Invagination

by Daniel Arpie

“I would wake and then begin again, They would wake and then again begin.”

                                                                    * * *                                                             

I know a Person who works at one of the McMahill genetic testing clinics in the Pacific Northwest.

McMahill’s marketing has recently become very diffuse and not totally unhip: the new Senior Marketing Director, Bill Koss made the decision to slash the budget for print ads and reroute that cash towards buying up massive amounts of ad space on Ancestry.com[1]—so much ad space that McMahill and Ancestry have, to Ancestry users, become seemingly interminably linked: Ancestry and McMahill basically now appear to be one. Koss dubbed this all the Marketing Revitalization Campaign (MRC). The enormously irritated Ancestry users (who don’t see an end in sight to the head-clubbing ad campaign) complain via official channels and threaten to take their business elsewhere, and initially these complaints were a massive concern to the McMahill CEO, X.Y. Zaihd, but Koss, arguing against much resistance, insisted that they stick it out and wait for the quarterly results to roll in; two months later (April ’11) he was vindicated: the reports concluded that despite the growing Ancestry.com insurrection, McMahill had enjoyed a 30% sales[2] increase since the inception of the MRC.

Interested, highly marketed-to parties (i.e., customers/“clientele” [per the MRC vocab guidelines]) read their credit card information over the phone to a McMahill Telephonic Representative, the MTR reading it back to them as they go, then reciting from the script: “Thank you! We’ll be shipping you a box with some instructions; the whole process is pretty simple. You can expect the box in between seven and eighteen business days! Do you have any questions? Great, have a wonderful day!” and then the MTR hits the “SUBMIT” button on the glowing terminal, and an MPE (McMahill Packaging Expert) puts together the small, economically packed box.

Contents:

-Contents List[3]

-Plastic specimen jar (100ml)

-Specimen jar lid

-Written directions

– Return postage slip (prepaid)

The directions: [1] Open plastic specimen jar (100ml). [2] Spit in plastic specimen jar (100ml). [3] Adhere specimen jar lid to top of plastic specimen jar (100ml). [4] Put plastic specimen jar (100ml) in box. [5] Apply return postage slip (prepaid). [6] Mail. Results typically come by mail in 2-3 weeks.

The job that the Person I know has is to empty the contents of the spit cups into the hopper of a little machine. There is no corporate, M-based acronym for what she does. The machine reads the DNA in the spit and prints out on receipt paper the genetic breakdown of the spitter; additionally, the machine prints an approximate date of death for the spitter according to whatever it is that their DNA says. She explains that this latter bit of information is only really accurate if the person has a genetic predisposition to something fatal. I told her that everyone is genetically predisposed to die; she didn’t think that was very clever.

This clinic does not include the results of the prognostic findings in the final report that is mailed to the person, only the genetic breakdown. Even still, the Person says, it is impossible to not read the prognosis of the spitter. She begs me to understand how awfully depressing it is to be the only person on Earth whom knows that a given spitter is going to die by way of myocardial infarction before their 40th birthday, or that a given spitter already has an inoperably advanced glioblastoma. But what’s worse, she tells me, is the compulsion to spit in the hopper of the little machine yourself.

There are many persons who have the same job as the Person that I know. So far only one of them has admitted to giving in to the compulsion. He submitted his letter of resignation, drove home (stopping to fill up his tank at the Citgo in Junction City and to buy a pack of cigarettes), and blew his brains out all over the inside of his shower stall. We speculate, unoriginally, that the human mind isn’t equipped to handle a fixed date of guaranteed nonexistence, that his suicide was protest against something, like one of those burning Tibetan monks. I wonder if the machine feels cheated.

* * *

The MRC team finishes filtering into the banquet hall, Bill Koss at the helm. He isn’t an ugly man; a little over fifty, not salt and peppered but moving in that direction, and his hair is still thick. His left Oxford is shined more than the right. He is not wearing a wedding ring. He is called up on stage and gives a speech about the progress that he’s been so happy to have helped make at McMahill Clinic #SB233PNW1811, concludes with a sincere tear in his eye, and chokes back a sob as Zaihd hands him the Employee of the Year award. The room, sans Kim Fiorvanti, applauds lightly. Koss takes his seat, stomach rumbling. He looks down at his plate, stops a passing waiter and says something to him. The waiter returns a few minutes later with a take-out box. There are a number of rumors floating around the office about Bill Koss and his allegedly bizarre private life and personal habits, a not small number of which I have heard second-hand from the Person. The girl sitting to the left of me leans over and whispers to the rest of us at the table, “Word is, when Koss was SMD at Dart, he maybe like brainwashed himself a little bit with that “We Make Your World More Convenient ®” campaign. The guy literally does not own a single non-Styrofoam plate, bowl, or cup. Which, if you really think about has a lot of implications: if he doesn’t own any kind of kitchenware other than the Styrofoam stuff then how does he cook? He must just order take out all the time, or else eat TV dinners!” Everybody else at my table is hunched down a little with serious faces on, nodding grimly. I look over at Koss. He’s hunched a little too, but he’s smiling, and gazing at his award.

Bill Koss used to vacation on Block Island, RI annually, always going the same week the nearby (nearby to BI, RI, that is, not to Oregon) colleges let out for Spring Break because BI is, to the Northeastern U.S. University Undergrad, a totally paradisiacal Spring Break destination: yes the booze is expensive, but it’s nothing to pick up a few bottles in Point Judith before hopping the ferry over; yes, there are a ton of cops on the island, but they are totally laid back middle-aged guys who tie their graying hair back in ponytails, wear visors and bumble around the island on bicycles, smiling wistfully and paternally at the college students partying in the sand; the hotels are scarce and expensive (think $400/night) so dugout bunkers on the beach are the most typical accommodations, and there is such a specific charge in the air that anything is possible – racing mopeds through the town center after a dozen beers or experimenting with MDMA or having sex with an attractive stranger – anything, because there are just so many other people around doing the same things; young, affluent, smart, healthy, tanned people from composed, moneyed families, the kind of people who just absolutely could not be doing anything wrong at all.

When Bill Koss is on BI: [1] His diet becomes purely bivalvic[4]; he slurps slimy things out of their shells, forgoing cocktail sauce or lemon, instead opting for a liberal sprinkling of his own pre-mixed blend of herbs (Thymus vulgaris, cymbopogon citratus, elettaria cardamomum, laurus nobilis); [2] Every afternoon he wades out in the water and drops to his knees, allowing the waves to break squarely across his chest, and he smokes an absolutely titanic joint rolled with marijuana procured back in Oregon, marijuana of such quality and potency that the nearby undergrads with particularly keen noses cannot help but look at him with envy[5] and [3] Early in the morning, he totters out across the jetty with a roll of twine, a fish hook, and a can of corn. He plops his mass down and smiles into the rocks, drops his baited line and waits for the Dungeness to bite. Or do they snap their claws down? He is unsure of how they actually affix themselves to the line. But he sits and smiles and says encouraging things to the crabs, urging them to avail themselves, promising not to harm them, saying he only eats the bivalves – that he just wants to catch one so he can snap a picture to frame and put up on a shelf in his 2br/1.5bth condominium, and that he will release it back to its crab friends as soon as the picture is taken.

On a Sunday morning Bill Koss stands up out of his little beach dugout and stretches. The college students are still asleep; it is an overcast morning and the sea is churning and greenish. Koss walks down the jetty, planning his steps carefully, executing all of the necessary hops nimbly. He sits down at his hole and drops the line, leans back against a rock and smiles at nothing in particular. He turns his head out to the far side of the jetty and his smile drops. He sets his line down and anchors it with the can of corn. There is a young man floating face down in the water, his body thumping up against the rocks with the pulse of the Atlantic. Koss whispers, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh Jesus,” as he approaches. The dread is building. He kneels down and pokes at the boy, and retches. He doesn’t remember much about the walk back across the jetty or the 911 calls or the ferry trip home. That was the last year that he went to Block Island.

* * *

I remember reading a story by one of the magical realists, I think probably a Latin American, slapping along in Garcia-Marquez’s wake; the story was about spontaneous human combustion. A girl is proposed to by her boyfriend, who abruptly catches on fire, and he stays balancing on one knee while he burns and the girl doesn’t scream or try to swat him out with her jacket or otherwise react much at all. A cop pulls over a speeding moped rider who promptly bursts into flames. A lady comes home from work to find her husband nailing the maid; she explodes with the force of a nuclear device, and the explosion levels the whole block, the whole barrio, and the air rushing in to fill the space from which it was just so violently expelled sucks the wind out of everybody all over the entire South American continent, not fatally, just so much as to make everyone sigh and then reflexively gasp.

I asked the Person, “What do you make of that story?”

“Don’t know.”

“Think there are any parallels between your suicidal coworkers and the flammable Columbians? Art imitating life imitating art imitating death?”

The Person snorted. I laughed too. We shook our heads and looked at the ground and kept shaking our heads. She is well read, better read than I am, and has an M.A. from the U of Illinois. We talked about the novel that she works on at the McMahill clinic between salivary deposits. The novel is basically about a person who works at a clinic, who writes a novel (between salivary deposits) about a person who works at a clinic, who writes a novel… and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, and the whole thing is very meta, very alright and very unpublishable. There is a large, self-aware section of the story that deals with infinite regression: the infinite regression of the-clinical-person-writing-a-novel-at-the-clinic-about-a-clinical-person-writing-a-novel-at-the-clinic; the logical foundation for infinite regression, and an attempt to model the given regress mathematically. She told me about it for a little while and I pretended to be interested. It seemed as though we’d run out of things to say to one another, then she spoke,

“There is no such thing as an answer. You know that right? I mean an answer to any of this. To any of what we’re talking about. Maybe capital-A Anything -slash- capital-E Everything. It doesn’t exist. No such thing as an answer.”

I was incredulous. “I don’t buy that.”

“What’s the answer then?”

“Do you mean… like… What do you mean? You’re asking me to answer that?”

“No. I’m just saying you can’t,” she whispered.

“The other day I decided that I’m radically against online shopping. Convenience in general I guess. Netflix and stuff too, especially.”

“Why?”

“I was sitting and thinking about it and I just really hate how convenient things are getting to be. We’re losing so much and getting absolutely nothing for it, you know? It isn’t making our lives any better on any meaningful level. It’s neat that I can watch a thousand different movies without getting off the couch, but is my life really any better for it? I don’t think so.”

“Would your life be better if you had to drive to the video store every time you wanted to rent a movie?”

“Yeah, actually. I think it would be. At least then there’s some sort of an interaction going on, person-to-person, I mean, between the clerk and me. That’s what you get stories and experiences out of. Walking the isles, looking at the new releases with a friend. Picking up some candy and popcorn, maybe a pizza and some beer on the drive home. Maybe the movie stinks, but the quality of the movie is sort of secondary to the actual experience of getting the movie, and the experience of watching the movie, you know? That’s how life is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be scrolling through a pre-determined selection of movies that are already rated while you sit on the couch. There is no fun in that. We don’t have little adventures anymore. We have forgotten, or are choosing to ignore the fact that we are human beings living in a world that is full of other human beings. We are insulated against every interaction that isn’t with a personal friend. We’re becoming solipsists, basically, I think.”

“I think you’re right,” she whispered, “Science isn’t going to save us. Technology isn’t going to either. What do you think will?”

“Moving to a place that still has video stores.”

* * *

It is late at night. My partner and I are sitting on the couch. I’m watching TV and she is thumbing through her cell phone. A commercial for a product, CREST WHITENING STRIPS comes on. Charlie starts talking to me. I am hearing Charlie talk and staring at the enormous mouth that is slowly moving towards me on the screen. The teeth are very white, and a computer graphics artist has added a digital glimmer to one of the lateral incisors. I stare in awe until the picture changes to an advertisement for PROGRESSIVE AUTO INSURANCE. I realize Charlie is waiting for me to respond.

“Sorry, what?”

“Whatever, never mind.” she says, smiling and shaking her head.

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, it was the mouth.”

“I was telling you that I’m thinking about getting this genetic counseling done. It’s really easy now I guess, they just mail you a cup and you spit into it and mail it back.”

“No, I don’t like that. Stupid.”

“Why?”

“It’s anti-human, isn’t it? I mean, our genetic makeup isn’t really very interesting. What we make of whatever we think it is is a lot more interesting.”

“How is that anti-human?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It is though. Don’t you just feel like it’s very deeply anti-human?”

“No.”

I got angry.

“Well, you’re wrong. Objectively. Objectively you’re wrong. I’m going to get to sleep.”

“Okay,” she giggled.

I shut off the TV as a seasonal advertisement for COCA COLA comes on. I get into bed with Charlie and pull off my shirt. I lie there and shiver. It is cold. I shut off the lamp and close my eyes. I think about the fact that the McMahill Clinic and the Person and Bill Koss all exist in a time zone permanently four hours in my past. I wonder what that means for a few minutes.

I have absolutely no idea.

I am afraid.

Footnotes:

[1] This change was painlessly implemented, as a full 75% of McMahill’s marketing budget was going towards full-pagers in Skymall inflight magazine, but Skymall was going out of print so it’s not really as though Koss had to make an agonizing decision about whether to stay with the magazine or not (really, there’s a fair bit of controversy w/r/t the MRC and if it wouldn’t have sort of just fallen into place regardless of his hiring, etc. amongst the higher ups, Kim Fiorvanti, for one, thinking that his receiving the Employee of the Year award was overzealous in the extreme), and moving the majority of advertising online was the practical, obvious, 21st century solution – thus, his detractors argue, the only credit that should be given to Koss is his selecting Ancestry.com to be the primary target of the MRC – but who’s to say they McMahill wouldn’t be doing even better if they were marketing on a different website?

 

[2]Koss et al. would object to this verbiage, preferring “contract engagements” (the notion being that McMahill does not have customers, but clients, does not sell a service, but offers a “contracted package”, etc. – a memo dated 7/7/14 explaining all of this was shuffled into the mass of papers on The Person’s crowded workstation)

 

[3] Bill Koss introduced this item; Fiorvanti argued compellingly to the Zaihd that it could be absorbed by item 4 (Written Directions), but Zaihd, being so impressed with the results of the MRC, shrugged and told Fiorvanti to let Koss have it.

[4] He eats primarily oysters and mussels (raw) for lunch, steamed clams or pan-seared scallops for dinner. No breakfast.

[5] Being noticed was a significant (but not the sole) motivation for the ritualistic Smoking of the Joint.

An Important Distinction

by Sten Spinella

This piece won third place in the Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction.

When mom named me “Elan” she said it was to set me apart from the other boys. I’m certainly apart from the other boys, in that the other boys went to college, or the other boys found God, or the other boys were hired at IBM, or the other boys get their hair cut. I work the cash register at a CVS Pharmacy.

I stock the drink cases in the morning and try not to look outside. Looking outside makes me sad, because I’ll be in here for twelve hours, and outside will be outside the whole time, even if an early morning in Providence, Rhode Island is nice for its melancholy, its cold, its sun-yellow-brightness. When I’m not working I’m reading because Ray Bradbury said education is free if you go to the library, or something like that, but in order to attend the library, one has to survive, so here I am, surviving.

It is the usual mix of depressing fluorescent lighting, smart tile floors, and organized rows for hurried consumers, on this morning. I put my feet on the counter and lean back on my stool against the wall. Then I begin reading a short story by John Updike when my manager, Chris, arrives.

He is as bald as an apparent lie, as confident as a well-placed bowling ball, as middling as a beer belly, as powerful as a peasant.

“Do we pay you to read here, Elan?” He’s apparently self-conscious about them, but he bares his 50-year-old teeth in a smile at his comment, those teeth as yellow as American cheese. Putting his fists on his love handles and standing with his legs shoulder-length apart, he waited for my response and drew himself up to his full, 5’6” frame.

“Good morning to you too, Chris.”

“Why do you even read, anyway?” he asked me. “You don’t need that here. I myself gave up stuff like that a long time ago.”

“You know, I could think of a few other things you gave up a long time ago—working out, sex, ambition, direction, the list goes on.” He turned as if to leave, but not before smirking and addressing me further.

“Bold words for a 23-year-old indentured cashier, wouldn’t you say?” With that it was time to start the shift.

I’m not a bad looking dude, so I’m usually treated better than my dowdy coworkers. I’m a white dude, so I’m usually treated better than my non-white, non-male coworkers. I’m 6’2” tall with a sparse beard and hardly any fat (or muscle, for that matter). My superiors like having me on in the morning because that’s when the working class white men come looking for candy, drinks, beef jerky. I’m covering for Andrea tonight because she has to do something with her kids, or something. Here I am, spending my day on a double shift, which, I think, is not what the old philosophers meant by achieving human potential.

It’s 6:30 a.m. when the first consumer of the day walks in. He’s white, around 5’9”, with thick arms, greasy brown hair, and a dense beard. The sound of Timberland work boots and the chime of the open door announce his appearance, and he shuffles in paint-stained jeans towards the chips and drinks aisle. His plain grey shirt already has the beginnings of pit stains, and it’ll be doused in sweat by the end of the day.

There’d be fifty more consumers similar to him before the day was over, but, being the first, he held a distinct significance in my mind. I stopped sweeping the bathroom to greet him at the register, laying the broom against the wall behind my stool. He slid two

bags of Fritos and a Monster energy drink across the counter, accompanied by a five-dollar bill.

“That’ll be $5.50, sir,” I said as I deposited the five dollars in the cash register.

“Christ, man, really? It was $4.95 last week,” he said, his narrowed eyes and gruff voice the only parts of him betraying emotion.

“I know, sir. Obama, am I right?”

“Hey now, he’s working hard for this country,” he said, before breaking into a bout of violent laughter.

“You have it all wrong—you’re working hard for our country, sir.”

“I appreciate you saying that, kid. So am I supposed to leave you a tip now because you complimented me?”

“People don’t usually tip at CVS, but I mean, if you feel so inclined.” He found a dollar in his back pocket and put it on the counter.

“Keep the change.” I’m not sure if he smiled, but his beard lifted a little.

Dan—yes, that name will work—Dan comes home after painting the local college for ten hours. His wife is waiting for him on an old red couch, the kind that swallows you when you sit in it, with two Heinekens.

“How was your day, honey?” she asks.

“An inspiration to us all. Yours?”

“Good, I got home from the restaurant at four. Brett is at a friend’s house.” Dan’s hand stops stroking… Marla? Yes, Marla… Marla’s leg. He raises the beer to his lips and drinks half of it in two gulps.

 “Why? It’s a school night! We paint and wait tables all day for this kid and… I bet his homework isn’t even done yet. Does he value his education at all? The son of a bitch… ’scuse my French babe, but Goddamn! Does he want to eat Fritos for the rest of his life? Does he want to work at fucking CVS? Sorry again. But damn it all.” Marla cuts into Dan’s diatribe and grabs his hand.

“Baby… he’s the top kid in his class. Have you seen his report card? Brett is going to be fine… he knows what having an education means… don’t worry about him, come here.” Marla holds Dan to her like a child and runs her fingers through his beard.

“You know, if you shave this thing, there may be something in it for you tonight,” and with that it is time to start. Dan lunges at Marla like a man to the grass from a falling ladder, he is out of control, and while he grabs at her body she pushes his face away from hers, saying, “Fine, just so long as that furry face doesn’t try and kiss me,” which of course meant hard kisses from what looked like, on the outside, a hard man, and laughing kisses back from a tired woman. They thrash on the couch under a wool blanket until they land on the carpet, and they stay there, sweating on that carpet, because the task at hand is too urgent for them to go to the kitchen, or their little bedroom down the hall, or the bathroom shower in-between their room and Brett’s room, nowhere to be except right the fuck there.

Brett would go on to become a lawyer after attending Harvard Law School. He made enough money to set his parents up in a cushy retirement community in Florida, where they stayed, content and well-taken-care-of by various younger versions of themselves. The End.

“What are you doing?” Chris asked me.

“Writing.”

“Why not do your job? We just got in a big order of condoms, go restock.” I quickly removed my feet from the counter, jumping to a salute position, in the process almost knocking my stool over.

“Sir yes sir! Any advice on how to fuck myself as well, sir?”

“Often.”

“Thank you for your wisdom, sir! Can I perhaps utilize one of those packs of condoms, sir?”

“What the hell do you need that for?”

“To fuck myself, of course, sir.”

“As long as you pay for them.” Chris walked away to his office (really a desk in the back of the home supplies section), presumably to swig from his bottomless bottle of Jameson.

After the condoms were straightened out, I had to take care of a line of consumers at the register. A smaller man in my position might harbor resentment for these patrons, but not I. If anything, it’s more like pity. They are contributing to a carousel in which I am a part—and we are both either profiting or being taken advantage of, depending on whom you talk to. Chris and I are living (in my case barely) from CVS money. But the people who own CVS… LAWD are they living. Whereas the consumers need these goods, we make them available for an arranged price, and they keep the carousel moving! Or they come in here like they own the place, but really the place owns them, and they’re just along for the ride, but I lost sight of the metaphor, and in case you couldn’t tell—I came into work high as hell this morning.

I moved through each consumer interaction with skill and precision, though no one seemed to notice. The last person in line, a woman in her fifties, looked like she had once been a great beauty. Of course, my vision may have been biased at that point, since, without exception, the people that come in before 2 p.m. are, as the politicians say, “physically unappealing.” But women over 45 years of age are my wheelhouse. They, without exception, love me. So I took my chances.

“How are you today, ma’am?”

“Good. You?”

“I’m just fine. I sure hope all those cleaning supplies aren’t for anything too pressing.” She made eye contact with me.

“They are, actually. My dog just puked all over the house.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that. Please let me know if I can help clean up, you smell so good from over here and I wouldn’t want that to go to waste,” I said as I handed over her change.

She did not answer, rather, her face embodied disgust, and the only acknowledgement I received was a scoff, unparalleled in its intensity.

Chris came over, looking like dog shit, his breath smelling like a bar, and he parted his rotting teeth to speak.

“Oh, you smell simply lovely, ma’am! How bout I come on over and clean up your dog’s puke? Sound good to you?” He stopped, laughed so hard that he couldn’t make any noise, bent his hands to his knees, then lifted one finger up in a signal to wait. “You kill me, kid. You really do kill me.”

It’s okay, nothing I could really do about that one, I deserved it, served him a meatball, and he hit a single. I mean, he could have done better than repeating almost verbatim what had happened, but I digress.

Marie was once a world-class opera singer. Now she stays at home and cleans up her dog’s vomit. Marie was once a source of envy for women, a target of attention for men. Now women laugh at Marie behind her back, women who notice her husband’s winks, and the only men who flirt with her are waiters and CVS cashiers. Marie wondered how it all went wrong… how she went from having tantric sex on the back of her first husband’s cruise ship to having to pretend Mark was someone else in order for her to gain any sort of enjoyment out of the experience.

Oh come on, you were weird, she wasn’t all that bad.

Marie and her daughter had built a relationship on love of each other and animosity towards Mark. Tonight they sat on the first floor of their five-story mansion, quietly eating lobster bisque and reading.

“Mother, where do you think father is?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. You know your father.”

“Yes, but I wanted him to read my college essay before I send it out.”

“He will. How is Eric?” Angela’s eyes became attentive at the name (No, no, “Angelina”).

“Oh, he’s wonderful mother, he really is. He bought me flowers today and called me ‘babe.’”

“That’s nice, sweetheart. Make sure you two don’t get carried away.”

“What do you mean, mother?”

“I’m just saying you have a lot of time before you need to make any decisions or anything like that.”

“Mother, all due respect, but if you’re talking about sex, that ship has sailed.”

“What?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“About Eric and I.” There was silence for a few moments. “I’m not a virgin anymore.”

“My word! My word! Angelina Elizabeth Corsette!”

“Oh, mother, please don’t tell father!”

“Tell… tell your father? Why, he’d scream at you and kill Eric. I will do no such thing.”

“You’re the best.” Angelina got up from the table, put her plate away, came back in to the room, hugged her mother, kissed her cheek, and disappeared to her room on the third floor.

Marie couldn’t read anymore. Her daughter was not hers anymore. She was the world’s now. Her husband was anything but. She had to make a decision. To go on as is, or to live. She chose to live.

After leaving the table, she went to the sink and cleaned the dishes. Then she went to her room, rolled a joint from her daughter’s weed that she had found, and smoked it while she watched opera performances on YouTube. The End.

Nick, a kid I knew growing up who is now a senior at Providence College, came in to grab a couple Red Bulls, a vanilla Coke, and a box of condoms.

This was always awkward. It’s not that we didn’t like each other, it’s just that, and I can’t speak for him, but at least for me, the glass counter between us and the obligatory “Do you have a CVS card?” question worked as insurmountable gulfs of separation, as seen in our stilted words with each other.

“What’s good, man?” I asked when he came up.

“Bro! It’s good to see you, how was your summer?” he responded. I looked him up and down… pink polo shirt, check, powder blue khaki pants, check, long blonde curls, check, a genuinely fake smile, check… what was different?

“It was good, just been working and chilling. Yourself?”

“Great, I interned at a consulting firm and besides that just hit the beach.”

“You got big plans tonight?”

“Kind of, some buddies of mine are throwing down at their apartment on Eaton Street.”

“Sounds like a good time,” I said as I bagged his purchases.

“Yeah man, you should come through once you get off. The address is 32 Eaton.”

“Thanks for the invite, dude. Have a good night.”

“You too. See you around.”

That was it! He was nicer now… Back in the day he would never have invited me out somewhere… what is it, college? Does it make you more inclusive? Providence College doesn’t have frats, maybe his friends are just all-around good guys. But who am I kidding? That isn’t my crowd. My proud crowd is made up of townies – drug addicts, drug dealers, no-names and lowlifes, anyone who makes me laugh and has a humble spirit.

Consumers are sporadic between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. when we close, so I take a little time to read and write and think. Chris is probably passed out in his “office” by now, anyway.

Nick and a neighborhood boy, William, were playing basketball one-on-one outside William’s house. William was a little taller and skinnier than Nick. He was black with short dark hair and a brilliant white smile. The two boys were pushing past each other to try and get to the rim, but, despite being eight-years-old, they had the maturity to know the contact was incidental, part of the game. With the score tied at 10-10 and the summer sunshine turning tired, William squared up. He had been taking Nick hard to the rack all game, so when he jab stepped to his right, Nick practically fell out of his shoes trying to stop the drive. This left William wide open for an elbow jumper, which he made easily.

“Ay! That’s right! That’s my win!” William yelled, jumping up and down, his sweat spraying. Nick had his head in his hands, but after William’s celebration, he removed his hands covering his face, and smiled.

“Rematch,” he said.

“You’re on,” William answered.

Before the game could begin, a black SUV pulled up.

“Nicholas. Get in, now,” a voice yelled from behind a slightly cracked tinted window.

“But dad, we were—”

“No. Get in.”

Nick knew not to question his father more than once. He offered William an apologetic glance, picked up his basketball, and hopped in the car.

Nick’s father, Robert, was fat and always wore double-breasted suits. He was over 6’3” and walked with a dignified limp. He was the supervisor of over 100 CVS pharmacies in the New England area.

“What are you doing?” Robert asked.

“I was playing basketball with Will,” Nick said.

“But what are you doing? I told you I preferred you hanging out with (insert ostensibly white name here).”

“Yeah, you said that, but you never said why.” Robert sighed, gathered himself, pulled over to the side of the road, and focused his attention directly on Nick.

“Listen, son, I think you’re old enough for this now. I don’t want you playing with that black boy.”

“William?”

“Sure, William. I don’t want you playing with him, or seeing him. It isn’t good for you. It isn’t good for your family—the one you have now or the one you’ll have one day. Just trust me on this for now, and later you’ll know why I said it.”

“Okay, dad.” Nick stared out the window. Robert’s gaze lingered on Nick for several seconds, before he refocused on the road.

“You’re a good boy, Nick,” Robert said, placing his hand on the back of his son’s neck.

One decade later, Robert had been dead of a heart attack for two years. Nick sat in his freshman year white racism class. He was a declared political science major.

“Race is nothing but a social construct, and whiteness is a concept founded on the definition of non-whites as other,” Nick wrote on his quiz. He was happy studying race… he considered it a defining issue in modern society. His dad’s admonishment did not work. Well, it did at first. At first, Nick was arrogant, and entitled to his arrogance based on his father’s status and Nick’s own devilish good looks (I mean, the kid looked great. Still does.). Later, with that liberal education of his (the truth often errs on the side of liberalism—not the classic definition, the modern one) and the education of having a father who only shouts advice and is happy only with “initiative”, Nick wizened up.

Anyway, class ended and the weekend began. Nick walked back to his apartment with his headphones in, through the narrow streets of Providence he had been raised near. He knew almost everyone he saw, Providence College only having 3,800 undergrads. There was something about Nick… boys and girls alike would see him as he walked by and develop an opinion based on his striped button down shirt and colorful pants. He was the embodiment of classism and racism. But he was not that at all. He just dressed like a total tool.

After picking the headphones out of his ears, Nick opened the door to find his roommate, William, playing video games in sweatpants and a tank top.

“Damn, you slept two more hours than me and you STILL an ugly motherfucker!” Nick said, grinning.

“You tryna play some one-on-one? Game is already over but I’ll give you a 4-0 head start to make you feel like you have a chance,” William said back. The End.

I strode up and down the aisles—my domain—to make sure nothing had been misplaced. A song I liked came on by an alternative rock band. In the context of the store, any song that is played by Chris’s corporate playlist is ruined for me. Music with supposedly inspiring messages take on an insidious connotation when played in the store. “I’ve got a good one lifting me up when I’m, down, well it’s been perfect timing, new horizon, you are looking to, I’m feeling good as, newwwwwwwww,” and now I can’t ever hear that song again without feeling worse.

I keep a duster on the counter just in case Chris comes around and asks why I’m not doing the closing work. He rounds the corner, I pick up the duster. Thankfully, he doesn’t, so I simply count down the minutes until the shift ends.

Who’s gonna be the asshole walking in at 10:58 p.m.? Everyone that walks by is a possible spawn of Satan, but no one dares enter.

Until her.

Black hair, dark purple lipstick, a blank stare into me, a dark blue dress, a purposeful gait. But she is not beautiful. I do not want to run my hand across her bare back. I do not want to dance with her and hold her chest against mine. I do not want to even speak with her because she is what is standing between me and the outside.

“Hi,” she says, approaching the counter.

“Hi.”

“Sorry for coming in so late, I just really needed this,” she said, pointing to a bag of peanut M&Ms on the counter.

“You needed it, did you?” I said.

“Are you calling me fat?” I stopped moving.

“Of course not! You are the opposite of fat. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone as not-fat as you. You—”

“I’m just joking, man. It’s all good.” She smiled. She smiled?

“Oh. Gotcha. Well your change is one-fifty.”

“Thanks. Listen, I feel bad. Let me buy that pack of cigarettes too, and I’ll let you have one, since it looks like it’s 11 p.m. and it’s time for you to go.”

“If you insist.”

I packed up my book and my journal, took off my red CVS smock, and followed her outside.

“I haven’t been out here since before six in the morning,” I said.

“You should really get out more,” she said. I noticed her smooth, pale-white thighs.

“This is true.”

“Why do you even work here?” she asked.

“Gotta make a living somehow, right?”

“I mean, sure, but can’t you make more money at a restaurant or whatever?” she asked, tapping out the ash of her cigarette.

“Yeah. But I feel comfortable here, and I get a lot of hours, and I can read and write while I work.”

“Ah, a store clerk with ambition, eh?”

“Something like that.”

“My friend is dragging me along to a party tonight, would you like to come?” The lamplight across the street blurred and I stared at the fire in my cigarette.

“Of course I do. But why would you ask me?”

“You’re kind of cute and I have no one to go with.”

“Should I put the smock back on? I look even better in that.”

“Absolutely.” We were quiet for a minute.

“Why would you have no one to go with?” I asked. “You’re incredibly attractive, as you probably know.”

“Thank you. But people don’t like me. Or they don’t think they do. They see one thing and think that explains me. They don’t know I’m a greedy selfish business major like everyone else.”

“You think they’d like you more if they knew you were greedy and selfish?”

“Yes.” I laughed at this answer.

“What’s your name?”

“Alexandra.”

“Nice to meet you Alexandra, I’m Elan.”

“That certainly sets you apart, doesn’t it?”

We walked to the party, which was close by, burning down two more cigarettes on the way. She told me that since she was a little girl she’s always wanted to marry a CVS cashier. I told her I had always been super into emo chicks.

We get to the party and I take shots of whiskey with Nick. He tells me my girl is cute and I tell him that means a lot coming from him. Alexandra and I dance in Nick’s living room. She tries to teach me how to salsa. I tell her she’s not bad for a white girl. She tells me I’m not a bad dancer for an ungainly and gangly white guy. We leave after an hour and a half, when we’d decided we were drunk, and we head for my place.

“CVS guy has a space all for himself. His mommy and daddy didn’t pay for it like the parents of my peers. How impressive.” I stared at the futon on the floor, the TV on a table, all the amenities needed for one person in a one-room apartment. The wood floor was dusty and without carpet. Empty bottles and cans adorned the off-white counter.

“My mother and father are dead,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“I said ‘I’m sure a business major like yourself can respect self-sufficiency.’”

We kissed against the front door, eventually making our way to the futon. Her dress disappeared when I pulled it over her head and she unbuckled my pants and we were naked and poor with each other in the night, and again in the morning, when she left in a grey sweatshirt of mine.

“I’ll see you soon,” she said.

“For business or pleasure?” I asked.

“Both.” The End.

When I got home I didn’t bother to shower. I went to the fridge with nothing but a carton of milk and seven Heinekens in it. I took a Heineken. I opened my laptop and watched Netflix as I rolled a joint on my futon. Once I had finished smoking the joint and drinking the beer, I switched over to porn and watched a particularly excited young couple on a couch. I produced a condom and masturbated into it.

Write what you know, right? I think I said something earlier about human potential.

The End.

Tiny

by Emma Capron

She hears Jamie rustle in the bed beside her. He is deep within the throes of peaceful slumber, his breathing deep and regular. Tonight is the first night in months in which the gentle rise and fall of his chest has not lulled her into darkness, into the escape of sleep. She sighs, a quiet sigh that no one else can hear. She burrows deeper under the ivory feather-down comforter, a wedding gift from Jamie’s mother. Jamie’s familiar warmth presses against her back as he sleeps, still blissfully unaware of the insomnia plaguing his young wife. She longs to wake him up, to allow the piercing green of his eyes to swallow her whole, to talk into the wee hours of the morning, to place the burden of her existential sadness upon him. But she knows that this is not right. In only four hours, Jamie, much like her, will have to awake and face another day of classes, papers, and all the responsibilities of being a graduate student at the state university, the same university where they had fallen in love.

She wonders still how the two of them had fallen in love. They’d met when both were applying for their master’s degrees during senior year. He was a six-foot tall, bumbling oaf of a scientist, with huge green eyes and an unusual penchant for reciting Horace. He was bright, goofy, and full to the brim of the joy life had to offer. Sunlight radiated from the top of his slightly-overgrown mess of brown hair, to the absolute tips of his toes, which were always covered by the thick leather of his deceased father’s oxford shoes. He frequently wore a lab coat, the uniform of the chemistry major, which was covered with questionable stains. He was laughter. He was light. He was joy.

And she was the serious, somber, melancholy violinist. To look at her was to glimpse living poetry. Slender hands smoothed honey-gold locks, thick lashes framed serious eyes, which she would call “lifeless gray.” She did not wear clothes—they wore her. Every article of clothing was made a work art by the creamy white of her skin, the gentle arch of her back, the swanlike grace of her neck. She was petite, beautiful, and recently diagnosed with clinical depression. You could usually find her boarded up in a practice room for up to eight hours at a time. She had found a solace in the bow of her violin, forcing her deep existentiality to flow out of her fingers into the strings, to replace thoughts of the fragility and hopelessness of her life with Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi. The violin quieted her mind like nothing else could. She was darkness. She was solemnity. She was quiet.

She and Jamie had collided in the cafe located in the basement bowels of the university library. He was carrying the biggest black coffee Celeste had ever seen; she was doctoring a cup of earl grey, her favorite tea. He bumped into her while passing by, a bit of his coffee sloshing out of the cup onto Celeste’s real leather violin case. She turned angrily about, but found herself mesmerized by this tall, fiery young man with eyes the color of spring. She couldn’t find words; she didn’t need to.

From that day, Jamie had filled the space that had once been occupied by the great musicians. He filled Celeste with his light, and he tried to guide her away from the cavernous blackness of a mind that threatened to devour her. He cradled her lifeless heart in his enormous vibrant one, and slowly tried to lift her from the pit. Celeste knew she loved him for this. He was her lighthouse through the storm.

The day Jamie and Celeste were married, they received their acceptance letters from their respective graduate schools. Both were within the same university. The two of them moved into a tiny apartment that was characteristic of student housing—wood-paneled walls, suspicious-looking carpeting, and the overall vibe of a 70s horror flick. They tried to decorate, but the house maintained the look of a graduate student’s apartment. Yet, even though it did, Jamie’s presence in the apartment filled the tiny hole with light and warmth.

It wasn’t enough, though. Within the first year of graduate school, the blackness crept back into Celeste’s heart. Slowly, a cold melancholy chill enveloped her entire being before Jamie had a chance to stop it. Celeste tried to suppress it, once again throwing herself completely into the endless music of her violin. Jamie tried his hardest to guide her out again, but this time, even his endless light could not save her. She knew why. She had nothing to give him. Celeste felt like an injured baby bird in Jamie’s hand, useless and broken. She could give him nothing in return for the healing he promised. So she allowed the sadness to take over again. No peace for Celeste. No peace.

The couple had decided not to have children, at least not in the foreseeable future. Busy schedules coupled with Celeste’s depression and the gentle warnings by other professionals in their fields—have a baby at this point, and your life, your career, everything you worked for, is over— steered them clear of offspring. Yet, sometimes life does not happen the way one plans. And one blustery autumn day, Jamie opened the door of the apartment to find Celeste weeping on the bathroom floor, her hair tangled about her face, her eyes red and puffy. In her hand was clutched the fateful reason for her tears.

“I can’t have a baby,” Celeste said over and over again the weekend after that day. Jamie was at his wit’s end. For once in their relationship, he didn’t have an answer for her. He himself was unsure about the possibility; after all, Celeste could hardly take care of herself. She was depressed beyond anything he had seen: some days she couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes, she forgot to feed herself for three days. Occasionally, she was put on probation for missing too many days of class in her graduate program. The only consistency in Celeste’s life was her endless devotion to practicing the violin. It was that endless devotion that had kept her in the program at the university; she had a talent beyond what her professors had ever heard. She put her sadness into the music, and it gave a heart to her music that was unbelievable. He feared her losing this one thing that kept her grounded upon the earth. Jamie feared that his wife would float away like a ghost if she had to give up the violin, if she had to become a mother. He struggled within himself. “What to do?” he asked himself. “What to say?”

No decision could be reached, and time passed. Celeste withdrew even deeper into herself, and Jamie was beyond reaching her. At night, while she slept fitfully, crying out and tossing about, he tried to hold her, tried to transfer a piece of himself into her, but she would not be pacified. During the day, he made her all types of tantalizing food, but Celeste barely managed to stomach enough to stay alive. He brought her to endless doctors, but even they were at a loss. “Perhaps it would be better for her to get rid of the fetus,” they said, but at even the mention of that option, Celeste would burst into tears. Nothing improved her mood at this point.

Celeste knew that Jamie was trying his best to make things okay, to find an answer that would satisfy her, but nothing really worked. She was truly being eaten alive by the sadness she had never truly abandoned. Some days, when she returned home from school before Jamie, Celeste would throw herself upon the couch and sob; agonizing sobs that revealed a grief that went beyond healing. One time, her sobs were so disturbing that a neighbor showed up, sure that the pretty, young woman next door was being beaten senseless by her husband.

But if anyone was beating up Celeste, it was herself. “I can’t be a mother,” she shouted when she was alone. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!” She looked at pictures of her own mother, holding Celeste as an infant, a bright, tired smile lighting up her maternal face. Celeste knew this could not be her. She whispered to her abdomen, “I cannot be your mother. I cannot. I have nothing to give, nothing to say.”  At her first ultrasound appointment, Celeste ripped up the pictures the smiling young nurse had given her, the nurse with the fire-engine red lipstick that glowed far too brightly under the fluorescent hospital lights. The doctors often feared Celeste would try something drastic. She saw the way the doctors whispered to Jamie whenever the appointments ended. She saw the fear in Jamie’s eyes whenever he left her alone. At night, Celeste found herself engulfed by her husband, his arms protectively encircling her and this alien growing within her, his deep breathing a lullaby to her ears.

There was the scorn of the other professionals to deal with, as well. At first, Celeste and Jamie told no one of the ever growing problem. But eventually, it was obvious to everyone. “Did you hear?” they said, “Did you see?” “Such a shame, such a shame.” “She’s so talented, and this will ruin everything.” “I heard they’re giving it up for adoption.” “She should just get an abortion.” Celeste was surrounded with peers who judged her, criticized her, and refused to support her. If she was drowning in her depression, these people were the ones pushing her head further under the water. “As if this wasn’t hard enough,” she thought. “As if I don’t know. Celeste seriously pondered adoption. One time, when Jamie wasn’t home, she contacted a local agency and very nearly set up a secret arrangement for an adoption. Sometimes, she mused over running away just long enough to have the baby and leave it on the steps of a hospital, a church, anywhere. It was the looks Jamie gave her that kept Celeste home. Those green eyes usually so full of joy and light, now teeming with concern, fear, and exhaustion. He kept her there.

And still, she played the violin. Every spare moment, she played. She played the saddest music she could find, and once she ran out of compositions, she began to compose herself. Eight, nine, ten hours of her day were spent holed up, dripping crisis and sadness into the notes. Celeste’s professors, when they weren’t backbiting about her, found themselves floored by her compositions. “How does she do it?” they thought, “How can she put such feeling into her music?” The compositions were fragile and beautiful, frigid and floaty.

Celeste lost herself in the music. If Jamie kept her grounded, the music kept her alive. She played, and then, on the rarest of days, she felt it connected her to the little alien life inside her body. It was a typical day. No classes. Celeste arrived at her studio at 7 a.m. and practiced. She stopped for lunch at noon, a few stale crackers and a sip of water. She chalked her bow. She continued. Around 3 o’clock, after finishing a lengthy sonata, Celeste felt the little alien flutter within her. She stifled a sob, and picked up the bow again. Every time she did, a flutter. A kick. A sign of life. From that day forward, whenever Celeste played, the little alien fluttered and kicked and started to life. Something within Celeste broke. The tears began to decrease; she quieted.

Jamie noticed the change with a sense of unease. On the day the alien started to life with her music, Celeste came home in silence. She ate her dinner, she slept restfully. A few times through the night, Jamie checked to make sure she was still breathing. He was worried; at the next doctor’s appointment, he told them that Celeste had suddenly seemed resolved, almost at peace. They shook their heads and told him to watch her carefully. Resolved, they said, could be the early signs of suicide. Watch her.

Jamie did watch her, but for the rest of the pregnancy, the strange peacefulness continues. Jamie noticed that it seemed to fluctuate with music, but he thought nothing of it. Music had always, after all, been a kind of solace for Celeste. He waited, he protected, he hovered. Celeste did not change. She hardly talked to him, but at night, he noticed that she slowly began to allow him to hold her. She moved deeper into his embrace every night. He felt an unstable calm settle over him.

Then, the day came when Cadence was born. It was a day filled with rain. The thunder roared, the lightning flashed. The whole earth shook, as if something was stirring, the winds were changing. Celeste looked lost as she labored through the night, sweat beading on her brow, her honey hair damp about the temples. Her eyes, Jamie thought, were different. The dull gray interchangeably brightened and darkened. At one point, Jamie was sure he nearly lost his wife. The thunder boomed so long and loud, it threatened to tear open the hospital windows. Jamie swore the ground was shaking. Celeste’s eyes grew lighter and duller, her hair soaked, her hand loosening its grasp on Jamie’s. Her heartbeat began to slow. The doctors, suddenly concerned, began to call her name. A nurse said, “We’re losing her…”

At that moment, Celeste found herself suspended. She looked around the room at the frightened faces of the doctors and nurses. She saw the familiar green eyes of her husband, ringed with dusky purple, absolutely full of terror. She felt herself nearly slipping away. “Give up,” her brain told her. “Give up. Let go. You don’t have to face this. Let go.” She felt despondent sadness well up within her again, threatening to tear her away. Everything within her longed to give in to the voices. She didn’t have to face life; she didn’t have to face motherhood. She could give in to the quiet darkness of an eternal rest. Yet, just as she began to allow her eyes to close, she swore she heard a stanza of music. One that was not filled with sadness, but with the promise of new life. It was like music she had never heard before. And suddenly, she snapped open her eyes.

At the same moment Celeste snapped open her eyes, Cadence arrived in the world with the roar of a little lion. He cried, and as he did, Jamie saw the color return into his wife’s cheek. He saw a different kind of calm flood into her gray eyes, a color he hadn’t seen. She looked at Jamie, then at the pink and screaming little boy who had just been born. “Cadence,” she said, and Jamie understood.

Now, here Celeste was, in bed next to her beloved husband, who slept the sleep of the dead. They had just returned from the hospital. Earlier that evening, as the two of them slid into bed, Jamie had cupped his wife’s chin into his hand, ran a gentle finger over her smooth coral lips, and said, “I love you. I love him.” She had smiled for the first time in years, a genuine smile that engulfed her whole face. Now Jamie is asleep and she is not. The clock ticks by, 2, 3, 4, 5 o’clock. Jamie sleeps. Cadence sleeps, strangely enough. Celeste does not. Then, suddenly, Celeste hears a tiny whimper from the bassinet beside the bed. Jamie stirs, but does not awaken. Quietly, Celeste slips from beneath the covers, but instead of heading to the bassinet, she grabs her violin from its case. Cadence begins to cry. Celeste raises her bow, and begins to play from memory the stanza that had lifted her from what she knew would have been her grave. As she does, Cadence’s whimpering stops. “I can’t give you  everything,” Celeste whispers, as her heart begins to melt at long last. She lifts her son from his bed, and holds him close. She continues to hum the tune she played on her violin. Cadence snuggles himself against her. She feels her heart swell, with love for this little life, for her husband who will soon awaken to kiss her and love her, and to love his son. She feels love. And she feels peace. “I cannot give you everything,” she says, “But I can give you music. And love.” Cadence turned up his head, and opened his eyes, eyes that were the same color as her own. The sun began to rise, filling her son’s gray eyes with light. She feels herself begin to reawaken.

Four Rules for Professional Thievery

by Tyler Valzania

“Okay this first rule is the most important of all so listen up,” he said as he transferred a grease-stained wrench from his hands to mine. “The world is not fair, that’s a fact of life alright? So don’t get all high and mighty and act like it should be. Earn their trust, do your job, and run like hell. Now unscrew that right there.” He pointed at one of the nuts that kept a flat tire attached to the axel of his jacked up Ford pickup truck. I crouched in front of the wheel, wiping my sweaty palms on the sides of my jeans to get a better grip on the sleek metal. He reached down and flicked me hard on the ear.

“You listening to me boy?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, careful not to rub my stinging ear in an attempt to feign a hardened demeanor.

“Well shit, son, a little verbal acknowledgement never hurt nobody now did it? I’m here handing out pearls of professional success—the code I live by—the least you can do is give me a little respect.”

“Sorry sir, I agree, life ain’t fair and equal, no use in treating it like it ought to be.” I cranked the wrench until the nut was loose enough to fall off and clang onto the hot pavement of the driveway. “But don’t it hurt people?” I added after a moment. My stepfather came back out from under the hood and looked down at me, a sly grin cracking his sunbaked skin.

“Well now, I guess that depends on how you define hurting people. I ain’t never so much as broke a man’s nail in all my thirty years in this business. I mean, monetarily sure, we may reassess finances quote unquote, but in the long run whose to say they’re not better off? You know Buddhists believe the less material possessions a person’s got clutterin’ up their house the happier they’ll be in life? Now of course I’m a subscriber to the Christian faith myself, but I always did have a soft spot for that chubby little guy.”

“Makes sense,” I said as the second nut fell from the rim of the tire, three more remained locked in place. “Happiness is relative.”

“Happiness is relative, hey now I like that, mind if I steal it?” he chuckled, collecting the nuts from the pavement and placing them in the pocket of his faded grey jumpsuit as he strolled into our garage. He had five of the same grey jumpsuits made up to wear to his job at Greasy Greg’s Automotive, each with “Grayson Webb” stitched over the pocket in bright red thread like the marquee of a movie theater.

The first time I met Grayson was six months earlier, two days after the conclusion of my freshman year of high school. My mother had taken me downtown to introduce us over sandwiches and ice cream. On the ride over, she had briefed me on everything she learned about him during their first handful of dates. According to her he was very kind, handsome, and loved football. “Just like you!” she had exclaimed excitedly. She told me he had messaged her on a dating site called TexasTogether.com and he was planning on buying Greasy Greg’s just as soon as he got the money together.

When I stepped out of the car I saw him leaning against his truck. He was a large man with a goatee and oil-slicked black hair that was almost shoulder length. He noticed my Dallas Cowboys backpack and told me he actually went head-to-head with Troy Aikman back in his high school football days down in Galveston. “I came out on top, and let me tell you, the better player won,” he reminisced. “If I hadn’t blown out my knee in state that year my whole life would’ve been different. But hey, I ain’t bitter.” Grayson promised that with his help I’d be QB1 by the start of sophomore year. “That’s if your mother keeps me around, of course,” he joked with a wink and a million-dollar smile. Two weeks later he moved in.

My own father had been grooming me to be a quarterback since I was old enough to wrap my fingers around the laces. It was his dream that one day I’d play college ball at UT and he’d be able to root for his own son in the Longhorn orange. Grayson wasn’t my father, but it was exciting to have someone to play catch with again.

The third nut was screwed tighter than the first two, and I had to lay all my weight on the wrench just to get it to budge. Grayson re-emerged from the garage with a yellow tin of motor oil and a white rag.

“You still working on that? God damn boy, lets kick it into high gear before your momma gets home and sees.” Placing the oil and rag at his side, he knelt down beside me and began working on the second to last nut with his bear paw of a hand. It came off with ease.

“What’s rule two?” I asked, rubbing the sweat from my dripping brow.

“You’re ready for rule two, are ya? Well ok then, but just remember that just because it’s rule two don’t make it any less important than rule one.” He rose to his feet, his head blocking my eyes from the beating sun. “Rule two is keep it peacefu—” He hesitated mid-sentence, changing his mind. “Actually rule two is don’t be an idiot. Yeah, that’s spot on. Might be the most difficult rule to follow for a boy of your caliber.”

“Hey!” I snapped “I’m no idiot! I once figured out how to catch a raccoon that was eating all the sweet onion’s in my mom’s garden.” Grayson smiled and put his hand in the air, sensing he had hit a nerve.

“Don’t get all swole up on me now, I’m just playing around. Though for future reference, outsmarting an oversized rodent that eats garbage when your momma’s sweet onions ain’t available ain’t the best example of your colossal intellect.” He bent down and placed his hand on my shoulder. It was strong and comforting in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I smiled, realizing I had flown off the handle at a simple joke.

“Okay fine, got any specifics for me, or is that where the pearl of professional wisdom ends?” I asked half joking, half hoping for a real answer.

“Ah, yes that’a boy! Now you’re taking part in your own education.” His eyes lit up. He seemed truly excited that I was showing an interest in his business. “First things first, keep a day job, now that’s just don’t be an idiot 101. I don’t care if you want to be a painter, an actor, a goddamn proctologist, you keep a day job until you make it.”

“Like your job at Greg’s?”

“Exactly, ain’t nothing more suspicious than an unemployed bum looking for a quick buck.” Moisture spit out of his mouth with every round syllable. He moved back under the hood of the car with his oilcan and rag. I began unscrewing the final nut before the wheel could be removed. Right now my day job was fry cook at the Whataburger down on Crown Street. It’s a fine job, but not much for money. My father had been a life insurance salesman for twenty years, commuting forty-five minutes to Austin each day to sit behind a desk. I’m not sure if he was happy. If he wasn’t, he never showed it outright, but I remember how tired and annoyed he seemed after a long day of work. It was a job, and it paid the bills, and his company paid off a generous policy when he died.

My mother used to write children’s books, most of them about a talking bear cub named Bernard. I loved Bernard, and my mother loved reading me his stories. She would revel in the look of pure imagination on my face whenever she immersed me in Bernard’s world. After my dad died, she quit writing for a long time, telling me that Bernard had “gone on vacation to Santa Fe, and wouldn’t be back for a while.” She picked up a job as a teller at the Bank of America down on South Avenue where she’s worked ever since. Though, since Grayson’s moved in I’ve noticed her scribbling down notes and sketching little bears again.

“Another thing, don’t load your gun. Bring it, obviously, intimidation is key, but don’t load it. Murder is a much different charge than robbery. But if it ain’t loaded and you get in a situation where you want to fire it, you won’t be able to anyway, now that’s not being an idiot—preemptively! Ah hah.” I couldn’t see Grayson’s face under the hood but I could see his skyward finger wag as he emphasized that last word.

The final nut dropped to the ground and I pulled the tire off the axel. This was the first time I’d ever changed a tire by myself. I remember we had once gotten a flat on a road trip we took over to the Grand Canyon, our last one as a family. A hare had hopped out in front of the car on a backwoods road, forcing my dad to swerve onto the dirt shoulder. We must have hit a sharp rock or something because the front right tire got torn to bits and we had to pull over. I was only five years old at the time but I can vividly remember my dad coming to my window and telling me the tire was too heavy for him and he needed my muscles to help him lift it. He stood me next to the car and took me through every step of the process. Jack up the car, unscrew the nuts, take off the tire, and screw in the spare. I helped him carry the spare and pick up the fallen nuts. His voice still echoes in my head “That’s my man.”

“Flat’s off,” I called up to Grayson who was still busy changing the oil under the hood.

“Hey now, ain’t that something. Spare’s in the back.” I hopped in the truck bed and rolled the black rubber wheel off the lowered tailgate. Grayson came around and watched me bring it around front. “I reckon you’ve earned yourself rule three about now,” he said as he crouched down to help me line the spare up on the axel.

“Damn straight!” I exclaimed, proud of my accomplishment in the field of manhood that was auto mechanics. Grayson grinned.

“Alright, alright, you little shit, as promised then.” We stood and he grabbed me by the shoulders. “Rule three, and this is crucial, is never use the same partner twice. Trust me on this one. Do the job and part ways, don’t even give him your real name.”

“Why not? I always thought a crook and his partner was thicker than blood.”

“No way, José. Men are men and thieves are thieves, through and through. As long as it lines their pockets and tickles their balls people will always be trying to screw you over. Ain’t no changing human nature, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business it’s that.” He let go of my shoulders and looked at the ground, wiping his hands on the side of his jumpsuit.

“Think you could ever use me as a partner? Now that I’m learning all the trade secrets and all?” I asked hopefully. A shade came over the driveway as the sun hid behind a passing cloud. Grayson looked me in the eyes and then back down at the ground, turning his back to me and heading back around the front of the truck.

“No,” he said over his shoulder. I watched his head disappear under the hood. I had said something wrong.

“I just thought it’d be real helpful to watch you in action is all. Something we could do together. I didn’t mean to be a bother.” I crouched back down to eye level with the spare tire and really examined it for the first time. It looked odd in the set. With such a new sheen that it looked out of place among the dusty and worn down others. It was bulkier than the flat had been and had a much thicker tread. It just didn’t fit the frame quite as perfectly as the original had, despite its best efforts.

Only the grinding sound of metal on metal pierced our silence. I finished screwing in the spare and lowered the jack. I should have known better than to push Grayson too hard. He had only just let me in on his secret last night after I confronted him about cheating on my mother.

I had become suspicious last Tuesday night. I hadn’t been able to sleep, so I stayed up watching television in my room. Around two a.m., I heard the rumble of Grayson’s truck and saw it head out of the driveway into the night. He came back two hours later and snuck back into my parent’s bed quiet as a particularly reticent mouse. “That cheatin’ prick,” I remember thinking to myself in a fit of anger. I decided to stay up for the next few days to gather more evidence—Wednesday and Thursday night came and went with no sign of misconduct. I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe I dreamed the whole thing. But then it happened again last night and all my suspicions were confirmed. When he pulled back into the driveway around four in the morning, I met him in the garage and unleashed my rage in the form of childish name-calling and weak-kneed threats. I must have sounded ridiculous to a man twice my size, but I really didn’t have the first clue as to how to handle a situation like this. I didn’t want to tell my mother, I’m not sure she would have survived the heartbreak, so beating my chest and crying “asshole” was the only option I deemed appropriate. He listened to all my accusations and only smiled, that big charming smile. He told me he wasn’t a cheater, but a crook, and began to fill me in on his side business. I didn’t believe him until he showed me his loot from the evening—two thousand dollars cash in a plastic grocery bag. He said he lifted it from a convenience store just outside Henderson. It was the most money I’d ever seen outside a movie about bank robbers, so I believed him. He pointed to a flat tire on his truck and told me he’d teach me his four rules for professional thievery if I helped him fix it and didn’t tell my mom.

Grayson broke the long silence.

“Alright, look kid, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like an old swindler ruinin’ the romance of the fugitive life. It’s an exciting existence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lonely one too, with a lot of tough decisions. You’re just a kid, you ain’t afraid of nothin’ yet. You ain’t never needed to scramble to survive, and you’re lucky for it. Goddamn, I been scramblin’ since day one. It’s the only thing I know.” He looked back down at the ground and a genuine sadness seemed to flicker in his eyes. “You don’t want to live this life,” he added under his breath. His confident smile was gone, replaced by a look of fear.

“Okay. I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said softly, unsure of the appropriate next move. I stood up and placed my hand on his shoulder, tapping it twice. He recoiled slightly, startled by my comforting touch. I pulled my hand back. My mom would be home any minute with dinner.

“Listen, I know I’m the one who brought this whole thing up so don’t put it on you,” Grayson said, leaning his hands against the truck.

“It just sounded like you might want—”

“I don’t want you to be like me, okay? You’re going to college, UT even, playing football. You’ve got a mighty promising future. I just ain’t ever had anyone to teach everything I’ve learned. That’s all.”

“It’s ok, I’m glad you did,” I replied. My mother had other boyfriends since my dad, but Grayson was the first I had ever bonded with, the first that ever treated me like a man and not an obstacle. Grayson stood quietly for a moment. He looked like he was mulling something over in his mind. The sun, setting now, reemerged from behind its cloud, filling the driveway with ephemeral light. Grayson began nodding his head and broke a single exasperated chuckle that gave way to one of his famous ear to ear grins.

“You know I’m going straight right? Buying Greg’s. Did your momma tell you?” he asked.

“She might have mentioned it.”

“Yup, leaving this life behind and joining the law abiding ranks of American capitalism.” His smile grew even larger and I could feel my lips upturning as well. He had a special way about him, the kind that made you reject common sense and live for the present moment.

“You can call it Greasy Grayson’s,” I joked.

“Yeah, not bad!” he laughed. My mother’s blue station wagon pulled into the driveway and she stepped out holding a full grocery bag.

“Would you grab this for me, hun?” I took the bag from her hands and she kissed me on the cheek. “I got a rotisserie chicken we can cook up, green beans, and that sweet potato stuff you like too. We can have a nice little family dinner.”

“Great. Thanks!” I exclaimed.

“What are you guys doing out here?” She pointed at the truck.

“Must have run over a nail on my way home from work yesterday, came out this morning and it was flatter than a penny on the train tracks. The boy here was just helping me put on the spare.” He placed his arm around my shoulder and I looked up at his strong jaw and slick hair.

“Well that’s a good boy, thank you for helping out your stepfather. He talks a big game but he ain’t as spry as he used to be.” My mother laughed. Grayson raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment of a rare dig from my mom. She usually wasn’t one to poke fun.

“Hey, were you able to stop at the bank, darlin’?” Grayson asked quietly. My mother smiled and crawled back into the car to grab a check from the passenger seat. She brought it out and looked at it for an extended moment, she took a quick, deep breath and handed it to Grayson.

“What’s that?” I felt a pensive shift in the pit of my stomach.

“Well honey, that garage Grayson works at is up for sale, and the current owners want to move quickly.” Grayson nodded with each word she spoke. ”They said its Grayson’s if he wants it but he doesn’t quite have the money for it yet and we still have plenty from your dad’s—”

“It’s a loan, an investment in our future as a family,” Grayson interrupted. “We’ll be owners and operators of a business. Maybe with all your work here today I’ll even give you a summer job.” He winked and held my perturbed stare.

“My boys,” my mother said warmly, grabbing each of us by the shoulder and beaming up at us. “I’m going to go in and start dinner, come on in when you’re done.” She turned and headed into the house. Grayson broke my gaze.

“Well I’m so excited I’m going to make my offer right now! I’ll be back in two shakes,” Grayson called to my mother.

“Okay! Good luck!” she called back.

Grayson met my cold eyes again before climbing into the cab of the truck. I noticed a packed duffel bag on the passenger seat. Only half of the sun peeked out from the horizon of the distant mountains. The big pink and orange sky faded into dark grey twilight.

“How about rule four? I’ve been waiting all day,” I said quietly, almost under my breath. He closed the door and stuck his head out the open window.

“Well, sure, sure, might as well for posterity’s sake.” He revved the engine and the truck purred to life. “Rule four is never be afraid to play the long game.” The pressure in my heart welled to a paralyzing peak. I wanted to scream, like I had in the garage the night before, but this time I didn’t. Men are men and thieves are thieves, through and through. We shared a nod, and I let him go. The truck rolled down the driveway, and disappeared around the street corner, spare and all.

I stood on the pavement until the sun had dipped completely behind the mountain, giving way to the night. The smell of chicken and sweet potatoes filled the air around the house. I went inside to set the table for two.