Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Arkansas

by John Brandon

“John Brandon’s remarkable first novel will blow away a certain readership. . . . Arkansas rants against the machine in a voice combining Raymond Chandler’s side-of-the-mouth noir with Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful-psychopath wit and Mark Twain’s episodic romance of the journey.” —San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date June 23, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4436-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date June 23, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9629-3
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Originally published by McSweeney’s in hardcover and met with wide acclaim, Arkansas is a darkly comic debut novel written by John Brandon about a pair of drug runners, Kyle and Swin, set in the rural southeast. Drawing comparisons to a striking range of storytellers, from Quentin Tarantino and Mark Twain to Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, John Brandon—an MFA graduate of Washington University who worked an array of odd jobs while writing the novel, including at a rubber factory and a windshield warehouse—delivers a tightly written, bitterly funny story that chronicles the monochromatic landscape of the American southeast and gives a glimpse into the mindset of his wildly troubled yet seemingly real characters.

Tags Literary

Praise

“John Brandon’s remarkable first novel will blow away a certain readership. . . . Arkansas rants against the machine in a voice combining Raymond Chandler’s side-of-the-mouth noir with Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful-psychopath wit and Mark Twain’s episodic romance of the journey.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Brandon’s premier novel is a must for those who love the criminal and the stern yet dark optimism of the existential. His vision of Arkansas is unique, his wit is sharp, and the sympathy he has for his characters is genuine. For all the dark alleys Brandon explores, both physically and psychologically, Arkansas‘s power rests in its redefining and restructuring of the criminal’s only hope: family.” —PopMatters

“Add novelist John Brandon to your list of hipster-sanctioned must-reads . . . Brandon’s writing is so sparse it sometimes feels blasé, but the tension between his hard-boiled prose and his characters’ appealing naiveté makes the novel work.” —The Portland Mercury

Excerpt

Swin Ruiz was born in Tampa. He spent his childhood flipping through the reference books of a neighbor lady, a former teacher with no family. He didn’t like the lady, and liked to be left alone with the books. He spent time wishing he had a brother, wondering what the point of T-ball was, managing crushes on sitcom actresses, and observing the adults in his neighborhood, whom he pitied. Most adults, he noticed, had little range to their personalities. There was a guy across the street who tried to be funny all the time, and if people didn’t laugh at him he got peeved. There was a widow who was always in a panic, and when people acted composed around her she fumed. Swin’s mother was resigned. Swin’s father, cranky.

When Swin was twelve, his father drowned himself in the bay. Though a weepy note was left behind, no body was found. Swin’s mother thought her husband had staged his death in order to escape child support.

Swin had a lot of sisters, each more striking than the last, all with toned torsos and straight hair, each a lovely burden for Swin, who was outnumbered and couldn’t look after them all.

When Swin was thirteen, his mother married a Dutch man who moved the family to Kentucky. Swin was against the move and against the Dutch man, and hid himself in schoolbooks. His grades in high school were impeccable. He had an ability to visualize microscopic goings-on that allowed him to excel at science. He went to Vanderbilt on a scholarship which stipulated he keep a 3.7 GPA. The fall semester of his sophomore year he took humanities and turned in a paper he’d written in high school. He didn’t realize that in support of his college application, his high school history teacher Mrs. Donaldson, who had always given Swin preferential treatment because he was Hispanic, had sent his paper on French colonialism to the Dean of Admissions, who sent it to the Chair of Humanities, who put it in a file the department kept for examples of fine freshman-level writing. How the paper went from that file to the attention of his professor, Swin did not know. He got a D in the class and lost his scholarship. He didn’t tell his mother or stepdad, and took out loans in order to continue school in the spring. He stewed over all the rich kids with their parents’ bottomless credit cards and their roving, spotless trucks. He missed his stunning sisters and hated the idea that they were now loyal to their stepdad, with his rules and yellow, feathery hair. Swin was no longer around to remind them that this guy had dislodged them from their neighborhood and ignored their culture and dragged them to Kentucky, land of Baptist, horse-crazy hill folk. Swin wasn’t there to suggest that his mother had been seeing this man before their father’s death.

Swin did not go home for the holidays. He ate tuna from the can and carrot sticks. He sat motionless in front of his window. He tossed pencils against the brick walls of his dorm, trying to break the points. He stared himself down in the mirror. Disconnected his phone. The last hours of December, icy and frank, made him feel hardened. He could be coldblooded, could read the slightest evil in people.

January was the most boring month of Swin’s life. He attended Organic Chemistry, Exceptional People, Thermodynamics, and History of Architecture. He watched the professors fiercely, knowing he would never write a word for them. When bags were unattended or cars left open or display cases unlatched, when laps were swum and basketball played, when watches and bracelets were left in shallow boxes behind counters, waiting to be repaired, he stole. At parties he would slip into bedrooms. In the library, when a lone girl went to the bathroom, Swin would get in her purse. He pawned the women’s jewelry and wore the men’s. The chance that one of his victims would recognize his necklace or ring thrilled Swin. It was not the fashion, at a private college in Tennessee, for men to wear prodigious jewelry. People gave him looks. One of Swin’s professors, a black man, held him after class and asked what the hell the joke was. This was tough love—guidance. Swin told the professor not to hate, but instead, congratulate. Swin walked out and never returned to the class. He quit wearing his spoils, hoarding them in a rubber container under his bed. He lifted weights. He wondered how much a tattoo would hurt. He began to worry about the fact that he owed the Department of Education thousands of dollars.

Swin founded an organization for students of part-Latino, part-Scandinavian descent. He assured the members that trips abroad separated organizations from mere clubs. He suggested stops in Spain, England, Norway, and Iceland. The student government’s secretary of overseas studies, Lindsay, was Jamaican and Icelandic. Her hair had puffs and slick patches. This girl, Swin knew, would help organize and sell the trip because she wanted to date him. Swin gave her the idea he’d had a rough life. He took up for underdogs and solemnly shook his head at backwardness. Down with racial disharmony. Up with . . . pluralism. He got disgusted without calling people names. While flirting with Lindsay, he acted awkward. She was plump but not flabby. She had round eyes, tiny teeth, and prim hands and feet.

For the cost of copies, slides, sslo T-shirts, and letterhead bearing the logo of the invented travel company ugo4cheap, he collected dues—$60 from each of the twenty-four members. Dues made their inclusion in a group of like peers official. He made ID cards. He claimed to have experience with UG04CHEAP. The company offered nice hotels that were not in nice neigh borhoods, so you could experience the real country. In the slide show, Swin included filthy areas where food was sold and doors were ornate. To keep the members busy, he chose a gross injustice. They set up a booth and dispersed literature. The writer types drafted letters to congressmen. They held car washes. There was a rock group sympathetic to the cause and Swin mentioned getting them to play a benefit. At the next meeting, he stormed in proclaiming that rock bands were all talk. Using a whiny voice, he said, “We’re taking a break from performing. We’re tired and stressed out.” He asked if injustice took a break. When enthusiasm for the cause ran low, he questioned whether the organization was fighting on the correct side of the issue. He kept lauding the trip, painting a picture of dignified partying and rough edification.

Toward semester’s end, in order to cement Lindsay as an ally, Swin accepted her invitation and went to her place one late afternoon for homemade soup. He checked his watch and said, “You know, I’d like that.”

Lindsay’s apartment was cramped with overlapping rugs and tapestries. There were countless houseplants. Incense was burning. Lindsay had a poster of Tom Cruise. She explained that she didn’t like his movies, but admired him because of this emotional 911 call he’d made when his daughter was ill.

“Turned out okay,” she said. “They thought she drank a bottle of lotion, but she’d rubbed it all over the dog.”

“The dog was shaved?”

“Then she went into a deep sleep.”

“The daughter?”

“Tom Cruise panicked, and that shows a parent is always a parent no matter who they are. How many kids do you want? Not that it matters.”

“One,” Swin said. “At the most.”

Lindsay went over to her stereo and held down a button. Her speakers were overrun with vines. The voice that came from the stereo was shrill with energy, the words unintelligible. The music didn’t have enough notes to achieve a melody, just toots and cymbal crashes.

“Come along.” Lindsay led Swin to the kitchen, where he sat at a bar. Her waist was small. Despite her chub, she had an hourglass figure and muscles in her arms. Her body seemed to change from minute to minute.

“I know it’s not your kind of thing,” she said. “But I wish you’d go to Paducah with me. It looks great on your resume.”

She was referring to a leadership conference where, from what Swin could tell, serious young people dressed up and congratulated each other on having bright futures.

“My sister’s birthday is that weekend,” Swin said. “I’m no leader. I can boss people around, but—”

“I disagree. I’d follow you.”

Lindsay tasted and seasoned the pot of soup, uncorked wine, and set the bar. She was graceful and sure in her kitchen, which made it easy for Swin to sink into the bemusement he’d been fighting since entering the apartment. There were so many scents and colors and leaves. Textures and steam. It occurred to Swin, as Lindsay peered into her pot, that she could be a witch. What were witches? Maybe leadership conferences were coven meetings. Lindsay rested a bowl in front of Swin and touched his head. He focused on the soup, which contained lentils, sausage, tomatoes, corn, and celery. All of it tasted like table pepper.

“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.

“I want to know about your sisters.”

“Why?”

“Your life is unique.”

“If you knew me more, you wouldn’t think so.”

She grabbed his bicep with two hands and pulled near him, sliding along the low, wide windowsill, her ample ass sweeping the wood. “You’d never believe the kind of stuff you make me think about,” she said. When Swin didn’t answer, her neck and ears turned red. He kissed her and her mouth felt generous but not loose. She made a squeak. He held her under the chin and, not knowing what to do with his other hand, put it in his pocket. Her fingers pushed on his stomach and he backed away. He realized he’d never considered having sex with her.

“I’m only Dutch by marriage,” he said. “I lied.”

“I know that.”

“How?”

“And Holland isn’t Scandinavia.”

“It’s not?”

“I know you’re doing something shady with the trip. I hope that’s not true, but I wouldn’t tell if it was.”

Swin thanked Lindsay and squeezed her hand. He escaped into the parking lot, where a tree was dropping pink flowers into a dumpster. He never spoke with her again. Swin didn’t bother to tell anyone he was leaving Nashville. He took his books and CDs and a couple other things, made his bed and left his school bag sitting on it, left his posters on the walls. He took the dues and trip money he’d collected from the SSLO kids to Little Rock and bought a huge pickup at a military auction. He didn’t know how to go about getting a new identity, so instead he got a crew cut and put down false information when applying for a video-rental card. He came to a dead halt at stop signs, did not litter. He frequented a dive called Hondo’s. He would organize himself at the bar during the dead part of the day, the only patron for hours, and skim Aristotle, thinking not about the tenets of logic but about what it must’ve been like to walk around in a robe amongst white pillars, munching on grapes and washing your feet and contemplating the universe. Hondo got a kick out of how many pages there were in the Aristotle book. He got a kick out of the fact that Swin drank wine coolers. Swin told Hondo he’d been kicked out of a university and Hondo got a kick out of that, too.

“I’ve concluded something,” said Hondo. “You’re cut out for breaking the laws of the land.”

Swin squinted up from his book.

“You know,” Hondo said. “Professionally.”

Swin’s brain churned at this, but he looked levelly at Hondo.

“You got the laziness,” Hondo reasoned. “You’re kind of a weird guy.”

“Taking enjoyment from reading doesn’t make one lazy or weird.”

“You weren’t really reading, though,” Hondo said. “You were gazing at the words.”

Swin ordered another Bartles & Jaymes. Hondo explained that there was a man named Frog, and that Hondo knew the guy who ran Frog’s business in Memphis, a fellow named Colin. If Swin wanted, Hondo could put in a word.

“Doing?”

“Making runs.”

“Memphis, huh?”

“You wouldn’t have to move. You wouldn’t have to leave all this.”

“It entails what, just a bunch of driving?”

“That’s right. I wouldn’t even call it a bunch.”

Until Swin got used to what he was doing, he thought of himself as a delivery driver, dropping off pizzas or paperwork. The exchanges were not tense. The cops never pulled him over. The job was easy—a lot of downtime. Swin quit going to Hondo’s. In his bare apartment, he watched documentaries while lifting weights. He found that a person with cash in Little Rock lived worse than a poor person at Vanderbilt University. He knew that, as a criminal, his intellectual talent would wither. He missed the world of ideas. He missed the vague promise of secretaries, luncheons, investments, golf. Occasionally he put on all his stolen jewelry. Occasionally he remembered the bare affection of Lindsay’s kiss.

After Kyle’s mother died, he lived with a friend of hers for a week and a half before jamming his stuff in a green bag and taking a bus to Athens, Georgia. Athens was a young, hilly place. Kyle took long walks and eyed tan girls with pretty toes. These girls owned big dogs, wore backless tops, and pretended to be impressed with nothing. In the afternoons Kyle did push-ups and ate and hid in his apartment from his neighbors, who liked to pull the sun down with chatter. He drank 7-Up and bourbon. He would walk up the road to a nicer complex with a pool and sit next to the water with his bottle and glass and 7-Up, pine needles falling on his head, feeling that his mind was clear, that with bourbon he could have useful thoughts, that before long he would be able to forge a tidy philosophy of life.

One night, down the street at the pool, Kyle watched a guy on in-line skates coast by with a girl. They were having a giggly argument about music videos. They clunked over the grass to their poolside apartment and skated inside. Kyle kept swallowing whiskey for another hour, thinking of little else but the fact that a guy who wore earrings and skintight jeans and went in-line skating had been rewarded with one of Athens’s well-formed peaches.

Kyle went to the guy’s patio, hoisted a lounge chair over his head, and slammed it to the ground, making it collapse into itself with a low crunch. There was another chair. Kyle bashed it until it was a scatter of painted shards. He looked at his hands, looked around the courtyard. He’d been wanting to destroy something for a long time. He didn’t know about the table; it was made of steel pipe. He tested its weight. He heard the door slide open beside him and stumbled off the patio. The guy was in his boxer shorts, squeezing a bat so that his muscles flexed. His girlfriend was hanging on his arm, leaning back like she was trying to open a heavy door. She was angry that the boyfriend thought proving his manliness was more important than preserving their wonderful future. She dug her nails into his stomach, not even glancing at Kyle. The boyfriend was yelling about his friend who was a cop. He inched toward Kyle, who couldn’t find any words. The guy was so scared and the girl was so pissed. They were a bracing wave of feeling, and Kyle allowed himself to wash away from their patio and out of the courtyard. He envied the way the guy had gotten caught up in the moment, envied the guy’s fear. Kyle couldn’t remember ever in his life being as scared as the guy or as angry as the girl.

Other things happened. A wobbly black woman tried to steal Kyle’s clothes at the laundry; when he caught her and twisted the bag from her hand, she went on standing there like nothing had happened, like Kyle had been rude to point out her attempted theft and she was choosing to ignore this rudeness. A waiter recognized Kyle and had him kicked out of a restaurant. It was a place Kyle went once every couple weeks. He would order water and scarf a basket of bread, then pretend to remember something urgent and rush out. Kyle sulked through a poster sale on the college campus, dazed by how many famous things there were—paintings, movies, bands, cartoons, slogans, mountains, causes—dazed by how many famous things these college students required, by their frantic need to proclaim what their favorite famous things were. This was how they chiseled out a philosophy of life: posters.

Kyle didn’t live in a good or bad part of town, where stealing might’ve been difficult. He lived where stores didn’t sell anything too valuable, where shoppers weren’t desperate or emboldened. He molded his diet toward what was easy to take—macaroni and cheese, bacon, packs of trail mix. He stole cigarettes from the convenience store and sold them to his neighbors. At the liquor store, he’d buy a six-pack—they didn’t ID him; no one ever did—and brush out the door with a fifth hidden under his stretched-out T-shirt. He sold the fifths. He sold bottled water. One lucky day a clerk went to take a leak and left a case of metal lighters on the counter. At the level Kyle did it, stealing was no trick. He stole what was available and he stood up straight and spoke to people every chance he got, because shoplifters, everyone knew, were hunched and solitary. Shoplifting for a living released Kyle from any thought of being a stand-up citizen. He didn’t enjoy it. Shoplifting made him feel petty and dependent.

Kyle saw a HELP WANTED sign in a window and carried it inside. It was a bicycle-repair shop. A fat guy made a serious face and said, “Kyle, do you really want to work?” The whole thing took maybe four minutes. Kyle was amused to have a job. He had to show up the next morning at a certain time. Each Friday, he’d get a check. He walked home feeling brisk.

He went outside after dinner and gabbed with his neighbors. He found himself telling them about his new job, found himself feeling proud. Maybe he could be like them: kept happy because of low-stress work that occupied their minds, tired out their bodies, and gave them something to complain about. Their evening beers were all they needed.

The fat guy, Matthew, wore sandals and had a lot of energy. He didn’t know how to fix bicycles that well, but he didn’t mind taking them apart and putting them back together until he got it right. Instead of attempting to teach Kyle anything, he invented tasks that involved cleaning and lifting. The two of them were alone in the shop most of the day, but the radio kept them from having to talk. Often, unprompted, Matthew would show Kyle a new bag of fireworks he’d added to his arsenal under the counter.

Matthew’s sister stopped by several times. She was zealously nice to Kyle, always bursting into the room and halting there with an expectant look, making Kyle feel he was supposed to say, “What a great fucking day!” She would rearrange things Kyle had already rearranged. She would run her finger over flat surfaces. She’d ask Matthew a bunch of questions, and then they’d go in the next room and spit whispers at each other. This woman was older than Matthew. She was a professor at a college in Alabama—a pigeon-toed woman who, naked, Kyle imagined, would’ve resembled a raw turkey. She wore a fanny pack that held a paperback book and rolls of Life Savers. She offered to treat for sandwiches one day and when Kyle said he wanted double meat on his she acted burdened, like Kyle was wily, white trash that would never miss an opportunity to get a lot of whatever was free. After every talk Matthew had with his sister, he headed straight out back to the sun-drenched parking lot and let off a flurry of his loudest fireworks.

Friday, Kyle came in to find Matthew sitting in the middle of the floor, gazing at a wrench.

“Did you fall?” Kyle asked.

Matthew set the wrench down softly. “I’m closing.”

“Closing closing?”

“Afraid that’s the case. I’ve been asleep at the wheel of the American dream.”

Kyle had never seen Matthew gloomy before. He didn’t like seeing a fat guy who was gloomy.

“Sorry,” Matthew said.

“What?”

“About your job.”

Kyle had been startled to get hired and was now startled to get fired.

“But don’t you think it’ll pick up when the weather gets warmer? Or cools off? What’s biking weather?”

Matthew frowned good-naturedly. “This is my sister’s place. I owe her up the wazoo for it.”

“Ah,” said Kyle.

“Look outside that door, why don’t you.”

Kyle pushed the back door open and saw breeze-blown piles of damp confetti. Matthew’s fireworks had been ruined.

“She did that?”

Matthew explained that his sister was a bona fide cunt. She hadn’t given him a birthday or Christmas present in two years, instead deducting the cost of a gift from his debt. She’d told Matthew he needed to cultivate a hippie look, that the sandals were a good start but he needed hemp jewelry and a pot T-shirt.

“I thought hippies liked Volkswagens,” Kyle said. “Not bikes.”

Matthew gripped the wrench, looking like he might laugh. “I hit her in the shin with this thing.”

Kyle stared at him.

“Didn’t break a bone or anything. Got rid of her, though.”

Kyle smelled the grease and the dust. A clock ticked behind him. He had attempted working in the straight world and doubted he’d ever attempt it again. He couldn’t believe people crammed their lives into belittling routines just for steady money. What was the big deal about getting money steadily? Was that so enticing, getting a tiny check made tinier by taxes every two weeks for the rest of your life, continually voicing the same stale complaints that working stiffs have been voicing for centuries, that the people in Kyle’s apartment complex voiced each evening? Alarm clocks, layoffs, cigarette breaks, backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, company parties, and always the steady little checks.

Kyle sometimes drank in a bar—in the afternoon, when bars were empty, when there wasn’t some wailing band in Converse sneakers. He sat in the shadowy corners and tried not to talk to anyone. People in irreverent T-shirts would trickle in, making faces and using long words while discussing the local music scene. They could spend forty-five minutes comparing one noisome quartet to another. What made one of these bands better than another, aside from their outfits or how high they jumped, Kyle had no idea.

One day a tall guy drinking Gibsons started giving Kyle a hard time. He was an anthropology PhD. He was pissed off about something remote, about the way of the world. Kyle tried to ignore him but the bar was quiet and the guy was looking right at him, saying he wanted to radiocarbon-date Kyle’s hairstyle.

“Ask me if I’m a lumberjack,” he said.

“Are you?” Kyle asked.

“No, say the whole question.”

“Are you a lumberjack?”

“Nope,” the anthropologist said. He exploded in laughter.

Kyle raised his eyes at the bartender. “Check.”

She wrote on a pad and punched the keys of a calculator. Kyle looked at what was left of his whiskey, threw a little back, and concentrated on the taste of it.

“Don’t you say please?” The anthropologist raised a finger in the air. “The expression is ‘Check, please.’”

Kyle took his time getting over there, but still the guy froze as if a tiger had sprung down from the rafters. His face bunched up as Kyle cocked his arm. The anthropologist didn’t even get his hands all the way up. Kyle meant to hit him in the chin but got him in the throat. The guy toppled off the stool in hacking spasms. Kyle had never hauled off and decked someone before. He didn’t know what to do next. Drop down and keep swinging? Ask the guy if he’d learned a lesson? Say something dashing to the bartender? There was no telling what the guy would do when he got up, so Kyle got his balance together and booted him in the ribs. The gasp came not from the anthropologist but from the bartender.

“It’s done, baby,” she said. “If I was you I’d leave. I wouldn’t even pay.”

Kyle met a woman named Ester and within a month gave up his apartment and moved in with her. He didn’t understand this decision of his, but he wasn’t troubled by it. Ester lived in a neighborhood of tall, restored houses that all seemed to have dozens of people in them. These people shared cars and bikes and clothes and gave each other massages. Ester was crazy about dogs, but they had to be mutts. She had a gray tooth and wonderful hips. Nothing felt permanent around her. Time was malleable. Ester and her friends hung around in suffocating, screened rooms, listlessly figuring out the world. Ester wore bulky rings on her toes. She organized small parades. When a parade occurred that she hadn’t organized, she deemed it amateur and listed its faults.

Ester had a boyfriend in Nebraska that Kyle never met, a guy she’d been with for eight years who was studying to be a surgeon. She said this thing with Kyle was a fling and had nothing to do with her long-term plans. Kyle was someone to hold her at night, someone from the real world who she could learn from. She was scared of becoming insulated from the real world. She was wary of corporations. She was terrified of pregnancy and wouldn’t have regular sex with Kyle. Whenever they made out she waited about three minutes and then fell upon him with her mouth.

Someone from Kyle’s old apartment complex introduced him to a man named Ron, a man with salt-and-pepper sideburns who would buy almost anything you had to sell. The guy could unload coffee beans, cases of pants, air fresheners. Ron owned a crappy gym with a big basement. He ate protein bars and listened to speed metal.

Kyle took to trolling parking lots, looking for booklets of CDs, radar detectors, cell phones, sporting goods. The gold mine was golf clubs. Kyle would put on a pastel shirt and go into a Nevada Bob’s, take some practice swings, mention the names of a couple courses, buy a three-pack of balls, slip a driver down his pant leg and breeze out. Kyle paid no rent and soon saved enough to get a car. He didn’t get one, though. He didn’t want to share it with all of Ester’s friends.

Suddenly Kyle had been living with Ester for a year and a half. Many of her neighbors had moved on and been replaced, but the new ones talked about the same things in the same screened rooms. The conversations seemed to belong to the rooms and not to the people—conversations whose very appeal was that they never yielded answers. There were fewer and fewer dogs. Ester got angry with Kyle, something she never used to do. She got angry about Kyle’s hair, about what he did with his time, about his ignorance of certain music and certain books. She demoted him from blow jobs to hand jobs.

One morning she announced she was going to visit her boyfriend and Kyle asked if he should water the plants while she was gone.

“Water the plants.” She seemed exhausted. “Water the plants?”

She threw her version of a fit, a grave lecture with a lot of pauses. She put her thumbs to her temples and whispered the word “fuck.” She wanted Kyle to be jealous. She wanted him to say enough’s enough with the hand jobs, throw her down and screw her brains out. She wanted him to hate people and get sad about things, to tell her how he felt about her, to make her feel safe and feminine.

Kyle said, “What happened to the whole fling deal?” and Ester hurled her keys at him.

After this, even the hand jobs stopped. Ester wouldn’t kick him out, though. She quit talking to him. She brought guys around. Kyle figured out that the guy in Nebraska didn’t exist and wondered where she’d gone all those weekends. He knew it was up to him to leave, to dig out his green bag, fill it, hump it downtown, and sign a lease.

He could get a car now.

Ron asked Kyle if he was busy on Thursday. He knew a guy that needed a guy on Thursday.

“Who’s the guy?”

“Colin.”

“Don’t know him.”

“Guy from Memphis. He’s under a few other people in a pretty good outfit.”

“Oh, yeah?” Kyle said.

“Meet him at the kebab place at four.”

“Did you have to vouch for me?”

Ron peeled open a protein bar and held it up to his eye. “No, no.” He sniffed the bar, pinched it and rubbed his fingers together. “No, it’s all between you and him.”

Colin was cutting grilled vegetables into dainty bites when Kyle sat down across from him. Colin was pale and wore a tie. When he crossed his legs, Kyle saw his ankle socks. He said he’d been to Athens twice, once to do something with Ron and once when he was seventeen, when he’d dropped acid and spent a whole night staring at shop windows. He laughed, his head held still while his shoulders quaked. He explained what Kyle was supposed to do and it seemed simple enough. Kyle’s only question was why Colin didn’t just do it himself, but Kyle didn’t ask. That seemed like a question you didn’t ask.

That Thursday, as he’d been told to, Kyle walked into the Marriott hotel, stepped calmly into the EMPLOYEES ONLY area beside the check-in desk, took a long hall and some steps down to the laundry, opened the second dryer, and pulled out a small suitcase. He took it across to the kebab house, waited in line with it, ordered a big combo plate, and settled into a booth. He ate slowly, savoring the marinated meat hunks, watching for a wop with a yellow shirt. Kyle had been told that the wop would show up for the suitcase before Kyle could finish eating. Kyle paused between kebabs. He went and got one of every condiment packet the place offered, tore open each and squeezed it dry. He took the suitcase with him to piss, then sat back down. He ate all the vegetables, even the squash. He got a refill on his soda, sat and slurped it and let out a string of soft belches. No wop. He kept looking at the clock on the wall. Five, ten, fifteen more minutes passed. The guys behind the counter were starting to wonder about Kyle. It felt like the place was getting smaller. For a while he was the only customer and he couldn’t get a full breath in his lungs. Kyle put his hands in his pockets and made fists. The zipper of the suitcase was secured with a tiny padlock that was meant to look inconspicuous. Kyle thought about busting it off with a hammer. He thought about going back to Ron’s. He thought about taking the suitcase to the hotel and putting it back in the dryer. The wop was almost three hours late. Kyle slipped out of his booth, pins and needles in his legs, and carried the suitcase to his apartment. He put it out of sight and watched an awards show on TV until he dozed off.

Before dawn, there was a knock. Kyle looked out the peephole and his stomach dropped. It wasn’t the wop. It wasn’t Colin. It wasn’t Ron. It was some guy with thinning blond hair and a toothpick in his mouth. Kyle kept quiet. The guy knocked a couple more times, then stepped back from the door and pulled something from his belt—something to pick the lock with. Kyle stepped into his shoes and leaned against the wall. The guy jabbed the knob unlocked and started working the deadbolt over. In a matter of seconds he’d be in Kyle’s living room. He’d have a knife open and his eyes peeled. Maybe he had a gun. Kyle crouched, coiling his strength. The deadbolt wiggled and then flipped. The knob turned. When the door was open a foot, Kyle yanked it the rest of the way, tugging the guy off balance, and toppled him over the arm of the couch. Kyle used his knees and his weight. The guy made whining noises, spitting on the carpet. Kyle groped but could not find a knife or a gun. He dug in his elbow and demanded the guy’s weapon.

“I don’t got one,” the guy said.

“What do you got?”

“Nothing I could hurt anybody with.”

“Someone that fights like you should have a weapon.”

“Trespassing is a lot different than armed robbery, smart guy.”

Kyle made the guy take his pants off. He tied him up and put him in the closet and not fifteen minutes later Colin was outside the door, soaked in sweat, a gun in his waistband. There was nothing Kyle could do but open up and see what happened. He went over the events in his mind and knew he had nothing to hide. He swung the door open. Colin, seeming too tired to take a step inside, said, “Tell me you still got it.”

Kyle nodded.

Colin came in and sat on the couch while Kyle got the suitcase. Kyle didn’t know if he should tell Colin about the man he’d tied up, but what was Kyle going to do with him? If Kyle didn’t tell Colin, then he was stuck with the guy. Colin asked for a glass of water and turned on the news. A freckled guy was announcing birthdays.

“You might want to go out for a while,” Colin said. “Get some pancakes or something.”

“Why’s that?”

Colin held out his water glass and Kyle went and refilled it.

“A gentleman might stop by,” Colin said. “If so, I have to shoot him.”

“I got a guy in my closet.” Kyle was relieved. “I don’t know if it’s the same one you’re thinking of.”

“Unarmed? Blond hair?”

“That’s the one.”

“Alive?”

“So far.”

Colin ogled Kyle. He slid his water glass around on the coffee table, leaving a wet trail, then rested a paw on the suitcase.

“Got a car?” he asked.

“Just got it.”

“Pack. Get out of here and meet me at Ron’s in two hours.”

“I have a job, don’t I?”

“Yup. You’re going to Arkansas.”

Months later, many runs under his belt, Kyle found himself driving a Firebird to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, from his adopted home, Little Rock. He located a wet T-shirt contest. The contestants, most of whom looked better before the water was poured, whispered to each other instead of playing to the sparse crowd. The best-looking one had wide-set breasts and tanned feet. After the contest, Kyle told her she should’ve won and mentioned renting a Jacuzzi suite at the Sheraton. The woman declined with a twang. A half hour later, out of fascination with this woman who was acquainted with everyone in the bar but friendly to none, he gave her another try. She was sitting at a table singing along with “Wind Beneath My Wings.” When she finished Kyle clapped, trying to appear as though her singing had touched him. She glanced at him, embarrassed, and left.

Kyle suspected that, as with many desirable things in life, he didn’t want women as much as he should. He was just as pleased to get drunk, or to drink a bunch and not get drunk. He plopped down at the back of the bar and alternated between Bud and rum runners. He thought of his past, and none of the events seemed more distant than any of the others. All of them could have happened yesterday or a hundred years ago. Kyle tried to find some design in it all, in the things that he’d chosen and that had -chosen him. This was impossible. His mind wasn’t up to it. He wondered how long he’d live in Little Rock. He thought of Frog, Colin’s boss, the dealer they all worked for. This guy, Kyle had heard, had a lake house so big that parts of it were closed up during certain seasons. He grilled steaks by his lily-pad-shaped pool, had money creeping all through the stock market. Kyle didn’t feel jealous of him, and knew he should. Maybe Kyle didn’t need a philosophy of life. Maybe it was only people who wanted things, who felt guilty about getting things and frustrated about not getting things, who needed a philosophy.

In the morning, Kyle bumbled around a gift shop and picked out a shark’s jaw, a gift for his new girlfriend back home. He drove a Toyota Tundra to Tallahassee, stayed the night in a motel with a dry pool, then took a Ford Probe to Little Rock. He parked the Probe in the loading alley of a strip mall and knocked on Gregor’s door. Kyle got buzzed in and found Gregor chewing pita and tomatoes, daubing mayo with a long fingernail. Gregor’s hair looked shellacked. He pointed at a dolly, then flipped a page of the classifieds and put his face close enough to smell the ink. The room was full of brass parts that looked like prehistoric insects. Kyle left the dolly. He went to the Probe and retrieved eleven slim boxes covered with packing tape and labeled SHEET MUSIC.

“What kind of town is this? All I want is a periscope.” Gregor rattled the classifieds, then dropped a wad of spit on them. His face lit up. “I read a book. Did I tell you?”

“You might have.”

“It was about farmers. Four hundred thirty-six pages long. You start on page thirteen, though. They count the table of contents and the part where the other writers say, ‘This man, by damn, is a writer. If he was here, I’d give him a nut scrub.’” Gregor was grinning, full of himself. “Here’s the trick.” He pulled a paper shredder from under his table. “Every page I read, I tear it out and shred it.”

Kyle told Gregor he was a unique individual, then he stood there and waited for his three thousand bucks, looking forward to feeling the tight lump of it in his pocket as he sat on the bus.

Kyle’s new girlfriend, Nora, watched movies made in war-torn countries and was fond of the word “eclectic.” Her jewelry was dangly and her tan lines out of whack. She often looked at Kyle with mild confusion, as if he were the wrong month of a calendar. She implored him to get a normal job and he replied that people held normal jobs because they’d been brainwashed to believe they wanted things. He wished he were brainwashed, he said, but for some reason brainwashing didn’t work on him. He knew that no amount of possessions or height of position would make his life worthwhile.

The first time they’d met, to satisfy Nora’s desire for sharing, Kyle lied and said his mother had molested him as a child. Nora bought this story and pampered Kyle for days, yet she thought he was lying when he claimed he’d lost a necklace he’d bought her. This amused Kyle. The truth was, his mother had raised him in an even-tempered, resigned way before being electrocuted when Kyle was a teenager. Kyle didn’t feel that Nora deserved to know anything true about him. In time they would break up and then Kyle would never see her again. She would be no different from the people he’d known in Athens—Ron, Ester, Matthew—or the kids he’d gone to school with back in Lofton. They all came and went.