For the past hour, the sky has been dragging the kitchen into night. Sam rises, flicks on the florescent beam. Rose hips stir at the bottom of his cup. He's dressed for a gig; leather pants, silk blouse with tiny rosebuds embroidered on the collar. No one will notice them on stage, but under the florescent, they glow like lightning bugs. He lifts Vlad onto his lap, strokes his thinning black fur, his ripple of vertebrae. The disease is there too, waiting to be pet.
"Don't you think we should take him to the vet?" His tone is sarcastic.
"Vlad was raised in Nebraska. His body wouldn't know what to do with medicine."
"OK, then - " Sam's eyes are dark as a feral walnut, but filmy, as if he's perpetually on the verge of tears, though she knows he hasn't cried in years.
She pets his silky braid, wraps it around his jaw, so he looks like an Amish farmer, and kisses him. "I don't expect anything to last, remember?"
"Good to know." He holds his antique porcelain teacup in his fingers like an old woman, swishes the flakes round the bottom.
Inside the dressing room of the Zodiac Lounge, Jess peels paint from the sink as she waits her turn. Despite her transparent eyelashes, the acne scars beading her chin, she applies no make-up. She wears only the blue slip her mother left at the bottom of the bed; its hemline of feathers, worn to quills.
Once, she showed it to Sam, told him how her father dragged her to every slaughter house south of the Dakota border, looking for her mother's lover. But all Jess remembered was his smock, bloodied from neck to groin.
All mothers leave, Sam told her. The question is when.
On stage, Jess spins beneath a row of pink bulbs; honey-colored light spills over her bare arms and shoulders. She crawls over to a hollow-cheeked man, takes his thumb beneath the light. His nail is split into a hoof. "Miter box," he rasps.
"Did you keep sawing, even after you felt it?"
The hollow-cheeked man leans back in his chair. "What are you out for?"
The hollow-cheeked man folds his dollar and extends it toward her hand.
When she was a kid, her father farmed government crops; corn, soybeans, sorghum. Cleaned his own seed, shaking them till the husks fell like dead skin. After her mother slipped on her yellow dress and disappeared into night, he turned to breeding pests; yellow wooly bear, lacewing. Ruin a man in days, he told her.
But they both knew the other man was no farmer.
Later, the field lay fallow, the kitchen closed off. Waxed paper taped over the windows, hundreds of lacewings, fluttering through the night. As for the wooly bear; it proliferated in all stages of metamorphosis. Over a single rotted peach, it was a mass of spiky fur, undulating. Whipping around the light bulb, it was dozens of stout, gray moths.
Hours later, Griz enters the Zodiac toting a shopping bag laced with nylon rope. He plunks his bulging gut beside Jess's bar stool, so it's resting on her thigh, then bites her cheek. Under the black light, his white hair glows near green. "Darling, I know you're lesbian, but let's get the fuck out of here."
She has told him she's queer; it's easier than telling a man no. "How's Abe?"
Griz keeps an adolescent black bear. Stole him from a garbage dump up north, tied a rope around his neck, lured him into his wife's truck.
"Chewed up a dozen rawhide." Griz smiles. "How's Vlad?"
"Sick." He frowns, takes a photo from his wallet, drops it on the bar: Abe lapping milk from a turkey roaster. Then, Griz and Abe asleep on the couch. "Wife #3 took this one." He laughs. Jess shakes her head. "One day this is going to be of your control." "That's the point." He rubs the ligament joining her thumb to palm. On his own hand, muscle shrinks to bone, blown hollow. Shrapnel, he told her. Lam Son.
"I brought you something."
Inside the bag, she fingers a slippery knit.
"Angora. You know it?"
She remembers her fingers fitted between her father's knuckles, the slippery release of their bodies.
At home, she finds Sam sitting on the kitchen floor, guitar against his chest, humming. She knows better than to interrupt, but love slides her down the wall, takes his hand and nuzzles it. Flies swarm above the bowl of fruit on the table.
"I got the rent."
"What'd you do for that?" He stops strumming, stares at his fingers.
Sam doesn't believe a man would pay for talk. He's a native New Yorker; grew up surrounded by millions of lips, moving.
"How's the bear?"
"Drinking milk from a turkey roaster."
Sam laughs. "I have to leave in a minute. Sound check."
When they first met, she told him she'd just arrived on the Amtrak from Chicago.
Look, he said, pulling thistle from her hair. I live in the present.
Sometimes I lie. Don't take it personally.
She recalls this moment whenever he's about to leave.
"Where are you playing?"
"Albany. Why don't you come?"
"I've got to take care of Vlad."
Sam coils the velvet scarf she sewed for him around his neck while in the corridor between them, her lie thickens. Sam shuts the door. She picks up Vlad and strokes his black, damp fur, stares into his golden eyes, his enlarged pupils.
The following Saturday, Griz drives Jess high into the Catskills. Through the skylight, shadows of branches drift over her like lace. Then the pines appear, pointy tips serrating the sky.
They enter a town: a has-been ski resort lined with boarded-up motels. The Applejack is the final light on the strip. A neon ax falls into a red apple, splitting it in halves.
"Maybe it's lack of blood that's gotten to Vlad," Jess says.
"Darling," Griz takes her hand, rubs the ligament between thumb and finger. "Your cat's got a cancer. Plus, he ain't young."
Inside, six men stand around an empty wood-burning stove, not talking. In a moment, the looks begin: daughter or whore? But Jess has seen them in the Zodiac; they know.
Griz offers a barstool, bourbon. The moment before he takes her hand, she senses the heat in his.
It's like they're buzzing, he told her. All the time.
"Looked a lot better before I went overseas."
"I know." For a moment, she feels the urge to kiss him, to be enveloped by his mottled skin. She sips her bourbon.
"Wife #2 tried to wax the hair off, salve the skin. She even lodged a peppermint tea bag in her throat for oral." He laughs.
She rolls her eyes, but says nothing.
Griz's mouth twitches beneath his scruffy gray beard. "If you're so in love with your old lady, what are you doing here?"
"I don't know." She recalls Sam's thick knuckles; pleasure surges through her face. "Her hands," she says. "They're so beautiful - "
"Snake charmer." Griz glances at his own skin, melted. "Be careful."
Griz order steaks from the bar: tough flanks and a puddle of canned beans.
"How's the dress?" He swallows a portion of meat.
She extracts a single strand of rabbit fur, stands it on her pinky, and stares at its clean, curved edge. "Make a wish."
She closes her eyes, then feels Griz's nose against hers. His eyes are closed, fluttering beneath the skin. His face is doughy; jowls dragging the rest down. "I wish you would lay down with me, just once."
Close to noon, Jess opens the fridge, finds the leftovers from last night's dinner. Under the table, the angora dress is a soft ball. The hard spot in its center: four-hundred bucks.
She transfers the steak into a frying pan, drops curls of butter. Fat sizzles. She prays the meat will glisten as it did last night.
Vlad creeps along the wainscoting, bracelets her fibula with his damp tail. Biting a chunk from Sam's steak, Jess releases it over Vlad's head, but it falls to the linoleum like a dead cicada.
Vlad is licking the surface of his water without swallowing. Jess crouches to the floor, forces his mouth open and jams the fat beyond his tongue. Holding him in one arm, she arranges the rest of the steak on Sam's favorite plate.
Sam is not an early riser. He removes his glasses, closes his cloth-bound book without a sound. Radials of capillaries stretch over his eyelids like lacy gauze.
"Eat this, it'll fill you."
He glares down at the over-cooked steak, the mound of beans seeping off the plate.
Sam is on a West coast tour when Griz appears beneath the porch light, eyes alert, moths orbiting his head.
Jess pulls him inside, seats him at the kitchen table, and fetches the bottle of port from the top of the fridge.
"What the fuck am I going to do?" Griz wipes his nose, then lifts Vlad onto his lap. "He's just an innocent thing. You get it?"
"All animals are innocent." She doesn't look at Vlad. Instead, she recalls the rabbit's eye as her father held the ears. "We'll find him."
They speed into Millbrook, this fancy town she can't believe hasn't expelled Griz. Parking blocks from his house, Jess parts the branches of every ornamental evergreen, whispers into trees. Abe, Abe. Over here.
Griz's ranch sits on the corner, bathing in white light, its lawn shaved and sprayed. His wife is plainly visible through the picture window, her satin-slippered feet propped on the coffee table, lips painted red for the basketball game.
"What a nut," Griz chuckles. "It's only Kansas City versus Phoenix."
But it's too late; her heart pounds against bone. "Take me home."
At home, she carries Vlad up the steps, despite his moaning, and places him on Sam's pillow. She hasn't changed the sheets since Sam left. His socks are two hard lumps at the bottom of the bed.
In the morning, Griz's breath is audible from the answering machine. "Just look at the Round Table." He sniffles, then hangs up.
Jess drives to a diner in a nearby town, picks through the stacks of local papers in the vestibule and locates the Round Table. She folds it in half as she secures a booth, and accepts coffee from an agitated waitress.
"You OK, honey?"
Jess shakes her head, flips open the Round Table. On the front cover is what she couldn't look at in the vestibule: a black lump. An officer, frightened.
"Never heard of a bear getting so close," the waitress says.
When she returns with a stack of pancakes, Jess cuts the spongy dough and swallows a couple squares. Tears dribble down her cheek, her nose fills. Maybe if she coats the pancakes in butter, Vlad will eat them. That'll make him fat again.
She recalls Vlad sleeping in her father's barn; a black lump within yellow straw. Then wrapping him in the blue slip, and hitching a thousand miles East.
Jess flags down the waitress and blubbers out a request for a take-out box, which the waitress briskly fulfills. She transfers her pancakes into Styrofoam and fills the white space around them with golden-foiled packets of butter. Then she holds the container perfectly straight as she exits the diner, so nothing spills.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
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