kill me. I know it. He got nervous I would tell on him and now he wants to shut me up.”

“Why?” I said. “It’s not like either of you did anything wrong. You didn’t murder her. You only buried her body illegally. That’s not a mortal sin. It’s just people being uptight.”

They disagreed. I was thinking about it on too large of a scale. You could make anything meaningless if you zoomed out far enough. “Zoom in to Keeth and Beeth and me. Think about it for Keeth. It’s his sister. The control of information about his sister. For him it’s mortally serious.”

“It’s not a good thing to zoom in, though,” I said. “I mean, it might not be good to zoom in too much on your own life.” What I was trying to say was that I was between apartments. Lucia’s regular roommates had returned from Europe. It was hot clothes time for me.

“Hot clothes time?”

“When you have to keep all your clothes in your car and they overheat in the sun. Hot clothes time.”

“Are you in your car right now?”

“Yes.”

“I’m kind of doing the same thing. I’m living on the red line because I know if I go home Keeth will be there.”

“Living on the red line?”

“Well, spending hours and hours on it. Not living. I’m staying at people’s houses.”

“So not living on the red line.”

“No, I’m not living on the red line.”

*

I was asleep but woke up to the hairless blind boy knocking on the window of my car. How did he know it was my car, being blind? He found a new way to see, using the other senses, specifically smell and the bowels.

“The bowels aren’t one of the senses,” I said, stepping out of my car. Whoosh! Fresh air!

“They can be used as a sense. Want to know how it works? You stick your pinkie in your bunghole and then you hold it out in front of you and the smell guides you forward.”

“That doesn’t help you see.”

“It does. It tells you which way is forward.”

“Are you back at that school? Did they teach you that? You shouldn’t have gone back to that school.”

“Do you know what a bunghole is?”

“Yes.”

I tried to yell at him more but he didn’t want to hear it. At least they had taught him a new way to see. At least they had given him a birthday. At least they had thrown him a birthday party. No one else had ever done that. That’s why he had knocked on my window. Today was his birthday party. I was invited.

“And! At least they gave me a name.”

“They gave you a name? What’s your name?”

“Little Robert.”

Would I go to his birthday party with him?

Yeah, sure.

We were to walk to a certain exit off the 110 where there would be a green sign directing us to Little Robert’s birthday party.

Actually, I knew that sign.

It had been up for months, tied to the guard rail.

The only reason this school named the hairless blind boy Little Robert was because there was already a sign up from months ago directing people to a Little Robert’s birthday party. This school couldn’t be bothered to make him a new sign with his own name, or even pick an original location for his party. There he was, walking ahead of me, arm extended, pinkie extended from arm. “Hey man, they’re ripping you off with this party. That sign is from forever ago.”

I explained everything but he didn’t care. “Everyone gets named something for a reason. And what’s an original location for a party? What are you even talking about?” No, he did care. His eyelids, gummed shut, began to bulge out. They were filling with tears, but the tears had no way to escape his face. The only way to do it was to press hard on the swollen eyelids. And that’s what he did. The tears spurted out of the corners of his eyes, straight from his face in thin streams.

*

Closer to the party. Little Robert was getting nervous. “They’ll like you,” he said. “Any friend of mine, they’ll like. They like me, so it makes sense they’ll like you, right? At least, I think they like me. No one’s ever said they like me, I guess.”

“What?” I said. “If you’re worried I’ll care if they like me or not, don’t worry. I won’t care. Even if I act like I care, in the long run I don’t care. Sometimes people react to things in ways that are deceitful even if they’re also natural. Sometimes I do that. In fact I’m convinced a person can go through their whole life with a personality that isn’t actually theirs. Of course after a whole life then they’d be wrong, though. So I guess it is theirs…uh…yeah…hnngh…” I was out of breath.

“You sound like one of the teachers.”

*

The party was a situation where I tried not to put together many clues about these people. Intaking almost nothing at all.

Intaking almost nothing at all, it did look like a birthday party. Little Robert had run off with some other kids. They held his hands. There were balloons attached to a picnic table and the picnic table had a bunch of pizza on it. I made my way over but was stopped halfway there.

“We need your shirt.”

This was a guy who was chewing gum and also drinking coffee out of a small white cup. He had jowls which looked hooked to his face by two long wrinkles that reached up to the corners of his eyes.

“Why my shirt?” I said.

“We want to play tug-of-war but no one brought a rope. We’re making a rope out of shirts.”

“I want to keep my shirt.”

“Then you can’t play.”

“That’s fine.”

It was a fat piece of gum he was chewing.

SlllpSlllp.

“Little Robert says you could teach at our school.”

“No, I don’t teach.”

SlllpSlllp.

“We provide free room and board. Yes, we have a whole strip of houses.”

“Strip?”

“Block. We have a whole block of houses. All in a row. The whole block. You sure you won’t teach? We have a class that needs a teacher in the winter quarter. The class is called How to Kill the Rich, Every Single One, No Exception, No Exception! It’s simple. There’s no reading list or anything. You can make one if you want, or not. Reading makes certain realities more evident, but it’s not a theory class. You can just get up there and start talking.”

SlllpSlllp.

“Kill the rich? Room and board?”

“Yes. With no strings attached, no oversight,” he said. “No more than usual.”

“No more than usual?”

“You know. No more than usual, usual meaning out here in the outside world. There’s not too much you can do to limit one’s exposure to oversight but we try. The easiest way is to follow someone directly in their footprints. I mean this metaphorically. Did you know this party for Little Robert already happened for someone else named Little Robert? That first party is a footprint, and this second party is us stepping directly into that footprint.” He got himself riled up with the footprint talk. He took a bite out of his foam cup. I realized it wasn’t gum he was chewing but bits of foam. “And I stepped into a footprint with my role in the school. And you’d be stepping into a footprint, too! And who knows how many people stepped into the footprints before us, and who knows how many will step in after us!”

“Uh huh, uh huh.”

Little Robert was coming back towards me. A woman was holding his hand. She wore a giant yellow windbreaker. They were jogging, and her hair in a ponytail bopped from one shoulder to the other with each step. He introduced us. This was his mom, he said. Not his mom yet actually but soon she would be. I knew what he was talking about. The immaculate conception thing. I couldn’t get away from it. They were going to stuff him inside her belly and then take him out again. “I’m older than they’d like but I’m hairless so that should make it easier,” he said.

I told him we should go look at the pizza options on the picnic table.

*

“But I’m not getting hurt,” said Little Robert. “It’s my mom who’s getting her belly cut open. All I have to do is slide in there.”

“I think you’re being a little facile,” I said.

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Little Robert, that woman is not your mom.”

“Yes, she is. Her name is Roberta. I wouldn’t know her name if she wasn’t my mom, would I?”

I ate a third slice of pizza. On the box someone had written their mobile payment username asking for a three dollar contribution. Three bucks? I picked up the marker on the table, crossed out their name, and wrote my own. Little Robert ran off to join the tug-of-war game which was about to start. I called Devon. “It seems like it should be pretty easy to convince someone not to go to this school but I’m failing.”

“You’re failing?” Devon said. “The whole system is rigged to fail. There’s no one to help these kids. Who are you going to call for help? The freaking police? We’re on our own out here. Fucking Reagan! And he’s only part of it. People before and after him, too. So don’t worry about failing, that happened a long time ago. And, and, OK, that class they want you to teach sounds pretty good, but everyone can be a little bit right some of the time. They did a good job with that one but the rest of it, I don’t know…”

“Are you still on the red line?”

“Like, they get the overarching problem with the world but it’s also demented their worldview in unsettling ways. The bunghole thing, for instance, and the immaculate conception thing, you see that everywhere now… I guess that’s the only way forward, though. At least this school is organized. We’re not organized. We shouldn’t even talk.”

“Are you still on the red line? Where are you?”

“It might be OK to sacrifice some things as long as you’re with people who generally have the right idea.” What they were trying to say was that they were back at their old apartment in Keeth’s building. He had found them on the red line and traded them free rent in exchange for sitting in Beeth’s old rocking chair for two hours a day. “No moving whatsoever to emulate her paralysis, and if I do move, the clock resets.”

“And that’s like my situation with the school?”

“Yes.”

“But in what way does Keeth have the right idea?”

“Free rent is the right idea. Not wanting to kill me is the right idea. Listen, don’t patronize me. You left. I’m just trying to fill in that gaping hole. And I don’t want to upset you, but what did you even leave me for? To be homeless?”

“I’m hardly homeless.”

Hardly isn’t the same thing as not.”

The sky was cloudy. The air was getting cold. Good. No hot clothes for me tomorrow. Devon had to go because their two hours were about to start. Before they hung up I heard Keeth ask if they wanted anything to drink first.

“Do you have any beer?”

“Beer? Oh, no, I don’t drink beer. Anytime I want a beer I have a cup of hot tea instead.”

“Hot tea?!”

And they hung up.

Not a lot of partygoers left.

No, there they all were, walking towards the treeline. I followed them. Roberta. The cup-eater guy. They disappeared in between the trees. Dark cracks in a wall. I stopped just before the woods. Just me, alone now. A tug at my foot. I looked down. I was standing on a rope of knotted-together shirts. The rope led off into the woods.

Slllp. Slllp.

“Tug-of-war time!” The cup-eater’s voice coming from the woods.

I took my foot off the rope. It snaked away a few inches, then stopped.

“Pick it up, let’s play!” A different voice this time. Maybe Little Robert’s?

“How about I get someone on my team,” I said. “Send out Little Robert, how about.”

Slllp. Slllp.

“Only if you add your shirt to the rope!”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“No Little Robert for you, then.”

The rope snaked away.

“Wait!” I said. “Fine.”

I took off my shirt and knotted it to the end of the rope.

“OK, send him out.”

The plan was to take Little Robert, and not play tug-of-war at all. We would run away. I could see a future for the two of us, kind of, if you really shoe-horned it. I could take care of him, or I knew plenty of people who could take care of him, people who could teach him how to be blind without any of the butt stuff.

But they didn’t send him out.

Instead, a tremendous force, which I later understood to be everyone in the woods, pulled on that rope. My heels dragged. If I didn’t let go, I would be pulled straight between the trees. First I tried to get my shirt back but the tension on the rope made the knot impossibly tight. Goodbye, shirt. Goodbye, Little Robert.

*

Feeling miserable I walked to Kim’s house. She didn’t know I didn’t have a place to live anymore. She thought I was still living with Lucia Mongrove and Snoozin’ and Boozin’. So. I knew something she didn’t. Or, I had a secret from her. A rare feeling and I wondered how long I could keep it to myself.

She had her phone out, about to call someone.

“Who’s Stanislavski? Why is that name familiar?”

“He’s an acting coach or something.”

“He’s going to do my taxes.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re the one with all that tax debt,” I said.

She looked at me curiously.

“Yes,” she said. “I am the one with all that tax debt. Where is your shirt?”

“A mob of people took it from me,” I said. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“OK.”

“I’m not really in a position to help anyone do anything, am I?” A dumb thing to say, I knew the answer, I didn’t even care about the question, here I was, wasting my sister’s time making disingenuous conversation.

“Oh, sure you are. Anyone can help anyone, there’s no prerequisite,” she said. “Hello? Mr. Stanislavski? Hello, yes. I have quite the case for you. Twenty thousand bucks in tax debt. Interested?”

Gray Don’t Matter

Lucia was apologetic about stealing all my money but mostly she was afraid of me because she thought I had killed her cat.

We were in the kitchen. I was eating broccoli and cheddar soup. My fourth helping. I had watered it down in the sink to make it last longer. Not that I wasn’t going to eat it all tonight. There was nothing else to do. I had to stay inside to avoid Thom, who was out looking for me.

Earlier that day Kim reported he had been back to her apartment where he thought I was still living.

“He was shouting a lot of mean stuff about you,” Kim said.

“Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“He said you were fired. He rambled about the virtues of employment and asked what you had to offer the world now besides a brash personality and little stories.”

Actually, I was not bothered by any of that. What else did I have to offer the world, if you even accepted the premise that someone had to offer something to the world? I was still a babysitter, wasn’t I? Not that being a babysitter meant anything, either, but it was something I offered to the world. You couldn’t deny it was something. Plus, there were the intangibles…

“The intangibles?”

“You know, the stuff in you that’s there but you can’t really articulate what it is, but you know it’s valuable.”

“And you’re sure it’s there?”

“It’s there all right… well, I’m pretty sure it’s there… I’ve always assumed… you have to assume… it’s possible it’s not there, but you can’t live your life like that… maybe it’s not there… I guess without any sort of proof you seem silly… no, forget everything about the intangibles… or, well… no… no, no, now that I think about it again, it’s there, all right… yes, it’s definitely real…”

The intangibles!

*

Back to Lucia, in the kitchen.

“I’m sorry I took your money, hun. I realize it was the wrong thing to do. Also, I’m sorry I hypnotized you into thinking you were a wolf. Really, it’s my own fault you killed my cat, because you thought you were a wolf when you did it. You thought you were a wolf when you killed my cat, right? You weren’t yourself? You weren’t yourself. I don’t think you were yourself.”

She kept repeating that last part in slightly different ways because I was only responding with shrugs and eyebrow raises.

“I won’t do it ever again,” she said. “And I won’t use the money I took for anything other than to fix the hole you put in my wall, to buy myself a new clock, and to buy myself a new cat.”

I put down my spoon.

“Buy a new cat?” I said. “Why buy a cat when there are plenty of strays in the backyard?”

“Oh, I prefer to buy a cat.”

*

Out to the backyard. No strays at the moment. Probably they went inside at night to avoid the coyotes.

Inside where?

I dumped some of my broccoli and cheddar soup onto the pavement and waited for a stray to come pick at it.

Movement in the weeds at the far end of the yard.

A little boy fell out of them. I knew him. It was that hairless boy who stole vegetables from Kim and Moon’s apartment. Still adorned in naught but a purple cloth diaper. Splayed out chest-first onto the pavement.  “Ow ow ow.” I jogged over to him and got him to his feet.

“Who’s that?” he yelled, slapping me away.

His eyes were closed. Gummy. Painted shut like old windows. The little hairless boy was blind.

“It’s me,” I said. “You remember me. The cake batter man.”

“The cake batter man?”

“I gave you a bowl of cake batter. Told you weren’t evil. Like a mile from here. It was a couple of months ago.”

“I think I remember that.”

I guided him to the back steps with the idea we’d have a seat. For stability he held me by the forearm but soon his fingers crawled north and began pinching the skin on the tip of my elbow.

“OK, enough of that,” I said. “If you want to hold my arm you can do that, but you can’t pinch my elbow.”

He lifted his chin at me.

“Why do you care?” he said. “People don’t have nerve endings in their elbows.”

“Where’d you learn that?”

“I went to school for half a second. You’ve got a lot of extra skin. That can’t be good for you.”

“How did you go to school?”

“Anyone can go to school. I learned that at school, too,” he said. “Does the extra skin look bad or does it only feel bad?”

“It only feels bad,” I said.

We sat down. I decided he was right. Why did I care if he noodled around with my elbow? “Hey, man, here’s my elbow back.”

He wouldn’t tell me anything more about the school except for other things he had learned there.

“Everyone has two cooters,” he said.

“What?”

“Everyone has two cooters,” he said. “You have the cooter and then the cooter-crapper. One’s for pooping. The other is vestigial.” He didn’t say vestigial just like that. First he sounded it out for about a minute.

“Vestigial?”

“That’s right. Nowadays surgery exists. You can just take a baby that’s been already been born and slide it into someone’s belly and that’s how you make a baby.”

“Where was this school?”

“I don’t know,” he said glumly. “I can’t see. The family that took me in told me I had to stop sneaking into gardens to eat vegetables before they’d let me go to school. They said that but they had the biggest garden I’d ever seen! Carrots and tomatoes plus plenty I didn’t know the names of. You know carrots and tomatoes?”

“A little,” I said.

“They musta sprayed something on the garden finally because one night I went out there and it was all dying and brown. I took what still looked all right but the next morning I had diarrhea and my eyes were glued shut with poison. I asked the man about it and he told me, ‘That’s the name of the game,’ but he let me go to school. Who cares about school if your eyes are glued shut? I stayed for a week and then I’m back doing this. You got any more of that cake batter?”

“No, all I’ve got is some broccoli and cheddar soup.”

“I’ll take some of that.”

“It’s highly diluted. There’s hardly any cheddar left. Also it’s gone all gray but again that’s just the water leeching the green out of the broccoli.”

“Gray,” he said.

“Gray don’t matter to me!” he screamed.

*

Much later in the night I came back inside with two strays. One was orange and the other was brown. I brought them to Lucia who was on the couch and told her to pick one.

“Those are strays,” she said.

“No, they’re mine,” I said. “You can buy them from me.”

“You’re making me pick between two cats? That’s cruel, hun. Means one of them is going to get rejected.”

“If you went to the pound you’d be rejecting hundreds of cats.”

“What’s the pound?”

“It’s where you get cats.”

“The pound,” she said, “must be a Midwestern thing. OK, I better take them both. But I’m only paying for one because I didn’t even want to get a new cat. I want my old cat. But he’s dead, isn’t he?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“I’ll name them Snoozin’ and Boozin’,” she said. “Call whichever whichever.”

“My money, now, give me my money,” I said, and she did. I set Snoozin’ and Boozin’ ont the floor then went back outside and split the money with the hairless blind boy. He rolled the bills into a tight tube and placed it behind his ear. After hunting for the cats his skin now teemed with mosquitoes but he told me not to worry. These weren’t natural mosquitoes. A corporation had released them to mate with the natural mosquitoes to make them not able to have babies. That type of thing still worked on mosquitoes because they didn’t have anything like the surgeries humans had.

The Hun

“I need you to bail me out of jail,” Devon said on the phone. “The body slipped out from the hillside and Keeth threw me to the police.”

“How much do you need?”

They yelled away from the phone. “Hey! How much to get out of here?!

OK, bail. I thought about my finances. I was making more money than I ever had in my life. This was between babysitting and working the door at Thom’s big band shows. I had saved enough money to move out of my sister’s backyard, at least for the month. Now I was living in a large old house while its owners were in Europe, a place I had never been. There was also a cat and a movie actor living here.

“Listen,” Devon said, “no one is telling me how much to get out of here. But I’m still a shopboy. You know I can’t afford anything like bail.”

“OK,” I said. “Tell you what. I’m babysitting tonight, followed by a big band show where I’m working the door. All the money I make, I’ll save it and get it to you, somehow.”

“How about a lawyer? Can you get me one of those?”

“No,” I said, and sighed deeply so they knew I wasn’t blowing them off. “I don’t know anything about that. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Devon had a few extra minutes before their time was up so we got each other up to date on our lives. Myself, I had married Moon for health insurance purposes. “The one trouble is after the quick courthouse ceremony Moon took off for Reno and hasn’t been back since. Every few days she texts me asking me to send her some more money. But you know I only get paid cash and don’t necessarily have a bank account so it’s hard.” Also, her absence from work was on the cusp of getting her fired, which would make the initial point of our marriage moot.

“That’s how those things go, isn’t it?” Devon said. “You do things for reasons and those reasons disappear, if they ever existed in the first place, and then all that’s left is doing things…” I imagined them strapped to an electric chair saying this.

Having discussed my life, it was Devon’s turn to talk about their life although we pretty much knew where they stood, being in jail, needing bail money, etc. Instead they used their turn to float an idea about ghosts my way: “In essence the idea is that on a physical level we are like ghosts in that body boundaries mean nothing. Other things come and go inside us constantly like food and germs and parasites and implants and whatever else. So we’re constantly leaving pieces of ourselves behind on purpose or not. Our bodies are so in flux and so inseparable from everything that it makes no sense to think of them as discrete or even our own. Which makes us like ghosts, beings without bodies. Or at least beings that are haunted by a ton of crap.”

It was more electric chair talk.

“That’s really something to think about,” I said and began sweating. Ghosts… boundaries… flux…

*

My roommate the movie actor was named Lucia Mongrove and I tried to avoid her a lot. But there she was, in the kitchen, wearing a cowboy hat, opening a can of black beans.

“Hi, Lucia.”

“Hello, hun.”

She was younger than me.

Twisting the can opener, her hands looked like they had extra fingers.

“Listen, hun, it OK I’m eating your beans?”

Knuckles cracking. Beans. Extra fingers.

“They’re not my beans,” I said.

“Well, you bought them for me and I never paid you back. I’m not going to be able to pay you back, so they’re your beans. It OK I’m eating your beans?”

I didn’t know anything about these beans. Would I buy a can of beans for somebody if they asked? I had no idea. No one had ever asked me to buy them a can of beans. Unless Lucia had asked me to buy her a can of beans. Had she?

“Lucia, they’re your beans. Just eat the beans.”

She was still opening the can. Spinning the can round and round.

“A quality of a good actor is that they are also a mesmerist.” She said this while also trying not to move her mouth.

“Do you mean a ventriloquist?”

“Both,” she said.

Then she said:

“Three.”

“Two, one,” she said.

Out of nowhere, a full moon popped into the kitchen window.

I started howling at it.

Or, no, Lucia was only telling me I was doing these things. I could hear her saying it:

“You’re howling at that full moon.”

Yeah, I thought, trying to focus, it was only her telling me stuff.

Not really happening.

She was telling me I was a wolf. Big teeth. A long snout busting through my nose. A wolf. My eyes squeaking down to a really tiny size. Little pinholes of bloodlust. Fleas all over me. Itchy fleas laying eggs. I scratch the eggs and they hatch. I’m a planet of fleas, also a wolf.

And money?

Where would money fit into a life like this? It wouldn’t. Get that wallet out of my pocket. Slide all that cash out of there. Give it to a human who needs it.

“D-d-devon,” I said.

Sure, give it to Devon. Devon’s right here. Pass it right over here to Devon. And the bedroom cash, too. Go get that cash in the bedroom. I know there’s bedroom cash.

*

Later, babysitting.

The mom texted me halfway through the night. I was feeding the two boys pizza.

“Pizza, my dudes. Pizza for you, pizza for you, pizza for me…” I was a real talkative babysitter. Saying anything.

Can I bring Montel over too real quick? This was the mom’s text. She was at a wedding. He’s getting tired. Is that OK?

I didn’t know who Montel was.

I wrote back:

Always room for Montel!

*

Montel was just another boy. He was in a suit. I popped his shoes off for him. They were shiny dress shoes. I didn’t have any shoes like that.

“The lady says you got tired at that wedding.”

“Not to mention bored.”

“I bet.”

“Where are the others?” he asked me.

“Getting ready for a bath.”

“Do I get a bath?”

“No sir.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know you. No baths for strangers.”

“What if I get real dirty?”

“It’s got nothing to do with me. Here’s some pizza and they got a bunch of toys in there.”

*

Another text from Moon asking for money. I typed furiously while the boys splashed around in the tub.

All the money is gone. I turned into a werewolf and gave it all away because werewolves don’t like money.

How am I supposed to get home?

That was how she talked about spending money in Reno. Getting home.

What about the bedroom cash?

That too. No getting home tonight, Moon.

*

The boys wanted a story before bed. Their logic was they were scared and needed to calm down.

“You don’t need logic. I would’ve told you a story anyway.”

“Scared, though.”

“Why are you scared?”

“There’s somebody else in the house.”

“Yeah, another little boy. He’s sleeping in the other room.”

They were terrified.

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know… some boy.”

They wanted to know when their mom was getting home.

“She’ll be home when I’m done cleaning.”

“Cleaning?”

“First I’ll do the dishes, then I’ll clean the counters, then I’ll sweep the floors, then I’ll fix the couches, then I’ll take out the garbage, then your mom will be home. Got that? First I’ll do the dishes… then I’ll clean the counters… then I’ll sweep the floors… then I’ll fix the couches… then I’ll take out the garbage… then your mom will be home… Understand? First I’ll do the dishes… then I’ll clean the counters… then I’ll sweep the floors… then I’ll fix the couches… then I’ll take out the garbage… then your mom will be home…”

*

Later, working the door at the big band show. A giant wad of cash in my pocket to make change with. That full moon right up there in the corner of the sky. In front of the clouds. Still under the spell of whatever Lucia Mongrove did to me. A little nugget of wolf deep in my brain. I snarled at passersby. I hadn’t been paid extra for watching Montel. Devon wasn’t going to be getting out of jail tonight. Damn! Behind me, inside the theatre, Thom introduced the next song.

“This one is about my lost cat. The next one, we’ll segue right into that, it’s about my street, the one I live on. First my lost cat, then my street, the one I live on. Got that?”

“Ah one,” he said.

“Ah two,” he said.

“Ah one two three!”

That full moon blipped out of the sky.

*

A big man wanted to get into the show but for bad reasons.

“My wives are in there,” he said.

He was probably two feet taller than me. He was wearing an unadorned yellow basketball pinny. The folds of his armpits were massive, easily half a foot long.

“More than one wife?”

He told me his wives were Thom’s whole band, plus about an eighth of the audience.

“The whole band?”

“That’s right. I want them out of there.”

“An eighth of the audience?”

“Yes, sir.”

I didn’t understand the problem. Was this guy jealous? If they really were all his wives, not too likely they’d all fall for the exact same guy.

“Fall?” the big man said.

“Fall in love.”

He didn’t understand.

“Get attracted to, that sort of thing.”

He didn’t know what I was saying. It occurred to me I wasn’t dealing with this like a real doorman. Why was I talking to him?

“Out of here!” I said. “You’re confused? You’re confusing me, you gotta go! Out of here! Come on, let’s move!” Saying anything.

“Well now hold on,” he said. “We’re two married men. I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Married? I’m not married.”

“Sure you are,” he said.

Oh, shit. He was right. I was married. My leg started trembling.

*

“And then I abandoned my post and took the wad of cash which I was supposed to use to make change for the entry fee with me,” I told my sister hours later.

I was standing in the doorway of Lucia Mongrove’s bedroom.

“Good for you,” my sister called from inside Lucia Mongrove’s bedroom. She was tearing it apart looking for my money.

She kicked a hole in the wall.

“It’s not in the wall,” she said. “Listen, you can’t trust actors. I told you that. Acting is advertising. There is almost no acting that isn’t advertising. It’s all very sickening. I mean, movies? Jesus. No! I don’t even like to talk about it because then I’m also advertising even if I’m critiquing it.”

“I agree with you but I thought you write for television.”

She threw Lucia’s clock to the ground.

“It’s not in the clock,” she said.

I wandered outside to the back porch and counted Thom’s wad of cash. Plenty of money. If it didn’t cover all of Devon’s bail, certainly it would cover a little bit of Devon’s bail. Right? Pretty good. In just one night, I’d managed to cover some of Devon’s bail.

“It’s not in the cat,” my sister said.

Worst Case Scenario

I was hiding from my sister’s landlord with the lights off and the curtains pulled.

“I know you’re in there,” he said. “I’m in the backyard. Your tent is out here, along with all your clothes on the clothesline, and your books, and your dumbbells.”

I sat on the floor next to some cabinets.

The landlord’s onto me, I texted Kim.

It can’t be the landlordThe landlord is abroad. More than that, the landlord isn’t even a person, it’s a business.

Who to believe? Kim said the man in the backyard wasn’t the landlord, that in fact the landlord wasn’t even human, but then who knew more about the landlord: Kim, or the man outside claiming to be the landlord? If the man’s claim was true, then likely he knew more about the landlord, being the man himself. If the man’s claim wasn’t true, did that mean he knew less about the landlord than Kim? No. It only meant he wasn’t the man himself.

I hear you are trapped. Now it was Moon texting me. I am sorry you are trapped. Are you sweating?

Yes but only because it is hot.

If you tape over your pores you will stop sweating. 

Tape? Over my whole body? I couldn’t let myself be distracted. I was fending off an intruder. Or, possibly, I was an intruder fending off the owner.

What does he look like? Kim again.

I crawled to the door and peeked through the curtains. I wanted to give Kim a good description. I concentrated. Lately I had been trying to be impressive.

His nipples wisp out of his chest like the tips of soft-serve cones.

So he’s shirtless?

Yes.

And pants? Is he wearing pants?

No pants.

Then my phone rang. It was Devon, back in Chicago. They were also having landlord problems. How was it that we were both having landlord problems? Devon was not surprised. In fact they did not want to talk about the coincidence at all.

“Listen to me,” they said. “Beeth didn’t make it.”

“Didn’t make it?”

“She died.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, listen, what do you know about retaining walls?”

“No more than anybody else.”

“I ask because me and Keeth buried her in the backyard. But the backyard’s on a hill and it’s been raining. She’s going to slip out the side of it.”

“How did she die?”

“The water in her ears and the cough it gave her. She couldn’t beat the cough. Paralyzed people can’t handle a cough the way you or I can. It moves your insides imperceptibly until finally you aren’t organized in a way that allows life.”

“Why are you helping Keeth bury the body?”

“He’s the landlord, I’m the tenant.”

“That’s not a very good reason,” I said.

“Before we buried her, he made me hold her against the wall so he could trace her onto it with a paintbrush. Then he looked at the outline and caressed its cheek and sighed. ‘I’m going to do this all the time now,’ he told me. ‘She never let me touch her gently like this. She said if you gently touch a horse, it’ll kick you. Anytime I tried it, she would shout, No! Like a horse! and make me get a really firm palm there on her face.’ I think he’s got a lot of built-up trauma about all sorts of things.”

“That’s not a very good reason, either,” I said.

“I have other reasons. You’re not here anymore. We had built a life together. I’m just filling my days. It could be anything, but it’s this.”

“Like a horse, huh,” I said, looking out the window. The landlord was still out there, but now he was getting dressed. He stepped into a pair of dark slacks and pulled on a green polo.

What was he doing?

*

He said his name was Thom. Tom? No, Thhhhom. He was proud of me for suspecting he was not the landlord. Now, might he in turn suspect something about me? Would that be OK? “I suspect you’d like to be a doorman.”

A doorman?

No, I stayed focused. I stepped onto the porch.

“Moments ago you were naked,” I said. “I’ll kick your ass. You saw those dumbbells.”

“It’s what we need!” he cried. “Not my ass, but the asses of people who try to sneak into shows. Not only those who have tried to sneak in. Even if they paid, they can be kicked out. If they’re rowdy. Having paid or not. Rowdy? They must go.”

Rowdy?

A doorman?

A doorman…

“What kind of shows? What kind of people come to the shows?”

“Big band! Three nights a week. And people? All sorts of people. Good people and, if not good, then interesting.” He gestured at the tent. “You look like someone in need of friends. You know what they say about making friends.” For the next sentence, he slapped the back of one hand into the palm of the other, emphasizing each word. “The! Trick! Is! To! Be! Somewhere! Regularly!”

I looked at him, feeling totally helpless.

“You get to carry a wad of money to make change for the entry fee. This wad, right here. Of course, remember now, you don’t get to keep it. It’s not your cut. It’s only for making change. This has been a point of contention in the past.”

As a gesture of trust and goodwill he insisted on tossing me the wad of cash. It was rubberbanded. I slid the rubberband onto my wrist, then back onto the wad, thinking, yes or no, yes or no. Thinking, Thom could have taken my clothes off the clothesline. But no, he had brought his own, not that it meant anything. People could always be worse, or better, than they were at any given moment.

If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will

Devon and I were trying to make dinner but the kitchen kept getting larger and larger.

“That’s not what’s happening,” Devon said. “It’s just getting darker in here. The edges of the room are disappearing. But that doesn’t mean they’re gone.”

“Oh…” I said noncommittally. This was one of those situations where someone explains something to you but you don’t think they are right. In fact you wonder if they even believe what they’re saying. Or, was this one of those situations? By that I mean, was this not one of those situations?

*

In the living room, all the windows were open. They were windows that used small chains to go up and down. I can’t explain it any better than that. It was a windy night. The chains clinked back-and-forth in their runners. It felt good in-between my ears. I had had at least two drinks a night for the past few months. Tonight was my first time, for no particular reason, not doing that. I think that’s why I was attuned to the clinking chains. It was clear to me this was a sound you could only hear without any drinks in your system.

Devon was talking.

“I’m looking for a situation where I can really give my heart the run of the yard, you know?”

“A hound dog.”

They smacked the table. “Yes.”

The food was gone except for faint tongue smears on our plates.

“Actually, I take it back,” Devon said. “What I’m looking for is unrequited love. That’s the best kind.”

“Unrequited love is pretty easy to come by.”

They smacked the table. “No.”

In the end we decided to have a beer. At least one beer. The beers were in the fridge and the fridge was in the dark, ever-expanding kitchen. Which of us was going to go get them? I was going to go get them. The beers had been my idea and in fact I had not mentioned the idea of getting beers out loud to Devon.

“Where are you going?”

I walked for what felt like two minutes to the fridge and the kitchen reached a point where it was too big to have only one person occupying it. It couldn’t have been only me in there. Opening the fridge I spilled the green interior light onto the floor and saw a thin old man down there on his knees. He had a caulk gun in hand. His name was Keeth. He spelled it for me. A slat was missing from the floor and he was filling it with some sort of wood substitute. Brown glue. From up where I was I could see his hairstyle, not a great one: a reverse-mohawk. It must have been naturally occurring because he caught me looking and mussed up the hair to hide it.

“The floor here, does this look like a new slat? Does it fit with the rest of the floor?”

I made a vague noise that meant nothing, which was good enough for him. He stood up.

“Don’t take anything out of the fact it’s me fixing the floor and not you. That’s just circumstance. It’s only me doing this and not you because my sister is the landlord. She’s paralyzed so I do anything that requires you to be able to move your body. Anyway if your sister were the landlord, you’d be fixing the floor, and maybe I’d be standing over you.”

“Probably not, though…” I said, barely there. I was looking around for Devon. “My sister isn’t paralyzed…”

Keeth scratched his belly and itched his chin, which was a replica of his belly, sagging with a deep dimple in the middle.

“That hardly means anything,” Keeth said. “Your sister not being paralyzed, I mean. In the past, my sister wasn’t paralyzed, either. The only difference between you and I is that you’re still living in the era where your sister isn’t yet paralyzed. Do you want to know how she came to be this way? My sister, that is. Not yours. You’re in a lucky position, friend. I didn’t have someone prepare me for my sister’s paralysis by telling me the origin of their sister’s paralysis. This might save you some psychic damage. Here it is in a few sentences. She threw a party, loosened the bolts on the porch, then stood out there and beckoned everyone to join her. But she was out there with them. That makes it slightly less malicious, don’t you think? The courts let her stay on the outside with me as long as she never tries to fix her spine.”

I found a full six-pack in the fridge. I wrapped it in a hug against my chest and asked Keeth his sister’s name.

“My sister?”

“Yes, the landlord.”

“Her name is Beeth.”

“Beef?”

“No, Beeth. Like Beth.”

“Beth?”

“No, Beeth.”

He took me by the point of my elbow. He wanted to show me where the porch had been. I was expecting him to take me to a window, but no, he took me to a door, and opened it, and it dropped straight down three stories into a mess of weeds, big weeds with large flat leaves, and thin cord-like weeds which rose up stiffly along the brick wall of the apartment building.

“It used to be vegetables but then I let it weed over. I planted corn and those small tomatoes. Cucumbers and radishes. Onions. Vegetables… I’d parcel them out into shopping bags and leave them against the front doors of the victims’ homes. It didn’t last. The brothers and sisters of the victims, they broke into the garden and ripped everything up. They razed it with urine. It still smells like urine if you concentrate. The trick is, don’t concentrate.” He chuckled and put his hands on his stomach. His white t-shirt was thin and you could see the matted black hair around his belly button. His hands formed the shape of a heart but I didn’t know if that was intentional.

*

“Sorry about the delay. I found a six-pack, though.”

“There are only five.”

“I drank one on the walk back.”

A few beers later and I had been right. I could no longer hear the clinking of the window-chains. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear anything.

“That’s not true,” Devon said. “You can hear me talking, can’t you?”

“Well, yes.”

They belched. “And you could hear that, couldn’t you?”

I tried to belch back but acid rose up my throat instead. Heartburn and it had been going on for weeks. Also, I hadn’t had a solid bowel movement in who knew how long. There was the shadow of my flagging health but then I didn’t know why solid movements were the standard. The idea of something solid coming out of a body was maybe disgusting. What if one were too big? What if it got stuck? No, liquid was best.

“What were we talking about?” Devon said.

“Sisters? Vegetables?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh! Love.”

“That’s it. Promise you won’t clip off this era of your life, then sew the prior and future eras to each other. My existence is tenuous as it is.”

I wondered if that was something I was even capable of. What had been the previous era of my life? I couldn’t remember. And the future era? Who could say. There was nothing to clip. It occurred to me Devon might be the only thing I would remember out of any era of my life. What a thing to be able to tell somebody.

Outside, dogs were barking. How was I able to hear it? This was the sort of thing a couple of beers ought to have muted.

“Hear those dogs?”

“Yeah. They’re fighting. Sounds like one is about to get its throat ripped out.”

I smacked the table. “We can’t have that. We love dogs.”

“We do?”

“Grab your coat, let’s get out there.”

“Coat? It’s summer.”

*

We found the dogs in the backyard.

“Which one is winning?” Devon said.

“It doesn’t seem like either one is winning.”

“I agree. They look evenly matched. Visually neither looks like they have the upper hand. But then listen to their barks. One is high-pitched, panicked, and warbling. The other is lower with more traditional growling. So, one is clearly winning, but which bark belongs to which dog?”

“I have a fact about dog fights,” I said. “About how to stop them. You’re supposed to stick your finger up their butt.”

“Which one’s butt, though?”

“I suppose you’d stick it up the aggressor’s butt.”

“That brings us right back around to the question of who’s winning.”

Then a third dog began to bark. Somewhere above us. On the second-floor porch. It wasn’t a dog. It was a woman in a rocking chair. Between the coughing and the rocking chair, you might think this was a person with complete control of their limbs, but it wasn’t.

“I know what you’re thinking. Why a rocking chair?” Beeth called down to us. “The illusion of movement.” She coughed. The force of the cough shuddered her body. “Coughing also works.”

“I didn’t know paralyzed people could cough,” Devon said.

“Oh, yes, all of my meat parts still function. I just can’t move the skeleton. Think of me like a plank of wood covered in worms. Do you know who I am? Did you think I was dead? Sometimes I think I’m dead. More or less I am dead. Keeth likes me this way. You can pick me up and put me anywhere. I’m easy to hide. For instance, way back when you first looked at this place, and now I’m talking to you, here, Devon, way back when you first looked at this place, I was in the tub. It doesn’t drain well. There was a shallow pool that rose just above my ear canals. It’s why I have this cough. Months later and I still have this cough.”

Beeth coughed again and her head lolled to the side. She busied herself trying to swing her head back up using the momentum of her eyeball movement. This was all clear for us to see, the porch light exaggerating her every impossible motion. Another cough left her folded forward in the rocking chair, head between her knees, arms swinging at her sides. 

“Would you mind coming up here to put me back in an upright position?” she asked.

“Sure,” Devon said.

“Don’t do it,” I said. “She’s rigged that porch to collapse.”

That was good enough for Devon. We turned our attention back to the dogs.

“Do not touch my dogs,” Beeth said.

But we did.