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ZYZZYVA fiction.

Cardioplegia

You were supposed to keep your eyes closed. Jerry Adelstein knew this, but still he couldn’t help himself. Through his half-open lids he saw Nicki, or rather, the top of Nicki’s head a few rows in front of him. Her black hair was shiny and slicked back with massage oil, glistening like an otter sunning itself on a rock. Though he couldn’t know for sure, he would bet good money that Nicki’s eyes were closed. Unlike him, she tended to follow the rules.

But he shouldn’t be thinking about Nicki. He shouldn’t be thinking at all. Follow the breath, the teacher had said. If you feel your mind drifting, just label the thought: thinking, thinking. She made it sound so easy, as if it were no small matter to shut down the mind. To have thoughts, label them without a running commentary, then let them go, presumably to float up, up, up and away, to some sort of graveyard of lost thoughts.

The teacher’s name was Samjana, the Sanskrit word for awareness, but her surname was Resnick, and Jerry would bet—meditation seemed to put him in a betting mood—that her given name was something more along the lines of Sarah. Or Rachel. In another life, he might have seen her during Yom Kippur services, her head bowed in contemplation during the silent Amidah.

But instead, here they were at the River Bend Retreat, a former monastery situated, aptly, at a bend on the Snake River in Idaho: a thirty-something meditation teacher (not just any meditation teacher, as Nicki had told him back home when trying to persuade him. Samjana was a rock star, the Lady Gaga of meditation teachers) and he, Jerry Adelstein, a fifty-seven-year-old intellectual property attorney fresh off a triple bypass.

Now that, he really, really didn’t want to think about. If he thought about his heart, it would respond, as if in a pas de deux, by thumping irregularly against his chest wall. He peered at Samjana, still and stately as one of the trees outside the picture window which overlooked the rapids. Her legs were crossed in a full lotus position, and it seemed from the peaceful upturning of her lips that she could effortlessly remain that way until nightfall. Thinking, thinking. Behind Samjana, hanging high up on the wall, was a photograph of the Swami who had founded the place. When Jerry had first Googled River Bend, he found many references to the Swami, mostly involving his hasty departure years earlier amid swirling rumors of both sexual and financial impropriety. Thinking, thinking.

Mentally, he slapped himself. Snap out of it, Adelstein! Discipline ruled his life, from the half grapefruit he ate for breakfast each morning and the daily 3.4 miles around the reservoir (a thing of the past), to the color-coded files he meticulously kept on every client past and present. Christ, he even got through The Brothers Karamazov last summer when he and Nicki spent the last two weeks of August on the Vineyard, but this—just turning down the volume, slowing down the avalanche of loose data pinging through his mind—this seemed to be beyond him.

 

It had been his cardiologist at Mount Sinai who first brought up the idea of meditation.

“Medication?” Jerry had asked.

“No, meditation.” The cardiologist hadn’t realized that Jerry was joking. What was the expression: about as funny as a heart attack?

“Be serious, Jerry.” This, from Nicki, who had been in the room at the time. “You know, I read a study last winter. There are significant benefits.”

Two weeks earlier, his chest had been sawed open, an event that occurred less than twenty-four hours after a stress test and subsequent angioplasty had revealed major blockage in three coronary arteries. It had been a routine visit—an annual checkup—and Jerry couldn’t help but feel that if he’d skipped the visit, none of this might ever have happened. It could have been, as his kids used to say when they were little, a do-over. No railroad track of an angry red scar in the center of his chest, still bare from being shaved pre-surgery. No new normal, a phrase he abhorred. And certainly no fucking retreat in the middle of nowhere led by a woman with a cockamamie Hindu stagename.

 

Sadjama tapped an ornate gong with a soft mallet, and a single, mournful note filled the room. Slowly people started to come back from wherever they had been, as if returning from a country to which Jerry had been denied access. It seemed like a peaceful place, if perhaps a bit boring, and he found himself wishing that he could at least visit—though he was certain he didn’t want to live there.

As the final vibrations of the gong faded into silence, he trained his gaze on Nicki, willing her to turn around. His fellow retreatants (was that even a word?) stretched and rolled their necks. Joints cracked. Knees popped. The rustling sound of a hundred asses shifting position. Come on, baby. Come to Poppa. Nicki lifted one long arm, then reached behind herself and scratched her back.

“And so.” Sadjama’s bird-like ribcage rose and fell. Her voice seemed to pick up where the gong left off, as if part of some sort of ancient chorus. “And so, we begin to see the contents of our minds. In following the breath, we meet ourselves.”

Jerry pictured a cartoon version of himself, shaking his own hand.

“We are like busy little monkeys, going, going, going so that we don’t have to consider the truth of our own insignificance, our brief time in this vessel, this physical body.”

Jerry didn’t see the upside of pondering his own insignificance. And he was quite fond of his vessel, thank you very much. His physical body staged a rebellion against Sadjama’s words. Surges of uncomfortable energy coursed through him, wave after wave. He wanted to do something. Maybe a few dozen push-ups, though that might kill him, or at the very least mess with the cardiac surgeon’s handiwork. You weren’t supposed to leave the room—another rule on a list of unspoken rules—but still he could feel himself on the verge of leaping up and stumbling to the door. Through the picture window, a foggy mist rose from the river. It looked almost like a photograph of a river, a postcard designed for tourists. If his thoughts weren’t real, then what was? Please, baby. Turn around.

As if he had spoken aloud, Nicki swiveled her head and looked straight at him, her large dark eyes gleaming. The rest of her face didn’t move. No amusement, nor frustration, nor concern creased his wife’s lovely brow. Her eyes, those twin pools, offered him exactly nothing, which was, of course, worse than nothing. A few seconds passed, maybe more. He was drowning. Nicki turned so that she was once again facing Sadjama, her posture as straight as a knife.

 

His grown children called Nicki “the homewrecker” when she wasn’t around. It was their loyalty to their mother that caused this mean streak, which was otherwise quite out-of-character. Amanda was twenty-eight, Ben, twenty-six. They were good kids, excellent kids, and Jerry was aware that he didn’t have any grounds for complaint. They had sailed smoothly through their childhoods on a sea of academic achievement: Dalton, then Taft, where they boarded during the divorce, and then Ben had followed Amanda to Wesleyan, where both had distinguished themselves. Law school for the girl, an MFA in poetry for the boy, though Jerry couldn’t help but wish it had been the other way around. It was only this one ugly word, homewrecker, which he had overheard as they planned his fiftieth birthday party, that let Jerry know that the wound of the split had remained open, festering. A blight on their otherwise blessed lives. Though, in Nicki’s presence, of course, they were unfailingly polite.

Twelve years since all that had happened—surely long enough to legitimize any sense of sordidness about the whole thing. Yes, Nicki had been a summer associate. Yes, he was a partner, and married, a family man who should have known better—who did know better. Nothing like this had ever happened, or likely ever would have happened if it hadn’t been Nicki. Only Nicki. He wasn’t looking for trouble. In fact, he’d thought of himself as relatively happy—as content, he would have said, as anyone trying to run a law firm and raise two kids in the pressure cooker of Manhattan. But when the firm’s number one recruit arrived at the beginning of that June in the form of a small, fine-boned young woman with the gait of a dancer, whose soft-spokenness masked a formidable intellect and, what’s more, a wicked sense of humor, Jerry found excuses to stop at her desk, to hand-deliver correspondence, to ride the elevator just as she was leaving for the day. An impulsive invitation for a drink, which led to dinner, which led to a lie to his wife about working late. The gentle, quizzical expression that first crossed Nicki’s face, that night, as some invisible hand began to knit the air between them, connecting them in a way that felt bizarrely inevitable. By the time he stopped to ask himself what he was doing, he had already done it. He had fallen in love with a woman technically young enough to be his daughter, and whom he had met through work. He couldn’t have made a bigger mess of things if he had tried.

“The whole world doesn’t just revolve around you, Daddy. What about us?” He could still hear Amanda’s wailing voice. She had been sixteen years old, and she thought of herself, her brother, and her mother as a unit. To violate one was to violate them all. But Jerry couldn’t explain to her, couldn’t barely even explain to himself the way he had been dying a little bit each year, the way he had been feeling numb from the neck down, a head bobbling along on a set of insensate shoulders, all brains and no heart, just getting through day after day. It wasn’t about sex, but rather, a desperate need to feel—to be back inside his body again.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say, and say it he did, over and over again until the words broke down into syllables, until they lost all meaning.

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The Question of Existence: Gary Amdahl’s ‘The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts’

The Intimidator Still Lives in Our HeartsThe Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts (Artistically Declined Press, 295 pages), the new book from author Gary Amdahl (Visigoths, I Am Death), is a collection of stories that features a startling range of settings and characters (a writer, a bookstore employee, a philosopher, and a gambler, to name a handful). But each story is connected through the philosophical questions Amdahl’s dense, sweeping prose addresses, a trait of serious-mindedness not found in many modern story collections.

Of the book’s nine stories, several feature a first-person narrator, including “Breezeway.” In that piece, the narrator reflects on the breezeway between the garage and the house of his grandparent’s house, the basement of which he lived in as a child. He would frequently sit in the breezeway and think in silence. Looking back through old pictures, he also remembers when his younger brother died, and the effect it had on his family. In one scene, the narrator examines an old picture of himself and a dog, and mentions the foreboding look in his eyes in the photo, indicating something unpleasant would happen to the dog. “That such things happen all the time to everybody fails to alter the character of my grief—that is to say, of inexplicable loss. You can in fact see it in everybody’s eyes: that’s what life is.”

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The Chinese Barracks

Ten days after the opening, the work schedules were already growing long. Betty explained it all to Hannah. You worked until your job was done, or you worked until someone stopped you. Jozef, who worked like a machine and chased overtime, never slept until he was ordered to. You were called a broken taco if you worked less than sixteen hours, a champion if you worked more than twenty-four. You compared hours of overtime. You compared hallucinations the way sailors compared tattoos. The shadows of the fresh-frozen house got animated late at night, roused by the clanging of the belt and the slap of the salmon as they fell into empty metal bins, or the slap of salmon as they fell against other salmon. They all saw them, creeping shadows and bright spots in their vision. When the salmon came in half rotted from Bristol Bay, the smell agitated the shadows even more, making them flap like bats. The dark circles under everyone’s eyes grew luminous and sometimes bled like mascara down their cheeks. It was impossible to fall asleep with all this chattering movement: a foreman would grab someone as they stumbled and tell them to take five hours to sleep, but without fail when you lay down the rhythm of some chain clanking in the wind, some seagull, the waves or the waving of the curtain would demand attention and there was a simple and perilous choice—to give it attention and remain awake, or to close your eyes and encounter the current of adrenaline that gave you horrible rhythmic dreams: dreams of conveyer belts of fish; when the conveyer belt stopped you scissor-kicked yourself awake. Everyone understood the slipperiness of the minds of sleepy people, and everyone kept up a watchful camaraderie that had as much to do with self-preservation as it did with brotherhood—it was part of the local currency of kindness, like Skittles and back rubs.

 

Maryanne, whose father owned boats out of Kelso, kept a supply of Metabolife under her bed and would slip a vitamin-sized pill into the pocket of her friends’ hoodies if she saw them lagging on the slime line or growing emotional. The first night of the season, which stretched from the bell at midnight to noon the next day, she was giving out painters’ dust masks to people who were cold. She handed one to Hannah, who had started shivering around five in the morning. Maryanne helped her put the dusk mask on, tightening it in the back and saying:

“The mask will keep you warm, but the warm air around your mouth will make you sleepy, OK? It’s an even trade.” Hannah nodded, tears of gratitude in her eyes.

When Hannah’s head started dipping after breakfast, Maryanne got sharp, and yanked the mask down to Hannah’s chin.

“If you get dozy, take the mask off!” Hannah nodded doggedly. “Also, don’t eat much at breakfast. If you’re hungry, you’re awake. Fill up on coffee.” She clapped Hannah’s cheek, hard enough to make her understand, gentle enough to get away with it.

As Maryanne moved away, Betty heard her muttering, “That girl has broken taco written all over her.”

 

Betty had worked with Maryanne the year before, and she knew enough to treat her with respect. She knew well enough what “broken taco” meant, and she new how to avoid becoming one: don’t lag, tow the line, don’t quit the cannery before the last sockeye run comes in. Betty wondered why they didn’t just say “pussy.” To be a broken taco was to be the lowest of the low: incompetent and spineless. Maryanne was the head of the roe house this year, working with the skinny Japanese men who wore white boots and smoked cigarettes as they packed boxes of Grade C roe to ship back to the low-end sushi buffets back home. Maryanne would pick only her friends to work in the roe house. It was the best position you could get: the roe house was away from the noise of the machinery in the cannery and the fresh-frozen house and you could play music and take breaks whenever and maybe learn Japanese.

 

In the first few days of the season, when everyone worked in the evening and got twelve hours off to sleep and everyone slept, even, often for ten of the twelve hours, there was a quiet held like an inhaled breath. The days were sodden and gloomy, and the bunkhouses stunk of wet wool and sleep and the sweetness of fish blood. The bunkhouses would grow louder by ten p.m., the sun still glowing behind the clouds, and by midnight everyone, flabby faced with sleep, would troop over to the cannery buildings. One of these first few nights the Child brothers, Zack and J. Child, started working in fresh-frozen, and the season had its first fight and real beginning. The Child brothers were delinquents from Portland: Zack’s face was pleasant, round and ripe with acne, and J. Child was sullen, pointedly handsome. Both of them were already notorious for covering up the smell of fish blood with Axe body spray. Both of them had bought their plane tickets from Portland to Alaska on cannery credit.

 

It was Nusky, the veteran foreman, who assigned the Child brothers to fresh-frozen, stacking fish on pallets and moving them to the freezer. Everyone called Nusky “Leatherneck,” behind his back because his neck was wrinkled and tanned from years on boats. That evening, the Child brothers sauntered in late and Nusky ran up to them and started yelling. Zack, cowed, backed away, but J. Child yelled back at him, calling him, in a voice louder than the machinery, “You leathernecked old bastard.” Nusky stopped talking, grimaced a smile, and patted J. Child on the back. J. Child was wrong to make an enemy out of Nusky, because he put J. Child on duty stacking fish, and J. Child’s carpal tunnel got so bad that the vein started to blacken. Everyone said that he had put things in that vein, though, and no one but Hannah, who later started sleeping with him, held him up as a pitiful martyr. Betty, who decided to cope with her exhaustion through anger, supported J. Child because she decided to hate Nusky.

 

Betty didn’t get to work in the roe house. She was put in the sorting crew, separating the sockeye from the chum and pink salmon. It was lonely, the work started at midnight, and there were only girls for company. Hannah was on the crew, and Hannah’s roommate, and a Polish or Ukrainian girl named Ilsa. There were a lot of internationals this year—the stringy Japanese and then all these Poles or Ukrainians. Some were returning: Jozef, the machine, was a favorite. The sorting crew left for work when everyone else was getting off and going to sleep. Every two hours they got ten minutes with a coffee pot and a selection of white bread and cold cuts—but even the coffee breaks were lonely for the sorting crew. Betty got angry. The fresh-frozen house was colder at night, and echoed.

 

Last season, when she was working in the cannery and was good friends with Maryanne, Betty was a favorite of Nusky and the other foremen who rode around on their bicycles with haughty impunity, regally nodding their heads. Bicycles were for the foremen only, but last season Betty hadn’t known this, and when she had found a bicycle by the incinerator, rusted and dented and missing a saddle, she brought it back to the cannery. She saw Maryanne set her mouth in disapproval, but in the excitement of the moment she continued riding in circles around the dock. She set it down to go in to dinner, and when she came out of the mess hall she saw that someone had thrown it onto the rocks. Every low tide, the bicycle was revealed, hanging with seaweed. This season it was gone, dragged into the bay by some angry winter current. Now, standing at the sorting belt, watching the salmon rolling, squirming or stiff with rigor mortis, it seemed clear that Maryanne had thrown her bicycle off the dock. Maryanne kept her distance from Betty, and kept a close eye on her Metabolife. Sometimes Nusky would ride around late at night to check on the night crews at the sorting belt and the beach gang. He was still pleasant to Betty; he offered her chocolate. That was his bartering tool, his restorative—little fun-size candies he’d produce from his pocket with a flourish.

 

Jozef the machine had already abandoned sleeping. He came up, one night, to the sorting perch, unsteady on his feet, and Hannah asked in a small whisper if he was drunk. His eyes were red, he swatted at the handrail and missed.

“Is he—Is he drunk?”

Jozef lurched. He said nothing about why he was up there. He turned to address the conveyer belt of salmon and spoke in Polish. He had a ring of spittle, dried white, around his mouth. Hannah was watching him with a half-open mouth, backing away.

“He’s not drunk, he’s just sleepy.” They all used the word “sleepy” to describe the various stages of exhaustion, because it sounded cute and chummy. Betty took Jozef’s arm.

“Joe,” she said, and Jozef wheeled: shocked, rocking. “Joe, get some sleep. It’s time for bed.” She helped him down the stairs. He walked in the opposite direction of the bunkhouses.

Back at the sorting belt, Hannah was stock still, glazed with concern.

“He’s fine. He’s just sleepy.”

Betty understood Jozef’s aversion to sleep: without sleep you got the elation, the slamming heart and joy that hammered like a headache, between the troughs of sadness and fear.

 

Hannah got hysterical when she was in the trough, weeping silently. Eyes scanning the moving shadows in her vision, she would ask, “What was that? What was that?” pointing at nothing. When she was happy, she was silly, giggling and recounting the snippets of her dreams. Betty’s trough was anger—she spat and punched at the fish when she sorted them, sometimes pulling the softer ones apart. She engaged with what she saw moving at the edge of her sight, cursing. When she was happy she was also angry, but giddily so. The girls on the sorting crew tried to stay in rhythm, so that no more than one of them was spooked or anguished at a time. At coffee breaks they poured and sugared each other’s coffee. Sometimes there were fights—they liked the fights best if they were between the Ukrainians or Poles, because they could sit and relax and pretend to interpret what they were saying as they hit each other. Hannah sat and rocked gently and giggled, and Betty balled her fists and said: “Yeah! Yeah!”

 

Her real name was Tess, short for Teresa, but she had changed it to Betty. The inspiration for this name change was her boyfriend. Her boyfriend’s name was Carl, but his stage name was Mikey Mnoxide. He was never really onstage; he worked repairing motorcycles, and once, when they talked about their plans, he said that they should start a joint bike-repair shop and beauty parlor so that the Bettys could get their hair done while the Johnnys got their bikes looked after. He said it casually, in his bland Kansas accent, and she decided right then to go to beauty school. Now, to practice, she teased her hair into a bouffant, or a beehive, and drew on her eyes with liquid liner. She combed her boyfriend’s hair back into a ducktail, using egg white to give it that sheen and hold. When she opened her beauty parlor next to the bike shop she would make sure that the only haircuts the Johnnys could get were ducktails and crew cuts. She never called him Carl, but she never got used to calling him Mikey, so she called him “you.” He called her “the little lady.”

Even at the cannery, she did her hair before work. She brought a can of hairspray and a jar of pomade. She told the girls on the crew about her boyfriend; she called him “my boyfriend.” She brought a tape deck, and a collection of tapes, all doo-wop. When she was in a trough another girl, usually Hannah, would play “My Boyfriend’s Back” to cheer her up. When Hannah was acting spooky, Betty played her “The Leader of the Pack.” After work some days, they would sit and listen to the tape deck in Betty’s room. Their personalities changed at each song, and grew wistful during the love songs and hard, almost manic, when the music was raunchy. They always skipped “Last Kiss,” because it was about death and made the shadows in the corners of the room flutter with ghostly portents.

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Clear as Cake

Marvin Helgarson smoked a pipe. When he listened to us, he nipped at the pipe—pah, pah, pah—the way that people who smoke pipes do, and when he told us things about our writing, he jabbed the pipe in the air for emphasis. I liked Marvin Helgarson. He was tall, not just everyday tall but tall even by Minnesota standards, though that’s not why I liked him. I’m just trying to give details, what Marvin Helgarson called “salient features.”

The class met Tuesday evenings in the Humanities Building library, sixteen of us wedged in around two long wooden tables that came together in a T with Marvin Helgarson at the head. It felt like Thanksgiving the first night, all of us too close together and filled with dread, though later, after Marvin Helgarson explained about perspective, I could see that maybe that was just my perspective.

“Liars and thieves,” said Marvin Helgarson to get things going. “That’s what you get with a room full of writers.” He rose and swept out his arms like Jesus to include us all.

He meant it as an icebreaker, and most of us chuckled, but the woman across from me said, “Oh dear. I didn’t know anything about that”—meaning, I guess, that she had a different idea about writers and writing, a different idea about what she had signed up for. Her name was Wanda, and she had large warts on her chin and cheeks, and later these warts would appear on the characters in her stories. We were always nervous about discussing them, worrying, I suppose, that we might read something into the warts that Wanda had not intended and that she would know then what it was that people saw when they looked at her.

“Wanda,” said Marvin Helgarson, “I don’t mean writers are really thieves.” He paused, picked up his pipe, and sucked on it. “It’s more like when someone lends you a pen to use, and then you just don’t give it back.” About lying, he said nothing.

“You’re going to be working together intimately,” Marvin Helgarson said, “so you need to know who you’re dealing with.” He asked for a volunteer to begin the introductions, and Fred Erickson, who was wearing a tie with a treble clef on it, jumped right in, describing his family and hobbies and years as the director of a choir in Idaho, from which he was now retired. Idaho seemed far away to me, and I wondered how he had ended up in Moorhead, Minnesota, but I didn’t ask because I was intimidated by my classmates, most of whom came to campus once a week for this class but were adults with jobs and families the rest of the time.

I took a lot of notes that semester, tips that Marvin Helgarson shared to help us with our writing, like when he told us that sometimes the things that seemed most compelling to write about should not really be written about at all. They were just anecdotes, he said, odd things that had happened to us that were interesting to discuss in a bar but were not literary, by which he meant that they could not transcend the page. He explained this the first night of class, jabbing the air with his pipe so that we understood it was important, and then he said it again several months later when we discussed the nutty lady’s story about a woman who cleaned rest stops along I-94. In the story, the woman and her cleaning partner were finishing the rest area near Fergus Falls when they discovered a body inside one of the trashcans. The story, which was just two pages long, mainly a lot of boring details about cleaning that lent veracity, ended like this: “The woman was dead and she was also naked. We were shocked and scared, and after the police came, we finished the bathrooms and went home.”

When Marvin explained to the nutty lady that it wasn’t really a short story, that it was more of an anecdote, she stood up. “Anecdote?” she said. “This really happened, you know. It happened to me, right after my ass-wipe husband left, and I had to be at that job every morning at six.” She snorted. “Anecdote.” Then, she walked out. It was late, nearly nine o’clock, and we could hear her footsteps echoing, not only because the building was empty but because she was wearing ski boots.

We didn’t see the crazy lady again, but at the beginning of the next class Marvin showed us what she had left in his mailbox: a manila envelope with our stories for the week, chopped into strips with a paper cutter. You see, she really was crazy. But also, she’d had enough of us I think, enough of us telling her stuff about her writing. Three weeks earlier, she’d submitted a story about a woman whose vagina hurt all the time, except when she was having sex. As a result, her husband, who was a farmer, got very tired of having sex all the time and told her that she needed to go to the doctor to have her vagina checked. “I’m putting my foot down” is what he said, which made me laugh, though I didn’t say so because I didn’t think the story was supposed to be funny.

The woman and her husband spoke with what seemed like Irish accents, but when they drove into town to see the doctor, they drove to Bemidji, which is in Minnesota. I raised my hand and said they sounded Irish, pointing to things like “lassie” and “thar” because Marvin had told us to back up our comments with examples from the text, but the crazy lady looked pleased when I said they sounded Irish. “Yes,” she said. “They’re from Ireland. They moved to Minnesota when they were young in order to have an adventure and be farmers and also because something tragic happened to them in Ireland and they needed a fresh start.”

“I guess I missed that,” I said and began shuffling back through the story.

“No,” she said. “It doesn’t say it. It’s just something I know. I was creating a life for my characters off the page, the way that Marvin said we should.”

“That’s a lot to have off the page,” pointed out Thomas in what I thought was a very nice voice. Thomas was also one of the older students in the class. The first salient feature about Thomas was that his parents met at a nudist colony, where they were not nudists because they worked in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and frying meat. The other salient feature about Thomas was that he was a minister. I knew these things because he sometimes wrote his sermons at Jack’s, the bar that I hung out at, and one night we drank a pitcher of beer together and talked, but when we saw each other in class the next week, we both felt awkward.

“But the story isn’t about them leaving Ireland,” said the crazy lady triumphantly. “It’s about”—she paused because I guess even a crazy lady feels strange saying “vagina” to a minister—“the pain in her female parts.”

None of us knew what to say, so we looked down at the story, at the scene in which the woman and her husband, who was tired from having sex all the time, visited the doctor. When she was in the doctor’s office, lying on the table with her feet in the stirrups, the doctor, who was an elderly man, positioned himself between her legs and called out, “Three fingers going.”

This was supposed to be a minor detail I think, but Tabatha, who was a feminist, got mad. “That’s ridiculous,” she yelled at the crazy lady. “What kind of a doctor would say, ‘Three fingers going’?”

“Doctors are just regular people,” the crazy lady yelled back. “They get tired of saying the same things over and over, day after day. This doctor is like that. He’s old, and he’s tired. I am showing that he’s a regular person who is exhausted and wants to retire. I am developing his character.”

“That’s not development,” Tabatha said. “Then the story becomes about him, about how he’s a misogynist and is going to get sued one of these days for saying things like ‘three fingers going’ to women when they’re in a vulnerable position.”

Tabatha was not someone that I wanted to be friends with, but I liked having her in class because she never disappointed me. Her first story, called “Cardboard Jesus,” was about this guy Bart who spends all day watching television, and then one day a cardboard man jumps out of the TV and starts going on and on about how Bart needs to change his life, so Bart names the little man Cardboard Jesus. Finally, Bart gets tired of Cardboard Jesus making him feel bad about his life, so he puts Cardboard Jesus in the garbage disposal. The story ends with Cardboard Jesus getting chewed up, and the last line is him calling out from inside the disposal, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Most of us did not really care for “Cardboard Jesus.” I said that it seemed unlikely, and Marvin said, “Are we talking character believability?” and I said that I couldn’t really put my finger on it but that there wasn’t a character worth rooting for in the whole piece. Tabatha snorted and said, “It’s not a football game,” even though we weren’t supposed to talk when our story was being discussed.

“Maybe it’s the dialogue,” I said finally.

Just the week before, Marvin had explained about dialogue, how it’s supposed to sound like a normal conversation except less boring. Our dialogues, it turned out, had too much verisimilitude. “Look,” Marvin had said. “Imagine a guy goes into McDonald’s and says, ‘I’d like a Big Mac and fries,’ and then the cashier says, ‘OK, that’ll be $4.05,’ and the guy pays and walks out with his burger and fries.” He paused. “Typical conversation, right?” and we nodded. “So what’s wrong with putting that conversation in a story?” he asked.

Tabatha’s hand went up. “Why is everything always about McDonald’s?” she said. “I would never have that conversation, because I would never go to McDonald’s.” She looked around the table. “Or Burger King,” she added, pre-empting the possibility of a setting change.

Marvin Helgarson sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But my point is that this conversation is only interesting if one of them says something we don’t expect, if the cashier says, ‘No, sir, you may not have a Big Mac and fries.’ Then you have a story.” Tabatha started to speak, probably planning to point out that the cashier was doing the man a favor, but Marvin held up his hand at her. “Dialogue,” he explained, “is all about power shifting back and forth.” His pipe volleyed illustratively through the air.

“What’s wrong with my dialogue?” Tabatha asked, looking at me and making her eyes small.

“I don’t know,” I said. Her dialogue was the opposite of what Marvin had cautioned us about. It didn’t have any verisimilitude. “I guess it just feels sort of biblical.”

The crazy lady raised her hand and said that there was nothing biblical about the story. She said the story was libelous, and Marvin said, “I think you mean blasphemous,” and she said that she knew what she meant and so did God. Thomas said nothing, even though he was a minister, and then Tabatha announced that everyone had missed the point, which was that “Cardboard Jesus” was a “modern-day crucifixion story.”

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A Refreshing Story Set in a Rundown Town: Michelle Tea’s ‘Mermaid in Chelsea Creek’

Mermaid in Chelsea CreekIn a post-Twilight, post-Hunger Games world, the Young Adult literary scene is fraught with sparkly neutered vampires, teens struggling against the shackles of their dystopian societies, and bland heroines who are somehow sucked into irritating love triangles. This new YA craze has even spawned a Paranormal Romance sub-section in the Young Adult shelves of Barnes and Noble, crammed tight with the types of book covers you cannot help but judge. There is hope, however, and it comes in the form of Michelle Tea’s newest protagonist, a thirteen-year-old, dirt-layered, scabbed-knee girl named Sophie Swankowski.

In her first installment of a YA trilogy, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek (McSweeney’s Books, 333 pages), Tea, the award-winning author of Valencia and Rose of No Man’s Land,  brings us to Chelsea, Massachusetts, a broken-down town that has seen better days. (Tea wrote a memoir, The Chelsea Whistle, about growing up there, which was published in 2002.) There are girls who play the pass-out game, roving groups of aimless teenage boys, and old immigrant women who left everything behind for a better life, only to end up in Chelsea. It is a hopeless place, but there is a story about a girl who will be able to fix their dark and twisted world, a girl who will bring the magic back. Sophie, with her grubby clothes, strange need to eat straight salt, and visions of a foul-mouthed Polish mermaid, might just be that girl.

Tea successfully sheds new and loving light on what society usually paints as filthy and less desirable. Indeed, nothing may be what people think it is. A grandmother might be a bad witch, a dog might be a grandfather, and a town floozy might actually be possessed by a Dola, who is attempting to get you back on track with your destiny. Chelsea may be run down, but by the end the reader cares for the pot-holed streets, mangy houses, smelly dump, garbage-filled ocean and pollution-rotted creek. Pigeons, those rats with wings that everybody hates, play an integral role in Sophie’s development through the story, morphing from grey, disease-carrying beasts to beautiful orange-eyed birds more befitting of their other name, Rock Dove.

Even Sophie, as she is first introduced, is a less than desirable as a heroine while she gulps down sludgy creek water in front of her germaphobic best and only friend Ella. She is slightly neglected, with dirty tangled hair, grubby clothes and scabbed knees, but her spunk, curiosity and her genuine heart and ability to care for others endear her to the reader.

Another great strength of Tea’s book is her use of narrator. Sophie, with her spunk, curiosity, genuine heart and empathy for others, endears herself to the reader. And while the point of view stays mostly with Sophie, there are many occasions where the perspective shifts briefly into those of other characters, mimicking Sophie’s own power to read people’s hearts and capture their true feelings. This all goes to deepen the characters, and makes it possible for the reader, much like Sophie, to forgive key protagonists for their failings.

Tea’s novel is a refreshing breath of air in the world of YA, equal parts eerie, heartbreaking and fantastical. This modern fairytale harkens back to the wonderful days when the genre wasn’t all about vampires that could frolic in the sunshine.

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The Absurdity of War, the Absurdity of the Media: Robert Perisic’s ‘Our Man in Iraq’

Our Man In IraqOriginally published in Croatia in 2007, Our Man In Iraq (Black Balloon; 202 pages), Robert Perisic’s finely crafted and witty novel, is now the first of his books to be translated into English (with translator Will Firth). American readers should delight in discovering Perisic’s work, while lamenting this inexplicable delay.

The novel opens in 2003. Toni has patched together a promising life: the Economics editor for PEG, an independent local newspaper, he lives in Zagreb with his beautiful girlfriend, Sanja, an actress who has just landed her first major stage role. Marriage seems to be on the horizon, and perhaps a move to a grander apartment as well.

But trouble simmers beneath the slick surface. Sanja’s big break gradually but inexorably draws her into another world and another echelon of fame. The new apartment Toni views as a way to keep their lives and relationship evolving will require taking out a massive loan. And most urgently of all, there is the matter of his man in Iraq. Despite his determined efforts to break free of the family he considers pre-modern and all its associated tribal encumbrances, Toni has nevertheless become a kind of fixer for his extended family. His latest improvisation in that role has far-reaching consequences: to provide his cousin Boris with gainful employment, he has set up the veteran in a correspondent’s role, covering the American-led invasion of Iraq for PEG. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Toni seems to believe he can keep his employers from discovering that Boris has no training as a journalist. Inevitably, the reports Boris sends from the field are not fit to print: rambling and pensive, they are elliptically insightful about war in general while devoid of factual information about this war in particular. But they betray far more disconcerting traits than amateurism—Boris’s most distraught missives suggest he may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When the reports cease altogether and Boris seems to disappear, Toni observes, horrified, as his life unravels rapidly on all fronts.

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The Hairline Fractures of Relationships: Gregory Spatz’s ‘Half as Happy’

Half As HappyHalf as Happy (Engine Books, 186 pages), the new story collection from novelist Gregory Spatz (Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, No One But Us), examines faltering relationships and the unhappy people struggling to hold them together. The collection’s eight stories are remarkably honest, driven by moments both funny and painful that uncover deep rifts in the lives of Spatz’s characters.

In “No Kind of Music,” Patrick is drawn to the symphony after his wife leaves him for a younger, one-legged man. Most of the excitement remaining in Patrick’s life is centered on his eclectic neighbors, an elderly couple raising their rebellious daughter’s child. Patrick involves himself with them to mask his loneliness, but when the couple’s daughter comes to town and causes trouble for Patrick, he has to escape to the outdoor symphony, where he runs into his ex-wife and her new lover. “Why wasn’t he part of anything, anywhere, ever?” Patrick wonders to himself as he struggles to hear the concert. Alone amid a sea of spectators, he realizes that without his wife his existence has become empty.

“A Bear for Trying” is about twin brothers who do everything together until one of them falls into a coma. When the other begins to invade the intimate areas of his comatose brother’s life, their relationship is jeopardized. “Happy for You” tells the story of an elderly mother giving out Easter recipes to her son over the phone till  she realizes no one will be joining her for the holidays; her son will be spending them with his estranged father. The mother finds herself constantly at odds with “that feeling in the middle of the night when you wake up and can’t think of a single good excuse for your existence.” In both of these stories, the protagonists struggle to define their lives within the context of their closest relationships. Once those relationships change—whether suddenly because of an accident, or slowly because of time—the boundaries of their self become blurry.

The collection’s title story displays the hairline fractures of a seemingly happy marriage. Each day at lunch, Stan sits by his pool, eating and drinking beer, enjoying the view of his naked wife swimming laps in the sunshine. But since the beginning of summer, Heidi has become obsessed with her self-image, losing so much weight her husband no longer recognizes her body. While Heidi is driven by an insecurity rooted in the small, distant problems in her marriage, Stan tries his best to find the right way to tell her she’s gone overboard. “Too much of a good thing, honey, is still a good thing, but it’s too much,” he tells her in one of his subtle attempts to save her from herself. Soon, his overtures become less subtle, and a twenty-year marriage that appeared stable just months before is on the verge of implosion.

This constant search for happiness and meaning winds through Half as Happy, and often ends without a perfect resolution. The first story, “A Landlord’s Dream,” is about a couple who rent a new home as they look to run away from the painful memories held in their last residence. But Carolyne and Seamus’s real problem is a lack of intimacy. “If her instincts had taught her one thing by then,” Carolyne thinks, “it was that they were seldom to be trusted, and never where men were concerned.” Carolyne and her husband are always trying to find easy solutions to their issues—new house, new toys—that only touch the outskirts of the actual problem. They, like most of the characters in Half as Happy, don’t have a problem understanding they are unhappy; their difficultly lies in determining the next step to take. Spatz guides us into the most intimate parts of his characters’ lives, and often concludes their stories with an uneasy lack of resolution. The indication being that the future of these relationships may be as doomed as you would think.

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So Close to Each Other, Yet So Far Apart: Jessica Francis Kane’s ‘This Close’

This CloseJessica Francis Kane’s new story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 192 pages), is an interior examination of the closest of relationships. Kane reveals in these thirteen stories how easily conflict, jealousy, and pain can create distance between family, friends and neighbors.

In “The Essentials of Acceleration,” Holly is the lonely woman on her block, sharing a house with an elderly father who leaves flowers on the porches of the neighbors. Her father easily befriends the people who live near him while Holly remains confused about her father’s affability. To Holly, being a neighbor does not necessitate friendship. “Let’s have laminated sheets up and down the street announcing all our personal disasters and resentments,” she thinks. As her father grows closer with the young mother living across the street, Holly’s eventual jealousy breeds resentment toward her father during his waning days.

“American Lawn” opens with Pat renting out a portion of her yard to Kirill, a Croatian immigrant looking for a place to garden. Pat grows jealous of the familiarity Kirill shows her younger neighbor, sparking a subtle antagonism between the two women. Kirill, who acts as the objective observer to the ever-widening rift between Pat and her neighbor, later wonders if he has any chance of surviving in a country ripe with such strange disputes. “ ‘America,’ he sighed, shaking his head, ‘I’m am still wondering how to win her.’ ”

Through two blocks of narratives, Kane shows the development of families over time. In the first, consisting of four stories, Mike Leary grows up with a stubborn single mother and eventually builds a successful life. As a child, Mike fails to understand his relationship with his mother, or her friendships with other men. When adult Mike dies prematurely, his mother and his friends struggle to maintain the relationships they’ve built with each other now that they are left with only memories of him. Neither Mike, while he’s alive, nor his mother can understand the friendships each has built in his or her own life.

The next grouping begins with the “The Stand-In,” which introduces Hannah, vacationing in Israel with her father while her mother is bed-ridden at home, spurring her first experiences in the adult world. In the two stories that follow, her parents grow old while Hannah evolves from a young, naive girl into a powerful woman able to hold a conversation with her father’s friends. Soon she becomes barely recognizable to her father, and he realizes he no longer understands the connection he has with his daughter. In these pieces, we see how people can grow together yet move apart over the span of their lives, often without realizing what’s occurring.

“Next in Line” is the tale of a couple grieving the loss of their infant child. The mother spends her days wandering through the CVS in which she believes an old woman cursed her daughter. What she’s looking for, she doesn’t know. But unlike many of the characters in This Close, the mother is able to bond with her husband, and together they begin to move past the child’s death. Finally, the mother does: “With that, a subtle shift was complete: there was now a time after S was gone and that was not the present. The world had changed again.”

Kane, whose last book was the critically acclaimed novel “The Report,” often leads her characters into discovering the emptiness in their relationships, but she also shows how conflict can bring people together instead of drive them apart. Like the mother in “Next in Line,” people don’t always hide from their emotional turmoil. Some face it directly, saving their relationships rather than destroying them.

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Cross Country Journey More Than a Road Trip: Grant Ginder’s ‘Driver’s Education’

Driver's EducationGrant Ginder’s recent novel, Driver’s Education (Simon and Schuster; 256 pages), is a lighthearted story about fathers, sons, and the spirit of adventure. But most of all, it’s a story about story itself. Ginder, author of the novel This Is How It Starts, conjures an exciting cross-country journey, and an even more exciting journey across the lives and memories of a family.

Alastair McPhee is near the end of his life and lives with his son, Colin, in San Francisco. He asks his New Yorker grandson, Finn, for a final favor: Find Lucy, an old car that Alastair drove on his countless travels, and bring her back to him in San Francisco. Finn, an editor for a reality TV show, agrees, and he finds himself in the old ’56 Chevy Bel Air with his friend Randal and a three-legged cat named Mrs. Dalloway, and a map to help him retrace his grandfather’s old travels. Ginder takes his time sending Finn off on his quest—we read through one or two unnecessarily over-described scenes of New York—but once the trip begins it’s engaging, as Finn lives out the experiences from his grandfather’s past, revitalizing Alastair’s memories while also creating his own.

As Finn’s story progresses in the present, Colin takes us into the past. Contemplating his father’s condition, he recalls how he went from his quiet, small town life to becoming a West Coast screenwriter, and how his father had a hand in the transformation, for better and for worse. In the spinning and intertwining stories of these three men’s lives, Ginder examines how stories lived and stories told can influence the stories yet to come.

Through this family of storytellers, Driver’s Education celebrates the power of narrative to make better what is good and make good what is not. Alastair tells elaborate and exaggerated tales; Colin writes his movies; and Finn dresses up the lives of others for his reality TV show. “We do all these things until we turn reality into what everyone wants it to be, until we turn it into something sculpted and spectacular,” Finn says.

Stories told always add to a story experienced. But as Finn makes his way from coast to coast, and the tales of the McPhee family unfold, Ginder forces us to question where the line between a story and a lie is. While Alastair’s tales put a spark into the lives of all the McPhee men, his lies have come at a cost, too. To what extent should a story be rewritten? And what is the cost of telling a beautiful tale?

For the most part an entertaining story of an adventure-packed road trip, Driver’s Education works on a deeper level, too, speaking to the values, aesthetics, and risks involved in telling a good story. Like any road trip, Ginder’s novel has its dull stretches, but it also provides us wonderful travel companions, beautiful sights, unexpected twists, and some good laughs and happy memories.

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Christopher Hitchens

Lyle claims he can cure faith. I asked him to do it. A year ago I wouldn’t have, I would have paid to believe in anything. Elena gets worse every night, though. She fell asleep in my bed, and I thought she wasn’t breathing because her little three-year-old face was so gray, but it turned out to be nothing but the shadow of the quilt. I moved her stuffed sea lion closer and she rolled over on it, dragging it down to the deep. The doctors just tell me to love her. Someone else suggested I pray, but belief of any kind at this point feels like being rocked in the arms of an insane mother—faith, that great and breaking bough—not with Elena at stake, I’m done with that.

When Lyle gave me his card, I thought it was a joke. It had a picture of a beach on it with that poem about the footsteps. He’d crossed out the words and written: You can be alone again. According to his website, he can extract the finest strands of transcendent hope. That’s what I’m counting on.

I broke down last night and prayed. I thought I felt something and told Lyle. He said it’s natural. Faith is the only gateway to no faith, he says. I asked what he meant and he said that beliefs, all beliefs, are like a series of tunnels.

“What we’re after here is an open road.”

He showed me the room where it’s going to happen. The walls are covered with pictures of Jesus, Shiva, JFK, Osiris, and the Mandelbrot set—each image with a big, black X through it. Lining the windowsill are smaller icons: Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Elvis, Malcolm X, Christopher Hitchens, and a woman fromlate-night infomercials who sells Ever Bliss™ powdered nutrient drinks. Each picture in a cheap plastic frame with the same black X. Lyle had clearly snapped the shot of Hitchens off a TV screen with his phone and the frame had no glass. The Sharpie lines of the X were fading to gray in the sunlight.

“Nobody is pure anything,” Lyle said, “We have to get it all, even beliefs we think don’t count.”

“But I don’t have any faith, I just wish I did.”

“Same thing.”

“But it’s not the same thing because if I were capable of any real belief I wouldn’t be here. I’d be gone.”

“Besides,” he said, “I’ll bet you have more faith than you think. In situations like yours it’s usually just spread underground.”

I thought of my Wiccan high school years, and the Marias I could only take in Spanish or Bosnian, and the candles and Mexican rosewater, and the vague authority of humming rocks, shells, and feathers, and cigarette smoke blown in all four directions—Lyle was right. Faith was in me like a curtain behind a curtain. Put a gun to my head and ask me if I believe in anything and I’d point to Elena and say, I don’t believe in a goddamned thing. Not if she’s going to die. But take that gun away? Faith grows back in me like a field of mushrooms. Almost overnight.

“The first thing I need you to do,” Lyle said, “is to write down a history of your beliefs. Like praying you don’t get caught stealing candy. Or calling Christians cowards when you’re drunk. It’s all the same thing, it all has to go.”

“Should I write it on anything special?”

“Write it on anything. That’s the point.”

I started that night. I went all the way back to second grade, when I thought I heard God’s voice in a dream. By the time I fell asleep it was dawn and the bush outside my window was filled with chattering finches. I know now what Lyle means when he says faith and no faith are the same thing. I saw both sides of the coin flipping through the air. He means they come from the same place, believing and hating believers, a single tree, and if you don’t pull out all the roots it grows back.

*

Elena goes to her dad on Fridays. I don’t get a choice in that. The worst part is that if something happens to her over the weekend, I won’t be there. The idea that I wouldn’t be there when it counted, that I might be out somewhere not even thinking about her when the real stuff happened is just too much. I try not to think about it but I do, all the time. I can’t sleep when she’s gone, and there’s a revival going on down the street. It’s in a vacant lot out there in the weeds, right on the corner. They put up a tent. You can hear the preacher’s voice through the PA echoing off the basketball courts in the park two blocks away. I’ve been hearing it every night. At first it was just annoying. Another thing like gunshots and Greenpeace knocking on your door, stuff you should care about but don’t anymore because it happens all the time. All evening and into the night:

God’s got it! God’s got it!

And all the black voices calling it back.

God’s got it! God’s got it!

If they had been white I would have called the cops.

Every day I walk through the reedy lot. I see them setting up for the revival. Raking the flattened clumps of grass. Chasing the newspaper tumbleweeds. Bagging the bottles and needles and collecting grocery store circulars, holding them in their hands like garish fans.

They’ve been there all summer.

Fix it, Jesus! Fix it!

They yell out all the things that are wrong—

Fix it! Fix it, Jesus! Fix it!

They have a van full of clean white shirts for the converts, and they come in all sizes. I saw a man that weighed over 400 pounds get saved. They wrapped him in white like a baby. No one is banned from the arms of Jesus. I imagine myself in white steeped in the smell of starch and irons and lemon water, and for a second, I’m pretty damn sure that if everybody would just get the hell away from me I could ride this feeling down into forever, this moment of grace, but they don’t and I can’t and it all breaks into smaller and smaller bits, even when they’re already so small you think they can’t, they do. Faith is like entropy, according to Lyle. The heat it gives off is just from decline. It’s not a closed system.

*

Lyle set up our second consultation at the food court tables by the Orange Julius. He has a face like Eric Clapton’s. You’d never recognize him without context. Both times we met I thought it was a stranger approaching me.

This time Lyle came with diagrams. He set his smoothie down and unfolded a sheet of paper. On it was a genderless human form with tiny lines drawn all over the body. My body.

“I’m thinking we’ll put the needles here.” He took a slug off his Orange Julius and pointed to a series of hash marks. “One for every belief.”

My whole history of hope before me in train trestles and broken rails. I tried to see the pattern, but couldn’t really. Some lines looked like sutures and others more like Amish hex symbols or asterisks.

“Will it hurt?”

“Probably,” he said.

“Is that the chakra system?”

Lyle looked at me for a second then borrowed a pen and drew another set of lines on the figure. “You should have told me about that one.”

Later on that night, I threw a full can of beer at someone’s head. I was at a show and it was a singer of this band I knew. He was prancing around, doing the Iggy Pop thing, rolling on glass with bloody handprints and finger streaks all over his chest. When he pulled himself up on the microphone stand I threw the beer can as hard as I could. The Pabst logo spun like a ninja shuriken across the heads of the audience. I punched a wall when they threw me out. When I woke up, my knuckles were swollen and there were dried brown streaks of blood on my hand.

After I washed up the next morning, I went to see Elena. She and Silas were eating macaroni and cheese for breakfast when I came in. Her cheeks were sticky with orange sauce. In front of her was a huge, half-drunk glass of milk.

“Is it hormone free?”

“They were out.”

“I thought we had an agreement.”

“I didn’t ask you to come over.”

He knows how I feel about those things. I keep Elena away from plastic and fish and she’s never had antibiotics.

“That’s not the point,” I said. “We had an agreement.”

“We also had an agreement about you not taking her to the doctor.”

“I didn’t take her right away, I watched her, for a long time. You would have taken her, too.”

Silas looked at me like I were wearing a wristband or a day pass or something. But I’m sick of seeing patience on people’s faces. It doesn’t affect me like it used to. You have to be an advocate. Silas will believe anything a doctor tells him. And the doctors say Elena meets all the developmental markers for her age. They say she’s fine. But she’s not fine. They don’t know her like I do, and so they can’t see what’s happening. She’s changed. I’ve watched her now through countless car crashes, slips on the stairs, through terrible accidents on the playground when the bigger kids on the chain bridge pretend to shoot each other and knock her off. She’s not the same. It’s written all over her. She is going to die. Someday that is going to happen. And even though I don’t know when, I know it will be too soon.

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The Monkey Look

I stop blood. I stop it between rounds for fighters so they can stay in the fight. Blood ruins some boys. It was that way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he’d see his own blood and fall apart.

I’m not the one who decides when to stop the fight, and I don’t stitch up cuts once the fight’s over. And it’s not my job to hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy’s title. I do that one little thing and I’m worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood and save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.

But you can’t always stop it. Fight guys know this. If the cut’s too deep or wide, or maybe you got a severed vein down in there, the blood keeps coming. Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to stop the blood, maybe more—the boy’s heart is pumping so hard, or he cuts more. But once you get the coagulant in, sometimes you need another whack right on the cut itself. That can drive the blood away from the area, so now the stuff you’re using can start to work. What I’m saying is there are all kinds of combinations down in the different layers of meat.

Some fighters cut all the time, others hardly ever. It’s not something a guy can do anything about, being a bleeder, any more than a guy with a glass jaw can do something about not having a set of whiskers. I don’t know if it’s the bone structure around the eyes, or something to do with the thickness of the skin. Some guys get cut damn near every fight, and it doesn’t take long for a bleeder’s eyes to droop from severed nerves. They develop a monkey look around the eyes. Nature builds up scar tissue to protect the eyes, but in boxing the scar tissue can be the problem—the soft skin next to the scar will tear free, because of the difference in texture.

Boy gets cut, I always crack the seal of a new one-ounce bottle of adrenaline-chloride solution 1/1000. When it’s fresh, it’s clear like water, but with a strong chemical smell. The outdated stuff turns a light pinkish color, or a pale piss-yellow. When that happens, it couldn’t stop fly blood. I might pour adrenaline into a small plastic squeeze bottle if I need to use sterile gauze pads along with a swab, but I never use adrenaline from a previous fight. I dump it, even if three quarters of it is left. This way it can’t carry blood over from one fight to another, and none of my boys can get AIDS from contaminated coagulant. I’d give AIDS to myself before I’d give it to one of my boys.

I used to train fighters. But I got too old. I was walking around with my back and neck crippled up all the time from catching punches. My first fight working the corner of Hoolie Garza came after his trainer talked to me, Ike Goody. Ike was a club fighter in the fifties, but like most first-rate trainers, he was never a champ. With the exception of Floyd Patterson, who trained his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, I don’t remember another champ who ever trained a champion. Hoolie Garza is a smart featherweight Mexican boy who thinks he’s smarter than he is. He was born in Guaymas, raised illegal in East Los Angeles. He fought with his big brothers for food. His real name is Julio César Garza, but as a kid he was nicknamed Juli — in Spanish it’s pronounced hoolie.

After the Korean War, I went to school in Mexico City on the G.I. Bill. I wanted to learn Spanish, maybe to teach it. So I hung around with Mexicans, not Americans. Some of my friends were bullfighters. I had a fling with the daughter of the secretary to the President of Mexico, a natural blonde who drove a car with license-plate number 32. She, God bless her, was one of the ways I learned Spanish on several levels and in different accents. I usually keep my Spanish to myself, like a lot of Latinos in the U.S. keep their English to themselves. But if they find out and ask about it, I tell them I was a student in Mexico and Spain both, and I say, Hablo el español sólo si me conviene—l speak Spanish only -when it’s to my advantage. They always smile. Some laugh out loud and wag their finger.

A lot of Latino fighters coming to fight in L.A. use me in their corner; some fly me to Vegas. I’m as loyal to them as I am to an American, or to an Irishman, which is why I never bet on a fight I’m working—not on the boy I’m working with and not on the other fighter, either. This way, if I somehow screw up and cause my boy to lose, it can never be said that I did business.

Ike caught up with me at Bill Slayton’s gym in South Central. “Hoolie’s got a fight in Tijuana. He wants you.”

“What’s he getting?”

“Short money. You know about his California suspension problem? The Mexicans know about it, too. A lousy $2,500 for ten rounds. It’s with a tough TJ boy, Chango Pedroza. They want to make a name off us. It’s Hoolie’s third fight after his suspension. Two wins by kayo. Hoolie says he’ll pay the regular 2%. I told him no good, you won’t work ten rounds for that, but he kept after me, so I said I’d talk to you.”

“He smoking dope again?”

Ike shrugged his shoulders. “I know he’s hurting for bread.”

“I don’t work that cheap, fifty dollars. Tell him to get someone from down there.”

“He’s a bleeder. That’s why he wants you.”

“It’s 150 miles down there, Ike, so I go for a tank of gas, right? Now I don’t get home until after four a.m. I don’t work for fifty here in L.A., unless it’s a four-rounder.”

See, Ike’s always told me the truth, always done square business with me, so I believe that Ike is telling me the truth about what Hoolie told him about the purse, but I know some things about Hoolie, and who’s to know what kind of truth he’s telling Ike? Let me tell you, Hoolie’s a hell of a fighter, a tough little bastard who will meet you in the middle of the river and fight you. He’s got an underslung jaw and a hooked nose that points off at an angle. And scar tissue. At 29, he’s losing his hair, so he shaves his head. Tattoos from jail and from every country he’s fought in, roses and daggers, same old shit. Fought for a title his third fight out of the joint, where he did time for assault with a deadly weapon. Not his hands, he didn’t want to hurt his hands; he pistol-whipped some guy who smiled at his wife. He almost won his title shot, but he got tired late, and the other guy came on in the 12th. Hoolie, like always, was cut up, but the cuts didn’t become a factor. After the title fight was over, Hoolie failed his piss test. They found traces of marijuana and suspended him in California for a year, and held up his purse as well. It means Hoolie can’t fight anywhere else in the States that counts, because most state boxing commissions honor each other’s ban. But Hoolie’s a good draw, promoters from all over want him, because he’s so tough and because of the blood. That’s why Hoolie has to fight for short money in Australia, in Latin America, in the Philippines, wherever there are little guys. And to stay busy, so he can be ready for his next shot at a belt.

So after Ike makes three phone calls, I settle for a hundred. I take it because Ike is a long-time friend, and because it gives me an excuse to go down to a seafood restaurant there in TJ named La Costa, a place I can get some of the best camarrones rancheros in the world—shrimps in hot sauce with garlic and peppers and onions and tomatoes and cilantro. Wash it down with a couple of Bohemias. For appetizers, they serve deep-fried freshwater smelt with fresh salsa and limes. I say an Act of Contrition every time I leave the place. Been going to La Costa thirty years.

I also take the fight because once the suspension is lifted, Hoolie’s sure to get another title fight. He uses me, I can make a little money. Ballpark, I get first cut of the purse, two percent. Some guys get more, some less. It’s business. On a $50,000 fight, that means a thousand for me. But maybe my boy doesn’t get cut at all, so I just sit ringside and watch. But I still get paid. Bigger fights, I try to get the same 2% if I can, or I charge a flat fee. But a four-round prelim boy, he needs a cutman same as a champ, right? So if I’m going to be at the arena with another boy anyway, and I like the prelim boy and his trainer, or maybe I feel sorry for a scared kid, a lot of times I don’t charge —the prelim boy’s only making $400 in the first place. Out of that, he’s got to pay his trainer 10% off the top, and his manager another 33 1/3. Ike doesn’t charge his prelim boys.

But this is a game of money, right? So I got to be careful. I charge too little at the start, some boys won’t respect me, and then they don’t want to pay more when they make more. And some will stiff you, even after you save their careers.

Before I left Ike at Slayton’s, I told him that the Tijuana Commission would look for any way to disqualify Hoolie, and to warn him that they’re sure to make him take a piss test if he wins.

“You right, you right,” said Ike. “Damn.”

“Is he clean?”

“Say he is.”

 

The weigh-in is at noon the day of the fight. Hoolie’s staying in the same hotel where the fight’s going off. He wants to eat at five, but not in the hotel, where at lunch he was pestered by people after his autograph. He’s a big man in Mexico, what with him being born down there and making it in the States. He asks me about seafood and if I know a good place to eat in town. I tout him on La Costa, but tell him it isn’t cheap. In TJ, he’s got his wife, his mother, and two brothers he’s got to feed; he’s got to feed Ike and me; and Ike’s back-up cornerman. There are two more to feed, a homeboy member of Hoolie’s Toonerville gang and a black kick-boxer, a kid called Tweety, who’s as polite and well-spoken as a Jesuit. With so many eating, it has to cost Hoolie a bundle. I wondered why he’s paying for people who aren’t family or working his corner, but he paid the tab without a bitch. No problem, until the waiter collected and counted Hoolie’s money. I could tell from the waiter’s face that Hoolie had stiffed him. So now I got to wonder if he’ll do the same to me. I slip the waiter $30 for himself. With the tank of gas I had to buy, I’m working for nothing, right? The adrenaline I know I’ll be using on Hoolie’s cuts later that night has already cost me another fourteen dollars and change. But what am I going to do? I know these waiters for years and I can’t let them get stiffed on my call.

 

In the second round Hoolie’s eyes started to bleed. I kept him going, and as long as Ike and I could get him ready for the next round, he was standing up at the ten-second warning and waiting for the bell. Little shit, he recuperates between rounds better than anyone I ever saw. Punch by punch, he wore Pedroza down. Pedroza went after Hoolie’s eyes, twisting his fists on impact to tear open the cuts even more. Hoolie stayed close, went to the body with shots to the liver, ribs, and heart. The liver shots made Pedroza gasp, the heart shots made him wobble.

Pedroza was a local boy, a good fighter with the will to win. The crowd was clearly in his corner, and so was the ref, who took a point away from Hoolie by calling a phony low blow.

In Mexico, if somebody’s cut, they tend to let the fights go longer than in the U.S. But if you happen to be the guy from out of town—and you’re the one who’s cut—and if the promoter is looking to get a win for his boy—you know you better knock him out in a hurry, because they’ll stop the fight on you as soon as they figure the local boy’s ahead on points. The ref kept calling time and looking at Hoolie’s cuts, but I had stopped the blood and the ref had to let him go on.

I repaired Hoolie’s eyes after the third and the fourth. After the fifth, I did it again, then swabbed his nose with adrenaline to jack some energy into him through the mucous membrane. Hoolie punched himself on each side of his face and slid out to the center of the ring, his hands intentionally down low. Before Pedroza could get off on what he thought was an opening, Hoolie caught him with a sneak right-hand lead. Then he caught him with a short left hook to the liver. An uppercut put Pedroza down on the canvas. He twisted into a tight ball of hurt. The time keeper and the ref stretched the count, but they could have counted to 50 for all it mattered.

The crowd was howling and throwing beer bottles into the ring. We got to the dressing room as fast as we could. All of Hoolie’s people crowded in, while Ike and I were pumping fluids into him and trying to towel him down. We were all happy and toothy. It’s always like that when you win. A bottle of tequila was passed around and Hoolie took a couple of hits.

Tweety went into the crapper, turned off the light, and hid behind the partly closed door.

Two minutes later, the Commission doctor arrived, followed by the promoter whose boy Hoolie had just dropped. With a smug look, the doctor held up a plastic specimen bottle. Ike glanced over at me, rolled his eyes.

“La-la-la,” said the doctor, sure he had busted Hoolie.

If Hoolie fails the test, the promoter’s boy doesn’t suffer the loss on his record, and the promoter doesn’t have to pay Hoolie. Hoolie doesn’t get paid, neither does Ike, neither do I.

Hoolie took the bottle with a smile. He went into the crapper, pushing the door ahead of him. He dropped his trunks and cup to his knees, and stood where the doctor could still see his bare ass. From my position, I could see the action. Hoolie handed the bottle to Tweety, who already had his dick out. Tweety pissed into the bottle. Hoolie sighed a piss sigh and jerked his arm around like he was shaking his dick. Hoolie took the bottle back from Tweety and handed it to the doctor.

From Hoolie’s relaxed attitude, and from the heat of the specimen bottle, the doctor was no longer so sure he’d nailed an offender. The promoter saw the doctor’s face, and began talking to himself.

What the doctor and the promoter were trying to do disgusted me, but the game Hoolie and Tweety were running got to me. I love boxing like I love the sacraments. You play by the rules. You never throw a fight, and you never throw intentional low blows — unless the other guy does it first. When I realized that Hoolie was still smoking dope, I got out of there as soon as I could.

“Hoolie,” I said, “I got to go. How about takin care of me.”

“I’m broke until the promoter pays me, man.”

“When’s that?”

“Tomorrow morning when the bank opens, homes. Hey, I’m good for it, you know me, man. I don’t see you around, I’ll give your piece to Ike so he can take care of you, what you say?”

“It’s only a hundred.”

“I’m broke, man, that’s why I took this shit fight, and my wife’s knocked up.”

I took off. I saved a doper’s ass, and it cost me money. I knew then I’d never get my hundred. It wasn’t enough to shoot him for, so I let it go.

It was one a.m. when I got back to the border. There were long lines waiting to get across. Vendors selling hats and serapes and pottery stood along the Mexican side. Groups of ten-year-old boys begging for change flowed like alley cats along the lines of cars; haggard women with scrawny kids sat by the roadside with their hands out. A stunted three-year-old boy stood rigidly between two lines of traffic. Tears streaked his dusty little face, snot ran down over his lips. He wailed a senseless little song and beat two small pieces of scrap wood together. Sanity had left his blue eyes. On the way home I stopped at a Denny’s for coffee and a piece of gummy lemon pie.

 

My brother died suddenly and left me some income property on Bull Shoals Lake down on the Missouri-Arkansas border. I moved back there to fix it up and sell it. Three months after I’m in Missouri, Hoolie gives me a call. He says he’s got a new trainer and a manager from Mexico. The manager’s positioned him into a WBC title fight with Big Willie Little in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I want you in my corner, homes.”

“Why Kansas City?”

“Big Willie’s from there. It’s a big deal on one of the riverboat casinos, Pay TV, all the shit.”

“Why me?”

“The promoter only came up with four plane tickets, and I’m using one for my wife. That leaves tickets for my trainer and one more cornerman from out here. Besides, I don’t want to chance it with some hillbilly white-bread mayonnaise sandwich from back there, right?”

“Like I say, why me?”

“You’re the best, man, look what you done for me in TJ, man, they’da stopped it except for you. Besides, you’re already back there, homey.”

“How’d you get my number?”

“From Ike.”

When I heard that Ike had given him my number, I knew Ike was scheming on the punk, that Ike wanted my presence in Kansas City, and I got interested.

“You owe me a hundred dollars, forget the gas and what else it cost me in TJ.”

“I know I do, man, but you gotta know how broke I been since the suspension. It’s over now, but my old lady’s got cancer in the tit, ese, and it’s costing me, but I’ll give you your bread, no sweat, man.”

“Is Tweety going to be there?”

“No, man, I’m squeaky clean for this one.”

“Here’s my deal,” I said. “It’s something like three hundred miles from here to Kansas City. That’s all day both ways and three tanks of gas. So if I do come, I don’t want to waste my time, understand?”

“No doubt about it.”

“How much you gettin? Level with me.”

“Yeah, yeah, only fifty grand, see? I’m takin it cheap just to get a shot at that mayate Big Willie mothafuck.” Mayate is a word some Mexicans use for black people. A mayate is a black bug that lives in dung. “I’ll take his black ass easy.”

I don’t trust Hoolie the fight’s only for fifty thousand, not with his name on the card, but if I can make a grand, it’ll buy the paint I need to finish the work on my brother’s buildings.

“I’ll come,” I say. “But up front you send me the hundred you owe me by overnight mail. I don’t get it overnight, forget it. Once I drive up to Kansas City, the day I get there you pay me a thousand up front, which is 2%. Or I turn around and come back home.”

“You got it, ese, no problem, man.”

“When’s the fight?”

“A week from Saturday. We’re flying in day after tomorrow.”

“When you want me there?”

“Promoter says two days before the fight, to get your license, and all. I already got a room in your name. Your meal tickets will be at the desk.”

“I don’t want to lay around that long, so I’ll be there one day before. Give my name to the commission at the weigh-in. I already got a Missouri license from a fight last month in St. Louis.”

He gave me the name of the casino and the address. I gave him my P.O. box number and the deal was made. It took three days for my hundred to get to me, because I live way out in the hills. I cashed Hoolie’s money order and drove down to Gaston’s on the White River for catfish, hush puppies, and pecan pie.

The day before the fight, at six in the morning, I picked up Highway 5 out of Gainesville, and slowly headed up the climb to Mansfield. It had snowed in the night and the shivery landscape glowed in the Ozark dawn. Before the turn-off to Almartha, I watched a ten-point buck and three does race below a line of cedars, the snow kicking up like puffs of fog. Going west from Mansfield took me through the rolling hills of Amish country, black horse-drawn buggies driven along the paved shoulder by bearded men in black wearing wide-brimmed round hats. I passed through Springfield and much later on up across the backwater of the Harry S Truman Dam to Clinton.

The snow on the highway had melted because of pounding semis long before I got to a little spot called Amy Jane’s Cafe in Collins, Missouri. I had two pieces of lemon pie with my coffee, which was country good. Pie and radio is how, in my family, we entertained ourselves during the great Depression. Even after World War II, when not everybody had TV sets. Picking up crumbs with my fork, I sat there thinking back. I do that more and more. I’ve started to miss people I’ve never missed before, to return to scenes from my childhood that are as fresh as if I was standing there again.

After taking the wrong exit twice in Kansas City, I got to the casino at 3:30. At the front desk they told me the weigh-in had been at noon, and that Hoolie’s fight would go off at eleven the following night. From fight guys, I also learned that Big Willie Little had been three pounds overweight, had had to take them off in the steam room. Three pounds is a ton to a featherweight. It sounded good for Hoolie.

After leaving my gear off in my room, I went to the buffet, where among other things they prepared fresh Chinese food. I hadn’t had good Chinese since L.A. In Springfield and Branson, and on down in Mountain Home, Arkansas, it was hog slop. The stuff in the casino was first rate and I stuffed myself. I wouldn’t eat anything else that day. When I finished, I went straight up to Hoolie’s room and asked for my thousand. He was playing dominoes with Policarpo Villa, a scumbag trainer from L.A. Policarpo likes to help other managers build a record for their fighters by feeding them inexperienced kids; for this he picks up a couple of hundred, a nice reward for destroying his own boys’ careers. He sports a mandarin mustache that he grows down over his mouth to hide his bad teeth, and he wears a white Stetson indoors and out. It turned out that Policarpo was Hoolie’s new trainer as well as his new manager. That saves Hoolie the 10% he’d have had to pay Ike, because a manager/trainer only gets 33%.

When Hoolie didn’t answer me about my dough and instead kept on playing dominoes, I started tipping his pieces over so Policarpo could see his numbers.

“Hey, watchoo doin, man? I was kicking his ass!”

“We got a deal, or not?”

“I’m playin dominoes, I’m thinking, man, I got ten bucks ridin!”

“I got a grand ridin. You got my money, or not?”

“I was gonna pay you out of my training expenses, ese, but I had to pay more for sparring partners back here than I thought, you know how that goes.”

“We got a deal or not?”

“We do, we do gots one. Only, look, I can only come up with three hundred now. Sparring partners back here tapped me, man, mother’s honor, but you’ll get the rest right after the fight when the promoter pays up, I promise.”

“Do yourself a favor. Cross my name out of your chump-change address book,” I said, and started for the door.

“Come on, come on, goddamnit! Don’t be like that, you got to go with the flow.”

Policarpo said, “Screw it. I’ll be the cut man, save us both fuckin money, ese.”

I laughed in his face. “You gonna handle cuts on this guy, and give him the right instructions in the corner in the one minute you got? You got a kit, one that’s ready to go? You got all the shit? You bring adrenaline? Missouri ain’t like California, you got to have a prescription for adrenaline here. And where you goin to find a drug store that even handles it? We’re dealin with a bleeder, did you miss that? Go ahead, lose the fuckin fight for him, I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m gonna hang around just to watch the fucker bleed.”

“Calm down, calm down, ese, be cool,” said Hoolie. He turned to Policarpo. “How much you got on you?”

“Two hundred, that’s all I got.”

Hoolie counted out his three hundred and Policarpo added two hundred more. “Here,” said Hoolie. “Take it, homes, no shit, man, it’s all we got until after the fight. Gimme a break, O.K.? We’re gonna make big money together, you and me, word of honor.”

“Gimme an IOU for the five more you owe me,” I said, taking the five hundred. “You stiff me, I go to the commission.”

“Hey, you write it, I sign it, that’s how much I respect you, homes.”

I did and he did and I left. On my way out, he asked, “When am I gonna see you?” all humble and small and best of friends. “We got to get together before the fight so I know you don’t split, right?”

“You want your chiselin five hundred back?”

“I trust you, my brother, I didn’t mean nothin.”

“Your bout goes off at eleven. I’ll be in your dressing room at nine.”

“Hey, homes, no hard feelings, right?”

“Why would there be?”

 

The next day I slept late and took a walk down by the river. It was muddy and dark, and there were patches of foam in the weeds along the snow-covered bank. This was the river that Lewis and Clark took to open a way to the Pacific. I would love to have been along on that ride. Less than two hundred years ago, where I stood was uncharted Indian land. I wondered what kind of ride Hoolie planned for me.

I’d had a light breakfast and the cold air made me hungry. I went back for more Chinese. I was seated by the same hostess at the same table. The place wasn’t crowded and I noticed for the first time that the tables were arranged in little booths made up of dividers and screens for privacy. On my way back to my table, I saw that Hoolie and Policarpo were bent over hot tea at the table next to mine. I took the long way around. They hadn’t seen me, and when I sat down, I realized they were speaking Spanish. I had nothing to say to them. I’d handle the cuts, I’d collect my money, and I’d go back home and start painting. That was my deal, and I’d do it. I was kicking my own ass for showing up, but now that I was here, I was going to get my other five hundred. It was a rule.

Hungry as I was, at first I didn’t pay any attention to them. When I heard them scheming on million-dollar fights, I had to smile. Then I heard something about a two-hundred-thousand-dollar fight, and realized they were talking about the fight with Big Willie Little. I turned up both my hearing aids.

“I know they take taxes, but I don’t get what we do with what’s left of the two hundred thousand,” said Hoolie. “The promoter said we could cash his check here if we want to, but then what? I mean, we can’t pack it to L.A., right?”

Policarpo said, “Two ways. First, we could trust the promoter, and cash his check in L.A. But what if the check bounces? I say cash it here, so we got it in our hands. Then have the casino transfer the money to banks in L.A., one third to me, two thirds to you, like the big guy said.”

“How much we got left over from training-expense money?” asked Hoolie.

“About thirty-five hundred. One thousand for me and two for you after the cutman gets his five.”

“The cutman gets it in his ass,” said Hoolie, “that’s what he gets for hustling me.”

“He’ll be pissed, raza.”

“Son cosas de la vida—that’s life.”

“Can we get away with that?”

“What’s the old paddy cunt gonna do?”

“You signed your name, ese.”

“What I signed was Julio Cercenar Bauzá, not Julio César Garza.” They laughed about the one word, cercenar—to trim, to reduce. “Dumb old fuck didn’t see the difference.”

It was true. Because of Hoolie’s scrawl and fancy whorls, I hadn’t picked up the name switch.

“What if he says you signed it phony?” said Policarpo.

“I say I never signed it at all. He’s the one who wrote the IOU, not me, right?”

“What, we just split his money, one third/two thirds?”

“No,” said Hoolie, “half and half. After I kick the nig’s ass, we’ll go buy us some black pussy on the old man, eh?”

When they gave the high five, they saw me for the first time. I turned to one side and didn’t make eye contact.

“Hey, man,” said Hoolie, looking through the screen, “how long you been here?”

“Couple minutes,” I said, shoveling rice into my face with chop sticks. “What’s up?”

“We’re gonna take a little walk, it’s not too cold, and then maybe I’ll have me a little siesta,” said Hoolie, as he and Policarpo came around the divider. “How come you don’t say hello, or nothing, man?”

“I was eatin. Didn’t see you.”

“Yeah, we didn’t see you, too.”

They stood there while I continued to eat.

Policarpo said, “You don’t speak no Spanish, right?”

Hoolie’s eyes flicked between Policarpo and me.

I shrugged, kept eating. “About like the rest of the California gringos,” I said. “Cerveza, puta, and cuánto.”

That got a laugh and they left feeling satisfied. I went back for seconds, took my time, and chewed on the fact that I should be getting four thousand dollars, not one. There were big posters of Hoolie and Big Willie in the cafe. More were set up throughout the hotel. This was Big Willie’s fourth defense of his title and he hadn’t looked good in his last one. With his weight problem, and with Hoolie’s speed and boxing ability, it figured that Big Willie was due to lose. But he was a durable little battler who loved being champ. Under pressure he was mean. He would have regained his fluids since the weigh-in, and Big Willie could bang, even when he was tired. Of course, Señor Julio Cercenar Bauzá was known to bleed.

When I didn’t see anyone around that was connected with the fight, I went into the casino and checked the line. Big Willie was a 3-to-1 underdog because of his weight problem. That’s when I went to the nearest ATM and pulled some cash from three banks.

I looked for someone who knew me from nothing. There were hillbillies and bikers and college boys. There were sorority girls and telephone operators and welfare mothers. Old people and young. Sporting types, squares, drunks and junkies. All colors. None looked right, so I waited.

I got a whore, a skin-and-bones Thai whore with frizzed hair. She was maybe 30, but looked 50. I wondered how she could make a dime, much less pay the rent. I don’t know if she was a crackhead or had AIDS, but for sure she had lived hard in the night. She made me for a typical old John, someone who wanted to feel her, not fuck her. I told her what I wanted and that I’d pay two hundred. I told her that I’d be right on her tail, that if she made a run with my money I’d stab her. She understood. What I did was slip her 15 hundred-dollar bills in an envelope —to lay on Big Willie Little at the Sports Book. I win the bet, I pick up a fast forty-five hundred. Afterwards, I tailed her to a video game room. She gave me my fifteen hundred dollar print-out, and I gave her four fifties. She shoved them into her training bra.

She said, “You no wan’ mo’? You no wan’ bro jo’? I goo’.” I gave the poor bitch another hundred and told her to go home. She gave me a tight little smile, maybe the first she’d given in a year, maybe her last ever.

In my room, like I always do, I opened my aluminum attaché case and spread my goods out to make sure everything was there. But this time, instead of reaching for a new bottle of adrenaline, I unsnapped a flap pocket and took out an old bottle I knew had gone bad, an out-dated bottle I hadn’t used from a couple of years before. It was a bottle I kept in my kit just to have a back-up bottle if I ever needed one. I’d taped the lid so I wouldn’t make a mistake. When I broke the seal and poured some on a tissue, it was a pale piss-yellow. I mixed a fresh batch of salve, as I always do, using Vaseline and adrenaline. It smelled right, but the salve I prepared was from the piss-yellow stuff, not the clear. The salve’s color wasn’t affected. Once I made up the salve, I diluted the remaining solution with water to lighten the color. Under the ring lights, no one would notice, especially since it still smelled legit.

Even though I’m no longer a trainer, I always walk off the size of the ring. I test to see how tight or loose the ropes are. I check how hard or soft the canvas is, which is to say how fast or slow it will be. I check the steps up to the ring, how solid and wide they are, and how much room there will be at ringside. This time I checked dick.

It was a twelve-round fight and it went off on time. Hoolie and Big Willie split the first two rounds, but Hoolie came on in the third. In the fourth, each fighter knocked the other down, but neither could put the other away. Hoolie had planned to fight Big Willie from the outside, to keep him at the end of his punches, but Big Willie wouldn’t cooperate. The fifth was even, but at the end of the round, Hoolie returned to the corner with a small laceration in his left eyelid. I was quick into the ring and used just enough fresh adrenaline, along with pressure, to temporarily stop the flow of blood. I also used the phony salve, which meant there would be no coagulant continually working in the wound.

Hoolie was winning the sixth easy. Near the end of the round, Big Willie countered, whacking Hoolie on the way in with a solid one-two/one-two combination to the face, the second left-right even harder than the first. Suddenly there was a deep cut above Hoolie’s right eye, and the cut in the eyelid was split wide open. The ref called time and looked at the cuts, but he let the fight continue. By the bell, Hoolie was scraping at both eyes to clear his vision.

I cleaned the wounds with sterile gauze and applied pressure with both thumbs. Once the cuts were clean, I applied some more of my out-dated piss-adrenaline.

Hoolie said, “You can fix it for me, right, homes?”

“No sweat, man.”

“You’re the best.”

Because I had cleaned the cuts properly and because of the pressure I applied before and along with the swab, and because of the bogus salve I packed into the holes, it appeared that I had solved the problem. Policarpo and the other cornermen were so busy giving Hoolie instructions and watering him that I could have used green paint and they wouldn’t have noticed.

The bell for the seventh sounded. Big Willie and Hoolie fought like bats, each turning, each twisting and bending, each moving as if suspended in light, neither stepping back, both wanting the title, both ripping mercilessly into the other. Both were splattered with Hoolie’s blood. The head of each fighter was snapping back, and the ribs of both were creaking. Big Willie suffered a flash knockdown, but he was up again by the count of two. As he took the mandatory eight-count, his eyes were focused on Hoolie like a rattler’s on a rat. The ref waved the fighters on. Big Willie stepped up and delivered a left-right-left combination, the second left hand snapping like it had come off a springboard. It would have destroyed most welterweights, but Hoolie grabbed Big Willie and held on.

The round ended and I cleaned the wounds and applied more pressure. I used more piss yellow.

“I thought you fixed it, ese,” said Hoolie, his voice coming out small between bruised lips.

“I did fix it,” I said. “But you let him pop you, so it opened up on me. Be cool. Go with the flow.”

In the eighth, Big Willie looked exhausted, but there was no quit in him. He sucked it up and concentrated his shots on Hoolie’s cuts. Blood filled Hoolie’s eyes until he was punching blindly and getting hit no matter how he tried to cover up. People at ringside were shielding themselves from the flying blood. Big Willie saw the ruined flesh and his heart jacked up as his own adrenaline pounded through him. Walking through Hoolie’s wild punches, he drilled more shots into Hoolie’s blood-blind eyes. Two more cuts opened in Hoolie’s eyebrows. Veins weren’t cut, but blood pumped down, and the fans were yelling to the ref to stop it. He called time and waved in the ring doctor, who immediately stopped the fight.

Big Willie Little, still the featherweight champion.

In the corner, the doctor checked Hoolie’s eyes. By then I had used fresh adrenaline, which stopped the blood cold. The cuts were an inch and a half, two inches long, which is big-time when it’s around the eyes. But like I say, no vein was cut, and with the right stuff in there, Hoolie could have fought all night. Since Big Willie was sure to have run out of gas, and since I had no trouble stopping the cuts when I wanted to, I figured Hoolie should be the new champ. Except for me. Son cosas de la fucking vida.

Hoolie’s cornermen were washing him down with alcohol and the doctor had stitched up three of the cuts when the promoter came in with Hoolie’s check. He was a big round Afrikaner with a walrus mustache and a huge Dutch gut from Johannesburg. He had kind, wise eyes and seemed to float rather than walk.

“Too bad about the cuts,” he said. “I thought Little was ready to go.”

“I beat Big Willie’s fucking ass my eyes don’t go,” said Hoolie, who was desolate from the loss.

“You’ve got one of the best cutmen I ever saw,” the promoter said. “Cool under fire, he was. I watched him. Did everything right.” He sucked on his mustache. “What was the grease from the little container?”

I pulled out the piss salve. I unscrewed the wide lid. “Smell.”

“Ahh, yes, good lad, you mix adrenaline right into the grease, yes? Keeps working, right?”

“That’s it.”

“Tough break, Hoolie being a bleeder.”

“Sure is. Listen,” I said. “I know it’s not my place, but I’m not going back to L.A. with these guys. I’m wondering if there’s some way they can cash out in the casino? So they can take care of me before they take off?”

The promoter looked at Hoolie. Neither he nor Policarpo said anything.

“I’ve got an IOU,” I said.

Hoolie saw that the promoter realized something wasn’t right. He played dumb. “But once we cash the check,” he asked, “we can’t have the money transferred to L.A., can we?”

“Certainly can. Like I previously explained, we can arrange the transfer of funds through the casino.”

“Ah, yeah, I remember now. Cool.”

At the cashier’s window, Policarpo counted out my money in English. “One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred.”

As he handed the bills to me, I glanced at Hoolie, whose bandaged eyes were telling me he’d never use me in his corner again. I love a guy who says he’s going to fuck you because you won’t let him fuck you. In his ass.

As I re-counted the first two bills in English, I decided to lay rotten eggs in Hoolie’s mind. Without a break, I slipped into sing-song Mexican street-Spanish. “Trescientos, cuatrocientos, quinientos. Correcto, mano three hundred, four hundred, five hundred. Correct, my brother.”

Hoolie remembered our conversation over my Chinese food. “Hey, you speak Spanish?”

Now I went into a guttural, old-man Castillian. “Pues, coño, but only if it’s to my advantage.” Pues, coño is what nailed it—well, of course, cunt.

Hoolie blinked six times. Policarpo’s jaw flopped open. For the first time I saw fear in Hoolie’s eyes. Did I fuck him or didn’t I?

I left him standing at attention. I showered and packed and at two in the morning went down to the casino. I saw the last of the fight guys on their way out. I pissed away a fast fifty on the quarter slots to pass time. I knew Ike had watched the fight and would know that something had gone down. We would never talk about it. I waited until three o’clock and collected my bet, plus my original fifteen. I slept for a couple of hours, had three cups of coffee in the coffee shop, and checked out.

It was 7:15 when I eased the old truck into traffic. I listened to news for a while, then switched to a jazz station that was playing Jackie McClean. I headed home the way I’d come. There was more snow on the ground, like a Christmas card.

When I got back to Collins, I pulled into Amy Jane’s. Pie was in the air. A good ol’ boy in a John Deere cap recognized me from the fight.

“Buddy, you looked good on TV last night. Too bad about your boy, tough little booger.”

“Real tough.”

I ordered two pieces of lemon pie with my coffee, and then I found myself on the couch sitting next to my father. He was leaning into our new radio, an inlaid upright Philco with a magical green tuning light. It was June 18, 1941, at the Polo Grounds. Irish Billy Conn, the former light-heavyweight champ, and Joe Louis. Louis outweighed Conn by better than 25 pounds. In the thirteenth round, Billy went for the kill and hurt Louis early on —my father was yelling at the radio—but Louis rallied and knocked Conn out at 2:52.

At the count often, I watched some of my father die. As he sat with his red face in his oil-driller’s hands, my mother turned off the radio. We were to eat lemon meringue pie after the fight, my father’s favorite. I was able to eat a little piece, but not my dad, though he tried. He fell off the wagon that night.

I finished my coffee and at the table paid the waitress.

“You didn’t eat your pie.”

“Lost my appetite.”

I fiddled with my spoon. I sat for a while looking at my knees. I counted my keys. I fished out an El Rey Del Mundo Robusto Suprema, a hand-made maduro from Honduras that comes wrapped in white tissue. I’d fire up that spicy pup and smoke it down the highway for a good hour and a half, chew on it for more.

By the time I got up to the counter, my appetite was back. I smiled the waitress over and ordered country —a deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwich, with pickles and chips, and coffee, all to go. She didn’t know what was going on. And pies. Two gooseberry and two rhubarb. And two lemon, too. I like tart.

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Víctor Comes Back

They told me to walk three blocks north and turn left. Then walk half a block and, on the east side of the street and half-hidden by the branches of a magnolia tree, I would find a sign for the bus stop. At every step the maracas of the battery-powered toy monkey that I bought my daughter twelve years earlier, before leaving New Orleans, where I lived almost three years, jingled in my shoulder bag. And the magnolia and sign were there, in the middle of an almost perfect circle of fallen flowers.

When the wind blew, the weather seemed cold; but in fact it was hot and my skin felt sticky and I was sweating. In the heat memories began to smell, like a dead dog in a mangrove swamp. “Goddamn lunatic,” she had said, with the blood flowing from her mouth and nostrils.

In the bus the air conditioning dried my temples and back. Six or seven stops, they said, and you get off in front of a big building, with two chimneys, which is the electric company. Ask the driver. There’s a subway station there. But then I forgot to ask and we passed it, and the driver stopped the bus and said that that was the last stop. Where did I
want to go, he asked me, and I told him. Better take the train, he told me and pointed to where I should walk. You can go back on the bus but they leave here every hour on Sundays, he said; better take the train. Four or five blocks and there I’d see the elevated tracks.

I walked next to fruit stands amid the aroma of peaches and next to fish stores that smelled of sea bass and octopus. In the bag, which was hanging from my shoulder and beginning to wear out the tendons in my neck, the maracas jingled to the rhythm of my steps. And the elevated tracks appeared with the train on their back, quick as a lizard, and in the background, among a thick line of buildings, the sea also appeared.

Better than in the airport, I thought, six hours in an airport. And after seeing the sea and looking for a while from far off at the waves that broke against the breakwater, I walked on the boardwalk toward the south, where two roller coasters and a Ferris wheel could be seen. On the benches of the infinite boardwalk that stretched beside the beach were old men with muscular bodies and old women with wide hats who covered the bridges of their noses with white cardboard to protect themselves from a sun that, at that moment, was not out. Someone called out and, for an instant, I thought they were calling me, Víctor. But it wasn’t me (they were shouting in Russian), and then I turned to watch the sea, into which a sailboat set off precariously, as though beginning a voyage to the end of the world.

“Goddamn lunatic,” she had said and locked herself in her room to cry. Twenty years ago. And then she called Saúl and told him that she was afraid; that she had broken up with me a long time ago but had felt sorry for me and for the girl and that now she was afraid because I could kill her or something. No, it was a miracle that the girl hadn’t woken up, she said. No, she didn’t think I had broken her nose, she said, while outside the tropical sea beat forcefully against the seaside promenade.

Out at sea the mist had swallowed the sailboat and was now dissolving the tanker ship that had appeared, amorphous and funereal, through the doors of the bar when I began my drink. The doors were wide, they gave onto the boardwalk, then onto the sand with seagulls (almost two blocks of sand until the water) and then onto the sea. The bartender told me that he had never seen such a wet and warm spring.

The tropical sea beat forcefully against the seaside promenade. And I began to call her. She shouldn’t be afraid, my anger had passed, I told her. I called her affectionate names under the door crack so she could hear me. She wasn’t crying and she was no longer talking on the phone. Saúl and the others were surely on their way. “Get out of here!” she shouted from the bathroom with a calm voice that froze my heart.

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