The Other House on the Hill in the Country
or, The Legend of Hook Man Finger
You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly. You try to pin the truth down and take it apart. And you think that truth is a fixed thing. But the truth is alive, and it runs around. . . . The truth lies.
HE was lying on the couch in the house on the hill in the country on a morning in the middle of spring.
The couch came with the house. And he was alone on it. The doors and windows were shut. The light neutral. He was thinking about nothing, working through the country’s preeminent crossword puzzle.
She was standing in the room of dead space limply holding a softcover book about starting gardens from seed.
Her lips parted. She was about to exhale. Caffeine moved in her blood. She was thinking about real estate.
The dog curled at her feet on a rug she imagined her father would’ve estimated was worth twenty-five thousand dollars. The cat skulked silently somewhere.
A week earlier, their landlord had dropped in to inform them they’d have to vacate the premises four months hence at the end of their lease.
Six evenings later, they’d decided to go grocery shopping the following day. They’d made it a rule to plan and check in with each other before committing to any activity. Theoretically, they encouraged each other to be honest and open when they wanted to flake. But they both almost always wanted to flake on every plan, so despite their forethought, they often felt trapped in this world of their making.
Responsibility was a burden. Plus they hadn’t really made this world. Even eating, which had become their favorite shared pursuit, often seemed like too much work. Sometimes their life before the plague felt fake.
She stepped into the room and sat on the couch. He folded the puzzle he’d solved into quarters.
―Would you rather go sooner or later, he said.
―I don’t mind.
She was still holding the book about gardening.
―I was thinking sooner.
―Just let me brush my teeth.
He needed to get dressed and brush his teeth too. He hadn’t meant to imply they needed to leave that instant. All the same, when he looked at his phone he saw it was nearly afternoon.
Going into town might not have been an ordeal under different circumstances, or even to different people, but they’d made it into one. It was their way of instilling a sense of a home-life-centrism. Perfunctorily they groomed.
She brushed her teeth and poured a generous helping of milk in her mug. She killed the carton and dropped it in the overflowing recycling bin. The dog’s nails clicked.
―Hoo-oo-ou-dini, she cooed.
His neon orange rope harness dangled over a chair. She unspooled it like a snake. When she turned back around, the cat was wrist deep in her mug, rapidly spooning to its sandpaper tongue and putrid teeth, lapping milky pawfuls of tea.
She groaned. And tossed the cat by its neck out the kitchen, grabbed the dog, who was trying to jump on it, by its collar, applied the neon orange rope harness, and dumped the mug’s contaminated contents in the sink.
That morning, the cat had tramped through the house, parading a slack sack of rodent, bald tail twitching, and darted away before he could wrest the vermin from its jaw’s zipper clench.
From the front of the house, parallel the kitchen, one of the only spots that consistently picked up LTE signal, she could hear him speaking to someone.
―Hi, he said. ―Hi, can you hear me?
He put the phone on speaker.
―This is Andrew, he said. ―Is this the library?
―Good afternoon, Andrew, the other voice said.
―Hi. I know I’ve got a bunch of overdue books. I’m coming by to return them. I was just wondering if you could leave the stuff I have on hold on the book drop.
―What time will you be here?
―Uh, like fifteen minutes?
―And are you aware Anna has a very long overdue DVD?
―Yeah, he said. ―We still have it.
―I’ll check your books out and leave them on the drop in a few minutes.
―Thank you, Andrew, the librarian said.
He hung up and moved to the kitchen.
―Do you still want to watch A Final Woman, he asked.
―Yeah, she said.
She knew how long she’d had the DVD checked out. She couldn’t request new materials. They’d put a block on her account. She wanted to watch the movie, but it wasn’t easy to be in the mood for foreign cinema at the drop of a hat.
―Okay, he said. ―But it’s on you to make sure it gets returned now. I’m done being your advocate.
He piled library books and DVDs on the kitchen island. He balanced a thermos of coffee on top.
She stared at the sink.
―Are we going to the library?
The dog stood by the door in the mudroom looking back at her over its haunches. Harness and leash draped behind it. It moved its feet in place.
She approached. The dog cowered. She loosened the harness and suspended it on a peg by the car keys. The dog looked at the door.
―Come here, Dini, she said.
The dog’s eyes became forlorn as she heaved it up and conveyed the small beast to the room with the couch, which was also the room with the television and the crate. She crated the dog, and as she returned to the kitchen, its whimpering increased in volume and urgency, and she felt defeated, near tears.
―You don’t want Houdini to come, he said, not making eye contact with her.
―I don’t want him to throw up.
―I don’t think he’ll throw up.
She hesitated, and he carried the pile of DVDs, books, and coffee in the crook of his arm and closed the door behind him with his foot.
He recognized his impatience and irritability. He didn’t feel like he should have to explain himself to her. In a few minutes, it would most likely pass of its own volition. He’d put on piano music, and they’d drive into town, and the tension would melt.
He elbowed the sliding wood lever to open the side entrance of the garage and elbowed the button to release the electronic panel door. Library materials collapsed on the hood of the car. He grabbed the thermos before it rolled off and exploded, and he gathered the rest of the pile in the backseat.
He stood outside and beheld the house. It was more space than they needed, but she’d managed to get it at a deal. And she was trying to lock the front door. He watched her struggle. He knew the key he’d copied for her stuck. Only the key their landlord had given him personally turned without a hitch.
Still, he thought, as he lurched to the house, took the key from her jostling grasp and locked the door without saying anything or making eye contact.
He offered Anna her keys. Then he went a step further and dropped the car keys in her palm. They walked to the garage in silence. They both walked to the car’s passenger door.
―Am I driving?
He nodded and got in the passenger seat.
―To the library?
He pretended not to hear her.
She shuffled around the car, not wanting to keep him waiting, and launched the driver’s seat forward, clicked her seatbelt in place, put on her glasses, and adjusted the rearview and side mirrors. She started the engine. He reached over and pulled, unlatching the parking brake.
She looked from him to the hand brake. She put her foot on the foot brake and shifted into reverse, backing out in a straight line past the driveway and onto the front lawn. He motioned turning the wheel, but she kept pulling back straight. He extended his hand to the wheel, and she issued the sound of a whine-cum-subdued-guttural-scream.
―Brake, he yelled.
The car stopped.
He shifted to park and pulled the hand brake.
―Maybe, he said, closing his eyes and massaging his brow. ―Let’s avoid this today.
She said nothing. Her heart pounded.
She shifted to drive.
―Stop, he said.
He disengaged the parking brake.
She was slow to turn right out of the driveway, and he held his tongue.
Soon, however, he was saying, ―Center up.
She pulled the wheel to the left before driving into the dented guardrail at the side of the road, crossed the double yellow lines with the driver’s side wheels, then got the car in the middle of the lane and turned right again up a steeper incline than the hill on which they lived.
―Center up, he said.
He considered putting on music, but remembered she didn’t like to be distracted by sounds when she drove. He slid the lid of the thermos, drank, and resealed it. A car crept behind them. He looked in his side mirror. Another car was behind it.
―If you’re not going to go over thirty, he said. ―You have to pull over and let the other cars pass.
She gripped the wheel and put some weight on the accelerator. She noticed a dip on her right and a blind turn around the side of a mountain someone had blown up to install this road, after they’d installed borders, property lines, but before they’d ever considered such an idea as a municipal code. The paved area narrowed, and she tried to center the car, glancing at the rearview mirror. Vehicles loomed in the dust.
―Center up, he said.
She took her foot off the accelerator. If he didn’t do something she was going to drive in a ditch alongside the creek that flowed down the hill into a river, all the way gently sloping to the ocean at the southernmost point of the abutting state.
―Pull over, he said.
They were being tailgated.
―I don’t know where, she appealed.
―There would’ve been a good place.
He pointed as they passed a spare shoulder of ice and caked mud. The car directly behind them veered left and sped past. The other car behind that one must have already turned off somewhere.
In front of the library, instead of crossing illegally over the double yellow lines and parking backwards on the seldom-traveled country road, as he would’ve done, she attempted a K-turn in the intersection.
He resisted reaching over when she failed to turn the steering wheel at the optimal moment, so when she reversed, she did so into the same position from where she’d started. And then proceeded in undertaking the identical endeavor again.
―What are you doing?
―Parking, she said.
When she’d maneuvered the car to a circumspect space, he jumped out before she could show him she’d remembered the parking brake. She felt dizzy with disappointing him, as well as the cloying resentment that he was, walking away from her, resenting her for not driving better when she hadn’t wanted to and he’d refused to make any meaningful effort at instruction.
He disappeared into the library. She imagined him saying something disparaging about her to the librarian, like, you know, women, despite the librarian being a woman, and his scorn for small talk with acquaintances in obligatory situations. She anticipated his fury.
As he exited the library, feeling jauntily pointless and annoyed by her now twenty-minutes-old whine-scream and acknowledging he could’ve been more patient, except for the fact that he’d already taken note of his impatience and felt owed the unreasonable, he knew, expectation that she could read his thoughts and actions, or at least give him the benefit of the doubt, as self-aware, and as flippant, flighty, emotionally-charged, not to be taken seriously, and temporary, he saw her exiting the driver’s side door, anticipating his fury, and get in the passenger seat.
He sat at the wheel, readjusting the mirrors. The engine idled. He seamlessly shifted into drive, performed a U-turn, and coasted down the hill toward the house. He considered putting on music. He felt relieved to be driving, but he also felt hopeless. The day had soured. It hadn’t been ruined, he thought, but it would be, if he wasn’t careful.
She hoped he wouldn’t say anything. In ten minutes, they’d be past the house and on toward town, which was in the opposite direction of the library, and she’d squeeze his hand, and he’d sigh, and she’d tilt her head, raise her eyebrows, and shoot him her eyes. His anger would fizzle. And if his could, hers would too.
They could submit to each other. The strain could reverse. The chance for simple wordless reconciliation lingered.
―I need you to keep a level head, he said.
―I’m not a driving instructor.
He whipped around the blind turn going fifty, then fifty-five miles per hour.
―I’m sorry, she said.
She could tell he wanted to lecture her, but he couldn’t think of what he wanted to communicate.
―If you want me to teach you to drive, you have to be able to take my advice in good faith. You can’t be mad if I try to tell you to turn the wheel.
―You didn’t try to tell me, she said. ―You put your hand on the wheel. I felt scared and confused.
He rolled his eyes and turned to look out the driver’s side window as he drove past the house.
―You need to not be short with me, she said.
―Okay, he said.
―You just went off at me. I want to tell you how I feel.
―If you don’t like the way that I teach, you can find a new driving instructor.
―Okay, she gasped, sulking.
―I don’t want to run errands right now, he said, turning suddenly into a driveway, shifting into reverse, and gunning the engine, the car bucking back up the hill toward the house.
Instead of nosing right in like he had every other time he’d driven home, he navigated beyond the dirt driveway, and backed in with such deft, practiced finesse it could only be interpreted, by him and by her, as a taunt.
She’d started to sweat.
―Why do you feel you can lecture me, but when I criticize the way you act, you punish me?
He killed the engine, strode with swift concentration, unlocked the front door, and slipped into the house.
She sat astonished, overwhelmed, stunned, and mad. She waited in the car, knowing they’d come to an impasse. She waited for the next thing to happen.
Inside, he uncrated the dog. It trotted to the door to find her. He sat on the couch and looked at the folded up crossword. His thermos of coffee was still in the car.
As he made his way through the room of dead space and the kitchen, he passed her storming in from the porch.
As he returned from the vehicle thermos in hand, he passed her tugging along the dog’s harness, and she departed in exasperation.
He stood in the kitchen, watching from the window. The dog and the woman he loved half-jogged past the car, posed at its descending angle facing the street, ready at a moment’s notice for escape, down the driveway.
If they turned to the left, he might have something to worry about. If they turned to the right, which was their normal direction for walking, he’d go read.
She trudged by rote to the right, muttering through gritted teeth words of vitriolic simplicity. Throwaway phrases she didn’t think about as she spoke them or register as they spewed from her quivering lips, following the twists of the road along the riverside.
He puttered to the room with the couch and looked at words on the page. He recognized most of them, but the sentences rolled by without meaning.
He wondered how much their animosity could sustain. Perhaps by the time she came back she’d be contrite and soft. If she was, he could find it in himself to concede. He’d apologize first. They’d salvage the day.
He felt confident, almost calm. He had made the right choice postponing their errands. If he hadn’t, right then they’d be screaming inside tight corners of metal and glass, speeding down the state highway, burning gas, fanning flames of regret.
After a few more minutes, he’d managed to center his attention. He left the present and was transported to literate reverie.
She was rapping her forehead with the the ball of her hand. The muttering had ceased, but her mind kept on racing. He had sabotaged them. Mocked and humiliated her. She hadn’t wanted to drive. She just needed more milk. And he’d forsaken the dog. It needed dog food. He was doing this all just to show her he could.
He had power she lacked. And when he was upset, he couldn’t resist wielding it. He had to put her in her place. Let her know no matter what he was in charge, older, smarter, better with money, more collected, and she was exclusively inferior.
The dog stopped to smell something. She jerked its harness. Feces belched from its anus, which had in her negligence lost control and was clenching, unclenching, the canine’s brown eyes drawn up in a pitiful squint.
She kneeled on the pavement, petting its face.
―I’m so sorry, she cried. ―Oh, Houdini, I love you. I’m so sorry, my puppy. My sweet little guy. I’m so sorry…
It was his fault, she thought. And picked up a half-smoked cigarette butt by the railroad tracks and lit up out of spite.
When she returned to the house, she slammed all the doors in her path, stomping her boots, and sauntering through the room, where his countenance hid behind the buttresses of an open library book, lost in his selfish interior cruelty.
She stomped back and forth, in the kitchen, the dead space, the mudroom, seizing jumbles of laundry from the drier and hauling trails of them across the hardwood floors, past the room with the couch and television and crate, into the room where they slept, and heaved it all on the bed that belonged to their landlord.
She folded towels, sheets, t-shirts, socks, underwear, and everything else. The only thing she could do was reflect on how he’d chosen the room with the couch, among so many others, because that way he’d passive-aggressively kept her from watching television, which was all she could think of to do to calm herself down.
That way, two hours passed.
He finished his chapter and placed the book down. He felt better. He considered suggesting she drive to the general store, closer than the town proper. He’d be patient and penitent and promise to be a better instructor. When she proved to herself she could drive anxiety-free, they’d be buoyed. They’d get groceries and smoke cannabis.
He went over what he wanted to say in his head. He got ready to say, would you like to try driving… Or, can I make up for this morning… Or…
He crept toward the kitchen. He knew when he saw her, the right words would flow. They’d skate off of his tongue candidly.
But laying eyes on her face, vibrating with tautness perched over the kitchen island, her palms flat upon it like she was concentrating hard on not burning down the place, it possessed such indignant disgust, he was stunned and flung far from whatever amends he’d prepared.
He wondered if she were thinking the same thing.
She was thinking, why doesn’t he speak? She could feel the contours corrupting her mixture of rancor, affection, and obstinacy.
He paused. He couldn’t possibly say what he’d planned.
Instead, he said, ―I’ll just go get dog food and milk.
He touched the back of his neck.
―Unless you want to go grocery shopping still.
―I’ve been wanting to go grocery shopping all day.
She stood up and glared.
He looked away.
―Well, you don’t seem to want to go with me.
―I don’t, she said.
―Well, I’ll go get the dog food and milk, then.
He began to move past her and out to the porch. He couldn’t bear to continue this cascading rapport.
―You don’t get to take away my grocery shopping privileges, she said.
His hand rested on the doorknob.
―I don’t want to spend time with you like this.
―I don’t want to spend time with you either.
―I’m going to go, he said.
―No you aren’t.
She stalked off to get changed.
―Do you want me to wait for you, he called after her.
―Can’t you see I’m getting ready?
She charged into the kitchen.
―Can’t I just go alone?
―No, she seethed.
―I don’t want to spend time with you right now.
He dropped the keys on the kitchen island.
―You don’t get to decide how I spend my day.
―Stop yelling at me, she keened.
―I’m not yelling, he monotoned.
―You don’t get to decide.
She began to hyperventilate.
―Actually, I do, he said.
What happened next was unlike anything that had happened before, and he was surprised by the pleasure he detected coursing through his consciousness. Some weeks were so devoid, any aberrance, even terrible, at least proved their lives remained mutable. And she too felt sick delight as she snatched up the keys.
―I’m taking the car.
She grinned through tears.
―No you’re not, he said.
―You’re not going to do that.
She raced through the mudroom and swung open the door with such force its knob bore a hole in the wall. He heard the fracture of plaster, and she yanked it along, slamming behind her.
Through a window, he saw the cat on the lawn. Faint traces of mud, dirty patches of snow, and new grass in places where the sun baked through thin, hazy clouds. He wondered where the dog was.
―Fuck you, she had shouted.
―Fuck you, he returned.
He hung back in the kitchen, watching from the window. She was moving without thinking, impelled by the ridiculousness of her life. She thrust the key in the ignition and engaged the engine.
Exhaust surged from the tailpipe. Her breath billowed and carped. She scowled at the windshield, gripped the wheel. Grains of rubber gave way to her flexed palms. From the driver’s side window she could sense his approach.
But the man she gave everything, every last drop of love, understanding, time, and her precious, scant self, halted off at a distance. He didn’t close in and holler, threaten, admonish, or bang on the glass or the hood. He didn’t stand in her way. He folded his arms. He shook his head back and forth.
―No, he said.
She made a face full of vulnerable loathing.
―You’ve crossed the line. If you take the car, I’m leaving when you bring it back.
Then, knowing he shouldn’t say anything more, aware of their predilection to feed off each other’s vehemence, and take things too far, he added, ―Actually, I’m leaving either way.
She knew she had taken it to an unprecedented place. She felt irredeemable. She’d fucked up. She figured she may as well go through with the rupture to its extremest degree.
But she didn’t. She turned the key to the left, killed the engine.
He threw up his hands, made a face, and she threw hers up too, mimicking his grimacing gesture and smirk. He turned his back and marched inside to the room where they slept.
He looked at nothing. He stood in place. There were windows, lamps, shelves, impossible roots of confoundment.
She appeared in the doorway as a silhouette. He looked away.
―I don’t want to spend time with you, he said.
―Stop trying to control me.
―It’s like you don’t know we moved to the country without you having a car or a driver’s license.
They both seemed bewildered by it.
―Let me just buy the dog food and milk.
―You don’t know what kind.
―Merkel Brand Limited Ingredient Grain-Free.
―It’s not grain-free, she laughed.
―Okay, Limited Ingredient Not Grain-Free.
―I don’t trust you.
―Great, he said. ―I don’t know what to do with that.
She took off her glasses and threw them at him.
―There’s nothing I can do when you’re in the midst of this rage.
―Then leave, she wept.
She hurled open the door from the room where they slept to a little rotting back porch that almost never got direct sunlight, and which they therefore avoided.
―Leave, she snarled. ―Leave me.
―I don’t want to, he said.
―Break up with me, she taunted.
―I can’t believe you would say that. I know you don’t want it. You know I’m committed to you. When I’ve been working for months to…
He almost said get an engagement ring, but he didn’t want to ruin the surprise. Plus he honestly hadn’t given finding a ring that much thought. He certainly hadn’t been working on securing one for any measurable time.
―You act like I would break up with you, but you know I would never. You’re just playing the victim. Just stop.
And in the rising temper and tempo of his attack, he lost vestigial sense of boundaries or tact.
He came up beside her and pitched the door in.
She slapped the wall beside her.
He slapped the wall beside him.
―Is this what you want, his voice rose in frenzy.
―You’re an asshole, she rattled.
―You want me to scream and lose my mind, you’re so fucking ungrateful.
―You really are an asshole.
―Why don’t you throw more shit at me?
―Maybe I will.
―I ask for so little, I cook and clean and be quiet and put up with your miserable depression, lying for days on the couch, scrolling through real estate listings, watching daytime TV, filling out game show audition applications. You think we can buy a house together? You don’t even have credit.
She ran out of the room.
―I’m leaving, he spat.
―No you’re not.
And for a moment, he considered staying and trying.
Staying and trying. That’s all life really was. Staying with someone even when things aren’t fun. Trying with someone. Holding your tongue. Lying, if necessary, when you must.
He heard her moving around. Pushing and bellowing and pounding. He thought of the face she’d made in the kitchen. The one that had caused him to forgo the crucial apology, extend an olive branch, talk things out. He’d still have to do all those things. He’d only prolonged his impatience and irritability. He’d only deferred the exchanges of pity they’d be forced to exchange. He’d delayed their rapprochement and wracked hope and peace from the day.
So he slunk out by way of the rotting back porch, found the keys still in the ignition, turned them to the right, and rolled down the driveway, turning left, and still rolling, waiting for her to appear in the yard, chase the car, up the ante, and treble the score.
Yet she didn’t. And when he realized she was done with him, he realized just how slow he was moving, and stepped on the accelerator.
She peered through the window of their office upstairs. The one with his untouched pottery wheel and bricks of arid clay. Where she’d laid down a tarp, set up two fluorescent lamps she’d found buried in the basement, and planted fifteen trays of seeds, before their landlord had dropped in to inform them they’d have to move out at the end of their one-year lease.
It had been more than a year since the plague had cast down on them, and though they’d been vaccinated for weeks, they still preferred to log in to the Department of Labor mobile app and claim weekly benefits.
They didn’t want to work. They had their reasons. Besides, they’d made more on unemployment than they ever had from full-time wages.
He had a lot of audacity to claim she was lazy. All he’d done since the first snowfall, when they’d gotten word of his friend from college being slain by police for some terroristic conspiracy he never would’ve pulled off, was crossword puzzles and check out library books he had no intention of finishing reading.
He’d submitted a handful of half-baked grad school applications, but he’d been rejected by all but two, and because of his confused pride, he believed anywhere that had accepted him must have something wrong with them to think him worthy of funding, and had declined their offers, and for months they’d doubled down in isolated directionlessness and doubt.
Meanwhile, her seedlings wilted and swelled. He was gone. She’d teach him a lesson, she thought. She’d jump from the rooftop. In a couple of hours, he’d find her mangled and bled out, or brain dead, whatever, too late. Every time he’d look to the dog, he’d remember her, how he had failed, and what might’ve been.
But she couldn’t risk jumping. She’d brushed up on suicide during the collective bargaining sessions to unionize her last workplace, where she’d been let go shortly after their contract was voted in. She knew anything less than ten stories had a fail rate she couldn’t afford to hazard.
Maybe she’d hang herself from the limb of a pine tree. That would make a nice scene for his return. Or maybe she’d overdose on his hidden stash of ketamine. He’d find her foaming and vacant. He’d rue the day he treated her like a kept woman, no, worse, like a child, like some responsibility he hadn’t intended to take on but had accidentally, and humored her by shouldering.
It was just like a man to act like he didn’t object to the life he’d inherited by merging it with someone, anyone else, though especially, she thought, a woman. A wounded, battered, mentally unstable bitch. She could imagine him hissing it through ground teeth in the car he was so careful about when she drove, but which when he was behind the wheel he treated like a curt weapon.
Sometimes, the way he drove, she thought he was trying to kill them both in what could be misinterpreted as an accident. Jerk the wheel and sail into gray air, then the river, rocks, and wet earth.
She could tell he wanted out. But she could beat him to the punch. She wouldn’t give him pleasure of dying without knowing he’d led to hers first.
She riffled through his desk in the office. The neat stacks of papers. The saved bills and notices and receipts. She knew even if she found it, she couldn’t overdose on ketamine. Hadn’t he once told her that’s why he’d quit? You went deeper and deeper without any lapse or reconfiguration of faith.
She was moving away from her death drive into a more familiar state. One of degradation, melancholy, ululation, and waiting.
She went to her own desk, popped the bottle, and swallowed two Klonopins. He’d only mentioned milk and dog food, she thought. Tomorrow they’d have to go out again. They needed toilet paper, hand soap, seed-starting solution, and cannabis.
He drove to the farmer’s co-op with a steadiness that dazed him. He had no desire to floor it, wrench the wheel, or overtake the cars ahead. He wasn’t even listening to music. He was bemoaning them. He probed his soul for equal parts mercy and bitterness.
They’d miscommunicated, he thought. But he couldn’t sense when. He drove along the river, thick with bare, stretching verdure, boughs slung skyward with foolish trust that this world would keep up its end of the deal.
The planet was powerless, he thought. The farmlands were barren. The soil was spent. The earth was a maze of more human compulsions. Evermore it meant nothing to him.
He was glad he had done what he had. He was glad he was gone. Perhaps he would keep driving. Or he could go get all the stuff they were out of, deliver it back to her, to prove just how accountable, reliable, and bound to her as he truly was. Then, when she couldn’t deny that, he’d raise the stakes one more time, and split.
The whole half-hour drive into town was downhill. After he’d cruised out of eyeshot, he’d barely placed pressure upon the gas pedal. He’d passed sickly otters, deserted motels and overgrown campgrounds, rusted trucks without wheels, racist iconography of bygone indigenous peoples, beetle-eaten conifers, and unproductive sugar shacks. The drone of his internal monologue was an incomprehensible whirl of hollow violence.
He pulled into the farmer’s co-op and put on his mask. He bought seed starter, dog food, cat food, and Peanut M&M’s. He felt vapor on his upper lip. The tiny weather patterns and pressures amid the synthetic fibers. He sanitized his hands.
He drove to the cannabis dispensary and waited outside. In town it was warmer than on the hill in the country, but the sun moved behind buildings and clouds.
―What’s going on, he asked the guy who normally checked their IDs and waved them promptly inside.
The guy was wearing a neck gator adorned with a flame motif.
―The medical ID scanner’s broken, he replied. ―Gonna be a hot second.
―I’m kind of in a hurry…
The file behind him swirled and broke, and he was allowed to go through, too shiftless to have applied for a medical license, which, had he put an iota of effort into, would’ve saved them hundreds of dollars in taxes paid on the flower, and suggested so much otherwise.
He was greeted by two more gatekeepers who checked his driver’s license. The last time he’d been at this dispensary, they’d ripped him off. He’d ordered 3D, which boasted a total active cannabinoid percentage of twenty-seven, but when he’d returned home and opened the opaque plastic bag, he’d found an eighth of MTF, registering only nineteen percent, which, at the same price, represented a significant, to be exact, thirty percent, difference with regard to bang for his buck, or so he’d figured, though he didn’t know how to account for that.
They’d probably lied and pocketed the better stuff for themselves. Everyone was pitted against everyone else. He flipped through the menu, studying the available products.
―Can I get an eighth of 3D, he asked.
―We only have quarters, the employee said into an sphinxlike mask.
He ordered a different kind of cannabis called Mother of Grapes and demanded to see the jar before it went in the bag. But the jar went in the bag, and he had to repeat himself and read through a panel of scratched plexiglass.
―Thank you, he managed. ―Last time I ordered 3D and you gave me MTF.
The employee said nothing.
―Can I get a refund?
The employee put the jar in the bag.
―I’m not lying, he said.
And once outside he tore it open and read the label three times in the dim parking lot before he was satisfied it said Mother of Grapes.
―You cool, the guy in the flame gator asked.
―I thought you were in a hurry.
―At the house.
He drove to the food co-op and bought a gallon of milk, a twelve-pack of toilet paper, two bottles of hand soap, a vessel of peanut butter, a packet of bacon, and six grain-free protein bars, still thinking he might go drive up to the northernmost abutting state, turn off his phone, and camp for a few days. It would feel good to be cold and alone in the woods.
He plugged in his phone and played piano music on low volume.
When the Klonopin hit, she stretched out on the couch. The dog emerged from under the bed and crumpled in an adjacent spiral.
She turned on the television and flipped through reruns of Family Feud, The Weakest Link, The Trickster, The Chase, Supermarket Sweep, The Price Is Right, Step Ladder, and The Quest. Washed over by Dateline on GAPE, 30/30, and You’ll Weekly Investigates.
His whole trip lasted two hours, and merely four and a half had elapsed since she’d driven to the library. Still, the day felt so over. She wished the sky would go black and she could sleep until her cells abdicated to a fresh replenishment of body who’d forgotten the urgency, the fight or flight, or any notion of behavioral designs, and would float back to cuddling with, adoring, and depending on him, among a sense of inherent balance, a conscience that lacked spite.
She heard the garage door churn from a cognitive membrane behind the benzodiazepine. She heard the front door creak. The dog trotted to look. He patted its head.
―Hi, Houdini, he said through a mouthful of grain-free protein bar.
He lined the groceries and provisions on the kitchen island. He treaded upstairs to their office and finished chewing, searching the nearest coordinates on freecampsites.net.
After a while, he went downstairs and sat next to the dog on the couch.
First he blamed her. Then he took it back, blamed himself.
When she started to talk, he interrupted.
―Just let me talk, she pled. ―I let you.
After ten or fifteen minutes of silence, he departed, went upstairs to their office, unfolded a cot their landlord had stored in a closet, and tried to sleep.
The sun set.
When he came back down, she was staring at the icon of LG, which stood for Life’s Good, gradually drift from one corner of the television screen to the next, an unsophisticated and mostly unwitnessed result of some forgotten and underpaid graphic design MFA candidate.
―I’m confused, she said.
―It doesn’t feel like we finished talking.
He shook his head.
He went to the kitchen, found the jar of cannabis. He brought it back to the room with the couch and held it cupped in his hands while she spoke.
After many hours, they hugged.
―I don’t know what we could’ve done to avoid this, he said.
―We’ve been miscommunicating.
―I just wanted to avoid another fight.
―The only thing you could’ve done is said I love you at the right moment.
They smoked the cannabis and took more Klonopin. The dog rested its head on his thigh. The cat sidled through, knocking over the pipe with its paw. He closed his eyes.
She looked at her phone. A notification appeared for a new real estate listing nearby. She showed him the screen, and he nodded. She nodded. The dog stood up and turned in tight circles and succumbed to an almost identical coil. It yawned. And he put his hand in its mouth, but it didn’t bite down. The cat watched from a perch no one saw in the corner, and all four of them in the house sighed as one.
THE house hadn’t been their first choice.
When they had concluded they wanted to move away from the city, which represented the epicenter of infection at the height of the plague, the young couple had set their hearts on another, more modest abode. Wedged farther south, the detached rustic structure had been part of a semi-operative farm owned by an ancient, theatrical warlock and his no less sinister consort.
But they’d lost out on it for reasons they couldn’t understand, and wouldn’t have believed if they did. They were lucky, in fact.
The other house on the hill in the country was a quaint colonial cottage. It sat higher along on a taller hill in a more rugged tract of the very same valley. Classically beautiful, painted white with doric columns, it was more space than they needed, but that was better than less. The back yard came affixed with a fence. And just across the front ran a wide, winding river, spotted with rapids and beavers dams, where toothless men in cracked waders, regal ducks, and bears alike fished, parallel an active freight train track.
Their landlord had closed on the place only two months before he’d decided to let it out. He was addicted to pornography, and indebted to a number of online sex workers. He’d come into a fortune and was so taken with its charm he’d bought the house without bothering to find out the county wasn’t wired for high speed internet.
In exchange for the deal on rent, the young couple was responsible for overseeing the man’s pledge to somehow increase the property’s value among the ramshackle, nonviable agricultural steads of the scorched valley town.
The pet projects were oversteps. They included receiving pipes for a new gas line, acting as building code liaisons for an inground swimming pool that wouldn’t be dug until they were gone, or what about when the crew showed up two days before Christmas to install solar panels on the garage?
All winter, through the rime of prior nights’ snow and sleet, masked handymen spaced six feet apart drilled holes in exterior walls, inspected the basement and attic, traded shifts in the port-a-potty perched at the end of the driveway, delivered on a flatbed truck while the couple had been asleep.
And come spring, some new start-up with a government contract had announced plans to bring the domain technologically up-to-date. They figured it would be immediately, predictably delayed, but that hadn’t stopped their landlord from showing up at the doorstep to make known his intentions of moving back in.
The man wore long underwear and oversized, stained Pink Floyd t-shirts both times they’d met him. It was a wonder he’d managed to find more than one too large for his frame.
He offered to knock off a month’s rent for the inconvenience, just as long as they set up the new tractor he’d ordered and tended the lawn that summer leading up to their order to leave.
By the time he apprised them of the state of their rental agreement, they’d lived in the house three times longer than him. They felt some ownership over it, between bouts of disdain.
Because, despite the man’s schemes, the house was far from flawless. At first they’d thought there might be something seriously wrong with it.
For one thing, it seemed reasonable to harbor doubt when anyone abandons a place they’ve just purchased and rents it out at so undervalued a rate. They conjectured as to whether it was haunted or cursed, downright corrupt to its foundation. After eight months, they’d concluded it was simply an antique, which, latent evils aside, posed formidable challenges of its own.
For another, the place was infested. Mice, voles, shrews, and chipmunks never shied from its walls and crawlspaces. And along with small rodents came their parasites, lively vectors of disease increasingly damning in the region, most specifically a scourge of deer ticks.
The young couple had grown used to the full-body inspection and removal of arachnids. Not to mention the dank odors of death and decay, among the hidden, moldering caracasses deposited by the cat every day.
The stairs needed repairing. They creaked and sank. The runner was loose, and both she and he had sustained full-on somersault falls down them.
The first month they’d moved in, she’d nearly broken her neck, and spent two weeks on the couch in convalescence. Similarly, he’d caught his heel on a loose, dirty nail, pushed up by the carpet, which didn’t fit the old steps. Another time he’d slipped and descended one by one, sacrum and spine bouncing, cloaked in contusions.
The back yard found itself in constant conflict with nature. Huge, hollowed-out trees, technically their neighbor’s, gave way and fell on the fence.
And forget about neighborliness. The surrounding residents were ornery as their ages, beset by the depletion of land and fitness, and the encroaching runoff from the nuclear plant farther uphill. Everyone in the town, they’d taken note, walked with a limp.
Wind tore through the valley. It whipped in mercurial, gyrating patterns, tempting infrastructure and scattering debris.
The fireplace had been stoppered. The chimney sealed by some previous owner. The heating oil bills were outrageous.
In the fall leaves clogged air vents. In the winter it was so dry their skin fissured and bled. In the spring all was damp.
And thousands of ladybugs had made municipalities of the window frames, breeding and teeming amid each one facing south, which accordingly corresponded to half of the windows in the house.
Maintaining the house was such work of course they’d stayed unemployed. If a day or two passed in which they failed to pay due domestic attention, the whole thing went to shit.
Homemaking was labor. And though they’d been born in the fallout of the century that had toiled to deny this, they understood how much effort went in to keeping a house. They sensed their landlord was not up to the task.
The man had to slump in a busted porch armchair because the walk from the driveway had put him so out of breath. The young couple couldn’t imagine he’d survive long enough to even see the place flip. In a matter of months, he’d contract Lyme disease. The obese, stale pervert couldn’t possibly contort his body to detect its telltale rash. If not that, he’d tumble downstairs and snap his back. Or otherwise go into cardiac arrest attempting to move a branch.
They begrudged their landlord for the lease. And they begrudged him kicking them out. But they stood by their conclusion to move to the country. They were afraid to admit they could’ve made an error in judgment.
What was more, they hadn’t explored the alternatives. They’d undertaken obligations to each other and their hastily acquired pets. The world was not only uncertain. It was suspect, uninviting, progressively shameless. The dog, at least, liked the place. He was never sure of the cat.
Mostly he stayed in their office, hunched over his puzzles and lagging laptop, trying to ping the one-and-a-half bars of LTE from his phone into a serviceable hotspot.
He could be moved to do chores, but he rarely initiated activity. When she passed her virtual learner’s permit exam, he’d laughed and driven her to the DMV. He’d waited in the car while she had her picture taken. He figured if she wanted something, like to practice driving, go grocery shopping, amass garden supplies, or whatever, she was capable of asking.
Time had altered in exigency, but it kept on passing. She hugged her knees to her chest and smoked cannabis on the couch, watching satellite television. Their landlord hadn’t forced them to foot that bill, so the least she could do was put it to use.
It only picked up fifty channels. Primarily these aired true crime nonsense. And thus she’d become versed in the gamut of theft, arson, kidnapping, sex trafficking, traffic accidents, and accidents in the home, which led to the impulsive interment of crippled children in shallow backyard graves, quarries, creeks, as well as serial killing, temporary-to-permanent psychosis, alien abductions, fugue states, orphan tagging, and possession by every kind of demonic being.
People made money. People became butts of jokes and were decapitated. Bodies were disposed of and uncovered. Prosecutors forced false confessions out of intellectually disabled folx. People lied. People were sorry and lied to and served sentences and families commented on how prisons were justice, and a few even admitted it didn’t feel as good as they’d hoped.
She was learning how easy it was to get caught. Why anyone risked murder, vice, being shipped off to prison or mental hospitals when what they so clearly wanted were uncomplicated ways out of their already bleak lives. She wondered. Why didn’t more people kill themselves?
She submitted game show audition applications. She answered follow-up emails and texts from production coordinators, scrolled her phone for her best extant selfies, reviewed questionnaires.
When the sun set, he joined her, and they watched Jeopardy!, and then he left. What she really wanted was a cigarette.
The young couple had been smokers. But the new president has passed an executive order banning their favorite brand because the holding company had kicked his son off the board of directors due to a conflict of interest.
He had taken it as an opportunity to quit. And though she told him she had too, in solidarity, that cannabis alone was enough to feed her oral fixation, the truth was she still craved them. She took any opportunity to sneak a drag, sinking so low as to smoke the butts forsaken by bikers who, engines raging, opted to litter the riverside.
Sometimes thoughts infringed that they’d made a mistake. Sometimes they thought they were wrong. Still they didn’t admit it. Theirs was an unspoken fate. They tried not to think of what each other might be. Mostly, they tried to think nothing at all.
Unwittingly their begrudging turned on themselves. For having to live. For having to share in the pall.
It was a mystery. Who would take action? What would they do? When would it matter? Why would they want to?
And where did the urgency of these questions derive if it had no effect? How could they manage to stay unconcerned? If it really was life or death, which would they elect?
They inched to the room where they slept. Inhumed themselves in unwieldy blankets. They let the mystery chime like the rusting weathervane in the shape of a turkey atop the house’s rooftop when the wind whistled through it.
THE next day, however, their questions were made immaterial by the sight of an eagle in a tree.
The morning was yellow and pink. Sunny and damp. Sleepy and alert. The air carried an abstract, wavering temperature.
The young couple walked on a path of dead leaves in the woods along the river holding hands. They were puffy and weak from their sustained bickering. Already they couldn’t remember how or why it had happened.
The dog followed off-leash. It loped over moss and lichen-stained stumps. It sniffed ferns, investigated fungi, saplings, cold-weather shrubs. It disappeared into thickets and bounded out yards before them.
They approached a dense accumulation of timber and slick, swarming vines. These bent and opened like an arch, which they ducked and passed under in sight of the riverbank.
There, the crunch of their boots must have disturbed it. She was about to say something innocuous, yet she stopped, sensing an imminent, irreversible shift.
For an instant, all was still. Everything was one patina of endless, flattened perspective.
Then the raptor’s head cocked. Its emblematic white head materialized against brown, gold, and black feathers. Its saber-curved amber beak parted. Its great wingspan spread. And then spread further, casting a shadow overhead.
The bald eagle took from its roost in a bare, gothic tree, branches splintering like letters spelling out an illegible Norwegian black metal band name. The blast of its flapping broke through locomotive. Then its wings broke the air.
Sun reflected a pulse of iridescence just when their eyes met. An instant. He blinked, and the bird of prey surged beyond. With each flutter, it pushed dozens of yards between them.
She was stunned. Every pent-up and lingering thought flung from her grasp. She squeezed his hand.
He was agog. The flying creature swooped. Its talons cut through the water, then rose up into the mountains imitating liberation.
The dog’s face was gray. Its irises and pupils and wet nose the shade of ink. It reminded her of a trypophobia trigger. She kneeled on the soused earth. Mist arising around them. She fumbled for her phone.
That’s when she realized the moment had elapsed. It was too late to record. The magic flickered. It endured in his squint. Tears welled, and the man she loved winced.
He didn’t say I love you, though, at the right moment, or then, when it might have been. She’d never be sure. His hand in hers listless. She unclasped. The blood had drained from his lips.
He licked them.
She kissed him.
―Houdini, he said.
The dog craned its neck, which was part of its chest.
―Did you see that?
FOR a while, everything seemed okay. The days grew longer. The sun shone through the windows at different angles. They went to sleep early and slept in past ten a.m.
They talked about the eagle. He suspected it was an omen, ringing in a new era. The impartiality of its features, though, kept him from waxing too philosophic. He wasn’t sure if this era was one of good feeling or something different.
She said it had impelled her to want to get out more often. She felt close to sublimity. She spoke of the power in its flight. He spoke of its eyes.
Nevertheless, her habits were harder to break than anticipated. She could walk to the river and peer out between freight cars, wait for the swift perk of a white head basked in gold, a ruffle of feathers, the thrash of pinions. In truth, though, her glasses prescription was wrong. Even with them, she’d almost failed the DMV eye exam.
Her habits revolved around getting back to the couch. She might throw a ball for the dog, practice reversing in a straight line down the driveway, hammer sticks in the yard, watch the sun throw its light, staking out a garden plot, but the comfort of one leg sprawled on the coffee table and the other over an armrest of upholstery, the cool drone of trite transgressive reportage, the pharmaceutical jargon of cancer treatments and drug advertisements, the tumbling side effects, and the spark of afternoon cannabis, were more than she could overcome.
He, on the other hand, became restless. He’d bug her to trudge out into the wilderness for hours, get lost petting tree trunk slime, licking grass. And when he could tell she was bored, he’d slink off on his own without mentioning where or when or how long he’d be gone.
In the weeks after the eagle, she noticed his sleep schedule veer. He’d get up around two and do that morning’s crossword, sneak into the dark morning hours, and slide back in bed before dawn.
She thought he thought he had tricked her. But he slept later each day. She brought coffee to his nightstand, and he’d pretend to sip some and yawn, and restore the blankets over his head until late afternoon, whereupon his itchy wanderings resumed.
He wasn’t trying to mislead her. He couldn’t explain. Something had happened with the eagle. Since then, he’d heard thoughts. Not quite voices, but like inspiring perspectives telling him to do anything. Solely soft conversations carried out in his subconscious. When he laid down to rest, their scant volume increased. He thought if he pursued them, they might reveal meanings. But they wafted cajolingly, teased, and brought no relief.
―I got a call back, she said, when he arose late, after three.
He lapped at cold coffee.
Eyes glazed over a window. His heart jumped. The cat was high in a tree. He handed her the mug and bolted out shoeless, in boxers and a t-shirt.
He twitched, calling its name, shooting glances in multiple directions before the blurs could cohere.
There was no cat in the tree. He went inside. It was on the couch, and so was she. The thoughts deliquescing a little. He felt outside of language.
―Did you hear me?
―What, he said.
He couldn’t tell if it was him or one of the thoughts that echoed. He couldn’t be sure how much he’d slept.
―What, he repeated.
―I got a call back.
He tried to parse what it meant.
―A production coordinator from The Quest.
―Which one is that?
―The one where you and four teammates face off against one of the top Step Ladder champions.
―Right, he said.
―They’re going to set up an interview over Zoom this weekend. I’m really excited. Last season one of the teams got to split a jackpot of four hundred thousand.
―Four hundred thousand what?
―Dollars, she laughed. ―We could buy the house from our landlord. Or, like, put a down payment on that eighteen-acre orchard I found.
She held her phone out. A beat happened before he remembered he was supposed to use his finger to scroll through the pictures in front of him.
―I’m sorry, he said. ―I’m a little distracted. I haven’t been sleeping well.
―I’ve noticed… Do you think, like… Is everything okay? Do you want to maybe try one of my pills tonight?
―No thanks. No. Thank you, though. I think I need more exercise. I think I’ll go for a walk.
―Do you want me to come along?
―That’s all right, he said. ―You seem really comfortable. I know I’ve been annoying. I feel like I’d just annoy you running around.
―Have you found anything interesting?
―Something like that…
He wondered if he could tell her about the thoughts. The eagle’s eyes. The guilty greed of solitude. The impenetrable perception of providence. The edging trembling catharsis that hovered on the horizon and refused to drop.
―Is something wrong? You can tell me.
―No, no. It’s just…
Her heart seized.
―I feel like we’ve been miscommunicating, he said.
THE night before her Zoom interview, he slipped out as usual, and didn’t come back to bed.
Nor did he return that morning or afternoon. She bantered haltingly with two people in separate apartments working from home on the opposite coast. She felt confident about the questions they posed, but she craved nicotine. They said they’d call back that evening, or at latest the following morning, if she’d made it through to the next round.
They didn’t call back that night, though, and he didn’t make an appearance. His phone was still charging in the room where they slept.
The car was in the garage. A new coffee mug appeared in the sink, she thought, but then again, he’d been the one responsible for the dishes, when they’d worried more about the house’s upkeep.
Neglect was starting to show. He’d said why put in the effort if they were just going to get kicked out. Perhaps the mug had been there the previous day.
She knew the one that cropped up bobbing in a puddle of burned grounds and soap scum the third morning had not been the night before. It twinkled in slanting sunbeams. The cat jumped out of the basin and hissed.
If he was around, why didn’t he bother to check in?
She couldn’t imagine what was keeping him occupied. They were the only people in walking distance over thirteen and under fifty years old. It wasn’t as though the area offered much in the way of activities. He had two missed calls from the library. And he’d long ago mapped out every path from the forests to town.
She’d watched enough detective specials to feel certain he wasn’t sleeping around. Not that they made love all that much themselves. Few couples did, given the plague. Human consummation was a pattern of departure and rejoinder, less clearly delineated after a year’s worth of shelter in place.
So what drew him away?
She walked to the road with the dog and scoured the shoulder for cigarettes. The cat mewled at their side. They walked home.
On the fourth morning, she awoke to find him crouched by her side, inhaling her hair. He nuzzled her neck with his face and was burnished in a fine layer of filth. She opened her mouth.
―Look, he interrupted.
At first she didn’t know where. Then her eyes fell on her once-naked hand. It was transformed with fresh weight. A simple gold band snuggly fit her finger with a gleaming stone hemmed by four prongs. A diamond, she knew. Still, it took her a second to discern its context.
―What is it?
―Anna, he grinned. ―Will you marry me?
―Yes, she said.
He explained he’d been in the city getting everything prepared. He said he’d been going back and forth to the Diamond District, meeting with a jeweler to get the engagement ring set.
―But how could you ever afford it?
―It’s an old family heirloom. You mean I never mentioned it?
He rolled his eyes up, like he was trying to remember.
―My grandma had a gold necklace with a diamond. She gave it to my mom before she died. My mom gave me the necklace the last time we visited, so I could use the diamond for a ring. I sold the gold from the necklace, bought a band, and my mom’s friend’s son’s wife recommended this guy, who set, cleaned, and polished everything at different little stations in his office. I learned how to test gold for purity. It was like that Adam Sandler movie we hated.
―But Andrew, she said.
―Why didn’t you mention any of this?
―Because, he monotoned.
She stroked his forearm.
―It was a secret?
He drove two hours up through the northernmost abutting state, and they camped in the woods and made ecstatic, unfamiliar love with the dog choking itself outside tied to a post.
―I’m so happy, she said.
―I knew you would be.
―I was worried. I had no idea. God, I’ve been so confused.
―I didn’t get on the show, she admitted.
He didn’t remember. She dropped her head in his lap. He lifted her chin and kissed her eyelids.
―It’s okay, he said.
―I want to do something for us. I mean for you. I want to find us somewhere to live that’s more permanent. I want to get us a house.
―Definitely, he said.
―Don’t be like that.
―Be like what?
―Do you doubt me?
―I know we can’t afford property.
―Just leave it to me. You did this.
―Let me do that.
―We’re partners now.
―We weren’t before?
―Hey, she said. ―I don’t know. Like, the people. The producers, I mean. It was funny. I think you’d do good. They never called me back. But what if you tried?
―I don’t want to?
―Will you try if I do everything else, though? I’ll fill out your application, field any annoying emails. Let me be your agent. You know trivia. You’ve gotten so good at the crossword and playing along to Jeopardy. Better than I am at least. It can’t hurt to try. For four hundred thousand…
―Dollars, he said.
―Will you let me? Can I sign you up for this show?
He held her face in his hands and nodded it along with his until she wrinkled in giggles.
She drove out of the campground, parked at the side of the road, got out of the car, and switched places with him. He readjusted the mirrors. He drove back to the house.
HE didn’t recognize the number calling when his phone started to vibrate.
It was late afternoon, and he didn’t pick up.
He put a pillow over his face.
Thirty seconds later, his phone vibrated again.
A voicemail appeared in his inbox.
Its transcription read, “Hi Andrew this is Storrs I’m calling from _____ ___ Quest um I wanted to talk to you for the ______ and our team is actually working on another trivia type show and I thought you might be a good fit for the show so when you get this message please go ahead and give me a call back my number is ___ ___ ____ again this is _____ because __ is for ___ Quest giving you a call when you get this give me a call back thanks bye…”
He didn’t know what it meant.
Five minutes later, his phone vibrated once more.
The text message was from a different number than the one that had called.
It read, Hey David, this is Stanis a casting producer from The Quest, whenever you’re available give me a call. Thanks so much!
He tried to remember what The Quest was about. He felt scared. Had the eagle betrayed him? Sold his social security number and bank account information to a third party loan consortium? Was he being called upon to do a service for someone? And where the hell was he?
He felt his toes wiggling, but he couldn’t see them. His whole body, in fact, seemed restrained, swaddled in bandages.
His head throbbed. His eyes blurred. He wanted to shriek, but his throat felt dammed up. His mouth filled with sandpaper. He kicked off blankets and sheets.
What was her name, he thought, sweating. Like two overlaid images being dragged slowly apart, he watched reality cleave.
Then, almost as quickly, the images reversed and dissolved into place. He looked at his hands in the room where they slept.
―Anna, he cried out. ―An-na-ah-ah-ah…
The cat sauntered in. Its tail and hips grazing the door frames, walls, and corners. It jumped on the bed. He saw a tick clinging to one of its whiskers and flicked it away.
He shook his head and stood up and put on pants. He was beginning to comprehend the state of affairs.
―Anna, he repeated.
She was probably walking the dog.
They were engaged to be married.
According to his phone, it was the last day to file taxes.
He navigated to his recent calls and thumbed over the number.
His phone said, No Service.
He watched his hand open the door to the little rotting back porch and stood barefoot in the shadows. The cat weaved between his ankles. He bent to pet it. It was gone.
―Hello, the shallow pang of a voice emanated from his bent fingers. ―Hello? Andrew?
He put his phone on speaker.
―Hi, hello, Andrew?
―Yeah, it’s me. Sorry. What’s up?
―This is Storrs, the voice said.
―The producer, he said.
―Maybe one day, the voice laughed. ―Well, technically I’m still an assistant to the casting producer. But its easier in text to just say I’m the producer.
―From The Quest.
―Yes. But also, actually, that’s what we wanted to talk to you about…
―Are you there, the voice asked.
―Yeah, sorry. I was taking a nap.
―This is Andrew, though, right?
―I’m ninety-nine percent sure.
The voice laughed.
―See, this is why I thought you’d be a good fit. I’ve been looking over your application. You seem to have a bubbly personality and unique outlook. Unfortunately, we’ve wrapped on casting the next season of The Quest. But, I was wondering, would you be interested in auditioning for another trivia show? One that hasn’t aired yet. It’s a little different in style and…
―Okay, he interrupted.
―Awesome, the voice said. ―So our working title is The Lying Show. We’re not totally sure if that’s what it’s going to be called, but for all intensive purposes, that’s the most basic concept. Are you with me?
―Basically, the idea is it’s a mixture of trivia and strategy. Trivia is an important element, but more important is convincing the audience and your other competitors that you know the right answer, whether you do or not. So, like, that’s where the lying comes…
―Is this like The Trickster?
―Kind of, but The Trickster’s been canceled. And not everyone had to lie to win. For this new show you do, and if you do with enough confidence, if you trick, I mean, persuade everyone into believing you’re right about the trivia, even when it’s a lie, then you win. Does that make sense?
He watched a wasp wobble into a spiderweb and struggle to escape while the orbweaver appeared from an unseen recess and attempted to incapacitate it. Eventually the web broke, and the wasp absconded. The spider looked winded. It bowed its head and scuttled off in disgrace.
―Sure, he said.
―Amazeballs, the voice chirped in his hand. ―Okay, so do you have a chance now to talk a few minutes?
―I mean, Sure.
―Very cool. Excellent. Okay, so the plan is to ask you some questions, and you just answer like you know them. Whether you know the answer or not, just give me your most confident response, followed by a, like, explanation for why you know that’s the answer. But don’t say you know because, just go right into the explanation. We want this to feel as natural and streamlined as possible. Are you ready?
He sweated. Where was she? Wasn’t it her job to answer these questions for him?
―Do you mind if I go find my agent, he said.
The voice laughed.
―You’re funny. Don’t worry, this will only take a few minutes. Are you ready?
―Okay, the voice said in three syllables. ―First question. Why is the sun green in the morning and white in the afternoon?
―Global warming, he answered without pausing to think.
The other line sounded static with tension.
―And you know that because…
―Oh yeah, he said. ―I know that because…
―Wait, don’t say that, though. Just go straight into the explanation. We want to this to seem as streamlined and natural as possible.
―Hold on, let’s start it over from the top. Do you mind? Okay, first question. Wait, do I have your consent to record you?
―Okay, the voice laughed. ―First question. Why is the sun green in the morning and white in the afternoon?
―Global warming, he said. ―I know that be… Oops. I’m sorry.
―It’s okay, just keep going.
―The sun is green in the morning and white in the afternoon because of global warming. There was an article in the Beantown Herald that was my favorite when I was growing up. It was all about the different colors of the sun. With the ongoing rollout of global climate change the sun will actually keep changing colors season by season, much in the way we understand fashion week. For the past few decades it’s been green in the morning and white in the afternoon, but what a lot of people don’t know is that’s it’s also been tie-dye in the middle of the night, if you see it from Alaska or Finland in the summer, due to the effect of the corona borealis. They say the next colors are going to be orange, green, and red, for when Italy and Ireland share hosting duties of the World Cup.
―Great, the voice laughed. ―And was that a lie, or did you really know that?
―It was a lie, he said.
―Incredible. You’re a natural. You had me convinced. The correct answer is the sun is green in the morning because it’s reflecting off the grass, and it’s white in the afternoon to support the troops. But like I said, it’s all about the confidence and persuasion of your lying technique. I believed you!
―Sweet, he said.
―Okay, second question. You ready?
―Which Netflix show is the most popular?
―Enron Wars, he almost yelled.
―Hold on, hold on. This one’s multiple choice. Just wait until I say go. I’m going to run back the tape. One more second. Okay. Are you ready?
―Which Netflix show is most popular? Is it A. Go-Kart Drag Queens? B. Supply Jobs Anonymous? Or C. Garfield Is Sick?
―Are you there?
―I thought you were going to say go.
―Oh yeah. Go!
―Enron Wars. And I know that because…
―Let me stop you right there, the voice said.
―I’m sorry. I know I fucked up. I shouldn’t have said I know that because…
―I love your energy. I just need for the multiple choice questions for you to answer with one of the multiple choices.
―But isn’t Enron Wars the most popular?
―I can see why you’d think that, but it’s not one of the requisite answers. If you’ll just let me run the tape back one more time… All right. Second question. Which Netflix show is most popular? Is it A. Go-Kart Drag Queens? B. Supply Jobs Anonymous? Or C. Garfield Is Sick? Go.
―Garfield Is Sick, he said. ―I’m a huge fan of the trending cycle. If you go on there after five o’clock, it has the latest reports. For a while Enron Wars was pretty hot, but lately it’s all about Garf.
―Oh my god, yes! That was excellent…
The voice did a Mr. Burns impersonation.
―Excellent, he mimicked.
―Wow, the voice laughed. ―Yas. You’re a king. And was that a lie, or did you really know it?
―I really knew.
―Perfect, the voice drew the word out. ―Okay, just a few more Q’s, and I’ll get out of your hair.
―Take your time. This is fun.
―It is! Right? Aw, it’s nice to talk to someone. Okay, question three. On your mark?
―The Jakarta Method is…
The other line droned.
―Washington’s anticommunist crusade and mass murder program. My fiancée is a huge Vince Bevins fan. We’ve read all his books. American-backed Indonesian forces were so successful in culling communism that the word Jakarta was later used to refer to the genocidal aspects of similar, later plans implemented by other authoritarian capitalist regimes with the assistance of the United States.
―You are a superstar. Wait, did you say fan?
―I meant enemy. My fiancée is a huge enemy of Bevins’s. That’s why I know so much about him.
―And did you know it for real, or was that yet another example of your epic fib abilities?
―I don’t know, he said. ―What do you think?
―Are you lying to me, Andrew?
The voice went into hysterics.
―We’ve got a keeper, it said.
SHE left him drooling and incoherent. Twisted in sheets. The dog yawned. It snorted. It crawled under blankets and licked his sweat-dampened crotch.
―Blogspot, he mumbled. ―I know that because…
―Come on, Houdini, she whispered.
The dog hopped off the bed and did yoga poses.
She opened the door. It trotted off the little rotting back porch and reclined against a tree. It could hear the cat bawling faintly inside. It became eager for something. It lost the thread. Then remembered. It wanted food and started walking through its own stream before it had finished urinating.
She opened a different door, and it sprinted inside to the room with the couch through the dead space to the kitchen, where the cat was performing figure eights between her legs.
―Shh, she said. ―Stop.
She tossed the cat by its neck it into the mudroom with a shallow tin of paté. She scooped a handful of kibble for the dog, who was pawing her lap, opening its mouth, not to bark, but emitting a sound like a chortle, and she patted its head, dropped the pellets in a bowl at their feet, and laughed.
She turned on the radio.
―The real question, the radio said. ―Is whether they should even be allowed to assemble if they’re just going to use it as an excuse to protest…
She turned it off.
She filled the tea kettle and leaned over the island on her elbows and her palms over her eyes until the water had boiled. She steeped two bags of Earl Grey and climbed the stairs to their office, turned on the fluorescents, and surveyed her seedlings.
About half the seeds she’d sown had germinated. At first they’d climbed toward the cool glow of the lamps. Lately, however, they’d mostly seemed to stagnate. She couldn’t tell if she was giving them too much or not enough of whatever. She tipped a capful of organic fertilizer sourced from plankton in a watering can.
Rivulets wriggled in the trays. Stems buckled under the flow. Speckles of insects scurried under the potting soil. Liquid pooled in the folds of the tarp. She sank to her knees and curled her toes.
She sniffed, trying to unearth a scent of progress. She’d planted fennel, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, parsley, chives, dill, watercress, celery, three varieties of basil, and cannabis.
They all smelled the same. Stale air. Sprouts of dull, pale green, starting to yellow in places, thin as strings, shriveling, sagging, probably ultimately untenable.
She examined calendars she’d pinned to the wall. He’d promised to help her dig the plot she had staked, but the stakes had blown off. And in the ensuing weeks there’d been multiple hard frosts, a few flurries. One day was eighty degrees, and two days later the house on the hill in the country was coated in icy slush.
She took a photo of her hand holding a withered dill filament and texted her former boss, who’d been fired at the same time as her after they’d unionized their workplace, which had been a museum, since converted to a private blue chip gallery in response to the plague. Her former boss was related to someone who might work on a farm.
What am I doing wrong, she texted.
Oh my GOD, her former boss replied an hour or so later. WHAT is that on your finger????!!!!
She was lying supine on the couch with her mug of tea scrolling through real estate listings with the television volume turned low on an episode of 30/30 about a man whose primary goal had been to get so good at taking hostages that no one noticed them missing, holding her phone to the window when it periodically lost LTE.
She looked at the ring. Light reflected from so many directions. She hadn’t managed to count the fractal, cascading faces of the stone. A rainbow swarmed over the diamond. A glare of sun caught her eye. It left a purple stain on her visual field.
She took off her glasses. She itched her nose and replied, Lol, yeah. It’s crazy. Andrew proposed. I don’t know what to say
Followed by, I mean of course I said yes
Her former boss’s text message was adorned with a deluge of digital confetti and balloons.
When’s the big day?
Idk. We have to find a new place to live first. And so much other shit. My plants are struggling. My driver’s license. Speaking of, I was actually about to go practice now. I’ll ttyl!
Love you, her former boss texted back.
The cat’s head appeared between the coffee table and couch cushion. She smelled its bellicose breath.
―No tea for you.
She snatched her mug and dumped it in the sink. She skipped upstairs. The plants looked asleep. The cat pawed at one.
―Hey, she scolded.
She nudged it out with her foot tapping its butt until they were met on the landing outside the office by the dog, who jumped on the cat, who sprinted to the front door, clawing while she secured the dog’s harness, grabbed the keys, and they all piled out to the garage.
―Go away, cat, she said.
She nudged its butt again, and it ran into the woods. For an instant she could see its tail twitching at the edge of the brush. Then it was gone. She opened the garage door.
She’d never taken the car out alone. Now that they were getting married, she felt more entitled and relaxed than the day she’d threatened to steal it. What’s his would be hers. She’d forgive his increasingly peculiar tendencies, she thought, if he could forgive her this too.
Plus, it’s not like he’d ever find out. Not the way they’d been carrying on. Like ships in the night, her father would’ve said. To put it in his words, they’d been miscommunicating.
She opened the back driver’s side door.
―Get in, Houdini.
The dog balked. They’d never been in the car just the two of them. It mooned up at her. She lifted its haunches, impelling a squat.
It jumped in. And she sat at the wheel, adjusting the mirrors and seat. She put the key in the ignition. She turned it too hard to the right. A grinding sound emanated. Her hand shook. She released pressure, and the engine caught.
The car idled. Smoked surged from the tailpipe. She centered her boot on the brake. She jostled the handbrake until it unstuck and the indicator on the dash dimmed. She shifted into reverse, and gently, gently eased her foot up. She turned and looked over her shoulder, one hand on the twelve o’clock of the steering wheel, the other cupping the back of the passenger seat, like he’d shown her. The dog’s tongue hung out panting. The car rolled back even and straight.
When she’d got it out of the garage, she rotated the wheel, hand over hand, until the car’s nose faced the street. She shifted into drive and accelerated. The vehicle bucked, and she took her foot off. She let it glide to the end of the driveway. She turned her left blinker on, craned her neck to the right, to the left, and was about to pull out when a pickup truck careened from the right and screeched into the wrong side of the street, cutting the car off, and blocking her in the driveway.
She slammed the brakes. She heard the dog’s claws scramble over upholstery.
―What the fuck, she screamed.
The truck towered above them. Its cab three feet off the ground. Its windows were open, and a tobacco-stained-toothed old man in battered army fatigues was leaning out, beckoning.
He said something.
She rolled the driver’s side window down.
―You live here, asked the man.
―Yeah, she said.
―You bought it from Toby?
That wasn’t the name of their landlord.
―Oh. No. We’re renting. Our landlord bought it last year. I’m not sure who the previous owner was.
―I know Toby, the man said.
―Where is he?
―Um, she paused. ―I don’t know. Like I said, we’re just renting from the guy who bought it.
―Lived here long?
―Almost nine months.
―You won’t be much more.
―What makes you say that?
―This house has some history, the man mused. ―No one stays on.
―Our landlord is kicking us out at the end of the summer.
―How much’d you buy ’er for?
―No, no. We’re just renting.
―Why isn’t the owner live here?
―I honestly don’t know, she said. ―I think because there’s no internet.
―Don’t you want internet?
―Where’re you from?
―The city, she said.
―City’s got internet.
―It sure does.
―You ain’t miss it?
―I never had internet, the man coughed.
―Wow, she said. ―I envy you.
―I can’t miss it because I never know what it did.
She couldn’t tell if the old man was messing with her or being earnest. He coughed. She wondered if he had cigarettes.
―Can’t miss what you never had, the man said.
―Where will you go when you leave?
―I’m not sure. We’ll have to find somewhere. Do you know of anyone renting or selling or…
―I’ll keep an eye out.
―I appreciate that, she said. ―What’s your name?
―You can call me The Sack, but I can’t tell you what it means.
―It’s an old army nickname. I was in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia. People say I should write a book.
―Maybe you should.
The Sack squinted.
―It sure is some house.
―Lotta space for one person. You had better be careful.
―Oh, well, there’s actually my boyf… I mean fiancé. He lives here too.
―Where’s he at?
―He’s not feeling well.
―Dang girl. Your man caught the ’vid?
―No, no, nothing like that. He’s just feeling under the weather today. He’s sleeping in.
The dog clambered over the center console and stood on her lap. It put its head out the window.
―And who’s this, The Sack asked.
―This is Houdini.
The Sack had his hand halfway out of the truck’s window, but recoiled upon hearing the name.
―You’re not lying now?
―Why would I?
―I just get a little shaky around magic.
The dog opened its triangular mouth like a smile. The Sack laughed. After a beat, so did she.
―Well, you take care now, he said. ―And give my best to Toby…
The Sack peeled off in the same direction from which he’d come. She didn’t have time to reply, or ask about cigarettes. She stared at the windshield. She waved.
The interaction left her giddy. She felt independent and drove down the hill, cruising through bends without braking or jerking the wheel. She thought she heard him calling her name.
The dog lay down in the back with its head on its paws. Where the road widened, she switched on the blinker and pulled over and performed two flawless K-turns. She’d almost made it to the parking area alongside the river at the intersection with their street and the state highway when she realized she’d forgotten her glasses at the house.
Suddenly, the scene blurred. Her temples pounded with blood. Her throat closed, and she tried to ease on the brakes, but accidentally hit the accelerator, and speeded through a stop sign and into the intersection with the state highway, just in front of an oncoming school bus.
It laid down its horn.
She began to hyperventilate.
She wanted to close her eyes and cry, but she couldn’t see which side of the road she was on. And just as she was about to pass the parking area, an eagle swooped overhead, narrowly avoiding colliding with the grill of the car.
She wrenched the wheel. The dog yelped. It tumbled into a footwell, and she barely managed to bring off the turn.
She felt the car tilt, the tires screech and lose traction, and a moment later, all was still.
Her boot flattened to the brake. The car stopped at a wild, sideways angle, dust wafting around it in the parking area, unscathed. She smelled the aroma of exhaust and burned rubber. The dog let out a yawn.
Minutes elapsed. She didn’t move. She didn’t shift into park. She kept her foot on the brake. She looked over her shoulder. The dog seemed all right. It put its paws on the center console and panted.
―Oh my god, she said, automatically and under her breath.
A few minutes later, she’d collected herself enough as she was going to be able to that day. Gradually she lifted her boot. She straightened the steering wheel and navigated the vehicle through a wide, careful U-turn.
She idled at the parking area’s exit. She spotted a crumpled pack of cigarettes on a sewer grate and pulled the parking brake, got out and jogged to the gutter, but the pack was empty.
Back in the driver’s seat, she stretched her gaze to the left, to the right, to the left again. She prepared for the turn. And if not for the half-decomposed tree that bowed into her lane, she would’ve made it out safely.
As things were, she clipped its limb on the side of the car’s undercarriage. The check engine light flickered twice, then illumined, and remained on for the duration of her excursion.
ALL the week following she bided her time. Nervous and waiting, anticipating the admonishing accusations he’d make about the state of the car.
But he never said anything. He may not have even seen. He slept until sunset, swallowed fistfuls of grain-free granola, and went walking through tall grass, reeds, trees, dead leaves, new ones, and dew, often not returning to exchange places with her in bed before dawn.
―Gotta get in my steps if I wanna make it in Hollywood, he said unprompted.
Then fell into deep, benumbed, perilous reverie.
He awoke to the vibration of his phone.
An unknown number had texted, Hi Andrew! My name is Jennica and I am on the casting team over at TvTron- we had your information from the Quest and I know one of my coworkers reached out to talk about a new game show we’re doing with Netflix. Next step in the casting process is for you to answer some on-line trivia question. I just sent a link to the email we have on file for you. Whenever you have a chance today or tomorrow, please fill it out and we will be in touch with next steps!
He thumbed his email app. The one LTE bar keeled away. No Service appeared in its place, and he groaned, throwing off sticky sheets. He crawled to the door and onto the little rotting back porch.
The bar reappeared. His email refreshed. Before the plague, he’d kept it organized, each message paired with its strict fitting category, folder, and label. No promotion went unsubscribed. No spam unreported, no correspondence unreplied to, no directive unread, no update ignored.
The number next to his inbox confused him.
The subject line at the top of the screen read, TvTron Studios Lying Game Show Test
He opened it.
Great speaking with you and looking forward to moving you to the next step in the casting process
You can take the 15 question multiple-choice test we spoke about here, and you can access the exam with: Username: andrewkingliar Password: PWqQgqWKM6lXo81hn-E8___rZ8lioR5K7hYnG68JK
Important: You will need to complete this test prior to your skype interview.
If you have any questions contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The word here was a hyperlink. He clicked it.
A new browser page opened.
TvTron Studios Lying Show - Time limit per question: 9 seconds, it read.
And below that simple white with black text.
Oh hi there! You’re about to take our 15 question multiple-choice test. When you click the “START TEST” button the test will begin. You will have 9 seconds to click the answer you think is correct for each question. Once you click your answer, the test will automatically move on to the next question. If you fail to select your answer in 9 seconds, it will automatically move on to the next question. GOOD LUCK!
The START TEST button loomed in the corner, but when he thumbed over it, it wouldn’t highlight, open a new page, or digitally depress. He rapidly and repeatedly tapped the screen.
He dropped his phone on the porch, peered into afternoon light. The cat hunched at the foot of a gutter. It had learned that inevitably a chipmunk would issue. It was a matter of time.
He look at his phone. A slew of new windows cropped up and spilled out, each leading to the page, which asked, How many girlfriends did Christopher Columbus kill?, and expired before he had time to react, into further plummeting questions, which only half-loaded before each nine seconds ran out.
He tried to determine if he felt annoyed, angry, or something else.
He closed the browser, and replied to the unknown number’s text, hi jennica i tried to take the test this morning but the site was finnicky and lag caused me to click answers i didn’t intend to click. i don’t believe the results accurately represent my trivia knowledge or even the answers i wanted to choose. in any case that’s that i hope you’re well lmk if you need anything else from my end
Five minutes later, his phone vibrated again.
Hi Andrew! No worries at all- thanks so much for doing that. Can you go ahead and fill out this questionairre?
A link below led to a form page. He scrolled through. There were twenty questions, each connected with an empty response box and more open-ended and associative than the last.
He hovered over the first: TELL US BRIEFLY ABOUT YOUR HOME LIFE, MARRIED, SINGLE, ROOMMATES, KIDS?
―Anna, he called.
He waited. He felt responsible. He needed the money, but he couldn’t remember for what. She wanted to buy property, but that didn’t seem right. What had the thoughts been trying to tell him? What had the eagle said?
But she wasn’t the one who could answer these questions. Every day since they’d move to the house on the hill in the country, she’d known him less. This was something he needed to do on his own.
Where was he from? What places had he gone to? What were people’s misconceptions of him? What was the zaniest thing he’d ever assumed?
DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONALITY. wasn’t a question. Still, he answered with self-effacement and unflappable wit of which he hoped the eagle would approve.
What was the most unique thing about him that no one would be able to tell by looking at him? How would he describe his ability to lie? How good was he at it? How did he learn to lie so well? How did he put lying to use in every day life, work, home, and school? What persona would he create for the show, or would he elect to be himself?
He didn’t know, so he lied. He typed whatever came to mind.
How could he tell if someone else was lying? What would his strategy for the game be? How would he win? Did he think he’d be able to get by on trivia knowledge alone and not depend on deception? Is lying a kind of intelligence? What made him think he had the right to mislead others in exchange for profit? And what were the stakes of being on this show? What would the money mean?
After an hour, he’d reached the bottom of the form page.
The second to last question was a prompt.
TELL US AN OUTRAGEOUS TRUE STORY OR LIE THAT HAPPENED TO YOU. PLEASE BE SPECIFIC, AT LEAST 4 OR 5 LINES. THIS NEEDS TO BE A BIG TALE TRUE OR FALSE IT MUST SHOCKING BUT PLAUSIBLE.
He typed without thinking.
My fiancée and I live on a winding road near a large, flowing river. One rainy night, a man knocked on our door and said he’d run his car out of gas and his phone was dead and he needed to borrow a phone to get a ride home. He was soaked head to toe, but otherwise looked okay. We were nervous, but we felt we had a civic responsibility to help him. Anna put on some tea, and I sat with him on the little rotting back porch while he ordered an Uber. That’s when I noticed the man had hooks instead of fingers. He didn’t have a hook for a hand. Only the top third of his fingers had been severed, with little metal attachments stemming from his knuckles like fishing lures. The man asked if he could smoke a cigarette on the front porch while we waited for the car, and I watched him elegantly extract one and light up with his hooks. We chatted a bit, I don’t remember about what, and then the conversation fizzled, and I kind of zoned out until the Uber arrived. But when it did, the man was nowhere in sight, which was odd, because our house is rigged with motion-activated lights, and if he’d slipped away, they would’ve gone off, and I wouldn’t’ve been able not to notice. He’d Venmoed me for the ride, since I’d ordered it on my phone, and the money was there in my account, but I had to send the Uber driver away, totally nonplussed. It was unnerving. And in the morning, I asked Anna if she thought it had happened. We really weren’t sure. But when I went out on the porch, I found the man’s cigarette butt still stamped out in an old flower pot.
The final question was, THINK ABOUT THE STORY YOU JUST TOLD US. HOW WOULD TELLING THIS STORY HELP YOU WIN? WHAT DO YOU WANT VIEWERS TO THINK OF YOU?
I don’t know, he typed. I don’t know if the story I told is a truth or a lie. I just know it’s authentic.
At the bottom of the page was a button, which read, SUBMIT.
When he pressed it, the form disappeared.
He crawled back to the room where they slept.
SHE watched a You’ll Weekly Investigates special. A person wearing all black, leather gloves, aviator sunglasses, and a mask interviewed one of Jim Jones’s adopted sons, who said the cult leader had been misunderstood, because he was actually secretly Francisco Franco’s long lost nephew, who’d discovered oil offshore Guyana and established Jonestown as a distraction campaign in an attempt to broker a trade deal with Spain in exchange for scrubbing his uncle’s reputation from history.
―It’s a shame, the interviewer said.
The dog lapped at the skin between its anus and where its testicles had once surfaced.
―Next week, the television said. ―On The Trickster’s triumphant return, there’s no knowing who’ll pay the prank piper’s electric bill…
She shot up.
―Oh my god, she yelled. ―Andrew! Andrew, did you hear that? New episode of The Trickster next week!
He was lying on the other end of the couch, staring vacantly through the crossword puzzle in his lap, trying to tap into the instructions hidden in his own thoughts, which seemed connected to the arrangement of boxes on the page.
―Flargh, he said.
He cleared his throat and focused.
―I thought The Trickster was canceled, he managed.
―I think they just reduced the cash prizes to airline mile vouchers. They kept flashing the Unity Flight dolphin logo in the corner of the screen.
―Cool, he said.
His phone vibrated, and he lunged. It read, Zoar Town Library, and he turned it upside down on a cushion and let its dampened buzz drone until the call stopped.
―Who was that?
―They’re still bothering me about a bunch of stuff I checked out that day you drove up and I haven’t looked at yet.
―I’m really sorry we still haven’t watched A Final Woman.
―It’s okay, he said.
―Do you want to return stuff? I could drive. I’ve been wanting to get more practice.
He could feel his face scowl, and pulled it back to a glare. He pulled it back further so that he looked sullen, glum, hangdog. Finally he settled on a dejected-looking neutral smile, lips taut and teeth bared.
―The check engine light’s on.
―I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.
―Eh, he brushed her off. ―It happens.
―It’ll turn off when it’s ready.
―We should get groceries soon… Right?
―Right, he said.
―I’m glad you’ve been making more of an effort to stay awake during the day.
The cat jumped up on the couch, and his head filled with thoughts. It leaned over his shoulder. Its muscles tremored and pulsed.
She moved her tea and milk mug to a shelf out of reach. He completed the crossword, filling in only across answers one by one without pausing. The cat lurked away.
―Twenty-eight years after his supposed death by suicide, the television remarked. ―He’d hit the charts again, with the number five single “We Fly High.”
An hour later, the young couple was still on the couch.
He hadn’t moved. She’d scrolled through fifty new real estate listings. The dog sat by the door to the back yard, breathing condensation prints on the glass in the shape of its nose.
―Should we take Houdini for a walk, she asked..
He didn’t have an opinion. He hadn’t heard from the eagle in a week. Maybe they would see it on a walk. Maybe not.
She was already at the door, lacing her boots. One of his thoughts told him the volume of the Great Sphinx of Giza in cubic meters.
―Thanks, he whispered. ―I’ll try to remember.
You already do, the thought assured.
―What, she called from the front porch.
The afternoon was green and opaque. They walked along the riverside, and it started to rain. Mist vaporized off the mountains surrounding them on all sides. Longingly she regarded nubs of discarded cigarettes.
A Jeep with its doors off pulled up beside them. A person with hair to his or her or their waist slumped over the wheel.
―Hi, she said.
―Are you the new owners of the house over there, the person croaked.
―Unfortunately we’re just renting it, she replied.
He stiffened, and studied the driver. The person didn’t seem capable of sitting upright. He or she or they gave the impression of slight back and forth rocking, nodding out in an opioid haze.
―No, she said. ―From this other guy. I think Toby might’ve sold it to him. We never got the whole story.
―Where’s Toby now, the person interrogated.
―I really don’t know, she said.
He put his hands in his pockets and looked away.
―I used to live in that house, the person cawed.
―Really, she asked. ―Are you sure?
―The white one on the hill with doric columns. Yeah I’m sure. I used to work for Toby, you know.
―What did you do?
―This and that, the person hacked.
―And where do you live these days?
―Here and there. Now and then.
She forced a polite laugh.
He looked at his phone.
The dog turned in a circle, wrapped the orange rope harness around her legs.
―We love it here, she nodded. ―We want to buy a house in the area. Our cash situation isn’t totally settled, but I’ve been keeping a lookout.
―Why don’t you buy Toby’s, the person rasped.
―I don’t think we can afford it, she said. ―Unless Andrew wins this game show I signed him up for.
She elbowed him.
He ignored her.
―Um, it’s new. About lying or something. Andrew knows more. I think it’s coming out on Netflix?
―You should run for town select board, the person grunted
―I would honestly love to. I used to be pretty politically involved before all this…
She put her hands up, as though a gesture could give their lives context.
The person grinned. His or her or their mouth was gray gums and brown and black stringy phlegm.
―She was on the bargaining committee to unionize her old workplace, he said.
The person cocked back its head and let out an airy report. Like the hiss, but more lighthearted.
―Yeah, she said. ―We were all fired as soon as stuff in the city got bad. And they made it so the union basically doesn’t exist. I’d really love to get more involved in local civic activities, but I’m afraid we don’t know if we’ll even be here past summer. Our landlord’s kicking us out.
―The Sack told me, the person wheezed. ―That’s why I suggested the select board. You get in on their good side and they’ll find you an in.
―Yeah, I mean. We’re basically looking for anything. Anywhere that would allow us to stay in the region.
―You want me to keep an eye out for you all’s?
―That would be awesome.
―The annual town meeting is on the thirteenth of next month, the person said.
―That’s good to know. Really, thank you. I didn’t catch your name by the way.
―Yeah, she giggled. ―And this is Andrew.
―You can call me…
The person dislocated his or her or their jaw and erupted a low thrum of garbled incoherences.
She waited a beat.
―Gotta jet, the person squealed.
―Be seeing you…
He repeated the low thrum of nonsense and took the harness from her slack grip and tugged the dog away from the Jeep.
―Bye, she said.
The person winked.
THE rain picked up that evening and continued through the next day.
She googled different combinations of their address and the name Toby, but the storm must have been blocking the cell towers, because she couldn’t keep an LTE signal for more than two minutes before the bars disappeared, and she was forced to relent. The search resulted in nothing relevant anyway.
He sat with his feet on the couch and his back on a rug she imagined her father would’ve estimated was worth two hundred dollars, but which was bigger than the rug in the room of dead space.
He was thinking about nothing. His phone vibrated. The text was from yet another number.
Hey Andrew! This is Marlicia, Your questionnairre looks great- we would love to do a one hour Skype interview with you at some point this week- what;’s your schedule for Tuesday like? We will of course set up a call either tonight or tomorrow to tell you more about what these interview will entail
―What day is it, he said.
She wanted to respond, but her phone had died in her hand, and she felt unsure as to whether it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. She wanted a cigarette.
She didn’t say anything.
hey that sounds great, he texted.
Followed by, this tuesday i should be free all day. just give me a call and i’ll make it work. looking forward to it, thanks
―I have an interview with The Lying Show people on Tuesday, he said.
―Wow, that’s great. Have they mentioned anything else about what the show will be like or what they want to talk to you about?
He shook his head.
―I had to fill out this long form, uh… At some point… I can’t remember. I tried to call you, but you weren’t there. Some agent I’ve got…
He paused for comic effect, but she remained silent.
―I had to make up an outrageous…
He did air quotes.
―Story to tell. I told the Legend of Hook Man Finger.
―What is that?
She put her phone on the arm of the couch. Suddenly she felt a chill.
―Just, like, a guy with hooks instead of fingers knocking on our door late at night, asking us to help him.
―Why would you say that?
―It just came to me, he said.
―I don’t like that at all. It reminds me of The Unabridged Directory of Murder on the Great Lakes.
―They’re all like that.
―What do you mean? Who’s Hook Man Finger?
―Just a guy. Jesus, forget it. I was trying to be funny. Also hey, where’s your ring? Why aren’t you wearing it?
She looked at her hand.
―I don’t know. It’s been loose on my finger lately. Maybe the gold stretched?
―It’s eighteen karat gold.
―What, eighteen karats don’t stretch?
―I don’t know, he said. ―I don’t know anything about gold.
Instantly his thoughts were filled with gold facts. Gold-based artifacts first appeared in Egyptian civilization at the end of the fifth millennium BCE. Gold is used in some aircraft cockpit windows for de-icing glass by passing electricity through it. Gold has an atomic number of seventy-nine, which means it is has seventy-nine protons found in the nucleus of every one of its atoms.
They sat in silence, listening to the rain until the room went dark.
His phone vibrated.
He didn’t recognize the number calling.
She looked at him, and he shrugged, and power-walked through the room of dead space up the stairs to their office.
―Hello, he said.
He put the phone on speaker.
―Andrew, a voice echoed.
―Yeah, it’s me.
The voice laughed.
―Still got that sense of humor.
―This is Rocky?
The voice sounded unsure.
―I’m with TvTron Clambake Studios?
―Great, he said.
―We’re really excited to set up your Skype interview. I just wanted to go over a few things beforehand…
The voice paused, and from the other line came the sound of papers shuffling and smothered voices in the background.
―Sorry, the voice said. ―You probably hear my rabbits. They’re hungry. It’s usually lunch time now.
―I know the deal.
―Well, this won’t take a bit. I just need to go over some ground rules. You might want to take notes. Are you ready?
―Yeah, he said.
―Okay. Article one. For your Skype interview, we ask that you please wear bright, solid colored clothing. Avoid all red, black, and white, as well as shirts with prominent logos or catchphrases, or stripes. We don’t want this to be too dressy, but still nice. Please make sure your clothing is a different color than your background. Feel free to show your personality when choosing an outfit. And if you can avoid wearing a button down…
―That shouldn’t be a problem.
―A solid t-shirt would be fine, or a sweater, the voice continued. ―Also, be prepared with a backup clothing option in case we don’t like what you’ve chosen. Um, right, also please have your hair styled and be makeup ready. You’re about to be on camera. We’d like you to look like a star.
He didn’t respond.
The voice laughed.
―Okay. Article two. Find a quiet location in your house that is as close to your wireless router as possible and has a blank or close to blank wall that you can stand in front of. This area should not have posters, photos of family, sexual stimulation devices, bric-a-brac, or other distracting items in the background. Lighting needs to be directed towards your face from behind your computer, not above or behind. Avoid having windows behind you and have a spare lamp on standby if needed. And in addition to that lamp, if you could have another lamp or two available in case we need to adjust your lighting…
―I only have one lamp, he said.
―Stop, the voice screamed. ―You’re killing me, Andrew.
―At long last, article three. For the interview, you’ll be standing up the entire time and we need to get a mid-body shot of you from waist to head, showing your arms. Can you talk with your hands?
―I can try.
―Just pretend you’re Italian, the voice said. ―Also please don’t wear headphones. If you need to wear some, wireless is okay, but only if you have no other choice. Like you’re going to be killed if you don’t wear headphones. And please be sure your WiFi connection is strong.
―We actually don’t have WiFi, he replied.
The voice cackled.
―Save the lies for the show! Speaking of, me and all the producers went crazy for your story about the guy and the car crash and the spooky cigarette. Was that really a lie?
―Yeah. There aren’t any motion-activated lights.
―The Legend of Hook Man Finger, he said.
―Yas! Yas, that’s it!
―I didn’t mention a car crash.
―Oh, the voice hesitated. ―Well, do you think you could work one in?
―Sure, he said.
―Great. That’s great, Andrew. Can you prove it to me?
―You mean now?
―That’s right, kiddo. I want to see your chops. Show me those lying skills.
―You want me to off the cuff recite that story and work in, like, a car crash element?
―You don’t seem confused at all. I’m going to time you. Let’s see if you can do it in under a minute. Ready, set…
He recounted the story best he could, replacing the part about running the car out of gas with running the car off the road and into the river.
―Wow, the voice said in a faux-flattering tone. ―Are you a genius? Will you be able to lie it like that again in the Skype interview? Can you pump up the confidence to eleventy-nine to make people believe you?
―Sure, he said.
―My only criticism. It took you a minute twenty-two. I need you to promise to cut it down to under a min. This is TV we’re talking about. Every second matters. No wasted air.
―Okay, he said.
―Can I count on you to practice?
―Get it under a min-min for the Skype interview.
―Okay, he said.
―This is for cash mon-ayy, Mr. Captain Deception. I need you to lie like you’re going to win biggie Ruth Bader dollahz.
―How much is the jackpot?
―We haven’t decided. First we’ve got to make sure you’re the right fit. And one last thing. I know we’re going with the Hook Man story to establish your personality factor. But I need you to also prepare another installment. What’s the most epic thing you’ve ever lied about and gotten away with?
―Are you there, my man? Andy?
―Yeah I’m here.
―Did you catch that?
―What’s the most epic thing you’ve ever lied about and gotten away with?
―Well, I’m not sure I can tell you the most epic ever. That might be giving too much away…
The voice mumbled to someone on the other end of the line.
―Sorry, you know, my rabbits. You’ve got me enticed with this withheld epicness.
―I’m just not sure it would reflect well on me to… To just tell it…
―I know you’ll think of something. Get it down under a minute. You’re our future lying champ. I can feel it in my ligaments.
He watched the cat creep up in the corner of his eyes. It chewed one of her cannabis seedlings’ leaves, then proceeded to vomit.
―Pwomise you’w wie bettew than anyone has evew befow.
―Sure, he said.
THE most epic thing he’d ever lied about was too complicated to recite in fewer than sixty seconds.
And every day it got longer, he thought.
He thought it through other thoughts. The layers expanded. More thoughts emerging and replacing them. His consciousness seemed in thick competition for cognitive domination, to make sense of what was happening to him, and in all other corners of thoughts, which provoked and projected and interrupted one another with new, pertinent, or irrelevant information to add to or replace them, or himself, if he was even the one who was having the thoughts, or perhaps he’d become someone else.
The most epic thing…
It had started with the eagle. That day in the woods. When they’d locked eyes, he had felt their lives shift. His and hers, and the eagle’s, the dog’s, the cat’s. But he couldn’t put straight language to it.
He’d been compelled to know more. He had to track down the bird. Get to the bottom of what knowledge it harbored. He’d stopped being able to sleep, so preoccupied he’d become with this talisman animal. And besides, his thoughts had gotten so loud.
The walking quelled them at first. So he’d walked all night long, and then into the mornings, and in the woods, he had felt he belonged.
The thoughts unspooled. They communed with arcadian air. Particles, minerals, plants, automatons, and everything else he wasn’t able to detect with his senses sighed as one.
He followed the thread of their mysterious rhythms. And yet more than a week passed before he saw the eagle again. In fact, he’d nearly killed it in the process.
He sat at the edge of the railroad tracks staring out on the river, skipping rocks.
The night had expired and the morning was being reformed. He didn’t want to go back to the house on the hill. He decided he wouldn’t until he’d successfully skittered a stone all way across the waterway’s width and into the woods on the bank’s other end.
He dug through the silt, seeking the optimal balance of flatness, circularity, density, weight, and grip.
They must have opened the dams by the nuclear plant because the water moved fast. He needed a rock that could handle such momentum. He tested out larger and heavier variations.
Finally, he heaved one the size of his palm like a frisbee. It caught the rapids at an ideal angle and sailed up. Halfway across the great stream it caromed, and skipped again, spraying prismatic freckles of sediment and foam, and thrust forward about to skim the lip of the opposite streamside when the eagle crossed into its path.
The stone struck its beak, and the great bird went down. Its wings sliced the water. They flailed in the swell. He watched the rapids absorb the stately body of feathers and talons and fling it sidelong between boulders and dips. He watched water split. He watched the bald eagle thrash.
Without thinking, he waded in to his waist, throwing gravity against the current and waves. He slipped and went under. Surfaced gasping and searched with his boots for a foothold, but he was too deep. The raptor glided away. Its beak screeched. Open and gushing. A crest burst at his back, and he breathed in and plunged.
Hands before him, eyes squinting, he could barely discern the outline of plumage and claws. He dove farther, grasping, choking, and swallowing murk. He felt his spine carve against submerged razorlike crags. His digits closed on a slick, pumping rod of tendon and bone. He took a lungful of water. He swooned.
When he woke, he was still holding the eagle’s left leg. It was morning again, two days later, though how could he know? They were several miles downstream. The eagle picked at his hand with its bill.
―Jesus, he said.
―Oh, thank heavens, the eagle squawked, lifting its gaze. ―I was beginning to think I’d have to peck through hard tissue.
He shook his head, burped, and sneezed. A scant stream of muddy liquor flowed nostril-wise.
―Now if you wouldn’t mind…
The eagle gestured its beak.
He let go of its leg.
―Sorry, he stammered. ―I was looking for you.
―Well, the eagle said.
It fanned out its wings, craned its neck, gave a few practice flaps.
―You found me.
It hopped to a felled tree limb and prepared to take flight.
The wind rose.
―Wait, he cried.
The eagle sounded annoyed.
―Aren’t you going to explain? What’s going on?
―Me? I don’t know! I was all set for breakfast, homing in on a trout dumped from the hatchery truck when I got coldcocked. Chipped my beak, can’t you see? Then I came to in your clutches and couldn’t move for a day, while you shuddered and wept through dense, bristling dreams, and I still haven’t had breakfast.
―Didn’t I see you last week?
―You might’ve, the eagle yawned.
―Did you, like… I was very affected. By that experience… Are you going to tell me you weren’t?
―I may have detected something useful in you, the eagle mused. ―I may have marked you, in a manner of speaking, as they say, if they do. I don’t know.
―But I’ve been looking for you.
―So you said.
―I think it’s my fault you ended up almost drowning. I was skipping stones across the river… But I saved you!
―What do you want, a reward?
―I just want to talk.
The eagle checked its wristwatch. At least it was still running, it thought.
―Go ahead, but be snappy. I don’t have all day.
―What’s your name, he asked.
―Toby, the bird answered. ―Now is there anything else, or am I free to leave?
―I’ve been so confused, he said. ―My girlfriend and I moved to the country, but now I don’t know what to do. I used to have a job and friends, an art practice, ideas. These days, it just feels like I’m waiting. Though I don’t know what for. I don’t have any purpose. I don’t feel like I’m living my truth.
―Get used to it, bub. I used to be like you. I had a house on the hill in the valley. White with doric columns and a whole bunch of friends. Life comes at you fast. Then, you know, death. If you’re like me, you come back. It’s not the worst fate. Though I can think of better.
―Ever since I ran into you, my head’s been rattled with thoughts. Information like jabber. I can’t make sense of where it’s coming from.
―Those are the voices of the living and dead. If you make eye contact with a spirit, the channel unhinges. It’s a lot all at once, but you’ll get used to it.
―So you… Did do this?
―Not on purpose. Though our souls aligned, I guess.
―I think I live in the house you used to live in.
―I know you do.
―I can help you, he said.
―No you can’t. Can’t you see, you’re a renter. You’re not even a man. Just a consumer, a tool, a resource suck. You’re disposable. You’re nothing in this world without property of your own.
―But I wanted to see you again, and now I have, I have purpose. I want to repay that.
―What use could you be? You almost killed me again. And now you live in my house. It’s not like you can sign the deed back in my name… Unless…
―I’ll do anything.
―Then wait here. I’ll return in the morning. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll both get what we want.
―What about Anna? She must be worrying.
―Don’t, the bird said. ―I’ve got her covered. Plus I’m in touch with your cat. I’ll give instructions to make sure everything’s gucci for your triumphant return. Now take off your shirt.
He did as the eagle commanded. It packed his back with sacred poultice, sewed the gash with fine reeds, and flew off in the direction of the current away from the house, farther down through the valley.
He rubbed his stitches and watched the sky dampen to dark. His mind cluttered with tender, vague ecstasy.
―Okay, the eagle woke him with a slap of its wing. ―Now get your story straight…
It dropped a diamond ring on a chain at his feet.
―You got this from the Diamond District in Manhattan. You’ve been going back and forth to the city to get this engagement ring set for the past three days. I’ve had that cat deposit a fresh coffee mug in the sink, so your fiancée-to-be thinks you’ve slipped in and out. You’re going to ditch the chain and tell her its an old family heirloom and propose, and she’ll forgive all your neglect, but you need to do something else for her. She didn’t get on the game show she auditioned for. Let her sign you up in her stead. The top jackpot last season was four hundred thousand dollars. If you get on, I’m sure the voices of the living and dead can tell you enough to secure the bag. Which you will then use to buy my house back from your landlord.
―But where will we live?
―Aw, you and your betrothed can stay a while. Until you find your own place. Just as long as you don’t mind my coming and going, having the occasional guest. Then you can consider us even. You know, for almost decapitating my head? I’m not ready for anymore transmutations. Who knows what form I’ll take next.
He held the stone to the light.
―Where did you get this?
―It belonged to a congressional representative’s aide, the eagle said. ―But don’t sweat it, I took care of everything. Now go wake up your woman… And oh yeah, your friend Mark says hey.
He did as he was told. It worked out as the raptor explained. The most epic thing he’d ever lied about and gotten away with. But the eagle had a plan of its own. To tell it would give too much away.
SHE dug the plot of her garden with a hoe and a rake.
It was almost the first day of summer, and it was too late. She left her ring on the windowsill. She buried tendrils of seedlings. Their leaves wan, roots wispy, parched, the tray soil depleted.
Her knees. Her back ached. And she kept finding ticks escalading her forearms, squeezing them off her ankles and from the base of her hairline, armpits, and waist.
Other, all-but-invisible insects squirmed on her skin. She felt quiet burnings of venom. They swarmed the depressions of her moribund plants. Her nasal canal closed in allergic reaction.
She found her ring, pushed it loose and wobbly over her knuckle and took a long, hot, boring shower and lay down on the couch, where he was already lying.
―I’m pooped, she said.
The dog splayed on its back. Its legs curled. Its paws stretched in arcs. She tried to give it a belly rub, but it recoiled at her touch. She tried to hug the soft beast, but it sprung up and pressed its face to the door.
She let it out. It bolted after the cat, which clenched a spasming gopher, almost the size of itself, between bloody fangs.
The cat ran into the house. She tried to shoo it away, but it scratched her, gopher peeping, and wedged behind the couch.
―So disgusting, she screamed.
He looked up, then back at the crossword puzzle he was holding.
―Can’t you do something? Your cat is hoarding dead rodents inside our house!
―You’re overreacting, he said.
―It’s a dead wild animal!
―Animals aren’t the problem.
―What are you talking about? They carry disease.
―Uh, hello? People carry diseases. Better than animals even. Where have you been the past year and a half?
―Andrew, she moaned. ―There’s a gopher being decimated behind the couch right this second.
―Aren’t you worried our landlord will find the mess?
―Well you should be.
―I’ve got a plan, he said.
―You said you were going to help with my garden.
―I’m fucking studying for this goddamn game show you signed me up for.
He gritted his teeth.
―Can’t you see I’m doing this for us?
―I was covered with ticks. Look at this rash!
She pulled up her shorts. He could see the faint white cotton edge of the seam of her panties. One of his thoughts wished he’d feel aroused.
―I don’t see anything.
―I’m going to get Lyme disease!
―I mean, maybe. But that’s not the cat’s fault. It didn’t tell you to go digging around in the grass.
―I’m just saying. There are dangers in the country. I need your help. I can’t do it alone.
―The Lying Show was your idea.
―I don’t know anything about it. I signed you up for The Quest. And I was just trying to have fun. I never meant for you to take it so seriously. I want my boyfriend back.
―Boyfriend? Wow. I thought we were engaged.
―You know what I mean!
―We’re miscommunicating, he said. ―I don’t want to spend time with you right now.
She stared at him.
He looked at his phone, put it on the arm of the couch.
―I think you should go away, he said.
She turned on the television.
―Mouth harps and your children, it said. ―Are you safe?
―Since you usually get to watch whatever you want…
She turned it off.
―I feel like I should get to use the room with the couch to study today.
―Andrew, she said.
He dismissed her with the flutter of a wrist.
She felt in a nightmare. She ran through the dead space, the kitchen, the mudroom, off the front porch, and found a tricked-out all-terrain vehicle idling in the driveway.
The driver appeared no older than a child. He was wearing a mask and a hoodie that said, When guns are outlawed…only outlaws will have guns. He made an acknowledging nod and reversed, backing into the road.
She began to hyperventilate.
The driver waved.
She clutched her throat.
HE collected her empty seed trays in the tarp. He dragged it out of their office, let it crumple downstairs.
He turned his desk ninety degrees, pushed it up to the window, rested his phone on the sill so it would get the best LTE signal, arranged his laptop on a pile of library books, and connected it to the two bars of hotspot his phone pinged.
He downloaded the Skype app, created an account, added email@example.com to his contacts, and waited fifteen minutes until they accepted his request.
His phone vibrated.
Hey Andrew! Just saw you on Skype, thanks for adding our production account! I got a note from the producer I wanted to share with you for today’s interview- he would love for you to talk about how you’re an artist and make up “wild” creations for a living, like being an artist is the ultimate lie and that’s your selling point and why you would be good for the show ✊ ! Does that make sense?
sure, he replied.
Are you ready? Our casting director Winston wants to give you a call. The interview should last about an hour or so.......
sure, he texted.
But the call only lasted ten minutes.
He and the director were immediately at odds. Winston had him retell the Legend of Hook Man Finger three times, then said it was taking too long.
―Don’t you have a change of wardrobe?
―You were supposed to have a few outfits ready.
―What’s wrong with this one?
Winston rolled his eyes.
―It just seems like you’re wearing a t-shirt. Not to mention you’re clearly lying to me. It’s like you don’t even care.
―I was specifically instructed that a t-shirt would be the best option.
―But yours is all… Eh? Are those sweat stains?
―We don’t have air conditioning. I’m upstairs. It’s hot.
―Not quite shabby chic, is it? More like… Slobbery slob…
―Plus your WiFi connection’s too weak. This quality is not going to cut it with the execs.
―We don’t get great signal.
―Listen, he said. ―I’ve been preparing all week. I’ve been practicing trivia and puzzles and rehearsing my story, just like you all said.
―How about let’s try some more questions. Are you ready?
―Okay. Which Netflix show is the most popular? Is it A…
―I don’t know, he shrieked. ―We can’t stream here! And that’s not trivia, it’s sponsored content.
―Actually, since The Lying Show was picked up by Netflix, it’s just run of the mill self-promotion. Totally normal. You’re the freak.
―I don’t need this.
―You’re in denial, Winston guffawed. ―And also, I don’t mean to be rude, but you seemed a lot hotter in the pictures you submitted to The Quest.
―I didn’t submit those, my fiancée did.
―Oh. Oh my. You mean… You’re telling me she’s been privy to our patent-pending enlistment techniques?
―She just filled out and submitted an application on my behalf.
―Then she also signed your social security number and a nondisclosure release. This is serious business. We’re talking about intellectual property.
―What do you want from me? I can tell you the Legend of Hook Man Finger again.
―I’m afraid I’ll need to look into this. You may be disqualified from the casting regime. But with some luck I might be able to get it so you don’t have to sit through a deposition.
―This is ridiculous.
―I’m not the one who broke rules.
―The entire show’s about lying! What did you expect?
The casting director looked sad.
―I’m afraid we overlooked some potential legal entanglements. We’ll get back to you, Andrew. But for now, it’s adieu.
The screen went black.
IT started to rain.
He got in the bed in the room where they slept, but he couldn’t. And the rain didn’t stop.
He’d fucked up. Things had transpired in ways he hadn’t predicted. What would the eagle say? Could they remain partners, friends? Could it manage the snags? Could the scheme still be pulled off?
―What’s wrong, she said, joining him hours later.
Her neck was stiff. Her joints hurt. She’d been in the bath, watching the rash on her bikini line pulse.
He was shivering, twitching, keyed up, and ticked off.
―Nothing, he said.
She got in and pulled the blankets up to her chin. It had been eighty degrees before the rain. By then it was coming down in teaspoon size drops. The temperature hurtled to the forties. The plants in the back yard bent as in worship. The young couple was cold.
―I got in an argument with one of the game show producers. The whole thing’s a scam. A shameless network commercial for itself. As if they don’t have enough money and publicity as it is. Bullshit. It’s a lie. Fucking waste of my time. I don’t know how I let you talk me into it.
They stewed in silence.
A tree fell on the fence.
She slipped her ring off and rested it on the nightstand. She snuggled up and put her arms around him, spooning and sighing. She ran her fingers over the fresh scar on his back.
―What’s what, he said.
―It seems like you got cut.
―You probably scraped me with your diamond. Why don’t you have it on anyhow? Don’t you appreciate me at all?
She closed her eyes and dozed off.
When she awoke, he was up by the door regarding the little rotting back porch. Thunder hummed. Hail showered and pelted the house on the hill in the country. It littered the back yard with glacial pits. The dog seized under the bed. Gales shook window glass in their frames. The cat cowered on the roof. Its claws dug into shingles. Air roared. The storm burned like a raid.
A light tapping emanated from the door to the porch. He unlatched the lock. He put his hand to the knob.
―What are you doing?
―Go back to bed, he said.
―Don’t go out there.
Something knocked at the door.
―Don’t you hear that?
She put her palms over her ears.
―It’s the hail, she yawned. ―It’s a storm.
―Are you kidding?
―Please, she said.
―Someone’s out there, he monotoned. ―Toby needs our help.
She rubbed her eyes. She padded the nightstand for her glasses. The ring fell to the floor.
―What did you say?
He opened the door.
Wind howled in.
It stung her face.
Blindly, she felt for the ring, for her glasses.
He was stepping outside.
―Don’t, she yelled.
―I feel like we have a civic responsibility to help him. I’ll be back in a minute.
―He’s, like, soaked head to toe, but otherwise looks okay.
―I can’t see anything!
―I know you’re nervous, he recited. ―He just needs to borrow my phone to get a ride home. He ran his car out of gas. Just go put on some tea.
―Please, Andrew, she cried. ―You’re scaring me.
―It’s no big deal.
―Yes it is. What’s going on?
―We’re just miscommunicating, he said.
―But why are you lying?
She jumped up and staggered to the door as pulled it behind him. She was blown back by the force.
She dug her hands at the floor. She felt the ring and clung to it. Some semblance of solidity. Some mercy. Anchoring her to the world.
―Andrew, she called.
She opened the door.
All was black, wet, and wild.
The wind bayed.
The torrent poured.
The dog whined from a corner.
She closed the door.
A glint of two yellow lights shone from the window. She waited for the accompanying thunderous crash. Yet they blinked, like eyes. Illumined longer than lightning should. Then went abruptly dark.
It would be fine, she thought. He’d said to put on some tea, she thought. So she would. It was just another thing they were going through. They’d been through worse.
Over the river and through the woods, she thought.
Into the Woods, she thought. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Into the Wild, she thought. Emile Hirsch.
Hirschsprung’s disease involves missing nerve cells in the muscles of part or all of the large intestine.
They were not quite voices. The thoughts descended like the deluge outside. Uncontrollably, flooding her with associative murk.
She couldn’t remember moving from the room where they slept to the kitchen. She couldn’t remember boiling water. Dropping bags in to steep. She squeezed the ring in her hand. And she must’ve zoned out, because soon it was morning.
―Andrew, she said.
The tea stagnated in three cold mugs. She knew he’d come back, though. He always did. The palm of her hand hurt, tensed in a tight fist. Her knuckles ached as she loosened her grip.
She stared at her hand. Something wasn’t right. The ring was misshapen. And missing something. Where the diamond had been, she saw only an arc. It looked stretched out and broken. The band thinner than she recalled. The gold’s luster was gone, along with the stone.
Her glasses were on the kitchen island where she’d reposed through the night. She put them on, but she didn’t understand. And wouldn’t have believed if she did.
She lifted the object and turned it in dim daylight. It left a rounded impression burned into her skin. But it wasn’t her ring.
Instead, she regarded the small, sharpened shape of a hook, like the end of a fishing lure.
ON the first day of summer, she stopped waiting for him to return.
On the second day, she stopped waiting for the hook to turn into a ring.
On the third day, she stopped waiting for her rash to get smaller.
On the fourth day, a package arrived for their landlord. She opened it. It was a badminton set.
On the fifth day, she kicked up all the plants in her garden. She spit on the soil and wept.
On the sixth day, she deleted the real estate app on her phone. She watched a Dateline about a masquerade ball gone awry. She watched the latest episode of The Trickster. He tricked her, and on the seventh day, she felt all right.
Her thoughts scattered. Her joints throbbed. She couldn’t sleep. But another thought thought that none of it mattered.
Material reality was a dream.
His phone vibrated.
Her heart pounded in her mouth. Her hands shook, and she felt a trickle of sweat run down the base of her coccyx and into her intergluteal cleft as she picked up.
―Andrew, she murmured.
The librarian ran off a list of overdue checked-out items.
―I’m sorry, she choked. ―New number. Who dis?
On the eighth day of summer, she went in the garage. She started the car. The check engine light flickered on, and she turned the key to the left.
On the ninth day, the television said, ―How local police saved a child from drowning in a swimming pool. Tonight at eleven.
Uh, she thought, by pulling him out? Is that news?
Well actually, it wasn’t so simple, she thought.
They couldn’t pull him out.
Because he was too slippery.
In fact, they’d had to drain the pool before he succumbed to a watery grave.
They were working against the clock.
It was like that movie Speed.
Except it was a pool instead of a bus.
Good thing those cops were on the beat.
But did you hear how he ended up in the pool in the first place, another thought queried.
The cops were close by because they were killing his parents, the answer thought chimed.
Famous mail agitators.
They even might have deserved it. Had you considered that much?
But the boy, the thought said.
The boy was attempting to flee the scene of a crime.
Then he thought he was flying.
Kids, am I right?
It was that split second nonsense, like, like, like when Wile E. Coyote shuffles his feet over clouds like a treadmill before it becomes clear the ground has given way.
And our boy hit the deck.
Which was water.
No surprise he couldn’t swim, a thought in a newscaster’s voice added.
Damn, she thought. This network isn’t even trying to hide its inherently racist perspective.
I should die.
Maybe I should protest.
Maybe if it weren’t banned.
The resuscitated child was placed in police custody for resisting being a material witness to a federal offense.
He’s currently serving a life sentence on house arrest.
A pity, she thought.
She ate a dead tick.
The cat threw up in the sink.
She put her head in her hands.
On the tenth day, she walked the road along the riverside hunting for cigarette ends.
A pickup truck pulled up beside her. The Sack leaned out the passenger window. Fatigues flapped in the breeze.
―Need a ride, baby?
She laughed. She was relieved. He pushed the door open, and she sidled in next to him. The dog curled in the footwell at her feet.
―Where you been, The Sack asked.
―I haven’t gone anywhere.
―Your garage door’s been shut for weeks. I figured you two had skipped town.
―Andrew’s been out, and I haven’t been sleeping. I think something’s wrong with the car.
―Why don’t you ask Toby to fix it?
―I don’t know him, she said.
―Sure you do.
―No, I don’t.
As quickly as she’d been soothed, she was unsettled once more.
―I don’t know anything about Toby. I don’t know why you all keep asking about him. I’ve never seen him in my life.
―I wouldn’t be so sure.
The Sack smirked.
―Let’s have a look at that car…
He drove them to the house on the hill and idled in the driveway. She opened the garage door. The Sack jacked up the car and pulled a creeper trolley from the bed of his truck, laid supine, and wheeled beneath.
―Did you roll over anything recent like, he called from under the vehicle.
She tried to remember.
Suddenly a thought told her.
―There was this, like, tree branch, she intoned like a question. ―I think I drove over like a tree branch thing a while back?
The Sack wheeled out and stood up, smacking oil and dirt from his hands.
―That would explain it. You’ve got a very, very slow fuel leak. Only way to fix it is to replace the whole system. Which’d cost you around a G.
He shifted his weight to his other leg.
―If you want my opinion, though, it ain’t worth fixing. The rate it’s been going, worst case scenario you’ll lose a half gallon of gas once a month. Nothing much to write home about.
―But gas is flammable, she said. ―Won’t I be in danger?
―Well I’d certainly avoid driving through any fires.
The Sack grinned a tobacco-stained-toothed grin.
―Even then, chance of one of those fuel drips happening the exact moment you’re directly on top an open flame. We’re talking billions to one. You’re more likely to hit a jackpot on The Quest.
―The Quest was canceled.
―That’s what I’m saying.
―I loved that show.
―So did I, The Sack said.
They stood in the sun in the driveway on the hill in the country. The dog rested its chin on the old man’s dusty boots. The Sack patted its head. She wondered if they’d kiss.
The Sack drew a cigarette from a crumpled pack in his pocket. He lit up and French-inhaled. He was elegant, she thought. He wasn’t really that old.
―Do you mind, she stammered, lightheaded, flirtatious, and all out of sorts, like a girl. ―Can I bum one of those?
―Sorry, The Sack said. ―My last one.
He limped into his truck and drove off.
ON the thirteenth of the following month, the rash on her bikini line had spread in every direction. Its diameter was too stretched and unruly to measure. And it cleared in the middle, giving the impression of a bull’s eye.
I need to go to the doctor, she thought.
She limped from the room where she slept through the room with the couch and the television and the room of dead space and the kitchen to the mudroom, where she found the dog’s harness on a peg.
―Houdini, she tried to call from the back of her throat.
She was dehydrated, and the dog didn’t come.
―Houdini, she tried to say louder.
The cat emerged from under a moldering laundry pile on the floor. It stared at her weary-eyed.
―Fancy a cup of tea, it purred.
―If not now, the cat hissed. ―Then when?
She tried to kick it, and it swiped with its claws. It pawed a screen off a window. It bolted outside.
She limped back to the room where she slept. She crouched. The dog huddled under the bed.
―Come here, Dini, she coaxed.
It recoiled, and she crawled to the direction it faced.
She put out her hand.
―Oh my puppy. How I love you. I’m so sorry. I haven’t been giving you enough attention. Let’s go for a ride.
The dog uttered a low, guttural growl.
She reached further, attempting to pet its soft face.
The dog bared its teeth. Its jaw spotted with foam.
―Fine, she sobbed.
She lurched, opened the garage door, cranked the engine, pulled the handbrake, and accelerated in reverse.
She churned the wheel. The cat was licking itself in the driveway. It meowed and sprung to safety just in time, and she tried to google the nearest walk-in clinic, but her phone said, No Service, and she turned left at the road and navigated the turns adjacent the river and let out a wail of such total exasperation she didn’t notice until she felt the strain in her trachea.
She drove to town. The car bucked and rumbled. The fuel tank leaked a drop of gas every number of minutes. A clicking-buzz sound erupted as she passed over potholes, until she reached a gas sation, which she swung into and braked, and searched the GPS app she downloaded on her phone for local doctors’ offices, and followed directions to the only one within a forty mile radius.
The parking spots were parallel. She didn’t know how to parallel park. She drove up on the curb, heard a scrape, and saw sparks. She thought she might explode. She held her breath. Nothing happened.
She found a disintegrating blue paper mask in the glove compartment. It slumped down to her chin, and she held it up with one hand as she careened out the car to the office’s door.
It was noon and sunny, a weekday, but when she pulled the knob, it wouldn’t give. She squinted, naturally having forgotten her glasses at the house on the hill, and noticed the handwritten note affixed to the glass.
GONE TO ANNUAL TOWN MEETING, VOTE FOR ME FOR SELECT BOARD, BE BACK LATER AT SOME POINT ALMOST DEFINITELY
Yes, I’m paranoid, she thought.
No, she thought, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be paranoid about. Just because I can’t prove anything is happening doesn’t mean that it isn’t. In fact, she thought. It’s a fact.
Her phone showed three bars of LTE, and she googled the town meeting. She punched the address into the GPS app.
The car jolted. Its transmission whirred. She pressed down harder on the accelerator and twisted her neck, peering at the directions in the phone in her hand, which led her farther up the hill past their house to a massive, mostly abandoned fairground with a rusted miniature ferris wheel relenting to gravity, as well as a rodeo corral, around which three pickup trucks, a Jeep without doors, an all-terrain vehicle, and a dozen or so motorcycles were parked.
Shapes of bodies distributed. They slouched over the rafters. They leaned their elbows across the width of the paddock. In the center, a figure with a microphone was hopping around. The wire extended from one of the trucks being used as a generator.
She got out of the car and limped toward the commotion. The microphone pealed feedback, and the onlookers cheered. The figure was stirring up preacher-like fervor. She couldn’t understand what it said. Its head rolled it was attached to its neck by a ball socket.
She was at the edge of the enclosure before she realized the figure simply wasn’t making sense. It spoke in tongues and yowling quacks. The crowd ate it up.
―Yas, they chanted.
―Who loves the new start-up, the figure broke into coherence. ―Who wants fresh internets?
The townspeople pumped their hips.
―All those in favor of shuttering the public schools and opting for education by pod for our children?
―Aye, the crowd boomed.
―Motion passes unanimously, the figure caterwauled. ―Meeting adjourned! Everyone in the pit!
She could make out The Sack, the person with hair to his or her or their waist, and the child who’d idled an ATV in the house on the hill’s driveway. He stripped off the hoodie that said, When guns are outlawed…only outlaws will have guns. Then the others started to take off their shirts.
She turned on her heel.
―Anna, she heard.
She limped toward the car.
―We found you a new place!
She proceeded to run.
―Something affordable and stylish and perfectly fits your taste!
She issued a whine-cum-subdued-guttural-scream.
―Something more permanent!
She began to hyperventilate.
IT rained for the next week.
She took every Klonopin. She emptied the freezer and fridge. Too distracted to cook by the time she saw their contents.
She sat cross-legged in the back yard, depositing handfuls of earth from her wasted plot to her lips. She mushed the dirt with her tongue and attempted to swallow. Her fever spiked. Her bikini line seared and twinged.
The cat killed dragonflies and shared them with the dog.
The world was broken, she thought.
Instead of her phone, she carried his. She waited for it to vibrate. She offered hers to the dog, who tried to download YouTube videos, but the signal was too weak. It wanted to learn how to levitate.
She knew she should do something. Her thoughts told her to wait. Sometimes she thought she knew what her father was thinking, but he’d been dead for five years, so why did he have so many opinions about the new president’s hedge fund? Hadn’t it not been established before he was elected? And why did she know so much about every city’s mayoral race?
The thoughts were contagious. They kept shifting. She thought it couldn’t last. It was a lot all at once, but she’d get used to it. She knew how easy it was to get caught.
She turned on the television and watched GAPE’s Most Haunted Loyalties. She wanted an uncomplicated way out of her life, and she thought it was coming.
From the couch, she heard the crackling ricochet of the future. In the bed, she felt the sensation of burning. Her sex was on fire.
When the thunder picked up, she submitted. The tap-tapping on the door rang through mantraesque.
―I’ll be right there, she said.
She clung the folds in the rug her father’s thought voice estimated was worth seventeen dollars. She writhed to the door. Pulled herself to gnarled feet. She put her hand on the knob. The hook on her ring finger gleamed.
But when she pulled, nothing changed.
No one appeared on the little back rotting porch. The wind died down. So did the rain.
―Toby, she whispered into the dark.
She stepped out on the deck. The wood was cold. Paint flakes peeled underfoot. The air smelled heavy and rank.
―Is anyone there?
She took another step forward, and a motion-activated light she’d never noticed sparked on and blinded her. It was rigged from an awkward angle above and facing the porch. All she could make out was its dim, faint, electrical drone.
Then the cluttered sound of flapping.
Something flew over her.
She threw up her hands.
Feathers whipped through her fingers.
―Andrew, she asked.
All was still.
After what felt like a thousand beats stacked up on top of one another, the motion-activated light extinguished. She took a step forward. It flared on, and illumined a cigarette butt half-stamped out but still smoldering in an old flower pot.
―Who’s there, she whimpered.
―I’m not here to deny anything. Nothing’s true. I’m ready to admit it. I’m ready to be transmuted. Taken. Take the house. I’m ready for something…
A tail swished in the bushes.
The sound ceased. She quaked. And bent to the flower pot. The cigarette was barely fuming, but lit. She inhaled, and experienced the first sensation of relief.
Fractions of a second later, this was replaced by stark dread. The cigarette tasted wrong. Not, like, stale, exactly. It tasted like apple seeds.
She darted into the back yard, convulsing and spitting, jamming fingers down her throat.
She jumped over the fence, collapsed in dirt and rocks. The driveway contorted. The garage door was shut. She realized she was still holding the cigarette, and she threw it down before her.
She elbowed the sliding wood lever to open the side entrance of the garage and elbowed the button to release the electronic panel door.
The dog started to howl.
―Oh my god, oh my god, she was saying unconsciously. ―What’s happening? Oh god, Houdini, what’s wrong?
Okay, she thought. Focus. There was still time. For what? She needed the keys to the car, and she needed the dog.
She heard its claws clacking the door to the room where she slept. But she hadn’t closed the door behind her. Something was inside with it.
―Houdini, she cried.
Sounds splashed from all sides. She covered her ears with rankled, swollen, cupped hands. She made for the room where she slept, changed her mind, and backtracked around the other side of the house.
The front door was locked. But there was a key in the hole. She jostled it like he’d shown her, but like always it stuck.
―What do you want, she tried shout, but she could no longer breathe.
She banged the glass with balled fists, and it puckered and gave. Silicate shattered and came down in waves misting her face.
She felt for the peg in the mudroom. Grasped at the orange rope harness. No, she thought. The car keys. Her hands moved. They were there, swinging like a pendulum in her mad aura.
She felt removed from all bodies. The space between her and the dog an abyss. She observed phenomena as though she were in the front row of a movie theater mooning up at the screen, but all the movie theaters in the state had been closed for sixteen months and counting.
Her hand groped for the keys. They moved between her fingers, which closed. She held metal, which jingled. She couldn’t remember the context for why she felt so confused.
Then she heard the dog snort and sprinted through the mudroom, the kitchen, the dead space, the room with the couch, the crate, and the television. She flung the light switch in the room where she slept and saw the dog curled in a ball dozing in the middle of the mattress.
―Houdini, she said, hoisting it up. ―You’re having a bad dream.
The dog yawned.
She limped its weight off the porch, where the motion-activated light spotted on them, and she kicked down the fence, keys digging into the tips of her knuckles, cutting into the skin. The hook on her finger withstood a terrible pressure. She thought, I could just drop the dog, drop the keys, and drop too. Go to sleep. Or whatever.
She waddled to the garage. She grew weaker.
Then somehow they were in the car. She and the dog and the keys doubled in bleeding digits.
It’s okay, she thought.
―I don’t mind, she said.
She’d managed to do something, and she was alive. Now she’d drive away. Go somewhere else. She’d find them the perfect pastoral sanctuary. They’d leave this place. Forever, should they so choose. They were a family. They’d protect each other. What had they got to lose?
She fit the key in the ignition. The car started up smoothly. She pulled the parking brake, checked her mirror, backed into the driveway, careful to the turn the wheel, so she nosed out facing the road.
She took a breath to compose herself. She rested her foot on the brake. She turned to the dog.
Its tongue ran over its nose. It looked into her eyes like dogs’ eyes tend to do. They shone bleary with sleep, then they closed.
She shifted from reverse to drive. She sighed. The dog lightly snored.
And as she lifted her bare foot off the brake, the fuel tank leaked, just a drop, which pooled dewlike for an instant before releasing directly over the still smoldering cigarette, which sparked and lit in a clean line of flame, which wriggled as if held by a string, connecting the gas to the car to the engine to the oil to the earth to the driveway, and they all burned as one in a great conflagrating explosion, and she and the dog were reduced to ashes in its blaze.
The cat watched from the porch until it too caught fire. The house consumed by inferno. It sauntered to the woods. Tail flicking, swishing. The brush rustled, and the cat didn’t look back even once.
HE was lying on a chaise lounge on the roof of the hotel ordering a grain-free protein bar and double espresso to the pool.
The waitress wore a mask and a bikini. She poured her cleavage like batter over his field of vision so he could sign her tablet screen.
He left a thirty-percent tip and grinned. He couldn’t tell if she did back. He wondered if she was the one he’d shown his room the preceding weekend. Her bikini’s synthetic fibers imitated water ripples. It matched her mask.
She shimmied off, and he felt teased and above it and aroused anyway. He picked at the crotch of his boxer shorts.
The tablet the network had comped him automatically updated the new day’s crossword puzzle, as well as his schedule. It vibrated on the mosaic-tiled end table.
He slid it closer, held it over his oiled, bronze abs.
A new notification read, Reiki massage. Today, from 11:15 AM to 12:15 PM. Traffic is moderate. It will take 28 min to get to Chateau Marmont from HOTEL
It vibrated again.
Lying Program, S1E18. Today, from 2:30 PM to 6:30 PM. Traffic is moderate. It will take 12 min to get to TvTron Studios from Chateau Marmont
He removed his sunglasses, stretched, and glided to the diving board, performed a flip with no splash, swam twenty olympic size laps, and nuzzled into the towel flourished by a different bikini-clad waitress.
The protein bar perched on the end table atop a small satin pillow. He ate half in twelve bites, tossed back the espresso. He stood at the edge of the roof and regarded the skyline, the billboards, the desert, ocean, and palms.
His tablet vibrated.
He was getting a call, and he yawned.
―Andy baby, the voice came through crystal clear.
―What up, French?
―Just plinkin’ in on my all time fav cli… Ent. You ready to drip some fresh fabricaciones today, Captain Decepsh?
―I’ll do what I can.
―You get my invite for din-din at Spags?
―Uh, let me see.
His tablet vibrated.
Din-din. Today, from 9:45 PM to 1 AM. Traffic TBD. It will take 31 min to get to Spago from TvTron Studios
He scrolled through the other invitees. Bhad Bhabie, Bad Bunny, Bad Santa, Badou Jack, Bladee, and so forth.
―Yeah, he said. ―On for dinner. I’ll be there.
―That slaps, the voice beamed. ―Now don’t forget, at your massage, ask for Scintilla. I warned them ahead of time, but they’re highly sought after these days. Don’t let them pawn you off with Archimedes or Jorstine. We paid for Scintilla. They’re going to knead out your nucleotides like it’s nobody’s biz. You dredge?
―That’s fine, French. But I was wondering. Have you heard any news about the insurance settlement?
―Aw, Andy, you don’t want to talk about that. We got it all taken care of. You’re an asteroid, baby. You got folx around you to worry about the particularities. Most important thing you can do on a shoot day is relax.
―Okay, yeah I know, I just wanted to check if you had any updates.
―Nothin’ you want to hark, kiddo.
―I guess it probably looks weird. Buying up property whereon a disaster took place. I don’t want it to seem like I had anything to do with that though. And since the responsible party perished in the arson…
―Andy, Andy, you’re getting worked up again.
―I just want to settle stuff with the previous owner and the insurance conglomerate. Just tell them I’ll sign whatever they’re asking. Money’s no…
―I’ll stop you right there. You’re right. Money isn’t an indirect object. It’s much more fluid. Like time. To coin the phrase Lincoln coined. That’s why they put him on the dime. Good fortune, good sense. But don’t you forget it. He also couldn’t tell a lie. It fucked up his entire debate with Frederick Douglass, and then that war… Nasty! You two are in totally different postures. Money’s a subject. And you’ll get yours. Allow me to pump suck the minutiae. We got twelve more episodes of The Lying Program to tape this season even after today. What’s the rush on a cinder heap three thousand miles away.
―That’s my business, he said. ―If I tell you’ve I’ve got my reasons, would you believe they’re good enough?
―Andy baby, you know better than anyone that you can convince anyone of anything. You’ve got the medals to prove…
―Then believe it. I’ve got someone breathing down my neck. I need to close on that property ASAP.
―I’ll see what I can do, kid.
―Nah. Guess I should haul ass to Hollywood.
―You’re gonna kill, baby, kill. I’ll ring later. Moshi moshi!
He tapped his tablet in front of the elevator to the engage the kiosk. He plugged his code into the private access screen, which read, Where Would You Like To Go, Captain Deception?
―Penthouse, he stressed. ―Private. Roof. Level. Apex.
The elevator ascended from the pool up ten floors. Two brand new never worn slippers awaited outside the parting doors.
He cast off his slides and stepped in the silk-lined house shoes. He shuffled through the apartment’s ultrachrome decor.
Piano music emanated from invisible speakers. Each seamlessly fading in and out to maintain the semblance of a constant, uniform étude.
He approached the room where he slept and paused. He lightly rapped on the door frame before skulking inside.
The eagle splayed on the mattress. Its wings fanned. An empty bottle of tequila, cap missing, crooked into one pit. Its beak hung open, suspiring. It sported a black velvet mask over its eyes.
The bird groaned and rolled over.
It endeavored to flex itself in an upright position.
―I’ve got a massage appointment in an hour, he whispered.
―What’s business that of mine?
―Well, I kind of just wanted to give you a heads-up. ’Cause after that we’ll be taping. From two-thirty to six-thirty. I’ll, like… I’ll need you to be available around then…
―Oh yeah, the eagle griped. ―To feed you answers, right?
A beat happened.
―Isn’t that still the deal?
―The art of the deal.
The eagle burped.
It tipped back the bottle.
―Hey, what gives? Dónde está el Patrón?
―We hit it hard last night, bro.
―Don’t give me that we shit, the eagle snapped. ―I don’t even want to be here. Place stinks like duck dick. You got that deed for me yet?
―I’m working on it. I talked to French this morning, and he seemed to imply there were still a lot of moving parts with the insurance…
―Insurance my cloaca!
―There’s just a lot of red tape. But the money’s down. We’re preapproved, and I’ve been in touch with our old landlord. He’d just as soon settle yesterday, but when there’s a crime of this nature… Plus it’s not that easy to explain why I’m in such a rush to buy a piece of scorched rubble at the eastern edge of the Berkshires when I’ve got a job in L.A.
―Just tell them you need it! You’re the celeb. Aren’t they supposed to do whatever you say?
―Like I said, I think they will, but…
―Just lie for heaven’s sake! You’re Captain Deception, or did I misread Page 13?
The eagle flung a coned newspaper drenched with regurgitated bird seed and fake cocaine at his face.
―Just make something up!
―The thing with questionable arson and exploded cars and dead bodies is it can delay real estate…
―Well no one told me, the eagle fluttered its wings. ―Back when I owned that house on the hill people in the country burned themselves down damn near every day. I never would’ve gone through the trouble if I’d’ve known I’d end up making things harder on myself.
―I’m sorry, he said.
He looked at his tablet.
―Andrew, a disembodied voice crooned.
―I’m kind of running late.
―Then why the fuck’d you wake me for? You mean we’re not even going to smoke this angel dust?
The sounds of wheels and strides.
―I don’t think it would help me relax.
He looked at his tablet.
―I’ve got a full agenda. I woke you because I needed to remind you about the taping. And… And because I wanted to make sure I could count on your…
The sing-song disembodied voice singing, ―Where are you?
The eagle was receding. Into something. Still with the velvet mask over its eyes. It was getting harder for him to see too.
―Your support. For the answers… For the thoughts…
Footsteps echoed throughout the chrome.
―I thought you knew how to lie better than anyone has before.
The eagle did air quotes.
―You know I can’t without you, he said under his breath.
The eagle hopped to the bathroom.
―Get. Me. The. Deed.
―I will. I promise. Now can I count on you?
He heard the door slam, the lock turn.
―What do you think?
The nurses entered. Their masks matched their scrubs. They imitated water ripples.
―There you are, they sang in unison.
They dragged the cot by its four-point restraints. Wheels squeaked. The loosest lifting up every few inches and spinning.
―Ready to roll, kiddo?
He look at his piece of cardboard covered in scribbles.
―Let me check my schedule.
The nurses giggled.
They touched his arms. Gently they hoisted him over the chrome side rails, tilted the upper body column fifteen degrees, and strapped his breast, wrists, shins, and ankles in place.
The bed emitted a purr as the column descended.
He was perfectly recumbent.
Ready for his massage.
He rattled around.
―Aren’t I supposed to be prone?
Oh no, not for Reiki, he thought in the voice of French. Your aural pores must remain exposed to their chakral coordinates.
―Sure, he said.
The nurses conferred sotto voce.
―Can you film while I tickle his feet, one inquired. ―I met this guy on RimJok that’ll pay in Ether.
―I don’t know, the other whispered. ―I can’t really risk losing my Medicaid rations again.
―He’ll transfer double if we can prove it’s a patient in the ward.
The other nurse hesitated.
―I’ll go get my kit.
Paces reverberated down the hall.
He stared at the ceiling.
―Now why’d you sneak off earlier, the other nurse cooed, preparing his eleven-fifteen a.m. injection. ―You hadn’t finished your lunch.
―Toby, he monotoned.
―Mr. Captain Deception. Always up to some ruse. Have you been a naughty boy?
―Say yes, Toby answered from behind the bathroom door.
―You wouldn’t lie to me now?
―Thank you, he slurred.
THE eagle had all the answers. The eagle saw through the murk. It had the eyes of a spirit. It covered them with the black velvet mask and tried to zonk.
―Goddamn it, it hissed. ―The whole morning is ruined.
Of course the eagle knew there was a taping that afternoon. Did he really think it was going to up and desert its meal ticket? Until the property’s title was rightly in Toby’s name, signed over with annual taxes and fees paid for the next ten years in advance, and drawn after that from a replenishing account in perpetuity, he wasn’t going anywhere.
After that, all right, the liar should worry some. His sneaking suspicions weren’t without substantiation.
And yet, hadn’t the eagle proven itself trustworthy? Had it not, when the young man had fucked up his interview and thrown the whole design into disarray, picked up the pieces, flown him literally on its back with outstretched golden wings, to the TvTron Studios’s CEO’s executive precinct?
Had it not patched every hiccup? Arranged every detail? The eagle had kept up more than its fair share of the bargain.
All it asked in return was to be shown some respect. Given it carried the eternal burden of the voices of the living and dead, this seemed like a reasonable request.
It hadn’t always been that way. The eagle had once been a person. But it felt less and less kinship with Toby, the name, history, gender, and all the old friends.
Sure, when the eagle appeared before them, they went through motions of awe and worship, but really they were still just feeling guilty about rerouting the nuclear plant’s runoff into the house on the hill’s well, and thus rendering Toby dead.
Since the eagle had encountered every soul in the universe, it felt less attached to its legacy, at least as an individual, and more indebted to revenge.
In dying, it had learned empathy.
It’s never too late, one spirit had said.
Being reincarnated as the symbol of the nation most devoted to evil, the eagle had vowed to take back the land from the man it had been.
It was an arduous process, with more snags than expected. All in all, though, its scheme was still going as planned. First the house on the hill in the country, then the town, the county, the state, and eventually the country itself.
One by one, it would buy up the land, destroy any home-life-centrism structures, and redistribute the wealth, shared among every animal and plant.
It now understood it had to follow strict instructions. It couldn’t destroy the home-life-centrism structures before acquiring the properties line, sinker, and hook.
C’est la vie. It was a work-in-progress. And it’s not like the whole enterprise was for nothing. The insurance company would come to a conclusion eventually. Plus it had succeeded in recruiting the cat.
There were other spirits working on other parts of the planet. The eagle would catch up with them at the continental convention slated for the summer a few decades hence.
It was particularly interested in talking to the bat stationed in China. Could it really have started the plague? The eagle doubted it. But if it had, then color this bird of prey impressed.
Hopefully it would have its own achievements to show off. It figured at worst it should own the state with the house on the hill by that time.
In the meanwhile, it was going to smoke a fat bowl of cannabis laced with phencyclidine and zone until the nurses were done exploiting their patient.
It had learned to be patient. It had learned to have faith. It had faith in the process. And it had learned that morality was relatively unimportant, and relative all the same.
AND what had he learned?
You mean besides #MeToo being a Hollywood insiders’ hit job less concerned with transparency, equality, and earnest conversations about the history of endemic sexist barbarity and corruption than to disrupt the Weinstein Company’s production power and open the door for streaming services to swoop in?
Everyone in the industry knew that.
Well, he’d learned a lot. New stuff every day. Such as he had what it took to be famous. He was inspired, divine, could stand up against torture, chains, privy to the voices of the unreal and insane.
And oh yeah. He had learned men couldn’t say anything. Not quite. So abashed by the unspeakable violence of their interiorities, they were constantly forced to hold their tongues or lie.
Women could, on the other hand, say whatever they wanted, but that didn’t mean anyone would believe, let alone listen, to them.
The rest remained mutable. New information cascaded like rain.
Sometimes he thought of her in that bucolic ruin where they’d watched television and fantasized about real estate.
With her legendary ring.
Who says modern man’s any worse than his predecessor? So he’d used every part of the buffalo? Now he’s using up the dinosaur millions of years later.
Oil, plastic, diamonds. All crushed together. Forged in heat, hooked in pressure.
He had learned, given enough resources, people could produce unthinkable ends. But people hardly account for everyone. And resources are limited.
Take, for instance, I wanted to expound on the guy in the neck gator, the librarian, the young couple’s landlord, their neighbors, the nuclear plant farther uphill, and the region’s flora and fauna. I wanted to write about the indigenous settlers of the valley, their traditions and annals and myths, the disgrace of their depictions, and their relationships to territory, property, nature, and land. I wanted to know more. To make myself and you expand, to understand and be better. But I got too depressed.
He had learned there was more to learn yet. He tried to shrug. Life was seriously unfair.
AND what of the cat?
Well, last I saw it, it was making off with a plastic bagful of some preteen’s stillborn. But that was years from now, and a plot point in another story.
Cats exist on a separate relativism. From other animals, other characters. From you and me.
Forget wheelhouse, it’s not even the same plane.
And since they’re not reading this, I can be totally frank: they’re more different from people and dogs and eagles than you think.
Cats are childs at heart. They shirk grammar, among other rules. They account for themselves. If you’ve known a few kids, you know they’re disposed to warriors’ streaks too. The ability to remake images of the world, of extant creatures, their identities. Just as a child often acts before she thinks…
So what of the cat? I’m no authority. The eagle seemed convinced the cat shared in its conspiracy. Perhaps I’m more skeptical.
My cat and I have been growing apart. That’s not a story at all, because life isn’t narrative. Narrative is projected on life. That’s something I’ve learned. And if you probe the right places, you’ll learn life is fake, which is fine.
For our purposes, this tale is over. Our cat is gone. The mystery unfolds. Turns out it was a mystery all along.