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Michael Davis

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Michael Davis writer

Cruel Stars

by Michael Davis

 

I saw my cousin, Teresa, in a shiny blue one-piece, sitting at the bar at Swan’s in downtown Fresno, highlights in her hair and a gold ring on every finger. It was the day of my grandmother’s funeral and Teresa hadn’t attended. Men were buying her drinks and hovering, men she seemed to know and not know, men she might have known and forgotten. She was a prostitute. We never spoke.

Saturday night and the old place was packed. I moved through the crowd and sat in one of the circular leather booths, which meant I was there to eat instead of trying to get stupid right off the bat. The waiter walked up and gave me an ancient, laminated menu. I ordered a salad and a bottle of the house wine they made in the back, even though it had formaldehyde in it and you could taste it. Then Rick Fuller saw me and came over to the table.

“Hey Mikey, how you doin’ man? How was the funeral?”

I shook his hand and nodded. “It was very nice.”

He was half Italian on his mother’s side and basically a good guy. Rick had a tight closed-mouth smile. He always noticed too much about you and added it up. When you ran into him again, you could see it in his eyes. He’d thought about you and figured another part of you out. I didn’t want to tell him I’d just left the wake and feared that before the night was over I might break a bottle on the bar or push somebody down some stairs or drive out to the vineyards and wreck my car in the dark.

 

The waiter brought the bottle and two glasses. Rick slid into the booth, leaned across the table, and said in a low voice, “Hey how’s the law stuff? Not so good if you’re drinking that, huh?”

I shrugged. “I’m a paralegal, Rick. My business is filing and making sure the checks get cashed. That’s it.”

He winked and clapped me on the shoulder. “Yeah, yeah, just admit you’re a lawyer, Mikey. Be proud. It’s a great achievement.”

“Like finishing this wine.”

Rick laughed but he also did the x-ray thing with his eyes, trying to look through my chest to see what was wrapped around my heart. He must have found what he was looking for because he got out of the booth with a hard smile. “That’s my wife waiting by the door. You know Francine, right?”

I nodded. I told him to have a good night and to give Francine my love.

“Right,” he said. “I’ll do that.”

He went over and put his arm around her waist. She looked back and waved. I waved, too, but she didn’t see because Rick pulled her out the front door. Francine Norton had been my high school girlfriend. Nineteen years later and Rick still hadn’t fully come to terms with that fact. Sometimes I talked to Francine on nights she went to Swan’s by herself and got dead drunk at the end of the bar. She never mentioned Rick.

But that’s how it went. People raised right know not to ask about family problems. At least, Rick knew enough not to ask about mine. After my grandmother’s service at the church, there’d been a shouting match in the parking lot before my family got in their cars to do the procession to the cemetery. It had concerned my grandmother’s fortune. There were different wills. Someone was lying. Accusations. Old grudges. Fingers pointed. They say you’re not supposed to talk about money right after church, but that’s all my family ever talked about.

The waiter brought a wilted salad that was covered in thin oil with a cherry tomato on the side. I poured a glass and said a prayer for Grandma. I couldn’t pray during the service. All I could do was cry like a man.

Why had I come to Swan’s again, especially that night? I could have gone anywhere. I ate slowly, wondering, trying not to look at anyone. I went to the stinking graffiti’d men’s room and splashed water on my face. And after I went back to the table, I stared daggers at my cousin in spite of myself, imagining going up and knocking her off her stool. Ghosts want revenge for what you did to them in life. Grandma believed that. So why wouldn’t Grandma be here, whispering over my shoulder, reminding me that the worst thing you could do besides cursing the birth of a child was refusing to pay respects to the dead?

I thought of the tire iron in my trunk. And although I wasn’t especially violent by nature, violence was part of Swan’s and part of Fresno and part of me. Tonight I could feel it. At one point, Fresno held the distinction of being the murder capital of the country. Swan’s was where the famous Sicilian gangster, Giacomo Portofino killed 27 people in a shootout with the FBI in 1963. People were still impressed by that. Swan’s kept a big happy picture of him drinking a glass of wine framed behind the bar.

Teresa’s laugh rose up over every other sound. She slipped off her bar stool, but the waiter was passing by at that moment and caught her. Everybody laughed and she blew him a kiss. She’d become a person who could laugh like a little bell on the day her grandmother went into the ground. It was a high fake laugh and the guy sitting at the bar next to her laughed too. Then he lit her cigarette. His name was Bruno Frazetti and I knew him from the old days when Teresa and me and a few other cousins of mine lived with Grandma over on Abby Street. That was when everybody was broke—before they laid the freeway in Madera and Grandma sold her empty acres to the Indians so they could put up a casino.

Bruno drove a BMW and thought he was a player. But everything he had was because his father built a box factory in Lemoore and worked himself dead for his family. Bruno had been after Teresa since dirt was dirty. Whenever I laid eyes on him, I thought he was pathetic. But I never truly disliked him until I sat in the booth that night at Swan’s, just close enough to listen, and watch them carry on like fools.

Tonight, he wore a long-sleeved red shirt with the cuffs buttoned, a gold Rolex, and designer jeans that barely fit his fat ass. The only thing bigger than Bruno’s clothes budget was his cocaine budget. But that had never been my business.

They didn’t notice me because they were sitting facing the bar. Teresa had a halo of cigarette smoke over her head. And even in the gloom of that stinking place, I could see the glittery material of her blue dress was the same color as her lipstick. I looked around and recognized a few more faces. It was a large circular building and had probably been something special back in the 1950s when it opened. There was a bar on one side, booths around the circumference of the floor, and a big dance area in the middle where people stood with their drinks and didn’t dance. Instead, they moved around, from one booth to another, into the crowd, back to the bar.

There were regulars and college kids from Fresno State who thought it was a cool dive. And then there were the drug dealers, who never used to be there a generation before. And every other girl was working. Still, it might have had character if it hadn’t smelled like old rot and rancid crotch and a hundred stale beers. The smell stayed with you even after you showered. I hated Swan’s, but I always wound up there.

“Isn’t he funny? He’s funny!” My cousin slapped Bruno on the back and the tall geeky-looking blond guy hovering around behind her tried to cut in said yeah he’s funny. Bruno was laughing the hardest, which meant he’d probably told a joke. His jokes were vulgar and not very complicated. After a few hours in his presence, you felt like your IQ was getting the same way.

“Hey, but that’s the truth. That’s real,” Bruno said.

“Seriously,” said the blond guy, who seemed familiar to me; though, I was sure we’d never met. “It’s just an urban legend. A myth.”

“Myth? Get the fuck out, man. No myth.” Bruno tipped back his beer and glared while he did it. He was fat, yes, but he was fast. He could snake his fist up under the blond guy’s chin before he knew what hit him. I’d never get near Bruno in a fight. I’d stand back and maybe hit him with a chair like Sam Trevino did once when we were ten and he caught Bruno stealing pomelos out the back of his mom’s yard. Sam picked up a patio chair and swung before Bruno saw him coming because Sam knew. But the blonde guy didn’t know his ass from a turnip.

Teresa turned around on her stool, winked at blondie, then patted his arm. “Yeah, why don’t you buy me another drink? That would be mythical.” Everybody laughed, even the blonde guy; though his eyes darted between Bruno and Teresa before he called over to the bartender, whose name was David. I knew him, too.

Fresno had 480,000 people but, in many ways, it was still a small town. In certain places, everybody knew everybody. And at Swan’s, on any given night, minus some of the newer drug dealers, some of the hookers, and the fraternity knuckleheads, you could probably find no more than three or four degrees of separation between anybody there. When we were kids, there was nothing to do but go to the movies or have a ditch party out in the vineyards. And then, when we got a little older, there was Swan’s. But I didn’t have one happy memory connected to it. I drank there maybe four or five nights a month and regretted it as much as anyone else.

I was sipping a second glass of wine that tasted like it had enough formaldehyde in it to preserve my internal organs in the pyramids, when Pia Burke and her drug dealer boyfriend, Vincent, sat down across from me.

“Hey, Mikey,” she said. “You mind if we share your booth?”

Pia had kinky hair teased into ringlets around her pretty heart-shaped face. I’d always thought she was a nice girl, but she had lousy taste in men. For example, Vincent. I’d seen him in Swan’s for about a year. He was in his early twenties, which meant he was probably ten or more years younger than Pia, who was around my age. She’d been dating one of Bruno’s friends before she met Vincent. Now she seemed stoned all the time. And Vincent was clearly an idiot.

“Sup esse.” He nodded to me when he sat down, then tilted his head back and squinted his eyes. He dressed like a Cholo with his hair slicked back, flannel shirt buttoned at the top, and greasy black jeans. But Vincent was a white guy. His first name wasn’t really Vincent. His last name was “Holland” or “Boland” or something like that.

“How’s work?” Vincent asked.

“Work’s work.”

He nodded, still squinting. “How’s life, though?

“It’s taking forever.”

“Huh. No shit.”

Sometimes I saw people at Swan’s I’d known in high school. Now that we were all in our thirties, I didn’t see them as often. I worked about an hour north in a town called Oakhurst for a divorce lawyer who had a drug problem and was cheating on her husband. People I knew saw me in Swan’s and asked how my law practice was because they didn’t know what a paralegal actually did. I’d always say business was business. They’d ask how life was. I’d say it’s taking forever. And I’d tell myself that one day I’d meet a nice girl and move out of the detached maid’s quarters behind Grandma’s house in the Tower District. But then I’d look around Swan’s and see the same old faces with the same old lusts doing the same old bullshit.

Pia had a beer, which she turned in place on the table with both hands as if she were tuning into a special frequency that only Budweiser could receive. “Hey Mikey, isn’t that your cousin, Teresa, over there?” She raised her eyebrows, then glanced at Vincent.

I looked over at Teresa for a long moment like I was trying to determine if it was really her. “Could be,” I said. “Looks a lot like her.”

Vincent nodded: the sage Cholo grandfather. Pia looked at me for a moment, then grinned. Her eyes were bloodshot. She had a smoker’s cough. “Ah, you see that, Vin. Mikey’s cooler than a cucumber. He sees Teresa up there with them dirty boys and he’s like, no problem, I’m cool. See that?”

“Dunno,” Vincent said. “Looks fucked up to me.”

I nodded. “Very fucked up, Vincent.”

Pia shook her head in the slow, dreamy way of those who’ve smoked one bowl more than usual. “I know you. I know your game. See, Vin, I know what he’s about. He’s waiting for all them to get drunk as fuck. Then he’s going to grab his cousin before they can do those nasty things to her. Am I right?”

“How’d you know?”

Pia grinned at her beer and turned it. “Because I know. See what I’m saying, Vin? Mikey’s cool.”

Vincent nodded. “Cool.” And then: “Hey, esse, you smoke?”

“I’m trying to quit.”

“No. Do you smoke?”

I shook my head. “The most I do these days is drink this shitty wine.”

“You got that right,” Pia said. “That wine tastes like hospital ass.”

“Sure does,” I poured myself a third glass.

They both got up. “We love you, Mikey. Don’t we, Vin?”

Vincent squinted at me. “He’s alright.”

They made their way to the bar. People had shifted around, blocking my view of Teresa. Suddenly, it seemed as if everything had been partially muted, like I was in a glass bubble while the world flowed around it. I tried to determine whether I was really going to say something to my cousin. This was getting set to be the worst day of my life, a day so bad it didn’t seem real.

The crowd was migrating around the bar more feverishly than usual. It might have been the full moon or the fact that payday had just happened. But the drinkers seemed agitated. A prostitute named Linda was in the booth next to mine, rubbing up against three college guys in sweatshirts and baseball caps. They looked like inbred triplets—agriculture science majors at State with just enough genetic diversity to let them know which lever to pull on the tractor. Linda was smiling and chewing on a strand of her blue-black hair while she listened to one of them explain something fascinating. She was cheerful because she knew she was going to rob them blind.

Things had shifted in my cousin’s situation. Now blondie was sitting on the barstool and she was in his lap, her arm around his shoulders. She held a Cosmo in that hand and leaned in close by his lips every time she took a drink. Bruno stood off to the side, ranting into his cellphone over the noise of the crowd. He wasn’t happy, but really, who was?

When they’d lowered Grandma’s coffin into the grave is when things started to seem unreal. I’d begun to feel like I wasn’t really there. I never knew my dad and my mother had died from cancer when I was six. I had no memory of her funeral. But I knew Grandma’s service would be etched into my mind for the rest of my life. And now I was at Swan’s as if nothing had happened. And Teresa was here, caging drinks off potential johns and working them up to a lather where they wanted a piece so bad they wouldn’t mind paying for it.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice Bruno, Teresa, and blondie until they were standing at the table, looking down at me.

“Well, well,” Bruno said. “He lives.”

“Pia said you were over here. But I thought she must be full of bullshit if my own cousin was here and he didn’t come up to say hi.”

“Hi Teresa. Bruno.” I nodded to the blond guy, who nodded back.

“This is Mikey. Mikey meet Darren.”

Then I realized why Darren had seemed oddly familiar to me when I’d first saw him. “You’re the weather report guy. On YouTube.”

Darren turned pink up to his hairline. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. The guy on YouTube who always says, ‘This is what they said the weather would be. This is what it is’ with that bike horn. And you’re up on some roof in San Francisco and you show the sky and make jokes.”

He looked down at me and pressed his lips together. “You got the wrong guy, bud.”

“For real?” Bruno said. “Here, Mikey, find it.” He sneered at Darren and handed me his phone. The little browser was already loading YouTube.

“Lemme sit,” Teresa said. “I need to talk with my cousin. Family shit. Guys, go get us some drinks.”

Bruno and Darren both scowled at her. Then they went to opposite ends of the bar and eyed each other over the crowd.

“He really is the guy,” I said.

Teresa sighed and put her face in her hands. “Why are you here?”

“I come here, too.”

“I haven’t seen you around in like four weeks.”

“I haven’t seen you around at all.” I felt ready to burst. I felt like I might come across the table and grab her by the hair if she asked me where I’d been one more time. I wanted to tell her about Grandma and slap her face. I thought I should. I thought it might be the right thing to do. But seeing her in Swan’s hustling morons, after what happened today, I felt like I had a stone in my throat. I just looked at her. And she looked at me. And I knew she didn’t even know Grandma had died.

A few more people recognized me and came over to say their condolences. Teresa glared at them all.

“Who died?” she asked.

I just looked at her.

Part of me wanted to tell her that I’d made the right arrangements, that everything had gone the way Grandma would have wanted it. But another part of me felt that Teresa didn’t deserve to know. I saw to it that Grandma had a full Italian Catholic funeral with the auto procession and the roses on the casket and the Latin mass. It was very expensive. I paid for the whole thing. And the fucking priest was a real prick about the service, especially considering all the donations Grandma had made after she got rich. Probably thirty or forty people showed up for the service. When my grandfather died about seven years ago, maybe twelve people were there including me and Grandma. She got him a cheap aluminum casket and a wreath came from the Knights of Columbus. Then again, he was my grandmother’s second husband and wasn’t Italian. So he’d never really been accepted as a member of the family, even by Grandma. I had hoped my family would have acted better with each other just for one day. But I always forget who they really are inside.

Teresa was no different. She’d been putting away drinks like a machine. It was so awful, it was almost funny. I’d never heard of someone hooking on the day of their grandmother’s funeral. Teresa turned twenty-five in a couple of weeks. She was supposed to be in Florida still going to college. But now she’d turn twenty-five in Fresno, knowing she’d hooked instead and missed the funeral of the woman who’d mostly raised her.

“This is freaking me out,” she said. “Who dropped dead?”

“Who do you think dropped dead?”

“Shit, I dunno, Mikey. That’s why I’m asking. It was Uncle Jeff’s wife, wasn’t it? That fucking Lena. Anorexic bitch. Probably forgot to eat for a month.”

The truth was right in front of her. But Teresa would have believed that aliens had come down and abducted half the family before facing the fact that Grandma was gone.

When she was nineteen, Teresa moved to Miami to live with her stepfather who worked in a bank. Her mother, my aunt Cecilia, had moved out of grandma’s house and was getting high every day at that point and didn’t care. So Teresa just left without telling anybody. I didn’t see her for years. But then she was back. Just like that. All grown up. And her being in town was supposed to be a big secret. She didn’t tell anybody, not even me. I had to run into her down at the Fulton Mall one day outside a pawn shop.

“Mikey,” she’d said, “not a fucking word to my mom that I’m back.”

“I haven’t seen her. I’m taking care of Grandma now.”

“Yeah? Good.” She gave me her card. It said she was a massage therapist.

I asked her where she worked and all she said was “Outcall only.”

Back then, I was naïve enough to think she must be doing alright and to wonder what her grim look meant. When I mentioned it to Grandma, she just shook her head and said, “That little putanalia won’t get a dime out of me.” That’s when I knew Teresa must have gone down the wrong road and that her frown had probably meant something along those lines. Grandma was never wrong about things like that. What would Grandma say about this situation, I wondered.

“Mikey,” Teresa said, “Whatever. Let’s not talk about dead bitches. Since you’re here I need a favor.”

We both glanced over at Bruno, who was saying something to the bartender. I typed “crazy weather guy San Francisco” into YouTube. A black dot at the top of the browser blinked along with SEARCHING. I couldn’t see Darren because of all the people getting in the way.

Teresa waved her hand in front of my face and craned her neck like I should have been paying attention. “Hello?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Teresa. You want me to do you a favor.”

She shrugged and nodded. “Fucking-A. This is important. It’s money.”

“So, what, you want me to start giving massages?”

She slammed her fist on the table and the heavily tattooed couple now making out in the next booth paused and stared.

“Listen.” Teresa looked over at Bruno again. She lowered her voice. “Darren wants to buy some shit and Bruno’s gonna sell it to him.”

“Drugs? Drug shit? You want me to help you with drug shit, Teresa? Since when is Bruno a drug dealer?”

“Keep your voice down,” she said. “I need the money, Mikey. I can’t even begin to tell you how bad.”

“I don’t know who you are anymore. You’re not my cousin.”

“Look, just fuckin’ shut up, okay? Back me up. That’s all I need you to do. Just this once. For fuck’s sake.”

Bruno came back with a grin and a tray of glasses. “It’s two-for-one vodka tonics.” He set the tray on the table. Then he slid into the booth and looked from my cousin to me. “I interrupt something?”

“Bruno, honey, how long have you known me? You know I don’t drink vodka.”

“Well fuck, Teresa, you told me to go buy drinks. It’s two for fucking one.”

I put the phone on the table in front of Bruno. “It’s him alright.”

When he looked at the phone, he immediately forgot he was irritated and his grin returned. He held it close to his nose. “Well I’ll be damned. He’s a faggot.”

“He’s not a faggot,” Teresa said, drinking a whole vodka tonic and putting the empty glass back on the tray. She wrinkled up her nose. “Oh, I hate that shit.”

“Yep. Faggot,” Bruno said. “Hey Mikey, look at this.” Bruno held the phone close to my face so I could hear the audio. Darren was on the roof of a building in downtown San Francisco. He was wearing an oversized brown sport coat and his hair was dyed green. He was talking in a Kermit the Frog voice about how the weather man was an idiot. He had a bicycle horn that he used as punctuation: “Partly cloudy with a 60% chance of rain? Jim, Jim, Jim. Why do you lie to us, Jim? Look at this blue sky!” Then he honked the horn. When the wind picked up he said, “Whoa!” and honked the horn twice over his head.

“What’s up?” said Darren as he came over to the table. On the video, he looked like a bad cable access comedian. Here Darren was tall and thin in a nice polo shirt and jeans. But it was him. He looked pale and wary now, his mouth was set in a hard frown like he’d been in the bathroom thinking things over. He’d also taken advantage of the two-for-one vodka tonics and had bought a tray. Between us, we now had eleven mixed drinks.

“Nothing.” Teresa took the phone away from Bruno and clicked it off.

“Oh shit, guys, sorry. If I’d have known you’d already bought all that, you know.” Because the booth was shaped like a big horseshoe, there was just enough room for Darren to edge in. Bruno didn’t want to scoot over, but Teresa glared at him and so he shook his head and moved a foot in my direction. Then he turned his head towards me and mouthed, faggot.

I should have stopped with the wine, but I started drinking vodka tonics. A person should never do this. It will make you sick and bring you bad luck. And for me it was even more terrible than that because whenever I drank hard liquor in any quantity, I eventually blacked out.

I’d wake up the next day without my keys or my wallet, wads of receipts in my pockets, and weird things strewn around my living room, things I’d taken out of people’s front yards. I once found a racing bike balanced upside down on my kitchen table. Another time, three potted ferns sitting in my bathtub, all watered. I was afraid that if I kept drinking like that, one day I’d wake up covered in somebody’s blood. But I felt terrible already. The drinks tasted terrible, too.

“Well, I got these ones for me and Mikey. Teresa don’t drink vodka. So that means those are for you,” Bruno said.

Darren nodded and looked away. In jail, he’d be the one who got sold for a pack of smokes. The way he peeked at Bruno, I could see he was afraid of the fat bastard, ready to jump up, keeping the corner of his eye on him at all times. I could see a lot of things—like maybe Darren had wanted to get some outcall from my cousin and maybe she’d talked him into some drug shit in the process. Or maybe Bruno thought that by being Mr. Drug Dealer with the Big Balls he was finally going to get her in bed for nothing and at least be able to close that chapter of his stupid unfulfilled past.

What I couldn’t see was the right thing to do for Grandma in this situation. I’d taken care of her for so long but now, at the most critical moment—when she wasn’t here to give me advice or even pat my arm, like she did toward the end, to thank me for feeding her some soup—I was failing her miserably. Grandma wouldn’t be sitting at Swan’s with these idiots. She’d call Teresa a putanalia and go on home and that would be the end of it.

We are the custodians of our loved ones. We carry their memories like precious cargo in our hearts, the priest had said. It might have been the only good thing he’d said in his whole funeral sermon. It stayed with me, though I didn’t think those lines were worth the seven grand I’d paid the diocese the week before. They should have had a fucking string section for that much. Woodwinds. Kids with incense burners on long chains and old guys holding up statues of the Blessed Virgin. Instead, everyone drove their cars in the procession to Lady of Victory. The priest was just a kid. His last name was McLeary. He had red hair and freckles and he looked about twenty-eight.

“We shouldn’t get too fucked up,” Teresa said. “There’s that thing.”

Bruno took a sip. “Yeah, that thing.” He looked at me. “You know about that thing, Mikey?”

I nodded.

“About that. I don’t know if—“

“Shut up, weathervane. Drink your shit.”

Darren shut up and drank. Teresa looked between them, her brow furrowed. She nudged me with her foot under the table. “I want Mikey to come along.”

“Oh yeah?” Bruno put his arm around me. He smelled like old sweat and too much Polo. “You want to come along, Mikey Mike?”

“It’s good,” she said, “’cause he’s a lawyer.”

Bruno nodded, took his arm back, and lit a cigarette. “That’s good. That’s what we need. Right, weathervane?” He blew smoke in Darren’s face. “I forgot that about you, Mikey. How’s business?”

“Business is business,” I said.

“Goddamn. That’s just what a lawyer would say.”

So we drank. I stopped at three, when my vision started clouding. Bruno and my cousin polished off the first tray and saw to it that Darren drank all the drinks off the second. He vomited once beside the booth. Nobody noticed but me. When we went out to the parking lot, it took Bruno a long time to find his 750i. He fell a couple times. Darren sat on the ground and put his head between his knees.

By the time Bruno’s headlights went on at the back of the lot that Swan’s shared with five other businesses, I had Yellow Cab on the line. But Teresa was getting her second wind. She grabbed my phone out of my hands and put it in her pocket.

“No you don’t,” she said. “You’re always backing out on me, Mikey. Not tonight. I need you on this.”

“I won’t be any good to you messed up.”

“Bruno likes you. Just make sure he doesn’t do something stupid and everybody gets paid.”

“But I don’t get paid. And I think there’s something important I need you to know, Teresa.”

“You owe me,” she said.

My mouth was dry. I had an upset stomach and the ground was tilting to the left. “No, really. I’m gonna call a Yellow Cab and then I’m gonna tell you something I need to tell you.”

“I don’t think so. And don’t act drunk. Somebody needs to be sober besides me.”

Bruno pulled the car over and we got in—me in the front, Teresa holding Darren up in the back. Then we swerved onto Belmont Avenue.

“Don’t drive fast,” I said.

Bruno punched down on the horn and held his fist there for two blocks. Then he yawned as if nothing had happened. “It’s my fuckin’ car, Mikey.”

Nobody said anything after that. We drove down Belmont, made a left on Blackstone and a left on Clinton. In the process, we passed the old place on Abby. I turned around in my seat to say something about it, but my cousin was busy making out with Darren, who may or may not have known what he was doing. I turned back around. Bruno hadn’t noticed. He had his head resting against the glass of the driver’s side window.

When we made a right on Maroa, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to ask: “Where exactly is the drug shit located?”

I imagined low-riders, deserted parking structures, crack houses with tatted-up Cholos sitting on porches. But we were now in one of the nicer areas of Fresno—Fig Garden. The streets were heavily treed and there were big old houses there from the thirties and forties that people still took care of. During the day, you saw golden retrievers and kids on bikes.

“My mom’s house.” Bruno burped.

And that’s exactly where we went. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, but the same pair of enormous plaster lions were still on either side of the red brick walk. The wide lawn that sloped up to the front door was precisely detailed just as it had always been. And the columns in the Colonial façade were pure white, clean like cleash, as Grandma used to say. She’d never liked any of Bruno’s family except his dad. And even then, she’d only approved of him because he’d worked himself to death at fifty-three—something she thought was an admirable thing all men should try to do. I might have been the only male on the planet that my grandmother had ever truly liked. Then again, she hadn’t liked most women, either.

Bruno parked at the curb and we filed silently up the front walk—four vodka-laced ghosts looking for dope at midnight in Fresno, California. He lurched left and right while he tried to fish his house key out of his pants. I came next. Then Teresa and Darren, who was holding onto her arm with both hands. There were lights set in the lawn every few feet and, as we passed through them, I had a sense that something awful was about to happen, something shameful.

I wasn’t a superstitious person. If you’d asked me, I would have said I supported science and antibiotics and things like that. But I still believed in god. And between the four of us, I felt we might have each committed sins of Old Testament magnitude in our short lives. My cousin alone surely rated her own plague of locusts.

I felt tired and worried and not right in the head. So I said a prayer to Grandma’s spirit: Dear Grandma, help me out like you always did when you were alive. I know I’ve failed you and Teresa is a putanalia, but we know not what we do. So please help if you can. I don’t want to get arrested tonight or die caught up in some drug shit. Amen.

The house had a security alarm. Bruno forgot the code and had to put in ten different combinations before he got it right, cussing and bitching the whole time. My cousin and Darren were standing on the bottom steps of the porch, hugging each other and making out like kids in the back of a high school dance. Darren seemed about to collapse at any moment. I couldn’t see what was motivating my cousin to keep on with him. Was he some kind of long-term project? Some kind of secret billionaire?

Sometimes, I wondered how it all worked. My cousin met them all at Swan’s and went from man to man, took referrals. She once said she had regulars who paid her bills and took her out to dinner. She said they were all clean and nice and the worst thing you could say about them was that they were all married to ugly hateful bitches.

Teresa told me these things on the night she called me in tears from the Greyhound Bus station in Baltimore. She wouldn’t say how she got way out there, but she asked could I please wire her some money for a ride back to California? I bought her a flight instead. First class. And I wired her some money for new clothes so she wouldn’t look run down when she got on the plane. I thought it might have been a new beginning for her. But she just said thanks Mikey and told me that one of her regulars would get her at the airport. And all I could think of was Grandma’s old Italian slang. Putanalia. Putanalia momps. Big prostitute.

After Bruno got the alarm turned off, he had to undo the five door locks and wait in the doorway for his mother’s Chihuahua, Little, to come up and sniff his hand. Then we were in and Bruno shut the door softly behind us. He told Teresa to sit on the marble bench by the door and she guided Darren to it. Then Bruno grabbed my arm. “Let’s go quiet,” he whispered.

We crept up the grand staircase to the second floor balustrade, past the big chandelier that hung halfway from the ceiling, gleaming and flickering in the dark like a crystal explosion. Bruno led me down a hallway carpeted with a Persian runner and six-foot high Chinese vases that sprouted afros of dried brown reeds. The house was nice, but it smelled like dust, mildew, cleanser, like a bad scene getting worse. If you’d overflowed the toilets and smoked a few cartons of cigarettes, the place would have smelled just like Swan’s at bar time.

When I’d last been to the house, I hadn’t seen the extent of the whole place. I’d only stood in the entryway for a few minutes waiting for Bruno to come down. He’d been a lot thinner back then when we were kids and spent extra time on his appearance. While I waited, his mom had given me a glass of lemonade and a cookie. She listened to a lot of opera. I remember it piped through the house on a sound system, like the whole house was singing La Traviata.

“Where are we going?” I whispered, but Bruno just shushed me and motioned for me to follow. We turned down another hallway identical to the previous one, stopping at the end. The door had a gold knob and it squeaked when Bruno opened it. He held his finger to his lips. Inside, his mom was in bed, hooked up to a respirator. When she inhaled, the rubber bellows on the machine compressed with a soft hiss. There were other machines—a full row on either side of the bed. Everything had tiny winking lights and digital displays. Cables crisscrossed the floor like vines. I was afraid to move in case I accidentally ripped out some cord and Bruno’s mother, Josephina, died in screaming convulsions.

Bruno also stepped very carefully. I got the impression he’d done this before. He picked his way around the medical machinery towards the cart of medications against the far wall. He’d spent his whole life tiptoeing around this enormous house. And he was still doing it. Only now, at age thirty-two, instead of stealing money out of his mother’s purse he was taking her dope. Bruno got a large Tupperware container from below the medication cart and pulled up the lid on one end. Inside were what looked like several hundred blister trays of pills. He grinned at me and put a few handfuls in his pockets.

His mother didn’t stir. All she did was breathe through her machine. I wondered if she went far from her bed these days or if she ever left the house. How could she exist hooked up to all that shit? Would Bruno invite me to her funeral along with Teresa? Would I go? Would my worthless cousin wear a modest black dress and a veil, put a bouquet of lilies on Josephina Frazetti’s coffin, and say the Ave Marias and the Acts of Contrition like she should have done today with her own family?

On our way out, Bruno barked his shin on a TV table by the door that had his mother’s cosmetics on it arranged like a museum display. It rattled and a couple of lipsticks fell over. He gasped. His eyes got big and he looked over his shoulder at his mother, whose breathing hiss in the machine had sped up. He pushed me into the hallway ahead of him. Then we paused and listened.

There was a storm of coughing and the sound of her hacking up phlegm. “Bruno? Bruno, it’s dark. Is that you? Bruno?” Josephina Frazetti’s voice was thin and hoarse, nothing like the way I remembered her—a tall Italian lady with big hair, always laughing with a Pall Mall between her fingers and something wonderful simmering in the kitchen. Now her voice had the grave in it. It was like the old folks used to say, La morte e la sorte stanno dietro la porta. Death and fate are always waiting behind the door. And behind that door: a ghost from the past with only machines and pill boxes for company. No wonder she was dying. Bruno put one hand against the door to steady himself and covered his face with the other.

There were many moments in my life of which I had not been very proud. But I thought that stealing hydrocodone from a sick old lady who used to give me lemonade and cookies when I was ten years old might have qualified me as a bastard among bastards. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I put my hand on Bruno’s shoulder.

“Hey, man, you sure about this? Why is she sick, anyway? Was it the smoking?”

He straightened his shirt, retucking it under his belly and mopped his face with his hand one more time. Then he looked at me for a moment and his mouth twisted into a sneer. “What are you, Madam Butterfly?”

“Where do you get this shit, Bruno? That’s a musical.”

“See, Mikey, only you would know that. She ain’t gonna miss it.” Bruno pulled out a blister tray and handed it to me. “They bring it by the box load. If she took all the shit they bring her, she’d be up there with Jimi Hendrix and the angels.”

I looked back at the chandelier and thought of spiders that die in their webs. I’d seen that once when I was a kid. A hairy garden spider built a big web in the top corner of my bedroom window. Then one day it must have gotten sick because it slumped. A few hours later, it was hanging inverted by a single strand, its legs open like fingers from an upturned palm. It stayed there, perfectly still, for days.

“I remember her from when we were kids. It just doesn’t feel right, you know? ”

“That’s cause you’re a herd animal, Mikey. You baa with the sheep. You gotta think outside the box.” Bruno took a cigarette out and held it to his lips. But then he remembered where he was and put it behind his ear.

“You don’t need the money,” I said.

“Nothing’s ever about money.” We went outside and he began locking all five deadbolts quietly behind us. “It’s about power. Doing whatever the fuck you want to do. But that’s fine, Mikey. Not everyone can be an alpha.”

We found Teresa and Darren down on the street, leaning against Bruno’s car. They were holding hands and they both looked relatively sober. When Darren saw us, he gritted his teeth like he’d swallowed a live eel and it was trying to find its way out.

“Here you go, Meteor Man.” Bruno took the blister trays out of his pockets and handed them to Darren. Then he squinted like Vincent the fake Cholo and crossed his arms. I wondered if Vincent and Bruno watched the same movies.

“So pay up.”

Darren nodded and fished a wad of bills out of his pocket. He wobbled a little, but Teresa held him steady.

“No,” Bruno said. “Give it to her.”

Like a robot, Darren obeyed.

“That’s $500,” Teresa said. “Don’t you want any?”

Bruno frowned, took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit up. “Come on Teresa. You know you need it.”

She hugged him. He hugged her back with one arm, holding his cigarette out to the side. Bruno’s expression glazed and he seemed for a moment like that smirking moonfaced kid who’d get in a fight with you one day and come by the next to show you his pet frog.

“Thank you,” Teresa said.

He cleared his throat and puffed on his cigarette. “Don’t mention it. You could have asked in the first place and I’d have given you the money.”

When my cousin hugged him a second time, he added, “But this makes sense, right? Haley’s Comet over here needs his drugs.”

“Look,” Darren said, holding his hands up. “I’ve been taking a lot of shit from you all night.”

“Grew a pair, huh?”

Teresa stepped between them. “Get in the car, Darren.”

“Yeah, Star Chart, get in the fuckin’ car. Or don’t. I don’t give a shit.”

After a moment of staring, Darren went along.

“See that, Mikey? I could tell him, go fuck that lamp post and he’d probably do it.”

I nodded, thinking about what I’d seen pass between Bruno and my cousin, wondering what I felt. He hugged me with one arm and Teresa with the other.

“Back to Swan’s!” he said.

“Back to Swan’s!” Teresa clenched her fist in the air, her other hand clutching the tiny inner pocket in the side of her dress where she’d slipped the money.

There was an hour left until bar time, but the same crowd was still there, the funk of body odor and cheap cologne, the lot packed with cars. Darren wobbled to his Jetta as soon as we got out. He wanted Teresa to come with him, but she said she had some things to take care of and she’d call him tomorrow.

“Good riddance, pissant,” Bruno called at his back. I guess Darren had had a difficult night—difficult enough that he no longer felt up to fisticuffs. He went over to the Jetta, got in, and swerved out of the lot without making eye contact. I didn’t think we’d see more of Darren the YouTube weather man. He didn’t live in town and he was already blackballed. Bruno would keep calling him names until complete strangers started asking him if he was that kid named Star Chart. And no woman would want to be seen with a guy named Star Chart unless he was paying her. And even then.

We got a table and more drinks until Teresa found one of her regulars and said she was leaving with him. I felt a sense of panic when she said it, thinking that the last chance to tell her about Grandma was passing by. But I didn’t know what was going on inside me, what new thing had coiled up where my anger had been. I felt a tear roll down my cheek, but my cousin didn’t see it and I wiped it away. She was busy tying her hair back, telling me I could call her next week and we could talk about whatever was so damn important.

I said okay, that I would, knowing I wouldn’t. Then it was just me and Bruno, who proceeded to drink as much as humanly possible in the remaining forty minutes before bar time. At one point, he forgot that Teresa had left and he walked all around Swan’s yelling her name. He even stumbled into the ladies’ room and sent a few angry girls in CSU Fresno sweatshirts running out, complaining to David the bartender that Bruno was kicking the stalls in calling for some chick. He sat across the booth from me and wept. He told me he loved me. He said he was going to buy a big house in Alaska where we could all live together like a family and get drunk whenever we wanted. He asked me if I thought Darren hated him.

“You know,” I said, “I can’t tell anymore.”

Bruno nodded. “Who can?”

At bar time, Swan’s kicked everyone out—a ragtag group of freaks like extras in a late-night movie about zombies from Mars. Their cars lurched out of the lot in all directions. Bruno went to sleep in his BMW.

I wandered the black streets of downtown Fresno, unsure of where I was or where I had to go, my only memory of what I did for the rest of that night being the moment I looked up at the sky. It was late enough that I could see the tiny pale stars winking like the lights in Josephina Frazetti’s bedroom. And like Mrs. Frazetti, I might have called out to those lights in a feeble sick voice, hoping someone would answer.

 

 

BIO

Michael DavisMichael Davis’ short fiction has appeared in Descant, The San Joaquin Review, The Jabberwock Review, The Black Mountain Review, Eclipse, Cottonwood, The Mid-American Review, Full Circle, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Georgia Review, Storyglossia, The Chicago Quarterly Review, Willow Springs, The Normal School, Arcana, The Superstition Review, The New Ohio Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Atticus Review, Isthmus, the Earlyworks Press Short Story Anthology, Redline, and Small Print Magazine. His collection of stories, Gravity, was published by Carnegie Mellon UP in 2009. He has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Western Michigan University. He lives in Bangkok where he is a lecturer in English at Stamford International University.

 

 

 

 

The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

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