No Paddles, No Beeping

Shutterstock Image

(This is an excerpt of a novel-length project I recently completed.)


We’d hauled the piano in one rainy afternoon — last fall, I think — after the neighbors next door had been evicted, a day when the sky was heavy and gray and we’d decided to see a movie but wound up at a bar on Holly instead. At least we’d assumed they’d been evicted, everything suddenly scattered across the front yard, the guy standing just beyond the shelter of the front porch, surveying the wreck and muttering to himself. Welfare family — that’s what Jon had told me once, what kept repeating itself in my mind as I watched the guy in his torn-up jeans and ratty work boots stare out over the washed-out stuff of his life. “That’s why the kids are never the same. Always black or brown but never the same. They adopt or foster and the state basically pays them a stipend in return. Easy.” “Easy,” Vince had added, like an echo. We pulled up slow, the guy never, not even for a second, lifting his eye to the street. He looked so lonely, so beat down — I remember wondering how a life could turn out like that, how things could ever get to be so bad. But then, there it was, right in front of me, smack dab in the middle of the chipped and broken children’s toys, the adult diapers and mismatched kitchenware, the dirty sheets and beat-up couch cushions, the piano leaning at an angle down the steep slope of the grass, maybe broken beyond repair.

Jon had gotten out of the car, walked straight over and asked if he could have the thing. Honestly, I’d expected the guy to get upset, to get angry, to at least get annoyed and tell Jon to fuck off, hell part of me kind of hoped he’d take a swing, not hard enough to hurt Jon, but ya know, just something to brighten a gloomy day. But the guy, thin in a sickly way, stubble covering the too-loose skin of his face, mumbled a few things and threw up his hands, said something to the effect of why the fuck not.

He even offered to help us get it in the house.

But the guy — he was so weak, his help so breathless and wheezing, he wound up making it harder to lug the damn thing inside than if we’d done it on our own. And then, after we’d finally managed it, he stuck around for a while, smoking a partly torn cigarette and ranting to no one in particular about what he was going to do to the cock smoker that’d put him out like that, had put his kids out like that. That phrase had always stuck with me. Days, weeks, months later, that odd configuration of words, of sounds and syllables stayed stuck in my head.

Welfare family.

I never even knew such a thing existed.

We kept silent for the most part — Jon tried to talk to him at first, but the guy didn’t really listen, just smoked and talked and laughed, a weird, hollow sound — and eventually he just got up and left, trailing mud and water across the floor.

With the shades pulled tight, the house is cool and dark like that day had been, like the way a thick slab of stone in shade seems to suck the heat right out of the world, the piano a low-hung cloud stuck against the near wall.

I stand, blinded for a few seconds as the dayglow fades. Eventually I spot Jon and Vince on the couch, sunk deep into the single cushion, and Ted in front of the piano, his back to the door. Above him on the wall, the only ray of light coming through the blinds just catches the outer drum of the banjo’s body. He doesn’t turn, even when the door closes with a thud behind me.

“Wassup, bud?”

Vince shifts his long scarecrow legs, crossing and uncrossing then crossing them again. Jon giggles abruptly, his chest reaching forward and up, like a spasm, like a dying person on a tv show, laid out on a gurney, brought back to life when someone slaps them with those electrified paddles, the beep beep beep replacing the flat monotone of death. The tv in the corner plays videos of fractals with the sound off, colors swirling and shapes shifting, mutating in never-ending patterns on the screen.

“What’re you guys up to?”

Despite the mostly dark, Jon is wearing sunglasses. He’s also sporting a wide, jack-in-the-box grin.

“Just dosing.”

Ted finally turns to look up at me. I wave at him, offer him a thumbs up for good measure, but then he’s back to the piano without a word.

I can almost hear it — that annoying beep. The annoying beep of life.

“We only dropped an hour or so ago. D’ya want?”

Vince sits forward, rummaging through the drawer of the coffee table.

“Nah. I’m ok.”

The swooshing noises my feet make are like claps of thunder in the little room, amplified by the hardwood floors, the hard edges of everything. I change my gait, but there’s little effect. Safe from my own body’s sounds again, I drop onto the porcelain stool, shaped like a white elephant and painted — probably by Jon or Vince or both during one trip or another — in bright, blocky colors. They’d come up with a name for it once, but I could never remember what it was. Bambi or Baloo — something based on an animal character, but that was wrong in one way or another, like they’d mixed up the movie or the book and the type of animal. Other than his single peek Ted still hasn’t moved, though I could swear I’d felt the air around him contract, the pressure in the room shifting, as I passed behind him.

“What’s up, Ted?”

He lifts his hand, positioning it over the keys, what I think is middle C, what could be any damn chord or note for all I know. His ring finger trembles, the muscles in his forearm flexing in turn, the rolled up sleeve of his flannel shirt bunched just before the elbow.

“Did you know that in Italy — like, old Italy, way back when Italy — they used to have these things called ‘doges?’”

Jon and Vince seem to have sunk even deeper into the couch’s cushion. I have a clear vision of the two of them sinking ass backwards into the thing until they disappear completely, swallowed whole by the nothing around them.

“What?”

“Doges.”

A jangly chord fills the room.

“That’s a B.”

Ted says it without turning, as if he were speaking to the piano, comforting it, informing it of its own innate capabilities. Shh, shh, honey. It’s just a B.

You did that.

You made that.

Your father and I are so proud.

“B minor, actually.”

B minor, actually.

Still — there’s no way you won’t get into that school now. And if they won’t take you, then we’ll just find a school that will! We expect great things from you, honey. Great things.

Jon watches him for a beat.

“So, yeah, they had these things called ‘doges.’ Not like the meme. But basically what being a doge meant was that you’d been selected to become a public servant for like, overcrowded republics.”

“Crowned republics.”

Vince’s tone is annoyed, but loving, the way a spouse would, despite their husband’s wrongness, excuse him again and again. Oh, he’s just stubborn. Oh, he just didn’t think I’d look good in that. Oh, he just yells because he cares so much.

“Sure. Right. Crowned republics. And once you did, you gave up all your money and your property and your job and your whole life became serving others. Kind of like a politician, like a politician of today, you know, except better.”

“Like, way better.”

I study Jon’s face over his Loony Tunes grin. Even through his sunglasses I can tell the smile hasn’t creased or cracked or even crinkled his eyes, like a computer program that started to load and just stopped halfway. Operation completed unsuccessfully. Disk failed to load.

An error has occurred while trying to display this smile.

“Who selected them? Or elected them, I guess?”

Vince flips his hair out of his face, combing his hand through the stringy mess. His pupils have become massive, inky pools and he swivels them to fix on me.

“Well, in Venice, forty people selected four men to select the doge — ”

He’s smiling too, like Jon the smile a gargantuan thing dominating his face, his features. Unlike his brother though, Vince’s eyes actually carry the expression as well.

“ — those four guys were selected by another committee of like, 12 or 15, I think. So it’s like a democracy — ,” Jon joins Vince in harmony, “ — but better.”

I will Jon to pack something as I scratch my chin and pretend to consider this.

Doges, eh? What a thing. What a thing to be considered. What a thing to — oh, you’re not going to pack anything? Just wondering. No, no rush. Take your — just resituating I see. No problem, no problem. The breeze is nice, I’d turn to face the back door too. Hot out there, cool in here, a little breeze to even the whole thing out. I get it. I get it. But do you know what’d make it all even better? Something that’d take this scene from good to great? A little of the -

Jon leans toward the side table and my heart leaps. He returns with a pipe and I let the knowing of what’s to come fill me. That breeze, easing in through tiny slots in the screen of the backdoor, ruffles the remains of a split cigar. I accept the pipe as the breeze, and the house, go still again.

I take a deep breath, letting it out slow, slow, slow through my nostrils. I close my eyes as the smoke burns inside my chest. I cough, falling to the bottom of nowhere, nothing.

I breathe again.

Back to the top, racing there, the first feeling of lift carrying me up and away, the world turned impossibly small as I climb. Mushier too, as if I were looking at everything through goggles or a partially melted prism, all the lights and colors and sounds muted, distorted in some way.

“Where did that come from?”

Did I say that?

The shadows falling in through the backdoor have shifted, and even though I can’t see his eyes through his sunglasses anymore I can tell Jon had heard me, is now looking at me. At least I think he is.

He is looking at you.

“The weed?”

He breathes it out with the smoke, the cloud pooling above his head and, like the question, disappearing slowly.

“No, the thing about doges.”

“Oh. We were reading about it earlier.”

Vince’s smile, now a base element of his physical being, as much a part of him as his lips and teeth, makes his straightforward response seem somehow manic. He rubs his hands against his thighs, pushes himself up to standing, leans one way, the other way, then forward, then back, biting at his fingernails, all while staring at the floor, and finally sits down again, somehow still smiling, and yet wholly uncertain. It’s like he has to fold himself up to fit on the couch again and when he does, the room itself doubles in size.

Without warning, his eyes shoot wide and he twists to face Jon.

“Oh fuck. Did I tell you? They found a new star! Kepler saw it. It’s like 2,000 light years away from us. They think it might be a sign of alien life.”

“Finally.”

Jon says it matter-of-factly, says it like it was the most natural thing in the world that alien life might be discovered. He smacks the bowl against the palm of his hand, wiping absentmindedly at the bits that fall on his pants. He brings it close to his face, inspecting it, turning it toward the light coming in through the screen. He hits it again, repeats the process once more. Vince, watching him, scratches the tip of his nose, waiting patiently for the ritual to be spent.

Jon signals his satisfaction and Vince goes on.

“The light from the star is blinking and the light curve — I think it’s the light curve — is off or weird or something, so they’ve been looking into it.”

Jon doesn’t respond this time, suddenly doesn’t seem all that interested really so Vince lets the thought go, the excitement slipping away slowly, bit by bit as he comes to terms with his brother’s apathy. He runs his hand through his hair again and settles back into the couch. Jon keeps working, stuffing weed into the grinder and Vince just sits, eyes losing focus as he loses himself in the shapes on the tv.

“What does that mean?”

Vince starts at the sound of my voice.

“What does what mean?”

“The light curve. What does that mean if it’s weird?”

I hold Vince’s eyes for a second or two before the dark troubles me again and I turn, not really sure why or what I’m looking for until deciding, finally, that I was really just curious if Ted, opinion-less to this point, had any feelings on the matter.

He does not. Or, more accurately, his back does not indicate a specific feeling, one way or the other, on the matter of light curves and blinking lights.

Beep. Beep.

“Oh — ”

Vince’s smile slips, doesn’t disappear altogether, but falters in a way I didn’t think was possible, not with the plethora of drugs in his system. It’s less of a grin now, more an uncertain smirk and I’m worried I fucked up his trip, hoping I didn’t send him into some acid tailspin when something comes to him, something big and mind-blowing and suddenly the smile is back, radiating even more powerfully than before.

“ — it doesn’t matter. Dude. Alien life! Alien fucking life! That’s so cool.”

Jon’s nodding.

“Yep. And it’s about time. I’ll bet there are all kinds of alien races out there who may contact us. They won’t yet though. Not until after.”

After?

Now Vince is nodding too, only Ted is silent, still, staring at the piano like he’s certain it holds some secret he can only unlock through extended periods of eye contact, and I’m at a complete loss.

“After what?”

The brothers share a smile and a laugh and it’s like I can feel the tempo of my pulse double and then triple, some unidentifiable embarrassment turning to anger and then fury, but when it gets to be too much and my vision starts to spot, clouding over in pinpricks of red, I just turn away, leaning into the high, that soft, cushy nothingness, until the color goes.

“Because they’ve been avoiding us. Because we’re so close to the fall.”

The fall?

Jon’s words, delayed by the smoke and my fading anger, come to me slowly. When I manage to wrap myself around the awkward sound of what he’d said, I open my mouth to question it again, shut it just as quickly. Maybe I’d heard him wrong.

You probably heard him wrong.

He’s watching me expectantly. I know what he wants.

You know what he wants.

I don’t want to give it to him, to give in, but the room’s gone quiet and now Vince is looking at me too and Ted’s not looking at me, not looking at anything but the piano and maybe not even the piano, maybe nothing but whatever’s inside his brain, but the way his head is cocked he’s probably listening too, waiting too, just like Jon and Vince.

Beep.

“The fall?”

Jon slips forward to edge of the cushion.

“Yep. The fall. The fucking fall, man. We’re on the edge. On the precipice. It’s like — it’s like a reckoning. And not just a cultural reckoning. A worldwide reckoning. And we’re all going back to the stone age. No more cars and planes and cellphones. We’re sick. All of us. Humanity. Fast food and plastic surgery, fucking one percenters and fucking dog sweaters. We’re on the edge and the fall is going to bring us all back to the reality of the world. The real reality.”

Dog sweaters?

Sitting forward like he is, I can almost make out Jon’s eyes again behind the cheap tint of his sunglasses. He looks raw. Hungry almost. Beside him, Vince nods, his smile bright as hope.

“How do you think it’s gonna happen? I say gamma-ray burst. A slow burn. Cook the atmosphere and kill off all the plankton. No more oxygen.”

Jon shrugs.

“Don’t know. Nuclear war? Ice caps melting from carbon emissions? All I know is it’s going to happen. Because we’re sick.”

“And that’s why you think aliens avoid us?”

Judging by his expression, Jon’s shocked I’d even ask.

Why’d you ask that? Asshat.

“Of course! Of course! Look outside. Turn on your tv. Take a walk downtown.”

His shock turns a soft left into pity.

“Would you want anything to do with us? All we do is eat and sleep and fuck and — ”

He pauses, presumably for effect.

“ — rape the world.”

I can’t help the laugh, try to catch it as it pops free, but then it’s out and echoing around the quiet room and the silence that follows is heavy and accusatory and after a couple of seconds that feel more like hours Jon goes on.

“Look, man. We’re fucked up. Humans are fucked up. We ruin shit. It’s what we do. The system is broken. The system is so broken. On a fundamental level. Maybe someday when we’ve reached a certain level of enlightenment we’ll learn how to live in harmony with the world, with each other. But that’s not going to happen for us, for our generation. Not here, not now. Not anytime soon.”

I shift my weight on the stool and fight the urge to stand. I can feel Jon’s eyes and I don’t want the conversation to continue, not really, don’t want the discomfort in the room to increase any further than it already has and really what does it matter anyway? What difference does it make? Let him think what he wants to think about the fall or the winter or whatever season- or world-destroying accident.

But something in me, some tiny voice, can’t just leave it at that, says I have to push back, says I have to point out the illogical bent in his thinking.

You have to.

“But what makes you think it’ll come in our lifetime? The fall, I mean. We’re just a tiny blip on the evolutionary scale of the world, right. Like, we’re here — “

I hold up my hand.

“ — and Rome and the doges and all that stuff is here — ”

I hold up my other hand so the palms are just about touching.

“- and the whole history of the world probably stretches back to the wall over there. So why would it come right now? I mean, the percentages are just, I don’t know, not bad necessarily, but off. Like really off.”

Jon shakes his head again, more firmly this time, and Vince laughs. My ass feels numb now so I give up and push myself off the stool, reach for the wall when the sudden rush of blood makes everything go all sparkly and buzzy.

“Why not now?”

Jon’s voice is loud, cuts through the buzz easily.

“I’d tell you to turn on the news if we had cable, but if you did all you’d see is stories about murders and mass killings and rich white men stealing from poor colored people.”

His voice is still rising, gaining volume as he’s talking and I’m having trouble keeping my eyes trained on his face, even with the sunglasses.

All the while, his smile never falters.

“Fucking corporations stealing from us — from all of us — and giving to a small number of people. On a fundamental level, a very fundamental level, things are wrong.”

“It’s like — it’s like the agreement everyone had at one point to hold up their end of the bargain and not fuck everyone else over just disappeared. Like yeah, cool, you’re smart enough to play the system to get what you want, to make stuff better for yourself. But you’re screwing over other people in the process.”

For a second Jon looks annoyed. Not annoyed like Vince had been, annoyance that was really just brotherly love covered over with nicks and bruises, but real annoyance, anger even, like he might have a thing or two to say to his little brother about interrupting him, maybe when Ted and I are gone and they can really get down to family business. But another few seconds and he seems to shake it off, goes on as before.

“Keeping back cures for cancer and AIDS and water-powered cars. Making sure we rely on gas and cigarettes and fight each other for the scraps while they all preen and primp and put on galas and balls and congratulate each other for being rich. It’s fucked man, it’s all fucked. And so are we if it doesn’t change.”

The emotion drains out of him with the last, but there’s an afterglow, an electric feeling that seems to emanate from him. I’m standing by the front door now, milling around in the pile of shoes there, hands in my pockets. Jon wipes at something on his sweater, flicks something from his pants, sighs.

“And so aliens avoid us. Until the fall, of course. Until we’re able to build ourselves back up into a stable society. Into a world worth including. Into a world that doesn’t just deserve inclusion by virtue of being, but by truly earning it throu — ”

Suddenly, the house is filled with the tinkling of keys. It’s awkward and unsteady at first, the notes slow, the melody disjointed. Ted’s hair, tied into a bun atop his head, bobs in time, mimicking the movements of his body. I can just make out the beats of his shoulder blades, like the weak flap of a pair of vestigial wings, through his shirt. The light has crept up the banjo, creating shadows of the strings on the skin of the drumhead.

Jon tries to start again over the sound of Ted’s playing, but I just nod.

As the music speeds up, I imagine I can feel my pulse increasing again in time. My breath comes in short bursts, my nose suddenly clogged tight. I’m hit by a wave of what I can only think of as gray, maybe blue-gray, something damp and cold and gritty.

Jon leans to Vince. They laugh.

Did Jon just say my name?

And just like that, the song is over, Ted back to his quiet, still position.


Tiny stalks of brown and green, rectangles overlaid, cream-colored everything on and on and on. Grass. An eave. A house.

I’m outside.

I lift my head.

Ted has his legs crossed, right ankle over his left knee. He’s wearing the sunglasses that Jon had on before — at least I think it’s the same pair — and he’s humming to himself. The hum continues until he finds a space, goes on as a repetition of a single phrase again and again and then he’s matching it with a slow, steady rhythm tapped out on a Tabla. The pull and ping of its hollow metallic sound hurts me somewhere behind my eyes.

“The brothers Fenwick have gone off on an adventure.”

He says it without breaking rhythm.

An adventu -

A shiver runs through me and I sit up, hugging myself against the sudden chill. The day is still warm, but shadows thrown by the neighbor’s ferns have grown thick and cool across the yard. Ted’s sitting in the open sunlight in the middle of the grass, but I’m partially covered by the angle of the back fence. The skin of my right arm, extended out beyond the shadow ferns while I slept, feels thin. When I touch it, a burst of pale white fades to pink.

“Where did this adventure take them?”

Ted laughs. It’s full and stops his playing, but ends quickly.

“They went out into the street to throw the Frisbee.”

I smile, letting it droop when it doesn’t seem to fit my face.

“Too much of an adventure for you?”

Ted slides the larger of the two drums around to his other side.

“No. I just didn’t want to stray too far from the piano in case inspiration struck. I’ve been mulling over something new. A kind of operatic metal. Something like Ohm or Sleep mixed with Lysistrata. A wall of sound. Guitars suspended from ropes on the ceiling. Stack after stack of amps. But paired with a narrative structure. Have you ever heard of Tuvan throat singing?”

He’s humming again, lost somewhere in the space above my head.

“Would that sound good?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

From the house, I hear movement. Jon’s face appears, half-hidden in the shadow of the backdoor.

“This shit is really good.”

He’s nearly oozing through the screen.

“Fuck yeah it is!”

It sounds like Vince is in the kitchen. Ted goes on smiling into the distance, tapping one finger against the drum’s head, working himself to a new rhythm, slower, but more complex than what he’d been playing before. Jon, still smiling that crazed smile, disappears into the house. I roll myself to standing and offer my hand to Ted.

“I’m gonna get out of here.”

He waves me away with his free hand.

“I’ll see you soon.”

The shadow’s chill has made its way inside. Here, the skin of my arm doesn’t just feel thin, it feels non-existent, like the air could get inside, freeze it dead.

“Put on some Jacket. We’ve listened to that Doctor Dog Album like 50 times now.”

“But we’ve listened to all of the Jacket albums like 100 times.”

“You love Jacket.”

“I know. So do you. But there are other bands.”

“No. There aren’t.”

Vince looks to me for confirmation. His smile has softened some. Still prominent, but become elastic, tapering at the edges.

“You gettin’ out of here, brother?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna meet Marina for dinner downtown.”

The smile slips.

“Oh yeah?”

My toes wiggle the duct-taped tips of my sneakers.

“Yeah.”

“Marriages are all bullshit anyway — ”

Jon’s packing again. His smile has gotten bigger, taken over more of what’s left of his face.

“ — we should be able to do what we want with who we want, whenever we want. The only reason people get married is because they’re insecure in their relationship anyway.”

“Yeah.”

Without the sunglasses, I can see up close the severity in his eyes, the unending hurt. Again, with almost unreal clarity, I can see them sinking into the couch, two brothers, locked in repose, no protests or flailing arms, just peaceful acceptance as the cushion opens itself and pulls them in deeper and deeper, down into the nowhere and the nothing.

“Hit for the road?”


It’s all teeth and gums and tits. They’re by the host stand, hands clutched together in front of a short black skirt.

“Hey!”

She draws it out, the corners of her smile coming to fine points that stretch to the pudgy circles of her cheeks. She’s wearing a tight blouse, open at the neck and there’s something on the breast. It takes hugging distance before it reveals itself to be a Nirvana logo.

“New shirt?”

She looks down and shrugs, follows it with a twirl, her skirt fanning out as best it can.

“I used to dress like this all the time. Before — ”

I nod like I understand.

“Is there a wait?”

“Nope! I just wanted to wait for you.”

She grabs my hand and her smile stretches again. She holds my eye, biting at her lower lip in what I hope is supposed to be an exaggerated way, before turning to the host.

Metal chairs and tables. Glass dividers. Reclaimed wood, or at least wood meant to look reclaimed, edging everything. I pat my back pocket, trying not to envision my bank account as a fat guy at the gym, begging to be let off the treadmill.

At Marina’s request, we make our way to a table in the corner of the open-air area, the late afternoon sun glinting hard off all that metal and glass. It’s the most crowded out here and I ask Marina if she wouldn’t rather sit someplace more private. She happily doubles down.

I eye the menu and find myself struggling to decide between the lamb and the Halibut. I’m looking up the word celeriac on my phone, trying to angle it so I can read it without the glare searing off my corneas, when I notice Marina peeking over the top of her menu at my left shoulder. I look down, expecting dandruff or hair or one of the hundreds of polished wood beams, but there’s nothing.

“That guy over there. I think I know him. I’m actually pretty sure I do. No! Hey! Don’t just turn and look!”

I sigh as she cuts me with disbelief. I shrug and she cuts deeper.

“You’re not even gonna look?”

“You told me not to.”

She flips her hair hard, letting it pull her around my shoulder. When her eyes slide back to mine, her disbelief becomes incredulity.

“I can’t believe you don’t even want to look.”

I shrug again. Celeriac sounds awful. So does tomato jam. And what the hell are burnt ends anyway?

She puts her mostly-empty glass down hard enough that the silverware jumps.

“At least use your phone.”

“Huh?”

“Your. Phone. Use your phone.”

I stare at her, uncomprehending. She loses her appetite for waiting for me to figure it out pretty quickly, rolls her eyes so I know how frustrating and annoying I am, and holds out her hand. I give her my phone without comment. Tasso ham? What the hell is Tasso ham? Maybe I should have kept the phone. At least I’d know wh -

“Here.”

She hands it back with another eye roll. I hold it up, expecting to see a picture of the guy, only instead, I’m looking at my own face.

“Wh — “

“Hold it up. Like you’re looking at yourself. Just angle it so you can see him.”

I can tell by the set of her shoulders that she’s not going to let it go, so I make a show of angling it this way and that, trying for the right perspective.

“Over your left shoulder. The guy in the pink.”

It takes me a bit and even though she manages to stay silent I can tell how much I’ve annoyed her. She tries to flag down the waitress just as I spot a young guy wearing a creased pink button-down and an expensive-looking haircut.

“How do you know him?”

“Oh. Uh — we went to school together. I think. At UC.”

“Are you gonna say ‘Hello’?”

“No. I don’t — ”

Staring at myself to stare at someone else is making me nauseous so I turn in my seat. He looks our way without really seeing me and when I turn back, Marina is hiding behind her menu.

“I can’t believe you.”

The sun, slipping slowly behind the mountains, has become a harsh thing, the light severe in its melancholy. Marina fiddles with the ice in her glass, every so often tipping it up to drain whatever has collected at the bottom. Each time the sun catches the edge of the diamond, sending spindles of brightness at my face.

I slip on the sunglasses I’d taken from the coffee table at Jon and Vince’s as she orders another round.

By the time the food comes, we’re on our third. The lamb is tender, but the sauce or jam or whatever is too sweet. Marina pushes her spring vegetable salad with almonds and pretension around on her plate, nibbling at leaves and avoiding anything of substance.

When the guy gets up to leave, Marina watches him go, following him over her glass without trying to catch his attention.


I’m pumping. Again. And again. And again.

I’m losing my grip and she’s slipping down, down, almost to the ground, so I stop my pumping, hold her in place, and hip her back up onto the edge of the dumpster. Her eyes are soft, distant and she’s looking at me but I know she’s not really seeing me. Her head droops, the dangly earrings — the ones I’d complimented at dinner — dance in the low light of the alley.

I stare at the skin of her neck, wanting desperately to lick it, fighting the urge to finish right then. The front of her shirt is open, the Nirvana logo finally gone, her left nipple a distinct point on otherwise pristine skin.

I’m pumping again and her hair is falling out of place and she’s propping herself up on the dumpster’s edge, her arms locked into a rigid position as I push, push, push. We’re two opposing forces somehow working in tandem, our efforts attracting and repelling, attracting and repelling. My breath is coming in hot rushes and she’s panting and whimpering and making tiny, urgent sounds. I hear something like a bottle hitting pavement behind me and I stop, scanning the alley frantically.

“It’s nothing. Keep going.”

“I know. I just — ”

She hooks her hand around the back of my neck and I slide further inside of her. Again the urge to finish comes. Again I fight it.

I look a second or two longer but there’s nothing, just broken down boxes and the light of the streetlamp hitting the sidewalk at the end. Suddenly I can feel the cool of the concrete all around us, the heat radiating only gently now from the thick slabs.

“Don’t stop, baby.”

I nod, grunt.

She arches her back as best she can without falling backwards. I keep one hand to my jeans so they don’t slip to the ground.

Again, I’m pumping.

I’m thinking.

And I’m pumping.

I grab her left breast, bend my head, and pull the nipple into my mouth, biting it, not hard enough to break the skin, but close. It’s difficult and uncomfortable, my back straining with the effort, but she’s moaning a little louder now and I have to keep myself from telling her to shut the fuck up. I feel a sudden burst of anger — anger for her loudness, anger for not being able to lose myself like she is.

I rip her shirt open further, tearing off a button in the process. She yelps in a fearful way I know isn’t real and I feel another rush of anger, this time almost uncontrollable, this time directed more fully at her.

My movements become more violent.

Her eyes take on a sleepy, feline quality. They’ve become slits, little gashes of knowing, and she’s urging me on, urging me not to stop.

“Yeah, baby. Just like that. Fuck me. Fuck me. Harder. Harder.”

I stare intently at the way the soft skin of her stomach bunches, the dark dot of a mole, just above her belly button. I imagine tracing my finger along each curve, feeling the fine hair there, turned blonde by the sun. I imagine finishing there, the unstoppable rush, the going over. The shape of her body as she looks up at me.

I’m almost there when something catches my eye.

There’s a pooling somewhere around my middle and for a second everything goes cold. It flashes again and I blink, blink, blink it away. Only it won’t go. Only it demands to stay, demands my attention.

The diamond.

The ring.

She’d turned it backwards sometime during dinner when she thought I wasn’t looking, spun it around like facing it into her palm would make it all go away. Now, it’s staring up at me, the pooling become a drooping I’m worried is going to become a running out, a kind of emptying that’ll leave my desire nothing more than an ugly puddle on the ground between my feet.

I speed up again.

I smack her breast and she lets out another yelp. I grip her thighs harder, reveling in the heft of the thickness, and she purrs.

Her body bounces and shudders with every thrust and she fixes me with a pouty face, even turning out her lower lip.

“Doesn’t Daddy want to come for me?”

Blood roars through me. I pump faster.

“Come for me, Daddy. Come for me.”

But it’s there again. The diamond. Floating in my vision, even with my eyes closed.

I slow. I catch myself, try to fight the slowness, go on pushing at her. But it’s there again and the slow is more than just slow now, my muscles relaxing, the blood rushing out just as I worried it would. Still, she’s transported, still, she’s whimpering, whimpering and whispering between shallow, hurried breaths, calling out to no one, seeking completion in nothing. But then she seems to sense the lack of urgency in my movements, the softening of our passionate edge, and reluctantly, she returns, regarding me fully, uncertainly.

I ease my arms out from under her legs, placing them against the small of her back.

“Did you finish?”

I’m still inside her. I shake my head, help her down off the edge of the dumpster.

“Do you want me to put it in my mouth?”

“Nah — no. Thank you, but — let’s just — let’s go. Let’s get out of here.”

She looks out toward the street.

“Do you think anyone saw us?”

She smooths down her skirt, the excitement obvious in her voice.

“I hope no one saw us.”