Chain Smoke

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The hot green sign of Brennan’s Irish pub, a corner dive on 11th and Michigan. A woman in a black sequin minidress tottered out, each step threatening to twist her ankle. She had become sundered from her party; whatsmore she suspected purposeful desertion. Her ornery gaze darted up and down the block. Words had been said inside, even if their specific nature eluded her. Her phone was stowed inside a raspberry clutch, but the idea of unclasping it to check for missed calls seemed too great a hassle. She could barely summon the agility to stand still, to stay erect on that streetcorner below the emerald lightbox, below the marquee exulting $4 white russians, across from Sandee’s with its fenced-in biergarten. Speakers mounted in the arbors bumped club mixes of country top 40. Over there, young men milled about in designer shirts bought off-price at Tj Maxx, musclebound but for their incipient beer guts that would tumesce into middle age. Holographic stickers flashed under the brims of their snapbacks, oftentimes covering tonsures or receding hairlines. They were high-school friends, college peers, coworkers, with kids and fringe benefits and associate degrees. Every woman was hanging on a bicep, their chosen fragrance swallowed up by the miasmic cologne. Single ladies never went to Sandee’s, this was common knowledge, and so the woman in the minidress did not bother searching for her friends there.

She heard a fight breaking out a block to the west. To the east she swore she spotted a bitch she knew from South High and boy had she got fat. Indecisive and irritated, she charged straight ahead, smack-dab into the body paneling of an illegally parked Acadia, startling the woman in the passenger seat, whereas the man at the wheel had seen her coming but not been granted time to react. The couple was on a first date, and somehow the woman in the minidress seemed to inuit this: the sanguine aura of budding romance. It cut through her own rancor and pasted a smile on her face. “Oh my goood you two are such a cute couple. Listen to me—guy, I’m doing you a favor right now—you need to fuck this dude, chica. Tonight. Fuck his brains out. Like, you two should have babies, seriously.” She ducked her chin to repeal a burp. “I am…not even fucking around right now. Because listen up. Y’all bitches wanna see me do a cartwheel?”

It was of course a rhetorical question, because who in their right mind would decline such an offer? She backed away from the Acadia, took a splayed stance upon the pavement, arms directed in the air like bunny ears on an old broken TV set. A couple of curious passersby paused to see if what it looked like what was about to happen was actually about to happen. The woman then proceeded, in high heels no less—to execute a technically flawless cartwheel. Everybody, the Acadia couple included, erupted into stunned applause and equally eruptive laughter, not just at her unforeseen finesse, but at the fact that she was, quite decisively, not wearing any panties.

Down the street, a man turned the corner of 10th wielding a shotgun.

He had already been spotted by a gentleman sipping beer on his front porch, who promptly alerted the cops to his presence. Thus they were there to intercept him when he reached Michigan, approaching the gunslinger calmly, hands on their holsters but not yet drawing arms. They addressed him by name.

“Okay, Tucker. You’ve made your point.”

“And I’m a keep on making it, officers. Long as I have to.”

“You ever think of joining a darts league? Plenty of ways to spend a Friday night.”

“People need a reminder. The liberal media spews so much misinformation. You boys know it as well as I. Look how they go on malignin’ the police.”

“You’re not changing any minds out here, Tucker. Just making a lot of people uncomfortable.”

“Exactly my point. They got no reason to fear a trained, licensed marksman exercising his Constitutional privilege in an open-carry state. This is about acclimating people to their rights. This is about reversing the stigma.”

From the dotted yellow line in the middle of the street, the acrobat in the minidress leaned forty-five degrees forward at the waist and called out, “Hey mister can I shoot your gun?” The activist and the two police officers turned their heads. In doing so, one of them noticed an illegally parked Acadia and barked at the driver, “Sir, you’ll have to move that thing!”

Farther down the block, past a vacant lot which still housed the former office space of an immigration accountant recently jailed for defrauding her clients, men filed through the door of Club Michigan, the only strip club in town. The bouncer at the door was named Murph and for him this was only a moonlight gig. By day he was a white-clad caddy at Black Wolf Run, as evidenced by his tombstone back and goitered calves. He sat there on a padded barstool, chain-smoking, watching the confrontation between Tucker and the police, until the floor manager popped her head out to say get in here, we got some guys causing trouble. With a sigh he flicked his square and stood up. He donned the same twill newsboy cap as he did caddying to protect his bald head from solar rays. A drummer in his spare time, he wore a black T promoting Zildjian cymbals.

Murph pushed inside. The front barroom was packed. Through a shimmery pink beaded door (like a waterfall rinsed with blood) one could progress to the “showroom” as they called it, as if the girls were a bunch of factory-fresh Bentleys. The floor manager stood there pointing needlessly, like there was any chance Murph didn’t know where to go. He squared his shoulders, inwardly said a prayer that he wouldn’t get hit, and stepped through the beads.

Up on stage were two drunk bastards, a white guy and a latino, spinning on the poles. Anyone could do it, the way they were designed, the central pole wearing a stainless steel cuff that spun freely. The Peavey system pounded Rihanna. The PAR lights were dim, fluctuating in color. A guy off to the side was getting a lap dance in a booth. The club was chronically understaffed, Cheyenne in fact the only girl in sight, which must have seemed like an invitation for these buffoons to put on their own show. Murph had to admit it was amusing, like seeing two chimps on crack at the zoo. By the time he ushered them through the front door, they were sweaty and disheveled and clapping him on the back, saying he was a good sport, labeling him a gentleman and a scholar, asking did he ever get with these girls, was he in charge of the casting couch. Harmless.

Murph reclaimed his stool and bade them good night, with the kindly proviso not to return. He watched them lope away, bumping shoulders then veering apart, crowing Rihanna at the top of their lungs, until they became someone else’s problem. Vreeke’s. The bar across the street.

Jack “Benno” Lemkuil and Miguel Espinoza sidled up to the zinc counter. Single ladies did go to Vreeke’s, and they looked askance at the sweaty newcomers, who were now doing their best to seem sober so they could get service. It was too much to ask of Miguel, who got impatient and told Jack to order him a Mickey’s; he would be in back having a tabiro. Beyond the two pool tables (one of which was in play) there was a ventilated indoor smoking area, a huge asset during the rude Wisconsin winters.

Alone now in a den of strangers, Jack did sober up a little, enough to remember that he hated Vreeke’s. It was his least favorite tavern on the strip. He had heard once (couldn’t remember who from) that it was the town’s unofficial gay bar, because the town’s official gay bar, Blue Lite, was so skeevy and depressing. Jack had been in there once on a lark with some fellow mailmen, figuring it was safe to travel in packs. There had been a drag show in progress. An immediate pall of resentment engulfed them and their hetero-toxicity. In a little rose-lit shrine notched into the wall stood a miniature replica of David, admittedly very well done, with skin that shone like true marble and every little phenotypic nuance down pat. Behind the bar worked two chiseled men in thongs whose T-shirts were cut off at the navel. One could apparently order a body shot as routinely as one orders a chaser with their bloody mary. Jack recalled getting a shock when one of the bartenders came around to serve him, and they both suddenly froze.

The name came out before Jack could restrain himself, not pausing to think how it would look in front of his cohorts. “Chasten?”

Playing off the awkwardness somewhat forcefully with a giggle and a roll of the shoulders, the kid poured him a shot of god knows what, some rail decoction, and said, “How’s that retaining wall coming?”

They had met not three weeks prior, when Jack was getting a free estimate for a retaining wall he wanted to gift Ruby’s parents. (A belated token of gratitude for shouldering all their credit card debt back when the couple was young and feckless.) He and Chasten had stood shoulder to shoulder on Catalpa Street for twenty-odd minutes, deliberating dimensions and building materials, zoning ordinances, gradients, et cetera. Not once did he catch a whiff of suspicion. In fact he had sort of liked the guy.

“That project’s on hold,” Jack answered truthfully.

“Ninety-five percent of them are,” said Chasten. When the light caught his face in a certain way, Jack could see he wore a smattering of purple glitter. They did the shot together. Not terrible actually, a sort of honey liqueur. Chasten asked about his son, whose name he impressively remembered. Then Jack had shattered the whole equilibrium by glancing down at the landscaper’s thong and saying with awestruck candor, “Jesus kid, your balls are the size of goddamn dinosaur eggs.”

This prompted a laugh from the mailmen and the queers sitting in earshot, a moment of unified camaraderie at the expense of the bartender, who demurred and slinked away a bit abashed, which Jack had found pretty fucking rich at the time.

Now the present-day server at Vreeke’s was loafing there, beckoning with his hand, saying, “Come on fella, what’s it gonna be?” And Jack, more drunk than he realized, took a few seconds to process this boorish impatience before he came out with, “Listen asshole, if I pitch a tent here and take all night to decide then that’s your fucking problem, isn’t it. Cause you’re a fucking bartender.”

The server, who chewed a toothpick and had a slouchy, vulpine quality Jack didn’t much care for, started to move away in quiet contempt, but Jack said, “A High Life and a Mickey, and two shots of Beam.”

He looked from side to side, trying to descry any undercover queers, and only then did he realize that his clapback had drawn most everyone’s attention, particularly a row of ladies to his right sipping iridescent martinis tinted like Jolly Ranchers. He pivoted thirty degrees on his stool to ask them how their evening was going. Turned out they were factory workers, all employed by Nemschoff Chairs, and one of them—Paula—had just finalized a divorce, so they were out celebrating.

“No shit,” said Jack. “I’ll drink to that. Truth is, I’m probably right behind you. My wife took the kid and left one night while I was passed out cold. I mean not a note, not anything. I had to pick up the phone and ask why my son hadn’t got off the bus. Maybe I’m not husband of the year but Jesus shittin’ Christ, doesn’t that strike you gals as sort of a cunt move?”

A few of them disapproved of his epithet, but the others expressed sympathy and even raised their martinis in a toast. “Here’s to kicking our cunt wives and cunt husbands to the curb,” said Paula, wearing a tortoiseshell necklace and black chiffon top that tied at the neck. They all hear-heared, even the prudes, and Jack was able to join in because his beers had just arrived. Once the shots were poured, he wished the women a fond farewell and strode off to find Miguel.

A spider-limbed pool shark was sprawled over the green baize trying to bank a shot. His opponent watched raptly, furrow-browed, chalking his cue tip. Jack thought there was something aerodynamic about the proper stance; it reminded him of making paper airplanes as a kid, the joy of watching it sail upon a wisp of pressure rather than barrel-rolling to the floor… If Jack had blinked he might have missed it. The shark’s raw red elbow recoiled and the cue fired like a stunbolt, pocketing the five with a clean ricochet.

Jack backed through the plexiglas door, fingers wet with overflowing whiskey, perspiring bottles in his other hand. The space was slatted pine and concrete floors, fluorescent tubes in metal cages, a couple neons on the wall—Michelob, Rolling Rock, Budweiser. There were pedestaled tables like two-person lilypads, chrome-legged chairs of cracked vinyl, their stuffing held in by sutures of clear shipping tape. Miguel stood on the opposite end as two men who were conversing below the whir of the ventilator. After downing the shots without ceremony, Miguel started to speak, but Jack found that his ears were stopped up. He saw the squiggle of his friend’s lips, vowels and consonants being formed, dropping off into the void like logs down a river. However, he could gather through eye movement and body language that Miguel was disinclined toward the room’s other occupants. Jack looked over and saw what he meant. They were normal enough, the duo, nothing garish or prissy about them, but while their right hands held cigarettes, their left hands were dropped to theirs sides, connected.

Jack smiled, affecting a limp wrist. Miguel looked like he had bitten into some bad steak and needed to spit out the gristle. He was a schlub in faded carpenter jeans, an oatmeal-colored T with font so faded as to be illegible. Curly forelocks of black hair straggled out from a reversed baseball cap. Miguel was a diehard Milwaukee Brewers fan. He tried to make two or three games a season, even on custodial wages. Nosebleeds, naturally. And when there was no one else to go along he took Jack at de facto gunpoint. Jack loathed baseball, stadium crowds, city traffic, and the partisan zealotry of sports fans (with the exception of football, Go Pack!). Like a mission Jesuit, Miguel would proselytize through all nine innings, explaining the spirit and grandeur and logistics of the game, and Jack would get exceedingly drunk on overpriced beer, most of it paid for by Miguel. On these glum outings he felt less like a “bro,” more like than an escort, only one who didn’t have to hide her boredom or go down later on the interstate.

“Did I tell you about Ficke?” said Jack.

“Ficke? No, I don’t think so.” Miguel tried and failed and tried again to push the offensive homos from his purview.

“Ficke and the liquor store. If I’m repeating myself, shoot me.” Jack was patting himself for a lighter, so Miguel, who had his at the ready, lit it for him.

“What about Ficke and the liquor store, he quit?”



“Damn near arrested.”

“Por dios. You did not tell me this.”

“He stole. Stole thousands apparently.”

“From the till?”

“Merchandise. I talked to Navaroop three days ago, he’s the owner. Said they got him on camera—”

“Wait a sec. He’s the owner so why’s it called Jake’s?”

Jack was stuck on this for three or four seconds. “Maybe it’s a nickname. Can I tell the story?”

“Lo siento. Go ahead.”

“He said they got him on camera, loading up his trunk like he bought the shit wholesale, like he was pulling out of Costco.”

“Trunk. What trunk. Harry got a car?”

“Good point.” Jack took a bemused drag, squinting through the smoke. “Maybe he borrowed it from someone.”

“Remind me never to loan that piece of shit my Tundra.”

“Yeah, I guess he’d been at it awhile. Got greedy. Audacious.”

“Right on camera.” Miguel sucked his teeth and muttered in disgust, “Simple ass.” While they talked, they stared daggers at the two men in the corner, speaking quiet enough that their voices did not carry, therefore it must have seemed they were hatching some nefarious plot. One of the paramours—the “top” to use their own faggy parlance—was mean-mugging them right back, clearly not the least bit intimidated and set to throw down. But his partner had placed a hand on his chest to try and sublimate this impulse. Advocating peace over pride.

Jack said, “I’m just sore he didn’t, you know…”

“Ring you up?”

Jack spread his hands. “I’m here, aren’t I? We’re fucking friends, aren’t we?”

“Hook a nigger up.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“Maybe it’s for the best. Sounds like he ain’t much of a bootlegger. Not his calling.”

Jack pointed his cherry in Miguel’s face. “Reputation’s everything in this town.”

“Word gets around.”

“He’s unemployable. Forty's too soon to be unemployable. Ask a coal miner.”

“That’s what I told you. I don’t fuck around with that guy anymore.”

Jack looked at the floor; his voice turned pensive. “Navaroop put his face up on the corkboard. Front and center.”

“Claro. Once you make the wall of shame you make it for life.”

“That’s just it. I think he removed some old offenders to make space. It’s so big you can’t fucking miss it. First and last name—Harry Ficke. THIEF in all capital letters.”

“Everybody and their mother goes through Jake’s.”

“In this town, better believe it.”

Once the queers finally vamoosed, it seemed that some tacit victory had been won, some satisfying culmination, so Jack and Miguel entertained the notion of calling it a night. The air was damp when they emerged onto Michigan, damp and cool, as if a rainstorm was coming. This ominous change in barometric pressure did nothing to thin the crowds. Closing time was nigh. The food trucks were in position like a Peace Corps caravan dispensing alms to the rowdy queues amassed. A few stars bright enough to pierce through the light pollution shone above the old brick parapets of the historic neighborhood. Jack counted them on the foggy abacus of his mind. When he focused too hard on a particular celestial body, it grew smudgy and warped; its light bent into a blue maelstrom, and he was overcome by vertigo until the second he looked away. There was a giddiness to this effect, a cerebral tingle. He was almost a spirit haunting the lost-eyed figure of his friend Miguel, feeling toward him both the benevolence of an angel and the mischief of a poltergeist.

“Fuck I want a street taco for,” said Miguel, “when I got a wife at home can cook these slobs under the table.”

And with this decree, the men wandered down 9th Street in the direction of Casa Espinoza with barely a light to guide them. The crackle and woodsmoke of backyard bonfires. The beady red eye of a cigarette cherry on a dark porch. The skittering pads of a cat or raccoon dumping over trash cans, rustling bushes. Voices floating through open window screens, be they domestic arguments or lovemaking or the cacophonous soundtrack of an action movie, all explosions and rent metal and spent banana clips. The kind Wyatt loved to watch.

Who at that moment was staring at the sloped ceiling of his A-frame bedroom on Catalpa Street. Who at that moment was being read a story by his mother, because he had come downstairs complaining that he could not sleep. The drywall had indigestion. The wind wore a killer’s mask and kept peering in through the glass. The ceiling fan’s static blades would curl into tarantula legs, and Wyatt dared not close his eyes lest it repel down to smother him with an armored belly and black hypodermic bristles. He was subsumed by Ruby’s words, the poetry in them, caring not for the story’s content, only her phonetic nearness when he closed his eyes, how it recast the room from a nightmare to a tinselled holiday, a dungeon to a womb.

They went to school together but never dated. Both were born and raised in the area. Jack played football, Ruby was on the debate team. These roles foretold much of their chemistry later on, how they would face obstacles and express themselves under duress. Ruby got suspended in her sophomore year for spitting on a teacher, a generally despised shrew named Mrs. Veldboom. Perhaps because of this reputational notch in her belt, Jack migrated toward her at a Halloween house party and they wound up making out in the bed of someone’s pickup under an illegal fireworks display. This dalliance was not pursued afterward or even spoken of again, in large part because they were both engaged, technically and tenuously, in other relationships.

After graduation, neither fulfilled their nebulous dream of skipping town. Jack lived with his parents for another eighteen months, hopping from one unskilled labor gig to another—grocery stocker, forklift operator, construction worker, and eventually mailman. Ruby was a night manager at Taco Bell for three years, then a call center operator by the time she met Jack, and it was only when they decided to move in together (with the option of getting married) that she sought a higher-paying position at Polyfab.

Jack’s first place on his own was a rented colonial with two other guys, Spencer Radecki and Guy Morris. It was on Elizabeth Street in End Park. Guy at the time was dating a girl named Lorelai, who was Ruby’s closest friend at the call center. So it happened that these star-crossed loners wound up at the same party one evening, and, after a few rounds of beer pong and flip cup, reminiscing about their transgression in the unidentified pickup…

It amused Miguel to no end that by now Jack could remember all the words and sing along in lockstep, even if his pronunciation was wanting.

“Ay, ay, ay, ay

Canta y no llores

Porque cantando se alegran

Cielito lindo, los corazones.”

They cut through a mulch bed of blue spruces, coming out the other end onto a parking lot, brushing needles from their clothes, or at least the itchy impression left on their skin. A Bonneville was parked nearby with its dome light on, bumping old-school hip-hop. A black guy was in the driver’s seat, feet on the asphalt, just enjoying the night or whatever, scrolling on his phone. Jack could see that the backseat was piled with cardboard boxes. Miguel apparently knew the individual and called out to him. The man nodded into the darkness, saying, “Who’s that?”

Miguel’s response was to hoist himself astride a nearby dumpster, stand up on the lid, and rap along to the track, bobbing and weaving like a slow-mo boxer. The Bonneville owner recognized his voice and cackled. They recited half a verse together, Jack suddenly excluded, both by his ignorance of hip-hop beyond Biggie and 2Pac and by his paling agility in contrast to Miguel’s. “For all of those who wanna profile and pose, rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.” Five years ago he might have joined him up there, just out of basic kinetic instinct. But even the fitness inherent to his job could not counteract the daily dose of cigarettes, booze, and Milky Way bars. He got a burst of motivation every now and then, such as right now, watching his friend’s lean cameo dance against the mulberry backdrop of starry sky. Jack thought of himself as still being a young man, so whenever evidence appeared to the contrary, such as unjustified fatigue or the ashen weariness of his own reflection, it bogged him in a bit of a crisis, one whereby he suffered the intimation that not only may he not live forever, he’d be lucky to see Medicare.

“Cause ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks.”

His knees knocked just watching Miguel hop down. He felt the shock absorbed in his own joints, meanwhile his chest-thumping compañero danced the entire way across the parking lot, oblivious to the mortal dread he was sowing—the Todesangst, as Ruby’s mother would say, a woman with a jarring streak of gallows humor. Fortunately, Jack had a contingency plan for just such insecurities. He wrote a list in his head of all the people his age (or thereabout) who were in worse shape than him. All the morbidly obese, the prediabetics, the methheads, the anemics, the hemophiliacs, the handicaps, the cancer patients, those with Lyme disease or celiac or MS or Lou Gehrig’s, all the imparied grocery baggers, all the unibrows and harelips, his old football coach Gary Litherland laid up with fibromyalgia, women with mustaches, men with breasts, people who were deaf, dumb, or blind, Democratic Socialists.

Everyone was down from time to time, but you could always sink lower. And inexplicably, Jack took inspiration from this meme.

At the northeast corner of the lot stood a brick four-unit, bought as an investment by a cattle rancher in Cleveland (WI not OH, a fart on the map). All the families currently residing there were hispanic, and Miguel said he suspected he’d only got the spot because the rancher had assumed he and his wife were illegals. “No one speaks any English,” he told Jack once. “Two of the families are related and every morning the husbands go out, brothers or cuñados or whatever they are, and work for the very rancher who owns the building. He hints around whenever I see him, too: ‘I can always use another ranch hand.’ As for the wives, I have no idea what they do all day. Rosario says gossip and watch telenovelas and look after their horde of welfare-sucking kids. You know we’re footing the bill for them to go to school.”

It had surprised Jack at first to learn that Miguel was a dye-in-the-wool Buchananite Republican. His conservatism left even Benno feeling moderate on certain talking points, namely abortion and gay marriage, two issues that didn’t much raise his temperature. “Abortion’s a clincher for a lot of latinos I know personally,” said Miguel. “You can say this or that about Mexicans, you can blow the so-called dog whistle till you’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day if the other candidate’s pro-choice, all the good little brown Catholics like me, Benno, we’re gonna show up in droves for the red team. It’s non-negotiable, the sanctity of life.”

Miguel pushed his key into the door’s lock. Every front window was dark except for a blue flicker in his own upstairs apartment. They stepped into a dark foyer, proceeded up the linoleum staircase, feeling ahead with their feet. Miguel grumbled, would a light be too much to ask. Plunged into a subversive mood, when he reached his unit he pounded his fist on the door and bellowed in an imperious voice that jolted even Jack, “La Migra! Abre la puerta!” There was a scuffle to undo the chain, the deadbolt, and Miguel’s self-satisfied chuckle was cut short by the immediate censure of his wife. She laid into him without regard for Jack, who slunk a few steps back into the shadows, embarrassed by the almost tearful rage in Rosario’s voice. She was apparently not quite so disdainful of the other tenants as her husband and saw what he had done on a jocose whim as a sadistic and cold-hearted. Miguel bowed his head and took the castigation readily, almost with a penitent’s relish. But after a few seconds he steered Rosario back inside by her shoulders, saying, “Tenemos hambre, cariña, mucha hambre… Yola, what are you still doing up?”

The Espinozas had a young daughter named Yolanda, somewhere in the vicinity of Wyatt’s age. She was seated on the floor in an animated patch of light thrown by the TV screen, wearing Disney princess pajamas. “Viendo una película, papá.”

“What sort of movie?” Miguel bent down, picked her up, and kissed each cheek before restoring her to the carpet. Rosario was not allayed, but her anger did not extend to Jack, whom she was obliged to greeted warmly and offer a seat on the couch. He felt that he would rather not stay, that he should take an Uber home, but not wanting to offend anyone he sank into the plush woven cushion. Fifteen minutes, he promised himself. Fifteen minutes and I’m out of here. There was an intoxicating smell to the place, concentrated and complex, that made him start to feel woozy, not sick but half in a dream state. Miguel and Rosario loomed so large above him that for a second they were his own parents, arguing as they often had up till the divorce, except that this dispute was stoic, constrained. No one was throwing any dishware, no one was threatening to call the police or pull Jack out of school and file a restraining order. Rosario, so far as he could perceive, had no prominent bruises. She was continuing her quiet rebuke in Spanish, but Miguel turned to his guest and spoke over her. “I promise there is something to eat. Make yourself at home. Change the channel if you like—it’s past this pipsqueak’s bedtime anyway.”

The couple stalked into the kitchen, leaving him on his own with Yolanda, who turned to fix him with a mute, yet explicitly wide-eyed supplication not to turn off her movie. “What are we watching?” he sighed, adjusting to make himself comfortable, slouching halfway across the couch with his elbow propped on the armrest, fist bolstering his head. On the end table was a neat little rick of unfiltered cigarettes beside a pocket injector and a 1 lb. bag of blended tobacco. They had interrupted Rosario in the process of rolling tabiros to fill Miguel’s pewter case, the one debossed with the Mexican coat of arms. Jack had always thought he ought to get one like it. It really classed up the act.

The movie was in fact some three-hour CGI documentary on the extinction of the dinosaurs. The FX were on par with the latest Jurassic Park movies, so Jack figured it must have come out recently, though he swore he had already seen five or six of these in his lifetime. Maybe the story kept changing. Maybe the comet had been debunked and it turned out they were all enslaved by aliens, coerced from this galaxy like the blacks were from Africa to go carry boulders in Andromeda.

An array of candles were atop the entertainment center, none lit, their glass cylinders depicting patron saints, the lugubrious Virgin of Guadalupe. A giant ristra of dried chilis and purple garlic bulbs hung in the corner, the size of a damn banana bushel. The walls were littered with family photos, including extended family still in Estado Durango, where both Miguel and Rosario germinated. The reason Miguel’s English was better was that he had lived longer in the States, the son of a transnational truck driver who’d procured for his son a work visa on his 19th birthday to come toil in South Milwaukee, where the trucking company was based. Miguel did machinist work in the city for nine years before being granted his green card, thereby eradicating the fear that if he went down to visit Durango, some bureaucratic catch-22 might prevent him from crossing back. On one of these extended visits, the two families more or less conspired for their young, eligible offspring, Rosario Mencía-Trujillo and Miguel Espinoza, to spend as much time as possible together; and to everyone’s satisfaction they fell passionately in love.

Shortly after Yolanda’s birth, fate got cheeky. The machine shop where Miguel was gainfully employed shut its doors, chasing more sycophantic tax incentives down in Missouri. This was how the Espinozas came to be residing in a much smaller, much cheaper town than Milwaukee, where Miguel made half as much sloshing his mop ten hours a day, while Rosario worked at a dry cleaners on Business Drive.

Jack could withstand the enticement no longer. He called into the kitchen, asking if he could help himself to a freshly rolled cigarro. The couple was still arguing in there. “Mi casa es tuya,” came Miguel’s breezy reply, followed by clattering pots and pans.

Enjoying the sweet bite of tobacco, Jack took advantage of a commercial break in the dinosaur program to ask, “Yolanda, you go to Longfellow, don’t you?”


“You know my son? Wyatt Lemkuil?”

Yola nodded. “He is a grade under me but I see him on the playground.”

“Is he a good kid? Nice to everybody?”

“Uh-huh.” She took up the remote and started fast-forwarding on the DVR. Technology, so relentlessly convenient that it left no awkward gaps to be filled by conversation. Just whip out your phone. Fast-forward. Pop in an earbud. Everyone had known it all along, from the earliest civilizations onward: that we would rather not deal with each other but agreed it was better for the collective if we did. Now we were being spared that chore.

The show’s narrator was a gravel-throated Scotsman, very pleasing to the ear. Jack pictured a ruddy neck, gray whiskers, Tartan plaid collar and two fingers of Glenlivet. He described an asteroid the size of Manhattan hurtling at 20,000 miles an hour, fast enough to create a vacuum in its slipstream, the way a bullet does when fired underwater. This, in effect, engendered a tear through the daytime sky, a tear which contained the twinkling cosmos one by rights ought to be regarding at night. It hit the Yucatán with the same impact as 100 million hydrogen bombs, thus ground zero would have immediately heated to four times the temperature of the sun, hot enough to vaporize solid rock as Baptistina, the so-named asteroid, bored twenty miles into the Earth’s crust. This momentous backlash of rock vapor plumed into space, far enough out to reach Mars, but in doing so it gradually cooled, recondensed, and turned to glass. A swarm of glittering space glass. As the swarm lost momentum, the Earth’s gravitational field reapplied its influence, dragging the shrapnel back from whence it came at a pace blistering enough to burn up in the atmosphere, raising the sky’s temperature to 1,000+℉. Therefore, the dinosaurs, the flora and fauna and birds and insects, all of those who had escaped being detonated in the radius of the impact zone, they were instead incinerated—quite efficiently, within two hours of Baptistina arriving—by a molten-hot shower of glass. Two hours. In less time than it took to watch this fucking documentary.

Jesus, thought Jack.

He glanced down at Yolanda, trying to gauge if she was anywhere near as bowled over as he was by what they were hearing, what they were seeing reconstructed in pixels on the screen. It turned Hiroshima into a day camp. It made him want to book a flight to southern Mexico and gape into the Manhattan-sized crater made this wayward projectile with no animus and no malicious intent toward Earth whatsoever. Just a rock on its way somewhere. Anywhere.

Miguel and Rosario were laughing in the kitchen now. All had been forgiven.

Later, after the men had devoured two steaming hot plates of chilaquiles, the Espinoza family shared a private chuckle at Jack’s expense, for he had begun snoring on the couch, twitching his foot, even muttering stray consonants.

He was a redneck, she a sexy/scary clown.

She was walking to the barn to join some friends in a blunt before the fireworks began. He was pissing on the tire of someone’s truck, parked out in the grass because the driveway was at capacity. She scared him by remarking from thin air that he pissed so loud she thought a cow had gotten loose. He responded with a low, somehow lascivious moo, then asked her where she was headed. She told him. He said who needs to get high on a night like this, just lay back and watch the fireworks from here. “With you?” The first rocket went off and lit up her face crimson. Even through the clown makeup and rubber nose he could see the skeptical arch of her brow. She had on a nylon jumper, red with big black tufted buttons like chrysanthemums, fishnet stockings, oversized men’s shoes, the toes of which she had stuffed with newspaper. He wore sleeveless flannel, a mullet wig, novelty gingivitis he had taken out for the time being because they impeded his speech, and cowboy boots borrowed from his Uncle Jesse, who wore them on trips to the grocery store without irony despite being a photo developer.

He said, “Shucks, I’m just a good ol’ boy, ma’am. My mama done raised me up right.”

And so they lay there on the bare ribbed metal of the truck bed, amid the animal stink of wet hay, wet because it had rained earlier that day, combined with the sulfur of the fireworks, that rotten-egg haze spreading over the fields. And no cops ever came because no one called the cops in those days, certainly not on a fireworks display, not in America the greatest country on Earth, where every God-given day is treated like the Fourth of July.

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