It was a custom that every Christmas Wyatt’s grandpa would gift some random family from the community a homemade Nativity set. He could start working on this project at any point during the year, whenever the fancy struck him. Sometimes he procrastinated until October, other times he was gluing cedar shake shingles on a completed stable by Labor Day. There was only a back wall so that the tableau was visible from different angles. He whittled the clapboards and corner posts from cedar shims. For added frontal support he included an open doorway of downscaled studs. The cast of characters he did not whittle but bought from an Etsy vendor in the form of ceramic white figurines, which he proceeded to paint by hand: two shepherds, three wise men, a camel, a lamb, Mary and Joseph, and of course the messianic neonate himself.
He said it was the manger which took the most time and begged the most redos. This was crafted from doubled-up popsicle sticks, stained to match the cedar’s tannin bleed, and methodically arranged with epoxy. Straw was easy to procure in the midwest, and he needed only a pinch on which to nestle Baby Jesus. The finished product was invariably impressive. The colors he chose for the characters’ robes were rich and luxuriant, arguably even a tad psychedelic, belying realism for the sake of eye-popping aesthetics. Without exception, the recipients were overjoyed to be presented with this project, as if they were receiving one of those giant checks from Publishers Clearing House.
To put himself in the right frame of mind, Wyatt’s grandfather would play Christmas music down in his basement workshop, usually choral or orchestral, regardless of the month or season. Owing to this, Wyatt subconsciously thought of the kind-hearted tinkerer as some demigod scion of Santa Claus. The basement was Wyatt’s favorite place to be, even though it was not finished or furnished or decked out with TVs and video game consoles like some of his friends’ houses. It was bisected by an interior wall. The anterior part contained grandpa’s workshop on the north end, conjoined to a laundry room on the south end. The posterior part contained a ping-pong table, shelves of moldering board games and jigsaw puzzles, the beloved Fisher Price toys, and an ancient 3’ trampoline with a real leather frame pad protecting the sturdy coils. A 1970s vibe was exuded by the faux-wooden wall paneling. The floor in both sections was damaged linoleum the color of horseradish sauce, but in the play area it was largely covered by mismatched swatches of carpet. Inside a pantry under the stairs, grandma stored her homemade jellies, preserves, and pie fillings. Next to that squatted a General Electric refrigerator bought at some bygone department store during the Nixon administration. It wore an indestructible shell of beige enamel and opened by a chrome pull-lever.
Wyatt would lose all temporal bearing down in that damp-smelling subchamber (there was evident water damage in the false dropped ceiling courtesy of a leaky HVAC unit). One minute he was being called up for lunch, the next to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. He became Cecil B. DeMille directing overwrought dramas, sprawling epics, putting every set-piece to use: the circus tent, treehouse, airport, parking garage, ranch house, castle, even a McDonald’s complete with a cash register whose bright little bell still sang when prompted. It seemed he was always being berated by Ruby to clean up after himself, to not make a warzone of her parents’ basement.
One day he scrabbled upstairs from a long spree of Shakespearian tragedy, squinting in the obverse sunlight. It was less than a week into his summer break from school. Fifth grade felt millennia away. He snuck a cookie from the tin on the counter, then another, and proceeded to find the other three occupants of the house all in the family room watching TV. Unusual this early in the day. His grandpa sat in a matted orange recliner, while his mother and grandma were standing. They remained oblivious to his presence in the doorway, muttering soft commentary on a news broadcast, specifically a press conference being held by a husband and wife in conjunction with the Oshkosh Police Department. Wyatt didn’t know exactly where Oshkosh was but he knew it was nearby.
The husband addressed the crowd of journalists, standing at a lectern before a red brick façade. The lectern was arrayed with a dozen or more microphones. A flagpole clanked out-of-shot, its snap hooks striking the aluminum with irregular syncopation, and the wind messed the husband’s hair as he spoke. “We are making a concerted plea to this community and communities all throughout the land to stay vigilant, to always keep Kylie’s face in the back of your mind when you are out partaking in daily life, to report suspicious activity of any kind to your local authorities. Kylie is a spark of joy in this world, excited to live a long, fulfilling, and meaningful life, so anything that can be done to restore her to her family is of infinite importance. I want to conclude by saying: we love you, Kylie. We won’t ever stop searching until the day you’re brought home. Your mother, your brother, and I miss you dearly. Stay safe… Thank you.”
The clicking cameras barraged him. Eyes brimming with emotion, he stepped back to rejoin his wife and a teenage boy in a gray Abercrombie polo. The police chief replaced him at the lectern, a woman with sandy red hair, wind-burnt cheeks. Wyatt didn’t hear what she appended. He was watching the family, the husband in the middle with his arms around the others’ shoulders; the wife dabbing her eyes with a tissue, half turned away from the media as if trying to shield herself, trembling; the boy sixteen or so, pale, vacant, constantly swallowing, hands clenched at his groin so his arms made a V. He looked overwhelmed, like he had been dropped disjointedly into the middle of this press conference and had only just learned of his sister’s disappearance, now forced to process the incident before a television audience, before the convex lenses of myriad news outlets.
The live transmission shrunk to half-screen, so that the other half could be filled by an image of Kylie Cho. It was the same portrait pullulating on billboards and flyers and social media pages nationwide. Wyatt’s grandma remarked, her voice muffled by sadness, “Tomorrow it’ll be two weeks, two weeks she’s been missing. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s a long time. I have a very bad feeling.”
“The idea that we would stay faithful to a nuclear treaty which Russia divested from and openly violates is preposterous. The media loves smacking Secretary of State Pompeo around but he’s absolutely right. America is a superpower, and so its standing in the world is an enviable one. Do I really have to spell this out? Well, apparently I do, because the liberals won’t stop squawking that what Trump really wants is a war. Right. What he really wants is to antagonize commensurate superpowers overseas and have it out with them. How stupid do you have to be to believe that? There is a middle ground between waging war on someone and sitting on your hands while they modernize their nuclear armaments. And that goes for trade wars as well. As I have said many many times—from day one—am I convinced of the efficacy of tariffs on China? Not entirely. Xi Jinping’s regime has shown time and again that it is perfectly willing to sacrifice the fiscal security of its population in order to assert economic dominance. Trump is less willing, and rightfully so, but not entirely unwilling, and it’s my position that he really needs to be more transparent about this with the American people. Tariffs. Hurt. Consumers. End of story. We’re all gonna feel this in our wallets sooner or later. The real question is, will it be worth it? Will China finally play ball vis-à-vis international trade statutes rather than, as it has been doing, singling out the laws it likes opportunistically? And speaking of opportunity, have I got one here for you lucky listeners. Right now, Platinum Shave Club is offering a 50% discount off your first order if you use the promo code JOSIAH when checking out. That’s right. At last, you can reap the just fruits of staying a cogent and informed citizen by listening to The Josiah McMurtry Hour. As I said, enter my name in the promo code box—should be easy to remember—and receive 50% off your first order from Platinum Shave Club. Guys, these razors are incredible, no joke…”
Jack twisted the cap off his Gatorade bottle and took a long, quenching drink. It was one of three that he filled with water and froze overnight. Bobbing in its center was a nugget of ice. Perhaps something similar could be said about his wife.
One downside to working in isolation was that there was nobody around to enjoy his witticisms. They were wasted inside his own brain, never retained. He stood on the curb beside his postal-issue Chevy Uplander. A backup assistance mirror protruded from the roof, the iconic blue eagle was blazoned across both front doors, and his vehicle ID number was printed across the hood and the trunk. He grimaced through the window at the remaining parcels in his carriage, the long plastic trays of segregated envelopes and magazines. Sales flyers, utility bills, welfare checks, pay stubs, postcards, greeting cards, court summons, certifieds. Half of it people wanted to throw back in his face. You can keep the bills. Only checks today. The same tired one-liners his face grew sore from laughing at. He wasn’t always so bitter. On the whole he liked his job. He got to listen to Josiah McMurtry, all five hours every day. He knew global trivia he would never have taken the time to learn if say, he still worked construction. He could rattle off presidents and prime ministers like some Jeopardy whiz, hold up his end of political discussions rather than ducking out or diverting to football. His place in the world felt more holistic, more integrated. Europe. The Middle East. Asia. Africa. These were real, physical spaces populated by minds that gave interviews—via satellite, via bandwidth.
Lichtenstein just had its 300th birthday; Prince Hans-Adam II hosted a public garden party outside his castle to commemorate. An Indonesian man was walking 7,000 kilometers backwards to raise awareness of deforestation. Doctors had extracted a tumor containing a record number of 526 teeth from a seven year-old’s mouth in Chennai.
This was all fodder for possible prevarication to be used on his mother tonight. She had invited him over for dinner, i.e. to grill him on the state of his marriage. The specter of it badgered him along his whole route. Just as he saw paper-thin caricatures of his customers’ whole identities, they saw a movie extra, a timekeeper. When the mailman comes it’s time for lunch. The mailman shows up during Maury Pauvich. Our mailman always has a smile on. Hot or cold, the weather doesn’t seem to affect his mood either way.
Anyone could smile. He detested professionals, people on the clock, who let their dejection peek through, their melancholy, their human forlornness. The smile was part of the uniform. You clip it on as you do your nametag, and don’t ever think you’re so important that total strangers should perceive your disaffection with this silly, prolonged explosion called Life. That’s the bargain you make for your paycheck. You enlist to become an extra, an unnamed cog in the endeavors of the starring role.
Which suited Jack just fine. His ego enjoyed the respite. But Ruby had undermined his ability to slip fully into the mailman role. He knew for a fact that once or twice he had failed to smile at a customer until it was too late, until they had already caught in his eye some acerbic tip-off that he in fact cared little for their mail, that his major priorities were elsewhere. In such an event, he was quick to over-compensate, taking the time to compliment a flowerbed, or ask how this or that child was enjoying college. He demanded more of himself when it came to his job. Perhaps deep down he felt that, whatever vices and shortcomings one practiced in their free time, one was not officially a loser until they let it hamstring their work performance. Professionalism was the last vanguard, you could say, separating the adept from the inept, the model citizen from the self-centered leech.
Dinner with mom. He didn’t know if he wanted his shift to end so he could get the ordeal over with, or if he wanted to walk on forever, the corn belt equivalent of an aborigine on walkabout.
Back at home, Jack took a cold shower—damn near thirty minutes, downing a beer in the process. Music blared on the living room hi-fi, loud enough to vibrate the glassware in its cabinet. The Shifmans next door were not home, but even if they returned, they could consider this payback for Nola’s rare yet stentorious orgasms. He went into the bedroom wrapped in a towel. The towel was habit, of course. He lived alone now. He took it off and threw it on the bed. Alone, alone in his master bedroom, in his duplex, and the music’s exorbitant volume serving such an obvious purpose: to drown out the solitude. So he switched it off as a challenge to himself, a challenge of sensual privation, like vegetarianism or chastity. Just Jack alone with the deadwind, the molecular exchange of air between rooms. How his top drawer squealed when he withdrew a pair of socks.
He fell back on the bed, naked and weak. He had failed to dry his back, was soaking through the duvet. A ceiling fan rotated on the slowest setting, a lethargic propulsion like the air was made of soup. Jack closed his eyes, replayed conversations with Ruby he had had in this very room over the years. Not arguments but exchanges of the utmost banality. Only those would do. Those were his favorite. Banality was a privilege, and nothing made him feel more secure.
A different earring on each lobe. “Which goes better with my outfit?” A different shoe on each foot. “How about this? The open-toe or the Z strap?” He never dismissed these questions—she appreciated that.
Jack sat up and propped his chin on his fist, the Rodin of fashion consultancy. “The open-toe, darling.”
“You’re just saying that ’cause they’re more comfortable.”
“Are they? Well, good. How should I know?”
“It’s obvious enough by looking at them.”
He stared at her.
“What?” But she was smirking. She knew what. Two different shoes, two different earrings offsetting her symmetrical face, and a shade of lipstick diligently applied, which was the only reason she hesitated when he beckoned her forward.
“Come on. You can always put on more lipstick. That shade’s too red anyway, it’s overpowering.”
“Oh really.” Hands on her hips, pausing mid-stride.
“I love you.”
Neither of them ever said it back. They tacitly agreed there was no need. She came closer, stood between his knees where he sat on the edge of the bed. He held her hips and kissed just below her breasts. Then his eyes opened and he saw the fan spinning.
Jack got up and dressed.
Harry Ficke’s place was on the way to his mother’s. It stood two houses from the corner of 5th and Penn in the Ellis Historical District, meaning it had a blue-ribbon view of the marina. If the semi-recent insurgence of land developers had it their way, all these timber-body homes would be torn down, supplanted by luxury apartments and condominiums. Ficke’s was credibly one of the oldest structures in town. He had moved in twelve years ago, bought it on the nickel as a foreclosure, vowing to restore the Dutch Colonial to its former glory. He swore up and down that the county clerk had told him it was constructed in the 1850s by a sea captain who ran Canadian lumber to all the Great Lakes ports and who, between excursions, frequented the corner brothel (now Harbor Lights pub) so frequently and imprudently that he wasted away from syphilis by the turn of the century.
Harry never quite lived up to his vow of restoration, Jack was considering as he parked across the street. Frankly, it looked in worse condition that when he bought it, and it would be miraculous if the city had not penalized him in some way. Penn Avenue sloped downward toward the lake, so the house was set on a steep hill, not high but abrupt. A woman in her fifties or sixties was puttering out front in a small garden bed, pulling weeds and deadheading geraniums. Jack climbed the staircase, bracing himself on the iron banister. She turned to say hello, peeking under the brim of a straw hat. He figured this was Ficke’s tenant. Harry rented out the downstairs to a woman and her “grown-ass son,” because as a life-long bachelor he only needed so much space.
“Here to see Harry?” she asked straight away. Her appearance was almost wraithlike, her blonde hair so fair as to be called platinum, her complexion like pancake batter, her penetrating deep-set eyes a rich hazel. She wore an old pair of jeans and an oversized men’s button-down made of heavy gabardine, despite the heat.
Jack nodded. “He in?”
“I’ll bet you any money he’s not. I’ve got his routine more or less worked out; been living here nine years. He’ll be at Harbor Lights now, or Sly’s, or GM’s. Take your pick. No shortage of watering holes around here.”
“That’s a fact. I’ll try my luck and lean on the doorbell.”
“May want to knock. Doorbell’s busted, like most things in this house.”
“Yeah?” He was amused by her undisguised bitterness. She clearly was hoping this friend would pass it along to Harry that he had a disgruntled tenant—like there was any chance he didn’t know it. If she was this candid with Jack, a stranger, he could only imagine the steps Ficke must be taking to avoid confrontation, such as not coming home until late at night.
Tilting his head back to inspect the dwelling from top to bottom again, he had to admit his sympathies lay with the woman. The place was in shambles.
She followed his gaze. “Beautiful, ain’t she?”
“She could be.”
“All gone to waste. He won’t admit it to me, but I know the city’s been on his case. Especially about that roof. I see the letters taped to his door. He must think I’m clueless. I’ve been searching around for a plan B, and you can tell him that to his face, but see, I’m on a limited income, and the rent here, well, it’s decent. You get what you pay for. There’s mice, there’s bugs. It’s filthy. I actually hate being outdoors—I don’t do well in the sun—but I started gardening to give myself an excuse to leave the house. Too depressing. Needs new window panes. In the winter my furnace never stops running. The drafts rip right through the walls. Nothing’s up to code, not the wiring, not the basement stairs, not the foundation. I actually just hope and pray the place gets taken away from him before it burns down or falls over, with me and my son Cory inside…”
After having knocked on Harry’s door and found the woman’s conjecture to be correct, Jack returned to his Grand Cherokee, deciding a phone call later would have to suffice. She waved at him as he pulled out onto Penn. For all her grievances, she had notably left out the matter of Ficke being jobless, so Jack assumed this latest foul-up had not yet come to her attention.
Claudia Gruber-Lemkuil’s was a classic feminist revenge story. She had survived an abusive husband, left the bastard, outlived him, and become moderately wealthy by flipping houses, renting them out to reputable occupants with pristine credit histories, even investing in a downtown business property where she raked in thousands per month from the various suite holders. She staked such a reputation that, on multiple occasions, the city had commissioned her to beautify some of the more tumbledown estates belonging to dynasties past. The Prange Ranch, now a thriving bed and breakfast. The Bemis House, a palatial Victorian where benefit Christmas parties were held (Claudia’s name by default on the guest list). The once-dilapidated wing of the Mead Public Library, presently a sitting area replete with vending machines, chaise lounges, and a bronze bust of Andrew Carnegie (one of however many million across the nation). As for Claudia herself, she resided in a house no older than Wyatt, a Tudor Revival adjacent to Black Wolf Run Country Club and Golf Course.
Seated on the slate veranda, Jack started right in explaining Harry Ficke’s architectural snafu. It seemed as organic a way to break the ice as any.
“You’re talking 510 Pennsylvania,” she asked in a rhetorical tone.
“So you know it.” Jack was not surprised.
“Know it? I’ve had my eye on it for years. So you’re on friendly terms with the human turd who’s running it into the ground.” She arched her brow in a way that said, Imagine that.
“He might sell to you. I could talk to him.”
“Thanks. Not interested.”
“Why not?” The brusqueness of her dismissal annoyed him. “The location’s perfect.”
“Don’t sell me on the location. I’m fully aware. But property taxes are about to skyrocket along that strip, I have it on good information. Maybe you haven’t noticed. Your friend Harry is one of only four private homeowners in as many blocks. Everyone’s being bought out. Those that aren’t will be squeezed out. In the case of your friend, he’ll likely just be waited out. Odds are the house will collapse by itself and spare the municipality the cost of a wrecking crew.”
“That is the worry of the woman living there, yes.”
“I’m only joking of course. His ass will be on the curb by October, unless they grant him another winter. Legally he can’t be evicted between October and March.”
“Frozen stiffs make shoddy PR.”
She wore a black sleeveless dress, lapis lazuli at her throat on a silver chain to match the silver in her hair, which was auburn-blonde and bundled in a chignon. Like him, she had added pounds over the past few years—more jiggle in her arms, nascent jowls—but was still pretty and otherwise wrinkle-free. Her response to the weight gain was taking golf lessons. Having golfed sporadically throughout his life, Jack even joined her on one occasion, largely as an act of moral support. Rather than bonding, he had instead been forced to watch his mother flirt ostentatiously with the square-jawed instructor, a retired Marine captain named Bud or Buzz or something obvious like that. Worse yet, his game came in way over par.
He saw the transition on her face before he heard it in her voice. Conversing with Claudia was like listening to the latest work by a composer whose oeuvre he had studied and memorized his whole life. He recognized the trappings and nuances, the cues and premonitions, the reimagined, reappropriated tricks in her repertoire. She had indulged him with enough pleasantries and a graciously long prelude. Now she was quite tired of it. Months had passed since their last visit. They spoke on the phone but nothing can be gleaned from that, not compared to looking one’s interlocutor another in the eye. Now that they had sized each other up, Claudia was eager to start surgery.
Jack was less eager to be operated upon.
“What are you doing to get your family back, Jack?”
The directness of her questions were what disarmed him. There was no wiggle room, just a joust between the crook of his armor, a gun to his temple and a hand on his wallet. “I’ve chartered a hitman,” he said.
She did not smile, did not speak. She was wiping that from the record and letting him try again.
“I don’t have much recourse but to lawyer up.”
“Try and avoid that.”
“She’s ruthless, Mom. She won’t let me see the kid except in a public place. Last time it was McDonald’s. He just played in the fucking ball pit the whole time. I gotta say, he seems completely unfazed by all of this. It’s not doing my self-esteem any favors.”
“Your self-esteem isn’t the issue here.”
He stared at her. “Maybe it fucking is.”
She stared back and was the one to break eye contact. “You’re right, maybe it is. The only reason a man in his thirties would punch a hole through a door was if he had low self-esteem.”
He didn’t waste breath asking how she knew about that. He simply said, “You talked to her.”
“I called. Yes, of course. Frankly, I was surprised she picked up. Then again, we always did get along reasonably well.” Precluding what he would say next, she added, “Don’t charge me with betrayal or something silly like that, Jack. I’m on your side. If you still haven’t figured that out maybe you’re hopeless after all. It’s hard for you to be, how should I say, lawyerly in this context. You have a temper to begin with. That’s why I suggest keeping this out of court at whatever cost. She’ll do a damn good job of convincing the judge you’re a frightening bear to live with. I’ll tell you what, she nearly convinced me…”
Jack ignored this. “She’s basically kidnapped him. I do have some rights as his father, don’t I?”
“That’s really for her to decide. Just like it was for me to decide if your father had rights to you. Custody battles are one of the few arenas where us women have the upper hand.”
“Okay, leave the feminism for another time,” Jack said. “And don’t compare apples and oranges. It insults me. Your husband was happy to walk off. Custody battle? Please. There was no battle and you know it. I actually want to see my son.”
“You love him?”
Jack opened his mouth to say more—then the query sank in and he gawked at her, disbelief mingled with revulsion.
“You love Ruby? These questions seem fundamental, but it’s typically in the fundamentals where people deceive themselves. Do want your family back because you’re in heartache, or because you feel slighted?”
He drained the last of his old-fashioned. There was sugary grit in his teeth. He would make the next round; these weren’t even close to well-muddled. Fake smiling, he said, “Ridiculous. What a ridiculous question. That’s not even pop psychology. That’s utter horse shit.”
“Fine,” Claudia shrugged. “Have it your way.”
The doorbell was piped through the outdoor speakers and they heard it chime.
“I’ll get it,” she said, rising.
“No, let me.”
“I haven’t paid yet and this is my treat. Sit here. Relax. Have a cigarette. I know you’re craving one, you keep biting your nails.”
He looked at his fingers as if to confirm this allegation. She proceeded up a short flight of chocolate-stained steps, which climbed a grassy hill to the rear sliding glass door. Now he was alone with the monarch butterflies. The veranda was delimited by knee-high fieldstone beds overflowing with a whole rainbow of annuals and perennials, and the monarchs flitted among their petals like drunken pixies. As dusk approached, the western sky invoked cotton candy. Below that sprawled the fairways and putting greens of Black Wolf Run. Jack watched men sporting business casual and Titleist visors pile into a golf cart and make for the clubhouse. He thought about getting up and following them, just walking away to have a drink elsewhere, leaving his mother to clutch her plastic bags of Thai because she couldn’t cook worth a damn, a dumb offended look on her face. Are you really in heartache, Claudia, or do you just feel slighted?
When Ruby was eight months pregnant, on the cusp of splitting wide open, Jack had received a call on the landline. He was doing dishes. Ruby was feet-up in the living room, wincing and constantly readjusting. So he rinsed off his hands, dried them on a tea towel, and answered the phone. The ID said it was a call from Maryland, so he expected he’d be able to purge some of his current frustration on a telemarketer.
Instead, a woman’s voice said, “Hello. Is this Jonathan Lemkuil?”
There was a caution in her voice which he couldn’t help mimic. Strangers always spoke so cautiously on the phone, as though they might let slip some damning bit of personal data. “This is Jack, who’s this?”
She went on to introduce herself as Bridget Lemkuil. She was Jack’s half-sister from Baltimore whom he had never met, never even knew existed, whereas she had grown up knowing that a John Benjamin Lemkuil hovered somewhere in the world. Bridget was twelve years his junior. She was calling to inform him that their father had died of lymphoma. Recently. In the past forty-eight hours.
“I see,” said Jack.
“I hope you understand why I wanted to look you up. It felt like… the thing to do.” He must have been silent for a beat too long because she said, “Jack?”
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I understand.” Ruby yelled from the other room, asking who was on the line.
“The funeral’s on Wednesday,” said Bridget. “Obviously it’s short notice, and this is all really peculiar.”
“I get why you called,” Jack reiterated, cutting her off. “And I guess maybe I’d have done the same. But Bridget?”
There was a breathy dip in her voice. She sensed what was coming. “Yes?”
“Don’t ever contact me again. I have a kid on the way. I don’t need anymore complications right now.”
So she hung up and went off to prepare for her father’s funeral—buying flowers, selecting a casket, picking out a headstone—all that bullshit Jack would be spared until Claudia’s flame guttered out, and anyway, she wanted to be cremated. He told Ruby it was a wrong number. He told Claudia nothing whatsoever. This was his and his alone, this opened portal, this accidental overlap. His only regret was that he’d let slip he was having a kid. That was sharing too much. Days later he looked Bridget up on Facebook. Her profile was locked to outsiders, but it’s not as if he wanted to pore through her private life. He just needed a single image, a face to attach to the voice. As it turned out, there were eight Bridget Lemkuils on Facebook. He knew instantly which one was his.
After dinner, it was growing quite dark, so Jack and Claudia retired inside. The subject matter over pad thai, spring rolls, and chicken satay had been considerably more at ease. Claudia spoke of her garden upkeep, how she always wanted to be self-sufficient in that respect and never “one of those people who hires a gardener.” Meaning she never wanted to act filthy rich. Mowing the lawn, she said, was perhaps her single greatest pleasure in life. Granted, she did have a Craftsman V-twin, but this still seemed like a hyperbolic assertion for a woman in the dating circuit who took regular Carribean vacations.
She made coffee in a french press and served it with a splash of Canadian whisky. As this was being prepared, Jack paced her spacious, sunken living room. It had angular stucco ceilings, track lighting, mid-century furniture, and a hybrid fireplace. He scanned a maple bookcase in the corner with voluptuous scrollwork. There was Carol Oates, Jong, Morrision, Gaitskill, Atwood, Munro, Allende, and more. They looked to be in mint condition. Below them was an entire shelf dedicated to Dick Francis and Dean Koontz, these with cracked bindings and dog-eared pages. Her “beach reads,” she called them. Jack wondered if that classification would be taken as disparaging by an author. Probably depended on their level of self-importance.
He had to crouch before he found the title he was looking for, a very specific paperback modestly secreted on the bottom shelf. Made To Order, by Claudia Gruber. It followed a state-of-the-art sex robot called Felix, who gets purchased by a millionaire prosecutor named Irwin Grieves, a man with predilections so sadistic that he dare not act them out except on an android. The novel’s hook was that it was narrated by Felix, enabling it to examine Grieves’ abominable psyche from the guileless perspective of a computer. Yet over time, as Felix’s AI develops, she does come to recognize certain hardwired defects in Irwin’s programming—and sets out to correct them. One reviewer called it, “Ex Machina through the filter of femdom.”
“It would be criminal if we went the whole evening and I forgot to tell you,” Claudia said, letting her coffee cup cool in a saucer on her lap. She and Jack sat on opposite ends of the couch, leaving a damask cushion between them like some 38th Parallel. “I’ll be leaving Friday on a three-week trip.”
Jack raised his eyebrows in surprise, take a test sip of the brew. It was nothing odd for her to go globetrotting, but oftentimes just for a week to ten days. “You want me to have your mail forwarded to Aruba? Do you need to apply for a visa?”
“Not Aruba this time. The Baltics.”
“The Baltics.” He caught himself just in time before confusing them with the Balkans. It was only thanks to The Josiah McMurtry Hour that he knew anything about these regions. “Like Estonia?”
“Precisely. We’ll be landing in Helsinki, taking a ferry across the sea—not a cruiseliner, mind you, just a normal pedestrian ferry—and spending a few days in Tallinn. Then we’re renting a car and making an entire lap around Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. About 2,200 kilometers in all… I’m not sure what that is in miles.”
“You know the only word I heard in all that is we.”
A smile grew that took ten years off her face. “I can’t be traveling these strange lands alone. I’ll need male protection.”
“Not very femdom-y of you.”
She tittered. There was no other word for it. “No, I suppose not. I’ll do my share of the driving. Much as it scares me.”
“Can I wager a guess?”
She waved for him to go ahead.
“The jarhead golf instructor. Butch or whatever his name his.”
She almost choked on her coffee. Jack was pleased that she was just as transparent to him as he apparently was to her. “Bill,” she corrected. “My god, I haven’t said a word. How the hell did you know that? Are you reading my diary?”
Jack played with a loose thread in the backrests’s stitching. “I’ve been having you tailed.”
“Suddenly I’m embarrassed, I don’t know why.”
“Me neither. Are you taking any books along? Reaching an international audience? Never know, Made To Order could be the next big cultural phenomenon over there. Just another bug up Putin’s ass.”
Though self-published via Amazon, Claudia had put as much diligence into her final draft as if HarperCollins was knocking at the door. She teamed up with a graphic designer on creating an eye-grabbing cover. She hired a professional line editor, paying him five cents a word. Then, not only did she launch it in Kindle format, but she also ordered a hundred physical copies at her discounted rate and proceeded, for a good two or three months, to peddle them voraciously at various independent bookstores in the region, largely Milwaukee. Independent bookstores scarce in the boonies, but more than that, Jack got the impression she was somewhat sheepish about people she actually knew reading the book, given its lurid subject matter. He adored this drive in his mother, this nonstop creative aggression, and before he left made sure she knew that he was absolutely, 100 percent, without irony or snarky judgment, excited for her and Bill-Bud-Butch to travel the world.
Back at home, he drained the last inch from a bottle of rye, decided it was not enough for a respectable beverage, and cracked the seal on another he had waiting in queue on top of the dusty refrigerator. Jack had read somewhere that rye was healthier for you than bourbon, that it didn’t digest into sugar at the same precipitous rate as corn mash. Maybe it wasn’t a kale shake, but one had to start somewhere.
He walked onto the porch, intending to sit down and enjoy a cigarette. His nightly custom. Instead, something unusual happened. He found no appeal in the notion of sitting. He wanted to walk, the same impulse which had seized him as he watched the golfers retreating to the posh haven of their clubhouse. He walked right off the porch, down the sidewalk, across the grass, over the curb, and onto the tarmac. He stood in an island of light, watching the houses, their sleepy peaked roofs augmented by chimney pipes and turbine vents. He kept walking—traversed the island straight down the middle, enjoying the clink of ice cubes in his glass, which was filled to the brim, so he had to slurp some off the top to prevent it spilling. It felt subversive, what he was doing, but in a meaningless way, the way most subversive acts are meaningless in first-world democracies.
He followed the channel that debouched into his cul-de-sac, an unlit lateral street which eventually intersected with Lincoln. Then he turned west, a lake breeze at his back, a jogger on the parallel sidewalk all medalled with reflectors, as quiet and unassuming as a lost cat. Nothing but houses, plain working-class houses, not the dynastic lodgings that were Claudia’s bread and butter. Infrequent lampposts on long fluted necks. A blue postal collection box, pick-up time 3:00. The rustling ash trees marked with neon spray-paint for demolition, the tops of them decayed by that pestilential invasive beetle, the emerald ash borer: some North Asian plague wiping out all the shady spots on his route.
The ice was melting. His glass was sweating. The night was quiet and cool and fresh; everything smelled like lawn trimmings. He passed a dog walker letting her St. Bernard piss on a hydrant. He passed the muffled din of Terry’s Tavern, like some brick stomach arumble with indigestion. He came to a plexiglas-enclosed bus shelter. There stood a stout Hmong man in a canvas fisherman’s vest, the kind outfitted with a million pockets for storing tackle. He was old, his face like punched pretzel dough, and he smoked two hand-rolled cigarettes simultaneously. Two of them. This fascinated Jack, like he had stumbled on a miracle. He thought the Hmong man was humming, but this proved not to be the case. There was another person, an old Hmong woman, seated on a wooden bench recessed in the shadows. She wore a baggy trench coat. Piled next to her was an army duffle bursting to max capacity, about the size of a body pillow. She wore odd slippers on her feet and tapped her toes as she hummed—first one foot, then the other, back and forth like timpani mallets, keeping time with the melody. The old man seemed to enjoy her singing. Every now and then he would nod his head to the rhythm, only for a few bars. They paid little attention to Jack. He leaned against the shelter and sipped his rye.
The midwest in particular had seen an influx of Hmong refugees since the late Seventies, following the Laotian Civil War; also known as the “Secret War” to Americans because it was now declassified that the CIA had waged proxy campaigns (nothing new there), abetting royalist forces against communist revolutionaries. When the reds prevailed, America’s allies in the region were slated for massacre. The lucky ones wound up in Thai refugee camps. Successive legislation ratified over the decades granted more and more displaced Hmong families political asylum. Wisconsin received the third largest apportionment, behind California and Minnesota.
He let the whisky carry his imagination away. He deduced she must be singing some folk battle hymn, the melody ancient, the lyrics passed down orally from the frontline guerrillas of a bloody jungle war to this stoic incarnation here at a Middle-American bus stop. One summer day he had chanced to voyage into Kiwanis Park. His intent was to patronize a mobile biergarten which operated only in the warmer months. Instead he found himself paying admission to the annual Hmong festival—of which he was previously ignorant—and witnessing a lineup of traditional dances carried out in colorfully embroidered clothing. There were throngs in attendance, every Hmong in the whole community it seemed. He couldn’t find a beer to save his life, but everyone young and old was drinking bubble tea, so he tried one of those. Taro flavored. It tasted vaguely like sweet potato. Besides the food and tchotchke vendors, there were concurrent soccer games taking place, steel-legged and tensile young men barking interjections in their ancestral dialect. There were the performers in fantastic hats and top-buns and headwraps. When he stumbled back out to his car an hour later—not by choice, but seemingly swept there on a wayward breaker—he had the sensation that he had dreamt the whole thing, that no fellow caucasian would believe a word of his account…
Then, the old woman’s humming struck a familiar enough measure that Jack realized the tune was not foreign to him. In fact, not only was it ubiquitous on the Top 40 airwaves, it had been playing in the strip club four nights ago when he and Miguel were escorted from the catwalk. He bent his ear to make sure he was not mistaken.
Nope. No mistaking it. Definitely Rihanna.
This twist enlivened him all the same. He set down his tumbler so he could clap his hands, stomp his foot, and smile at the Hmong couple, trying with all his might to remember the words. “We found love in a… In a what? An open space? Broken face? Token race? Ah well, he could fake his way through it. A lapse in memory shouldn’t interfere with this golden opportunity for cross-cultural bonding. He sang what he knew and mumbled the rest. The old man looked vexed but amused, trying to keep his focus on the empty space ahead, whereas the woman did not conceal her delight. A nubby smile sketched more wrinkles on her face. She hummed a bit louder, with a bit more elan.
It occurred to Jack that the bus lines did not run this late, when a set of headlights washed over the three of them. He turned around to find a white cargo van screeching to a halt. Something rattled in the engine, the paint was mottled with rust. The back sliding door opened. There, absent actual seating, squatted four Asians of varying age, including one young woman petting a small white hen. Before Jack could comprehend what he was seeing, the bus-stop couple clambered aboard with their giant duffle in tow. Another passenger slammed the door behind them.
The van veered off—a GMC Savana, to be precise. Jack watched the taillights recede, an inflamed red. Curtains were hung in the rear windows.