Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
They lay side by side on the driveway, almost napping. Wyatt K., typically, hadn’t shown up yet; the boy was always late.
Joe let his eyes flutter open and saw that his mom had begun to sweat through her dress, which was knee length, glittery lemon, with lace around the collar. Joe was moist, too; his t-shirt stuck to his chest and back. “Let’s go inside,” he said.
“I think so.”
“What’ll we do?”
“There’s a lot of stuff to do.”
“Okay,” she said, and opened her eyes. “I was mugged today.”
Joe twisted onto his side, scraping his elbow on the rough macadam. He let out a whistley sigh. “Are you okay, Mom?”
“They both had guns,” she said listlessly. “It was at the money machine. They made me withdraw the limit.” She coughed and then drew herself up into a sitting position. “I don’t know why they always pick on me.”
“I don’t either. Were you scared?”
“I still am.”
Joe nodded, more to himself than to her. “I guess I’m scared, too. That it’s happened to you like three times or whatever.”
“But there’s no lesson to learn from it. Believe me, I’ve tried to concoct one.”
Joe smiled. “I’m sure you have.” He jumped to his feet, helped her to hers.
They trudged up the driveway and went inside the house, where they fucked around for a little bit—Joe in his room, hitting a joint and watching the first minutes of a horror movie he’d made with his dad, Mom in her room, doing whatever.
After a while, they ended up in the frosty kitchen, sitting at opposite ends of the glass-and-metal table. A dewy pitcher of iced tea sat in the center, and they each had a tall, cube-filled glass. The overhead light was turned off, but the drooping lower crescent of the sun shined directly into the small awning window above the kitchen sink; the room was bright.
Joe began to page through Vogue; he stopped on a black-and-white photo of Linda Evangelista, worked up in a shoe-length, hand-painted velvet robe, and her boyfriend, in tight pants and riding boots, stomping along an empty country road. The photo filled up Joe’s head with a desperation to kiss someone. He made his eyes bear down on the crook of the boyfriend’s elbow; it was looped tight across the dip where Linda’s shoulder became her neck.
“I hate them,” he said, and slammed the magazine shut. He looked up at his mom, whose face glowed with so much intimacy and delight that Joe looked back at the magazine. “I had gym today. We drove golf balls. I suck at it.”
“You don’t. That’s something your father convinced you.”
“No. I suck.”
“If you do, it’s one of very few things.”
“You’re wrong,” he said gravely, and looked at his skinny forearm. He was impatient to get his weekend rolling; if nothing else, he had his heart set on smoking the fatty in his jeans pocket—smoke the whole thing all by himself, smoke it up. He wanted to brown his brain. But his ride was late. His boy, Wyatt K., was not on schedule, of course; nothing to do but wait for him. Whenever Joe called him to bug his ass and hurry him on his way, Wyatt got cranky and called Joe “Mommy.”
“We should eat,” Mom said, and put her head in the crook of her elbow, chin resting on the table. She had already removed all of her jewelry: watch, six rings, four bracelets, a silver chain that held a Danish krone. The clasps and settings glittered in a semicircle at the base of the iced-tea pitcher.
Joe smiled secretly at the booty; it reminded him that Daddy’s pet name for Mom had been “Mrs. T.” He saw his distorted reflection in a wide band of silver bracelet. He looked like E.T. “Okay, I’ll make a salad.”
“Check for produce. I don’t know what we’ve got.”
“Yes’m.” He lifted up from his seat and took two giant steps to the refrigerator; pulled the door open. The shelves gleamed; they were immaculate and mostly empty, except for three cans of Sprite. The door was full of condiments: at least eight different mustards, a dozen salad dressings, regular and fat-free mayo, a gallon jug of ketchup, plastic lemons and limes, pickles, relishes, and a squeeze bottle of green poblano that he had bought at Taqueria Corona, his favorite restaurant, a meat-smoky taco-café on Magazine Street, uptown.
His eyes traveled the interior, hopefully, expectantly, and then: bounty! The foggy plastic door of the crisper glowed with a promising, condensation-speckled green. Joe pulled it open.
“Drumma: hit me!” he rasped. He grabbed hold of two heads of lettuce—one red leaf, for flavor, and one iceberg, for crunch—seized a bag of baby carrots that looked like they might have wilted; half an onion wrapped in cellophane; a glossless yellow pepper; and three loose, rooty radishes. He spun around to set up a workplace beside the sink.
Mom pinged her iced-tea glass; the sound was formal and hollow. “Did I ask you how your presentation was today? Did you do okay?”
“Slam-kabam! Broken down perceptions limp limp limp out of the class, dignity fallin’ off them. A new understannin’, Miss Thing. Newbies congratsing me all afternoon as I strat down the hall. Check!”
After a moment, Mom said, “Should I be pleased?”
Joe was chopping radishes. “I made a theory or two. I eloquently presented said theory—about that painting I saw in Copenhagen. With grandma. When you sent me away.”
“You know which one I mean. You do.”
“Remind me. I’m old.”
Joe looked over his shoulder at her; narrowed his eyes. “Don’t talk like that.”
She didn’t meet his gaze.
“It was a painting called Dageraad der Gouden Eeuw.” The name, as it spilled from his mouth, summoned the afternoon that he and his grandmother had spent in the Louisiana Museum, on the beach, just across the water from Sweden. Gallery upon gallery of wood and stone and paintings by aborigines. When your eyes got tired of art, you could look through the glass outer walls and meditate on the brown coast: rocks that looked like wood pummeled by foamy, gray-green waves that disappeared in fog.
When he returned home from Europe, Joe found out that the vacation had coincided with his dad’s first round of chemo treatment at Ochsner Clinic. Eight weeks on, then three off; six weeks on, a week off, and so on. Daddy was always cold. You could see a vein in his neck. As he lost his hair, he began to steal Joe’s Saints and LSU ball caps.
“Did that painting have the moon shining on a dog?” Mom asked.
“No. It’s all those buff angels floating against a dark background. I have it on a double-wide postcard. The angels hang real close to one another. Buff naked guy’s in the center. Not hardly attenuated, not these angels.”
“An enormous painting?” Mom asked diffidently, and then laughed. “Was it heroic?”
“How big do you mean?” Joe tried to suppress a giggle as he rinsed lettuce.
“Big enough for Martha Stewart’s living room?”
“I bet it is.”
“Well let’s buy it and ship it; Martha trusts our taste.”
“What should we write on the card?”
“For our most precious angel …”
“For a woman who’s always been there …”
Joe struggled with the yellow pepper, cutting away the seeds. He was trying to keep his head together, but it was hard. He didn’t want a salad, didn’t want a quiet dinner at home. No. Fuck that. He needed a song, a kiss, a bag of dope, a beer, his hand on the back of someone’s neck.
Then he remembered that he was in a conversation.
“The cool thing to me,” he blurted, “is that there are some suave fabrics draped around the body, like with piss-ignorant embroidery and gold-leaf and piping. And then, in this one corner, the black background is rubbed away or whatever, and the background that remains is lighter.”
“In that light corner, there’s a castle. Maybe all those bodies floated out of the castle windows. Do you know what I’m saying? Like, those bodies are balloons, and they were in storage in the castle, and somebody opened a window and they escaped. Or maybe that’s stupid. Maybe it’s a trivial-type analysis. But don’t like worry, because that’s not at all the way I presented myself in school. I was Mr. Overpreparation, just like I guess you always told me. Okay?” He stopped talking, found the plastic, everyday salad bowls in the dishwasher; they were flipped on their bottoms and puddled with detergenty water. He rinsed them in the sink, pulled the Paul Newman dressing from the fridge, and then he loaded the salad, plates, napkins, and silverware into his arms. He turned toward the table.
His mom was asleep, her breath rasping lightly, steadily. He couldn’t tell if she was pretending.
“Mom,” he whispered.
“Hey,” he whispered again. “Hey, Mom.” When she didn’t stir, he passed into the dining room, set up a place for himself at the peeling white table. He thought about finding his Walkman for some dinner music, but he knew that he’d be buzzing too loud and maybe he wouldn’t hear the phone, or his ride—stupid, conceited, tall Wyatt K.—horn-honking out in the driveway.
Eating dinner alone was something you got used to. You did it and you did it, and you started to eat maybe louder than you were supposed to, and you didn’t really keep your mouth exactly closed when you chewed, and you used your fingers.
There had been all those weeks when Daddy couldn’t keep anything in his stomach. Or Mom would go straight from her office to Daddy’s private room in the same hospital. Or Joe would be at school late, watching some newbies practice soccer, or he’d play squash at the New Orleans Athletic Center with Wyatt K. or Shelby Jahncke, and get home after dinner. Even before Daddy actually died, it had gotten to the point where Joe didn’t want a family dinner—not even on a special occasion, a holiday, good news, Mom’s one decent mood of the week. Even last Christmas, when they were on an island off the north coast of Australia, and they were sort of trying to come to terms with the fact that Daddy was going to die or whatever, Joe had made sure that he’d eat alone. He’d wait until after dark to come home from the coral beach, where he’d lounged all day.
You had to hike through a rain forest to get back to the hotel—up over plates of rock, hoisting yourself with gummy-stalked vines. The trail followed the curves of the shoreline, so the ocean was just a few dozen yards away; you’d hear its hushed breakers. Above, there were canopies of overlapping leaves. There were swarming bugs with steel blue wings; they’d sink towards Joe, even brush his cheeks and the back of his neck before returning to their high perches.
On the night before the family was to fly back to New Orleans, the march through the rain forest didn’t slow him down as much as he wanted it to, so he plopped down on the end of the pier where the snorkeling and diving boats were tied up. The sun had just gone down—in a hurry, as if it had been swallowed whole. The sky was like the inside of a licorice jelly bean: black, with hard, sugary ridges. His bathing suit was still damp and sandy; every time he shifted his ass on the rough wood of the dock, the fabric chafed his dick, not really unpleasantly.
He sighted a cane fire burning across the ocean on the mainland, and got lost in its reds and yellows, and meditated on the day that had just passed. He had baked most of the day, asleep on a thin towel that was spread over the sharp coral. Finally, just before sunset, he’d hobbled to the limpid green water’s edge, slid down a yard-high bank of the dead, bleached bones into the warm sea. Submerged, he took a gulp of salt water and let himself drift out into the abyssal calm.
Now he looked at the fiery horizon. It was like a distant commemoration of his good day. The wet, briny breeze hung tight to his head and bare back. He could picture his parents eating dinner in bed, watching TV, Mom stopping every once in a while to wipe Daddy’s brow with one of the deep blue washcloths from the hotel bathroom.
A hand gripped his shoulder and squeezed. “You want a beer?”
Joe looked up behind him at the ridges of a man’s smooth belly and chest. He worked his eyes up the neck. It was Pieter, a guy he’d met—but just barely—at the beach today. He was Dutch, but he’d grown up in Los Angeles. Or so he’d told Joe before sauntering in the direction of three topless women arranged around a big black rock’s blowhole, farther down the shoreline.
“Yeah,” Joe said cautiously, “beer’d be cool.” Pieter’s hospitality was a little suspect; he had the asshole face of a mean Californian. He was cute—skinny, taller than Joe, short black hair, fat lips—and there was no way he was maybe into guys or bisexual or whatever.
Joe tried to concentrate on how to be. He didn’t want to act too shy and victimy or too boisterous and eager. He wanted to be the mellow, stoned guy that nobody fucks with because what’s the point, the guy’s so baked and stupid.
Just deal, he told himself. Whatever.
Pieter sat down, settled against him, shoulder and arm and thigh pressed to Joe’s. He was drunk. Sunburned, too. His sand-crusted skin was giving off heat. Joe’s muscles and nerve endings went on automatic alert; his dick got achy-hard.
Perfect. He closed his eyes and tried to wish himself home. That’s real well done, he said to himself. Then he sprung his eyes open, looked sideways at Pieter’s knuckles where they gripped the dock, and set about planning an escape.
“I feel good, my man,” Pieter said; his feet splashed abruptly into the water and disappeared.
He dug into his backpack, popped open two cans of Foster’s, handed one to Joe, and started talking about some of the girls who’d been down at the nude beach. “Titty hard-on, that German chick. You see her thighs?”
“Which girl was she?”
“I don’t know who you mean.”
“I thought you were jes a boy,” Pieter laughed. “How old are you—13 or something?”
“Fifteen? You sure you’re not lying?”
Waves swept against the dock pilings. The small boats strained out into the current, yanking their tieropes. The sky was black, but towards the mainland it reflected some of the orange and white of the cane fires.
“I wanna get tweaked,” Pieter said.
“Go right ahead,” Joe said. “I grant you immunity from prosecution.”
The Dutch boy giggled to himself and then he leaned imperceptibly closer to Joe. “I accept your kind offer, sir,” he murmured in a winky little voice.
Behind the dock and back some distance, music emanated from the hotel’s outdoor bar. It was twinkly, forgotten US dance music by a foxy white redhead who had the same moves as Janet Jackson. Joe couldn’t remember her name, but he remembered dancing to this song at a sixth grade dance. “You give me a good vibe/ don’t you know baby … ,” she sang. As Joe sucked on his beer, head back, he allowed his shoulders to roll in time to the beat.
When the song ended, he said, “I used to like that.”
“That’s a faggoty song,” Pieter said with finality.
“Yeah.” Joe winced. “It is. I used to like it.”
“Used to be a fag, huh?”
Joe looked at the glinting water; for a moment, he considered dropping into the tender-looking chop. “I guess I was.”
“No way!” Pieter bellowed, turning his face towards Joe.
“You grew out of it.”
“I hope,” he said slowly. Lightheaded, he leaned back and rested on his elbows. He shut his eyes. “Can I have another beer?”
“Sure, dude.” Pieter set his backpack on his lap and rummaged in it. “Got plenty. They’re not so cold any more.”
“I hope I’m not bringing you down.”
“I’m at the Great Barrier Reef,” Pieter sputtered with high spirits, holding up a can of beer so it was backlit by the moon. He popped it open and handed it to Joe. “I saw the sunset. I always wanted to come here, but I was never sure I’d make it. You can’t count on luxury shit to happen.”
“I know. But it’s nice when it does, huh.”
“That’s straight up. Can’t count on getting laid, either, but the German girl’s meeting me here in an hour.” Pieter approximated a full-throated dog growl. “She’s going to lock my face between her thighs …”
Joe held the warm can to the side of his face. “What does it taste like, guy?”
“Oh, man.” Pieter began to shake with silent laughter. “Oh, man.”
“You can’t tell me?”
“I’m not that interested in explaining it.”
“That’s sucky,” Joe said before he could stop himself. “Selfish.” He didn’t know what else to do, so he leaned forward and dropped off the dock into the warm, gasoline-scented water.
“Overboard,” bellowed Pieter.
The chop lapped and swelled around Joe’s shoulders. He floated in place for a moment and then dunked underwater. He swam along the side of one of the diving boats, keeping his eyes shut so he wouldn’t spot imaginary barracuda and jellyfish. When he resurfaced, he let himself bob to the boat’s rhythm.
“Where are you?” Pieter called out in a hearty, eager voice. “How’s the water?”
“It’s nice,” Joe answered.
“D’ya want me to come in? Y’wanna race?”
“Um … no.”
“Come back, then. Keep me company.”
Joe glided closer to shore and got a foothold on the silty bottom. “I gotta head to the hotel, dude. You keep yourself company.”
“Ah, come back,” Pieter groaned.
Joe dragged his feet through the dry sand until they were coated, and then he jogged along the gravel path that led to the hotel. He sat for a minute on the wooden bench outside the entrance, looked at the cloud sacs that bulged down out of the sky. Then, still a little bit drunk, he pushed through the glass double doors, waved to the front desk girl, and swayed down the dim corridor towards the room he shared with his parents. Locked.
He knocked; then twice; then a third time before the door finally opened.
The overhead lights were on; it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust.
The suntanned, redhead doctor who’d visited every day was sitting on the bed beside Joe’s father’s body, which was covered to the neck with a sheet. Daddy’s face and hair looked wet.
“Honey,” said Mom, standing just inside the door. She let go of the knob, took Joe’s hand, ushered him inside. “He’s gone. We watched out the windows so he could see the water.” She pulled him against her.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Joe said. He looked over his mother’s shoulder, out the window, and then the crying started.
The dining room was still sunny, but now, suddenly, the house was too coldly air conditioned. Joe’s arms were goosefleshed.
No, he ordered himself. The tears that had threatened shrank back into their ducts. He looked up from the table, out the French doors and onto the back lawn. There, next door, was Al Theim—shirtless—playing Nerf football with his big sister, Messy.
Messy held the ball expertly in front of her and punted it over Al’s head; as he lifted his arms to reach for it, his flat belly collapsed inward, making a cave. When he recovered the ball, he drew his arm back and threw a nice spiral. Joe’s gaze traveled down Al’s shoulder, lingering on the crook of his elbow.
Fuck, Joe said to himself, I could get a life.
He shot up from the table and took his dishes into the kitchen. He scraped the soggy bottom layer of the salad bowl—he’d eaten the whole thing without meaning to—into the disposal and threw the plates and silver into the dishwasher. Then he turned to his mother.
“Mom,” he said in a low voice. “Hey, Mom.”
She stayed asleep, breathing heavy and regular.
“Mom,” he said a little more loudly.
Her eyes crinkled open and focused on him. “I was asleep.”
“Did you already eat?”
“Joe.” She lifted her head from the table. “I’m going to stand up.”
“And then I’m going back to my room to lie down. A nap. I brought some work home for tonight.” She groaned as she rose to her feet. Her shoulders were pushed forward, and the side of her face that she’d slept on was puffy and red. The lap of her dress was full of creases.
“You have to eat something, Mom. Come on.”
“I’m fat.” She smoothed her palm across her forehead.
She laughed, shoulders wiggling. “I’m not, am I?”
As Joe moved closer to her, he felt momentarily huge. Even though he was only a few inches taller than she was, he could look down on the top of her head and have an unsympathetic thought about the slightly crooked, vulnerable part in her black hair. He had an urge to weep. “I wish you wouldn’t go to bed already,” he said. “Why do you have to?”
She moved her gaze to the floor, and drew her feet together.
“Mom, it’s depressing to be in the same house. I feel like I have to tiptoe around or I’ll disturb you. It’s like death in here; it really is.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Daylight, and you’re asleep. God.” The words came out as if tiny flares were attached to their ends. He bit his upper teeth down hard on the lowers until the muscles in his jaw ached.
“It hurts my feelings and not only that.”
“What.” Another flame, more smoke.
“I don’t decide on my way home from work that I’m going to come home and collapse,” she said delicately. “It’s hardly my intention. But I still have raw feelings, Joe. It is a relief for me to fall asleep.”
“Is it me? Do you get upset when you see me?”
“What a question! Of course it hurts me. Of course it does.”
“Would it help if I stayed away all evening and then just sort of snuck in?”
The muscles of her face relaxed into a smile. “All day, I look forward to getting home and talking with you. I can’t think of anything better for me, even if I still get overwhelmed.”
“I can’t be any more of that, not all of the time,” Joe said.
“Why? What’s wrong with the way you are with me?”
“It makes me crazy inside!” With the side of his fist, he pounded the wall. “It’s like, if I’m not nice to you, then who will be? That’s what I think about. Am I supposed to be your like best friend?”
“You are, though.” Her eyes glistened. “That’s just the way it is.”
“No,” he said. “No, no, no. Wyatt K. is my best friend. And after that it’s Shelby.”
“This isn’t a good time for me to talk,” she said, and as she moved wordlessly past him she seemed to flinch before going into her bedroom and clicking the door quietly shut behind her.
He heard the first high notes of her sobbing, and his own face crumpled in response. The hall stretched in front of him reproachfully, as if it were an appendage of her closed door that would lift off its foundation and batter him against the wall. He walked softly to his own room. He shut his door, dropped onto his mattress, walked on his knees to the window. Why am I so mean?, he asked himself. Should I just buy a gun and shoot her, is that what I want to do? He pressed his forehead against the glass; it was warm. He shut his eyes, trying not to think of anything. The air-conditioning vent was on the floor beneath him; its cold breeze fluttered against the front of his thighs and the underside of his chin.
When he opened his eyes, he had an intuition of movement just outside his vision. He repositioned his face, cheek to glass, so that he had a view—however askew—of Al Theim’s yard. Mr. Energy himself chased his sister across the grass; with every stride, the muscles in his back writhed beneath the skin. As he caught up to her, she turned to face him, arms flopping at her sides. He wrapped his arms around her, his front to hers, and lifted her, and then fell forward with her in a kind of tackle.
Joe sighed to himself, put a dramatic hand to his forehead, and fell backwards on his mattress.
Ten minutes later, Joe was knocking on her door. “Mom,” he called, “what are you doing? Do you wanna watch this video with me?”
He creaked the door open and stepped just inside the room. “I didn’t mean all the stuff I said. It was really selfish of me.”
“Don’t even worry,” she said. “We both need to let it out.”
“Yeah, I think we do.”
“So we’re in agreement.”
The room was shadowy except for the outside light coming in the window beside her bed. She had a stack of work papers beside her.
“You have that concentrating look,” he said. “You’re doing hospital crap?”
“You have enough for the whole weekend?”
“Well, I don’t know. There’s always enough.”
She held out her palm. “Put the movie in, honey. I’d love to watch it.”
“Is your VCR working okay?”
“I think so.”
He walked over to the bed, sat on the edge, and bent forward to put the tape in. He pulled the remote from the top of the TV and lay back, helping himself to a handful of cashews from a jar that lay on its side in the surf of bedcovers. “Sal-ty,” he laughed.
“Sur-prise,” she giggled.
He looked over his shoulder at her. “Crank-y.”
“Not anymore,” she said lightly, and smiled as if a bluejay had just landed on her shoulder.
“Cool if I click the mother on?”
The blue screen disappeared, and was replaced by the first, precredits scene. Joe, as an intoxicated teenager, lay on a stone bench in the backyard. Daddy, dressed as a priest, performed the rites of exorcism.
Joe moved his lips along with the words his dad said on-screen: “How long, Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Shall thy jealousy burn like fire?” His shoulders tightened in anticipation of what would happen next, and then it did: a dire shadow passed across Joe’s on-screen face, and the scene ended, and the credits began. It had taken his dad almost the whole weekend to edit that scene just right.
The entire movie lasted half an hour; in it, there were two more exorcisms, several more intense passages that Joe had chosen from the book of Psalms, and a little bit of gore. There were two scenes in the backyard, two in Joe’s bedroom (done up with aluminum foil and black sheets), and one scene just inside the front door. It wasn’t the worst piece of shit Joe’d ever sat through, but he knew that no one but him and his mom would ever want to sit around like this, watching it from beginning to end, enraptured.
Ben Neihart’s stories have appeared in the New Yorker. Hey, Joe, his first novel, will be published this spring by Simon & Schuster. He now lives in Baltimore.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.