Wednesday, December 30, 2009

But What About A Baby?

But What About A Baby?

Art hadn’t seen Larry in a few months. It was unlike the brothers to go this long, but a lot of things got in the way. Art and Jennifer were trying again for one thing. They’d been close before, almost four weeks to be exact, until Jennifer woke up one morning in August with horrible cramps. When the blood came they knew. It disappointed Art for sure, but Jennifer took it the worst. She did nothing but cry for a week. Every time Art tried to console her she’d start crying again. She’d tell him, “Art, I had it in me but I lost it.” He tried telling her that they were in it together, but his comfort had no effect on her well-being. Art called his mother and she said to give it some time. Art called Larry and cancelled their weekly bullshit sessions over beer at The Moose. He said he had to cancel everything indefinitely. Larry told Art to do what he needed to do, that he and Denise would be there for them if they needed it. Art was thankful for this. Larry always came through for him.

“So just like that she got over it?” Larry said, sitting down with a new pitcher of beer.

“It wasn’t just like that,” Art said, pouring Larry a draft and then himself one. “It took time.”

“But she’s okay now?”

“Jen is doing fine. She wants to try again.”

“And you?”

“Sure.” Art looked around The Moose. “This place is ugly.”

Larry laughed, had some beer. “It’s always been ugly.”

“Yes. But do you remember when it didn’t bother us?”

“It still doesn’t bother me.”

“Because you don’t think about things,” Art said. He lit a cigarette but then put it out. He remembered the new smoking ban inside of bars and restaurants. “Anyway, I have Carla on my back as well.”

“I think,” Larry said. “I just don’t worry the way you do.”

“Didn’t you hear what I said?” Art asked. He had more beer.

“I thought you ended that.”

“I did. But after Jen lost the thing I got confused and all tangled again.”

“And now what?”

“Now I have two of them on my back,” Art said.

Larry took a long pull on his beer and nodded. Someone played The Dead on the jukebox. It was the same old story in this bar. Someone always played The Dead. The joint was filled with a bunch of old castoffs from the 1960s, guys who could be Larry and Art’s father, but could never be. Their father was a conservative man. He wore ties when he didn’t have to anymore. The guys in The Moose kept their hair long and wore earrings. Larry was somewhere in the middle of this. He kept earrings and his hair was turning gray, but he kept it short. Art liked to dress like their father. Not a tie all of the time, but he enjoyed wearing them. He had a collection of ties with baseball teams and cities and famous paintings on them.

“This place really is ugly,” Art said.

“A baby,” Larry said.

“I know.”

“How soon ago was it?”

Art thought for a moment. “About four months since it happened.”

“We haven’t been out in four months?”

“Jen waited for the doctor’s okay,” Art said. “I thought she’d wait longer but here we are.”

“Have you tried again?” Larry asked. He had more beer and looked around The Moose. The bartender was huddled in the corner having a shot with a coke dealer. They were both smoking cigarettes. “It might be okay to light up now.”

“Huh?” Art said.

“A cigarette.” Art handed Larry one mechanically. “I meant you. I quit.”

“When?” Art asked, putting the new smoke in his mouth. This time he lit it and smoked without reserve.

“Last month. I didn’t want to tell you because you were going through it with Jen, but it damn near killed me. It killed me,” Larry said. He shook his head and thought about it. The Dead ended on the jukebox and a few of the guys at the bar grumbled. Sammy got up from his stool to play another. “I almost ran Denise off, I was so miserable.”

“What worked?” Art asked. He took a drag on his smoke then placed his cigarette hand underneath the table.”

“I stared at a wall for the entire day,” Larry said.

“That worked?”

“No, I got that bad.” Larry finished off his draft and poured another. The pitcher was empty. “I had to go on the patch, you see?” He pulled up a sleeve revealing a small, beige colored patch on his shoulder. “I still need the nicotine.”

“Remember when dad quit?” Art asked.

“It was while mom was pregnant with Gayle,” Larry said.

“Was it?”

“See, you don’t really remember.”

“I do. I was five back then.”

“But you don’t remember,” Larry said. “You don’t remember like I do because I was eight.”

“I remember locusts,” Art said. “There were locusts that summer.”

“Yes, there were,” Larry said. He signaled over to Kenny at the bar. Kenny grabbed another pitcher and began filling it, as another Dead song came on the jukebox. “Do you remember playing with Kurt and his cousin Samantha?”

“Of course I remember Kurt,” Art said. “Kurt was my friend.”

“And Samantha?” Larry asked. He got up to get the new pitcher of beer from Kenny then came back. “Do you remember Samantha?”

“Where were we living?” Art asked. He took a last pull on his smoke then put it out on the floor.

“Buffalo,” Larry said, pouring them more beer.

“It was that year?”

“Around that year.”

“I think I remember Samantha.”

“You do or you don’t,” Larry said.

“I was five. I remember her.” Art had some beer. “What does this have to do with Gayle or dad’s smoking? What does this have to do with them?”

“Mom was miserable that year. She never wanted to leave Cleveland.” Larry picked up Art’s pack of smokes and fondled it before putting it down. “She didn’t do anything that year but cry and fight with dad. Dad took that job in Buffalo and we moved there.”

“I remember.”

“She was miserable and we moved there. She did nothing but cry. She cried and we watched television together most of that summer.”

“Where was I?” Art asked.

“You were five,” Larry said, having some beer. “Mom had you over at Kurt’s.”

“Why weren’t you there?”

“He was your friend,” Larry said. “I came over after Samantha showed up.”

“Samantha was a brunette, right?”

“Blonde. She had short blonde hair,” Larry said.

“Just like Denise,” Art said.

“Denise dyes her hair.”

Larry had more beer. Art picked up his pack of smokes and fondled it. He took one out. “Do you mind?”

“I’ve got the patch.”

Art lit a smoke and shook the match until the sulfur smell was gone. The Dead ended on the jukebox again but this time a Hot Tuna song came on. “Does the patch really work?”

“Do you remember Samantha’s dad?” Larry asked.

“I don’t really remember Samantha,” Art said. “I was five. I remember Kurt and the locusts.”

“Samantha and her dad came to live with Kurt’s family for about a month or so. He was a strange guy do you remember?” Art shook his head. “He was really thin and had a head of shaggy hair. He wore sunglasses all of the time and had a beard with flecks of gray in it.”

Art took a drag on his smoke and looked around. “Like the guys in here?”

“He wasn’t like dad at all,” Larry said, having some more beer. He looked at Art’s pack of cigarettes. “The patch doesn’t work as well as I’d like. But it keeps Denise and I on decent terms.”

“I’m going to have to quit if Jen gets pregnant this time?” Art said.

“And Carla?”

“She doesn’t smoke.”

“Charlie,” Larry said, suddenly. “See, I didn’t think I’d remember his name. I thought I’d have to call him Samantha’s father but his name is Charlie.”

“Charlie who was nothing like dad,” Art said. He took a drag on his smoke and a long pull on his beer. “What’s with Charlie?”

“Charlie came over to our house a lot that summer after Kurt’s mom introduced him to our mom,” Larry said.

“Oh,” Art said. “He came into our house with his sunglasses and beard?”

“Yes. You see, you don’t remember,” Larry said.

“I remember...”

“...Kurt and locusts. And you think Samantha was a brunette.”

“Okay,” Art said. He finished his beer and got up. “Have it your way, bro. Tell me about Charlie.”

Art went to the bathroom as the Hot Tuna song was ending. Larry sat there and had some more beer. He touched Art’s pack of cigarettes and then rubbed the patch underneath his sleeve. On the television there was a hockey game on. Larry had hated hockey ever since Buffalo. He pulled out his cell phone and checked the messages. There was one from Art that he never listened to, and another three from Denise. Larry had more beer and decided to check them later.

“Okay, so tell me about this Charlie,” Art said, sitting down.

Larry poured them both some more beer. “Mom was miserable that year.”

“I know. Because dad moved us to Buffalo.”

“She was miserable before then as well,” Larry said.

“But why?”

“Charlie made mom laugh. I remember once we were all in Kurt’s yard with the locusts signing and Samantha did that belly flop on the Slip’n’Slide.”

Art’s eyes lit up. “I remember that! She was a brunette!”

“No, no, you’re thinking of someone else,” Larry said. “You were only five.” Art nodded and fumbled with his cigarette pack. “Oh, let me have one of those, for Christ’s sake.”

“But Denise,” Art began.

“She won’t know,” Larry said. Art gave him a cigarette and offered a light. Larry declined. He just held on to the smoke and listened as Tom Petty played on the jukebox now. “She won’t have a clue.”

“Carla wants me to quit smoking,” Art said. “She’s always on me.”

“But what does she matter?” Larry asked.

“Come on and tell me about funny Charlie.”

Larry coughed and had some more beer. He held onto the cigarette. “Samantha did that big belly flop on the Slip’n’Slide. Remember that Kurt’s mom wasn’t home and we weren’t supposed to be in the yard when she wasn’t there. Charlie was watching us but he wasn’t there.”

“Where was he?” Art asked.

Larry gave him a look. “Where do you think he was?”

“No. Funny Charlie was with mom?”

“I don’t know what they were doing,” Larry said. He had more beer. He put the cigarette in his mouth but did not light it. Then he took it out. Art watched him the whole time. “I went next door. I went home to get Charlie because Samantha did that belly flop on the Slip’n’Slide and she was crying.”

“What did you see?” Art asked. He had more beer. Larry said nothing but drank his draft. “Jesus Christ, tell me. What were mom and funny Charlie doing?”

“They were sitting at a table,” Larry said.

Art fell back in his seat. “Oh. That’s all?”

“You were too young, you don’t remember. They were sitting at a table. Mom was crying but she was laughing at the same time. Charlie had his sunglasses on but you could see that his face was red too.” Larry had more beer. He fondled the smoke. “Hey, give me a light, okay?”

“Can you smoke that with the patch?” Art asked.

“I don’t know.” Larry rolled up his sleeve and took the patch off of his arm. “Give me a light, okay?”

Art gave Larry a light. Larry sucked in on the smoke. He took a deep drag and then chased it with some beer. “Be careful,” Art said.

“They were sitting at a table laughing and crying,” Larry continued. “Mom and funny Charlie.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Larry said. “And when I came in the door they acted like nothing had happened.”

“Because nothing did happen,” Art said, pouring the last of the new pitcher. “Nothing happened.”

“You don’t remember,” Larry said. “You were only five.”

“Okay, smart ass. What happened?”

“We moved back to Cleveland for one thing,” Larry said. “Dad put in his notice with the new job after the school year and was able to get back into the place he used to work. After we got back mom got pregnant with Gayle.”

“And dad quit smoking!” Art nearly shouted. “See, I do remember some things!”

“Yes. Dad quit smoking after we moved back to Cleveland.”

“Have you talked to Gayle lately?” Art asked.

“No. Have you?”

“She and Regis are trying too.”

“That’s good,” Larry said.

“What happened to Samantha? And good old funny Charlie?” Art asked.

“I don’t know,” Larry said. He took another deep pull on his smoke and then his phone rang. It was Denise. “I have to take this.”

Larry got up and went outside the bar. Art lit another cigarette and tried to remember that year in Buffalo. He couldn’t picture funny Charlie and he was still set on Samantha being a brunette. Mom was miserable that whole year, he thought, only Art didn’t remember misery. He just remembered Kurt and the locusts. The Tom Petty song ended and suddenly the bar was quiet. Larry came back in looking green.

“Is it Denise?” Art asked.

“No. The cigarette is making me sick,” Larry said. “I shouldn’t have.”

“We should go,” Art said, taking the last of his draft.

“But what are you going to do?” Larry asked.

“Something always happens,” Art said.

The brothers said goodbye in the parking lot. They promised to meet next week for another couple rounds, or the week after if something got in the way. Larry went over to his car and just stood there for a few moments. To Art he still looked green. Art waited for Larry to open his door and pull out before he made a move. Then he walked over to his car and got inside.

The whole ride home he thought about his mother and funny Charlie. He thought about what Larry saw that day in the window, laughing and crying and holding hands. Art tried to imagine himself in Larry’s place. He tried to imagine what he would’ve seen had he been the one who’d come home to get Charlie instead of Larry. He imagined coming home and stepping up to the window, seeing his mother somewhere between grief and joy. He pictured Charlie. Sunglasses and a beard flecked with gray. Art knew he wasn’t picturing the real Charlie, but just an amalgamation of all of the guys in The Moose. Charlie was nothing like their father. Art imagined being the one to come upon that scene, laughter and tears, and then the weight of it hit him like a ton of bricks. He wished he could remember more.

The living room was dark when Art got home, but the television was on. Jennifer was watching that show again, the one that Art hated. That was why he picked Wednesday nights to go out with Larry. He picked that night because he wouldn’t have to stay home with Jen and that goddamned show. He picked that night because Carla worked Wednesday nights. Art thought about Carla and his mother and funny Charlie. Then he got himself a beer out of the refrigerator.

“Hey,” Jen said, coming into the kitchen. She was wearing a burgundy robe that went just above the knees. He long, black hair looked tussled, as if she’d just gotten out of bed. Art drank his beer and watched his wife, trying his hardest to suppress all desire. “How was it?”

“It was fine,” Art said.

“How was Larry?”

“Larry quit smoking,” Art said. He took another pull on his beer. He finished it and then went into the fridge for another one. Art took a large pull on that beer as well.”

“Careful,” Jen said. And then she smiled devilishly. “Don’t get too, too drunk. Someone is ovulating tonight.”

Art pulled the beer away from his mouth. A sickness welled deep inside of him. Something was coming up, bile, or beer, or something else. He was beginning to remember. Art was beginning to remember all of it. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “Not that. Not tonight.”

“But what about a baby?” Jen asked. “What are we going to do about a baby?”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Knock on the Door

A Knock on the Door

There was a knock on the door.

Marie had been in the bathroom the whole time. There was a knock on the door, and then someone tried to push it open. She’d been in there before she heard the shots. Marcel had cut her break short, and she had to go. She told Dara that she had to go. Dara said to go, that she’d cover Marie’s tables. So she went. Marie got in the bathroom and sat on the toilet. She’d just finished going and was thinking about her next paycheck, looking down at an old pair of underwear when the first three shots came. They came quick. Bam. Bam. Bam. And then there was silence. Then there was screaming. Dara. Maybe someone else. Marie was sure it was a woman’s voice. Then another two shots came. Bam. Bam. And then the silence was deafening.

Then there was a knock on the door. Someone tried to open it, but of course it was locked. They tried to push it open but it wouldn’t budge. Marie did her best to stay stone silent. She didn’t even want to breathe. She heard them talking outside the door. One of them asked who was in there, as if they’d know if she told them. One of them pushed on the door again. Marie huddled into herself. She felt embarrassed more than scared. What if they knocked in the door, and she was still sitting there with those old underwear around her ankles? What if she died like that? Old underwear wrapped around her tired ankles. Marie didn’t want to think about that. She didn’t want to think about anything. Was that Dara who screamed?

There was a knock on the door. They told Marie they wouldn’t hurt her if she opened up. They told her all they wanted was the money. Marie thought that it was odd that they didn’t just take the money and go. After all, she hadn’t seen them. She’d been in the bathroom because she had to go. And if she didn’t see them then she couldn’t identify them. Why would she even come out of the bathroom with them still there? Marie resolved that she wasn’t coming out of the bathroom until she heard sirens and a cop shoved his badge underneath the door. That’s when she’d come out. Then she’d find Marcel and Dara. She’d tell the cops she didn’t see a damned thing, and then she’d get the hell out of that restaurant and never come back. She’d tell Davis it was time to get off of his ass and go find a job, bad economy or not. She was staying home with the kids now. Marie would say and do all of those things once she got outside the bathroom door. She knew for sure that she would.

There was a knock on the door. Marie knew that she could wait it out.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Whore of Calcutta

The Whore of Calcutta

Bob missed the express train home. He sat on a small wooden bench on the platform and took out a book. No point in being pissed off, he thought. She wouldn’t be there again tonight anyway. It had been like this for two weeks ever since Anne took that secretarial job. Life was late nights and more late nights, dinner out of a box, and going to bed alone. Bob hated Anne’s new job. Anne told him too bad. She said that with the economy being what it was, he had no right to hate her job. There were millions of people who would be envious for her job, or hadn’t he watched the news, read a paper, lately. Maybe Bob should work a little bit harder at getting a job for himself.

Of course he hadn’t. He wouldn’t. Bob had wasted six months of his life on a fruitless job search. He’d wasted months waking up at five or six, having two cursory cups of coffee, and then hitting the online job banks for something, anything. There wasn’t anything. Nothing but a trail of jobs in the finance sector that about ten to eleven other qualified, most times better qualified, people all clamored for at the same time. Plus Bob was bad at interviews. He sweated a lot, stuttered, asked the interviewer to repeat certain questions over and over again because he sat there worrying about how much he was sweating and stuttering. It was a horror to interview in his eyes. That was one of the reasons why Bob kept with Harrison & Whitman even though the work was terrible, and the hours were long. How they were long? It was less than a year ago that Anne was in his position, waiting up until odd hours, cooking dinner alone, and ultimately going to bed by herself. Now the job was gone. Now it was his turn to wait.

Bob hated Anne’s boss, Dale, as well. When he saw Anne it was Dale this and Dale that. Dale has an apartment on the Upper West Side. Dale wants me to get a Blackberry. Dale eats lobster every Saturday night. We should get lobster sometime, Bob. It’s been since the beach since I had a lobster. Bob pictured Dale often. He imagined him as some tall, blonde, muscular type; one of the ones you see running on a treadmill on a Friday night in the window of one of those overpriced gyms, after you’ve just shoved down a plate of wings with a pitcher of beer. He bet Dale told Anne all about the gym. It made Bob jealous. Anne wasn’t the youngest thing out there, but she was still a good-looking woman. Anne had kept herself in decent shape by walking and eating like a bird. She still had that long, jet-black Italian hair and those big almond-shaped eyes. Bob often told her that she looked like that actress from that television show everyone was going nuts about on cable. Anne blushed when he told her this.

Bob heard the train come rumbling down the track. He put his book back in his bag and then stood on the platform and waited. He’d done nothing that day except wander around the museum again, and have a few beers over at Muldoon’s. Muldoon’s was a force of habit. That’s where Bob used to go to unwind after a day at Harrison & Whitman’s. He went for happy hour and to talk with his colleagues and the blonde bartender from Ireland. He loved hearing her accent, the way she joked around with all of the other suits getting their fix of booze on the cheap, before going home to face the hell of their domestic life. Bob had kissed her once, briefly. It happened during the office’s Christmas party at Muldoon’s. It happened right by the women’s bathroom. She walked out and made a joke, something about office drunks, and Bob just planted one on her. He thought she liked it. After all, the woman did smile at him all of the time. She didn’t really like it, however, and soon after the kiss, Bob went home to Anne.

He took his book out on the train and stared at it. Bob could never remember where he was at in the thing. It was some book about the French and Indian War, written by some authority on the subject. Bob knew nothing about the French and Indian War, and decided that with Anne gone so often maybe he’d learn something about something. But it was hard reading the book. It was hard keeping up with forts and generals, and what England was doing to France, how the American Colonies fit it and such. The book was more trouble than it was worth. It was hard to lug around too. Bob thought maybe he’d just leave it on a seat on this train, let someone else take up the burden of history, but he decided against it. The book had been a gift from Anne, something to get Bob motivated toward a goal, any kind of goal.

At Atlantic the train became packed with passengers transferring. An old woman got on lugging one of those metal carts. It was full of plastic grocery bags. Bob only had another three stops to go, so he gave up the seat to the woman. She didn’t even say thanks but grumbled something, and sat her fat ass down on his warm seat. Then there was Bob pressed up against the rest of humanity like a goddamned sardine. Most days he couldn’t believe this was one of the biggest cities in the world. It felt like Calcutta, riding on packed trains like this. It felt like being a passenger in the Third World. Anne hated when Bob used to come home yelling about the trains. She’d fix him a drink and tell him to forget it. Bob thought Anne was nuts. How can you just forget a constant indignity like the rush hour train? When Anne got her secretarial job she came home raving about the trains. Bob would pour her a drink as she went off about how the city had the best public transportation in all of America. When Bob remarked that Anne took the train during off-peak hours she said nothing, started in talking about Dale.

“This is something,” an old man said to Bob. Bob looked at the man. He was barely hanging on to his pole; he was so short and shriveled. All around them sat younger people with their noses buried in electronic books or in digital phones, playing useless digital games. Not one of them could give up a seat to the old man? Bob looked over at the old lady he’d given up his seat to. She was already asleep.

“This is hell,” Bob said back to the old man. “This is what it’s like in Calcutta.”

A tall redhead gave Bob a dirty look after he said the bit about Calcutta. Christ, he thought, another one of those PC types. They make the world so difficult sometimes; you have to watch what you say even amongst the salivating masses. He couldn’t stand people like that, these vegan, yoga types. He couldn’t stand uppity bitches who had nothing better to get angry about other than the abuse of farm animals or which belabored country we weren’t helping out this week. People needed help in America, Bob thought. He gave her a look back. He smiled smugly and raised an eyebrow. He winked at her. Yeah, baby, Bob thought. I’m one of those types. The redhead turned away in disgust.

Then an idea came to him after the next stop. Bob inched a little bit closer to the redhead, as they made their way toward his station. Bob began breathing heavily, blowing his hot breath on the woman’s neck. She tried not paying attention to him, keeping her nose buried in some drab magazine, but Bob knew he was getting to her. How could he not? Blowing hot breath on her neck. A couple of times she brushed the blow of wind away, as if it were a bug or something. She tried inching forward but there was nowhere to go. She had no room to look back, that’s how close Bob had gotten to her. She was his captive, his little whore of Calcutta.

When the train reached the next station, Bob hesitated just a second. The doors on the train opened and before anyone could make a move, he reached out and grabbed a handful of the redhead’s ass. It was fit and bony, but Bob got a nice chunk of it. The woman screamed, tried to twirl around but there still wasn’t enough room, what, with the rush of people heading toward the exit doors. Bob held on, pinched again, and then turned to head out of the train doors just as the redhead was able to spin around.

“Hey!” was all she screamed, as the influx of people getting on the train stopped her from saying any more.

“See ya!” Bob shouted, standing on the platform. He waved at the redhead as the doors closed. She gave him one last angry look, before the train barreled out of the station and down into the dark depths of the tunnel. Bob stood there and watched it until the thing was gone.

He was one stop away from where he should’ve gotten off the train, but it was worth it just to see the look on that woman’s face. His little whore of Calcutta. Bob laughed as he walked along the crowded evening street. He stopped in a bar, not his regular one, and had a couple of beers with a hamburger, as the evening news played on a huge television in the corner of the room. Bob ate the burger voraciously. He was happy that it didn’t come out of a box. When he was done the bartender took his plate away with a smile. She was another blonde. Bob imagined kissing her too, but decided to have a third beer instead.

It wasn’t a bad walk home. Winter was coming again, and the evenings were getting his kind of cold. Most people bundled up in this weather, but not Bob. Bob could go deep into December before he had to pull out the winter coat and hat. Sometimes he made it to January, he thought, stopping to look at sundry items in the many stores that lined the street. Maybe he’d pick up a little something for Anne, like a bottle of wine for when she got home. Yes, Bob thought. He went into a liquor store and bought a big bottle of red, enough for the two of them to get silly on.

There were voices in the apartment. Bob could hear them from down the hall. There was chatter and then laughter. A male voice he didn’t recognize was raised in the most dramatic fashion. What the hell? Bob thought. He could smell food cooking too, one of the dishes that Anne used to make before she got the job. Bob took in a huge huff of the smell and then reached into his pants to dig for his keys. But as soon as they dangled in the lock, the door opened. Anne saw him and smiled.

“Hey,” she said.

“I got the wine,” Bob said. “I thought you’d be working late.”

He stepped inside the apartment. In the kitchen was a short, balding man with a salt and pepper colored goatee. Bob eyed him and then scanned the living room. Sitting on his couch, on his seat, was the redhead from the train. She was drinking a glass of his good bourbon, watching the evening news on his television set. Bob gave her a dumb smile, which the redhead met with a dark glare. She put her glass of bourbon down and got off of the couch.

“Bob, this is Dale,” Anne said, directing Bob toward the bald man. Bob shook his hand but watched in the living room as the redhead reached for her coat.

“Yes,” Bob said, putting the wine on the kitchen table. Then the three of them watched as the redhead put on her coat and reached for her purse.

“And that’s Linda,” Anne said, an awkward look on her face. Bob had never heard about Linda. She put her purse on her shoulder and began walking toward them.

“Hello,” Bob said to the advancing woman.

“We were going to work from home tonight, if you don’t mind,” Anne said.