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It used to be that in the mornings I’d wake up to the sour bleating of Sonny and Cher. My wife made I Got You Babe our alarm after she watched Groundhog’s Day with me. Sure, it was cute at first, but after the fourth or fifth time it made me want to go lie down on a train track and wait.
Other women age like a fine wine. My wife aged like condensed milk.
If I were a much younger man, I would ask myself, “Why do you make yourself miserable by staying together?”
And the answer is a rather simple one:
If you’re poor and you break your glasses, you don’t throw them away, you taper that shit back up.
But when we told people we thought about separating, they always asked that same question. And we always had that same bullshit answer:
“Oh, we just couldn’t do that to Callie.”
Callie was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Nine years old, four feet and sixty-one pounds of fucking rage. She broke a kid’s arm at school for trying to play tag with her.. She was a queen bitch, our daughter, and she owned us.
For instance, one afternoon, I was at KMart, eyeing the climbing rope, wondering what gauge it would take to support my neck if I were to jump off of a stepladder. Callie appeared at the end of the aisle, waving a cardboard box in my face.
“Dad, I want this toy.”
“No, Callie,” I said, not looking away from the rope.
“Mawmaw lets me get toys.”
Yes, well, Mawmaw is a senile bitch who shits in a bag.
“Yes, well, I’m not Mawmaw.”
I turned and pushed the shopping cart further down the aisle, stopping at the anchor rope. I ran my fingers through it. Further down on the shelf, I saw a flare gun with two flares in the box, ready to go. I wondered what would happen if I tried to shoot one of those down my throat. For me, KMart had become associated with my imagined methods of suicide.
For a moment, I thought about all of the people who stood in grocery aisles similar to this one, planning to buy a jug of Clorox or a bottle of rat poison.
Back in my shopping cart, there was a cardboard box. Buzz Lightyear. I looked at Callie, and she looked back up at me with her smug, toothless fucking face.
I said nothing. I started pushing the cart, heading to the checkout.
I convinced Callie to go to the bathroom before we left, and while she was in there, the clerk lady rang me up.
In secret, for the first time in 20-something years, I bought a pack of cigarettes.
That was the first act of rebellion. I know, it was small and petty. Inconsequential. I kept telling myself that when I crouched beside the dumpsters every lunch break and inhaled lungfuls of cancer. Marlboro was my sweet angel of death, promising me what so many others secretly longed for.
It took a few weeks for me to figure it out. This was my prefered method of suicide.
This was the first of many. When I started, I’d only smoke during lunch breaks, dumping the tupperware salads my wife packed me in the dumpster. After a while, I started getting hungry.
Funny. There was a Burger King across the street.
It began with the Whoppers, putrefying my stomach lining and tickling my tastebuds. Then the Chipotle burritos. Then, on North Harvey, the greasy trash from In-N-Out, quite literally living up to its name.
I had gone from smoking behind the dumpsters at my workplace to smoking behind the dumpsters at Arby’s.
One hot-ass day in June I was downing my second Steak and Cheese behind a Subway when a woman ran into the alley. I couldn’t get that good of a look of her from where I was sitting, but in the distance I noticed her struggling to move in her sky-high heels. She hopped on one leg, bringing the other into the air and peeling the shoe off of it. She took her other heel off, holding them in a cluster at her side as she sprinted down the alleyway.
The guy who was chasing her was faster. He shoved her into a trash can and she fell to the ground, dropping her heels into a puddle. I got a better view of the man. He was missing an eye, pus crusted around where his cornea should be. His other eye was bloodshot, flailing at her accusingly. In a sense, he looked like Wooly Willy, like his thick beard was drawn on with metal shavings.
I’ll admit, I hesitated to intervene. At this point, the were both in front of me, the woman cowering beside the overturned trash can, the man towering over her.
“Don’t you fucking think you can steal from me, bitch!” he shouted, thumping his chest as he said it.
I let my cigarette hang from my mouth for a second and slid my sandwich back into its damp wrapper.
“Is there a problem here?” I asked, the smoke puffing up as I talked.
The cyclops glanced over his shoulder, his (relatively) good eye glaring at me.
“Shut the fuck up,” he said dismissively.
For a moment, I felt like putting my cigarette out in his ear.
I slid myself up the brick wall lazily. I pulled out my cell and dialed 911. He was yelling some bullshit to the woman about his watch, how she stole it.
“911, where’s your emergency?”
“Yeah, an alley on Cesar and Chavez East. By the Subway. There’s this sleazy eyeless fucker here who’s attacking a woman.”
He turned and looked at me.
“Can you tell me what the perpetrator looks like?”
“Homeless. Smells homeless too.”
“I’m afraid that’s not an apt enough description, sir.”
“Just send a patrol car or something, please?” I said, hanging up.
I inhaled, flicking the cigarette on the ground and stomping on it.
He looked like a man who had just been told his death date.
I blew smoke in his face. “You have parole or something?”
He ignored me, turning and walking back down the alleyway.
“Thanks,” the woman said, grabbing her heels from the puddle and scraping them against the brick wall, as if that would dry them off.
This was the first time I got a good look at her. She was a natural California beauty, one of the reasons I moved out here when I was in my twenties.
That was a long time ago.
Her hips swung to the sides like a Coke bottle; her lips pushed out as if they were reaching for mine. Her skin was like creamy coffee, hair a dark, velvety reflector for the sun.
This is fucking embarrassing, I know, but my cigarette fell out of my mouth. I tried to catch it in my hand and ended up getting burnt by the butt of it.
“Shit!” I exclaimed, letting it fall on the pavement.
I looked up, and the woman had started walking to the opposite end of the alleyway barefoot, her heels at her side.
“Hey!” I said. “You should probably wait for the cops to show up. You know, give your statement and everything so I don’t look crazy.”
She turned around, her sparkling green eyes looking at me from behind her Ray Bans. She smiled. I swear to god her teeth glistened.
“I can’t really wait for the police. They don’t seem to agree with me.” She turned and started walking towards me. “You seem nice, though. I’m sure we can work out a discount, given the circumstances.”
She outstretched her hand and gave me a business card with a phone number at the bottom.
“You call me, I can be there in ten minutes.”
“You’re a hooker?” I asked stupidly.
“We prefer the term ‘sex worker’ now,” she said, still shining her teeth at me. “Very, you know, un-PC of you.”
She turned and continued walking down the alley, her tight red dress hugging her ass.
“Is Niki your real name?” I asked.
“Just one of many,” she said without looking back.
Ten minutes? Really? Wouldn’t a hooker’s schedule be more backed up than that?
The cops gave me sideways looks when I explained what happened, turning around and continuing to talk about last night’s episode of Kimmel as they strolled back to their patrol car.
As I drove back to work, I kept saying her name over and over again in my head. Letting it roll off of my metaphorical tongue.
I came home from work with my armpits soaked and my legs starting to rash from rubbing them together for too long. I slumped down in an armchair and lifted my head up, staring at the ceiling. The brush strokes for the white paint splotchy and jagged,, like someone with no arms tried to paint it.
“Did you pick up your suit from the cleaners?” I heard my wife ask.
“Your suit. Did you pick it up?”
“Why?” I said, looking at her.
“We have to go to Dan’s funeral. Did you not get my text?”
“Apparently not,” I said, returning my gaze to the ceiling.
“Why is Callie spending so much time in the car?”
“Shit,” I said, shooting up off of the armchair and out the screen door. I slid into the station wagon, starting the car and putting it in reverse.
“You forgot your goddamn daughter?” my wife screamed at me from the front porch.
I rolled the windows up and backed out of the driveway.
The elementary school parking lot was almost empty when I arrived. Callie was sitting at the curb, playing on that damn phone she lost all the time. A woman was standing beside her, visibly upset as I pulled into the car rider’s circle. She had taken off her heels, glaring at my car with a stern pouty face. I rolled in front of them, putting the car in park and honking the horn.
Callie put her phone away and waved goodbye to the woman, but she followed Callie to the car. Callie got in and shut the passenger seat, and the woman crossed over to the driver’s side barefoot and looked at me through the tinted window. She made a kind of horizontal lasso motion with her fist, tapping on the glass with her other manicured hand. I rolled the window down.
“Excuse me, sir, but you can’t pick your daughter up this late. I have a life at home to get back to.”
“Yeah, I’m sure your six cats are worried,” I said.
“I have a question for you, Miss…”
“Ok, Ms. Morris. Who pays your salary?” I asked, rubbing my forehead with the back of my hand as I said it.
“I’m talking about this-”
“Ok, let me answer the question for you,” I said holding my hand up. “I pay your salary. The only reason you get paid is because the government decides everyone has to give you part of their money.”
Ms Morris stutters, her jowels fluttering.
I hold my hand up again. “No, it’s okay. I agree that people in your line of work are criminally underpaid, even if your main job is teaching kindergarteners how to not shit themselves. I agree that people need to stop paying world-class athletes millions and start giving you the attention you deserve. You, m’am, are shaping our world’s future, one time-out at a time. You are definitely not a glorified babysitter.”
Ms. Morris said nothing.
“But when you’re telling me what and what not to do, me, the man who pays you, then logic dictates that you’re talking back to your superior. And that’s how you get fucking fired.”
I rolled up my window and left Ms. Morris in the dust.
Callie didn’t say anything, staring ahead at the stop light.
“I’m sorry I was late picking you up, sweetie,” I said, deciding not to look at her and stare at the stop light too.
“You were mean to Ms. Morris.”
“I know, sweetie. Dad’s just been on edge recently.”
After a pause, she asked, “What’s for dinner tonight?”
“We’ll probably have to go somewhere. We have to go to Dan’s funeral.”
Callie audibly sighed. “Who’s Dan?”
“Mom’s brother-in-law. I think.”
The light went green and I let go of the brakes, the both of us gliding between imported palm trees.
Wifey was antipathetic. Callie got out of the car before I had parked, rushing to her room to get changed like I asked her. My wife was standing in the driveway in a red cocktail dress that just didn’t want to fit her anymore, holding up a coat hanger with a suit enwrapped in plastic.
“I had to pick it up myself. And you can iron your own damn tie.”
I took it from her. “Aren’t you supposed to wear dark colors for a funeral?” I asked, my eyes looking over her scarlet smock.
She ignored me, focusing on something in my shirt pocket.
“Are those… cigarettes?”
I glanced down at them as she pulled them halfway out of my pocket.
“You’re smoking cigarettes around our daughter?”
“You aren’t smoking cigarettes around our daughter.”
“Of course not.”
“Then why do you have cigarettes?”
I looked at her, feeling almost nothing.
“Because I want to die.”
She seemed like she was knocked down for a moment. She threw her hands up, walking to the car.
“I-I just can’t handle you right now.”
An hour later I found myself at a wake in the San Fernando. Teary-eyed fat people eating their pain away with the minty chocolates the funeral home left out in ceramic dishes. Callie tapped on my arm.
“We aren’t staying for the actual burial, are we?”
“I don’t think so. That’s tomorrow.”
Callie hadn’t been to a funeral since she was a baby, when her grandma died.
The casket of Dan Schmidt was mahagony, and to Callie’s dismay, open. His flesh had the look and faint odor of sweet deli ham. He was a relatively young guy, I guess. Too young to be going in the ground, but I suppose it could be argued otherwise.
Dan’s wife and son waited after the casket, shaking hands and taking the empty reassurances from the people they’ll probably never see again. We went down the line, finally reaching the surviving family.
My wife hugged her sister, my daughter tentatively hugged her cousin, and I stood behind them making eye contact and giving a meaningless nod.
The wake service was when they sat us all down in a faux-chapel and had us bow our heads in prayer for the corpse in a cheap suit. Dan’s brother was a pastor; he got up and gave a few kind words followed by what was essentially an advertisement for Jesus, how if we don’t give our lives to our Lord and Savior we’ll all go to hell and be unable to see Dan after we die. He was a sentimental guy.
Then we all bowed our heads in prayer again and I thought about what I was going to get when we went to O’Charley’s after this.
This is what marked the end of Dan Schmidt’s short and not-necessarily-sweet life: a chapel full of people putting off the thoughts of their own individual demises by instead thinking about that new Lifetime movie they recorded on DVR.
My wife wanted to stay until the very end, after everyone had left. She stayed in the lounge with her sister, being a shoulder to cry on and whatnot. Callie accompanied them, emptying the soda machine of the Coke that grieving people apparently needed to be stocked. My nephew was nowhere to be found.
I left through the back door, attempting to prop it open with a piece of plywood that was lying beside a dumpster.
“You don’t need to do that,” someone said.
I turned around. “What?”
“The door’s unlocked.”
I let it shut. “Who’re you?”
“Brandon Michael,” he said, extending his hand. A cigarette dangled from his mouth, illuminating the only visible part of his body in the misty darkness. He looked about my age, maybe older, with a kind of modernized friar haircut that circled around his cranium like a pool floatie.
“You smoke?” he asked.
He gave me a cigarette and lit it for me.
“Did you know, um…”
“Yeah, I did. I worked with him.”
“He’s my wife’s brother-in-law.”
Brandon paused for a second. “Wouldn’t that make him your brother-in-law?”
“I guess so,” I said. “I think I only saw him at one family gathering. My wife has a lot of siblings.”
“Oh, so you probably don’t know what happened.”
“What do you mean?”
“He shot himself, man.”
“Yeah. There wasn’t a day I didn’t see him come into work. He didn’t really make friends. I only knew him because we were partnered during presentations.”
“So he comes into work one day, and tells me he’s probably going to take a sick day tomorrow. I tell him sure, whatever, I can hold down the fort without you for a day or two.”
“And he comes home, puts a glock in his mouth, and ends it. No letter, no nothing.”
“And the worst part is, his kid comes home and finds him. I’m sure he’s devastated. I know how much something like that can fuck a kid up.”
“So why don’t I know about this?”
“Dan’s brother found out about all of this before anyone else, excluding Dan’s wife and son, of course. He didn’t find suicide very Christian, apparently, and decided to not disclose the cause of death during the funeral. Word spreads quick around the office, though,” Brandon said, inhaling. “I bet your wife knows, too. Dan’s wife told close family only.”
Brandon waited for about a minute to say “I just guess he finally weared down, you know? From everything.”
“How did they, uh- with the casket-”
Translation: How is his face not fucking mashed potatoes?
“Oh, yeah, his wife wanted an open casket. I was curious about that myself until I Googled it. Like I said, he had the gun in his mouth, so it probably went right through the back of his head, clean; or as clean as shooting yourself in the face can get. And you’d be surprised how easy it is to conceal a head wound like that with a little bit of prosthetics and a lotta bit of makeup.”
“Whadya know,” I said, sending a cloud of smoke adrift into the fog.
“Whadya know,” Brandon repeated.
My wife and I laid in bed that night, her facing the wall, me facing the window.
“Look, I wanted to talk to you,” she said, her soft voice almost echoing in the dark room.
“Shoot,” I said.
“We’ve been at this for a while, this whole fighting thing.”
I could feel her making hand gestures as she talked on the other side of the bed.
“And I know we’re past the point of no return, and that we agreed to stay together for Callie, but lately something’s been different.
“I’ll pull and pull and you’ll just stay there, letting me drag you in the sand.”
“Do you want me to fight you more?” I asked the window.
“No,” she said. “I just feel like you don’t have the will to move on anymore.
“The scary thing is, earlier today, when you told me you wanted to die, I almost believed it.” She said without a trace of irony.
“That can’t be true, can it?”
I got up and walked across the carpet to the bathroom.
“It’s not true is-?”
I interrupted her by closing the bathroom door.
I bent over and emptied out the pockets of the pair of khakis I had worn to work that day, pulling out the business card. I hadn’t thought to give it to the police. I uncrumpled it and read the phone number to myself, silently, over and over, until I had it locked in my memory.
When I came back to bed, my wife was snoring.
Even in LA, finding an operating pay phone is a hassle. I knew I couldn’t use my cell phone (call it acute paranoia), so I searched the internet for anything useable, eventually finding something. Even as I stood on a street corner, I knew what this was. It was a test. It was me dipping my toes into the water I knew I’d eventually drown myself in.
I was still in the part of town that had annoying levels of tourists, so I dressed myself like I was one. Shorts, rubber flip flops, button-up shirt, aviators. I approached the pay phone, my sandals squeaking and squelching as I walked. Taking the phone out of its rusty cradle, I began to dial Niki’s number. I let it ring, flipping through the pages of an ancient phonebook that someone probably pissed on.
“Hello, who is this?” she asked.
“It’s me, the guy from the alleyway the other day,” I said, stopping at an ad for real estate.
“I’m afraid I find myself in quite a few alleyways these days. Would you care to refresh my memory?”
“I stopped someone from mugging you. You said we could work out a discount of some kind.”
“I’m afraid I don’t recall, baby.”
After a pause that was far too long, she asked “So, would you like to set up a date?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.” I wasn’t too dismayed that I couldn’t get my discount. “Could I meet you somewhere? Do you have a place you can usually take guys to?”
“So you want an in-call?”
“Out-calls are when I come to you. In-calls are when you come to me.”
“Yeah. An in-call,” I said.
Another long pause. “How much do you need in donations?” I asked. I had also Googled proper escort etiquette, finding out that they required payment being referred to as “donations,” as that’s far less legally dicey.
“Two hundred for half, 400 for the hour.”
I mulled it over. “I think I want half an hour.”
“Thank you for calling. I’ll have my assistant text you over the address.”
“Actually, I’m calling on a payphone,” I said.
“Seriously?” she asked. “They still have those?”
“Yeah. Did you just say you had an assistant? Are you apart of some kind of agency?”
“You could say that,” she said. “Usually I have my assistant send clients the address. Here, let me look it up.”
After a second, She gave me the address and time of the appointment, and told me to have a nice day, and that she was looking forward to meeting up with me.
Huge was the only word to describe the warehouse Niki had sent me to. It must’ve taken up a couple of city blocks, not that it mattered, because it was quite a bit away from the city. It had been a shitty day already, but as I drove through the desert up to it, the smog clouded my car, and I could barely make out the goliathan building in the distance.
I remember vaguely wondering if I was being duped, that if I parked my car a bunch of prostitutes would appear from nowhere and beat me to death, crushing my windpipe with their beautiful legs.
But no such thing happened. There were a few cars parked in the equally-as-enormous parking lot, so at least I knew it wasn’t abandoned. I began my trek to what appeared to be the front door from far away, finally reaching it as a sweating mess. Chick-fil-a had not been kind to my particular physique, not that I was in shape before all of this started.
I pushed open the front door to find myself in an empty waiting room. Carpeted chairs and caulked coffee tables abound, with a young woman seated at a reception desk at the far end of the room.
“Hello, do you have an appointment?” the receptionist asked as I made my way to her.
“With who, may I ask?” She opened started clicking at her desktop.
“How many- uh- workers- do you have here?”
She chuckled. “Sometimes, too many for me to keep track of. Who had you scheduled an appointment with?”
“Um- Naughty Niki?” I said, feeling like a kid who gets called on in class without warning.
She selected something with her mouse, and then tapped away on her keyboard, finally pressing enter.
“Alright. And are you a first-timer?”
“Ok. Follow me,” she said with a peachy twang in her voice. She led me through another set of doors, carrying a clipboard in one arm. We walked through a series of hallways, making turns that didn’t feel like they made sense after a few minutes. The hallways all had doors with room numbers etched onto them, and seemingly in no discernable order.
The only recognizable trait of a brothel this place had was the stifled series of moans coming from most of the closed doors, some of them barely noticeable, some of them screams of painful euphoria.
“Do you actually know your way around this place?” I asked.
“What will- uh- Niki- do?”
“Anything,” the receptionist said, discussing it as if she were a brand new action figure.
“Anything?” I asked.
She started walking slower. “Well, mostly anything. If you try something fancy, she’s probably going to ask for a bigger tip.
“Knowing Niki, you’re probably going to give it to her,” she said, finally stopping at N41.
“Speaking of money,” the receptionist said, “I can take your donation now if you’d like.”
“Oh,” I said, reaching into my back pocket and unrolling the brown paper lunch bag I stashed there. The receptionist unrolled the greasy bag, reaching in and thumbing through the wad of twenties, counting up to ten silently. She looked up to me, smiling.
“Enjoy your thirty minutes, sir,” she said, opening the door.
I realized that I was probably fucked as soon as the door closed.
A grizzled old man sat on a spring bed, the kind of uncomfy shit hotels have that make you feel like you’re sleeping on wire mesh with a sheet over it. A wood carved pipe jutted from his mouth, and the room smelled great, like he’d been hotboxing with tobacco for hours.
At first I thought the receptionist had sent me to the wrong room, and my feet shuffled jitterily on the carpeted room to turn around and leave. Maybe someone had a strange fetish for the old Hefner-types. Who am I to judge?
“You’re in the right room, just if you were wondering.”
I turned around and looked at him. The doorknob was stuck.
“Take a seat,” he said, gesturing to a white lawn chair that looked right at home in the vapidly decorated room. I brought my feet as close to the chair while staying as far away from the man as possible, sitting down in it.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
I racked my mind for something witty to say. “The brothel’s appointed minister?”
He grinned, a gold back molar winking at me.
“No. I’m the owner of this establishment. Name’s Orson,” he said, outstretching a pruny but firm hand for me to shake.
“Ok,” I said, taking it.
It wasn’t a friendly handshake. For a moment, I pictured two officers meeting each other in a Nazi death camp.
“And do you know why you’re here with me right now, instead of some pretty lady unbuttoning your slacks?”
“Two days ago, Niki went missing.”
“Alright,” I said, my heart dropping.
“And a little birdie told me,” he said, taking out his pipe and rocking it back and forth as he talked like a true politician. “You were the last person to lay eyes on her.”
“She answered the phone when I called for an appointment,” I said.
He shook his head, pouting his lips as he did it. “Jackie up front answers all clientele phone calls.”
“Can’t be,” I stuttered. “She was there, I remember.”
“Sounds like Niki’s got your nodes,” he said, puffing. “She has the same effect on other people.”
I could tell by the tone of his voice that “other people” wasn’t limited to himself.
“Who- who told you I was the last person who saw her?”
Orson leaned back. “A veteran turned piece-of-shit named Brayton Harris. A customer. Apparently she stole his watch, and then you scared him off by calling the cops, leaving beast alone with the beauty.”
“How do you know that was me?”
“You called her card, dumbass. Regular customers know to come here, to the warehouse. Why would a regular call the number when we have a catalog in the lobby?”
Letting that question fly away with the smoke, he dumped the pipe out on the carpet.
He waved a hand at it. “I’ll have someone clean it up later.”
Lifting up the quilted covers on the spring bed, Orson slid out a textured blue-and white drink cooler from under it. “I always have the girls whip me up something special for business meetings.” He exclaimed, clanking out a frosty can of soda.
“Vanilla Coke?” he asked, holding the can out to me.
He put it back in the cooler, pulling out something different.
“I personally like the Mexican-bottled Cokes because they use real cane sugar like they used to instead of that syrupy shit,” he said, twisting it open with a callused hand, bursting with a loud snap.
He took a long, throaty gulp of it, struggling to get it all down. “Mmm. Reminds me of being a kid.”
I said nothing.
“So,” he said, setting the Coke down on the cooler and clapping his hands. “I need you to search your memory for me. You seem like a nice guy, you probably didn’t kill her.
“Otherwise you wouldn’t have called her number.” He said, as if it just occurred to him. “I just need something, anything she said or did to you that could help me find her. You have to understand, she’s more than an employee to me. She’s indispensable.”
I thought back to that alleyway. “She didn’t really say anything to me, she just gave me the card and left before the cops came back.”
Orson took a sip of his drink. “There’s nothing she said to you that stood out?”
“I asked her if Niki is her real name.”
“And what did she say?”
“‘Just one of many.’“
Orson thought for a moment. “That probably doesn’t mean anything.”
I didn’t bother asking for him to explain further.
“I’ll tell you what. You promise not to bring this to the police, I’ll have Jackie refund your donation, and you can pick a girl of your choice for an hour, free of charge.”
I wish I could tell you I declined his offer.
The truth is, I spent a half hour in the lobby flipping through the catalog and reading all of the girl’s bios, finally deciding on a blonde named Caressive Christy. Fucking her felt like nothing, ending in the most anticlimactic climax I’ve had in my life. I expected fulfillment and enlightenment. I received nothing but a sense of foreboding and an unquenchable thirst for more.
I knew that if it had been with Niki, things would have been different.
We had finished early, so Caressive Christy laid beside me; she was, well, caressing my chest.
“When did you start doing this?” I asked, hoping the hour would end.
“Too early,” Christy breathed, maneuvering her large breasts around my arm to get comfortable.
For a moment, I pictured my daughter in one of the catalogs in the lobby, like a piece of furniture on sale. Some assembly required.
Without thinking, I asked, “What do your parents think of it?”
Christy froze her hand on my chest, lifting up her head to look at me.
I immediately realized the condescending hostility in my question. “Sorry,” I said.
“No. It-It’s fine. I don’t know my parents.”
She continued to rub my chest, this time slower, her head down and her gaze fixated on the wall across the room.
After you pay someone to fuck you (or in my case, get faulty service and get a freebee), for me at least, making actual love becomes tiresome. My wife had decided to start trying again, setting up “date nights” for us to lay down on the futon and watch some movie. At first, I was adamantly against this gerrymandering of my hobbies. She knew how much I loved movies, one of the only things I still found a little joy in. They were polished products of perfection, built to entertain and satisfy, much like everything in this goddamn city, and this country, if that’s how you like to view things.
But then she started working out. She did Zumba first, as a way to scream out her aggressions without actually screaming out. She eventually roped her sister into it, claiming it was a way to cope with strenuous amounts of grief. She started dieting, and after a few weeks, her double chins melded into a single, straight chin. After a few months, her stomach was only pushed out an inch or so from where it probably should be, and her butt and legs toned up significantly. Wherever we went, people told her she looked great, told me I was a lucky guy, and then we all fake-laughed and took another sip of beer.
And after we went to bed, the nightgowns would get smaller and smaller, showing more of her stomach and legs, to the point that she was essentially wearing lingerie to bed.
When I finally cracked down, we were watching Addams Family Values. We had sex for the first time in something like seven years.
It was worse than Christy.
My wife wanted to cuddle afterwards and kiss and finish the movie, but I told her I was going to bed. I didn’t go on date nights after that.
But I didn’t stop otherwise. I still smoked like a chimney (my wife seemed to have forgotten about that), ate like a hog, and most of all, I continued going to the warehouse, each time I got a different girl, and each time I left more disappointed. I never saw Orson during those few months, but I knew he saw me as a cherished customer.
I was searching for some kind of a greater purpose, something to bring my life meaning, something that could lift me out of listless suburbia and bring me to a place where the sun never stops shining and everyone cares about me, something that could vouchsafe my passage into the holy land I sought in my youth, my perfect heaven and hell all rolled into one.
Or I would die trying.
My wife and sister-in-law went to the gym one day in the summer, the latter bringing her son for me to watch.
He was around Callie’s age, maybe a bit younger, and he had long brown hair that covered his eyes now, opposed to the buzzcut he had the last time I saw him. Callie tried to play Wii with him, but he sullenly sat on the couch reading while she played tennis with me. Callie ended up going upstairs.
I sat down on the couch next to him after a particularly enthralling game of bowling I played by myself, rubbing my temples from the motion sickness.
“How are you doing now?” I asked him, both of us knowing what I was actually asking him.
"My dad’s dead,” he said as if he were talking about a cool thing that happened at school that day.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He slid a folded piece of composition paper onto the page he was reading, closed the book, and put it on the armrest of the couch.
“Things are okay now,” he said, lifting his hair out of his eyes. “Mom’s dating someone new. He fought in Afghanistan or something.
“He’s really strong,” he said, taking the Wii remote and going to the home menu. “He takes me running sometimes.”
“Do you like him?”
He sighed, flipping through the apps I downloaded for Callie that she hadn’t played in years. “My dad wasn’t the best dad in the world. He came home late and brought McDonald’s when it was his turn to make dinner. And this guy doesn’t do stuff like that. He acts like he wants to actually play with me.”
“Don’t you think it’s unfair to compare him to your dad?” I asked.
“No. He’s the one who killed himself.”
Neither of us said anything for a while, and the kid started playing Super Metroid or something.
After he got killed about five times, he said “I mean, yeah, it’s bad that he died, and I was really sad at first, but I guess some things just happen. People make such a big deal about stuff, about who lives and who dies, who’s rich and who sleeps in a dumpster, who gets the most likes online and what famous people wear. Everything seems like an invisible contest that everyone’s playing in, and everyone pretends they aren’t. I just don’t feel like doing it anymore.”
“That sounds like nihilism,” I said.
“It’s when you believe that nothing matters because everyone’s going to die.”
He thought for a second. “No, I don’t think that’s it.”
“What is it then?”
“Nihilism sounds like what my dad believed in; what makes people kill themselves because they’re so sad all the time. I just think that people spend so much time dreaming about things that aren’t real, or things they can’t do, or things that don’t matter, that they forget about what they should be doing instead.”
“What do you think that is?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said. “Probably anything else.”
There was an ever growing pile of pants that continued to not fit me. My wife marveled at the amount of weight I was gaining, and how quickly, but I just brushed it off and asked her to take them to the Goodwill for me. She kept on forgetting, eventually to the point that I had to haul them all into the back of the station wagon. I decided to go through their pockets, making sure I didn’t accidentally leave a pen in there and ruin someone’s load of laundry.
In the pocket of a pair of khakis, I found a crumpled up piece of paper.
A business card.
Most of the color had been washed away by a few rounds in the washing machine, leaving a series of inkblots on a piece of hardened, wrinkled cardstock. But, of course, the phone number was still legible.
I buried my forehead in my hand. What if my wife had fucking found this?
Reading the number to myself again, I looked at the card’s title. Naughty Niki (Although, now it looked like MHOjKYy Mlkl)
I felt the name babble like a brook of clear water.
I felt my hand move to my pocket and pull out my phone. I felt myself dialing the number, my fingers trembling, not caring that the call could be traced.
“Hello, who is this?”
“Is- is this Niki?”
“This is,” she said cheerily.
“Did you return to, um, work?”
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Did you go back to work?”
Niki said nothing for a second.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What do you mean? Orson talked to me a couple of months ago, said you were missing.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
I heard the clunking sound of the phone being laid against a hard surface. After a few moments, Niki grabbed the phone again.
“There’s a motel up in Glendale. I need you to go there.”
“What’s the address?” I asked, not questioning her vague instructions.
“It’s on West Chevy Chase Drive. I’m sorry, I need to go. Don’t call back.” She hung up.
I held the cell phone in my hand, staring at it for a while, eventually shutting the car’s trunk and backing out of the driveway.
By the time I had gotten to that street corner in Glendale, the sun was starting to set over the horizon, and a thin mist started to form, making it impossible to see the end of the street you were on. The motel had no available parking, so I had paid to park in a lot a few blocks over.
I cautiously crossed the street to the motel. Some of its windows were still lit, some of them with the shutters drawn. I wasn’t sure if this was the motel or not, but it seemed to be the only one on the street.
The woman at the front desk was spinning a coin with her sausage-shaped fingers, trying to catch it before it stopped spinning. As soon as she saw me, she slammed her hand down on the coin and slid it to the side.
“Um, a friend told me to meet them here, I think. They didn’t tell me which room, though. Could you tell me where they are?”
“I’m not really supposed to give you the room number for residents. You got a warrant?”
“I’m- not a cop.”
“Hm,” she said, her whiskers faintly pushing away as she exhaled. “What’s your friend’s name?”
Her eyebrows raised. “Is this a special kind of friend?”
“No,” I said, leaning on my left foot a little.
“Just a friend kind of friend.”
She sighed, flipping through a ledger. “We don’t have any kind of a Niki here at the moment.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
A voice came from behind me.
“It’s okay. He’s looking for me.”
It wasn’t Niki. His voice was coarser than when I last met him, and he only seemed to talk in fizzles, like he was a can of soda you just opened.
“Follow me.” Orson said, nodding his head towards the door. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his blazer, opening the door with his shoulder and walking out.
I followed him. It was mid-summer, but as it got darker it was getting colder, the mist thickening. We moved to a car parked a little ways down the motel, its engine still running, lights still shining against the side of the building.
We stopped in front of the headlights. “Do you think I’m fucking stupid?” Orson asked me calmly, the sunspots on his face jiggling.
“Do you not think I monitor phone calls, always?”
All I could think to say was “With Niki?”
He made a quick motion with his left hand, and before I knew it, I was on the sidewalk, the right side of my stomach lit up in pain.
For a moment, I imagined every little painful cut and bruise I’d ever had as a kid, and imagined every single one of them combined together onto one point on my body.
At first, I had only felt the impact of it, like getting thwapped with a spatula. But then I felt a million skin cells screaming out in agony, the feeling of nerve endings being ripped apart.
A puddle of blood pooled out beside me on the concrete, being poured out like buttermilk when you’re making biscuits, slowly at first, and then all at once.
Orson went through my pockets, taking my phone and wallet, and then staring at the picture of my wife and daughter I had in my wallet for a little too long.
Fun Fact: According to user JG on Yahoo Answers, the average adult human being can lose 2-3 pints of blood before they pass out. Four-five pints are lethal.
Now let’s be optimistic (because that’s what I’m known for) and say I had about 5 pints left until death. To put that in perspective, 5 pints is a little over 2 liters, which is the recommended amount of water you should drink each day. Or the largest amount of soda you can buy in a single container. Whichever you prefer.
Orson dragged me by my feet, my head doing a little bump as we went off the sidewalk and around to the back the car. I left a snail trail of blood for whoever to find.
I never really thought to scream, I just kept staring at the spot in my ribs like, Oh, I guess this is my life now. Time to sleep, eat, and work with a giant fucking hole in my belly.
Orson let go of me for a second, opening the trunk, then grabbing me by my armpits and lifting me into it. The old man was a juggernaut, what can I say?
He tucked my legs properly into the car, and then shut the trunk on me. I felt the engine sputter to life. The wheels moving somewhere below me, I felt around in the dark. There was a hand.
I moved my fingers up, feeling the smooth skin of an arm.
“Hey,” a woman said.
“Who are you?”
“The reason you’re here, sweetie. Did he stab you too?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling the wound get colder and colder.
“Listen, I was planning something. Something really bad. He thinks you’re in on it.”
“What was it?”
“We’re going to burn that goddamn prison down.”
I’m not going to get into the specifics of what Niki told me in hushed whispers while we were cramped up in the back of that car, because none of it really made sense at the time. I don’t know if it was the loss of blood, or if it was just because she told me so little, but I really only remember two words from that conversation:
What I do remember is the suddenly bumpy road. I remember stopping and being pulled out of the truck and into the sand, and Niki’s beautiful body being followed after me.
“You think I didn’t know about your little terror attack you were gonna pull tonight, you cunt?” Orson asked, kicking Niki in the side.
I paid them both no attention, instead focusing on a lizard that had started to crawl away from us. Even through my blurred vision, I knew we were in the desert.
Orson bent down to the ground and got in Niki’s face. “So it was you. You were the defective one. Delicious on the outside, but rotten to the fucking core.”
“I’m not the only one, idiot.”
“The whole plan didn’t hinge on me, dummy.”
I was never exactly sure what dying was going to feel like, although I’d imagined it so many other times. However, I was pretty sure the ground shaking wasn’t part of it.
My vision blurred and unblurred, like I was trying to focus a microscope. The lizard blurred away and in the distance I made out a building explosively caught on fire.
“Oh my god,” I heard Orson say. He took off toward the building, running faster than I felt like I ever could.
I felt the ground displacing beside me. Clutching my side, I rolled over onto my back in the sand, looking at Niki. She had stood up, grabbing at her flat stomach and leaning against the car. Even though her forehead was covered in sweat, and blood was sopping down her front, she still looked like a woman who had once turned down a job at Victoria’s Secret. I remember vaguely wondering why she chose to be a callgirl in the first place.
She started hobbling after Orson to the burning warehouse, ignoring the brushfire that had started to rage around it.
I laid there for a while, staring at the night sky, feeling my body empty itself like a juice pouch.
I didn’t feel like I could sit up. I decided to painfully roll back on my stomach again and start crawling to the driver’s seat of the car, which was still hanging open and making that dinging sound.
I dragged myself along the ground with one arm, my other arm desperately trying to hold in as much blood as possible. I used my legs to try to kick myself forward, but I already felt them going numb.
I hoisted myself into the driver’s seat, shutting the door as I did so.
There was no key in the ignition. Nothing in the sunvisors either.
I held the hole in my ribs, leaning over to the passenger’s seat and opening the glove box. Papers upon papers. I grabbed a handful of them and threw them in the backseat, trying to empty out the glovebox.
My cell phone was in there, though.
I quickly typed in my passcode with bloody fingers, telling Siri to call my wife.
I watched the enlarged campfire down the hill, crackling and roaring. The phone rang twice before she picked up.
“Where the fuck are you?” I heard her ask in a hushed voice.
I felt my lips move, but I really didn’t have anything to say.
I hung up.
She called again, the phone softly vibrating in the hand that wasn’t holding my guts in.
I pressed ignore.
For the second time in a year, I dialed 911.
“911, where’s your emergency?”
I told her what I could best remember as the address to the warehouse.
“It’s an escort agency,” I said sleepily. “It seems like the workers are being held against their will. The building’s caught fire in a kind of escape attempt.”
“Excuse me, how do you know the workers are being held against their will?”
I licked my lips. They felt like leather.
Opening the car door, I carefully stepped outside and then chucked the phone as far into the desert as I could.
The warehouse was still ablaze. The top of it looked like a giant yellow flashlight, shining through the smoke and into the night. The brush fire surrounding it seemed to have calmed down, though. It was approachable.
The truth of the matter is, even if I wasn’t on the verge of bleeding to death, I would’ve had to take breaks on the walk over to the building. I had slumped over into the desert sand more than a couple times, and all the while the warehouse full of prostitutes kept cooking.
I eventually made it to the back end of the warehouse, and at that point I had noticed a concrete ramp leading up to a kind of garage door, the kind you see behind Walmarts that they use to get shipments.
The garage door was halfway open, with small drips of blood leading the way into it.
I had to lift the door up a little bit to accommodate my size, and so I ducked under it into a kind of concrete hallway.
Niki’s blood ran all the way down to a door that was cracked open, with a beam of light shining from behind it. Panting for breath, I staggered down the hallway, my bones creaking with each pained step. I pushed the door open, and saw for the first time what has dominated my life since that moment.
Imagine coming home on your birthday, having been told you’re getting a surprise party, but instead finding your entire house empty, all of the lights turned off. Every room you enter, you expect a friend or family member to jump out and scream “Happy Birthday!” Imagine going to bed that night alone, your wife and children absent, and imagine yourself quietly dying in your sleep.
Strangely, that’s what I felt in that moment.
Lining the room were only what I can describe as human-sized jars. The jars were nearly filled with a pink liquid, and in every single one of them, were human babies.
The room stretched down further than I could see. Parts of the ceiling were falling down, crushing jars.
However, right in front of me, Orson and Niki were fighting.
He grabbed her by the arms and slammed her into one of the jars, and I heard an audible crack. Pink juice started seeping onto Niki’s back. The baby in the jar behind her jiggled around a little, like a boat catching rough tide.
For a moment, I forgot that I was bleeding. “What’s going on here?” I asked.
Orson ignored me, throwing Niki to the ground. She screamed, and Orson reached to grab a knife off of the ground. He got on top of Niki, straddling her.
Orson dug the knife into her sternum, twisting it a little before pulling it out and digging it in again. Niki flailed around, desperately trying to get him off.
I ran and kicked Orson in the chest, knocking him off of her.
Niki scream-cried, gasping for breath and feeling around her chest, trying to get a grip onto something to keep her from death.
I slid the knife out of Orson’s reach and kicked him as hard as I could in the stomach.
“I called the cops, you piece of shit.” I said, starting to see dark circles surround my vision.
“You fucking idiot,” Orson groaned. “I was doing you a favor. She would’ve fucking killed you at that motel.”
“W-what?” I asked, wincing at the pain in my side, barely processing what he was saying.
“For one of the Nikis, there was a birthing problem. She wasn’t genetically identical to the others.”
I looked around the room at all of the jars. For the first time, I had a grip on what was going on.
For a moment, I pictured a line of Coke bottles at the grocery store, each one completely identical to the other. Crisp and delicious.
“She manipulated and killed the others. She murdered clients. She always ran away. I couldn’t find her and stop the problem because she was so damn good at blending in with the other ones.”
“Huh,” I breathed.
“Bitch is dead now. That must be her over there.”
“Are- are you sure?”
“Who knows? You called the cops, so I’m done anyway.”
A large piece of rubble crashed down a couple feet away from us. I winced. Orson didn’t.
“How did you know that was her?” I asked Orson, pointing at the body a few feet away from us.
Orson sighed, lying on the floor of burning building rather docilely. “You can tell from little things. Physical imperfections, shit I had ironed out already. Birthmarks, moles-,”
At that point, Orson’s head exploded.
Feeling my legs start to give out, I looked up at four different Nikis, one of them holding a handgun.
My baby’s got a sweet little something about her.
Every day we’ll lay out on the beach underneath the palm trees, the sun nipping at our toes.
She lays her hourglass figure over me, letting her Dove chocolate hair spill onto my chest.
Sometimes I’ll talk to her about my family.
Talk about my wife and daughter, how they probably miss me.
But then I’ll say they’re a thing of the past, like the ugly scar on my ribs, right below my right arm.
I tell her there’s no place I’d rather be than here with her.
With a handful of stolen cash.
And with a bartender never too far away.
I truly love everything about her.
The way her hair is a dark, velvety reflector for the sun.
The way her lips are incredibly kissable.
The way she has a cute little mole on the inner part of her left thigh.