Mr. Patel's Moral Compass
Omar Patel kept his conscience in a velvet-lined box on the dresser next to his bed.
Or he had, until the wild monkeys of Mt. Takasaki broke into his hotel and trashed his room like a gang of particularly belligerent rock stars.
He had unwisely failed to lock the case. He had just slammed the door open, jamming his finger in the process, when the last remaining monkey, its face as wise as a Jedi knight's, calmly hurled the box's contents out the window.
Omar heard his conscience shatter on the cobbled streets outside, followed by the excited chatter of outraged tourists and locals who'd nearly been brained by a heavy glass cylinder.
Ignoring the monkey that now studied him from the swaying branch of a nearby cedar tree, Omar leaned out the window to see what was left.
Little brown birds had already fluttered close in order to cock their heads at the shards that lay like melting ice on the street two floors below. In the middle of the glitter of broken glass, there was a drying puddle of blue dyed water, a white plastic bauble and a flaccid, gelatinous ball: the shriveled remains of a pickled human eye.
One of the sparrows pecked at it.
Sliding the window shut, Omar sat on the narrow, sheetless bed and untied his belt, his jammed finger gingerly extended.
He was still flushed from soaking in the inn's onsen, and his skin, when he shrugged out of his white terry robe, was pink and boiled looking. The room's white walls glowed in the late sun, printed in places by the grubby hands of simian vandals. His small pillow had been torn, and the bedclothes lay wound around the legs of the pine bed. A few sheets of creamy hotel stationary drifted softly to the floor when he stood up again, and although the monkeys had managed to unzip his suitcase, they hadn't gotten into his clothes.
After he'd dressed for dinner, Omar checked the pocket of his suitcase for his plane ticket. The ticket was plain and utilitarian, printed on vaguely yellow cardstock and he touched it with his jammed finger as if he found it reassuring.
He locked the case that had housed his conscience, and then the door behind him. When he reached the front desk, he explained about the monkeys, and when he returned from dinner, his room would be as neat and spare as it had been when he'd first taken it a month ago, and he would turn down the sheets, undress and go immediately to bed.
At dawn, he would visit the Chinoike Jigoku, the Blood Pool Hell and consult his older sister, the goddess.
Saraswati was his half-sister. His father's first wife had been a regal Hindustani academic, who now taught Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane. Saraswati herself was a graduate in the program. She was nearly a foot taller than Omar, with hair that rippled past her waist. When he found her, she was perched on a rock beside the Blood Pool Hell, wearing flipflops and a yellow string bikini and painting her toenails with clear lacquer.
Her dark hair floated like curling smoke around her, and her mouth looked so soft Omar was sure he'd lose a finger just touching it.
"Hello, Mandroid. I still can't believe you got your dad to shell out sixteen grand for this little jaunt."
Omar shrugged, and looked out over the water. The sun hadn't been up long, but other tourists were already lurking in the ferns, pointing and taking random stills.
The water, even at sunrise, didn't actually look like blood. If anything, it looked like an industrial spill of V8 juice, or a huge steaming bowl of Campbell's Tomato Soup.
"You should take some pictures," she said. "Everyone else is." Although she was only four years older, Saraswati had the studied indifference of someone jaded since birth.
"Why did you bother to come, Swati?"
"You asked me to. It's your graduation present. I've never been to Japan, you know how I enjoy soaking the old man, etc., etc."
Naturally, Saraswati had sided with her mother in the divorce, and never failed to take the opportunity to disparage her father or shake him for funds.
She had only arrived the day before, and Omar wasn't sure how long she'd be here, or when he'd leave himself.
The ticket could be re-booked. And if he stayed long enough, he might soak up the language, the way baking soda absorbs odors in a freezer.
"Are you high?" Her conversational tone was a sham; if she thought he was holding, she would put considerable effort into causing him serious physical pain. He had never been able to convince her of the fact that he did not ingest intoxicants of any kind.
"You spend way too much time with wake and bakes, Swati. You know I don't smoke," he added, purely out of habit.
"So you say," she said negligently. "And yet you're about as lively as a doorstop. Where's your conversational art?"
"Maybe I'm tired."
"That would be a first." She capped her bottle of nail polish with a little satisfied wag of her head and turned her eyes to him directly for the first time. "Come here."
Omar stepped closer out of an obedience she had beaten into him long since.
She patted the rock, and he sat down beside her, facing away.
She tugged his chin-length hair assessingly and tucked it behind his ear. She stroked his face from temple to jaw with the pads of three fingers and then leaned forward to bite his ear.
"Jesus, cut it out!"
He slapped her away and she laughed, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
"So what's wrong with you then? Didn't anyone ever tell you that brooding makes you dull?"
"I'm not brooding."
"You'll have to do better than that. Tell Swati everything."
While Saraswati had lived in New Orleans with her mother, Omar had been educated at boarding schools for most of his life. As a result, he knew his parents as well as most people knew dead celebrities: a few major, scandalous facts and the year and day of their birth.
Omar's father Farooq was a retired Sudanese codebreaker. In his free time, he collected rare coins and supported two mistresses, one on each coast. Omar's mother Sharon was the sort of windblown semi-royal who'd been in magazines in the 70s, once an alcoholic who'd smoked more than she breathed, and now a disciplined practitioner of yoga who eschewed the dietary intake of sugar and meat. Omar's father also dabbled in the professional poker circuit and spent a significant portion of his year outside of Vegas, in a tasteful hotel run by the wintering Mafia.
The summer Omar was 12, Farooq beckoned him into the damp and the dust of the wine cellar and slid a cracked brown case off the shelf. He set it on a counter that had been built into the wall and smiled at his son.
Farooq was a slight, handsome man with slender hands and a soft black mustache. He wore his thick, shining hair in a pompadour, and he had the suave manners of an Oxford graduate, although he'd had no formal schooling past the age of 14. For all his wealth and charisma, he rarely smiled, as his two front teeth were spoiling in his head. His bone-deep fear of the dentist ensured that they would turn caramel brown as they stuck in his gums, rotting softly, visibly.
God, it was like gangrene, Omar thought. Yank 'em out. Get a bridge. Get implants. Get fangs. Just... He could hardly bear to look at the man when he lifted the lip under his hooked nose to showcase the two front teeth that were softening like taffy in his living head.
"Dad? Is that your gun?"
Until that day, Omar had had the enduring, unfounded (and completely incorrect) suspicion that his father was some brand of assassin.
His father looked confused, and shook his head.
"You watch too many movies."
Instead of explaining, Farooq unlatched the case and opened it, setting a hand on his son's shoulder and steering Omar close so he could review its contents.
Nested in thick navy velvet was a heavy glass cylinder about 10 inches long, filled with dark fluid. The glass itself was thick and wavy, nearly opaque in some places.
"You are old enough, now. You will need this, until you marry."
Omar studied the cylinder, and then pointed at it, asking his father with his eyes for permission to touch it.
"Yeah, go ahead. It's yours now. Until you give it to your own son."
Omar lifted it, and of course it was heavy, but Omar found it satisfying to hold: the fluid boiled in the glass tube as he turned it over in both hands, and there was a tiny tink-tink-tink of something inside tapping against the glass.
"What is it? A barometer?"
It seemed to him he'd seen something vaguely like it at The Sharper Image once.
"No. It's my conscience. Well, it's your conscience, now."
And the hand still on Omar's shoulder squeezed once.
Omar, even at the ripe old age of 12, immediately associated the word with a cricket in a top hat, and was at a loss.
"But... won't you need it?"
Farooq shook his head, leaning back against the shelf to roll and light a cigarette. He took a long drag and sighed out a thick cloud of smoke that looked almost green in the baleful yellow light of the cellar's single bare bulb
"A man with a wife doesn't need a conscience," he assured Omar.
And later that day, Sharon, dry-eyed and bored and reeking of gin, reported that Farooq had left them both to move to Nevada. There he took his third wife, Bethany, a woman he'd met at a mustang ranch.
Omar saw his father even more infrequently, and was never given any particular instructions on how to use the conscience, much less a hint of where it had originally come from, but he had consulted it faithfully nearly every day after.
Until it had been destroyed by the vengeful monkeys of Japan.
"When Dad married Bethany," he began, "He gave me this... thing. In a box. And I... broke it. Last night."
Swati rolled her eyes.
"You lost your fucking conscience?!" Her hand was as wide as a paddle and it stung right through the sleeve of his tee shirt.
"How did you know that?" He rubbed his arm, glaring at her.
"Oh, I know everything. Even Mommy gets loaded now and then. What I can't understand is why you're dragging it around like it means something. I mean, you're stupid, midget, but you're not stupid." She tousled his hair and then shoved him off the rock. "It was just the guts of an old Magic 8 ball, Omar. Mommy said so. Please tell me you haven't really been trying to answer all your philosophical --"
"No!" He said it loudly, automatically, preemptively.
His sister eyed him shrewdly.
"Fine." She got to her feet, her rangy body the color of curry powder in the strengthening sun. "Why don't you buy me breakfast. Something that isn't fish," she qualified.
Omar's finger was still sore, so he ate his fried eggs with his left hand. He was enjoying his bland American breakfast, and the spare lines of the hotel restaurant. The air had a stillness Omar associated with tactful wealth.
He wondered if being genuinely glad to buy his sister breakfast meant that he was homesick. She was wearing a pink and saffron silk robe over her swimsuit, and he wondered what she wanted from him.
"So, when's your flight out?"
"Tomorrow afternoon. I wanted to visit the Monk's Pool Hell again before leaving."
"Yeah, yeah, I read the brochure," she said, flapping her hands at him. "That's the one with the burping clay, right?"
He nodded and pushed his eggs around his plate.
"I'm supposed to be here for six more days. Then I'm taking a B term for Hafsa." Hafsa was Saraswati's roommate, and a fellow teaching assistant. "She's going to take an internship with Heron, Elliot and Warlick."
The firm's name meant nothing to Omar, and he lacked the interest to request an explanation.
Swati dropped her fork and sighed.
"I'm bored already. I'll fly back with you tomorrow instead."
"Monkeys," he crooned.
She blinked at him.
"Monkeys. From the mountain. You could take a hiking tour."
She tapped one long fingernail against her temple and gave him a slow smile.
"If you think that's some kind of lure, you're weirder than I remembered."
Omar swallowed another mouthful of now-cold eggs, and said, "I could probably hunt up a hustler for you."
Her face sharpened with a moment of actual interest but she shook her head.
"Think of it as quality time."
Omar wondered if he could stick her with the bill, but he knew she'd only charge it to his room.
All around them was the hum of breakfasting tourists, and the clink of forks against plates. Six elderly white women dressed in various shades of purple filed past him; every one was wearing a red felt hat. Each hat was uniquely appointed: one with a long curving red feather, one with a spray of yellow flowers, one studded with garnets, another dazzled with rhinestones or a bit of veil.
Saraswati kicked him companionably.
"Let's go soak."
Omar motioned for one of the invisible hovering waiters, and one appeared as if conjured from a bottle.
In his graceless, atonal Japanese, he asked for the bill.
For the first time since he'd lost it, Omar genuinely missed his conscience.
It might have given him some valuable guidance concerning the etiquette of being poached alive in a volcanic spring with his unpredictable sister. Not that it would have been convenient, or even possible, to escape Swati for the necessary consultation.
Her hair was bound up on her head and her long lashed eyes were half shut so that only the white was visible. They were not alone in the water; there were always grandfathers with seamed faces, bearded Nordic tourists, gangs of Australians with golden tans and sun-bleached hair, and armies of round-shouldered middle-aged Japanese businessmen. The Americans tended to wear trunks, although both he and Swati were naked, and he was not the only one watching his sister out of the corner of his eye.
He'd tried to explain that women bathed in separate springs, but Saraswati would have her will. The Europeans were titillated; the Japanese offended, and Omar, annoyed.
He was still surprised that she'd come to see him, and not a little wary. The truth was, he didn't know Saraswati well. They had been brought together only infrequently during school breaks, and his most visceral and enduring memory of her involved the time she had locked him in the trunk of his father's '88 Jaguar during his seventh birthday party. He still remembered lying there, tasting his own breath and licking at some cake frosting he'd gotten on the sleeve of his shirt as Swati stood outside in her rabbit trimmed coat jingling the keys and jeering at him.
"I'm going to sell all your presents," she'd said. Saraswati was nothing if not pragmatic.
It had been January and every now and again she'd knock on the trunk so it rang like a gong. The trunk had been dark, of course, and empty, and had smelled like new carpet. Omar had found it comfortable enough, if chilly, but bored of it long before Saraswati had relented and finally let him out.
The water was so hot, Omar could feel his face, his throat, his sore finger, the tips of his ears throb with every beat of his heart. At this point, he was half-convinced he'd lose consciousness and slip under the water to silently drown. Occasionally he was jostled by a fellow bather, and was reassured.
Omar turned his eyes to the milk-white sky and drew steam into his lungs until he gasped.
As he walked out of the men's locker, he saw Saraswati letting down her hair. Omar recognized one of the Australians from the onsen in attendance, with Swati's silk robe draped over his arm. She was dry now, but still naked. At this point, several men and women were pointing and whispering behind their hands.
"You wanna buy a ticket?" Omar addressed the Australian, who looked blank. "To the show."
The Australian glanced from Omar to Saraswati and then back again.
"She with you, then?" Omar recognized the man's expression; it was something Swati had always termed 'the twofer'.
"She's my sister."
The Australian shrugged amiably, but made no move to go. Instead he held up the robe so Saraswati could slip her arms into it.
"There you are, girly." He patted her back, sketched a salute at Omar and then bounded away to catch up with his fellows.
Swati tipped an eyebrow at him and tied her hair in a loose knot at the back of her neck.
"I guarantee you we could have had a threesome with that guy."
Omar said nothing, taking her wrist and towing her out of the hall toward the ryokan.
He didn't let her go until he'd closed the door to his hotel room behind them.
"Why are you here, Swati?"
"I already told you." She crossed her arms and offered nothing more.
"Do you need money? Just tell me."
She shook her head,
"There's nothing wrong?"
She sat down on his bed and her eyes glittered.
"Not a thing."
It had to be money. Money for a lawyer, or an abortion. Saraswati could easily be pregnant, although the idea of her small breasts and flat belly swelling was objectionable, even obscene.
"Are you pregnant? Sick? Smuggling? Jesus, what is it?"
Saraswati's laugh was bright and genuinely amused.
"You're the most suspicious little fuck I know. It's a free vacation, Omar. To a tiny exotic island. Even if I hated your guts I would have come."
Omar knew that to be true, but he still couldn't relax.
She held out her hand and after a moment, he took it. She laced their fingers together and tugged on their joined hands until he sat down beside her.
"Maybe I just missed you."
"And maybe you just want to steal my credit card again."
She'd rented a fleet of Vespas for a weekend: one for each girl in her sorority. His father had paid the bill, no questions asked, but it still rankled.
"Do you think I'm in Dad's will?"
"I think you'll be on his shit list if you fuck off with my wallet again."
She ignored that, and leaned back on his bed, letting go of his hand to swing her long, smooth legs into his lap.
"Don't you want to go on that hike? We can see your stupid monkeys."
He shoved her legs off his thighs before she finished talking and then re-tied the sash of his robe.
"Yeah. I have something I want to ask them, anyway."
There were sixteen people on the hike, and they were surprisingly quiet as they followed their tour guide up the foot of Mt. Takasaki into Monkey Land National Park, hushed probably by the sage murmur of the old forest, or else the chirruping of a thousand invisible birds.
To Omar, the wind in the trees sounded like rushing water, but they were far from the Oita River.
He could see the leathery, misshapen heads of wide brown mushrooms squatting in the grasses, and the withered knees of ancient cypresses vying to trip the hikers if they strayed from the narrow trail. Omar imagined he could see the grass tick here and there where small animals darted for cover, and once he was sure he saw a fox. But there were no monkeys.
The guide, a stalwart little Japanese woman with a pony tail and white shorts and red lipstick, seemed confused, and suggested vaguely that the troupes had moved 'higher up the mountain'. It was unusual behavior, and she said so. The Macaques had little fear of humans, and ordinarily they approached tour groups with an eye for handouts, but it was as if they'd flown from the forest like birds.
Although there was still much to be appreciated, the disappointed tourists muttered and fretted until the tour guide shrugged and led them away from the shelter of cedar and cypress and camphor trees, and back to their motorcycles and microbuses.
As they made their way back toward the parking lot, Swati tugged his ear and leaned close to whisper, "What did you do to make two thousand monkeys skip town?"
Thirty-six hours later, they were on the last leg of their flight out of Japan. The captain's sing-song, staticky voice informed the passengers that they were forty minutes outside of Boston.
Saraswati was drooling on his shoulder. She had dry-swallowed two Benedryl on an empty stomach before getting on the plane, and by the time she'd convinced Omar's assigned seat-mate (a bull-necked, red-haired boy of 18) to take her place in the tail section, she was too uncoordinated to put up her own gear.
Omar found himself unable to stow it for her. It was insanely heavy, and too bulky to cram under the seat. Unfortunately, Omar was just not quite tall enough to wrestle it into the overhead compartment. After several conspicuous and humiliating attempts on his own, he glanced over his shoulder to find his displaced seat-mate watching his performance without comment or apparent empathy. His face hot, Omar fished out his wallet and pressed a folded twenty into the boy's hand. The boy loaded and locked the storage container with robotic efficiency and then pocketed the money and headed for his seat without a backward glance.
Now Saraswati's head was buried against his shoulder, her mouth slack. Her breath was hot and smothering, and he shifted his shoulder until he'd joggled her enough to rouse her. She tipped her head to the other side, where it thunked like a ripe cantaloupe against the Plexiglas window, but she never woke up.
He wondered how the hell she made her connecting flights on her own, and what it must be like for her to actually be afraid of something as mundane as air travel.
Strands of her hair were pressed against the sweat-damp skin of her cheek and temple in loops like calligraphy.
She had declared she would visit with Omar for four of the remaining five days of her vacation, and had ordered him to buy her ticket home to New Orleans.
He made sure her seatbelt was secure and flipped through the airline magazine for the fourth time.
Eventually, he flapped it quietly against his thigh and stared past his sleeping sister into the clouds. He had no idea how he'd survive another four days of Saraswati's rigorous brand of affection. He had no idea how he'd get by without a conscience much longer, either.
He decided to put both problems out of his mind until they'd landed.
Once they'd touched down, the red-haired boy came back to help Saraswati wrestle her luggage from the storage shelf. Omar noted she didn't waste a smile on him, knowing she'd never see him again.
The airport was seething with tourists, but after the canned air and confinement of the airplane, it felt as open as a baseball stadium. Saraswati, like any other child whose nap had been interrupted, woke up cranky. While she stood on the interminable line to the lady's room, she made it known to Omar that it was in his best interest to bring her a bottled water and a Coke from the food court.
She chugged the water and they split the Coke, and then headed for baggage claim.
At the carrousel, Swati heaped Omar like a pack mule, shouldering only her own digital camera and her wide straw tote. There were no carts available, and Omar could feel his overburdened spine threaten to telescope. All around him was the restless tramp of harried tourists, lugging children and suitcases toward or away from destinations they were in a hurry to arrive at. In the midst of them, Omar cast around for a skycap, and caught sight of one who'd probably just come off duty.
Hatless and loosely sprawled against an information booth, the skycap wore his gray uniform shirt half unbuttoned over a white tee, his name stitched above his pocket in neat navy script that read: Gus. As they drew closer, the man stood up and smiled at Saraswati. He noticed Omar a second later, and grinned so widely Omar could see the pink of his tongue behind his small, white teeth.
"You need a hand with that?"
The skycap slipped Swati's heavy leather carry-on out of Omar's hand and slung it over his own shoulder, and commandeered Omar's knapsack as well. That left Omar with Swati's suitcase stroller and his own duffel. He rolled his shoulders a little in relief and held out the twenty he'd readied as a tip.
The skycap lifted his eyebrows and hesitated before shaking his head. Then he seemed to think better of it, and tucked the bill into his shirt pocket.
"So. Where are we going? Did you guys rent a car? Oh, and hey- what time is it?"
Saraswati was checking her phone messages and busily ignoring the airport at large. Omar glanced at his watch and reported, "It's ten after four."
"Groovy. We're good to go, then."
He turned his head toward Omar and gave him an expectant look.
Omar realized that he'd been elected head of this particular expedition and set off for the sliding glass doors, Saraswati and Gus-The-Skycap in tow. On the way out, they passed a skinny Latino with a pitted face cradling a baby, lips pressed against its soft, powdery skull. He was bandannaed and tattooed in the manner of a gangster, and standing by the creaking elevator with a chattering herd of pig-tailed German exchange students. He wore a look of such complete contentment that Omar felt a strange, dry pang of envy.
At the curb, he set his luggage down, and after a moment, Gus did the same. Saraswati was embroiled in an argument with Hafsa over an electricity bill and kept her bag hugged under her elbow.
Gus toed the backpack until it butted up against Swati's leather case and looked up and down the street, hooking his hands in his pockets. He was wearing olive drab slacks that were frayed at the cuffs, and faded red canvas sneakers.
Omar closed his eyes and kicked himself mentally.
"Are you waiting for a ride?" Gus wasn't smiling, but he looked like he wanted to.
"We'll flag a cab. Or call one." He glared at Swati, who turned her back to him so she could finish reciting every instance of Hafsa's being late with the rent. "So. Thanks."
Gus nodded amiably, and continued to loiter curbside, squinting a little in the glare. He rubbed a hand through his springy white-boy semi-fro, and the strong afternoon sun made his brown hair glint in places, as if shot through with copper wire. His long nose cast a shadow on his cheek, and the bridge was wide and a little squashed looking. Omar wondered if he'd broken it.
"You know, if you want to wait, my girlfriend's flight gets in in about twenty minutes. I could give you a ride."
"Why?" Omar's curiosity was genuine. If the guy had a girlfriend, impressing Saraswati was probably not his prime motivation.
Gus raised his eyebrows again, and then his face crinkled with amusement.
"Because I feel bad about taking your twenty. You thought I was a skycap, huh?"
After a moment, Omar managed a nod.
"If it makes you feel any better, it's not the first time that's happened. Last week? I had to pump an old lady's gas. I should just give this thing away." He fingered the material of the overshirt meditatively and then slipped it over his head. The tee shirt underneath was printed with the simple, placid face of Julius the Paul Frank chimpanzee.
Omar stared with open fascination.
Gus glanced down at his own tee and shrugged. "It's Marlene's," he said, as if that explained something. He looked up again and extended a hand. "I'm May. Uh, Pete. Pete May."
"Omar Patel." They shook once, a loose hand-clasp, an abbreviated, perfunctory dip. "And that's my sister. Saraswati."
Swati, finally off the phone, deigned to shake Pete's hand. Omar figured she'd heard him offer them a ride.
"Are you sure about the ride? We're in Braintree."
"Wollaston," Pete supplied. "That's no problem at all. Maybe ten, fifteen minutes."
Omar tucked his hair behind his ears, considering. Pete May wholly lacked any aura of menace, and even if Omar was wrong about that, it was unlikely that he would rob them, shoot them and dump their corpses in a quarry with a girlfriend along.
"I-- Actually. A ride would be great."
"We can drink while we're waiting," Swati added decisively.
Omar was beginning to think that the time was right for alcohol, after all.
Pete took them back inside to Captain Jack's, a utilitarian space with dark wooden paneling and a full bar. It was pitched next to a shop that specialized in candy, magazines and outsized stuffed animals, and its walls were inexplicably hung with empty eyed Tiki masks fashioned out of paper mach� and adorned with dry yellow grass.
He hung his shirt over the back of a chair and left them to collect his girlfriend at baggage claim, and Saraswati instructed the Haitian bartender on the construction of Zombie Nog: skim milk, NutraSweet, nutmeg, vodka, rum. A sorority favorite.
Omar paid for her drink and followed her to the table.
Swati was still twirling her thin straw in her first Nog when Pete reappeared, carrying a new set of luggage. A lipless, sullen looking girl in her twenties accompanied him. Omar could practically hear the heavy cones of her thighs rub as she a dragged herself across the bar's threshold. Her stick-straight and unflattering shag cut had been dyed an inky black that made it look both brittle and sticky. Under a thick layer of powder, she managed to look simultaneously pasty and jaundiced, and she slumped bonelessly in the chair Pete had drawn out for her.
Omar heard Pete order orange juice and a martini with three olives.
The girl said nothing, and stared dull-eyed at one of the Tiki gods until Pete returned to the table laden with beverages.
"Thank you. Very much." Her voice was that of a much older woman, rich and deep. But then she took three swallows of her martini and cleared her throat before blowing her nose in a cocktail napkin. She looked as if just that action had exhausted her. When she spoke again, she said, "God. I needed that," and her voice was lighter and better suited to her apparent age.
Pete rested a hand on the top of her head and turned to Omar.
"Marlene. Omar. Saraswati," he said, pointing to everyone in turn.
Marlene shook her head to dislodge him, and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Sorry. Turbulence."
She plucked an olive from the toothpick and set her teeth against the briny flesh with an air of exaggerated delicacy, biting it in half. She chewed and swallowed, and then popped the second half into her mouth with her fingers. Eventually, she dragged the other two olives off the toothpick with her teeth and discarded the damp toothpick in the spotless glass ashtray.
Pete slung an arm around her shoulders and scratched his fingernails against the fabric of her shirt in a friendly way. Marlene rested her forehead against his cheek briefly and then appropriated his orange juice. When she'd finished it, she banged the empty glass on the table and sighed: "I will kill you and eat you if we don't get dinner in the next ten seconds, May."
Saraswati, who'd been studying Marlene with sly interest, dimpled at Pete.
"Dinner! Omar's loaded. He's buying."
Omar had no objection to that, but Marlene shook her head, slowly, as if worried her brain would come unmoored and bounce around her skull.
"Gah, no!" She seemed to realize that her refusal was too raw, and appealed to Omar directly. "I mean, yes, hungry, but I'm beyond jetlagged and I just want a sandwich, a shower and a nap."
Pete knuckled Marlene's head fondly. "Another time, okay?" Omar nodded his agreement, and Pete said, "Let's roll. If we leave now, we can just--" he took Marlene's hand and consulted her watch. The delicate leather band seemed out of place on a wrist that thick. "Uh, catch evening rush hour." He grinned sheepishly and they geared up again, Omar forcing Swati to roll her own suitcase so that he could take one of Marlene's bags.
In the parking garage, Pete introduced them to his '94 Volvo, The Zanzibar. The body was tricked out in orange metallic flake, with elaborate white and red flames roaring off the hood and licking across the rocker panels. Overall, it looked like a bucket from some insane amusement park ride that had wrenched free to tumble down the midway, crushing hapless carnies.
They stowed their gear in the vast trunk and climbed in, and then inched out into the slow march of the parking exodus.
At the pylon, the attendant demanded eight dollars. Pete waved away Omar's next twenty and paid the parking fee with two limp fives.
The Zanzibar's interior was scrupulously clean. The vinyl armrests were smooth and unmarked, smelling faintly of conditioning fluid. The floor mats had a combed look that spoke of recent vacuuming, and there were no soda straws or paper napkins, no old magazines or dog-eared maps stuffed in the storage pockets strapped to the backs of the bucket seats. Omar suspected The Zanzibar's cleanliness was anomalous, and heavily influenced by the prospect of picking up ones jetlagged girlfriend.
He'd expected windows crowded with band stickers, Mardi Gras beads dripping from the rearview mirror, a high probability of fuzzy dice, but there wasn't so much as an air freshener to be seen.
Before he could put any order to the polite questions he'd built in his head, Saraswati asked Marlene where she'd been.
"Germany. It was for work. It was a software development thing... Dull as dirt. Dull as German dirt. A hotel full of geeks who didn't speak the language-- the usual."
For the second time that day, Omar could sense Saraswati's rapacious interest in the other girl, and he knew it was only a matter of time before Swati said something Omar would regret. He himself found Marlene compelling in a way he couldn't define, but then it wasn't Marlene herself as much as her relationship with Pete.
"Do you speak German?"
"I can get by. You know, basic phrases. 'Where is the vice-president?', 'Where do these stairs go?', 'Why are those men carrying such large firearms?'"
Swati nodded, her eyes wide and insincere.
Omar got the impression that Marlene was humoring Swati for the good of all, and tried to think of some neutral topic that would forestall a screeching match in a moving vehicle.
"We just got back from Japan. Kyushu," Omar specified.
Marlene turned her head to survey him past the block of the headrest.
"How was it?"
"Dull as Japanese dirt," Swati answered.
"It's a beautiful country."
"Dull as Japanese dirt. With monkeys. In theory, anyway," Swati continued, with an arch tilt of her head Omar's way.
"I spent a lot of time at the volcanic springs." If he had mastered any skill, it was pretending to ignore his sister. "Some of them are scalding hot-- enough to actually boil you in your own skin."
"Like minute rice," Swati interjected.
"Because of all the springs, there's this--"
"Mountains. Boiling springs. Japanese people. About what you'd expect, really."
"-- mist that clings to the ground almost everywhere you go."
Marlene smiled a little, apparently pleased with the image.
"Do you have any pictures?" Pete caught his eye in the rearview mirror.
"He doesn't take pictures. It's a thing he has. He thinks they ruin the experience."
Omar had nothing to say to that, because Swati, no matter how snide, was only telling the truth.
When Pete smiled, Omar could see his ears twitch.
"I'd like to go back there one day."
Pete and Marlene nodded together, and Omar turned his head to watch the green islands of the shoulder blur as Pete sped towards Braintree. Even with the windows rolled up, he could smell the asphalt, empty-Styrofoam-cup, wet cigarette and diesel smell that meant: highway.
For a little while, silence ruled the drive. Finally, Saraswati toyed with her cell phone and resumed her earlier argument with Hafsa, just to have something to do.
In the twenty minutes it took to get out of town, Marlene had fallen asleep and Swati had resorted to playing endless games of E-Maze on her phone.
Pete glanced over his shoulder.
"Hey, Omar, I'm gonna drop Marlene off first, okay? It'll just take a minute. She lives in Liberty Park."
Marlene was snoring slightly and Swati leaned over to chant, "dyke dyke dyke" in Omar's ear.
Omar carefully pressed his elbow against her arm to maneuver her back to her side of the bench seat.
Swati gave him a sour look and spent the remainder of the drive eating tiny glowing chips of light with ostentatious concentration.
They pulled into a large, ramshackle apartment complex and when The Zanzibar rolled to a halt, Marlene sat up with an unlovely grunt.
Pete sprang out the driver's side and circled to open Marlene's door for her.
"I'm gonna drop you off now and take them up to Braintree."
She knuckled at her eyes and murmured. He took her hand and tugged her from her seat, and waved Omar back into the car when he tried to open the door to help with Marlene's luggage.
Omar watched them make their way to her second story walk-up. They disappeared into the apartment and a few minutes later, Pete jogged back down the stairs.
He buckled his seatbelt and turned the ignition.
"We'll just scoot up the triple; you'll be there in no time."
"Scoot." Omar heard himself repeat the word and knew he was smiling.
"That's what I said." He gunned The Zanzibar's motor. "Let's plow, babies."
Ten minutes later, they had turned down Matthews and Swati saw The Waverly for the first time.
"You don't even have a roommate."
"I have you," he reminded her, suddenly even more unhappy with the arrangement.
From Pete, a low whistle.
"It's okay." Omar blinked at the three-story townhouse as if he'd never seen it before. It was gleaming white, with a steep roof and round attic windows that shone like diamonds in the slanting sun.
"He has a trust fund, you know."
"So do you."
For some reason, that made her laugh.
"Help me lug this stuff upstairs."
"Why? It's all yours, anyway."
"You see how he treats me?"
Pete seemed disinclined to comment, but he gave her a warm smile. There was already a shadow of stubble speckling Pete's bony chin, but his mouth was as red as a little kid's, and Swati seemed to like that. She swayed closer to him and he unlocked the trunk and saddled up, taking all her bags and one of Omar's.
"No, I got it," and Pete allowed him to reclaim his knapsack. "Really. I appreciate it. The ride, everything. You want to come up for a beer?"
"Since when do you keep beer in the house, Robot?" She sounded genuinely curious.
"A glass of water would be good."
Kitted like sherpas, they climbed the solid wooden porch stairs and Omar let them in to his empty, nearly unfurnished apartment. Pale walls, neutral carpet. Omar's ex, a dainty little legal secretary for a local firm, had once declared that she'd waited in supermarket foyers that had more personality, but he preferred a minimum of clutter, of fuss.
"You had better have a guest bed, Omar," Swati warned.
"Second floor, second door on the left," Omar sighed. She made for the stairs, Pete trailing after her. Omar caught Pete's arm and said, "Just leave the bags in the hall. I'll bring them up later."
At his word, Pete dumped Saraswati's luggage by a closet and Omar peered into his fridge.
He foraged a bit and came up with a ribbed plastic bottle of spring water. The rest of the shelves were soldiered with bottles: glass and plastic, green and brown and blue, soft drinks, hard cider, a dozen brands of beer.
"Did you have a going away party?"
Omar shook his head.
"My old girlfriend. She just thought it would be a good idea."
"It's not a bad idea," said Pete diplomatically.
"If you're on a liquid diet."
Pete grinned and twisted the cap off his bottle.
"Did you just move in?"
"I've been here. Four years."
Pete's face was impassive; he was drinking deeply from his sweating water bottle. He finished it in another long swallow, and pitched it neatly into the industrial green recycling bin in Omar's shallow, doorless pantry.
"Yeah." Omar judged the distance to be maybe five feet. "The NBA doesn't know what it's missing."
"You're a prickly little guy." Pete's cheeks flushed slightly as soon as he said it, and Omar blinked at him speculatively.
"Yeah," he agreed.
"You think your little sister's ready for dinner? Marlene will sleep 'til next week, and there's a really decent little barbecue place on Mills."
"She's my older sister. Oldest. Only." He glanced toward carpeted stairs. "She's a brat, but she's not a kid."
"She has a Princess Problem, that's a fact."
Omar's laugh surprised him; it sprang out like a compact little animal and tickled on the rebound.
"Do you have any sisters?"
"Nope. Only child."
"That, too," Pete said easily.
Saraswati had managed to become entangled a third time in Hafsa's web of financial irresponsibility, and insisted she needed a bath and a pizza to 'steady her nerves'.
Omar, who had been awake over 20 hours, suddenly began to fade. Pete gave him the once over and said,
"Invest in a pizza, rest up. We'll get dinner tomorrow."
Omar pushed his hair behind his ears and pulled the astonishingly heavy phone book from its shelf in a cabinet.
"Stay for the pizza?"
"Nah, I'm just gonna go."
Omar dropped the phonebook on the counter, where it landed with a dense little thwack, and walked Pete out.
Pete unlocked his car door and slid into the driver's seat, one foot anchored on the unblemished blacktop of The Waverly's parking lot. He rummaged under the passenger seat for a moment and came back up with a loose cloth tube that turned out to be his gray uniform shirt.
"Here." He handed it to Omar.
Pete started The Zanzibar and shook his head.
"Take it. You look like you could do with pumping an old lady's gas."
Then he backed out of the precisely ruled lines of the parking space and executed a neat three point turn. Omar found the Volvo's turning radius impressed him, and only as he saw the flash of brake lights on the corner did he realize that he hadn't gotten Pete's phone number.
He unrolled the uniform shirt and held it against his own gray tee. It smelled like sweat and tea and fabric softener. Also shaving cream.
The twenty was still folded in the pocket.
The huge glass dome built over the hub of the mall wasn't at all picturesque, as far as Omar was concerned. The series of segmented skylights resembled cellophane lashed to the bleaching skeleton of a whale, and the night sky above looked like nothing but a sucking void, or the crushing blackness of the Marianas Trench. The mall felt as delicate as a soap bubble, and Omar could sense the pressure all around it, ravening. As the evening dragged on, Omar was slowly convincing himself that if he stepped outside, the sky would crush him, devour him like the sea, snuff him out and leave him floating and lifeless, suspended forever like a grape in a Jell-O mold.
Or maybe he was just tired of Swati's company.
They'd crashed after the pizza, heading to bed at maybe eight. Swati had slept until noon. Then she'd woken Omar by yelling at him through his locked door.
"I've got your car keys. You need furniture. If you come with me, I might even let you pick something out. "
And so an interminable day at strip malls and antique stores and freestanding warehouses, and now finally the mall, for bedclothes and pointless knickknacks he'd only stow away in a closet the moment Swati left.
Eventually, even Swati wearied of spending money, and handed him his wallet, a clear signal that she was ready to leave.
She stretched extravagantly, and Omar counted four men and one woman miss a step.
"Mmm. Productive. And tomorrow we can shove it all around your apartment. You should call that boy. Never hurts to have two engines of testosterone."
The idea was appealing, but in practice it would mean taking advantage of a fellow man's brute strength twice in a row.
"You want to get something to eat?"
"We've still got pizza."
They'd cleared a shelf in the fridge by stacking the bottles like logs in the crispers.
She stuffed the key ring in his pocket on the way out. The air was sticky and hot; it was a lot like being licked by a giant invisible dog.
For all of Saraswati's shopping, Omar's white Avalon was surprisingly shopping bag free. Except for the banker's lamp and the dozen hideous, grimacing monkey figurines cast out of bronze she currently carried, Swati had done everything in her power to assure that the furniture she'd chosen would be delivered the following day by a selection of burly weight-belted movers with ramps and dollies.
On the ride home, Swati chewed a wad of grape gum with loud, smacking enthusiasm and Omar decided to give Pete a call.
That night, Omar learned two unexpected things: there were 126 Mays in the greater Boston area phone book, and Pete was not one of them.
Pete May was second generation Franco-American, just like the spaghetti in the can.
That was always the answer he gave on the few occasions people asked him about his racial heritage.
He had the kind of skin that looked translucent in the right light, like the sun shining through deli shaved white cheddar. His beard was patchy; he could grow some fairly convincing mutton chops but they'd never actually met the goatee he'd managed in the past. Old girlfriends had compared him to apple-cheeked goat-herders, or those corded, fresh-faced Newfoundland farmers you'd sometimes see showcased in the resplendent pages of the National Geographic, leather jacketed and straddling motorbikes, with a freckled border collie standing on the handlebars. In the winter, you could always see his beard on his chin like a few flakes of pepper on a linen napkin, but mostly he was dogged by boyish charm as opposed to Clint Eastwoodesque ruggedness.
He worked three pleasantly aimless jobs in constant, shifting rotation and in his free time he played Horse and fell in love. He specialized in lesbians, but enjoyed women of every stripe and social stair.
It took him four months and a lot of groundwork to land Marlene. He'd had to earn her trust grain by grain.
The best place for the kind of lesbians he prefers, the angry in-between kinds, are at plus-size stores like Zaftig! or Lane Bryant. They tend to be underemployed, and pissed off about it.
Marlene had caught his eye during a sidewalk sale at the mall. She'd been struggling with an aluminum clothes stand with a sticky wheel, and he'd heard her muttered cursing as he'd passed by.
After that, he took to dropping by every few weeks or so to buy a cinnamon pretzel and window shop. Sometimes he'd wander in and pick something with marabou or pink stripes on it off the rack in order to chat her up.
Her original 'don't waste my time, wise-ass' stare eventually gentled into an impatient, 'What's your trick this week, punk' look, and May counted that as progress.
When he'd first spotted her, she'd had a soft wheat-blonde pageboy. Since then she'd probably broken up with her last-ditch boyfriend, and had dyed her hair a singularly unappealing dull black, adding GothRose lipstick so dark it was almost the same color as her hair.
Her tawny complexion wasn't flattered, but he didn't care.
He liked something about her. Her defensiveness. Her composure. He sensed that she'd convinced herself she was too good for anyone and therefore destined to be forever alone.
He'd had to wait until the shell was thick enough to crack.
"Hey, Marlene." He could tell she'd never regretted her flimsy plastic name badge more than when he'd first shown up in her store. "Pete. Pete May. You remember me?"
"Mr. May," she shook out the jeans she was folding with a crisp snap and folded her arms across her double d-cups. "Lemme guess. You want to try on a bustier?"
"Not this week. But I'll keep it in mind. Actually, the mall's closing up soon. You got any plans? Want to get a cup of coffee?"
She frowned at him.
"What do you want?"
"I'd like a lemonade, actually."
"This isn't a restaurant. What do you want with me? You've been bugging me for months. What is it?"
"I like you."
She blinked at him, and he could tell she was deciding whether or not to call security.
"Look. Marlene. You cruise around here folding clothes all day. You're too smart for this, and you know it, and yet every time I come by here, you're hanging up shirts. With a high poly count. Why don't you quit? Go back to school? Something like that?"
"Why do you care?"
"I don't know. It just bugs me to think that you think you're never going to be anywhere but here."
For a second, Marlene looked like she was going to cry. Then her face steeled and she said, "Get the fuck out of here. I don't know what made you think this would be fun."
"I didn't think it would be fun. Although, ideally, I had hoped to make out with you in one of the dressing rooms."
"I can't believe- are you high?"
"No. Seriously. That's why I keep coming around. I want to make friends with you. Just friends." He shrugged a little, and slipped his hands in his pockets. "Although the making out thing also featured prominently."
She was staring at him now.
"This is a joke, right? This is some frat boy dogfight thing, right?"
"Then. Why would you want to make out with me?"
"I don't know. You always looked so pissed off. I wanted to see what you'd look like with all your lipstick licked off. I've had a thing about making out in dressing rooms since I was like, 14. Lots of reasons. Can I ask you a question?"
She nodded warily.
"Why'd you dye your hair? I mean. You had nice hair."
He could tell he'd pissed her off again, but really, there was no polite way to tell someone they'd made the wrong hairstyle choice.
"I just-" She touched her dull, ragged witchy black bangs.
"You were in a bad mood."
She nodded haltingly.
He leaned forward a little and whispered, "I don't think anyone could tell."
She laughed a little at that.
"I just... I fucking hate my life right now. And it never seems to get any better."
"So do something different. Do something new. Make out with me in the dressing room."
She stared at him, then glanced around the empty mall shop. A few grazers browsed at the window, but moved on.
"I'm not- I'm not going to give you my phone number or anything."
She unlocked the Handicapped Stall and waved him in first.
"Look. Just- if you try anything major, I'm gonna tie your balls in a knot, okay?"
"I just wanna make out. Nothing under the clothes. I promise."
"The mall's still open for 20 minutes. I can still scream and have you- you're not... You don't have a gun or anything, do you?"
"No. I'm handgun free."
She didn't look convinced and he lifted his arms.
"Wanna pat me down?"
So she frisked him. And he had to laugh. She patted his ribs and dragged her hands down the legs of his jeans, as efficient and impersonal as a tailor, while he leaned against the dressing room wall and spread 'em.
"You know, I thought that only happened in gay porn."
"You still wanna make out with me?"
"Yup." He shrugged his T-shirt over his head and she froze.
"What are you doing?"
"Just this," and he reached out to dab at her mouth with his clean white cotton tee. Her makeup was dark and cakey and resisted his first touch until he put a little elbow into it.
"That is some serious lipstick, Marlene."
"Yeah," she mumbled, her lips crumpled against his shirt. She tugged it out of his hands and rubbed most of her lipstick off and he grinned at her.
This close, she smelled faintly of Listerine and new acrylic, and there was a short segment of red thread in her hair.
He plucked it out and showed it to her, and dropped it so it floated to the ground, where it landed on a nubbly brown carpet littered with straight pins. When she dropped her chin to follow its descent, he leaned forward and pecked her cheek, and then blew on her ear. She shivered a little and turned her head.
She pursed her mouth tight, but he kept teasing her with kisses until she parted her lips.
Her shirt was shiny and slick to the touch, and her skin was soft. Her neck was sweaty and she locked her hands in the belt of his pants and never moved them.
After about five kisses, she still wasn't getting into it, and May drew back and cupped her cheek.
"Thanks. That was fun."
"Not really." She patted his hand awkwardly. "But... it was definitely something I've never done before."
"Right on. So. You gonna quit this job?"
"Not until I get another one. But. I probably won't be here much longer."
They shifted a little nervously, and May bent to scoop up his T-shirt and tug it over his head. She touched the bruise-colored stain her lipstick had made on the hem of his shirt, and after a moment he said, "I'm gonna ask for your number."
"I'm beginning to think I'm gonna give it to you."
The next time he came in, she agreed to meet him for breakfast at The Grange, and there, after two orders of Lou's Special Scramble, and a shared side of home fries with Tabasco, she wrote her phone number down on the back of the restaurant receipt.
The phone was ringing.
"I'm up," he told it, when he'd wrested it off the hook.
"Good. Are you late for work?" Marlene always sounded impatient on the phone; for that reason, May's few attempts at phone sex had never panned out.
"Uh. That depends. It's... Wednesday?"
"Gold star, muttonhead. And what happens on Wednesdays?"
"I meet you for lunch. At Kirby's." He plucked at his sleep-dreaded hair, and said, "Is it lunch time already?"
"I fielded a billion phone calls. Cable went out on the south side and the stay at homes went into instant withdrawal."
"You're not gonna do that speech about the coddling of the American public again are you?"
"Not at this moment." He tried to focus his eyes on his alarm clock on the dresser across the room. "It's not even ten yet."
"I like it when you bathe before showing up. Irish Spring is such a turn on."
"Hey, would you fuck your evil twin?"
"Is that a request?"
"No. Yes. Okay, no. Just asking. I had this dream--"
"That you fucked your evil twin?"
"No, actually, the dream was about staring into the fridge. There was all this stuff in it, and the power was out, and I had to pick something and close it quick or everything would go bad-- the ice cream in the freezer was already melting, you know how you just know that?"
"Yeah. In the dream I was all sweaty palms about it."
"Well, ice cream. Sticky. So what did you pick?"
"The phone rang."
"And now we'll never know."
"We can always guess."
"If we didn't want you to take a shower and come meet me downtown."
"I assure you, child, my personal hygiene will be attended to." He flopped backward on his bed, the heaped sheets comfortably elevating his feet. "So, how's work going?"
"Why do people even ask that question? Just get it in gear, okay?"
"Ask me what I'm wearing."
"God, May--" she trailed off, sounding harassed. May figured she was mostly faking it. "You know I hate this whole phone sex thing." He knew she was faking for sure when she sighed in her longsuffering way and said, "Fine. What are you wearing?"
Marlene shared an office with a sour bitch named Kitty. She was in her forties, and primly married to a dull-witted, basically decent guy who owned a furniture store. May knew Marlene took sadistic pleasure in ensuring that Kitty knew any number of prurient details about her active sex life. The idea that she was showing off always made him love her just a little bit more than usual.
"Nothin' but a smile." Which was, as she'd know, a ridiculous lie. Even in high summer, May slept in boxers.
"Just take a shower. And wash your hair!"
She hung up.
He gaped and stretched on the vast king mattress, wiggling the fingers of his free hand and flexing his feet. Then he clutched the phone to his chest and stared at the ceiling. It looked like spackle and oatmeal, and sometimes if he stared at it long enough, he could see shapes in it. Dolphins. Tarantulas. Faces. Flowers.
He saw flowers everywhere, usually in the tiny patterned mosaics in the floors of public rest rooms.
Eventually, he sat up again and put the phone back in its cradle. Swinging his feet to the floor, he made a mental To Do list before pushing off the bed.
Brush, floss, gargle, piss, jerk off, wash his hair.
Not necessarily in that order.
At lunch, Pete ordered a mozzarella and marinara sub. Marlene went with the chicken parmigiana. They sat on the steaming patio in the fluttering shade of a canvas table umbrella and unwrapped their wax-paper bound hot sandwiches. The air smelled like wet sun, tangy tomato sauce and melting sidewalk gum. Sometimes when it was in the high nineties, May would buy a PBR to go with his sandwich, but he knew it bugged Marlene to see him with a beer before sundown and so he stuck with bottled water.
Marlene ate her hoagie, like she ate every sandwich, molecule by molecule. She'd pick it up, take a little bite, put the sandwich down, chew thoroughly and then pick the sandwich up again for round two, ad infinitum. It could take her a solid 60 minute hour to eat a PB & J. It had initially fascinated May, but she'd been self-conscious about it. When he noticed she'd taken to eating with one hand always holding a napkin in front of her face, May had schooled himself in the fine art of looking elsewhere at meals during prime chew-times.
He studied his own sandwich patiently, and Marlene cut hers in half and then in half again. How she managed it with a plastic knife, May had no idea.
After a suitable luncheon interval, Marlene wrapped the remaining sections of her sandwich and said, "Saraswati's hot."
"She's something else, yeah." He expected, and received, the little vindicated/angry glare Marlene threw his way. Really, he'd learned only one thing from his army of exes: there is no right answer when it comes to commenting on women who were not your active duty girlfriend. But he'd learned that something noncommittal was better than no answer at all, as some girls would hound you monomaniacally, hoping you'd crack under the pressure and admit that you wanted to bang Female X in the most mindless animalian way.
Women, in his experience, always thought the worst thing you could say was the only true one.
"Her little brother's no slouch, either. Too bad he's pocket sized."
"Omar? He's cool. And yeah, also short."
"We still on for dinner?"
"I don't know yet. I don't have his number; I just figured I'd drive up later after I deliver the papers." On Wednesday nights, May filled plastic newspaper boxes on every corner in the city for a local weekly called The Planet Vibe, carting the old editions back to the printer to be recycled. "You up to it? I get the feeling you don't much care for Saraswati."
"She's too good looking. It's just not fair. And you know she's a bitch. Big potential for catfighting if I get too cranky."
May rested his cheek on his hand and lowered his lashes, feeling the carbo crash take him out at the knees.
"I kinda like Omar though. What did you think of him?"
"He's kind of..." She cast around for the right word. "Pointy, but it works for him. And he must have his clothes tailored or something. I mean, right off the airplane and he looked ready for the catwalks of Milan."
"Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man." May winked at his girl. "I think you have a little crush on Mr. Patel."
Marlene grinned, licking her lower lip. A woman with a Louis Vitton handbag and Jackie-O sunglasses strode out of Kirby's behind them and then halted to rummage through her purse.
"Short guys are always hung."
Jackie-O went still a second and subtly tilted her head, before zipping her bag and clip-clip-clipping away on expensive heels. May grinned and shook his head fondly.
"That's it, little girl. No more gay porn for you."
After walking Marlene back to work, May ambled back towards his car.
A bearded, shoeless man sitting with his back against The Zanzibar, eating a hamburger.
"May. You got a cigarette?"
"Sorry, Grover. Still don't smoke. You got the time?"
Grover consulted his electric blue plastic Batman watch.
"Just after 1."
May jingled his keys a little and made a gesture toward the car, and the guy crab walked until he'd settled against a black pickup in the next space.
He kept his eyes on May, and took a huge bite of his hamburger, chewing meditatively. May patted his pockets and came up with a clean, crumpled five that he'd washed with the jeans he was wearing. It smelled pleasantly of fabric softer, and May pitched it like a paper ping pong ball into Grover's weathered, grimy palm.
"I don't know what I'd do without you, man."
"Show up late."
"Probably. See you next week."
Grover, having secreted the money on his person, was now giving his hamburger his full attention, and didn't respond.
It was too hot for yard work, and too early to show up at the printer's for the week's new papers. May parked The Zanzibar in front of a three story with yellow paint and a sagging front porch. The Georges were playing backgammon, the board balanced on a fraying little rattan stool. Jorge was shirtless and sipping smoke though the shunt in his aspirator. When he saw May, he set his cigarette down on the pop can he was using as an ash tray and capped the tracheotomy tube with his yellowed fingertip.
"Hey, Petey. Hot date?" His voice was like the hiss of a radiator, and George poked Jorge's shoulder impatiently.
"It's your move, damn it. Pete, she's on the fucking roof or some goddamned thing. It's triple digits and she's on the roof! Heat stroke, Pete. Heat stroke!"
"It's a hot one, yeah. You guys need anything?"
"I want a woman," Jorge rasped, and then he grinned, showing all his even, false teeth.
"He wants a punch in the nose," George corrected. "Take his cigarettes. He'll burn the place down some night."
May made no move to take the hardpack on the arm of Jorge's wheelchair, but Jorge slapped at it, tucking it in the belt of his white shorts.
"It's all I got, Georgie. Why you want him to take them?"
"It's your goddamned move, dumbfuck."
"Such a mouth on you. It's shameful, that's what it is. No wonder you don't got no sweetheart. Who wants to kiss a mouth like that?"
May edged past Jorge's wheelchair, listening to the rub of plastic discs on old felt, and the labored breathing of old men.
Ignoring the galvanized coffin that was the resident elevator, May made his way up three flights to the roof.
Mrs. Malecki had a wide yellow golf visor poking like a duck's bill from the peach colored mushroom cloud of her hair. She was kneeling by the tomatoes, decked out in a faded sky blue sunsuit, brandishing a shiny set of pruning shears in her green-gloved hand.
"Mrs. M, Georgie wants to remind you that you're like to die of heat stroke."
"Peter! Gimme a hand up, will you?"
May obliged, and the thick-waisted old lady was set on her feet. With the clamshell kneepads strapped to her legs, she looked like the goalie for the Bruins. Mrs. Malecki tugged her gloves off with her teeth and tipped her visor up so that it now resembled a plastic saint's halo, or half a Frisbee embedded in her skull.
"Is it Thursday already?"
"Nah. Just stopping in to see if you needed anything."
She leaned forward to squint at him, and May spotted her glasses laying folded in the open bag of topsoil leaning against a tiny gray shed. He snagged them, opened them and blew a few crumbs of dirt off the smudged lenses before gently guiding the wire frames onto the bridge of Mrs. Malecki's fleshy nose.
"The better to see you with, my dear. No, I don't think we need anything. Jorge will want cigarettes, I guess. Maybe we can buy George some sugar, sweeten his disposition."
"You sure? I can run you up to Star Market. We can get a watermelon. I bet you know how to make one of those groovy baskets."
"Oh, a seedless one, maybe."
"Mrs. M. You know my policy."
"You have a policy on watermelons, now? Peter. Good gravy." She rubbed at her forehead with the back of her hand. "Just give me a minute to rinse off. There's some iced tea in the fridge."
He followed her down to her first floor apartment, and settled on one of the spindle backed kitchenette chairs. The white wooden table was laid with six mismatched, overlapping plastic place mats. Four inches above a beaten copper bowl of speckled, softening bananas was a dainty cloud of silent, mindless fruit flies. They hovered around each other like a delicate, living representation of orbiting electrons.
From the bedroom, May heard the screak of the tap and water hammering the pipes. He drummed his fingers absently on the table; through the screened door, he could hear George bitching at Jorge. According to Mrs. Malecki, they'd been playing backgammon on that porch since before May'd been born. George would turn ninety in October. Mrs. Malecki, his younger sister, was seventy-six. She'd been the youngest of eight, and was now George's only living relative.
May closed his eyes, concentrating on the lazy breath of hot air that puffed though the kitchen's window screens. He thought about asking Mrs. M if she wanted him to replace the overhead lamp with a ceiling fan. The lamp was fashioned with curlicues of black iron hung with wedges of faceted pink crystal. It was probably an antique; it was the only way to excuse something that was at once so ugly and prodigiously heavy. Sometimes the wind before a storm would push inside and make the crystals ring like chimes.
Mrs. Malecki reappeared looking fresh and pink, in crisp khaki shorts and a spangled T-shirt.
"I'm ready to roll."
"You don't want any tea?"
"Will you stay to dinner?"
"I have to put the paper out tonight, Mrs. M."
"Next week, then."
They brushed past the Georges and down the cracked stairs; when they got to The Zanzibar, May held the door open.
"Ouch! The g.d. seats are hot! I should have worn slacks."
"I've got a towel in the back," May offered.
She waved him away so she could swing the door shut.
"You'll just have to peel me off the upholstery when we get there."
And when they'd gotten to the Star Market, her thighs had made a sticky little ripping sound as May helped her out of the car.
"Isn't that Jennifer Louise?"
May glanced up from a pyramid of cantaloupes; his thumb was pressed against a canvassy rind. He'd been trying to place the Muzak. His friend Len was a manager here, and every now and again he'd slip his own discs in the overhead music box. Finally, May recognized the vibraphone version of a Ramones song. Sheila is a punk rocker...
Mrs. M. pointed to a tall, pony-tailed blonde. She was wearing a pair of denim knee-length overalls and testing the weight and ripeness of red plums, a green plastic grocery basket slung over her arm.
It was, in fact, Jennifer Louise. Strapped in the stroller in front of her was a red-faced, writhing infant.
Mrs. M. trotted over to wave and coo at the baby, which ignored her, far more interested in frowning and rubbing its fists against its flossy, sweat-damp hair.
Jennifer Louise rested a narrow hip against the lip of a shelf holding rows of Gala apples and smiled.
"Oh, Jennifer Louise, if you need a sitter, you keep me in mind. She's just darling."
Jennifer Louise shook her head and touched the top of the baby's scalp with one fingertip.
"She's a thug. A total knee-capper."
May gave Jennifer Louise a companionable one-armed squeeze, brushing at her soft yellow bangs.
"Yeah, you look a little tired."
"Comes with the territory."
"Tell Owen to pick up the slack. You want me to kick his ass?"
Jennifer Louise grinned and dug an elbow in his side.
"I'll let him know you made threats against his person. You'll be hearing from his lawyer, I'm sure."
"I do jail time for all my ex-girlfriends."
"I remember. Come on, Gorilla, let's get daddy his fresh fruit and get home so mommy can nap before dinner."
She kissed May's cheek and nudged him away.
"If you're serious about sitting, Mrs. M., could you take Belinda this Saturday?"
May had crouched down to peer at Belinda; his sneakers squeaked against the shiny waxed floor. He petted the baby's soft, button nose and crooned, "Belly belly belly." She crossed her eyes trying to look at his finger.
"Oh, it'll be my pleasure. And I'll keep her away from Jorge's smoke."
Jennifer Louise backed the pram up and chose two plums, seemingly at random, to set in her basket. "I'll give you a call on Saturday morning then."
"Bye-bye, sweetheart!" Mrs. M. set a hand on May's shoulder and wiggled her fingers at the baby. When May stood up, Mrs. Malecki sighed and pointed to a watermelon the size and shape of a human head.
"What about that one?"
After May had carried in the week's groceries and graciously declined a second dinner invitation, it was late enough to head to the Skylark building.
The printer met him up front, the wide metal sliding door rolled up to let the hot air wander around the shop's storage area. The air smelled like hot ink and wet nickels.
Frank's horseshoe of hair had been freshly trimmed, but the bags under his eyes were dark and swollen, speaking of yet another night of liquor and pork rinds.
"How they hangin', buddy?"
Frank was a ritualist; always the same greeting, the same firm handshake. May figured he didn't touch too many people, otherwise.
"You ready for me?"
"You're a little early. You could make the first round and come back. We're still bundling the last batch."
He and May filled The Zanzibar's trunk and rear seat with stacks of fresh newspaper bound with flat, plastic yellow ribbon. Frank grunted like he was unmooring internal organs every time he hefted a stack. May tucked his Xacto knife in his jeans pocket, careful to hood the blade.
"So, you make your rounds, you'll be back about, what, 5:30?"
"Sounds about right."
"Hey, you and me should go get a beer some night. You can tell me about your girlfriend. What's her name again?"
"Right. Marlene." Frank wiped his shining forehead with the back of his wrist. "I bet she's pretty cute." There was nothing to say to that; Marlene was many things. 'Cute' wasn't one of them. "She got an older sister?"
"Nope. Sorry, Frankie. Tomorrow's dollar PBR night at the Peabody. You should come out."
May had made similar invitations over the past two years; Frank had yet to take him up on them.
"I'll do that."
May slung himself in The Zanzibar and backed out of the rutted parking lot, tires creeping over the scattered asphalt and bottle glass. At the stoplight, he turned the air conditioning off and rolled the windows down. When the light turned green, he floored it just for the hell of it, and the summer poured in, patting his cheeks and mussing his hair like an old aunt.
By 7:30, he'd unpacked all last week's papers, and accepted an envelope from Frank containing ten twenty dollar bills.
By 8:00 he'd shucked his shirt and taken a second shower. When he was done, he padded into the kitchen to find a note from Nelson G. It was spiked onto the horn of a blue plastic toy rhinoceros that was on the Formica counter for just such an occasion: Buy some fucking milk.
He was still rubbing the towel against his hair when Marlene called.
"Barry is a fucker. Barry is a brain dead fucker. I hate him."
"Staying late again, huh?"
"I would have been out of here at five. Should have been."
"Except that Barry is a brain dead fucker?"
"You want me to bring you a sandwich?"
"Nah. Barry's a brain dead fucker, but he sprang for pizza. What are you doing home, anyway? I thought you were having dinner with that guy and his hot sister."
"Why did you call me if you didn't think I'd be home?" May tugged the cap off a pen and turned Nelson's milk note over to make a shopping list. Heavy cream. Sour cream. Shaving cream.
"Because I'm secretly in love with your answering machine." Isaac Hayes' 'Shaft' graced the listening ear of every incoming caller who happened to catch the answering machine.
He opened a cabinet and eyed its contents. Paprika. Sea salt. Olive oil. He wrote: chick peas, tahini, lemon, garlic.
"Well, he is a bad motherfucker."
"I just wanted to bitch."
"That's so unlike you," he said fondly. Potato Stix.
"So are you going out?" May's eyes drifted toward the microwave. He'd melted his Reach into an interesting air-bubbled oddity this morning, after he'd heated water for his tea; the bristles had fallen open and curled like old daisy petals. Toothbrush.
Tea. Fucking milk.
"Are you listening to me?"
"Yep. And no. I should call him, though."
"He won't be listed," Marlene predicted.
She was right.
In the end, Omar bribed the movers to help him arrange the furniture according to Swati's whim. Saraswati eventually sent him out for sandwiches, and Omar suspected, for ten or eleven seconds, she'd done it out of pity.
In the course of the afternoon, several of the movers had subtly shouldered him aside, taking his corner of the new low-slung leather couch, and leaving him to manhandle the ottoman for the new green suede easy chair.
By the time he'd come back with four roast beef subs and two tuna, the movers had finished and were in the parking lot, leaning on the fenders of the moving truck and sweating in the sun. They smelled like stale beer and new upholstery.
He handed them the sandwiches and dealt out a short stack of fifties in tips, and they grinned at him and slapped his shoulders. Then they swung into the truck and barreled away.
Saraswati was draped along the couch like drying laundry when he came in. Her hair was unwound; it was long enough to drip off the couch and spool across the sand colored Berber carpet.
Omar's first floor had evolved from characterless supermarket foyer to bland, well-appointed lawyer's waiting room. Allison the legal secretary would have been right at home.
"Now that there's somewhere to sit, we can throw a party. Or we could if you had any friends."
Omar kept his back to her, studying the mantel over the white brick fireplace. Saraswati had arranged her awful hand-sized monkey sculptures there in a stooping, knobby bronze panorama of bared teeth and leering aggression.
She tossed a fringed pillow at him. It chafed against his cheek like a red brocade kiss.
"I know you hate them."
"That's why you bought them," he reminded her.
Although it was basically true that Omar had no friends in Boston, it so happened that Saraswati knew several people in town, and she promptly ditched him for a pubcrawl, but not before making him drive her to the T station.
Omar was at his own front door before he recognized The Zanzibar. Pete May was sprawled on the hood, propped against the windshield, hands folded behind his head. The night's haze and the city's lights defeated any stars, but he seemed content to bask in the parking lot's street lamp. Frogs creaked, rhythmic and tireless, somewhere close by, and everywhere the reedy chirr of crickets, so loud Omar could almost feel it on his skin.
"There you are."
"Yep." He knuckled at his eyes and yawned.
"You been waiting long?"
"Just got here."
"I tried to call you. You're not listed."
"Neither are you, compadre."
Omar had actually forgotten that.
"So you want to get dinner?"
"If you haven't already eaten. Saraswati here?"
"She's in the city for the night. Where's Marlene?"
"Working late. Again. You like barbecue? Boone's isn't far from here."
"You want me to drive?"
"Nah, I got it." He scudded off the car's hood and stretched his arms over his head, tugging on his elbows in turn and cracking his shoulders. His red T-shirt rode up to reveal a second T-shirt, white, tucked into his jeans. He shook himself all over and then swung his hands together in a loud clap, rubbing his hands. "Mmm-mmm barbecue."
Omar settled himself in the Volvo's deep bucket seat.
"You do eat meat, right?" Pete's hair seemed... larger than the last time he'd seen him. It grazed the roof of the car when Pete sat back from readjusting the rearview mirror.
Boone's was squalid and dim and hung with wagon wheels. It was paneled with warped, blonde pine veneer, which gave it the ambiance of a converted basement from 1976. The waitresses looked tired, limp ponytails slipping out of their scrunchies. They all hoisted overburdened trays and all wore faded Boone's logo T-shirts spattered with barbecue sauce.
Still, the food was good.
The pork ribs were tender and juicy, brushed with a sweet, smoky sauce with a nice bite. A little red pepper. Ginger, maybe? Omar found himself licking his fingers before he'd thought better of it. He glanced up to catch Pete sucking thoughtfully on the tip of his thumb, eyes closed in barbecue bliss.
Omar rubbed his hands on his smeared table napkin, pushed his plate away and sighed from the soles of his shoes.
Pete's eyes blinked open and he smiled.
"Pretty good, huh?"
"I would have to say pretty fucking good, yeah."
"That Rosie. She knows her sauces." Pete was embroiled in tearing open a foil packet he'd taken from a little dish the waitress had set at the end of the table, along with a bucket for their discarded bones. He handed one to Omar. "Moisty nap?"
Omar ripped it open and scrubbed at his sauce-stained cuticles. While he was so employed, their skinny, cheerless waitress sailed past them, letting their check drift to the table top.
Pete weighted it down with his green bank card, but Omar tugged the bill out from underneath it and slid it to his side of the table. He left a damp, muddy thumb print on it.
"Hey. Your money's no good here." Pete hopped out of the booth and snagged the bill right back. His eyes crinkled. "I've got it."
"I'll leave the tip, then," Omar insisted. He couldn't remember the last time he hadn't picked up a check. It was disorienting.
"Yeah, I guess I can let you do that. That waitress could use a twenty." Omar felt his ears heat when Pete gently clapped his cheek. His hand was faintly sticky. "Then, on to The Peabody for beer. Life is good, Omar. Life is good."
And it was.
The Peabody smelled like spilled beer and cold French fries and was crowded and hot. The barmaid, who was also hot, also seemed to be a friend of Pete's.
"You're a creature of habit, May."
"You miss me all week long. Don't say you don't. Juanita, this is Omar. Omar, Juanita."
"We used to date," Juanita explained. She tucked her hair behind her ears and made a guppy face at Pete. She was top heavy latina with hair nearly as long as Saraswati's; her eyes were bottle green. "I don't know why you keep showing up. You hate open mic night."
"Open mic night. Never a good idea," Pete agreed. He indicated the crowd of Goth kids and girls in drooping hats gathering by the tiny triangular stage. It had been built into the corner, and festooned with cheap red velveteen stapled to a plywood frame. Overhead, from a wide linked brass chain, hung a lamp like a frosted goldfish bowl housing a 40-watt light bulb.
"He wouldn't even be here if it weren't for his alcoholism," Juanita directed this at Omar, who wasn't sure if she was kidding or not.
"It's PBR. It's a dollar. That's not alcoholism, that's just thrift. We get out, see the kids--"
"Drink lousy beer."
"It got a blue ribbon, Nita. That clearly signifies beer greatness."
"I wish I could believe that. You want a Jack and soda?" This again, was directed at Omar, who shook his head.
"Two PBRs, thanks." She rolled her eyes and fished two bottles out of a bucket of ice chips.
"On the house. And May, Teddy can take your orders the rest of the night."
"We'll be in the back, anyway. Avoiding the poets."
"You need quarters?"
"I'm set, thanks." He leaned over the bar and kissed Juanita's cheek, winding a strand of her hair around his forefinger and whispering in her ear.
She elbowed him back across the bar, but gently.
The game room housed a derelict pinball machine, a few ancient video games, a cork dart board and an air hockey table.
"Air Hockey is the sport of kings. Speed, force, physics, geometry." Pete caressed the scarred table with its blonde wood lip. "It's got it all." The plastic paddles had yellowed with age; the dirty, scuffed puck had probably been fished out from behind the Galaga in the corner more times than Patsy Cline had been played on the jukebox.
It was so low, Pete had to hunch. His eyes were focused, his mouth set. He flared his nostrils when Omar dropped a quarter in the slot.
Pete played air hockey with his full body, shoulder blades as sharp as wings on his back, turtle stretching his neck, hipchecking the table, jerking his arm with rubberband reflexes, and driving the flat disc toward it's tiny slot with sweeping arcs. He played so diligently it was probably the longest he went without talking during waking hours.
He won four games, mostly because Omar bored quickly and didn't have the sort of Zen dedication it took to be in the hockey moment for the duration of a match.
But even when Pete finally lost, he was as sleepy eyed and sweet smiled as he looked when he won. Omar found it intensely annoying.
"A game played well is its own reward," Pete said.
"If you say so."
"You ready to go?"
"Don't you want... another beer?"
For all of Juanita's aspersions, Pete had actually had only one beer. He'd encouraged Omar to indulge, however, citing that PBRs true charm was best discerned in large quantities. Omar had had three; a full stomach seemed to be protecting him from any ill effects. He'd never even really gotten a buzz.
"I'm groovy. And driving," he pointed out.
"True. I'm ready to head out, though."
"To the Bat Mobile."
The Zanzibar had a tape deck.
Omar found it weirdly anachronistic, almost unsettling that Pete should be rummaging for audio tapes in his glove box in the new fucking millenium. He wondered how long it would take to talk Pete into letting him outfit Pete's car with a ten CD changer. Pete plucked two clear plastic rectangles from the glove box. They were labeled with red marker: Stella! and Explorer/Mbira.
He popped one in the tape deck, and turned the engine over.
Music Omar wouldn't even really have described as music banged out of the speakers; there were atonal flutes, something that sounded like a toy piano, rumbling low-throated chanting in a language he didn't recognize. Sounds pelted against his ears like hard rain before Pete slapped at the deck, muting it.
"Sorry about that."
Pete adjusted the volume and the music returned, but this time smeary and distorted.
"Aw, crap. It must have gotten warped in the heat. Damn it!" He popped the cassette out and crammed it in a little plastic bag hooked over the gearshift, and pushed the second tape into the deck's slot.
It spooled in the deck, playing nothing but static until Pete pulled out of Boone's and accelerated smoothly towards The Waverly. Pete adjusted the volume again, so the music could be heard over the wind roaring past the open windows. It was fast and pretty, almost delicate. Omar imagined it was not unlike getting gently, rhythmically knocked in the head with a thousand little cow bells.
"It sounds like a really big music box," Omar said.
"Yeah. A little. They're re-releasing the Explorer series," Pete explained. This meant nothing to Omar, and Pete continued, "It's thumb piano from Zimbabwe."
Omar was reminded of a question he'd had earlier.
"Hey, why 'The Zanzibar'?"
"Why did you name your Volvo The Zanzibar?"
Pete shrugged and made no attempt at further explanation.
"I mean-- I don't even know where the hell Zanzibar is."
"The Indian Ocean," Pete said serenely. The wind buffeted his hair, which shifted like a big meringue. "It's an island off the coast of Tanzania. It's actually part of Tanzania."
"And Tanzania is..."
"Below Kenya. On the African continent, baby."
"That I knew," Omar muttered.
"Did you know that Freddie Mercury was born there?"
"It's also the only place in the world you can find Kirk's Red Colobus monkey."
Pete didn't answer; he pulled hard on the Volvo's wheel and Omar would have rapped his head against the passenger window if it hadn't been rolled down.
Omar had been in three car accidents, and was familiar with the slo-mo stretch and forward-snap of time, the sense of weightlessness and suspense-- for months after every accident, Omar would expect a random, bone-jarring crunch, a replay, an echo of the last time he'd been rammed by another moving vehicle.
This time, there was no impact-- only sudden, gut-clenching stillness, and the slight jingle of keys as Pete killed the engine.
When Omar could see again, he found that they'd ended up on the soft shoulder, facing the oncoming lane. The grass was high enough to drag against the car door when he opened it, and he leaned over, waiting to see if he'd puke.
It had rained while they'd been at The Peabody, and a few wisps of mist rose like the twining sprits of the hot summer day from the exhaling pavement. It made Omar think of Beppu, and the volcanic springs.
Pete was already across the street on the median, backlit by the headlights of passing cars. He was intermittently outlined in sodium white, and Omar rubbed his eyes first with his palm and then the heels of his hands before he realized what he was seeing.
Pete May was wearing a monkey like a fur helmet.
It was hunched on the top of his head, its long tail looped around Pete's wrist. He had a hand on its curving back, and its hands, in turn, were clutching double handfuls of his curly hair.
The monkey didn't even twitch when Omar inadvertently slammed the car door.
It was limp now, and panting, splayed out face up in Pete's lap like an in-progress vivisection. Omar had watched Pete make his way back across the street, holding the monkey on his head the way women in documentaries balanced baskets on their heads. Wordlessly, Pete had climbed back into The Zanzibar. The moment he sat down, the monkey had slid off his head and slipped down to drape itself across Pete's thighs.
"Yeah. Uh. It's not� a red Colombus is it?"
The monkey was light tan, with whiskey-dark liquid eyes, and long fingered black hands and feet. Its black face was trimmed with cream colored fur, feathery and sparrow-speckled at the top of its head.
"Colobus," Pete corrected, taking the monkey's little hand and wiggling its arm gingerly. He bounced his legs a little, but the monkey only turned its head to stare at him, its mouth slightly open, long teeth and its damp pink tongue visible behind its black lips. "No. I think it's a spider monkey, maybe. Except it's so little. Maybe it's a baby?" Omar could tell Pete expected some response from the tilt of his head.
"I don't know anything about monkeys."
Pete returned his attention to the animal in his lap. He petted its heaving chest with the back of one finger.
"How old are you, kid? Where the fuck did you come from?"
"What do you wanna do? Is there an� animal shelter or something?"
"Maybe we should take it home. Feed it. I can put an ad in the paper tomorrow."
"Is it okay?" Omar leaned forward cautiously, but the monkey kept its eyes on Pete. "Do you think it needs a vet?"
"I didn't hit it. I think I just scared it half to death." Pete addressed the monkey again. "Sorry about that, little man. But you should really reconsider your whole car-dodging thing."
Pete's roommate was the most menacing waiter Omar had ever met. In fact, his thick shoulders, clenched jaw and frowning forehead were reminiscent of the bodyguard Farooq had maintained during a Poker tourney one winter. The fact that he was wearing the skinny tie/shortsleeve buttondown combo made famous by NASA techs the nation wide in no way made him less unsettling.
"This is my roommate, Nelson Gi. He waits tables at Snead's. He's making some kind of dessert," Pete had said, by way of introduction.
Nelson was in fact laboring with a whisk over a tipped bowl he hugged in the crook of his arm. A shaggy mullet and a heavy brow lent him an aspect that Omar recognized from the tableau's featuring Cro-Magnon men in the Museum of Natural History he'd visited as a kid on school field trips. His shoulders were huge and tense, and his face was a mask of angry concentration.
Whipped cream. Beaten eggs. Never had cooking seemed so violent.
Nelson nodded an absent hello, but never ceased his grim assault. If he'd noticed the monkey clinging to Pete's neck, he made no sign.
Omar thought it prudent to look away from the food preparation and instead looked around Pete's apartment.
Set on the sill of the kitchen's one wide window was a tall glass column. It held a single Japanese fighting fish, hung in the water like a red glass bead.
"That's Luz. Nelson's. He's planning on setting up a saltwater tank one day."
Omar nodded a little, and Pete grinned.
"Hey, you gotta start somewhere."
Omar had actually expected more pets; Pete seemed like your standard boy-with-dog, but as they moved around the spacious, neatly swept first floor apartment, it was apparent that the only animal in that space was the monkey Pete was currently trying to peel off.
Pete had dropped into a faded red velour easy chair, and was busy unhooking the monkey from around his neck. Every time he let go of it, though, it would clamber back up his arms and hug his head.
Finally Pete sighed and dropped his hands. The monkey tipped its head at Omar and chattered; the first sound they'd hear it make.
"Mi casa es su casa. You want a drink?"
"Actually, where's the bathroom?"
"First door on the left is my bedroom. The bathroom's in there."
Pete's bedroom smelled like oranges and was literally papered with overlapping National Geographic maps and yellowing postcards. The dark red cotton sheets on his bed had been tugged up and smoothed, but there were creases and ripples that would have bugged Omar, had it been his own bedroom.
There was a plain and chairless wooden desk set with a short stack of library books, a jelly jar of sharpened pencils and a flat wire basket sheafed with folded bills. A single ant marched stolidly across the creamy expanse of the inside of a thin, leathery tangerine rind. It was one complete piece. It had been peeled in such a way that it looked like the tangerine had ripped its way out from the inside, like a thrown baseball punching though a paper towel.
Against the open closet's back wall, Omar saw the crumpled form of a deflating soccer ball shoulder to shoulder with a scarred basketball and a short row of shoes, arranged heel to toe along the kickboard.
The bathroom was mysteriously clean, as if maid service had just left.
The plain white shower liner had been swept aside to show off a fresh bar of Irish Spring on the soap dish. The tub was deep and the shower had been tiled with small chalk-white octagons. The grout was loose in one corner, and Omar imagined the tiles plunking into the bath like Alka-Seltzers.
There was a pitted glass tumbler on the counter, faceted at the base and rough to the touch, as if sand blasted, and a ten-inch model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen in mid roar. Lain across its puny arms was a surrealist's toothbrush-- clear yellow, elongated and badly angled, with a large airspace near the base like a lemony bubble spun out of dish detergent. Intricate secular Spirograph ballpoint mandalas framed Pete's bathroom mirror, and Omar ran his fingers over them, feeling the smoothness of the lines against the paint and the holes left from where Pete had pinned the stencils.
When he came back to the living room, the monkey had finally climbed off of Pete's shoulder and was now catching at his hand. All in all, it seemed a lot livelier than it had in The Zanzibar.
"Are you going to keep it?"
"I don't know. Is it legal to keep monkeys? As pets, I mean? Maybe he's one of those hearing-for-the-deaf monkeys. Or he could have escaped from a lab or something. Are you on the lam, little brother?" The monkey clapped its tiny hand against the tip of Pete's long nose and chattered amiably. "Somebody's probably looking for it. And anyway, Marlene's allergic to everything."
Omar felt strangely compelled to comment.
"She seems nice."
"Does she?" Pete had his head tipped to one side, and a look of frank disbelief was writ large on his face. "I mean, she is. She's really nice. But no one's supposed to know that." He grinned again and encouraged the monkey to curl its hand around his finger rather than his nose. "Do you think it'll eat custard?"
"Is that what Nelson's making?"
"Yeah. Don't you like custard?"
"Not so much. And Nelson� doesn�t really look like a custard-eating kinda guy."
"Oh, he's not. Well. He eats eggs, but he's strictly non-dairy. He's always bitching that I smell like sour milk."
Omar considered that. And wondered how close you'd have to be standing to someone before you noticed what they smelled like.
"So," Omar deduced, "He's making custard for you?"
"Hell, no! I fuckin' hate custard."
"Then� why's he making it?"
Pete waved absently.
"Somebody'll eat it. Maybe I'll take it to the Georges in the morning before work."
"Who are the Georges?"
The monkey appeared to have fallen asleep, its fluffy little skull balanced on Pete's bony kneecap.
"These old guys who live a few streets over. I mow their lawn for them sometimes. Take them to the grocery store. They're all too old to drive, and Mrs. M's almost blind now."
"Do they pay you?"
Pete looked at Omar from under his lashes for a long moment before he said, "No."
Omar felt his face heat and ignored it.
"Where do you work?"
"A couple of places. Tomorrow, NovelTee on Maine. It's a bookstore café, with a silkscreening shed in the back. We make the local little league jerseys, stuff like that. We did the uniform shirts for Boone's. I can get you one, if you want. Or make you something."
"Thanks. Maybe I'll bring Swati by for lunch tomorrow."
"I'll look for you." He got to his feet, and the monkey woke with a little scream. Pete cupped it to his chest, and looked like a man burping an infant. "Take it easy, baby. Come on now, we've gotta drive Omar home." The monkey settled on Pete's shoulder, one arm companionably curled around his neck.
It half-stood with a creaky little squawk and held one hand out to Omar, entreatingly.
Omar held out a hand automatically and the monkey sprang from Pete's shoulder to swing like a handbag from Omar's forearm before stationing itself now on Omar's shoulder.
Its hard little hands were as cold as a doll's. It sifted though the hair above his ear briefly, and for a moment Omar was sure it was going to take a bite out if his ear, like Saraswati. Instead it chirred softly and banged a hand against his temple like a man patting a horse.
"He likes you," Pete said.
"I guess so. Is he coming with us?"
"I was gonna just leave him in my bedroom, but he's perked up some since we got him home, and I don't wanna leave him here alone." Omar could feel the monkey rock as Pete reached out to pet its back. "There's poisoned chutney all over the place."
Omar repeated the sentence to himself, and decided he'd misheard it.
"We had ants." Every stroke of Pete's hand was telegraphed to Omar in the harder press of the monkey's crouching form against his shoulder. "And Nelson had this mango chutney that's been in the fridge for like, three years. It was all sugared over and scary looking, and so we mixed in some boric acid and spooned little blobs of it by the cracks in the walls and behind the couch. It's working pretty well. We had an entire campaign of them in the kitchen, and now there's only one or two."
"Poisoned chutney." The monkey used Pete's arm as a bridge and shimmied back over to Pete again. Omar felt almost lonely, already missing its dense, active weight.
"Poisoned mango chutney," Pete crooned to the monkey. "It's just fun to say."
On the ride back to Omar's place, the monkey perched on Omar's knee, knotting one hand in the hem of his T-shirt to fight the sway of the car.
"It needs a name. How about Reggie?"
The monkey glanced at Pete before turning back to study Omar again.
"Reggie," Pete said, and again, the monkey glanced over.
"Reggie it is," Pete decided. Omar thought it more likely that the monkey was only responding to Pete's voice, but since he didn't have a better name in mind, or any claim on the monkey, it seemed pointless to voice that opinion.
When the monkey tried to peer out the window, Omar caught it in a gentle headlock and rolled the window up, in order to dissuade any suicidal leaps from the moving vehicle.
After Pete let him out of the car, Omar watched Pete adjust the seatbelt straps to accommodate the monkey. For his part, Reggie was patient enough, letting Pete buckle him in securely, but its face was mournful. It held out its hand again, and Omar touched the window on the other side of the passenger door.
Pete's voice was strangely muffled by the closed window; it was like one of those prison waiting room scenes in a movie.
"I'll slice him an apple and give him some water when I get home. Clean up the chutney."
"Do you think he'll be okay by himself while you're at work tomorrow?"
"Once the chutney's taken care of, the worst he could do is probably tear the place up, pee on the bathmat or something. You don't think he'd try licking an electric outlet or anything? Jeez, do you think he'll chew on the power cords?"
Omar could only shake his head; he had no knowledge of the actions of monkeys, in the wild or the home.
"I guess I'll just have to hope he doesn't maim himself while I'm gone. Sorry about the whole spin-out, by the way. You know where I live now, if you feel the need to sue me later."
Omar smiled a little.
"Thanks for dinner."
"No problem. I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Hey, and let me give you my phone number." He recited ten digits, and Omar committed them to memory. "Now you can call every hour on the hour for constant monkey updates."
He knocked on the window and Reggie eyed him with gleaming, liquid interest, before Pete backed out of the driveway and headed back to Wollaston.
Saraswati's room smelled faintly of formaldehyde and bread and butter pickles. In fact, the entire hallway was beginning to. Omar thought it was possible she'd spilled some kind of cleanser or something, and decided to just close the bedroom door rather than track down the cause.
Although it wasn't even ten, Omar felt slack. He chugged a bottle of water and brushed his teeth before shucking his clothes and stuffing them in the hamper.
Hanging on the back of the door was the uniform shirt Pete had given him. Omar leaned forward and sniffed it twice; one short indrawn breath followed by a second, longer one.
He couldn't detect any lingering scent of milk, sour or otherwise.
Peeling back the cool sheets of his bed, he heard the white-noise whir of central air as it kicked in; cool air floated down to lay on his cheeks, and he closed his eyes.
With Swati out of the house, he could masturbate without fear of interruption (or the threat of unwelcome participation), but he didn't feel sufficiently motivated.
He was supremely unanxious, which was odd considering the near-wreck earlier this evening. But Pete's company, and/or the monkey's, had been� very soothing. And Omar generally saved single-unit ejaculation for the taming of tension, anger or lust, and as he felt none of those things in any concentration, he went to sleep.
Omar knew from his high school drama classes that the billowing red cloth below his feet was supposed to represent the sea at sunset.
The stage had no curtain, and it was empty except for him and hundreds of square yards of fabric that heaved in a choppy, fluttering motion that really was very much like the sea. It sounded like a dozen flags snapping in a strong wind, and it caught the stage lights the way water would� if water was made of red satin.
Omar found it difficult to walk; the cloth kept threatening to toss him like a sock flipped off a shaken blanket, but he managed to keep his feet until he was at the center of the stage.
There he saw the 'red sea' was weighted down with the old brown case that had once held his conscience.
It was open, and empty, and lay in two heavy rectangles on the suddenly-still satin. The sumptuous red set off the rich navy velvet that was crumpled in the empty case. It was like some kind of avant garde magazine ad for invisible jewelry.
Omar knew he was supposed to feel something, but without his conscience to guide him, he wasn't sure what it should be.
The case was empty, and the helicopter-thwap of the fluttering cloth had ended. Even the lights had dimmed, narrowed, outlining every crease and fold in the blue velvet, highlighting every scar on the scuffed leather case.
As he drew closer, the velvet shimmered into night-dark water, shivering with every breath he took. He leaned over and studied the water. The face he saw in it was nothing like his own. It floated, asleep, slack-jawed and toothless on the ink-dark surface, transparent as a ghost, translucent as a reflection in a car's passenger window. Omar touched the image with the pad of his forefinger and it rippled, dissolved, re-formed into a single, staring eye.
It wasn't a living eye, or a reflection of one. It was a stylized representation, painted on a little bobbing plank of wood, vivid with thickly applied oil colors, the pupil framed with a toothed plastic ring that Omar knew to be part of an old SpiroGraph set, the lashes thick and jagged and shaped like flames.
He studied it until he felt his own eyes sting from staring, but he knew if he blinked, the image would disappear, and he wanted to understand it first. Staring until his eyes burned, until he felt his eyelids twitch-- he blinked.
The whole stage went dark, and Omar woke up.
The clock's tepid green display told him it was 2:35.
He rolled over and went back to sleep.
Pete May woke up with a monkey on his back.
"I bet you've been dying to use that one," May muttered to the monkey. He couldn't tell for sure, being face down on the bed and unable to see his own spine, but Pete surmised that the monkey was still asleep.
He propped himself up on his hands and felt Reggie slide a little, tense and then scrabble for handholds, a little painfully. May reached back and clasped a hand around the monkey's middle and picked it up. Sitting up in bed, he cupped it in both hands and Reggie hugged its own knees and peered at him curiously.
"How'd you sleep, little brother?" The monkey blinked at him and rubbed a hand against May's chin. "Hey, I'm not the only one who could use a shave."
He had a single moment to think, "Hey. Talking to a monkey." Before dismissing that thought and never having it again.
Swinging his legs out of bed, he balanced Reggie on one hand. Then he curled his fingers a few times in a 'hey, come here' gesture and the monkey swarmed up his arm to reclaim May's shoulder.
May brushed his teeth with Reggie stubbornly hanging on to him through every dip to rinse and spit. May figured it was like the monkey version of an amusement park ride. He ended up having to lock Reggie out of the bathroom while he shaved, though. For one thing, Reggie had kept patting his hands in the shaving cream, and May worried that he'd eat it. For another, shaving with a live animal clinging to his upper body just seemed like a poor idea.
After he'd pissed and showered, he found Reggie on his desk, rifling his bills like an accountant. Thoughtfully, Reggie waited until he was fully dressed to once again regain May's shoulder.
Reggie spurned the custard, but accepted another sliced apple and a handful of almonds.
May could hear Nelson cough and snuffle in his bedroom. He went to the notepad and ripped off the grocery list he'd written the day before, folding it twice and stuffing it in his jeans pocket. He tapped the notepad with the pencil twice, and then set both items down again.
He opened the fridge and took out the custard, swathed in plastic wrap, and consulted Reggie.
"What do you know about gardening, monkey man?"
George frowned at the custard and regarded Reggie with plain suspicion. Jorge clucked at it and held out a spoonful of his oatmeal. The monkey, wary, leaned off of May's shoulder to sniff at the oatmeal before dabbing a paw in it and bringing a little glob to its mouth. It licked its fingers clean and hopped onto Jorge's knee to hook its hands over the rim of his blue ceramic cereal bowl.
"Aw, Jorge, I'm not so sure you should be giving him refined sugar." Nelson's custard notwithstanding, May didn't think a diabetic coma was a good way for a monkey to go.
"It's maple syrup!"
"We'll give him a banana!"
"Where'd you get this thing?" George shifted his chair away and cupped his coffee mug protectively to his chest.
"I almost hit it with my car. Jorge, you don't mind, right? I just don't wanna leave the little guy alone."
"But we're just sittin' here, right outside, Petey. What if he runs away?"
"So we take him inside," Jorge said, waving a hand dismissively. "We can watch The Price Is Right."
May had considered rigging a little harness out of shoelaces and a dog's lead, but decided against it. Reggie had climbed him like a jungle gym as soon as he'd seen him, and clung close of his own volition since then.
"Well, if he runs, he runs. Long as you don't spook him or poke him with a cigarette," this with a warning look at Jorge, who had burned holes in most of his pants after falling asleep in his chair still smoking. "He should be fine. I'll pick him up around 3. Ask Mrs. M to call around for me, local shelters, and put an ad in the paper." He handed his bank card to George. "I don't know how much it'll be."
George tucked the card away and smiled meanly at Jorge.
"You know, Jorge, if we're gonna be sitting inside with that thing, you won't be able to smoke. Janny don't let you smoke inside."
"So I come outside and smoke. You can play with him." And he pushed his false teeth out with his tongue and waggled them at George, who was busy frowning again.
May glanced at Reggie to see if he was cool with the babysitters, but the monkey was invested in staring at itself in the licked-clean bowl of Jorge's spoon and paid him no attention.
At 10:30, Saraswati showed up, puffy and hungover.
"I need three gallons of water. And a bullet to the brain."
Omar obliged her with three cold bottled waters, two aspirin and a toasted peanut butter sandwich.
"I like you better than anyone else in this room right now," she sighed, after a long swallow of water. She took a huge bite of her sandwich, showering the new leather couch with crumbs, and made an unpleasantly sexual groan of appreciation.
"You're a good boy." She wolfed down the rest of her sandwich and tipped the water bottle until it was empty. "Come sit with me."
Omar settled uneasily on the couch beside her and she folded herself up, resting her cheek on his thigh, facing where the television would have been, had Omar owned one.
"Didn't I buy us a television?" she said after a significant pause.
"I sent it back," Omar answered placidly. It had been half as long as the couch and twice as tall. He'd suspected that a plasma screen and premium cable would have entrenched Swati in his townhouse for months, so action had been taken to prevent that.
She groaned again, this time in frustration, howling against his pants, her breath hot on his leg under the khaki cotton.
"How the hell am I supposed to recover" and here she banged his leg with the heel of her hand, "without lots and lots of Style channel?"
"Just get some sleep, Swati."
He risked a hand against the flat of her back. He patted it much the way Pete had soothed the spider monkey the night before.
"Gah, stop that or I'll puke on your shoes."
He switched to rubbing her sweat-damp shirt instead and she knocked his hand away and lurched into her bedroom, complaining all the way.
Omar let her sleep until 12:30. Then he knocked and asked her if she wanted some water. When she moaned no, he knocked again, making his voice cheerfully insincere.
"I'm going to meet Pete for lunch. Did you want to come?"
A soft grunt and the sound of shifting fabric as Swati tossed on her bed.
"Fine." Omar dispensed with artifice. "When you get up, though, would you for fuck's sake clean up that smell? I don't know what it is, but it's getting worse--"
"What smell?" She sounded peevish. He figured she was still too weak to climb out of bed, cross the bedroom, open the door and slap him so he said,
"Your creepy little dissection project or whatever the hell it is. If you're injecting cryo-preservatives into your eyeballs to stay young and pretty until the stars fall out of the sky, I don't want to know about it."
He heard the soft whump of a pillow hitting the bedroom door.
"I'm not injecting anything and I don't know what the fuck you're talking about and god, can't you let me sleep?"
Omar felt a prim little smile settle on his face.
"Not so fun on that side of the door, huh?"
"Look, low-rise, save your petty revenge fantasies for another day. A day when I can hit you. Repeatedly."
The day that the macaques of Mt. Takasaki had broken into his hotel room, Saraswati had earned a sunburn while attending Sanrio's Harmonyland. It was a theme park crammed to the gills with more Japanime Cuteness per square inch than anywhere else on Earth� except, perhaps for Sanrio's Puroland, just outside of Tokyo.
Event though she'd only arrived on Kyushu that morning, she'd already made dinner plans with an American airman she'd met at a gift shop, and so Omar didn't lay eyes on her until her second day in Japan.
On her second night, Swati drank an excessive amount of plum wine at dinner. Later on, she pounded on Omar's bedroom door for forty five very memorable minutes, throwing a full-blown, screeching fit when he wouldn't let her in to rant about her classes, her roommate, and how she desired to spit in her father's eye, after forcibly detaching his head with her bare hands.
In itself, it wasn't an unusual occurrence, but without a conscience, Omar didn't trust himself to react correctly to Swati's fierce temper, and so had let her exhaust herself rather than facing her and trying to calm her down.
NovelTee had a corner lot at the end of a little shop row. Its patio was set with green plastic lawn funiture, and heavily populated with the Thursday lunch rush. The crowd was half yuppie, half hippie, and Omar saw that hummus, vegetarian chili and something called Plain Jane Mofongo was on special that day, according to the heavily chalk-powdered black board.
Pete was wearing a half apron; it was strangely flattering, adding somehow to his friendly, raw-boned appeal.
"The hummus is really good today. I milled it myself."
"Sounds fine. And a grilled gouda on focaccia with bacon and tomato."
"Very good, sir. I heartily endorse your menu choices. Where's your sister?"
"Where's your monkey?"
"I asked you first."
"Well, she should be puking her lungs out, but as she's Saraswati--"
"The goddess," Pete offered sagely.
"She's just swilling bottled water and taking baths and bitching that I don't have cable."
"Sisters. Still. I wish I'd had one."
"They can't all be as bad as she is. You might have gotten lucky."
At a nearby table a squinty little brunette, whose pug face and Alice-banded hairstyle lent her an unfortunate Pekinese aspect, was staring daggers at Pete. Omar casually tipped his head her way.
Pete followed Omar's eyes and tucked the cap of his pen between his teeth.
"Nah. Just your standard irate instant yuppie." He nodded at her and she dropped her hand, and slapped her vinyl coated menu down. "I'll be right back. Duty calls."
After taking her order and disappearing behind the white picket gate that Omar guessed led to the kitchen, Pete showed up again, this time with a tray arranged with a small white ceramic bowl of hummus, and a plate stacked with triangles of sliced pita. He also carried a sweating PBR and a tall pilsner glass.
He flicked the top off it and tipped the glass so the head wouldn't slop over the edges.
"Here, drink this. Then I'll feel better."
Omar took an obliging slurp, and Pete took a seat at the table, helping himself to Omar's hummus.
"So, where's Reggie?"
"Probably still with the Georges." His words were muffled, as his mouth was full. He swabbed a second pita triangle in the hummus before tucking it into his mouth, chewing and swallowing with a silent bob of his Adam's apple. "If Mrs. M hasn't already found the people who own him. I didn't want to leave him alone, so I dropped him off at her place."
"Probably a good idea. Parental supervision." The beer tasted far more crisp and refreshing than cheap beer had any right to, and he took another gulp.
"You just missed Marlene, actually."
"Can I ask you-- I mean. How did you meet her?"
"She used to work at the mall. I just kept showing up there and after a while, I asked her out. Your standard song and dance, I guess."
"How long have you been dating?"
"About a year and a half or so. She's actually the gold medal winner, so far. Generally, girls break up with me right around the four month mark."
All around them, restaurant patrons jingled the ice in their glasses, shifted their chairs, and chattered like monkeys.
Pete smiled, and tipped his head back so he was squinting in the sun. His eyelashes were long enough to cast a shadow on his face.
"'Cause that's about the time they run into one of my other ex-girlfriends." He paused, a look that was part smug reflection, part bittersweet recollection hovering on his face. "Lemme go get your lunch."
Pete brought his plate and left him to eat it while he attended other restaurant patrons. The Pekinese sent her lunch back twice, and the crowd thinned as 2 o'clock rolled around.
Pete once again refused to allow Omar to pay for his meal, and offered to show him around the store.
"Here we have� books. You've already had lunch. And back here," crooned Pete, leading Omar into a tiny courtyard built on a spidered cement slab, "is the press. I love this thing."
Omar could see an iron and a jumble of latex gloves, a squeegee and several brushes and pots of colored ink.
Pete held up a jersey with red sleeves. It read: I hate myself and I want to die. In pastel, puffy letters adorned with pink and yellow pastel hearts.
"My finest work," Pete intoned.
The little shed was hung with several plain white tees printed with logos and quotes. A register was set on a glass counter housed with several shelves full of vinyl stickers, heavy silver jewelry and what looked to be Tarot decks.
Pete chose a card deck in plain white waxed cardboard and packaged it in a small opaque plastic bag. He punched some buttons on the register, pressed a five-dollar bill in the tray and closed the drawer. Omar accepted the bag when Pete held it towards him and peered inside.
"What is it?"
"It's a house deck. We print them here. They have quotes or historical facts on them, whatever you want. Wedding pictures, important dates, poetry, that kind of thing. We sell custom decks for a buck a card, which is just madness. The random pre-printed ones go for ten."
"You only paid five." Omar had no idea why he'd said that out loud, but Pete only grinned and clapped his shoulder.
"And so we take advantage of the magic that is the employee discount."
Omar came home to find Saraswati lounging in his bed, twined in his sheets and relentlessly channel surfing. His floor was heaped with discarded water bottles and his blankets were liberally scattered with toast crumbs.
"I have to sleep there," he muttered.
She never looked away from the television, but made a show of brushing at the comforter.
"God forbid you should get all gritty."
"Swati, if your idea of fun involves a dust buster under the sheets--"
"Wouldn't you like to know? I was so bored I was watching the goddamned surgery channel. They peeled this one guy's face off. His eyelids and everything." She grinned at him. "I should have taped it for you." Propping herself up on her hands, she asked, "What are you bringing me for dinner?"
She was wearing a powder blue tank and pink shorts. Her hair clung to her shoulders. The sharp scent of acetone and the little pyramid of stained cotton balls sharing a dish with half a jam sandwich told him she'd been painting her nails in his bed, and that she'd probably gotten CherryVixen or whatever the hell on his blankets.
He snatched the remote from her hand and dropped onto the bed beside her.
"We can order Chinese. You have my credit card. You call."
She crawled out from under the blankets to grab the phone and settled belly down on his bed. Her knees were bent and her long, pedicured feet partially blocked his view of the television. Another surgery documentary; long barbed sticks were delicately gouging into the empty place a woman's eye should have been. Omar quickly flipped the channel to what appeared to be some kind of lumberjack contest. Two slab-armed men pushed a huge saw at one another, chewing through a massive tree trunk.
Swati twisted to prod him in the shoulder with one bare foot and he glared at her.
"What's the name of the place? Down the street, by the Laundromat?"
"China Magic Wok."
The ball of her foot stomped against him again, harder this time.
"No. The other place."
"Red Dragon," She told the operator. "On Mack."
She ordered elaborate food he knew he wouldn't eat, as he was still full of lunch. Remembering the bag Pete gave him, he fished it out of his pants pocket.
The box was unmarked, and felt like a bar of soap in his hand.
He thumbed it open and the cool, plastic-coated cards shifted into his palm when he tapped the box. The one on top read:
The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.
Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809)
The one behind it:
One kind word can warm three winter months.
Swati slipped the next one off the deck and read it out loud:
"The time is you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. Bertrand Russell. Good advice. Too bad he's dead." She flipped the card back at him and it bounced off his chin. "What does yours say?"
Omar rubbed his chin absently and recited, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. Henry James."
"The first thing that Henry needs to do is learn to count," Swati said dismissively, returning to former position. "Come on. 165. We need to know what's being showcased on the catwalks of Milan!"
Omar sighed and switched to the requested channel; a woman draped in lime maribou was wearing most of a peacock on her head.
Swati hooked her feet together at the ankle and bobbed them like a bored five year old, sending a tiny rhythmic mermaid wave ticking through the mattress. The soles of her feet were smooth and featureless; he thought about digging a thumbnail hard against one of her arches, but decided he'd rather not have a bloody nose.
NovelTee's actual dining room had been furnished with six rickety tables and three sprung easy chairs set in corners. Dusty boardgames crowded a shelf on the bookcase near the window: backgammon, Battleship, a battered box of chess, a few poker chips and a stack of checkers. A selection of sleazy pink and tan covered romance novels with ruined spines lay on the shelves, swollen with humidity. In a box on the floor was a dartboard no one had bothered to hang up. The bookstore was a separate room, clean and orderly, lit with huge hanging paper lamps and crowded with, naturally, books.
The menu had mainly offered lopsided deli sandwiches, hot tea and indifferent coffee, but Aaron, the proprietor, had decided to invest in a beer and wine license.
Aaron had founded NovelTee with a cash advance from an uncle he'd never liked. May had known him since Boston Latin, and even under the sideburns and the careful goatee, he could still see the wheezy, anxious kid he'd been in school.
Short, hip and modestly financially successful, Aaron kept his hair in a crew cut and let his sideburns get shaggy. He was vegan, but smoked like a chimney, and his shirts were always too long on him, hanging like minidresses to the middle of his thighs. At 5'4" in his suede lowtops, he'd committed to buying drinks for taller women, especially ones who looked intelligent and bored, as a lifestyle choice.
Aaron had shared three former girlfriends with May; they had an unspoken truce about it. Now the only details about women they ever traded was whether or not they'd broken up with whoever they were currently dating.
Aaron wasn't actually at the restaurant much, preferring to sleep in after late nights spent at punk shows or trolling for new tall girlfriends. From time to time he'd call for a progress report, and May would hear the rapid, relentless plastic click of a PlayStation paddle, and Aaron bitching at the game under his breath.
May had helped run the place since Aaron had bought it, and every now and again Aaron would make noises about selling it and May would wonder if he had enough in the bank to impress a loan officer.
Marlene liked to come in when he was working because she got a kick out of the little white half-apron May wore when he was serving or behind the deli counter. She'd made him promise to bring her a slice of cheesecake after his shift ended.
"I won't be able to stay long, though. I've gotta go pick up the monkey."
Marlene had given him that look that said she was pretending to understand him, and he let any further explanation go.
Marlene's little bungalow was a powder blue saltbox one bedroom with brown shutters that she let from an aging Lutheran minister and his much younger wife. She was miserable in the summer, because it had been built far before the days of central air, and her one clanking window unit didn't do much to cool the space.
If she was home, summer or winter, her door was unlocked, and so she'd never suggested giving May a key, although he'd presented her with one to his own apartment that, to his knowledge, she'd never used.
Marlene was at her glass topped kitchen table when he got there, and he found that vaguely disquieting.
The table, that they never sat at, featured a squat little jade clay teapot with a wooden handle, the body shaped like an elephant with the trunk as a pouring spout. There was also a "vomit" creamer; an impulse buy from a church jumble May had driven past last summer. It was a little white ceramic cat with a surprised expression, that gouted milk from its open jaws, its crooked tail the handle.
Marlene, as far as he could tell, was in love with herself more than anyone else. Not that she was self-involved, just that May had noticed that she took care of herself the way people in love treated their beloved. She bought herself thoughtful little presents. He'd caught her kissing herself in the mirror more than once, and whenever she crossed her arms over her breasts, he could see a hug inside the cranky bravado.
He knew she thought she gave everything away. That people could look at her and know what she was thinking. She had no idea that she was generally impassive. In the silent vault of his own brain, he thought of her as his little stoneface.
He had to stop himself form calling her that every now and again, especially when she was angry at him.
Her face was set and unhappy, and his disquiet bloomed into full on anxiety.
He set the plastic wrapped wedge of cheesecake on the table and dropped into a chair.
"Hey there. Bad day at work?"
"I went to the grocery store."
That didn't seem like an answer, but he could work with it.
"Was the produce really farm fresh?"
"I sort of cut some guy off for a parking spot. And he threw his milkshake at me."
He leaned forward and touched her crispy bangs.
"You okay? Was there an accident?"
"No," and her breath gusted against his face now that he'd brought his chair closer. "I mean, yeah, I'm okay, but no, I didn't veer into an old lady pushing a shopping cart or anything. My car's a mess, though. Chocolate sticky sludge everywhere."
"We could take it to the Naked Car Wash." He squeezed her hand. "Three sisters run it-- the two youngest wash cars in wet t-shirts and thongs. They have a cousin with a hot dog cart on the corner and she sells foot longs in a string bikini."
He could see a smile twitch the narrow ledge of her lower lip.
"Why are you always trying to cheer me up with live nude girls?"
He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, sliding out of his chair.
"I've gotta go get Reggie."
"Who the hell is Reggie?"
"The monkey. I left it with the Georges."
"When did you get a monkey?" Three little straight lines appeared between her tweezed, bunching eyebrows.
"I almost hit it with the Volvo."
"You make a karma joke and I will never sleep with you again."
"I'll call you later."
"I'll be in bed." Early on, Marlene had made it clear that she needed at least nine hours of sleep a night. She'd been final about it, and May had always set up late dates for days she could sleep in.
"I'll call before ten."
"I'll be in bed."
He touched the top of her head and left the kitchen. "I'll call you before nine, then."
"Thanks for the cheesecake." It sounded resigned.
"Before nine," he promised, and the screen door snapped shut behind him.
Reggie had slung himself around May like a fur necktie the moment he'd climbed out of The Zanzibar.
"I missed you too, honey." The monkey lipped at his ear; it tickled.
"He was a good boy," Jorge reported excitedly. "He ate two bananas!"
"Good for you, Reggie. You'll be a big ape in no time."
Mrs. Malecki came out to the porch. She was still wearing her yellow visor.
"He's a little angel, Peter."
"Any news, though? Was anybody looking for him?"
"Not that we found. I put an ad in the paper for you, like you asked."
"Thanks a million, Mrs. M." He stooped to buss her cheek and she chuckled, patting his arm.
"No trouble. Don't forget, you said you'd stay for dinner. I made a nice tuna salad. It's just been too hot to cook."
"Mmm, tuna salad."
"With carrots and redleaf lettuce and lemon, just how you like it."
"You have anything for Reggie?" May had no recollection of monkeys eating fish.
"Well, I have some nice strawberries. And the watermelon, of course."
"So he didn't get into anything? Pee anywhere he shouldn't have?" He'd been a little worried about that.
"No, no he's very well behaved. He just hopped into the yard, did his business and came right back in." She took Reggie's hand between her thumb and forefinger. "Yes, you were a very good boy, weren't you, sweetheart?"
Reggie seemed to agree with Mrs. Malecki's assessment.
Home again after dinner, Aaron interrupted May's goodnight phone call to Marlene with a tendered invitation to come over and watch his latest shipment of DVDs. He was a huge fan of Hong King cinema, and had a respectable Asian Market library, heavily leaning toward Tsui Hark.
"Bring Nelson. Yuen Wo Ping orchestrated all the fight scenes in this batch."
"I'll see if he's working tonight. And I can't stay too late; I've got the phone bank at midnight. You want me to bring any food?"
"Nah, I got it covered. Plenty of beer, too."
"Is it okay if I bring other people?"
As far as he could tell, Aaron was a little afraid of Marlene. Besides, he had two cats, an ancient toothless longhaired tabby named Higby and a piebald so fat he called it Doorstop. It was so tremendous, its paws barely touched the floor around its swollen cat gut. On top of that, he smoked and his carpet hadn't been vacuumed since the Carter administration. In order to sit through an entire movie at his place, Marlene would have needed an oxygen tank or enough Benedryl to put an army to sleep.
"No. My friend Omar. He's got a sister," May added leadingly.
"Oh yeah?" He could hear Aaron's ears perk.
"And she's deeply cute. Tall, too."
"Oh hell yeah! Being them. And talk me up to her."
"Will do, mon ami."
He switched back to Marlene, but only got the flat buzz of dialtone.
Omar was pleased to hear from him, and Saraswati generously deigned to join them.
"What are we watching?"
"Kung Fu films. Iron Monkey, I think."
Omar swallowed hard.
"Is it just me, or are monkeys coming up a lot lately?"
"I hadn't thought about it. Hey, your sister isn't dating anyone is she? Aaron's a good guy."
"She lives in New Orleans, Pete. She's leaving on Sunday."
"Summer romance," Pete posited. "It's in the air."
While Aaron paid the pizza delivery guy, Saraswati, who was seated on the wretched carpet with her back to the couch, lugged Doorstop into her lap and idly dragged her long fingernails against its massive white belly.
"How did you get so fat?" She asked it.
Aaron, laden with three pizzas, spread them out on the coffee table and reached over to knuckle Doorstop's hard little skull.
"She's just big boned. Aren't you, honey?"
She flattened her ears and made a small sound like a leaking balloon.
Pete shook his head.
"You could stop feeding her pizza."
"But she likes pizza."
"I had a cat that used to eat raw potatoes," offered Nelson, folding a dripping slice and guiding it into his mouth. Swati watched him with narrowed eyes.
"I can't picture you with pets," Aaron said. "Stir frying them, maybe."
Nelson ignored him in favor of the pizza, crossing his legs on the fat overstuffed ottoman he'd chosen as a seat.
"I thought he didn�t eat dairy?" And once again, Omar marveled at his new inability to prevent thoughts from becoming spoken words.
Pete, beside him on the couch with an armful of monkey, shifted and stretched his legs.
"Soy cheese," Pete explained. "Aaron's vegan."
"I eat yeast, though," Aaron clarified, holding up his beer.
"The Vox on Royal serves vegan pizza," Pete finished.
"Huh." Omar eyed the pizza warily, and wished he'd had some of Swati's Seven Stars before showing up. Swati edged over to lean her elbow on his knee, still fondling Doorstop, whose eyes had drifted shut. The cat was so relaxed it looked half dead; Omar could see the gleam of drool at the corners of its open, panting mouth.
Higby and Reggie were staring at one another, tails lashing. The monkey was resting in the crook of Pete's elbow; Higby was crouched on the floor.
Settling in an easy chair with a paper plate on his knees, Aaron said, "May, I got all that video transferred to DVD. I thought we could show it at the Knotty Holiday Nogger."
"What's on it?"
"The chili cook off for the Gibson Soup Kitchen, Jenny Louise's wedding, the luau from two years ago. And the Anti-Toga thing."
"What the hell's an Anti-Toga?" Swati looked irritable, but not bored. Yet.
"Aaron threw a Halloween party last year. People kept asking him if there was a theme, so he just came up with Anti-Toga to shut them up. Marlene bought a thrift store prom dress and a sash and dumped some red food dye and corn syrup on it so it looked like blood." When Omar still looked blank, Pete clarified, "She went as Carrie."
"What did you go as?"
Omar smirked. "Bet that went over well."
"It did, actually. Women loved it. All I had to do was tip my hat and say, 'Howdy, ma'am.'"
"Well," Swati said, here eyes assessing. "You do have that whole 'Aw, shucks' thing going on."
"That's because the best way to get women is to have good manners." He paused and added, "And look hungry. It's like a one two punch."
The room was already hazy with chain smoked Turkish Reds; Aaron's house was furnished with a variety of cigarette-themed merchandise, including a heavy marble table lighter and half a dozen thick glass ashtrays fluted like pie plates.
Omar heard Reggie give a dry little cough.
Aaron flicked the lights off and made use of a highly complex remote control.
Twice during the film he felt Reggie reach out to pat his face.
At 11:30, Swati, Omar and May left Nelson and Aaron debating the finer points of A Chinese Ghost Story.
Nelson had agreed to watch Reggie, and Aaron had decided to lock Higby in his bedroom, lest he decide to try his luck sparring with a monkey. Even elderly and gaunt, Higby was a scrapper renowned for his mean streak.
In the driveway, Swati wanted to know if Nelson was seeing anyone.
"Do you think he'd want to take me out?"
"Could be. I'll ask him. He'll probably cook you dinner."
She flashed him a smile.
Her smile grew sharper.
"Will the monkey be there?"
Both Swati and Reggie had shown a marked lack of interest in each other. Swati, who was now matted in half a gallon of calico cat fur, didn't seem to object to animals on principal, and Pete wondered what it was about his monkey that made her so touchy.
"Maybe. If I haven't found who he belongs to by then, possibly. Wait-- I just remembered. Nelson's got a shift tomorrow. 3 to 11."
Swati held her long hair up away from her neck.
"He can take off."
May saw Omar clap a hand over his eyes and managed to snuff his laugh.
"Tell him I'm leaving Sunday."
"I'll be sure to let him know."
Omar closed his hand in Swati's hair. She froze, staring at him and he gently towed her to his Avalon.
"Good night, May," he said.
"Good night, kids. Thanks for coming out." As they drove away, May murmured, "Lets do it again real soon."
When May got in at 5:30 a., he found his answering machine blinking.
"I took a mental health day. Come and see me when you wake up. I'm probably gonna paint the bathroom."
It was unlike Marlene to leave messages on his machine, and for a moment tension buzzed in his gut like a swallowed horsefly. But then Reggie bounced off the kitchen counter to nestle under his chin and pluck at his hair.
"I'll tell you what, buddy. I hope nobody comes looking for you." He tickled Reggie under his chin and the monkey's big eyes slid shut. "You been up all this time, little man? Let's go get some shut-eye. I'll leave the bedroom window open for you in case you gotta take a whiz, okay?"
With Reggie cradled in one arm, he wrote down Omar's phone number with a note for Nelson:
Call Swati. Her pants, they are hot for you. --M
Omar was considering buying a disposable camera.
He planned to take Swati to Faneuil Hall for lunch, and he figured she might appreciate a camera. She had three vacation days left, after all, and nothing to show for them. If you didn't count Omar's houseful of new furniture. His own disinterest in cameras would certainly not prevent her from recruiting hapless locals for any number of impromptu photo shoots.
The wall behind the Star market's courtesy counter was hung with dozens boxes: of film, of audio and videotape, all crowded next to shelves crammed with tobacco products. As he deliberated, he was approached by a small woman with the round soft, face of a Mongoloid.
"Hello! Hello!" Presenting him with a loopy bucktoothed grin, she pressed her arms around his neck in moronic tenderness. She was feverishly hot, and he could feel her drooling against his throat. She smelled like pretzel salt and cotton candy.
Disconcerted, he embraced her loosely, patting gingerly between her shoulder blades for several moments. The soft skin on her plush, rounded arms stuck to his neck, and her unsupported breasts were mashed against his chest. Taking a deep breath, he wriggled out of her grip, gently holding her away from him.
Her pink tee was sweat stained, and emblazoned with a white logo that read Harbour House.
A harried looking matron with bristling hair appeared to collect her. She ignored Omar completely and took the woman by the hand, directing her toward a small crowd that had assembled, slack- jawed and bright-eyed, by the sliding glass doors.
"Deena, stay with us. Where's your buddy? Where's Joey? Hold his hand. Good girl. Stay together."
Omar watched Deena join the double line. He noticed they all wore shirts with the same logo. Together, they exited the supermarket lowing like cattle, and marched toward their short bus, waiting at the curb.
When the bus pulled away, Omar bought his sister a camera and bottle of nail polish remover, the reason she'd sent him to the store in the first place.
Even the pervasive bite of the polish remover couldn't completely obscure the scent of� whatever it was that Swati had spilled in her room.
"Did you even try to clean it up?" Swati tugged the shopping bag out of his hand and emptied it on her red satin bedspread.
"I know you think I know what you're talking about, but I don't. I mean it." She picked up the yellow cardboard box and held it up to her eye. "Camera! Hold still. I hope your face doesn't break this thing�"
Omar sighed as the flash went off, fat blots echoing in his vision like bruises.
"Maybe you can't even smell it. You probably got used to it, sleeping in here with it every night."
"What's it smell like, leprechaun?" Plainly, she was humoring him, but Omar gave it a shot anyway.
"Like� bad olives? I have no fucking idea. It's a little like the nurse shark I dissected in AP Bio. It's bugging the hell out of me."
Swati went very still and then dropped her chin.
"Omar. Don't be mad." Her voice was thick, and when he glanced at her he saw tears welling in her eyes.
If she'd pulled a gun on him, he'd have been considerably less surprised.
He had never seen Swati cry, but now tears clung to lashes and splashed to her cheeks, and her lower lip trembled alarmingly.
"Christ, Swati, I'm not mad." A little panicked, he thought about just bolting from the room, but she kept crying, delicate hiccuping breaths that were nothing like the loud, stagy sobs he would have expected from her. Had he suspected her of the ability to cry at all...
"You will be. You will be when I tell you."
"If you bought something expensive, even really expensive, we can probably bring it back. Swati," he said cautiously, "You didn't buy a car did you?"
"The smell," she moaned. "Omar, it's Grandfather's eye!"
"Okay." He had no idea what she meant, but he didn't much care to disagree with her in her best moods.
"You're such a fucking asshole!" She was suddenly raging, and Omar relaxed. This, he was familiar with. "Grandfather's eye! Daddy's stupid conscience!" She was digging in her open suitcase, flinging flimsy silk underwear and balled socks at him. "Grandfather's eye!" She shrieked again, holding a crinkled Ziplock bag aloft, and advancing on him.
He held up his hands to ward her off and stepped away from her.
"Swati, you've gotta calm down--"
She hid her face in her hands and made a little cougar yowl of profound discontent.
"You have got to stop being so fucking dense. I made a deal, Omar, with the monkeys. But they fucked me over. And so I tried to see if maybe I could--"
Omar, for the first time, felt a little afraid of her.
Saraswati had threatened him, berated him, pummeled him, and publicly humiliated him pretty much at every opportunity as they'd grown up. But still, he'd never actually thought she hated him. Her random cruelties had always been tempered with enough bewildering physical affection to ultimately reassure him of her love.
Her obvious, if brief, remorse was only more proof of that, but her current ranting was nonsensical, terrifying, and utterly unprecedented.
What the hell was she talking about?
"--don't you see? He really talked to you, and I thought I could use it, that I could make him talk to me--"
Her voice seemed muffled; in fact, sound seemed to be cutting out all together. Omar stared at his wailing sister, her wild hair, her red, tear-streaked face, and he heard only a buzzing silence, the kind Omar associated with films about deaf people, where everything was vivid and full of motion, but where people's mouths moved soundlessly, weirdly.
Swati had crumpled to her bed, shoulders shaking. Eventually, he found he could make out what she was saying:
"Just get out. Get out. Get out, you stupid, stupid fuck�"
He closed the door behind him, silently.
Throughout his childhood, on his rare nights at home with his mother, she would frequently come to tuck him in to bed at night.
Usually, she was drunk when this happened, and would storm his orderly bedroom hours past the time he'd actually gone to sleep.
When he was eight, Sharon came to him one night, jittery and ebullient after several coffees-with-whiskey. He never minded when she woke him; she always smelled good, and she'd rub his back or stroke his face, relating vivacious gossip in a low, giggly voice. Her accent was always especially English when she was drunk.
On this particular night, she told him the story of his Grandfather Meraj.
"Meraj Patel was very handsome, and he had many wives. Not all at once. But he had more than one, and someone was always in love with him."
Omar didn't think much of the story as yet; the idea of being surrounded by women, tripping over them, always having them clinging to his belt, didn't seem like a pleasant investment of time. But then, he was eight, and it would be another six years before he saw a live naked girl. Seven before he saw one who wasn't his sister.
"One day in the winter of 1945, just after World War II, he was drinking at Arnold's, the oldest bar in Cincinnati, crying and thinking about all his wives."
"Why was he crying?"
"Because his business was failing, and he had lost a lot of money betting on horses."
"No. Daddy spends money on horses. You know he wants to outfit a decent polo team in this stupid town. Anyway, he was very sad, and wondering how he was going to take care of all his wives--"
Omar wanted to know if his Grandfather Meraj was also worried about how to take care of his girlfriends, too, but he was wise enough to keep that question to himself.
"What did he do?"
"You'll find out, but in the meanwhile, he was drinking a lot. A man sat down at the bar beside him, and said, 'Why are you crying?' and Meraj said, 'I am crying because I cannot predict the future. My investments are all gone bad, and I have been foolish with my money because I love the races. Now I can't take care of my wives! They will have to go out in the world and get jobs, and I can tell you that they won't like it one bit'.
"The man was very sympathetic and he said, 'I am sorry to hear that, my friend. I may know a way to help you. But you may not want to hear it.'"
"Who was he? Who was the man at the bar? Was he a mutant?" Omar had stacks of X-Men comics under his bed, carefully sealed in plastic envelopes.
"No. He was a little man with a black hat and loooong fingernails. His name was Abe Bookman. He introduced himself, and Grandfather Meraj grabbed at his sleeve and begged, 'Mr. Bookman, Mr. Bookman, tell me what I can do to help take care of my many darling wives!'"
"What did he say?"
"Abe told him he was working on a top secret project, but that it required a special ingredient."
"Was it bloody?" Omar vehemently hoped so. The story was finally getting interesting.
"Yes," Sharon said nodding gravely; her gleaming blonde hair was as curly and golden as ribbon on a wedding present. "Yes, it was. 'If you want to see the future, you must make a sacrifice,' said Abe.
"'Anything, anything, I couldn't bear to see my Charlotte without her satin gowns, or Khadija
without all her silver fox capes, or Frangeline without her ropes of diamonds--'"
"Wow. Grandpa really was rich, huh?" He had only met Grandfather Meraj twice before the old man had fallen asleep in the tub and drowned.
"Loaded," Sharon pronounced with satisfaction. "Anyway, Abe could tell Grandfather was sincere, and so he said, 'In order to see the future, you must give it your left eye. Then the future will whisper to it, and your eye can tell you all its secrets.'"
"Cool. So what happened?"
"Your grandfather thought about it. And then he ordered another drink, a very strong one. And then he thought about it some more, and then he said, 'If I give you my eye, how do I know you won't run away with it and keep it for yourself? Surely I am not the only one who could profit from knowing the future!'
"Abe stood up and resettled his black felt hat. 'Sir,' he said, in a dramatic voice, 'I am a man of honor, who has offered you aid in your time of trouble. I have been working on a secret formula that distills the ether of the future into a liquid that can be sealed in a bottle. I offer you this chance, and I say to you only that I will not betray your trust, but I must warn you: this is highly experimental, and I cannot promise it will work!'
"But grandfather was a man of action, a man who laughed at risk."
"But wasn't that why he was crying in the first place?"
"A man who laughed at risk," Sharon repeated inexorably, "And so he threw back his last shot of whiskey and shook Abe's hand. 'I'll do it!' he said, and no sooner were the words out of his mouth that, pop!, quick as lightning, Abe Bookman gouged your Grandfather's eye out with a glittering silver knife and stuck it in a jelly jar he'd been keeping handy for just such an occasion."
"Did it hurt?"
"Of course it did! Grandfather bled all over the place and yelled so loud every man at the bar was deaf for half an hour."
"What did Abe do with his eyeball?"
"He hurried away to his secret laboratory and dropped it into the mysterious liquid essence of ether, and sealed the bottle up so the future could never escape."
"And then what?"
"The he found your Grandfather back at Arnold's, drinking whiskey and wearing a pirate's black patch over his empty eye. 'Here it is! Now, ask it about the future, about how to take care of all your lovely wives!'"
"What did it say?"
"Not a thing," she sighed. "It didn't work."
"Not even a little?"
"Well, not as such. Not directly, anyway. Meraj didn't end up having to send his wives out to look for work, but Abe Bookman's invention never told him the future."
"But you said grandfather got rich!"
"I said he was rich. And he got rich again."
"Because he knew the future?"
"No, because he knew the market. He and Abe Bookman became business partners and sold Abe's idea to the company Abe worked for. In the end, Meraj just bought a bunch of shares in Alabe Crafts and made his fortune again. Magic 8 Balls have been selling like hot cakes ever since."
word count: 33,220 (some 26 K shown here in coherent order...)