Bleeding Enough For Two
October 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
You’re perfect, yes it’s true;
But without me, you’re only you.
Your menstruating heart, it’s not
Bleeding enough for two.
… Faith no More, Midlife Crisis
There are two men, standing in the light of the arched loading-dock. Both are a shade over six foot two, blond, with pale complexions. Four men are watching. The one who is currently moving, pivoting on his tight swimmer’s waist and snapping off an effective, well-shaped right cross, is named Bobby.
He’s twenty. He has the build of a young man who played football in high school, quarterback most likely, with the wavy hair and broad jaw and the body like an Olympian straight out of Ancient Greece, not overly muscled but each section developed and strong. He shifts his weight, throws a left jab, and solidly connects against the other man’s head. He smiles, trying to make it look good for the three buddies in his cheering section. He wants to take his time. He wants to take the other guy apart, and to look good doing it.
The other man does not move. His hair is longer, down to about the base of his neck. He has a beard, a darker red than the light blond hair of his head, and the beard looks like metal in the yellow bug-lamp loading dock light. Unlike his opponent, he is a naturally large man, wide in the shoulders and chest, with the weight that drinking and time add. As the hard knuckles of the younger man split his lips, he blinks his topaz eyes and simply steps forward, keeping himself close.
Finally, even with his three friends watching, Bobby tires of showing off. He snaps off a flashy combination of right jab, left jab into the slightly larger man’s ribs, then steps up and swings a right hand, punching right through the line of his enemies jaw, doing exactly what his teacher at the Y told him to and stepping off of his back leg as he punches.
There’s a loud pop as the fist connects, a tingle that rides up Bobby’s whole right arm, and he realizes that he’s popped his knuckle. He isn’t concerned.
The older man simply turns his neck and faces Bobby. For the first time, as that bullet-shaped head comes back to look directly at him, the smile begins to creep away from Bobby’s well-formed lips. He sees just how thick the muscles of that neck are, how wide the shoulders, and he realizes that he’s giving away a good sixty pounds to the other man.
Bishop smiles, blood on his teeth staining them orange.
“Are you done?” It comes out hoarse, almost a whisper.
Then Bishop steps forward, the morning fresh in his mind.
She’s saying something, but he can’t hear what it is. That was his first sign that what she’d already said was killing him. He’d come into the kitchen after having spent a third night on the futon in the living room of their small (it had been comfortable when they’d moved in … it puzzled him how it had suddenly become claustrophobic, close) apartment.
“I’m going to go home for a while.” Jennifer was twirling her dirty blond hair around her wrist, looking away from him, her cut-diamond eyes pointed at the floor. Her whole small body, which had so easily fit into the hollow space just to the right of Bishop’s chest, was anxious and twitchy. She was wearing a tank top and those strange, frayed plaid panties that had probably been with her through several of these breakups. Had he thought he’d outlast them? It wasn’t going tohappen.
It was the fact that she wouldn’t look at him, choosing to favor the yellow fleur-de-lys on the floor scuffed from the metal soles of his new riding boots with whatever emotions in her eyes that killed him. It was the only sign he needed that it was really over, had been over. The year had passed, starting out with what he’d thought were good omens … the urgency of the month they’d spent getting to know each other, the time they’d taken beforegoing to bed.
“A week, maybe two. See my mom…” She didn’t say the next thing she was thinking. Bishop acutely felt how helpless, how small and empty, he was against her. His face, deformed by the glass cabinet where they kept the dry goods, was hovering to the left of her head. “Then I’ll come get my stuff.”
“If that’s what you want.” He looked away, tired of waiting for her to look at him. Same conversation they’d been having over and over anyway.
“It is.” She opened the cabinet and took out a bowl and a box of Special K, and he left her alone to eat, walking into the living room and through it, feeling his body in the creaking of the floor under the dull washed-out grey of the carpet. He stepped into the bedroom.
For a second his eyes caught on his love-gifts, the things he’d bought her trying to show her how much she’d made him feel. The tiny stuffed timber-wolf doll, the polar bear, the bean-bag otter … they looked up at him with their polished eyes, each so much like his own almost brown yet somehow golden stare that he stopped and looked at them. She’d named the wolf Aleksander, the bear Sean after her father, and the otter was just Otter.
He stroked the grey and white fur of the wolf and stood there. It was silly. He hated himself for wanting to tell the doll that it would be all right, that he didn’t want to leave it.
Instead of talking to the toys, he turned away and stripped, ignoring how blurry the room seemed, and began looking for his underwear.
He heard her walking past the bedroom door to head into the bathroom, and knew she’d stopped.
He didn’t hurry up. Her eyes were probably tracing the scars on his legs from the bullwhip, or maybe the hook-like jagged tear that traced the edge of his ribcage from his spine to his breastbone. That didn’t bother him all that much: he’d never been very proud of his body, but neither had he been ashamed of it, and she’d seen all of it. He snapped his jeans button by button, not allowing himself to hurry even knowing she was watching him dress.
The black long-sleeved Pantera T-Shirt went over his head. As his arms were caught up in it, he felt her hand touch the scar on his back, and he could not keep from jerking. He hated himself. Her voice, so deep it made his spine quiver with every syllable, rolled out.
“This must have hurt so much.”
He didn’t answer. He’d always refused to talk about it, and he refused now. Her hand stayed where it was, tracing the edge of his scar tissue, and as long as it did he couldn’t move. Finally she stopped, pulled her hand away. Something like butterfly wings touched his back, and then he was free to pull the shirt down over his body. He swallowed convulsively, his mouth full of spit but his throat dry, and refused to turn around until he’d laced his boots up over his feet. The metal pads on the soles were scuffed as well, scraped and pitted.
When he sat down on the bed, she was gone, the shower audible through the closed door. He squeezed down on his face with his thoughts, kept himself from feeling anything, or at least from showing that he felt anything, which was much the same thing to him. His jacket was hanging in the closet, the jacket he hadn’t worn in the eight months they’d lived together. He looked at it for a while.
I will never do this again.
Standing up, his body unfolded but didn’t release any of the tension torquing up his muscles. He slid the old, hard black leather on, feeling the pads at the elbows and shoulders hard and tight. It was always just a little too small for him, designed for protection in the case of accident. There were segmented metal plates in the elbows, the shoulders and the back to act as armor in case of a catastrophic dump, a bike going down fast on a freeway. It saved his life once, kept a chunk of guardrail from punching through his kidney and coming out his chest. Hadn’t quite kept him from bleeding like a stuck pig, but he was alive.
He didn’t feel as grateful as he usually did.
Striding out of the bedroom he has not been sleeping in, he grabbed the keys to the bike and headed for the door, desperate to get out of the apartment before the water stops. He cannot listen one more time to how it isn’t him, it’s her; that she needs time to be a college student with other kids her age; that she needs to focus on school and her senior year.
All he could think about is that he let her into his life. That he’d told her, the day he decided not to sleep with her yet, that he didn’t want to rush things and end up losing her, the way he’d lost everyone he’d ever loved from his parents on down. She’d kissed the corners of his eyes, and she’d sworn she’d never do that. She’d sworn it. She gave him herword she wouldn’t do that.
She was doing that now.
The poster from her trip to New York, a stark grey and black poster for the RSC production of Tristan and Isolde that’d played the states, featured a tiny dwarfish man twisted up around a dead tree. He had no idea who’d written that play, but he knew it wasn’t Shakespeare, which always confused him about the RSC. He stared at that poster, heard the water stop running, and stepped out the door of their apartment knowing he would never see her again.
He wanted to be dead.
There was a time lag, as his brain suddenly began to idle and his body responded as it always had, walking out the mahogany door of the house their apartment was in. It had been a family dwelling at some point, back when Bristol had been a big part of the nation’s lust for whale oil and bone and skin and fat. Bishop knew there was a widow’s landing on the top of the house. He didn’t bother to look up for it. It was daylight now, and the thing looked shabby in the arrogance of day. Only the silvery-blue of moonlight could bring back the past.
He walked around to the side of the house, took the tarp off of the bike and swung his leg over the seat without any effort or thought.
He was remembering his first time. It had been with her.
The sound of her when she came was so soft, he’d almost needed to stop breathing to hear it. In the dark, with her body under his, her voice saying the word love over and over again until he thought he’d lose his mind before he lost his mind, the sudden silence that had gripped her had scared him. And then she’d tightened, even though he’d not thought that possible, her blunt fingernails cutting into the skin of his shoulder. And he’d felt something inside him force his neck down, down, until his hair was touching the pillows next to her hair. She’d begun to move again, and he felt the release run from the taut muscles of his back all the way down his spine like a taser.
She’d been the first person to show him how to use a condom.
She’d put it on him with her mouth.
Why was he thinking about this?
Bishop rode the bike for an hour with no helmet around the back-roads of Warren and Bristol, pretending that the wind was making him tear up. He was glad he wasn’t the kind of person who sobbed. It would have killed him to sob. He watched the trees as he rode near Bristol Harbor, feeling the ice in the air battling with the coming of spring, losing but not conceding yet.
The maple trees were still mostly stripped, although a few patches of ruddy brown were still there and the tiny traces of green were beginning to bud. He took the bike out next to the harbor wall and twisted the throttle, banging the gears until the engine yowled in pain. It had barely run at all when he’d bought the bike at an estate sale, rusted red and black hulk of a once-nice Harley 880 Sportster. He’d been rebuilding the bike when he’d met…
He slowed down. He wouldn’t die over this. He just wouldn’t. He wouldn’t die, and he wouldn’t give her any more of him to take to the next boyfriend.
He turned the bike when he reached Rt. 114 and headed up to Barrington, where Tommy lived.
How he got there, he couldn’t exactly say. He knew, of course, that he’d ridden his bike there, but he had no idea of the space between Bristol Harbor and Barrington, the yellow-white house set back at the corner where St. Andrew’s School pulls back from the edge of 114 just before it becomes the cross-bay expressway. He’d been moving like a wraith all day, obsessed with the white edges of the waves in the cove, and then he was kicking up the kickstand and walking up to Tommy’s front door.
The knock was much louder than it needed to be, and Bishop pulled back from the wood, looking at the green paint at the edges of the windowsills as it began to peel away in strips. There were already a small pile of them on the porch. It was not a large house, but the porch was impressive, with long fluted woodwork around the screens.
“What the fu…oh, Bishop. Jesus, I thought the NEA was here to raid me or something.” Tommy smiled. Bishop swung his hot eyes to face him. Tommy was an inch shorter than Bishop and built on a similar body plan, although he worked out more and drank less. He had his own scars from a childhood not much different than his friends, but was quicker about everything. A dark haired, green eyed ego to Bishop’s id. They’d never met the superego. “Are you okay? You look like refried shit.”
“Jennifer and I broke up.”
“You did.” Tommy closed his eyes in sympathy. “I’m so sorry, Bishop. Come on in, hell, I should have invited you in before.”
Bishop smiled weakly, and walked into the half-painted living room, throwing himself down on a sheet-covered couch. The interior of the living room was coming along, with the floors newly sanded and varnished, the walls primed and painted, and now Tommy was apparently working on the ceiling. Bishop cleared his throat and spit out the window, a good ten yards away, and Tommy put a Bass ale dripping with cold water in his hand before sitting down across from him on a milkcrate.
“So. How much is new?”
“Nothing. It just…attenuated, was how she put it last week.” Bishop popped the top with his palm. Tommy’s eyes widened as he saw the ring of blood starting in the soft tissues of his friend’s hand, and then narrowed to look at the face that hadn’t changed its expression at all.
“Attenuated?” Tommy swallowed half his beer in one go, dumping the froth down his throat. When he was done, he wiped his face with a salty arm. “Christ, she’s been hanging out with those theatre-faggots too long.”
“Didn’t you get a theatre minor?”
“That was just to get to London.” Tommy rested his beer against the inside of his right thigh. “I haven’t darkened the door of the Barn since I graduated. How are you?”
“I…” He couldn’t say it, of course; not even with Tommy, who might understand, could he bring himself to say how he felt. He looked out the window at the grass in the streaming sunlight, yellow and green like it had been that day six months ago in Colt State Park when they’d sat in the high grass at the edge of the bay and watched the waves come into shore. They’d been like walls made of grey, towering like gods across what Bishop still called the whale’s road. She’d sat in the circle of his arms, her whole body pressed against his right ribcage, and he’d been able to feel her heartbeat in the silences between his breaths. And now he’d never feel that way again.
“I’m trying to be all right.”
“You sound like it. Like you’re trying, I mean.” Tommy finished his beer. The two of them had met at William Blackstone College five years gone, both of them freshmen who’d come from dirt and who had little patience for what Tommy called ‘minutia.’ He told people it qualified him to plaster walls.
Tommy’d grown up on the family farm, some five miles out on the bay on Wolf’s Head Island, and Bishop had spent every summer from the time he was four till he was fourteen and his parents split up in Texas on the Movhert properties, a sprawling series of ranches and farms where they’d kept him occupied doing the kind of tasks grown men find repulsive. Both of them had spent whole days standing in horse shit, noses twitching as the burning smell of equine piss soured the whole barn. Both of them had driven a tractor around all day in searing heat, letting the sun bake them into acceptance.
Both of them had led animals that had known them their whole small lives out of their pens and introduced them to death, had eviscerated and skinned and boned them down to their consumable essence.
“What else is there?” Bishop finally realized he was holding a beer and drank some of it, not really trying to get it down his throat much, just letting it collect in his mouth until it was full and then swallowing convulsively.
“I don’t know. But the least I can offer is crash-space in this empty little tomb of a house for the next month. I’ll be here at least that long, painting and sanding the various rooms.”
He smiled his vacant, faraway smile, the one that always came when he considered what he was doing there. “I’ll be living upstairs…my grandmother had the whole upstairs converted into an apartment for my deranged cousin Wally, so I’m in high style that way. All I have to do is find a couple of tenants for the downstairs, and I’m all set.”
“Thomas Willrew, Land Holder.” Bishop wanted to be glad for him. He wasn’t. But he faked it. Tommy, for his part, appreciated the effort considering what Bishop’s day had been like. “I could take one of those rooms off of your hands.”
Tommy considered this. It did not take him long.
“Sure. Hey, it might help to have a tenant I like around. Just don’t fuck with me come rent time.” He smiled and went to get another beer. “So there’s no hope with you and her, huh? No chance you could get back together?”
“No. She doesn’t want that.”
“What do you want?”
Tommy watched as his question caused the blond to finish his whole beer in one swallow. He rubbed his hand through the thickening stubble on his face that was threatening to become the same black beard his father had.
“I don’t want.”
“Bullshit. Everybody wants. It’s just a question of what.”
“No. I feel like she’s torn me apart. She staked me out, slashed me open and fed my guts to the wolves and ravens. I would have sworn she was the best person I knew.” As he took another beer from Tommy’s hands, he noticed the man’s upswept black eyebrow and smiled faintly. “Yes, better than us. We’ve got shit on our shoes and all that. I want to die. I guess that’s what I want.”
They stood there for a while. There was no sacred bond between them; Bishop’s pain was private and secular and his own. Tommy could understand it, as a man not unlike him, but he couldn’t feel it.
“I gotta get back to painting … why don’t you head in, use my room for a while, crash out? I’ll come get you up once the day’s over and the night’s ready for you. We’ll go out, see some people, do some crimes, man.” The parody voice they’d both picked up from an old Firesign Theater album managed to bring a small smile onto Bishop’s face, a smile as weak as a glass hammer.
“I need some sleep.”
“You look it.”
Bishop nodded once, that sharp head drop he’d learned from his father, and handed back the unopened beer, warm from his hand. Tommy watched him head into the back of the house before he noticed that something about the bottle was irritating his hand.
The glass was lined with cracks.
The head, hair sweeping out behind it almost bronze in the flickering light, comes down on the left side of Bobby’s face, aimed so the broad forehead flattens the nose it encounters out to the right side and a trail of blood bursts in the air. One of the boys is reminded of his elder sisters wedding. They threw her a shower of rose petals as she left the church, and those didn’t hang as long or as perfectly as those tiny dark-wine red jewels that scatter in the painful yellow-green light.
Bobby does not react badly to the pain. He pulls himself away, blind with blood and tears clawing at his eyes, and tries to get his hands up between himself and Bishop. His dark blue J. Crew button-collar shirt is now stained at the base of the neck with tiny pinpricks that look purple. The bigger man is still smiling, and for a second, even as he blinks furiously,
Bobby realizes where he’s seen that grin before.
Bishop slams his elbow into the side of the curly, sweat-dampened hair clipped close to Bobby’s skull, just above his right ear. It isn’t a move anyone teaches at any school, but it works, dropping the young, strong boy to his knees in pain.
Over by the lip of the ramp, his three friends are standing uncomfortably silent now. Their faces are much like his was less than a minute ago, unlined, free from hair, clean and fresh and transiently immortal, but their expressions are slowly becoming emptied out. Tommy Willrew leans against his battered ’82 Firebird.
Every so often Willrew lets his eyes flicker over, away from the fight.
Bishop reaches down with one hand and lifts Bobby up by his shirt front. They are face to face. “I don’t know you very well,” the smile never leaves, but grows, becomes like a knife made out of whalebone, the teeth serrated. “But I hate you. Do you know why?”
“Because I learned my lesson today. Now it’s your turn to learn it.”
Bishop’s hand draws back like the sledgehammer that he’d been taught to kill bulls with. He sights the place on Bobby’s face where his forehead hides the hollow of his nasal canal, and knows that he can crush the skull.
They ended up heading to Providence on Rt. 95 in Tommy’s car. The East Bay, from Barrington to Newport, was bloody with places that Bishop couldn’t stand right now, but Providence was his hangout from before he’d ever even thought of putting down the axe he made every day out of teeth baring smiles that were just a little too big and a way of walking that took up everyone else’s space, not just his own. He and his old friends from high school, and then he and Tommy and the people they’d known in college had made the city their own private game run.
He looked at the silhouette of the city as they rolled up the freeway. First there was the Inbank tower … to everyone else the Fleet Building, but to Bishop it would always be Inbank, the only real skyscraper in Providence. The only one that had the good grace to really look like one, like a cement and glass obelisk erected to ugly greedy gods Bishop didn’t care about. The rest of the buildings were just long blocks and rectangular games with ornate tops.
The Inbank building was a nice big spear Wotan could reach down from the sky and pluck up to avenge himself against his enemies.
These were the thoughts he was forcing himself to think.
The ones he wanted to think were about how his hair still smelled of her Pantene, which he’d been pilfering since they’d moved in together so that he’d always have her smell around him.
That he’d have never dared grow his beard without her, without the way she’d be there when he’d wake up crying silently after dreaming about dead animals, carpeting the farm in corpses that sagged and stank and were cold under his feet, a path of dead things that led to the mound of crushed heads on which his mother’s fresh-killed corpse had been mounted. In his dreams, Pneumonia hadn’t snuck in and killed her while he slept off his first mescaline high.
In Bishop’s dreams, his father stood there with the sledgehammer, red with that particular shade of red no film will ever get right until the end of the world, and turned to his son. He offered him the hammer like a trophy. And behind his awful dream-father sat the corpse of his mother enshrined in dead things.
So Bishop would never have allowed that five o’clock shadow that’d crept up on his face the first month he and Jennifer had been discovering each other to stay. As soon as he’d noticed it, it would have been gone had she not reached up and brushed her hand against his face in the Literature section of the Barnes and Noble and let the palm drag across the hairs.
“God…you’d look so sexy with a beard. Like an old testament preacher.” She’d snuggled up to him and gently rubbed her back in all the right places to make him lose just a little control of himself, laughing as he kissed the nape of her neck roughly. He’d almost taken her right there, in the middle of the C section, right on top of a copy of The Red Badge of Courage. It would have been worth it.
“Stop thinking about her.” Tommy’s voice. “In the words of T.S. Eliot, you’re wriggling on the wall, man. Stop it.”
“That’s got to be a paraphrase.”
“Well, yeah, a loosely rendered translation of Prufrock.” Tommy smiled. He had a habit of loosely translating his favorite authors to fit any situation. Observers still marveled at the day he’d actually gotten up in his now-legendary Intermediate Creative Writing class and said “As Hart Crane once said, ‘Let me take my hat and go, also walking down with a subscription praise that this class fucking sucks.'” He’d been hideously intoxicated and more than a little wrung out from his father’s having died the previous summer, so no one had been too harsh on him, but what his ultimate penance had been was between him and Mr. George, his advisor.
The car, guided by Tommy, took the Huntington Ave exit and prowled down towards the Providence River side of the city. Bishop looked about and realized where they were going as the gold-leaf dome of the old City Hall, now a bank, flashed at him with the same radiance as a widow’s landing in the moonlight.
“We’re heading to the Cavern?”
“We are heading to the Cavern.” Tommy pounded the Hearst shifter, gripping the nine ball he’d stolen from the pool table in his dorm and drill-pressed into a proper handle. When asked why a nine ball, he’d always say ‘Nobody ever tries to get you behind the nine ball, do they? Nobody ever scratches off the nine ball. And no one has ever ended the game by sinking the nine ball.’ These were the kind of details that made Tommy. “I figured we should go investigate the old stomping grounds, see if a couple of twenty-five year old corpses can still get carded there.”
“They card everyone there.”
“It’s part of their charm, isn’t it?” As the trees over the river gave way to the right turn and the car began heading up the East Side, past RISD and Thayer Street, Tommy remembered why Carl’s Bad Cavern was so amazingly popular with underage drinkers. They carded everyone, so as to remain in compliance with the law but Carl had deliberately hired the world’s most nearsighted bouncer to check them. Luther was a giant himself, with a face that never smiled and tiny eyes sat back in the base of his enormous sockets. Tommy and Bishop had always liked him, from the time when they’d worked there as his staff to make up the balance for a bill they’d been short on.
They finally pulled into the parking lot, already half-full a few minutes after eight, and listened for a second as the engine stroked the brick building and the cars with sound. There were few spots left, so Tommy went around the building and parked in his old place near the loading dock.
“You’ve got it running well.”
“Don’t give me the credit…Ernie’s the one doing most of the work. He comes down on weekends, provided I lay in a generous supply of that horrible Becks he drinks, and he lies under the car and tinkers. It’s probably costing me less than a mechanic, and it’s pretty much the only time I see him now.” Talking about his brother made his face freeze somewhere between a smile and pain.
“You don’t go down there?” Bishop got out of the car and flexed his legs, tired and cramping from riding inside a car. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of car it was. Trucks he was fine, but any car at all sent those fire ants running up his legs biting and stinging every inch below the hips.
“I can’t. His wife to be’s a great girl, but I just can’t deal with the place.”
“Yeah, I suppose I understand that.”
“Knew you would.” For an instant Tommy stopped and stared at his reflection in the windshield, then put such thoughts of fathers and mortality away. “C’mon…let’s get fucked up and watch nineteen year olds dance around.” Bishop followed him up to the door. He didn’t want to watch nineteen year olds, but he could certainly wrap his mind around the concept of getting fucked up. At that moment, if all his old buddies weren’t gone, he would have been combing the West Bay looking for Mescaline, Psilocyabin, LSD, hell, he’d settle for speed at this point. But if alcohol was to be the drug of the night, he was willing to bend.
“Hey, Luther.” Tommy waved to the man behind the small brass alcove near the front door. There were two girls from Salve Regina ahead of him, and they frowned at him for interrupting the gold-colored giant from his squinting perusal of their faked ID’s. Dumb. They should have been glad for the interruption. “How hangs the hammer?”
“Low. G’on in.” That was the closest Luther got to being friendly. Tommy and Bishop brushed past the outraged girls in the alcove, Tommy with a smile and wave and Bishop without so much as eye movement.
“How come they get to go in?” The first girl, her hair tied back in long yellow braids that made her whole face seem pulled back on her skull, found the nerve to ask.
Luther didn’t bother to answer them. He simply gave them their cards back and pointed out into the night with an arm bigger than their legs, exercising the immense power invested in him.
Inside, it hadn’t changed much. The band still played up on a raised stage behind a kind of screen made out of chicken wire. Carl had stolen the idea from The Blues Brothers. And there was still a sizable dance space underneath an vaulted ceiling. The support beams were made to look as much like stalactites and stalagmites as possible, which was really just a plaster of Paris shell wrapped around their bases or their crowns painted a darker color than the beam.
The place was cheesy, but it was a comfortable cheesy. Tommy picked out a space at the bar and walked to his left, avoiding the dance floor entirely. Bishop stood there for a second, remembering nights he’d spent sprawled out in a booth too drunk to walk or holding onto one of those painted pillars, convinced that he’d drift away if he didn’t hold on.
Why had he wanted to keep from drifting away?
He left Tommy to flirt with the female bartender, a lavender-haired girl who’d been in his CW classes and who Bishop was pretty sure was one of the few people in that program Tommy had actually respected. This would explain why he’d never seriously hit on her, as he didn’t date women he liked. While Tommy wasted time on that, he strode around the room, looking for someone.
He had no idea who. But he knew it would come to him.
The crowd was fairly standard that night. From eight to nine, mostly the younger crowd was in attendance, a collection of various shades of black clothing and nervous Am I fooling anyone? conversations. Bishop called them the Tragic Freshman. He’d stolen from a book Jennifer had.
Certain people, like Tommy or his then girlfriend Jane, had looked good in black. Others should not have ever gone down that road, like the bubbly blond girl smoking exactly like a woman in a movie from 1940 to Bishop’s left. Bishop himself had once been a black abuser, but now most of his wardrobe was blue, grey or green. Granted, it was all dark blue, grey or green. Then again, at the moment Bishop was wearing an old T-shirt from his black days.
The picture on the shirt was a man being struck in the face by a large fist, the face deforming around the knuckles by the impact. The only color was a series of fine red letters.
Vulgar Display of Power. He certainly wanted to. What was needed was the pretext.
Around nine o’clock the kids from out of town started rolling in. The crowds from UMASS Dartmouth, URI, and even venerable old WBC mixed in with the Brown, RISD and PC students. To Bishop, it was maddening and sad at once, a hideous buzzing sound from an insect he couldn’t quite scratch. A girl who looked to be Jennifer’s age, a youthful twenty-one, passed him and gave him an appraising look. She was colored much like he was, red-gold hair and fair skin, wearing a denim jacket over a tight spaghetti-strap top and blue jeans. She was very pretty, with cobalt eyes and the face of a woman just realizing that she is.
He couldn’t really see her. What he needed to do now had nothing to do with women, nothing at all. He’d held onto one rule from his childhood, and he wasn’t about to debase himself any further than he’d managed to in twenty-five years. Leave that to his father, the one difference between them. The most important.
He finally decided to take a break and see what Tommy was doing. Maybe, somehow, he’d managed to offend a biker gang. It wasn’t likely, and if it was happening Tommy might have gone out to handle it by himself, but it was better than walking around scaring the nominal straights.
When he got to the bar, Tommy was on his second Seagram’s Seven and was still chatting with the bartender.
“…were the best poet in that whole program, Evvie.”
“I know I was.” She smiled as Bishop sat down, and he forced himself to be human to her for Tommy’s sake, since the look on his face when he thought she wasn’t looking was so familiar it made Bishop’s bones want to shake apart in his chest. “Hey, Bishop. You and I were in Socialism, Anarchy and Communism together. Remember me?”
“I’m sorry … it was a couple of years, and I wasn’t really that into the class…” He didn’t say I was shit drunk and high on anything I could find back then, so no but that was what had actually happened.
“Bishop, this is Evvie Frazer, formerly of Utica, New York, now a resident of our fair state and a fellow class of 95 alum.” Tommy turned to her with a slightly shiny glaze to his eyes. “Evvie, could you get my friend here a Jack and Coke?”
“And a Bass.” Bishop’s voice was surprisingly deep, and for a second he was sure she’d heard what he was desperately trying not to let her, but she just nodded and turned away to her bottles, glasses and taps. Bishop looked at the hundreds of bottles lined up against the far wall and tried to remember how to act casual. He was superstitious around poets, fearing that they could see things in him that he didn’t want them to see. Granted, most of Tommy’s friends were only middling poets and thus safe, but Evvie moved with the same casual arrogance as Willrew himself, and was thus dangerous. The amber light played over Bishop’s hands as he twisted the serpent ring around his right finger, looking at the turquoise of its scales and the silver of its teeth.
“So…where’d you go?”
“For a walk. Just remembering the place. Who is she?”
“Just someone I used to know.” He looked over and saw her coming. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Here you go, Bishop. A Jack and Coke and a Bass Ale.” She put them both down in front of him, managing to do it without sloshing any of the precious, expensive drug onto the counter. Bishop’s estimation of her went up. “Say, do you remember what you did during the final for SAC?”
“Oh my Lord, you really should hear this, Tommy.” She bent over and brushed a hand on Willrew’s arm. Scalding pain flooded Bishop’s eyes at the sight of the two of them completely missing the upcoming train wreck, and to cover it he swallowed the whole glass of Jack and Coke in two seconds. “He walked into the final ten minutes late, humming lightly some song none of us could her. Dr. Stanley was a bit deaf anyway, so he didn’t notice. Or if he did, he gave Bishop some slack, because Bishop was the only one in the class who’d stand up to him.” She was an animated storyteller, her eyes playing from face to face to gauge how her audience was responding.
Tommy, of course, would have listened to her read from the phone book. And Bishop had to admit, as he kept his eyes mostly down towards his beer, that he was interested to hear what he’d done this time. The memory of poor Dr. Stanley, a gentleman in a world with few of them left, his sunken grey body and his obsession with his chosen field, made Bishop smile despite himself. The old man had let him get away with so much on the basis of those drunken rambles in his office, debating the historic merits of the Prose Edda vs. Beowulf as actual documents!
It had smelled like time in that office, and to Bishop, that was the smell of old paper slowly drifting into dust.
“So what then?” Tommy asked, drawing slightly closer to her as he spoke.
“So then Bishop begins to write furiously in one of those blue booklets they gave us. He fills that one, asks for another, and keeps humming. Meanwhile, we’re all still trying to dredge our brains to remember how Stanley’d explained the means of production in class, or what the difference between Fourier and Engels was, or even the proximate causes for the revolutions of 1848. Bishop keeps writing so fast that he’s actually drawing attention now,” She dropped her head, and Bishop watched sadly as her lips innocently approach Tommy’s skin. He knows that, at least for a second, the two of them were both thinking about kissing. “And the whole room stops to watch as his humming gets louder and louder. Finally, about thirty minutes into the class, Milo Abrams starts to get up to hand in his test booklet. You remember how Milo was.”
“An ass-kissing little nothing who thought he could explain everything with economic theory?”
“That’d be him, Mister Willrew. So, just as Milo walks past Bishop, smirking that he’d finished the final first, Bishop stands up and reaches across him, handing the test book to Mr. Stanley. Then he turns, looks down at Milo and yells ‘In your face, Milo!'” Laughter was in her voice now, in her posture, in her light amethyst eyes and she and Tommy were sharing it like the drink Tristan and Isolde shared in the boat to Cornwall. “Then he got up and finally burst into song as he left, and we found out what he’d been humming the whole time he’d been there. It was the music you always hear in The Empire Strikes Back whenever Darth Vader shows up. He walked down the halls, and we could all hear him all the way until he got outside, yelling ‘Dant Dant Da-Da Dant Da-Da Dant Da-Da.’ It was great. Then, from the open window to the quad, we heard him yell ‘Tension breaker. Had to be done.'”
Tommy broke out into laughter, and the two of them are lightly brushing together, not thinking anything but how funny it is. Bishop’s smile was the smile of the seasick man as he pretended to be amused by his own past. Inside his chest acid threatened to leap out and vomit all over the bar, and he drank the rest of his beer to keep it down.
“Could I get another beer?” Bishop asked gently once the two of them were done. “And a shot of Cuervo.”
“Sure thing.” As she walked away again, Tommy turned to look at him.
“So, what do you think?”
“I think she’s going to get fired if she doesn’t start moving around a bit more.”
“Yeah, yeah…do you like her? I was thinking I could try and set the two of you up…” Bishop barked out a laugh as bleak as granite cliffs. “Well, yeah, I know it’s a bit soon, but…”
“No. I’m laughing at how blind you are. She doesn’t even know I’m here.”
“Hey, she told that story…”
“She told you that story. She wanted to make you laugh. If you weren’t so absolutely dense, you’d have seen that already. Whatever happened to you in London made you even thicker about women than I am, and as Jennifer proved, that’s plenty thick.” Bishop hushed himself. “Here she comes.”
Evvie put his drinks down in front of him … yet again, no spillage. Even though she terrified him, Bishop had to admit to a grudging admiration for her technique.
“Look, guys, feel free to call me if you need anything else, but I’ve got to start working harder. It was nice seeing you again, Bishop. Tommy…”
“Evvie. You doing anything this weekend?” Tommy cocked his head back as he asked, smiling that half-smile.
“No plans. Why?”
“You want to go somewhere, maybe a movie or dinner or whatever?”
“How vague of you, Thomas. Mr. George would be upset.” She smiled, took a pen out of the nearly-purple hair behind her ear, and jotted down something on a nearby matchbook. “You know what that is. When you know what you want to do, use it.”
Then she was gone, and Tommy was turning the matchbook over and over in his hand.
“Huh. You were right. You’re never right.”
“I know.” Bishop did the shot of Cuervo so fast that Tommy looked up at the motion, and only saw him lifting the Bass to his lips. That slid down his throat in three motions of his Adam’s apple, a trail of it wetting the corner of his reddish beard.
“You in a hurry?”
“I’m going to walk the floor.” There were glaciers in his voice, and his almost-sunlight eyes were wet and red-lined. Tommy couldn’t tell if it was the drinking or something else, and he got the uncomfortable sensation that he wasn’t supposed to be able to. Worse, he thought maybe Bishop didn’t even know anymore.”You should wait a few minutes, let her deal with the rubes, and then say good-bye. Be polite.”
Tommy let himself be convinced. The feeling of her left breast brushing against his arm as she’d talked was floating on the surface of his thoughts. Bishop looked at him and could only think about altars and thresholds and things that couldn’t be taken back.
Then the blond man got up and started looking for his Grendel.
The club was now packed, with young men and women in a kind of three dimensional Benetton ad, a crush of colors and sizes and shapes, mostly young and good looking ones but still a staggering variety.
Bishop walked the perimeter of the floor for ten minutes before he saw the one.
One of the things making this harder was the need for actual danger. The Grendel had to be a threat. So Bishop had been looking for someone who could actually be expected to give him a fight, and up until this point, he hadn’t seen one.
Then he saw a blond head that literally stood out above the others surrounding it. It was at least two inches taller than Willrew, which put it slightly taller than Bishop himself. As Bishop approached, he watched as the man he’d noticed laughed when one of his little entourage tripped a younger boy, a painfully thin Tragic Freshman who attempted to scurry away. Bishop’s Grendel, who had very good teeth and seemed to be in better shape than anyone else at the Cavern, stepped on the boy’s hand.
There it was.
Now how to work the hook into the catch? A straight confrontation in front of all his friends and hangers-on might work, but would also reveal Bishop too soon. Besides, he didn’t really care about the kid picking himself up from the floor and scurrying away, and he knew it. It was an excuse. It was what kept him one step above his father.
It was what kept the thoughts of her away, and that’s all that it was.
It was the women in the entourage, in fact, that gave him the way to ensure that it would happen. Bishop picked out the one who seemed to be with the tall man, a rather tall redhead herself in a white blouse and blue skirt that looked rather expensive. And she was holding a drink.
He slumped his shoulders, affected a look of distraction … not that hard, really … and walked absently in their direction. A last-second course correction to avoid a tiny, ferret-like man carried Bishop’s arm against the redhead’s. Sending her drink, some red, fruity looking mixed drink that was almost heaven sent: if that didn’t stain, he didn’t know what would. The Rorschach pattern blossomed out from the point of impact as a nice entry wound.
“Hey, fucking look out!” She yelled, not an unwarranted statement. He almost felt sorry for her, but that would just get in the way of what was coming.
“Fuck you! Look where you’re going!” Bishop made sure that his voice carried, that it was high and shrill and his words slurred against one another. He didn’t let his expression change when he saw her face freeze and go white. He had to hope she didn’t get out whatever she was going to say before herboyfriend, if he was, could act.
C’mon. Prove to me that chivalry isn’t dead.
A big hand reached out and grabbed Bishop by the jacket. “What the fuck did you just say, man?”
Thank you. I said thank you, Sir Gawain. Did I mention that I love the color green?
“I think you heard me.” Bishop straightened up slightly, remembering to keep his shoulders in and his posture slack, affecting wounded pride that wouldn’t let him back down as well as fear. While he couldn’t do much about himself, he could certainly make sure to push as many of the other guys buttons as he could. The hand on his jacket twisted.
“I think you and I should talk outside.” Now that the woman had fallen back, Bishop finally had a chance to see what the Grendel looked like up close.
He was pretty big. As tall if not taller than Bishop, well muscled, and he looked comfortable with his hands. All in all, he was probably the best available. As Bishop pretended to be thinking about it, the hand on his jacket let go convulsively, with a little shove. He pretended that it moved him back He was delighted that he didn’t have to pretend too much. “Jim, get Randy and meet me outside…unless Asshole here wants to apologize.”
“On it, Bobby.” Jim, a shorter version of the man Bishop wanted, turned and went into the crowd. Bobby turned his light blue eyes to face Bishop and waited.
Jesus, he’s even trying to give me an out. God, you give with both hands, don’t you?
“Asshole?” Pretend to feel backed into a corner, but belligerent. Let him think you’re a big, dumb, slow bully. He’s dealt with those before. “Fuck it. Let’s do this, you prick.”
“Pardon me.” Tommy. Shit. Bishop realized that he’d been counting too much on his distraction to keep Tommy occupied. He looked out of the corner of his eyes and made sure that Tommy could see his right hand, and that Bobby couldn’t.
Then he made a cutting gesture, halting Tommy in his tracks.
“What?” Bobby turned to face Tommy. “If you’re the bouncer…”
“No, no…I just think four on one is lousy odds. So you won’t mind if I come along to even things out a little, do you?” The look on Tommy’s face said it all. It wanted to understand, and was afraid it did.
“Whatever. Let’s go.”
Bishop in the lead, they walked out the back door. He looked up at the moon, full now, and for a second the haze of aggression was attenuated … Jennifer’s word … by the cool air and the blue light that dripped down the buildings like mercury. What the hell was he doing? There was a sour burning in the pit of his stomach, and he was unsteady on his feet, his senses all skewed.
Bishop turned around and saw that Bobby’d handed his jacket to one of his friends.
“Come and get it, Asshole.”
He took a step forward. In his head lurked the serpent, hate, the one lover who never left him.
The material of the shirt in his fingers is what manages to break through his hate.
That, and the fact that he feels the same now as he did when he started this. The taste of copper in his mouth from his split lips and the ragged little tear in his tongue where he’d accidentally bitten the tip. He lets go of the shirt, and Bobby falls down. Bishop knew that in years to come, when Bobby and his friends were talking about those times they’d had in college, this particular night would never come up. And yet, it would never leave him. The first time someone takes everything you can dish out and still kicks the shit out of you … that’s like the first time you get in a car accident, the first time you get arrested … the first time someone you love dies. Especially for a strong young man who’d felt as deathless as a god when the night began, who’d been planning on going home and fucking whoever that woman was.
He’d be lucky to piss straight now.
Bishop turned away, letting the witnesses rush in to do whatever they could for the crumpled mass on the ground. It was still breathing. He walked to Tommy’s car and looked his friend in the eyes, waiting for condemnation or a chewing out or anger.
The pity nearly drowned him.
“Didn’t work, did it?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It wouldn’t have mattered, Bishop. You wouldn’t have been able to hear it.” He opened the passenger door. “Get in. Let’s go home.”
Bishop did so, sliding into the black leather seat with a creaking pain in his lower back. Christ, the kid had hit him pretty frigging hard, and he wasn’t twenty any more himself. It would actually take him longer to recover from the night than it would the kid being helped to his feet and walked away from the dock.
Tommy finally got in, started the car and banged the nine ball into reverse.
“Her name was Aline.”
“Does it matter?” The car, engine sending out that wave of sound to stroke the surfaces all around them, backed itself in a circle. Then Tommy put the shifter in first and let go of the clutch. “It didn’t work out, and I lost a part of myself. Nothing will make it any better. You just have to hold on and survive it.”
“Maybe.” He smiled, a very slim one.
It wasn’t a whole lot to hang his hopes on, but drowning men will clutch at anything.