“I knew this guy once who would take an air mattress and place it on top of a regular mattress and on top of all of that, he would put those—what do you call them?—those tumbling mats or whatever? And he would set this up at the bottom of an empty swimming pool.”
He says this and already I know he’s lying, that he’s telling this story maybe for the first time, but that he doesn’t know what it means yet, what it means or where it will lead.
“And he’d bring his friends by this pool, you know, all casual and shit, act like he’d never seen it before, like they were just all randomly walking by it, a group of them, and then, sudden like, he’d say, Watch this, or whatever, and he’d run as fast as he could to the empty pool and onto the diving board or just off the edge and dive right in, just dive into this empty pool just to scare the shit out of everyone. Scare them all shitless.”
It shouldn’t surprise me, what he’s doing. Just like it shouldn’t surprise me what he’s wearing.
Who the hell wears a fur coat to a wake, I asked him when I picked him up.
Who the hell has a wake any more, was what he said back.
“And it worked, you know, for a second. Scared the shit out of people but for, like, just a second, because you could hear him land on all that stuff he’d set up at the bottom. You could hear it cushion him, or maybe not that, but you knew it wasn’t him landing on the concrete bottom of an empty pool.”
I’ve got a ton of questions I could ask him, a ton of things that come pretty easily to mind. How’d the guy know he’d land the right way? Just how many mattresses would you have to put at the bottom of an empty pool to keep from cracking your skull open? Wouldn’t it be different for different pools? How many times could he pull this thing off before everyone knew what was going on? How many dumb friends did this guy have?
What are you going to do?
What are you going to do now that she’s gone?
But I let him talk.
“And then this one time after he did this, I said to him, You know, one day somebody’s going to see that shit at the bottom of the pool and they’re going to say to themselves, Asshole kids, and then they’re going to move all that shit and you’re not going to know and you’re going to plant your fucking head into the bottom of an empty fucking pool, and you know what I’m going to do when you do that? I’m going to laugh my goddamn ass off is what.”
It’s a pretty day, I want to tell him. To give him a way to stop telling this story, but also because it’s part of our game of stating the obvious in an obvious way, except the most obvious thing to say feels out of bounds. Earlier, when I was about to say the most obvious thing, I told him instead, Your coat is long today. To this he said, Weak. Not even, Your hair sure is brown today, or, I see you’re wearing shoes again today, and there was this stressful second when I thought he might tell me to try again, tell me to say what he knew I was about to say, but instead he started off on this story.
“And then it happens. He does it again. I don’t know why, but it’s like he can’t stop, and he brings us to this empty pool, not even a different pool this time but the same fucking pool, and we all know what’s going to happen. By now everyone knows, and someone even says it. Come on, man, not again, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like that only makes him want to do it more, and he starts running as fast as he can and he jumps, but there’s something different, we can see it right away, just in how he throws himself out and then tenses up, and, like immediately, he yells, Oh shit, and we start running, not all of us, but a couple of us start running to the pool, but before we can even get to the edge, we hear this sick, awful sound, like a wet thump or a crack, and behind me someone, one of the girls, screams and sobs at the same time, or maybe it was two different girls, and the couple of us running pull up short and just inch our way up to the edge of the pool because we’re pretty scared about what we might see down there.”
I know that none of this is real, that this story never really happened, but I want him to stop anyway. I don’t want to hear him finish telling it, except I know, or I think I know, that the only way to get him to stop is to say the most obvious thing, and I don’t want to do that either, can’t bear to be that kind of or that much of an asshole, not right now.
“But then we hear him laughing. I mean. He’s laughing so hard he starts to hiccup. And we’re like, You fucking asshole, but he can’t stop laughing. I don’t know how he did it, but there’s this, like this rotted watermelon or something, smashed to hell, you could see pieces of it next to the mattress. We told him, You’re a dick is what you are, and then we left him there, and for two more blocks we could still hear him laughing.”
Then he stands up. Then he says, “I never liked him.” And then, “We’re going to be late.”
It was a perfect day to shoot. She didn’t need anyone to tell her that, especially not her grandfather, scowling at her as soon as she saw him coming her way. Maybe it was just an old person’s way to signal the obvious, that it was goddamned cold out there in the barn. The quality of the air insulting you every step you took. Or maybe something had scurried across his boot and he hadn’t had a hammer or a shovel or anything handy to get at it with. A creature that gets into the feed and has a feast for weeks, unseen. That kind of event could put a scowl on someone’s face, a missed opportunity like that.
Perfect day to shoot he’d said to her, without even stopping, just in passing as he walked by, on his way to the shed to grab a rifle, most likely. Clomping out his 42, sometimes 43, steps from the barn to the shed. The words had friendly bearings, but he’d sent them through the scowl, a veil of frustration the phrase had to pass through. Was it because she had a dress on, her long-johns pulled up underneath? She liked all the pockets of the skirt for putting things in. And the extra layer, making a nice total of 4, including her underwear and sweater. And she liked the feel of the fabric lightly lifting and lowering against her when she was outside. A tally for those movements, each lift and lower, until the count got to a number she felt right leaving off from. Well, it was a perfect day to shoot, so forget about him, forget about his mood or the cold that made him move like a broken machine or the way he’d barely looked at her. It was a perfect day to shoot, and shoot the shit out of it she planned to do. In the shed he was picking up various firearms and considering them, not this one, definitely not that one. His reasons for rejection were as inscrutable as his foul mood. He handed her one without giving her any chance to decline. Not that she’d dream of it. It’d finish her chance to go out and hunt, and she knew there’d be no flaw in the reasoning of his choice. She liked the old .22 anyhow, had had lots of luck with that one. Let’s shoot something, she thought, as a way to settle herself, but she didn’t say it out loud. That would be a crazy thing to say, like Let’s breathe, let’s live.
She hit something small in the brush that had the salty, metallic smell of fear still rising from it when she went to retrieve it. 18 steps. A rabbit, lean like all sprinters, the mix of softness and sinews when it was in her hands. Not huge game, to be sure, but it was full-grown. And she’d made a clean shot. That was a pure mark of her own ability, right there, the hole between the eye and the ear, as clear as a gold trophy or an A+ on a report card.
They’d been out all day without seeing much until then—gently stepping, looking, waiting. No talking beyond tracking, which was fine by her. The sun was lowering already. Her mind mapped the cleaving of the hide from the rabbit’s framework. 361 bones. Then the careful scooping out of unnecessary bits. She watched her grandfather head back towards the shed, his hunched shoulders holding strength just beneath the arc of flannel plaid. But there was something else too—like a giving-in. To their places the rifles were headed, back where they belonged, muzzles still warmer than the air around them. She took the parcel of fur, a little bloody, not too bad, and wrapped it in an old piece of t-shirt until it was to her liking, a package readied to travel. In one of the roomy front pockets of her dress, the shape curled like a baby kangaroo, cooling, against her hip. Up the hill toward the house, she’s climbing fast, thinking about the nice parts she’ll save from the clearing off. Rabbit has most of the same cuts as a deer, just smaller. It’s good practice, the breaking down of a complicated system, on a small scale. Cooked right, the meat will keep the wild, woodsy taste of roaming, the flavor of all the grasses and berries the busy creature found before it came to her.
Most of the girls she knew had quit the firm. She would see them from time to time after work, early Friday or Saturday mornings, late Sunday nights, would run into them at the bar or the gelato place on Timmons. They looked good, she had to admit. Ruddy cheeks, thick lustrous hair, clean fingernails. They had all just gotten tattoos together the last time she saw them. They were giggly and sore. Dolphins and Chinese characters, mermaids, and that dragon, Serendipity, from the children’s books. Each of them, a new tattoo over each shoulder-blade on her back, so that you could hardly see the scars at all.
No one had gotten wings. She would have. If she had been part of this new group, the ones who quit, she would have gotten wings.
Thinking about it, though, she probably would have chickened out and not gotten anything at all.
Did it hurt, she wanted to ask them, meaning the tattoos, but she didn’t because she was afraid they might think she meant the wings.
And maybe she did. Maybe she did mean the wings.
She missed them at work, missed seeing them, missed listening to their gossip, their scandals, but still, she dreaded these chance encounters with them out in the real world. She told herself if she had quit like they had quit she would have had the decency to find other bars and gelato shops to hang out in. Or, at the very least, she would have had the good sense not to get drunk all of the time.
Not that they could help themselves.
Getting drunk was new for them, being affected by alcohol was new for them, and while she liked to think she would exhibit more self-control, some part of her knew better. And, anyway, who was she to judge? From what she could tell, maybe getting drunk was the only way to soften the effects of quitting. Like the tattoos, she thought, only to cover up different kinds of scars.
She always expected them to say something to her about the job. The thought of them joking with her about it, or pressuring her to quit, made her feel thick with tension. And then, when she saw them and they didn’t say anything about it at all, she felt deflated, but not in a good way.
It wasn’t that she hated her job, or that she wanted to quit, that she wanted to get a tattoo or have scars that needed covering. She simply didn’t very much like the new girls who had joined the firm. They felt shiny and new, over-indulgent in their desire to out-perform each other, and her. In their desire to punish the wicked.
They were all just too much for her to take and somehow, despite her ageless qualities, they made her feel old.
And maybe that was why the others had left. Why they had left and hadn’t invited her to leave with them. They had been smiting the wicked for centuries before she had come along, had worked together like some kind of ageless trapeze troupe, always in harmony and together, and while they had come to accept her, she imagined she must have looked to them like these new girls looked to her—green and unformed and in the way and altogether too loud.
She tugged at her wings. She gave the left one a soft, persistent tug, so that it pulled at her skin and began to pinch and hurt, and then she let go, and then, feeling imbalanced, she did the same to the right wing. She pulled on her gloves and applied her makeup. The new girls never used makeup, and she had come to resent them for this. She put on her cloak and checked herself in the mirror and, satisfied, but only just, she left for work.
Once I wrote a story about a raging storm that struck a small town in east Texas, on the Gulf. It wasn’t just about the storm. It was also about an old man and a young girl, who might’ve been related, though their relationship was vague. In other words, I don’t make it clear in the story whether she is his granddaughter or not, mainly, though, because I didn’t really know whether she was his granddaughter or not.
Anyway, the old man and the young girl are both caught in the storm together. The story takes place while the two are together inside the eye of the storm. They had been caught outside when the storm hit, a hurricane, and are trying to get somewhere safe while it is calm again. The trees are bent by the wind but the rain has stopped and the sky is suddenly, eerily clear and blue. I’ve never been in the eye of a hurricane and so maybe that’s not how it is at all. I had hoped to create this sense that they have just arrived on the other side of some difficult part of the storm but that they also know, even if they don’t talk about it and try not to think about it, that an even worse part of the storm is still in store for them.
My idea had been to write a story where the girl, who was six or seven years old, starts off as the frightened one, the one who needs comfort the most. But the old man, who might or might not be her grandfather, deliberately chooses not to comfort her. First because he had himself grown up in a time and with a family that looked down on comfort and on the need to be comforted, but also because he worries that if he offers her comfort, even just a little bit of comfort, that she will experience a moment of crisis of some kind, which he didn’t want to deal with. So instead he makes fun of her for being afraid. He laughs at her. He calls her names. He plays tricks on her, silly tricks he remembers vaguely from when he was younger. He does this hoping to make her angry and that the anger will push aside the fear, will keep her from becoming hysterical, from asking about her parents and her brother, people the old man secretly fears might be lost forever, washed away by the storm. But the harder he tries to make her stop crying by being mean to her, the worse she gets.
Then something happens to the old man. He sees something that she doesn’t see, and that we can’t see either, and he won’t tell her what he saw, mostly because when I was writing this part of the story I didn’t know exactly what it was, either, but whatever it was, it upsets him, or more than upsets him. He becomes frightened. He shakes and begins to whine. He sits down and places his head in his hands and between his thighs.
And this finally calms the little girl down, or makes her stop crying, anyway.
She kneels down to him and asks him what is wrong and he doesn’t speak, he only shakes his head and begins to sob. This makes the little girl take his hand in hers and she holds it gently for a moment or two until the old man slowly stops sobbing and looks up at her, expecting to see her gentle face, full of a comforting sadness. But instead she is sneering at him and she grabs his pinky finger and bends it up sharply and with more force than he expects from someone so small, and young. Shut up, old man, she says. Stop your crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about, she says, and she bends his finger even more. He can’t do anything because he’s so stunned. Then she twists his finger so hard and so far that it breaks, or maybe it just sprains, and he screams, and she tells him to shut up again. When she lets go of his hand, she shoves him so hard he falls over, and she stands over him and tells him to shut up, and asks him why he’s crying, asks him if he’s a baby, tells him to stop being such a crybaby, tells him that’s why no one loves him because of how he’s such a crybaby, and then she kicks him in the side. She doesn’t kick him hard, not too hard, just hard enough so that it hurts not because she hurt him but because she surprised him. Then she kicks him again and then again and again, and she can’t bring herself to stop, even though a part of her wants to, and the old man is lying on the ground and is sobbing but isn’t trying to stop her, or cover himself up, and the two of them are so caught up in this moment they don’t realize that the clear skies have moved on and that dark clouds are over them again, that fat drops of rain have begun falling around them, that the wind is whipping up again, so strongly that a large flat sheet of metal is thrown at the little girl, and maybe she is grabbed at the very last moment and pulled down by the old man, who saves her and then holds her and comforts her as the storm rages around them, or maybe not, maybe she’s struck by the sheet of metal, killed or severely injured. I don’t know, because right before any of that can happen is right when the story ends.
People often think, “It must not hurt that much.” That or they will think, “She must really really like the pain.” Or they will think some other foolish thing. A lot of people assume that she gave herself the disease in order to get the job. That she and others like her had been living normal, healthy, if unsuccessful, lives and sought this out because she and others like her ran out of welfare or unemployment checks. Or they will equate her with that desperate kind of college student who will submit himself to clinical testing for a quick fist of cash. She has yet to meet a client who assumed that she happened to become sick one day, very, very sick, and only took this job in order to pay for the medicines that would keep her well. Almost all of the people who see her listing, whether they hire her or not, assume that she is lying, or, at the very least, exaggerating when she claims in her advertisement that she has only one night to live. But they find themselves intrigued, nonetheless. Who wouldn’t want to have sex with a woman, a beautiful woman at that, on her last night on Earth, even if it is just an act. They are discomfited, then, when, just prior to their scheduled appointment with her, they receive a package by courier that contains a small vial, a syringe, and exacting, handwritten instructions on when and how they are to give these to her once she arrives. “You may either hand her the vial and the syringe, or, if it’s to your liking, administer the drug yourself, but no matter what you decide, you will have no more than two and a half hours from the first minute of your scheduled appointment to do so. Two hours, thirty minutes, and one second after the first minute of your scheduled appointment and it will be too late for the drug to be of any use to anyone. Though, rest assured, she will not die for at least another six hours.” Most of her clients, as soon as she arrives, will press the syringe and the vial into her hands immediately. They will leave the room with some flimsy excuse and leave her to her sickness and her medicine. There are some, however, who tell her that she will have to wait. These clients are operating under the assumption that the waiting will make her work harder, will make the experience better.