originally published in Columbia, No. 27. Winter 1996-1997
The first day of summer, the three of us decide to drive up to Chicago in Johnson’s car. Johnson is hung over and refuses to drive. He sits in the front seat with his eyes shut tight. MJ and I put the top down, she gets in behind Johnson, and we’re gone. When we hit the Interstate, I keep the car in the left lane and pass everything on the road. A trucker honks at MJ, her long, bare legs propped up in the back seat. Johnson holds the sides of his head and opens his eyes. “I’m giving up drinking,” he says. “And I’m going to take up jogging.” I laugh at him. “No, really,” he says. “I feel miserable.” MJ leans forward and coos “Poor baby,” I think. Johnson and I have been yelling over the wind, and whatever she says she says directly into his ear. She reaches over the seat and begins to rub his temples. He lays his head back. I stomp down on the accelerator and MJ is thrown back, her black hair flowing over the seat like a Jolly Roger flag. We rocket past RVs, semis and a State Police station, punch-drunk from the sun and wind, howling.
Johnson works as an orderly at St. Joe’s. MJ is a maid at the TraveLodge. I don’t have a job, really, though my half of the six hundred a month Johnson and I pay for rent does come out of hard work. First, I invested in a heavy-duty bolt cutter.
At night, when MJ and I go for walks around campus, she tells me about her brother who plays AA baseball or her Scientologist aunt who’s living in a car, and I take notes. Her birthday is in September. She does not like my bright yellow tee-shirt. She thinks Johnson is a little boy, easily handled. “You’re the best listener I’ve ever met, Parker.” I shrug. “No, really. Most guys never just let you talk.” She has been high twice in her life. Drunk twice. The next time I go shopping for clothes, she wants to go with me.
Bikes get abandoned. They get forgotten. MJ and I have a running joke about which ones look good to steal. In the early morning, I go back out. My bolt cutter cuts chains and cables like paper. I am careful: one bike per week, and only machines I can ride away on. The guy who sells shrimp out of a refrigerated truck in parking lots around town gives me fifteen dollars a bike. He tucks them behind bags of seafood and they’re never seen again.
“My brother’s thinking of leaving the game. It’s not at all what he thought it would be,” MJ tells me. “One night they got paid out of a van in the parking lot. Half the team got checks and the rest got rolled coins and singles from the concessionaires’ trays. And I guess women with baseball player fetishes are pretty much mythical. Hey, how about that yellow one over there? It’s been sitting there a couple of days.” I point. That one? MJ grabs my wrist, lifts my arm up to the streetlight. “Open your fist. My God, Parker, you have perfect hands. I’m not kidding. They’re positively statuesque. I want to draw these hands sometime.” Thank you, I say. Will this be a nude session, or should I wear gloves? “Just don’t scar them up.”
I turn the cash into bulk computer disks and copy pirated software onto them with a disk duplicator that runs all night in my bedroom. I print out a few hundred labels, give the package to Amol, who ships them to his brothers in Saudi Arabia. Amol cracks a new program, gives it to me with my stack of twenties.
MJ tells me how many towels, blankets, Bibles and rolls of toilet paper disappear from the TraveLodge. Johnson tries to top her with broken locks on pill cabinets and a vanished hospital bed. I tell them to trust no one.
I leave town for three days, and when I come back there are two bottles of MJ’s insulin in the refrigerator. Johnson comes in from his afternoon jog. “Yeah,” he says. “MJ’s been staying here the last couple nights.” He raises his eyebrows. You bastard, I say to him, though I can’t keep the perverse smile off my face. Johnson spreads himself face down on our couch. “You would not believe the shit I’ve learned about her, Parker,” he says into the cushions. He rolls over. His eyes hold an expression of exhausted wonder. “She likes to be tied up, man.” Yeah, sure. “I’m not kidding. And get this: She likes doing it outside, too. We had this totally weird conversation at dinner last night.” It’s bullshit, I tell him. She’s just trying to get a rise out of him. She likes to tell stories to do that. Johnson sits up and wipes the sweat off his face with his shirt. “Man, I have confirmed the tied up part.”
When MJ arrives later, I excuse myself and go to my room to do my work. All night, whenever I need to go to the kitchen or bathroom, I tiptoe down the hall past Johnson’s room. Most of the noise I know is in my head, and if I concentrate, if I’m quiet enough, I won’t be able to hear a thing.
I walk into my bedroom one night and before I turn on the lights I see a naked woman in a window across the street. It is eleven o’clock, and I figure she’s getting ready for bed. She walks back and forth in front of the window for several minutes, her breasts and bare shoulders perfectly visible. She has a fan running in the window and I realize she must think that because she cannot see through it from her side, no one can see through it from the other side either. I focus on my own window, trying to figure out why it would work the way it does and not the way she expects, and by the time I think to look up again, she’s turned out the lights. For the next few nights at eleven o’clock, as Johnson and MJ settle in next to each other on the couch to watch a movie on TV, I retire to my room and watch the woman across the street. One evening I watch her play with a ferret, nuzzling its long, furry body between her breasts, lifting it up to her face to talk to it. I believe I have seen everything. A few nights later I see her and another woman hold each other for several minutes before the lights go out. I think for a moment I will tell Johnson about this, but then I remember his claims about MJ, and I decide to keep this to myself. One night when MJ and Johnson are over at her place, a storm blows up. At eleven o’clock the woman across the street is not home. Her window is dark. There is lightning, and for a moment I see my own reflection in my window: short, dark, slightly overweight. Johnson is tall and athletic and looks good standing next to MJ. The thunder rolls and the disk duplicator chatters in the dark behind me.
Two blocks away they’re tearing down a row of houses. MJ and I watched them rip away chunks of buildings with a huge, steel claw on the end of a digging machine. Walls tore and bricks crumbled, all of it sounding like a billion strands of dry spaghetti breaking. They sprayed down the piles of debris with a fire hose. They left two small brick houses standing, one of them with a dozen leaded-glass windows. Salvageable. MJ thinks she can make end tables out of them. Several times during our walk she stops and models with her arms the complex arrangement of mannequin pieces she’ll need for the table legs.
At two in the morning I climb over the orange plastic fence surrounding the demolition and jog across the mud and shattered bricks to the shadows between the remaining houses. One window is ajar, and with just a little prying with a crowbar, the wood frame creaks away. I catch the heavy glass pane in one hand, somehow balance it as I dodge the falling wood, and set the window in the mud. I catch my breath, listen for cars. I put the window outside the orange fence, lean it against a trash can, then head back for another.
None of the other windows will swing open. I see then that one corner of the house has already been knocked once with the giant claw and the walls have shifted, jamming the windows tight. The window I got isn’t big enough to make a large table, and MJ won’t want to make just one end table. She already knows where they’ll go in her apartment. I kick the brick chips at my feet, cuss, then swing the crowbar into the row of windows. Glass flies and lead seams bend and break. If we can’t have them, no one can. I circle the house, giving each window five sharp bashes with the crowbar. My skin is hot. My hands tingle from the impact. I bark Shit! Fucker! Shit! with each swing, then run to the other house and begin breaking its windows, too.
I am standing on the front porch when I see the police car coming, a spotlight sweeping over the demolished side of the street. I jump off and run behind the first house. The spotlight flashes on my legs. I dive over the thick trunk of a tree they’ve torn down, land in a pile of branches. My hand scrapes against the trunk and I feel warm blood well up on my knuckles. The crowbar jabs my hip. I do not breathe, do not flinch. An ant crawls across my face. I listen to the blood pound in my ears, watch the clouds pass overhead, lit up by the city lights. I wait for the cops to find me stupidly frozen behind this tree trunk, but they never come. I count to three hundred, then poke my head up. I’m safe. I climb back over the fence, find the windowpane and head toward home.
In an alleyway I stop under a lightpole and look the window over. It has been spray-painted almost solid red. One glass square is missing, two others are cracked. It’s worthless. I tuck the window under my arm like a large book, turn left instead of right at the end of the alley. I walk to a nearby parking garage, carry the window to the top level, stand at the edge and hurl the thing into the street. It tumbles for two seconds, spinning slowly, like a giant nine of diamonds flicked into the air, then lands flat on the center stripe. A belly flop. A metallic clap. Glass scatters across both lanes. I think what torture it would be to walk through it barefoot. It would sting worse than my bleeding hand. The frame is a twisted thing. No one sees this but me. I do not go home until almost sunrise.
MJ slams the door to Johnson’s room, storms down the hall, slams our front door as she leaves. They have been arguing for an hour. She wants to go with him to his brother’s wedding. He wants to go alone. I know why: One of the bridesmaids is a high-school girlfriend he still sees when he visits his parents. I wait fifteen minutes. Johnson doesn’t leave his room. I go outside and walk down the block to the park bench where MJ is sitting. I sit down next to her. Trouble in paradise? I say. “He can be such an asshole,” MJ says. “He says he’s ‘not ready’ for me to meet his parents.” She has not been crying. I love her for that. I can smell her sweat. I want to put my hands on her face. You ought to live with him, I say. You think he’s a jerk about this, you ought to go grocery shopping with him. He likes crunchy peanut butter, for Christ’s sake. MJ laughs. She leans back. “You know, all he and I do is watch movies, eat out and fuck.” She stands up and brushes the seat of her pants. “I’m going back in. Coming?” I shake my head no and watch her walk back up the block. I sit and watch traffic go by, the sky go orange with sunset, and wonder what role it is that I have been assigned. I wonder if my face has started to lose its features, or if I am fading into invisibility. I head back to the apartment, climb the stairs to the third floor. At the door, I hear sounds that have become as familiar to me as the purr of my computer. Sounds I hear from down the hall almost every night. I open the door. A flash of Johnson leaning over MJ on the couch, of hands moving under clothing, and I slam the door closed again.
I am driving home after the seafood trucker pays me and I stop at an abandoned feed mill near some railroad tracks. I drive by it all the time. The building is boarded up and surrounded by weeds as tall as I am. Spray-painted graffiti covers most of the bricks. EVAN + JUDY COUGARS RULE JESUS SAVES I look through a gap in the boards. Inside, the building is empty, dusty and undisturbed. No one comes here. There are no other buildings for at least a half-mile. This is how it works: While Johnson is on his evening jog, I hit him with my car. I know just the stretch of highway. I come at him from the other direction, cross the center line and clip him with the front bumper. The look on his face is priceless; it’s the look he had when he found the moldy potato salad in the refrigerator, his tongue sticking out as he says black. I tie him up in the back seat, bring him to this abandoned building. “Burning Down the House” plays from his tape player’s headphones the entire way over. Thump him on the head again if the car didn’t kill him. Pour lime over the body, nail the boards back in place. Take the tape player. I will have to steal a car so mine isn’t recognized, but the way the summer is progressing, that’s not a surprise. MJ will be frantic and I will have to console her. I’ll have to wait for one of the nights when he doesn’t go jogging until after dark. MJ will want to solve his disappearance herself. Nancy Drew, bondage queen. I leave to go home and feel my plans unraveling as I weave them.
The message on our answering machine is from Donna, the bridesmaid. She’s coming to visit, taking Johnson up on his long-standing offer of a place to sleep whenever she wants. The purr she affects for that part of the message makes me want to laugh. She will arrive tonight, at about midnight. I let the machine erase the message. When Johnson comes home for lunch, he asks if there were any calls for him. No, I say. While he is eating, he finally asks me “Parker, does it bother you I’m doing MJ? I know you guys are friends and all.” I shake my head. No, I’m OK with it. No big deal. “Cool,” Johnson says. I tell him I probably won’t be home tonight, pick up my package of disks for Amol. Victorious, uneasy, maybe a little happy, I step outside into the hot, bright afternoon.