Issue 5

Jim Quinn
Men in Love
Fiction

A TROUT STINGS

              “My husband will kill you when he finds out,” she says, lighting a cigarette, laughing smoke through it. We’re naked in bed. Sparks sting out, hitting me here or lightly there. No burn, just glint-glint. This is the middle of the story, a love story if you believe in love. Smoke stink mixes with sour bed-smells rising through old sweat, his night-sweat, my day-sweat, her fur underarms, her pulled-at dirty hair, the weeks-old workshirt she slides into, wriggling as she goes. She walks to the bathroom, yells out at me through the door, “I am always hot, hot in this terrible weather of a terrible country.”

              Flush. She comes out, sliding off the shirt to drop along the way, switches the airconditioner to high. It grunts, sighs, exhales its chemical dogsbreath into her cool dim messy apartment. Hers and his. A rent-by-the-season one bedroom in a beachfront motel. She shakes her head at me, won’t come to bed. She sits at the kitchen table in the middle of the room, a big red rose printed on the old-time Formica top, pitted steel legs. Roundhead screws stick out at joints, as if what holds things together is part of the decorative effect, as if you have to see structure to trust your body to it. She trusts her body to it, heavily, heavy as she can. She crosses her arms on the table, tiny, round, firm arms, not fat. I keep telling her, not fat. I think she thinks “not fat” means I love her. I used to never love them. A faded beach towel (I’D LOVE A PUNCH! HAWAIIAN PUNCH!) covers the chair. She says she hates America because it sticks her butts to furnitures. But she hates America for everything. She’s from Moldova, Besserabia, Hungary. She doesn’t know where she’s from, she’s here and hates it. She puts out her cigarette on a pink ashtray shaped like a naked woman, paint half worn off the nipple dots. She puts her head on her arms and cries. All I said was, I like that she’s tan all over.

              “All I said was, I like you’re tan all over.”

              I walk to the table, kiss the back of her ear. She shrugs me off. Her hair’s red, tied in its own knot to hold it up, white rings show in her neck. She cries. I kiss a white neck ring. She talks down into her arms.

              “I go to the beach at down. See why I hate America? You say sun down when sun goes down, and down again when sun comes up. I take off my bikini, nobody is there, I tan. American women naked look scared.” She means dawn when she says down. She means scarred when she says scared. She’s right. Pale strap scars on shoulders, ghost bras, diaper-shaped crotch and ass patches. They look like sleek spotted eely brown-and-white puppies. We’re in Wildwood-by-the-Sea, New Jersey, which has, check any atlas, more hyphens than any other town in the world. I was born here. It’s our second night together – second morning, we work the Boards all night. Her husband works days and sets up his scam at 5 a.m. The Boards are the boardwalk, we’re shills.

              She looks up at me, happy or almost. “My husband will kill me when he finds out.”

              “You think that because he’s your first husband. Husbands never kill anybody, not even themselves. They cry. Husbands forgot how to be jealous, like they forgot how to be in love. They cry remembering what they forgot. Only their lovers kill wives.”

              “In my country, but I don’t know where is my country, they kill. Everybody kills. Even the wife would kill.”

              I call her Rose, can’t pronounce the name she can’t spell in English, it doesn’t sound like a name, just crashing teeth noises. She speaks English almost without an accent, slightly African-American. She learned it from rock songs. It’s meanings she gets wrong, ideas, attitudes.

              “America I get wrong,” she says, “Everybody does, Americans worst of all.”

              “How can you not know what country you’re from?” I say. “Are borders that uncertain?”

              “People are uncertain. They move where governments or gangs or gangsters say. My family is somewhere. My husband-who-is-always-right” – she says it like a title – “says my family is stucked in Walachia, which stopped existing long ago. Walachia, defeated country of the Vlachs, who lost every war they got in, and many wars they did not get in. Borders are infernal.”

              I think she means borders are eternal. Or maybe internal, or infernal, why not? I never ask. I like that she talks to me a language I understand but she doesn’t. I like not needing to understand. She lifts her head defiantly.

              “My poor, poor husband,” she says. Her eyes are black in this dark room, her hair dark red. She sticks out her tongue. She’s going to say something she thinks is funny because I’ll think it’s disgusting. “My husband will beat me when he finds out.”

              “He beats you?”

              “What’s one more beat? You think he is American? You think I, I am American?”

              She grins, walking me to bed. She slaps me lightly, slap, slap, harder, dodging me. I’m grabbing, it’s fast. She climbs on top, hitting. “My little American. Beat-ba, Beat-ba-ba. What do you know? What do you think you think when you think? You are human? You don’t even smoke cigarette!” She swings at me hard, I catch her arm. She spits, we roll, tangled in sheets, make love.

              “You call it make love, as if love is what you make, or do.”

              “Love is what you make, love is what you do,” I say. Sounds good, might be right.

              “Very good, or very well, you say good or well? Which? It doesn’t mattereds again, I know. Nothing mattereds to Americans in English. Very good and well, make me some love some more. So tomorrow I have such a sore trout,” she means twat, she only knows dirty words for body parts, “I can not love. What will I feel, a burn like cigarette when I swim, is that how Americans feel love, a trout stings? You see how American exactly wrong you are?” She bites my shoulder gently. “It’s why I like you, you think everything like American, and all is wrong. You are no danger to my life.” She’s back on top, “I love my husband, you believe it? I love my husband like you don’t even know, you know?”

              “I know.”

              “Poor, poor baby, too sleepy for talking. Sleep.”

              She lights a new cigarette, dials the phone. “Hello please? My husband is there? You are my husband? Well, dear darling, then you are going to kill me.” She cradles the receiver against her neck, lolling across my thighs. She picks up the sheet, and slowly, it takes longer than you’d think, burns a hole in it. “I know, I know, I know,” she sings it to him. “You love me. Else why else are you going to kill me? Stop talking. I confess all to you. I burned the sheet again.” She holds out the phone so I can hear.

              “You’re right,” he says. “Some day. I am killing you.”


WHEEL OF FORTUNE.

              The war is over. Mayday, 2003, 6:32 a.m. by my dashboard clock, beginning of the beginning this story. Bouncy boop-be-boop music, NPR’s Morning Edition is on the air. The war is over, but we won’t know till Bush tells us from his aircraft carrier. Bob tells Cokey (or Cokey tells Bob) our troops are searching Falujah to flush out pockets of resistance, but none have been found. Analysis will follow. I’m driving grubby Route 9 to Wildwood-by-the-Sea. Eliza my ex-wife-to-be is on my cell saying I’m going to jail unless I pay $500 monthly child support for our cute little curlyheaded detestable five year old that I detest. I tell her she’s said this before, she says it again, gently, persuasively. Her Daddy says jail would be good for me, I’d see I can’t survive on my own and come home to her and our curlyhead, who still says every night in the bathtub, “Why isn’t Daddy here to scrub my backie?”

              May Day. M’aidez we say in French, end of semester and my latest temporary no-tenure-track job, teaching Conversational French at Walt Whitman Community College. There’s no funding for Summer Session. I’m out for the season or for keeps, depending. For me and my fellow-failures in the post-cold-war, post-history, post-9/11, post-safety-net, post-education market, everything depends – on budgets, enrollments, grants, funding, never us. I am that New World Orderly, the faculty prole. We teach at two schools, or three, or five – in slow but restless motion, sad, removed, jeering, envious, begrudging, obsessively bored. Useless. Broke.

              I make up a budget. $500 a month child support must be paid. $500 a month, if I can, on student loans that got me my Ph.D. in English Lit. I teach French because I drink with the dean, sleep with her sometimes, when we’re both in the mood. She throws me odd jobs as a crumb. Five classes, one hundred kids, fifteen hours a week, dictations and midterms and finals to mark, lesson plans to fake, slow painful tonguetied student readings aloud to listen to: $27,000 a year. We do Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme. I like that they can’t get jokes they don’t know are on them. But even the dean can’t get me summer classes when funding dies. I need big money, fast.

              I’ll work the Boards. I did this every summer through high school and undergrad. I don’t know why I stopped. Six or seven hundred a week under the table, no deductions, no taxes. A thousand a week in good weather. You’ll try your luck, I’ll make you pay. Shooting baskets, hitting targets, rolling Ski-Ball, betting on the Wheel of Fortune, which I control. I’ll support my curlyhead. You’ll love it. You’ll win a doll in a sailor suit that sailors haven’t worn for twenty years, or a plastic cane, a carton of cigarettes, a watch of gold. It’s stupid is why I stopped. But stupid is money.

              I’ll sleep in a single room in a ramshackle old house with twenty bedrooms and thirty summer workers. By June there’ll be seventy of us and stink of beer and pot and sex so bad I’ll sleep on the beach when I sleep alone. I’ll lay all day in sun till it burns through my eyelids and turns the insides of my skull raw meat-pink red. I’ll forget kids who can’t spell in English taking dictation in French from me, who can’t speak anything but English, to get grades that don’t matter. Nobody wants Community College grads. Nothing can change lives nothing will ever matter to, including my own. Eliza says her Mommy says don’t be too proud to forgive. “Still, you need to promise.” I pass a hardscrabble strip-mall, a boarded up used-car dealership, stunted pines covered in creeper vine, a paint-peeled farmhouse with a handpainted sign: “MULCH” RABBITS YOU KILL OR WE DO. “Well, Bob,” says Cokey, “Democrats, some of them tempted to make political hay out of the events of 9/11, have pretty much lined up in support of the President’s measured response.” I promise to try, I promise to see, I promise to think, I promise to remember, I promise to make up for not doing everything I promised before. “This time I mean it, I promise,” I say. A retired brigadier general tells Bob Baghdad is ours, adding gently, “Looting, occasionally, continues.” Boop-de-boop, time for local news and weather. I lean my head out the window. “Fuck!” I shout, hating and helpless.


HER HUSBAND.

              A man in white cowboy hat, white jeans, white cowboy shirt, and cobalt blue Air Jordans stands in front of a plain white garage with the door pulled down. I tell him I don’t want a job – I want a chance – to show what I can do. I know he’ll know I’m shitting him. He pulls imaginary guns out of imaginary holsters and shoots me.

              “Bank-Bank. For this job you need the killing stink.”

              “Killer instinct, not killing stink. But you’re right. I don’t stink like a killer. Get somebody else.”

              Already I know he part-fakes the accent. I’m wary, interested. Never say yes to a scammer, agreement is weakness.

              “You say you are no good? You must be no good. Or very good.” He winks. A scammer can sell you everything because you can see all his greed in his face. Greed is contagious. “Come into my business, little fly.” He opens the garage door, flips a switch. Scribbly blue neon zits on. SIGN UP FOR FREE GIFTS NOW. An architect’s table with blueprints of WILDWOOD PARADISE CONDO that never will get built. A Corvette with a yellow ribbon saying DRIVE ME AWAY because nobody’s ever going to drive it away. He looks at me suspiciously, like a fish at bait.

              “Americans come two kinds I learn when I come here refugee from Walachia, my tiny homeland ruined by capitalism.”

              “I thought Communism ruined it.”

              “That too! First Communism, then Capitalism, both worse than either. Don’t interrupt. First kind American! Very thin. Can’t smoke, because cancer, because they must live forever. Can’t eat meat, can’t eat fish, chicken, nothing with eyes because eyes of animals are so sad to Americans. Can’t eat salt or fat or cheese or eggs or butter. All don’t have eyes. But have – cholesterol! Cholesterol is so dangerous to Americans one drop would make you fat. What then? You might as well smoke, because you will forever fail to live forever.”

              “Sorry to be impolite, but I need a job.” I shake his hand. “I don’t have time for horseshit.”

              He won’t let go of my hand. “Yes, go. But? I tell you go, you stay. Now I know you are a scammer. Kind two American! Very fat. Also eats nothing with eyes. Only food made things. Chicken made nuggets. Fish made sticks. Cows made burgers. Potatoes made slivers to fill salty bags of plastic. All salt, all fat, all cholesterol! Children the fattest! Breasts of American ten year olds – like melons of Africa! They can not walk! They swim, no, wade like up to the chins in water, waving hands like to push air out of their ways. You are fired. No, first you are hired. Now you are fired. But I don’t fire you. You fire yourself. Because? You don’t fire yourself – UP!”

              He smiles in triumph. He’s discovered an idea in English, the language itself. His delight is as contagious as his greed. He hitches his pants higher under his long shirt. He dusts with his shirt tail the shining Corvette, sliding his shirttail over its curves. “Oh baby, I love you, you car! A car is like American football. American football is nothing. I like that. Beat. Beat-ba, beat-ba-ba. A man throws himself on a football. He breaks his collar from his bone. He tears the strings off his ham. He will never walk again. But he walks again on TV a hero! Sticks stick in his shoulders to stop anybody touching his head. His head is so dangerous, so American, so empty of everything except nothing. He is like a car, football makes his body to a beautiful shape for football to break it and make new bodies. All killer stink. And you? None? No wonder you let Asia bugs beat you in Viet Nam.”

              “I was six when they got beat in Viet Nam. I only got to march against this Gulf War. They won that.”

              “A killing stink pacifist! I pay you six hundred a week.”

              “Seven.”

              “Eight! Why not? You will make that much easy in commissions or I fire you. Start tomorrow, 9 o’clock not one minute later.”

              I like him. He lies when he knows I won’t believe him, for fun, for practice, his own delight and mine. I can’t let him know I want this job. He has to think he’s conning me. I shake my head. “No daywork. Big money’s at night.”

              “We do time-share back-rent. They buy the condo, we rent it to tourists for five times the mortgage payment and send them the money. It is so sweet this scam, like giving candy to a baby. Money snows down like feathers from the sky. But only oldfarts want condos, they go home to TVs nights. This is why I have Corvette, to make them feel young again, maybe next week they will want to screw their wife. Work days with me. Nights, I give to you my wife.” His face fills with conspiracy. “She runs the Wheel of Fortune.”


MY WIFE. A HISTORY.

              “The wife does this,” my wife Eliza says mopping the floor, balancing the checkbook, paying the bills, making the beds, earning the money, straightening the livingroom, making the bed all over again specially neat after our three times a week stolen hour and fifteen minutes of afternoon sex. “The wife knows how,” she seems to be saying with her eyes, staring up at me from my supplemental Thursday night blowjob. “The wife is a resource,” she says, baking bread, raising herbs in windowsill pots, sewing on buttons, changing baby, walking baby, reading to baby because tests have shown you can’t start too early, checking my footnotes, filling out grade sheets, cooking meals. “And cooking means cooking,” she says. “In this house we do not boil-in-the-bag.” Depending on the audience she winks or grins here conspiratorially. “Pardon my Franglais, but we do not eat Insta-Goormay Chicken Cor-Dung bloo-ew Frozen Enn-Trays. We eat food that tastes good, live lives that are good and going to get better, own books not TVs, make plans for the future not payments on a car. We’re broke, not poor. The difference is – broke is a temporary situation being dealt with. We’re struggling and hopeful and happy.”

              It’s 1998, I’m finishing my thesis, she’s on her way from scut-pay paralegal to big bucks legal secretary, I have a brand new $400 black Academic Applicant suit, we’ve picked out East Coast areas we’re willing to move to. I do University Faculty Selection Committees and laugh with Eliza about how brain-dead they are, and don’t get the job. I try West Coast, Mid-West, even the South we both laughed at, and don’t get the job. Eliza says “Don’t you dare lower your sights!” But I can’t have a blank year on my resume, I need teaching creds. I try Illiterate State Normal Schools and laugh about them with Eliza.

              “I walk in in my black suit. The men have white-collar rugby shirts with cute little three-button necks. The women wear bangles and earrings that dangle, and colorful shawls or else see-through puff-sleeve hand-embroidered Mexican peasant blouses.” A laugh from Eliza. “Blouses Kingsley Amis made fun of in Lucky Jim when he was a Commie and knew how to write. But they don’t read Amis, they teach. They teach in Central Ohio Junior College, and once read Bloom on Blake and Frye on genre and the Academic Dean gave them a job-slot and said, ‘It’s time we had someone in gender.’ I look at the sagging old sixtyish boobs that droop bigger and heavier on men than women and agree with the dean. They have nobody in gender.”

              I don’t get the job. I don’t get any jobs till I show up in a Rugby shirt and beg myself into a single Basic Composition course, $1500 a semester at Walt Whitman Community College, and hang out in the bar with the dean and drink myself into another class, and beg myself into another school and a couple more classes. I’m making six thousand a semester, twelve thousand a year, eighteen when I luck out with summer session. And my daughter gets bigger and bills get bigger and Eliza’s pay gets bigger, and I feel like a jogger halfway through the jog. That’s fine she says, we can do this for a while. But it isn’t a while. Tenure jobs haven’t vanished, but a PhD won’t get you one. My last hiring committee said three published articles in scholarly journals would have put me in consideration. “But really,” the one with the most mascara shakes her head, helplessly sympathetic, bangles slide down her arm with a sound like Slinkies slithering, “You need at least a signed contract for a first book.”

              “Or second,” says the wide-bodied guy with the bald-on-top pony-tail next to her.

              “I Googled this faculty,” I tell Eliza. “Average age, fifty-seven. Average years employed in school, twenty-nine. One in five never got further than MA. Nobody’s published more than one article in their entire academic life. All have had tenure for fifteen years at least. They’re in, I’m out. It’s funny.” No laugh from Eliza.

              “You need to write a book,” she says. She bites her lip, drums fingers on the table, we’re at our once-every-other-week Tuesday Treat Budget Restaurant Dinner without Baby, “I know you need more time with all those ignorant papers to mark. I can’t take off from work, Ron’s never there, he’s thinking of running for city prosecutor and loading more and more submissions and processing on me. He pays well, but wants what he pays for. I’ll,” she thinks, “get us up an hour earlier, you won’t have to drop Re-Re off at daycare, that’ll give you two hours to mark papers, we’ll keep her there the whole day not half, it’ll be more money, but I’ll work out the budget, I’ll pick her up nights, giving you three hours for research. I’ll take over dishwashing and bath and putting to bed, two more hours for typing notes. Plus Saturday and Sunday, all day, every week. How’s that?”

              “What about sex?”

              “What kind of child-ish self-ish mor-on-ic priorities do you have?” she whispers fiercely, looks around to make sure nobody’s listening, takes a sip of her drinkable house wine. “Besides. This last six months it seemed to me sex was not at the top of your list or even high up.” She grabs at my hand, I move it away, she gets it anyway, won’t let go. “It was stupid to say that, I’m not complaining, I know it’s been difficult. I’ll get us up two hours early two days a week.” she bites her lip. “Three days a week. You can do this, I’ll help you. It’s what the wife does.”

              So when Eliza calls on my cell 6:15 AM, waking me up the first morning of my new life in my new room, $80 a week, white walls, single bed, one old bureau with empty drawers hanging out like dog tongues, jagged crack running down one wall, mixed smells of mildew, plaster, salt sea air, camphor flakes and clean sheets I brought with me, knowing I’d need my own – I think back to when we were broke and remember everything a wife did.

              “You canceled your phone?” she says. “You didn’t cancel, you skipped on the bill. And your rent, and there you are in that tawdry slum vacation town you grew up in, a PhD – selling junkfood to high school girls? When are you going to grow up? And accept your responsibilities as a father, if nothing else?”

              “I’m sending your five hundred,” I say quietly, “Don’t yell, I’m doing what I can.” I’m remembering it wasn’t so long ago, 1998, we went home from the restaurant and had sex, good sex, though it wasn’t a sex night.

              “I don’t want five hundred,” she whispers. I say I know, I promise to try, I promise to see, I promise to think, I promise again to make up for not doing everything I promised before. “This time I mean it, I promise,” I say.

              “I want back the man I married!” she yells hanging up. Boop-be-boop! Four more soldiers dead in Iraq. I turn off the radio. I tried writing the book and couldn’t, and went on teaching English, then pretended to write, then said, “I’m stuck.” Eliza said, “You’re working yourself too hard. Take a month off. Relax.” I took three months off and met the Dean of Studies and switched from English to French. And it was alright, it was possible. My scrub jobs helped, and Eliza was making so much that money wasn’t the problem. The problem was once Eliza and I weren’t broke any more, we were poor.


HIS WIFE.

              He takes me to his wife. I don’t like her. She hates me. Arrogant like all European women, too much of too little makeup, face all bare skin, red lipsticky lips, mascara’d black eyelashes, eyebrows plucked in half-circles one hair wide. She looks like Marlene Dietrich in a thirties movie colorized for modern audiences.

              “My name is (unintelligible),” she says, not looking at me, staring at empty sky. She tells me later in bed. “I think you are one more workaholic, bumaholic, sexaholic in this terrible America of the habits nobody can want to break. Then you defend America!” She turns up on her elbow to say it happily. “You say you will say things bad about America, not me. Because country is like a wife. The husband lets nobody beat her but him.”

              “Never happened,” I say. “I don’t beat wives.”

              “Don’t say never happened. It makes me think of you. I never feeled this way about my countries. Who cares who beats the dead? You are why it is not the terrible America to me any more. You said it made me love you.”

              “I remember,” I say. “We were standing next to each other in the booth.” She nods, she nuzzles back down. I couldn’t possibly have said it. I hate Americans who say they love America. This is the single worst thing about the whole story. She loves me for being what I’m not, what I hate.

              This is the real beginning of the story. I should tell it better, I taught Creative Non-Fiction once in a Senior Center. But that’s no help. All our textbook said was Forget the Uncreative Truth, which seniors already had. But this isn’t a story, it’s memories, a series of blinks, like the scam’s blue neon. I start creatively writing about her, I remember his cowboy hat, the guns, the scam, nights, airconditioning, bedsmells, underarms, unwashed shirts, her body beside me. Our Father Who Art on Vacation, Wildwood-by-the-Sea-God, have mercy on us who have mercy for nobody, not even ourselves. Let’s do this right.


HER, RETOLD.

              “He is exactly who we needed,” she says. “He is horrible.”

              “Horrible is perfect.” He smacks me on the back, nudges his cowboy hat, says, “Start tonight, two hundred a week.” I tell him he said four hundred. I’m lying, we never talked money. He says, “I never say four, if I did said it would be three. I give three, every week we gross fifteen thousand. Twenty thousand, five hundred. Over twenty we talk. So be who we needed, it makes you money. Be horrible.” That’s how I remember it, fast, bored, cheerful, hard laughs, handshakes, smiles, instant hatreds. Like any new job.

              The Wheel of Fortune is the oldest game on the boardwalk, a valuable antique if anybody thought it had any value. Bet your lucky number, only a quarter, a prize with every spin. I dropped my paper route money here in grade school, ten cents a bet. My father, and his father, and father’s father, lost nickels on the Wheel, pennies back in the Depression. The Wheel’s old now, it creaks and groans, wobbles, whines like a hurt puppy, droops crazily off its axle, flakes paint bits on my hair and arms. It’s hard work, lying all your life. Even wood dies from it.

              What’s that matter, summertime at the Jersey Shore? You’re here to spend money you don’t know how to need. You try your luck. Many losers every time. And, no matter how unlucky everybody is, somebody wins – a ballpoint pen. Or don’t take the pen. Take a yellow ticket. Two yellow tickets get a plastic cane. Or trade two yellows for one blue. Ten blues and you win, but nobody ever does, a watch of gold. Six blues and you win, and once an hour anybody who spends ten dollars must win – a fuzzy white bear with a red heart saying I LOVE YOU! You win because we cheat.

              Every night he counts the bears. If we missed an hour from six to midnight. “You don’t give away my giveaways! You ruin me!” He screams, he stamps, explains it all again. “I need for advertisement bears parade the Boards, yes? Where else can anybody win this bear? You listen? I must talk human language, not shit-forsaken English?” He speaks Serbian or Hungarian or French. He slaps his hand hard, he says in English, “I can not to pay teenies to walk around with this big armful of cheap bears. They loaf away and sneak home. But when they win, they love these bears. They walk them on the boards all night. They make their boyfriends pay me ten American dollars to walk my bears for nothing. They never loaf. Fifteen years old, they are Americans already, they don’t dare to loaf to have fun. So give away my bears! We. Don’t. Make. Money. Without. We. Give. Away. The Give. Away!”

              Rose is proud of her only scam. “I can spin the wheel, watch me with your watch.” She means time her. “It turns seventy seconds. Think wheel as a clock. Each time it stops one number more than where I start.”

              “We say time me not watch. Time me. I can throw seventy seconds. Ninety seconds, a hundred. One number more than where I start wins, or two, or five. Even the smartest Marks, and nobody’s smarter than a Mark, can’t figure how to bet. Unless I want them to. Your way, you lose too many bears. You might lose a watch.”

              She brushes my arm, her soft hand’s first soft touch, she fakes a comic sob. “Don’t say it. Already I lose four watch this week. They cost three dollar each one. This is why I needed you. Next watch I lose? My husband will kill me.”


TEN REASONS.

              Hot days I work the scam, I stink at it. Hot nights I watch Rose. Odd hours I drink in Horseshoes 24/7 Topless Lounge for Gentlemen, or dredge among the pinking, burning, tanning, tattooed teenage girls. Tarry baked-wood smell of the Boards. All around me, bodies. Thin, hard, fatty, long or tiny lotioned bodies. They smell like coconut oil cream pie. They smell like April Fresh and Bounce, Sun Block, No More Tears, their favorite shampoo. They stroll. They slip cutoff jeans shorts over bikini bottoms and leave the zipper open to the crotch like a beercan tab that says PULL ME. They stroll. They’re Black, or Brown, creamy Asian, or White. They suck plastic nipples on Styrofoam cups that say SLURP, FREEZE, SLUSH, WOW, POW, ENERGIZE. They have noses and lips and eyebrows and bellybuttons stuck with studs and rings. They have tiny dark rooms with queensize beds. They need to make me happy, they need to fall in love. It’s their last free babyfied summer before they join the prisoner grownups in lifetime cubicle jail. They fall in new love every night. It’s summer, Wildwood-by-the-Sea, 10 Reasons Why A Beer. It’s The War of the Teeshirts.

              Teeshirts with all 200 names of their highschool class. TOMMY GEAR. I’M WITH STUPID. RUN FOR THE CURE. ANIMAL LIBERATION = HUMAN LIBERATION. YUCK FOO. HARVARD. THREE CHEERS FOR CHEAP BEER. GOD HAS BEEN VERY GOOD TO ME. FCUK. HAVE YOU HUGGED A TREE TODAY? DON’T ASK ME 4 SHIT. HARD-ROCK CAFE PARIS. DKNY. I HATE A BROKE-ASS MAN. FULL-CONTACT NUDE COEDUCATIONAL GOLF. NIKE. BIKE-A-THON FOR OVARIAN CANCER. MY BOSS IS A JEWISH CARPENTER. GAP. TEN REASONS WHY A BEER IS BETTER THAN A MAN. 1 - WHEN YOU FINISH A BEER YOU DON’T HAVE TO WAIT 15 MINUTES BEFORE YOU HAVE ANOTHER ONE. BUTTON YOUR FLY. KEEP ON TRUCKIN. WANTED OSAMA DEAD OR ALIVE. NO FEAR.


DAY JOB.

              I stand by a big American flag in front of the garage. Inside blue neon glows dim. Bright ceiling spots shine on shining Vette, blueprints, sign-up tables. Cold air-conditioned air leaks onto the hot Boardwalk. No sign, no logo, no words. We don’t want you to know what we want: Your money. I give out slips of paper and ask you to step inside, get a free gift, a chance to win a beautiful new car. A percentage of all our proceeds go to research a cure for AIDS, or breast or prostate cancer, or, he’s a genius of scam, Send a Care Package to our Troops Fighting for Peace in Iraq. The slips are marked with my initials, I get a dime for every one he collects. He gives you a pen with an extra hyphen, a printer’s error that creates a new religious CEO: WILDWOOD-BY-THE-SEA-GOD, the scammer’s friend. You have to turn it over to find our religion’s only prayer: BLESS AMERICA. The pens cost a dollar a thousand. When they write at all, they stop after two lines. He needs you to fill out a form on your free chance, so he’ll know where to send the car he’ll never send. It’s a sucker list he sells to junkmailers and telemarketers, happy to pay twentyfive cents for name, address, phone, social security, race, income range, marital status, names and ages of children. All the things you write on forms, worth money to people who don’t want you to know what they want: your money.

              The season’s started. My wife, my curlyhead, my debts and jail stop mattering. A scammer’s life becomes his scams.


HOW THE SCAM SHOULD WORK.

              You’re in mid-midlife noncrisis, needing nothing, time and money to waste. I come up in my cheerful hurried anxious way. You know my type. I make myself a type you know: Ex-high-school-hero, harum-scarum college quarterback, his own worst enemy, adored by his childhood sweetheart, teammates and every passing dog in the street – and such nice manners. You take my piece of paper, not because you want a pen. You need to talk to me, you need my simple-minded scam. I’m Leave-It-To-Beaver-All-Grown-Up, the lovable failure of your dreams.

              You walk inside. You see the Vette, the neon blue. He’s working hard at sheaves of paper. He stops when he sees you, which takes a minute, gives you a free pen and goes back to work. The place is empty, but strewn with the messy detritus of important business. Waste baskets, slightly sloppy, almost full. He designs them each morning. He accidentally notices the paper he put on the floor for you to see when you walk in. He apologizes for the mess, puts it carefully in the wastebasket. You have to tell him he forgot your form for the Corvette. He excuses himself. America is wonderful, but America is busy. His homeland had time for hospitality and friendness. Is that the word, friendness? You tell him the right word. Maybe he writes it down, always he says it twice. An important word. He thanks you, you fill out the form. You glance at a blueprint. He should get back to work.

              With some of you, this is his skill, he does get back to work. He can’t waste time on yoyos. A yoyo is too dumb to be a Mark. You need the ability to think for yourself in order to be misled. Smart marks, always easiest to con, he shows the blueprints. He explains this new concept of time-share, which is, suppose you don’t want to vacation the same time every year? You are busy, or maybe you want to visit Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Granada, anyplace America won their war for them, maybe Paris that every body American loves? Even if you hate their Not-So-Freedom Fries? This is time-buy, with pre-completely-guaranteed company-arranged rentals, part of the rent pays your mortgage, you get the rest. His long spiel jibbers into nonsense. “You are your own and everybody’s landlord, the less you vacation the more you make, the more vacation you can afford. This is America, where hard work makes you rich, and smart work makes you richer!”

              Retired schoolteachers make notes with Wildwood pens they don’t notice won’t write. They try to finish sentences; they tell him, “Stop!” He can’t stop. They shout him down. “We understand! We have the money! Here’s what you mean. Here’s what you should say.” Only a checkbook waved in his face gets him to shut up. A scammer makes you teach him how to scam you. He won’t take the check.

              “I don’t take money, not even a smallest completely guaranteed refundable deposit, but would you go to the top floor of the luxuriest hotel,” a remodeled five story motel, “worth every cent you spend, not one cent, for views alone of oceans of the sea. Even in a cloudy day you see far out into the future shiny like gold blinding you on the waters. In that room is model Paradise Condo, just to see. Hype free. I write, JL, Just Looking, on the ticket. Anybody hardsells you, come back here, I will have their job.”

              In the motel room are closers. They make ten per cent of what they take. He gets half the rest, or all of it. I don’t know, closers don’t know, whether he’s boss, front man, owner or flunky. Who cares? Who’d admit?

              The first week I earn ten dollars a day. No problem. He pays everybody twenty-five a day no matter how little they earn. He knows, who better? It takes time to get a scam started. There are five of us Boardwalk scuzz, nobodies able to look odd or normal enough to interest nobodies walking past. Freakshow for fellow freaks.

              I’m worried. I’ve never made so little on a scam before. I think it must be the closers’ take. “This hundred thousand dollar condominium reserved for you with the single refundable tax-deductible deposit of,” whatever they can get. Fifty, a hundred, a thousand dollars. Rumor is one closer got ten thousand. When the season’s over, scammers leave for Florida, California, the Gulf Coast, anywhere a new scam’s setting up. Marks call the cops. Cops, who’ve heard it all before, tell them chalk it up to experience, ma’am and sir, there’s no way to police intentions.

              I’ve never scammed anybody for more than five dollars, which is the middle-class equivalent of asking you for spare change. Small as it is, I do have a conscience about taking big money from Marks who’ve never done me any harm. But the Wheel of Fortune is a slow starter too. I’m making two hundred a week. What happens to my little curlyhead, whose $500 a month is all that stands between me and Jersey jail?


HORSESHOES.

              The Banner over the bar says IF ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES. On what used to be the dance floor, guys in their beefing-up thirties play pool at halfsize tables. Baseball caps turned backwards all say BULLS. “Drink up,” Candy says. “Employee Life Partners and their dates drink free.”

              Spot-lit chrome poles rise from the bar. Strawberry, Candy’s newest temporary life partner, stalks the bar top. Bare oiled stony-sculpted breasts, G-string disappeared in the slit of her cheekwork cheeks and lipwork lips. She humps the air. Nobody watches. She humps a chrome pole in time to Connie Francis singing “Stupid Cupid.”

              Candy’s the youngest shill at the scam. Starved-down Crack Queen body. No teeth in front. Skin splot-freckled like sidewalk at the start of summer thunderstorms, molested at ten written all over her life. Strawberry has a tuft of twisted pubic hair the size of a pingpong ball sitting atop her string.

              “Why’s it dyed purple?”

              “Great. Ask her that. Hey Honey, five dollars.”

              Strawberry splits, slides, spreadeagles over to squat above our drinks. The tuft looks red.

              “Go on, ask. He says it’s purple.” She tucks a five in the string.

              “I thought it was purple when you were down the bar. I see it’s red now, must be the light.”

              Strawberry groans as if in orgasm. “It’s unh spots make unh it look uhn funny Oooh.”

              “Don’t you dance in the spots? It’s supposed to be strawberry, a logo, like. What good is it, when it doesn’t look strawberry under the lights?”

              “Stop ragging on my pussy hair.” Her hands run up over breastwork, down her twisting body, pinching, tugging, stroking. “House rules is you both got to give me a damn five please, fast, clients might just possibly don’t want to see you interrupt me mid-fake-come? And the jerkoff boss, evil-eyeing every twitch to see is my heart in it. Don’t be assholes then.”

              I tuck a five in the string. Strawberry writhes, shivers, rises, sways rump-stuck-out away to “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

              “She could change her name to Raspberry,” I say.

              “Hey Honey! He says change your name to, listen.” She buzzes spittily a razzberry.

              “I’m quitting the scam,” I blurt out. “I can’t do it, I don’t know why.”

              She says something so quiet, I have to make her say it twice to hear.

              “You’re doing it wrong for your age.”

              I look at her. I’m always amazed when anybody’s right about people. To be right, you have to think about them and forget yourself. Who can do it? No men, at least I never met one. Hardly any women, except beat-up Candys who forgot they were themselves years ago and end up pushing around trashbags in supermarket carts gabbling truths to air. Who listens to truth? I taught a class in Intellectual Heritage of Western Civilization once, that’s the lesson Cassandra learned: Never give yourself to a god, you wind up wise. It’s never smart to be wise.

              “Hope you don’t mind me saying, you know more about this than me, I’m wrong, forget me, I’m sorry.”

              “You mean I’m too old for the laughing college-boy scam.”

              “Not for, to get girls,” she says, shy hand hides her mouth. “Ex high school hero, they all want one. I see when they go by. But he doesn’t want, like, teenagers taking his pens. They don’t buy condos. Telemarketers don’t want their names. Older couples see you’re not a kid. Not old, I shouldn’t have said that.”

              “Shit. I’m over thirty and finally look over twenty-five to reading-glasses mom and dads. It’s like a death in the family. A profit-making persona is passing out of my life.” She’s apologizing. “Too late,” I say. “Once you’re right you can’t pretend to be polite and stupid.” I kiss her thanks, an odd kiss, you feel how hard teeth are when you hit soft lip dents instead.

              “Gotta go,” I say. “Have to think about what this means. I think alone.” Candy, if there’s anything to Candy besides drugs, can wait. Candies always wait.


MY HUSBAND.

              Hot night, 2 a.m., the Wheel. The middle of the story almost. Her sweat-damp skin looks like I’d leave fingermarks on it, like touching a fogged window. I touch her bare arm.

              “No.”

              I put up wood boards that close the booth. We stretch. She bends to touch effortlessly the ground with the palms of her hands.

              “I run you a race,” she says. She runs. I follow close, watching her ass. We pass stands boarded up, stands still open, hoping for one last Mark. I run faster, panting, pushing her till she has to stop. I grab her arm. I turn her to me, holding her hard.

              “No! I don’t do sex!” She punches, panting, aiming for my chest and arms. I let my hands take most of it and back off. “You don’t say nothing. Yah! American, you make love with chasing feet. The mind! Where is the mind?"

              I’m panting. “I left, it at, school.” She kicks her foot out in a goosestep and does two cartwheels down the Boards, yells back at me. “My husband don’t make love to me.”

              High tide, ocean crashing sounds. Some scammed or scammer voice, shouts, “Fuck him if he won’t fuck!”

              “Is right, the voice of invisible Americans,” she says. “If I don’t have love, why not sex?”

              She walks into my arms. Our first night lasts twentyfive minutes in the backseat of my ten year old Camry. Tight fit, but she’s small. After that, their apartment, 4:30 to 8:30, from when he starts for work till I do.


HORSESHOES.

              “How’d you do it?” Candy says. “Nobody goes from twenty to a hundred dollars a day inside a week.” At one of the pooltables, a white and a Black guy go through complicated hand-slapping high-fives to celebrate a good shot.

              “Tried to get fired.” I say. “I picked out middleclass whites with that blank hip college-grad look, I said, ‘Hi, want the weirdest souvenir of Wildwood-By-The-Sea you’ll ever own?’ And showed them the pen. ‘Go in and get one. Don’t fill anything out for the car, it’s a scam. Don’t listen to the guy in the cowboy hat about a condo, it’s a bigger scam. Get your pen, turn in this paper, and I get a dime, which is a scam, but very little in the scale of scams and costs you not a damn scammed cent.’”

              Candy slams her hand on the bar. “It’s perfect!”

              “I’m so stupid, I think I’m fucking him up. He’s all over me at the end of the day. ‘You send them in suspiciousing me!’ You know he’s trying to fool you by letting you know he’s trying to fool you when he pulls the fake accent shit. I get a kiss on both cheeks. The first few Marks surprised him. Then, he gives them a pen, waves them off, won’t talk. They figure for a free pen they could take a look. He says, no, he knows Blond Boy out front is trying to get fired, he can’t report me to the boss, he’s too soft-hearted, they got their pen. Must be he is in the charity of giveaway pens to help illiteracy in America. ‘Maybe I am so idealist, I think you write with free pens to help my native country of,’ anyplace he can call, ‘the sad toilet’s bowl of Europe histories, where my family is suffering under worse crooks who took over from Communist crooks. Being free makes suffering worse. You discover freedom is empty. You cry on the phone to your son, like my father to me. Why? my father says, why when they give you freedom it is full of nothing?’ Something like that. You know his line of shit.” I watch Strawberry shimmer like a Barbie dipped in Aloe Vera. “Marks wind up begging for a look at the cardboard skyscraper dreamtown. Closers scoop them up, he says it’s like fishing in an aquarium with a net. They tell their friends get the ticket from the blond who’s so honest about not letting yourself get scammed. And don’t take the first option, the man in the cowboy hat will cut you a better deal.”

              “The first option?”

              “Part of the scam. He gives them a first option, he confesses the boss makes him, it’s not a good option, he shows them why, he gives them a second option, probably even worse. The smarter they are the faster they buy. It takes, this is a quote, the words he lives by, ‘It takes more brains to believe than to lie.’”

              Candy sighs and drinks, puts down the drink and thinks. “I’d try it but,” She opens wide for me to see. “Can’t be sophisticated with my mouth.”

              Some group I can’t remember the name of sings, “Bang Bang! She Shot Me Down!” Strawberry staggers, falls back as if dead, handstands, wraps her heels around the top of the pole, hang-dances spread-armed upside down, skin all flawless sheen, like that luminous Italian Renaissance painting of St. Peter crucified in my college Art History textbook (Caravaggio? I remember it’s the bottom right hand side of the page not the painter). The Beatles sing, “You say goodbye! But I say hello!”

              “You know what he said one morning?” Candy says. “It’s early, nobody’s in but me, he’s letting the neon warm up to not blink so bad, and says ‘Americans hate money. Look what they spend it on.’”

              “You doing him?” I say.

              “Sure.” She looks surprised I’d ask. “The way he pays?”

              Strawberry flexes left breastwork, right breastwork, they swing back and forth like eyes staring warily side to side.


TONGUE.

              “He says you’re going to kill me when you find out.”

              We’re naked in bed.

              “He knows? How’d he find out? Did he beat you?” I say. She won’t answer, she leans into me and cries. She says a short sentence in French.

              “You can’t talk to me in French.”

              “You teach French but.”

              “I teach American French to Americans. I don’t speak French.”

              “I can’t speak it in English. I sound like babies talk. It’s Proust, you know him?”

              “Sure.”

              “You know Swann, so tragic.”

              “No. I know about Proust. I never read him.”

              “Little American,” she pats my cheek. “Proust means, people who are not in love think you meet somebody, count up all the good, take out all the bad. More good than bad? ‘Oh boy! I am in love.’ But this is literature. In life you say, ‘I must to leave this somebody. Soon. Next week even.’ But even next month you didn’t leave. You think, why? One morning, you wake up and know, ‘Oh! Terrible! I am in love!’"

              “A lot for one short sentence to mean.”

              “You think short means long because you don’t know how meanings go from one language into one other. Proust don’t say that, but means it every bit. ‘Oh! Terrible! I am loving you.’"

              “He says I’ll kill you when I find out you love me?"

              “No, stupid. He says you will kill me when you find out you don’t love me!”

              “I love you.”

              “My husband is always right, he says you will say you love me – after I say I love you. It proves you don’t love, only love back. So where would I go when I leave? He says he will take me away, see America, the big canyon, the Niagara and hippies and Hollywood. He says we will have a son, or even daughter. Something to make worth it living in this terrible country of stupids, pretending we are more stupid than them to cheat them to live. He says, so what?”

              “So what, what?”

              “So what I’m pregnant.”

              “We were supposed to be very careful,” I don’t say. There is abortion, I don’t say. I say nothing.

              “He says you will be the testicle of our testicle tube baby. Doctor donor sperm, thank you very much. Now you know I’m pregnant, I will know you don’t love me, you won’t take me away. What can I do? Move out of this terrible apartment before is finished the cheating of Americans season? He is right, I must be with him. You see how terrible it is, love?”

              Unintelligible words, not even sentences probably, talking to herself in whatever language she was a girl in. I hold her, she talks into my heart.

              “I can’t say in English. English has only small tiny words. Come. Go. Hate. Love. Sing. Laugh. Ba-Bla-Baby-Blah,” She lifts her head. “I need cigarette.” I reach her a cigarette, she doesn’t light it, she’s trying to quit, I said it made her kisses bitter, I’m lost in this. “You can’t help you are American. It is a so what. Like pregnant, to be American is all you are. No room for anything else. How can I be with you – even if you love me? And you love me? How can I tell? How can I be with you if I must tear it out my own,” she sticks her tongue out. “What is the word?” Many syllables, she beats her face. “What is the baby word for?”

              “Tongue,” I say. "I love you."

              “I know you love me. He is very wrong. Even if you only say English. I can say English – better than I speak now. Because nobody can’t cry and speak English. Such little words, too short to be sad. To be sad needs long sounds, like howls of dogs. Poor English. Poor American. You don’t have your words to speak, born to say words of England. My husband says it is why you can’t learn more languages. Every language, even your own, is a foreigner to you. He says – You hear me? He says, he says. He says I don’t love you, only make love, do sex. I say what you say to me. I say, Love is what you make, love is what you do. He says no, he says – I don’t speak about him.”

              “He says what?”

              “He says in my language, it sounds or better or worse I can’t decided, love is not what you make and do.” She sucks on her unlit cigarette, she says it makes air taste better. “He says love is what you are.”


HORSESHOES.

              “She says he says love is what you are? You said? Something, I hope?”

              “I said, if love is what you are, I am in love with you.”

              Horseshoes, 3 a.m. Candy nods. “Pretty good. You’re a human being when a woman’s falling apart. Guys need to be congratulated for that kind of wonderful minimum behavior. So you go to bed. Great sex. You promised to love her forever, and take her with you to whoever-heard-of-it community college. You’re like a kid again you’re so happy. Or would be, except it’s a lie, you loving her.”

              “No. I love her.”

              “You’re telling me everything’s fine? Then why are you telling me?”

              I watch Strawberry. “Did she dye it purpler?” I say.

              “She changed her name to Razzberry. She gets up on the bar, everybody goes,” Candy blows a razzberry. “The owner loves it. She wants to thank you – personally. You didn’t answer. You love her? Then why are we drinking?”

              “I love her. But like everybody else I don’t say I’m in love and mean it and not worry after. I sound like a shit, I know. But it’s not only she can’t speak English, she doesn’t want to. She needs being a foreigner. She can only live here as long as she hates America. Hating only works with her husband – in the halfdozen crazy languages they speak.”

              “You’re worried about her happiness.” She pats my back. “Because she’s too much in love to worry. You’re not worried about yourself at all. You’re a hell of a guy.”

              “Try and imagine. She moves in my one-bedroom apartment in a bare brick building surrounded by strip malls full of Payless Shoe Stores. It’s called Towne, towne with an e, Luxury Living Complex. The basement is a fifteen foot indoor swimming pool that smells like bleach, a health club that smells like moldy plastic rug and a laundry room that smells like baby pee and dryer lint.”

              “What’s the problem? Two can’t live as miserable as one? Can’t she get a job?”

              “She can temp right away teaching French. If she dumbs her French down enough for community college kids. She’ll get 2 classes. Six thousand a semester, twelve thousand a year, eight after taxes. Add my after-tax twenty. Subtract five hundred a month for my detestable curly head. It could be done. Am I allowed to think, what is it? Can we afford a two bedroom apartment? Day care? A six year old car, instead of my creaky old Camry? Does the kid grow up talking whatever language Rose cries in? Will I like that, since it’s only unlearnable Walachian gobble? Will her husband be able to understand my own kid better than me?”

              “This stuff is important to you? Or her?”

              “She’s saying it, in bed, half in and half out of English, when we lay around what-if and then-whenning. She says they never talk English except when Americans can hear. I say every time we made love she phoned him and said she burned the sheet in English. She laughs, she says that must be how he knew she was in bed with me. They’re married. They tell each other things they don’t know they’re telling. What will she be without him?”

              “Ooh, I want to, aah, thank you.”

              Razzberry squats down in front of me and blows a razzberry. I say to Candy: “Rose says she loves me. Do I even know what she means by that?”

              Razzberry spits a juicer razzberry.

              “Sorry Hon, he’s got women probs. He doesn’t want to get thanked.”

              “Well uhn fuck him then, and ooo-weee his women probs. And fuck you too.”

              “Wait Hon, this is serious. How do I know you love me?”

              “Because I uhn hate you, uhn you ugly uhn no-teeth uhn frecklebody skinny bitch!”

              She clips me on the chin with her crotch and dances away.


I STAB HER WITH MY KNIFE.

              Yellow sun, pale cloud smears high in the sky. Crackling, glistening, breathless heat of beach. Six p.m. Lifeguards gone, family dinner time, magic hour between the end of Condo scam and beginning of Wheel of Fortune. We’re not alone, you’re never alone in summertime Wildwood-By-The-Sea, the land that god forgot. But nobody’s near. I untie her bikini bra, Rose lays down on it breasts up; if anybody gets close enough to stare she rolls over. Downbeach kids cry, Moms and Dads ooch and ouch barefoot across hot sand. I stumble chest high into the ocean, hit hard by cold choppy waves. One higher than my head knocks down two squat teenies, who come up breathless and panicked, clutching bras to their chests so nipples won’t peek out, laugh when they do. The not-blonde sticks out her tongue. “Fuck you, Perv!” she says, tucking a thick white breast back in. “Taffeee!” the blonde teasingly warns; blondes are always the shy one. Fun’s fun, but it’s too late for me to pretend fun’s possible. A wave smacks the sigh of regret out of my mouth. A storm blew through last night and pulled ferny seaweed and jellyfish to pieces. Fronds stick to our bodies like tattoos in brocade, jelly bits bump us like transparent marshmallow. They sting halfheartedly, survivors of disaster yearning to hurt something and die. On Fox last night Dick Cheney said, “I don’t think the sacrifices have been excessive.” Nobody sighed, nobody laughed, nobody said, “Fuck you.”

              I’m out of the water, hobbling from burning foot to burnt, drying off. Rose is on her belly, face in crossed arms, bra underneath. She wriggles when I deliberately drip on her. Nipples peek out. I switch on the radio tuned to NPR. Cokey’s explaining, “The President’s response is that Iraq is a test of America’s resolve. Some Democrats.” I dry my ears through the rest and loll beside Rose.

              “This is my husband. This is Ron,” says Eliza, standing in front of us, dressed in her office best, holding shoes by their slings in one hand and Ron with the other. He’s got his suit jacket over his shoulder with one finger, his go-to-court blue gabardine suit pants rolled up to his calves and splashed splotchy wet.

              “Nice to meet you.” he says, putting down a hand I scramble up to shake. I’m towheaded with sun, skin reddened towards magenta, peeling mini-flakes from my nose, coated with sand like a sugar donut with sugar. I’m enjoying this. So is he.

              “Where are your shoes?” I say.

              “Left them in the motel,” he says. “Rooms open on the beach.”

              “You burn your feet,” says Rose into the sand.

              “This is Rose, Eliza,” I say. “Rose, This is Eliza, my wife.”

              “Not much of a burn,” Ron says. “And we wanted to hold hands.”

              “I hold your hand,” says Rose, sitting up to shake hands with Ron, leaving her bra behind. “I see you on TV ads for politics. It is not usual you are Black to be successful, congratulations, but my name is not Rose. My name is (unintelligible). You are his wife?”

              “Hi,” says Eliza, and grins, reaching down to shake hands. Silence.

              “Do I put on my thing?” says Rose.

              “No,” I say, “We’re among friends.” Silence.

              “Everybody thinks Blacks are not true American only African hyphens, but I think you are more true than any. Americans do hyphens when they are scared they have no home but here. Because America scares Americans worst my husband says. But forget my husband, he don’t have sex with me. But he says with Blacks it is worser. You are forever Black, not able to rest one minute from fate. Like living your whole life Irish the day of Saint Pats. He says Irish in America have saints because they have nothing.”

              “Maybe you’re right,” Ron says. “But we have jazz.”

              “Poo, Jazz is so American it is world wide everywhere like English. America makes Jazz English, language everybody speaks because nobody cares how bad you can do it.”

              “Are you always like this?”

              “You smile at my jokers. Good, you don’t hate me. I know his wife thinks I take her husband from her, and she is Elijah, prophet name, first American name I understand, but really you, Elijah,” She smiles up at stonily grinning Eliza, “taked Juan,” she means Ron, “from some other he loved. Everybody is taked from past darlings, cheated away by new. In my village we say (unintelligible), it means, but it sounds stupid in English like all truths, ‘The eye breathes in, the heart breaks out.’ My country is I don’t know it, my village is so small, only a flyshits on the map. But our saying is true. You have felt your heartbreaks?”

              “Not yet.” says Ron. Eliza still grins.

              “Congratulations, you have a future of love in front of you. Another one.” she turns up the radio, scrabbles in the beachbag for her pizzabox. “You hear? Dead troop in Iraq.” It’s a single-serv mini-pizzabox. The lid says BUONA APPETITA across the top, which Rose says is American for “Get Fat.” The rest of the lid she painted, gorgeously, to look like the honor roll next to the World War One cannon outside Wildwood City Hall. Gold eagle on top, red scroll in its mouth saying OUR HONOR DEAD.

              “For dead soldiers they tell on Empty-Art,” she means NPR, “I draw X, for times dead,” she said. “Dead times 104 since the Bush wins the war. Then in the box I will put newspaper story tomorrow. I must make a tear through it.” She opens the box, shows stacks of torn paper. “I like tears in stories make tears from your eyes.”

              “Tear in a story is different from a tear in your eyes,” says Ron.

              Rose shrugs. “Only in English. They don’t give dead names on Empty-Art, I don’t know, do governments save these names for black walls in Washington like Viet Nam after this new war they keep winning gets lost? I don’t know, I suspect.”

              “Can I talk to you privately for a moment?” says Eliza, motioning me off down the beach. “It’s nothing, a little family business.”

              “Keep smiling,” she says grinning, “If you don’t, first I’ll kick you in the balls, then get Ron to find some way to throw you in jail for child support no matter how much you pay. What is the meaning of this? Why is she calling me Elijah? And why is she sitting there showing her fucking tits to Ron and calling him Juan – for Don Juan? And is this little toots the reason you haven’t exercised those precious visitation rights you fought so hard for and seen Re-Re not at all these last weeks? And just asking but, nice breasts but, isn’t she a little plump for your tastes, dear?”

              “She’s pregnant,” I say.

              Eliza grins her mouth open. “Ha Ha. Laugh with me,” she says. I laugh. “I’ll get you for this,” she says, gritting her teeth.

              “Tie me, we must work now,” says Rose, bouncing on hot stand, handing me her bra. “Maybe this dead troop today don’t count. He is not combatted, he defuses a bomb that blows. If not, I put O, for deads unlucky enough to not count. I think your Bush counts bomb defusement maybe suicide. It is popular American crime, I think.”

              “Do you recommend it?” says Ron, walking up behind her.

              “Yes. No. I can’t decided,” she turns, skipping on the sand as she turns her back to me. She says, “Tie tight back there, or I leak breasts out. For soldiers, I think no, don’t do suicide, they already suicide enough when they join armies. For generals and governments, maybe suicide, but no. Be civilized. It has very good arguments not to kill murderers. I think generals would volunteer lifetime emprisonedment. Good enough, you think? But now I apologize to Elijah to be so jealous of her I needed to intercept their talk of family. You won’t take him away from me back?”

              “No chance,” she says with her grin. “Oh, and my name is Eliza.”

              “Yes, I can say it. I practice at home tonight. If we meet more I will be right. But I hope not to. I am so stupid to be jealous I say stupid stuff. But don’t love him still please?”

              “No chance!” says Eliza, taking Ron’s arm and walking off. “Here’s hoping we never meet again! I’ll do all the family stuff over the phone. Provided he answers.”

              “Yes answer, don’t meet her,” Rose says, smiling and waving at them, “I see this Eliza again, I stick my knife in her heart.” I pick up the towel and radio. “And so?” she says.

              “So?”

              “So what do you do to my husband for me?"


THE KNIFE.

              “Hey you son of a bitch!” I walk straight at him yelling. “You planned it, to get yourself a kid!” I swing at his face, nothing like a bloody nose to take the fight out of a loudmouth fat guy, and wind up sitting on the Boardwalk, my little finger throbbing in pain. He stands over me calm and friendly.

              “You fuck my wife? So now you kill me? America is strange country. In my country, it is husband, must kill you both. I come in the night-window, knife between my teeths, I stab everything. Her, you, the bed, the bed. I cry, weep, fall down.” He takes my hand, looks at the finger. “Clean break, I fix it easy. Then in my country everybody gives money to me to buy new wife. More young, more pretty, and never, so scared of the knife, will she fuck other body else. In America, I must be sorry for judo-jitsu I learned from the Communist Japanese who came to my country to learn subversion and stay to run McDonald’s. Nowhere is more subversion than by Big Mac.”

              He tears the American flag. He pulls my finger straight. I almost faint with pain. He puts a Wildwood-by-the-Sea-God pen against my finger and wraps it up in strips of flag. It feels better already.

              “Is one of my tricks to be doctor, in my country I am dentist. You will not try to hit me again? Don’t. I have to break more of you, and I don’t want to. I give you my wife.”

              He takes me inside. He opens the back garage door, a ramp leads to the street.

              “Everybody! We close today. I pay you anyhow. Be good and cheat tomorrow! Or we are all poor. And now since Clington, America has no welfare for its poors. Cheat or starve, cheat to eat is the lesson of America.”

              “You planned this to get rid of your wife.”

              He starts the car. “Ahhhh, this car. A car is not like a woman. No love to think about. A ride is just a ride! I love my wife like this car. In my country I am dentist, a joker. I do teeth of politicians, and laugh at them. She is painter who wants to trade pictures for teeth, is usual in my country. She paints politicians like little toy dolls. Very funny, but she doesn’t laugh, so is very dangerous. Communists hate to see truths if you don’t laugh. So I marry her to make her laugh, it keeps her safe. Then Capitalism comes. Capitalists hate truths if you laugh or don’t. We must leave. But West is worse than East and East is changed worser yet. We live to cheat. We cheat everybody. She hates it.”

              “You married her to save her. And you’re tired of saving her?”

              “She is tired of my saving. I say to her, Paint! Paint me something! Even one flower, a rose! She can’t to paint. I waste both our lives. I think I will swish-side. You think I joke? I am atheist, to me swish-side is not sin only mess on the rug. But how would she live? Then I see you, pretty young American. I take you to her. You fuck her. I want you to. I hate you to. It’s stupid to be a husband. So I will quit. I don’t love her. She don’t love me. We are friends. It’s nothing. Or everything else, except love. So I go – if you love her. You love her?”

              “I love her.”

              “She loves you?”

              “She painted the war memorial on a pizza box, she puts stories of dead troops in it.”

              He starts the car. He strokes the dashboard. He drives off. I guess I knew he would. But that’s not what I wanted – to make him leave us.


A SIGHT FOR THE PIZZA MAN.

              She lays flat out naked on her towel, holding a paperback in the air to read. She says it’s better for her back on the floor. It’s almost Labor Day, she throws up mornings, she tells me in French she likes throwing up. We’re together all the time. She finds his dinosaurs. Two-inch toys in cheap plastic colors. He must’ve bought a bag of 100 for a couple dollars and stuck them one by one all over the house when he left: blue tyrannosaurus of the dishwasher, green clothesdryer pterodactyl, yellow knifedrawer brontosaurus.

              Once while we’re making love she says, “Look!” She says it in French, always thinking of me, points to a purple stegosaurus bent over to watch from the ceiling light. It’s a great goodbye joke. Very extinct. I’ll use it someday I think. And then remember: ex-wife and kid I detest, new wife I love, new kid on the way, no more joke goodbyes in my lifetime. She’s funny, or whining, pissy, annoying, pitiful, silly, and who I never leave.

              “He wants to see you,” I say.

              “Not naked!” she jumps up, pulls the towel half around her. “I won’t be spied on but by his dinosaurs. Talk French.”

              “And the pizza guy,” I say in English.

              “Two times a week, and you tease me forever,” She says in English. “I run to the door so hungry like pregnant woman. He is a very polite, he don’t look at all much. Always now I think the door is you, I think everybody will be you.”

              “Except him. Your husband.”

              She shivers, she sits down wrapped in the towel, bends over and says to the floor in English, “He can’t see me. The pizza, who cares? You care if he sees? But not him.”

              “We get our pizzas a lot quicker now,” I say. “But you put clothes on sometimes. Put on clothes and see him. Tomorrow.”

              “I don’t want clothes. I want to be airy pregnant. I never was pregnant, you know? Thirty-eight and not. You are become sad, sorry? worried? to be pregnant dad with kid? I am old for you? Why don’t we speak French?”

              “This is too important for my French. You’re not old. I’m glad to be a dad. Don’t, if you feel bad seeing him, but he’s leaving forever he says.”

              “I have to see him. Terrible.” She rocks side to side, she makes a face, “I stick my butts to terrible plastic of your country, I must have a house of towels, yes? No clothes and pregnant and towels on everything white like soft snow new.” In French says tells me to sit beside her, no kisses, love is very dear, but this moment I must be friend. She must see him. Can I forgive her?

              “Nothing to forgive,” I say in English.

              She shakes her head. “You are going to kill me,” she says.


HOLD HER.

              Four days of rain stop. The air’s wet, no wind, cold the way a beach town gets in late summer. Cars beaded with water, icy to touch. Staring cats sit noiseless under them. We stand in shivery cold, not looking at each other. I said I shouldn’t be here, an argument I lost.

              “It looks like I don’t trust you,” I say.

              “Without you means I, I don't trust me,” she says. “Be here. You must to.”

              Breath in icepick sniffles. The bird that cried all night in the tree by the streetlight keeps on crying this morning. She looks sick.

              “I don’t put on anything for him, no lipstick, no eyeline,” she says. “Only clothes.”

              She wears my oldest sweats, big and lumpy on her, under an unzipped rain parka. She puts her hands in the pockets to hold it open, gathering cold into her belly, where she says she’s starting to show and isn’t. The hood’s up over her head. She wouldn’t brush her hair, wisps and tangles hang down, tight curls from the damp. She gags.

              “Wait inside, I’ll get you when he comes,” I say.

              She smiles at me, grayfaced, suddenly gorgeous. “It’s only pregnant. Good sick. I like to be pregnant with you. Don’t worry. I want to see him come. Then I can know I will see him go.”

              We wait, I put my arm around her, she smiles. I take it off. “Yes,” she says. “It looks like you are too possessing. Worried. You are not. I am not. He, his turn is to worried.”

              The Corvette turns the corner. The convertible top’s bent and torn on the driver’s side.

              “Uuhnnn.” She makes a noise like the car makes driving up. He gets out, sniffs the cold, waves across the car at us, says something Hungarian, Serbian, whatever they talk. I never asked.

              “Speak English,” she says.

              “Yes, sorry.” He’s shy, or pretending. “Sorry to be.”

              “I’m going back in,” I say.

              “No,” she says. “I laugh at this. What he will do, grab, pull me in car? Come, pull me, beat, you want to?” She walks around the car at him. “It’s easy.” She smacks at him, kicks, punches.

              “Hold her,” he says to me. Words in their language. I walk towards them, no hurry. He’s crying now. Here’s the woman I love, mother of my child, her ex-husband trying to win her back, or say goodbye, or both or neither, and I’m bored. Let him have her, if it’s this tragedy. Let them cry and curse and slap each other happily ever after. I reach for her. Too late.

              She’s lifted in the air, he swings her into the Corvette. I want her now he’s got her, but not wanting too much, relieved if she’s going. Rain starts, a rattle of cold drops.

              “Cut this shit out,” I say. “Stop being assholes.”

              They’re murmuring, locked together. It would’ve been the end, but fists grab in his hair, legs kick. “No! in English I say it! You can not to take me!”

              I rest my hand on his back. “Quit,” I say, quietly. He says something. She puts her hand over her mouth. “She won’t talk language you don’t know,” he says. He lets her go, straightens up. “You must hear all. She is for you, for ever.” He punches the convertible top. “Look at this car of lousy stupid America. Fifty thousand dollars, if I paid it, which okay I don’t, it is totaled-wrecked in mysterious ways, even for a car for free it is.” He pulls out invisible pistols and shoots it, “Bank, bank. It is beautiful, this car. Beautiful like America. A little bit of shit goes with it.” He takes off his cowboy hat, settles it back on his head. “I say to both, you and her. Goodbye. Be happy. If you would need anything, either one, she knows email for me. Whatever I say is no secret.” He gets in the car.

              She’s squeezed against me, holding my arm. I got what I want, in a minute I’ll want it again. But he yells in their language. We turn around. He’s got the passenger door open. He yells something else or the same thing, how would I know?

              “Bastard!” she yells. She gets loose from my arms and goes for him, many shouts, spits, syllables. She jumps in the car, slams the door, it takes off, I’m running after, it stops, backs up, almost hits me. She’s pounding on the window. He rolls it down. Electric windows, controlled by the driver I think, clear and insanely.

              “The cat!” she says.

              “The? Cat?” I’m out of breath running. She found a kitten in an alley, full of fleas, it slept with us. I hate the cat.

              “Don’t hurt this cat because you loved me. I love you. I must to go. Drive, Drive!” Everything else she says is gabble. He drives, I run pulling at the convertible top, trying to hang on, tearing at it. I fall. They’re gone.


WOW.

              “Wow. You just went back to their condo?” It’s Candy and Horseshoes.

              “No, I sat down in the street and cried. Yes I went back, and made coffee and watched CNN. Iraq as usual. People run around carrying bodies.”

              “You really loved her.”

              “Don’t start. You know I half-did and half-didn’t. If she stayed I’d be complaining about that. Do I look broken hearted?”

              “You look like shit and talk full of shit. When I knock on the door and make you come out for a drink, you have to shave off a week’s beard you’re such a happy guy.”

              “Why are we here? Razzberry’s not working. We’re paying for drinks, and they’re shitty.” Some blonde shins up and down the brass pole. It’s the nothing time of night, Japanese baseball.

              “Razzberry and me are,” she blows a razzberry.

              “Hey. I’m sorry. Seriously. Hell. Tough luck.”

              “Stop. I had my first heart broken at ten, when I realized why I was disgusted by my disgusting daddy. What’ll you do now, watch other country’s tragedies on TV the rest of your life and drink?”

              A redhead, different face, same titwork tits, cheekwork cheeks, lipwork lips, humps the chrome pole. Candy bangs her sneaker against the bottom rung of my bar stool. Once, twice.

              “Why don’t I move in with you? The Condo’s paid for, so’s rent and electric for the Wheel. Plenty of bears and pens left. We’ll clear three thousand a week. Then – no guarantees – why not when college starts I go back with you to whereverville. Keep house, get some chump job, keep you in sex. I’m good at it.”

              “Sex is why adjuncts get freshman classes. The money stinks, but fringe benefits include all you can eat.”

              “Fine by me. I’m good at sex, but don’t make trouble. Razzberry did whoever she wanted. I got ten thousand saved up. I always make a good buck with phone sex. No contact, no danger, we share expenses. Anything else you want, it’s there. I’m tired. I got thirty thousand, not ten, not a penny more. I swear. You could have a decent car. I’ll be faithful if you want, and I’m clean, with tests to prove it. No HIV, STD, herpes, warts, chlamydia, nothing. I’ll take them again. I’ll wear my teeth. Tell me leave, I go with nary a peep. That’s what my dad used to say,” she whispers it, “nary a peep. Come on, come on! I’m pleading. I can cook.”

              “No.”

              “Real good food.”

              “No.”

              “Nice of you to let me down easy.”

              “You know what I can’t stand? Sitting down to eat, everything on the plate’s a recipe. It’s, oh delicious fish, what wonderful rice. Even the stringbeans have almonds or burnt raisins in them. No cooking. Food. Meat. Vegetables. Sometimes spaghetti, if it’s spaghetti. No pasta anything! Specially pasta salad!”

              “This is how you say yes, for a – to torture me?”

              She kisses me. “I won’t do that if you hate – sorry, detest it.”

              “Don’t be silly. Let’s go fuck. And till I get used to it, put in some teeth.”


BLINK.

              September. Life is easy when nothing matters. All the kids are looking for work or back in school, moms and dads went with them. Only oldfarts left, and they all want white bears that say I LOVE YOU. It makes them feel young. Candy and I make four thousand a week. She laughs counting money. Her laugh is pretty, kind of, since I bullied her into wearing teeth.

              “Nobody bothered to make me do anything,” she says.

              “It helps on the wheel when you look like a kid.”

              “Anyway you care enough about the wheel to bother about me. You doing another dropout college girlie tonight?”

              “No. I don’t mind the exercise, but hate the end of summer crying jags. Heartbreak’s too funny when they’re seventeen.”

              “I’m seventeen.”

              I’d’ve thought thirteen hard years older. She kicks my shins. We’re at the blue Formica table. It’s breakfast.

              “No pity! From you or anybody. I had a lot of luck, all bad. It’s only karma. Must be I lied and stole and raped and molested and had a great old time a life ago.”

              “Nobody ever gave you a damn thing, so you find the one stupid religion that puts the blame on you.”

              “No wonder you make your babies cry.” She slaps an omelet on my plate. “What’s it matter to you how us girls let a little sunshine into our sad and lonely life?"

              “It’s bullshit sunshine.”

              “What isn’t bullshit? Can you eat your omelet up before it’s cold? And notice it’s gorgonzola-basil and real delicious?"

              “I eat food, not ingredients. Goodbye.”

              “You leave me like (blows a razzberry)? Because I?”

              “Leave you? Goodbye for breakfast. I’ll dunk some Dunkins and see you at the wheel. What’s this shitstorm?”

              “You treat me good. You even call me up when you’re not coming home even. You give me a beautiful present.” She grabs off the bed one of the bears from the wheel.

              “Give you it? I said take it. We’re going to throw out a damn hundred damn bears when we leave. And it’s stupid. And ugly.” I’m pissed and don’t know why, too pissed to duck when she throws the bear at me.

              “It is a present. It isn’t ugly! You are nice! Just to set me up. Here goes! Candy takes it up the ass again. Look now what you did!”

              Candy’s proud of her extrasoft French omelets. The bear bounced off me onto the plate. Its face and I LOVE YOU heart are splotched grainy green and yellow.

              “It looks like my daughter when she was two and throwing up creamed succotash with prunes. You know what the problem is with kids? Trying to feed them with a spoon. What you need’s a stomach pump that slushes stuff in, and then reverse it to get half out again and spray them with it. You’d get the same effect with much less time and trouble.”

              Even my overworked overtired exwife Eliza laughed at that. Candy cries – hiccupping, wiping the bear with a hot-mitt, making more mess.

              “You got to lift food off. Not rub it in. Even neglectful child-deserter dads like me know that. Throw it away. Take another one.”

              “This is the one you give me,” she says quietly. “Listen to me, John. John’s your name, or Jack?”

              “If you were thirtyfour like me, and went to school with other unique and individual kids like me you’d know we’re all named Jon, for Jonathan.”

              She sits holding the smeared bear in her lap.

              “The heart looks like it says I SPITUP YOU,” I say.

              “Jonathan! This isn’t funny.” She rolls on the bed, hugging, hiccupping, laughing, crying, kissing the bear. It’s dawning on me, belatedly enough, this is the end of the easy life when nothing matters. Shit, I’m sorry, is what I think, and would’ve said. Except.

              “You must to forgive me!” In she walks, pregnanter, tanner, fatter. Her arms around me. Snotty, sweet, salty, teary kisses. Her body against me, her sweaty smells.

              “I tell him he can not to touch me. He take me to Niagara Falls. The Grand Valley. We see, I don’t know, rocks, rocks. Water on rocks. Rocks on water. I say he must to take me back. He says I don’t know even your name. I say I don’t need your name to love you.

              “Jonathan.”

              She looks at Candy, gray and miserable, holding the filthy bear.

              “Jonathan is, his name. Sorry I got the, hiccups, I’m, like, nothing. I’m.” Candy holds her nose, silently counting.

              “Doesn’t mattereds.” Rose pulls the curtain open against the sea. Bright light spills in, making us wince and blink.

              “He brings me back, he goes away. He needs to say to you goodbye.”

              I look out. He’s beside the Corvette, dinged and dusty from driving all those miles. He pulls out invisible guns. I can’t hear him through the glass. I see him say it.

              “Bank Bank.”

              I clutch my heart. I pretend to fall. I turn and grab Rose. It’s everything coming down on me. New wife, new kid talking god-forsaken gibberish to a new mom getting fatter. I grab her up off the floor. I feel the weight of new meat in my arms. I know he’ll be back. Then what? Then what do all of us do?

              She’s digging nails in my neck. “Love, love, love,” she whispers, in English, in French, jibbers it in gibberish languages. I look over her shoulder to shrug at Candy and say helplessly, “They got me!”

              But Candy’s gone.