I rise an hour earlier than most so that I can spend time playing with my long blond hair. A hair stylist told me once that people paid good money for the sunny highlights that have naturally streaked into mine over the years. There are times when I will stand for a good fifteen minutes before the mirror, deciding whether or not to wash my hair, or go for a more down-and-dirty tangle. I think about who will be looking at me that day, the women I might chance to meet. I spend another thirty minutes picking out my clothes.
Take a particular day a week ago. I pulled on chocolate brown Dickies–the work pants you can get at Kaplan’s (although I do not shop there)–over narrow-cut boxers, then donned a wide black belt with a curved silver buckle, and a dark blue bowling shirt with off-white piping on the collar and pockets. The name “Larry” was embroidered on the left pocket flap, though my name, of course, is Alex Dunn. Over the shir4t, I wore a vintage brown suede jacket with white stitching, lighter than the pants. I deliberated on the pants for some time. I had to make a presentation this day, so something besides sneakers was called for. I settled on zipper dingo boots that were a faded brown with a metal loop on each ankle. These I’d found in the back of my father’s closet after he dies. They must have dated from the early seventies. I put them on over dark blue socks with little planets and stars woven subtly into the stretch fabric. Nobody but I would know about those, but detail is everything when you want to feel as good as you look.
Obviously, I am something of a modern dandy. While there are times when I’m reluctant to admit that I’m a clotheshorse, for the most part I am not ashamed of this trait, for the simple fact is that I get laid more often on account of it. I am an advertising man–that is. I am in advertising, and even here it is not unseemly for an advertising man to sport long hair and snappy togs, especially if he is the agency’s eccentric creative talent.
Of course, most advertising men in Minneapolis do not dress as I do, but affect a yuppie, frat-boy standard. If they are particularly daring, you may find them sporting a denim button down or a loud tie. They shop at Herbert H. White; I haunt the thrift stores, with which Minneapolis is copiously endowed. As a matter of principle, I refuse to pay more than twenty dollars for a shirt or a pair of pants. This requires a concomitant heroic diligence in shopping. You may not realize the sacrifice that goes into looking the way I do, but it is there, underlying the look, nonetheless. When a client is impressed with my creative dress, say, or when a woman in a restaurant gives me a long glance, neither realizes that they are admiring my moral commitment as much as my fashion sense. Or so I like to think.
I like to think well of myself. Why not? I have made a place for myself, spun a cocoon on the south side of the city, where you will find a small slab of bohemian neighborhood. I like to think well of myself and my life. I get plenty of sex and I’m making money. I support progressive causes; I buy art and go out to concerts. I’ve been known to read a book that doesn’t have a hero as the main character. The Baptist folk tell me that my existence is hollow, that I must get right with Lord Jesus Christ, that I must get a haircut. But at work, I am, as they say, a team player with a can-do attitude, and they’ve made me a partner. I went to Augsburg College. It isn’t hard to play along. It’s a running game against a passing game, after all. I like to think that if Jesus came back today, he would have a beer with me at Paulie’s. He would Appreciate the look I was going for on that particular day.
Paulie’s is the bar we’ve all been hanging out at since college. It’s basically an old service station into which Charlie Morrow put a beer cooler, tables, and a jukebox. There is neon in the windows, but the only sign outside is an unlit piece of metal on a pole that says “Beverages.” Nobody has any idea why we call it Paulie’s.
On the day I wore my brown suede jacket, I met Brent and Teri at Paulie’s after work. I’ve known them both since my freshman year. Brent (he’s short and skinny, with a preternaturally youthful appearance, and he doesn’t look like a Brent) is an overdue loan collector for First National Bank. The only bank in Minneapolis with no listed telephone number. Brent lives in a bare apartment in the suburbs. He doesn’t like his job and he doesn’t have very many friends. In a way, I feel sorry for him. But in another way, being around him fills me with relief at how far I’ve come from the shy social enigma I was just out of high school. Brent is constantly on the make. As with some men, women are for him objects of desire and loathing, but always, always, objects. He is on a testosterone high that hasn’t abated in the fifteen years I’ve known him. It is a wonder that the vertebrae in his neck haven’t ground themselves away from such constant head jerking to look at legs, breasts, shoulders. Brent is not exactly the master of the sidelong glance.
He was the first to show up, and he joined me at our usual booth with his usual nervous handshake. I have no idea why he felt it was necessary to shake hands every time we met. I knew he wasn’t really comfortable touching anyone. Over the years and after one bender or another, I’d wound up at his place of an evening and the elaborate precautions he took in the morning not to be seen, to cover up, were amusing. He closed–and locked–the bathroom door. His big robe nearly swallowed him. For a time I toyed with the idea that he was gay and in denial, but what was up with Brent went deeper than that. The man was fundamentally uncomfortable being in the world. There was always a moment when it appeared that Brent was deciding–wholly unconsciously–whether it would be more appropriate to hit you or shake your hand. What am I suppose to do? You imagined his brain shouting. We’ve got a situation here!
“Did you see that one over in the corner?” Brent said as he sat down across from me. “Those are some nice tits!”
“No. She came in after me.” of course, I had noticed the woman he was talking about–we’d exchanged glances when I’d come in–but to begin a discussion about her breasts . . . with Brent, that way lay madness.
“She can’t be twenty-five. Probably in college. She’s got one of those nose piercing.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“All in black. You like those gothic girls, right? You sure you don’t want some of it tonight? How long’s it been since Pamara moved to Texas?”
“Two months. We weren’t really together, you know.”
He looked over my shoulder at the woman. “This one’s fine. Jet black hair. White skin. Probably soft as a lily.”
“Jailbait,” I said.
“I thought you hadn’t seen her?” Brent sat back and grinned.
“I’m just going by your description.”
Fortunately, Charlie arrived with a beer for Brent and a whiskey sour for me.
“She said she was.”
“Good, because I could use a little Deb tonight.”
Brent took a pull on his beer. “What about them Vikes?” he said. “Think the cheeseheads gonna whoop up on them?”
This must have been a carry-over from work, because Brent knew how little I cared about football. I gazed off into the smoke of the bar. “It’s a running game against a passing game,” I replied.
Teri came in in her hospital greens. Yet, even wearing such a sexless get-up, T managed to give off an air of dominating passion, of out-and-out lust. I imagined her tall, slender form passing through the corridors of the hospital where she worked. Terminally ill patients turning their heads for a last, longing look at the desire they could no longer feel because of the pain and dope.
T was a nurse practitioner at HCMC where her specialty was neurological medicine. She managed the head and spinal-trauma cases.
T sat down beside me. She always sat beside me in the booth. I suspect this was because Brent had groped her once or twice fore all the good it would ever do him with T. she was bi, even poly-sexual, but none of her twists and turns included a kink for Brent.
“Techmed pumps are in,” was the first thing T said.
“You are so out of it, girl,” I said. “Those were the rage in Paris four months ago. We’ve moved on since then.”
T cracked a smile. That’s what T always did. Tight-lipped. You had to look carefully at her when she talked if you wished to find out whether or not T had teeth. “Implantable drug pumps for continuous dosing. They go in just under the shoulder blade. The new ones came in today. We’re going to put one in a Parkinson’s patient tomorrow.”
“What’s in it?” Charlie asked, setting T’s beer-a-porter on the table.
“Muscle relaxant in that one. You can put anything in them. Morphine for pain control is what’s in a lot of them these days. You inject a couple of month’s worth through the skin and into the pump reservoir.”
Brent coughed-laughed, cleared his throat. “Did you see that one when you came in?” he asked her.
T frowned at the interruption. “The curvy one?”
“That’s what I mean. Alex says jailbait.”
T languidly turned and looked at the woman. What in Brent would be nigh on stalking behavior was sexy as hell when T did it. “Oh, I don’t know,” T said. “She’s okay.”
Well, scratch that one for me tonight, I thought. She’s liable to think we’re all looking to cook and eat her by this point. But, in any case, I had other plans for the evening.
“Sort of like Deborah,” T said, turning back around. “The eyes, I mean.”
“Not really,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
Brent pointed his beer bottle at me. “You are looking?”
“Speaking of which, I’d just as soon go ahead now. Unless either of you have another plan.”
“Let’s,” Brent said.
“All right.” I downed the remainder of my drink and stood up. “Let’s tell Charlie and go in back.”
Charlie saw where we were headed and nodded to me. We crowded into the small back room at Paulie’s and T flinted on the little propane torch that Charlie kept back there for odd jobs–and for us.
We all stood around the tiny flame as if it were a campfire. For an early autumn evening, it had gotten chilly in the bare concrete room.
Then Charlie came in with the black film canister where we kept a year’s supply of Deborah.
Of course Charlie had no idea what was in the canister. Or what was in the Maxwell House coffee can we asked to place in his safe those many years ago. That was why he was the perfect keeper, the perfect dealer. None of us–me, Brent, T–would have trusted the others with Deborah. And we were right not to. I have no idea what Charlie thought was in there. He never asked about it, even when he was at his most garrulous. After T took the canister from him, he left us to our own devices.
T took a bent spoon from her handbag and set it up on the room’s plain wood table. She shook a few crystals–about a salt packet’s worth– from the powder in the container into the bowl of the spoon. She moistened the crystals with saline from a syringe, the carefully held propane torch close to the metal. With the finest flickering motion, T heated the metal until the brown-black crystals began to dissolve in the saline. As always, she heated it until the saline just started to boil, then backed off. She was very good at this. It was T who first came up with the idea of the injections.
Time. Quickly, she filled three syringes with the liquid from the spoon, handing one to Brent, one to me, and taking one for herself.
Brent and I had already popped veins up in the bend of our elbows. I turned from the others, faced a gray wall. I looked at what was in my hand.
Deborah was in my hand. My first and only true love. I took a breath. Prepared.
“Damn it!” said Brent. “I can’t hit the fucking vein.” I did not look back at him. “Ouch–shit! T, can you–?”
“All right,” T said. I waited. “There now,” she finally said. “How’s that?”
“Fucking marvelous,” Brent replied. “Fucking . . . “ And then he was lost to it, in her. She was there for him. She would soon be there for me.
I looked down at the bare white of my arm. My suede jacket was lying in the corner. My shirt was short-sleeved. My vein was very, very blue. With a quick thrust, I slid the needle through the skin, into the wall of the blood vessel. My thumb came down on the plunger with the same motion. Smooth and easy. I’d learned to do this well.
Deborah flowed into my blood and bones.
I breathed out, long; breathed in deeply. I looked up at the light bulb hanging on a black cord from the ceiling. Light, pure white. Pure white, but softening. As soft as the sun through Minnesota rain. The sun through the rain, scintillating now to the prismatic, to prism blues.
And she was there. Like the colors of light inside me.
I couldn’t see her. I would never see her again. It was her presence I felt, more than anything. The way it felt to be around her, to breathe her in. to touch and be touched by her, by my old lover, Deborah Garret. Her fingernails on my skin, as she ran the back of her hand across my cheek.
“Alex, it’s T.”
“Brent is totally gone.”
“He always does. He always does.”
“I want to go with her.”
“Then go. Go with her, T.”
“Let’s call Charlie.”
“Okay.” I rapped on the door three times. After a moment, Charlie came in and took the film canister away. Just us now. The three of us. And the night to spend with Deborah.
I gazed around the room. Brent was in a corner, slumped on my jacket. His eyes were closed and his eyeballs twitched underneath his lids.
“I think Brent will stay here tonight,” I said. “Charlie’ll look after him.”
T nodded. “I . . . do you mind if I come to your place tonight?” she asked me. “Kristin is staying at the house this week.”
“Come home with me then,” I said. “But let’s take two cars.”
I looked at T. Tears were forming in her eyes. Tears ran down her face. “Deb,” she said. “Oh, Deb.” But she wasn’t talking to me.
“Are you okay to drive?”
T wiped her nose, sniffed. “I’ll be all right. Let’s go.”
I pulled my jacket out from under Brent. He toppled over, lay on his side, but didn’t seem to notice. On my way out, I passed the woman he and T had been looking at. She wasn’t really very special. Nothing special at all when compared to Deborah.
Driving the streets of Minneapolis with Deborah inside me. Her fingers on my skin from the inside, caressing, touching me in places no other woman has, where no woman can. Every wait at a traffic light is an eternity of longing. But an eternity I can endure, use to gather strength within, streetlights of the Southside, the colors of a dark rainbow. We’d driven this way so many times together. Up Hennepin, up Lake Street, toward the lakes. Minneapolis, City of Lakes.
By Calhoun, by her dark waters shimmering in the night, where Deborah and I went to be alone, back when we both lived in the dorms. Back when we’d first fallen in love and couldn’t get enough of each other. I could never get enough of her back then.
I parked and walked to my apartment. T was already there, waiting for me at the outside door, although she’d had a key for many years. We climbed up the three flights of stairs in silence, each lost in our separate thoughts. But together, too.
I put T on the futon, and I sank into my big chair. I turned to face the window, to face out over the lights of the city. Finally, I gave myself completely to Deborah. I gave myself to the memories coursing through my blood.
Alex, where are you?
I thought. I thought you were going to leave. Go to Chicago. Go to New York. What about your play?
My what? Oh. You can’t have old manuscripts in your bottom drawer if you want to make partner. I don’t want to talk about that, Deb.
Okay. I love you.
I love you, too.
You were so intense. We were so intense. Everything mattered so much to you! God, I would come just thinking of you, all bunched up inside like that, ready to explode. You were going to take off like the fireworks, baby. Remember the fireworks on the Fourth? Sitting by the lake watching them and they were right on top of us, like we were making love in them, like we were one with them.
All of us. Me, you, T, and Brent. Did y’all ever get a place together in New Orleans like we talked about?
We got a place here.
Oh. Was it nice?
For a while.
You weren’t there. It wasn’t. It didn’t. Work out.
I wasn’t there?
How did I die? I can remember everything but that.
The blue sadness was as delicious as the rapture. I’d found that out over the years. That was why I always let her ramble on. Why I always let her ask that question. And I could answer. I could answer if I wanted to, because she’d never remember the answers the next time.
She was always and forever twenty-two years old. Ghost in my blood. How could we have done this to her? How could I have done this to her?
It was easy, really.
I was the theater major, and it was I who had done the research on ritual magic, ritual murder. For my play, of course. It was to be a mock renaissance drama. I was going to out-Marlowe Marlowe, by heaven and hell. A postmodern Faust, where the good doctor wins.
The weird kids, the freak kids, get very close in small colleges. We come from small towns, from hick neighborhoods in the city, and no one has ever been like us before. All we knew were up-tight snobs playing at being somebody. Nobody like us. Until we go off to school. And there they are: our kind. My kind. It was such a relief. I cannot tell you. There were other people like me!
The artist. Oh, Brent was a male chauvinist pig, but he was a pig with a genius for paint. A demon who has stared down into himself and found his own hell, and come back with a picture of it to show around to his friends. Brent used to paint like a fallen angel. I still had some of his work in my apartment.,
t, whose life was a work in progress, whose brush was her sex, the living organ of her skin. What a rare and beautiful thing to bring forth out of the North! She wanted to be a nurse so she could be around bodies. Beautiful bodies in all their lovely and hideous forms.
t, who had drawn us all together in a tight knot of intimacy and desire. A tight knot whose name was Deborah.
T, who worked part-time at a crematorium.
And Deborah. Deb, who sang. Who sang us dark lullabies after we made love. T and me. Brent and Deb. T and Deb. Then Deb and me. She was my girlfriend, after all.
Deb, whose voice was as chilly as a night wind, and as lovely.
Maybe we’d all gotten a little too close. We were all terrified that we would end up back where we came from, back in the ‘burbs and small towns where they’d look at us funny for wanting. Not wanting something more. Not really. Just something else.
There is no good and bad. There is only the ugly and the beautiful.
We wanted beautiful lives. And that was all it took to earn people’s distrust. Their hatred.
We had thought we were working a magic against the possibility of return. One of us would give himself for the others, so that horror would never come about. So that the others would get what it was they most wanted. Never to go back. One of us would give herself.
We loved each other so much.
We took up kitchen knives in our right hands and drew straws with our left. Well, except for Brent, who is left-handed.
And the magic worked.
Look at us now, fifteen years later. The magic worked, and we never had to go home again.
The next morning, I woke and found T making me breakfast. She was scrambling the eggs, with pickle, pepper, onion, and ham, just as she knew I liked them. I sat down at my kitchen table, rubbed my eyes. The hangovers could be bad, but so far this one was only mild. A mild and sweet blue in my heart. It might have matched my shirt.
“My shift doesn’t start until eleven today,” she said. “So I thought I’d get you going.”
She poured me coffee in a tea cup and set it down on the blond wood of the tabletop.
“You all right?”
“I guess. Yes, I’m fine.”
The eggs were soon ready, and T sat down across from me with her own cup of coffee. She put the slightest touch of milk in hers.
“How’s Kristin?” I asked.
“Fine, I guess.” She sipped and swallowed. “I think we’re breaking up.”
“What? Oh, that’s too bad. Why?”
“I come home and there’s just . . . nothing. It’s like we’re both waiting for the other to say something. Only I don’t know what it could be.”
“Do you fuck?”
T smiled, tight as usual. “Not much,” she said.
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. Listen, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Away from Brent. I know he would go for it.”
“Go for what?”
“Remember those pumps I was telling you about?”
“The drug pumps?”
“The implantable pumps, yes. They’re very safe these days. Almost routine. As a matter of fact, I have one.”
“You have one?”
“Yeah. I got one of the docs to put it in when I had my eye surgery. For pain control. It’s very efficient and effective. Better than any nurse.”
“Listen. We could. You could get one.”
“Get one?” I swallowed my coffee, choked back a cough. I set my cup down. “For Deborah, you mean?”
“We could divide her up fairly then. For continuous dosage. No more sleazy back room at Paulie’s. We could charge it up for six months at a time. The technology is not at all experimental any more. It’s practically routine.”
I couldn’t reply to this. I sat there and absentmindedly finished my coffee. Deborah. All the time, a bit of Deborah trickling into me.
T’s touch on my hand brought me out of my reverie.
“There’s another thing I wanted to ask,” she said. She sighed, touched my cheek. What was she doing? “I’m lonely, Alex. Kristin is so far away, and I’m lonely. Sometimes I think we missed something along the way, you and I. there was something there and we weren’t paying attention to it. Do you think . . . before you go to work . . . do you think we could . . . be together? For old time’s sake?”
What was she doing?
“Oh, Christ, T,” I said. “It’s pretty late. I have to get dressed. I have a presentation.”
Today I am up at six so I can wash my hair. Deborah always liked it freshly washed. The grungy look came in long after she had passed on. I examine my pretty blond locks in the mirror, and I see Deborah smiling through my eyes.
T was right. The implanting took all of half an hour. She performed the operation herself, in an unused examining room at the HCMC medical complex. Brent first, then me. Snipped us open and taped us shut, and that was it. I was already healing. Maybe the incision wouldn’t even scar up. But it was on my back, so I would never see it in the mirror. Nothing to worry about. T is blindingly efficient.
Now we only have to meet every six months. No more sleazy back room at Paulie’s. no more Paulie’s, really. Because I have to admit there was only one reason I ever went there anymore. I think the others felt the same way, too. Underneath it all.
Big fat corduroy is in, and today I’m wearing a beige shirt over slouchy black pants, suitable for bowling. What a hoot; I haven’t been bowling in years. I like to think well of myself. Why not? I’m going to dare the fashion gods, I decide, and I pull a corduroy jacket over my shirt. It’s a running game against a passing game.
The effect works. Surprisingly well. I am a wizard, a goddamn wizard of texture.
“You are a wizard of texture,” I say to my reflection.
Do you remember how long we used to take getting ready to go out?
It was like getting ready was more important than whatever it was we were going to do. We’d pass windows and look at ourselves walking by.
We were just kids.
I’m not a kid. I’m twenty-two. I’m not a kid anymore.
No. you’re a woman, my love.
A woman. That’s better.
I sit down on the futon and lace up my shoes–black Converse All Stars. Oxford cut, not ankle highs.
I know I must have asked you this before, but io keep forgetting.
That’s okay. That’s okay, my love.
How did I die?
I like the color of the gulf of Mexico. It is a pleasant blue-green. And warm. It is like swimming in your own body, your own blood. We all went to New Orleans for spring break of our senior year, and Deborah and I drove over to Biloxi and we lay out on those bone-white beaches, and we swam under those heavy, humid Southern skies. And we made love in the sandy night.
And after two days, we went back to New Orleans and found Brent and T, and we were all so excited we couldn’t get enough of it all, of the city, of everything all at once, everything happening all at once. So we walked the streets of the French Quarter, and we looked at the tangle of iron and masonry, and we all said how wonderful it was, how exquisite and beautiful, and we were all going to move here together, live here together, and it will be a life like nobody has ever had before. Everything will be amazing, exquisite, and beautiful. And we are all going to live in beautiful, beautiful New Orleans and go swimming in the sea.
So we remained in Minnesota? So we live as we do live? The world is still beautiful, only it’s more beautiful on the inside than the out–at least mine is. I don’t fell that I’ve betrayed anything, not really. Deborah’s sacrifice wasn’t meaningless. And she is still alive, still alive, in my living body. It’s a peculiar kind of live–but then so is mine.
It’s not bad for either of us. We are always young, always together, and always committed to intensity and passion. What better way is there to live? This is how I will honor my past. This is what I will do with the time that remains. It is a peculiar kind of live–but then so is yours. So is everyone’s on the inside of the skin, in the coursing of the blood.
How did I die?