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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Two stories by Joe Musso

I pointed to his wine glass. He brought out the wine bottle. I pointed to his cigarette. He lit me a cigarette.
No one else is up yet, Tobiason said. This is my time of day. He was reading Cancer again. His favorite book. His dream was to live in certain passages. Suddenly he said, Your sister and Gentry.
          My sister? Gentry?
          She was here this morning.
          With Gentry?
          No. Alone.
Then what’s this Gentry business?
I spoke with him. He was thinking in crude terms. I corrected that.
You did.
I did.
He said, She is a striking woman actually.
         Actually? Tobiason, don’t fuck with me.
        He laughs, the way he does, when slapping his knee. Ah, I love your straight-forwardness. Your passion is reckless but exquisite. Really, Jack, you’re a century ahead of us all. The rest of us are all just infants compared.
       It was in my throat, the disdain, and I stumbled over words. What do you mean…striking? And get the butter off my ass. Your compliments…
       Well. Pleasant is all. A very pleasant woman. She mentioned a divorce forthcoming.
        I was shocked.
     Yes, he said. Her latest husband is apparently not cutting the mustard.
      Tobiason. Watch your mouth. My sister is no cock hound. And I know the man, he’s a good man.
      He shrugged. Good men sometimes can’t cut the mustard.
      A growl, low, drifted past my teeth, gritted. I’ll cut your throat
    Ah, that passion again. You protect your sister and you should. We should all have brothers like you. But relax. I didn’t mean anything…we simply exchanged…..…prayers…
     Over scotch.
     Prayers and scotch? My sister?
     My sister does not drink.
     She drank today.
    My sister does not pray.
    She prayed today. Right where you sit. Do you feel the
power of that chair.
    Prayers and scotch, Tobiason. What sort of voodoo brain
washing are you into these days.
          And a few moments of harmless flirtation…but she does praywe prayed together…she on her knees, and I—
          Flirtation! I was beside myself. On her knees? I wanted to drench him in gasoline. I wanted to spit the match. Tobiason, you diseased rat. I pounded the table. The bottle jumped. His pack of cigarettes leaped into the air, completed a perfect-10 somersault and landed in place. The angrier I became, the more blasé he became. His eyes got droopier, his voice calmer.
          She was hardly here, a ghost, really. He said, She asked about you.
          Of course she did, Tobiason.
I mean she wanted to know.
          Know what.
          If you were living well.
          Living well. What does that mean.
          I suppose it means, are you happy.
          What did you tell her.
          What could I tell her. How do I know whether you’re happy or not.
          How do you know, how do you not know. We see each other every day. We sit out here and talk several times a week. And you don’t know if I’m happy.
          No I don’t.
          I don’t know if you’re happy. Of course I don’t. What do you reveal, Jack. I know other things about you. I know you’re a lousy checker player.
I let you win, I grumble.
I know you can beat me in arm wrestling. Remember last year. But maybe I let you win.
You did not let me win.
He said, I know you can hold your liquor. I know you have a woman, who, judging by the racket, satisfies all your lusts, and you hers. Is this what I should tell your sister when she asks. That you have a woman who does what you want. She’s your sister, Grunden, an extension of your mother. What is wrong with you.
          We were at a stand-still.
          I said, What did you tell her.
          He lit a cigarette, calm, barely there, fading further and further into the background, nearly a ghost himself. A figment of my imagination. A warm spot of breeze. He said, I told her nothing I had not witnessed first-hand. That, I promise. I told her you live here. I told her you have many friends. I told her we speak at length twice a week and I have never heard more than a smattering of death talk.
          Death talk. You said that.
          Yes. She wanted to know if you were funny that way.
          Yes. You know.
          Because of how you live.
          How I live.
          Yes. She said you have no family of your own, yet you never come over for Thanksgiving or even Christmas dinner. You’d rather be by yourself in a dingy old apartment figuring out ways to live through another night than be surrounded by loved ones in a nice warm bright home.
His head was down.
She said you were the type.
The type.
What type. The type to do what.
Slit your wrists.
In the bathtub. Because you have nothing to live for.
          She said that? Nothing to live for.
          She said those words.
I felt sick. I did. This is what my sister spends her time thinking when she thinks about me. Nothing else. Not my books. Not how I take after my father in ways, and my mother in other ways. Not how those ways come together to form a voice from the past, the voice of our parents. I felt sick. My sister thinks I am only living to die.
          After a hesitation he moaned. Yes, he said. She said that. Exactly that. I have not added nor deleted a sliver of the exact.
He was worried for my feelings. This touched me. But then I thought, What is he really worried about. How much did he agree with her in order to ingratiate himself to her.
          I found it necessary to state certain truths. And I said out loud, But all of us are alone here. All of us are without families. All of us in this building. It’s a building of black sheep. But we choose ourselves. We want the isolation. It’s a building of outcasts. Why, you yourself—
          He jumped in, She thinks you are damaged. Emotionally. She used the word deranged. Here his tone was less matter-of-fact than it had been throughout this little catastrophe of a conversation of ours, and more passionate. His eyes fluttered, and his mouth scrunched as if he had just digested a whole lemon, in the manner that gives away the existence of a certain amount of distaste. And I believe I detected, in trace amounts, but there nonetheless, a sigh of…pity
          I gurgled.
But Tobiason we are all damaged. We are all deranged Every last one of us...the landlord rents to our types on purpose. Those vultures don’t rent to any other kind. We are reliable with the rent precisely because we have no other place to go. This ridiculous old building, with all these ridiculous people, it’s all we have. It’s all we’ll ever have.
          He said, That was her point.
          Fuck you, Toby!
          That is her chief concern. Just exactly why you think you belong here. There are no children in this building, no pets. We are all narcissists here. It’s a building of misanthropes who think the universe begins and ends at our doorstep. I told her that much. You have to know I told her that much. Maybe that’s where my defense of you ended, but that’s where it began too…
          Alright, you were in a tough spot.
          And Jack, he began gently. There was that time…at the beach…when we were both about to end it all...
          I was terse. Yes I remember.
          I love your sister.
Stop doing that. Stop loving her.
It’s out of my control.
Forget it, Tobiason. You’re a slightly more broken-down version of me. That’s too close to incest as far as I’m concerned and I could never allow it. Surely, I would run you through with a machete first.
          He said nothing. He knew I meant it. He knew I’d run him through. There was a silence. We looked at, no, watched, each other. This watching went on.
          Finally I said, I swear to you, old boy, if you have designs or in any way try to play my sister and me against each other you’d better sleep with one eye open for the rest of your life.
          Hopelessly he drew on his cigarette. Staring. But then I saw something. He was different now. He was picking out my coffin. You’re not the only one with a machete, he seemed to be saying. Maybe I’ll run you through.


Mandan cornered me – I knew this would happen: You’re fucking my wife! His grabs my shirt-front. I feel the fabric tighten around my body as he twists his fists and rises me off my feet. My spine is tingling, strange. I feel strange. My back is going numb. It’s how my spine is crushed up against the wall. The position. My head. I feel faint.
          A strategy forms in my oxygen-depleted brain. Poke him in the eye. I poke him in the eye.
          He staggers backward, cupping the assaulted eyeball. You blinded me, you pig! You blinded me! The eye is red, ugly, tearing. I’d gotten in deep.
          He lunged with a lazy fist. Head-butted me. I held on to his neck, woozy. We fell to the floor. His hands squeezed my throat. He was on top of me. I couldn’t breathe and poked him in the other eye.
He threw himself off me. Clutched now at that eye. Goddamnit you did it again!
Up on my feet, I dodged. Weaved. Looked for an opening, and when I saw one, pop, I snuck a fist in neat and tidy. Blood.
His nose.
The rug again.
He covered his face with his hands, whimpering. The snout gushed blood. It must have popped. I saw no reason for mercy and pummeled him with body punches. In this, I found great joy. Each thrust of my fist into his ribs brought the next one with even more force. I thought, a mirror, I want to see myself as I’m punching him. I want to see the sneer I can feel on my lips. I want to see my eyes blazing. I want to see the joy I feel as I beat him.
At will, I slap at his head, toy with the imbecile. Mouse! I yell. My blind little mouse! I am your cat! While he, the helpless creature, waived one hand, while at the same time ducking behind the other.
I decided. Enough.
The balcony now.
Say hello, Mandan. Say hello to the end. Half over the railing, I had him. He hung on, desperate, clawing the railing. He breathed hard and hooked his arm. This is going to happen, I told him. I felt sadistic. Up under him now, to lift and heft, lift and heft. Get out of my apartment, you oaf. You freeloader. You steal everything. You steal my faith in mankind. My trust in other human beings. You are no human being. You’re no animal either. Why insult the animal. What are you, then. Just what are you.
Almost over.
Bite my lip.
Push with all my weight.
While he, with all his weight, pushes back. I want this. This is going to happen. Three floors down. I want his cracked skull. Want that skull clean and dry on my table, an ashtray, tap ashes into the jaw, rest the cigarette between the teeth. I want to be the one. The one to kick him off the planet. Rid the world. Make it one less hot-head, one less Mandan. Lighten the load of this weighted down planet, weighted down with wretchedness. Look at me. I want this. The pollution, that filthy smokestack of a mouth of his. His poison ideas. Sick of it. Tired. Tired of his black heart blackening the rest of us. Die, you filthy, lice-ridden madman. Die, you evil festering carcass.
          Below, a crowd. I yell out, Get the fuck out of here. They laugh. They push their hair over. Kids. But they are down there, and I am up here. Cinder blocks were smashed. There are pieces. One of the kids, he bends. Grabs. Throws. Laughs. Look at the two old men, they laugh.  
          I keep pushing Mandan. Mandan keeps pushing back. Finally, I can go no more. My arms give out and I drop on the spot. Exhaustion. Severe, brutal exhaustion. My stomach sucks all the way in, all the way out. All the way in.
          All the way out.
He gives out, too. And only as a matter of luck falls onto the balcony instead of over it. The kids are gone, their murmurs trailing them. Mandan clutches his chest, mouth open in shock.

The Emergency Room was near empty. I sat with him. He was slumped, his head dangling. Lips gray. Eyes nearly shut, swollen. What happened to his eyes, the receiving nurse asked.
          We’re not here for his eyes, I said.
          She made a face. She bent over him with that face, as if looking into the dark, curious. Are you sure, she said. She had a clipboard clutched to her bosom.
          Yes I’m sure.
          But what happened.
          It’s his heart, I told her. I thought he was having a heart attack before.
          When before.
          In my apartment.
          Why did you think he was having a heart attack, she asked, now dropping the clipboard against her thigh.
          Because he looked like he was having a heart attack.
          And you’ve seen people have heart attacks before, she asked.
          I’ve seen it on TV. In the movies. Look, I thought he was having a heart attack so here we are.
          IS he having a heart attack.
          That’s why I brought him here.
          Are you sure you didn’t bring him here for those eyes, she asked.
          I looked at her. A long time. I said, Yes I’m sure.
          But what happened.
          I told you. We were…wrestling. And I thought he was having a heart attack.
          No I mean what happened to his eyes. You were wrestling?
          You were wrestling with this man?
          But you’re half his age and he’s twice your weight.
          Listen, I am not half his age. And he is not twice my weight.
          She said, Alright. She said it cautiously. Suspiciously. While watching me.
          Okay then, I said.
          So what were you doing wrestling.
          A friendly wager.
          Are you sure it was friendly.
          Yes it was friendly.
          Yelling is not permitted in the ER in this hospital. It potentially destabilizes an already potentially destabilizing environment.
          I took a deep breath. I said, Yes it was friendly. I rolled my eyes.
          So why again did you think he was having a heart attack, she asked. The clipboard. The thigh. Pat, pat, pat. The pen cap in her teeth.
          I got down on the floor, one knee. I clutched my chest. I made that face that Mandan made, with his mouth open. I said, Because he did this.
          He didn’t have a heart attack, she said, closing her eyes, opening them.
          How do you know that. He hasn’t been examined.
          Because if he had had a heart attack, he would have been dead by now.
          I said, Look at him.
          She looked at him. He was slumped, gray lips, the eyes.
          I said, He looks half dead. Maybe he had half a heart attack.
          Are you mocking me.
          I am not mocking you.
          She said, Those eyes.
          I said, Yes the eyes.
          What happened again.
          I poked him in each one.


In the car, Gentry’s car, I drove with the brights on because the regular headlights didn’t work. When a car from the other way approached, it flashed us with its own brights.
          Flash him back, Mandan said. An eye-patch covered the right eye. Eye-drops in his shirt pocket, a prescription for pain pills in his wallet.
          I can’t
          Do it.
          I can’t.
          Here comes one now. Flash him. Highbeams…now!
          I can’t.
          He grabbed the wheel and our car swerved in the lane of the other car. Long, it was long. Drawn out. It was the scream of someone leaping off a building, the scream all the way down. That was the sound the horn made, the horn of the other car. It ran up on the curb, the other car. It kept going.
          Flash the next one. I mean it.
          I can’t. These are the high-beams. They don’t go any higher you idiot.
He had the window down, his arm out. Night air. Radio low. The eye-patch. I laughed. I said, You look dangerous. He said, I am dangerous. That girl, I said. Keep going.
He’d been telling the story.
Well, she’s twenty-five, a fucking fire-cracker. He threw his arms up over his head and waved them around. She’s like that – chaos – all the time. When she goes off, she goes off. The reason she’s available…and I tell you, my friend…ooh. Here, he made a face, the face of a man squeezing a breast, his hands in the proper alignment. He said, Her body…luscious…and I am no bragger…but my god, the fruit on this tree. And the stems…legs all the way up. And that sweet damp sugar-hole right in the middle of her…so why…you ask? Why is she available to such a horrible old man like me?
          I agreed this was perplexing.
          She’s a spit-fire, he went on. No one can slow her down long enough to land a kiss, even. You should see the long line of broken men. He pounded his chest. See, now here is my secret weapon. This is why I have her, why I will keep her…she can’t break me because I am already broken down.


He went on: At first. I mean in the beginning. She was disgusted by me…after all, look at me. I am disgusting. But then, then she saw the difference. I wasn’t there to change her, to make her a wife. No, my thing down there would be at the forefront of this relationship. I give her orgasmos! One, too, tree in a row! Foor, fife…! Eros can go to Hell! Romance, bah! No romance, just bang boom boff! A wife, nuh! I do not need her to cook for me or ruin that perfect thing down there with children. She doesn’t have to clean my toilet or scrub my tub. She doesn’t have to meet my parents…my parents are dead! Bless those accommodating monsters…they had the good sense to die years ago. I have no friends, so she has none to meet and impress. There is no one else, nothing else. There’s just my thing and her thing, all night, all the time. Perfecto!
He leaned in.
He said.
And the only relationship that means anything when we die is the sexual relationship. Listen to me, when your woman comes up to you on your death-bed, will you be excited to see her because you remember how well she cooked you dinner or washed your clothes. Hell no! You’ll prop yourself up in bed with the last strength you have left, remembering how she used to ride your cock all night long, and those long miraculous waves of pleasure surging through your whole body.

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