“So what exactly do you want?”
It is, of course, a loaded question. The list of things I want is long and complicated. I want to go back in time to when our lives didn’t revolve around the great and terrible WE. WE are so excited for Christmas. WE are hosting game night. WE love Grey’s Anatomy. I want the girl that lived above the 8th street laundromat and cooked terrible Indian dishes and had actual feelings and independent thoughts and a unique personality and didn’t care about linens or flowers or types of satin or gourmet cake tastings. I want to open my mouth and yell it all back to her. Instead I say:
“Yep. Really salmon.”
“Not the chicken?”
“Not the chicken.”
“That’s right. The salmon.”
She looks up at me. No, not at me. Through me. Right through my forehead to the dining room wall.
“I thought you hated fish.”
“Nope. Don’t hate fish.”
Her expression is blank. No. Not blank. Bland. Her expression is bland as she brushes a strand of newly bleached hair off her cheek with a fingernail shaped like an eagle’s talon and looks back down at her Very Important Work.
Thankfully, mercifully, the dog begins to scratch at the patio door. “I’m taking the dog outside,” I may as well be saying to thin air.
It’s a fairly balmy night for September, and the street lights are hazy. A few of the neighbors-ones whose names I never bothered to learn-are chatting on their porch. I give a pathetic little wave, but they don’t look over. Instead an unfamiliar man in a rumpled grey suit who is exiting his car notices and returns the wave. The dog-nasty little thing- is some sort of mix of various petite dogs and was bred to live in a rich kid’s purse. The dog’s name is Chanel, and I had no vote when it came to the naming rights. I had no vote in a lot of decisions that led us to this too-big house in this too-expensive neighborhood.
As I walk into the quiet with the furry ankle-biter literally biting at my ankles, I take a deep breath and let the night in. Long ago I would have lit a joint and relished this opportunity to focus on my own things; the Packers, my mother’s last oncology appointment, the newest Yeti Turq 2 Eagle mountain bike that I can’t afford. But I am completely void of original thoughts right now. Instead my head is full of Wedding Things and dread.
I can trace it back to three weeks before I put the ring on her finger. If there had been signs before then, I was blind to them. We’d been dating for almost a decade, and that had been just fine. Until it wasn’t. So I created a spectacle to make it official for important documents and future children. That damn ring turned her into an unrecognizable, single-minded zombie, wandering the streets and terrorizing every bridal dress shop attendant in the state.
I am watching Chanel the rat dog sniff Dave Curtain’s rose bush when I feel cold metal press into the nape of my neck.
There’s a sudden shift in the night air.
“Don’t move,” a comically gruff voice growls into my ear. “Drop the leash and put your hands behind your back.”
I am calm as I do as I’m told, and then I feel rough steel slap against my wrists. The Porch Sitters have gone back into their house, and I know that I’m all alone. A different voice, equally gruff but higher in pitch laughs softly. It’s the Grey-suited Waver. I can smell vodka and stale cigars on his breath. I look down just in time to see his black-booted foot kick at the dog, who yelps and dashes in the opposite direction with the leash frantically trailing behind it. For a brief second I’m concerned that I’ve lost the dog until I realize that I simply don’t care.
“What’s this all about?” I’m surprised at how steady the words sound in my mouth.
“You know what this is about, man. You’re comin’ with us.”
Suddenly my skull explodes and the world goes dark.
I wake up in a chair that reeks of old leather and money. My neck is stiff; the back of my head is fire and my eyelids are sandpaper. The room I’m in is just a room; nothing spectacular, nothing notable. Just a blank, bland room. I take a quick mental inventory and notice two things immediately: I am handcuffed to this chair, and there is blood on my sweatshirt.
“Hey. You wanna uncuff me here, man?” I say to the taller of the two gun-wielding goons in the corner.
“Conklin, do what the man says,” a new voice says from behind me. It is a voice dripping with venom and honey. The tall man-Conklin-releases me. I immediately feel around my face, searching for the source of the blood. My nose. It’s coming from my nose.
“Did you break my nose?” I ask to no one in particular.
The man now standing in front of me chuckles quietly as he hands me an obnoxiously expensive handkerchief. He is much, much shorter than the goons but somehow much, much scarier.
“C’mon now, my friend, a little bloody nose ain’t never hurt anybody.”
I stand and stretch, my head filling with that light, swimmy feeling that makes your vision blur a little. My knee joints creak. Getting older is hell.
“So,” I say. “What’s with all the theatrics, Masters?” I stumble across the room to a small red refrigerator meant for a college dorm room and thankfully, there’s a bottle of water in it. "Doesn't seem like your style."
Masters shrugs and turns to sit behind his unremarkable desk. He props his feet up and puts his hands behind his greasy head, and it makes him look like a cartoon villain. “The boys were bored.”
I nod towards the goons in the corner. “Conklin. Nice to see you. This your new boyfriend?” I drain the water bottle in one gulp and toss it right on the floor. I really don’t think Masters is big on recycling.
Conklin mutters a "fuck you" in my direction, and he and the new guy disappear through the back door. Masters offers me a cigar, which I accept even though I know I’ll be in trouble for it later. Come home bruised and bleeding and she’d never bat an eye, but come home smelling like smoke and she’s got 50 thousand pamphlets and lectures about emphysema.
“Next time you wanna talk, call me or something, Masters. Text, maybe. Damn.” My wrists ache, but the cigar is making everything else better.
Masters leans forward and clears his throat. “I need a favor, bud,” he begins.
“”You don’t even know what-”
“I said no, Masters. I’m out. No favors. We’ve been through this.” I stand and turn to leave. This little cartoon villain has apparently lost his damn little mind.
Masters sighs behind me. “I’m in a real buncha shit here, man.”
I turn and roll my eyes. I temporarily forget that my nose is busted, and it makes my eyes burn. “You’re always in a buncha shit.”
He looks like a little kid playing Mobsters in his cheap suit, chomping on a cigar that I know he hates and sitting at that stupid desk. Old moon face Masters has head in his hands.
“It’s two weeks. Two weeks, maybe three. My usual guy went and got himself shot, and-”
I laugh. “Shot? What the hell, man?”
“In the foot. He’s fine. But he’s out. I just need a point person at the border.”
“And you don’t have any other guys? I mean, Jesus, Masters, I live in the goddamn suburbs now.”
Masters gets bold. He stands up and leans over the desk, and I realize that his eyebrows are penciled in. “My guys are good, but you’re the best. I need the best.”
Damn. He has me on the hook and he knows it. “How much?” The words leave my mouth before I realize what I’m saying.
“Fuck you. 25.”
I know three things. One, I am great at negotiation. Two, Masters is and always has been a little scared of me, and three, I am so overwhelmingly bored with my current situation that even though it’s been five years since I ended the game, I am actually considering getting involved in this nonsense again.
“I can do 20.” There’s a hint of hope in his voice. Poor bastard.
“Have a great night, Masters.” I flip him off and open the door.
“You know that my dad would have wanted you to help,” Masters calls.
I pause. Shit. I don’t like his smarmy tone, but I know that he’s right. His father had been a hell of a great guy. Built this business up from nothing. Never got greedy but never took less than 50. Taught me the difference between a Ruger and a Colt and everything I ever wanted to know about home security systems and international trade, all before I was 20. I cried at his funeral; I hadn’t even cried at my own old man’s funeral, but man, did I weep for Masters Senior.
I sigh and shut the door. Then I throw my shoulders back and return to the desk, making sure I keep my steps slow and even. It’s more intimidating that way. My nose seems to have stopped bleeding, but I decide that I’m keeping the handkerchief and tuck it into my back pocket.
I look the little man squarely in the eye and will myself not to blink. I know it makes him nervous. “22,” I whisper, because whispering seems like the appropriate thing to do.
Masters considers, but he has never been a great poker player. The look of sheer glee on his face is both hilarious and a little sad. “Okay, 22. But you can’t tell anyone I cut you in for more.”
Honestly, I would have done it for 20. It’s not a tough job. In and out, pretty minimal risk. 22 will go a long way towards paying off the mortgage. I’ll call it a business trip. She’ll never know the difference. Hell, she might not even notice I’m gone. I hold out my hand and am amazed that his handshake is both unnecessarily aggressive and a little weak all at the same time . But I can already feel that I am definitely going to need to find my carpal tunnel brace later.
“I’ll be in touch,” Masters says. He’s all smiles now. I know he thinks he’s won, that he’s got me or something, and it’s okay. I’ll let him think it. We all need a win sometimes.
“Your cigars are terrible,” I say as I grind mine into the ashtray beside the desk. “Call your boys back in here. I ain’t walking home.”
I’m not sure exactly what time it is when I get back home, but I know that it’s very late. The street is silent and most of the neighborhood porch lights-including my own-are out for the night. In fact, most of my house is dark and as I come in the front hallway I’m careful to not make a sound. Chanel the Rat Dog is sleeping in its dumb little basket under the staircase, but it growls halfheartedly at me as I creep past. Upstairs, I slip into the bedroom and am greeted with the usual half-snoring-half-snorting rumble that I insist is adorable and charming and she denies doing at all. As I strip and climb into bed, she stirs a little.
“I’m back. Sorry I was gone so long. Hope I didn’t worry you” I whisper.
“Mmmm. Ew,” she mutters. “Were you smoking a cigar? Ugh, that is so bad for you.”