a lecture on the inexorable pull of gravity
originally published in the now-defunct Pinball
The guy was a personal friend of Rick’s, who’d arranged for us to meet in a diner and gave no instruction beyond “pull out all the stops.” But his buddy was nothing but stops. He’d introduced himself in monotone, wetly blew his nose, then stared into his coffee mug with crimson eyes. His hair was an unkempt tortuous blonde puff. I asked how his night was going and he mumbled something inaudible, then I asked if we should get something to eat and he mumbled seemingly the same inaudible thing. His allowance of verbal output was then exhausted. I launched into my standard script for disaffected weirdos (“Seems like you’re going through a lonely spell, am I right? Nobody deserves to be lonely, especially such a sweet-looking guy…”) but was met with stony silence. I watched a bubble form at his left nostril, then wax and wane with his breathing. The overall gestalt was Influenza, Week Two.
Sometimes the customer needs to engage in a feeling-out process before talking turkey, but as the clock crawled and I picked at the Denver omelet I’d finally ordered at the twenty-minute mark, I wondered if maybe our turkey had been pardoned tonight. I was prepared to face Rick’s wrath rather than watch this tubercular kid raise a soggy mountain of used napkins all night. The high fee acted as a filter, so while I’d get unattractive, overweight and/or well-aged customers, they had usually showered that very same day and never appeared quite so moribund.
I dropped the falsetto. “Look, Derek… it’s Derek, right?” He shrugged his shoulders, unwilling to commit.
“You look like a nice kid, sort of. You go to the school?” He nodded, looking up at the ceiling and showing off a massive, globular Adam’s apple wobbling around his thin neck, like a python engorged by the wild boar it’d just eaten.
“That’s great. Education. You’re the future. So, are you listening to me right now?” Another nod.
“Derek, I’m going to need to get paid no matter what happens tonight, even if what happens is absolutely nothing. This is what’s called an opportunity cost for me. And you’re buying this omelet.”
“Rick said I’d get a special deal. A thousand.”
“One thousand? No way. He’s out of his mind.” One thousand was, in fact, just the regular deal.
“He said a thousand.” He pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket and tossed them on the table.
“Well, I certainly will talk to him about this later.” I scooped up the money. This interaction had catalyzed something in Derek and he was actually in motion, getting up from the booth and stretching his arms. Then he did some toe-touches.
“Fine, let’s go,” he said. “I’m going to show you something.”
He took me on a drive in his Mercedes, presumably a high school graduation present from well-heeled parents. It was raining, sort of. We would have called it a light mist back home, but it isn’t as inclement here and so if a handful of desultory, nearly ephemeral drops trickle off from a single trifling grey cloud, the weather guy eagerly identifies it as rain, full story at eleven. Derek had the windshield wipers going, the heater on full blast, and I was close to being lulled asleep. The radio was tuned to the college station where a nervous young man was laboriously introducing each track of an all-night retrospective of Sebastian Maldonado, apparently a singer-songwriter of some very narrow degree of repute.
“Mister… or rather Señor I guess it would be… Señor Maldonado… left South American… sorry, South America, when he was a teenager… and… lived in Paris for ten years while he honed his… his craft and his gift.” The kid needed to stop and breathe every few words, and you could clearly hear the rustle of papers from his script.
“They keep saying that he’s South American,” I said, startling Derek out of his reverie. “That’s stupid. That’s like saying that Tom Cruise is a famous North American actor.”
“What? Tom Cruise?”
“No, this Maldonado guy. He sounds Argentinian.”
“He sounds Argentinian? As opposed to what? It’s Spanish. He could be whatever-the-fuck.”
I let that be the final word on the subject, and there was another ten minutes of silence until we pulled into a little subdivision on the edge of campus. A couple hundred townhouses that came in three different styles, but placed down in an invariant order of 1, 2, 3… then 1, 2, 3… And every style 1 was blue, and every style 2 was a lighter blue, and every style 3 was green. We pulled up in front of a style 2. The lights were off, the parking spot was empty. Derek pointed in the general direction of the house. “Nobody home,” he said. I nodded. He nodded back at me. This arcane task complete, he drove back toward the university.
Maldonado sang a song about the most devout priest in his town, who only had eyes for Jesus. But then he fell deeply in love with a woman, a local seamstress, and he forgot God and left the Church. He came to the woman’s house one night to pledge himself to her. She listened to his speech and smiled sadly, and told him that probably, possibly, maybe at one point this feeling could have been reciprocated but as it happens she was leaving town to join a convent, having recently discovered the comfort of God. So she left to become a nun and the man couldn’t relocate his piety, and then Derek suddenly breaks in.
“Do you enjoy what you do?” he asked. Although this question seems patently ridiculous to me and an insult to everybody’s intelligence, it is frequently asked. I’m sure customers would love to believe the answer is yes. Consider my old college friend Benny, who found summer work in coal mines and once on a fishing boat in the Arctic. In my imagination, these resonated as powerfully masculine, transformative experiences. Come September I wanted Benny to reminisce about metered mining songs echoing up from the depths, a wavering line of carbide lamps winding out into the black, all of the good fellows they left behind when the tunnel caved in, and then I want to hear about white-streaked waves rising thirty feet high, glimpses of sinister fins and black beady eyes. Did the rations all go overboard in the storm? Did the navigator go mad in the darkness? But Benny said I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, that I’d seen too many movies, and that every day was a quiet misery endured only to finance another year of school, the ultimate goal being a deliberately uninteresting life involving health insurance and modern hygiene.
Paying clients don’t need to see it that way. I dress well, I show up in a BMW (Rick’s), and there is a professionally-designed website describing me as an elegant confidante and muse. It looks fun and it’s supposed to. You know what isn’t fun? That I owe Rick thousands of dollars. That half of my money goes straight into a savings account I opened for my brother. That I used to send it to my mother, but she was diverting it into a beer fund in lieu of miscellanea such as food and clothing.
“Absolutely, it’s fun and very interesting,” I told Derek.
We pulled into the parking lot of McTaylor’s, supposedly an Irish bar although it’s never been clear to me what minimum criteria are necessary to designate a bar as “Irish.” Derek cut the engine and turned down the radio, and there we sat. He slouched mutely in his seat and would periodically sigh and then sip at something wrapped tight in a paper bag. It was probably Diet Coke. For the standard fee I try not to watch the clock as a matter of course, since it’s a dusk-until-dawn guarantee and no customer wants to see you checking your watch. But it was three hours and change we sat there.
I counted and recounted the money, which was in the form of fives, tens and twenties, and it actually came out to one thousand and five dollars. I’m guessing the extra five was an oversight and not a particularly audacious tip. But there it was: five hundred to Rick, two hundred fifty back home, two hundred fifty for me. If what Derek wanted was to sit for three hours in that parking lot, then fine. Sign me up. A girl’s night doesn’t get easier than that.
And for his part, Derek remained a source of vague entertainment. Every time a patron emerged from the bar, legless and swaying and sometimes singing, he’d jolt to attention in his seat and reach for a pair of camouflage binoculars. My family had a cat named Banjo when I was growing up, and whenever Banjo saw a moth or spider or anything that vaguely resembled a moth or spider, his eyes would grow cartoonish and his ears would point forward, and actually every single part of him would point forward, every tuft of fur on his body, and he would vibrate and stare and simmer in place. And we called that the Banjo Face. Derek could generate a very fierce Banjo Face. Often he’d immediately conclude that a particular inebriant stumbling into the parking lot wasn’t the person of interest and would dejectedly drop the binoculars back into his lap. Sometimes he’d go ahead and take a cursory glance through them, since he’d already gone to the trouble of breaking his stasis. And then rarely he would pause and squint through the lenses… is that…? is it…? then collapse back into his seat and sigh more of those substantial, throaty, full-bodied sighs. We were parked no more than forty feet from the entrance, by the way. Binoculars seemed excessive.
“Who are we waiting for?” I finally asked.
“What’s it matter to you?” He shifted his ass so as to face another twenty or so degrees away from me, as oblique as he could arrange himself while still remaining seated behind the wheel.
“I’m assuming you didn’t pay a thousand dollars just to listen to bad college radio with me. If whoever we’re waiting for has anything to do with my services, then you should know that bringing in a third party does carry a premium, which I hope Rick would have clarified with you.”
He just snorted and was silent for another Maldonado song-and-a-half, but then said: “My girl Annie is in there. She’s in there every night. And she goes home every night with a different guy.”
“And we are here to… pick them up?”
“No,” he mumbled. “I just need to see it.”
I had expected some variant or another of this. It’s an exceedingly common story. Men in a state of fulminant outrage. They have been ignored, or spurned, or cuckolded. They demand to be made whole again. Whatever it takes. There is no such thing as a consequence, never has been, never will be. They are going to damn the torpedoes and act, and create their own reality, and I will be an instrument of their empire. They just bought a new sports car and a gym membership, and now they are going to buy an evening with a fun, interesting coquette in a cocktail dress who can speak a little French and turn some heads at the wine bar, who will tell them that nobody deserves to be lonely especially not an army of such sweet-looking guys.
Maldonado was singing a song about the girl he left back home. She has a faint scar that runs down one cheek, and she never reveals how she got it. He is terribly in love with her and she is, at the very least, quite fond of him. Within a month of their meeting he has to leave town for reasons left unsung, and she doesn’t follow. His heartbreak is outstanding. He writes her letters and poems daily, and she writes back comparatively infrequently but often enough to hearten him. A year goes by. One day he is walking down a Parisian street and hears a child laughing, and turns to see a young French girl delighted by a pigeon that has alighted on the café table in front of her. It’s a beautiful and windy day. He can’t quite remember whether the scar is on her left cheek, or her right.
As Maldonado struck the last chord and the nervous DJ coughed directly into the microphone, Derek began to Banjo Face again. This episode was more prolonged, and then in a grunting paroxysm he flexed the binoculars up to his face so quickly that he smashed them into the bridge of his nose with a disquieting thud. He screamed and dropped the binoculars and was hollering something largely unintelligible but clearly profane.
A couple had left the bar. The woman, presumably his girl Annie, was platinum blonde and wearing a fabulous amount of make-up. This fact was easily ascertained in the middle of the night at forty paces without binoculars. The guy was about six inches shorter and had strikingly stubby legs scampering below a more standard-sized torso. He looked like a fresh-faced college kid and she looked like a Japanese scientist’s robotic approximation of an American porn star. They crossed over to a pickup truck on the other side of the parking lot where, although she utterly dwarfed him, he attempted to assist her into the cab.
“What are they doing?” cried Derek, peering between his fingers and blinking his vision clear. Blood was trickling out from his hands.
“He is… well he is sort of underneath her, pushing her up into the truck. By her ass. It’s reminding me of that photo of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, except this is just one guy and the flag has about five pounds of turquoise mascara on.”
“The time is now!” he yelled, fumbling with the keys. “Do you have a gun?”
“What? What the fuck? Why would I have a gun?”
“I don’t know, I figured… in your line of work, that you might carry a gun. For protection.”
“No gun. Let’s go back to the diner,” I said. “Let’s regroup. Formulate a plan for the evening.”
“I have a plan.”
“Whatever it is, let’s formulate Plan B and go with that.”
“No, we’re following them.”
The stubby guy’s truck had already sped off. Derek’s car sputtered to life and confusedly rolled forward, and then left, and right. Derek struggled with the steering wheel and the gear shift and then the windshield wipers, hands flying all over the place, binoculars launching off his lap and clattering somewhere down around my feet. He didn’t seem to remember if the car was automatic or stick. We sped out and were retracing our steps, only this time careening erratically and with louder crying. Traffic was sparse at that time of night, and the handful of other cars we encountered all scattered immediately to the shoulder upon sight of Derek’s reeling Mercedes. I wasn’t outright screaming, but I was the ongoing source of a wavering low-pitched tone, like a monk who was meditating but also hyperventilating. I was covered in a fine sheen of sweat by the time we sped back into the subdivision.
Owing to their head start as Derek had rebooted his central nervous system, Annie and her beau had already parked and the truck was empty. Derek spun his car around and then stopped right behind the stubby guy’s truck, blocking it in.
“Where’s my phone,” he muttered, turning on the cabin lights.
“Holy shit!” I yelled.
“Your fucking nose.” It was completely askew. Looking him square in the face, I was seeing his nose in profile. His shirt was soaked in blood. Indifferent, he fished a cellphone from his pocket.
“I’ve got a surprise, I’ve got a surprise,” he stammered giddily as he jabbed away on the screen. “Her husband works, like, literally just a few blocks from here. Security guard at the… whatever it is. The book store.” He pointed down the road.
“You mean the university library? And what, her husband?”
“I took his number from her phone. Because I just knew. Right? I need that I knew it… No, wait. I knew that I would need it.” Either the dysarthric DJ was rubbing off on him or I’d underestimated the beverage he’d been downing all night. He shoved the phone toward me to show off a text message. “Look at that!”
hurry an come home quick ur wife is forking a guy
“I guess he’ll get the idea.”
“Now just wait…” He was Banjo Facing back toward the entrance of the subdivision.
“Derek, listen. Why do I have to be here for this?”
“You couldn’t have asked a friend?”
“I asked Rick for help and he sent me to you. I don’t have any friends.”
So we were waiting again. Maldonado was singing about I don’t even know what, surely about a man who loved a woman but then something happened, I was no longer paying attention on account of my fierce heart palpitations. I decided to concoct an intervention.
“Listen. Have you read The Odyssey?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“No of course not,” I said. “What are you majoring in, out of curiosity?”
“That sounds about right. Now listen. There’s a guy named Odysseus and he wants to get home. Who doesn’t? Like, when I was a kid and my parents put me to bed, I’d lie awake and listen to them. They’d watch TV and debate something they heard on the news. They’d get louder and louder, and looking back I know it was because they were drinking but at the time I found their voices comforting. It was okay to drop out of consciousness for a bit because my parents were going to carry the torch, keep the world alive and vibrant and ready for me when I woke up. Then my dad died and things changed, like my mom got sicker and her boyfriends came and went, and my brother was born and when we came back from the hospital with him we found out the bank had foreclosed on the house. Stuff like that, fun stuff that happens to interesting people.” Derek was nodding furiously.
“But I’m not talking about literally your house, like whether you grew up in a Tudor by the bay or whatever, although I’m sure you did. Do you play lacrosse? No, don’t answer, let’s stay on track. I’m talking about the feeling of home. Are you following?” He had never stopped nodding so it was hard to say.
“So Odysseus had been off to battle and now, war-weary and shell-shocked, he needs the comfort of home. Home, Derek.”
“Home,” he echoed.
“So Odysseus starts heading back in a boat, because he lives in a Tudor by the bay, and he sails past an island inhabited by beautiful spirits. The spirits sing a song so entrancing that once you hear it, you point your boat toward shore and you wreck on the reef and drown. But Odysseus has heard about these spirits and knows the score. The other guys on the boat with him, they plug their ears… they, like, put on noise-canceling headphones. And they tie Odysseus down so that he won’t be able to crash the boat.
“So they pass the island and Odysseus hears the song, and his entire soul reaches out for it. He struggles against the ropes but cannot break free. He fights and yells and is convinced at that moment that the world is deeply wrong and unfair, that home is meaningless. But then the boat sails out of earshot, and his friends untie him. And he remembers the anguish he’d felt, but it’s just a memory. Looking back on it, he realizes how foolish he’d been to forget everything that truly mattered. And he continues to sail home, where he makes some friends that aren’t drug dealing pimps.”
Derek stared deeply into my eyes the entire time, peering out from under his cumulus cloud of sandy hair, an unnerving experience under any circumstance but amplified by the ongoing trickle of blood drip-dropping out of his perpendicular nose.
“He goes home. Do you hear what I’m saying, Derek?”
Before he could respond, the endgame was set in motion. A truck had come skidding around the corner far down the road, two wheels lifting slightly off the ground.
“Here he comes!” yelled Derek. “We’re going in! The back door is always unlocked!”
“We are not going in there,” I said. Derek was fumbling with the door handle ineffectually. I was starting to wonder if this was even his car. He finally jumped out then immediately leaned his head back in, sending a stream of blood sideways down his cheek. “I’ll give you another hundred if you come inside with me. Please, I need a witness!”
“Yeah, a witness is exactly how the cops are going to describe me afterwards.”
“I have to see this happen, I have to see it myself. Look on my works ye mighty and despair!”
He was running toward the house. Tonight was likely going to parallel that poem more closely than he anticipated, but another hundred bucks, under the counter, just to bear witness to the lone and level sands? Yes, I followed, and the back door was unlocked as promised. I paused at the threshold to consider whether to proceed, but then the truck skidded to a stop in the middle of the front lawn—an uprooted rhododendron bush sailed in a graceful parabola onto the porch—and I bolted inside. We ran down a hallway and into the living room, and were racing up a flight of stairs as the front door flew open and an immense shape lumbered in. We kept going. On the second floor landing there were a number of framed pencil drawings of ducklings, conceived in a juvenile style.
Derek was nothing short of triumphant as he burst into the bedroom in a scene straight out of Chariots of Fire, with me in close pursuit. My emotional state at that point is hard to describe, maybe equal parts adrenaline rush, gut-wrenching fear, and detached ironic shrug. The stubby guy—drenched in more sweat than was seemly for the five minutes they’d been in there—was between the legs of Annie, who shrieked in terror at the sight of the animated, hemorrhagic Picasso that erupted onto the scene. The stubby guy, for his part, was surprisingly blasé and could muster only a muted “whoa” as he clambered off his partner and windmilled backwards to the far wall, where he flattened himself against the surface as though crucified. The world’s saddest little deflated condom slipped off the end of a wan penis.
“Annie,” announced Derek, “you are my comforting home. You are my drunk parents.” This elicited another brief scream.
“But this home is full of beautiful singing monsters.” He gestured to the stubby guy, then turned to the door expectantly. “So just wait!” There was a lot of commotion downstairs.
“Oh,” said Annie, appearing to finally recognize her intruder. “Derek?”
Derek ignored her and started walking back to the door. “Just wait… until you see what happens…” I’m not sure what the husband was doing down there. The clatter was ongoing, like he’d stopped to remodel before proceeding to murder us all. Maybe he was building coffins. Derek poked his head out into the hallway to investigate. “Just… wait until… okay hold on.” There were one or two more loud bangs and then finally a more predictable pattern of heavy footsteps ascending the staircase.
“Ah ha!” exclaimed Derek, pulling himself back into the room and sweeping his arm to the ceiling like a matador as a preposterously burly man rushed past. Trailing the man was the lid of a trashcan that had somehow hooked onto his shoe laces. He looked like a spooked lumberjack or maybe an enraged competitive weightlifter. He was, in fact, of such singular appearance that I recognized him at once. This man, who I knew as Brian, came to a huffing and puffing halt at the foot of the bed, wisps of steam rising faintly from his forehead.
The degree to which Brian was flabbergasted was touchingly severe. His mouth was hanging open exactly like they draw really surprised guys in comic books. He’d close it about halfway but his jaw would slowly sag down again. He raised one finger to point at his wife, who was clutching bedsheets to her chest just as you’d imagine, then slowly swept the finger east. In silence we watched the fingertip track across the bed, rising up to rest for several seconds on Derek’s buckled nose, then continuing across the room, landing sequentially on the stubby guy’s face then down to his flaccid penis. Brian stared for quite a duration at the penis, which evidently seemed to him the most incongruous element of this tableau thus far. He was so fixated, in fact, that his finger halted its clockwise trek and I was spared its inquisition.
With a speed belying his mass, Brian launched himself at the stubby guy and began to very literally throttle him. He had both meaty hands around the guy’s neck, squeezing and producing from him a high-pitched squeal like air slowly being released from a balloon. The impending homicide victim frantically pulled at Brian’s hands fruitlessly. He was a human child contending with an adult grizzly bear. Annie’s resurgent screams quickly devolved into hoarse croaking. Derek was just Banjo Facing over in the corner. This was therefore a relatively quiet little murder scene.
Rather than become embroiled in what would no doubt be a very sensational criminal investigation, I decided to save a man’s life. “Hi Brian,” I said, circling around into his peripheral vision. “Remember me?”
He immediately loosened his grip and the stubby guy scurried away into a closet. Brian turned to face me, his eyes widening.
“Or whatever your name is,” I went on. “I know it isn’t really Brian. Nobody uses their real name. But your left headlight is out. Well, I guess it’s the right headlight. If you’re coming at me, it’s my left, your right. If you can’t afford to replace it, it’s probably because I’ve taken a full paycheck from you on multiple occasions.”
“I don’t know who the hell you are, lady,” Brian snarled.
“According to you, I’m the sexual inspiration for your erotic novel about the hero security guard.”
Annie narrowed her eyes but seemed unconvinced by the evidence thus far. Maybe she was unaware of the existence of Working the Night Shaft. “He’s got two moles on the base of his manhood.” I said to her. “One is small and normal, but the other is big and repulsive. I’m not even sure it’s a mole.”
Annie and Brian just glowered at each other, calculating. Clearly they each figured that to go on the offensive was to risk mutually assured destruction. I tugged on Derek’s shirt sleeve and gave a head-tilt toward the door, and then pushed him a little on the back when his response was tepid. I beckoned to the stubby guy with the hand motion you’d use to summon a stray kitten over to you, and he padded over to me just like that stray kitten would, not bothering to collect his clothes, and I escorted them both out and shut the door. We clumped down the stairs in single-file.
“So,” squawked the stubby guy through a bruised larynx, crossing the room and giving us a full moon before having a seat on the edge of the couch. “Are you two… friends of Annie?”
Derek turned to me. “What the hell is wrong with you? You ruined everything!”
“Bro, you shouldn’t yell at a woman,” said the stubby guy.
“Fuck you,” yelled Derek as he rushed the couch and took a swing. The stubby guy made no attempt to duck but regardless the punch cleared his head by inches and Derek went into an uncontrolled plummet, landing him atop the stubby guy who immediately wrapped his legs around Derek’s waist as they toppled together in slow-motion onto the couch.
“Lemme up,” yelled Derek. “Lemme up, lemme up!”
“Calm down, shush shush,” whispered the stubby guy into Derek’s ear, and remarkably it seems like Derek did, in fact, calm down.
“Fuck,” he cried. “Just… fuck.” The stubby guy released his figure-four leg lock and patted Derek on the back. “Let it out,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” Tears and blood were dripping in equal measure onto the stubby guy’s naked, hairless chest.
I considered and then rejected the idea of prompting Derek for the extra hundred bucks. I felt that my presence at the house was now superfluous, and called up Rick on my cell.
“I’m outside,” Rick said. “Was tracking your phone.”
I started toward the door but out of the corner of my eye something pastel and sniffling caught my attention. A young girl, maybe twelve years old and wearing a pink nightgown, was standing at the threshold of the living room. Pale blonde hair and her mother’s nose. She was clearly petrified. We looked at each other.
“Honey, you’re going to remember this moment for the rest of your life, I’m guessing.” She nodded. “I had some nights like this when I was growing up. Not exactly like this. Only in spirit. But anyway, just remember that you didn’t choose for tonight to happen, whereas every adult in this house sort of did.” She nodded again, and Rick was honking the horn outside so I left.
He opened the passenger door for me as though he was a gentleman, always such a bullshitter. “Did you take good care of him? And whose house is this? This isn’t Derek’s house.”
“This is Brian and Annie’s house. Derek may or may not be getting taken care of right now.” I threw the cash in his lap, and turned on the radio while he started to separate and count it. I found the college station.
“Annie again, Jesus. He couldn’t forget Annie for just one night? He sleeps with this chick once and then it’s nothing but Annie. He moves to Annie Town.”
Mi corazón, mi corazón, mi corazón… sang Maldonado.
“What’s this Mexican fucker on about?” muttered Rick.
“He’s Argentinian,” I said. “It’s a very different accent.”
“I spent two summers in Chile teaching English. Crossed the border to Mendoza on the weekends to supplement my income. You know how the girls always say they are just putting themselves through college?”
“Christ, you’re a college girl?” he laughed. “This goddamn town, of course even the hookers are bilinguistical and shit. People will never stop surprising me.”
“I was a college girl,” I corrected him. “And people never surprise me.”
We can count down the numbers that defined me to that point. I owed Rick twenty thousand dollars. I’d been on eight-seven dates with fifty-two men. My father died when he was forty-two. I’d been asked two dozen times if I enjoy the work. Things got fun and interesting with drugs at age twenty-one, and so I was forever sixteen credits shy of a degree in Classics. My brother had a chronological age of twelve. I’d been working as an escort for seven months. My brother had a mental age of six because of fetal alcohol syndrome. I’d last seen my mother five years ago. I’d been to urgent care four times. Three men had threatened to kill me. Two more weeks until Rick showed me Derek’s obituary in the newspaper, but whatever, there is one singular fate for us all.