Little Raymond’s Surprise Party

Jacob arrived at Nefertiti’s a little late. The parking lot was nearly empty, but he could not miss the sexy Pharaoh statue or what he supposed was the pupil of the Eye of Ra. It flickered with flat bursts of electric blue. Beneath it was a warning in harmless font: We’re Open!

Jacob paused at the door. Panic filled his throat, his chest, his knees.

What the Holy heck am I doing here? He had not set foot at a strip club since before he got his job at the library. Old Jacob liked strip clubs, but new Jacob did not. New Jacob liked organizing piles of books and being lauded for his punctuality. He wondered what his fellow library pages would make of him now. They’d not approve, he knew that much. Especially Handsome Doug. Handsome Doug would have a few things to say about this, Jacob had no doubt.

He felt the swampy ninety-degree night slither over his skin. The cicadas had crawled up from under the ground after fifteen years of doing whatever it is cicadas do and now their buzzing hell songs pulsated around him from the boring darkness. He took a sharp breath (he imagined someone was saying “Here goes nothing!”) and walked into the only Ancient Egyptian themed gentleman’s club in the state.

It was pleasantly cool within. Raymond, the birthday boy, sat at the bar holding a martini in his hand like a sword. Craig Reis stood up from his seat by the taps to wrap Jacob up in stringy wart-covered arms, giving him a hug they would both remember as long and sweaty.

“You made it!’ Craig’s smile was bent rows of candy corn teeth. He smelled like beer, armpit, and wood chips. “See Raymond, I told you Jacob wouldn’t miss your party.”

Raymond smiled softly in the dark, “Hello, Jacob. Welcome to my surprise birthday party.”

“Happy birthday,” Jacob said, taking the open stool between them. His nerves were in the toilet.

“I bought him a book about the Nazis and the Russians,” Craig bragged, “And a cake. Chocolate cake. Do you like chocolate cake, Raymond?”

Raymond nodded, “Chocolate cake is very decent.”

“You’re damn right it is!”

Raymond worked at his martini and glanced at his watch.

Craig slapped Jacob on the back and said, “Let me buy you a drink! What are we having tonight?”

“Diet soda,” Jacob told him, gentle but firm. He didn’t want to offend.

Craig laughed and bought him a beer. Because he was polite, Jacob did not make a fuss over this. The beer was cold and tasted like beer.

“Isn’t this place a total freak show? An Egyptian strip club! What’ll they think of next? No, don’t tell me, I don’t care!”

Jacob looked the place over. It was in every way imaginable revolting. Egyptian tapestries hung limp on black walls. Elsewhere there were Ravens calendars and Orioles merchandise, or crooked Natty Boh and Budweiser posters. There was a pharaoh bust with a cigarette hanging from its mouth and mannequin in mummy rags holding a hookah. The carpet stuck to the bottom of Jacob’s shoes. A fly hovered in the space between them.

“I’m going to use the men’s room,” Raymond said, standing slowly. He was wearing his work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, “Don’t wait up, I’ve been meaning to shit for days now.”

The son of a bitch brought his martini to the bathroom, Jacob noticed. Still a trickster.

“Sitting here is like sitting in hell,” Jacob said, “I feel like I am one of the damned. And I’m throwing the devil a surprise birthday party.”

Craig thought that was the funniest thing he had heard in days. “You’re still funny Jacob. You always were! And a philosopher too. Hell…sheesh!”

Robotic dance music pounded from the walls like right hooks, but the stage itself-a bleak little platform with a pole rising from the center-was empty. To Jacob’s relief the Ancient Egyptian pole dancers must have had the night off. Not that there was anyone to dance for. There were only a few other patrons: two paunchy businessmen in a booth arguing about spreadsheets and a college boy hunched over the bar chewing listlessly at some chicken wings. Jacob reckoned he was high on dope.

The bartender was a pretty Vietnamese girl with tree frog tattoos hiding the skin of her arms. She placed a menu in front of Jacob. She was without nonsense. The menu was laminated and covered liberally with hieroglyphics. The food was overpriced. The Curse of Tutankhamun Burger was fifteen dollars and it didn’t even come with fries. He was about to ask the girl with tree frog arms for a recommendation, but she had turned away from them to flip through what appeared to be a thousand-page Medical tome. She must be studying, Jacob decided. And why not? There was no life here. He looked at her too long, fell in love with her. Maybe he could get her number by the end of the night if things fell the right way. He couldn’t visualize how they could fall the right way though.

Craig leaned close. His breath was everywhere, “That son of a bitch was shitting his Dockers when they walked in and saw me at the bar. Only saw Amber for a moment. Him and her got into some fight so she asked me to drive him home when he was done. Or you can do it, maybe.”

Jacob’s heart sank. Seeing Amber was the only thing that could have redeemed these lost hours in hell and now that was off the table. He wouldn’t react. Craig could not see that. He’d use it.

“Remember the time Raymond pissed on you while you were asleep?” Craig was smiling again. Jacob had never considered him a happy person but he sure smiled plenty.

“Yes,” Jacob said, “He had a sleepover for his birthday.”

“Boy, he peed all over you didn’t he? You cried, right?”

“I think so, yes.”

“You didn’t deserve to get pissed on,” Craig said, his voice now very serious.

“I know that I didn’t deserve to get pissed on,” Jacob snapped, remembering what a chore it was having a conversation with Craig.

“I don’t know if you should have cried, but you didn’t deserve to get pissed on.”

“I barely cried.” Jacob said, though he could not be certain that was true.

“Do you think about that a lot? Getting pissed on?”

“No,” Jacob said, though Craig was not convinced, “Not constantly or anything.”

“Why’d he piss on you anyway?”

“I don’t know. But he did.”

“Remember the time Raymond kicked my front tooth out? Where you there?”

“I wasn’t there. Black Dan was. He told me about it.”

“Raymond had just got his yellow belt in karate and wanted to spar. That son of a bitch roundhouse kicked me in the face. I bled so much. Blood everywhere! Then he made me promise not to tell my parents, told me he’d give me all his CDs. That son of a bitch never gave me anything, besides the chicken pox.”

Craig burped until he was smiling again.

Jacob hated stories about Raymond. He hated knowing Raymond was shitting somewhere down the hall. Because, without exaggerating, Little Raymond Gage was one of the worst people Jacob had ever met; a sly eyed backstabber that took back promises like he earned money from it. Loud, spoiled, violent and mean, Raymond had a good job at Nissan and he also had married Jacob’s one true love. On top of that he owed Jacob two hundred dollars, a sum he could easily pay back, but never had. When they were kids they stole things for him. When they were a bit older they sold things for him.

“This is your fault you know,” Jacob said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here if you were any good at being completely full of shit.”

Craig snorted, “What would you even be doing if you weren’t here? Reading a book about rivers or something? Watching some show about tiger sharks?”

“It’s your fault,” Jacob repeated stubbornly. He felt it important that Craig admit that.

“No it ain’t,” Craig said, slamming back whiskey. “It’s Big Raymond’s fault.”

***

They kept saying Big Raymond’s ghost had scared off the rain. The mourners did their best to concentrate on the earnest young priest praying for Big Raymond’s soul, but that was no easy task. The wind flogged them, turned new dress shirts into wrinkles with sleeves and blew hair into stupid disarray. The thunder boomed like Civil War artillery. Little Raymond watched his uncles lower the coffin into the soft ground. He squeezed Amber’s hand so hard she would feel it for days.

After the service Amber walked over to Jacob and Craig, who were standing next to each other, though accidentally so. They had only spoken a handful of times in the last fifteen years, though they saw each other around. In fact, they were both surprised to see each other at Big Raymond’s funeral. Not many people liked Big Raymond.

“Thank you so much for this,” Amber said, “Raymond is so grateful you guys came. It means the world to him.”

Both Jacob and Craig doubted that, but they said of course, wouldn’t miss it.

“Big Ray always scared me,” Amber admitted, “He never did approve of me. Even when we were kids.”

“Oh. Yeah. Me too. Me either I mean.” Jacob said, still clumsy in the mouth around her. Everyone knew how he felt about Amber Crowe. He had been in love with her since the summer of seventh grade, when they worked so lazily on that moronic group project together. She had been taller than him then. Jacob figured he must have murdered someone important in a previous life because Amber married Raymond of her own free will and never seemed the least bit unhappy with the idiot.

She was plumper in the middle since passing thirty, but still quite obviously radiant, a sophisticated mess of freckles and auburn hair, and a secret aspiring novelist. She had been devoted to Raymond-that idiot-ever since he pulled the fire alarm for her senior year. He had been expelled, but shortly thereafter they fucked on the tennis courts, and they had been together ever since though they often argued in public places.

“It’s Raymond’s birthday next week you know,” Amber said. Her eyes followed her husband. New mourners were descending on him.

Craig didn’t like all the hurt sitting on her face. He started babbling. He didn’t mean to but once he started there was no cramming the words back into his mouth. Jacob had barely been listening but then Craig told her how they had been planning to throw him a surprise birthday party. It was an oil spill of lies. So many details created from nothing. The old gang together again, Craig said, his mouth suddenly the least trustworthy mouth in the universe.

Amber wanted to believe. Raymond had been surly these past few months. Maybe he needed this. No. He absolutely did. She promised she would get him there. They squared the details before Raymond came and dragged her away. He ignored Craig and Jacob.

That’s when it started to rain. Flabby rain, falling sideways. Craig and Jacob walked back to their cars together. They didn’t have umbrellas. They stomped through puddles. Craig kept trying to catch the rain in his mouth, which Jacob found gross.

“I don’t want to throw Raymond a surprise birthday party. I hate that son of a bitch.”

Craig sounded offended, “You think I don’t hate him?”

“Just because he’s a manager at Nissan he thinks he doesn’t have to say hello?”

“Jesus says turn the other cheek,” Craig said, “But I don’t have enough cheeks to turn for that piece of shit.”

“Then why does he get a surprise party?”

Craig swung around and pointed back to the cemetery, “Why do you think? Big Raymond saved my fucking life.”

They stood in front of Craig’s car. It had seen better days. He was visibly embarrassed by its dents and scrapes. Jacob tried not to stare, but the back tire on the driver’s side looked about ready to expire.

“Big Raymond saved my fucking life,” he repeated. “Yours too. That asshole gets a birthday. He gets all the birthdays if he wants them.”

Craig climbed into his crummy car and drove away moderately fast. Craig had always driven moderately fast.

As Jacob walked to his car he almost expected to be struck by lightning. He broke into a run. He just wanted to get back to the library. There was no lightning in the library, only books. And DVDs. DVDs were big now in the library.

***

Raymond ruled over the kids on their block like a baby tyrant. He was the tallest and owned the best bicycle so it made sense to follow his lead. Besides Jacob and Craig, Raymond also bossed around Black Dan, Cyrus, the Metcalf Brothers and Amber Crowe. All the boys lusted after Amber in their own ways. She was brash and friendly, a winning combination. Craig had given her his collection of Desert Storm trading cards. Black Dan tried to teach her how to skate. Jacob wrote her poems. He thought Amber would be discrete, but she must have showed them to Raymond because one day he told Jacob to stop writing poems because they made him seem like a faggot. “A sad faggot,” Raymond added, not unkindly.

And then there was the fire. A backyard of tall grass and scrawny feral cats. Raymond’s collection of lighters. They would burn the faces off of his X-Men toys and then they would smoke his mom’s cigarettes. They would smoke until they heard Big Raymond’s Chevy Mirage roll over the driveway pebbles.

“You boys look like you’re up to no good,” Big Raymond was a thick man that wore flannel year round. He was quiet, angry, and aware of absolutely everything that happened on his property. His mustache was as unruly as his eyes and he had worn the same pair of white shoes for twelve years. He had a low hanging iron hard beer gut, and beneath you could see his Stars and Bars belt buckle. “Smoking and burning your toys again, I expect.”

“No sir,” Raymond told his father. He could have passed a polygraph test.

“Bury them cigarette butts deep,” Big Raymond had said, walking away, “Your mother would kill me if she knew you was playing with fire. One of her cousins died in a fire, you know. Or burnt up real bad, I don’t recall now.”

And then the beach. And the undertow. Jacob had never felt so terrified. He was filled with puny desperation as he lost control and began thinking it would be so easy to die right now. He screamed as the ocean calmly began to murder him. He remembered Raymond, Black Dan, Amber, and Craig just watching him from the shore as he fought for every wet salty breath, as the sea stung his eyes and filled his mouth. His friends seemed vaguely alarmed but made no move to rescue him. It was Big Raymond that swam out and fought the sea for his life.

The sea didn’t have a chance against Big Raymond of course. Big Raymond was a swimmer and a mean bastard besides.

On the shore Big Raymond slapped Jacob on the back a few times and told everyone they weren’t allowed to swim anymore. Jacob threw up water and other assorted stomach garbage. Amber helped him cover it with piles of sand. Later that night on he caught her giving Raymond a handjob. It was a day of mixed results.

***

Raymond was still in the bathroom and still there were still no strippers. Jacob had buckled and ordered some Cleopatra Curly fries. They were soggy but he finished the whole basket.

“What are you studying for, hon?” Craig was asking the bartender. Jacob and Craig had run out of things to talk about and Craig didn’t often get the chance to talk to women these days.

“Nursing,” the tree frog girl answered with a limp voice. “My exam is on Monday.”

“Think you’ll pass?”

“Well, if I don’t then I’m screwed, so…”

Sensing an impenetrable wall raising, Craig shifted tactics. “The clock on your wall is broken, you know.”

The girl didn’t bother looking up. “Yeah. But we got clocks on other walls. Anyway, people don’t need clocks anymore.”

Craig attempted to give his most sweet, disarming smile, “Hell, don’t give up on this one. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, you know.”

It was Jacob’s opinion that Craig’s smile was disgusting. He felt an urge to wipe it away. He shouldn’t have. It was better to be a good person. Library pages couldn’t let themselves be bad people, not with the power they had.

“That clock is stuck at three thirty-three,” Jacob heard himself say, “What I am telling you both is this: that clock is not right twice a day, it is literally never right. This place opens at 5 in the afternoon, closes at two in the morning. Broken things aren’t right. If something’s broke you fix it or get rid of it. You don’t make up stupid dumb phrases for idiots about it not being broken.”

He then added, “I’ll take a glass of Pinot Noir, also.”

The tree frog girl poured him wine and resumed her studying.

“You’re grouchy,” Craig said. “I don’t remember you being this grouchy. You gotta get rid of that excess cum, buddy. Cum makes you go a little loopy, in my experience.”

Jacob ignored that and kept drinking. Still Raymond did not return. Maybe he had irritable bowels.

“You ever meet Emma? My Emma?” Craig was staring at this latest glass of whiskey like he meant to destroy it.

“No,” Jacob admitted, “Your old girlfriend right?”

“Old girlfriend? She was my fiancée,” Craig said almost too wistfully, “One night we had a fight. It was our first fight. Together for three years and we only had the one. I screamed at her something awful. The next morning she told me she didn’t think it would be a good idea to marry me anymore. She left a couple of days later. She took my dog. And my PlayStation, the bitch.”

Jacob had been vaguely aware of Craig getting engaged, though it had seemed unbelievable. Sometimes Black Dan forced old neighborhood gossip on him.

Craig finished off the whiskey and called for another, “I had infinite dreams with Emma.”

Jacob winced. He did not like this kind of talk. It annoyed him. He forced himself to say, “I’m sorry Craig,” but his words were off-key, false. Just words, nothing true about them at all! He began to feel the warm weightlessness of the liquor. Soberness slipped with the seconds. Jacob grew increasingly panicked that Craig would start crying, that he would need a hug. He thought maybe he ought to walk outside for a smoke. He wasn’t equipped for this. He should be at home reading. He read books now. The library had changed him, but he still couldn’t make people believe.

Craig smiled at nothing, “We were going to go skydiving.”

***

After the fight, Craig had devised a simple plan. He meant to drink until she forgave him, but she never did. She just turned her soul off and then she left and by then Craig had drank quite a lot. Nights were the worst. Things got so bad that he decided he would kill himself at the end of the week. He would collect his last check from Giant so he could leave his parents something and then he’d do it after the documentary on The Ultimate Warrior they were playing on Saturday. He had been waiting a long time for it. He could kill himself after.

The Ultimate Warrior special disappointed him. It was mostly stuff he already knew and there were too many commercials and the commercials were bad. He ended up at a bar, and the big decision was whether to swallow every pill in the house or just shoot himself with his dad’s rusty forty-five. He was leaning towards the pills. It was his bad luck that Big Raymond was having himself a drink at the same bar. Big Raymond didn’t recognize Craig at first. It had been years since the sleepovers and birthday parties. There was a lot of close range squinting before Big Raymond moved two stools over to get a better look at Craig.

“What’s your damn problem?” Big Raymond sounded as gruff as ever, “You’re Greg, right?”

“Craig.”

“Don’t matter.”

“I haven’t talked to Raymond in ten years,” Craig admitted after they had drank together awhile. They weren’t exactly relaxed and friendly, but some of the tension had slunk away.

“Yeah, me neither.” Big Raymond seemed to finish each of his beers with a single sip. Finger dented cans were arrayed before him like trophies. He was in a generous mood too. Craig got several free drinks before Raymond asked him to have a smoke with him.

They smoked crunchy Marlboro’s and Big Raymond said, “I asked you what your problem was and you must have forgot to answer.”

There was no use in being coy, so Craig told him about Emma. Told him everything. The first night they met. How she had taken him to her bed and made him a man. The plans they had. The stupid ring his mother bought for him. The TV shows they watched, like Prison Break and Kitchen Nightmares and Star Trek: Enterprise.

“So what are you going to do about it?” Big Raymond took his final drag. He did not sound the least bit interested.

“I plan to kill myself tonight,” Craig said. “I got a gun and pills and I’ll decide which to use when I get home.”

“I thought that might be it,” Big Raymond said, “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure Big Ray,” Craig said, and that was the last thing he said before Big Raymond kicked the shit out of him. One moment they were standing there almost as strange new friends would and the next moment Big Raymond was laying him out across the length of the cold dark parking lot. It didn’t take long. Craig was a crumpled mess, holding on to his ribs and moaning like a baby.

“You are going to act like a goddamned man,” Big Raymond said, looming over him like some crotchety deity, “If you talk anymore of that suicide shit I’m going to burn down your mother’s house and kill all her rat dogs. Now get up. I’m hungry.”

Big Raymond treated him to Burger King. Craig ordered Chicken Tenders, small fries, and a Dr. Pepper. They were out of barbecue sauce. The food was so delicious and Big Raymond so frightening that Craig decided to live.

That had been three years ago.

***

Time was slushy and drifted sideways. The tree frog girl was gone. Craig and Jacob had finished a bottle of Bullet by the time Raymond finally strolled out of the bathroom whistling Dixie.

“Sorry guys,” Raymond said perfunctorily, “Had to make a call.”

“Not a problem!” Craig said, but Jacob slammed his fist on the bar. He started laughing, liquor laughs, the shaky laugh of an altered state and inhibitions quietly slaughtered.

“It is a problem,” Jacob said, then held out his hand, “Now give me my two hundred dollars.”

Raymond acted as though he had not heard correctly, putting a hand to his ear. The grin gave it away. “Say again, Jacob? I think I misheard you.”

“You owe me two hundred dollars,” he repeated, “And I want it. Tonight.”

Raymond just laughed and laughed. Jacob lurched toward him but Craig grabbed him.

“I’m a good guy now,” Jacob grabbed Craig and forced him to look at him, “I don’t steal anymore. I haven’t stolen in ten years. And I’d never make fun of your teeth now. Or the way you smell. I’m good now. I work at the library.”

“Shut up about the library,” Craig said, “You talk about the library too much. That library stinks. You don’t got the new wrestling books. I read all the wrestling books you have already.”

“I’m not talking about the library like it’s some fucking building full of books,” Jacob said, “I’m talking about its power. I’m different there. I help people find books. I’ve never broken anyone’s heart or betrayed my mother or killed Carter Tanton in the library. All I’ve ever done there is good. Like, real good.”

Craig attempted a respectful quiet. But Raymond was not a quiet man. Raymond was a fighting man. He set his empty martini glass down on the bar. He made a great show of cracking his knuckles and clicking his tongue. And then he looked at them.

Raymond pulled out his wallet and opened it. They heard the rip of Velcro. Raymond pulled out some money and sort of counted it. He shoved it into Jacob’s hands. Jacob noticed Raymond’s fingers were very moist. He hoped he had washed his hands after spending so much time in the restroom.

“There’s sixty-seven dollars. Will that do?”

“Yeah, that’s fine. Thank you, Raymond.” Jacob shoved the damp bills into his back pocket.

“You’re in love with my wife,” Raymond said, looking at his martini glass, “And Craig’s in love with my dad. And I don’t love anybody. Someday I’d like to.”

“I am in love with Amber,” Jacob said, feeling brave, “I always will be. But she doesn’t love me. Do you want another martini?”

“We’ve always hated each other, haven’t we?” Raymond asked, looking hard at Jacob, “I’ve always hated you, but…you’ve always hated me right? I’ll feel better if it was mutual, mind you.”

“Pretty much always hated you, yeah,” Jacob said, “Do you want another martini or don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Raymond said very quietly, “I’ll have another.”

They drank for a long time. The mood was not good, but it was fine. The music improved. The frog armed bartender began to give away free shots. Every now and then, Raymond even laughed. They were dark laughs, but laughs. Jacob got quite drunk. At one point he went nearly an hour without thinking about the library. When he went to piss he saw that Raymond had not bothered to flush a leviathan of a shit. Despite himself, Jacob was impressed by such audacity. He ordered Raymond another martini to congratulate him on the size of his shit. It wasn’t the sort of thing that usually would have made such an impression on Jacob, but tonight was not an ordinary night. Jacob would tell the story of him finding Raymond’s large shit for many years to come.

Craig wanted to point out that he was not in love with Big Raymond, but felt the moment had passed.