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Blakey lost his wife to a fast-moving cancer named Dr. Kevn Foley. The doctor shared the news with Blakey on an Octoberfestless October afternoon in Blakey’s basement pool room where the doctor seemed completely at home expounding on his love for Blakey’s wife, only pausing when lining up, and usually making, a shot.
FACT: This was the first time Blakey had ever met the doctor.
FACT: The doctor knew trick shots.
FACT: Blakey was terrifically high.
Later, in the shower, a sober Blakey thought of a myriad different ways to harm the doctor. He could shoot him, gouge him with some fine German cutlery, disfigure him with bleach, or: knock him unconscious and put him in a car (stolen, of course), drive the car to an abandoned meat-packing district, perfume the entire car in gasoline and—spark—compact the doctor’s existence into just a midnight plume of crematory smoke. TV was educational.
At the time of the revelation, Blakey had been incapacitated by the doctor’s newscaster looks and hypnotist voice. The M.D. made Blakey feel almost guilty for being the impediment to a full-bloomed romance between the doctor and Blakey’s wife Lizzie. Great things would happen after his wife moved in with the doctor, Foley assured him. Life would be better for everyone involved. Blakey envisioned them running for a thankless political office, or starting a charity, or simply exploding with sweet intentions, like a struck piñata. When the doctor finished his spiel, Lizzie came downstairs and told Blakey the truth about those out-of-state conferences, the gym membership, and all the other excuses she’d used to spend time with the doctor (who was now performing trick shots in the background). Blakey wondered if the doctor had shown his wife a thing or two on the felt? That would explain The Stain Lizzie blamed on sweaty ceiling pipes. He asked, they said yes, but not before looking at each other, thoughts bumping back and forth so loudly Blakey could almost hear them. Was it the pool table or the living room table? Was it this pool table, or that other one? And remember that one table where you got up and I and you and then we…?
The hot water gave out. Blakey dressed and within five minutes was speeding, stop sign to stop sign, to the doctor’s house in the Heights. He replayed more of the doctor’s visit in his head. The doctor’s hightops coated in chalk dust. Him standing there, grinding a cube onto Blakey’s favorite cue stick. Was that some kind of Freudian thing? He couldn’t help but see Dr. Foley’s kind stare as the front to a med-schooled mind diagnosing the deficiencies in Blakey that had driven his wife from him. He probably looked at cancer patients that way. The stricken, terminals. Blakey felt asymptomatic. How had he failed his wife? Was he a bad conversationalist? Did he not work, keep the cars clean, do the yardwork (until he caved and used the three Ecuadorian brothers who did the neighbor’s lawn—great, great, great decision!)? He’d even lost his love handles earlier in the year by going on that Cajun diet where the sheer amount of cayenne pepper made it too painful to overeat. Was he a bad catch when it came to other appetites and affections? But how would his wife know? It had been many weeks, fortnights, since they’d even slept with each other, forget sex for the moment. He had timed them once and discovered they only spent fifty minutes in the same room together—for a week. Nights were even more separate. She slept in the other bedroom because she couldn’t take his snoring. But Blakey had tape recorded himself and other than the necessary farts, coughs and side-to-side shifting and realignments, he hadn’t heard even a cursory snort from himself. Meanwhile, he could hear his wife inside her bedroom, turning the crisp pages of magazines and watching movies and always typing on her laptop. Now, though, knowing about the doctor, Blakey realized the spastic plastic clicks were less than innocent. They were not “work taken home,” but:
LizzieBoredom: That feels so good, doctor. I love it when I pretend to touch myself where you tell me to touch myself so I can pretend to arouse myself, so that I arouse you. My husband could walk in at any minute. Counterclockwise, Doctor?
LizzieBoredom: You should have taken typing. Here’s to you Mr. Shaninatitsch, middle-school typing teacher, toupee king, and lech. Oh yes. Almost there, Doctor (but thinking of Mr. Shaninatitsch, the hunting, the pecking. The touch typing.)
DRLOVE: I NEAN MMM
DRLOVE: MEAN. I MEAN. SHIT. BATTERY LOW.
Or, perhaps more likely:
DRLOVE: Just leave him Liz. He’s not making you happy. I am a doctor. I have money. I am good-looking and work out. My cholesterol is 170. I will make you happy. I have motherless children and you are not yet a mother and no longer 30.
LizzieBoredom: You’re right. I deserve to be happy. I don’t love him. He doesn’t love me. Any more. We’re like strangers in the same house.
DRLOVE: It would be needlessly cruel to let your lives continue this way.
LizzieBoredom: It’s a given. This marriage is over. But you better watch it. Blakey’s in the know. And he’s heading to your house now, clear-headed and angry.
Blakey: I am.
Left turn, another left, right, left, right, right—there. So close, so startlingly close! Only 3.4 miles! The doctor’s neighborhood was golden, pumpkin-strewn, and there seemed an unusual number of children scattered about. It might be Halloween, he wasn’t sure. He pulled his wife’s car up to the curb (she had taken his car earlier to go see a movie because his car was blocking hers in the driveway) and stormed up the walkway, a gonna-kill-him rush pumping the pistons of his heart. A stone path wound past the three-car garage (well, no more blocked car scenarios with the doctor, Blakey noted), then past the combination lamppost/mailbox, then curved so that it was impossible not to take in the whole enormous house, the immaculate wood shingle siding, the painted shutters that seemed functional, the roof littered with sycamore leaves, the sycamore tree itself the post-sunset hues of oatmeal and cream and full of cawing crows, a murder of crows, Blakey noted. The entrance had been swept clean of the leaves by a broom and a pair of gloves now duncing in a corner. As soon as he heard the musical doorbell Blakey regretted not having strode right across the lawn to the door and once there, issued a violent knock, maybe even kicked it. But it was too late, now.
The door was opened by a remarkably dexterous golden retriever—no, wait, by kids just behind the door, TV-cute kids. One was a bumble bee, another a pirate. And behind them, entering what could only be called a foyer, Dr. Foley himself appeared and removed a small girl from his shoulders, a ballerina.
“Who are you supposed to be?” asked the pirate.
“Say ‘trick or treat,’” said the bumble bee.
The ballerina held her tongue.
During the drive over, Blakey had settled on trying to break the doctor’s jaw. Seeing the kids, plastic jack-o-lantern’s in hand, their faces candy-starved, Blakey felt his need to inflict physical violence on the doctor reduced to something small, but still bitter. He needed recompense for the loss of his wife. A rough shove, a trip of the feet. Perhaps giving the doctor a bad cold, but one that only inflicted him and didn’t get passed on to his patients. But with the kids watching him and asking their father when he would take them out trick-or-treating, Blakey felt entirely impotent.
“Come inside,” the doctor said, and Blakey followed.
Blakey felt ill-prepared to replace brash violence with clear-headed arguments on why his wife should not take a large step up and enter the doctor’s life permanently. He didn’t even think that was an argument he wanted to defend.
“You want a drink?”
Blakey nodded. And soon found himself at a bar listening to Dr. Foley’s story, of the kids’ late mother, of the kids themselves, especially the dyslexic one, the pirate, and how they all loved Blakey’s wife and how tough those first couple years as a widower had been for the doctor. He’d taken a whole year off from his practice. He’d had to rebuild his client base from scratch. Did Blakey know how hard that was? The doctor’s wife had loved the sea. The doctor told Blakey how he had borrowed a friend’s sailboat (knows how to sail, has boat-owning friends) on New Year’s Eve (their anniversary, of course) and gone to the Outer Banks to scatter her ashes. Incidentally, the bar was inside Dr. Foley’s house, just off the kitchen with its twin dishwashers, fridges, stoves and sinks. Nearly the whole house (for he’d been given the tour) was lit from recessed fixtures that left pools of light on the Berber carpet and the wood and stone flooring that seemed too perfect to be true wood or stone, but were rather improved wood and stone and doubtless more expensive than the real thing. Blakey thought of his basement pool room, his collection of jazz and 70s rock on the bookshelves, and the modest house surrounded by yards, not gardens. The doctor’s golden retriever began humping Blakey’s leg again.
“We don’t know why he does that,” the doctor said, aiming several squirts of water at the dog’s muzzle. “It’s embarrassing.”
Blakey looked down at the dog, and where the spray of water had hit his own pants. He stood to leave.
“Did you wet yourself?” asked the pirate child, pointing to Blakey’s crotch in a way that made Blakey feel eight again. “I used to wet myself,” the pirate said. “But I outgrew it.”
From inside the doctor’s bathroom, Blakey could hear urgent knocking at the front door. He rubbed his pants as dry as possible with one of the many hand towels. He heard a dozen thank-you’s from outside, the door shutting, the doorbell again, the soft plop of candy falling onto candy. It was hard not to see the reflection of himself in the enormous mirror, stooped over, like some masturbating hunchback. He turned around. The doctor’s late wife stared at Blakey from picture frames. The children were young in the photos, even cuter. There was one photo of her and the doctor, the doctor’s arms wrapping around her from behind, his jaw resting on her head. And there was one of just her alone, staring out a window, not particularly happy or sad, but pensive, as though she could see the car accident that would claim her, or her replacement that would appear, later, in the form of Blakey’s wife. Or maybe she was simply upset that the toilet paper roll was put on the wrong way, whatever direction of wrong she once subscribed to. And then he heard her. His own wife. The doctor said his name. Blakey waited in the bathroom as he heard Lizzie gather up the doctor’s kids and take them out the door for their sugar rounds. It took all of thirty seconds.
Blakey left the house unseen. His heart forgot beats on the drive home, leaving seemingly vast spaces of dead silence in his chest. He dug out a tight knot from his pant’s pocket and pulled out a cube of pool chalk. He peeled back the paper and wrote LIAR across the dashboard of his wife’s car, then scrawled spirals over the word until it was illegible, until he could figure out why “liar.” Would “Thanks for wasted years” be more appropriate? Or, “Why did we even bother?” And why did his heart not feel broken, only ill-spent. What a bad, bad limb he’d climbed. He blubbered and swore. He’d prefer his wife’s new love to be one of the gardeners (or even all three), or someone at the office. Anyone but this doctor with the fine home, the children, the tragic loss of his first wife. Couldn’t she just have a fling, not a replacement? Because now he was losing his sense of self and—maybe if he reexamined himself. Maybe all was not lost. Maybe he had more to offer. Maybe he hadn’t wasted the past seven—no, nine!—years. Maybe she would fall in love with him again. And vice versa.
FACT: Blakey didn’t have a chance. He was a loser.
FACT: Blakey rented an apartment, survived divorce proceedings, and retained custody of the cat and parrot.
FACT: Blakey couldn’t listen to anything but the Stones for weeks on end. You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
His wife—nearly ex-wife—had more surprises, this time delivered over the phone. “I’m pregnant.”
“That was quick,” Blakey said, feeling instantly hurt at how urgently she seemed to be making up for lost time, and her apparent satisfaction at broadcasting the information. But then,
“There’s a possibility the baby could be ours,” she said. “Yours. Ours. You know what I mean. Or not.”
No, he didn’t know. What did this news mean, exactly? Was it possible she’d been sleeping with the doctor so close to their last marital coupling (he’d heard her watching porn on her TV and he had come in, available in her eyes, he supposed) that she really had doubts as to the father? And, if so, did this mean there was a remote chance her egg had been assaulted by two dueling sperm not of the same father? No, that was too disgusting an idea, his guys and the doctor’s thrashing their way wherever it was they thrashed.
And why—here was the question that didn’t matter anymore—why hadn’t she and the doctor used protection, a condom at least? Or one of those morning after pills—he could write prescriptions after all. Uh-oh. What if the doctor had some kind of transmittable disease? Blakey knew that doctors were notorious smokers, drinkers and drug users (his own was all three). He made a mental note to check himself for signs when he got off the phone. And the baby, of course, what if it was something that could be passed down to the baby? But he didn’t ask these questions because his wife was going on about paternity testing.
The next morning, Blakey sat alone in a clinic reading about the DNA test in one pamphlet called Paternity 1-2-3 and about Amniocentesis in another simply called Amniocentesis, a tri-fold that had given him a bloody papercut. For some inexplicable reason, the clinic did not stock bandages they could simply give out. He sucked his finger and looked at the colored drawing in the Amniocentesis pamphlet. A long needle reached all the way into the amniotic fluid, the tip just millimeters, at least on paper, from the curve of the baby’s soft, vulnerable skull. Everything in the drawing—the baby, the womb, the screened back organs of the mother’s body—were bright and brightly colored, though Blakey suspected that, really, it was dark inside there. Or maybe faintly red, like a darkroom. Still, darkness. And in that darkness, a needle headed blindly toward a baby that might be his. That was the moment it really hit him. Fatherhood. Or at least the opportunity of being a father. It was the one thing in his life that was new and untouched and full, immeasurably full, of possibility. Dare he—yes, okay—he dared think the word pregnant with opportunity. Blakey left the clipboard and unsigned consent forms on top of old issues of Redbook and Field & Stream, drove back to his apartment and googled “amniocentesis dangers.” Despite the doctor’s assurances later that evening, via cell phone from the mountains and his week-long vacation with the kids and Lizzie, Blakey told them both he wanted to wait until the baby was born. If this was to be his son (the ultrasound had arrived in the mail that day), he didn’t want to risk any harm.
FACT: Blakey felt reborn.
FACT: He started carrying a dumbbell around the house to build up his child-holding muscles.
FACT: He began seeing a chiropractor because of his back.
He woke. Taped to the ceiling above the couch where he slept was his home-made sign from the night before. GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER! First, though, breakfast. He groaned to the coffee maker, fed the cat, then cut up some fruit for the parrot, refilled the seed cup, and changed the newspaper. His back was killing him. Worthless chiropractor. He needed to buy a bed. An hour later, after shaving his divorce beard, trimming his nose and ear hairs, and dealing with the other minor general grooming areas (neck hair, eyebrows, the funky mole on his chest that was basically a quarter-inch patch of regenerative monkey skin), he was ready to move from physical revival to examining his economic state of affairs. Once his half of the equity came in from selling their house he could live on that for a couple years before he’d be back at zero. In the meantime, there were expenses. The first and last to secure the apartment had tapped him out. He was living on credit. He’d lost his freelance clients from not working (now he knew what the doctor meant about client base), and the only work left were the book projects, with deadlines fast becoming obscenely overdue. The manuscripts for Write Right Press were Quirky Careers And Peculiar Professions and A Dark and Stormy Night: 1,001 Types of Weather for Writers. He’d already included all the jobs and forms of precipitation he could conjure up without serious research, and now, well there wasn’t a chance he was going to spend hours in libraries while his (maybe) son’s cells were dividing and subdividing into limbs and organs and needed a father who’d be waiting for him, whole, with all his shit together. True, it felt good to be working and to fill the time, but he just couldn’t concentrate. Five months of waiting. He didn’t know if he could distract himself for that long. Blakey looked outside. There was no weather. In fact, it might as well have been a vacuum outside, sucking him right out into emptiness. And though he was on a familial basis with that feeling, emptiness, the prospect of having a son made him desire a warm summer breeze bending fountain grass, dappled shade on park lawns, and other weather-related imagery that adorned the free calendar he had tacked up in the kitchen.
There was an early Christmas tree in an apartment window across the street. He wondered if lumberjacks still worked the forests. He sat down and wrote a section on lumberjacks for the Quirky Careers book, renaming them Forest Engineers to make it seem he’d conducted some bona fide research. After writing up the section on Forest Engineers, Blakey listened to a record he’d picked up at a yard sale earlier that week, Become a Court Stenographer (1969). He boosted the salary, increased the technological requirements (he’d seen stenographers on TV talking into something like gas masks lately, what were those called? Audiotranscribers sounded good, he decided), and continued his half-improvised account of what a fictionalized stenographer, Lizzie the stenographer, might be like. He omitted her possible ambitions and dead-of-night fears (privacy, folks—we don’t need to know how she shakes the clammy hand of midnight), but he imagined details to bulk up her character. He bulleted out facts about stenographers. Lizzie earns more than her husband, the Forest Engineer, mostly by selling trial transcripts to the media, thanks to being placed on a particularly high-profile and endless (judges-have-passed-on-to-the-other-side endless) Hollywood/murder-for-hire trial. She is falling in love with the D.A. and he wants her to dump the lumberjack, the lumbering, blundering, blubberer and take dictation just for him.
Blakey worked all day into evening, then went out for Chinese. It was a slow night, or perhaps every night was slow here—he was still scoping out the neighborhood restaurants. The kitchen staff sat at a round table near the kitchen doors, gossiping as they snapped through a two-foot-high pile of green beans. Or maybe they weren’t gossiping—he doesn’t speak the language after all. They could be continuing a nightly dialectic involving—no, no they were definitely gossiping. He sipped from his bottle of Tsingtao and eavesdropped, understanding only syllables of what? Mandarin? Cantonese? He wondered which dialect cornered the Chinese restaurant market, then, thinking of the overdue book project, began an entry for Translator in his head. When Blakey returned to the apartment there was a “I’m concerned” message on his machine from his editor at Write Right Press (deleted), and one from Lizzie. They’d received his message about waiting until the baby was born for the paternity test, but they’d gone ahead with the amniocentesis that morning, at a local hospital where Dr. Foley (she called him “doctor”) knew the doctor personally. She paused and Blakey could see the needle enter her, pierce her womb and then into the amniotic fluid and then—they were all skiing, she said, but she was still feeling morning sickness and staying in the lodge, watching TV and drinking mugs of decaf. He could go to his clinic and deliver a saliva sample for his DNA. OK. Good-bye.
He was furious, betrayed, and so, so thankful he wouldn’t have to wait all those months to learn whether he had a son. Just a saliva sample and he’d know. A sample which he’d provide on his own terms. They’d have to wait for him, now, for his news. He drank a fruit juice glass of Cognac, then smoked a joint. The heater had been on too long, too high, and the apartment felt a thousand degrees hot. Blakey opened a window, but the cold air seemed reluctant in coming and dissatisfying, like standing in front of an open freezer in summer. He poured himself a glass of ice water and stood in front of the refrigerator where, pinned by his realtor’s magnet, Crystal Jolly—Selling With A Smile (really), hung a Christmas card from Dr. Foley. Who were these people, he wondered—like the neighbors across the street with the tree—who dragged Christmas into November? He knew his having received the card must have been an office staff mistake. Mailing list cock-up. Oh dear. Bloody hell. He talked in mock-British until the parrot squawked at him. In the photo, Blakey’s wife posed with Dr. Foley and the doctor’s four kids, including one Blakey hadn’t met, even cuter than the others and hidden until Blakey had peeled away the mail forwarding sticker. The kids resembled his ex-wife, more so the longer he stared. In fact, the soon-to-be Mrs. Foley blended so seamlessly into this family that Blakey wondered if he had imagined his own marriage to her. If, standing here in the kitchen looking at the card, he’d just experienced an epic illusion in the span of ten seconds in which he had believed (“yet how real it felt!”) that he had met this woman, Lizzie, in a concert ticket line, and that they’d dated for a year and then gotten married, bought a house, woken up next to each other thousands and thousands of times, at least until she moved into the separate bedroom. Really, Blakey might not be Blakey. He’s Porter Johnson, Asian language translator, come back from a business trip in Shanghai, and he’s just had something go off in his brain, some delusion that’s played out this Life of Blakey story in his head. Some delayed flight-cabin pressure pop. In reality, Porter’s got two kids at the academy, a skyline view from the penthouse window, a wife in the bedroom waiting for him (the sex is always sublime, the lingerie outrageous, when he returns from extended business trips), and there, digesting in his belly, a big fat bite of American Dream.
FACT: Blakey is not Porter Johnson.
FACT: Blakey is both drunk and high.
FACT: Blakey is about to do something he will regret.
Having steadily lost its adhesion through the course of the day, the Get Your Shit Together! sign dropped silently from the ceiling, curved past the couch and landed on the many unpacked moving boxes. Blakey remembered when tape used to be good, when it actually held things together for longer than a few hours. What had happened? He felt lonely, thought of his son, and admitted to himself that chances were slim it would be his. After all, wasn’t copious copulation the mainstay of any affair? His sperm had a hundred to one shot. With all the doctor’s medical training, his sperm probably knew the route, what to look for, and how to get inside once there. Blakey felt angry again, here in this four-hundred square foot apartment, no house of his own, unemployed (the pay for the book projects wasn’t worth claiming for the IRS), soon nothing but the bitters and aperitifs left from what had been a well-stocked matrimonial liquor cabinet. He looked at the Foley Christmas card in his hand. There was no personal message, just the photo, and underneath, “Happy Holidays from the Foleys,” surrounded by sharp spears of holly. Blakey grabbed a beer from the fridge and threw the Foley family Christmas card in the trash after the bottle cap. He then searched the moving boxes for The Collected Works of William Shakespeare and flapped the book’s pages until the Polaroids come out. He and Lizzie in Vegas, hotel bed, poker chips almost concealing her nipples, the other photos, well no need to go there now when, focus, focus, focus, okay but just this once Blakey thought, also aware how low this was, as he sat down, leaned a photo against the beer bottle and unzipped his pants thinking how he wished they had made a video. But nothing. Not a thing, not a stirring, not a damn thing. Not even of the one where Lizzie is —. Nope. Not even with a little help. Blakey Jr. didn’t have a thing for Lizzie anymore either. In the kitchen, he blistered the Polaroids over the range.
He could ruin her for the doctor. Blakey called the doctor’s number, but got his exchange, a sleepy female voice. Undeterred, he called the doctor’s home number, got the machine, and proceeded to tell the doctor about how he and the late Mrs. Blakey had consummated their marriage in the limo ride between church and reception. He told Kevn Foley, M.D.—that’s right, K-e-v-n, some fancy spelling—a thing or two, intimate details, then exaggerations, complete fabrications, mean lies. While in the midst of recounting a fictitious three-way with a stranger, the machine cut him off. He suddenly felt cold, the apartment freezing and thick with the smell of melted plastic. He winced. What had he been saying about the woman who could, possibly, be bearing his child? What had he spoken to the man who might help raise that child? Was he, Blakey, to be an ugly cowbird, putting his child in a fatter, more comfortable nest, all the while crying about not getting a personal relationship with his son? Advantageous and devastated? And there, on the fridge, the ultrasound. The sight of the baby filled him with remorse so strong he vomited into the kitchen sink. Why was it so hard to get your shit together? As he ran the garbage disposal, he knew one thing—he needed to erase the doctor’s answering machine.
Blakey walked. 3.4 miles, while sounding short, turned into a substantial walk in his condition. He made it up the path, dusted now with first snow. The dog didn’t bark, so he knew they must have taken it with them to the mountains. He lifted pots, felt under the fancy welcome mat, then walked around back. The yard had a wood and metal playground and a giant trampoline that looked, with the pristine layer of light snow, like a giant sugar-dusted chocolate cake. He found a key under a ceramic frog and thanked him, patting his head gently.
He kept the lights off once inside. He was thirsty and poured himself a glass of water in the kitchen. He then washed and dried the glass. He had seen the TV dramas and knew it’d be foolish to leave the glass in the sink, saliva primed for DNA snatching. He felt his way upstairs and found the kids’ rooms and the doctor’s bedroom. Blakey’s ex-wife’s clothes filled a quarter of a walk-in closet. He could smell her shampoo in the pillow and saw that she kept the same side of the bed as she had with him. An old photo of her sat on the doctor’s side of the bed, like she had been there since their high school romance years, ready to greet the doctor’s every morning with a smile. The room began to spin, so Blakey lay down on the bed, then eased into a short nap because he had forgotten how comfortable a good mattress could be, having slept on the sofa for so long now. He waited for dreams, but none came. He was empty. When he woke, he looked for a nursery, but found none. Would some of the doctor’s kids bunk together, or would the office next to the master bedroom be the nursery? Or, would he, Blakey, get full custody? If the boy was his, then there’d be shared responsibilities, even down to naming him. Would he come here to help out in those first weeks, or would she live in his apartment? No, no, all unlikely. Would the boy grow up here in this house, with the doctor and the doctor’s kids and a house that, he noticed now, could be dangerous for a toddler? Who needs this many electrical outlets? he thought to himself, counting sockets as he moved down the hallway back to the sweeping staircase (with enough space between the banister posts for a child to slip through and fall to the hard marble floor below. “I had my back to him for just a second. Just a second!”).
Blakey finally found the answering machine in a nook off the kitchen, its red light blinking like a beacon. He tried to delete the message but there was only one button on the answering machine, a pager to locate the handset, and he didn’t hear any ringing anywhere in the house.
Outside, Blakey was surprised by the amount of give in the trampoline. He swept clear a body’s worth of snow and lay on his back, the answering machine on his stomach. It was too cold to sleep. He stood and bobbed up, down, up, down, then jumped, heaving himself upward into the cold night air, and with each bounce he could see a little more over the hedge to the neighbors. A lit window. A man alone at a sink. Then turned away. Then gone. Lights out. He was flying into darkness.
It seemed to take hours to come home. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a pre-dawn glow. It was a little scary, the sky looking poised to catch fire. He threw the answering machine into a dumpster. Back in his apartment, wide awake from the cold and the walk, he didn’t even want to consider sleeping on the couch. He must buy a bed, he reminded himself. He made a new sign, Buy a bed!, and taped it to the mirror in the bathroom. He washed his face and felt better. He had said terrible things, thought terrible thoughts, but had taken them back now. He was getting his shit together. And then he did what he hadn’t done for so long. Blakey called Mexico City. He grilled his brother, a chemist there, for the ins-and-outs of his profession, taking notes as his brother spoke. Then he chatted with his sister-in-law, once a minor soap-opera star in Mexico. He’s never been to Mexico or seen their house, but in his mind he always pictured a sprawling hacienda with tile floors, the big two-foot-wide variety, and his sister-in-law walking around in bare, manicured feet and wearing a robe, or eating melon balls in the kitchen while reading foreign newspapers, or sitting in bed and reading fan mail aloud to his brother. Her story was surprisingly dull. All the same, he made a few notes before he asked to talk to his brother again. His brother asked him about Lizzie, and he told him the truth—she was happy, doing well. He told his brother about his book projects and asked him for weather ideas. He wrote down “ball lightening.” He wrote down “fish falling from sky,” and remembered how much he liked talking to his brother. It was strange, being in the same time zone, yet with so much longitudinal distance. He wondered if his brother was going gray, too. His brother had to leave to go to work, he said, and Blakey promised to call again soon.
He rolled and lit up and shuffled through the stack of LPs he’d picked up from the garage sale, settling on a Burl Ives’ album. Mr. Ives sang “The Owl and the Pussycat” while Blakey began working on the last half-inch of Tequila from the bottle. How could we still call cats pussycats, in this day and age, he wondered? O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, sang Mr. Ives, What a wonderful Pussy you are, you are. What a wonderful Pussy you are. $50 bucks says Burl was thinking what I’m thinking, Blakey wagered to the parrot. And then, not even to the B-side yet, an idea descended on Blakey that seemed so brilliant he said brilliant out loud. It was an epiphany. He immediately rounded up his ex-wife’s eighteen-pound Calico cat (All of Dr. Foley’s kids were allergic to cats), and the parrot, Gimme, (who only said gimme, gimme, gimme) and sat/perched them side by side on the kitchen counter as, “get this” he informed them, “get this!”—bride and groom! He was going to make something right in this world and form a new union for one that was lost. Gimme wasn’t an owl, but he’d do. Blakey officiated, rendering an eloquent little speech about the blessings of life-long companionship, all the while keeping his eyes on the shy, purring, and possibly hungry feline bride. Gimme was half-asleep. A reception followed immediately afterward in the living room, complete with Tequila for all, metal cup for the parrot, saucer for the cat. He cut up little slices of cheese and put them on crackers. He pulled down the shades to keep the rising sun at bay, then put some mellow night-invoking Miles on the stereo. Watching the bride and groom feast, Blakey felt an immense sense of satisfaction descend upon him. It was like a buzz while sober. He fell into his first good sleep in a month.
The hangover was debilitating. While dumping the contents of the freezer into a garbage bag (the door had been left open all night and morning), he noticed blood on the floor. And then the feathers. And then, in another room, the parrot. Dead. Later, because at the moment it hurt too much to walk, he found the one-eyed cat, or rather the cat who was now one-eyed, perhaps Gimme’s last act. He managed to drop the cat off at the veterinarian and then, back at the apartment, told himself that now, now, with casualties on his conscience, with a freezer full of pizzas gone to waste, he needed—no must—get his shit together. First, he unplugged the stereo, then set up his laptop and deleted all his unread e-mail. He sneezed and the air was atomized with the scent of Tequila. He got up to dump the last of the vodka into his orange juice, but held the bottle upside down over the sink instead. After all, this is what fathers do, isn’t it? he thought. Shed bad habits, get serious, face up to reality, do the right thing. The weed disappeared down the toilet so, so slowly.
Blakey found the factory-direct mattress store easily. It was all glass and aluminum, like it’d been a car dealership in another life. The late afternoon light came in sideways, all glare, and his shadow stretched over the rows of mattresses. It was hot inside, and he had to squint from all the sunlight. He was the only customer. The saleswoman approached and rather than say he was just looking, then buy a mattress anyway, he put himself completely in her hands. She asked about the sleeping situation. Wife, partner, alone? She explained how there were mattresses designed for each situation. He accepted the complimentary soda and listened to her and looked at their demonstration mattress with the corner cut-away that let him peer inside (mostly coils in empty space). He lay down alone on a twin, then tried a queen-size, then she lay beside him so he could feel the difference. The sunlight fell behind another building at the far end of the parking lot and the flickering fluorescents above were suddenly noticeable and unbelievably harsh. He closed his eyes. He told her about the couch he was sleeping on, then just a tracery of info about his failed marriage to explain why he was sleeping on a couch. And, yes, the mattress was comfortable (Lord, it was so comfortable, but he couldn’t admit it or he’d sound so desperate). He told her about the books he was writing so he would sound gainfully employed, and she told him a little about herself. For his book, she said. Blakey discovered she was not just mattress salesperson for the months of October, November and December. She told Blakey how she used to be a dancing instructor. This was after the semester in a dental school academy, but before a weekend in truck-driving school, three years in the army, one year at a defense contractor, six years in a back office, two years at a day care center, three years, three years! she said, in a shoe store. Blakey figured that put her about thirty-five or so. Lying next to her on the mattress, he could only see her sideways but she was good-looking sideways, a nice profile, really white teeth, and bright eyes. Thirty-five seemed about right. Staring up at the grill of the ceiling speaker from which “Sailing” played, Blakey noticed that there was a cherub quality to Christopher Cross. Blakey’s hand covered hers for the rest of the song. A minute like this, maybe, not saying much. The longest he’d been with another woman, in private, for years. It was perfect, until the first commercial. He felt it, just lying there on the mattress. This was the one.
The mattress arrived the next day. He didn’t have a frame, but they threw one in. He called the mattress store to thank the saleswoman for her help and they talked for an hour, through three periods of holds, including one that was twenty minutes long and involved a sale. He wrote a new entry for the occupation book while he waited.
FACTS ABOUT SALMON COUNTERS
Number: Hydroelectric dam operators employ at least a dozen people to count salmon run populations, chiefly in the Northwest.
The Daily Grind: Salmon returning to spawn navigate around dams by climbing water-filled chutes known as fish ladders. A salmon counter sits behind a window mounted into one side of the top of a “ladder” to observe the fish as they continue upstream.
Trends & Growth: Future career growth is expected to decline as dam operators increasingly adopt technology to automate fish counting.
Compensation: Depends on employer but ranges from $10,000 - $15,000 a year. Will be expected to assume other duties during non-spawning season.
Titles: Also known as Salmon Population Engineer, or, in one case, Jeanette. Sweet, sweet Jeanette with the hip-length red hair with faint gray highlights. No longer counting fish but currently salesperson of the month in factory-direct sales at Sweet Dreams Mattress Co.
Jeanette was already at the coffee bar that Friday night. They sipped doubles because it was cold out now. He said it was a cold snap, like the weather man had said, then he said that’s what the weather man had said in case Jeanette had watched the same forecast and thought Blakey was unoriginal. There wasn’t enough breathing room inside to feel comfortable, and being too early to invite her to his apartment around the corner, they sat in her car with the heater sapping the battery. He looked at the fingers he’d felt but never seen closely. She wore wool gloves with the finger parts cut off. Small, delicate fingers. Nail polish, but it was too dark in the car to tell the color. The tip of her left index finger was bandaged. He imagined her cutting a bell pepper, shiny-side up, the knife slipping. Damn. Happens to us all. Because the drinks wouldn’t fit in the car’s cup holders, Blakey held her coffee as they drove. Jeanette sucked on a stick of rock candy from the coffee bar. They moved, slippery at first, a few fishtails, then straight, past the dark laundromat, then the park and trees so beautiful it came as a shock to seem them. Jeanette pulled over before he even thought to ask her to.
Later, for the weather book, he wrote:
Hoar frost can occur in all areas where temperatures drop below -25 F. Typically manifested as white ice crystals on tree branches, hoar frost requires a combination of sustained freezing temperatures, high humidity, and little wind. Hoar frost has been observed from pole to pole, with crystals reaching as much as an inch in length. (Blakey was pretty iffy about everything he was writing now, but the important thing was to make the third, or was it fourth?, deadline. Fact checking and revisions could follow.) Examples of possible usage: Covered with hoar frost, the tree was as delicate as lingerie. Or, lit by the park lights, the trees seemed dipped in sugar. (First kiss, there, in the car. First kiss in a decade. Jeanette tasted sweet and natural, but still somewhat bad for you, like all sugar.)
In his apartment, Jeanette spilled her cold coffee on Blakey while attempting to show him her tattoo. He only saw it after he cleaned up the spill, and this time she was less discreet in displaying a salmon tattooed on her upper left ass cheek. There was more detail and color there than he thought possible in a tattoo. They cleared the table to the wall so Jeanette could show Blakey some dance steps he did not want to attempt. And though he thought he hated dancing, he found that this wasn’t so. She taught him a tease of cha-cha-cha, both coasts of swing, the foxtrot. He turned off the heater but not until they were both drenched with sweat. If this were a movie, he thought to himself, this would be the moment they’d take each other. But not only was Blakey exhausted, he could smell himself and it was the odor of a mailman on a summer day: sweet, pulpy, and ink-sour. She asked if she could take a shower, and after she finished, he took one himself, noticing the light rings of her hair in his tub. Despite being hot, the hot water felt wonderful to him. He thought again of how, in a movie, they’d have taken a shower together, even on a first date like this one, and how, in that movie, there’d be pans and cuts of kisses and caresses, hands running down sides, a quick but tasteful butt shot or two. Blakey extended his shower by another ten minutes to allow his erection to go down. He dried, dressed and hoped Jeanette hadn’t become bored, or fallen asleep, or left. He had a fleeting image of Dr. Foley standing in his apartment, holding hands with Jeanette and her smiling up at him. But he found Jeanette sitting alone on his new mattress, towels around her hair and body. She’d turned out all the lights, and the only illumination came through the windows. Light snow falling, caught in the street lights.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. And she said it so honestly that Blakey was afraid she had forgotten she was only wearing towels and that he should look away in case she noticed. Except, she turned her head to him just then, and smiled. The sex, the sex was cool, slow, comfortable. It wasn’t like dancing, but like watching someone dance. Appreciable, not hard work. Like he had known her for much, much longer than just a week.
Blakey woke an hour or so later with a dull headache. He brought back a bottle of aspirin from the bathroom and they each popped a couple and downed it with a shared glass of water and then looked outside at the snow falling, just small specks of snow. And then, this time, the sex was just like dancing. And then, even later, it was shower steam and hands on tile, the water dripping off Jeanette’s nipples as though she were lactating. But it wasn’t comfortable and he couldn’t finish anyway—and instead they stood together in the shower, laughing and making funny hairdos out of shampoo and Jeanette’s long, long hair. She was punk rocker, then alien, unicorn, Princess Leia, Big Foot, beautiful.
The phone rang during the night and he heard his ex-wife’s voice on his machine. “Just calling to say Dr. Foley took the saliva test himself and it’s a match. 99.9 percent,” she said. “So nothing for you to worry about.”
Jeanette turned in her sleep and moved away from him. Blakey sat up in bed and waited for the sadness to come. But it didn’t come. It stayed far outside, tiny shreds of sadness like the falling snow. He settled back into bed and spooned Jeanette.
In the morning, after Jeanette left for work, Blakey lay on the bed and played with one of her long stray hairs, the only one he could find in the bed. He liked her, really liked her. She was like a vacation from his life. Could he stay in Jeanetteland longer? What was the immigration policy? He stepped out of bed to reach the phone and call her at work when his big toe squashed something soft, yet hard, too. Like a raisin. If it were spring, he’d easily mistake it for some exotic tree seed, some sidewalk fruit that got embedded in his sole and lifted up to his apartment. But winter was upon them now, and this was no fruit. He looked closer. It was the cat’s eye. For the rest of the morning Blakey felt terrible about the cat. He hoped some amicable peace could develop between himself and his ex-wife’s cat, some forgiveness on both sides for the things that had made the relationship with the parrot come apart, whether rooted in betrayal, alcohol or the more primeval animosity which had doomed the arranged marriage. He realized he felt more remorse for this failure, than for the breakup of his own marriage. After all, no one had died during his divorce. There had been no physical violence (and none inflicted on Dr. Foley, unfortunately), no trips to the E.R.
He drove to the veterinarian and picked up the survivor of the marriage. The feline widow was ghastly looking thanks to twenty-three stitches and the bruising. She was shaved in places that he didn’t think would have needed shaving. There was something embedded where her eye once took root, like the knot in a bellybutton. He felt afraid of her a bit, afraid he couldn’t rely on his expectations of cat behavior from one who’d survived such an ordeal. In the apartment, he used a ruler to open the door to the carrier. She wouldn’t have anything to do with him and didn’t come out for an hour. Blakey didn’t play any music that evening.
The next evening, he drove to the mattress showroom and left the car running. This much he knew: when his half off the equity money came in, he and Jeanette were going to have some fun. Go someplace warm, like Puerto Rico. Or maybe visit his brother in Mexico and talk about when they were younger and start over with those memories as his rootstock. He’d spend, say, $10,000, just like that, on a room with an ocean view, breakfast in bed, swimming, sleeping. He could see Jeanette smiling at him from a hotel pool. If, in all the sex they would certainly have, in the margins of failure, he got her pregnant, he would be ready for the feeling and even, he knew now, want her to be. And then, when he got back, he’d find a regular job. Something steady. There were a book’s worth of career ideas in his head, though none appealed to him yet. None called out to him, saying, “Join us Blakey. Become a ____________.” He’d like to own a record store that sold nothing but Hawaiian music. Maybe ukuleles, too. Buying and fixing up old houses also appealed to him—though he knew he had little grasp of repair work. Teaching also seemed plausible, at least the concept of teaching, but only to bright kids, kids with good taste in music and no B.O.
From inside the car, Blakey watched Jeanette close up the yellow-bright mattress store. He lost sight of her for a few minutes, then the store lights vanished. The night was purple. “This can’t end well,” he said aloud. Jeanette will have an ex-boyfriend (or unmentioned ex-husband) that’ll come back into the picture, (“suddenly showed up again, can you believe it?”) or she’ll simply discover whatever qualities Lizzie discovered that made her leave him. Or if not that, then things will deteriorate simply because he (and probably Jeanette, too) are on their best behavior. They’ve known each other, what, two weeks? They’re as nice as possible, accommodating, as interesting and interested as they can stand to be. And though it’s genuine now, sure, he knows it can’t be forever. He couldn’t possibly be genuinely interested in someone else for the rest of his life, could he?
So, for the moment, sitting in his car, watching Jeanette lock the store and adjust her scarf and head toward him within a clear circle surrounded by fogged window, all bundled up and now turning her brisk walk into a jog as she came toward the car—though whether to get out of the cold or see him, he couldn’t be sure—right in this moment, he took the happiness he felt and swallowed. He leaned over, unlocked the passenger door, and pushed it open towards her. The air that rushed in was frigid, face slapping. He felt the past rush out.
Jeanette is impossible to read until, halfway to him, he detects an extra skip in her stride. Even given half of this moment, say if Jeanette were only to come within ten feet of his car and no closer, he’d feel happier than he thought he would again—and happier than he’s been in at least a couple years. Jeanette is halfway to him, then halfway again, then suddenly she is inside the car, inside his car, Blakey’s car, Blakey’s hunk of junk, and her lips, freshly minted, are on his lips, his chapped lips, and her breath-cold tongue goes past meeting and takes only seconds before it, too, is warm like everything else.
“Let’s go,” she says, then makes a shivering brrrrr sound. “C’mon. I could cut glass with my tits.”
And he starts driving without knowing where to.
FACT: Blakey is in love.
FACT: Blakey is in love.
FACT: Blakey is in love.