Big Mike insists I try on his ring. I tell him that's okay, but he's a pushy bastard. He bought it in Reno or won it, which makes it lucky or something. I wasn't listening; the guy's stories go nowhere. He wears the ring on his pinky, but it slips easily over my thumb. He laughs to see that and piles lox onto a bagel.
"You're going to miss me," he says to the waitress.
Upon his retirement next month, I'll inherit some of his accounts. It's supposed to be an honor. This deli, for example. I'll be stopping in once a month for the rest of my life, pushing flatware and dishes and, say, did I mention our special on toothpicks? Unless I screw up, that is. Which happens. Ask any salesman. Buy him a drink. Greek tragedies, man. One word too many, one wayward glance, and we are up shit creek.
The owner slides into our booth. My read is he's a little skittish coming out of the box. His hand is soaking wet when Mike makes the introduction. I'm cool, though. I don't grab a napkin or go for my pant leg. He and Mike pick up where they left off last time, and I put it on automatic. Not that I'm missing anything: golf, golf, golf. It's a gift knowing when to smile or nod or raise my eyebrows without really having to listen, but I worry sometimes that it makes me lazy.
There's a movie star at the next table, some second stringer whose name I'll never recall. My wife's the one who's great with that stuff. The waitress gets the giggles pouring him coffee, and he smiles. She must be new in town. The flickering of the overhead light is killing me, the silverware clatters. I don't like where my mind's at. A bomb goes off in my stomach, and everything in it climbs back into my throat. I'm thinking about the movie star's money. With money like that you could hire people - a whole squad of detectives, bounty hunters, hit men.
"What do you say?" Mike asks me, darting his eyes at the owner, then giving me a look like it's time I jumped in.
"They raped my little sister," I reply.
That's not what I meant to say, but now that it's out - "Some motherfucker. Last night. Down in San Diego."
Rule number one is you do not bring real life into the sales environment; it's not about you. I know that, and I'm sorry, but I am going crazy here.
The bee man interrupts me while I'm shining shoes. Every pair I own, and all of Liz's, too, are laid out on the dining room table. I woke up with a wild hair this morning, and I've been at it since dawn. My fingers are black with polish. I'm so far gone, the doorbell gives me a heart attack.
The bee man's name is Zeus. His head is shaved, and he has a lightning bolt tattooed on his scalp, above his right ear.
"They let city employees do that?" I ask as I lead him down the side of the house to the backyard.
"We're contract workers. We don't have to wear uniforms either," he says. That explains the Lakers jersey.
The hive is in the avocado tree. I discovered it last week when I heard buzzing while watering the lawn. The gardener quit, so I've been doing all kinds of extra stuff around here. Bees were so thick on the trunk, they looked like one big thing rather than a lot of little ones. They shivered in unison, and their wings caught the sun. I didn't get too close. We have the killer variety now, up from Mexico. They stung an old guy to death in Riverside last year, and, I think, a dog.
"Whoa," Zeus says.
"Are they Africanized?"
"Can't tell. The killers look pretty much like the others, except for they're more aggressive. I'll send a few to the lab when I'm done."
I thought I read in the paper that they relocated the hives to somewhere they'd be useful, but Zeus tells me that's too much trouble anymore. He has a foam that'll smother the whole colony, queen and all, in nothing flat. No sooner are these words out of his mouth than a bee lands on his arm and stings him.
"Hijo de puta," he says as he and I hurry away. "Those bitches are gonna pay for that."
Liz is drinking coffee in the breakfast nook. She uses both hands to lift the cup, wincing as it touches her lips. Her eyes are red and puffy. Neither of us slept much last night. It's been that way since we heard about my sister a few days ago. Guys laugh when I say Liz is my best friend. They think I'm pulling something high and mighty. Only Jesus freaks love their wives.
"Maybe it's time for a new mattress," I say.
She yawns and shrugs. "Maybe."
"The guy's here to kill the bees."
"What's that, lightning on his head?"
I have to eat something, so I scramble a couple of eggs and toast some bread. I smear mayonnaise on the toast and make a sandwich with the eggs. Liz has an apple and a slice of cheese. I get about three bites down before the phone rings.
It's my sister, Tracy, and she's crying. In our first conversations following the assault she was all facts and figures. Yes, it was horrible; yes, she was pretty banged up; no, the cops hadn't caught her attacker; no, there was no need to drive down, she already had a friend staying with her. This morning, though, she's a wreck. She can't get two words out without battling a sob.
Her ex-husband is up to no good, she says, using the attack as an excuse to press for temporary custody of their daughters. Her attorney has assured her it'll never fly, but she's worried all the same. She keeps apologizing for bothering me, which begins to piss me off. I throw the rest of my sandwich into the trash and pour myself another cup of coffee.
"We're on our way," I say.
"It's hard, all of this. I can handle it, but it's hard."
"Shouldn't take us a couple of hours, depending on traffic."
After I hang up, I grab the sponge and start washing dishes. It's one of those days when normal things feel strange. The soap smells bubblegummy, but when I get some in my eye, it hurts like hell. The window over the sink faces the avocado tree, where Zeus, wearing a beekeeper getup now, is spraying with what looks like a fire extinguisher. The hive is soon covered with thick white foam. Liz comes up behind me and yanks on the waistband of my sweats.
"I'll drive," she says.
"I saw an actor at Canter's the other day. Big guy, dark hair. He was in Private Ryan and that Denzel Washington movie. Went out with Heidi Fleiss."
"Oh, I know. Tom ... Tom ..."
She screws up her face and stares at the ceiling, folding and unfolding the dish towel. The grass is dying out back, even though I have watered and fertilized. A few bees trail after Zeus as he carries the foam dispenser to his truck. One of them veers off and begins bashing its brains out against the kitchen window with a fury that is truly humbling.
The freeway is clear until we get into Santa Ana, a few miles past Disneyland, then it locks up. I punch over to the traffic report. Whichever lane Liz chooses stops moving as soon as she weasels her way into it. She keeps humming three notes of a song she has stuck in her head. My mouth goes dry when I spot flashing lights.
"There's an exit right here," Liz says.
"I'm okay," I reply.
Car wrecks twist me all around. My parents died in one ten years ago now, out there in the desert, on their way back from Laughlin. Big rig, head-on, whatnot. It was an awful mess. My sister lost it. She'd just graduated from high school. She was arrested twice for shoplifting in one week. The second conviction got her a month in jail. I intended to visit, but I was working twelve- hour days selling time on an AM oldies station where the general manager told everyone I was gay when he caught me crying at my desk shortly after my parents' funeral.
When Tracy was released, she moved to a marijuana plantation in Hawaii. I still have the one letter she sent. In it she asks for money to buy cough syrup and says she's learning to thread flowers into leis. She spends half a page describing a sunset. There's dirt on the envelope. The stamp has a picture of a fish. It made me angry back then, but envy can be like that.
I try to keep my eyes closed until we're past the accident, but the part of me that thinks that's silly makes me look. A truck hauling oranges has overturned, the fruit spilling out across the freeway. Two lanes are still open, and traffic crawls past, crushing the load into bright, fragrant pulp. The truck's driver, uninjured, stands with a highway patrolman. The driver keeps slapping his forehead with the palm of his hand and stomping his feet. The patrolman lights a flare.
Things clear up after that. We zip through Irvine and Capistrano and right past the nuclear plant at San Onofre, which looks like two big tits pointing at the sky. The ocean lolls flat and glassy all the way to the horizon, sparking where the sun touches it. At Camp Pendleton, the marines are on maneuvers. Tanks race back and forth on both sides of the freeway, and the dust they kick up rolls across the road like a thick fog. The radio fades out, and when the signal returns, it's in Spanish.
We stop in Oceanside for a hamburger. The place is crawling with jarheads who look pretty badass with their muscles and regulation haircuts, but then I see the acne and peach fuzz and realize they're boys, mostly, having what will likely turn out to be the time of their lives. I convince Liz that we deserve a beer, so we step into a bar next to the diner. The walls are covered with USMC this and USMC that, pennants and flags, and Metallica blasts out of the jukebox. It's not yet noon, but a few grunts are already at it. I have the bartender send them another pitcher on me. They raise their mugs and shout, "To the corps." I can't figure out what it is that I hate about them.
A fire engine forces us to the side of the road as soon as we get off the freeway at Tracy's exit. I see smoke in the distance. The condo development she lives in rambles across a dry hillside north of San Diego, block after block of identical town houses with Cape Cod accents. The wiry grass and twisted, oily shrubs that pick up where the roads dead- end and the sprinkler systems peter out are just waiting for an excuse to burst into flame. There have been a number of close calls since Tracy moved in. Only last year a blaze was stopped at the edge of the development by a miraculous change in wind direction.
We get lost on our way up to her place. There's a system to the streets, but I haven't been here enough times to figure it out. The neighborhood watch signs are no help, and the jogger who gives us a dirty look, well, better that than gangbangers. They keep a tight rein here. The association once sent Tracy a letter ordering her to remove an umbrella that shaded the table on her patio because it violated some sort of bylaw. I'd go nuts, but Tracy says it's a good place to raise kids. A lucky turn brings us to her unit, and we pull into a parking space labeled VISITOR.
Her youngest, Cassie, opens the door at my knock. She's four, a shy, careful girl.
"Hello, baby," I say.
Her eyes widen, and she runs to hide behind her mother in the kitchen.
"Cassie," Tracy scolds. "It's Uncle Jack and Auntie Liz. You remember."
Cassie buries her face in her mother's thigh. Her older sister, Kendra, who's eight, doesn't look up from the coloring book she's working on.
It's been almost a week since Tracy was attacked, and she still has an ugly greenish bruise on her cheek and broken blood vessels in one eye. She herds us into the living room, asking what we want to drink. The place smells like food, something familiar. "Cabbage rolls," Tracy says. "You loved Mom's."
"So how are you?" I ask. That's broad enough in front of the kids.
"Better every day, which is how it goes, they say. There are experts and things, counselors. It's amazing."
"You see it on TV, on those shows. I bet it helps. I mean, does it?"
"Oh, yeah. Sure. Time's the main thing, though."
"Come sit with me," Liz says to Cassie. She's trying to draw her out of Tracy's lap, give Mommy a break.
"No," Cassie whines as she wraps her arms tighter around Tracy's neck.
My beer tastes funny. I hold the can to my ear and shake it. This big brother business is new to me. Tracy and I have never been close. We were in different worlds as kids, and since our parents died we've seen each other maybe twice a year. She came back from Hawaii, settled in San Diego, and met Tony. They married in Vegas without telling anyone. Whew! I thought. I'm finally off the hook.
But Tony's been gone six months now. Tracy used star 69 to catch him cheating. He was that stupid, or maybe he wanted to be caught. I notice that some of the furniture is different, new but cheaper. The couch used to be leather. Tony took his share when he left. Everything had to be negotiated. Tracy got to keep the kids' beds, and he got the TV, a guy who makes a hundred grand a year. It's been downhill since then. Battle after battle.
"You owe me a hug," I say to Kendra. "I sent you that postcard from Florida."
Exasperated, she slaps down her crayon and marches over. We scared the hell out of her when she was younger, showing up one Halloween dressed in a cow costume, Liz in the front half, me in back. She'll never trust me again.
She grimaces when I pull her up onto the couch. "What's the deal?" I ask.
"What's shaking? What's new? How's school?"
"It's okay, but my teacher's too old. She screamed at us the other day, like, 'Shut up! Shut up!'" She has to scream, too, to show me how it went.
"Kendra!" Tracy says.
Cassie sees her sister getting attention and decides that she wants some. She leaves her mother to pick up a stuffed pig, which she brings to Liz, who soon has both girls laughing by giving the pig a lisp and making it beg for marshmallows and ketchup. There's a creepy picture of an angel on the wall. I ask Tracy what that's about. We weren't raised religious. We weren't raised anything at all.
"It was Kendra's idea. We saw it at the mall, and she was like, 'Mommy, Mommy, we need that.'" Tracy shrugs and shakes her head. Her fingers go to the bruise on her cheek. She taps it rhythmically.
"Angels, huh," I say to Kendra.
"They watch us all the time and keep us safe."
"Who taught you that?"
"Leave me alone," she snaps.
I walk into the kitchen with my empty beer can. Everything shines like it's brand-new. Our mother would wake up at four in the morning sometimes and pull every pot and pan we owned out of the cupboards and wash them. Dad called it her therapy, but that's bullshit. She'd be cursing under her breath as she scrubbed, and her eyes were full of rage.
Something is burning. I smell it. The fire must be closer than it seemed. I press my face to the window, trying to see the sky, while the girls laugh at another of Auntie Liz's jokes.
Ash drifts down like the lightest of snowfalls, disappearing as soon as it touches the ground. It sticks to the hood of a black Explorer, and more floats on the surface of the development's swimming pool, where the girls are splashing with Liz. The sun forces woozy red light through the smoke, and it feels later than it is.
I tug at the crotch of my borrowed bathing suit, one thing Tony left behind. My sister sits beside me in a chaise, fully clothed, to hide more bruises, I bet. The rapist got her as she was leaving a restaurant. That's all she told me. In a parking garage. That's all I know. "I'm lucky he didn't kill me," she said afterward. Her hand shakes when she adjusts her sunglasses; the pages of her magazine rattle.
"Come swim with us, Uncle Jack," Kendra calls. She can paddle across the deep end by herself, while Cassie, wearing inflatable water wings, sits on the stairs, in up to her waist. I make a big production of gearing up for my cannonball, stopping short a number of times until they are screaming for me to jump, jump, jump.
We play Marco Polo and shark attack. I teach Kendra to dive off my shoulders, and she begs to do it again and again. Cassie, on the other hand, won't let me touch her. Liz bounces her up and down and drags her around making motorboat noises, but every time I approach, she has a fit and scrambles to get away. "You're so big," Liz says, but I don't know. I'm not sure that's it.
A man unlocks the gate in the fence that surrounds the pool, and a little blond girl about Kendra's age squeezes past him and runs to the water, where she drops to all fours and dips in her hand.
"It's warm enough," she shouts to the man, who smiles and waves at Tracy.
"Hey, whassup," Tracy says.
She bends her legs so that he can sit on the end of her chaise. His hair is spiked with something greasy, and his T-shirt advertises a bar. I dive down to walk on my hands. When I come up, they are laughing together. He reaches into the pocket of his baggy shorts, and I swear I see him give Tracy money.
Dead Boys: Stories
- paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316018805
- ISBN-13: 9780316018807