Keepers

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I know that on good nights they’ll drink a decent bottle of wine or two and sit on their kitchen counters and play Catchphrase. They’ll yell at each other with purple-teethed smiles and clap when someone has the insight to name the unnamable thing. They’ve lived right next door to me for years and the walls in the building are thin.

On bad nights there will still be drinking but amidst crying, and instead of games someone throws a toaster or a cast iron. Usually he drives away much too fast. The cops call and say he’s been yelling around the cemetery again. She picks him up from the station, but it’s all right because he’s had to pick her up, too.

The little time they spent together started shading their time apart, where anything could happen fidelity-wise. And it quickly made noticeable rifts. His daydreams lean toward a beat up Westfalia, hers a swing set in a back yard, a 401k. He wants cash stuffed under a mattress, a dog—and she’d rather adopt instead of tearing her vagina open again. She’s candid about this.

Tonight he and I are at The Bison Room—the pub down the street with stuffed and mounted bison, two lynx, a bald eagle, three California condors, a grizzly bear and its cub, two big horn sheep, and an ocelot. Tonight she’s driving north, leaving for good this time. She starts a new job tomorrow morning in the city—she used the words career and accumulating savings when she said she’d be doing simple photo-manipulation for some corporate office. She’s rented a place and has encouraged him to visit when he’s in town, not quite inviting him to move in. But nearly. She’s probably slamming her steering wheel with her palms and blasting sad, loud music because that’s what she does. He slams an empty shot glass down and turns to me. He says, “Life is futile, it’s death we need to understand.” I tell him he’s being melodramatic.

She takes pictures of dead animals. On the side of the street, in pastures, in the water, underneath rocks, anywhere and any kind. She has a book published. The first picture in it is of a German shepherd’s skinless body washed up underneath a dock somewhere out on the coast. She framed a bunch of other ones and hung them up around their old place where he still lives.

Sometimes, during Catchphrase, they would laugh so hard and shout so loud they’d wake Jeri and me. They’d shush each other and at that point I could only lie awake, picturing them getting real close, falling into each other’s arms, giving into stained kisses and anxious groping. Even though their bodies matched well and they’d gotten to where they didn’t have to futz with how it all worked between them, the attempt inevitably faded out. He’s told me this in confidence.

He doesn’t like to say, but I know their sex is infrequent. This is why she thinks his constant trips to Oregon are much more than visits to comfort his crippled mother.

Tim, the bartender at The Bison Room, who wears a patch over his left eye, says to him, “Get over it, Adrian.” No one calls Tim the bartender Righty, or One-Eyed Tim, or Patch. Just Tim the bartender. He has a good one about a one-legged woman and a man with a wooden eye that ends, “Well screw you too, peg leg!”

Adrian slams down another, and Tim the bartender takes the glass away, says, “You’re done.”

Adrian says, “Do I look like a turkey? No. I’m finished.”

“Go on,” Tim the bartender says, and waves like he’s brushing us off.

 

The street’s damp from rain during the day. Adrian steps in a puddle and kicks his soaked shoe in the air, cursing. “She’s probably hydroplaning into the median right now,” he says, deadpan. I disagree. She knows how to drive. Or maybe she has her teeth clenched and her eyes are dry and both hands are wrapped firm around the wheel, knuckles bloodless, her seat belt fastened.

We kick through more puddles down the streetlight-lit road, moving in the direction of our building. “There’s a bottle of scotch at my place,” Adrian says. I’ll end up listening to him rant between long pulls from the bottle. When he gets this way, usually when Lucy’s out of town or sometimes when she’s sleeping, he carefully takes down every picture she’s hung up in the place and hides them somewhere he’s sure to forget. Once he put them in a plastic box, sealed it with duct tape, wrapped it in a sheet and hung it just out of sight off the porch. “I can’t stand them, but the frames cost so much,” is his excuse.

He does exactly that when we get back to his place. He removes the picture of the mallard, split down the middle, stacks it on top of the headless raccoon, the ball of flies trapped and rotting in a jar of red ooze. This time he hides the pictures in the oven.

The difference now, in the morning, is that she hasn’t come back before he’s awake to put the pictures back in place, like normal. So he wakes up to beige walls with squares of cleaner beige accenting the absence. I hear shouts and cursing and banging and stomping. Soon there’s a knock on my door.

“Someone’s stolen the pictures,” he says. His eyes are bloodshot and his shirt is on backwards. “Do you know how much those are worth?” I don’t because he’s never told me, because he’s never been scared like this before. “A whole fucking lot,” he says. “You didn’t take them?” I didn’t, no. “Jeri did?” Jeri didn’t, no. “Lucy must’ve.” Lucy didn’t, no. But I’m not going to tell him that. He’s desperate. He wants any excuse to see Lucy. So do I, sure. I can tell because he’s talking as if he doesn’t want to see her. He goes on about how he needs my car, how I can just tell my girlfriend that the bus works perfectly fine, that I can’t come because I’ve got to work. And no, I don’t have to work, which isn’t true, and Jeri, well she doesn’t leave the place so it hardly matters, and because Lucy, even if she wouldn’t say it, would ask me to do this for him—so he and I are going together.

 

He smokes all his cigarettes then starts in on mine. The drive is about two and half hours.

On one of their bad nights, Lucy came to my apartment before she went to pick up Adrian at the station. “I’m making him wait,” she said. Her smile was weak and her invisible braces looked like plaque. Jeri was asleep so I touched Lucy’s shoulder. She sighed and slid away and sat on the recliner and said she was fascinated by the way people personify domesticated animals. She told me Adrian reads the dictionary. When they fight he uses the words he’s circled. She thinks he uses them wrong, and then the fight becomes about the definition more than anything else. Inevitably the huge, weighty dictionary is brought out to the counter and opened and forcibly flipped through and it tends to get thrown rather than used. “Discussion over,” she said and sliced her hand through the air. I told her yeah, make him wait, but not for too long. I told her Jeri was sleeping, but she took that as a sign to leave.

Adrian is restless and twitchy. He’s out of cigarettes, as am I, and he’s fidgeting with the window—powering it up and down, down down, up down up. I don’t ask him to stop. There are words under his breath, but they’re no clearer than the sky over us. I ask him what he’s saying. “You and Jeri got it nice, you know.” I don’t agree, but stay silent. “You guys are quiet and neat and simple. Easy. Never hear you fighting, nope,” he says. I laugh. It’s the first laugh between us since last night and it startles.

When we get into the city it becomes clear that Adrian has no idea where Lucy’s new place is. “But she works at a place,” he says, a finger to his nose. “GraFix or GraFight or… Graph-bullshitting-nothing. I don’t know.” I tell him it’s on 14th and Legion, corner building. Adrian stares. “She told you?” I tell him she did and that she told him too, but he’d been drinking. “Well, then,” he says.

Breakfast first. Breakfast first because he’s nervous.

At some corner diner on the edge of the city proper, we stare out the window at kids walking to school with backpacks weighing them down, curving them backwards. “What is this, Africa?” Adrian says. The comment doesn’t make sense. I tell him he can’t just march into her office and demand the pictures back. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” he says, but the way he spins his fork between his fingers says he’s unsure. “Got any more smokes?” he asks.

The waitress is young and throws the menus at us. Coffee spills over the mugs as she puts them down. I smile hopefully and Adrian says, “Whoa, there.” She hustles away and slams the door to the kitchen. I tell Adrian he needs a plan, some bigger excuse than just pictures. The coffee’s too hot. “You were a waiter for a bit, right?” he asks. I was. “Never treated someone like that, I bet,” he points with his thumb. I did. A lot.

Some kid taps on the window and points at something across the street. He’s excited. Adrian waves him away.

Lucy used to come into my restaurant and order decaf coffee. She’d just sit at the counter and stare into the fake wood paneling. I’d ask her about the day and she’d say she hated such and such a professor. The local college we went to then was crumbling and most rooms still had chalkboards. “Art classes are nothing but excuses to get all masturbatory,” she said often. I refilled her coffee often. Adrian didn’t live in town then and I hadn’t met Jeri.

A bunch of kids are gathering, forming a circle around something on the pavement across the street. Adrian can’t resist, so I follow. The guts and blood look fake, spilling out of the corgi like they are. This wasn’t some side-street hit and run. Someone had very obviously massacred the dog and arranged it here. “God. Dammit,” Adrian says, but doesn’t look away.

“That’s cool,” a kid says, and pokes the body with a stick.

“My dog got hit by a car once,” another says.

“Dog. Is. Dead!” Adrian proclaims, fist in the air, but the kids don’t get it because they’re all really young. He gets a picture of it on his phone. The kids ew at him. Adrian slaps one of their backpacks and says to me, “Let’s go, that waitress is looking at us.”

The coffee is still too hot so I order breakfast and an ice cube. “Okay,” Adrian says. I say okay back. We make up some excuse to be in town—Adrian checking it out to maybe potentially take Lucy up on her invite—and decide if that doesn’t sound right for the moment, then there’s a show or a strip club or some other bogus anything. Even though she wouldn’t say it, any excuse would be good for Lucy. “She’ll want to see me. She has to,” Adrian says. “Plus,” he holds up his phone, “present, right?” I nod. She’ll like that. The waitress slides the plates over our table and stomps back into the kitchen yelling in Russian or Greek. “She forgot the ice cube,” Adrian says.

 

I know that technically they had a kid. It came out of Lucy blue and silent. Lucy told me when I had to pick her up from the police station because Adrian was in the drunk-tank at the same time. We decided to let Adrian stay. He was asleep anyways. He’d be fine. She though, she was puffy from crying and hoarse from screaming. Her wrists were red and rubbed raw—she’s allergic to certain kinds of metal. She laid her head on my shoulder. I stayed very still, trying to take the turns easily and slow. She eked out a few words here and there. I walked her from the car to her sofa, her face pressed against my chest, my arm around her shoulder the whole way. She tried to kiss me and I kissed back. Falling against the armrest, she said, “No, no,” her voice cracking in and out of a whisper. “You wouldn’t like it in here. Everything’s broken and torn.” She waved at her crotch. We stayed up talking from opposite ends of the couch until the phone rang and a mildly-sober Adrian asked for a ride. Jeri never asked where I had been.

 

Outside Lucy’s building Adrian breaks into a sweat. He does this profusely when he’s nervous. The smell is earthy and everywhere. When he’s like this he can’t explain himself and his whole body turns into a stutter of gesticulations. He doesn’t have much hair to pull at—he says it’s the bad genes, Lucy says it’s because he’s a trichotillomaniac. “Balls,” he says. I nod. “Balls shitting Jesus,” he says. I ask him what’s so hard about talking to someone you’ve been with for the past four years. “I’m giving in is what,” he says. “I’m letting her win.” I think it’s absurd, but I don’t say it. Jeri is gaining weight and she doesn’t leave our place. She has this online job where she types what other people are speaking at about 90 words per minute and that kind of typing is clacking and loud. It’s left her hunched. When she starts typing I immediately leave the apartment. We never fight because I can’t stand the sound of her voice. I tell Adrian that it’s not about winning; it’s about being there. “That’s a crock,” he says, and I think he’s right.

Adrian moved to town the year after Lucy graduated. They met at a party where everyone was told to wear a mustache and drink pink lemonade spiked with something almost like ecstasy but with more visuals. I stayed in a corner twirling my mustache and talking to Lucy who wore a Fu Manchu. Adrian walked in at 1:00 am with a forty-ouncer and wearing a small square of hair under his nose, Hitler style, and went around the room asking, “Have you seen Kyle?” Lucy loved it. She thought it was ballsy. I fell asleep in the back of my car and Lucy told me that she and Adrian screwed in the tiny shower and someone walked in on them and joined. Then another and another. And the party basically turned into an orgy. Lucy had keys to my car then, and when I woke up we were going 75 down a back road and she hadn’t noticed me. I stayed silent and pretended to sleep and she only realized I was there after she parked and called me and my phone went off right there in my pocket.

In the driver’s seat, now, I look over at Adrian. He breathes quick and stares at the dash. “Doin’ it,” he says, and rushes out of the car like if he’d stayed one second longer he wouldn’t have. But he would have.

The building is small, one story, and has pane glass windows as walls so everything on the inside is basically seeable. The cubicle walls disembody everyone’s head as they walk around the place. Adrian doesn’t bother with the receptionist, who is visibly confused. And once he’s through the main door of the office, heads start popping up at whack-a-mole intervals. Adrian walks briskly. No one moves to stop him. He’s peering over the walls, throwing his hands in the air, moving on. Doing this is more an act of love or passion than one of spite or revenge. He’d tell you that it was the opposite.

Lucy appears from an unseen hallway off in the corner of the room, all heads turn first to her then to Adrian. Lucy doesn’t move. She has a stack of paper in her arms. A tall older gentleman is a pace behind her, he puts a hand on her shoulder. Adrian points at her and the guy slowly removes his hand. I can only guess at what’s being said or accused. Adrian, still pointing, is weaving through the cubicles, side stepping things, making a wandering line toward Lucy, who is visibly angry. She thinks she’s passive and unemotive, but she’s obviously never looked at herself in a mirror, really studied her own expressions.

Adrian is up maybe two feet from Lucy and is still pointing at her. I want to imagine he’s saying, You stole the only thing I had to remember you by, you took part of me when you took those pictures, you took away how you would always be around me, you left me and took your memories with you, I want them back, but I know he’s not. Sounds like something I would say. His mouth moves in clipped and inelegant ways. And of course, when Lucy responds in the slightest, Adrian waves his arms and rolls his head, which can only mean he’s lashing out with some maddening retort. The older guy behind Lucy steps between them and Adrian pushes him. The stack of papers in Lucy’s arms goes tumbling, the man falters back, but his attention is still on Adrian who yells, I can see, what? what? like he was raised somewhere other than middle class suburbia, and Lucy is fumbling and trying to catch what is clearly futile to try and catch, but she’s back there, waving her arms and bending lower and lower as the papers float and sway downward. There are too many pieces and because she’s trying to catch all of them so she gets none. No one pays her any attention as there is a scuffle between the guys, and Lucy is focused on picking up each and every piece, her knees bent and instinctively closed together because she’s wearing a skirt. Her hair is in her mouth. She’s wearing elaborate make-up. She looks perturbed. She looks up and squints out the window, but there’s no way she can see me.

The older gent takes a swing at Adrian who ducks and moves to Lucy who pushes him away from her bended position. Adrian is trying, by pulling her elbow, to get her up, to get her to leave this corporate hell hole where her soul will surely be sucked into oblivion and she’ll drown in the greed and corruption and sexuality of dubious older men, he’s yelling at her to come back home where everyone actually loves you, where the sheriff has our neighbor’s number on speed dial, where anyone can be counted on to support our mutually self-destructive relationship because it’s okay, it’s just Adrian and Lucy, they love each other. But I don’t think he says any of this, really. I see a few people on cell phones, doubtless calling the police. Lucy’s up, ignoring the paper, and she’s crying. Her crying has always made me smile, hiding any worry.

Adrian’s running for the door. A large man stands in his way. Adrian dodges around him and almost topples the receptionist who spins comically. Adrian is nearly hit by a SUV as he sprints across the street. The car’s already on and he gets in and says, “Go motherfucker! GO!” And we go.

 

I don’t know if we should leave town or find a place to stay or how, even, to make sense of what Adrian is trying to say. He’s a mess of body language, distressed and under-forming sentences. “She doesn’t have the pictures,” is his only clean statement. I ask him if we should go home, but there’s no clear answer. We’re driving along side streets and through alleys, past Asians in chef hats and bums smoking on dumpsters. It’s an erratic and aimless drive as Adrian’s adrenaline is enough for us both. “Where’re the fucking pictures?” he gets out. I keep asking him what I should do, where I should go. But Adrian pays no attention, never answers.

Soon we’re near the river, the nice and touristy part of town, but at this time of day it’s packed with traffic going downtown and we’re stuck. “First opportunity, pull into that park.” Adrian points at a long green belt between the river and us. People are jogging through it. “They’ll never look for us there,” he says. And he’s probably right, but there’s probably no one looking for us. I’m scared. He’s paranoid.

 

In the parking lot, Adrian swears a lot and I recline my seat all the way and close my eyes. Adrian needs a cigarette, as do I, but my need is much less obvious. “She doesn’t have the pictures,” he says, calmer than before. “Where are they—” he begins, but I cut him off and I tell him it was never about the pictures, it was all about coming here, getting in close proximity to Lucy. Pictures are just pictures, not even of her, just hers that she took. “No,” he says. “No, it actually was about the pictures.” I call bullshit. He needs to recognize what he’s doing is for Lucy, not for the pictures. “Bullshit on you,” he says.

I ask him to please open the glove compartment and hand me what he finds. It’s a green, unopened pack of cigarettes. He’s very angry about this. I unwrap the plastic and lift the cardboard lid, pacing myself while Adrian twitches. I take two out and light them, handing one to him. I tell him where the pictures are. “How’d they get in there?” he asks. He’s accusing me. I tell him that, yes, I put them there. He believes me and releases a long sigh and a cloud of used-up smoke.

He finishes his cigarette quickly and asks for another one. I tell him no.

We’re not going back home until he talks to Lucy properly.

 

“We’re not stalking,” he says. But we are.

We ditched the car for these bushes. A different side of Lucy’s building. Adrian’s face is full of fern because he’s taking this quite seriously and has hid himself entirely in the bush. I’m just on the other side of it, messing with the dirt. The sun’s going down. Lucy still hasn’t left. “She probably went out another door,” Adrian says through the leaves.

I know that one night, after Lucy left in a rage, Adrian had a woman over. Everyone in the apartment building knew this because he shouted his end of the conversation with her. Everyone had heard the fight, no doubt, and Lucy slamming the door, so Adrian’s logic was that he was covering his tracks by yelling stuff like, “HELLO THERE, UTTERLY PLATONIC FRIEND,” and “HAVE A SEAT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COUCH, FRIEND.” Twenty minutes after whoever it was—her voice was light—had shown up, Adrian stopped yelling. They started to screw. I know this because who moves that much furniture at two in the morning? I never told Lucy.

But she didn’t go out another door, because here she is. Adrian almost chokes with surprise and I kick him in the shin. We watch as the old gent escorts her to her car. They’re somewhat obscured by the failing sun, but it’s obvious—at least to me—that’s she’s been crying. I can tell by the way she opens her car door—like the faster she can get in the better because she doesn’t care if cars can’t drive through large bodies of water, she’ll drive off the nearest dock just to prove a point.

The man touches her elbow and Lucy turns, holding the door halfway open. He asks her something and she waits. Waits. Nods and shuts the door and they start walking. Her car beeps as she locks it.

Adrian curses and I unclench a fist full of dirt.

 

We end up across the street from a small bar that’s carved into the side of a brick wall. Lucy and the old gent are inside. Adrian is pacing. We’re in the shadows of a large billboard that says choice and has a mutilated fetus on it. It’s huge and lit up and horrible.

“Do we barge the place?” Adrian asks. We can’t do much else. I tell him I want to be privy to this and hand him a lit cigarette. “Privy?” he says. I tell him yeah, privy. I want to be there to help when things get rough, when the bartender asks us to leave and we refuse, when the old guy who’s trying to steal Lucy starts to defend himself to an un-listening Adrian who, while loudly insulting the old guy, is really telling Lucy he loves her. His own way.

“That’s not happening,” Adrian says and I say maybe it will. I say maybe he should try to see that even though the good nights with Catchphrase are few and the kid they almost had creeps its way into their thoughts every time they try to screw, every time they talk to each other, they are each other’s and they are inevitable, they happen. I tell him that of course Lucy told me about that and she’s told me so many other things, but it’s time to make sure no one gets in the way of us three again.

Adrian clicks his tongue and I stand still.

I tell him after everything works out tonight, I’ll call Jeri and tell her I’m not coming home because we, not her, are starting this new life and she’ll make that sound she makes when she shrugs. She’ll tell me she’s had enough and I’ll know it’s because I’ve never given her enough, and that’s all right, I’ll say, because I’ve been giving enough of my everything to someone else for a long time.

He flattens the cigarette with his foot. He looks at me, skeptical if he’s ever really seen me before.

Lucy and the old guy are still sitting at the bar across the street. The lights are dim. He’s turned toward her and she’s resting on her elbows. “All right then. Let’s go,” Adrian says. And we go.

Adrian pushes the door open. I flick my cigarette into the street, a galaxy of embers. The muffled roar of conversation in the tiny bar rolls out as we follow a quick breeze in. Lucy’s to the left, she sees us and her back goes straight, her glass halfway to her lips. She looks first to Adrian who’s moving too quickly, too narrowly, too determined. Her eyes find me and they’re instantly pleading—it’s the look she’s had so many times at 4 am, crying and worried about herself, worried about Adrian. She mouths my name. She’s pleading for me to fix everything that’s about to happen. But I can see, so obviously, that as Adrian grabs the old man’s shoulder and the barstool wobbles underneath, that it’s already impossible—we can’t be altered, we’re firmly fixed.

 

Photo: “sleeper” by Richard P J Lambert CC BY 2.0