He had come with his now ex-wife, who’d won a fellowship at the university. During their first week in Sequoia, they were sitting in a bar when a college student slid in next to T’s wife and draped his arm around her. The kid was just drunk, but T couldn’t leave it alone. He pretended he was getting up to go to the bathroom and elbowed the kid as hard as he could in the face. That was the fight. T was thrown out and banned for life. Back at their apartment his wife asked him what the fuck he had been thinking. T looked at her and said, “I know.”
For nine months all they did was fight and have sex; then the sex stopped. Then she said she needed some time by herself. T thought she meant a movie or an afternoon shopping. “Go ahead,” he said. That Saturday afternoon when he walked into their bedroom after work, all her stuff was gone, even the bed. T left her alone for almost a week, until late one night when he couldn’t take it anymore and decided to ask her to come home. He drove to her house as if he were late for a wedding. When he saw a glow coming from her bedroom, he cut the lights, killed the engine, and coasted to a stop in the driveway. He skulked across the lawn. He wanted to toss pebbles at her window, but there was something about the light in her room. It was too soft. Candles. His chest went weak. He knew he should stop right there. The window was just high enough that he couldn’t see in, so he grabbed a cinder block from under the front porch.
With his nose two inches from the glass, he saw his wife’s bare back and ass bouncing on a pair of hairy legs and prayed she was somebody else. When he recognized the way she leaned forward and ground her hips in circles, he ducked. He bent over with his hands on his knees. Even years later, he could not put that moment into words. The next thing he knew, the cinder block flew through the window. The front door was mostly paned glass, so T dropped his shoulder and crashed through it, splintering wood and scattering shards everywhere. In the pitch dark, he exploded down the hall and burst through the bedroom door. The hairy man hopped on one bare foot, trying to jam his second leg into a pair of jeans. T slapped him in the face once, twice, three times, before glancing back at his topless wife who screamed into the telephone. He grabbed the man by the throat, drove him across the room, slammed him into a wall. Without losing his grip, he threw the stranger on the bed and squeezed until his thumb and middle finger met behind the man’s esophagus. T froze, and before letting go stared into a face that was petrified. Two weeks later, he met Darlene at a hippie field wedding and made love to her in a carrot patch. They had been going out ever since.
T sat next to Darlene, and Paulie looked the other way. T tugged her braid. “Hi, babe,” Darlene said, her bright red lips sliding into a drunken grin. Her eyes were shiny, and she leaned back so T could see Paulie. “This is my dear sweet friend Paulie,” she said. The men nodded at each other. T would have bet ten bucks she just met the bastard tonight. He drank his beer and smoked a cigarette and felt invisible. He spotted her hand on Paulie’s knee and tugged her braid again. Darlene smiled. “Ready when you are, babe,” she said. When she stood up, she was holding Paulie’s hand.
Paulie gripped the edge of the table and pulled himself up with a grimace, nearly spilling all the drinks. “Darlene promised me a dance,” he said. The way he raised his knee and clomped his foot down made it look like he was stomping a bug. With his elbow tucked and his wrist limp, he leaned sideways, swiveled on his hip, and dragged his other foot. Darlene piloted them past one table, then another, and onto the empty dance floor.
Paulie stood stationary, bouncing on his knees and craning his neck
to follow Darlene, who pranced and grooved around him. T took a deep
breath. With the DJ encouraging them, Darlene shimmied, jiggling
her breasts in front of Paulie who doubled his fists and beat invisible
drums. Then he extended his hand. Darlene took it and twirled
beneath his arm, and when she tried to pull herself back up, Paulie toppled
forward and down they both went.
He spent most of the night watching the ceiling, the walls, the numbers on the clock-radio. He rose before the sun, donned his Airborne Express uniform, and sped across town to Darlene’s house, which sat nestled in woods halfway up Mount Whitehead. He would tell her he was just popping by on his way to work to make sure she was okay. As he turned down her dead-end street, he was relieved to see only the one car in her driveway; then it hit him that Paulie didn’t drive. Beyond the house through a canvas of trees, an orange spark crept toward the open sky. T made for the door, grabbed the key from under the mat, and was standing in the livingroom before anyone could have reacted.
Enya floated out of the stereo. Beer cans, ashtrays, and an empty liter of Absolut littered the coffee table. On the glass altar, half a candle still burned. A bead of wax ran down its length. His eyes fell to the floor in front of the couch, to an object, one that stopped him cold. A shoe. A tan loafer lying kicked off on its side. He scanned the floor and couch and chairs for articles of clothing, then tip-toed across the room and peered down the hall. The bedroom door was wide open, but he couldn’t see anything. Halfway there, he stopped. Enya drifted past him to a large lump of covers in the center of the bed. As he considered this, a bare leg popped out, a black sock on the foot. His heart sank, and as the bundled heap moved slowly and steadily, he managed to inch away.
Back in the livingroom, he rattled the doorknob, opened the door and
slammed it. He turned the stereo off. He whistled as he entered
the kitchen, pulled a glass out of the cupboard, and smacked the cupboard
shut. He poured himself some orange juice from the refrigerator,
drank it, and headed back to the bedroom.
Paulie had propped himself on an elbow. T wiggled his fingers
good-bye. In the livingroom, he went straight for the shoe, tucked
it under his arm, and walked out the door.
When he got home from work he wrapped the shoe in aluminum foil and stuck it in the freezer under some steaks. Darlene would never find it there. He closed the freezer door.
“Babe?” a voice called from the bathroom. T almost shit. He pushed open the bathroom door. There she was, in the tub with knees and face floating on water. Steam rose from the surface. “Hi,” she said. T said hey, and turned to the foggy mirror and pretended to pick at a zit. “D’you have a good sleep last night?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Thanks. That was so thoughtful. Paulie said you stopped by.” T turned as Darlene’s face slid under water; bubbles preceded her to the surface.
“What the fuck was Paulie doing in your bed?”
Darlene raised an arm and smacked the water, splashing all over the floor and T’s legs. T stepped back. Her lips trembled as she told him she was feeling her little girl’s pain right now. She splashed again. Water climbed the tiled walls. “Don’t!” she yelled, her face burning.
T backed out and shut the door. From the couch, he listened to her crying. Bawling was more like it, bawling that swelled to a high-pitched wailing. He couldn’t believe the sounds she was making, like she was experiencing indescribable physical pain. T lit a cigarette.
Darlene emerged with a towel on her head and a slip pulled up over her breasts so that the bottom barely covered the tops of her thighs. She walked gingerly and carried a little red book. She handed the book to T and sat next to him on the couch. Her face was pink now, and calm, and even her eyes had changed to a softer hue of blue.
T opened the book. It was a journal of blank pages, except for
the first page, which was water-spotted and read:
T sat up straight and held his hand out for the pen. He could
not admit to her what he had seen. He wrote: I’m hurt there
was a man in your bed. Thank you for being honest. I love you,
TOO. He passed the journal back to her. After she wrote
for a couple minutes, she handed the journal back to him. Her next
T kissed her on the cheek. “I know,” he said.
Weeks later, he would not be able to articulate exactly how she did it, how she took his anger and his upper hand and exchanged it for her belief that this was an opportunity for real love. As they sat in the wake of the decision that he move into her house, Darlene unbuttoned his Airborne Express shirt and kissed his chest, and when she asked if he wanted to be in her mouth, T slowly nodded his head.
As soon as it was over, Darlene rose and went to the kitchen for a glass of water.
T was paralyzed on the couch.
“Paulie couldn’t find his shoe this morning,” she said.
“Shoe?” T said.
Darlene came back into the room. “A special one to help him walk,” she said.
“Probably under the couch or something.”
“No,” she said, setting the water down.
T crinkled his brow. “Why would I want Paulie’s shoe?”
Darlene sat next to him. “Babe, I told him that wasn’t like you,” she said. She lit a cigarette, blew smoke out the side of her mouth. T didn’t want her to be nervous; it would be easier for him if she weren’t. He kissed her on the cheek “Exactly,” he said.
When he needed to, T walked or drove to the top of Mount Whitehead to sit under the giant cross that overlooked Sequoia. He counted the buildings and streets, the entire city splayed in front of him like a huge topographical map, and within a few minutes he believed once again his life was full of possibilities. Their worst fights happened on Sundays when neither of them had to work, so T often found himself on an early Sunday evening sitting beneath the cross waiting for it to glow blue while the sun weakened and the air grew chilly. He’d gaze down upon the city and all its twinkling lights and imagine all the little people with all their little problems; only then could he return to Darlene.
The shoe stayed buried. One day when the novelty of playing house
had begun to wane, Darlene and T decided to hit Buckhorn Street for the
first time in weeks. They began late that afternoon at The Isles
of Golden Dreams, then caught the end of happy hour at The Pelican Roost.
As it was getting dark, in walked T’s ex-wife. She was followed by
the hairy man and went straight to a large table where a group of drinkers
rose to greet them. T was happy to notice the bitch had put on some
pounds. “I can’t believe she’s still with that little shit,” he said.
At Fat Rat’s Tap, Zeppelin blared from speakers suspended from the ceiling. Old men clogged the domino tables. They took the only open pool table and played Nineball for two hours and downed three pitchers of beer. T squatted and stared at Darlene’s crotch as he pulled balls from the belly of the table. He glanced to the front door and saw Paulie, his body twisting its way toward the bar. T racked the balls for Darlene to break. Paulie pulled himself onto a barstool. T steadied the rack and gently lifted it away.
“Paulie’s here,” he said.
Darlene said she’d recently seen Paulie at the IGA and had told him to call her about a tarot card reading. T chalked his cue. “Break ‘em,” he said. During the next game, he stole glances at Paulie. He hated Paulie’s being there, laughing and drinking it up, telling his damn story to anyone who’d listen.
Darlene lit a cigarette and said, “We need another pitcher, babe. I’ll rack for you.”
T didn’t want more beer. They’d had enough. But he grabbed the empty pitcher and headed toward the bar. Four or five people down, Paulie jabbered in front of a large jar of pickled eggs. T couldn’t hear much over the general hullabaloo. Rat waddled over and snatched the pitcher.
“Where’s my shoe?” a voice called.
T snapped a ten dollar bill taut with both hands.
“Where’s my shoe?!” he heard again.
Thin red veins laced Paulie’s nose and cheeks. T cupped his hand next to his ear. “What?” he said.
“My shoe!” Paulie shouted.
Everyone looked, but T didn’t flinch.
“Can’t hear you!” he shouted back, then flashed Paulie a grin and paid for his pitcher.
T poured Darlene a beer, and she asked him if he bought smokes. The question seemed odd—Darlene hadn’t asked for them. T shrugged. Darlene meandered toward the bar. Heads turned. A small group had gathered around Paulie. T retreated to the men’s room where they had replaced the old toilet with a stainless steel tub. He rested his forehead on the cool tile above it and kept his eyes closed while his piss roared like an engine in the shiny new metal.
When he came out, he didn’t see Darlene. Paulie had disappeared as well. Pool balls clacked. For a few frantic seconds, before she emerged from the women’s room, T convinced himself Darlene was with Paulie in the backseat of her car.
Paulie had indeed left, and once T concluded this, he acted up, twirling his stick like a baton, skipping around the table, clapping, laughing uproariously—making Darlene giggle and shake her head. She liked him more when he was happy, she said, and T gave her a big kiss. “Love everybody,” she said. “We’re all brothers and sisters.” T happily agreed, pounding two beers to her one. At closing time, he knocked over a stool and slurred an apology. Darlene draped his arm around her neck. Wobbling, T asked her if she wanted to dance.
Outside, she laid him on the sidewalk and hopped on the pay phone to call for a ride. T gazed high above Buckhorn Street at the stars.
“My shoe!” he heard.
T’s head swirled and his eyes slid down the sky and stopped on Paulie’s face. “I want my it! It’s mine!”
T lifted his head but couldn’t sit up.
T’s head clunked on the sidewalk. “Ow,” he said, and closed his eyes.
“Cool it, Paul!” Darlene shouted from the pay phone.
T laughed. Everything was spinning. He lay benumbed until Darlene and her friend helped him to his feet. Before he ducked into the car, he looked for Paulie, but saw nobody, just Buckhorn Street, the store fronts, the neon sign blinking: Fat Rat’s Tap.
When he finally rose, he was shivering. He swallowed five aspirins and stumbled out the door wearing a towel. He wished he had the energy to stroll the crown of Mount Whitehead, sit at the base of the cross for a chant. Instead, he went behind the house, leaned against a tree, and vomited. He got on his knees and felt around under the shed until his hand found the shoe. He stood up staring at it like it was a crystal ball, or a genie’s lamp, then dropped it on the ground and slipped in his foot. Paulie’s shoe fit perfectly. He limped in a circle, dragging his foot and holding an arm against his chest. “Darlene done promised me a dance,” he said.
The screen door smacked on the other side of the house. T kicked the shoe off and stuffed it under the shed before Darlene rounded the corner. She wore a T-shirt, no panties, and her hair hung like a cape. “You okay, babe?”
“No,” T said.
“I heard you throwing up. Sounded awful.” She squatted and smoothed his hair.
Her toenails were painted red.
“Sometimes you’re not there and I panic,” T said. He plopped his head on her shoulder.
“I’m with you, babe,” Darlene said. “ We’re right where we need to be.”
A plane flew overhead. T tipped his head back and followed the sound across the blue sky. Darlene caressed his shoulder.
“Where are you?” she said.
“Up there,” T said.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Down,” was T’s answer as he rolled her onto her back and kissed between her legs. They were making love in the grass when she said she wanted him to come inside her. “In my mouth, babe,” she added, rubbing her heels on his back. “The way you like.”
Afterwards, she lay next to T with her legs casually spread. He didn’t know his eyes had welled until he picked his head up and saw her face register his. “I have to tell you something,” he said.
“I have Paulie’s shoe.”
Darlene put her hand on T’s cheek and stared at him lovingly. “Thank you,” she said. She sat up and gave him a hug.
“I’m so embarrassed,” T mumbled.
A few minutes later, she returned the shoe to the house and filled it with sea salts to cleanse it of negative energy. She placed it on the glass altar and surrounded it with candles. She instructed T to release an impure thought about Paulie as he lit each one. Love, babe, she reassured him. T beat Paulie senseless with different household objects: statue of Buddha, hunk of crystal, broomstick. After the candles were lit, she held his hand and said, “What will happen to us?” She was scared. He asked her what she meant. “You think you’ll marry me?”
T felt his cheeks redden. This was the first time he’d ever thought of her as someone to marry, and suddenly she seemed desperate and pitiable. “I don’t know,” he said.
“You better,” she said.
Darlene was visibly shaken by her inept proposal, and this unexpected glimpse into her unsettled T. Nevertheless, he followed more instructions. He blew out the candles, conjuring a positive thought about Paulie before each one. Paulie’s my brother, he told himself. Paulie was just being Paulie. Poor bastard had the chance of a lifetime. T imagined shooting stick with Paulie at Fat Rat’s Tap, dancing like crazy men at the Full Moon Saloon, their heads back howling. He needs me, T believed, and he pictured them at Wendy’s Wonderbar, punching one another in the arm and raising shots of Wild Turkey. He would invite Paulie over for some beers. The three of them would drink all night, friends forever. Before blowing out the last candle, T saw Paulie striding confidently down the sidewalk.
T didn’t get home from work that night until after ten because he volunteered to rush an overlooked parcel to Tulsa to meet the plane. The dispatcher preferred T because T did not dally: he knew the most direct routes and he drove fast and furious and never got ticketed. T kept the Airborne Express van overnight instead of driving it all the way back to base and inside the house found a note from Darlene that said she was having a drink with a friend. T grabbed the shoe off the glass altar, poured the sea salt in a neat pile, and drove to Buckhorn Street to find Paulie. It was time.
The first bar he checked was The Friendly Inn. It was dark and quiet. There were four men bellied-up to the bar. All of them looked except for Paulie. T held the bag behind his back and placed his free hand on Paulie’s shoulder.
“Brother Paul,” he said.
Paulie leaned sideways to get a better look. “You!” he said.
“I do believe I have your shoe,” T said.
He dropped to one knee while pulling the gift out of the bag. With two hands he presented the shoe as if it were on a platter.
“I knew it,” Paulie said. He pointed at T. “I knew it!”
T took the stool next to Paulie, setting the shoe on the bar between them.
“What’d she tell you?” Paulie asked.
“What’s your pleasure, T?” the bartender asked. T winked, fished out his cigs, and said he wanted her coldest Bud.
“It was just part of my path, man,” he said to Paulie, and shrugged.
Paulie stirred his drink with his middle finger. “The fuck you
Paulie crunched his ice. “Damn straight,” he said. He thumped the bar and laughed.
“Hell, ain’t no big deal is it? Got me a similar situation right now.”
“Yeah?” T said.
“Yip,” Paulie said. “Married. Meeting her at eleven.” He looked at his wrist where there was no watch. “Hell,” he said. “You know how it is.” He clapped T on the back.
T looked at him. “Oh, I know how it is, Paulie.”
“Look it,” Paulie said. “I don’t blame you for being hot. I’d be super pissed that was me walking in there seeing what you seen. But hell, nothing happened.”
“Yup, that’s what she told me, Paulie.” T spied the bottle of Wild Turkey.
“You shouldn’t have taken my shoe,” Paulie said. “That’s what I say.”
“I saw you, big guy,” T said.
Paulie swirled his ice, tipped some into his mouth. “Shoulda throwed my ass out,” he said.
“Think so?” T said.
“Damn straight,” Paulie said. He leaned over the bar to find the bartender.
T glanced at the Wild Turkey again. As Paulie came back down on his stool it swiveled and he would’ve fallen clean off had T not grabbed him by the collar and held him up.
“Let me tell you a little secret, Paulie,” T said. “Last time it took me five thousand bucks to get out of it. This time, I just took the fucking shoe.”
Paulie sighed. “Damn,” he said.
“Not your fault,” T said. With two fingers, he pushed the shoe along the bar. “Airborne Express,” he said. “Five month delivery.”
Paulie shook his head. “I don’t want that,” he said.
T didn’t think he heard him right. “What?”
“Don’t want it.”
“Brother Paul,” T said. “You’re not being brotherly.” He snubbed out his smoke. The bartender cleared her throat. “Accept your shoe,” T said. “Please.”
“Okay,” Paulie said. “I accept.” He picked up the shoe and flung it over everybody’s head. T heard it land in the trash barrel behind the bar. Bottles clanked.
“Nothing but net,” the bartender said.
With both hands, Paulie clutched himself above the knee, lifted, and dropped his foot on the floor. He edged his way off the stool. “And now if you’ll excuse me,” he said.
He clomped and dragged his way to the exit. When he pulled open the glass door, T shouted, “You’re an asshole!”
Headlights slashed across Paulie’s back as he raised his fist and disappeared.
The men at the bar were eyeballing T.
T turned away and sank into his barstool.
“T?” the bartender asked.
“Shot a Turkey,” T said.
The bartender pulled the Wild Turkey off the shelf and set a shot glass
in front of him. While she poured, raising and lowering the bottle,
T was behind the windshield of his van. He downed the shot and spanked
the empty glass on the bar. His chest burned. This was it.
He stomped the gas and blew past the cross. Parked cars whooshed
by him like dark clouds and porch lights blinked like stars as he zoomed
round and round the crown of Mount Whitehead waiting for the wheels to
lift off the ground.