"Then I see Nura’s boyfriend walking around outside. Blake. He’s Cat’s best friend- in fact, Cat is how we all met each other, a thousand years ago, or two, depending on how you count it- but let me tell you about Blake. He’s the kind of guy who comes over for dinner and then stays at your house into the next week, only you don’t mind because he just sort of makes a space for himself. Re-upping the beers in the fridge, maybe your cocaine, too, crawling comfortably into bed beside you when you’re watching a movie, always with something good to talk about. But just then I didn’t feel terribly social, unsure, in fact, who had seen what of me last night, and so I drew back into the trees, watching him.
He was going to wash his car; he’d parked the thing in the densest shade beneath the oak trees where the sunlight wouldn’t dry the paint too quickly, splotching things. He loved that fucking car. Even parked, his Yenko has the taut crouch of a racehorse, and I can tell how he’s savoring the slender nubility of her door’s handle as he’s getting out; how, walking away from it he loves the intelligent expression of her headlights and grill the way other people love a breed dog. He’s standing in the garage, looking back at it as he slops car wash soap into the first bucket, already starting to hum without even realizing it.
He filled that bucket and then another with hose water, stopping for a drink, and then he dragged the length of the hose out to the car and stuck his thumb inside the nozzle to blunt the spray and began to wash off the Yenko’s wheels, loosening and softening the dirt before he knelt and put the long, skinny wheel brush to them, working lovingly down between the spokes that were as familiar to him as the keystrokes that bought him the car itself.
Computer code. If that had been his first golden ticket, Nura was his second. Then came the Yenko, which he'd bought not long after. But the Yenko was more than a ticket, a ride. She was both river and sail, a creation so irreducibly perfect Blake could not imagine her as anything other than the sum of her parts.
Yet for years, he’s told me, he’d believed he was shut out from ever being able to participate in such a thing- the Nuras of the world, the Yenkos- if he couldn’t become a success as a ball hero, he didn’t want it any other way.
It had sunk in during Blake’s first year in college that he would never be good enough to go pro. Slowly at first, like Chinese drip torture, and then all at once: the scalding knowledge that he could never be what they called a five-tool player.
One of the luminescent ones the agents hunted for from the stands; no matter how much he trained, he would never be fast enough, he’d never be able to hit for average or power like some of the other guys; his arm was never as strong or accurate as some of the others. The ones for whom it came naturally. Once he started noticing them, the other guys. How many of them there were. It was then that he knew. No way he could go pro.
Only thing was, it had been his entire life, baseball. When that receded, video games flooded in, eclipsing the passage of time like a hungry tide.
“The way the games can dissolve hours, stealing days and then weeks; it’s better than painkillers, better than booze. You walk into the flash and the throb and you don’t have to come back. Or, at least, not very often.” He’d only gotten into app design because finally his father, normally a mild-mannered man, had suddenly gone explosive on him. Blake still remembered the night clearly. It was summer, rain was coming, the barometric pressure had already begun to drop. He could feel that, even in their basement, through their window wells.
He hadn’t looked up when his father came stomping down the stairs, stood there glaring at him. That in itself was not unusual. Blake had been so fixated on his game that he was afraid to breathe too deeply and jumble up a shot. Much less turn to look back at his father-
“So this is what you’re going to do now?” his dad said. “You’re going to sit here and rot like some kind of fungus? Blake. Blake, I’m talking to you, you disgusting maggot. Look!”
“Dad, chill- whoa, what the fuck?”
But his father was gathering up crazy fistfuls of games from the storage cabinet. The plastic cases escaped and fell from his hands, their discs scraping out onto the tile floor.
“Jesus, you’re going to scratch everything, what are you doing? Hey, hey, now you owe me like 400 bucks, that shit is expensive-”
“You will not,” his father roared, “speak to me like that!”
Then Blake had had to chase him out onto the lawn, in the rain, and his father had thrown everything in a pile on the grass and for a confused second he wondered if the old man was going to try to burn it, in the driving rain.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he said, and a moment later, even as the John Deere kicked into gear and its headlights carved shifting tunnels onto the pile of colored plastic, Blake still heard his own voice repeating, in a terrible cringing whine- “Dad, what are you doooing?” and he was ashamed- blinded with anger- ashamed- as the John Deere lurched towards his video games.
He screamed and ran at them, trying to protect them like some deranged mother bird, but his father wouldn’t slow down and there was nothing he could do but run, slipping on the grass, out of the way. Shards of plastic stinging his calves and thighs as the tractor crunched over the pile.
He was screaming so hard he thought that his vocal cords might pop, if vocal cords were capable of such a thing, but he hadn’t cared. Nothing mattered: shrieking, he turned back- and so did his father, again and again, until the little heap was no more than glittering confetti sinking into the mud.
His father stomped back inside, his glasses opaque with rain, mission accomplished, while Blake collapsed over the confetti. His throat was blood-raw. Had he been screaming this whole time? His whole body keened: the games were his reality, his passport, all that he had.
“You owe me 400 bucks!” he screamed again, at the flapping screen door. But eventually, his wet hair clinging to his face like shredded tissue, still clutching the single empty envelope that had escaped the blades, he’d had to go in (and he refused now to ever mow again)
and he’d lain in bed sobbing, without a life.
Now he was smiling, remembering how it was as he cleaned the Yenko’s sidewalls and then rinsed her undercarriage, from various angles. He dumped out both buckets and began again, this time from the top down.
After all, he used to say to himself, who was he if he couldn't be a baseball star? The crack of the bat, the stink of dip and the way it used to light and sing inside them as they went swaggering around in their piped pants- four o’clock sunlight shining down on the unnatural grass, and then the hum of artificial light that enclosed the green diamond from the rest of the world when the sun slid away, hours later- all that had made a kind of shape inside him. He was unrecognizable to himself without it.
Shapeless, full of weird dreams- shoving his hand into the batting glove again and again but now it wouldn’t fit over his fingers; and he was in the hole, they were calling his name- or worse yet, those dreams when he was out in center field, far from all the others. His body was locked in slow-mo while the world sped up around him, as if it had forgotten him. Every dream came on like a fresh and inescapable hell.
Shapeless time. The hours like bottomless sacks he could never fill. Gone too, was the effortless camaraderie with the other players. He couldn’t face them any more than he could watch a ball-game on TV. Just the sight of the bright green playing field made his gut knot up and twist off into cramps, like a bad case of shits.
The difference, of course, was that it refused to leave his body: his bitter truth of not being good enough, of not being special. For example. His hands lacked that magical loosiness that, in combination with power, could turn a man into a great hitter. He wasn’t especially fast, or strong, or even cunning. All he’d had was the desire to be those things.
His coach even took him aside once. “Rice, kid, sit down. Sit the fuck down, you listening to me? Kid, I’m gonna tell you the truth and save you some years, way I wish somebody had me. You just don’t have it, kid. All right?” Ol’ Coach, buzzed on beers and tired and honest because he was getting divorced and had lost his faith in everything- so why shouldn’t everyone have it straight- “You hearin’ me, Rice?”
“You’re a good guy, Rice. You’ll be all right.” As if Blake could only be as relieved to hear the truth as Coach had been to tell it to him.
Now Blake was drinking from the hose, relishing the brightness of the day. So bright you slit your eyes against it. How about a beer? It was always whispering to you in the summertime, coming down with the sunshine: how good a beer might taste, nice and crisp and tingling in your blood as it worked inside you, knocking off tension and hang-ups the way a wheel brush knocked dirt off a tire. Invisible dirt, that was the worst kind, the most corrosive. The brake-dust and heartaches and bushy longings that grew up tall in South Carolina, shining down as it did on the houses and yachts of billionaires and their gorgeous untouchable daughters.
He came inside and I slunk around behind the cabinet as he grabbed up an armful of High Lifes, thinking there was no one awake in the kitchen to judge him.
(it was only nine in the morning, but it was summer, you know, and he was washing his Yenko, no judgements from me)
When he went back out he clicked on the radio, he walked back out onto the grass and pulled out the windshield wipers, one-handing them into their propped position away from the glass as he drank. He soaked the mitt in the soapy water and sopped it over the car in gentle circles, over the paint that was was as blue-dark and cool as those moments right before a thunderstorm, when you busted your ass getting inside the screen door just before sheets of rain began to fall down in those big relentless blades shattering down like panes of cold glass, scattering mud and flowers and broken plastic into the air like colored birdshot. It was the hard blue of midnight.
He worked in circles around the car, moving from the top down, washing her gently with the hose between rounds to keep everything wet until he’d finished and would dry her by hand.
I wondered how he remembered the years he’d dissolved into video games. The worlds he’d seen there, and the wars he’d fought and the women in them, how at some point it must all have begun to seem real, or real enough. That was when he disappeared from the ordinary world, anyway. He hid from us on his birthday, even deleted the day from Facebook, not wanting anyone to be able to keep score.
Sometimes in the silence, he told me, he could hear familiar voices. Eerie, small, maybe just a particularly malevolent strain of tinnitus-
“Let’s see… he’s what, twenty-six, twenty-seven? And he’s done… nothing, he still lives at home…?”
“All he does is play video games. His dad has to take him down his dinner at night or he forgets to eat.”
Not that he could fool himself. One November and then another mowed by and Blake was forced to admit his life had stalled. Now suppose, just suppose, it never got started again? Suppose fifty Novembers from now, he’d be standing as an old man looking back down that long tunnel of months, knowing that his young self was all the time going to turn into the older one, still sitting in the same place on the couch (sitting deeper and deeper) never going anywhere. That all of it, every breath and lunch and every doubt- that all the long collapsing tunnel of his life would be pointless, to no important end.
But after his games were mowed into pieces, leaving him broke and with nothing to do, open stretches of time gave him palpitations. So he slid into an obsession with social media instead. Fiddling with things, it turned out he liked that. Fiddling with stats, with this and that, and like a duck taking to water he learned code, almost without his own noticing. He built his first app, Statstalk, in just under two weeks. It was a tool that allowed him to keep tabs on all the hits received on his various social media outlets. With a click he could see not only where they came from, he could see who was looking.
The next part happened so quickly it hadn’t seemed real. A bidding war between the government and a billionaire in San Francisco. Always a bit of an idealist, Blake chose the billionaire, and for a little less money, too- and suddenly he was famous. Anyway, for a moment he was. Now he was just rich.
He stood back, observing the fat water droplets form on the Yenko’s paint with satisfaction. He rinsed the mitt and picked up the second, older one to use on the undercarriage.
And how bout Nura, he might have thought then, cracking another High Life. He still couldn’t entirely believe his luck in having her. The way they’d had happened was nothing short of miraculous. The way she’d dropped a smile on him as they crossed on the sidewalk. She was on her phone, chattering happily at an invisible friend, and had loosed on him that unguarded smile the way summer sun glints off a windshield.
And to top everything, Nura’s light just happened to fall over him the very day he’d accepted the billionaire's bid, and so- almost not recognizing himself!- Blake had turned on his heel and asked her to come celebrate with him. He could have just as easily gone down on his knees right there, not needing to know anything else about Nura besides that careless, glittering smile that was like your favorite song spilling out of a well-lit bar. But of course in that moment how could he have known how rarely Nura smiled- how could he?
“Do me the honor of celebrating a guy’s brand-new status in the millionaire’s club? By which I mean, me- I’m rich?!” he said to her, laughing as he said it.
And she’d laughed, too, of course she had, incredulous. And then she let him buy her a sandwich, and then an ice cream, and then a fancy dinner that same night. And like that, she was his.
But deep inside himself he knew he was just an ordinary man, one who’d stumbled onto the right idea at the right time. He’d captured a goddess with the same blind luck as some idiot in a myth. His own private goddess; his immortal chariot, and both of them bought with stolen time. How long could it last?
Sooner or later Nura’d realize the truth about him. That probably he’d never get as lucky as he had with Statstalker again. And then she would leave him, she’d be out the door. After all, he was a normal. She was otherworldly. Nura loved to strive the way a racehorse loves to run. She was like a movie star, lean and wild and unknowable, always going places. He couldn’t conceive of growing old with her, much less Nura’s ever actually being old. In some ways being with her was like playing another video game. Real, but not quite real.
Glittering, undeserved, at his side like a dark star.
He gave the car another rinse and then took a squeegee to it, a California Jelly Blade made from medical grade silicone, only the best for his Yenko. Last of all he dried the machine with a square of chamois that was as soft as a woman’s arm. The car winked back, absorbing his attentions as though they were her very birthright. And they were, of course, a Yenko is a minor deity.
And yet… when he was honest with himself, what was wrong in wanting a woman you could feel comfortable with? A woman who was maybe something more like a Volvo? Simple and unquestioning, a man could feel safe with a woman like that. What was wrong with wanting to feel safe? Nothing, that’s what. Not yet, but someday...
Someday. Not just yet. There was a time for Yenkos, and there was a time for Volvos. Whistling, he came inside, and I used the opportunity to dart across the lawn and run in through another door.
People were starting to move around the house. I slipped upstairs to my weaving room with my cooling coffee, wanting to avoid any conversation before I started working. I sat at my stool like a spider taking its seat at the web, feeling an awareness, a delicious ESP, extending out around me in all directions of the house: here a pulse, as Cat turned over in his bed, sighing at the dawn of another day; there a pulse, as Nura stretched out lazily in the wicker room with her sketch-pad.
As Blake walked through the kitchen, pleasantly loose-limbed and certainly not feeling any pain, when he saw Nura folded up with a sketch-book in one of the wicker chairs in the sun-room, he grinned at her in spite of himself, in spite of all the fights they’ve had recently, that much she told me later- he sauntered into the room and Nura gave him one of her almond-eyed smiles, and then the cat came out from beneath her chair, all cobwebby, smiling up at him, too.
The cat stretched and yawned, her arching pink tongue saw-toothed bright in her black face. Anyone who thinks size doesn't matter should consider the implications of a housecat suddenly become twenty times its size. Certainly a cat is an instrument of death and destruction if any has ever walked the earth. But Queenie was no bigger than a football, which endeared her to everyone she ever met, except anything that smaller than her- kittens, anoles, bare toes. She was a brisk and efficient assassin, ‘nice to know ya- no hard feelings, pal, yer what’s for dinner.’
Queenie leapt up beside Nura, scratched quickly at the arm of the wicker chair to create a cool, sandy debris for a nest, and then lay down.
“Girl-baby makes her own shade,” Blake said.
“She’s a snake-killer, too,” Nura said, idly. “Good ol’ Queenie.”
“What you working on, babe?” He sat, and Nura showed him her sketchpad. A tomb-like structure, two thick-bodied snakes squiggling over the top of it. He traced over them lightly with his finger, and she jerked back slightly, worried he would smudge it. “Hell, why not three snakes?” he said.
She turned the paper sideways, squinting at it, falling right into his trap. “You know what, you’re right. It does need a couple more.”
He crumpled his beer can. “Why can’t two be enough, Nura?”
“Blake. You have to love with open hands. Stop worrying so much about what’s in it for you, what’s coming back to you. Just love. Let it all out.”
“You're making this all mumbo jumbo, but really you just want to fuck other people.”
Nura looked at him. “Yeah, I really do, Blake.”
He stood quickly and left the room. His beer can gleamed at her accusingly from the floor. She kicked it through the doorway and resumed her sketch, drawing a third, fourth, fifth snake draping over the tomb’s face.
Blake, Blake. Nura wasn’t the kind of girl who could make him happy. She didn’t care about making him happy- and she didn’t want to care. If there’d been any chance she’d grow up to be a breeder, that had shriveled up and died like a salted snail when she went home to visit her sister a few weeks ago.
Nadya had crapped out four brats in a row. Their incessant screaming and whining, their idiot conversations; all that had thrown salt on Nura’s womb. She’d said as much to Nadya, too.
“But who will love you when you are old then, if you do not have a family?” Nadya said to her, stiffening.
“That’s a stupid reason to have children. Because you are afraid no one will love you later in life? I want to further society in ways besides just contributing to its population. There’s enough of you doing that.” No, there was no guarantee family would love you when you were old; Nura did not love hers. Visits home were a mistake, a waste of time. Maybe she would make no more, that’s what she told me.
Nura looked at her sketch. Family, bah! There was far more comfort in art and nature and warmth. Warmth! Warmth itself is a gift, whether it came from the sun or from a man. Or from this glass of tea. Smiling to herself, she sipped, shading in small, perfectly rectangular marks along the scaly backs of one viper and then another. Yes, art and silence and warmth- that was enough."
-excerpt from Savages
Haven't decided whether I'll keep this framework for this chapter or not... I've got some chapters oscillating between first POV & third, but so far only one narrator. But that changes for me, and rapidly, as you know all too well.
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
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