It was his own fault for looking her up, Drago thought. He had Scintilla-ed Dixie’s name, using the powerful new search engine that found everything, from which no fact could hide, no secret was safe (this was how they advertised it, which Drago thought was clever, being in sales). He had looked up Dixie’s name at other times, at many other times, but he hadn’t used Scintilla (which he’d gotten at a discount through his job), and it had made all the difference. Whatever super ability it possessed (like a souped-up engine stuck in an old car, that’s how he saw its innovative aspect), it had found some new site or source somewhere that said that Dixie was dead.
Drago stared at his computer screen for a while, stunned, paralyzed. The obit was from a small newspaper in the town where she lived, an alphabetical listing, brief and to the point. It gave no cause of death, only said it was “after a short illness,” which usually meant cancer, right? (A “long illness” meant cancer, too; everything meant cancer these days.) Dixie had worked as a physical therapist, been divorced, and left one son named Paul. That had been her father’s name, too, he remembered.
Drago had no idea how long he sat there immobile, but when he finally snapped to and logged off, he realized he might be late for his appointment. He drove there dumbly and in a daze, ruminating about Dixie’s untimely death. Or maybe it hadn’t been untimely, since she was his own age; maybe it had come right on time; maybe he’d outlived his usefulness. Thinking about it distracted Drago enough that he had to hit his brakes to avoid ploughing into the car in front of him at the red light. Had it been a subconscious attempt to be killed, too, and join Dixie (after how many decades of not seeing her, three)? He didn’t know, he only waved a sheepish apology through the windshield at the driver up ahead, who’d turned, infuriated and maybe frightened, to stare back at him. As Drago drove again, he hoped he didn’t look panicked and pale (his pits were wet, he could feel it): that was no way to sell anything to anybody. He studied himself in the rearview and caught of a glimpse of the deep rings beneath his eyes (worse than when he’d gotten in? Or was that just his imagination?). He had to brake hard again before nearly hitting the same car—Christ!
This time, they were at a stop sign, and the guy started to get out. Drago didn’t wait for him (the guy was heavy and threatening but also slow-moving); he made a sudden, screeching U-turn, which nearly landed him on the lawn of a house before he was safely heading the other way. This added more time to his trip and so definitely meant he would be late.
Of course, calling it an “appointment” was really pushing it. Drago had not been invited anywhere by anyone, certainly not the doctor he would be barging in on—or barring that, whose patients in the waiting room he would be ambushing to hand out his cards, explaining what services he was selling.
He knew that carrying calling cards was old hat. He, Drago, was a comforting relic, a sales rep who actually appeared in person. The Muth Co. wanted to take the edge off, to soften the blow of their new line of products. Now that they were offering DNA opportunities to everyone, they wished to make them friendly and easeful, to allay fears of their charging prohibitive prices, to assure customers that everything would be affordable, at least during this trial period that Drago was introducing and stressing in his sales pitch wouldn’t last long.
The doctor would have to agree to display a cardboard cutout (another fun throwback) of a personified DNA cell sequence named “Gene Ome” (so christened after many serious meetings, Drago was assured, in which other names had been “spitballed” and “bandied about”), complete with face, feet, hands, and top hat. If the doctor balked, Drago would ask for him or her to put up a poster of the lovable trademarked character or worst came to worst, make a pile of calling cards easily accessible. And worst come to absolute worst, if Drago was rebuffed or not seen at all, he would just hand out the cards himself to those waiting for appointments before being thrown out. (The card featured a slice of Gene, his waving hand in a white glove, as if delightfully beckoning a customer on.)
In all probability, the doctor would already have hired a DNA company to chart patients’ cellular pasts and predict their health futures and treatments. It was Drago’s job to convince people to switch to Muth, using the cheesy mascot and their new extra services.
Drago had been the grandson and great-grandson of actual sales reps for drug companies, “detail men” who wined and dined doctors to convince them to stock and prescribe their products or at least provided pizza and pens as incentives. Now that this profession had become non-existent or automated (as insurance companies and not doctors made the decisions on what drugs to use), Drago had been employed as a comment on this former self, like imitation barbershop quartets in fairgrounds or fake American Indians behind glass dioramas in museums (also now extinct).
At first, Muth intended to hire actors to imitate the reps, stressing comedy in their presentations (the sleazy slickness of the pitches, the embarrassing backslaps and flirting). But they found that Drago, hired on a whim, was a more charming and cheaper option, an actual fossil in the flesh. (And speaking of Indians, didn’t Sitting Bull appear in person in vaudeville as himself? That’s what this was like—except, Drago thought, Sitting Bull had a specific curtain time and he had to make up imaginary deadlines, to which he was now running late because he had Scintilla-ed Dixie.)
The doctor’s office shared space with a psychic, a massage parlor, and a bank in the one store still occupied in the small and shabby shopping center. Its front area had room for just three patients, sitting on a faux-leather couch before a receptionist’s desk. If they hadn’t already done so from home, the patients were typing their health histories onto tablets and sending the information to the receptionist a few feet away, who did double-duty as a nurse. Even though it was called a “waiting room,” there was little waiting and each patient was seen by the doctor and released, quickly.
“What are my chances to get in?” Drago asked Annaleigh, the nurse-receptionist, whom he had known for years as he made his appearances and gave his pitches.
“Not good.” Annaleigh was ten to fifteen to twenty years younger, friendly but no-nonsense, a sturdy woman physically, and it seemed, emotionally. He felt he didn’t have to aggressively impress or con her, even if he did her boss, Dr. Robbins, who was a supercilious prick, Drago had always thought.
“Put in a good word for me?” he asked.
“You still peddling the friendly gene man? I thought Robby said no.”
“He did, but…”
“Between you and me, it’s the top hat. It’s creepy. It looks weird.”
“I know. I tried to tell them, but…” but who listened to Drago? It was like getting advice from your grandfather; he was only there to be humored and—occasionally—honored. “Still, they’ve got a new service that’s actually interesting.”
Annaleigh seemed skeptical, and he couldn’t blame her. Muth said everything they offered was sensational; it was always a hard sell, and Drago had to do it, even if he felt he was pressing. This time was no exception.
He brought up the newest section on the company’s Web site, turned his tablet, and showed it to Annaleigh.
“See the cartoon fly?” It was a drawing of a bug with big blue eyes.
“It’s not necessarily just the offspring of its own father fly.” He skipped to the next cartoon, an old fly, complete with cane and colostomy bag.
“No. Its traits could have been inherited from the first fly its mother mated with.”
“You don’t say.”
“Right.” Drago had her attention—tentatively, but Annaleigh was on the hook. He showed her the next cartoon, a playboy fly, wearing an ascot and holding a bouquet and a bottle of champagne. He, too, had big blue eyes.
“See? Molecules in the seminal fluid from the Mom’s first mate were absorbed by her immature eggs. And that influenced how her babies turned out, even though a different male was the actual Dad.” He thought he had memorized it right.
“Right. Non-genetic inheritance. It’s called Telegony. And now we know it applies to humans, too.”
The face of the fly faded into that of a blue-eyed human being. It was like an old horror movie scene in reverse, the one in which a man-turned-fly screamed “Help me!” Drago felt like screaming it now, for Annaleigh appeared unsure—though not dismissive or bored, that was something at least.
He explained what Muth was offering, what Robbins and other doctors could recommend their patients sign up for (getting a percentage, of course, though one likely to be entirely absorbed by their insurance company). And this was the hard part, for Drago was selling an offer to track down adults and/or children, to find old lovers and/or offspring, relaying to them information about traits they may have inherited or handed down, unknowingly. It was borderline bullshit, Drago thought, or was offensive or both. Still, he did his best song and dance. And not for nothing, he was happy to see.
“You mean, some guy I slept with back in the day,” Annaleigh said, after chewing it over, “but didn’t get me pregnant could really be, like, the reason my kid has, I don’t know, high cholesterol?”
Annaleigh had been working in healthcare too long, Drago thought. Still, she had cared enough to ask. “Absolutely. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Exciting, right?”
Annaleigh swished it around further, working her lips and eyes a little to fully digest the idea. Then her face grew still, and she shrugged.
“I’ll pass it along.”
“Great!” This was a lot better than Drago feared he’d do, only proving his other theory that you never knew what people would fall for—go for, he corrected himself, amused. No fossil, he still had it. Drago passed the tablet to Annaleigh, deciding it would be a better perk than pizza or a pen; he’d tell Muth he lost it, let those cheap bastards complain. “Keep it, okay?”
“Yeah. Courtesy of Muth.”
Annaleigh smiled at him, and this sudden display of warmth softened her features, made her look years younger: it was that moment when you can see what someone looked like as a child. Or was he just thinking about that because of the service he was selling?
Or had it been the whole thing with Dixie—and by “whole thing,” he meant her death? Driving home, Drago thought about her again, which darkened his mood. He appreciated once again how the act of selling buoyed and energized him, kept him young; without it, he felt his own age and, thinking of Dixie, even older.
Drago’s day of work was over, and he made no more appointments—could have, knew he should have, didn’t care. At home, he took the pills he always did, more of them than usual, and used his last burst of energy before crashing to jerk shut his blinds (he had bought the heavy ones, blackout curtains) and, voila, three PM became three AM, dark as a doornail, dead as a—what was it?—as death, whatever, and then he was out.
Drago slept for he didn’t know how many hours. The pills were only supposed to even him out, but he found if he mixed and matched them with the meds he was already on, they put him right to sleep (he’d discovered this one day by accident, hadn’t intentionally meant to become unconscious, hadn’t read the labels or put new pills in an old bottle or grabbed the wrong ones indiscriminately and then woke up—how many?—twelve hours later, lucky he hadn’t died but eager to do it again, when he was most upset and in need of a little oblivion, as he was now).
And when he woke up, to his amazement, he was hard. This might have pleasantly surprised any man his age, but Drago had essentially been impotent for years—through his one brief marriage and his various, meaningless (that wasn’t fair, occasionally meaningful) affairs, even with the hookers real and virtual he sometimes hired, with whom you’d think sex would have been impersonal enough not to have dammed the river of blood from his brain to his dick or however it happened; you’d think he wouldn’t have cared, in other words, enough to thwart himself that way. (And this was before time itself physically put the stopper on him or whatever you did to dam a river. He had never gotten used to taking more pills for this problem; he took so many already!)
Anyway, he stared at his erection as if at a picture of himself from high school: Look at how handsome I was, how beautiful everyone was, everyone young is. He didn’t want to touch it, only wanted to admire it, not frighten it away. He couldn’t remember what dreams might have inspired it; he never remembered his dreams when drugged. Maybe it had to do with…and suddenly, Dixie came back to him, not dead but alive and…standing up by now, Drago’s excitement faded, and he felt himself fall, on the way down grabbing a free-standing Gene Ome display he’d assembled as a joke, the top hat snapping off as he landed on top of it, the cell sequence, on the past.
Drago lay there, face down on the cardboard, his nose not broken only by a lucky break (and a lucky break, he thought, was a pool shot, the balls spraying in all directions, some hitting and landing in holes, others scattering but staying on the table, like sperm attaching itself to unfertilized eggs, the whole Telegony thing. Drago was half-unconscious again, looked absurd, but he couldn’t help it, he couldn’t get up).
At his age, Drago knew he was a figure of fun to some people, to young people especially, his life now a sad situation comedy of which he was the faded star. (“You dropped your dick,” a teenage boy said to him the other day on the street, just walking by, a complete stranger, punching him with his own potency, as a joke.) Yet Drago’s life had not always been comic; it had once been dramatic, even melodramatic, even operatic, and he had been the star, when he’d been in love with Dixie, in high school.
She was fair then, fair enough to look gentile even though she was Jewish, fair enough that people made anti-Semitic jokes to her about other people. (His mother had been the same way—was that why he had been attracted to her? He didn’t know.) Dixie’s father, Paul, had been fair, too; Drago could barely see him now, had hardly known him then. Dixie was quiet, studious, secretly cutting and judgmental; he was openly cutting and judgmental, secretly quiet and studious; it was as if each were the other, inside out. Dixie was having some sort of fling with a female teacher when he met her, which both infuriated and aroused him, he couldn’t help it: everything aroused him at seventeen. Each was the first person the other had officially slept with, and doing it made them—made Drago, he couldn’t speak for Dixie, had thought he could but learned he couldn’t—feel invincible, powerful in a way that would have surprised anyone who saw him now, face down, pill-addled, impotent, and alone.
In those days, he and Dixie could not keep their hands off each other. Moments came back to Drago now of pawing, rubbing, and groping each other—of movies he couldn’t remember except for how her right breast had felt as he trailed his thumb along its side, sitting beside her in the theater, and how his erection felt as she felt its lump in his pants; how he had visited her at music camp (she played the oboe) and they had frantically touched each other, alone in some garden, beset by mosquitos, not caring if they were bitten, along with the insects, their hands underneath each other’s clothes. And the weekend that his parents went away, and they decided to tell Dixie’s parents he was taking her upstate to look at colleges, but instead they had his nearby house to themselves, and slept with each other there for the first time.
Now Drago groaned, placed both hands at his sides and pressed on the unwashed rug, making himself stand as if expanding himself, as if he were a bicycle wheel pierced with a pin that had had its holes taped and had to be cranked by a pump to possess any power. He managed to sit on the sofa, where he saw the house in which he and Dixie had hidden that weekend, where they had sex locked behind the door of his room as if his parents were home, and neither was sure it had happened until they tried it again, this time out in the open in the living room with the curtains closed, daring to act as if they were adults and lived there. This time, they knew it had happened, and neither felt as if they had existed in the world before—or he hadn’t, he could no longer speak for Dixie. It wasn’t just the physical feeling (if anything, Drago felt inadequate because he could keep from coming: with the one girl he had experimented with before, he couldn’t stop and would mess himself immediately, and now that he could control it, he felt he was doing it wrong, that’s how ignorant he was, how innocent) it was the love he felt for Dixie, which he had only partly understood before. It was the difference between learning a language and knowing a language, the way your brain changed when the words became your own—no, he couldn’t compare it to that, everything else should have been compared to this, even today he couldn’t express it in words to himself, love was like death in that it was like nothing else, and he had thought of death not because of Dixie now but Dixie then, when she’d called home to check in with her parents.
Her mother didn’t tell her what had happened, only alluded to something being wrong, and strongly suggested that Dixie come home. But how could she credibly get there—Drago asked, after she hung up—when she had lied that she was miles to the North, upstate looking at schools, and not just hiding around the corner? Yet Drago sensed this question concerned him more than it did Dixie, because she wanted to go home right away, had an almost animal—not almost; animal—instinct that their little subterfuge didn’t matter anymore, that their lie wasn’t life and death, and this was, she could tell.
So Drago and Dixie drove to her house, where people were gathered in a way that made clear whatever had occurred was serious. Some looked at them with confusion; one or two even asked how they had gotten there so fast—it had been only minutes—when they were supposed to be far away. Dixie’s mother took her into another room before either could answer, and then he heard Dixie cry out in a way that made him know her father was dead, Paul had died of a heart attack, and Drago heard the cry again now, sitting on the sofa, as an older man, he heard it as if Dixie were still in the other room and had been there all these years.
When his parents returned at the end of the weekend, they sensed that something was wrong. Yet when Drago told them the truth, they were relieved, glad it had not been something serious, something that happened to anyone in their family, and he hated them for their insularity and selfishness and never forgave them for it, really—though, now, on the sofa, he understood how they might have pulled the world around them as protection, as he now pulled the stinky blanket he kept meaning to wash around him in the same way.
He and Dixie kept going out, but it was as if her father never stopped dying, died again each day, the fact that they had been fucking for the first time right around the corner but saying they were somewhere else kept killing him. Drago tried to take care of her, but he was still an adolescent and didn’t know how, merely approached her on eggshells about everything, which didn’t help. Dixie retreated into anorexia, in order to control what she could and avoid more sex with him—this was what a psychiatrist said—and then her periods stopped, not because she was pregnant but because she had made herself cease being adult, in order not to experience more pain, or because she was guilty and punishing herself, or something else the psychiatrist said. And soon they were engaging in recriminations, him yelling, “None of this would have happened if your father hadn’t died!” as if he were blaming her, which he wasn’t or maybe he was, he didn’t know what he was doing, he was only seventeen. And Dixie yelled at him, “Don’t you know how lonely I am?!” which Drago didn’t understand meant that it was over: they had been destroyed by what they had not caused to happen, by a mere coincidence, by her father’s congenital heart condition or his poor health habits or both, because it had happened on the day they first went to bed and lied.
Now Drago managed to stand, the memories that he had banished from his brain for so long allowed inside again, flashing on and off there like lights at a high school dance or stars in a sky inside him, blinking sex, death, love, death, never going out, the way the moon can still be seen when the sun comes up, a reminder of a night always to come or all the nights that had already been or both. Drago showered and, barely bothering to dry himself, went online to read more about the Muth Co.’s new services.
Drago had always been offered them at a discount, but had never taken advantage. Now he did so, put in a request to track down Dixie’s surviving son. He only wanted to know where Paul was, didn’t need the whole package, the relaying of specious information once the person was found. The operator said they didn’t offer these options à la carte, but they would make an exception for him, which was a perk of his employment. Or was it pity because he was an older employee who had never asked for much? It didn’t matter, Drago thought.
The request was expedited, and Drago realized the longer the searches lasted, the more they cost. He was bemused to learn that all of the assurances he gave to people about prices in his sales pitches were untrue, that loopholes were always found to void any price reductions that he had promised. He contemplated the fact that he lied to people for a living, something he had always suspected but never had had so nakedly verified. Yet he did not know what to do with the information.
Then he received a response, which was Paul’s full address.
Drago was afraid to fly, so he rented a car for the dayslong journey to a smaller city. He took pills to stay awake and, when he stayed in motels for the night, pills to fall asleep. These interacted unpredictably with the other pills he always took to maintain his moods. On one stretch of highway, stuck in a traffic jam, he banged on his horn and steering wheel, screaming, until he split open the skin of the side and front of his fist. Looking around, he saw all the other drivers doing the same thing, though later he was aware he had imagined it. At last, after driving for forty-eight hours straight without sleeping, dehydrated enough that his lips were blistered, stress having coaxed back into existence his recently dormant scalp and face eczema, he pulled into the city to find the boy who was not actually his son.
After Drago awoke in a motel bed a full day later, his time became a blur of amateur detective work and internet use on whatever free computers he could find in the few libraries or coffee shops left. Paul had been absent all day from his apartment in a building in a run-down neighborhood. Drago followed the advice of the apartment house super (whom he paid) as to where to find him. The man said the local church was where he spent a lot of his time.
When Drago arrived, there was no service being held. It was instead a meeting of an alcoholics’ group—a new one that also welcomed those addicted to drugs, electronic devices, religions, and political ideologies. It was, not surprisingly, a large gathering, many of whom milled outside during a break for cigarettes. (This addiction was not included: Manfred saw that the group’s crude sign on the church door held the logo of a sponsoring conglomerate which produced prohibitively expensive tobacco products supplied to stores for free as an introductory offer before they raised the price incrementally—as Drago had learned Muth did for its own services.) He saw Dixie’s son, Paul, standing there, stamping out the latest (actual, retro) cigarette he had reduced to a butt.
Paul was twenty-five, lanky, lantern-jawed, dark, attractive in the way all young people were. Drago tried not to stare at him but was eager to identify elements of his own physiognomy in the boy: the best he could come up with were his brown eyes. Still, he couldn’t deny Paul’s resemblance to his mother. He had Dixie’s angular cheekbones and full, slightly tilted lips, which flared in an Elvis-ish smirk whenever she smiled, something Drago hadn’t remembered until today, when he saw Paul do the same thing.
The kid was kind of smiling in response to something he’d seen on his device, which he had turned on after stamping out his smoke. He kept his distance from the other addicts, only occasionally saying to them words as fleeting as the flames he held to their cigarettes. He seemed known to most of them, a mascot—or was he the ringleader? Drago hadn’t smoked in decades and even then it had been mostly pot, but he approached Paul anyway.
“May I bum one?”
Paul looked at him, warily, then shrugged, with his quasi-smile. He tapped out a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket, a new-old container featuring Western movie lettering and made of metal not paper.
“Are you new here?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Drago replied, sucking in smoke that immediately made him light-headed. “First time.”
“I don’t remember seeing you in there.”
“I always sit in the back.”
Drago was less interested in what Paul said as in the quality of his voice: it was deep and weirdly gravelly for someone his age. Drago’s own voice was relatively high and often pegged him as someone younger on the phone. He wondered where the shards of himself were in this boy. Would they be like the bits of broken glass he had once stepped on for days after dropping a wine flute while drunk? Or like the “Some Pulp” advertised on old orange juice containers, tasty little lumps he occasionally swallowed? There had been neither thing so far.
Thoughts of drinking reminded Drago that he was supposed to be an addict. While he knew he took a lot of pills, he didn’t see himself as dependent, for then he might be compelled to quit, and he didn’t want to. Paul, on the other hand, had identified a problem in himself and taken steps to solve it, another way they were unalike.
Drago was about to ask what Paul’s addiction was but then assumed it wasn’t proper etiquette. So he was surprised by what Paul said next.
“What are you in for?”
Drago was shaken by the boy’s direct question. He stammered something unintelligible, then said a word impulsively.
Drago was naturally lean and his pill consumption further reduced his appetite. He had no idea why he’d said what he had. Paul looked at him as if he were joking. Then his expression changed to one of canny understanding and he nodded, sagely, his lip curl increasing.
“I get it.”
“You?” Drago asked, now nervous.
“Me? I’m addicted to love.” And Paul gave the briefest of winks, suggesting the two had such immediate simpatico that a longer wink wasn’t necessary.
It had been a reference to an obscure song from another era; its music video famously featured well-built, robotic models only pretending to play instruments. Everyone involved had been in on the joke, including the audience. Paul was suggesting that he and Manfred were the same, bullshit artists attending the group under false pretenses.
“Who told you?” Paul asked.
“Told me what?”
“Look, it’s okay. You don’t have to say…”
“I would if I—”
“Was it Wolfie?”
“It’s really okay.”
“No, right. It was Wolfie.”
“I thought so.”
Drago had agreed with Paul on a whim, and now it was too late to take it back. He was appalled to think that their easy way with lies was what linked them. Was this what Paul had inherited from his old DNA that had decorated Dixie’s unused eggs like dust? Yet he had wanted to be connected to the boy so bad that he had lied again, and easily.
“What’ll it be?” Paul said.
“What’ll be what?”
“What do you want from me?”
If Drago delayed telling the truth much longer, it would seem even weirder—he would seem weirder—when he finally did. Luckily or unluckily, Paul saved him the trouble.
“You want…?” And Paul’s voice went lower, dragged down by the confidence he was expressing, as an accomplice is pulled into an alley to commit a crime. He ran through a long list of prescription drugs he could make available, a dizzying array of names invented by pharmaceutical companies to sound soothing and/or effective, with “pan” at the end of some, “thin” the end of others. As the names rushed by, Drago was reminded of a passing train he wanted to catch and couldn’t afford to miss. This distracted him from the realization that drugs were what Paul was offering and what he thought Drago had come there—to see him!—to get. This was what everyone there saw Paul to get.
“That one,” Drago said, seeing the last train car of pills shoot by.
“What? Which one?”
“The last. No, second to last.” It was one of the drugs he actually used. He didn’t want to repeat the name since they were invariably being recorded by someone. (Didn’t Paul care about that? No, he was so expert at this game that he probably knew the degree of his liability at all times and in all places.)
“Okay,” Paul said.
“Yes. That I can do.”
Words were again whizzing by, but if anything was disappearing, it was the opportunity to identify himself. Still, Drago could always use a refill of his pills: why not do it this way?
“Oh. Right. Of course.”
“So—unless…” Paul indicated the group of people starting to head back for the session’s second half. He seemed to question whether Drago wanted to go back in. Then he waved a hand, to say, I’m being silly, of course you don’t. “Let’s blow.”
They took Paul’s car, which was worn, rickety, and filled with food containers and dead devices. As they drove, Drago wondered if this might be his best—and last—chance to explain who he was. But all he could do was make small talk which wasn’t really small.
“You live around here?” he asked.
“No. Well, sort of. Yeah.” Was Paul so used to lying that he had a hard time stopping?
“With a wife? A husband?”
“Me?” As if it were unthinkable.
“With your folks then?”
“They’re divorced. And my Mom just died.” Now Paul’s voice became neither high nor low but soft, staggering, breakable.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Thanks.” This was Drago’s opportunity to jump in with both feet or at least nudge closer to where he wished to be. Yet he found himself still asking questions as if a polite outsider, which moved him further away. “So you’re close?”
“We’ve got about a half-mile to go.”
“No, I mean…to your mother.” Drago realized he had used the present tense, which was telling about himself and also odd. He didn’t have time to correct it.
“I said that she’s dead.”
“I know, but…”
Paul turned on the radio, and they rode with the latest #1 hit—a man screaming obscenities, without music—making conversation hard. Still, when Paul pulled up at his own house, which was half a battered brownstone, Drago realized he hadn’t resented the inquiries at all.
“Sorry,” Paul said, snapping off the station. “Maybe I’ll be able to talk better about it in a few weeks.”
“Sure.” Paul’s taciturnity differed from Drago’s emotionalism, which was so extreme he had to temper it with pills. Dixie had always worn her heart on her sleeve, too, so Paul’s stoicism must have been the genetic handiwork of her ex-husband, his actual father. Still, that man wasn’t around, and Drago had been the one to ask. He could sense the younger man appreciated his concern.
Paul turned to him, the motor still running. “How about helping me out?”
“What do you mean?”
“I could use a little backup. It’s better if I’m not the face they always see. It could keep them on their toes.”
“How about it? It will only take a minute. I’ll buy you lunch afterwards.”
There was real warmth in Paul’s voice; it was a young man’s request of an admired mentor. While Drago was befuddled about what Paul wanted, he was touched by the entreaty, he couldn’t help it.
“Sure,” he said. “All right.”
Paul swung the wheel around for his own sudden and treacherous U-turn. He drove fast enough that Drago braced both hands beneath his seat, for the belt had been too frayed and flabby to use. They took another peeling spin, which landed them on a side street across from a looming and abandoned hospital.
“Okay,” Paul said. “Here you go.”
“Well, what am I…”
From beneath his seat, Paul pulled a wad of old school cash and counted out a few hundreds, as well as smaller bills. He put them in an envelope he kept in a crippled glove compartment.
“Just hand him this. He’ll give you what you need. What we need.”
Drago stared at the unsealed envelope, the flap of which had been folded over. He was suddenly Paul’s partner, and it had happened fast. Touched beyond words, he took the money with one hand, and the other he extended for a shake. The boy looked at the proffered hand and suppressed a smile; Drago saw it as warm, not mocking. Then Paul shook it.
He pointed at a figure standing in the shadow of the old emergency room entrance, graffitied over in the field that had once been the hospital’s front lawn. It was a young man with a shaved head and a pronounced gut pushing out a black T-shirt. Drago left the car and approached him, going a decent distance from the car. He felt untethered and a little afraid, even though Paul could still see him.
Up close, the young man had a round, pale, blemished, and hairless face that looked fetal. Yet he had the strange weirdly low voice that Paul did.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Drago was unprepared for yet another question. “Paul’s father,” he blurted out, immediately regretting it.
“His father?” The young man laughed, and his voice grew garbled and phlegmy.
“His friend, I mean.”
The boy looked at him as if he was a total fucking idiot. Drago presented the envelope, the flap coming loose, revealing cash like a scalp carved open revealed brains. With one finger, the boy cursorily counted the bills, not taking any out. Then he snorted once, and Drago was reminded of a cartoon bull.
“Tell your ‘son’ to go fuck himself,” he said.
He punched Drago once, hard, in the face. Then he walked away—or Drago assumed he did; he had twirled around and landed face first on the grass and couldn’t see.
From then until he got back on the road in his rented car, all Drago heard was the high pitch of Paul’s yelling (which was different from his speaking voice) as the boy drove at dizzying speeds, and Drago’s nose bled like diarrhea into his hands and lap. Paul seemed to be saying that Drago was stupid and why did he bring back nothing and why had he thought to trust him in the first place? Drago yelled back, why didn’t you do it? He realized that Paul was afraid as he was afraid, and this linked them, too, and this was the last thing he knew for a while.
Drago woke up alone in the morning in the passenger seat of his own car, still parked outside the church. He looked at himself in the rearview, and it was as if someone else looked back, a man who had a plate of oatmeal made with crushed blueberries for a face. He felt freed by not recognizing him and also hungry.
Drago drove home and passed Dr. Robbins’ office when finally he got to town. The receptionist and nurse Annaleigh was standing outside the building, about to go in. She saw him and waved, but her hand came halfway down when she noticed how he looked.
Annaleigh had been arriving at work in the morning when she saw the salesman, Drago, drive by. She had begun to wave at him but then noticed his face. It was bizarrely swollen and discolored, as if he had had an allergic reaction or been punched. It had to be an allergy; he didn’t seem like the kind who got punched. Then again, Annaleigh barely knew Drago, had only ever encountered him when he was on the make, not at ease, and that was no way to know someone. Occasionally, Annaleigh could sense another river running through Drago, so to say, something unsettled and swirling—she was a visual person, so she thought in images—but that was all she had, an inkling, about him.
People were ultimately mysterious, Annaleigh had thought, entering her apartment, on the night Drago first pitched that new Muth service; people were mutable and always mutating, like moles into cancer; their changes were rarely for the better, mostly for the worse. Or did Annaleigh just misjudge everyone initially, and they weren’t changing at all, just revealing who they’d been all along? She’d been tired before and now she had felt exhausted thinking this.
That night Annaleigh had peeked into Marin’s room. She saw her daughter doing what she always did, playing games—video, holographic, virtually imagined—that required physical dexterity, visual acuity, and cold-blooded sadism, the combination of which qualities in her own offspring surprised her. The girl waved casually at her but didn’t stop, didn’t even remove the goggles or helmet or whatever you called the visor in which she had been willingly imprisoned, that allowed her access to a world away from her mother, which gave her independence at fifteen years of age. It was like that old movie where the female astronaut becomes untethered to the ship—the mother ship, get it?—and floats out into space, requiring a rescue mission, except that Marin had freed herself and didn’t want to be saved.
What had she done wrong? Annaleigh wondered, closing the door and watching her daughter disappear. Because it had been all her, her alone, she’d had no help as a parent. Annaleigh went into the side cabinet and took out a bottle of wine she had bought for the funny picture on the label—a Vishnu-like woman with lots of arms and legs, and different heads, too, and asses, three of them. She knew it was a mistake, because wine with a funny name or label rarely tasted good, but she didn’t care, because she was visual, as she liked to remind herself (and other people). She had often reminded her ex-husband, David, when he called her thinking fuzzy or fucked up—like he should have talked, since he’d been muddle-headed about everything except cooking, at which he had excelled, at which he’d made a career, and had been stoned almost the entire time from the second he woke up each day.
What had Marin inherited from him, Annaleigh wondered? (She had already downed her first glass in almost one gulp before pouring a second.) Physical dexterity? No, because David had been a fucking butterfingers, except when he flipped an omelet or something in a skillet, did what he was interested in doing, what he cared enough to be careful about, which was unlike how he’d behaved about their marriage, which he had let crash to the floor and crack into a million pieces without bothering to clean up. His career, too, he kept dropping, because of weed and—what else, cocaine?—going from being a chef at a fancy city hot spot (on the site of the restaurant the Muth Co. had once owned, making Annaleigh think of poor, punched Drago) to being one at that chain dump Bumblebee’s in a mall next to a gynecologist/pet store to being head of the kitchen at a local mega-prison, serving muck to thousands of child molesters, terrorists, and serial killers. What had Marin inherited from David? Nothing, because Annaleigh wouldn’t let her fail if she had anything to say about it—and who else had a say?
“No one,” Annaleigh said out loud as the last drops of her third glass disappeared between her lips.
Now she discovered a place underneath exhaustion; it was the way she’d felt when her hormones first started cratering, a feeling of having always been drugged and now going cold turkey, of seeing life without desire, as if she’d pulled the key from her car and was simply drifting until stranded in the middle of a bridge and needed a tow or a push, causing a huge traffic jam because she’d run out of gas or estrogen or whatever. Annaleigh’s head was hovering just above her keyboard, and she could smell the distant tang of the wine she’d spilled there days ago, which had dried and become a new foundation, a kind of sad cement. Then Annaleigh made the monumental effort to lift her hundred-pound head and look up.
The screen showed the Muth Web site and the new service that Drago had been selling that day, Telegony or whatever. She’d mentioned it to Robby, Dr. Robbins (he told everyone to call him Robby, that’s how desperate he was for patients, all doctors were: they had to deny having any special authority, had to pretend they were just regular people who had a “hunch” about your health, so they wouldn’t seem off-putting and parental, cold or unkind: “Call me Robby, don’t ‘Doctor’ me, I’m Robby, Robby, all right?”). He’d been dismissive about it, of course, because in private Robby was unpleasant and supercilious (he’d secretly gutted and decapitated the Gene Ome display with a pen knife in front of Annaleigh the first time he’d seen it, laughing). Annaleigh felt sorry for Drago, but she hadn’t forgotten the service; she was still intrigued by it. And so now, she called up Scintilla, that new search engine (which she had paid for with Robby’s credit card, burying the expense with a lot of others, having done it in the past, ordering school supplies for Marin, among other things, knowing enough to cover her tracks). She looked up Nate, the first serious lover she had had, a visual artist. She found him—or to be more accurate, his work. Now he showed people how to make their Web presence airborne and projected everywhere, a technique that had once been used only by movie studios for trailers and had trickled down to anyone for home movies, sex tapes, etc.
Annaleigh knew this was not what Nate had anticipated for himself when they were young. Yet she was inspired, anyway, by his still being sort of involved with self-expression. She had been his muse and model and even done some drawing of her own, and look at her now, making nothing, she thought, her head drooping again. Maybe Marin had inherited her creativity from Nate, from the old pieces of Nate that had been decorating her insides like bat shit sprayed in a cave, this was how she thought about herself. Marin was creative in that she, well, played games and hid from Annaleigh creatively, always found new ways to avoid her mother and pretend to kill and maim people—and now Annaleigh scrolled through the Muth site until she found where they looked up old lovers who hadn’t impregnated you or children who weren’t really your own. She put in Robby’s credit card again.
While she was there, Annaleigh also asked them to look up Alan, her other serious lover before she got married, whom she had also Scintilla-ed a few minutes earlier, she’d forgotten. (And when had she opened that second bottle of wine, which she now saw perched precariously on the bookcase beside the computer?) Alan had been a tech type person, adept at all sorts of stuff she couldn’t understand—and messianic about it, too, a do-gooder who believed that technology was the answer to all that ailed everyone, even if Annaleigh argued otherwise, because see what havoc it wreaked, how it separated us even while connecting us? But it didn’t matter, because she learned that now Alan apparently worked in the tech department of a conglomerate being sued because their new bleach he had helped design had blinded people who wore clothes they washed in it, and this was the good he was doing now.
What had Marin inherited from Alan, her head for numbers? After all, Marin was good at buying games on her mother’s credit card—though maybe he’d inherited that gift from Annaleigh, who so expertly used Robby’s? Anyway, now she paid to track down Alan, too, because tonight Annaleigh couldn’t do any of this alone, not anymore; she needed help from all those who had fathered Marin, even those who had had nothing to do with it.
Annaleigh kind of crawled from the computer to the couch, knocking over the second wine bottle, which bounced on the unwashed rug, luckily empty: lucky for the rug, not for Annaleigh, who would have a bitching hangover tomorrow; why had she drunk so much when it wasn’t the weekend? It had been those services Drago was selling, that’s what had made her do it. Do what? She was asleep before she knew the answer.
Annaleigh awoke hours later, tilted over on her worn leather couch, spitting out hair from her cat (long dead) stuck in her mouth like the wing of a bird the cat had once eaten. (I ought to wash this couch, she thought, vaguely.) Annaleigh sat up again, picking last wayward wisps from her tongue, saw a man standing opposite her, and screamed.
Or she was about to scream. But the man held up a hand to shush her, and the gesture was considerate, not threatening. He had a gentle demeanor or maybe was just weary, it was hard to tell. He looked like a picture in a storybook Annaleigh had read when she was small, and suddenly, she realized who he was.
“Nate,” she said.
It was her old artist lover, in the flesh—and he carried a bit more flesh than when she’d known him before. His hair had retreated, too, and been combed forward to deny the fact. He was dressed prosperously in appealingly wrinkled linen and stylish squared-off glasses, which caught the rising sun behind her head and made her squint. As a visual person, Nate had cared about his looks, she recalled, considered himself a kind of canvas. Well, what was her excuse? She was visual, too, right, and had let herself go. What had happened to her dreams of art and beauty? Why had she awakened from them? Was she awake now?
“They found me,” he said.
“Oh, right.” Annaleigh was coming fully into consciousness and starting to remember what she’d done. She had kind of magically conjured him, hadn’t she? Yet Muth only relayed information, it didn’t give out addresses.
“And then you found me by…”
“Scintilla. That new thing.”
Suddenly, Annaleigh felt unsafe, exposed to everyone, even though, of course, she had used the service, too. Maybe it was because by appearing here, Nate had revealed the great gap between her past aspirations and her present accomplishments; the iota of their relationship that she had retained and passed on to Marin was only that, an iota. Yet she had felt it was big enough that she’d reached out to bring him back. What had she wanted? Or maybe the question was: what had the wine? Sober, Annaleigh was frightened by what she’d done.
Yet Nate wasn’t anxious—if anything, he seemed energized by the long (four-hour) car ride he’d taken to get there. He paced as he spoke, the young and curious sun revealing more and more of the older man as he went.
“I don’t know what happened to me,” he said. “I spend my life allowing people to project themselves…”
“In the air. Right. I read.”
“Did you?” He stopped, hadn’t known about her research. “And I’ve disappeared.”
“Is that true?” She was like his analyst: non-committal, only questioning.
“Completely. I’m a ghost haunting my own life. My wife brushes by me—through me, because I’m a ghost. And my son…” Nate paused, as if the boy caused too much trouble for him to tell. “The other day, I had to leave the stands and go down on the soccer field, where Brody was abusing other players, and…I’m not sure he was even aware I was there, pulling him off the other kid. He certainly didn’t stop.”
Nate’s eyes filled with tears—or was the sun just making them sparkle? He advanced and disappeared for a second in the light before existing again by her side.
“Am I here?” he asked.
It was something Annaleigh wasn’t sure of herself. He reached down a hand that touched her face and brushed her hair; she felt his fingers and nodded.
“Good,” he said.
“Come here,” she raised her own hand for him to take. She led him from the room through the hall, which was still dark, as if they were passing through an unenlightened period before a Renaissance and reached Marin’s room.
“Maybe you’re here, too,” and she pointed to closed door, hopefully.
Nate had told his wife that he was going somewhere on business; he’d been harried and vague enough to discourage her questions. Marguerite hadn’t really been that interested anyway, Nate said, both relieved and unhappy. His son, Brody, hadn’t been around to tell.
Annaleigh said he could have the couch for the weekend. She had no clue what to do with him but was so happy he was there that she wept a little when she was alone. Marin moved in and out, accepted Annaleigh’s explanation that Nate was an old friend and seemed to ignore his staring at her, which would have been weird if you didn’t know what was happening.
Midway through the weekend, fortified by the wine they never stopped sharing, Annaleigh stumbled into the building’s basement, where bikes and boxes and old tenants’ leases were stored. She retrieved a rolled up tube of brown paper and brought it back upstairs. She unfurled the contents like flags and saw her own work, from decades earlier.
“It’s not bad,” she said, surprised.
“It’s better than not bad,” Nate said.
Was he being sincere? Probably not, Annaleigh thought. It looked like decent faux-Impressionism, promising at best.
“Maybe Marin has more talent,” she said. “Maybe she’s got the spark.” And that’s how she felt about the specks of Nate inside her now: they were sparks—no, grapes fermented into wine, that was better, Annaleigh thought, pouring for them again.
She asked about his art work, and Nate demurred, not doing much of it anymore. He and Marguerite had to work too hard for a life they didn’t like and a son who hated them both, he said, almost smiling. Then they remembered how Annaleigh had posed nude for him and how beautiful his series of paintings of her had been but she was so young, why wouldn’t they have been beautiful, not that he wasn’t talented, but you know what I mean. And then they agreed that she would pose for him again now, and he picked up a tablet she’d stolen from Robby’s office, and Annaleigh took off her clothes and stood there for him.
No matter what she said, Annaleigh thought she looked okay, not bad for her age; she went to the gym, did the best she could—and, anyway, that’s not what this was about, right? Well, it kind of was; it had kind of been about that then and kind of was about it now. With the device, Nate sketched an expert likeness, uninspired, he said, but she thought lovely and infused with feeling. Then he was touching her—as he had then, as she had hoped he would then, no matter what they both pretended about her posing being strictly professional (it had been the first time they slept together).
Today was different. Now Nate knelt before her, a supplicant, sentenced to serve her, aroused by being abject, sorry about so many things, sucking and biting her breasts and then her belly, holding and opening and closing her ass. It had been so long for her that Annaleigh was shocked at how exciting it felt, even if it was also awful. Then Nate’s hands came around to open her thighs, and she stopped him.
“Don’t,” she said.
“No?” It was as if Nate was drunk and drowning, and kind of coming up for air, hearing this.
“No, I…” And she explained about her illness, how she’d had cancer, a word she still couldn’t say too loudly, and so she couldn’t be entered anymore, but it was a while ago already, and it was better than being dead, right, and anyway, that’s the way it was, case closed.
While Annaleigh continued to pose for him, it was the last time he touched her that weekend. And while Annaleigh touched herself later that night, to finish herself off, as it were, she only did it once while he was there and not again. (“Finish herself off” had another meaning, she realized—but hadn’t this been a kind of resurrection, his coming there? She was confused as to what it all meant.)
All along, Nate and Marin still kept their distance from each other, which both bothered and relieved Annaleigh. At the end of the weekend, Nate said he wanted to come back if it was okay with Annaleigh, for it had been great for him. (Annaleigh noticed he had a lot of new work on the tablet, only some of which were pictures of her.) She was happy to hear it—thrilled, in fact, but didn’t tell him.
“I’ll come up with some kind of schedule,” he said. “You know, for my wife.”
“Of lying. So I can be here more often. I’ll just say it’s an ongoing project out of town, or something.”
Annaleigh nodded. She was interested to learn that she was not offended or disappointed, was too old for that and had almost died, recently, anyway, and that made her expect less and even want less from life. Nate couldn’t change or he didn’t want to, which was the same thing. At least this would be something, a little piece of the past that was still alive, like the—now Annaleigh thought of his old sperm as a bunch of Tinkerbells, that’s how far she’d come in her assessment of them. She kissed him, to say okay.
“And maybe we’ll even talk a little,” Nate said, nodding at Marin’s closed door.
At the reference, outside another door was heard to open and close. Then a car drove away before the doorbell rang.
Annaleigh opened it to a boy, about fifteen. He had a bald head but was too young to shave, so it gave him a sickly look; she was reminded of her own cancer treatments. Yet the kid was healthy or at least energetic. He wore what appeared to be an ironic comment on the garb—the T-shirt and jeans—of the age-old working man. He weaved where he was, unable to stay still.
“Where’s Nate Brill?” he asked.
Before Annaleigh could answer, Nate was behind her and speaking too loudly for how close he stood to her ear.
“Brody,” he said, and she knew it was his son.
“Fancy meeting you here,” the boy said, in a teenage attempt at wit.
“How did you find me?” Nate asked, and Annaleigh dodged for he hadn’t gotten any quieter.
“I used Scintilla and Muth. Then I hired a Luber,” referring to the self-driving car service that greased your skids, or so the ad said. “On you.”
The boy smirked and Annaleigh felt Nate retreat a bit, as if making way for someone. Yet he didn’t ask his son inside, and she understood he only meant to detach himself from her, nothing else.
“Mom’ll know,” the boy said, starting to glow a bit in the bright morning sun.
“How?” Nate had no idea.
“I’ll tell her. Again.”
Nate sighed and shifted once more. This time, Annaleigh realized he was in fact allowing room for another person. Marin stood behind them now, having been drawn from her room, a rare occurrence. Looking at the boy, she bit her lower lip very hard, drawing blood. Brody glanced behind Annaleigh, checking her daughter out at length.
“All right,” Nate sighed even deeper. He turned, swerved in and out of Annaleigh and Marin, and went back into the house. After a second for uncertainty, Annaleigh followed, leaving the teenagers alone, each to assess, she assumed, the other’s capacity for sex and cruelty. Brody remained baking in brutal light on the threshold, Marin standing in whatever blinding spill bounced off him.
“I guess that’s it,” Nate said, when they reached the living room.
“What do you mean?”
As an answer, Nate opened the tablet and digitally rifled through it, marking the portraits of Annaleigh. These pictures he detached, put in a separate file and emailed.
“Here,” he said. “Hold onto these.”
It was unclear whether he wished to hide them or for her to keep them as precious gifts; both things couldn’t be true, could they? He put the tablet in his coat pocket. Then he kissed Annaleigh on the forehead, as if hoping her fever had gone down.
“Let’s keep in touch,” he said.
Nate returned to the front door, where he followed the teenage boy who had come for him. Annaleigh watched them walk in the white light to the curb. There an empty car was pulling up, as Brody put away a device. Annaleigh turned and saw Marin retreat to her room, clutching in own her hand a jagged piece of paper damaged by the boy’s stabbing pen marks, the only connection she had made to anyone. In a second, her door had closed.
Annaleigh walked to the couch, looking at the cabinet where the comic wine was held. She would call in sick to work, not fearing Robby would answer the phone; it was too early. She would have been the one on the other end of the line. So she left herself a message she would never receive.
Hours later, Annaleigh awoke not knowing what year it was. She could have been a child, a teen, or an old woman; she was lost in a gelatinous space where there were no specifics. She looked up and saw another figure across the room, sitting as Nate had done. It was Alan, her other early lover, who had had the head for figures. Now she saw even more of his head, for it was covered by less hair, virtually none except for a tuft below his lips, a trend that was always going away and coming back, like a bad cold the world couldn’t cure.
Alan opened his mouth but Annaleigh’s eyes began closing the second he started to speak. In the past, she had often had this response to him, earnest and well-meaning as he was. Alan seemed in distress yet disappeared into the darkness her closing eyelids caused. The single word “Scintilla” reached her before the end.
In the morning or afternoon or whenever she awoke again, he was gone. Annaleigh went online and found news of Alan in a story from a city hundreds of miles away. He had been discovered in the front seat of his expensive, emissions-reducing car, a bottle of the poisonous bleach he had helped design clutched in his right hand. A white smear of the stuff coated his mouth like a clown’s lipstick, some lodging in the plume of hair an inch above his chin. With a laundry marker, he had scrawled “I Did Good” on the crown of his bald head, a fringe of graying hair beginning to be seen around the sides. His gas gauge was empty, as if, police said, he had just returned after a long drive.
Then Annaleigh smelled something burning.
It wasn’t wood or gas or anything electric. In fact, it was food—meat mixed with what? Something else—and would have been delicious if it hadn’t been on fire. Annaleigh groped her way to the doorway and the hall and then the threshold of the kitchen, where she saw who the cook was and for whom he was cooking.
David, her actual ex-husband, the actual father of her child, hovered over and shook a skillet, which made his muscular ass shake. Since he’d been presiding over a huge prison kitchen, he’d come to look like a convict, burly, bullet-headed, and tattooed. He was making what he said—yelled—was his “trademark” omelet, and Annaleigh saw shards, slabs and snippets of ingredients strewn on her counter: mushrooms, avocado, spinach, pesto, roasted red peppers, tzatziki, steak, salmon, ham, goat cheese, feta cheese, cheddar cheese, chocolate chips, aspirin: whatever had been in her cupboards, refrigerator, and drawers. It was all smoking. Marin sat at the table, awaiting breakfast. Annaleigh remembered: it was David’s day with her.
“What? How come a kid of mine can’t cook?” David was asking—yelling—in answer to something Marin had said, fucked up on what now, meth? Probably.
Annaleigh looked at the slices, pieces, and pinches of the things he was using: they reminded her of the parts of people inside her own omelet, a stupid if funny way to think of her reproductive system. Then the food really caught fire, and a geyser of flame shot up from the stove.
When she awoke again a day later or half a day later, the corrosive smell had faded; in fact, Annaleigh could not perceive a trace of it. How long had David been gone? Had he ever been there? Had Nate? Or Alan?
Annaleigh decided she would go back to work, because she was feeling better, even though she’d never really been sick and had lied about it. When she got to the office, she saw Drago the Muth salesman drive by with a strangely swollen and bloated face. She was almost sure it was the same day.
Drago watched Annaleigh wave, then bring her hand halfway down. Right then, the sun shifted and turned the Earth into itself, a blinding shining sphere, and Drago could see nothing but a refracted slice of Annaleigh in the light. He knew later she had raised her hand again, not to say hello but to stop him as crossing guards stop speeding cars. She also—he knew later—had stepped off the curb into the street.
Drago swerved in time to avoid killing her, but while braking his fender brushed against Annaleigh’s right thigh hard enough to send her to the ground. He jammed his car into park in the center of the street and left it there, scrambling out to where she fell.
“I’m all right, I’m all right,” Annaleigh said, with her usual ruggedness, waving him away with one hand while accepting his help up with the other. He caught a whiff of wine coming from her face, not fresh but from last night, he figured, a smell in the midst of fading, a crust of an aroma, in other words, which surprised him.
He guided her back up on the sidewalk, one hand in hers, the other at her back, as if they were waltzing or ice skating, which felt chivalrous and formal. Other drivers honked and swore at him, avoiding Drago’s vehicle, still slapped sideways in the middle of a lane.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay. It was my fault.”
“No, it wasn’t, it was…”
“Yes, it was, I was…”
This went on for a while before Drago said, “You ought to see a doctor for that.”
“I’m not seeing any doctor,” Annaleigh said, as dismissively as only a nurse or another doctor could. “And you should talk.” His face, she meant.
“It’s fine. It was just a…”
“An accident. I got up to go to the bathroom in the dark, and…” Drago realized the reason he’d invented was an old man’s lie, and he’d offered it unthinkingly, that’s how far he’d sunk. Still, Annaleigh’s face showed she didn’t believe him, which cheered him up.
“Right.” She winced as she put pressure on the leg which had been hit. Drago looked up at the entrance to Dr. Robbins’ office, and suddenly it all seemed absurd. She understood what he was seeing and gave in, shrugging. “Okay.”
Suddenly, he heard honking and yelling. “Let me just get my car.”
Annaleigh opened up the office, which was part of her job, she said. There was a furtive and clandestine feeling to being in an examination room before anyone arrived, Drago thought, though Annaleigh went about her business indifferent to it. The psychic, massage parlor and bank in the space were still closed.
“Here.” She handed him an ice pack, which Drago held to his head. Suddenly, after all the hours of sitting in the car coming back from seeing Paul, he realized that his face and neck were throbbing, and before he had not been relaxed enough to know. The ice hurt and soothed him at the same time. He looked up and saw that Annaleigh had unzipped her pants and pulled down their right side to reveal a black and blue mark as big, he thought, as a toxic oil spill upon her surprisingly smooth and pale skin.
“Are you sure you…”
Drago hadn’t meant to insult her, so he shut up. Still, he secretly thought that she was acting kind of cavalier about how badly she’d been hurt. Or was he just guilty because he’d hurt her? Well, he wouldn’t have if she hadn’t stepped off the curb while the sun was in his eyes, and—
“Bup-bup-bup.” She made that noise that meant, tend to your own garden, pal, don’t worry about me, and don’t let the ice pack droop. As he raised it, Drago resented her pushiness as she must have resented his own. Their bruises were sort of similar, too, even though his was out there for all to see and hers hidden below her pants and panties. Yet she kept revealing herself obliviously in his presence: her pants were pulled even lower as she iced her wounds. Was he that old?
Drago realized that the time he usually took his pills had come and gone. A cover had been removed from him, like plastic peeled from a sandwich by a mother at a playground. He was being revealed as Annaleigh was by the florescent light, the evaporating wine, the smell of which had almost completely vanished. Neither was coming off too well.
“So what really happened?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“To your face.”
Drago was both refreshed and taken aback by her directness. He had always admired Annaleigh’s salt-of-the-earth quality; still, it wasn’t for the weak. The mix of hunger—he hadn’t eaten for hours—fatigue, and the lack of pills made him helpless not to answer honestly.
“I got punched.”
“You did.” Like she’d suspected it. “By who? What for?”
It was as if she had no—how did they used to say it?—boundaries. Or else she would just keep asking questions until she was stopped, a no-harm-trying sort of thing. Or did Annaleigh assume they were so close that asking anything was all right? After all, they had known each other for years. Yet Drago had never seen her without trying to sell her something. It felt new not to need to in her presence. In any case, in his current condition, he started pouring out information.
“It was the son of my old…” He told her about Paul and Dixie and how Dixie’s father had died when they first had sex and lied about it and now Dixie had died. And then he mentioned using Scintilla and Muth’s new service, about Telegony—and suddenly he felt he was selling her something again, when he was really being sincere. Somehow he had opened the ice pack and water was dripping down his face and sliding down his neck onto the front of his pants so it looked like he was both sweating and peeing, when he was doing neither.
Drago closed his eyes, overwhelmed by his confession and weary. When he opened them, Annaleigh was standing so close she was out of focus. She pressed a paper towel to his temple to absorb the moisture and closed the ice pack again. He could smell her, her smell unobscured by wine, and he thought that she had no smell, really, except for her hair, which could have been any woman’s hair, and so Annaleigh was both generic and specific, everyone else and herself, they both were, everyone was, or something like that, he wasn’t sure.
“Me too,” she said.
“I used the new service too. First Scintilla, then Muth…” And she told him her story, where she’d gone, except she hadn’t gone anywhere, her old lover had come to her, even though she had beckoned him, and maybe this was the difference between men and women, they had different ways of exerting power, of interacting with the world, or maybe not, since both of them had ended up in the same place, a doctor’s office after hours, or so far after hours that it was right before it opened the next day, everything being a continuum or a circle. Then Drago shut his eyes again and nearly tumbled from the stool on which he sat.
The power bar which Annaleigh unwrapped and stuck in his mouth like a thermometer tasted of nuts and raisins and something sticky that connected them. Sap? Spit? Semen? And Drago, his energy slowly growing, was reminded of the dispersed information shooting from men and landing in women, connecting them to people long after the people were gone or forgotten or dead. He ate half of the bar and then she grabbed it back and bit off a piece for herself, not opening a new one, swallowing whatever had issued from his mouth along with the nuts and raisins and whatever substance bound everything and everyone together. It was Annaleigh’s practical side again, earthy you could call it, Drago thought; she was not slowed down as he was by doubts or philosophy. She was a visual person, he assumed, more than a verbal one. He was a pitchman who made with the patter.
Drago felt both taken care of and humiliated by her, for in his helplessness he felt unmanly. Then he realized, at this late date, his masculinity—such as he defined it—was mostly a memory: he was just an image of what he once had been, like an old photo, a robotic facsimile or—right—Gene Ome, the display with the top hat he took from door to door. So he relaxed into being cared for and could have sworn they both swallowed their last piece of power bar at the same time. Then a little bell went off, like the one in the old movie that meant an angel had gotten his wings.
It was an email coming into the office. Annaleigh walked over to read it on the computer. She learned that the day’s first appointment had canceled, information she then relayed in another email to Dr. Robbins to make sure he didn’t come in. She returned to Drago, who was now lying on the leather exam table, after he had passed out on the stool.
“Better?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“The good news is: you don’t have to go so soon. There won’t be anyone here until ten.”
“Oh. Is that right? Good.”
She watched him visibly relax, enough that a few tears fell from his eyes. Annaleigh felt so at ease that she scooped up one tear with her pinky. Then she went to where Robby kept his medicine samples, most of which had been dropped off by drone and not by a retro sales rep in person. On the way, she swallowed his tear, in secret, licked it from her finger. Wasn’t there the fairy tale about that? They were no longer beauties but both beasts now, she thought. Then she tapped out two of one pill in particular and brought them, along with a glass of water, back to Drago.
“Here,” she said. “It’ll help with the pain.”
She took hers first. Before she could pass him the water, she saw that Drago had taken his own expertly, dry, as if an old hand.
“It might take a while to kick in,” she said.
Annaleigh felt more linked to Drago at that moment than she did to those to whom she was genetically bound, her parents, siblings, and daughter. That was science, and this was magic, which she liked better.
Then she was kissing him, lightly, so as not to injure him further. Annaleigh hadn’t shut the door, so she only unbuttoned her blouse, didn’t remove it, and just undid Drago’s pants without pulling them down. He stopped her before she went any farther.
“Look,” he whispered, “things don’t work the way they used to. I don’t want to let you down,” or maybe that’s what she imagined he said because he was speaking so quietly she couldn’t hear. Then she told him about her cancer (not whispering) and how she couldn’t be entered, and so they were both in the same boat. She still didn’t close the door but took her blouse and bra off and he removed his shirt. Then she climbed up beside him on the narrow leather table.
Annaleigh pressed her breasts, sticky from her mouth, all over him, something he said no one had done to him since high school; maybe it had been Dixie. Then they arranged for him to use his arm between her legs, and she thought about the wine bottle label and the woman with multiplying limbs and that parts of them now served different purposes, as the doctor’s office had become a bedroom, that they were evolving not naturally as cells did inside them but intentionally, because they wanted to, because they had to, if they wished life to go on.
The pills kicked in, and they felt nothing but pleasure. From Drago’s arm, Annaleigh came so loudly that she wished she’d closed the door but then decided she didn’t care. Let her daughter keep her door closed, she wouldn’t.
Later, Annaleigh realized that D’n’A could refer to hers and Drago’s initials; it was a joke both visual and verbal. They had the Muth Co. to thank. Its new service had been worth every cent, even though it hadn’t worked at all.
Laurence Klavan has had short work published in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Conjunctions, Gargoyle Magazine, The Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, PANK Magazine, failbetter, Stickman Review, Morpheus Tales, The Cafe Irreal and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, among many others, and his collection, The Family Unit and Other Fantasies, was published by Chizine in 2014. His novels, The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script, were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, City of Spies and Brain Camp, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their YA fiction trilogy, Wasteland, was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of Bed and Sofa, the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London. His one-act, The Summer Sublet, is included in The Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, The Show Must Go On, was the most produced short play in America in 2015-2016.