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People Will Surprise You


Alex's roommate, Sean, was scheduled to move out in a week. Alex had given him the ultimatum: "you have one week to leave; if you're not gone on Friday, your shit'll be on the curb waiting for you."

           The anger was fresh and strong in Alex. He wasn't homophobic -- his uncle was gay, and a friend from college recently came out of the closet -- but this was too much. The new couch was ruined with the sex, sex he'd never seen before or considered or suspected Sean to be a part of. He saw it like you see a fist moving towards your face. You understand it, comprehend its affects, but you don't move because you can't. Alex was transfixed. He stood there for ten seconds, maybe longer, staring, holding his nephew's hand in his, a Toys-R-Us bag in the other. The first thought that crossed his mind was what it would cost to clean the suede. Then he knew: just throw it out.

           "Sean," Alex said. "I think your friend should leave."

           The incident was complicated. First, his sister's child, Denny, had witnessed the entire thing. Both things, Alex joked to Lois, unsuccessfully. It wasn't clear if counseling would be necessary, but chances were good the child's mind had been considerably warped by the few moments of live gay sex he witnessed. He was in his room, crying, sobbing, when Alex came over.

           "So what's he doing now?"

           "He's translating the fucking Illiad! What do you think he's doing? He's in there trying not to think about what he saw." Lois said.

           "Where's Don?"

           Don was the problem here, really. Not the kid. Don complicated things. Don, given the opportunity, could complicate a Happy Meal.

           "Don's flying home from Singapore and---"

           "What did he say, did you tell him?" Alex fingered a cup of coffee, almost knocking it over.

           "Yeah, no fucking shit I told him, Alex."

           "Did he freak?"

           "What do you think?"

           Alex didn't respond, his thoughts on his brother-in-law who, at best, was a psychopathically, irrational boxing promoter. Up-and-coming, was how Don put it. He represented a new breed of boxers coming out of South-east Asia, which sent him over there on business frequently. Alex knew very few details of Don's life, except that he served in the Marines at one time and bought the Piramus house, he and Lois lived, in with money his mother won in the Florida State Lotto. At a barbecue last summer, Alex saw Don kick the neighbor's cat so hard it sailed the width of the pool and landed in the hedges on the far side.

           The video game system Alex bought for Denny sat unopened on the kitchen table.

           "What can I do?"

           "I don't know, Alex. Honestly, I really don't know." She tapped out a Parliament, flicked a lighter and took a long, hard first drag. Her lipstick was bright pink. "You drop him off and don't say a word? What did you think, he wouldn't tell me?"

           "I didn't think he saw anything, I swear to Christ."

           It was a dreadful excuse and he knew it. But at the time he just couldn't deal, couldn't confront the situation, his mind strangely fixed on the movement of hips, the sweat. His first, perverse reaction was that, in fact, it wasn't sex at all; instead, perhaps a variation on partner yoga or some new age New York calisthenic taught by an instructor on the Upper West Side for eighty-five dollars per hour. The smell made him gag. And that attendant word: Noisome. He remembered, just then, why he remembered that word at all: from an SAT preparation course. The instructor told the story of recovering lost cattle on the plains, frozen in one-hundred degree heat, bloated, on their sides, half exploded from the build-up of nitrous, sulfur and other gases and the resultant stench which, in the instructor's mind, could only be described as "noisome"). And besides, he'd talked to Denny, briefly, in the car on the way home. Between percussive sobs, Denny said he was it was all right, he was okay. Denny, at six-years old, saying it would be okay.

           Alex stared at his sister, who was crying softly, almost silently. And then his mind was clear and sentences formed in front of his mind's eye. It must be hard, he thought, You watch your kid like a damn hawk all those hours and days and then he's out of your sight for a second and, wham: molested under a stairwell, hit by a car, abducted, dismembered beside a bridge, gone. Where is your power then? The worst of it was that he, Alex, the brother, the caretaker, had let it happen. That was the worst of it. That, and Don.

Don was screaming so loud into his cell phone that the stewardess had to request he lower his voice.

           "Sir, you'll be off the plane in just a minute. At that point you can continue your conversation but at the moment you're disturbing---"

           "---Disturbing? Sweets, let me tell you a little something about disturbing." Don was not a big man, but he had big-man presence. His voice commanded immediate authority. His face-dark, and worn like the sweet-spot of a baseball mitt-was hardened with strong, rigid lines that looked like they were carved with a sharp knife or stone. The nose, engorged and flattened, deflated, broken and re-broken from countless punches, inside the ring and out -- the nose was a visceral monument to a threshold of pain few men acquire.

           Don dealt with strangers in one of two ways. he either bullied them physically or he intimidated them verbally. If left alone to argue with the stewardess, Don guessed he would have her in tears in less than two minutes. Stewardesses were known pussies when it came to confrontation. Several steps down from waitresses, he mused. He didn't have two minutes though, so he pushed past her and the other passengers. As he did, he looked back over his shoulder. "Disturbing is waking up every morning and having to look at your hatchet face, Honey. Don't these airlines have standards?"

           Later, in the taxi cab, Don made another call. Alex picked up. "Alex, it's Don. Yes, Don. Now listen to me, I heard what happened. I'm coming over. Yes. Is your roommate there? He's not? Are you sure? I want honesty. At a time like this, honesty is imperative...Wait, when it's your turn to talk I'll say so. Right now it's not your turn to talk, you see? It's my turn to talk. What I want to say is this, listen carefully: I'm coming over and I'd like to talk to you without your roommate there. Is this clear? Good. Twenty minutes."

Alex looked at the clock on the wall: 4:39 A.M. In twenty minutes Don would be here, he thought, and then he'd have to speak to him man to man, as they say. Man-to-man.

           I wonder what he'll say first? In Alex's mind, the likelihood that Don would cause him any physical harm was slight. He was his wife's brother, after all. What would Don say to Lois? I just whacked your brother, so he ain't fucking gonna be heeyuh for Thanksgiving, you got that? Not probable, but possible. But it's not as if anybody touched Denny, or anything; if any harm was done it was purely psychological and most, if any, repercussions wouldn't surface for years. Something scratched at the back of his mind like a feather on the neck. He tried to place it, but it was there only as a shadow, or an outline with no content or substance, as a word: Freeway. What that word meant. And then it was with him, completely.

           He remembered. He was seven-years old and his mom was an hour late to pick him up from the soccer field. There was no one left and the field and parking lot were deserted when the van pulled slowly up to the curb. The street lamp illumined the windshield through which he saw her as she was sometimes: drunk. Not tipsy, tight, slow or buzzed, but fully packed and loaded, still drinking, perhaps, and mean, for sure. He dreaded telling her the score.

           "What was the score?"

           "We lost, four to two."

           "Figures." No more words. She stared across at him vacantly, her lower lip slack and flaccid, not part of her. The palsy was a frequent symptom. Her eyes, her lip, her arms, all substitutes for the real her. At last she put the car in gear. Not reverse, though. Drive. They pulled out over the curb, onto the sidewalk and into the field where she performed a sort of figure-eight u-turn and headed the big van back towards the road.

           "Why don't you take the side streets home."

           "You're so smart. Thank you, so much, little man."

           Halfway home she fell asleep at a stop sign. He pulled her onto the floor between the two front seats and climbed into the driver's seat. He drove the big van down the streets of sick, black, amputated elms and large front lawns and kids playing hockey in the road: careless. From that time forward, he promised himself, he would be careful.

Alex found his .38 caliber revolver where he put it, three years ago, in the top shelf of the closet. The heavy black gun was wrapped in an initialed green kerchief, his mother's kerchief. He broke open the chamber, checked to see it was loaded with six shots, closed it up and stuffed it between his back and his jeans, then pulled his shirt down over it.

           In the kitchen there was no tea so he had to go out. He checked his watch. It read 4:55.

Wanda's 24-7 Convenience & Grocery was like a neighborhood filter. All manner of humanity passed through its doors during the day and, at the end of the night only the sludge remained: older men standing out front with tallboys wrapped in paper; the old woman feeding her dog raw hamburger, eating a handful herself; the Mexican delivery boys who all wore blue and spoke hard, sharp Spanish with no humor at all. If you wanted to pick a fight you could do it here in two words.

           Alex bought a box of Earl Gray tea and left quickly, cutting back up the street, avoiding all eye contact. One of the Mexican kids called to him and he waved and kept walking.

           He walked in the street, measuring his steps, not walking too fast, but not too slowly either. He made an effort to not turn around and see if the group of boys was following him. A car beeped its horn and he moved out of the street onto the sidewalk. The car -- a big, black crown vic like the livery drivers used -- slowed fifty yards ahead and pulled into a spot in front of his building. The car's lights went off, but no one got out.

           The shadows concealed his approach and, all of a sudden, he felt a drop of rain on his nose. In seconds the street was enveloped in an icy rain and at the end of the block the Mexican kids screamed something he didn't understand. He turned back towards the Crown Vic, now only a few feet ahead of him, and he put his right hand on the butt of the gun behind him. He snuck, like a scorpion, one step, then two, then one more until he was nearly even with the rear side window. He pulled the gun from his pants, cocked it and pivoted, slightly, to see into the car.

           Inside sat Don and Lois. Lois was crying and Don was holding her, stiffly, like a man holds something a woman has given him in the women's clothing section of a department store, not knowing what to do with it. Alex couldn't see Lois' face, but could make out her heaving form. Then slowly, and is if staged or rehearsed, Lois raised her head from Don's lap and Don smiled and kissed her on the lips. He wiped the back of his shirt-sleeve across her nose and his lips moved, silently. Alex read them. "It's okay, darling. It's going to be okay, darling."

           He uncocked the gun and went inside. He put on enough tea for three and passed the time tapping his foot and wondering if it was morning or night.

© 2001 c.k., all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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