That night the moon was the thing, maybe even more than the sirens. It was laughing. That’s what I saw anyway. The same basic premise of the man in the moon, only here he looked like he was cracking up. A vague effect—at least at first—that leapt out at you like a corny cartoon the moment you realized it was hiding there.
But Adam didn’t notice. Not until later. And Adam was the kind of guy you’d expect to notice, who’d want to be known for noticing, who’d use the occasion as a metaphor to condemn those less aware. Like, missing or avoiding the unavoidable moon as a glaring sign of denial, close cousin to the Elephant in the Room, only here the room was half the planet and the elephant was hanging in the sky. Laughing at us—and really pretty hard.
I stood at the window behind our back door, hoping my neighbor would come out for a smoke. I badly needed confirmation someone else saw this too.
Minutes later—which had been happening a lot around then, thoughts of Adam summoning Adam, as if mere thinking could function as a pager—he emerged from the back door to his place and stepped toward his own back window. He gave a silent nod-up, tense and rabbity, hardly looking my way. In weathered Sox cap and merlot-colored robe—a furry monstrosity he called his “third skin” (no explanation as to the second)—he cupped a Winston and lit it. He looked up and cocked his chin to the side, but must have missed it entirely, for he looked down just as soon to the parking lot and asked me, blandly enough: “Shelley and the baby make it back okay?”
I waited a moment, surprised he hadn’t seen, then nodded and pointed to my door: “Dead asleep at the moment. Both of them.”
“Maribel asleep?” I asked, returning the favor. “Her and the boy?”
He turned slowly to stare at his door. He took a long drag, then exhaled.
“Dead and buried,” he said, a bit woodenly, then caught my eye and sort of came to. “Just like yours. Precisely as yours.” The slightest grin rose in his gaze, or began to. “Look at this,” he said. “Look at us. All our attachments off in la la land. You and me all over again.”
“Two peas in a pod?”
“Two peas who want out of the pod.”
“Yeah, well . . . I’m not so sure that’s true.”
“No?” He stared at me a second, then faintly pshawed and turned to look through his window. “Oh you know it’s true.”
With all attachments back from abroad—his from Mexico days before, mine from Ontario only that evening—we were husbands and fathers yet again, a bit stunned by the bluntness of that fact, as if caught in the headlights of a grave responsibility we’d forgotten could run us over. A week off! Now it was done.
I looked up at the moon (still laughing).
“Look at that thing,” said Adam. “It’s such a . . . bully.”
“A bully?” I said. “You see it that way?”
“Absolutely. Don’t you?”
I turned to see the confusion: I’d looked up where he’d looked down. My gaze gone to the laughing sky, his down to the sober asphalt, to the sleek black rental supplied by his insurance people, a potent new model of high-end SUV known as the Chrysler Mercenary.
“Let’s take out the gift,”—he turned to me here—“Let’s get out there in the big black boat. I need it, sir. I require it. I’d bet my deductible you do too.”
“Aw man . . . I can’t tonight.”
“Come now”—you could see he’d had a few drinks, probably some pot—“Do your part for the war on terror.”
I snorted. “I’ve done plenty already.”
“Adam. Please.” I hunched in disbelief, jerked a thumb at my door. “They just got back.”
Big difference, of course. His had returned days before; mine, only hours ago. Yet still you could see nothing would stop him. That ornery sparkle had lit in his eye, the contrary damn-it-all air. And I liked this sometimes. I’ll cop to that. I had real appreciation for the push in him. Other times—and this was one of them—I considered it a childish imposition.
“I didn’t want to bring this up, or use such brutal language, but really now”—he nodded, egging me on—“don’t you kind of owe me?”
I looked down at the rickety floor. It buckled here, caved there, vague commercials of future collapse.
“Am I wrong?”
For the most part, he’d been very generous about it. It hadn’t entirely been my fault and Adam had acknowledged as much. For borrowing your neighbor’s cherished Dodge Dart is not a crime—not at all. But letting the engine idle in a dark unsecured lot as you sing along to the raucous stereo? Practically advertising you’re easy pickings to any passing thug who’d hoped to steal a car? I’d let my guard down. Exposed myself. I got cherry picked, plucked and pitted, when I might have had a fine night out. Instead: a gun to my head, and then the Dart was gone.
When he’d heard the news, Adam wasn’t angry—or even mean. I’d expected a raging explosion; instead, a meditative pat on the back. It’s alright, buddy. Happens to the best of us. You’re an oblivious dumbass but that can happen. Who knows? Maybe the cops’ll find it.
Didn’t once raise his voice. The downside, of course, was I owed him one.
I nodded along, agreeing. “Adam, I just . . . can’t.”
“Nonsense. Of course you can!”
His grin was up and running now: full effect.
“Damn you.” And he pointed a finger. “Philip Palliard. Do your part.”
Again, he meant for the “war on terror,” but several leagues beneath the standard understanding. Which terror? He meant to ask. Which war? Is this anything new or uniquely true?
An abrupt crashing came from my kitchen. A heavy thud and clatter sound. Startled, we stared at each other. I turned my knob and hurried inside, closing the door behind me.
When I flipped on the light, I found there, on the swirled mosaic linoleum floor, a mess of curved white plastic and shiny sharp metal implements. Clear plastic tube things. Screws, lids. As if the ceiling had rained symbolic rubbish, leaving us the diorama of a landfill. I remembered. (Oh. Right.) The ice cream maker from on top of the fridge. A mouse must have knocked it over.
I listened to the air in there. Nothing stirred. So the mouse had saved me. (I laughed at that.) The mouse had saved me from the war on terror. I looked down at the mess it made.
We had four, actually. Four fucking ice cream makers—all gifts: wedding, birthday, one probably Christmas. And I was thinking (a shout out to my neighbor), how about that for the war on terror? The weapons of excess and frivolous comfort, of a world that showers ice cream makers on people who do not make ice cream.
I wasted no time and stepped over the landfill, moving through the chaos of the bright mustard kitchen, then the darkened living room, its lonely air, and finally to the sort of “second” living room, where I stopped for a visit to the crib.
The boy was out cold on his back, a breezy lime blanket spread across his body. I gently touched him: his downy head, the unguarded face, that rare flesh, smoother than smooth. I hunched down and watched for his breathing. You and me, I was thinking. Like it or not, you and me. Tomorrow it’s back to Daddyland.
His little chest rose, then dipped.
I patted softly at his belly and stood again, then moved to the doorway of our bedroom. There was Shelley, splayed lengthwise across the bed, belly-down, a still-socked toe, nursery red, hanging off the bed like a slain fish. Half blanket, half alabaster body, fully dead asleep. (Just buried.) Snoring pretty hard too. Practically braying.
Adam says Maribel can snore hard as well. A sound (we agree) that was downright profound back when they were pregnant. Adam used to say that’s how we’d get Bin Laden (years, of course, before they got him): put mikes on our spouses snoring-with-child in hidden beds next to Tora Bora. That’d root the guy out of his cave.
I was grinning there in the dark bedroom doorway, thinking this, seeing it—America’s long most wanted smoked from his hole by the uvulas and adenoids of non-native spouses, sleeping beauties under bulletproof glass—when I first heard the bleat and whine of the sirens. Fainter there, back deep in the apartment, but pretty stunning all the same. Not an ambulance or fleet of cop cars. Something louder, stranger. Air-raidish or tornado-related.
I moved swiftly now toward the back door, smoked from, blown from my cave. I stepped past the crib, then the living room proper, the siren sounds seeming to lift before me like increments of oncoming waves.
When I opened the door, they doubled in volume.
Adam stood rigid-backed at his window. He turned to me, wide-eyed.
The aim or source was pretty elusive. A tornado, we knew, was unlikely. The skies were crystal clear. Forecast said clear and sunny for days. We stared out our respective windows, in relative silence save for the sirens, looking neither up nor down, but out, into the wild night air, hoping to see it, to catch a glimpse of that sound, this wailing alien death knell you had to guess was a call to the basement. Or your bunker or whatever. Like under attack. Take cover!
Yet somehow we knew that wasn’t it. Too World War II. A bit corny even. Like, five hundred sirens screaming as one, in cacophonous off-key harmony: You. Are. In Trouble! But we didn’t believe them. Not in the way they meant to be heard. We were still—and still are—immune to apocalypse, certain as infants it could never happen here.
Adam felt the draw right off.
“We have to go find this,” he said, enthused. “We must drive into this.”
I shook my head: “Not me, man.”
“Yes you. Us.”
The sirens wailed, relentless and cheesy. I shrugged. “Sorry buddy.”
“Sorry buddy?” he said. “That’s all you got? Sorry buddy?”
Again, I shrugged. Adam shook his head, then thought about it, muttering. He swung open his back door and stepped inside, sort of pitching forward as he went. Half a minute later, he re-emerged, slamming his door behind him. He marched toward me with steely purpose, his fierce eyes locked to mine. I stepped back as he neared, but he stopped before me and grabbed my wrist with militant precision. Cold steel gripped to my skin there. A click. Then I looked down.
He had cuffed us. Our wrists. My left to his right. Just like that, we were one.
He smiled bitterly. “Sorry buddy. I cannot endure it alone. Not tonight.”
The sirens wailed in the distance. He pulled at our door and it shut behind me. And I started to say something but stopped before saying. Pulled along, I followed. I was certain any protest would be useless. Though I must have flushed, for I felt a bit woozy, the blood seeming to flee my head. I stumbled a little as we descended the stairs. (Why fight it? I was his.) Neither of us spoke until we reached the Mercenary. Adam clicked it open with the autolock device.
Both of us grunting, I got in, climbing over the driver’s seat, then the gear shift. The fragile mathematics of handcuffs: hostage first, then hostage taker. Adam followed, closing the door, and our auto-seatbelts settled across us with a soothing Mercenary whir. He turned the key in the ignition, drawing me forward, then we settled back and he lowered the windows.
“Listen to that,” he said. We listened to the sirens. “What is that? It’s like . . . God must be sleeping through the snooze alarm.”
I chuckled—“Right”—then looked down at the cuffs. “You don’t have to keep these on. I’m in the car. You got me.”
He looked down at our wrists, resting together on the complicated beverage holder (heating, cooling, spill control.)
“I understand that,” he said. “But I like it. Heightens the sense of intimacy, you know? I mean . . . this doesn’t bother you, does it?”
I shot him a withering look. He snickered as he guided the soundless Mercenary into the back alley. “You need to develop a more mature sense of trust. You know the prayer, right? Accept what you cannot change?”
Staring ahead, I snorted, then glanced again at our cuffs. Why did he even own a pair?
“So are these like . . . a sex toy?” I looked up at him.
“They are actually.”
I waited. “But not a toy you use with Maribel?”
He lifted his chin, struck by that. “Right again, sir, but . . . let’s leave that matter to the side for now.”
I smiled. “So whatshername wears these? Or . . . you do?”
“Shelve it, Phil. Practice sensitivity.”
Out in the night, the sirens wailed.
It repulsed me, I suppose, to wear an aid to sexual domination—and perhaps one used quite recently—yet also (and this surprised me), it sort of half turned me on. They brought me closer to her, his invisible other, his longtime secret thing or fling. So many times I’d heard them through the vent in the living room while the Monarch napped in the afternoons. Handcuffs were involved? What else?
It amazed me how much Adam got away with, how he lived his contradictions with open abandon and hid his trangressions with relative ease. The guy was nearly forty. How far would he dare to take it?
“There’s a road cocktail in there,” he said, pointing to the glove compartment “Start us up, will ya?”
I took out the curved silver flask, had a swig and passed it over. We drove in silence, save for the sirens, passing the flask back and forth. We went south to southwest, where of course we shouldn’t. The sirens, it soon became clear, were not our true target or aim. A mere curiosity, background music. We weren’t driving toward them but rather through them, off to the places he’d sought before.
Adam had multiple names for this practice, depending on the mood. Playing chicken with a drive-by was one, but that had fallen from favor. (Drive-bys were shot from cars, not into them.) Ghettospotting, I’m afraid, was another (but we both agreed that was lame). I was partial to more lighthearted fare. The Counterintuitive Tourist Bus, say, or Let’s Play Demographic Hopscotch! But those were just names.
What he did—and I’d only gone twice before—was drive on purpose into iffy neighborhoods, into stretches of poverty, perceived ganglands, to the dealers and bangers and blown-out lights, the abandoned buildings and mostly black people. He’d blast aggressive music and see what he could see. (It was passive slumming is what it was. Spectating from the safety of a locked car and calling it active engagement.)
He pressed play on the cd drive, taking my wrist along with. The sounds of a genius aggression rose from the speakers, the opening friz of honeybee guitars, then the bass, the drums, the riff had dropped. He bobbed his head, driving one-handed. We coasted under the ghost town tracks and passed the somber public housing.
Here it was in its furtive glory: doing your part for the war on terror. In Adam’s way, a different way, starting with a basic premise: that the adversary to the war on terror could not be seen, could barely be named, was ipso facto invisible. Adam argued for a different kind of witness. Go seek the so-called invisible as revealed in your actual world. Go local, toward the visible terror that’s been made invisible, or at the very least, swept to the side. The threat or threats in your very midst. Go to where they’re visible, to where they’ve been pushed.
Well, I considered it a stretch. Vague, simplistic, conflating, self-serving. Yet something in it made perfect sense. Could it be the terror was closer to home? A steadily escalating humdrum life as manager-owner of The Copy Boss shops? Nominal monogamist, father of one?
We drove along into destitution, into a neighborhood I didn’t know. We swerved and slalomed through alien streets, Adam seeming to know the way, then landed on some gloomy corner where half the lights had blown. He shifted to park, then turned off the music. The sirens wailed away.
We sat there a while, not speaking, just listening. And then, like that, the sirens stopped.
“Wait,” he said, stunned by their absence. “That’s it?”
I listened. “I guess it is.”
“Damn . . . that’s abrupt.”
We were both a bit crestfallen. The sirens had grown almost comforting.
Adam nodded to himself, accepting the loss, then pressed the lever in the armrest and our noiseless windows rose. All of a sudden: hermetic in there. Safe and sound. He spoke to the control panel. “Air conditioning”—and on it came. He said, “Mercenary: massage us” and our seats began to vibrate gently, a soft soothing whir that pressed at our backs. For a while then, it was lulling and peaceful. We passed the flask back and forth.
Just sitting immersed in massage vibration at the dreary corner of a vacant street. Only that one guy smoking across the way. And this other loafing on the sidewalk here.
The latter guy approached. Stepped calmly toward the car. A short stocky black dude in a Marlins cap, with ass-low jeans that turned out to be shorts. Adam pressed the button and the window unrolled.
The guy leaned down, gripped the lip of the window. He was all business.
“What you need?”
Adam fake smiled. “Nothing for us tonight, my friend. We’re just taking a rest.”
“A rest,” he echoed, deadpan, then noticed our cuffed wrists. Adam touched at the guy’s hand.
“Tell me”—and he pointed—“what’s up with that building there? That used to be a club or a loft that had parties. What is it now? Anyone live there?”
He meant the big red brick building on the opposite corner, darkened throughout, with boarded-up windows and a shadowy someone smoking on its crumbling front stoop.
The guy half-laughed. “Looks pretty fucking dead to me.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” said Adam, nodding. “Well thank you for your insight. Best of luck, friend”—and they both moved their hands as the window rose with its silent hermetic affront. You could see the guy was baffled. The questions, the cuffs, Adam’s robe. The subtle sound of tiny rotors whirring through the posture-friendly leather. Were we cops to him? Creeps?
He moved down the street and out of view, only once looking back.
We sat there in siren-free silence, cuffed across the beige beverage island. Adam stared at the boarded-up building. “Massage off,” he said, and it ceased. He gestured limply with his cuffed hand.
“Jesus this hurts,” he said. “Honestly. More than I ever could have guessed.”
I looked down at the beverage holder. “The handcuff?”
Adam stared ahead; he drew in a breath through his nose and sighed.
“Adam, what are y—”
“Maribel left me.”
He nodded, staring ahead. “Evacuated.”
I cocked in my chin. Didn’t make sense.
“Just . . . up and left?”
“Up and stayed. Never came back from Mexico. She’s setting up shop in Michoacan as we speak.”
“Shit, Adam, that’s . . . she’s been gone this whole time?”
“Never came back.”
I took a moment to let that sink in. Since Thursday, I thought they’d been home. Adam had implied as much. This was Saturday, three days later.
Adam looked over, furrowed his brow.
“With her,” he said. “You insane? He’s down there with mommy. Christ. Don’t be foolish.” He shook his head, resigned to the facts. “We both know better than that.”
I hardly had time to absorb it. His phantom family. The ghosts across the hall. The weird sense of betrayal at having been halfway lied to. Adam nodded toward the red brick building and started to look a bit wistful.
“That’s where we met,” he said. “That’s where I won her.”
He took off his cap with his free hand and rubbed through the underfed combover.
“Ten, eleven years ago. Third floor, I think. Huge artsy loft space where they had these parties. Art parties, performance parties, that sort of crap. Not precisely my scene but . . . back then? I had no scene.” He shook his head, grinning. “Just an aimless grad student, a fuck up with a head of full of vacant opinions looking for some arty action. A thrill. Some tribal adventure. But that night”—he nodded to himself, dead serious—“that night Maribel was there. Maribel Jimenez of Michoacan, there with her cousin Placo, the painter. And just . . . the finest, most exquisite thing. Luminous. A vision of vulnerable grace. She was hot too. Obviously. Smoking hot, but . . . her way, that’s what drew the eye. The way she looked across an aimless room? A room full of fuck ups and toothless poets and over-talkative grad student types?” He sssssed through his teeth. “A song, brother. A siren song in a sea of chatter. I’d never been drawn like that.”
He nodded to himself, smiling. Then the smile faded.
“I knew the bassist in the band that night. Friend of mine. Decent friend at the time, actually, not too close but . . . well”—waiting a beat, hunching over, really starting to tell it—“I was especially loaded. Not out of control, but feeling fine. Some advanced feeling. On a plane, as it were. And I don’t recall why—they’d been playing disco classics or something, perhaps ironically but who could say?—and at some point, I just stepped up to the mike and started into—of all things, I shit you not—‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.’”
I wince-smiled. “You mean . . . Michael—?”
“Jackson. Yes. His disco era masterpiece. And not falsetto or anything, not an impression, just me. Me and my little voice. Oh I didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but the band surprised me—they followed like that. And once I knew they were behind me, well . . . I sold it, brother. Danced like a jackass. Gave it my untethered all. And do allow me to say, I don’t think it inaccurate to say—in that moment, I owned them. I possessed them. That room was enslaved. And . . . I never do that. I’m not a performer in the obvious sense. I suck, in fact. My singing voice is horrendous. Not at all pleasing to the ear. And in terms of the stage, if you can believe it, I’m actually a little bit shy. But that night I wasn’t. Not in the least. I sang that song with unconditional enthusiasm, like recklessly. I gave it up, Phil. Every inch.”
He shook his head, remembering. His voice softened.
“She was charmed by it, sir. She was drawn.” He reached over with his cuffed hand and lightly grabbed my shirt. “She came up to me. I had no idea that was feasible, that such a moment was achievable. You understand? She approached me.”
He let go of my shirt and looked up at that building.
“Among the single most gratifying moments in my life.”
“And one of the most surprising.”
Again, his smile faded. I tossed in two cents.
“So that’s when you guys hooked up?”
He nodded, sort of grin-frowning.
“The bassist hung himself two days later.”
“Hung himself. My friend the bassist killed himself. He’d always been the self-loathing inward type, and then he went ahead and did it. Two days after that party.”
He shook his head, then grinned a little, if not a little guiltily.
“You see, that was the joke. That my singing had sent him over the edge. Like ‘Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough’ was just too much to bear”—he mimed pulling a noose at his neck and made a crrrking sound. “He’d had enough, you know? Like, Stop! Enough!” Again, the gesture of noose and neck.
I chuckled uncomfortably. “Jesus, Adam.”
“But wait—that sounds cruel, but this is important. That’s the joke at the birth of our union. The grim bit that melded us together. Like, I’d killed a friend but scored a lover, the same who’d one day become my wife. She still brings it up sometimes.” He rubbed at an eye—“oh we weren’t cold about it. I grieved, she supported. We talked it to death, had lots of life-affirming sex. I mean, we’d just got together, but . . . in a very real way, it’s what glued us. That hanging as much as anything.”
He shook his head in remembered disbelief.
“A morbid sort of dirty joke,” he said, “that remained entirely our own. Told mostly in bed, never shared with outsiders. I mean, you’re seriously the first I’ve told.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
Adam leaned up and nodded at the building.
“Right there,” he said. “Right up there.”
And just then he noticed. Finally. I witnessed the act of his noticing. His gaze rose, brow crinkled, he was seeing it quite clearly now. For just above that desolate building, you-know-who was hanging in the sky.
“Great Christ,” he said. “That’s insane.”
“The moon . . . you seeing this?”
“It’s laughing. Yeah.”
He froze like that, staring up at the sky. He waited, then said:
“Whatever he sees down here, it’s awfully funny.”
Adam stared up at it, not laughing back, then looked down abruptly and started the car, his face gone mostly serious.
“I don’t like that,” he said, averting his eyes. “Don’t like that at all.”
“Come on—it’s lovely!”
“Don’t like it.”
He cranked the music and U-turned swiftly, fleeing both memory and moon. Didn’t speak once until we were home, only stole a glance or two at the sky whenever we stopped in traffic. I suppose he thought it was laughing at him. He’d had, after all, some atrocious luck. Cherished car stolen on a fool’s watch. Wife and child flee the nest. Still, I think he’d say he deserved it. You could see he was resigned to the damage he’d done. Multiple years of consistent cheating? Of problem drinking and an absent heart? That’ll swing back to haunt you, sir. That’ll come back to cuff you on the wrist.
But he never gave up. I’ll grant him that. On the way home, he found new hope. He thought he spotted his stolen Dodge Dart racing by in the passing lane. We gave chase for a couple terrifying minutes, but then it turned and disappeared from view. Adam smiled broadly, sweating at the brow: “That was her,” he said. “She’s alive!” I wasn’t convinced—we’d barely seen it—but Adam read it as a blessing.
He sought hope again later—again, perhaps desperately—after landing in the lot and setting me free, keeping his half of the handcuffs on. They dangled as he waved and entered his apartment. I rubbed at my wrist and entered mine.
That’s the last I saw Adam for quite a while. He disappeared days later, leaving a ghost town across the hall. Left a serious hole in my life as well. The diapers and feedings and strolls through the park took on a different pall. I craved Adam’s push. His drama, his war. I wasn’t so sure I could declare my own.
That night, in his way, he’d kept on fighting. Fending off terror, avoiding the moon. Made the afterhours call to his available other, the little secret his wife had uncovered (and likely left the marriage over.)
Despite being outed, they got right to it; those two went to town. They woke me up around three, three-thirty, the moaning and grunts and icky escalations seeping through the vent in our living room. And when I turned on the lamp, I was shocked to find her: Shelley, already there. In panties and tanktop, arms crossed, standing under the vent. I hadn’t noticed she’d left the bed. It really sort of spooked me. She glanced my way then looked back up.
“Quite the performance here,” she whispered. “Maribel is simply on fire. Adam—I don’t know. Adam sorta sounds like the guy from ‘Slingblade’ but Maribel’s just so . . . expressive.”
I nodded. “She can be.”
“Poor Jorge,” she said, with a sympathetic pout. “No child could sleep through that. He must be terrified.”
I slid my arms around her waist; nestled my chin in the nook of her shoulder. I didn’t correct her. I let it go. Give the ghosts one last haunt, I thought. Let them be there in Shelley’s eye. Somehow that seemed hopeful. We stood under the vent in the lamp-lit night, swaying a little, listening in, seeing what we chose to see.