Waccamaw
NOTICE: You are currently viewing an ARCHIVED version of the Waccamaw. Visit the redesigned site.

Visiting Tomas

                                    Craig Hartglass


Early May. We were stepping out of the bar, Denise and I, when I suggested the visit.  We had been seeing each other—and by “seeing” I suppose I mean fucking—about a month, since the time she decided she and her husband had little in common, and that she never really loved him, and had only gotten married because she thought it was her last chance, as she desperately wanted a family, kids to love unconditionally, something she’d never experienced as a little girl, and because her husband was the sort of man—decent, hardworking, religious—who she thought would keep her in line. But he was jealous by nature. And, as she noted when we first became reacquainted, “I don’t much care for jealous people.” 

The night was cold with the kind of New England dampness that conjures faraway places with windy rain and ruddy-skinned people with plugs of tobacco in their cheeks. Club lights were beginning to flicker then go out. Headlights came on. I shoved my hands into my pockets. “I know where we can go,” I said, as though the idea just leapt into mind.

“Where?”

“To see Tomas.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Tomas?” 

“My friend. He’s a poet.”

Naturally she protested, saying it was kind of late. But I told her that in addition to being a poet, Tomas was an insomniac and that he adores company since one: he can’t sleep; and two: he’s chronically ill, or at least thinks he is, and subsequently gets few visitors because, as he says, “No one likes a sick guy, it reminds them of the impending slide and tumble”—and that he rarely gets out other than for medical appointments or the occasional Sunday foray into the country with his seventy-two year old mother—who pumps her foot from gas to brake too frequently for his liking—provided the weather is good. 

“So he’s a shut-in?” Denise said, in a tone I couldn’t decipher. 

I nodded. I told her he was. 

“That’s so sad,” she said. 

I nodded again, squeezing a measure of sorrow into my eyes, and said, “Yes, I suppose it is.” 

She reached out and stroked my fingers on the steering wheel. I was a carpenter by trade, and she’d always liked my rough hands—contrasted with her husband, an accountant—and had mentioned, in her rekindling email, how feminine and protected they used to make her feel. Through the windshield we watched the unfolding drama of singles and hopefuls not ready to call the night: pairs joining and separating, flitting with uncertainty, arms snaking around waists, desirous of last-chance unions: whispered words, squeals, laughter. We drove through the darkness. 

By the time we reached Tomas’s door the rain had started. A tiny spritz like a sprayer bottle turned, in a matter of seconds, to a downpour: as if a trapdoor had dropped and the Atlantic fell from the sky. I opened my long leather coat and snugged a wing around Denise, her heat penetrating the dampness and layers of cloth. She submitted to this chivalry in stages, autonomy betrayed by the urges of flesh, a tentative surrender, resisting then softening, until her body went slack, and, like a goob of butter yielding to a warm knife, melted into the contours of my own.

I banged on the door. Tomas lived in an old Queen Anne, huge and sprawling, twenty years untouched by hammer or paintbrush, with a mildew-covered roof and sections of clapboard hanging or missing entirely. Since the turn of the century—the one before last, I mean—the house had been owned by an elderly couple, a jeweler and his wife, but following their death and a particularly acrimonious legal battle and estate sale, it had been divided into five low-income apartments. The porch smelled like socks that smelled like headcheese only stronger. 

I knocked again. A solid core door: black, splintered edges. No response. I took hold of the doorknocker, patina’d in greenish-black (suggesting attendance at its own retirement party decades earlier), and pulled. From the hinge resonated a weary creak. On my third try came a sudden freedom of movement followed by the thunder of a giant anvil falling atop a car constructed of plastic explosives and amplifier speakers. A stirring inside.  Lights. 

“What the fuck?” Tomas said, as he opened the door. He wore karate pants, white, drawstrings at the waist, hem falling a few inches above pale ankles. His torso was bare.  Aside from body hair, possessed in copious quantities in front and shading parts of his back in amounts that, though not copious, were not altogether pleasing, he had the gaunt carved-down look of a man who’d once been vibrant.  His hipbones poked through the muscles of his obliques. Black crescents undercircled his eyes. He looked at me, then turned to the stereo, savagely eyeing its digital output, which read 1:44, before turning to Denise. He smiled for a second, then grumbled, “Come in.”

After hanging our wet coats over the closet door, Denise and I settled on the couch, sinking into the ancient depths of leather, thighs pressed together, and whispered back and forth while Tomas brewed mugs of Middle Eastern coffee, black and bitter, into which he poured a rumlike concoction with the slightest scent of licorice and a flavor of toffee or chocolate or both.

When he returned he had on a purple button-down, sleeves rolled to the elbow, exposing wiry remnants of once mighty forearms. He set the mugs on the scuffed wooden table along with the coffeepot and liquor bottle. The mugs steamed. 

“Yum,” said Denise, after a cooling sip aerated like a fish-tank gurgle. 

Tomas fell into the matching chair opposite us, threw his bare feet onto the ottoman, and said, “So?”

We talked: our night, the weather, politics, poetry, the planet. Somehow after a time we arrived upon the meaning of life.  At this Denise sat up, torso erect, breasts—surgically augmented, I must divulge—straining the stretchy fabric of her dress, which was black and cut into a scoop revealing creamy white neck meat and a hint of cleavage. Her tendons crackled with urgency. After swallowing the last of her coffee, she said she was trying to figure out her purpose these days. “I mean, what’s the point?  I know my main one is to mother my two children—who I adore, and would never hurt by the way—but I must say, I’m at a loss: why I am here?”

Silence. 

Tomas and I had been friends since grade ten, when his father succumbed to the wasting ravages of throat cancer, and we had discussed this, purpose and meaning, had discussed everything, hundreds of times; I knew his thoughts on the matter and he knew mine, which were not nearly as clear or biologically driven. I sipped my coffee. Tomas poured Denise a second cup, splashing in an outsized measure of liquor, then refilled his own, which he held at waist level, rolling back and forth between palms, warming his belly while allowing the dramatic pause to build in tension. He flexed his toes, drawing attention to the silvery hourglass where a nail had pierced the ball of his foot and come through the top. I was hoping Denise wouldn’t notice. I was not interested in hearing the story again.

Tomas stared into her eyes, a puzzled flash crossing his face, as if suddenly recognizing her from a previous life, then answered, “There are many ways of looking at it, but to me they’re all the same. There is no point to anything. None. In the face of geologic time, that creeping sickle of death,” this he said in a tone of amusement and derision, “we humans are meaningless. Put into perspective, our tenure on this planet, in this galaxy, this universe, is an inch on a timeline that goes on forever: nearly imperceptible. Not even a blink of the eye is human existence in the scheme of the universe.”

“Well, aren’t you uplifting,” Denise said.

“It gets better,” I said. 

Tomas gave a short laugh, dismissive. He continued. “The sun contains fuel enough to burn 10 billion years, and it’s burned through 5 billion already. So the ride’s half over.  And that’s before we factor in major extinctions, of which, as I’m sure you’re both aware, there’ve been five—most scientists agreeing we’re currently experiencing the sixth—where better than 90% of the world’s species were wiped out. Either way, our days are numbered. Add to that the giant asteroid that crashed Mexico some 60 million years ago, triggering the last ice age.”

Denise looked from Tomas to me for support. 

“He’s right.” I shrugged. “Another one’s on the way.”

“Another Mister Sunshine.”

“But,” Tomas said, his voice propped with manufactured hope, “suppose we look at it another way. Suppose we consider that the universe is made up of energy. Nothing but energy, we’ll say. And let’s suppose all that energy has to come-from and go-to somewhere; every bit of matter and antimatter, every thought and object, all of it energy: energy everywhere, energy coming and going. So what do we propose is happening?”  For a second he looked to me, eyes grave and piercing, as if attempting to extract from my core some deep truth, then back to Denise on whose metallic indigo he locked. “If it’s true that all of the universe, all of its components, are contained in every piece of every thing including us … And if it’s true that as systems break down and degrade, energy is released and returns to the universe where it regroups and returns as something else …  Then, theoretically, we’re all part of one giant organism, constantly breaking down and rebuilding. Take your liver, for example. Your liver is part of you but doesn’t know it’s part of you. It goes about its day filtering blood and conducting liver business, detoxification and so forth, while at the same time the cells of your liver go about their daily liver-cell business unaware they’re part of this larger entity called a liver, while the individual components that make up these liver cells, amino acids and cytoplasm and bits of DNA and such, hum along—transcribing proteins, generating enzymes, cleaving molecules—all the while unaware that they’re part of liver cells which are part of the liver which is part of you which is part of a species which is part of a country which is part of planet Earth which is part of galaxy Milky Way—M-1, I believe—which is part of the universe. So—”

Denise broke in. “But for what?” she said, excitedly, as though Tomas had missed her point entirely. When bored or agitated it was her habit to repeatedly tuck her bangs, which often worked loose, behind an ear. She steered a wayward tuft now. “To sleep, eat, drink—then start over the next day?!”

“Tomorrow you could fast,” he quipped.

“Your whole scheme is very convenient, a clever way to avoid responsibility. If it’s all predetermined, then nothing’s anyone’s fault. Typically male, if you ask me.”

“Feminism has destroyed men.”

“You’re a pig.”

“Did you ever work at Scruples?” Tomas said, as I helped Denise into her coat.

Back in the truck Denise called Tomas a genuine piece of work. “A real asshole.” She quickly jotted a few lines in a tiny notebook stowed in her purse, pausing only to redirect her hair. After that she stared through the windshield, jaw set, and didn’t speak another word. When we got back to her place she dropped her dress to the floor. In the partial moonlight of the window, we fucked like wild animals. We went at each other with a violence and fury I’d never experienced. Denise clawed meat from my back and shoulders until blood ran red and hot and marked the sheets, while feral wails emitted from her belly, one after another, deep and beastlike things, filled with darkness and history, the bruised language of cells passed through generations, marked by struggle and famine and war and anguish and pestilence and betrayal and carrying the unabridged history of human carnage. 

This was Sunday night.
    

The following Wednesday we went to the movies. In addition to every other weekend and half the summer, as part of the separation agreement Denise’s husband was entitled to visitation with their two children each Wednesday afternoon, picking them up after school—grades one, and two—and keeping them over night, before returning them Thursday evening for supper. To this routine he clung religiously. For me it was perfect.  No obligations. No bedtime stories, no tucking in, no homework, no suppertime quarrels.  Zero pressure for anything other than a respite from the world’s weight. When I visited, we had her place to ourselves, and Denise, something of a gourmet, would cook elaborate meals, shrimp and Cornish hens and eggplant sliced into fans and drizzled with olive oil and stuffed, between the fanning segments, with portions of tomato and feta cheese and basil and imported Italian ham, while dressed in nothing but a silky G-string if anything at all. They had owned two houses, her and her husband, the second being a rental which the tenants had conveniently vacated, and Denise and her kids along with a few sticks of furniture moved in.  She lived off the separation settlement and a part-time job as a grant writer at an asylum for wayward girls preparing to rejoin society by adhering to rigorous standards of hygiene and conduct and reciting upbeat platitudes at scheduled times throughout the day. She wanted to keep things simple, going for a minimalist effect, in contrast to her previous life, a great churning chaos of stuff and situations, and though she didn’t say so had likely been influenced by me, whose views she seemed to take as her own with each passing day. She said her old life was filled with clutter, things she didn’t love or like or even need, but had simply accumulated. “After a while I wanted to scream. I wanted to tear off my clothes and run out of the house naked and stand in the neighbors’ yard and scream my head off! I wanted to stand there breathing the free outside air and scream! Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt that?” 

I told her I hadn’t, not exactly, though I assured her I understood the sentiment as I was once married and at the end had not been happy. In those last days, I said, with my marriage crumbling, I looked at my wife and saw not a female—no tits, no ass, no cunt, no feminine hair or attributes—just this other person, sort of genderless, who nagged me to the point of emasculation. Though, this last point I omitted. 

“Yes!” Denise cried. “Yes! But, have you ever been so lonely with someone you supposedly loved, someone you’re sharing your life with—someone you have no passion for—so lonely you only wanted to get away, wanted to escape, and thought of that every minute of every day? Escape?”

I told her I had. I had fantasized of busses running over my wife and insurance settlements and curvy waitresses in thong bathing suits with whom I’d lounge on the warm sands of the Caribbean before the mangled carcass had a chance to cool. I did not say I’d heard those same themes, loneliness and isolation, along with a few choice names—“Ice-hearted bastard” “Stone-cold prick” (a repeated theme of vital organs and sub-arctic temperature)—coming from the lips of my ex-wife and aimed directly at me. 

“Oh crap,” she said suddenly, looking up.  “I’m going to hell, aren’t I?” 

“There is no hell,” I said. 

“Good.” She sat opposite me at her table seeming to consider this, holding a long-stemmed glass of wine, voice echoing in the sparse room, and, after a sip, she added, “But did you ever love your wife—in the beginning, I mean?” 

I thought a moment, then said, “Yes.”

“You see, that’s it. I never did.”

The movie was an independent film, overly sentimental and shown at an art house theater, featuring four working-class brothers, bar owner, plumber, house-painter, cop, with girlfriends that only working-class men in movies have, loving devoted girls as beautiful as movie stars but embedded with a single tiny flaw like a bent tooth or sloppy housekeeping intended to make it plausible. Naturally, among our fellow art-house patrons there was not an abundance with jobs requiring lanolin hand cleaners or clock-punching or showering away sweat and grime at night. None that I could pick out, at any rate. The audience clumped together in groupings, thick populations demarcated by borders of empty space like cliques in a high school. Such a space surrounded us. The soles of my sneakers, I quickly discovered, when lifted off the floor’s enamel, gave the sticky, adhesive sensation of duct-tape off a roll.

After a minute of this game, I raised the armrest and put my arm around Denise, my hand on her bare shoulder, and, as the film unwound, drew her in. She leaned her head into my neck. I smelled peach-and-coconut hair and felt an aura of heat. We’d shared a giant tub of buttered popcorn, fingers slick with salt and coconut grease, the tingling rasp of satiety, and now I set it on the floor beside our giant goblets of soda, and there, in there dark, as the working-class brothers whined about nearly flawless girlfriends, I reached under Denise’s skirt and discovered no underwear. I feathered up the supple warmth of thigh. I took my time. But Denise couldn’t wait. She ground into my fingers with mounting desperation then let out a whimpering cry and thrust a contented tongue into my ear. Her scent, rising up, conjured the sticky, mollusky air of the outgoing tides of my youth. I inhaled greedily. Next I gave her a mouthful of fingers to clean before tasting them myself. Denise kissed me full on the mouth, sudden and furious, then broke into a hoarse laugh that started with a few uncontrollable spasms and, in the patchy light of the projector, displayed a brilliant organization of teeth. Soon I was laughing too. Angry well-groomed heads turned to glare. 

Later, we stopped at a little café where I knew the owner, and ordered the special which was tuna steak sautéed with peppercorns and served over a bed of spinach and some starchy grain whose name escapes me, along with a side of garlic-sautéed vegetables and a bottle of red wine recommended by the waiter. The place was small, maybe a dozen tables, low lights, a mural of an aerial view of the coast of Spain. The tables were full.  Candlelight flickered.

As we ate, we talked about the couples around us, surreptitiously scanning the room and taking an inventory of faces, about whom Denise seemed to have deep insight—knowing who were married, who were on first dates, who were in trouble, etc.—and about the movie which she liked, though didn’t love, and which I had problems with, not the least of which was the implausible beautifulness of the girlfriends. 

“But you’re a working guy, and you’re with me,” she said, smiling distractedly, jotting into her notebook before looking up.  It was true.  Denise was a lovely woman, no doubt, blue eyes and black hair of uncommon sheen, perfect smile, a striking contrast of curve and sinew, not to mention those implants, the type of woman any guy would be pleased to have beside him, as was I, but she was no movie star and was delusional if she imagined herself to be. This was fine by me. I had once had a movie-star beautiful girlfriend.  I would rather put out both eyes and pour Tabasco and lye into the bloodied openings than go through that again.  

“Yes,” I said, taking her hand in mine from across the table. “That’s true.” 

Denise batted her eyes.  Great black dishes pushed the edge of each iris, while the lashes of her playful lids, thickened with luminous pearls of mascara, swished and swatted in a graceful willowy arc: I pictured a troupe of dancers before the bar. She held out a forkful for me to taste.

The owner stepped up and kibitzed us, refilling wine glasses and asking how everything was, to which Denise smiled, and said, “Wonderful,” then he turned and asked me about a guy I used to work with, another carpenter, who he remembered as having a goatee and a taste for milk-jug blondes and German beer, and who I told him I hadn’t seen in years.  I shrugged. 

“People fall away,” he said. 

“They do.”

It was after dinner, while taking a stroll through the arcade, the nighttime air wrestling down the sultry humidity of the day, that Denise mentioned Tomas for the first time since our visit.  Her voice bore the kind of immediacy that suggested she’d been thinking of this for some time. “What’s the matter with him?” she said, as we walked.

I told her that he was a lunatic. 

“No,” she said, “his illness—what is it?”
   

His illness.

Where to begin? If one were to go by Tomas’s version, it started with a tick bite.

This was many years ago, of course, ten or fifteen by my account, and coincided with the departure of his wife and his subsequent decline into alcohol and drugs and a lifestyle that included dalliances with women of a profligate nature. But you must understand, he was never right to begin with, my friend Tomas, always off to himself thinking poetic thoughts and preaching evolutionary philosophies, avoiding work and responsibility, passing the time reading books and magazines and lifting weights and drenching his body in sunshine. But then, suddenly, a year after the divorce, he was going on about Lyme disease. His brain, he said, was burning with white noise, a screaming static he couldn’t turn off, while a constant agitation buzzed through his nerves like electricity, as if a coiled spring were lodged inside each synapse bursting to get out. At this time his body became a vessel for bizarre pains and sensations, of which he began to complain, along with twitching muscles that appeared in his cheeks and eyelids—these I saw!—and moved through his body—thighs, shoulders, forearms, triceps, etc.—each location remaining active for days, just long enough to provoke insanity, or maybe an hour less, then as quickly as one appeared it would vanish and the next would arrive. Around this time his hands began to tremble. His fingers went numb. Then his feet.  (Once I watched him extinguish a cigarette on the top of his left foot to demonstrate this lack of sensation.)  He would sleep for days and days. Then not for a week. Soon all he talked about was doctors and medications and special diets, which he tried one after another, his bodyweight plummeting, and his once whispered-about physique, which had rippled with veins and striations, lumps and fibers, disappeared, along with his strength and vigor, which, over a stretch of years, became that of a man three times his age with a gallon or two of blood missing. It was awful to witness. One time we were sitting on the porch of his cabin, before he’d declared bankruptcy and was forced to sell and move into the derelict apartment he currently inhabits, when he said, “If years ago you told me I was going to end up like this I would have laughed. I would have told you I’d kill myself long before I’d let anything like this happen. But it comes so slowly, so gradually, sneaking up on you, these bugs, that you never see it and you end up one day in this place and have no idea how you got here.” 

I said I couldn’t believe it myself. 

Unbeknownst to Tomas, many years prior, his ex-wife, attempting to even the scorecard, some intergalactic calculus of suffering and cruelty, had, in an alphabetical fashion, bedded down each of his friends and workmates, progressing nearly through the list before realizing she could no longer recall his offense. This realization, however, did not occur until well after my turn. I thought of this now.

“You’ll pull out of this,” I offered, meekly.

“The historical evidence would suggest otherwise.”

Then he attempted to describe the fatigue, which he compared to chopping wood for fifteen hours, and then at night, when it was time to eat and sleep and replenish, being forced to dance to disco music and perform nonstop gymnastic exercises until dawn while smoking cigarettes and fasting and with a sack of rocks and bowling balls tied to your back. He went on to describe the post-exertional weakness which was even worse.  “But it’s the insomnia that makes it all tolerable,” he said with a dry laugh.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said.  “I’ve been tired lately, too.”

He paid me a long, unpleasant look, his face a granite edifice to the themes of deadpan and idiocy, and instantly I knew this was the wrong thing to say, that it was, in fact, number sixteen on the top ten list of all time wrong things to say. 

“You’ve been tired, too?” he said, without inflection.

By then he’d tried all available treatments, above and beyond insurance considerations, and had gone steadily downhill. I must admit, I was not entirely convinced. Though he explained the “situation of Lyme” as he called it: the political rancor; the worthlessness of tests; the tenacity of spirochetes—invisible microscopic snakes that coiled themselves into goo-ridden cysts when threatened; the ingenious capacity to cloak themselves in human proteins to outflank immune cells; the parlor trick of dropping their cell walls, essentially their outer flesh, and climbing into our own cells, like a hermit crab climbs into the discarded shell of a sea snail. And even though he had evidence to support these claims, reams of data printed on white letter paper piled about a yard high, I had my doubts.

It seemed crazy. I couldn’t get past the fact that the mainstream medical establishment saw it differently. This included twenty or more doctors he’d seen personally. When I related the story to Denise, answering her queries over the course of several weeks, she cocked her head and asked why I doubted him. “Especially when there’s proof?”

“I don’t know,” I said, disappointed at the sound of my voice. “The doctors can’t find anything.”

“Just because they don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“They think these people are malingerers or nuts.”

“So.” She drew a slow breath, eyes narrowed. “Did you read the evidence?”

“No.”

If I didn’t think much of this exchange, I suppose it was because our relationship had by this point progressed. After several months, we’d crossed that threshold of tacit and assumed weekend sharing, Friday till Sunday, a movie or a dinner out followed by sex and Denise’s cooking and more sex and more cooking and more sex. Denise was a dynamo. A hellcat. She would model outfits for me, lingerie costumes stored in an old satchel in the closet—from where these originated, I did not ask—corsets and garters and G-strings of all varieties, and one time a cat suit that wrapped her body in a gauzy black film that was transparent. We would play for hours, sipping wine, an occasional toke, and often pass out, fully engaged, from sheer exhaustion. Overall, things could not have been better. It was one such night, Denise attired in thigh-high stockings and a belly chain, that I suggested a pair of spiked shoes to accessorize.

After warring with her closet, overturning her wardrobe in a frustrated hunt for the cardboard carton in which they’d been stowed, she grumbled, “Goddamn it!” then sighed, and went on to curse her husband who she said must have thrown them out in one of his suspicious rages, “God-Goddamn it!” 

I watched from the bed, the swell of buttocks pitching with each overturned box, the splash of thigh, pale and creamy, floating purposefully above the blackened elastic of stocking. Bending from behind, her bum cleaved into a pair of melon halves and that shaven cleft puffed and peeked tauntingly from beneath. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. “Neecie, baby,” I said. “Forget the shoes.”

She turned her head, glanced over her shoulder, licked her lips. 

“What do you want to do to me?” she said. “Tell me.”

“I want to sniff and lick you. Then fuck you pulpy. Smack and finger that little ass.”

In the purring aftermath she gazed up with adoration, and said, “I’m glad I looked you up.” 

I told her I was glad too, as I had nearly deleted her original email as unrecognized. 

“No!” she said.  I nodded.  She kissed a slow trail of breadcrumbs from my chest to neck, her lips rapt with focus, then paused and stared into my eyes a long hard second. “Why do you think we never made it?”

“That was twelve years ago,” I said. I was thirty-two the June afternoon my ex-wife walked out, making Denise twenty-four when we met three months later in September of that same year. Back then she had been wild, up for anything—a taste for danger that did not bring to mind commitment. One drunken night we brought home her friend Gia, a sapling of a creature, long, hard and breastless, able to touch her knees to her ears—a talent she demonstrated eagerly—while, between obscene communications, uttering a repeated yowl like a seal crying for mackerel. I’d stepped into a pile of luck and was going to take hold of this wildness and run as far as I was allowed. “We were awfully young.”

“I would have done anything for you.”

“I didn’t think you were the settling down type.”

“You never asked.”

“I’m here now,” I said, lifting her hips and settling her down onto me.
    

Of course, it wasn’t just sex. Sprung from the confinement of matrimonial bondage, Denise was ravenous for all things active and cultural. She would read the local papers, conventional and alternative, scissoring out anything that sparked interest. We strolled through museums and galleries, viewed plays and listened to jazz trios, tasted wine and cheese and collected starfish and horseshoe crabs and razor clams off the sands of the shoreline. 

On the first Saturday in August, under a cloudless sky that sparkled like a Navajo jewel stone and stretched from the Long Island Sound to California, and with Denise’s kids safely ensconced within the magical confines of Orlando, we found ourselves wandering the corridors of Norwalk, Connecticut: the annual arts festival and race. 

“Look at this one,” Denise said, holding up a black-and-white of a woman gazing through a window on a rain-soaked day as though wrought by a crushing loss. Denise stood bent over a wooden bin, thumbing photographs mounted on squares of grey cardboard arranged like record albums. Her legs and ankles glistened.

Behind her, the photographer, a Hershey Kiss squeezed into a Mexican skirt, frizzy hair confined by a ponytail, sat atop a high stool beside a man with whom she whispered. She looked up, and said if we bought three there was a discount. “Ten dollars off.”

“Thanks,” Denise said, settling on two more.

The artists booths were multi-sided cages, self-standing grids of green wire that reminded me of rows of jail cells adorned with bad paintings and drawings in order to elicit further suffering from the inmates. Photos in tow, I fell a pace behind, marveling at her swish of hips as we weaved the crowd, avoiding packs of teen skate rats, scruffy and boisterous, who zipped in and out on boards. We lingered before watercolor landscapes, wood-carved animal prints, great oil canvases of skyscrapers and brownstones and thousands of windows and lights and people in minute colorful detail. Denise picked out a print for her bathroom.

Then a copper fountain caught my eye. Water, pumped to the top, cascaded down a series of copper leaves cupped into open palms, before splashing with a gentle trickle into a base of rocks and gravel, ferns and greenery, a pair of lazy orange carp.  I watched, mesmerized, squatting and touching a leaf’s underside, wondering: was it was hemmed or raw? The water through the greening metal vibrated my fingers with a cool electrical hum. 

An errant splash wet Denise’s foot; she yelped then laughed. “You should get it,” she encouraged, tugging my shirt.

I whispered that I have trouble buying things I could make.

“But you won’t make it.”

“You’re probably right.” I chuckled. “But I don’t really need it.”

“It’s not always about need.”

At the end of the lane, an upscale yet semi-hippyish cluster of boutiques and restaurants that served fifty-four dollar entrees that didn’t include salads, sat a bandstand from which an aging sextet strummed and blew and tapped out a collection of chords and notes and beats that was not altogether unpleasant. We stepped up front. The air carried the spicy onslaught of sausage. Sunshine warmed our shoulders and necks. Beside us, a little girl in miniature overalls with a head of bright yellow forsythia blooms held her father’s hand and licked strawberry ice cream. Denise said, “How precious,” then closed her eyes and swayed to the beat. 

As the sun crossed paths with points of her undulating anatomy it was clear she wore nothing beneath her floral dress. When the child finished her cone, her father, thick-limbed and pasty, office weary in a navy tank-top, arms flowering with sunburn, hoisted her to his chest; her legs straddled his torso and her chin rested on his shoulder and he flexed his knees and rocked until she closed her eyes, asleep. 

Denise watched, flushed with some feminine sensation I couldn’t identify. After a moment, she turned to me. “How come you and your wife never had children?” she said. 

In the past, when confronted by this question, I’d made up a string of excuses including: ineptitude, finances, the state of the world, my own selfless mercy. But when it came down to it, a lifetime commitment was beyond my scope. I was petrified of my helplessness before the small daily challenges—quadratic equations, two-hundred-dollar sneakers, inoculation uncertainties, bullies and bible kooks—that would add up to inevitable failure. Plus, when looking at my wife, splicing and reproducing our genes, hers in particular, did not spring immediately to mind. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Did she want them?”

I thought she had. “No,” I said. “Sometimes. I’m not sure what she wanted.”

“You weren’t planning on staying—were you?”

I looked up, the midday sun causing me to squint. When I didn’t answer, Denise stroked my arm, a soothing downward of fingertips, then she reached for my hand.

I hesitated before taking it, my fingers stiffening at her touch, its possible implications, a public validation I didn’t wish to endorse, and in that moment I felt something inside of her begin to shift. For a second her fingers stiffened, too. 

Following a lunch of barbecued chicken, pulled pork, collards and cornbread, we wandered into a crowd that lined both sides of the avenue—the road empty, as if waiting on a parade. I lugged the half-dozen bags of etchings and knickknacks that marked the end of Denise’s experiment in minimalism. We sipped rum drinks from plastic cups through straws. In progress was the sculpture race: giant abstract configurations, constructed of two-by-fours and sheet metal, plaster and chicken wire, and manned by teams of under-employed nut-jobs with studded chins and anarchic haircuts. When the race ended the crowd dispersed, spreading into the voids and hollows like poured concrete made even by a screed. The outline of storefronts came into view. Suddenly, we found ourselves staring through plate-glass at a pair of red heels, strappy and open-toed, practically stilettos. “Oh, my God!” Denise cried. 

“You like?” I said.

She nodded rapidly.

That evening after supper Denise greeted me in an outfit I’d never seen. In the glow of candlelight she performed a sultry dance, teasing off top and skirt—white and diaphanous and shadowing her writhing flesh like a ghost—before shinnying her hips hula-fashion.  Her G-string tumbled down her legs. She captured it on a red heel and, with an expert flick, sent the garment through the air and into my chest.  I held its warm perfume to my nose, stroked its silk over my lower lip.  Denise moved to the couch, positioned herself supine across my lap, took my hand and guided it to a candlestick. “Yes,” she whispered, as I raised it.

With each molten drop her chest reddened, prickly pinpoints of blush rising to the skin, while from her lips sharp, sharp cries eased into tiny girlish whimpers as the waxy glaze cooled and crusted over, then burst again into yelps as I widened the circle, capturing additional territory. Her eyes, stripped of pretense, ached with a bliss I’d never seen. But in her cries I heard the afternoon’s shift solidify, as if a great mechanical piece had fallen into place; something had opened but something else had closed off, like a dream where a secret playroom, streaming with daylight, is revealed but the rest of the house grows distant and cold.

Something inside me shifted, too. We passed the night sipping a double-liter of Bordeaux, Denise naked but for thigh highs and those shoes.  Later, I awakened to a darkness that cried with lust, and in the dying candlelight turned to Denise, crusted in wax, legs sprawled and swaddled in sheets, feet clad in leathery red spikes—and felt a ripping at my heart. I reached for her. 

The shoes became a nightly fixture. 


About three weeks later we visited Tomas for the second time. Earlier, we’d been to a blues club, a rundown shack on a residential street with cedar-shingle siding rendered thin as matchbooks by decades of slanted coastal rain. Inside, a purplish glow mingled with whispers and echoes and shadowy reflections in the bottle-infested mirror. Scents of perfume and smoke, sweat and urine and ammonia, leant the air an authenticity of blues.  Denise and I, seated up front, vodka and tonics for her, shots of bourbon and dark-green bottles of beer for me, watched a group that featured an albino singer with a pinkish-blue eye and the voice of a choir singer at a Saturday night river house busting loose.

Around midnight the five tables that comprised a dining area were stacked into a corner to make a tiny dance floor. I scooched up to Denise, laid a palm on her thigh. I inhaled her Chanel.  But she was lost in the guitarist, a wiry six-footer with bottle-bleach curls and a track of drainage pipe that followed the in-seem of his jeans halfway to his knee, and didn’t respond or even seem to notice. He, however, looked our way—more specifically, Denise’s way—more than propriety would dictate.

When the set ended the waitress brought a round of drinks we hadn’t ordered. Minutes later, mister guitarist, a friend of Denise’s apparently, stepped over to say hello and kiss her cheek and, grinning coolly and slinking an arm around her shoulder (she stroked his finger with two of her own), whispered in her ear before winking in my direction.

His words, unknown to me, provoked from Denise a laugh whose lubricity shot my gut through with nausea. I saw hunger in her eyes.  My happy buzz slid into a ditch of jealousy and resentment. A ferocious hatred tore through me. I wanted to kill. This, over the next hour, manifested as a clenched jaw and an icy stance, along with an urge to smoke, something I’d not done in five years, which I indulged with gusto, and which, I believe, set into motion all that transpired that night and the weeks to come. 

When the band restarted, Denise, oblivious and bopping in her chair in leather mini and red heels (she never looked better), begged me to dance—which I do only when dead drunk and badly even then. I got up right away. But there was a stiffness to my movements. 

“What’s wrong?” Denise asked. 

I told her, “Nothing.” 

She was a natural dancer, gifted, not a stitch of body-consciousness, as though she’d suffered years of training for the stage. After a number or two, when my mood became evident, she stopped cold. She leaned close, put a hand to my ear, pressing shut the flap with her finger, and asked if that guy from before was bothering me. 

“What guy?” I nearly said. Then I told her no he wasn’t, and asked, casually, who he was. 

Her voice was vague, slippery, the tone of an untamed woman without regret.  “Just a friend,” she said. 

Back at the table, I gulped my bourbon then guzzled my beer before saying I needed air and bounding out the door, hoping she would follow. She didn’t. I waited. 

Seething, I leaned against the building and smoked one Marlboro cigarette after another as the muted throb of guitar licks violated my heart through the shingle wall and the gentle lap of the Long Island Sound crooned its song over beach stones a few blocks away. The breeze blew a warm itch of salt and iodine across my cheeks. When finally Denise stepped out, I grabbed her arm and yanked her into a violent embrace, in—what I now see as—a desperate attempt to reclaim her. From her jaw I felt rigidity, slight but discernable. I held the kiss a moment too long, then pulled back. I tasted breath mint.  Denise crinkled her nose and asked when I started smoking but I didn’t answer.  “Come on,” I said, taking her wrist and starting toward my truck.  “Let’s go.” 

She didn’t resist but didn’t advance either. 

“Where?” she said, her feet dragging as I tugboatted her along.

Feeling a need for familiar ground, I thought quickly.   “To see Tomas.”
    

He opened the door in jeans and a sweatshirt. Since my visit a week earlier his cheeks had shrunken deeper, and his forehead seemed to have thickened with additional layers of skin: coarse, wrinkled, gritty. He was as white as feet bottoms after an hour-long soak. 

“You’re looking good,” I remarked, stepping inside. 

“I look like I died two weeks ago but am too stupid to fall down.”

“Well, I suppose there’s that,” I said.

Denise, her voice tight and brittle, said she had told me to call first but that I told her he never answered. 

Tomas nodded.  “He’s right,” he said.  A single light burned in the corner, a brass lamp shaped like an upside-down fishhook aimed over the easy chair where he’d sat on our last visit.  An open journal lay facedown on the footrest. From the speakers came Mozart, one of the piano concertos, the volume low. “Tea?” Tomas said, twisting on another lamp. 

I nodded and Denise said okay. “Anything is fine,” she said, when he listed a variety of herbals and caffeinated imports. 

We watched him hobble into the kitchen, wincing slightly, his legs wide and stiff, as though he’d dismounted a wild boar seconds before greeting us. Denise closed her eyes, turned away. 

While our tea brewed, she picked up the journal he’d been reading—one of those regional tomes put out by universities and read by no one but families of contributors (probably not even them)—and thumbed through. She stopped abruptly, as if jarred by the contents, cocking her head over a page, eyes pooling with absorption, as the purr of eighteenth-century keywork softened the room. Then she put down the journal and stepped to the bookshelf which she perused with the intensity of a detective. 

When Tomas returned, Denise sat beside me, sinking again into the leather but this time with a space separating our thighs, a distance like a snowy wind off a mountaintop, and crossed her legs. She described our blues adventure, leaving out key elements, and Tomas said, “That sounds nice,” his tone wistful. He said that because of the weakness he’d not been to see live music in years. He smiled distantly, as though watching a film of memories unspool before his eyes, and said he supposed that had been his old life. Then he looked at Denise, widened his arms to encompass the shabby room, and, with an audible out-breath, added, “This is my life now.” For a silent moment we sipped tea.  From outside came a scratching like dog nails on a tree. “Raccoons,” Tomas said. 

I don’t know how it began, but the next I knew we were deep in talk, a dangerous tension in the air.  Without effort, we seemed to pick up where we’d left off last time, Denise going on about meaning and purpose, for which she professed a soul-searching lack and a painful longing, a language I’d never heard her utter beyond these walls. She wound down with a sigh and a shrug, then, in a weary tone, said she felt “unfulfilled.”  I imagined the guitar player fulfilling her against the side of his van and then again on all fours.  I felt an urge for a cigarette.  Denise shook her head.  “I’m not diminishing the importance of motherhood,” she said, pausing to sip tea, “but it’s not enough.” 

“What more is there?” Tomas said.

“I don’t know. Something meaningful.”

“You’ve done your job. Your genes have reproduced.”

I tossed out a crumb about nature rewarding the strong, thinning the weak. Denise looked to me, a stab of enmity in her eyes. Tomas laughed like I’d told a racist joke at an NAACP rally. His eyebrows moved toward his hair, deepening the barcode in his narrowing band of forehead.  “You’re right,” he said, with an edge that froze my neck hair stiff. He went on to say that his own genes were sub-par since he, of all people exposed, succumbed to illness on such a grand scale and that our species was doing a fine job keeping defective material from polluting the future gene pool.  “Wouldn’t that support your case?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“It’s what you meant, isn’t it?”

“It’s more your case than mine,” I said. After his wife left, we’d spent a whole autumn debating this: seated beside the brick fire pit on the porch of his old cabin, sipping heated concoctions of rum and blackberries, flames warming us under a backdrop of stars.  Tomas argued that everything came down to biology and physics. A universe of chemicals and electricity governed by strict a set of laws, to which we humans, he insisted, being giant piles of chemicals charged by electricity, had no choice but abide.  Free will was a charade. Things go as they must, he was fond of saying. “You’re always going on about biology,” I said. “And by that yardstick, my genes are equally weak. I have no kids either.” 

There followed an awkward hush. With a whisper, the curtain fluttered from the window screen. We all three turned. Then Denise asked for the bathroom, and Tomas pointed and said, “Down the hall, on the left.”

As she walked, he monitored the twitch of buttocks beneath her skirt. He angled his head, and his eyes, roaming her milky white leg-backs from hem to heel, widened with esteem.  “So what’s the deal?” he said, as the door pulled closed. 

“No deal,” I told him. We sat in silence, staring first at one another then at anyplace else.  We heard the toilet flush, the water running, the returning castanet of heels on parquet flooring. Denise came into view. 

Tomas muttered something about scruples, then said, “Great shoes.”

Denise turned quickly, an air of surprise crossing her face. As she did, her heel caught the warped edge of a floorboard, causing her to reel a second before catching herself. Her fingers moved to her bangs.  “Thanks,” she said.

Before she sat, Denise said, “I read your poem, Tomas” and motioned to the journal at his feet.  Her lip gloss had been refreshed: flamingos, sun-drenched convertibles. 

Tomas glanced down, eyes brightening as though just noticing the journal. I wondered if he’d put it out when he heard our knock. Denise gushed about the poem’s style and rhythm, and something she called “resonance,” which she admired greatly, along with the subject matter which had pushed her to tears. I was trying to recall these tears when she said she wrote short stories herself. Stories? This was news to me—though I imagined it connected to those furtive notes shoved into her purse. Tomas asked what kind of stories, and she said they were about children. “But not children’s stories,” she added, in a quick breath.

“I’d like to see one some time.”

“I couldn’t. Not after reading your poem. You’d think I was an idiot.”

She said she dreamed of writing a book that would touch thousands of people and make sacks of money which she’d use to open a residence for girls with shattered home lives.  But she didn’t know what to write. 

Tomas said she should forget about money. “Write what interests or amuses you.  Whatever you need to say.” He said he’d once written a poem about a disabled couple with no money who traveled to Mexico for their meds, and it was run by a small journal and read by a sick woman, a fellow Lymie, who told him how much it had meant to her.  She wept while reading it, and said it was exactly what she needed.  “She wrote me a letter,” he said. 

“That’s beautiful.”


Autumn fell early that year. The weekend before Labor Day, a Saturday afternoon, the rains began and didn’t let up until the start of October, a full month later. Grey, dismal, cold, sheeting rain: a bombardment of drops that rattled windowpanes and reverberated an aerial bombing on rooftops and cars. In a blink summer had ended. The sun vanished.  Dampness held the world in its moldy embrace, a sweet decaying odor like the breath of a dying child. By the second week a chill penetrated hands and feet which had taken on a clammy bloodless affect. 

I’m not sure when exactly, but things with Denise chilled, too.  After that night we’d spent a few days circling like weary prizefighters, then settled into our old rhythms, and—other than the odd snipe about cigarette breath—went out of our way to be gracious, though there was a palpable, if subtle, difference. A poisonous cloud filled the air between us. I tried to push this feeling aside, telling myself I was imagining things, that since her kids had returned from their trip and were starting school, Denise, tossed again into the world of moist-wipes and refrigerator art, had switched back into fulltime motherhood mode. This worked when we were together: when Denise was cooking or we were eating or laughing or having sex. But when apart, I was tortured with visions of the guitar player. I saw his lank frame like a golden braid of rope, those blond-white curls (the rope’s fraying top) and that cool-white grin (an upward twisting indent), not to mention the foot-long length of drainpipe which sneered and mocked as he bent to whisper in her ear. The sound of her laugh haunted me. I began to analyze her words for hidden meanings, and would pose probing, devious questions designed to ascertain where she had been, with whom, what they’d been up to—without coming out and asking.  I felt my center slipping away but could not stop myself. I rummaged her trash, uncrumpling papers and attempting to decode inky girlish scribbles. Once, when she was in the shower, I dialed back her caller ID, jotting numbers which I later fed into an Internet site that ran down names, addresses, and criminal records, for a fee of $14.95. I found myself calling constantly, often for no reason. Then for days I wouldn’t call at all—waiting on her to call me, checking my phone every few minutes to see if I’d missed the ring. Of course, the harder I pulled the harder she pushed, making me pull that much more. I lost my appetite and developed insomnia. I delivered somber moralistic rants, whose sentiments I didn’t believe, and whose words I could hardly believe I was hearing myself speak. 

“Don’t go getting all possessive,” Denise said.  “You know how I hate that.”

“I value your spirit too much for that.”

The next Tuesday Denise didn’t call to firm up our Wednesday night plans, as she’d done weekly, around eight p.m., throughout the summer. I waited and waited. I felt this anticipation in my chest, an aching pit the size of a hard-cooked egg with each swallow, each breath I drew. The next day I held out as long as I could, pacing the floors and smoking cigarette after cigarette, then at nine p.m., following most of a six-pack, I gave in and called. Denise didn’t answer. I dialed her cell which went directly to voicemail. I paced some more.

Around midnight, still no return call, I grabbed the binoculars and a bottle of brandy, got in my truck and drove to her street, black and desolate, spattered with fallen leaves, the slapping echo of indifference, where I circled a few times before parking. The spot was far enough that, in the dark and rain, she couldn’t have made out my truck, unless, of course, she was staring back through binoculars of her own. To avoid detection, I kept the motor off. Rain pelted, then pattered: the damp cold penetrated the cab’s interior.  I unearthed an old T-shirt from beneath the seat and wiped the ever-fogging windows.  Frequent gulps of brandy warmed my insides and relieved my dank aching bones before binding with nicotine remnants to leave a sour knot in my stomach. I saw nothing. A few lights, but no action. The garage door was closed. No cars, no visitors, no movements.  Twice, an old man in a canary slicker walked by with three tiny dogs shivering in canary slickers of their own. 

At five a.m., dead drunk and exhausted, I motored home and collapsed into bed where I slept well past noon on Thursday, missing work and waking to a fearful state with a TNT explosion in my head and teeth clad in wooly socks. I’d dreamed that during my stakeout her husband, grey, weary, neck peppered with dribbling wet stubble, pounded on the passenger window then swung open the door and hopped inside. “Who the fuck are you?” I snarled, before noticing the gun.

“Who the fuck am I?” he said.  “Who the fuck are you?”

“Her boyfriend.”  Then, after thinking a second, I added, “Sort of.”

“Boyfriend.” He laughed with maniacal fervor. “I’m her fucking husband.” As he spoke, his eyes softened from anger to pity. “Girls like my wife,” he said, his portentous tone turning into the sound of Denise and the guitar player naked and laughing at me and then back again into the crazed, rain-drenched husband beside me. His next words rattled me awake. “You don’t know what you’re in for.”

Friday night Denise called. She said things had been crazy, that she’d been meaning to call, but with the kids starting school, needing books and clothes and doctor’s notes and vaccinations, she’d been running nonstop. On top of that, she said, she’d caught a cold, and a sore had erupted in a most inopportune place. She graveled-up her voice and installed a scratch or two. She may even have sneezed. I’m not sure about that.  “I’m sorry about this weekend,” she said.

I tried to sound cool. “This weekend?”

“You wouldn’t want to see me like this.”

“I don’t care about that,” I said, a bit too needy. “I just like being with you.” 

There was a long pause. Then I asked if I could bring her anything. 

“No,” she said.  “All I need is some sleep.” 
    

Wednesday, after work, I picked up a case of beer and drove to the shore. Since the previous Friday, the night of Denise’s sick call, I had rung her daily, leaving messages and well wishes, but hadn’t heard back. I sat in the cab drinking and chain smoking.  I watched the zinc-black swells of the Long Island Sound, and the rumpled zinc-black quilt-work draped loosely above (suggestive of a snake handler’s rendering of the apocalypse), which darkened and lightened and darkened again as rain arrived in uneven waves.

A handful of beers left me weepy and sentimental, and despite my porous outfit—jeans, work boots, T-shirt, fisherman’s sweater, corduroy shirt—I decided on a walk.  In minutes I was soaked through and trembling, boots crusted in sand. But each sloshing step spurred an influx of hormones and neurotransmitters that sprayed a fusion of images across my grey parts: I saw myself first as a jilted lover in a subtitled movie, clueing together pieces of a heartbreaking treachery; then as a wounded everyman, hoodwinked and martyred, standing far above, moralistically speaking, his true-heart’s betrayer, in this case scheming Denise and her guitar-thrumming lothario—both of whom, quite frankly, I was big enough to forgive. 

This magnanimity lasted until back in the truck, when, fueled by additional nicotine and alcohol, I saw the sweaty twosome twisted into every position in the Kama Sutra—unabridged edition—and burned with a fury that turned to arousal then gloom.

An hour later found me pounding on Tomas’s door. He didn’t answer. The wind shifted and a sideways current pelted me with a stinging barrage of icy droplets that drenched me further. My socks squished. “Tomas!” I called out. I pounded harder.

“For fuck’s sake!” he growled, when finally the door swung open. 

He wore black slacks and a burgundy shirt of slick fuzzy fabric, the type selected by wives and worn uncomfortably by husbands, its buttoning off by one. His hair, however, was the big news. It had been shorn. Completely! A dusting of ashy black stubble dirtied his skull, which, frail as he was, made him look like a concentration camp survivor awaiting liberation. He stared as if he didn’t recognize me, then said, “Damn. You look worse than I do.”

“I got problems,” I said.

“Evidently.” Tomas stepped aside. 

Inside, I was greeted by a warm yeasty odor, slightly sweet, as though a zucchini loaf were rising in the oven. When I asked if he’d been cooking he gave a sideways sneer.  “Well, something smells good,” I said. 

Tomas limped to the bedroom and, after some muffled rooting and grumbled profanity, returned with an old sweatshirt. “Here,” he said, tossing it over. 

I stripped from my shirts and sweater, hung them over a pair of chair backs, and crawled into the dry luxury of cotton. My chest began to warm. We sat at his table. I’d brought in a sixer, whose contents I worked on emptying. But Tomas refrained, shaking his head each time I offered a can, choosing instead to sip from a giant plastic cup illustrated with the likeness of Elvis, which he repeatedly refilled from a gallon jug of water. I outlined the situation with Denise and her guitar player, passing over my most recent visitation by the two of them naked and laughing at me. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” I said.  “I don’t know what she’s up to.”

Tomas widened his eyes, raised his eyebrows. “You never know.”

“She’s probably fucking him right now,” I said. 

“I doubt it.”  He paused, and checked a nonexistent watch. “It’s early yet.”

I forced out a chuckle, tugged another beer from its plastic cuff and cracked it. I studied Tomas’s face. His color was better, though nothing approaching healthy. Reddish blossoms livened his cheeks in a shotgun pattern, and his lips looked less dry, less wrinkled.  He picked up the jug and refilled his cup and sucked down half of it. “I know all about it,” he said.  “Before my wife left she wasn’t exactly true-blue with devotion, as you may recall.”

A shiver passed through me. I turned my palms toward the ceiling and narrowed my eyes, shrugging my body into a visual snapshot of befuddlement.  “Your wife?” I said.

“She demonstrated a certain congeniality.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Really?”

To disguise the nervous swallow I felt coming, I slugged my beer. But it mixed with air and I choked on the sip, coughing up part of it, my throat feeling as though a block of wood passed through sideways. Tomas asked if I was okay. Between coughs I eked out that I was.  When I next looked up his eyes, brown and expressionless, bored menacingly into my own.  I looked away.  Inside my ears hot blood whooshed and jetted through tiny capillaries with the force of water through a fire hose.  “I don’t remember,” I said.  “I may have heard something along those lines.”

“I would imagine.” 

He said that this was when he was first getting sick, and his brain, already a whirlwind spiraling into madness, had been tipped over the edge, causing him to play a nonstop loop of her with each of his friends—one after another and occasionally in groups.  His glare didn’t let up.  “Hard to imagine anyone doing that to a friend,” he said. 

Nodding, I spit out a nervous breath of accord.  The walls and ceiling moved closer.  A grain of sand crunched between my boot sole and the floor.  Just then a thud like a falling book came from somewhere—though, due to the rush in my ears, I couldn’t be sure—which caused me to turn. 

Tomas didn’t move, but a quickness pitched from his muscles.  His temper eased.  He drank the rest of his water, then said, “My fucking bladder,” stood, and shuffled to bathroom. He was gone awhile, and I got up and eyed the vacant hallway, stretching my legs, noting a black-and-white portrait I didn’t remember.

 “As I see it, you’ve got two choices,” Tomas said, returning.  With a hand on each armrest, he lowered himself slowly into his chair, wrists and forearms trembling under the strain. “You can confront her—in which case you’ll come off like a paranoid freak, and she’ll deny everything anyway. Or—” He stopped abruptly, then changed course.  “She isn’t still married?” he said, in a patronizing tone.

“Separated.” 

“But not divorced?”

“No.”

A bull snort came from his nostrils, reflexive, amused. All at once the storm intensified.  Rain pounded the window with the ferocity of machinegun fire. The sash rattled its frame. We both turned. A carwash of spray blurred the panes like a waterfall.  As we watched, a drip saturated the window’s upper left mullion seal. The tiny bead thickened and accelerated, tangling in the dam of the uneven bamboo blind, moistening the slats, before finding its way back to the vibrating glass, rolling freely and leaving a streaking grey pinstripe. 

Staring, I fell into a fugue where my vision blurred and my twenty-some year history with Tomas passed in I don’t know how many minutes. 

Tomas broke the trance.  “Water,” he said, in a sagely quiet.  “Do what you want, but it always finds its course.” 

Beside the window, a small pile of folded laundry, slightly tousled, decorated the couch.  On the floor beneath the couch, I noticed what appeared to be a black dime standing on end: I stared a long, silent while, trying to interpret.  I grabbed my last beer, but the clammy aluminum chilled my palm and repulsed me and I set it aside. Then the black dime came clear: the gritty round bottom of long, thin tubule of red. A high heeled shoe.

My legs felt suddenly cold in my wet jeans. The scrape in my throat intensified, and a feverish wave of chills traveled up my torso and into my head where they lodged behind my left eye with the stabbing jolt of a door wedge. Things began to spin. I rubbed my temples.  For a while we listened to the rainfall, then I remembered something. “Hey,” I said, senses trembling as the words passed from ether to tongue.  “What’s scruples?”

Tomas ran a slow palm over the stubble of his scalp. 

“You really don’t know?” he said.

I shook my head.

“A strip joint I used to go to.”

The storm eased and a sudden lightening came through the window.  For a second the room brightened. Then the rain started again and everything went black.


Copyright 2017 Waccamaw. All reprint rights reserved by authors.