It was raining outside and cold; we were in the middle of a dark November on the Lake Plains of New York State. Inside the movie theater I was drunk on cheap beer, and you were holding me. “There, there,” you said, and you patted the back of my hand, leaving yours there just a moment too long: the blessed warmth of it, your skin cracked from the cold, wet weather and the hot, dry air indoors.
I tried not to cry. I bit my lip until it hurt. You smelled good, like the Opium perfume you used to wear — vanilla and musk and sweat. It was delicious. I wanted to touch you somehow with my lips, but you didn’t like me to do that; so instead I took your shoulders in my hands and shook you. You tilted your head back like a howling wolf and laughed. I loved your laugh and your long yellow teeth.
There weren’t many people watching the movie, but some of them turned and scowled at us. I could see their faces pretty well because there was a lot of white on the screen, which lit up the audience. It was a winter scene in a James Bond film. We were at the dollar theater in the Lakeside Shopping Plaza, which also had a China Buffet and an abandoned JCPenney in it. Do you remember that theater? We could sneak in alcohol. It was my favorite place: a pleasant, dark hole. Like a chapel and a hovel all rolled into one. Like this coyote’s den I found once in the woods by the lake, all littered with the bones of woodchucks and rabbits.
I burped, and then I touched you with my lips anyway, even though I knew you wouldn’t like it. I rubbed them against your throat.
“Stop it, Doug,” you said, but you cackled a little, which I took as encouragement, and I rubbed my lips on you some more. You put your leg around me and pulled me in. I think more than anything else I wanted you to fold me up like a piece of paper and put me in your pocket. That would have been enough.
In your car there was more beer in the trunk, and we drank some in the back seat and listened to it rain. There was that cold-rain smell, like the lake at night, and the beer was bitter and sweet like a headache. It was called Genesee Cream Ale, and they still make it downtown in a brewery that’s painted a faded yellow and smells like hot, wet bread. After a while, though, the ale started to taste funny in my mouth. I crushed up some Tylenol and snorted it, which felt weird, like a smooth, flat line in my brain, but it was also kind of boring.
“I have to go back to work,” I said.
I worked for a company on the south side of town that made radios for the military. I was an electrical engineer. You didn’t care. I mean, did you even know that was my job? Probably not. I wasn’t very good at it. I’d been demoted twice, and now they just had me proofreading the manual and answering phone calls from service reps in Germany and Texas and South Korea and Iraq. I couldn’t help those guys at all. They would say, “Can I talk to your manager?” and I would get scared and hang up on them. I mostly thought about you all day and the way you held me when you wanted to and pushed me away when you wanted to, and the way your legs and bottom looked after you took off your pants once in my living room by the television set, the one I had to turn off by unplugging it.
“You can’t go back to work,” you said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“You just can’t.”
We went to your aunt’s house, because she was out, and you took off your clothes but left your underwear on, and you wrapped your legs around my waist on the couch, and I started to cry again. You held me with your arms and legs both, and it felt really good, and I forgot about everything except you. In my head I quit my job, but in real life I was about to get fired.
You put on bright-red lipstick, and it cheered me somehow to know that anyone could put something like that on their face. Then you sat up suddenly and said, “Oh, God, I am so sick of this place.” I was used to hearing you talk like this, so I didn’t even respond.
After an hour or two it stopped raining, and we drove to Lake Ontario and fed the ducks from the pier. The water was rough, and there were rows of dark-gray clouds clear across to Canada. We walked on the sand and smoked the Seneca menthols that you used to buy by the carton on the Indian reservation outside Salamanca. A little ways up the beach I saw a snowy owl swoop down like a kite and attack a duck.
You said, “Oh, my God. What is that?”
“A snowy owl, I think,” I said. “I saw one here once before. It was last year at Thanksgiving.” I had even looked it up in a bird book to confirm the species and discovered that they sometimes come across the lake in the winter to look for easy prey.
“What’s it doing?” you asked.
“It’s killing that duck,” I said.
After the owl killed the duck, it started to rip the bird’s head and neck apart and eat it. Then the owl just stood on the corpse and looked around. The wind blew tufts of its feathers up and made the owl look noble, like a duke or something. This made me feel good about myself, like maybe, if I wanted to, I could become something better than what I was — an owl, for instance. This made absolutely no sense, but I tried to explain it to you back in the car anyway.
“You should see a therapist,” you said. You rolled a big joint and tried to light it with the car’s cigarette lighter, but it kept going out. “I think therapy would really help you.”
“I don’t think my insurance will cover it,” I said.
I felt as though my ears were on my feet, and I was stepping on them. Everything was loud and cloudy. It was getting dark outside, and I rolled down the window and threw up, and then we fell asleep in your car. When I woke up, I knew I was fired.
You dropped me off at my apartment in the morning, and I brushed my teeth and fed my fish, whose name was Alistair. Did you know that? Did you even know I had a fish? At that time I owed my father something like $2,800. He lived in a dumpy condo in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and I wasn’t returning any of his phone calls. I was pretending he didn’t exist. My mother had gotten remarried to a postal worker. He wasn’t a mailman; he was a “postal worker.” He was very particular about that. I smoked hash with him once in my mom’s basement, and he got super paranoid and made me promise never to tell my mother about his drug use. He had false teeth and acne scars and a big, blocky head that made him look like George Washington. I knew his teeth were fake because he told me so. He even told me how he’d lost his real ones: by falling down a flight of stairs after a Grateful Dead show at the old Rich Stadium in Buffalo. He said that he’d been afraid he would break his wrists, so he purposely hadn’t put out his hands to break his fall, and he’d landed on his face and knocked out all his front teeth. He was an old hippie, but not jaded or condescending — more happy and nice. He might have been a little slow. Once he used the word provocation all wrong. We were making chicken-salad sandwiches in my mother’s kitchen, and he said he had made “provocations” for a day off from work.
“You mean provisions?” I asked.
“What?” he said.
“You mean you made provisions for a day off?”
“No, provocations.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled. He was clearly used to situations in which everyone but him was confused. He actually seemed to enjoy it.
One time you and I were in a crowded bar on Saint Paul Boulevard. The walls were all brick, which made it really loud in there, and you went outside to smoke a Seneca while I stayed and played Quick Pick on the state-lottery screen in the corner. When you came back, it was hard for you to get to me through the crowd. I watched you fight your way across the room just to reach me, and then when you did, you shook me by the shoulders really hard. It was my favorite feeling ever. I liked it way better than when I shook you. Right after that, I heard an old man with a long white beard say, “The last time I was in Nova Scotia was the day they found Elvis Presley dead in his own bathroom.” Hearing that, along with the feeling of you shaking me — as well as the incredible amount of gin I had drunk and the fact that I had just won fifty dollars on Quick Pick — together made me weep uncontrollably into my shirt sleeve.
You just nodded your head and said, “Let it all out, Doug. Let it all out.”
You liked to do some thieving every now and again. Do you remember that? It was kind of a thrill, I guess. The first time must have been at that liquor store on Lake Avenue. You slipped the clerk a note that said you had a gun, which of course wasn’t true, and then you pointed to your eyes with two fingers and then pointed those same fingers at him, like: Hey, I’m watching you. He was an old Indian man, and he didn’t look at all scared. He just blinked at you. You stole a bottle of something sweet and spicy. It had a picture of a shirtless man and a tropical bay on the label, like it was marketed to women or something. I just watched you work and bit my thumbnail until it split and then peeled it away with my teeth.
Out in the car I drank half the bottle, and my tongue got thick and sugary, and I felt as if I had just drunk a fishbowl with three or four fish in it. Then I asked you to drive me to work — I’d forgotten that I had been fired — and I tried to go into the building like that, all wasted, but this girl Jill, who worked the security desk and used to take cigarette breaks with me when I’d worked there, literally threw me out on my ear. I mean, I scraped my ear on the sidewalk. I looked at it later, and there was like a giant rug burn across the lobe. I felt so bad that I slept in the tree in back of my house. When I woke up, my cellphone was ringing to the tune of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” — which is the ring tone I used for my mom. She was hassling me to get my life back in order and go to rehab or start going to the church we used to attend when I was little. After that, I stopped talking to her, which was the biggest mistake I could have made, because she was the one person who loved me selflessly — or, at the very least, not selfishly.
Easily the best day I spent with you was when we drove out to your parents’ farm near Salamanca and went into the pasture and lay down in the hayfield and looked up at the sky, which was clear and blue. Three cows stumbled over to us, but it took them a long time. One of them put her face in mine and sniffed. They stood over us and blinked and then went back to pulling up the grass and eating it. I could hear the hollow sound they made grinding the blades between their teeth.
One night we were eating toast in my basement, and I told you that you were my president, and you asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, what does that make you: secretary of state?”
“No,” I said. “I’ll be the legislature. I’ll make the laws, and you’ll enforce them. Better yet: I’ll be your Secret Service. I’ll protect you.”
“I’m getting tired of your metaphors,” you said, but I knew what you really meant was that you were getting tired of me.
The very next day I called my father and asked him for money. He said if he’d had a few less scruples, he would have hired someone to break my legs long ago, and then he hung up on me. Scruples was one of those words I thought I knew the meaning of but wasn’t exactly sure. I looked it up in my dictionary and found out that it comes from the Latin scrupulus, which means “a small, sharp stone, like a source of discomfort.” I thought about calling you and telling you that you were my scrupulus, but then I remembered what you’d said about being sick of my metaphors. Actually you’d said “tired” — tired of my metaphors. I knew you were going to leave me, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
The next time I saw you do some thieving, it was at a laundromat. You said you knew when the man came to empty the quarters from the machines. I’d eaten some acid and was totally useless. I didn’t hallucinate, but I got really sick to my stomach. You handed a note to this man, who had a giant mustache. The note said you had a gun, but the man couldn’t read or something. It was obvious that he had come to wash his clothes, not empty out the quarters. In a fit of anger you flipped over the gum-ball machine in the corner and shattered the glass globe. Red, yellow, green, blue, black, and white gum balls rattled across the gray tiles. I ate four black ones and then started to hallucinate. You left me there, and I didn’t see you for like a week.
I got a crappy job as a medical-records clerk at the Saint Mary’s Hospital on the corner of West Main and Genesee. You thought my new employment would provide us with opportunities to steal drugs, or chemicals we could use to make drugs, but we didn’t know how to go about that. Once, I went outside on my break to smoke a Seneca, and there you were in your wood-paneled, pea-green Buick station wagon, tapping your fingers on the steering wheel. It was snowing, and you rolled down the window. “Get in,” you said, and I did. You wore a pair of tight black jeans and strappy high-heeled shoes. You took the cigarette right from my mouth, squinted at me through the smoke, and took a luxurious drag, leaving red lipstick on the filter. I just about wanted to eat that filter. I wanted you to open your mouth wide, like a snake, and swallow me whole.
“We have a problem,” you said, and you raised your eyebrows as if you had just asked me a question.
“We do?” I asked. My hands were starting to sweat, and my stomach hurt. There was a small piece of charred Brillo pad on the dashboard, which I knew you were using as a filter on your crack pipe, even though you weren’t getting high with me anymore. Something was wrong. My heart was racing.
“You’re not stealing anything from the hospital,” you said.
“Well, everything’s all locked up, and I don’t want to get fired.” You reached over and turned up the heat and raised your eyebrows again. I understood that you were disappointed in me, but I thought you might have been about to threaten me as well, like maybe you were going to hand me a note that said you had a gun. I hadn’t had a drink in two days, and the car smelled bad, like worms and ammonia and stale cigarette smoke.
“I met somebody new,” you said, and my ears started to ring.
“Why?” I asked.
“What do you mean, ‘Why?’ ”
“I didn’t mean, ‘Why.’ I meant, ‘Who.’ Who did you meet?”
“This guy from around. They call him Show Biz.”
“Oh, brother,” I said.
“Does he drive like a really old, beat-up Bronco, but with rims? That guy?”
“How do you know him?” you asked, and I just shrugged. Everybody knew Show Biz. He was a two-bit dealer who worked out of an apartment behind a raggedy, old Rent-A-Center. There was nothing about him that suggested show business. His name should have been Horror Show. Or Open Sore.
“So, what are you saying?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” You looked at yourself in the rearview mirror. Your eyes were smoky gray. “You tell me.”
The last time I saw you, we drank a jug of red wine the way you liked it — cold, straight out of the refrigerator. Your car had broken down, so we took the bus to the library downtown for a free magic show. The magician kept saying, “Ragic, tagic, we make magic!” every time he did a trick. He pulled a lot of silk handkerchiefs out of his mouth and made red foam balls disappear and reappear, and he pulled a coin out of a kid’s ear. There were only about a dozen people there, most of them children. He wrapped up with a long speech about how he was from just down the Thruway in Buffalo, and how he’d learned most of his tricks from the Buffalo library system. He said that all of his magic could be found in books, and it was important for kids to read. Then, for his grand finale, he had his assistant climb into a box, and he cut her in half. When she jumped back out in one piece, I cheered like it was game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. I mean, I really lost control. I gave him a standing ovation and shouted, “Bravo!” and then ran to the computer area of the library, pumping my fist with joy. I got on the Internet and started looking up some tae kwon do moves. You came out of the little auditorium where the magic show had been held, and you smiled at me from across the room, and it just killed me.
“Hey, buddy,” you said when you got close, “you want to get some breakfast or something?”
It was like four o’clock in the afternoon. What I really wanted was for you to take me by the shoulders and shake me the way you used to, but I was afraid to ask you to, and deep down I knew you would probably never do it again.
“I guess,” I said.
“What are you looking at?”
“A martial-arts website.”
“Martial arts. You know, like, karate. This one’s tae kwon do actually.”
“Why are you looking at that?” you asked.
“I don’t know. It sounds like I might have to fight Show Business if I want to keep my girlfriend.” I managed a weak smile, but I couldn’t make eye contact with you.
“It’s Show Biz,” you said. “Not Show Business.”
I shrugged. “Whatevs,” I said.
“ ‘Whatever,’ you mean. Not ‘whatevs.’ ”
I shrugged again. “Whatever.”
“And Show Biz would kick your ass,” you said. “So don’t even think about it.”
I gave you the meanest look I could, but you weren’t looking at me. You were squinting at the martial-arts website on the computer.
I stood up and tried to kiss you on the throat, like a vampire, but you put your hand on my face and pushed me away. You were really strong, and your hand smelled good, like baby powder or something.
You walked out of the library and got on the Number 5 bus, which was idling out front while the driver took her smoke break. I walked out behind you. I knew you were probably off to see Show Biz or something. The driver weighed like four hundred pounds and was smoking furiously. She was whipping that cigarette in and out of her mouth, and she had on these black leather driving gloves. It was cold and foggy. I could hear the river going over the waterfall in back of the library, and it was gray and gloomy out there. I coughed and felt the wine wearing off. It was like removing a wet, scratchy bathing suit that you’ve had on too long. I thought about trying to get on the bus with you, but I couldn’t. I was just too tired. Raggedy.
The bus pulled away, and you stared hard out the window at me until you were out of sight, and I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. I sat down on a wooden bench that looked like someone had tried to paint it brown once a long time ago. I needed to relax, that was for sure. It was snowing, and dusk was starting to fall. I saw a chickadee land on the branch of a pine in front of the library, and it started to make its little chickadee noises. When I was younger, I was really into birds, and I had read in a book that they sometimes sing for mates, but sometimes they sing just because they love the sound of it. Because they enjoy it. I wanted that to be true. I think what I really needed was to sing. Not for you, but just to sing.