The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Ben Bush

It was un­pro­fes­sional—rina knew it—to take the call dur­ing a ses­sion with a client: the guy was slumped low on the couch op­po­site her, one hand clenched in a fist, a glass cof­fee table in be­tween them, on it, a vase full of white stones, her iphone count­ing down the hour-long ap­point­ment; she was try­ing, with­out telling the client di­rectly what to do since that was strongly con­traindi­cated, to guide him to dis­cover for him­self the steps of the “roadmap” that might lead to a bet­ter life—a GED, a job, pay­ing off debts. Her phone’s cracked screen lit up, su­per­im­pos­ing in front of the timer a call from Cen­tral Book­ing. She had the num­ber saved. She should have ex­cused her­self for the call but didn’t. It was hard to hear him at first, but it was Leon, his voice dis­torted by the rup­tured di­aphragm of the jail phone’s mouth­piece. Felony de­struc­tion of prop­erty. One thou­sand dol­lars bail. Leon was a friend, not some so­cial work case. She told him to keep calm, to sit tight, she’d get him out of there. On the couch across from her, the client, lis­ten­ing in, seemed alert for the first time. She ended the ses­sion early, sched­uled a follow-up, and ush­ered him out. Bluish light came in through the drapes in her of­fice. It was barely March, still a chill in the air. She dug around to find some­thing to put on over her thin gray cardi­gan. In the closet, a fake rab­bit-fur stole that she usu­ally wore for nights out. How had that got­ten there? She wrapped her­self in it and walked to where she’d parked her Kia Spec­tra, glad to have her li­cense back. She took Charles Street north, away from the jail, then 25 to­ward Ivor’s banh mi shop in Ham­p­den. Her shocks groaned as she made a quick, tight right turn onto West Thirty-sixth.

The Saigon Po’ Boy. She and Leon had been with Ivor the night he thought up the place. The three of them had taken pills while drink­ing at The Golden Bull and, long af­ter bar close, stayed awake in some dark liv­ing room—no idea whose—and Ivor kept mut­ter­ing about “scal­lions,” “high-grade meat,” “mar­gins,” and “mark-up,” re­peat­ing those phrases in some kind of fugue state. She’d as­sumed at the time that it was a drug-fu­eled delu­sion—she and Leon had talked, try­ing to tune Ivor out—but when she’d gone in on open­ing day, the floors were spot­less. The delu­sion looked pretty good. At times, when her caseload was light and her cash flow ebbing—which was of­ten—ivor had of­fered her a few shifts on nights he was short-staffed, and she, think­ing of her loans, had ac­cepted.

What had hap­pened with her li­cense? Last win­ter, she’d been drink­ing with Ivor at The Dizz, and he of­fered to drive her home. They’d both had a few. The streets were icy. His car slid up an em­bank­ment, tak­ing out a park­ing sign. The sirens got closer, but the wheels just spun. He needed his li­cense for pick-ups and de­liv­er­ies. Three thou­sand dol­lars and le­gal fees paid, he’d said, if she took the driver’s seat be­fore the cops showed.

The bell above the en­trance clanged as she walked in. Ivor, be­hind the counter, white apron over white T-shirt, smiled at her, which meant he didn’t get why she was there. She walked up to the reg­is­ter so that that was all that sep­a­rated them. “Our pal Leon is in jail.” Ivor chewed his lip. “Who’s Leon?” This was im­pos­si­ble: he knew Leon. He and Leon had hung out dozens of times. “Leon,” she said again, shift­ing her in­to­na­tion, as if it might help. “Who’s this guy to you? A client? Some pity case you’re dat­ing?” Ivor and Leon had both rafted down the Po­tomac when she’d got­ten a bunch of friends from the neigh­bor­hood to­gether for a sum­mer out­ing. “He’s my friend,” she said. It was her turn to be con­fused. “I thought he was your friend, too. He needs bail.” “Huh. What’s he gonna do about it?” Ivor turned away from her to flip a slab of pork on the grill. “I want to col­lect on last win­ter,” she said. So far, she hadn’t seen dol­lar one. There was a pop and a siz­zle. “I can’t do that right now. Ev­ery­thing I have is wrapped up in this place. This fall. I should be in the black by then.” “I went to jail for you.” “You went to week­end jail.” “They made an al­lowance so I could keep my prac­tice.” “You said it was in­ter­est­ing. You said you made friends.” “Six months. Six months, I walked to work.” A lie, of course. It was Leon who had been friend enough to drive her while her li­cense was sus­pended. “I don’t know what to tell you. I just can’t pay you right now.” He walked over to the cut­ting board and started chop­ping cilantro, loud, to drown out what­ever she might say. She tilted her head back, felt the rab­bit fur rub against the back of her neck, looked up. “New ceil­ing,” she said when the chop­ping stopped. He smiled. “Pretty nice, yeah? Pressed tin.” He ex­tolled the shift in the neigh­bor­hood. Not just the twenty-some­thing bar-go­ers any­more.

“With that ceil­ing, the right dé­cor, fam­i­lies show­ing up, I can charge two dol­lars more per sand­wich.” Ivor had his eye on the fu­ture. She looked around at the empty ta­bles. So far, the fu­ture was a no-show, but it was a Friday, late af­ter­noon, still early for din­ner. How much had that ceil­ing cost him? “I know you’ve put a lot of work into this place,” she said, “and I know you have a lot go­ing on, so I hate to press the point, but I need money to get Leon out. If I can’t come through with it, he’s go­ing to be stuck there un­til his court date.” The bell clanged again. The front en­trance grunted open: a cou­ple, child-bear­ing age, though from the looks of it, they hadn’t got­ten around to it yet. Ivor gave a broad smile, bel­lowed a warm greet­ing. It bugged her. Ivor: stand-off­ish to friends, friendly to strangers. The cou­ple kept their dis­tance from the counter, brows­ing. West Thirty-sixth had a dozen restau­rants. “Ivor,” she said loudly, “why don’t you tell this nice cou­ple how much speed you take?” His eyes popped. “Took. Took. Past tense, peo­ple,” but the cou­ple had al­ready ex­ited. “Je­sus, what the fuck, Rina?” She could see it in him. The long hours. Past tense, my ass. “If you want to pre­tend this is noth­ing, I can be un­pleas­ant.” She had his at­ten­tion. Now he wanted to play peace­maker. “Look,” he said, “you’ve been a good friend to me.” He scratched one of his side­burns re­morse­fully. “You’ve been a good friend to a lot of peo­ple in this town, and I’m just sorry that I can’t be that kind of friend for you to­day.” This was, at least, more like what she wanted to hear. Fi­nally, some gen­uine re­gret. “Let me get you some­thing for your trou­ble,” he said. She watched him retreat to the sup­ply area. She’d been back there: bleached rags, rolls of waxed pa­per, gal­lon jugs of vine­gar. Noth­ing that would get Leon out. “What size are you?” he shouted. He was bent over, root­ing in a card­board box. “What size of what?” she asked. She reached across the reg­is­ter, pressed the no-sale but­ton, placed a hand be­hind the cash drawer so it wouldn’t ding when it opened. Some kids had pulled that one on her when she’d been work­ing. She re­moved a stack of twen­ties. Ivor re­turned to the counter. “It’s a medium,” he said, a hot pink pro­mo­tional T-shirt ex­tended in his hand, “but they run a lit­tle big. Go ahead, put it on.” It hung off her in folds, puffed out only slightly by the gray cardi­gan, her of­fice wear, be­neath. Rina was short, thin, but she was a big pres­ence and had a wide face. He wasn’t the first to mis­take her size. “There,” Ivor said, ap­prais­ing her, lik­ing what he saw. “A pretty girl like you. A pop­u­lar girl like you. A girl who knows ev­ery­one in the

neigh­bor­hood. With that on, you’re go­ing to bring me busi­ness, and that, not bad-mouthing to cus­tomers, is how you’ll get your money.” Pop­u­lar. Pretty. He was just try­ing to please her. Some nights it was hard just to coax friends out to the bar, let alone get them to ful­fill the deeper, al­most spir­i­tual, du­ties of friend­ship. She won­dered if these peo­ple, her friends, even liked her. She looked down at the shirt. “Thanks. You’ve done more for me than you know.” She turned to leave. “Now that you men­tion it,” Ivor said, “I do re­mem­ber that guy, that Leon. He’d bet­ter straighten up soon, or he’s gonna be in a bad way.”

Who was Leon to her? Rina had met him three years ear­lier when they’d both been de­liv­ery driv­ers for a lo­cal whole­saler of ve­gan health snacks. It was, on top of her clinic hours, her sum­mer job dur­ing her master’s. She and Leon had been as­signed to work as a pair, tak­ing turns driv­ing, both of them load­ing and un­load­ing. Even though she’d been rail thin, the lift­ing had been easy. Lots of foil bags of air-popped veg­etable crisps, pita chips, noth­ing too heavy. One Friday af­ter fin­ish­ing de­liv­er­ies, in­stead of re­turn­ing the van to head­quar­ters—all of the of­fice staff had gone home for the day—she and Leon had driven to Ocean City for a week­end ben­der. They’d chugged vodka waist-deep in the waves af­ter mid­night, the sounds of the board­walk grow­ing more dis­tant with each gulp. Ocean City was nar­row, built on a penin­sula. Leon had driven the de­liv­ery van down the main drag, Philadel­phia Av­enue. Along it, the party busses and fat-tired bikes felt more than ever like a slow-mov­ing river. They re­turned the van with­out in­ci­dent. On Mon­day, the sales of­fice got a call from a first-time client for a large or­der, prof­itable. When the caller gave an ad­dress in Ocean City, the sales rep re­gret­fully ex­plained it was out­side their ser­vice area. The caller was con­fused. Why then had he seen their de­liv­ery truck? Though man­age­ment couldn’t prove any­thing, they sus­pected. GPS track­ers were in­stalled in the de­liv­ery vans soon af­ter. She and Leon stayed friends af­ter she re­turned for the fall se­mes­ter of her MSW, while, at least for a while, he’d kept work­ing as a driver. The two of them had be­come, in the years since, among other things, er­rand-run­ning bud­dies: the thrift store, a Costco run. The two of them just star­ing out the wind­shield, talking about what­ever. She saw her other friends at the bars, at par­ties—she of­ten trav­eled in a pack—but Leon was the friend she hung out with one-on-one—even, de­spite their par­ty­ing, the friend she hung out sober with the most, at least when they did their er­rands in the morn­ing.

From Ham­p­den, she took 83 down­town. She counted the twen­ties at a stop­light on Mon­u­ment. Two-hun­dred-eighty. Not enough for bail, but

a start. At the glassed-in cashier’s booth, she put the rest on her card, ac­cept­ing the over­draft fees. Leon would have done the same for her, she thought, and then tried not to think too deeply about whether it was true. He looked frag­ile when they brought him out. She put one arm across his shoul­ders to guide him through the lobby. Un­der her hand, she felt the grid-like grain of the syn­thetic fab­ric of what had be­come known as Leon’s all-sea­son jacket. It was a cheap down coat Leon had fi­nally bought in November when it got too cold to go with­out. She’d been drink­ing with some peo­ple at The Golden Bull, eat­ing en­chi­ladas, that first night he walked in af­ter buy­ing it. Leon greeted them. When he took off his coat, he was cov­ered in feath­ers. The down had al­ready started leak­ing through the lin­ing. It was Cal who gave the jacket its name, pro­ject­ing that its feath­ers would shed at the ideal rate so that the thick win­ter coat would be a wind­breaker in time for spring. And now, with the win­ter thawed, the jacket hung off Leon nearly empty. She could feel his bony shoul­ders. She opened the pas­sen­ger-side door for him, and he col­lapsed into the seat. Once she was be­hind the wheel, she reached over to give him a side-hug. He’d smelled bet­ter. He thanked her pro­fusely, which she en­joyed up to a point. She reached into a take-out bag stuffed into the e-brake crevice, handed him some nap­kins. He wiped his nose. “Thank you, Rina. I’m go­ing to pay you back. I’m go­ing to pay you back right away.” “The most im­por­tant thing,” she said, “is you’re out, you’re free.” “Man, is it good to see you,” he said. Jail had rat­tled him. “You know what I was think­ing as I drove here?” Her voice rose a lit­tle, try­ing to cheer him up. “I kept think­ing, here I am on an er­rand: bail­ing you out of jail, and that that er­rand, like all er­rands, would be more fun with you in the car and now”—she squeezed his shoul­der— “here you are.” The en­gine was start­ing to warm up. She opened the vents on the heater. Leon un­zipped the all-sea­son jacket, un­veil­ing the paunch on his oth­er­wise still strong physique. She’d been stunned over the sum­mer when she and Leon had gone swim­ming out at Pretty Boy reser­voir: his legs were thick with clumps of mus­cle. “You wanna tell me what hap­pened?” she asked. The Mid-mary­land 10K. He’d seen a poster for it the day be­fore, and it had trig­gered an un­pleas­ant sen­sa­tion: dis­ap­point­ment that it had been ten years since he’d won it. Leon had let­tered in track in high school, taken state. He’d talk about it some­times when he was high. The race was out in Tow­son, where Leon was from. It was a fundraiser. For what, he couldn’t re­mem­ber. The en­trance fees went to some­thing or other,

but the guy who won got a thou­sand dol­lars: 10K, 1K. The spring of his se­nior year, he’d been that guy, the guy who won. He told him­self he was go­ing to put the money to­ward col­lege, but he’d never got­ten it to­gether to fin­ish his high school cred­its. He couldn’t stop think­ing about it af­ter he’d seen the poster, about how he hadn’t done one thing he was proud of in the ten years since. He must have started drink­ing. In the morn­ing, he woke up to knock­ing. He was only half-awake when he opened the door. The sight of two uni­formed of­fi­cers woke him the rest of the way. Some­one had kicked in the win­dows of all the cars on his block. He didn’t re­mem­ber it, but it had been him. “But for that? They set your bail that high for that?” Rina asked. He had a prior ar­rest, he said. When he was nine­teen, he’d been killing time at a Sun­glass Hut at the mall be­fore work. He saw a fourhun­dred-dol­lar pair of Ray-bans that his girl­friend would like. Four hun­dred dol­lars. An in­sane price. He felt like, just on prin­ci­ple, some­one ought to teach the store a les­son. He pock­eted them, walked out, did a lunch shift as a bus­boy, put his sweat­shirt back on, felt the Ray-bans in the pouch, knew it had been silly to take them, and walked back to the store. He handed the sun­glasses to the cashier and apol­o­gized, but be­fore he could fin­ish, a pair of mall cops were on ei­ther side of him. It didn’t mat­ter that he’d re­turned them. What mat­tered was that he’d stolen them. Warm­ing up in Rina’s car, he tapped his foot on the floor mat at the ab­sur­dity of it. They’d been idling a while. It was night now. Dark out­side the car. The lot charged by the half hour. It would cost them when they left. “Where do you want me to take you?” she said. “I want to go to Tow­son. The race is to­mor­row. I’m gonna run, I’m gonna win it, and I’m gonna give you the money.” She al­most laughed. She hadn’t seen this kind of de­ter­mi­na­tion in him maybe ever. It looked good on him. “Man, in the ten years since I last ran it,” he said, “ev­ery­body from my track team, from the teams we com­peted against, all those peo­ple have had kids and packed on the pounds. It’s like there won’t even be any com­pe­ti­tion. I can win this.” It was an amaz­ing level of self-delu­sion. “What about the kids who are on track teams now? The kids who are the age you were then?” “Those kids? What do they know? I’ve seen things they wouldn’t believe.” “You’re crazy,” she said and shook her head, amused in dis­be­lief. From school, she knew that re­gain­ing dam­aged dig­nity was the first step

to­ward ego re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion af­ter a trau­matic event, such as an ar­rest. Hope it­self mat­tered, more than its prac­ti­cal­ity. She should be sup­port­ive. “We’ll stay at Gar­rett’s place,” he said. “I need to go out there any­way. The suit I wore to his wed­ding is there. He had it dry-cleaned af­ter what hap­pened. I need a suit for my court date.” Last she knew, he and Gar­rett weren’t on speak­ing terms. “Are you two cool?” “It’s prob­a­bly bet­ter if you text him.” Friend­ships al­ways ended over the dumb­est things. She hoped he and Gar­rett would get over it if they just saw each other face to face. She got her phone out and saw she’d missed a call from Ivor. No doubt pissed about the cash. Well, what­ever. He didn’t have the guts to call the cops, not with that DUI be­tween them. He didn’t have much moral high ground to speak of ei­ther. She could see it al­ready: he’d suck it up, and in two weeks, he’d be ask­ing her to fill in week­end shifts again. She texted Gar­rett to let him know she and Leon were headed to Tow­son and would need a place to stay the night. Maybe the friend­ship could be re­newed. Leon slumped against her, and she pushed him back up­right. “I thought you might be tuck­ered out af­ter what you’ve been through. Take a look un­der your seat. There’s a lit­tle Tang for you.” He dug around on the floor be­tween his legs, pulled out a pill bot­tle, rat­tled it, and un­capped it. In­side, down at the bot­tom, two pas­tel orange pills lit by the panel lights. “Aw, you shouldn’t have.” “I thought you might need a lit­tle pep af­ter what you’ve been through. Go ahead.” He shook them into his palm and of­fered one to her. She waved it off. She’d taken one be­fore her morn­ing ses­sion. He slid one pill back into the bot­tle, slapped the other into his mouth, and swal­lowed. “Sav­ing the other for the race. I run fast on this stuff.” And it wasn’t just talk. Rina had been hang­ing out in front of The Golden Bull af­ter close on a Satur­day night, stand­ing, talking, and smok­ing with Cal, Ivor, and the rest of the crew. They’d seen Leon zip past them, just a blur, rac­ing down West Thirty-sixth, jab­ber­ing to him­self in what sounded like some in­vented lan­guage as he trailed off into the dis­tance as if pur­sued. She got back on 83, headed north, took the park­way to 45. An over­pass’s steel gird­ing flipped by over­head. The sky above was black. At the edge of the head­lights’ glow, trees and tall grasses whipped past along the edge of the high­way. She’d driven this same route in the sum­mer. The lush jun­gle qual­ity of the East Coast had been all around. A re­minder that peo­ple had orig­i­nally set­tled here, not for the now-closed fac­to­ries, but be­cause the land was so fer­tile.

Her cell buzzed. One hand on the wheel, she fished the phone out with the other. Gar­rett’s re­ply: “!”

She’d met Gar­rett through Leon. The two of them had grown up to­gether in Tow­son. It was Gar­rett who’d got­ten Leon the job as a de­liv­ery driver, and the three of them worked to­gether that sum­mer. She and Leon had in­vited Gar­rett to join when they drove out to Ocean City, but Gar­rett said he’d pass. At the end of the sum­mer, he was pro­moted to man­age­ment. Even af­ter that, he’d join them at the bars some­times. Be­tween Cal and Leon’s of­ten-crass hu­mor, Gar­rett’s rel­a­tive si­lence was bro­ken only by re­served wit, one-lin­ers. He got en­gaged to Denise not long af­ter. Ap­par­ently, Gar­rett had been the wild one when he and Leon were grow­ing up, but she’d never seen that side of him. By the time she met him, he was al­ready half-tired of Leon’s an­tics, and be­fore long, she found her­self closer friends with him than Leon was. Gar­rett took a job in lo­gis­tics for Sysco and bought a house back in Tow­son, a place safe enough to raise a fam­ily.

She made the turn into the sub­di­vi­sion, the Spec­tra’s head­lights pan­ning across the stucco boxes and perfect green squares of lawn; the houses cut iden­ti­cal sil­hou­ettes against the dark sky. She pulled up in front of Gar­rett’s and let the en­gine idle, head­lights still glow­ing. She stared, tried to give the neigh­bor­hood the ben­e­fit of the doubt. The trees were evenly spaced along the blocks with a ro­botic pre­ci­sion, but the spread­ing of their leaves and branches still had an un­pre­dictable or­ganic qual­ity; same for the clouds that hung sus­pended above them. She killed the en­gine, un­buck­led, and turned to Leon. His eyes were peeled back wide. The Tang’s ef­fect was ap­par­ent. His voice was tense. “The cook­ies are home­made, but the kids are store-bought,” he mut­tered. For some­one who’d asked to be driven here, he didn’t seem glad to be back in his home­town. She did the first round of knock­ing. Then the sec­ond. Leon shifted from foot to foot. She di­aled Gar­rett on her cell and that, at last, brought his foot­steps down from the sec­ond floor. The door opened. He had a burp cloth over his left shoul­der. “Hey, I was just putting the kid down.” Gar­rett gave Rina a tepid hug and ex­tended a hand to­ward Leon for him to shake. Leon dropped his head and flung his arms around Gar­rett, pin­ning Gar­rett’s arms to his sides. Gar­rett took a whiff. “Time to hit the show­ers, kid.” He ush­ered them in­side, handed Leon a towel from the linen closet, and sent him up­stairs to the guest bath­room. Gar­rett led Rina to the kitchen: dish­washer, blender, toaster oven, that stuff, shiny and new. He got out a loaf of sliced bread, cold cuts,

and a block of cheese, and started grilling sand­wiches on the stove: the cir­cu­lar rim of the ham ex­tended beyond the edges of the square slices of bread. Not too dif­fer­ent from the jail food Rina re­mem­bered, the food Leon had most re­cently eaten, but warm at least. “How’s busi­ness?” Gar­rett asked her. “Steady,” she said. She told him how the bet­ter-es­tab­lished ther­a­pists in the of­fice where she rented space had been giv­ing her their spillover re­fer­rals, clients too an­noy­ing for her es­teemed col­leagues to take on— though she didn’t men­tion that last part. “Steady, huh? That why you’re wear­ing a Saigon Po’ Boy T-shirt?” He knew she’d taken some shifts there. “The sand­wiches are great. Next time you come to town, we should get a bite there.” He hadn’t, as far as she knew, hung out with the old crew in Ham­p­den in quite a while. “It’s re­ally good to see you,” she said. “Peo­ple miss you.” “Peo­ple miss me,” he echoed flatly. He had a spat­ula in his hand and wasn’t look­ing at her. “Cal was just say­ing the other night that he wished he saw you around more of­ten.” “Cal? You still hang out with that guy?” She shrugged. “Sure. He’s my friend.” “Af­ter what he said to Pi­lar?” She hadn’t heard. “She was at The Golden Bull, sur­rounded by lady-friends, just getting a grip on things: winning the civil case af­ter los­ing criminal, and you can imag­ine that feel­ing of weird­ness—getting paid off with­out re­ceiv­ing jus­tice. She told me that some­thing about it al­most made her sick. Cal was in The Golden Bull, too, un­ac­com­pa­nied, just for his nightly drink or what­ever pa­thetic rit­u­als that guy car­ries on. He sees what looks like a table full of avail­able girls, pulls up a chair, and asks what’s up to one of her peo­ple. She tells him and he gets this big smile. ‘Whoa, two hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars. I’d let a cop rape me for that kinda money.’ Pi­lar’s lady-friends pretty much had to push him away. Not even worth ex­plain­ing that the whole point was that, for Pi­lar, it hadn’t been a choice. That guy. You’re still friends with that guy?” “Cal and I have been friends for years. I’m not gonna cut him off over one dumb com­ment. He was prob­a­bly drunk.” “I’m sure he was.” Gar­rett flipped a sand­wich. “Be­cause for me, when I heard that, I just thought, I’m done. I’m done with that guy.” “Well, then we should get a drink with Pi­lar some­time.” “Pi­lar and I talk on the phone. I don’t need you to bro­ker a hang-out ses­sion be­tween her and me.”

She eyed the rounded tines of a baby’s eat­ing uten­sil on the sink di­vider. It sur­prised her to hear how an­gry he was. “I mean it’s not like that, like what you de­scribed, ev­ery night. I think if you just came and hung out you’d see that. Just be­cause you’re mar­ried and have a kid, doesn’t mean you’re a pris­oner.” “I’m not a pris­oner. I’m just tak­ing care of what mat­ters.” She con­sid­ered it. “You’ve al­ways liked your alone-time. I al­ways thought of you as an in­tro­spec­tive type.” “Some­times it’s hard to tell if some­one’s an in­tro­vert or all their friends are just ass­holes.” He plated the sand­wiches and ex­tended one of them to Rina. “I’m not hun­gry, but I bet Leon might want both of those.” Gar­rett huffed. “I just want to make it clear, I’m let­ting him stay the night as a fa­vor to you. Not cause of any resid­ual bond be­tween him and me.” They heard Leon com­ing down the stairs. He walked into the kitchen, un­aware he was the rea­son for its si­lence. “Still fits,” he said. His paunch pressed against the front of the suit. It was a black satin thing, clearly tai­lored for nup­tials, not court. Leon looked down at it ap­prov­ingly. “Dress up like an adult so you won’t be scared,” he ad­vised him­self. Sounded like sec­ond-hand wisdom from one of his many friends, in­clud­ing her­self, who’d sur­vived a court date. Maybe he’d even heard it from Rina. He gave him­self an af­firm­ing squeeze. “You weren’t act­ing like an adult last time I saw you in it,” Gar­rett said. He ges­tured at the sand­wiches, still on two sep­a­rate plates. “Leon, those are for you.” Leon, in his tux, sat down at the kitchen table, his chair pushed back at an an­gle, and took a bite from one of the sand­wiches. He made a warm, pleased sound. “Unh. This is good,” he said, still chew­ing. A cry came from a white box on the table with a speaker in it, a baby mon­i­tor. “Rina, can you help me set up the baby’s room? That’s where the two of you are go­ing to sleep.” She fol­lowed Gar­rett up the car­peted stairs. Soft cries came through the door as he opened it. In the cen­ter of the room was a crib. He reached in and lifted up a bun­dle. The baby leaned away from him at first, then, open­ing its eyes, nes­tled into Gar­rett’s shoul­der. He had his sleeves un­but­toned and rolled up. His bi­ceps, through the fab­ric, were thick from baby-hold­ing. The work­out reg­i­men of par­ent­hood. He’d gone gray since the sum­mer she’d met him, but he was in bet­ter shape than her friends in Ham­p­den. She inched closer. The baby had a round face and a wide nose, fore­arms lined with chub. “Aw, it’s cute,” she said.

“He,” Gar­rett re­minded her. “Tav­ish.” The baby put a tiny fin­ger to its mouth. “Why would I drive into town when I have this lit­tle guy right here?” He let her ad­mire the baby for a bit, then di­rected her to get some sheets and a pair of quilts from the linen closet. He didn’t have any pad­ding for the floor. Tav­ish, when Gar­rett set him down, squat­ted into a seated position, legs folded out in front of him. Gar­rett took the toys out of the crib. He held one side of it, Rina the other. The thing col­lapsed eas­ily and they pushed it over by the dresser with the baby mon­i­tor on it, against the far wall. Tav­ish would sleep in Gar­rett and Denise’s room that night. He turned to her. “So he’s run­ning the race to­mor­row? For fun? I didn’t know he was still into that.” With­out a car, Leon walked all over town, but that was about the ex­tent of it she’d seen. “He wants to win,” she said. “He seems de­ter­mined. It’s nice to see him set goals.” “He needs the money, doesn’t he?” Gar­rett shook his head. “Why do you feed his delu­sions? There’s no way in hell he’s go­ing to win this thing.” “Oh, come on, he might. Any­thing’s pos­si­ble.” “Sure. Leon might win that race. The Knicks might pick me as MVP. You might get named So­cial Worker of the Year. Any­thing’s pos­si­ble.” She didn’t like that he’d lumped in her chances of pro­fes­sional ac­claim with his im­prob­a­ble NBA as­cen­sion. “You don’t even play bas­ket­ball.” “He’s not go­ing to win.” “You shouldn’t talk like that,” she said. “Are you go­ing to talk that way when that lit­tle guy,” she ges­tured at Tav­ish, who was run­ning a hand through the thick car­pet, “goes out for Lit­tle League? When he has a tough math test? You can’t be like that.” “I just don’t un­der­stand why you still hang out with these peo­ple. You’re a to­gether girl. You hold down a ca­reer-track job in a town where not many peo­ple have them. You wouldn’t even have a record if it weren’t for Ivor. So my ques­tion is, why do you spend time with Leon?” “He’s my friend,” she said. “He’s your friend, too.” His eyes flared. “I’ll de­cide what he is to me.” Gar­rett ex­tended a hand to­ward Tav­ish, who, hold­ing onto it, was able to raise him­self up. Gar­rett helped him bal­ance as they walked to the top of the stairs and as­sisted him as he slowly climbed down them. Gar­rett made a quiet sound ef­fect, boom, each time Tav­ish landed on a step be­low. The dish­washer was hum­ming and rum­bling. The tod­dler trailed be­hind Gar­rett, and she fol­lowed them into the kitchen. Leon was seated at the table. The sand­wiches were gone. He had crumbs on the front of his tuxedo and was hold­ing a beer. He clinked the bot­tle

against the baby mon­i­tor on the table. “‘No way in hell he’s go­ing to win this thing,’” Leon mim­icked. He’d heard ev­ery word. “What would you know about track?” He jut­ted his face at Gar­rett. “I lapped you.” “In tenth grade.” Gar­rett didn’t even bother to be ap­palled that the baby mon­i­tor had broad­cast his bad-mouthing. “I move so fast, you can’t even see me.” Je­sus. Leon was ripped. Gar­rett ges­tured at the bot­tle with his free hand. “Nice of you two to show up with a six-pack.” Leon picked up the bot­tle, looked at it. “This is from your fridge.” “I know. Wish­ful think­ing.” Ba­sic eti­quette: bring a loaf of bread or some­thing to the home of the floor you’re crash­ing on. A for­eign con­cept, likely, to Leon, but she should have thought of it. Lean­ing against the dish­washer, she felt it shift gears. Its vent ex­haled steam, moist­en­ing the back thighs of her of­fice slacks. Tav­ish, still hold­ing on to Gar­rett’s hand, took a few steps out from be­hind his fa­ther’s legs. “Well, here’s the man him­self!” Leon said, his voice rising with a sense of oc­ca­sion. Tav­ish reached to­ward Leon with the hand Gar­rett wasn’t hold­ing. Tav­ish smiled, re­veal­ing a pair of bot­tom in­cisors. “He likes me,” Leon said and poked a fin­ger into the tod­dler’s mouth. Rina winced. Some­thing un­hy­gienic about it even post-shower. “Kid looks like me.” Leon grinned, flaunt­ing the gap where his tooth was chipped. “Maybe he’s one of mine,” he said and laughed at his own joke. “Not likely,” Gar­rett said. He squat­ted down, picked up Tav­ish, rest­ing him on his shoul­der, away from Leon. “Denise was irate when I told her you were on your way.” “Where is she any­way? It’d be good to see her.” “She doesn’t want to see you.” Gar­rett’s wife had a knack for so­cial graces. The blunt com­ment was his, not hers. Rina, though never a huge fan of the mar­riage, pic­tured Denise de­scend­ing from her up­stairs hide­out to smooth over the sit­u­a­tion, still in the white dress Rina had last seen her in. Play­ing hooky meant the woman had no in­tent of wast­ing those in­ter­per­sonal skills on her hus­band’s sur­prise house­guests. “Look, I un­der­stand about the wed­ding. Some feel­ings got hurt.” Leon brushed the crumbs off his lap. His greasy hands left smears on his pant legs. “I un­der­stand that. I can tell you’re still an­gry. I want you to know that long ago, in my heart,” he ges­tured at his chest, his fin­gers glis­ten­ing with grease, “I for­gave you for be­ing mad at me.”

“You for­gave me for be­ing an­gry,” Gar­rett said. “You re­al­ize that logic is in­sane?” “Look, if you want to stay mad, I can’t stop you.” “I’m let­ting you stay at my house, and I think that’s be­ing gen­er­ous enough.” “How many times do I need to say it? I’m sorry.” Gar­rett rolled his eyes. “The num­ber one hit sin­gle. Play it again. Here’s the deal: you can sleep up­stairs in the kid’s room, but I don’t want to see you come out of there.” He turned to her. “Rina, get this guy to bed.” Leon was her charge, her re­spon­si­bil­ity. In Gar­rett’s for­mu­la­tion, she was chap­er­on­ing Leon. Her idea that the visit would patch things up un­veiled its id­iocy.

Who goes to sleep at eleven on a Friday? Par­ents, ap­par­ently. Leon could feel the Tang still cours­ing through him. Im­pos­si­ble to sleep. Over­head, a mo­bile—ducks and air­planes—daw­dled in a dull arc. Stuffed an­i­mals piled in the cor­ners. On the wall­pa­per, two pat­terns, one of gi­raffes, the other of clouds, in­ter­sected busily. He could feel the chem­i­cals kink­ing up his legs, tens­ing and cramp­ing his calves. Rina was be­side him, out cold, her breath war­bling lightly. Her mouth soft and open. She looked dif­fer­ent with­out her makeup. The quilts weren’t quite long enough to cover ei­ther of them. At the bot­tom, her feet poked out, socks on. At the top, the pink col­lar of her Po’ Boy T-shirt. She’d worn it as a night­gown, noth­ing on un­der­neath. He re­mem­bered her body from the time they’d hooked up. Ocean City. Her navel notched high in her stom­ach, a key­hole. He’d been un­able to get hard. Af­ter­ward, she hadn’t been into him like that. Over­head the mo­bile gusted with re­newed en­ergy from an un­seen source. He thought about rub­bing one out. Some­times it helped him to sleep when noth­ing else did, but, look­ing at the stuffed an­i­mals, he pulled his hand out from the band of his un­der­wear. The blank space that’d been there when the cops came to his door now re­turned to him in flashes: his right leg kick­ing high, the bone swivel­ing in his hip socket, the sole of his black Con­verse ram­ming against a side win­dow. It had been fun in a way: the wildly alive feel­ing of al­co­hol in his nerve end­ings. Some of that same ki­netic thrill he’d had run­ning track. It’d been ballsy, amaz­ing, dumb. Af­ter­ward, in­mates in his cell, hav­ing eaten the sand­wiches the guards brought them, had slurped on pack­ets of mayo. Still hun­gry for the ex­tra calo­ries. The com­pressed foil sleeves hang­ing from their mouths. Pur­ple juice had come in these clear plastic pouches, like a Zi­ploc but with­out an open­ing. You were sup-

posed to chew off a cor­ner and suck it through. A mess. Adults—thirty of them in a cell with only one bench—sticky, with no way to get clean.

He was still awake when the alarm went off pre-dawn. Foxy Brown, tinny from Rina’s phone. She reached over to si­lence it. When she opened her eyes, she shud­dered, see­ing him star­ing at her. They put on their clothes from the day be­fore. His pants itched. Down­stairs in the kitchen, he ate bowl af­ter bowl of ce­real: Chee­rios for the baby. He felt the milk and the slight sweet­ness build­ing up in­side him. Rina stopped at just one and sat there while he fin­ished. Denise and Gar­rett, au­di­ble but not de­ci­pher­able through the ceil­ing, talked qui­etly in their bed­room above the kitchen, but nei­ther came down to send him and Rina off or to wish him well on the race. From his seat in Rina’s Spec­tra, he watched the mist rise off the fields that stretched be­tween Gar­rett’s sub­di­vi­sion and the high school. The sun was com­ing up. His eyes stung and his jaw ached. He fin­gered his teeth. A pain in there from grind­ing dur­ing the night. Rina pulled her car into the park­ing lot by the high school. A score­board, through the car win­dow, loomed over the ath­letic field that the race led off from. Po­si­tioned on the grass oval at the cen­ter of the track, the tops of foot­ball tackle dum­mies were just vis­i­ble over the heads of reg­is­trants wait­ing their turn at the sign-up booth. She turned to him and gave him an af­firm­ing look that seemed de­signed for a per­son other than who he felt him­self to be. “You’re gonna be real fast, buddy.” He reached un­der the seat and un­screwed the cap on the pill bot­tle. She squeezed his shoul­ders like some kind of box­ing coach. “You’re gonna win this thing.” “Me and Tang are gonna win this to­gether,” he said, chew­ing the pill be­fore swal­low­ing. He shed his jacket and left it in the car. He and Rina found their place in line be­hind a pair of women, al­ready jog­ging in place, in Day-glo pink shorts and ath­letic shoes with neon-yel­low pip­ing. Him in the same clothes he’d had on in cen­tral book­ing: black denim pants, a sweat­stained T-shirt, and a pair of Con­verse. He asked her if he could bor­row the regis­tra­tion fee. Fif­teen dol­lars. She could, he fig­ured, hardly turn him down now. A teen vol­un­teer in­side the booth handed him his change— her change—a rac­ing num­ber, and safety pins. Rina at­tached the num­ber to his back while he faced away from her, and he didn’t watch as she left him for a seat on the bleach­ers. His at­ten­tion turned to the com­pe­ti­tion. A lot of young heavy­set mom-types. The youth turn-out seemed low. Maybe home on their de­vices. The men gave off a mid­dle-man­age­ment vibe. Sort of small-busi­ness-owner dudes with their thin­ning hair shaved

to stub­ble. A cou­ple cops were pick­ing up some easy over­time do­ing se­cu­rity. Feel­ing drug-edgy, he steered clear as he moved into the crowd. Peo­ple were pressed in around him on all sides. A thin mus­cu­lar cou­ple in tight per­for­mance wear stretched near the start­ing line, shap­ing their bod­ies into tri­an­gles, and he took his place be­side them. He could feel the drug com­ing on, his pulse surg­ing be­fore he’d even started run­ning. The sound ef­fect of a starter pis­tol played over the loud­speak­ers. All of the feet shuf­fling be­hind him sounded like echoes of his own. His mus­cles re­leased into the move­ment. He ran along­side the su­per-fit cou­ple, us­ing them to mea­sure his ex­er­tion, as the crowd dis­ar­tic­u­lated into front-run­ners and the rest. The path wound through houses on the out­skirts of town. The smell of cut grass, gaso­line. Lodged into a well-kept lawn was an old hand-plough: a relic of a time when the land had meant some­thing else. Old men sat on fold­ing chairs in­side a garage, shout­ing en­cour­age­ment to the fe­male run­ners. To him, they shouted, “Nice jeans!” He turned his head around to look, but veins pulsed through his eyes, fis­sur­ing his view. As he ran, he was be­gin­ning to feel out­side of his own body, beyond it, apart from it. The cou­ple was gone. He had passed them. He was no longer pac­ing him­self against them. He was pac­ing him­self off of noth­ing. He was pac­ing him­self off the lim­it­less hori­zon, not com­par­ing him­self to any­one, just run­ning to­ward an in­fi­nite end­point. He was out in the coun­try­side. He’d left all the other run­ners be­hind. Up ahead was a dis­tant fold­ing table. On it, pa­per cups of water. The flat soles of his Con­verse hit the road again and again, the sound car­ry­ing across the sur­round­ing fields, in­ter­rupted by his ragged breaths. If he thought about it, he sup­posed he could feel the in­sides of his jeans cling­ing to him, sticky with sweat, and that his feet stung from slap­ping the pave­ment through the thin bot­toms of his shoes. He sup­posed maybe his mus­cles, his limbs, ached if he wanted to con­sider it. But much more than that, he felt a hot en­gine in­side him that wanted, more than even he him­self did, to go for­ward, to race, to win. To an­a­lyze the drive was to risk de­stroy­ing it. It would break if he paused to haz­ard to pos­si­bly think about the fact that he was winning. But he was. He was winning. He was go­ing to show all of them, show them what he was made of, and show them ex­actly who he was: a win­ner. He grabbed a cup as he passed the water sta­tion and, even with his throat sting­ing, he didn’t drink it—no, he tossed the water in the air and ran be­neath it as it fell—be­cause mov­ing was what he did. His job, his duty, was to move al­ways on­ward. He felt in his body the twist of the route as it be­gan to loop back to­ward the high school, the fin­ish line. His lungs were burn­ing from the ex­er­tion, the drug. His heart banged. He

thought of a rail­road worker pound­ing in a spike—that’s who he was, that’s what his heart was: the hard-work­ing, for­got­ten, down­trod­den builder of things. He was pure mus­cle. His heart was pure mus­cle. But his heart was so fast. Not a mus­cle, a ma­chine—a mech­a­nized ham­mer, a pneu­matic ham­mer. The ham­mer­ing was so fierce he thought his heart’s valves might burst, that it might ex­plode through his chest. Just as his anx­i­ety be­gan to tighten he rounded a cor­ner and saw the tack­le­dum­mies, the score­board. He could see, up at the top of the bleach­ers, Rina’s Day-glo pink Saigon Po’ Boy T-shirt. She stood. He heard her cheer­ing him on. “Leon! You’re do­ing it!” No one else was even close. An elec­tronic sen­sor, as he stepped across it, chirped, ac­knowl­edg­ing him. The man stand­ing be­side the track clicked a but­ton on a stop­watch. “I won!” he shouted, barely able to breathe. Rina was climb­ing down from the bleach­ers, ready to celebrate. Vol­un­teers, in a clus­ter, moved to­ward him to congratulate him. He threw his arm around one of the el­derly vol­un­teer’s shoul­ders, pulled the man to­ward his sweaty armpit, noo­gied him, and re­leased him. He clasped one of the high school vol­un­teers close and felt her body through the per­me­able bar­rier of his damp shirt. He held her there un­til she pushed away. He thrust his burn­ing hot arms deep into the ice trough full of sports drinks from a spon­sor. He pulled his arms out, drip­ping and glis­ten­ing. He held a bot­tle in each hand and hucked them into the air. “I won!” The crowd that had been rush­ing to­ward him shielded them­selves from the bot­tles, fall­ing. Ev­ery­one else had got­ten fat and sta­ble, rais­ing chil­dren and hold­ing down jobs. He’d stayed lean and strong and tough, and he’d seen so much more than them, and he’d won. From the ice trough, tip­ping it over, he grabbed an­other fusil­lade of sports drinks. Vol­un­teers sur­rounded him. Good job. Calm down. Stop it. A hand clasped his el­bow to tug it be­hind his back, to re­strain him. For a moment, they had his other arm pinned back as well. He worked free of their hold and his hand, at­tempt­ing a fist, in­stead slapped the face of one of the thin­ning-haired shaved-headed small busi­ness own­ers. “I won!” His mouth was so dry. His lungs were heav­ing. Some­thing bar­reled into him. Sprawled out on the grass oval at the cen­ter of the track, he looked up to see a short-sleeved black uni­form. They pulled his arms be­hind him and he felt a knee in the back­side of his ribs. He twisted his face to look to­ward the bleach­ers as one of the cops planted a palm against the base of his skull and pressed it to the ground. He saw Rina’s sen­si­ble shoes com­ing to­ward him, and he wanted to shout her name.

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