BY JAKE LANCASTER
Another Dead Comedian
The grocery store is lit like a false heaven. The headlines on the tabloids in the checkout lane are so yellow and so legible: Funnyman Dies, But Questions Remain. What does his wife know? On the moving black conveyor belt I set down my ice cream, coffee, English muffins, watch them drift away from me. Is that all? the woman asks. That’s all, I say. The skin on her long slender forearm is breaking apart. A neon green Band-Aid covers a puddle of purple flesh. Do you want your receipt? I don’t want it, but I say yes, confused for the moment. I close my eyes and bow my head and say, Thank you. Thank you.
Outside and it’s Florida again, the warmth, the idle humidity, the sun going down behind the behemoth grocery store, a vast smashed horizon of gold, orange, white, white, orange, gold—creamy and hot.
Driving back to my in-laws’ house, following a loud truck with vinyl letters on its back window—the kind of letters you buy for makeshift signs—that spell out We The People, I get a text from my wife: Maybe some wine if you haven’t left yet? A pinot noir? I text her back: already left. The instrument gauges on the dash glow a cold-sea blue. I’ve been trying lately to not be so tired all the time.
Parked in the carport on the side of their house, I regret not purchasing the tabloid with the piece on the dead comedian. The anxiety pulses into my teeth. What questions do remain? What does his wife know? I could have had the whole story. Someone’s version of it, anyway. I was so close.
On the kitchen counter I pull each item from the cloudy plastic grocery sack.
You didn’t get my text about the wine?
Not in time.
You couldn’t go back?
I was almost home.
Should we just watch TV and go to sleep, then?
I guess, I say. Yeah. She’s wearing a soft loose top, her shoulder exposed. She snaps a bra strap not quite the color of her skin into some kind of better position.
There’s nothing on that we both want to see. We just stare at the screen, watching as all our options appear and disappear in the digital mist. We’re here for a month. We come somewhat close to finding something, but can’t finally commit. Anyway, it’s too late now. Every night it becomes too late to start something new. The wind rattles the plantation doors through the open glass slider. A heron barks in the mangroves. We both put pillows over our heads and shamble our separate paths to sleep. I don’t dream about the dead comedian fucking my wife and making her laugh. I don’t dream about things like that. If I dream at all, I don’t ever remember anything. For seven hours or so, I’m essentially dead, and all I remember is nothing. But what if he did fuck her in my, or someone’s, dream? What if he did make her laugh, or come, in a dream? What if in a dream things are all the same but different but all the same but different but all the same…
The Lady Who Fell and Couldn’t Get Up
There’s a community pool in the neighborhood that’s not quite a public pool but not exactly private—it’s confusing. When you’re in there sunbathing or swimming an air of exclusivity mixes with the scents of salt and chlorine, but again, it’s not private, not really exclusive at all, and all those old vigilant women from Massachusetts and Michigan and Ohio in their swim skirts and visors, and some of their husbands, generally obese, generally skeptical of their recent ascension to the ranks of the American retired with means enough to relocate to someplace winterless, who would allow this delusion of status to buoy them in some way, to float their spirits up and away from the swells of the unwashed and the unlucky and the still laboring, appear pitiable and comical, inflated (the men) and gilded (the women) caricatures of what they were told they deserved after all their expenditures and efforts here on earth, all their sacrifices.
This afternoon, these women are present, and some of their husbands, but I’m not thinking about them in the way I just described them. I’m thinking about them in the way they want to be seen, as triumphant, and in the sense that they are alive, not dead, they are indeed triumphant, and they’ll drink today, and eat, and laugh, and rest, and maybe play some bocce, some cards, some pitch or euchre or hearts, float in the warm waters of the pool, and give their flesh to the sun, and inhale the wet air, and this is one way to live and not be dead. You have to give them that.
My wife is in the chaise next to me. Little channels of ivory extend from her hips on down her thighs. We’re done thinking about having children, done with the miscarriages and misadventures in IVF. A child, a family (this sounds cruel, I know, but are two people really a family?) are just things that didn’t happen. Like how I didn’t become a power-hitting left- or center-fielder, but a corporate recruiter for biotech. We get what we get and sometimes it’s nothing.
Can your mom bring us waters if she’s coming?
They’re out of water.
Just plain waters then?
They’re out of those, too.
I’ll just drink from the pool, then, I guess.
She could bring, like, cups of water
What are you listening to? This whole time she’s had her earbuds in and hasn’t opened her eyes. She’s wearing sunglasses, new ones with flat lenses that make her look like a wannabe sham celebrity, but I can tell her eyes have remained closed. Every time I talk with my eyes closed it’s like someone else is speaking and they’re about to laugh at something that isn’t funny, or they’re about to yawn.
A Dateline episode, she says. Should I text her about water?
I climb from my chaise and slip into the warm water. It feels like being lost in satin. Are there places in space it’s not so dark?
Lilting at a depth of five feet, bending my knees just enough to keep my chin at the level of the surface water, suspended this way, looking out over the deck of the pool with all the same chaise lounges but different colorful towels draped upon them, all the people with their phones and tablets and some with books, and I see a woman with curly reddish hair, a blocky woman, a chest and stomach that look bloated and hard and (what is this a condition of? some dwarf people kind of look like this, this chest and stomach sticking out and kind of hard-looking) attempt to lift herself from her chaise but she can’t quite get up (and she has really bony knees, like burled, and little sunburned chicken legs, and am I being mean to her? this is what she looks like, feel free to describe me in an unflattering way in your own version of this part of the story at the pool) and she reaches for something to hold onto but there’s nothing there but air and she just kind of sits back down but misses the chair and is now on her ass on the stony surface with her legs out like a child in a sandbox. She’s looking around. She’s in a whole new world. She winces and vaguely struggles in a way that might suggest she is trying to get up, or levitate, but she can’t, and she gives up. Maybe not a whole new world she’s in, but our world, shifted, things just a little tweaked—a black sun, turkey vultures that trade crypto on their phones at the beach, everyone bleeding piss and pissing blood, i.e. piss and blood swapped out in the way they course through and are expelled from the body.
Someone should maybe help her. There’s always someone to help. Someone always helps. Someone out there, nearby even, is always better than you.
I dip a little lower in the pool, enough to let the water wash into the cave of my open mouth, where it remains, tidal and nervous.
After a full, productive day of following up with candidates I’m trying to place, emailing the same message I sent them exactly a week ago on LinkedIn, I’m ready to kill myself. Instead, we go out to dinner with my nephew, a junior at the University of Chicago, who’s in town for just one night, before disembarking on a spring break trip to Brazil, where he knows a Brazilian girl. He’s about what you’d expect from a junior at the University of Chicago, and so much more, of course, but also exactly what you’d expect. I’m sure he thinks the same of me. The last person I knew who wasn’t what I expected them to be was an accountant at the Swedish staffing firm I worked at who told me she wanted me to cut a small piece of flesh from her tummy, chew it up, then spit it back into her mouth, then she’d spit it back into my mouth, and we’d continue this exchange as we made rather basic love in the missionary position until one or both of us had an orgasm or the piece of flesh was chewed away to nothing, or accidentally swallowed. I never took her up on this.
The Bonefish Grill has bad acoustics, but a decent grouper sandwich, although the server tells me it might be flounder, and not grouper, but she’s not sure. Anyway, blackened, I say.
Anthony, my nephew, knows he’s going on, but knows we’re all—my wife, my mother in-law, my step-father-in-law—too polite or disinterested or confused to stop him. Modernity this, modernity that. He drinks his gin and tonic like it’s water.
Modernity made sovereignty, he says, because reason became the primary modality. And so my life is constantly threatened by the other. We feel this now but we haven’t always, at least not so acutely. Politics knows this and has cornered the market, so to speak, on the fear of death. Mobilized it. So very broadly, necropolitics is the subjugation of life to the power of death, and every modern state that has granted itself the right to kill, which is every modern state, is engaged in it. That’s basically what the paper is about, but applied specifically to South Sudan, because it’s a new country, newish, anyway. I’m afraid it’s not too original.
I think you’re onto something there, though, my step-father-in-law says. He tears a small piece of rustic bread in half, putting one half on his plate, the other back in the shared basket. For forty years he sold Oreck vacuums to custodial concerns in the Milwaukee metro area. His teeth he’s grinded away at for so long they’re all just little grey ghosts.
What’s the point? I ask, so brusquely that I surprise everyone, myself included. Something inside my wife’s face falls.
What’s the point? Anthony says.
Of the paper, I say.
Everyone waits on an answer.
What do you mean? he says.
Why are your writing it?
To understand, I guess. He drinks from his drink, but there’s nothing left, just the sound of shifting ice cubes.
To understand what?
A huffy breath escapes from the back of his throat. What?
My wife spreads butter on her bread. My mother-in-law picks the torn half piece from the basket with her long fingers with the long nails lacquered in a clear finish. Through the restaurant, along the back wall, there’s an aquarium with a bed of shiny black pebbles, fans of pink and red coral, shifts of fish orange and yellow and blue, and a sucker species stuck to the glass, an abyss for a mouth, an absence of sound. But maybe if you put your ear to the glass you could hear. Hear the sound of the water swilling through.
My wife and I take our nightly walk shortly after dinner, just before the sun sets. It’s a quiet, vacant part of the day. Daylight turns sour. Lizards draw away from the grass and open spaces and back into their dripping trees. We all seem to be an invasive species here. We experiment with very short bursts of hand-holding.
This evening, like all previous evenings, the couple in the pink stucco house are seated in their garage, the garage door open, in their matching camouflage camp chairs, each one holding a small white dog in their lap. The dogs are identical, right down to the baby blue bows keeping their hair up atop their heads in a kind of fountain effect. A high pony, my wife has informed me. The dog the man holds, I’ve noticed, doesn’t bark or move or blink or wag his tail or loll his tongue or otherwise betray any life-like behaviors. It is of my opinion that the dog the man keeps in his lap is a taxidermied version of its former living self. Heretofore, I’ve not shared this opinion. Heretofore, I looked away from irreality. Heretofore, just seconds ago, I was someone else.
Have you noticed anything strange about the dog in that guy’s lap? It’s identical to the one in the lady’s lap?
That’s not so strange, is it? Twin dogs? I step around a fallen green palm-fruit. They’re everywhere in yards and on sidewalks, but I never see them fall. I have seen an iguana fall out of a tree, though, one morning when it got so cold all the iguanas froze and fell from the trees. No, I say, I think it’s a stuffed dog.
Like, it died and they took it to a taxidermist and had it stuffed and made to look kind of life-like. It doesn’t move or bark like the other one.
And the guy just holds it in his lap like that? Petting it and everything?
I’m pretty sure.
I look up to see anything fall from a tree, anything at all, because maybe now’s the time, when I trip on a crack in the sidewalk, falling down first onto the palms of my hands, then my knees. My wife laughs at first, then becomes concerned, then laughs again when she hears me laughing at myself.
Help me up, I say.
She stands over me with her hand out. What do you think they say about us? she says. What do they find strange about us?
I guess, I don’t know, I guess. Maybe they think it’s weird that we’re just out here walking around, not going anywhere, waiting for things to fall from trees, that we’re exactly the same height.
The next night she tells me that she agrees, the dog doesn’t look very alive. But what I noticed, she says, when we’re about to the crack in the sidewalk that I tripped on, was that the woman holding the dog that’s alive, she looks kind of taxidermied, too. I’m not joking. I think she’s, like, a mummy.
I look at my open palms, skinned and raw. It’s been so long since I’ve had some flesh scraped away, since I needed to heal on the outside.
Soldiers and Realtors
On these giant televisions people have nowadays in their homes, my personal home no exception, the talking heads on the news channels with their dire stares and their warnings and their dead-faced disbelief appear as Oz did before Dorothy and Toto found out what was really up. I’m just as mesmerized as the next person, but maybe a little more aware of the mesmerizing effect, so most nights I beat it to the cigar bar, where there are people and drinks and actual smoke and TV screens that only seem to show deep sea fishing without any sound.
In one of the many soft chairs on the front patio I enjoy a cigar called the Super Fly and a beer called Jai Alai. The woman serving me wears a black leather corset and black lipstick. For the most part I’m ok with being alone amongst other people.
Two separate parties that arrived at about the same time settle in across from me. Their private clusters disarticulate in the narrow, crowded space. One group I take to be realtors. They share listings. Every other utterance is a price. They talk about how awful foreign people are. The other group, I deduce, are soldiers or ex-soldiers, Army, returning to St. Petersburg for the funeral of a fallen comrade, not a friend, necessarily, no one seems too broken up about anything, but just someone they knew, someone who served with them. They talk about Bosnia—the food, the women, a river that burned—and argue about what kind of dress this particular funeral entails, greens, blues, or civvies. People from each party are literally bumping into one another. The realtors possess what I figure the soldiers consider a disrespectful tone about nothing in particular, but everything, their whole orientation toward life and career. Glances zoom back and forth. I fear an eruption of violence. I ask for another beer. I puff from my cigar. I eat a piece of dark chocolate from the pocket on my chest. The stress hangs with the grey and white smoke. Gesturing heads and hands and the servers in motion drift the fog in lazy starts. It all burns off when one of the realtors, a black woman in a white jacket, laughs with one of the soldiers as they talk about their children. They each have a girl. Each girl just turned two. There’s always time for a temporary ceasefire between the moms and dads of little girls.
Through the clarity I glance at the television hanging up above the heads of the parties that have somewhat become one. It’s a fishing show, but they’re not on the seas. A truck and a trailered boat are backed up to a dry lake. It holds no water. Just sand and rocks and desiccated fish the color of cement. The tiki bar across the alley hosts Country Karaoke Wednesdays. A very old man sings a desperate song popularized by a very young woman.
To protect their new furniture—a loveseat, a sofa, a reclining chair—my mother-in-law drapes old blankets over every inch of fresh upholstered surface. One of the blankets is from my wife’s childhood—a quilt with plaid and yellow squares and one square in the middle with a swath cut from her polyester field hockey jersey. Apparently, her teammate’s mom made them for all the seniors. Last year when we visited, my wife and I made love on the couch, on the quilt, after her mom and step-dad had gone to sleep in their room. We were so quiet. We probably didn’t have to be. Once I finished inside of her she pulled her knees up to her chest and shifted back and forth on her spine like a rocking horse.
The next day, she told me she thought the quilt held some kind of reproductive powers, because when she’d started fucking her field hockey assistant coach her senior year, often atop the quilt spread out over the passenger side seat of her Buick LaCrosse, she wound up pregnant. She had an abortion, of course. We’ve been together long enough, she said. No more secrets.
This year, we have not yet reenacted this ritual of conception, not even for fun. Like I said, we’re no longer trying for anything.
Death on the Beach
I’m running on the beach. My t-shirt is swaddled around my head. I’m a sultan. I’m a swami. I litter scraps of myself in the sand. Memories are a disfigured future agonized over. Sea foam washes over broken shells. I could go on. A hypodermic needle. A plastic toy tomato. You know what a beach looks like, don’t you? This one’s about the same, only a little different.
Clouds, though. Clouds like nothing before. Clouds as twisted stomachs. Clouds as fetal tissue stretched across the grey horizon. I turn around. I feel a rainbow coming on.
How was it? my wife asks.
Ok. The weather’s changing, huh?
Up there, she says, putting her hand above her brow, looking up the beach. But not down there.
Down the beach the sky is clear blue, a few relict clouds disintegrating. I tighten my t-shirt around my head.
Let’s go for a little walk. That way. Away from, she scornfully tips the back of her head at the clouds, that way.
We’re the same height but I have shorter legs so her natural gait ends up outpacing my natural gait, though it’s only noticeable, my lagging behind, over somewhat longer distances, say, a half or three quarters of a mile, that is if we don’t regulate our steps to stay in sync, which began as a courtesy but by now we do out of habit. I wonder which is ruder, walking ahead or not keeping up.
A purple sea urchin—prickly, strange, pretty—materializes at our feet, washed in on the tides. It’s about the size of a tennis ball. Is it alive? I say.
How can you tell?
I don’t know. Touch it?
It’s all spiky.
I think they’re poisonous, too.
So don’t touch it.
Which is it, then? Dead or alive? Neither of us are willing to do what it takes to find out. Both, then: dead and alive. We keep walking away from the wet grey clouds and into the light of a seemingly different day. Light day. Irrepressible day. Dry blue day. No more hungry begging screaming birds day. A teenage girl cries into her phone as she peels the straps of her swimsuit top off her shoulders. A man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth who appears to have had his breasts removed digs a hole in the sand and buries the peel from an orange. We stop to take off our sandals. We carry them by our fingers. We leave light or heavy impressions depending on the relative density of whatever’s beneath our feet.
An Old Man Almost Chokes on a Carrot
Don’t look, but, look at this guy eating carrots. He looks like a baby, but he’s got to be, like, ninety.
My wife steals a quick glance, looks back down at her menu, and speaks into it: There’s something wrong with him.
What? Like what? She drinks from her glass of rosé. I drink from my pint of Jai Alai.
I don’t know. Should we share something?
How do you mean?
I think I want something for myself, I say. The Jai Alai tastes like bubbles and caramel and leather. The old man who looks like a baby spreads hummus on his carrots with a butter knife. I mean he looks like a baby in the way his skin is so milky white and unblemished, and his hands just kind of sort of work, the carrots once they’re in his mouth he just kind of sort of agitates with his gums, and there is generally an aura of innocence and inexperience drifting up and off his person. How do you live so long and appear so unaffected by it? In his dining party are two women half his age, one who looks like Paul Simon, the other in a dress of silver sequins.
Maybe it’s an autoimmune disease.
I don’t know what those are, I say.
It’s like when your body attacks your body.
But he’s like the opposite of that.
His body is retreating from his body?
Sort of, I guess. Maybe more like his body is still loving his body.
Both of us have lost our wedding rings. The butter knives here are the kind that are really quite sharp, like they’re steak knives in disguise. More bread. Always more miraculous bread. People don’t eat as much bread, maybe, these days? People don’t believe in miracles, maybe, these days?
I say, He may have just taken really good care of himself. Not had to work. Stayed out of the sun. Never used a computer. Etcetera.
My wife’s fingertips are all pinched together at her chest, just sort of pulsing there, like she’s summoning thoughts not from her mind, but her heart. She’s wearing a low cut shirt that looks like vintage lingerie. We’re of a strange age. We’re between generations and styles and it’s always like, how to be today and with and for whom?
I’m just going to have the lobster ravioli. Is that ok?
No, I say. You have to get something else.
She rolls her eyes and looks over at the man, finally seeing, I think, what I mean. But maybe not. I’ve never had any idea whatsoever what might be happening in her head. Oh, she says, oh. Oh, god. Her hand she flattens out and presses against her chest, this pose of concern.
I look at the man and he’s leaning forward just a bit, carrot particles falling from his mouth. He’s not exactly choking, just kind of gagging, spitting up. The woman in the dress pats him on the back. He makes a terrible hacking sound, like a big swamp kind of Florida bird, Cenozoic and annoyed, just a little unstrung. Both women crowd around him as the pat on the back didn’t alleviate the situation. A server with glowing martinis on a tray stops and stands at their table, watching. A lot of people are watching. The air in the room grows heavier. He spits up more carrot shards. The woman in the dress pats him on the back again and the pat echoes. The woman who looks like Paul Simon starts typing into her phone. She brings it up to her ear. She holds the phone to her ear as the man slowly lifts his hand from under the table and uses it to wipe his mouth of spittle and carrot. He uses both hands to push at the air in front of both women he’s with, telling them with his hands to sit back down, for fuck’s sake, sit the fuck back down. He takes another carrot from the tray that also has peeled cucumbers and Kalamata olives. He swipes his knife through the hummus and spreads the hummus on another carrot. He takes another bite. His cheeks are all reddened and his lips are bright red and tears drip from his eyes. Did I tell you that he’s wearing a Supreme hoodie? A pink Supreme hoodie with the red block logo across the chest? Maybe he’s not an old man who looks like a baby, but a baby who looks like an old man. Maybe we can’t love or hate ourselves any more or less than God allows.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula
I’m wondering as we watch, in bed, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, how differently two people can see the same thing. All I can see in this movie from the late 90’s now appearing on Netflix is sex and tears. Someone else might see violence and blood. It’s sensual and erotic but also gory and frightening. Gary Oldman as Dracula licking the blood from a straight edge razor: scary and sexy. The effects are all old-school Hollywood, shot in-camera—the tyranny of CGI only incubating in the studios. There are shadows used for dramatic effect, for fuck’s sake. Actual shadows. As homage, also, to Nosferatu, the original. None of these thoughts I share with my wife. I keep them to myself. How different would our relationship be if we simply said more of what was happening in our minds? How different would we be? What happens to a thought when it’s changed into sounds we call words? How do you capture, on film, a shadow that transforms into something beyond the silhouette of its source?
When Winona Ryder says, Take me away from all this death, I turn my head to look at my wife.
When Anthony Hopkins, as Van Helsing, says, They’re not dead, but undead, forever hungry, I turn my head to look at my wife.
When Gary Oldman, as tragic and monstrous Dracula, says, Look at what your God has done to me, I turn my head to look at my wife. She’s fallen asleep. A vampire has escaped from her glass coffin. I’m suddenly very hard. I slip my hand down there and tussle with purpose. They find the vampire; she vomits blood in their faces. I come on my hand and belly. My wife is still asleep. I’ve been so quiet and moved so imperceptibly. I massage the semen between my fingers; it smells like the soil from a battlefield before the age of guns. Stakes are driven through hearts. Dracula cries. Winona Ryder cries. Keanu Reeves cries. Everyone cries. Everyone bleeds. Everyone drips with life. My wife sleeps, the sheets bunched up beneath her chin like waves of milk. A breeze drifts through the night, moaning through the open door and window. A motorcycle on the boulevard downshifts from its highest gear. With the sticky tip of my pinky finger I try to wipe drool away from the corner of her mouth, possibly making things worse. I’ve always only been able to make things the same or worse.
The room we sleep in is blue and small—a sliding glass door, a window with a crank that needs a touch of oil, a white dresser with gold handles. It was once a child’s, this room, so we’re told by my mother-in-law, every year when we arrive for our visit and she shows us down the hall.