“Look,” I said, staring at the dealer’s car-shaped name tag, “Doug. I’ll make this easy. I want you to sell me the biggest lemon on the lot.”
His tie must’ve been strangling him. His hands were buried deep in the pockets of his suit pants, shoulders curled toward one another as if in conversation.
I said, “I’ll pay you cash. Just, please. Doug.”
He talked to me as we walked across the lot, asking me questions, why a young man like me would want to do such a thing, to buy a car like that, trying to talk me into something else. I just shrugged. I didn’t want to talk. And not just to Doug, but to anyone. I told him this, so he kept talking. If I could, I’d feel sad for him.
I saw my car several aisles away. It looked like Doug.
It was a Dodge Neon, five years old, with 99,782 miles on it. Doug, as I was leaving, told me that if you stare at it from the front, when the lights were on, you’d think it was smiling and winking at you. I don’t know about all that.
Despite my insistence to the contrary, Doug had scribbled me a list of Winky’s many ailments: a coughing engine, a radiator that overheated and leaked something that didn’t quite resemble water, a hole in the muffler that made it sound as if it were an old Harley, loose and flapping belts, a carburetor that sucked more dust than air, a frayed wire that faded the interior lights in and out, a radio stuck on 730 AM, and four tires that had never been changed. Ever. Doug had filled it up for me right there, added wiper fluid, checked the oil. On him, he’d said. He called it a present. He patted me on the shoulder and wished me luck; I slapped the car on the hood and took off.
There were dozens of cigarette burns on the passenger seat. That’s where my duffel bag sat now. I lit a cigarette as I merged onto route 80 East. I flipped the rearview mirror down so that I couldn’t see the city behind me. I tilted it back up to the roof so that I couldn’t see my swollen eyes.
We were five miles out of Reno when she hit her milestone, 100,000 miles. We celebrated by running over a jackrabbit. It must’ve rolled up through the wheel well because we fishtailed a bit but kept driving. She coughed and then a bit of smoke rose from out of the hood; I lit a cigarette and coughed right with her.
We didn’t have a map. They don’t make maps for journeys like these, so we went where we went, up ramps, over bridges, down hills. The gal had life in her all right, one final marathon. When she got too hot, we stopped wherever we were and sat silent together until we cooled down.
We drove in circles through desert to the Rockies and back to the desert again.
Wherever I landed, in whatever city or town, I’d find a place there, clear my head, and then start over. Salt Lake or Boise, San Jose or Eugene. Seattle or Tacoma, maybe, or perhaps, if we headed east, maybe Billings or Cheyenne, Fargo or Mankato. We drove through Colorado, the lines of the highway dancing with cacti until I couldn’t tell the difference between road and the cliffs. At times I’d have to clutch down hard on the wheel, leaving imprints, faces staring at me each time I hit a curve. We guided each other through the rough patches. Roads leading to other roads, miles, hundreds of small green signs, and the longer I drove the more I expected to see the Golden Gate in the distance, hanging over the bay.
But it never came and the old gal had us rolling into the flatlands, the V-4 revving through funnels of wind and dust. There were casualties along the way. A spider crack in the windshield from an argument that we’d had with a gang of stones; I was steering us left, she pulling right, and then we were on the brim, shimmying and bouncing, gravel slamming against her body and kicking back out, scarring her. We drove silent after that, but for our respective coughs and sniffles.
In a diner parking lot somewhere in Idaho, or Montana maybe, I was eating and she must’ve found herself some trouble with the locals. When I returned, her rear bumper was hanging there. I left it the way it was and drove, watching the sparks in the rearview until the bumper dropped off and bounced into the past.
We sang anyway, the two of us, me in a falsetto and her in a deep vibrato. We forged state highways and county routes, backstreets and suburban expressways, slept together in state parks, rest stops, wherever and whenever we saw fit. And when it rained, her little wipers would squeak across the glass and when the traffic was heavy with trucks spraying us with muddy water, I would lay a hand gentle upon the dashboard and I’d whisper to her, let’s go forward honey, trust and faith will get us through. And when we hit the flatlands in Kansas, or Nebraska, where the past and the future converged along the same dreary landscape, she hummed a soft, steady tune until the storm passed.
We hit route 90 in Albert Lea, Minnesota and rode it through Madison and then “Welcome to Illinois” and only when we merged with route 94 did I hear a subtle cough. Allergies, I’d hoped. We’re going to be fine, I told her, and we’re going to be all right. We’ve been through harder times together. The allergies got worse after we left the gas station off Irving Park, turned into bronchitis near Wrigley Field. You can’t do this to me now, I told her, we’re not through here, there’s too much undone, too many plans, too many places we haven’t gone. What about the great Northeast, what about the South, we can’t draw the line here, we can’t split apart now, I told her, not now. A lung collapsed in traffic. Not now, fucking hell, I’m not ready yet, I told her while brushing my hands across that goddamn used passenger seat. It’s not like the other ones, I said to her in a voice so soft, so soothing. She sputtered but rolled onward, going west again on Montrose until we hit Cicero Boulevard and from there, down side streets that all looked the same, lined with brick bungalows where everything slows down and dies. And then there were bursts of air from out of her muffler and thick black clouds of smoke as we rode on pure adrenaline down a street of abandoned buildings and into a tiny gravel parking lot, where we fishtailed until she slammed us rear first into a wobbling fence at the end of the world. And so this was it, I said to her, after thousands and thousands of miles of deserts and cowboy towns, coastal breezes and river valleys, you’ve left me stranded in the only neighborhood- in this a city of neighborhoods- that had not yet been named.
It wasn’t a fresh foot of snow, but it was unscathed nonetheless, each of my steps leaving an impression. But for the silhouette of the skyline off in the distance, it was the kind of street that reminded me of the dead towns out west. There was a graveyard for city buses and taxis, vehicles that had spent their lives avoiding streets like these. A fence barbed with dangling icicles, a beaten up old car with one headlight shining into the snow. A stop sign that read, in faded blue spray paint, “You waz here b4.” Even the street kids didn’t stay.
I tried to light a smoke but gave up, the wind too strong against my unclothed hands. I put the hood of my sweatshirt over my ears the best I could. The contents of my duffel bag couldn’t help: loafers, a baseball cap, a pair of jeans, a toothbrush, and a few cartons of American Spirits.
I missed the old gal who I’d left behind, but it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t look back again. She had no more heat for me. Up ahead, there was a brick building shaped like an upside down U, two stories high. Many of the windows were fogged. There were no hanging flags, no block watch or security stickers, no flower pots, nothing but a large, five-by-five poster, duct-taped to the brick. It read, “Studio Apt, No Credit Chek, Month 2 Month.”
I stood staring at the fountain in the center of the courtyard. It was half my height, about three feet high. There were a few spouts from where the water was supposed to shoot up and out. With my duffel bag, I pushed the snow from off the ledge and laid the bag on the ice, brown from being stagnant long before the freeze, preserving leaves suffocated from the fall. It smelled the way it looked. There was a payphone, the last one in America, fixed against the brick, next to a window. It was getting dark.
The main door was off its hinges and slanted against the frame. I nodded in recognition. In the foyer, I bumped against a slab of metal and it swung hard against the wall before swinging back toward me. It was lined with slits, for where the mail entered, but along the wall, all of the slots were empty. A two-sided unpeeled sticker with the initials“YAC” was taped to one of the slots. I blinked a few times but the letters remained. I pushed the door but it wouldn’t stay shut. That’s about when I saw the man staring at me. There were two large gashes right above the pockets on each side of his corduroy coat, a puff of wool jutting out of each like a head of hair, and this was where he kept his hands. I returned his stare.
He wore a ball cap that advertised nothing. It was faded black, like his beard. He didn’t stand; I didn’t move toward him.
“I need a place to stay,” I said to him. “I’d prefer something with heat.” My voice was hollow, throaty. It sounded foreign to me.
The linoleum floor was chipped, warped, creeping up at the corners.
I pulled the hood from off my head, combed my hair with my fingers. It was thick, getting long. I said, “Something temporary, maybe a month or so.”
He nodded. “Sure,” he said. He pointed a crooked little finger at me, some wool jutting from out of his nail. “You go there?”
I looked at the Stanford sweatshirt, its letters pink from a bad wash. “Yeah, I did. Twice.”
“Me too,” he said. He kneeled down. It took him a moment or two, as he wobbled a bit back and forth before steadying his weight. He untied and retied his boot. Twice.
“So about that place.”
He could’ve been seventy or forty. Judging from the wrinkles around his eyes, they were long years. He pushed with both his hands on the stairs and stood. The wood creaked. I didn’t offer a hand. He wobbled back into place and each step seemed to take an energy he didn’t have.
I heard a door slam upstairs, and then the echo of footsteps. I shook the paint chips from off my head. A man my age, thirty or so maybe, rushed down the stairs and patted the old man on the back. I didn’t get a good look at his face, but there was something familiar to him. “How’s it going, Yac,” he said. He wasn’t what I’d expect of a tenant here. He wore a corduroy coat that appeared to be wet, nice loafers, and a pair of trendy jeans. Yac nodded at him and said, “You’ve made it.” The guy raised both arms and ran out the door.
I was sweating.
“Your name is Yac,” I said.
He chewed on his bottom lip, his left cheek sunken in from a scar that stretched across it in the shape of an upside down U. He didn’t need me to remind him of its existence.
“Yac,” I said. “I’m Charles.”
“Sure, mine too,” he said.
I followed him down the hall. A dog barked. It sounded big. Water was trickling out of a faucet somewhere. I almost stepped on the heel of Yac’s boot.
That guy, there was something about him that was sending me into a spin. I wiped my forehead with my right sleeve. “So Yac,” I said. “Who was that guy?”
He turned around and I had to repeat myself. Yac was either deaf, or couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. “A periodic tenant,” he said. “Been here six months to the day this time.”
I squinted and clenched my jaw.
Yac wasn’t much for small talk, either, and so we made our way around the hall. He stopped at 1A, two steps before the foyer with the stairwell where we’d started ten minutes before. We’d walked in a perfect square.
“This is it,” he said. His nose hung crooked and bumpy, pores inflamed, and it looked as if made of clay, sort of thrown together and smacked into place.
The door opened out, not in. The room was small, about ten by ten. Against the far wall, there was a stove, a refrigerator, a sink, a toilet, a claw foot bathtub, and a corduroy jacket draped across the floor like a rug. The sofa-bed was on the opposite wall, a coffee table with one drawer in front of it. I walked over there. Yac followed. The initials “CAY” were carved in the table. I blinked, grabbed the side of the sofa to regain my balance.
One lamp stood in the corner. The room smelled the way a raw potato tasted. Like basement.
“It’s perfect,” I said. “Absolutely perfect.”
He grabbed my extended hand and balanced himself. We sat on the couch in unison and stayed there.
“It’s temporary,” Yac said. He tilted his head back and smiled. This was him laughing. Or coughing. He had the eyes of a Husky. I liked Huskies.
Something scurried across the floor and out the door. I put my bag down and smiled. It hurt.
Yac tried to light a cigarette but failed. Maybe his hands were cold. I lit his, then mine. We flicked our ashes to the carpet.
I leaned up and grabbed a wad of bills from my back pocket. “How much do I owe you, Yac?”
“It’s always six hundred dollars,” he said.
I laughed. He didn’t.
I said, “For a month?”
Yac made his way over to the toilet and stood with his back to me. It sounded like a leaking faucet, five little trickles and a flush. He came back and sat down again.
“Yac,” I said. “$600 a month?”
“No. It’s a hundred a month,” he said. “It’s always six months.”
The toilet was flushing. I told him fine, that I wasn’t going to argue over this. I handed him six bills. He smiled and his head fell back against the cushion. I guess this was funny. He should’ve changed the fucking sign outside was what I wanted to say to him.
The west-facing window was bug-smeared and muck-stained.
He turned, his arm almost touching mine, and said, “Are you looking for something?”
The way Yac’s mouth reflected in glass made me nervous, as if it didn’t quite fit his face. My knuckles were pale.
“Just a break, Yac,” I said. “And I’m only staying for a month or so. Okay? When I leave, I want the rest of my money back.”
“Sure, me too.”
How could the damn toilet still be flushing? It was only a trickle, for Christ’s sake. “I’m here for a month, Yac, while I try to figure shit out. Okay? When I leave, you give me back the other $500. And what’s with the looks?”
He put his hand on my knee and pushed down, lifted himself up. “Sure.”
I got up, too, went over to the goddamn toilet and joggled the stupid knob.
He had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen.
He walked to the toilet again and grabbed each side of the tank with a hand. His shoulders jerked with the toilet. The flushing stopped. He walked out the door and nudged it until it clicked shut.
I was tired, too tired to fold the sofa into a bed. The pillows were clumpy, heavy, as if stuffed with rocks. Yac was right. It didn’t matter. It was temporary. Everything was temporary. It felt nice to stretch out like this. I’d worry about everything else later. I folded my hands across the pink “Stanford” on my sweatshirt and closed my eyes.
It sounded like cymbals and it woke me from the kind of nap that I used to consider a night’s sleep. I pulled the pillow from off my head and it felt like a sponge. The sun had let itself in through the window. No need for curtains when the muck and dirt on the window pane dull the rays.
My sweatshirt clung to me.
The cymbals rattled the window. I wiped at my face with the palms of both hands. It felt like sandpaper. That noise, it was a phone ringing. Not my phone because I didn’t have one. I had no use for it. It was the payphone outside, next to the window. I had no use for that, either.
Even the fucking couch was sweating.
I tried to plant my bare feet on the floor as I rolled off the couch, but lost traction in the mess. I fell hard on my left shoulder. Goddamn disaster, this place was. Six months of soda and beer cans, half empty bags of chips and pretzels, hundreds of butts, empty packs and cartons, piles of ash, pizza boxes, a three-quarters empty half-gallon jug with, in red letters, the word “Vodka,” my ball cap, a pair of jeans, and a dead mouse which I’d stepped on one morning, or night, sometime maybe a few days ago. The corduroy jacket was still draped like a bathmat next to the tub.
Nobody’s home, asshole. Get a clue.
I grabbed a butt from the floor and lit it. It hung from my lip as I sat down and rubbed my temples. Somebody’s stomach was hanging over the waistband of my pants.
I stared at my initials on the coffee table, not sure when I’d done that.
But it kept ringing. Thirty, forty, fifty goddamn times. It wasn’t for me. It couldn’t be. Nobody knew where I was, much less missed me enough to come looking. That’s a fact. Not even that poor girl whose eyes torched holes in the back of my shirt as I walked out of our condo.
And then the ringing stopped but the glass continued to reverberate. I turned and kneeled, rested my elbows on the windowsill. The phone was still there. So was the guy from the hallway that one day, looking as if he could be my brother, and his reflection was staring at me through the grime. His eyes were screaming, each blood vessel with a tale of its own, of clocks ticking backwards and florescent lights, flights to cities he was too busy to explore, of arguments and indiscretions bred from distance, of her standing in the doorway holding the puppy that they’d adopted begging for him to come back to her, and then him, walking backwards with words hanging between them like a Shoji screen.
My knuckles were pale.
It was the hottest day of the hottest summer in this city’s recorded history but not even the moisture could extinguish the flames shooting from the holes in my back.
And then the phone rang and I watched as his face rattled then cracked then shattered.
I said hello.
She said hello as if we’d known one another for years. I smiled. It didn’t hurt.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Thank God you’re okay.”
I’d forgotten that a woman’s voice could feel like cocaine. “I’m sorry but I’m afraid that I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Please don’t do this,” she said. She inhaled and exhaled into the phone. She was a smoker. “I just want to know that you’re okay.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, “but you must be looking for that other guy.”
There was a haze above but no clouds, and so the thunder that I heard developed from something other than friction.
“This isn’t funny. Why are you doing this? Please?”
I kicked aside broken glass and leaned against the brick.
She’d either flicked up the volume or held the phone against her lips. “I think I know your voice by now. And besides, if this isn’t you, then why are you answering his phone?”
Someone had chewed the rubber coating on the phone cord and splayed wires jutted out of the coils. It was no way to treat a landmark. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’ve managed to call the last pay phone in America.”
I waited for a laugh.
A dish broke, a knife clanked, a door slammed. But what I began to fear most was a flat line. “Listen. I’m sorry. Another guy lives here. I think. I mean, I haven’t seen him. Not in a long time. But he lived here. Lives here. Or at least he did at some point. Or does.”
The grass felt like pine needles. It was dead. Everything around here was. Maybe even that other guy.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “He called from this number. I swear.”
Her voice cracked and sounded like home. I sneezed. I wrapped my free arm around my knees. The sun was going down and I shivered. I told her that I believed her.
“He called sometime around Christmas,” she said. “It was that big storm? When we got all that snow?”
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Everything was good. I mean, we were fighting, nothing atypical.”
These two, they probably had a boxer puppy named Scotty and lived on the thirtieth floor overlooking a hanging bridge and a waterway. She was probably rubbing circles on Scotty’s belly staring out the window waiting for him, that guy, to come back from wherever he was.
She was saying, “And then it was six months and you called? But then you denied that it was you. Like you’re doing now? And I called and wrote and read emails and letters and called your friends and family and recreated whole conversations because all I wanted, all I need is an explanation.”
I spat out a piece of rubber coating and said, “Maybe he was never really there.”
We shared the kind of silence that only strangers could share. It was the scraping of flint and a soft breath that broke it.
“Could you do me a favor?”
There were no birds. No squirrels.
“Yes,” I said.
“Tell me your name,” she said, “What is it? What’s your name?”
I grabbed a piece of glass, dug it deep into the ground. There wasn’t even a worm.
She exhaled. “Charles, my God, it is you! What’s wrong with you?”
I wiped my forehead with my right sleeve. I wiped my forehead with my left sleeve. I blinked, grabbed the base of the phone to regain my balance.
“I don’t know, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “This phone, it hadn’t even rung. Why are you calling now? If you’re so desperate to talk to him, to this other guy who must also call himself Charles, then why not call three months ago?”
A dish broke. A knife clanked. A door slammed. “I have, Charles. I have called. I’ve been calling for six goddamn months.”
I squinted. There was a car in the distance, parked with its rear bumper against a fence. The car looked like a guy I once knew. I nodded in recognition.
She said, “Look, whatever this is, whatever you’re doing, I get it. I know that things weren’t working out. But I’m lost here, okay? I’m fucking lost. And I don’t work without you. I want you here, okay? I need you here.” She was lighting another cigarette.
It didn’t matter, so I said yes, that I would come home, but then it was too late so I told the dial tone to not hang up on me, to come over so that we could start this whole life again.
In the foyer, I grabbed the sticker on the mail slot and flipped it over. It read “CAY.” I flipped it back to “YAC” and taped it back to the slot. I went up the stairs and walked a perfect square around the 2nd floor hallway. All of the doors were closed but for 2A, which was propped open. Inside there were curtains on the window and a shoji screen separating the toilet from the kitchen; there was a guitar leaning against a full bookshelf, a drafting table by the couch, a textbook called “Accounting for the Future: Global Frugality” sitting on the floor, and another next to it, “1001 Jokes to Tell When Nobody Is Listening,” by Jester Peterson that, judging from its appearance, was 1001 pages long. I flipped through it, but the pages were blank.
I opened the refrigerator and it too was empty. The cabinets had glasses, though, dozens of them, and the letters were fuzzy but legible: “Church Street Pub.” And this studio in this claustrophobic dying building in a neighborhood that hadn’t a name looked livable, comfortable. It smelled the same as that guy had looked that day, as if it, he, belonged elsewhere, in a different life somewhere with interesting people, all with stories to be told, colorful and fascinating stories of travels and orgies and nights gone mad with liquor and dancing and drugs only they could obtain.
There were film scripts and playbills next to a sink that sparkled, and a pair of pointy-toed dance shoes aligned as if stepping from out of the oven. There was an untainted quill and a glass blown ink well sitting between two burners on the stove. There was a corduroy jacket in front of the tub, a beige t-shirt that read “1986 Puddle Jumping Champion,” a pair of trendy jeans, and a pair of loafers atop the toilet seat.
I was spinning with possibility and sat on the couch next to another book, a larger one, and in calligraphy it read “CAY.”
There were pictures, hundreds of them, lined in plastic, page after page. Me with my arm around a guy, casual but dressed in tuxedos, thumbs up, outside an office building; another of me eating sushi rolls in Tokyo with a woman whose face is blocked by another man’s hand; another with me shirtless, surfing with a guy, a different guy, in what looks like Hawaii. There were so many pictures in so many places with so many different people. But then I wasn’t smiling anymore as I flipped through the book because it struck me that in each of the pictures my mouth was different, as if airbrushed after the fact to represent the mood of the moment.
And when I flipped it closed, there was a picture of me on the back cover of the album with a girl whose face resembled that of the voice on the phone.
I ran down the stairs and back out to the payphone. I dialed *69, but nothing happened. I dialed 0 and asked the operator if she could give me a call history, but she could not. The phone didn’t accept incoming calls, she said to me. I didn’t have time to argue.
I was done here. I would not come back. Downstairs in 1A, I grabbed my duffel bag. Going back up to 2A, I could almost hear the footsteps behind me. I grabbed the photo album and shoved it into the bag.
Six months of muck and grime spiraled down the drain and twenty minutes later, wearing the clothes that were on top of the toilet and the corduroy jacket that was wet from when I’d stepped out of the tub, I slammed shut the door behind me and clanked down the stairs. Yac was standing at the bottom with a guy in a hooded sweatshirt. I didn’t get a good look at his face, but there was something familiar to him. I asked Yac how he was doing as I patted him on the back, a thank you and a goodbye. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him, it was jumbled and I had to get out because it was getting dark. I raised both hands and walked out into the courtyard. The car by the fence had one headlight shining on me, as if winking, its frame shaped in a smile.