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Rock, paper, scissors
h [electronic resource] /
by Josef Benson.
[Tampa, Fla] :
b University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 90 pages.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2007.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
ABSTRACT: Rock, Paper, Scissors has developed into a story about Wren, a young man fresh out of the Navy, trying to make a name for himself in the world. Wren finds himself in Tampa, Florida because his oldest pal, Allen, has moved there, even though his younger sister has been diagnosed with leukemia back home. The problem is that Allen somewhere along the way has lost his mind. Wren finds out that Allen has recently been fired from a job as a server in a restaurant called the Bolognese, the same restaurant that Allen promised Wren a job. Wren decides to go ahead and get a job at the Bolo and simply not mention that he knows Allen, even though Allen has sworn to, "kill every last one of those mother fuckers." Wren further finds out that his old friend has developed a drug problem and has delusions of dealing and moving to Cuba. Wren has delusions of his own in his quest to make his mark on the world. Wren decides to be a doctor and drunkenly treks to an emergency room to interview one of the physicians. After meeting a scholarly street preacher he tries his hand at evangelism. Finally, he meets two crooked customers at the Bolo who claim to run a business in pharmaceutical sales. Little does Wren know that the business is crooked and the two conspirators are pedaling black-market pills. Even so, eager Wren buys into the program hook line and sinker and soon finds himself and his sister in harms way. Wren finally discovers that he is embroiled not only an illegal graft, but a mass murdering spree with his long time friend Allen.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
Rock, Paper, Scissors by Josef Benson A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: John Fleming, Ph.D. Rita Ciresi, M.F.A. Jay Hopler, Ph.D. Date of Approval: May 1, 2007 Keywords: English, Realism, South Florida, Fiction, Humor @ Copyright 2007, Josef Benson
Acknowledgements Id like to thank my professors; John Fl eming, Rita Ciresi, and Jay Hopler for their honesty and encouragement. Id like to thank my family, especi ally my Dad and my brothers, for their honesty and time. Id like to thank all of the stude nts whove been in a workshop with me over the years, particularly the ones who saw this MS in its infancy. Special thanks to Karen Brown-Gonzalez, Diane Smith, and Shannon Zimmerman for their suggestions and time. Lastly, Id like to thank Marisa Iglesias for making the world not totally dull and for letting me write the first draft of this beast on her computer.
iii Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Chapter One 9 Chapter Two 19 Chapter Three 27 Chapter Four 38 Chapter Five 47 Chapter Six 58 Chapter Seven 69 Chapter Eight 79 Chapter Nine 86
iv Rock, Paper, Scissors Josef Benson ABSTRACT Rock, Paper, Scissors has developed into a story about Wren, a young man fresh out of the Navy, trying to make a name for hi mself in the world. Wren finds himself in Tampa, Florida because his oldest pal, A llen, has moved there, even though his younger sister has been diagnosed with leukemia back home. The problem is that Allen somewhere along the way has lost his mind. Wren finds out that Allen has recently been fired from a job as a server in a restaurant called the Bolognese, the same restaurant that Allen promised Wren a job. Wren decides to go ahead and get a job at the Bolo and simply not mention that he knows Allen, even though Allen has sworn to, kill every last one of those mother fuckers. Wren further finds out that his old friend has developed a drug problem and has delusions of dealing a nd moving to Cuba. Wren has delusions of his own in his quest to make his mark on th e world. Wren decides to be a doctor and drunkenly treks to an emergency room to inte rview one of the physic ians. After meeting a scholarly street preacher he tries his hand at evangelism. Finall y, he meets two crooked customers at the Bolo who claim to run a bus iness in pharmaceutical sales. Little does Wren know that the business is crooked a nd the two conspirators are pedaling blackmarket pills. Even so, eager Wren buys into the program hook line and sinker and soon finds himself and his sister in harms way. Wren finally discov ers that he is embroiled not only an illegal graft, but a mass murdering spree with his long time friend Allen.
1 Introduction Truman Capote once said, Early on, I discovered the difference between good writing and bad writing and that was easy enough. Then, I made an even more remarkable discovery when I figured out th e difference between good writing and art; the difference is subtle but savage. This is a key quote for me. Im not cl aiming Ive ever written anything good and I certainly dont claim to have ever created a work of art. Im simply saying I know the difference, and also that Id rather not know the difference. Id rather still be happily writing little stories that sound cool, showing my frie nds, and basking in my unsubstantiated genius. Working on this novel has illuminated the difference between good writing and art. I wrote my first novel when I was in the Navy back in 1994. I carried around Mead notebooks, all different colors, all around 65 pages. After I filled one up, Id go buy another and continue my novel about a gr oup of sailors who stow away a Korean prostitute on board an aircraft carrier. I fi gured the main conflict or dilemma would take place within the heart of the main character w ho would have to decide whether he wanted to take part in the dehumanization of the wo man or turn in his shipmates. Even now I dont think its such a bad premise and perhap s Ill return to it some day. The problem was I was putting everything into those note books--poems, random descriptions of the sea, drunken ramblings. I assumed the simple fact that I was writing was enough. Just
2 write anything and everything that comes into y our head was my motto. Genius floats! A couple of my shipmates and I used to drink bottles of Robitussin, carry our notebooks into downtown San Diego, and visit coffee shops. Wed go into the bathrooms and sit in the stalls and read our poetry right there on the pots because we liked the way our voices sounded within those walls--very sonorous and full We also liked it when patrons would come into the restrooms to take a leak and hear us reading our poems. We liked to shock and be different. Just about every letter I put into thos e seven notebooks didnt work. I typed up that novel for my undergraduate creative wr iting project at Missouri State and my director, the novelist Roland Sodowski, told me I might be able to salvage a few poems. I have yet to go back and mine those poems but I plan to some sunny day when Im hungover and feeling masochistic. Earlier in my undergraduate studies, be fore I decided to revisit those old notebooks, I did make some rather large leaps that seemed to foreshadow some later strides. Initially, when I matriculated, I just wanted to write. I felt like the act was enough. Then I wanted to shock the hell out of anyone who dared set eyes on my prose. W.D. Blackmon, another creative writing profes sor at Missouri State, often would call my early short stories sketches and tell th e class that I had yet to write a real short story. This was motivation enough for me. I wa nted to not only be the best writer at Missouri State, but I wanted to but the best writer in the world. Finally, I realized I needed characters, a narrative, and dialogue. I needed something to happen. This was astounding. I thought my genius could withstan d the lack of mundane staples such as characters. I wanted to blow a hole th rough the idea of rising action, climax, and
3 character. The third story I turned in my junior year was a story about going to a funeral. A childhood buddy of mine shot himself and I had gone to his funeral. I felt like perhaps this might be fodder for a good short story. Th e first line went something like this: I was so horny my stomach hurt, driving to Chris s funeral in his blue Buick. To this day I think it was probably the best first line I have ever writte n. I went on to write a bad short story, but it was the best of the material that I had writte n to that point. The story moved, had characters, and was about somethi ng; though at times Id dial off into these abstract reveries which made no sense, but were fun to write. Dr Blackmon crossed out all of these moments, I thought were the high points of the story. He wrote on the back page that he had never had a student make such a positive leap from one short story to the next. It was then I realized that good writi ng isnt necessarily about the words. Really, the words, in fiction at least, should be like a lineman in footba ll; if you dont notice him throughout the game hes probably doing his job. The words should tell the story and really nothing else. I used to think th at when someone called my writing highly stylized it was a compliment. Now I know it was a euphemism for amateurish. Once I realized that in order to write a short story things needed to happen, the next logical step was figuri ng out what should happen. It wasnt until graduate school that I learned about plot. I f eel like I should reiterate here that just because Im able to understand these ideas doesnt mean Im able to execute them. It simply means I can usually tell when Ive failed. I never know if anything I write is good. Perhaps that has something to do with the idea th at God created our bodies so th at its very difficult for us to pat ourselves on the back.
4 Four years after my undergraduate de gree I began graduate school at the University of South Florida and began writing stories that werent half bad. It seemed like I woke up with a jump shot. The probl em was I was switching points of view, jumping all over the place, and not describi ng anything, probably be cause Id seen too many movies where points of view switch all th e time. In fiction writing, changing point of view is a bad idea for an inexperienced wr iter. One particular short story I wrote was about a character who masturbates for the first time. Just after I introduced this character I began writing about another character. A professor of mine at USF, the novelist John Fleming, recommended non-negotiabl y that I stay with the main character. I did, and that story won me my very first prize for fic tion. The lesson I learned was that a writer should listen to his teachers, even if he doesnt agree, because a young writer almost always knows much less than he thinks he does. I wanted to be avant-garde. I wanted to write something new and be different. I felt that I was unique, that no one understood me. Thats a perilous place to be. Fact is, individuals are never quite as uni que as they think they are. In my view, the whole point of writing fiction is to communicate. If a writer feels that no one understands him and that he is having experiences th at no one has ever had, inevitab ly that writer will try to write as though he were differe nt or unique. The result will most certainly be that the writer will fulfill his own prophesy and write in such a way that no one will understand him. One of the most valuable lessons I le arned is that I am not unique. Im pretty average, and much of what I th ink and feel, others have thought and felt. This actually is a great asset. Readers shoul d undergo a shock of recognition when they read fiction. They should be blown away by the fact that a writer has articulated something that the
5 reader has felt and didnt know anyone else ha d ever experienced. If this happens, the writer has done his or her job. Finally, I decided to try my hand at a novel which turned out to be the half of a novel that follows this introduction. The id ea I had initially stemmed from something that happened when I was working at my fi rst restaurant job. I was working for Ruby Tuesday in Springfield, Missouri. About two hours away at a Ruby Tuesday in Columbia, there was a shooting and robbery. Tw o desperate men stole into the restaurant very early one morning and shot a produce man, a manager, and a cook. I always wondered about the people who worked at the restaurant, the people who ate there regularly and I wanted to write a story about the restaurant business, and about these two killers. Unfortunately, in that first draft I began breaking all of the ru les I had learned in the course of my education. I began the stor y in first person and then switched to third limited through the point of view of one of the killers. I wrote the whole novel that way even though I had a sneaking suspicion that I was going to have to change it. I soon realized that writing a novel is a long journey, perhaps the longest I have ever taken without physically moving anywhe re. I workshopped what I had already written during a semester-long graduate wo rkshop, eventually writing and workshopping the entire novel that semester. The fee dback I received for th e initial draft proved invaluable, though much of it has changed drastically. I thought the book was pretty close, but when I submitted the draft for my M.A. thesis, my professors told me that the different points of view were not work ing, proving my early fears correct. This final draft is a snake that has shed its skin many times. The character Wren
6 is actually the embodiment of two different ch aracters, and the point of view has settled to third-limited through the eyes of Wren. The novel is still about two characters who eventually rob and shoot several characters that work in a restaurant, but everything beyond that is different. Im cer tain that subsequent drafts will look different than this draft, but it will take this draft, as it ha s taken all previous drafts, to hopefully make a work of art. Its the fusion of all of these parts, po int of view, plot and character that make a work of art. Everything has to unify toward some effect. There has to be a great conflict going on inside the main character. One problem with this draft that my professor Rita Ciresi pointed out is that the immediate conf lict in Wren is unclear. There are plot strands inserted in this draft which have not been developed a nd in later drafts will have to be explored, such as Wrens sister havi ng leukemia. This perhaps will wind up being the main conflict. Can Wren make someth ing of himself before his sister dies? Everything on the page must be working toward some unifying effect, or it should not be on the page. Another valuable lesson Ive learned in writing fiction is what John Gardner comes back to time and time again in his cr eative writing pedagogy: a fiction writer must create a movie of the mind for the reader. The words on the page must create images for the reader and any time this dream is interrupt ed the narrative stalls. Stated another way, nearly every word in a work of art shoul d be rooted in scene. One problem for inexperienced writers, myself included, is th e execution of scene. Too much narration presents a problem because it calls attention to the fact that the writer is writing, thus destroying the illusion. The act of writi ng should in a sense be hidden, like when
7 someone watches a ball player rope a single to right. All the hard wo rk that has gone into that swing, the hand-eye coordination, the pr actice, should be hidden from the reader. The reader wants to get swept up in a story, identify with the characters and the situation, undergo a shock of recognition, and realize that he or she is not alone in the world. Perhaps the greatest effect of fiction is the establishment of a community of readers sharing an experience. Its not the job of the writer to moralize. The real challenge for the writer is to spin a good yarn. I know some writers who after every novel or book tell themselves that they will never do it again because they realize what it takes. The days when one feels like he or sh e has no real talent is absolute drudgery. So why do we do it? Why does a writ er go through all of this to create something? I dont know. But what I do know is that I will contin ue to do it. I love it and I have no idea why. Perhaps its that shock of recognition I feel when I read Raymond Carver, Thom Jones, Larry Brown or Richard Yates, that feel ing that Im not alone in the world, that its okay to have no idea whats going on, and feeli ng scared all the time is a part of life. Perhaps my desire to connect w ith people is what drives me. Its difficult for me to try and place myse lf in any sort of historical context because I feel like I have yet to find my voice or locate my style. A writer cant go searching for a voice; I know that at least, and given that I dont feel like Im all that close to where I want to be in terms of how I want to write, its hard to say where I fall historically. I have trouble thinking of myse lf as a writer at all. Jay Hopler, a poet and professor at USF, signed his book, Green Squall, for me one time. He wrote, To Josef-a real writer, and underlined real writer. No doubt he knew that a writer thinking of himself of herself as a writer is a point of neurosis.
8 I remember one time in the Navy, after two days of waking up at four in the morning, shaving with cheap razors, bleeding all over the place, marching in the foggy dawn amongst other companies singing caden ce, we were all sitting at this large community table in the barracks, and someone cracked a silly joke and we all laughed, we all gut-laughed, and it felt really good. I wa nt to incite this sort of laughter. I want to write about relationships a nd the human heart and tell the truth about how difficult life is and how beautiful it can be, often at the same time. Cormac McCarthy comes to mind. There are mome nts in his fiction when someone says something and theyre not trying to be f unny, but it is funny, and no one is laughing but the reader. I know that Ive come along way as a writer. I no longer read my prose sitting in toilets in coffee houses. I know that it take s more than just a bottle of whisky and a notebook to be a writer. I realiz e that a work of art should seem effortless, but perhaps is the hardest thing in the world to execute. I know that tale nt can only get one so far and that hard, really hard, sometime s masochistically hard, work is what it takes. I feel like what goes on in university workshops can and does make writers better writers. I know that Im not finished with this novel, not by a long shot. Finally, I know that writing matters, and reading matters, and art matters, and the fact that Ive even made it this far is something to gut-laugh about.
9 Chapter One Wren Jones sat Indian-style on a thread-w orn, splotch-stained beige carpet in his new empty room. He looked out the window. The languid breeze and flickering lights of the city excited him. The remaining two so ldiers of a doomed tw elve-box sweated their fate next to him, their kin strewn about in various crumpled states of defeat. Wren thought about the last thing his mother said to him two days ago when armed with his DD214 he bid so long to the Navy and the lone ly sea. Fuck you, were her exact words after he had explained his plan to move to Tampa for awhile and hang with his oldest friend Allen, who had been living in the Sunshi ne State for the last three months. Wrens twenty-year-old sister Haley had been diagnosed with leukemia just six months prior, and Wrens mother was shocked that he wasnt coming home after having been gone for four years. Im sick and fucking tired of the bombs you drop on us, she had said. I suffered your decision to join the Navy but this is just too much. That night in Allens apartment Wren birt hed the idea that he wanted to become a doctor. He felt like he needed to save Haley, save his family, be there when they needed him most, when he could really do something. None close to him ha d ever died, and yet the thought of any of his family members sick or dying haunted him. He flat-out made up his mind to become a doctor. He knew he could do anything he wanted. He was fresh out of the Navy and felt like the world had opene d up for him. He called his two brothers and his mother. It was around three in the morni ng. Hey listen, he said to each in turn
10 on their answering machines. Im going to be a doctor so I can save Haley and anyone else who gets sick. He sa id this to all of them and felt good knowing they would be satisfied that he had come to this momentous decision. He knew they were worried about him. No one in Wrens family liked the fact that he was going to spend an indefinite amount of time with Allen in Tampa. It occurred to Wren that they would get the messages, know he was wasted, and think he was a loser, an alcoholic, on his way down, and perhaps that he should have stayed in the Navy, been a lifer. They would not see it was for them that he wanted to be a doctor. He was doing it for them, for Haley. He loved them, and he was sure they could not r ecognize this through his slurred speech. He wanted to show them he could make it on hi s own, and not just make it, but really be somebody and help people, help them if they needed it, especially Haley. He recalled passing a hospital on his wa y into town--Memorial Hospital he thought it was called. He wanted to have a he art-to-heart with one of those yahoos over in the emergency ward, pick their brain, see if they could give him the straight dope on becoming an M.D. Hed show his family a thing or two about what kind of stuff a Navy man was made of, a four year navy man. He stood up and swayed for a moment on the tan carpet that perhaps was once white and aimed himself toward the door. He descended the stairs two at a time and planted his face in the rocks and dirt at the bo ttom. He laid there for a moment without a thought and then pulled himsel f up off the ground. He stumbled towards the lights, always towards the lights, towards town. He fished inside his pockets for a butt and pulled one out. It hung awkwardly and bent from his lips. He dug for his lighter and sparked it, listening to the whoosh of small-hour cars angling towards ecstasy. He looked
11 to his left and across the stre et in the distance he saw a gr eat blue neon sign, Memorial Hospital. * He had flown in from San Diego that afternoon, reuniting with Allen at the airport. In Allens fine black truck he could feel his heartb eat pick up like the beginning of a heavy metal number. His mind began to sw im as he heard the roll and thunder of his old friends voice shimmy through the metallic cab. He looked out the window at Tampa and thought it looked yellow. The closer th ey pushed toward downtown by way of Dale Mabry the more yellow it got, as though they we re heading straight into the sun. Wren always associated places with colors; San Fr ancisco was orange, New York was a sort of orange-brown, Seattle was green, and no doubt about it Tampa was yellow, maybe on account of the Florida sun. No, but first I got one for you. Holy shit, Allen said. Listen. Ryan, you remember Ryan. You know his mom home-school s, right? Well, well, see, she has a colleague, or I mean a coworker, and anyway home-schools this fourteen-year-old chick, right, fourt-fuckin-teen, and my God, this ch ick already has a year-old kid, and I mean shes pregnant, right? Right? I mean, right? Well, see, and shes at the hospital, right? I mean I guess shes there you know, about to give birth, right? Listen, the next day shes in the medical bed, on the bed, and her boyfriend, right, the day after shes given birth the second time, right? Hes in there on the white bed fuckin this chick again. Oh my God, fuckin his chick again with no rubber. Tryi ng to start an army, I guess. Isnt that unreal? The two men laughed, and Allen wiped a clump of meth from the corner of his nostril with the top of his left wrist.
12 Tampa is beautiful, Wren said, lo oking out the window. It seems yellow, maybe on account of the only colors Ive seen for the last four years is fuckin gray and blue. I still cant believe you joined the Na vy, man. Allen glanced at Wren and then back to the road. Well, Im out now, man. Wrens eyes focused on the shifting landscape. So where is this beat-to-shit place of yours? Is it really above a used bookstore? Fuck, Im lagged. Allen swung his truck into a drive righ t off Kennedy and came to a stop. There she is, he said. The place was old and rickety with smudgy, cracked white paint and black borders around the windows. It was a sp rawling two-story house, no doubt regal in its day, but now gutted and dressed into seve ral apartments, a bungalow, and indeed, the bottom floor had a sign out front that read Imperial Book Lodge. Allens living room boasted a black leather couch and a matching La-Z-Boy. He had a 40 flat screen TV and a DVD player and a powerful stereo system. Wren was unfamiliar with all the gadgets. He felt as t hough he was out of touch with the world, as though the last four years in the Navy he had existed in a time warp, unaware of any progress the world had made. The two had come down, but Allen was prepared, and gave his friend a Xanax and the two smoked a joint on the couch, passi ng it back and forth three times before Wren set it in the ashtray. Allen flipped on th e tube and sat down. Rock, paper, scissors to see who goes and grabs us a couple of cool ones? Im the guest, Wren said.
13 Allen smiled and pushed himself up off the couch. Not for long, he said, making his way into the kitchen. You live here now, brother. Allen tossed Wren a beer and sat back down on the couch. Wren fought back a strange longing for his ship. He had for so many months fantasized about this trip that these thoughts of apprehension and regret confused him. So tell me some more waiter stories, Wren said. I can tell you one, Alle n said, his eyes on Wrens eyes, searching. I worked with this lady, a career waitress, an old bag, ri ght? Shed get so nervous at times at the thought of being canned that she d almost burst into tears. I mean what else could she do? Nothing. Thats the point. People ge t caught up in restaurants. Everyone knows this. The thing was she had bad, horrible brea th, halitosis in the worst way. You could smell it when you came in if you knew what it smelled like. You could smell it without even seeing her. Anyway, she was a good wa itress, and got good sections, and was nice enough. The place I worked back home, one of them at least, was nice. It was a nice Italian joint, a new place. Ri ch people ate there all the time, and there was this one guy, a millionaire I think, a hunter, outdoorsy type and he came in one Saturday night, and Anne, the lady with the halitosis, waited on him. He had been hunting and was all decked out in camouflage and he had a bird caller that squawked, and whenever he and his buddies wanted another drink hed squawk that thing, squaaaaawwk! After the meal, he lined eight one-hundred-dollar bills on the ta ble and told her to fix her teeth because she had just awful breath. No way. Wren inched forward on the couch. Swear. Before that even, someone, ma ybe another waiter, and it wasnt me. I dont know who it was. I have a few guesses. But anyway, someone sent her a letter and
14 told her she had terrible br eath, right? She came in the next day and was furious. Wanted to know who it was wrote the letter, but no one fessed-up. Did she get her teeth fixed? Wren laughe d, sinking back into the black leather. No. She didnt have bad teeth. She had shit breath. Youre missing the point. I asked her what she did with the money, and sh e said she bought another easel. She was a painter and went to Vegas with her man. I didnt even know she had a man. Thats the thing about waiting tables though. I always felt like there wa s going to be some guy or lady, like the hunter, who would give me like a million dollars in cash, or write me a check. Because its weird, the whole thing is built on the generosity of people. Its like baseball. Conceivably, a baseball game coul d last forever, you know, if a team kept hitting. It never would, but it could. And with waiting tabl es someone could give you a million dollars. Its within reason. Theres no cap to what they can give you, but also someone could make nothing if everyone just didnt want to give you shit. You can get rich or not make a dime. Its weird. That is weird. Wren said, and looked around the room. Looks like youre doing okay though. This stuff is all from my dad, Allen said. Is he still in the government? Wren asked. I guess. I havent talked to him since I moved down here. He hooked me up with this shit. Allen gestured around the r oom. Thats the last time I talked to him, like three months ago. Why Tampa anyway? Wren noticed hi s friend had aged. The two of them looked like the same chess piece, one tan, one black, maybe bishops. Wren was lit from
15 the inside and exuded a straw-colored glow right up to the blades of his hair follicles. Allen was darker, dog-eared one could say, and now four years later it seemed like some child had traced the lines of his skin and was in the process of coloring him in, going wildly outside the lines. I read an article that said the Bay ar ea is the fastest growing job market in the country and thought fuck it, Allen said. Youre waiting tables now, right? Wren asked. I was. Got canned. What happened? Thats actually a funny story. These fuck s over at the Bolognese, especially this bitch that owns it, capricious fuckin dowager with an itchy trigger fi nger, they didnt like me. They wanted me out. Why? I almost fucked one of the managers. That might be one reason. The night they canned me one of the owners--there are tw o owners, old divorced couple, the lady though--was eating with all her South Tam pon friends, bunch of rich bitches, golddiggers. Anyway, they were eating and whoe ver was serving--I think it was Marge--was at the table with a tray with all their entrees. I walked by on my way out and flipped the tray and the shit all crashed to the ground. I walked right out the door. They aint seen the last of me; thats for damn sure. Wren laughed. What are you gonna do? Im gonna kill every last one of those mother-fuckers. Aint that the restaurant you told me I could get a job at? Wren asked.
16 Oh, you got a job, Allen said, thats a ll part of the plan. You got a gig and you can stay in my other bedroom as long as you want. Wren looked at the TV; it was a car commercial. Im sorry to hear about Haley, Allen said. * After leering at passing cars for a bloc k, Wren located the emergency entrance. He tried to wipe off the dirt caked to his jeans before he breached the threshold, but he kept moving his hands from his dirty face to his dirty jeans and soon looked as though he was purposefully wearing some sort of cam ouflage and trekking with a thousand yard stare to medical. He straightened the co llar to his white short-sleeve pullover and entered. The waiting room was starch white wi th rows of orange cushioned chairs over black spines. Magazines lay on tables at either end of the rows. At the front of the room was a window with a sign above it that read Please Check In. Wren lumbered to the window and plopped down in the chair. A young black lady smiled at him and said, Could you just fill this out, sir? and slid a clipboard th rough the window. I aint here for medical reasons, he said. I was hoping I could interview one of the docs. I want to be a doctor and take care of my fam. I have it all planned out. I just need a little straight dope. The nurse looked up at hi m incredulously, then looked behind him. Wren turned around too and met ey es with an obese woman with short dark hair and a scowl of pain etched on her doughy face entering the emergency room. She wore a sort of brace on her leg and walked like an English soldier, straight legged. Hold on sister, Wren said to the woman. Jus one sec. So you got anyone back there with the skinny? I aint fuckin around here, ma m. This is serious business. Wren absentmindedly fished out a smoke from his poc ket and put it in his mouth. I aint
17 askin for no J-O-B here. I know Im gonna n eed plenty of schoolin and cut my teeth on some cadavers but cheese and rice cant ya gi ve a brother a clue? Cant ya throw me a bone? Huh, cant ya? You cant smoke in here, sir. Then she paused looked him up and down and said. Potna, you got to be playin with me Am I gettin punked here? Did Kemesha put you up to this? Nah, soul sista, I want to save lives, Wren said. Just then a man came through one of the waiting room doors. He looked I ndian, had glasses, was tall and thin, and sported a large bright pink birth mark on hi s cheek that resembled a pudgy star. What can I do for you, sir? Finally, Wren said, with the cigarett e still in his mouth. He stood up and took three steps toward the doctor. Whats it take doc? Whats it take, man? Dont pull any punches. Does it fuck you up inside seein all that gore and shit? Y ou got to transfer all that shit, right? Aint that what they call it, transfer? I can transfer the whole goddamn world if I need to. Im calling the police, the doctor said. For what, Wren said, you got a live one back there? Wren looked at the door the doctor emerged from as t hough he could see through it. You must leave, the doctor said. I cant interview you? No. Thats bullshit, Wren said, heading fo r the door. He took one look at the obese lady now sitting down in a ch air with her leg propped up. Good fucking luck, mam.
18 Kumar aint no humanitarian. Ju st before he leaned into th e door he looked back at the doctor, the nurse, and the patient and said, And another thing, ju st so you know, health care in America is really fucked up.
19 Chapter Two Wren had read somewhere that a large percen tage of serial killers at some point in their lives worked in a rest aurant. Ted Bundy was a bus boy. Hadden Clark worked at many restaurants in the Cape Cod area and w ould drink the blood that drained off the raw beef. He ate his female victims in hopes of becoming female himself. Joseph Bell was a restaurant owner. He chose his victims from his wait staff in Texas. He dismembered them and fed them to the alligators he kept behind the restaurant. Wren wasnt sure if any serial killers had ever worked at Bo lognese, some may have, but he found out his third day that Harry Peddler had once killed a man. Word had it that it was when he was an amateur boxer, after his wifes dad canned him from the car lot. He beat this guy pretty bad. The guy died the following morni ng. The doctor said something had jarred loose in the mans brain, and he was as good as dead on the canvas. Said it was pure adrenaline kept him alive long as it did. You wouldnt know this about Harry by looki ng at him. Theres lots of stuff no one knows just by looking at someone, and this was particularly the case with Harry. He was big, so big in fact that a man kind of forgot just how big he was seconds after meeting him. He was like a mountain one gets used to. He looked like a gorilla or an ape. He had long arms that swayed back and forth when he walked, short blondish grayish hair styled straight up, and a barrel chest one never really got to see the extent of because Harrys posture was so lousy. Most times Harry had a smile on his face, which
20 was important in his profession; he was bar-man ager/bartender at Bolognese. Also, Wren realized right off--even in his first week--H arry was bar-none the greatest ass-kisser he had ever seen. He was a pro. Maybe on account of his size he was so effective. Gives a man a hard on to order around someone big as Harry. Wrens third day at the Bolo and firs t day on the floor, Harrys wife died. Everyone knew she was sick. Shed had cance r for years, but itd gone into remission, and then came back. Wren never met her. She was in the hospital when he started. It occurred to him that he never knew Harry when he may have been happy, but again youd never know it. It was amazing that Harry worked the day his wife died amidst all the hollering drunks; for certainly the bar regulars were unaware of Harrys loss. Wasnt a bartenders right to have such a loss. He had taken his two-week paid vacation. His wife died the day he came back to work. Wren decided that trying to get a j ob at the Bolo through Allen was out. The morning after he had been to the hospital he re alized he needed to start small and devise a plan. Hed go ahead and get a serving job and keep his eyes peeled for something better, maybe look at some colleges in Florida. He hadnt given up on becoming a doctor, but he knew hed have to get a B.S. first then medical school. Maybe there was another way entirely. He had walked into the Bolo th e afternoon after the incident at Memorial Hospital and was hired on the spot. Seems they had just recently canned someone. Mickey Alhings, the manager of Bolo, told Wren on his third day, Just so you know, Darla died today. Mickey was pretty in a no-nonsense way, slim, not a lot of makeup, and hair the color of Florida sand. Mickey was everything to everyone, an every-woman, perfect for a manager. For inst ance, to some of the other waiters like
21 Dylan she seemed like a mom, to Nad she was a fag-hag, to Wren she was just Mickey. Wren feigned shock and said, Harrys here? Yeah, she said breathil y, in agreement. Immediat ely Wren thought of his two daughters and understood. The man had tw o daughters and worked for tips. An unsalaried man cant afford to take off wo rk beyond his paid vacations, especially one with two girls both still in school. Mickey then looked Wren up and down. I hope you work out here at the Bolo, Wren. Weve had some bad luck lately. Like what? Wren asked. We hired this freak, Mickey said, kep t leaving me notes with his check out. We had to can him. Remind me and Ill tell you about it. Wren wondered if she was talking about Allen. He hadnt told Allen about his brush with the emergency room. In fact, he hadnt seen much of Allen since that first night. All he was worried about for the time being was getting and keeping a job for a while and finding something worthwhile to do with his life. Bolo wasnt a big place, but where it lacked in size it made up in quality and location. The joint was situated a stones throw away from the bay, in the pseudo art district, slash burgeoning touris t trap, slash restaurant row, slash So Ho (South Howard) district Hyde Park, about two blocks from Wrens new home which was solid cause he had no car and no plans to blow any dough on one. The food was good and consistent and the place was clean. There were only a bout twenty tables plus a small lounge, the bar, and a few bigger tables for big tops or pa rties. On any given night there was no need for more than four servers, but usually five were staffed. The wait-staff was billeted with usually around ten people give or take three, the door of the restaurant bizz always
22 revolving. It was a slow night for the most part, or at least began that way, when a large man with the beginnings of a mullet came up to Wr en. He was 6 4 easy and sleeved in colorful ink, but when he opened his mouth, out came a voice that would have been better suited for a character on the cartoon network. He had that thing people call a gay lisp, that way of talking that not all gay men have, but only gay men have. Have you ever waited on Mr. Salem? he asked Wren. Wren looked around to see whom he was referring to and told him that he hadnt. Well, hes blind, and his table is a clock. He wants his salad at six, hi s meat at two, his veggi es at eight . He kept going, but Wren knew he wasnt going to be able to keep track of the mans table clock. The man was going on very seriously as though he was surprised Wren didnt know who Mr. Salem was, as though he was some dignitary that he should know. Hes having dinner with some associates. Ill get the check, the man said. Wren glanced at the many other tables and felt self-conscious that he was talking so seri ously to this man. You wont be joining them? Wren asked. No. Ill be sitting over there. He po inted to a table out of Wrens section. Then Wren saw what he took to be Mr. Salem following what looked like a married couple, but probably wasnt. Th ey were both dressed in dark suits, and the lady looked a little too severe to be from Tampa with her thin, pursed lips and brown rouge. The fella had dry looking, aerodynamic hair full of gel. Salem, carrying up the caboose, was dressed in a finely starched yellow button dow n and khakis. Had his assistant not told him, Wren wouldnt have known the man wa s blind. The lights had dimmed in the restaurant and the constant hum of the dine rs caused Wren to feel as though he was
23 floating in some sort of vacuum. Salem reached his seat with a barely perceptible hand from the other two. His glasses were slightly tinted. He seemed to look his dinner guests in the eye, or at least gave the impression of doing so. It was then Wren started to feel his ha ngover go into the achy stage. His lower back felt like it was in a vice and the back of his head hurt. Lately he had been accosted by these weird moments of paranoia, as t hough his nervous system was plumb deciding to fuck the whole program and duck-out the cl osest orifice. Boozi ng every night was not helping, and right then he thought maybe hed quit the sauce. He got the okay from Dylan and waited on the tatted man. He intr oduced himself as he was supposed to. Hello, Im Wren, and Ill be taking care of you tonight. The tatted man introduced himself as, R eginald or Reggie. Wren guessed he told him his name because theyd talked mo ments before, but it was still strange. Wren didnt care what his name was. Wren waited on both tables, and Reggie neve r took his eyes off Salems table, and more than that never really took his eyes o ff Mr. Salem. Was he his assistant, bodyguard, lover? Wren was unsure, but one thing was for certain, Reggie looked lonely by himself at the other table peering at Salem. Why c ouldnt Salem have just allowed Reggie to eat at his table? Wren kept asking around if anyone had ever waited on Salem as he had so adamantly been asked, but no one had seemed to. When Harry sent over a round of drinks, Wren figured they might have been old-school Bolo customers, because Harry had been there for years.
24 Wren asked Nad if hed ever waited on Salem and Nad told him to, Zip it, and Dylan hadnt ever seen him or met him either Wren didnt want to ask Harry and risk him thinking he was getting into his business. Wren hoisted the entrees to Salems ta ble trying to remember what Reggie had told him about the clock. He set the tray on a tray-jack and looked at the diners. Salem wasnt aware that Wren was at the table. He lifted up one hand and looked at the couple in front of him or at least tried to. He sa id, Well rename it love potion number nine. When the patent is up, who cares? Salem rev ealed a toothy grin. I mean if the only side effect is a four-hour-boner, then I say bom bs away. The other two remained silent and looked unimpressed. Wren set a small pl ate of steamed broccoli at eight. He remembered that much and then it all fell ap art. He couldnt remember Salems clock. He looked over at Reggie who stared at him blankly as though he would kill him if he fucked it up. He had the look of a killer, cold blooded, no expression. Wren winged it, and Salem didnt miss a beat. Maybe he could smell where his food was. The meal went off without a hitch. The little bit of conversation Wren picked up on had something to do prescription drugs or pharmaceutical sales. He tried not to listen. Towards the end of the meal, Wren presented the check to Reggie. He hated standing there while people fished for thei r money. You new here? Reggie asked. Yeah, just started. I ju st got out of the Navy. Wren was standing over Reggie with the makings of another panic attack afoot. Yeah, what ship? Kitty Hawk, CV-63. Its a carrier. Shut the fuck up; that was my ship. Whad you do?
25 Gunners Mate. Look, man, you want to make some real money? Reggie flattened out one of the napkins. Give me that pen. Wren hande d him one of his pens. We have this thing going, pharmaceuticals, were pharmaceutical salesman. I want you to come work for us. Are you serious? Reggie wrote down a number with Wrens pen. Call this number and well set up an interview. Itd be nice to have a Navy man around, especially a gunners mate. Reggie looked into the dist ance as though picturing it. Thanks, Wren said. * Wren thought Salem and Reggie certainly ga ve off the air of folks who had lots of money which didnt exactly mean they had any, and sometimes meant they for sure didnt, but they exuded that air. Reggie was hi s lackey or so it seem ed. Maybe this could be an opportunity to show his family he could make it outside of the navy in a big city like Tampa. Maybe Mr. Salem and Reggi e could put him onto something. Maybe pharmaceutical sales was his in to the medical game. Maybe he could find a way to help Haley. Wren was excited to have made thei r acquaintance and buried those seeds in his pocket for later. Hed call for sure. He walked home after his shift thinking about Harry and about the fact that his wife had just died and that perhaps Harry ha d lived so long with pain that it no longer showed on his face. He thought about poor Reggie; he seemed sympathetic enough to Wren, sitting at that table all by himself, staring over at Salem who perhaps could feel the
26 tattooed mans comforting, fawning eyes on his own blank ones. Three houses down from the Book Lodge there was a house th at used bowling balls and bowling pins in thei r landscape. The flower beds and walkways were all lined with balls and pins painted red, orange, blue, and green. The paint was starting to chip. Wren knew then he was no longer in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. or the middle of the Atlantic. Anyone who used bowling in its landscape in the Bluff would get their ass kicked.
27 Chapter Three Wren awoke the next morning and stared deeply into little beads of rain that pattered the window. He had bought a blow-up mattress and a comforter that he really didnt need because of the heat. The mattre ss was very nearly deflated every morning by the time he woke up. He couldnt see the sky because of the wine-colored drapes in his room, but he could see the rain, and guess at the skys grayness. He was one of those fortunate boozers who continually had hangove rs. Didnt the hangovers stop eventually? Isnt that how one knows if ones a true al coholic? Wrens hangovers were nasty. His body ached all over, and at times he wondere d if being hung-over was what old age felt like. Then he read somewhere that hangovers are like starving to death. So he was starving to death. Wrens oldest brother, C, told him when he was younger that one thing he needed to remember to do was to take care of his te eth. He told him this out of the blue, life advice. Wren heeded that advice and was a freak about his teeth. He brushed them as soon as he got up. Allen once again was nowhere to be found. Wren had no idea if hed landed another job or what. Wren thought hed go down to the bookstore and see what Jaycee, the proprietor of the store, was up to. He had to work th at night at the Bolo, so not much was on the agenda for the day. Nights Wren worked he never did anything much during the day. He
28 needed to conserve his energy. He wanted to call Reggie about the j ob but he didnt want to call hung-over, so he decided to wa it until the following day. The rain felt good on his burning forehead as he made his way to the front of the bookstore and through the gate. The bookstore o ffered a friendly brick porch with pillarlike beams carved in ornate designs where one could usually find a street person, as Jaycee referred to the bookstore regulars, sit ting on one of the chairs smoking or staring at and drinking a Big Gulp like it was a beau tiful woman. Wren had met Jaycee only a couple of times before but each time they had talked for a couple of hours. Jaycee was inside. Wren saw his sign s propped up against the wall. One said, How Many Must Die, and then there was a nu mber next to it on a piece of paper that had been taped over other lesser numbers. The growing number was in the thousands already. Jaycee picketed the war in Iraq. He didnt talk about it all that much unless someone brought it up, and then one could tell by his terse, straight answers that he was simply shocked by what was going on and couldn t believe that others werent shocked as well. Jaycee was tall, about 6 2 and lanky. He played college basketball one year for Louisiana State. He didnt start, but he wa s on the team. He earned an M.A. in theology from Harvard and was the most spiritual man Wren had ever met. He never went to church though, and never really talked God, unless he was out street preaching, which he did sometimes. Here was a man that when you talked listened, not in that half-ass way people do when they look into the near distan ce preparing what theyre going to say next. He listened, and it almost shocked you to see a ma n really listen. Hey, he said when he saw Wren. He sat on a stool with his giant bass.
29 Rough one last night, Wren said. Jaycee laughed. He propped his bass against the wall and sat back down on the stool. Wren took a seat on a metal fold-out chair. So I was downtown with my sign, and a cop came up to me and told me I c ouldnt have my sign on public property. Said the sign could not touch the ground on public pr operty. So I told him Id hold it up. You held it up? Wren said, straighteni ng his back, excited that he was talking with Jaycee. I held it up. I could be on public prope rty holding a sign as long as it wasnt touching the ground. Wren laughed disgustedly. Did you tell him to go shake down a Seven Eleven for a two-day-old doughnut? He laughed. Ja ycee was always getting hassled for his signs. Another sign said, Where Are All The Christians? I waited on this blind guy last night, Wren said. Yeah. How was that? It was no big deal, but there was this other guy, his bodyguard or his assistant or something, who sat at another table and watc hed the blind guy the whole time like he was worried the guy was going to be assassinated. The assistant dude was big and bulky and all inked, and I think he might have been gay too, but Im not sure about that. It was weird. He came up to me and told me Mr. Salems plate was a clock, and it freaked me out. He wants me to call him about a job. Jaycee laughed, and Wren stared at the hard wood floor for a moment. He had a little jazz on in the backroom, and Wren c ould hear it playing so ftly. Jaycee played upright bass, and was once in a band that regul arly played at a nice restaurant somewhere
30 in Ybor City before he opened the bookstore Also, before the bookstore he refurbished antique furniture. He opened the Imperi al Book Lodge on Christmas day 02. You gonna call? Jaycee asked. I think so, Wren said. I think it has something to do with pharmaceutical sales. Youre going to be a drug dealer? Wren looked at the floor. Im kidding. I shouldnt have said that. Youre right though. Maybe I wont call. You should call. Along with the street people that mill ed about the bookstore was a parade of young girls that found their way to the IBL and to Jaycee. He was a handsome fella, but more than that, girls seemed to be as enamored with his ability to really listen as Wren was. There were al ways girls about. One such young girl loped into the stor e, and she and Jaycee talked about going for a walk on the beach. She had a felt, purple hat pulled way down, almost over her eyes, and was wearing the unmistakable outfit of a waitress, all black. Perhaps shed just left work or was between a double. They invi ted Wren to go, but he declined. Wren took this as his signal to go back up to his apar tment. Dont forget about the testimony, Jaycee said to Wren as Wren was about to walk out the door. You are going to speak arent you? I may, Wren said, and then a pang of nervousness shot through him as he thought about the fact that he had told Jay cee that some years ago he had found the Lord, which in a way was true, but he had also at times felt like there wasnt shit out there but
31 VD and guilt. I may, Wren repeated and then left. Wren saw Big Country riding his bike across Kennedy. He waved, and Wren waved back. Jaycee told Wren Big Country was a homeless guy who once knocked off thirty saloons in Texas in the seventies for half a million in take. Wren asked Big Country about it once when he was loaded, a nd Country just looked at Wren and changed the subject. Later Jaycee said hed be lucky if Country didnt shoot him for talking. I was drunk, Wren had told him. Wren roached the rest of the day in the apartment on the couch, desultorily sleeping. When he finally walked to work he felt wet and slimy, as if the alcohol was meandering out of every pore of his body. His face stung where the drunk-sweat mingled with the sensitive, newly shaved skin. He felt ravaged by life and thought that he deserved a few days off the sauce to rest up. Once at the Bolo he found new blood. It was always an occasion when a new server was hired. Wren likened it to a ne w student in grade school, exciting because you just knew you were really going to get to know this person, especially if it was a girl and she was interesting looking. The new student at the Bolo was Carmen Perez. Wren came around the corner into the di ning room, and she was up front with one of the hostesses apparently going over the floor plan. She had short, charcoal black hair and was thin like a ballerina. Even within the unflattering fo lds of the black, boyish uniform required at the Bolo, one could detect very feminine curv es. Wren was interested immediately. She walked with terrific posture as though she had a book atop her head, and her very life depended on carrying that book. She had a dignity to her he found very sexy, a severity of purpose Wren had not seen in a woman for quite some time. In short, she looked like
32 a woman to be reckoned with, and this tu rned him on. Upon further inspection Wren noticed something else about her. She had a lachrymose quality to her. She laughed at jokes that werent funny and carried on in that ingratiating way expected of newbies. Wren could tell it was contrived, begrudgingly, and was also seconds from slipping away to reveal what was really going on, which wasnt so obsequious at all. Wren wanted to run up to her, even before introducing himself, and ask her what was wrong and commiserate, maybe share his pain, gather hers in his arms and carry it away with her in tow. But when it was his turn to introduce hi mself he just said Hi and walked away leaving her standing there. That was his trick. Girls he was in terested in he ignored. Wrens first table was a couple of shar ply dressed business boys about his own age. They looked up at him, and Wren detected wry condesc ending thoughts roving through their brains ready to spill upon his departure. He pictured himself grabbing a fork off the table and plunging it into the throat of the betterlooking bloke, but he didnt. He simply fetched their house Merlots from th e bar and perfunctorily took their order. He wanted to tell them so many things: th at this was only a temporary gig, that maybe they could use a guy like him, someone who knew the score. He wanted to tell them hed been in the navy, seen the world, and c ould hook them up with perspective. Dylan, another waiter, told Wren on his first day that a guys wife once offered him a fifty-dollar bill if Dylan would call he r husband by his name when he approached the table. That way, the other guys at th e table the guy and his wife were schmoozing would think the guy was a big shot Dylan did it and made the fifty. People love to feel like hot-shit in a public place, es pecially a restaurant or a bar. A guy gets a chubby if a bartender knows his drink. A ll a guy wants to hear is, Hey, the usual, mack?
33 Soon he just wanted to kill the two bloke s, spit in their pasta. One guy shooed him when Wren asked him if he wanted a box for his leftovers, as if to say, Im too rich for leftovers, silly, and again he thought of a fork tearing through sinew, neck, and bone. The whole time Wren kept an eye on Carmen. She was now picking up her own tables, a rarity at the Bolo with newbies. Typically, one had to train for a few days. Wren had to. Wren guessed someone figured she had the hang of it. They met at the soda machine. Youre already pi cking up tables? he asked her. She looked at him out of the corner of her watery eye and said, This is my second day. Usually they make people train at least two days. I dont know, Carmen said, and then left with a tray of thre e waters each with lemon. He didnt know it then, what was goi ng on that day in her mind, but he found out later. She was pregnant and planning to have an abortion. Every ti p she made that first day working at the Bolognese was going towa rd that end, and so with every table and every dollar she earned she was closer to am putating what was growing inside of her, which explains the way she looked, deep beneat h her expression. Wren wanted to tell her that he might get into pharmaceutical sales even though what Jaycee had said had turned him off. He wanted to tell her he was going places. Wrens next table was a table full of women, South Tampa women, a little too much jewelry, all of them sporting rocks, indicating their husbands not with them, probably out at another bar, ri ngs off, making eyes at whatev er hole walks by. The lot of these chicks are cunts. It seems as though they re rich in a handout sort of way. So thats covered, but they arent happy, a nd for the life of them they can t figure out why. Its as
34 though they want to cry out that no one told them this part of a gold diggers deal. This part was not shared. Some flirt, like this one with sizable breasts. Since Desperate Housewives aired on TV and shows like Sex And The City its fashionable for these middle age chicks to slum with waiters and hairdressers and the like. Often Wren absorbed looks that penetrat ed through the smoky perfumes of his hangovers. Most were just rude though, dying for a drink, and he would involuntarily picture himself getting serviced by any one of th em or all of them at the same time as he stood there about to take their order. Thei r eyes and mouths looki ng up in his direction, he would envision himself whipping out his co ck and plunging it into the mouth of the one ordering. It wasnt something he was pr oud of and he didnt get off on it or anything. It just always popped into his head as a de fense mechanism against his growing anxiety and bitterness and resentment in re sponse to their obvious condescension. They all ordered Gray Goose martinis of one sort or another, and instead of Wrens volcano of hang-ups and neuroses e xploding onto these wo men, he found myself more and more interested in Carmen. He watched her from a distance adroitly apply her trade. He wanted to know more about her. Amidst the peripatetic grind he found out that she had a degree in literature. He told her that he had read Catcher In the Rye She laughed at his exuberance, and perhaps knew right off that he was ind eed interested, but discarded it as the whim of a reckless man. All bets were off when the owner, Naomi ONeil, came in through the front door with her boyfriend, Ennis, a large man who had been in the Olympics as a handball player. Her ex-husband Phil Shoemaker, the ot her owner, came in solo through the back
35 door. Things tightened up when the owners rolled in. Everyone knew they watched the staff like hawks. Naomi was in her sixties, but looked like she was in her late forties. Shed recently had breast implants and was plump, but not exactly overweight. She had blonde hair, obviously colored, and often wore bright colors with pendants. Also, she wore, more often than not, a sort of insane scowl on her face as her eyes roamed her restaurant. Phil, on the other hand, looked hi s age with his snow-w hite hair and one marble-blue glass eye that looked at nothi ng. He too watched. Phil was the moneyman of the outfit, and Naomi was the chef. Word had it that Naomi had cheated on Phil with her personal trainer. Apparently, she was doinking this dude in between stints on the Stair Master. The story went that this guy was ugly as si n. He had a nice body and all but he had muscles in his nose that flared out and no hair on his perfectly round dome. Phil found out, and one day Naomi and the traine r were in the Bolo having lunch. Phil came in--this was in the first decade of th e Bolos existence--having found out through the grape vine. By the time he approached the table where Naomi and the ugly trainer were having lunch, he was on a dead sprint. The trainer saw Phil out of the corner of his eye and raised the fork he was holding to protect himself and it plunged into Phils eyeball. Phil had to get the eyeball replaced with a glass, blue one, and the two got a divorce, or so the story went. During that first shift of Carmens, Wren started to notice a certain levity come over her when she looked at him. Maybe wh atever it was that was bothering her found respite in his worn-out, forlorn face. Or maybe she simply figured, now here is a guy worse off than me, and that gave her solace. When the shift was nearly over Wren said to Carmen that they should go out and
36 have a drink. She told him she was going home, but that she would have a glass of wine and that he could join her. As luck woul d have it, Wren had ju st about the craziest mother-fucker in South Tampa for his last ta ble, a one top. This guy ordered champagne, a split, and talked to himself. If his shit wa snt in front of him promptly, hed get out of his booth and shrug his shoulders as if to sa y, Where the fuck is my grub? He was crazy though, so Wren could get a few over on hi m; like the fact that he picked out the most rock-hard piece of bread he could fi nd in the steamer, knowing that the guy was too stone crazy to say anything. Wren tried to pass the table off, but couldnt. Nobody wanted this clown. So he waited on him, and the guy was actually rather calm, except that Wren noticed the guys lips were always moving, talking to no one, and the fact that the poor guy was trying with all his might to break the bread ap art, and nearly fell out of his chair. Jaycee told Wren that the reason homeless people or otherwise seemingly crazy people so often talk to themselves is because they are lonely; they are bleeding from the mouth, he said. That is what theyre doing when they talk to themselves, bleeding out of the mouth from loneliness. Finally, Wren was done, and had a few mi nutes as Carmens wine sifted through her hand. She seemed upset when Wren sat down. She had her money out on the table as though she had been doing calculations. Enough for your cell phone bill? he asked. She just smiled. Not my cell phone, she said, and then it was as though she was about to tell him something, b ecause she looked at him as if for the first time, and then she simply polished off the last of her wine. She ordered another a nd they talked. Wren found out that she was a single mother, and th at she was in the process of applying to
37 grad school for literature. Wren found out sh e was Cuban, and in fact had studied ballet most of her life. She had lived two years in the Big Apple, which he found exciting and alluring. He told her everything he wanted to be, but was not, a nd told her nothing of what he was. Ever since grade school Wren picked out girls he barely knew and made a decision to pursue them. Maybe he liked th e way they looked. Maybe after only seconds of talking he felt love for them, real love. There is no greater love than the love a third grader feels for a classmate. He had neve r been unsuccessful, and Carmen Perez was his latest project. He was determ ined to make her love him.
38 Chapter Four Allen had lived with his grandmother and her invalid second husband, Dick, until he was rear-ended by a traveling shoe salesman at 17 and received a settlement of twenty thousand big ones. They were way too ol d to handle Allen anyway. One time, both Allen and Wren, who had been friends since Wr en moved to Poplar Bluff in the fourth grade, had been eating mushrooms the whole previous night. They had fallen asleep around six in the morning and didnt wake up until four. Allens grandparents had taken the car in for a tune-up for their 4th of July weekend trip to Kansas City and were back home waiting for the car to be fixed, silently eating a late snack. Allen had looked into the driveway and not finding his grandparents car confidently walked out of his room and into the living room letting out a big be lch and hollering, Im scatterbrained, as loud as he could only to look over his left shoulder at his grandmother and Dick spooning fruit into their mouths. Oh sorry, he had said. They continued on without even trying to understand the boy, who they already knew was well beyond their control. It was the 4th and the two were juni ors in high school. Allen and Wren had planned on tripping acid and ha ving a huge fireworks war. Allen knew his grandparents were going out of town and figured hed inv ite everyone over as a meeting place for the war which would spread out all over the small town. By seven o clock there were around ten people, all dudes, at Allens place. Everyone began getting waste d, drinking straight whiskey from big 1.75 gallon jugs of
39 Jim Beam and bottles of beer and letting off explosives right in Allens house. Bottlerockets, screamers, tanks, firecrackers, and M80s exploded and flew through the rooms. There was no time for teams to be devised and Allen yelled out, The war is on, and walked up to one of the guys who had let off a bottle-rocket in his house and stuck a pipe to the back of his head, lit the wick, and tapped the guy on th e shoulder. The pipe was a mechanism designed as a launching system for th e bottle rockets. The screamer stuck in the guys eye while the wick sp arked as it burned. The guy reacted slowly and before he could flail the rocket out of his eye it exploded, sending his eyeball three feet across the room right into an ashtray full of butts. Wren called an ambulance and the guy was from then on blind as a cavefish. But the war waged on throughout the night with no one else getting hurt except for a few minor injuries due to fireworks expl oding near the skin. No one ratted on Allen including the guy whose eye had been blown out. He was quoted as saying, I had it comin. We all had it comin. Alls fair in love and war. There was a certain loyalty that went on in the group and like with any group ratting was not allowed; and so Allen got off on that one and it was ultimately called an accident. That night Wren and Allen were on the same team. Everyone sort of grouped with the people they were closest to. Ne ither Wren nor Allen would think to shoot a bottle-rocket at the other one. They were bot h in the town park and out of ammo. They were on the run. Allen had plenty more back at the house but he was unsure how he was going to get back there without running into th e others armed to the teeth. Wrens gums were pulsating. He had already peaked from the acid but every now and then he would
40 see a streak of fire in the night arching like a rainbow, or he would hear a screamer that sounded like a woman in pain reminding him that he was tripping. The two were sitting on the ground behind a picnic table. Wren felt safe with Allen, safer than hed ever felt with anyone. He was bursting with love for his friend, and when Allen turned his face and kissed Wren for the first time, Wren didnt flinch. Later that year--that was two years before Wren joined the Navy--all the same friends were over at anothe r friends house drinking and playing cards for shots and smoking dope. Seems Allen had it in his head that he wanted one of those new digital scales that were all over the science labs at school. He was interested in the scales for measuring out the dope and mushrooms he had begun to peddle. The house they were partying at happened to be a few blocks away from the school. Allen had said he was going to get me one of those scales, and left the party. The group of dudes, and maybe a few girls, were pretty sau ced. About an hour and a half later Allen showed up with one of the scales wrapped in a towel. Anot her towel was wrapped around his hand soaked with blood. Hey, someone has to take me to the hospital. Jesus, Allen, what did you do? was all he got from the sedated crowd I got the scale, but when I hit the gl ass with the bat my hands followed through. The glass was easier to break than I thought; it cut me right on the fat part of the hand below my thumb. No one was moving very quickly and no one wanted to drive the poor bastard to the emergency room. It wasnt be cause anyone felt like th eyd be any sort of accomplice or anything. No one figured hed ge t caught. They just didnt want to leave the party for the hospital. C mon, he yelled once more. Finally, Wren drove him after finding out what was going on--he had been in one
41 of the bedrooms smoking a joint with a guy who had already graduated but still hung out at the high school parties, and the following week at school--it had been a weekend-word got around about the scale. Of cour se everyone knew it wa s Allen. He was the only guy at school with a bigass bandage on his hand. Surely there must have been blood at the scene, but Allen wore long sleev es pulled way down to cover his hand, and no one ever suspected him and no one ever ratted him out. Poplar Bluff, Missouri investigation practices werent the best in the nation. Allen did say one of the janitors eyed him pretty suspiciously, but his paranoia was probably a bout ready to burst at that point. It wasnt long after th at Allen was arrested for walk ing around town tripping in the nude. * The day after Wren met Carmen he sl owly entered Allen s living room from Allens bedroom, his hair a mess and his shir t off. He clutched the overhanging doorway with his hands. What the fuck are you doing, dude? Allen sat on the edge of his couch, his knees just above the coffee table, the television off, nothing on, his eyes big and co ld like two moons. Plannin my next move, he said, looking into the deep, dark reflection of his face in the velvety gray, blank TV screen. He had a pile of crystal on the glass coffee table next to a razor blade and his ID. He bent down and through what looked like a dollar bill, maybe it was a twenty, he Montana-ed a bar. Are you hooked on that shit? Wren as ked, collapsing into the La-Z-Boy. Nah, Allen said, raising his face up, looking at the ceiling, draining. Im fixin to start slingin this shit. Just want to know what Im slingin.
42 I feel like Im back in Poplar Bluff, Wren said. You make a good distinction there, home boy. I thought we could sell us a batch and hightail it to Cuba for a while. I heard its fuck in beautiful down there. Isnt that like a communist country? Yeah, but so what. They want tourists down there, especially Americans. And anyway, Castro is fittin to kick the bucket and then theyre going to open it. Theyre already preparing to open it. I fuckin say we go, man. Wren thought about Cuba. He looked at his buddy and pictured the two of them in Havana or some city like that. He wanted to feel safe like he used to looking at his friend, but he didnt. You still read a lo t? Wren asked. I dont see too many books around. Not really, Allen said, a little patch of white under hi s nose. That shit wasnt getting me anywhere. Im not going down there with you all fucked up on that shit, Wren said. Oh arent you sweet, Allen said, then got up and went over to Wren, bent down and kissed him on the lips. Wrens parents divorced when he was si x. At first he had a tough time. He constantly dreamed that his mother came to his bedroom door, but when he tried to call out to her he could never get the words ri ght. It was like when you wake up screaming and you find yourself sort of humming or mo aning because you cant move your lips. Those nights he woke up screaming with his m outh closed he would go into his fathers room and sleep with him. His father always had the radio on tuned to a country music station that perpetually played the top hundr ed country songs over and over in descending
43 order. Wren would snuggle up next to hi m and listen to the top hundred until he fell asleep. Lying in bed with Allen was like that. There was a security to it, like listening to those songs in order. He loved it. They ha d never had any type of sex. It wasnt like that, and they both knew it. They never talked about it, and to Wren at least, it wasnt a matter of whether he was homose xual or not. This sort of di stinction never entered into it. It was just like those songs as natural as lying next to his father listening to all those songs. * So what is your next move? Wren asked Allen after he showered standing in the doorway, a white towel wrapped around hi s waist and draped over his thighs. Allen, looked out his front window, I think I want to go hunting. Remember how we used to take our BB guns out and shoot birds and squirrels and shit. Lets do that. Sweet, Wren said then rushed into A llens room. As Wren was shimmying into his jeans he had a thought and yelled, No dr ugs, man. You imagine what its going to look like if were out in the ne ighborhood with BB guns and meth. Cool, he heard Allen yell. Well just get loaded. Wren then ambled back into the living room after he had dressed only to se e Allen suck down three Montanas right in a row, then violently lift his head up to th e ceiling. Hoo-wee, Jed, Allen screamed out and grinned. The two mixed a batch of margaritas and poured them into two Big-Gulp-sized cups. Allen had two guns from when they we re kids growing up and the two loaded them with BBs and pumped the rifles about fift een times each, looking at one another and
44 grinning, then went outside into the perfect Florida day. I know a place, Allen said. They threw the guns into the bed of the truc k then got inside. Allen drove them to a shopping mall a short ways away and drove ar ound back where there was a line of trees and a creek. This is perfect, Wren said as the two walked down toward the trees. So you almost fucked one of the mangers? Tell me about that. Oh, so this bitch was giving me the redeye, right? Mickey. Im sure youve met her. I could tell she wanted to get freaky, so one day I wrote her a little note with my check out. Whad it say? Wanna fuck? Wren laughed. She didnt say no; thats for damn sure. She laughed when she saw me next. She was a f lirt, one of those flirts where you dont really know if they want to fuck. Thats the definition of a flirt. No homeboy, thats a tease, but I dont think shes a t ease. Shes a mud-shark. Aint no mud-shark I ever met was a tease. Anyway, so one day I gave her a ride home cause her car was in the shop and I just said fuck it and whipped out my cock in the middle of the road. You were driving? Yep. Just whipped it out and she looked at it and told me to put that thing up, so I did. Two days later I was canned. They sa id it was because a customer said I didnt bring them a To Go box but I know it was cau se I whipped my cock out. That was the night I flipped that old dowager bitchs tray.
45 I think youre prob ably right. I doubt it was th e To Go box, Wren said and laughed. Just then Wren heard some rustling up in one of the trees, a hirsute oak that had long flowing beards from nearly every lim b. He put down his margarita Big Gulp and pumped the gun once for good measure and ai med up into the tree. He fired, and nothing. You missed him, Allen said, taking a drink. Squirrel, Wren said. The two walked on for a moment and then heard a thud behind them. Wren looked back and saw a large squirrel lif eless on the ground. You got him, Allen said. Lets get him and go. You want to cook him? Wren said jokingly. No. I got another idea, A llen picked up the squirrel by it s tail. Lets get out of here. I dont think Johnny Law would thi nk too kindly of us poaching squirrels. This was your idea. I know, and it worked. Lets go. Allen threw the dead squirrel into th e bed of the truck and the two hopped in. Im almost afraid to ask you what youre going to do with it. Chill, Allen said. The rest of the drive Wren didnt make a peep. He just thought about Allen and drank his margarita. He didnt think his buddy was too far-gone. What he did feel and what gave him anxiety, was th at he thought Allen was capab le of anything and worse than that, had plans, had been measuring some thing out for some time. Wren was sure of this. He knew his buddy had a calculating mind; he could read him that much. Allen was single-minded in almost everything he did.
46 They pulled into a parking lot across from the Bolognese. Allen looked over at Wren and smiled. Rock, paper, scissors to see who throws it on Naomis ride. Fuck that, Wren said. I work here now. Allen hopped out of the truck, grabbed the squirrel by the tail and as nonchalant as a man jogging, trotted over to a baby blue Jaguar and threw the squirrel onto the windshield. Wren could see the squirrels le gs splayed out as t hough it had dove onto the windshield and died. Allen trotted back to the truck and fired it up. What the fuck? Wren said. A sign, Allen said, like the mafia does it, like a fish, only a squirrel. A sign for what? Wren asked. I already told you.
47 Chapter Five Wren began calling Dan Nad not long afte r he was hired at the Bolo. Nad was that self-possessed, finicky, old world, butlerish thing, a career waiter. It intrigued Wren how one who was literally a server by trade c ould be snobbish, but that was the case with Nad. He appeared to be too good for anythi ng, even while he was serving people with his signature jerky deftness. He was thin, in hi s forties, with an ever-present red face. He slicked what hair he had left, over the top and back of his s calp, limp hair that was always wet with sweat or Vaseline or some kind of sticky unguent. He was fond of responding to anything anyone said with Zip it. Al so, he smelled. He smelled horrible. He smelled like people do who have had a lot to drin k, like rotten fruit or old beer. A sweet, acrid stench emanated off him always. Dude, Dylan would often say, you sme ll like a bottle of Early Times been let out all night. Zip it, hed respond. Just zip it. He loved being called Nad too. Told Wren he told his roommate about his nickname. Most waiters it seemed either had dreamy futures or haunted pasts or bot h, and Nad certainly seemed to have a haunted past. Wren worried about him. What was this guy going to do? He had no discernible talent or skills save serving. Was he going to stay at Bolo? What about after that? He had no retirement, no family that Wren kne w of. What was Nad going to do? Nad had a sort of confessional quality peculi ar to those who take to the sauce. He
48 once told Wren, and a few others in the service area, that he used to dance naked in a cage in Key West. It was when I was young, dumb and full of cum, he said, and gave a winning, breathy smile as though he was saying those words in just that phraseology for the first time and was quite pleased, even a b it taken aback, by his own genius. Wren at times, had too strong of an imagination and pi ctured Nad down there in the Keys in that cage with some sort of choker around his nec k, his rib cage stark, a pinwheel of lights flipping in and out of both cages. What kinds of songs did you dance to ? Wren asked him only hours after meeting him. Dancing Queen by Abba was popular at the time, he said. So you got paid? Tips, he said casually, but they c ouldnt touch you. He said this quite seriously as though it was the one thing that could not be challenged. They couldnt touch me. Out of the blue in the restaurant, he also said once that he was not a virgin in any orifice of his body. Dylan heard this, and not to be taken ab ack himself said, What about your ear? Nad shook his head up and down. My ears t oo, he said. It was a time when I was hanging out with an old rich guy and I wa s young, dumb and full of cum. He said it again, for effect and it made Wren nauseous. Nad was off. Nothing wa s quite right about that guy. * This was the setting for the missing bitters. The day after Allen gave his warning to Naomi ONeil, Wren came into work and for some reason Harry had chosen him to
49 ask about several bottles of missi ng bitters. Bitters is a liquor-tastes like shit and goes in old fashioneds. Its 40 proof and some sa y its a hangover cure, but Wren thought it as much a hangover cure as another beer. Wren was getting comfortable at the Bolo and had nearly forgotten about Reggies offer. Bottles of bitters were being gone through like bottles of bar vodka, at a clip of three a week, when one should last a month. Wren didnt know why Harry chose to ask him. Did he think he was drinking it? He couldnt say, but he asked him fairly point blank. All this info about bitters Wren didnt even know except the part about a hangover cure. Someone had suggested it to him before, but he had declined. Who the hell would drink bitters? Wren asked Harry as Harry loomed above him. Its liquor, Jones, 40 proof. I didnt even know it was that strong. Come to think of it, I dont know if I knew it was even liquor. Someone knows, Harry said, and we ha ve a pretty good idea who it might be. I just thought Id ask you because you seem to know a lot about what goes on around here. I dont know anything, Wren said, wh ich he then thought was a silly, guilty thing to say. We think its Dan. Nad? No kidding. He does reek like booze. No doubt about that. Hes been seen behind the bar in the mornings, Harry said. Years and years of hard core boozing had turned Na ds hands red, Wren thought.
50 We have an idea about how were going to catch him too, Harry said. It was here that Wren started to f eel that Harry was confiding in him. It seemed as though somewhere along the way he had been accepted. Maybe they simply pitied him, maybe not. Whatever the case, he felt loyal to the Bolo if for nothing else than the fact that they gave him a job. Harry and the managers planned to put re d dye in one of the bottles so that the culprit who took a slug from the bottle would be caught red-mouthed. There were many holes to the plan. What if the guy or girl poured it into a cup firs t, or mixed it, would they not see it and then not drink it? What if no one wa s around when it happened? What if it was one of the guys in the ni ght cleaning crew who had essentially no supervision? Word got around that Nad was thought to be the bitters bandit and Dylan let him have it. So, Nad, you been housin the bitters? What? Please, as if. Youre crazy. Just zip it. Thats the good word on the streets, home y, Dylan said. Its what I heard. People made jokes about the bitters when ever Nad was around, yet he seemed as if he had no idea what anyone was talking about the sure sign of a guilty man. Maybe he just needed a drink in the mornings. Wren began straightening some tables before the evening rush and saw Nad messing around in the bar area. Theres really no reason for anyone to be behind the bar as a server. It was then Wren was convi nced Nad was guilty. Wren didnt tell anyone hed seen him behind the bar. He wasnt mu ch of a snitch. Then he thought about how
51 Harry had confided in him. He liked that he trusted him enough to ask him about the bitters, liked it so much that for a mome nt he changed his mind and thought hed go ahead and rat Nad out, deliver the bitters band it. He looked at Na d giving his section a once over. He was doing a little conductor bit to the muzak, waving his hands around to an old eighties number, We Built This City On Rock and Roll Wren felt bad for him, and a little self-conscious that perhaps he was becoming a company man. He went into the back. He was just going to tell Mickey th at hed seen Nad behind the bar. That was all he was going to say. It was probably all it would take. Nadd be canned. Wren poked his head into the kitchen and found one of the dish dogs staring at him. He was a skinny kid with a buzz cut, and he had re d shit all around his mouth like hed been putting red lipstick on, or had just dra nk a big glass of cherry Kool-Aid. Wren found Mickey in the office and told her, Hey, some dude in the back has red shit all over his face. It may or may not be the bitters bandit. Mickey turned from the computer screen and gave Wren a sober look. She got up from her chair and rushed passed him. Wr en stood outside the office door and watched her walk back into the kitchen. She had a sort of singular gait pointi ng straight ahead at a sixty-degree angle, her body lean and purposeful. The dish do g heard it from her. What she said was muffled and so Wren couldnt hear it very well, but he the bitters bandit, shuffled past him toward the back exit at a slow pace. He didnt even bother clocking off. It seemed as though the bitte rs bandit was used to defeat. Wren didnt want to stick around and talk with Mickey about it. When she was fired up there was no one more anti-social than Mickey Alhings. Wren ambled back into the dining room to finish straightening th e tables. Nad was still conducting We Built
52 This City On Rock and Roll Nad finished straighteni ng his tables and was walking toward Wren. Wren panicked for a moment realizing how close he was to fingering the man for something he hadnt done. He fe lt shame. Nad said, Good morning, and brushed right past him. Wren said, Hey, Nad, but by the time he got the words out he was already gone. * Another thing Wren figured out was the rampant notion that there is a lot of tampering with food by waiters is bullshit. There arent a bunch of waiters spitting in everyones food. Wren never did and never saw it done. He liked the idea that it was out there though, because he saw it as a cautiona ry device for customers who tend to give their waiters or waitresses hell. Maybe if they think someones going to mess with their food they wont be so quick to be rude. So Wren reluctantly had to admit that it didnt happen, at least at the Bolo. The only time he could say that hed even heard about it happening was from Dylan. A guy was giving him a bunch of shuck so he took a ramekin of au jus that went with a guys French dip and peed in it. He also told Wren how hed rub his balls and handle a guys meat if he didnt act right. He would only do this to the worst of customers. Of course, he decided who deserved it and who didnt. Really, though, its not the waiters one has to worry about. It killed Wren when some guy got all hung up about some meticul ously clean waiter touching his food when there were dirty cooks, stoned to the bejesus, unwashed, fairly r ubbing the food in their arm pits. Think those dudes are clean? Fo rget about it. Think a guy on the line with fifteen steaks, seven chicken breasts, and four racks of ribs on the grill who has to take a
53 dump is going to bother washing his hands? Why waste the time ? Fuck it. Take it out on the server. Fuck it. Wren didnt know much about Dylan af ter working with him for a few days except that he was from the Midwest. Hed gone to school out there and was in a frat and hadnt graduated. A story he told was about a time when he was with some of his frat brothers. He pulled into a McDonalds driv e through, stripped nake d in the car, climbed through the drive-through wi ndow, jumped over the counter to the dismay of the employees, went out the exit door and got back into the car, on a simple dare. Wren believed he did it. No doubt in his mind. The evening shift after Wren had near ly fingered Nad, Dylan was going on and on about a film he had seen. You seen Fight Club Jonesy? Dylan aske d, as they strolled around the restaurant. Yeah, Ive seen it, he told him. Dude, we should start a fight club. Wouldnt that be killer? Start a fight club? Yeah, get some people together and duke it out. I believe all that shit--that men are becoming pussies--emasculated they said. Dont you, Jones? Yeah, Wren said. I believe it, th ough I dont know if kick ing the shit out of each other is the way to solve it. Plus, that movie fucked up. It could have been an excellent film if theyd stuck to the fight cl ub. The part about the split personality was lame. Stick to the story, I say. Wren was ta lking out the side of his mouth as he paced around the Bolo looking for hot girls sitting at the tables. Me too, but the fight club itself, thats wh ere its at. Thats the best idea ever.
54 So what do you think? How about I judge the fights? You cant be part of the club if you dont fight, Jones. Count me out then. So you wanna go on being a pussy then? Enough, Wren said. He stopped and looked into one of the mirrors. * The night wore on and Dylan talked Wren into having a few at his place after work. It was slow. Dylan had a killer ap artment on Cleveland not far from Bolognese. It was right near rest aurant row and not far from Allens place. Wren had had about four beers sittin g on Dylans tan leather couch when he started thinking about what Dylan had said about the fight club. Its not just the emasculation, he said, taking a gulp. There really is very little of the American dream left for us. I mean the gen xers, which is just a lousy distinction and really means that we have yet to define ourselves I guess its there, the Amer ican dream, but its less than it was for our parents, because there are just so many of them. There isnt much left for us. True success is less likely, and even success on a smaller scale like owning your own home, job security, leaving something for your kids. You dont have kids, Wren. But if I did. Theres lots of people with kids. My br other has triplets. The thing is our generation probably has per capita more huge dreamers because it was what we were promised. You can do whatever you want, they always said. They were idealists: the sixties, civil rights, free love, the hippy thing. Even if they werent hippies they were
55 a part of that atmosphere and it made them idealists, and now closet idealists. Now theyre in the closet because they know it was all bullshit. Right here he lit a cig. So this emasculation stems from impotence really. Thats what I think. Weve been duped. I mean fuck, its getting hard just to li ve. I dont hardly know anyone under forty who doesnt get help from their parents or someone, usually much older than they are. Thats not the American dream, is it? Its not even fame that people want that I know. They just want to live, and work at a job where they dont feel like a loser. Now thats the American dream, but even smaller. Fuck a house. I just want to have food and a place to stay and a place to work where I dont get made fun of and treated like shit. But even saying that makes me feel guilty. Its gu ilt too. Guilt will kill your ass. Were the promised generation. We had promise. We were promised. Were the promise generation. Personally, I blame it on the boomers. We just sit here and do nothing while they take our jobs because everyones living and working till theyre ninety. Yeah, they left something for their kids alright. Paid fo r their idleness, or left them with a bunch of hyped dreams. Our retirement is fucked, soci al security is fucked, everyone knows that, and theyre taking our women, too, with Viag ra, and we dont do shit. Well, I say die already. I want my piece of the pie. Hey, Wren, lets kick each others asses. Alright, he said. Ill give you your fight club. They hopped up off Dylans couch and went downstairs and out into the pa rking lot. How does this work anyway? Wren asked. But by then Dylan was already bobbing and weaving, and Wren was just kind of standing there. Wren set down his beer on the black pavement and put up his dukes. He was about to talk some shit when he saw Dylan cock his fist, almost putting it
56 behind his back. Then he saw it come around like a boomerang and felt it crash into the side of his face. He fell like a sack of ch arcoal onto the blacktop, clutching his ear. Dylan was standing over him. Holy shit, dude. I knocked the fuck out of you. I cant believe you didnt duck that. That was fr om my shoe tops. Damn, youre slow as molasses. Fight club is over, Wren said meekly. Dylan didnt break his jaw as he first thought. He hit hi m just under his left ear. Wren couldnt hear very well but everything fe lt like it was still intact. He was sorry, Wren could tell, and was going on about how he thought Wren was much quicker than that. You know, Wren said, lying spread eag le on the blacktop and looking up at the stars. You do realize that it isnt the fight club you love so much. Its the film. Why dont you go to Hollywood and became an actor? You think? And leave the Bolo? Yeah, I know. Its hard to fathom. I dont know. You think I can act? Yeah, dont you? Yeah, I could do it, but dont you have to go to school? Wrens face hurt and began to pound. Pitt didnt. Matt Dillon didnt. A bunch di dnt. They just said fuck it and went out to Hollywood. Something to think about, huh, he sai d. Boy, I must have really rattled your cage.
57 He had rattled Wrens cage. It was at that very point that Wren decided the following day he was going to call Reggie about the sales job. Waiting tables was going to get him killed or a warm spot in hell.
58 Chapter Six Wren opened his eyes and felt his ear. Dylan had jacked him up pretty good and he felt like an asshole for agreeing to take part in the mans fight club. The crumpled white napkin with Reggies number on it rested next to his deflated mattress. Wren picked it up unfolded it, located his cell phone tangled in the sheets, and dialed the number. The phone rang three times. Big R here, a man said gruffly. This is Wren Jones from the Bolo. May I speak with Reginald, please? Yeah, hey, hold on. Fuck that shit, Reggie yelled at someone. Fuck that fuckin shit. We need the printouts pronto or Salem is going to blow his stack. Yeah, Wren, what the fuck took you so long to call? Your ass is behind. Get in here. You want me to come in now? Today? You want the job? Or I should say, you want a chance at the job? Yes. Then get your little ass in here. Re ggie gave Wren directions and Wren wrote them down on the napkin. Hed have to get ready and call a cab. On his way to the office Wren looked out at Tampa and felt alone. The cabbie was the silent type, perhaps I ndian, though he had his radio t uned to a country station. The streets and buildings on Kennedy shone st archy and vibrant as though the sun had bleached everything crystalline. Wren thought he ought to get some shades. He saw old
59 men walking down the street with long stri ngy beards and skinny chipped away women talking to themselves and thought if he didnt get his act toge ther he was going to wind up like them, defeated, bleeding from the mouth. The cab dropped him off at an office bu ilding downtown on Twiggs. Wren paid the cabbie and half jogged to the front of the building. He opened the ten foot tall wooden doors and walked into a spacious l obby furnished with pink and purple lush chairs and couches with lamps and cherry -wood end-tables nestled on a greenish, pukecolored carpet. There was no one in the l obby, but above him was another floor and he looked up and noticed three or four men leani ng over a thick railing looking at him. The men were young, early twenties, and they l ooked tired. Hey fellas, Im looking for Reggie. The middle man cocked his thumb and without an expression pointed it behind him like an umpire calling someone out at the plate. Stairs are over there, another boy said, and pointed to the east corner of the lobby. Wren wore a yellow button down with swampy green slacks and a brown and green tie. His hair stuck straight up and for a minute he wondered if he should have parted it. He made his way up the stairs and found at least te n young men milling about all dressed in suits or ties. He wandered in to a room off a corridor, where the boys were leaning, into a wide open empty room with plaques on the walls and pictures of distinguished men receiving awards. There was a big sign on one of the walls that said, TODAY IS THE DAY. Wren heard Reggi es bouncy rough voice reverberating from one of the back offices. There was no sign of Salem and Wren thought for a moment that he probably wouldnt be seeing mu ch of Salem even if he took the job. He walked into what he took to be Reggies office and the man was sitting at his desk brow beating a
60 couple of young kids who were sitting in brown cu shioned chairs in front of him. Reggie took one look at Wren, winked, and told the kids to beat it. Reggie was silent for a moment, eyebal ling Wren. So you decided to join us, huh? Sit, sit. Wren walked in front of one of the ch airs and sat down. Hey, I never asked you he said, what did you do in the nav? I was a Bosn, Reggie said. Wren perked up even more, giggled a nd said, I was doing unrep one time and shot the projo backwards, twice. A Bosn came up to me and said, hey dip-shit you have the projectile in wrong. I put it in correctly and made the shot. Reggie laughed. Those were the days, he said. Got any sales experience? Im gonna shoot you straight, Reg. The only job Ive ever had was the navy, except for an usher job at a movie theater, and of course the Bolo. That dont matter. Think you can sell? Reggies eyes never left Wrens, never blinked. Sell what? Sell shit to a monkey. Dont ma tter what. Think you can sell? I can sell, Wren said. What do you guys sell? Reggie paused for a moment. He had on a tight black shirt and seemed to flex before he spoke. This is a testing ground fo r pharmaceutical sales. If you can prove you can sell, we train you to become a salesman. Simple as that. We have organic chemists who make the drugs and basically if we think you guys have the stuff, we train you to sell it, mostly antidepressants. We have lists of mostly cancer pati ents who have been
61 diagnosed with depression and we try a nd get them to buy our product. I mean eventually you guys would sell them to doc tors, but these patients were dealing with, most of them are already on some form of antidepressant and we offer them an alternative for less money and hope they go to their doctors and get them to write prescriptions for our product. If you guys can get the customer to ch ange their mind, give our product a chance, then well give you th e opportunity to se ll our other exciting products directly to the doctors and make some real coin. I have to tell you Reggie, my sister was just diagnosed with leukemia and this is just the thing Ive been looking for. I dont care about th e money. Id really like to help these people, and maybe eventually help my si ster. Wren was seri ous and the thought of really helping Haley made his heart quicken. If youre not interested in the money we dont want you. Dont get me wrong, Reggie. Im interest ed in the money as much as the next guy. Im just saying Id be in it for other r easons too. Wren noticed just above Reggies head, on the wall was a picture of him and Mr Salem and a hot blonde with huge tits. Sounds good, Wren. Sounds good. Whats going to happen is were going to put you in the field today and see how you handl e it. Ill put you with one of our best guys and see how you do and then well see. I have a good feeling about you. Reggie then winked at Wren. Reggies chair screamed as he stood up. Wren stood up when Reggie did and the two men shook hands. Reggie silently left the office, and Wren was left there, unsure of what to do. He didnt know whether to follow Reggie or just sit tight. Soon a tall skinny guy came into Reggi es office. You Wren? the guy asked
62 and stuck out his hand. Im Paul. Ill be taking you into the fi eld today along with another new guy. Paul had gr ay hair but he didnt look that old, maybe in his early thirties and he sported a charcoal gray suit. For a moment Wren felt self-conscious. He didnt own any suits and Paul was dressed far nicer than he was, dressed to the nines, where Wren was tippin sixes. Today Im just going to see how you guys sell, Paul said. I dont know anything about anti-depressa nts, Wren said as the two descended the stairs and made there way out into the balmy Florida s un. Wren barely noticed a skinny kid with an awkwar d gait tailing behind them. Dont matter. You aint se lling pills today. You may never sell pills. You ever had your oil changed? Sure, Wren said. Today youre selling oil changes. C mon, Remo, Paul said, looking behind him and slowing his pace so Remo could catch up. Im here? Remo said, almost out of breath. Remo had on a collared shirt with a zip up neck and pants that looke d a bit like jeans and crazy curly hair that was already pasted to his head from the heat. Oil changes? Wren said and laughed. Oil changes, Remo repeated. Once the three men were in the car Wr en was silent. Remo sat shotgun and listened to Paul. See, Paul said, the beau ty of this business is that even during a recession well thrive. Businesses such as Tire Land, and here he tapped a stack of large poster cards with his finger, need people to come in and get their oil changed and maybe
63 when their brakes go out the same people will come in and get their brakes fixed. When business is down ours is up. Paul smiled wide. These coupon books are for free oil changes and half off oil changes. He gave Wren one of the cards. It was a large well made poster with perforated coupons. You just have to get these people to say they get oil changes and then try and show them the mo ney they will save. Make them feel stupid for not saving money. Its a three-hundreddollar value. People want to spend their money; they just dont want to be sold anything; remember that. How long do we have to sell coupon books? Remo asked. One month. I already told you yesterda y. Then well see. Next month Im going to Philly for training, pharmaceutical sales training. Congratulations, Wren said. Nothi ng was ever easy Wren thought and this seemed like a good deal. Beat the shit out of waiting tables, though it looked like he wasnt going to be able to quit the Bolo a ny time soon. The three men were driving over the Gandy Bridge and Wren noted how beautiful the sunlight looked over the blue water. He was still a little in awe that he was actua lly in Tampa, out of the Navy. The water no longer represented the Navy; now it was just the water. Wren t hought about Haley and that he should call her an d see how she was doing. You probably want to know how youre goi ng to get paid, right? Paul said into the windshield. It did cross my mind, Wren said. You get 11 dollars for every coupon you se ll. Reggie gets six and the folks who make the cards get three. And businesses really go for these? Wren asked.
64 Businesses? This is door to door, baby. Door to door? Wren asked. Remo wa s looking out the window. What does all this have to do with pharmaceutical sales? Its all part of Salem inc. Listen, ju st remember, every no is one no closer to a yes. * By noon that day, walkin the track, poundin the pavement, Wrens feet hurt so bad he forgot about the pain. He was as hot and sweaty as he had ever been not playing sports or having sex. Remo, perhaps for an hour, had quit speaking, but Paul, Paul was rip-rarin to go. The three salesmen had b een asked by one obviously retired man with a fishing hat on, Cant you boys find better jobs than this? Paul had answered no. One lady told Paul she wouldnt take the damn thi ng if he paid her, and countless others either didnt answer the door or shut it just as soon as they opened it. But some, some bought it. Pauls spiel was pretty much, Hi there, Im Paul from Salem inc. You guys have a car? If you do, how often do you get oil changes? Well then, this is what were doing. Put the card in the hand of the potential buyer. For twenty bucks you could save three hundred over a years time. What? You dont wa nt to save money? Ok. Or, Sure, checks would be fine. Oh, you want three for your husband and kids, splendid. Just when Wren thought he couldnt take anymore he and Remo followed Paul as he cut through a lawn and h eaded up to a door with a sign that read No Solicitors. That one says no solicitor s, Remo said weakly. Those are the best ones, Paul said. Ive closed on more no soliciting signs than I can even count. Paul knocked on the door and a dog roared and snarled inside.
65 Wren jumped back. I hate dogs. Thats not a good sign, Pa ul said and laughed. Afte r no one answered the door Paul said, Lets go have lunch, gentlemen. They had covered nearly three miles of an affluent neighborhood. Only a bout one third of houses answ ered the door and only three had bought a coupon. Paul was good. Wren wo ndered if he had the stuff to be a salesman. They had parked a few blocks down and had to walk to the car. Wrens feet throbbed but he said nothing. It occurred to Wren that affluent neighborhoods in Florida looked pretty much the same as they did in the Midwest, leafy, quiet, secluded, and brown. The three men drove to a gas station a nd Paul filled up and went in and bought a sandwich and a bag of chips. Wren wondered if the harshness of the first day was only to weed out the meek. Wren wasnt hungry and opted to stand inside the gas station and cool off. Remo on the other hand bought a sleeve of powered doughnuts and a big gulp of orange soda. I dont know how wise that is in this h eat, Paul said as the three lingered just inside the door. Remo was gulping his ora nge soda through a straw. You should be drinking water, Paul said. After Paul wolfed his sandwich, Wren and Remo followed him back to the car. Once inside, Paul turned on the AC full blas t and turned the radio up. The Devil Rays were playing the Orioles and Wr en decided right then and there that he was not going to take the job. Hed finish out the day, mainly because he didnt know where the hell he was, but there was no way he was going to be able to sell coupons door to door. About a half hour later the three men were back on the track. Paul carried a piece
66 of white typing paper with squares on it a nd house numbers written below the squares. Some squares were filled in and some were still blank. The deal is we go around three times to catch the morning people, the afte rnoon people, and those just getting home from work. The hot sun was beating now, beati ng unmercifully. Rem o, since this is your second day, I want you to try and just get th e coupon into someones hands; thats all I want you to do. Just get the damn thing into someones paws. Just get them to look at it. The three men stood on the sidewalk in fr ont of a house. Remos hands rested on his knees and he was staring at the ground. I dont feel so well, he said. He looked up and indeed looked very pale. Its no t the orange drink, he said meekly. You have to buck up, son, Paul said. Do you want this job? Yes I do, Remo said and took the coupon with renewed vigor and stomped up to the door. When he reached the door he knocked, doubled over, stuck his ass out at Wren and Paul, and unmistakably shit his pants. His upper torso flinched and folded and slowly collapsed onto the concrete. Oh shit, Wren said must ha ve been that orange crush. God dammit, Paul yelled into the langui d breeze. He kept an eye on the door and for perhaps the first time th at day, the first time since he d been selling door to door, he didnt want anyone to answer. Paul a nd Wren kept their distance from the fallen salesman. It was clear what happened to the man. You aint getting in my car like that, man, Paul said and walked around to the side of the house. Youre going to have to strip and hose off. Remo didnt protest. He pushed hims elf up off the ground and lumbered to the
67 side of the house. Wren started walking toward the street. He was embarrassed for Remo and had no interest in seeing the man hosing his own shit off himself. Also, the car was still several blocks away. The man was going to have to walk practically in the nude no matter what. Wren heard the hose flicker on and soon saw Paul walking toward him. I have half a mind to cut him loose right now, Paul said. We cant just leave him here, Wren said. Oh yes we can, but Im not going to. About ten minutes later Remo appeared from the side of the house trotting toward Pa ul and Wren. He had nothing on but a long wife-beater that he was holding down, stretc hing over his privates as far was it would go, just over his ass. Paul and Wren continued walking in silence toward the car. Only one car passed but it was a souped-up metallic blue muscle roadster. Some asshole stuck his head out and whistled. I hope you got it all, Paul said as the th ree climbed into his car; this time Wren sat shotgun. * Wren sat outside Reggies office. None of the other kids were around. Wren figured Remo had been informed that he didnt make the cut. Wren had the feeling that hed never see Remo again. He hadnt told Paul that he wasnt interested in the job yet. Paul really never gave him an opportunity. Wren heard a door shut and stood up. Hey, boss wants to see you, Paul said, and walked to ward the stairs not saying anything else. Come on in, Wren, Reggie yelled from his office. Wren walked into the office and sat dow n. He was feeling confident about not taking the job. Once again he noticed the at tractive woman in the picture above Reggies
68 dome. Youre not going to take it, are you? Reggie said, grinning wide. Its really not my cup of tea, Wren said. Paul said you guys had a shitty day, Reggie guffawed. Im sorry I put you out there with Remo. He had no business even being out in the field. This company was built on those coupons. It wasnt Remo, Wren said. Im just not cut out for door-to-door sales. Who is? Reggie said. Its a brutal racket. I understand, which is why I'm going to give you another opportunity. Look, I already told you our company also deals in pharmaceuticals. We have orders that ne ed to be delivered. Can you handle that? I can handle that, Wren said and smiled. I thought so. I just dont want any d ead weight in my company, Reggie said. The coupons are a good business, but I see if I want to hold on to you I have to do a little something different. Fair enough? Basi cally, part of our business is run from the internet. Folks place orders and we deliver the orders to them. Every Sunday Ill give you the orders and your job will be to deliver them over the week. I dont care if you deliver them all Monday or Friday, as long as they get there by the end of the week. And we need them to be signed for, so you may have to call first. I can do that, Reggie. Wren thought th e only problem was that he didnt have car, but he figured he could get Allen to help him out. Well, stick around here and fill out some of this paperwork, Reggie said.
69 Chapter Seven The day after he accepted the job at Sa lem Inc., Wren walked through the front door of the Imperial Book Lodge around four o clock and noticed Jaycee already had around thirty chairs set up in the front room The focal point was the back bookcase, which stretched up nearly to the ceiling. A dormant fireplace sat to the immediate right. The whole front room was covered in books a nd just in front of the back bookcase was a makeshift lectern made out of a stool a nd four thick books; next to that stood a microphone and stand. Big Country came out of one of the back rooms and headed for the porch. Wren followed him out to the porch to smoke. A few crates of fruit sat on the porch: mangoes, oranges, and watermelons. Want some fruit? he asked Wren roughly. Nah, Country. Im good, Wren said. Country was the bookstores resident peacekeeper. He was the eyes and the ears of the streets. He was a street person, but he was loyal to Jaycee. That was for sure. Country had been in and out of hospitals and jails most of his life. He was in the paper once. One day several years ago the headlines read, Superman Catches Bullet and Spits It Ou t. Apparently, or so the story went, Big Country, as the black fellas called him on the st reets, had a run in with his sometimes girl, Wanda Pots, about some pot she suspected him of smoking. When he denied it, she shot him in the face with a little .22. Thing was, the bullet lodged in his dentures. After he was shot in the mouth, he took the bullet out and threw it at his girl, and the papers caught wind of it.
70 Country was probably in his sixties, but he was cut like a swimmer in his twenties. He talked rough, and had a look of a man from the old west, and probably would have been better suited to have grown-up then anyway. He was loud and obnoxious and had a wisp of hair on his head th at blew around all the time. He rode a bicycle all over Tampa and sometimes wore a metal hat with two horns sticking out of it like a Viking. Jaycee said one time a green rocking ch air came up missing from the porch of the IBL, and Country vowed to fi nd out who it was stole it. A few days later he brought the chair bac k. The green chair had been half-painted black. Country said he found some Mexicans who had the chair, and had to one punch one of them to get the chair back. According to Country, the Mexicans said it was sitting out on the curb like trash, but I knew they was lyin though. I boxed one of their ears pretty good, he said. Country knew all the hookers and drug dealer s on the streets, and nights could be found in the back alley behi nd the Shell station hot boxin a joint or getting a blow job. Jaycee walked out onto the porch and smiled at Wren. You going to say a few words tonight, Jaycee asked. Wren remembered that he had told Ja ycee that he would. I guess, but I dont really know what to say. I totally fo rgot you were having the thing tonight. Just tell them the story you told me. I think itll be power ful. Jaycee lit up a cigarette and a car door slamme d. The day was bright yellow and sky-blue and the heat began to cause everything to droop. Jaycee, Wren, and Country looked in the direction of the car door and soon saw
71 Carmen ambling around the corner, her head held high, holding the hand of what Wren presumed was her little girl Sam. Sam ha d long, curly hair and looked like a miniature version of Carmen. Her body was shaped exactly like Carmens and she held herself just as erect, as though both had books on top of thei r heads they were putting off reading for the moment. Carmen said her hellos a nd acknowledged Wren with a slow, smiling nod. Wren was nervous, having for the first time seen her kid. It occurred to Wren right away how vital it was that Sam and he got al ong. Seeing them march across the bookstore lawn, it dawned on Wren that Carmen had this little person who was as important to her as anyone, more important than anyone, certain ly more important than Wren would ever be. It became crucial all of a sudden that in some way Wren showed Carmen that he could handle being around a kid. Wren came from a split family so it didnt bother him. He was cocky about it, thought he kn ew the score, all the angles. Sam began playing with a pink ball out in the yard. She kick ed the ball and then chased after it. She came acr oss a flower and pulled it out of the ground. Cars whooshed by behind her little body as she hopped, ski pped, and jumped around. Wren sat down in the green and black chair. Carmen walk ed over and stood before him. I guess you know Jaycee, Wren said, looking up at her. What are you doing here? Carmen asked, sitting down in a chair beside him. I live upstairs. Carmen laughed. I had no idea. Jaycee and I have been friends for years. Wren looked at Carmen out of the corner of hi s eye, really looked at her, and he couldnt be sure if she saw him, and really, he didn t care. He took in he r eyes, the mole on her chin, the way her jeans covered her thighs. His stomach turned in a good way and right
72 then he wanted to tell her he loved her. I love you, I love you, I love you, he wanted to say. But he couldnt. He couldnt tell her. Why couldnt he have just told her right then? Why dont we say it? Why dont we ju st tell people when it perhaps is all they want to hear at any given mo ment? Something prevents us from doing so. Perhaps she wont feel the same way. Perhaps she doesn t feel the same way. Wren was merely a waiter and drank too much. If he thought so highly of her would he really have advised her to love a guy like him? This is why he didnt say anything. Soon the place was filled with revelers of all ages. Enclaves of adults and college age kids and even older folks gravitated to ward the bookstore, drawn from the streets it seemed. Jaycee knew a lot of people, and they had come. Wren found a bottle of wine in the kitchen, a cheap red, and a hard-water smudged wine glass from the cupboard and poured himself a knock. Jaycee called everyone in and began to speak. He thanked everyone for coming and told everyone to feel free to buy a book if one catches your eye. He was sort of gangly and unsure of himself, holding the micr ophone. Nearly all the gray metal chairs lined in rows were filled and Wren wondere d how an event like this could draw so many people. Wren rubber-necked toward the porch and noticed folks standing, smoking on the porch; among them was Big Country talking just out of reach. Wren was excited and the wine was good. Next to the door was a metal urn that said Donations on it. Jaycee never charged for these things even when he had bands that hed pay. Hed just take donations a nd said once that he usually broke even. Wren was getting nervous, real nervous, a nd started to really get after the wine. He kept noticing Carmen drinking her wine as well. As far as he could tell she was about
73 two glasses up. She and Sam were sitting a ro w in front of him but closer to the fire place. Wren was bummed he wasnt sitting next to Carmen and Sam. The first to saunter up to the microphone was an old man with white hair and a short-sleeve shirt and tie holding a large, silver, metallic triangle similar to the ones you see people play as an instrument, but larger. He had several gold ba lls cradled in one arm and for at least five minutes he played the triangle with a little metal stick and sang a song and juggled the balls through the triangle. Everyone looked on and Wren didnt know whether to laugh or to act as if what the old man was doing was terribly profound. Wren never knew how to act at readings or talent shows or performances of any kind. Sometimes hed picture himself standing up in the middle of a read ing and shouting Ahh bullshit! At these readings he felt far aw ay from his Midwest upbringings and as he drank more and more of the wine he began to feel far away from everything. Everyone clapped when the old man was done and the man absorbed the clapping out of breath looking at the floor. The next to go on was a young girl who Jaycee knew, and Wren had seen around the bookstore. It was up in the air as to wh ether she was going to play her guitar. Apparently, Jaycee had taken her out to dinner hoping he could convince her to play. She made her way up to the front, her shoulders sh rugged, and her face curled in a wry smile. She had short, dyed black hair and was bony. She sat down in the chair and looked at the crowd. The backdrop of all the books jacketed in an array of bright colors lent the scene a feeling of romance. She sang a couple of numbers, one she said shed written that day. She said she had played it almost one hundred times that day, and she belted it out in a sort of
74 melancholic way, befitting someone who perhaps felt a little too much the weight of the world. She was a true beauty up there, and Wren saw it. Wren knew he was about to be called up next and his heart began to race. After she was done, Carmen got up clutching her bottle of wine and cheered. She was drunk. She was hammered. The bottom dregs of her wine sloshed around as she waved the bottle around. Sam was up front, crawling on the floor in front of her chair. At one point she was maybe going to do a little dance for the audience. Jaycee called Wrens name, and even though the wine created a sort of field around him like he was floating in a bubble bl own through a little pl astic stick with a circle on the stem, he was terrified. Hi s steps were heavy and his face contorted somewhere between a smile and a look of terror. As he turned around to face the crowd he saw Carmen and Sam. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Jaycee who ha d a measured, serious look to him as if he knew he was about to want to concentrate on what was being said. The myriad of eyes that made up the rest of the room blended t ogether, and Wren began to speak. Im not real sure what Im supposed to say up here, but Jaycee talked me into telling a little story about myself that I told him not long after we first met. You guys now how disarming Jaycee can be. The crowd giggled knowingl y, and Wren noticed a police car drive by on Kennedy and then noted that the day had begun to dim. Basically it has to with the fact that for years I was an atheist, which I dont mean to sound so melodramatic, but that was the case. I didnt believe in God though I was raised Catholic. As Wren spoke he became myopic as though he could not see beyond the microphone or hear anything
75 beyond his own voice. One day I was walking to work. I was driving on a suspended license and so I had to park at this church and then walk across a busy street to get to work at this movie theater. I think I was kind of hung-over and it had just rained and I began to look at everything, the branches, the fields, the leaves. This was in Missouri and everything seemed to be thicker for some reason. There was a certain depth to the physical world that I hadnt ever noticed before Then I started to think that this depth really was endless and that I had only just noticed it. Then I began to think that this depth was really Gods touch or imprint on the worl d and I began to thi nk how cool it was to think that this depth in all thi ngs was real. Cool is really the word I thought of. It just seemed a whole lot cooler to believe in the capa city of things. It just seemed a whole lot cooler to believe in God. Wren paused for a moment and realized he had nothing more to say. He then looked up and stared at the faces in the crowd. Jaycee began to clap and the rest of the room began to clap, and Wren said thanks and walked out onto the porch and lit a cigarette. Jaycee came out after him. That was really great, man, he said and shook Wrens hand. Wren was elated. Carmen then came outside as well still clut ching her wine bottle. I think Im in love with you, she said. That makes two of us, Wren said. Youre in love with yourself too? Carmen said and laughed. Thats not what I meant. Carmen then looked back inside. I need to get my child, she said. I need to
76 take her home. You cant leave, Jaycee said to Carme n, theres like six more acts plus a band. Ill be back, she said. * Wren saw Carmen pull into the parking lo t from his upstairs platform and a sense of dread came over him. He had stayed for a few more of the acts, but then became bored and decided to see if Allen was home. It was a Tuesday and so he had until Sunday to talk Allen into helping him deliver the scripts. He didn t think it would be too difficult to get Allen to help him out. He just hadnt seen the man lately and this worried him. Wren descended the stairs two at a time and walked up to Carmens car, his head bent at an angle to see her through the wi ndow. She smiled, pulled the face off her CD player, grabbed two bottles of wine from th e passenger seat and said, Im going to get drunk. Damn, he said. I didnt know you were such a lush. Theres lots you dont know about me, she said. Ditto, he said. One thing Wren di dnt know, was that shed go ahead and get wasted and drive with her child in the car. Whered you take, Sam? She didnt answer or didnt hear him, and he didnt want to ask again and risk her thinking he was really interested or thought bad of her. The light of day had turned into darkness pierced only by the sharp reds and yellows and blues of the city. Wren was excited. They ascended the stairs, and when Wren opened the door a rush of stagnation
77 met his nostrils and for a second he realized just how solitary his existence had become. He hadnt had a woman up in his room since hed been in Florida. Allen still wasnt home. He hurried into the kitchen and uncor ked the wine, poured two glasses, and then turned the radio on low. He rushed back into the living room and set the two glasses down on the coffee table, poured the wine, and sat next to Carmen on the couch. I have to watch Harrys kids tomorrow, she said. She had nearly finished off her wine by the time Wren had taken a sip; then she did finish it and poured herself a fresh one. Carmen looked away, and suddenly Wren realized she was shit-faced. She had that look about her, that in-betw een look where you can tell she was thinking something and then bam its like she ca ught a left hook and wa s looking at nothing, reacting to the blow. The only light in the apartment was two candles Wren had lit and the moonlight coming through the windows. A tear streaked down Carmens cheek. I lost my child, she said. What? Wren asked. He thought of Sam. I had a miscarriage. Wren was stunned. He leaned into her, wrapped his arms around her. You remember that first night at the Bolo when I was counting my money? That was for an abortion. Turns out I didnt need it. Im sorry, Wren said. Wren wondered who the father was, but didnt think it appropriate to ask. * A couple of hours later the two were on the floor and pretty sauced. Theres a few things I should tell you before we start dating, Wren said. Whoa! she said. Who says were going to start dating?
78 Of course we are, he said, a nd then dove in for a smooch. Hold on, she said, after this song. Wr en laughed. That was why he loved her at that moment. Instead of kissing, she wanted to hear the rest of a Modest Mouse number. After the song was over she said, So what do you have to tell me? Theres a bomb I think I need to drop. What bomb? After the Navy I thought I wanted to be a whaler. I thought the sea life was the life for me. I wanted to whale. Then I found out whaling was illegal. She didnt say anything more. Wren started to undress. He felt naked anyway and he took his shirt off, then he took his shoes off, then he took his pants and underwear off and was naked on the couch with the woman he thought he loved.
79 Chapter Eight Wren woke up in the raw, nude as the day his folks first laid eyes on him. The previous night pummeled him in waves of f ogged memory and emotional left hooks. He wondered why he was naked. Had Carmen a nd he done it? He vaguely remembered getting naked, just stripping as though he coul dnt decipher at what point in the seducing process he was at and jumped the gun. He didnt remember doing much. He thought perhaps theyd kissed. Rough one last night, brother? Allen yelle d from the kitchen. You have some chicky up here last night? Whereve you been, man? Wren yelled from the couch, his voice horse. Around, Allen said and emerged from th e kitchen. He looked excited. His black hair was a mess and his eyes were wide and he was chewing on his lip like he was zooted. I need to talk to you at some point, Wren said. I have a business proposition, but let me wake up first. Where the hell have you been anyway? Man, you dont ever listen do you? Im planning my killing spree, he said and laughed. Wren just shut his eyes. I have to bail, Allen said. Let s talk tomorrow. I have some shit to tell you too. Allen was carrying a duffle bag and went out the door. Wren went out to the porc h after slipping on some boxers that were soaked with
80 wine from a glass hed knocked over. He often went outside when he woke up hung-over to make sure the world was still there. Wren had the day off and the next day and vaguely remembered Carmen inviting him to Harrys place to watch his kids. He ha d to work the weekend at the Bolo and then was supposed to pick up the prescriptions on Sunday. He needed to get a hold of Reggie at some point. He was half-certain the invite to Harrys was retracted. He walked back into the apartment and laid back on the couch. He then heard a knock at the door and froze. Wren, its Jaycee. Open up. He lumber ed to the door and opened it. Jaycee was standing there smiling. Ca ught ya, he said. Good God, I got fucked up last night, Wren said. Carmen called and said she left her ma ke-up here last night. Shes on her way over here to get it. Youve got to be joking, Wren said. Nope. Look. Wren looked down into th e parking lot and saw her black Mirage pull up. She got out and looked amazing; she ha d cute, tan shorts on and a bright yellow tank top. How on earth did she clean herself up so quickly? Wren ran into his room and put on a pair of sweats and a tshirt and slipped into his sand als. He donned his Cubs hat and sat down on the couch, his head ringing te rribly. He saw her make-up bag on the coffee table and whisked away a bunch of ashes that had collected on top of it. His door was wide open and she came through it. Jaycee had disappeared. Im supposed to be at Harrys at seven. Pick you up at six thirty? Sure, he said looking at her, trying to read her face.
81 Youre a wreck, she said, and casually walked over to the coffee table and picked up her make-up bag. What happened? You are coming, arent you? Yes, he said. * Wren fell back asleep on the couch a nd didnt wake up until four-thirty. He quickly showered and dressed for Harrys. He laid on the couch and watched the Cubs until Carmen showed up. He awoke on the couch from a knock at th e door. Carmen walked in and looked great. Her perfume cut through the dank, sweet, winy, smoke-filled room. Wren hopped up onto his feet, a buzzing noi se in his ear and WGN news on the tube. He couldnt smoke when he was hung-ove r, but he wanted to do something with his hands. Get a little nap in? Carmen asked. Yes, he said, throwing a hat on for th e second time that day. He was feeling slightly better. * Harrys pad was nicer than Wren thought itd be. Apparently, Naomi and Phil took care of him pretty well. It was a nice, solid, peach number a few blocks from the bay. With the growing real-estate market in Tampa, he figured the house had probably doubled in value just in the last two years. It wasnt huge or anythi ng, just nice and solid with a porch. The body stretched far into the back and the front looked like a person
82 looking at you with a little Robin Hood ha t on, two windows for eyes, and a door for a mouth. A humongous oak taller than the house and dressed in loose Spanish moss lorded over the lawn. There was a sporty looking r oyal blue truck in th e driveway, and Wren wondered if perhaps Harry was still home. Is Harry still home? he asked Carmen as they pulled into the driveway. No, he lets his oldest take the car when she wants. The oldest is how old? Shes sixteen, but shes a senior in high school. She s about to graduate. The other one is seven, I think. Why cant the older one watch the younger one? Shit, my brother was watching us when he was like nine, I think. I dont think Ive ever had a baby sitter, Carmen said. The two spilled out of th e car and ambled to the door and rang the doorbell. The oldest girl answered but she looke d like she was about eleven. Hey, she said, and stuck out her hand. Im Cynthia. You must be Carmen, and Wren. Thats right. Youre a sm art girl, Carmen said. Behind Cynthia peaked an even younger girl. And you must be Adrian, Carmen said, and smiled. Uh huh, she said. The little one looke d like Harry all the way up to how her long hair on top was kind of messed up and wa s sort of sticking up like Harrys. Wren wanted to say, You look just like your da d, but he didnt want to offend anyone. The older girl, it was Wrens guess, looked like Harrys late wife. Both girls were beautiful, though very small and petite. It didn t make sense to Wren. Harry was so big.
83 Once inside Wren noticed all over the wa lls and on the shelves pictures of the family, of a more perfect time. He saw Harry s late wife, Darla. She was very pretty, sexy even, with a little petite figure and brown hair. She did look like the oldest. The four of them stood in the front living room sort of twisting aro und looking at the walls. Your mother is very beautiful, Wren said. Was, Cynthia said. Carmen shot Wren a scowl. Yes, she was, Cynthia said. She looked like me. Aid looks like Dad. Are you going out tonight? Carmen asked C ynthia. It seemed as though Adrian was particularly interested in her sisters an swer because she stared at her, awaiting her reply. It looked to Wren like th e younger one was going to be trouble. I have to work on my speech. Dad says if I deliver a good speech hell buy me a car. Speech for what? Wren asked. Valedictorian, she said. Wow, Carmen said. Where do you think you might go to college? Dad wants me to stay in Florida, so maybe UF or FSU. Im not sure. Im already taking college courses now. I want to fi nish in three and a ha lf years if I can, or three years even. What do you want to study? Wren asked. Medicine, she said. I want to find a cure for cancer. The Peddler home was comfy. A wrap-a round blue couch dominated the front room facing a huge entertainment center fla nked by cabinets and an antique case filled with china. Paintings of mostly beach scenes decked the walls along with the por traits of
84 the family taken before Darla died. There was a separate dining r oom with a great oak table under a chandelier and the kitchen, Wren could only partially see, was packed tightly with appliances and a small breakfast table. Wr en thought there was still a womans touch that perhaps was slowly eroding. Harry had left some money for food and not ed that the girls had plenty to eat and that their dinners were wrapped up in the fridge and that they knew how to use the microwave, so there was no reason for Carmen or Wren to have to cook for anyone. Also, it said, Wren, theres some nice scotch in the cabinet, single malt, good stuff, Carmen too. I guess Harry knows Im here. I told him, Carmen said. Wren found the cabinet next to the entertainment center and found the scotch. Dont mind if I do, Wren said to Carmen, a nd poured himself three fingers of the liquid gold. Carmen was looking at the pictures, the ones with the two girls, sisters, best of friends it looked like to Wren, and maybe he was imagining this, but it seemed to him she was looking at those pictures with longing and with doubt. He remembered her telling him about the miscarriage. Things like that he remembered, black out or no black out, and he still wanted to know who the father was. Wren wasnt sure if she knew that he remembered or even knew that she had told him, but it had been his experience that people know; they may not remember everythi ng that went on duri ng a bender, but bet your ass, everyone remembers the important stuff, stuff that wa s divulged, secrets. Whats wrong? he asked.
85 Nothing, she said. Its ju st that I never had a sister and they look so happy and yet they seem so different. Carmen a nd Wren sat down on the blue wrap-around couch. Just then Adrian came into the living r oom carrying a card. She had it folded. It was made out of blue construction paper. She handed it to Carmen. It said, Carmen and Wren, welcome to our home. Adrian and Cynthia . I love it, Carmen said, and hugged the little girl. Want to see my room? Adrian asked. I would love to see your room, Carmen said, and off they went. Wren watched the news on the couch for a while and had three more fingers of Harrys scotch. He began poking around the house a little bit. He went into the bathroom and opened the cabinets. There were about ten bottles of pills all stacked to one side. Wren read the label. It was a Xanax substitute and on the bottle it also read, Salem inc.; so that was how Harry knew Salem and Reggie, Wren thought.
86 Chapter Nine Ill tell you one thing. I never thought Id say this, but I miss my rack, Wren said on the couch next to A llen, the early moonlight squir ting through the drawn shades, a pile of meth on the table in front of them. Wren, are you fucking kidding me? This is what weve been waiting for, for two years. The TV was on but muted. Wren let that comment slide because he fe lt the brittle tension in the air that was mounting between him and his friend. He felt brittle himself from all the meth. He felt sick. Hed never felt sicker in his life. They had been partying all day and into the night. Lets do another bump, Wren said. We have to conserve, man. Were almost out. But I do want to teach you how. You mean how to make that shit? Yes. Thats our ticket brother. Its easy. I dont want to get addicted. We wont do it all. We can sell it. Th ats what Im saying, just for a while, until we get our feet on the ground. Plen ty of mother-fuckers here in Florida, plenty of buyers. Superb market down here. I like that youre getting the experience with the Xanax. It will help us in the long run. The two looked like they were s itting in the front seat of a race car going one hundred and eighty miles an hour. Whats the plan exactly? Wren asked.
87 Dont ask me what the plan is, man. You re really getting on my nerves. Live in the moment. Fuck the plan. I have a pla n, but dont worry about it. Ive been making the fucking plan for two years. Just enjoy the moment. Thats what Im trying to tell you. Live in the moment. I need to get lai d, Allen said. Thats all I know. I need some pussy, pronto. I feel you on that. I pulled it enough in the Nav. You havent even met Carmen. Thats that chick you had over the other night? Dont worry about her Well get some beaver. Dont you worry about that, bu t lets wait. We dont have a lot of cash, or at least I dont, to be blowing it on dames. To me thats not a luxury. Thats a necessity, Wren said. But even his own voice sounded distant to him and unreal. Wait till Cuba, brother: the women, the beach, the bud, the drink. Were going to have it made down there. Maybe well go to Key West, then Cuba. Whatever we want is ours for the taking. Wren was aware of what his body wa s going through. He liked what was happening. The feeling of addi ction was a liberating feeli ng. To want something so singularly felt good. Allen, apparently feeling th e same lovely sensation of desire, bent down over the table and rifled a big one. He handed Wren the one-dollar bill and Wrens heart leapt. Something about the nighttime gets me going, Allen said. Its morning, Wren said. Wren wasted no time and snorted as hard as he could. Allen got up and popped in a Flaming Lips CD.
88 Allen turned down the stereo after the initial beat sounded. This is where its at, brother, you and me and Ameri ca. This is where its at. Yes, Wren said, momentarily pacified by the ferocious beating of his frail heart. His heart felt like a homemade boxcar engine with a rubber band and a washer, the whole thing about to come unglued and spring at the wa lls of his brittle rib cage. But, he felt love in his tired chest, an emotional upheaval toward his friend who he was realizing over and over was his friend for life, perhaps even his soul mate. Allen did another bump, and Wren again wasted no time. Lets get out of here, man. Lets go fo r a ride and jam some tunes, Allen said. * The two careened onto the highway blasting The Flaming Lips Wren felt best when Allen was behind the wheel. He felt safe with his buddy behind the wheel, as though he was in bed with him or his father li stening to those country tunes, the singers wailing about something theyd lost. By the way, Ill help you with the pills. Dont worry about that. We need to stock-pile some dough anyway, Allen said. Im going to send a bunch to my sister, Wren said. Allen slowed the car to a stop. He op ened up the glove box, a place Wren had not stuck his fingers in for fear Allen would th ink he was trying to steal something. The glove box was deep, and looked at a glance to be nearly fille d to the rim. Wren looked up and saw a man sort of stumbling along the road. He was weari ng knee high red tube socks and a sky-blue tank-top. He looked to be somewhere in his forties. His thin, wispy hair danced in the breeze. The man glanced back and nearly fell over, his hand covering
89 his eyes from the high powered beams of Alle ns truck. The man was about to turn onto a gravel road it looked like, one of those old, sleepy gravel roads off the highway. He was having a hard time of it, steering his body. He looked like he was going to fall. A few miles down the highway Wren could see lig hts, maybe from a bar. The fella looked like he was drunk, leering about. Wrens hear t pounded faster than ever. It nearly stopped when in the moonlight he saw Allen snatch out of the glove box a large Rambo knife that gleamed and glinted in the sharp, dancing light. Allen smiled, and was out the door in seconds. Wren saw him overtake th e man. Allen grabbed the mans arm and shoulder and pushed him to the ground, the knife in his hand. Alle n crouched over the man in the headlight beams as though he wa s digging into the ground with a pick or a hand shovel, careful not to ge t any dirt on his pants. Wren couldnt believe what he saw. He wanted to laugh or talk or say something. Allen hurried back to the truck. For a mo ment Wren thought Allen knew the guy, maybe settling an old score, but then he thought there was no way he knew the guy. Fuck, Allen said as he wiped the knife with a dirty rag he grabbed from the bed of his truck. He slung the cloth on the road. I got blood all over me. He grabbed a small, green duffle bag from behind his seat and stripped and change d into a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt right there on the road. No cars came. He threw the bloody clothes into the bag and stuffed it behind the seat. He leaped into th e drivers side, starte d the car, and began yelping in a mad, jubilant way. Yeah. Yeah. Then he banged the roof of the cab. Soon his exuberance infected Wren and Wr en began hooting and banging the roof of the cab as well. Allen stopped the car, slid over to his friend, grabbed Wren by the face, and kissed him roughly. The two swirled tongues and held each other.
90 Wren held Allen tight. He held onto him for dear life. He knew if he let go he would fall, or Allen would fall, or th ey both would fall, so he held on. I want to keep on holding you forever, Wren said.