“Same Heart They Put You In”
More you know Marianne, the more you care what she likes. Right now she’s up shotgun, cheek scrunched against the window, the sleeves of her Mickey Mouse sweater drooping over her hands. Wine country slopes by, green and buzz cut vineyards, gobs of lazy hill. Cheri drives. I’m in the seat behind her. The sun’s drifting up. Everything is olive oil, a spilled yawn. We’re headed back to Oakland after this weird birthday party at a villa. Dude named Graham. There was gin, Mexican milk cake, kitschy Star Wars action figures. We’re at that age where the sighs get less and less fake. It’s because of Marianne’s effect on the world that I’m not behind her, massaging her neck or something. We let her sleep. Cheri and I know each other only because of her.
“Do you think Graham had fun?” Cheri whispers.
“Sure,” I say. “He was really nice.”
“He loves Marianne.”
“It seems like he’s a really expressive guy. Why wouldn’t he have fun?”
Cheri lets go of the steering wheel for a second. “It’s a long story.”
“I love Graham,” Marianne mumbles. “It might be I’ll always love him, I think.”
If I want, the backseat is big enough to sleep full stretch. Hours of wine country. Full stretch.
“Graham’s mom split when Graham was like, four,” Cheri says. “Big Graham took him and moved in with Jacqui. They don’t like us anymore. His friends, I mean. They don’t like his friends anymore.”
To go to the bathroom at the party, you had to get Graham’s girlfriend Beth to walk you through the house. Big Graham and Jacqui were on the couch smoking cloves. A flat-screen TV played the Weather Channel on mute. In the room was a pewter statue of a frog and a grandfather clock. Big Graham had a flannel coat. He was gaunt, his beard a spider web. Jacqui wore a white golf cardigan, wool, and a series of bracelets that jangled on his arm in glow stick colors. He gaped a smile at us. Big Graham said, “Fun’s a pretty noisy fun, Bethany?” His voice had a weird coo that didn’t agree with his look. Beth sat down with them. She pointed up the stairs. At the top of the stairs was a baby gate I had to step over. In the bathroom, a huge tube of Crest lay in the sink, uncapped. The toilet had an auto-flush. There were no towels anywhere. Downstairs, Beth had a clove of her own. They all had their heads close, voices going. But I couldn’t hear what anybody said. When they saw me, Beth said, “You’re all set.” She seemed tired. She handed her clove to Jacqui. Big Graham leaned forward and watched us leave.
Once or twice that night I saw Jacqui outside. Never with Big Graham. Instead he had this gangly teenaged boy, Mexican-looking. I didn’t see the boy in the house. They just threaded around, those two—didn’t party with us. Jacqui did his smile thing. The party stayed in the courtyard. Card tables and lawn chairs were scattered around the iron fountain. People munched and made nerdy jokes. I didn’t know anybody, but I knew nerdy jokes, so I felt okay.
Me and Marianne, we’re friends on the internet. When we first met in person, I made a joke about skeeball, and she seemed to like it. That same night, we ended up making out and getting each other off. The next morning we held hands a little, walking to catch my BART for the airport. These days we talk on the IM, especially when we’re home and drinking solo. Once or twice a year, I visit.
Cheri’s her housemate and Graham’s their buddy. At the party, he was still wearing his work duds: black button-down, ironed chinos. He had long hair and glasses. Seemed really excited by each of his birthday presents. Even by all the food. And each friend, like he hadn’t expected them to show. “Marianne!” he said when the three of us walked up. “Marianne! Cheri!” He hugged everybody like he’d just invented their faces. I liked him. He gave some basic vibes of coziness to a pretty weird scene. Like on the way to the party, Cheri told us that Big Graham would bring the guard dogs when we parked, which he did.
Meanwhile, here comes dawn.
“If I tell you about this,” Cheri says, “You can’t spread it.”
“Does Marianne know?”
“Lots of people know. It was in the papers and stuff. It’s just—it’s better if it gets less known instead of more, you know? Marianne knows. You know, Marianne?”
“She’s asleep,” Cheri says.
“I don’t think she’s asleep,” I say.
Cheri drives for a while. “It’s not that you know anybody who could hurt him,” she says. “It’s not that, exactly.”
When Graham’s mom left, Cheri tells me, they were living on a houseboat down the coast. Big Graham was working for the Navy as some kind of radio operator. Antennas pointed at the Pacific. Maybe it wasn’t the Navy, Cheri says. But something government. This was Reagan ‘80s. Even people like Big Graham were getting their shit together. He’d met Graham’s mom, eased off the mescaline, ditched Orange County, and delved into a little dream of houseboat life. But things’ll be things. And all things being so, Graham’s mom split, and Big Graham started to cuss at his bosses. Started keeping his own logbook alongside the official one, a yellow secret. One day, he brought a dead seagull aboard the houseboat. He rested the seagull on the kitchen table. Then Little Graham watched as his father sawed the seagull open with a steak knife and began to scoop entrails and bones, arranging them in wet glops on the table, in pentagrams and crescents. When Big Graham noticed his son watching, he stopped. Wiped his hands on his shirt. They been tinkered up for something, he said. We’ve got to get them set back.
Soon Big Graham was fired. Maybe court-martialed, Cheri says. Anyway, they had to leave the houseboat in the middle of the night and drive up to Napa County, up to Jacqui’s villa.
Jacqui didn’t make his money in wine. First he sold drugs in L.A, then in the mid ‘70s he got a bead on an abandoned hot springs site near St. Helena. He bought it and spiffed up the services quite a bit. Opened marijuana saunas, happy endings all over the place. You could add discharge to your baths like ice cream toppings: bull semen, lynx sweat. And, as a good ex-dealer, he kept things hush, which people appreciated. Hollywood types walked around in full dangle. Blow came in salt shakers. Jacqui made so much money that he bought out the other hot springs in the area. Solid knack for business, that guy. We don’t know where he’s from or anything, Cheri says, but we’ve never seen that guy want for much. His favorite thing was to hire wincing teenagers, sad sacks drifting to or from the Bay. He’d put those boys in towels and their eyes on ice. Acid blots and prime rib is what he fed them. And what can you say? They got jobs and anything they mentioned. Lush days in a place that pretty much trademarks its light. Jacqui loved to be thanked, that’s all. Who doesn’t love to be thanked?
“Big Graham was a pool boy?” I say.
“I’m getting the order mixed up,” Cheri says. “They met in L.A. Before Jacqui’s empire. They knew each other in drugs, I think.”
“Thanks,” Marianne says. “Thanks. No, thank you. Thank you.”
I can’t tell if she’s dreaming or joking.
“Nobody doesn’t,” I say to Cheri. “Everybody likes to thank people.”
“Exactly,” Cheri says. She sighs.
When Big Graham showed up on Jacqui’s doorstep with a runt in tow, it was a bigger case of charity than Jacqui was used to. But he let them move into the main house. Wonder what that was like, Cheri says. Those three in the night. Little Graham puffed in a parka maybe, though it wasn’t cold. Big Graham shivering and making his case. Jacqui, a lot shorter than Big Graham, probably wore some kind of necklace. Chest hair and gold. Maybe the house was full of boyfriends. Jacqui used to have one boyfriend, Cheri says, who dressed only in oversized jerseys and lived in the water tower. Probably Jacqui didn’t think to shoo them all, so Little and Big Graham strolled in and had to step over some boy sleeping on the shag. Jacqui told Little Graham to watch TV, but Big Graham said he wasn’t allowed. So all three of them sat at the kitchen counter on barstools. Porcelain toaster. One of those fake little trees to keep bananas fresh. Jacqui made some cocoa with mint schnapps. He guzzled; Big Graham sipped. Little Graham drank too fast and burned his mouth, but nobody noticed. Jacqui asked about timelines. Practicalities. Big Graham said they just needed a safe place to sort things out. That they were crawling, basically, under a major network, and he needed to go deeper. He couldn’t exactly communicate through, he said, and he made a motion to his lips and ears. Then he asked Jacqui if he had a pen, and Jacqui found a highlighter in a drawer. Big Graham got a paper towel and wrote on it with the highlighter. Big Graham sank down. He stroked Jacqui’s ankles. He began to weep. Jacqui put his necklace in his mouth. Stared at Little Graham, who must have just sat there on his barstool and swiveled. God, Cheri says. What do you think when you don’t know any better? Before you start to size up other lives and go wait? Growing up in that house, driving spaceships through the shag carpet, waving your hand in front of the toilet to flush it, pretending you’re a toilet wizard. Playing Monopoly with shirtless and strung-out young men. And then, not knowing any better, you bring a friend home.
“There’s no such thing as weird,” I say. “Life isn’t, like—” and then I make a straight arrow motion with my hand.
“Don’t listen to him,” Marianne mumbles. “He’s just being intellectual.”
I stare at her and snort. I scoot over in the backseat and push her headrest. “Your letters all say that you’re beside me now,” I sing. “So why do I feel alone?”
“I’m trying to sleep,” she says.
We drive. We swoop and curve. Cheri turns and looks at me. She has a chubby ‘50s pin-up look. “She likes you,” she says. “She’s told me.”
“Sleep,” Marianne says. “Is one of the most important things in a real person.”
I lie down in the backseat. “What’s the big thing? What’s the bad shit?”
They got domestic, Cheri says. Big Graham made all the meals. He fried things and wandered around in a bathrobe, half-loaded pistol in his monogrammed pocket. Jacqui took Little Graham shopping for pencils and sweaters, and Big Graham waited for the meter reader to leave, then scoured the meters for new wires. He got down on his knees to lick the ruts left in the driveway by the meter reader’s tires. Jacqui enrolled Little Graham in a swanky private school and wore skinny red ties to parent-teacher conferences. He gave him very careful haircuts. Jacqui’s boyfriends liked the kid, but not Big Graham, who would sneak around and take notes on things—light sockets, fan blades—that didn’t need notes. Instead of sleeping he seemed to just glare. So Jacqui had to slip off to his guest houses for his blowjobs or whatever.
“Did he ever—” I say, and Cheri shakes her head.
“If he’d ever touched Little Graham—” she says. She puts her hand on her face. “Big Graham would’ve taken his face, like this, and after he was done tearing he would’ve taken what was left and ran it through the garbage disposal.”
“What about him and Jacqui? Do they sleep together?”
“They must, right?”
I think on that.
Marianne is looking out the window.
Jacqui bought Little Graham all the toys he saw on TV, Cheri says. He watched Little Graham play, and whenever Little Graham pretended a toy into something else, called Batman a wrestler, Jacqui would go out and buy a toy wrestler, the real version of the something else. Sometimes Big Graham saw Little Graham playing with some toy he didn’t like and threw a fit. Once, he took Little Graham’s Ghostbusters car and set it on fire. Then he put the melted plastic in the bathtub and told Little Graham to take a shower.
“Jesus,” I say.
“That’s the amazing thing,” Cheri says. “Little Graham is one of the sweetest kids I know. The sweetest.”
They met, Cheri says, in fifth grade. Big Graham read something in the paper about a guest speaker at Graham’s old school and made Jacqui switch him. He came to the new school in a black and green t-shirt that said VEGAS, BABY! The teacher sat him next to me, Cheri says, and I watched him draw what looked like Super Mario levels all over his notebook. I was such a nerd, Cheri says. All I did was play video games and listen to my dad’s prog rock records. So this kid was the coolest fucking kid ever. At lunch the first day, me and my other nerdy friends sat by Graham. He opened his lunchbox and took out a baggie of olives. Each with a different color or filling. Very shyly, he asked if anyone liked boursin cheese. What’s that? somebody said. He gave him the boursin cheese olive. We all waited while the kid nibbled the olive. It’s kind of like cream cheese, he said finally. After that, Graham always had somewhere to sit.
You know when you run into somebody you were a kid with, and you don’t have much to talk about but going to school together? So you start talking, like, remember Lonnie? How he’d go around at recess picking up acorns and giving them to girls? And you guys start to laugh, trying to one-up each other at Lonnie memories? Well, we were the Lonnies, Cheri says. We knew the right answer, but we’d rather write 80085 on our calculators. We watched MTV and wore blue lipstick. We listened to punk rock before it was in the mall. We farted when the DARE officer got to the solemn part of his speech. Things we discussed included joke elaboration and hot tub sex. Off limits were sports and—usually—what our homes felt like. The older we got, the more time we spent near the railroad bridge, chugging whatever liquor the night grudged up.
“I’m going kind of slow,” Cheri says.
“It’s fine,” I say, thinking how I’ll gussy things when I write it all down.
“I should tell you about the first time I saw his house.”
Big Graham never let Graham play at anybody else’s, she says. And he didn’t allow guests. Jacqui would always pick Graham up right after school in his little vintage MG. But for Little Graham’s thirteenth birthday, Jacqui convinced Big Graham to let him throw a party. We still measure “hella sweet” by that party, Cheri says. There was a make-your-own sundae bar. Water bazookas. Music we actually liked at volumes never allowed us. And Little Graham was really giddy, not shy like at school. He ran around the whole day sharing presents, screaming louder than anybody. We’d only bought him scrawny Sex Pistols bandannas and stuff, but Jacqui complimented everybody, which made us feel better. The only thing we couldn’t do was go inside the house.
“Ah,” I say. “Except to use the bathroom.”
“Nope,” Cheri says. “There was this weird stone outhouse. It was great, actually. We thought it was funny, like a funny camp.”
“Where was Big Graham?”
Late in the party, Cheri says, Little Graham pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to see his Nintendo. Well, of course I did. So we went in. Big Graham was on the couch in his bathrobe, and his beard was longer then. Like past his neck. Next to him was one of Jacqui’s boy toys, except I didn’t know that. He was just this older kid in cutoff jean shorts and a Yankees hat. They were smoking a joint. The room was crammed with things that looked too clean or expensive to touch. Big Graham had an erection; that’s something I noticed. And the two Rottweilers at his feet, who sat up when we entered. They barked.
This is my dad, Little Graham said.
Easy now, Big Graham said to the dogs.
Well, I was fucking punk rock, right? So I went over to those dogs and crouched and smiled. They quivered. I went “Shh” and reached to pet them, but Big Graham yanked them back. They barked right at me. Vampire teeth and jowl drool. I flinched, and I could see Big Graham flex his knuckles as he held their scruff.
They like to eat garlic, Yankees Cap said. They love a little thing of garlic.
His voice was like a bored history teacher’s.
Big Graham scratched the dogs. Is it that time of year? he said.
This is the Cheri I told you about, Little Graham said. We’re just gonna play some Nintendo in my room.
There was this weird pause. And I remember the joint smoke smelled strange, fermented or something.
Then Big Graham asked us a question: Do you need, he said slowly, to use the television console?
I can plug it in for you, Yankees said.
We’re all set, Little Graham said.
I’ve been to Hawaii, Big Graham said. It was a long time ago, but I’ve been there.
Yankees sighed. Succulent, he said.
Big Graham crossed his legs, kept ahold of the dogs. He stared at me. He said, Cheri, let me tell you about Hawaii.
Dad, Little Graham said. We’re supposed to play Nintendo.
Nintendo, Big Graham said. Let me say one thing about Nintendo. I have slept on a beach. With my mouth. In the sand. I have had krill swim into my fucking mouth. I have had fucking krill swim into my motherfucking mouth. Nintendo! I have slept three feet away from the sun. That piece of shit, Jesus-sucking sun. Nintendo! Listen, I have gone back and forth with the same goddamn heart they put me in. He shook his head. The dogs quivered. Nintendo, he said.
His robe fell open a little. I could see rib bones and hair. I was thirteen. I looked for his cock. But there was too much hair to be sure.
Yankees said, There’s pineapple soup in Hawaii.
The Rottweilers had the faces of old miners, except for those tongues. Long tongues. And the teeth. You could see the bones in Big Graham’s hands as he gripped the dogs. The room had that kind of light where you can’t tell the time.
Big Graham leaned back and closed his eyes. Three feet, he said.
Thanks, Little Graham whispered. Thanks, Dad.
We’re on the freeway now. Early morning Bay Area drivers, swerving lanes with lattes on their knees. It’s June, and the air conditioner is going full blast.
Marianne snores. Cheri doesn’t bother with her turn signal.
“I haven’t told you about the lip,” Cheri says. “I’m sorry that it’s going like this, but if I’m going to tell you about the lip, I had to tell you about everything else.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I say.
We got older, Cheri says. Life was feeling more arbitrary, annoying, embarrassing. Little Graham was getting old as the boys in Jacqui’s harem. He grew his hair. Begged us to help him sneak out to parties. But even though we wanted to skullfuck the State, we were scared to shit of Big Graham. And Jacqui too, who seemed too weak to defy him.
First, Graham didn’t like grunge. We showed him Eddie Vedder and he crossed his arms. That’s not the right kind of yelling, he said. He started to wear black tank tops and listen to weird metal. European stuff. We couldn’t really call him Little Graham after he started working out. Don’t get me wrong, Cheri says. He was still a sweet kid. Quickest to laugh and always up with Star Wars trivia. But he started to drip a little edge. Right when we were smoking pot, listening to guitar feedback and getting revelatory about boredom, he would shrug. I wish I felt bored, he’d say.
High school’s a friend buffet, Cheri says. That’s true. But Graham was starting to hang out with the same kids who tried to elbow us in P.E. Not the cool kids. Cool kids watched us get beat up and didn’t really care. But the beaters, Graham started sulking around with them. The dumb fuck Limp Bizkit-listening beaters. Boys who poked their little brothers in the eye with KFC chicken bones when their mom wasn’t looking.
“You mean poor kids,” I say.
“Look, my mom’s a hairdresser,” Cheri says. “And my dad, who knows? There’s poor then there’s mean. Can we agree on that?”
Marianne has terrific hair. Morning slides around in her hair.
“You’re like her,” Cheri says. “You’re quick to guess at things.”
“And be wrong?”
“And be wrong.”
One night, Cheri says, Jacqui called her on the phone. He was freaking out. He’d gone into Graham’s room to ask him to turn down his stereo, but Graham was gone. So he let the stereo go and went downstairs. He told Big Graham dinner was his treat tonight. Then he made a huge pot of spaghetti and tranquilizers. Big Graham conked out. Jacqui and his boys looked all over the villa for Graham, but they couldn’t find him. Please, Jacqui said. You’re a calm girl, Cheri.
That’s what he said. You’re a calm girl. You’re good to him. Please help.
I started calling my friends, Cheri says. Found out about a party at an apartment complex on Old Vine Way. I went. The apartments were that single story motel-type. In the parking lot were three little boys. Two held a string of lit Christmas lights at either end, like a jump rope. One had a ball-peen hammer and a blindfold. He was trying for the lights. Somebody came out of an apartment with his shirt off, jeans sagging, plaid boxers. He cocked his head at me. Where’s the pizza, he said.
I’m not the pizza lady, I said.
Damn, bitch, he said. Just messing.
Is Graham in there?
Free country, he said.
Inside, nu metal blared. People sat around on beanbag chairs. A yellow-ish mattress lay on the floor. Everybody had a forty. One girl took a beanie off a boy’s head and stuffed it down her shirt. The living room blended into the kitchen, one of those arrangements where the kitchen counter looks like a teller window. A half-crumpled packet of beef jerky sat on the TV, which was almost bigger than the mattress. There was a smell of fresh paint. Bud cans in the microwave, Bud Lite cans in the sink. This dude with chin scraggle grabbed my elbow. His face was vague. You got a camera, he asked. I need somebody to get this, he said. Then he made some weird shapes with his fingers.
In the bathroom, I found a girl sitting in the shower—there was a handicap bench—with some guy’s face in her crotch. She had her arms up, clutching the showerhead, strangling it.
Graham was in one of the bedrooms, wearing an Oakland Raiders jacket a few sizes too big. He squealed when he saw me, gave me a hug. He was hella baked.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck, he kept saying, grinning the whole time.
I feel weird about this, I said, but I think I’m rescuing you.
I love that movie, Graham said.
I put my hand in his, but he pulled me over by a closet. There were other people in the room, but I don’t think I’ll ever know their names. Graham kissed me.
He kissed my neck and my hands and my lips, Cheri says.
“That’s exact,” I say.
Cheri nods. “He was exact about it.”
I told him we had to ditch, Cheri says. I told him Big Graham was gonna be pissed as shit.
He pawed his hands on my face like a blind person. I’m gonna piss on his fucking shit, he said.
I whispered his name a few times, trying to move him. Finally, sort of waltzing, we got back to the living room. One of the couch’s arms was ripped. Graham grabbed some of its stuffing and put it in my hair. Then the guy from the finger shapes showed up. He started going off about how Graham hadn’t put in for the keg. I remember asking him what keg? There was no keg. But Graham started screaming at the dude. He went, You’re a fucking keg. You’re a fucking keg. Then Finger Shapes yanked my arm and Graham flipped out. He started to windmill the dude. Somebody threw a bottle at both of them. But it was me who ducked. This was before cell phones, okay? They shoved past me, fighting right out the door. I ran after them. The dude got Graham in a sleeper hold. Somebody came out and tried to break them up and got a boot to the stomach.
I remember that parking lot, Cheri says. All those cars turned off. One streetlight. This was summer, probably. Finger Shapes had his arm crooked around Graham’s neck, and he was kind of butting his head into Graham’s. Graham was pure scream. I mean, Cheri says, you know those bugs that hang out under a streetlight? Flecks and swarmy? Graham was screaming so loud I think he spooked them all away. Then I saw Finger Shapes go mursh, like the word mursh, very clear, and he fell away from Graham, hit the asphalt. He had his hands cupped under his mouth, and he was kind of swaying. It looked like he was catching his face, like his face was pouring into his hands. Graham spat. He was still screaming. Words, not words, maybe words. Some girl ran up to Finger Shapes. She stepped back. Holy shit, she said. He ate his mouth off, she said. He ate his lip. Oh my God. That guy ate his—oh my God.
You could hear the nu metal, but muffled. It was definitely summer.
Get a towel, the girl yelled. Don’t let him leave.
I went up to Graham. He was kneeling. Streaks of dark liquid dribbled down his chin. I rubbed his back. Everybody from the party began to herd outside. Somebody must’ve called the cops. They sent one car into the parking lot and kept three or four in the street. Blue lights and flashlights. The music got turned down. Cops hauled me off to one side. They handcuffed Graham. One cop had a baggie. He asked about details. I’m not sure I got the order right, because I kept staring at that baggie. There was a lip in there. Bottom lip. Half a smile. Maybe a little bit of a tongue.
“What did it look like?” I ask. We’re slower than all the other cars. “What did the lip look like?”
Cheri shakes her head.
Marianne’s awake. Her sleeves are pulled up. “It’s not right,” she says.
“Yeah,” Cheri says. “They just handcuffed him with all those fuckers—” She shakes her head again.
“No,” Marianne says. “I mean, that’s not what happened.”
Somebody honks at us.
“You weren’t even there,” Cheri says to Marianne.
“Wait,” I say. “What did the lip look like?”
“But Graham told me it was a different girl,” Marianne says. “He said it was Bethany. Except they weren’t going out then. She was just some girl. But she was there, and her boyfriend was there. And Graham tried to make out with her. And he bit her boyfriend. Nobody was making finger shapes.”
“You want to hear the fucked up shit?” Cheri says, ignoring Marianne. “They made T-shirts. Those fuckers at the party made T-shirts. CANNIBAL GRAHAM. With an X through Graham’s face. They spread a bunch of shit about how he tried to eat the dude. They called the paper and talked all this shit about Graham. About Jacqui. The villa.”
“Cheri, you weren’t there,” Marianne says. “None of his friends were even there.”
“He went to jail,” Cheri says, still looking at me. “Nine months. Mayhem.”
Somebody passes us on the shoulder of the freeway, honking the whole time. Cheri honks back, honks again.
“Stop it,” I say.
“You’re gonna kill us,” Marianne says.
But Cheri keeps honking.
Oakland surprises you with wildflowers. Potholes and adobe make sense. Shrivel-faced ladies muttering and tying a blanket to their shopping cart. Art deco and rickety Victorians, gangs of scowls in ski jackets, old Korean men smoking in recliners in the middle of the sidewalk, the watery reek of sunburnt butterscotch and pigeon whiz, tank-tops and yelling, bicycles and blight. But also yellow wildflowers, purple myrtle trees. Jasmine. Hedgerows and pastel houses. Swamp coolers and milk crates. Power lines a little higher than the roofs and a wideness everywhere the color of bleached slate.
We cruise Shattuck. Marianne is playing with the radio. “He moved to San Francisco after he got out of jail,” Marianne says. “He ran away for a while.”
We get to their driveway, pull in and idle. Cheri puts her elbows on the steering wheel. Marianne gets out of the car. I watch her peek in the mailbox.
“He was doing the soundboard for my friend’s band, and they slept together,” Cheri says. “Him and Marianne.”
Marianne drifts up the stairs, turns the key.
Twice a year. I only see her twice a year.
“Jacqui doesn’t talk to any of us anymore,” Cheri says. “He just does his grin. Big Graham can’t even remember who’s who. The dogs remember me. They like me. Every year Jacqui throws Graham a birthday party. Maybe even threw him a party when he was in jail. When he ran away. I didn’t go to those.” She stares out the window at her house. “He met Marianne right here. This house. Technically, he was going out with Beth then. You know what I mean?”
I think on that. “Can you tell me what the lip looked like?”
“We all love him,” Cheri says. “Do you know anybody like that? You really love them? And a lot of other people love them too? And you can talk to those people and they know what you’re talking about. They know because you all love them, that person.” I look and see that she’s pressing the gas pedal, even though the car is off.
“Sorry,” she says. “Nevermind.”
She gets out and goes into the house. I follow her. Marianne is sitting on the couch. She has her Mickey Mouse sweater pulled over her knees. Cheri goes into her bedroom and I sit down with Marianne.
“He told you about all that shit?”
Marianne shrugs. “Sure.”
“You guys stopped seeing each other.”
She shakes her head. “Not over that. I don’t like his friends either.” She sneezes and wipes her nose. “They’re too nice. Everybody’s too nice. He’s too nice.”
“And that’s weird?”
“I don’t know if I’d call it weird.” She stares at the wall. “Are you going to ask me anything? Please don’t ask me anything.”
We sit for a while, not talking. Cheri comes out of her room in just a towel. “Does anybody need to use the bathroom?”
We say nothing. She goes into the bathroom.
“I’ll get your mattress,” Marianne says. She leaves for her room. There was a joke I made when we first hung out about taking the BART to Germany. And Marianne said please, let’s go. It was cold that night, windy, that sharp and creepy Bay Area cold. We were walking by the piers. Germany I meant to be a joke, kind of. But I don’t know what Marianne thought. We’ve never mentioned that joke again.
Marianne drags the mattress from her room, tosses it on the floor. I lie on my stomach and close my eyes. I hear Marianne kneel beside me. She touches my back. I turn over and look up at her. “Was his dick big?” I ask.
Marianne squints at me and smiles a little. “Why do you act like we can talk like that? We can’t talk like that.”
We listen to Cheri in the bathroom. She gets out of the shower. Turns the sink on. Whistles in long, high notes.
“I had this boyfriend in high school,” Marianne says. “He said he didn’t want to have sex. He just wanted to see what I looked like when I wasn’t awake.”
“Is that creepy?”
“Are you asking me?”
“I think so.”
I stare at Marianne’s face. I think of her lip, ripped off, how much a bottom lip might wriggle in your mouth, pink and chewy, a seagull intestine. Or maybe not. Maybe dry, like a pork rind. Someone else’s lip in your teeth. Jacqui and Big Graham brushing each others’ teeth. Jacqui squeezing toothpaste from his huge tube, and Big Graham opening wide. Then Jacqui rocking the bristles back and forth, easing into the molars, asking Big Graham what he feels. Just them in that enormous villa. Graham in Oakland, sobbing into Marianne’s neck. Cheri in the next room, still awake. Jacqui’s boyfriends in the water tower. Iron fountain in the courtyard, dry. All of the wine country’s light, which is only decent if you go outside.
“Are you scared of me?” says Marianne.
It’s day now, way too bright to even dream of sleep.
Mike Young is the author of Look! Look! Feathers, a collection of stories, and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough, a collection of poems. He co-edits NOÖ Journal, runs Magic Helicopter Press, and writes for HTMLGIANT. Find him online at http://mikeayoung.blogspot.com.
“Same Heart They Put You in” is from Look! Look! Feathers. Art for this story (the rottweillers) by Danny Jock.