A MAN AND A MAN
BY ALEX MCELROY
A man and a man went to a bar. One man was a celebrity, the other was sad. The celebrity was alarmingly handsome and witty, the sad man was a nurse, a nurturing man, who tried to see the goodness of life. They went to the bar to pretend they were friends. As boys, they were friends—they jumped off roofs and set dead squirrels ablaze—but as adults they preferred to pretend.
At the bar they drank Cutty Sark and remembered out loud. They shared with each other their secrets. The sad man’s secrets were boring. This wasn’t his fault. Celebrity secrets are superior to the secrets of everyday folks. They receive fresh secrets every day, from an app on their phones, marvelous secrets, secrets too secret for everyday folks, the folks who pay taxes and fart and sneak little cookies at night. These secrets were not meant to be spread beyond the realm of celebrities, but the celebrity felt pity for his friend, so he opened his app and said: “Ryan Gosling is fucking the President.”
“Barack Obama?” said the sad man. He was floored. He could not wait to tell his wife what he had learned.
“Ha ha!” laughed the celebrity. He smiled a beam of light.
The sad man knew he’d been had and tried to conceal his displeasure. He was a small, gullible man, loving and shy, who knew too well what it was like to be played for a fool. His short temper had made him a prime target when he was a child. Children love making children incensed. And the sad man, feeling once again like the target of malevolent children, he reacted brashly. The Cutty Sark had heated his head, melting away the restraints in his brain: “Remember when you were in love with my wife?”
“I am still in love with your wife,” the celebrity said. “She is why I became a celebrity. Women cannot resist a celebrity.”
This was not the response the sad man had expected or wanted. Flustered, he ran to the bathroom, where he sat in the stall reading texts from his wife—almond milk; let’s see a movie tomorrow; when is the dentist?—and recalled the love letters he’d written to her before they were married. The letters were intense, passionate pleas in which he promised to treat her how she deserved to be treated. She was dating the celebrity then—when he was just an anxious young man with comical goals—and the sad man told her she deserved more than a selfish, wannabe actor. The sad man had an enormous heart. He emptied the juice of his heart into every letter he wrote. His unadulterated affection had attracted his wife, he reminded himself, boosting his ego as he returned to the bar.
The celebrity had ordered another round.
Cautiously, the sad man took a sip.
“Dee-dee,” said the celebrity. Dee-dee was the sad man’s nickname. Celebrities loved using nicknames. “Dee-dee I’ve got something that I need to tell you.”
A sense of foreboding enveloped the sad man. He wanted to leave, to be with his wife.
The celebrity said: “I don’t know how to say this so I’m just gonna say it, Dee-dee, because that’s how I am, a straight shooter, givin’ it straight, it’s the best I can do for us both because you deserve it, you’re a good goddamn man, my best-best friend in the whole wide world, so here it is: Dee-dee, your wife, your wife is ten thousand birds.”
“Ten thousand birds?”
“You heard that right, Dee-dee. Ten-kay, a smattering of sparrows.”
“My wife is not ten thousand birds.”
“It’s unbelievable, right? I never believed it myself. But it’s true, Dee-dee, and she’s kept it from you for reasons I don’t understand.”
“You’re unbelievable. You’re insane.” The sad man had heard of men like the men being described. Men who had come home after business trips, weekends out—hell, trips to the gym—to find in place of their wives caterpillars wiggling senselessly, or a pod of seals, flopping and slapping their fins on the carpet—but birds? Ten thousand birds? “I’m not gonna fall for your trick,” the sad man said.
The celebrity promised it wasn’t a trick.
“She’s my wife. She married me, and you’re—”
“I’m jealous, yes, because Dee-dee you stole her away from me. But me, I’ve got nothing to worry about. Someday soon she’ll walk out on you—know why?”
“Oh please, please tell me why my wife’s gonna leave.”
“Because your wife is ten thousand birds. And ten thousand birds, they cannot be caged.”
The sad man waved off the celebrity. He left the bar and started walking toward home. The air was thick and moist, like that of a bathroom after a shower. The celebrity’s words had tugged him inside out. He studied his memories. How did his wife normally speak? Chirpy and high? Her head, how did she shift her neck? Quickly? With erratic simplicity? The sad man’s hands trembled. His legs felt rubbered and goosy. He feared what he might find, or what he wouldn’t find, but see nevertheless, when he talked to his wife.
She was not on the couch. She was not in the kitchen. He heard her inside their bedroom. He put his ear to the door and sank to his knees, listening to the sound of her flapping, the rustle of wind fluttering papers and sheets, the patter of ten thousand miniature hearts relentlessly beating. He opened the door. The bedroom was empty.