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We’re outside Mobile on I-59, nearly touching Florida. I pluck two cigarettes from Mama’s purse. As young as six, I’d complained about her chain smoking. “Second-hand kills, second-hand kills,” chanting repeatedly, changing inflection and volume as it suited me.
Fifteen years makes you a hypocrite. After high school graduation, I moved to Atlanta. Me and Mama talk irregular, but now I share the habit. I smoke her trademark Marlboro Reds.
When Barbara died I did mental math. It’d been three months since we’d spoken and a year since I’d seen Mama. Barbara, her mom, died right before spring and for some reason wanted her ashes spread in Panama City.
We took the dead lady’s car to Florida since neither of ours is dependable. It’s a Chevrolet Celebrity, with rust spots like raised scabs on its gold body. Barbara left Uncle Zed and Mama when they were kids. Mama had gotten my papaw a Mother’s Day gift every year that she could afford it, something I considered a mix of petty and justified.
“Your uncle would say I am still bitter,” she says. But I don’t ask, Aren’t you?
On the drive to Florida, a radio weatherman says to expect cold wind and choppy waters. I groan, switching stations, finally settling on something 1980s, inoffensive, with an upbeat 808.
We’ve always agreed on Lite FM’s DJ Elena, who coos and comforts with song dedications and terminal positivity. Me and Mama will likely always be cynical but are confident in our ability to sniff out bull. The good DJ passes our smell test. She truly cares for her oft-heartbroken callers. I see it as welcome proof that me and Mama can’t be wrong.
“This goes out to you and your lady, Charles,” DJ Elena tells today’s lovefool, cueing The Commodores like she’s prescribed medicine.
“Sentiment should make a comeback,” Mama says, lighting a fresh cigarette. “Your generation ran sarcasm into the ground."
I mumble that this is true, half-grudgingly.
Mama belts the chorus with Lionel Richie. Anyone wanting to listen to the song as untouched by her isn’t considered. Mama’s vocal runs at the end of the song are her invention, but compliment Lionel’s. Usually I would be impressed, but I only think of Barbara’s cremains in the trunk.
The funeral home gave them to us in a cellophane bag—like when you win goldfish at the VFW fair. I wonder what the last song Barbara listened to was. What music did she like? Herb Alpert or Gordon Lightfoot? The Ronettes and Lesley Gore?
We’re eighteen miles away, the green road sign cautions.
It’s the off season in Panama City. Store signs and accompanying over-sized mascots are faded, the paint chipping in curls. Everything will be repainted in two months or so, by May.
It’s too chilly for tourists, but humans still work the shops, selling lewd T-shirts and key chains with (maybe) your name on them. I can see them behind the windows as we go down the neon-colored strip.
In our motel parking lot, discarded flip flops make a trail to the main office.
“Zed and Mr. Orozco are at the Hilton while we slum it on skid row,” Mama says right at the front desk, and my collar is hot with embarrassment.
“Skid Row doesn’t have HBO,” I whisper, urging her to be grateful that James paid for our broke selves. “We can hardly afford Dinty Moore soup, hun.”
Mama smiles. She hates that I’m gay and may never give her grandchildren but can appreciate my sass at face value. And to be fair, she has a point: they sell the same lewd T-shirts and name key chains in our motel lobby. There’s one that gives the illusion of its wearer having an exaggerated Jessica Rabbit-sized bust.
In our room, Mama swears she can see remnants of a chalk body outline in the carpet, but I only roll my eyes. She’s trying to be funny. I turn on the old, barrel-chested TV to distract us. It won’t ease her nerves like music on the radio or a cigarette.
The weatherman on TV predicts bad weather too, and I hear Mama complain. She wanted beach time with one of her Fabio paperbacks.
“I’m going to shower before we meet Uncle Zed,” I say. Then I shut the door, locking it slowly so she doesn’t hear the click and know that I have. A family of silverfish congregate around the shower drain, so I run cold water over them.
Still clothed, I start running hot until the mirror is fogged. I can’t see myself.
It was tacky, I think, revising, for Uncle Zed to put us up in a hole, when he and that old man will be farting in Egyptian cotton in a Hilton bed. I instantly hate myself for calling Mr. Orozco an “old man.” I don’t like when my thoughts get to sounding like Mama’s.
I step into a shower of scalding hot water and old memories stir. When I was a child, our next-door neighbor came over too late for polite company. She called Mama a litany of synonyms for homewrecker, contemporary and biblical alike, right on the doorstep. The obligatory husband came before any blood was spilled. Neighbor Man said “Wife, go home” like a caveman and I almost laughed hiding behind Mama. He was solemn but firm, but Wife did so without another word.
He apologized to Mama, rubbing his eyes with two fingers to say “It’s too late and too cold for this.” She gave him a disappointed look. “You’re a grown man who can’t keep his business private?” she surmised.
When she got back in, Mama saw in my eyes the need for explanation. “I don’t know what her problem is,” she said, dismissively. “That lady is crazy.”
The family, three kids and all, moved a little after that.
~ ~ ~
Uncle Zed has picked our restaurant for lunch. He and Mr. Orozco, his partner, are late. This irritates Mama.
“You haven’t seen Zed or Mr. O since high school?”
I nod, smiling at a server who brought us water with lemon. “It’s been a long time,” I parrot because there’s not much to say. Uncle Zed told Mama that Mr. Orozco is mostly blind now, and for us not to be shocked by the pearlescent right eye and ever-worsening left.
“Mr. O may be why we assemble next,” Mama says, too callous but also likely true.
When Mr. Orozco and Uncle Zed arrive, I smile twice as hard to counteract her. My uncle is 56, 6’4 and 400 pounds. Mr. Orozco is 73, 5’6 and 140 pounds. They’ve been together as long as I’ve been alive. If R. Crumb drew gay couples, he would’ve loved them.
At the table, Uncle Zed helps Mr. Orozco sit. In the three years since I’ve seen him, he’s somehow aged fifteen. After decades of familiarity, Mama doesn’t look Mr. Orozco directly in the eye. Not even when she kisses his cheek in greeting. We order breakfast food.
Mr. Orozco asks politely about my art classes. I say I am doing advanced forms this summer. Mama asks what that is, and I say painting naked people.
Uncle Zed asks, dryly, “Does ‘advanced’ mean the models are hung?”
Mama groans. I smile, groaning inwardly.
Mr. Orozco, rarely bawdy like my uncle, pivots. He asks what I like about Atlanta. He once lived there, did I know? He raves about a peach stand, among other landmarks no longer there.
“That...peach stand...was on Greenville...wasn’t it, Zed?” Mr. Orozco’s speech is more slurred, slower than normal.
“It was Greenhill Avenue,” Zed corrects.
I tell them Greenhill is just down the road from my dorm.
“The man who ran it,” my uncle laughs shakily, “didn’t have a tooth in his head.”
Mr. Orozco grins. He’s nearly an octogenarian, but all his teeth are healthy, intact. I smile. Mr. Orozco laughs, coughs, wheezes, then gets back to the peach stand. Zed twists his seashell napkin into an easy knot.
“They sold okra...that was...proof of heaven.” Mr. O asks if it’s still there. I struggle to look in the silver eye, but do. Like a true couth Southerner, I say that the peaches are still there on the side of the highway, like they always were. I say that sometimes I stop by after a work shift and get a carton. To make it convincing, I add that the old man’s canned cherry preserves are my favorite.
I lie because I don’t want to take something else from this poor, old man. Mr. Orozco and Zed were the only ones who went to my high school graduation. Besides Mama, of course.
When I was little and we would visit my uncle, Mr. Orozco would ask me if anyone had been mean to me that week. If I said yes, he’d give me a dollar. Mr. O was a decent man, which is rarer than you might think. I knew this from Mama’s boyfriends growing up, who peed in sinks and drank too much, and much, much more. One of them insisted that Mama lemon Lysol the toilet after Zed would visit—didn’t she know we could get AIDS from the toilet seat—and she actually did as instructed. That boyfriend hadn’t lasted long, thank God.
The server brings some arugula thing, and Zed chokes up.
“I keep thinking of Mom in the trunk,” he sobs in the presence of the server. Mama offers encouragement. “We put her in the backseat, if that’s better,” Mama offers, another lie, but Zed keeps sobbing. Mr. Orozco instinctively puts a scarecrow hand on his golem-sized shoulder. Mama signals a waiter that isn’t ours for the check.
“I’ve dreaded this,” Uncle Zed says after paying for the meal, in addition to our motel.
“Me too,” Mama agrees, sipping.
“This...is what...she wanted,” Mr. Orozco says. His speech is slower now too, with labored breaths in between. Uncle Zed never got him to stop smoking cigars. “She...loved... Panama City.”
Zed starts crying again once we are outside. I wonder how much is for Barbara and how much is for Mr. Orozco. The elder man watches Uncle Zed, with sunken eyes that match the scarecrow hands. No man looked at Mama that way that I remember.
~ ~ ~
At the pier, Mr. Orozco’s better eye keeps ticking. I didn’t notice in the restaurant. The rest of his face is calm, taking in the gray-purple haze.
“I’ll be...here.” He apologizes for a bum knee. Mr. O will wait at a bench on the boardwalk.
Mama has her own tick. She looks away every time my uncle and his partner kiss. She used to make fun of their age difference, like Mr. Orozco was an evil wizard sucking the youth out of Uncle Zed. That was when they were all younger.
She and Zed are now what Mama once considered old. “One, two, three,” I count the steps to the shore since Mama and Zed are not talking. Their old squabbles feel petty now. Even Mama is better at keeping rudeness to herself.
When I was younger, they’d argue about politics, and I hated it then. He was always, “Clinton made us look bad for the sex stuff.” And she was like, “Clinton would’ve won another election without term limits,” which must have been true because it stumped him every time.
Similarly, “Women should have the right to choose.” Did Zed want things to go back to the coat hanger? To which he’d say, “What about adoption?” Once again, Mama knew how to shut him up: “There’s too many kids and not enough families. Until you adopt one, you can’t talk.”
I’d been annoyed by their vitriolic spats, hiding behind whatever Pokémon was out on Gameboy when I was a preteen. How were they changing the world by pointing fingers at each other?
With each step, Mr. O is smaller until he is a toy soldier. The sand is wet where we stop, and the tide runs over our feet.
Uncle Zed holds the jade-colored urn. He gives it to Mama once he’s taken the cremains out. Then he steps into a gray wave, holding the bag. The water is over his ankles.
I hold his size 13 shoes over my shoulder. There’s no one on the beach, save a jogger two hundred paces away and two fishermen on Mr. O’s boardwalk casting lines.
My uncle offers Mama his hand, smiling. “Jude, you will have a warm seat in hell if you don’t get in this water.”
Then Mama looks at me. “Come on, Jody. You heard the man. God sees everything.”
Uncle Zed is amused as I join them in the water. “Jody’s her grandson. He’d just float around purgatory for some lifetimes.”
We all laugh until it’s hard to breathe. Zed inhales, my hand on his shoulder, as he turns the bag over. I look away at fifty birds on the shore flexing their wings at a backward angle, making precise V shapes.
I look back at my family, and the bag is empty. Two waves later, and there’s nothing.
Mama hums David Bowie on our way back to Mr. O.
My uncle says David Bowie was a fake gay man, pretending when people got sick of the alien BS, and coke-lines on penises at Studio 54 was the new “happening” scene. We go into a mocking, doo-wop rendition of “Heroes” and, for once, Mama says nothing. Normally she’d call him a lowdown Republican for insulting Bowie.
Mama watches our show, not shaking her head or decrying our vocals. She seems light, her gaze as warm and reassuring as DJ Elena’s iconic speaking voice.
~ ~ ~
“Barbara came to the bar once,” my uncle begins. “Around the mid-nineties, when Jody was soiling Pampers.”
He remembers a year best by the albums that came out. “That year was Velvet Rope/Ray-of-Light/Come-on-Over,” he recalls lovingly. “I was trying to pick up some tail when she shows up, no warning.”
Mama groaned when he said the word “tail.”
I cringe, thinking of Zed’s references to his and Mr. Orozco’s open relationship. By default, Mama thinks all gay men do that because of them.
“Barbara was already drunk when she got there. She got two more of her trademark white Russians.” Zed’s lips curl into a smile. “She was fun, Jude.”
“There was an award show on TV for music, and we were telling Mom who we wanted to win each category,” Zed sniffles. “Then this young guy starts crying. When we finally get him calmed down enough to say what’s wrong, he’s looking at Mom. Not me.”
“What did he say?” I ask.
“Well,” he continues, “he hugged her first.”
Zed’s put-on news-anchor accent relapses into Alabama sissy. “His own mama kicked him out, and he hadn’t spoken to her in six years. He was wobbly and drunk, but sincere, pulling me into their hug, saying, ‘My mama would swallow bleach before she’d sit next to me in this bar.’”
Zed sighs. “That was twenty years. Now he’s old, and I’m decrepit.”
A brief internal math problem steers my uncle’s gaze in my direction. I’m twenty-one.
~ ~ ~
“Time passes quicker every year you get older.” He sounds cheated, like when you open a potato chip bag, and it’s half full.
“Getting...old...is not...for sissies,” Mr. Orozco agrees.
I thank my uncle and Mr. Orozco, hugging them, urging them both to come to Atlanta for peaches. I doubt they will and hope he doesn’t, as they’ll know I’m a liar.
“The next time I see you,” Uncle Zed promises us, kissing my cheek, “it’ll be better circumstances.”
Mama agrees, hugging him then instantly lighting a cigarette. Once his back is turned, she hums David Bowie again, to spite us.
Mr. Orozco and my uncle leave us at Barbara’s Chevy Celebrity. He’d told Mama she can have the thing.
On the drive back to the motel, Mama bitches about her older brother. I roll down the window and smell funnel cake, but who is it for? The most populated place we patronized in Panama City was the package store. By far. I emptied the ash tray in the trash can outside the shop, and Mama promised to buy cigarettes as well as the liquor.
“The last thing Zed whispered, when his fairy lips kissed my cheek, was ‘The longer she’s dead, the dumber you look carrying that chip.’”
There is truth to my uncle’s words.
“Are you surprised?” I ask blandly. “You don’t talk nice to him or he to you. No one in this family is nice.” I maintain eye contact, to give me credibility. “That’s how it’s always been.”
“He might appreciate all Daddy did for us,” Mama grumbles, “if he had kids. All queers have to worry about is irresponsibly chasing tail. All their lives if they want.” She pauses. “No offense.”
“Gay men don’t ‘chase tail,’” I say plainly. “Men do.”
Mama looked confused, brow knitted. She concedes for once. “You’re right.”
~ ~ ~
The next morning, I have a hangover and Mama doesn’t. She gets up early, packs, and then sets off for the beach alone. We don’t check out for three more hours, and I am a pillow monster shunning all light. Mama, Fabio paperback in tow, gets a few hours of sunbathing in, though the temperature is only in the low seventies.
When it’s time to turn in our motel key, she is happy to drive again, but her good mood is spoiled by modern Top 40.
“It’s vile,” she says, a condemnation of my generation, not just the music. “Four references to an orifice in one verse?”
She is sour-faced, smoking a Marlboro with the filter torn off.
“Music has always been dirty,” I say, mildly annoyed. “Off the top of my head, ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard. Newsflash, not about chewing gum. ‘She Bop’ by Cyndi Lauper is masturbation, even ‘Physical’ by Olivia Newton John.”
Mama smiles, and this means she has a comeback for me.
“They were nicer times because sex was coded then. Little Richard didn’t say anything outright—he coded it, so a Protestant in the 50s could shake to it without making Daddy, Mama, Preacher, or Teacher mad. In those days, you couldn’t learn to be a gynecologist from the radio.”
“Prince was from your day,” I bring up. “What about ‘Sexy MF’er’ and ‘Darling Nikki’? ‘Diamonds and Pearls’?”
Mama turns down the radio to complete silence, until her dial has landed on whatever station down here syndicates DJ Elena. “Prince can do what he wants; he is the exception.
~ ~ ~
We’re still in Florida, but can’t see the ocean anymore. Mama turns up the radio again, but not full capacity.
“See I spent too long, oh, thinkin’ about myself,” Phil Collins wails on the radio. “Now I want to spend my life, just caring ’bout somebody else.”
This was a slow song that people swayed to with others, decades ago, in gently lit rooms. Mama would’ve been younger than me. I preoccupy myself with my phone, googling “DJ Elena,” lite adult contemporary diva, syndicated coast to coast. For someone who has always been in my psyche, I know nothing about her. The Google results come as DJ Elena cues another song. Turns out, she has no kids. Never even married.
If I try, I can forget Mama’s bad and remember only the good. Good is the liniment smell when Mama rubbed her achy feet after every Wendy’s shift.
Bad is my association with lemon Lysol, and the cruel things she has said about my uncle, Mr. Orozco. Mama’s going back to Barbara’s house in Georgia, and dropping me off in Atlanta on the way. How long before I see her again?
I wonder what Mama will do when she gets home.
I see a writing desk she’s probably gotten rid of by now. Mama is sealing a five-dollar check to the hospital, like she’s done every month of my life, in an envelope. She whistles. Weeks after Dad died of lymphoma, she got the bill from Calhoun County Medical. Mama nearly fell out, the numbers were so long.
A hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer from Birmingham had given her hope. In his office, a week after that harrowing bill, her grip on my tiny hand had tightened. She was hopeful.
“Or even in this insane payment plan the hospital suggests,” he’d said. His words were about twenty-seven cents apiece. “You can send them only five dollars a month.” That, miraculously, was legal.
He charged Mama only half, since she was so pretty, he said.
At Mobile, I offer to take over driving. But Mama says no, that she feels relaxed. Mama keeps on the radio, and I drift to DJ Elena. As a teenager, I’d ask what had she and Dad ever had in common. She’d never talked about him, and the only reminder, month-to-month, were the envelopes.
“Music,” Mama said, brightening. “Your father had the best taste in music.”
~ ~ ~
J.P. Check was born and raised in poor, rural Alabama to two mill workers. “Easy Listening” was written to honor family. Paper used in these mixed media paintings was hand-made by the author’s father. Check watches orange cat videos and YouTube drama for much-needed shots of positivity.
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On my sister Morgan’s twenty-fourth birthday, she threw herself a "throwback" party at her and her husband Kyle’s uptown apartment—an excuse for grown-ass adults to get smashed on Jell-O shots and puke on the Candyland board.
I looked hot in my overalls, sipping on my third mug of Capri Sun and Belvedere. The mug had been a gift for our dad on his fiftieth birthday, before he died, and it said "World's Best Dad" on it, which was a joke—our dad was shitty. But Morgan was always sincere. She wouldn't have given him the mug if she hadn't believed it was true, just like she wouldn't have thrown a throwback birthday party for herself if she didn't think her childhood had been great.
It hadn’t been terrible, I guess. Every summer Sunday, Morgan and I used to get back from 9 a.m. mass and head straight for the pool five blocks away. Sometimes, Mom would even let us wear our swimsuits under our dresses, and we'd fidget through the homily, smelling like chlorine, and when we said thanks be to God after the benediction, we really fucking meant it. That was before Mom got too sick to go to mass, before the Eucharistic minister with the peacock brooch had to bring the little golden pyx to her in bed every Sunday and place the pale wafer on her tongue.
I slumped in the white armchair in the corner of the dining room, eyeing both the living room and the kitchen because of the “open floor plan.” Some people danced, sweaty, heads lolling to the side. Strangers played Twister in the living room. A guy stood behind two girls bent over in downward dog, with his hands on both their asses. He looked dead serious, or maybe drunk. Either way, it freaked me out. The whole apartment brimmed with cologne and the color gray: gray suits, gray sweaters, gray leggings. Not everyone seemed as devoted to the theme as me. I'd had my green, purple, and orange toe socks since I was fourteen, and one of the toes had a hole in it, although it was one of the orange ones, so you'd have to look pretty hard to tell. Hopefully no one was looking that hard at my feet, but it would make sense for a guy with a foot fetish to play Twister. I curled my toes.
Kyle came out of the bathroom, eyes wide, grinning at the back of Morgan's head. Kyle. What a shitty name. They shouldn’t even let you have a passport with that name, let alone eat crepes in cafes and drink absinthe on rooftops and snort coke off gilded mirrors in Moscow or wherever in God’s name he goes. Twenty-four is young to be so rich: Morgan can’t even legally rent a car, but she has a subscription to Saveur and buys coats at Burberry.
Morgan stirred something on the stove. Kyle snuck up behind her and grabbed her ass, and she lifted her wooden spoon in protest, then let her head fall back onto his shoulder while he kissed her neck.
I drank. I hadn't made eye contact with anyone the entire night. It felt like I wasn't there.
A cloud of balloons floated through the doorway: blue, yellow, red, green. The light from the disco ball glinted off of them and projected kaleidoscope patterns on the ceiling. No one else looked but me. Below the balloons, billowing white pants with blue polka dots. Huge red shoes clomped across the floor. The balloons shifted—a stark white face: pristine. Overdrawn lips, blinding red, and sharp black lines for eyebrows, drawn with a steady, unflinching hand. He met my eyes. He untangled a green balloon from his bunch and held it out to me. I took it, and he kept walking. He'd looked at me too long. I felt like I needed to follow him. I tied the balloon around my wrist and stood, adjusting my bra underneath the overalls.
I followed him into the kitchen, but when I got there, he was gone. Morgan opened the oven to pull out a tray of bruschetta. Why the fuck couldn't she just get Bagel Bites and really commit to the theme? She had to be so extra all the time. She'd say something like, "Why have a stainless-steel range if you don't entertain?"
She hadn't always been like this. We used to sneak into the movie theater with our warm Cokes we'd bought for twenty-five cents from the vending machine in the Jewel parking lot. She used to get drunk with me after Dad hit me for coming home after midnight. He never hit her.
The oven’s heat glowed around her head like a burning halo. I didn't want to talk to her. I knew how every conversation would go until we died. I'd probably die first, even though she was older, because she drank kale smoothies and did SoulCycle.
She was so kind and loving, she’d say at my funeral. And she could always make me laugh. She'd leave out the depression, the starving, the times I fainted at school. She’d tell them how I always wanted to be a nun, how I'd drape a cloth napkin over my head at the dinner table when I was six and put my palms together like the stained-glass window of St. Catherine of Siena at church. She'd leave out the stigmata I tried to give myself using a corkscrew.
And people would cry, not because I was dead but because she was crying. And the worst part: she'd mention Dad. It wasn't easy for a single father, but he did his best.
She looked up at me and held my eyes for a long time, ceramic knife poised above the cherry tomatoes. I saw a flicker of the way she used to look—sunburnt, smiling, tipsy. Then I realized that she wasn't looking at me but behind me. I turned, just as a hand touched my hip. Kyle, bug-eyed and sweaty.
"Are you having a good time?" he asked, leaning close. I grabbed his clammy hand and pushed it away. He frowned. "You don't like that?" He gripped my waist with both hands this time, pulling me close. I smelled beer and mouthwash. He was hard.
Morgan watched, knife still hovering. He had to know she was watching. She had to know that he knew. I felt sick. I shoved Kyle away. He stumbled back.
"Suck my dick," he mumbled, stomping into the bathroom and slamming the door.
My cheeks burned as I gathered the courage to look up at Morgan. Her eyebrows were furrowed, her mouth open. But then she straightened and pursed her lips. She looked down at the tomatoes and chopped them.
Tears welled in my eyes, and I blinked them back. I took a deep breath, downed the rest of my drink, and left the mug on the granite counter. I was going to go find the clown.
~ ~ ~
Our eyes met as he went into the bathroom across the hall. I sat on the guest bedroom bed, waiting for him to come in. The sex would be awkward and bad, and I'd have to keep from laughing the whole time, but at least it’d be a fun story.
I watched the clock tick, squishing the green balloon in my hands, judging how much pressure it would take to pop. The clock was St. Francis's cross (the medieval-looking tiered crucifix) with a minute and a second hand. Morgan got it in Rome last year, saying it reminded her of Mom. I think she just felt guilty for not doing anything Catholic in Rome.
The clock was a hand-painted replica, showing the six angels and the five witnesses of the Crucifixion. Mary Magdalene stood in the crowd, hand on her throat. I always wondered how the seven demons came out of her. Maybe through her mouth. The middle angel on Jesus's right always caught my eye, with his orange robes and his sharp jaw. His halo seemed brighter than the others'.
A cross just like this hung in the chapel of our church back home. I used to kneel in front of it before confession, reciting the Act of Contrition, mouth dry. I always felt a compulsive need to confess, even though I hated it. When Mom died, Morgan stopped going to church entirely, but I started doing it obsessively. Morgan had stored all of Mom’s stuff in this room, apparently: Virgin Mary votives on the dresser, Grandma’s lace doilies. Like a shrine. I bet she put all that stuff away when guests came who weren’t family.
The clown finally stepped out of the bathroom, pulling his balloons behind him. He stopped when he saw me and grinned: perfect white teeth under red lips. He was gorgeous, surrounded by bright colors instead of gray. I wasn’t drunk anymore, and my heart pounded as he walked through the bedroom doorway and let go of the balloons and shut the door.
So much quieter. The clock ticked, the same sound that had woken me up that morning to an empty apartment, Morgan at spin class and Kyle picking tomatoes in the garden.
The clown pointed at my green balloon, then at his bunch of balloons. He wiggled his eyebrows and held his belly, silently chuckling, eyes squeezed shut. I knew he meant we match, and it was so charming that I thought I might cry. He pointed at the clock and tapped his foot— I've been waiting for you. I nodded in reply. He wrung his gloved hands together, eyebrows furrowed—I'm nervous—and I tilted my head in response. He slid a finger down his cheek from his eye and pointed at the clock again, and I knew he meant it had either been a long time or a short time, that he'd just broken up with someone. I couldn’t explain how I knew it. I made the tear with my finger, too, and then he perked up and held up one finger: wait. He pulled a lollipop out of his pocket: a mini version of one of the huge ones you get at the fair, colorful swirl and all. I took it and opened the wrapper and put it in my mouth. It tasted like plastic. They used to taste better.
I scooted to the edge of the bed, the candy still in my mouth, and reached up and pulled on his gloves. He yanked his hands back like I’d burned him and wiggled one finger, silently chuckling again. He touched my hair, stroked my neck, and nuzzled the air (soft). I stood so I could reach his wig, and it wasn’t tangled like I’d thought it would be, and from that close, I smelled the paint—chemicals and powder. Underneath, sweat and sharp cleanness. I breathed deeply, his gloved hand still stroking the back of my neck. He unclasped my overalls and the bib folded over to reveal my black lace bra, the goosebumps and acne on my breasts. I helped him take off his clothes, the music still blaring from the living room. I wondered if Ass Guy was still playing Twister. Somehow, it felt like he could see me through the door.
I unzipped his heavy jacket. Footsteps outside the door. I froze. The door didn't lock. The bathroom door slammed shut, and I breathed again.
Soon, we stood naked in front of each other. We hadn't kissed yet, which felt strange, but I didn’t want to mess up his face paint. His body was thin, but defined. He was younger than I’d thought. He looked at me, too, and my heart pounded when I couldn't read his face, couldn't tell what he thought of me.
I lay back on the bed and he pulled the lollipop out of my mouth and knelt on the carpet between my legs. He gently pushed the lollipop inside me. It felt sticky and warm from my spit. He twirled the stick around, then pulled it out and put it in his mouth. He closed his eyes, face serene, unlined. He looked like he hadn't tasted anything in a long time. The clock ticked.
Someone shouted in the other room. We breathed, staring at each other, his head between my legs. He pulled my thighs toward him with his rough gloves, so that my ass hung off the bed, and we fucked. It was better than I thought it would be. The bed kept hitting the wall, and I still had my toe socks on, but I didn’t care. He didn’t say anything, which was nice. No porny stuff. He just breathed, his eyes closed. Raindrops flecked the glass door to the balcony.
It only took five or ten minutes, but it felt like an hour. My thighs warmed and tingled, and I felt that rush in the pit of my stomach, and I arched my back even farther and I came, shuddering.
The music stopped, and my eyes snapped open. It was eerily quiet. He kept moving in and out at the same speed, eyes squeezed shut, trickles of sweat cutting through the makeup on his forehead and nose. He still looked beautiful, but in a more vulnerable way now. Almost like he was remembering how it felt to have a body. I wanted to see his face. I let him finish, warmth trickling out of me while he knelt on the floor, breathing heavily, dabbing at his makeup with his fists.
It smelled like sex. The only sound was the rain hitting the balcony door. The clock had stopped, second hand frozen. Weird. My mind drifted. The balloon tied around my wrist trembled in the breeze from the ceiling vent. I squeezed my thighs together.
He sat on the edge of the bed and turned around. His smudged black eyebrows drooped, red lipstick smeared on his cheeks. My stomach plummeted, like driving over a big hill, but I laughed and pointed to my face, sweeping my finger around in a circle. He picked up my bath towel that I’d left on the floor earlier. His shoulder blades moved beneath his skin.
My stomach growled. Stupid bruschetta actually sounded good. He turned back around. Traces of black and red makeup still streaked his face, but most of it was gone. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. A crooked nose, as if it'd been broken. Smooth lips. Sharp jaw. He pulled off his wig. Short black hair, neatly styled. He didn't look like a clown.
"How'd I do?" he asked, crawling closer to me. His voice was lower than I thought it would be, his accent impossible to place. I didn’t know him at all. He wasn’t the person I’d just had sex with. My mouth went dry, and I cleared my throat to answer.
"It was good," I said. He frowned.
"I meant the makeup," he said, pointing to his face and lying down next to me. He smelled like chemicals still, and it made my head hurt to look at him. I needed fresh air. I sat up, and he rubbed my back. I pulled the balloon down to me by its string and poked it. Some air had escaped.
Something wasn’t right. No noise, none at all. Morgan would have been cleaning if the party was over.
He rubbed my neck like before, humming a song I didn't know. I felt dizzy. Still drunk, maybe. I stood, my head pounding. I opened the door to the balcony and sat on the wet wooden bench, naked. A light, cool drizzle fell. I shivered, goosebumps springing up on my skin. Down below in the alley, an orange cat wearing a bell around its neck rooted through an overturned garbage can. No cars in the street. No lights from any trains, no moan of them on metal tracks. Just the gentle drizzle on my upturned face.
A knock from the doorway. I turned. He stood there, wearing white boxer briefs and no shirt, somehow more sculpted than before, makeup completely gone, skin glowing, even harder to look at.
"What's happening?" My voice broke. A light glow radiated from his outstretched hand.
"Don't be afraid.” His hand felt hot, like a coffeepot, but it didn’t burn me. We walked back inside, and my eyes watered when I tried to look at him. In the corner of my eye, fire consumed him, flames singeing my hand and the side of my face. The balloon popped.
We left the bedroom, left behind the clown suit and the overalls and the lollipop stuck to the carpet and the St. Francis clock. Plastic cups littered the hallway floor. The popped balloon dragged through puddles of spilled drinks. The liquid soaked through my socks.
No one in the kitchen. Lights still on, oven still on, still open, tray of bruschetta on the floor. Morgan's overturned wine glass rested on the counter.
A lump rose in my throat. Why did he give me the balloon earlier? Why did he want me to follow him?
"Why did you choose me?" I asked. When he answered, his voice sounded distant, full of echoes.
"I am only a reaper," he said. "I am not the Sower."
I bit my lip, poking my toe into a pool of red wine. He was only a pillar of flames now, my hand hovering in them. Tears spilled down my cheeks.
"Do I have a choice?" I asked, even though I knew this was the end, the final day of my life.
He didn't answer. He couldn't answer anymore. My head pounded, and my vision blurred. My hand came loose. The flames turned colder, flickering out little by little. I didn't know why he’d picked me, but I didn't want to stay here, wasting away. I wanted to transform.
I jumped into the flames, like plunging into a scalding bath, my skin scrubbing away until it was new and raw pink, and I smelled salt and honey, and cool moisture wrapped around me, a blanket of milk. A film ripped away from my eyes, and I blinked away stinging tears. It was blinding. A bright, cold expanse of sea glimmered before me, beckoning.
~ ~ ~
Sarah Jilek is a third-year MFA candidate in fiction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tough, Alcyone, Illinois' Emerging Writers, and the all-female "Stiletto Heeled" issue of Switchblade, which was nominated for Best American Mystery Stories 2019. She has done voice acting and sound editing for the podcasts Locker 13, Shadows of the Mind, and Dear Murder Street. Her novel is forthcoming from SFK Press in August 2020. She has read at Noir at the Bar in St. Louis, as well as at several other bars in the Southern Illinois area. She enjoys reading in bars.
Followed by Author Bio
The best offices here have indoor balconies. Brad’s balcony is where he gives me my new project, a panel on Iran. Our expert wrote a report. This is a think tank, but I’m not on the think side of the tank. I’m in Special Events.
“Ping Joshua by C-O-B,” Brad says. “Tell him you’re on it.”
“Will do,” I say.
Our forearms are on the railing. Our ties are dangling. I don’t like my job but this part, the feeling professional part, is decent.
“The Project Packet has our top targets for panelists,” Brad says. “We’d like a Democrat, and we need an Iranian. Hamid is usually good to go.”
“Okay,” I say, pretending to know who Hamid is. “I’m on him. It. On it.”
Another meeting’s happening two balconies down. We can’t hear them and they can’t hear us because of Freedom Falls. It’s the biggest indoor waterfall in the US outside Vegas. The water flows over a sparkly black wall, five floors high, and somehow gets sucked back up. It was a gift from a Saudi prince, Brad told me during my interview. “It cost thirty-six million dollars,” he said, like I was someone to impress. I was. Impressed. Brad Bradley’s always selling. I know that now. He used to own a catering company that he sold, I’ve heard, for three mill. Brad still works because he has like nineteen kids—the Bradleys are proud, no-birth-control evangelicals—and he must make 250 G’s. Everyone with a balcony probably makes at least a quarter mill.
“What’s wrong?” Brad asks, because as usual I’m not giving off enough pep.
“Nothing!” I smile like a doof. “I’m fine!”
“Listen up,” Brad says, standing up straight. He extends his arm, and a flag cufflink comes out from behind his jacket sleeve. “The idea of panel discussions bores people. Kind of a joke, dime a dozen and all, right?”
He looks at me so I say, “Right!”
“But answer me this, what do these things have in common? The war in Iraq, the Bush tax cuts, welfare reform. You guessed it. They all started out as panel discussions. Make no mistake, Jimmy, panel discussions can change the world.”
Brad’s pitch works on me. Pride in my world-changing job sends me scooting down the hall, arms swinging, past the bulging leather couch where I usually long to nap. Who needs sleep when you’ve got a positive attitude?
But when I’m at my desk reading “Checkmate: A Common Sense Plan to Counter the Islamic Republic of Iran,” my energy spills from me like I got stabbed. To keep reading I have to prop open my eyes with my fingers. Boringest thing ever, this report, but creepy too. Once you claw past the jargon, you see that, yessiree, Joshua Z. Kagan wants to do an Iraq on Iran. Well, he doesn’t want to do it; he wants other people to do it.
I’m probably more middle-of-the-road than most people here, definitely less gung-ho when it comes to bombing Muslims. But I’m gung-ho as gung-fuck about my $79,000 salary. That’s 52 G’s more than I’ve ever made. My father-in-law got me the job. When Lara and I told the General she was pregnant, he was like, The father of my grandchild ain’t going to be working at Staples. He called a buddy at the Pentagon, and soon I was ordering two hundred stuffed pork fillets for a luncheon honoring Cuban-American women entrepreneurs. Lara, now six months pregnant, is on bed rest in the hospital, and Mom’s unemployed again, so a lot is riding on a person (me) whose idea of a win a year ago was collating color copies while an edible worked its way into his (my) bloodstream.
Point being, I’m not about to let my half-baked political opinions or anything else stop me from being a good solider.
Hamid’s last name is Hashemi. The Project Packet has the specs. Prof at George Mason, fellow at the Near East Forum, human rights advocate who fled with his family during the Islamic Revolution. The dude’s got the right enemies: an Islamist website called “Electronic Intifada” did a whole article smearing the “House Persian.”
There’s no email address for Hashemi in the Project Packet, so I have to call him. Which I hate. Calling strangers. It’s as bad as talking to them face to face. One summer I did telemarketing. To make it through my shifts, I had to keep dribbling Jim Beam into my Cokes. At least now I’m calling from a respected outfit.
The woman who answers says Hamid won’t be in for the “foreseeable future,” so I tell her I’m from the American Freedom Institute, and she says, “Hold on.”
“Hello,” a man says in a British accent. “I’m Denny Havewala, a colleague of Doctor Hashemi’s. I’m going to tell you something, and I’ll trust you’ll keep it confidential. Hamid’s been diagnosed with cancer.”
“Aw, shit. Shoot.”
“My dad had cancer and he’s fine now.” I don’t mention that he ditched his wife, my mother, as soon as he was better.
“He’ll beat this. Hamid is nothing if not a fighter.”
“No doubt,” I say for some reason.
“Good day, sir.”
There’re three other Iranians in the Project Packet. I email them and decide to be done for now. Next task is finding a true-murder podcast for my drive. Our apartment’s an hour and fifteen away and the hospital’s even farther, outside Richmond. Staples was five minutes away. Ten by skateboard. Was I happier then? Well, sure, but I was also happier skipping class to play X-Box. Point being, you’ve got to grow up.
~ ~ ~
Lara’s handling bed rest like a hero. God’s got a plan, she says. His plan blows, is what I’d like to say, but I don’t, out of respect. For Lara, not God. Her faith’s helping her stay solid during this crap time. A glob of goo compared to her, I’m in awe of my wife. I live to see her sweet, chunked-up face at the end of the day.
But tonight when I walk in, her bed’s stripped and she’s gone. So’s her stuff. She’s having the baby, is what I’m thinking, and I want to cry. Her roommate Wanda, also on bed rest, is asleep. I’d feel weird waking her so I go into the hall, and I must look batshit because the woman at the desk rolls backward in her chair.
Once she realizes I’m not going to kill her, she tells me Lara’s been moved to 308. Heading there, I’m hoping 308’s private. Nope, Holy Christ on a Cock, she’s got a roommate. My mother.
“Surprise!” Mom says, and they take turns telling me.
“A nurse was in here when my chest got all tight.”
“I thought she was having a heart attack.”
“So did I.”
“They think it’s just stress.”
“But they’re running tests to make sure.”
“They wanted her to stay overnight.”
“So we asked to room together!”
Nice for them: Lara gets company and Mom gets taken care of. But for me it’s hell. They’ll lie here comparing notes:
Never seen a guy who was so bad at fixing things.
Should’ve seen his father.
I’m worried he’ll freeze up when the baby comes.
All his pets died quick.
He’s twenty-six and leaves skid marks in his underpants.
He was always a bad wiper.
“Great!” I say, soldiering on here too. I don’t ask if her shit-ass insurance is going to cover these tests. If it doesn’t, Jesus fuck. “Guess I can sleep over,” I say, even though I’d hate to sleep over. “Since it’s all family in here now.”
“Definitely,” Mom says. “Slumber party!”
The General walks in with Five Guys. “No hospital food for my queens,” he says in that laryngitis voice of his. He sets them up with double cheeseburgers and sits down by Mom with one of his own. “Didn’t know you’d be here,” he says.
“I’m here every night.”
“You can have mine,” the General says.
“No thanks, I’m good.”
“Take it, boy. Better’n listening to you whine.”
“I’m not whining. It’s fine. I’m trying not to eat red meat anyways.”
“Pussy,” the General says.
Mom giggles. “You can have a few of my fries, Jimmy.”
Lara mauls her burger. She’s no girly girl, my wife. She looks good pregnant. Glowy. Or maybe just sweaty. Anyways, she’s beautiful.
“Becky, if you don’t mind, you’ve got mayo…” The General takes a napkin to her chin, and she giggles again. Lara raises her eyebrows at me. She wants them to get together. Her mother died three years ago, just before my father took off. I don’t trust the General with Mom, who’s twenty years younger. And if by chance he wants more than a shiny pecker, that’d be even worse. Already too much General in my life.
I lean in close to Lara and whisper what came to me on the drive. “If they had a kid, a daughter let’s say, we’d have the same sister.”
She puts her hand on my forearm, and I pop a boner. Five months and counting. “They’re not going to have a baby,” Lara whispers.
“She’s only forty-five.”
Lara looks at me: Don’t be a moron.
“It’s the idea of it. It’s sick.”
“Nothing sick about them getting another shot at love.” She finishes her burger with a messy mouthful, and that gets my saliva going. My hunger mixes with my horniness till it’s the same thing. I sit down, shaking and wanting.
I glance at the General, wondering if his offer still stands, but his burger’s gone. He’s chomping ice. The General’s a smallish, wiry man with a big bald head, small round ears, and huge hands. He looks like a child’s drawing. But scary. The back of his neck’s cracked like dried mud, and he’s got freaky sliver eyes. You’d think he did some serious shit, like throat-slit Viet Cong, but he never saw combat. He rode a desk up through the ranks. Lara thinks he’s God’s gift. It’s her one big flaw.
“How’s work, Jimmy?” he says.
“Don’t fuck up, Jimmy. I vouched for you.”
“I’m doing fine.”
“And what are you doing?”
“A panel on Iran. Our expert wants regime change.”
This makes the General’s ears bounce. “How many troops he calling for?”
“None,” I say. “Just bombs.”
He shakes his head and squints, more in anger than in sadness. “Fucking idiot expert,” he says. “Bullshit briefcase warrior.”
Mom giggles, then cringes. “Ow, ow, ow, ow, my leg—it’s cramping.”
The General’s already on his feet. “I could...?”
He rubs her calf with his big monkey hands and she lets out an orgasm moan.
“You okay?” Lara asks me. The sweetheart is trapped in here and she’s checking on me. She claims to want me to tell her my feelings. I doubt it. I mean, she worships the General, who’s never had a feeling, let alone talked about it.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Just tired.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t sleep here,” Lara said.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Sleep here another time,” Lara says.
“Oh-kay,” I say like I don’t want to go, already planning my night: Beam, beat off, calzone, Beam, bath, beat off.
I give Lara a kiss, then see Mom eyeing me like she wants one too. With my dick hard again and the General still fondling her, it’s weird to kiss her, but good soldier that I am, I make myself do it, and then I’m free.
~ ~ ~
A Beam headache wakes me at four in the morning, and it dawns on me I invited three Iranians. Three Iranians are too many, even for a panel on Iran. What if all three say yes? It’s a problem I’d like to have, I decide.
It’s not a problem I have. By noon all three’ve said no. Two have conflicts or say they do, and the third writes: “Were I to sit on the panel, I’d have no choice but to call attention to the report’s myriad inaccuracies and lapses in judgment.”
`How’d he get in the Project Packet?
I want to make progress before my 2:00 with Brad and Joshua Z. Kagan. In the Project Packet I find the number for Congressman Heffner, a Democrat. The good news is, I brought in a bottle of Beam. That’s the bad news too. I make a rule regarding Beam: I’m allowed to drink it only before I talk to people.
The guy who answers sounds like he just woke up. It’s Heffner himself, I realize. I hang up. And want to punch myself. The think tank’s number is in his phone.
But it’s an easy fix, just call back.
“Who’s this?” he says.
“How’d you get my number?”
“Uh, the, the Project Packet.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
I hang up again. I’m sweating in the air conditioning. More Beam next time. More Beam now. The good news is, there are lots of other Dems who want to bomb Iran.
I get to Brad’s office early, but Joshua Z. Kagan is already at the table, speed-bouncing his leg. Brad’s talking into his headset on the balcony. Joshua Z. shakes my hand for a long time. I hold my breath due to the Beam.
“I really appreciate you doing this,” Josh says. Seems like a nice guy. Real sensitive. I’m guessing he tells his wife his feelings.
“No problem,” I say. “It’s my job.”
His smile shows how young he is, barely older than I am, and I feel like I’m spying on him. He has zits by the corners of his mouth.
Brad joins us but stays standing and says, “Joshua, my main man. Congratulations on an absolutely top-notch piece of work.”
“Hey thanks, thanks a lot.”
“You’ve done your job,” Brad says, “Now we’ll do ours, which is to inject your ideas into the bloodstream of the body politic. Jimmy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing! All good!”
“Let’s hear it,” Brad says.
“Lots of positive responses.”
“I bet,” Brad says.
“One hiccup, though. None of the Iranians in the Packet can do it.”
“What about Hamid Hashemi?” Joshua says.
“He has cancer.”
“Darn,” Joshua says.
“And the others?” Brad says. “If they have conflicts, we could move the panel.”
“Hard to say. I’m guessing that with, you know, the stuff about bombing…”
“Plenty of Iranians want to bomb Iran,” Joshua says.
“Do you have their email addresses?” I say.
“Do we need an Iranian?” Brad says. “Or would any Arab work?”
“Iranians aren’t Arabs, actually,” Joshua says.
“You know what I mean,” Brad says. “Saudis would love to bomb Iran, right?”
“Right!” I say.
“And the Cutteries,” Brad says.
“Yes!” I say. “Who?”
Joshua Z. takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes, and puts his glasses back on. “Listen, guys,” he says, “let’s not fixate on military action, which is just a means to an end. Follow me.” He leads us to the balcony and there, on another balcony, is a wax sculpture of Henry Kissinger, which turns out to be Henry Kissinger, the actual human, propped up on a stool, hands stacked on the curve of a cane. I imagine the old fucker keeling over and falling into Freedom Falls. But he wouldn’t make it; he’d have to be thrown off.
Joshua, though, is pointing somewhere else, at the Ronald Reagan shrine down in the lobby. “The third plaque has my favorite Reagan quote,” Joshua says. “‘Respect for human rights is not social work; it is not merely an act of compassion. It is the first obligation of government and the source of its legitimacy.’”
“Cool,” I say. “But we still need an Iranian.”
“Call AIPAC,” Joshua Z. says. “Ask for Ira.”
I should’ve thought of this. AIPAC, the Israel lobby, loves our Iran stuff. Back in my office I call Ira. He suggests Hamid Hashemi. “He has a conflict,” I say, deciding I shouldn’t mention cancer. Ira has someone else in mind, a man named Arash Tousi, and offers to call him for me. “Please,” I say.
Eager to show Brad my progress, I hustle back to his office and tell him about Arash Tousi. “Hmm,” Brad says.
“What?” I say.
“He’s MEK, and they’re kind of a Marxist outfit. And a little cultish.”
“And they’ve been kind of been accused of, uh, terrorism.”
“They’re a Marxist terrorist cult?”
“Like they say, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
“Yeah but, ‘they’ is liberals.”
“Tousi’s fine. We need an Iranian.”
But a few minutes later Brad calls to tell me the Institute is giving the MEK a “time-out.” When I ask why, he says, “Jimmy, this is way above your pay grade.”
I Google search for Iranians who want to bomb Iran. The ones I find are the ones who already turned me down.
But then I see a reference to a regime-change paper by Hamid Hashemi’s “protégé,” Denny Havewala, the dude I already spoke to!
I don’t even need Beam for this. I call and invite him. He’s psyched. I am too. The hardest piece of the panel is in place. “You’re Iranian, right?” I say, to make sure.
“No?” Denny says. “Indian.”
“But I’m Zoroastrian.”
“Zoroastrian. Like Freddie Mercury.”
“We will, we will rock you! Zoroastrians are persecuted in Iran.”
“Sorry,” I say. “We need an Iranian.”
~ ~ ~
When I walk in, Lara’s surrounded. Mom’s on one side, a nurse taking her vitals is on the other, and the General’s massaging her feet. To get to my wife, I have to squeeze in between Mom and the machines. Loving her father’s massage, Lara keeps her eyes closed when I kiss her. I’d like to take over for the General, but my hands would feel small after his. “Oh yeah, right there,” Lara says.
“What a daddy,” the nurse says on her way out.
We should’ve waited to have a baby. Bed rest is bad luck, but no baby, no bed rest. Unlike the Bradleys, we believe in birth control. We love it! We just didn’t use it.
“I got a clean bill of health,” Mom says. “Just real bad anxiety.”
“Great,” I say.
“How’s work, Jimmy?” the General asks.
“Having trouble getting an Iranian.”
“How about Hamid Hashemi?”
“He can’t do it.”
“I’ll set up a meeting. He’s my neighbor.”
“I said he can’t do it.”
“If they said to find an Iranian, you best find an Iranian.”
“I am. I’m on it.”
“Okay, Lara-poo,” the General says. “Your tootsies are nice and loose now.”
“That felt so good, Daddy. I wish you could do it all night.”
“Sorry, sweet peach. Becky and I are heading to Outback.”
“Like on a date?” I say.
The General looks at Mom, who looks at Lara, who looks at the General, who signals for me to follow him into the hallway.
I stay put.
“Go,” Lara says.
“He’s waiting,” Mom says.
In the hallway he moves in close and for a flash I fear he’ll head-butt me. I try to hold his gaze but can’t find the bottoms of his eyes. It’s like looking into water.
“I don’t need your blessing,” he says, “but I’ll do you the courtesy of asking.”
“Whatever” is all I manage.
“Let me get this straight. You’re good enough for my daughter, but I’m not good enough for your mother?”
“It’s not about that. Mom’s a mess. She doesn’t know what she wants.”
“Oh, I think she does.” He grins and scratches his thigh near his knee.
Was that? Did he? Yes, he did, of course he did, and I ought to punch him. But people who punch people don’t decide to. They just do it.
~ ~ ~
I drink Beam and make calls. I book a lib hotshot from Brookings and a former assistant secretary of Defense and Rep. Patricia Howlings, who co-chairs the Free Iran caucus. Columnist Harvey Ruhle signs on to moderate.
All I need now is an Iranian. I drink more Beam and make more calls. Everyone recommends Hamid Hashemi.
I tell Brad we still don’t have an Iranian and he tells me to ask Paul. He means Paul Mullens, the ninety-something legendary Cold Warrior who still comes in sometimes. Mullens is always pissed off, word has it, but after Beam I go to his office and find a wrinkled man in a wrinkled three-piece smiling at something, as in nothing. Once I get him to hear my question, he says, “Farshid Salehi. He was big in SAVAK.”
SAVAK, Google tells me, was the Shah’s secret police. It also tells me Farshid Salehi died six years ago.
During a lunch break, I consider seeing if anyone in the Taste of Persia food truck wants to do the panel.
The good news is, I still have three weeks to find an Iranian.
Now two weeks.
On Sunday, four days before the panel, the General calls to invite me to join him and Mom for dinner at his place. “I don’t want to leave Lara,” I say, and she flares her eyes at me, because she overheard.
“It’s a peace offering,” she says after I hang up.
I’d tell her about his piece offering, but she’d say I read it wrong.
“Jimmy, put your hand on my belly.” Which is so hard now I’m freaked. It’s like a basketball. “I can’t have tension. It’s bad for Baby. I’m spending a half year in the hospital, least you can do is put on a happy face and go to dinner.”
Well, what can I do but put on a happy face and go to dinner?
I find the General in the backyard by his coffin-sized smoker, which is smoking boar, the reddest red meat. Mom’s standing barefoot on the patio, slurping a blue drink and showing off cleavage for a second sun-spotted general named Matt. His girlfriend, Trish, is even younger than Mom. When I see she walks with a hitch, I figure she was hurt overseas, and Matt hit on her during a visit to the VA hospital.
I join Trish at the bar and make a Beam and Coke, which I down so that I can make another. “Right on,” Trish says in an accent more southern than Virginia.
Mom giggles because the General’s come up behind her and nibbled her neck. Being happy in a spurt has never been hard for her.
“Jimmy’s working at AFI,” the General says, humping my mother. “He’s putting together an Iran panel.”
“But I can’t find an Iranian for it.”
“What’s about Hamid Hashemi?” Matt says, speaking around his cigar.
“This is confidential,” I say, like I’m important. “He’s got cancer.”
“Aw,” Mom says, sticking out her rear to receive the General’s package.
“But he was out jogging this morning,” the General says. He detaches from Mom and goes inside.
General Matt starts bouncing Trish on his knee, and I pretend not to look at her giant jiggling boobs. Mixing another drink, I feel bad I’m here getting lit instead of keeping Lara company. But then I’m here only because she wanted me to be.
“Okay, Jimmy,” the General says, walking out. “Just called Hashemi. Told him you work for AFI and want to ask a favor. Four doors down, this side.”
The good news is, I’m pretty well Beamed up. But I can still feel my nerves so I down my drink and fill a cup with straight Beam to take with me. “Beam me up, Scotty,” I say, toasting the Generals and their girls.
With these big lots, four doors down is a real walk. Between my nerves and the humidity, I start to work up a paste, so I slow to barely moving. Then stop. I down my drink and stick my cup in a hedge and piss on the hedge. I hear a sound like someone slap-cleaning car mats. A rugged old dude is hitting a heavy bag. I see him through the hedge. Probably an ex-spook who’d punch me in the head if he caught me pissing on his hedge. Which I wouldn’t mind, a punch in my head.
I stop in front of what I hope is the fourth house.
“The son-in-law.” The deep voice comes from a screened-in porch on the side. When I get there, I see he’s having dinner with his family, a blond hottie with an oversized jaw and three girls, all dark like Hashemi.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I say.
“No worries,” he says, standing up. “We’re on dessert, which I should skip.” He pats his belly, which is flat. All in all, Hamid Hashemi looks to be a stud. He’s got black hair combed straight back and a short, neat silver beard.
He comes out and leads me down a stone path through trees to a pool. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he says at all the crap, swim goggles and boogie boards and whatnot. He scoops it all up and throws it into a corner, except for a life vest, which he picks up and flings so hard his hair falls over his eyes. He resets his hair. Then lights a Marlboro Red.
Time for me to speak. “First of all, I know you’re sick so—”
“Who told you that? Denny?”
“Tell Denny he can tell the truth. I’ve nothing to hide. I’m taking a voluntary leave while the bureaucrats figure out that I’m the victim of a slanderous campaign by two confused and/or malicious young women.”
“Yes, I’ve been ‘Me-too-ed.”
“Oh, wow, sorry,” I say, even though I’d guess he’s guilty.
“I’m assuming you want me to do an event?”
“Yes. Joshua Z. Kagan did a report—”
“I’ve read it. I’d like to boost it, but I’m not sure a public appearance would send the right message. On the other hand, a guilty man would hide.”
It occurs to me to pretend to be Brad. “You’re my number one choice. My only choice, really. Everyone I speak to, literally everyone, says, ‘What about Hamid Hashemi?’ You’re the man. You are the free-Iran man! Make no mistake, Dr. Hashemi: this panel needs you.”
He smiles, blows smoke. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.”
~ ~ ~
Walking back, I start to feel all the Beam. And not in a good way. The old spook’s still punching. I could puke on his hedge. But I keep going. No need now not to sweat. It’s in my eyes, the sweat. It’s dripping off my chin.
Near the General’s house I smell boar and hear Mom giggling.
In my car I can’t breathe. I open the windows and put on the AC full blast and drive fast. Too fast. I go faster, the road blurry behind the sweat. I’ve put the panel together, done my job. Now I have to keep doing it.
My tires screech as I make a hard right. Can’t really control the car at this speed. It’s like boarding down a steep hill.
Now two lanes are merging into one, and I’m in danger of hitting the cement divider. And what if I did? I might, am.
~ ~ ~
A salary is an amazing thing. I’m still getting paid. Getting paid to lie here.
The news isn’t all good, though. Insurance doesn’t want to pay for my car on account of my alleged intoxication and alleged reckless driving. Plus the medical deductible and copays. Plus my cracked pelvis and bruised bladder.
Still, this isn’t a terrible situation, all in all. I’m living with my wife again. And taking painkillers. Beats working.
I just wish Lara wasn’t so nervous. She’s scared the baby will come early, before I can heal. Her faith is shook. How do you like God’s plan now, lovey?
No tranquilizers when you’re pregnant, so they’re talking about giving Lara an anti-depressant, but for now she’s awake most of the night worrying. The dickhead part of me, which is roughly the size of me, is relieved she’s no longer Superwoman. It’s my chance to be the strong one. But that’s hard to do when you’ve got a catheter.
I tell her we’ll get through this. We’ve got love, I say, praying we still do.
Work sends a basket containing nuts, cheese, and summer sausage.
Lara makes lists of things that need to be done. Things the General will now have to do. Things he would’ve done anyway. Like put the crib together.
She thinks out loud, and I have trouble paying attention. Even though my penis has no feeling, I can’t stop fantasizing about having sex with her.
“You think we can wait to get a Bjorn?” Lara says.
“Yes,” I say, making her moan in my mind.
Thursday afternoon, the General and Mom come by to watch the panel, which C-SPAN is showing. They bring ribs, like it’s Super Bowl Sunday. There’s a one hundred percent chance Mom’ll lick sauce off the General’s thick fingers. We put the panel on both TVs. “Ooh, this looks important,” Mom says from the General’s lap.
“You did it, Jimmy,” the General says. “You put together a panel of pussies.”
Joshua Z. is nervous. He’s talking too quickly. Hamid Hashemi slides on bifocals to read something. This is boring. It’s like watching—like watching a panel discussion. I can’t see how it’ll make a war. Then I remember I don’t want it to.
Lara and I had a year and a half together pre-bed rest. Best stretch of my life. The start of my life, seemed like. We went to see music in Richmond. And out to dinner with friends. But my favorite times were just being home, talking, watching movies.
Come to think of it, I told her my feelings back then. But my feelings were good, so it was easy.
“You okay, Jimmy?” Lara asks from across the room.
“Yeah,” I say, hiding my face with my hand. “Just tired.”
~ ~ ~
David Mizner is the author of the novels Political Animal and Hartsburg USA, and his short stories and articles have appeared in Glimmer Train, Beloit Fiction Journal, J Journal, Eclectica, Prime Number Magazine, Jabberwock, the Nation, and Jacobin. He also conceived and helped produce the movie Spotlight.