“Tighter, Goodbye” by Zachary Tyler Vickers

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About the Author
Zachary Tyler Vickers is the author of Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, from Break Away Books, Indiana University Press. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was the Provost’s Fellow. He is the recipient of the Richard Yates Prize and Clark Fisher Ansley Prize for excellence in fiction. His work has appeared in numerous journals. Find more at ztvickers.com.
Tighter, Goodbye

Snapmare is certain the birds are from Ma and Pa.

Lately, he’s been wrestling thoughts about Polly. Will she reciprocate his feelings or reject them? Then the two robins landed on his sill, their beautiful copper breasts speaking to him. They embraced, chirped, flew to a telephone wire.

So now Snapmare is up, decided. He dresses in Pa’s decorated police uniform, his finest attire. Polishes the badge. Leaves the pistol holster empty. Combs his hair to properly conceal the scar serrated across the left side of his head. Examines his dapper image in the mirror. Places Ma’s wedding ring in his breast pocket.

Through the duplex dividing wall, Snapmare hears Ingrid’s televised game shows, her gibberish: a product of her cough syrup habit. She guzzles, an antiqued pinky finger mournfully extended. Says prairies to photographs of her dead cats and a boy.

Not prairies, Snapmare thinks, concentrating.

The wreck during the ’92 snowstorm left Snapmare aphasiaed. Words jumble, linger at the tip of his randomly inarticulate tongue. Ma and Pa carpooled to heaven. Life insurance remedied little. Snapmare makes ends meet. Nine-to-Fives at the KwikStop, clerking beside his freckled crush, Polly. He’s training to become the professional wrestling tag team partner of his buddy, Nimrod. Wants Polly to be his redheaded ringside diva, hear her cheering him on from just outside the ropes. The scar on his head is an intimidating accessory, the difference between one heartbeat and the next. That difference being everything.

Down the hall, Tiff’s door is closed. Snapmare guesses she is writing more poetry about the crash, using internal organ metaphors for engine parts beside stick figures with the left arms and legs scribbled out. He wipes his nose with a pinching motion: a nervous habit. Wonders what did she do with the pink carnations? Peeks into the keyhole, spots a man with green hair and pierced nipples hugging his bathrobed sister vigorously from behind. One arm is tattooed like a python: eyes on the knuckles, a tongue winding along the inside of his thumb. The man makes the hand into a snapping mouth. Hisses, elated.

Tiff’s childhood wallpaper is faded in just the right places so the pirouetted ballerinas’ faces are blank, indiscriminate. The belt on the carpet has a buckle of two dice rolled snake eyes. The trashcan holds the bouquet of carnations. Snapmare frowns at them. Beside the bed, Tiff’s prosthetic left arm and leg lean like two tangible nightmares.

The floorboards groan under Snapmare. Through the door, Tiff explains how Mr. Vegas has commissioned her to help him become an EMT. The new technique is called The Horizontal Heimlich. Requires meticulous practice. They have to be almost nude because it’s easier for a novice to find the abdomen without the impediment of fabric.

But she lies.

Just like when Mr. Milwaukee commissioned her to help him become a Marine. Tiff counted push-ups beneath him. Had to be almost nude to properly scrutinize form. Like when Mr. Dallas hired her to help him practice for the rodeo. Tiff simulated the bucking bull. Had to be almost nude because bareback riding is more difficult than saddled. Just like all the others: Mr. Cincinnati, Mr. Toronto, Mr. Orlando, Mr. Newark. All carrying airport luggage, though they never stayed long enough to need it.

Snapmare rolls his eyes. Who is she trying to fool?

Snapmare pinches his nose and tells Tiff he’s running an errand, patting Ma’s wedding ring in his pocket. Thinks of the robin’s coppery breast, Polly’s long coppery hair. Polly is working a shift at the KwikStop. Today is Snapmare’s day off. Today is going to change the meaning of everything. He sits at the bus stop and considers Ingrid’s prairies. Imagines Ingrid kneeling over the photographs of her dead cats and the boy, her spindly fingers intersected, eyes squeezed shut, fuzzy upper lip cough syruped.

Thinks, Prairies prairies prairies.

***

Mr. Vegas completes The Horizontal Heimlich, dresses.

Out the window, children pick teams for wiffleball. The scrawniest kid gets picked last. Tiff tucks bangs behind a flushed ear, waiting for the moment to turn as it always does while the airport men dress. The moment when their endearment ends. The sudden reality of the situation. The moment when the men become ashamed of her and flee.

Fake endearment is still endearment, Tiff justifies. But she lies.

The moment turns. Mr. Vegas lets his tongue pant from his chapped mouth, observing the late afternoon light fingering beneath Tiff’s bathrobe, tickling at the beginnings of the alleged erased side. Licks his lips. Wants to see her scars. Tugs the bathrobe. Wants to see where the limbs are supposed to go. So punk. Tells her she is beautiful all broken.

Tiff slaps his face, cries out. Mr. Vegas covers her mouth.

Ingrid turns up her television: guess the price; win the dinette set.

Mr. Vegas tugs open the bathrobe. Ogles the raised glossy scars, the two partial limbs puckered like suspended kisses. So punk. Throats a purr, shivers.

Tiff kicks at Mr. Vegas and hits the belt buckle. Mr. Vegas groans, hisses through gapped teeth. Raises the python, the tongue tattoo on his palm spirals inward like a bullseye. Tiff cringes. The moment becomes brutally honest.

Ingrid’s television audience cheers. The announcer hoots.

Mr. Vegas tells Tiff he lied when he said she was beautiful.

Tiff nods, “I know.”

***

Snapmare finds the correct word: Ingrid’s prayers.

He sighs, relieved. Imagines the Wernicke area of his temporal lobe as a disorganized filing cabinet, a copier with a paper jam, a junkyard. Down the street a game of wiffleball commences. Potholes are bases. Home plate is a pile of curbed black trash bags loitering like the Polish mechanics that smoke outside The Bowl-O-Drome. One of the boys has wrapped his wiffleball bat with aluminum foliage.

Not foliage, Snapmare thinks, concentrating. Pictures aluminum foliage’s crumpling sound, its silvery shine, knows it can’t be microwaved. Recalls how he and Polly met while stacking boxes of it on his first day at the KwikStop.

Thinks, Foliage foliage foliage.

Polly’s unconventional whistling had intrigued Snapmare. The peculiar way he combed his hair had invited her curiosity. They stacked boxes of aluminum foliage and chatted, discovering they’d briefly attended Upstate CC. Polly studied ornithology. Shared whistled impersonations of loons, owls, mallards. Snapmare dropped out after the accident to train as Nimrod’s tag team partner. Shared several maneuvers gently on her until it aroused him. Went back to stacking aluminum foliage with a hunched posture.

Foil! Snapmare retrieves. He straightens his tie. Readjusts the pistol holster.

A wiffleball swerves up to the telephone line and strikes a robin. The other birds break into beautiful violent trysts above the street, capturing Snapmare’s attention. A boy rounds pothole bases. Nobody notices the struck robin helicoptering to the sidewalk. The other birds reconvene on the line squawking, disgruntled.

After stacking aluminum foil, Snapmare and Polly didn’t want to go home. They punched out, went miniature golfing. Polly shudders when two golfers argue. The divorce has escalated: the accusing, the cheating, the breaking kitchenware. Polly is another chipped saucer. She eats with paper plates and plastic utensils. After a fight, Polly’s father hugs her, which means he’s leaving for a while. The tighter the hug, the longer the goodbye. The hugs are getting tighter. Ornithology fascinates Polly because of the aerial freedom, ease of escape. She has a pet parakeet named Keet that she confides in. Asked Snapmare if he knew hummingbirds could fly backwards? That the Pitohui has poisonous feathers? That storks have no call because they lack a syrinx? Snapmare didn’t, logging all the facts on paper in his wallet. Polly told him her parents took little interest in the facts. Nobody ever did.

Snapmare explained the peculiar way he combs his hair: the scar, his malfunctioning Wernicke area. He described the weightlessness of a vehicle spinning over ice. The headlights screaming into the driver’s side windows, fragmenting through the frost into one thousand slivers. The shatter. Pieces of glass brushed Snapmare’s face like childhood bedtime stories. Seatbelts hugged tighter, goodbye. Each heartbeat, a lifetime. Between heartbeats lingered a memory of a Fourth of July: he and Tiff throwing a Frisbee. How Tiff was silhouetted in the bruising evening just before the fireworks exploded. How she trailed the Frisbee, anticipating the give and take of the breeze. How ably she laughed and ran.

Polly touched his hand then. Snapmare allowed the good memory to linger.

Polly has softly tiptoed her teacup heart and on numerous occasions attempted to investigate it, only to be quickly reminded of the sharp specific sounds of specific dishes shattering between her parents in the kitchen.

The bus pulls up. Snapmare boards.

Through each intersection, he almost feels the turbulent vehicle weightlessness again. Squeezes the armrests. An unpleasant odor revolves the mustached driver. An elderly woman with bunched stockings fiddles with a hearing aid. The ads are Sharpied with lewd graffiti. The graspable leather loops for standing passengers sway like impatient nooses. The potholes, wiffleball bases, give the bus natural percussion: thump thump thump.

Snapmare takes the paper from his wallet:

Storks have no call because they lack a syrinx.

Penguins, Ostriches & Dodos can’t fly.

A duck’s quack doesn’t echo.

The bus stops. People get off. People get on.

Snapmare feels a tap on his shoulder. Nimrod sits, wearing his camouflage spandex costume. His lopsided pecs twitch. Abs, like truck pistons. A helmet supporting buck antlers from Uncle Angelo’s Taxidermy Villa casts shadows like winter tree limbs.

Professional wrestling personas fascinate Snapmare. Life inside the ring is organized. Life outside the ring only seems so in the past after it has complicated further. The persona allows for victory, in the ring, in the heart.

Snapmare has only wrestled once: a local tournament. Nimrod paid the entry fee, a birthday gift. In the ring, everything slowed, simplified. Snapmare’s mind shifted up into another gear. A white-hot instinct, like piercing high beams. He became muscle-memoried. Nearly broke his opponent’s arm. The bell rang several times before Snapmare heard it, downshifting. Released the squealing opponent. Snapmare wiped his enormous wet forehead. Nimrod slapped his back, grinning. Told him he was born to brawl.

“You brawl today?” Snapmare asks, tucking the facts into his breast pocket.

“No, bub. Soon, I hope. Them tryouts in Poughkeepsie is in eight weeks. Healthy this go. Just got these made. Take a look, see. Gives me an edge.” Nimrod opens an envelope and exhibits photos of himself dressed as his persona: The Mighty Nimrod. He stands in front of a curtain painted like a forest, bending a rubber rifle, lifting a plastic log over his head, uppercutting a taxidermied bear.

Snapmare points to the uppercut. “What’s that?”

“Them’s a difficult maneuver, bub. For professionals only. Learned it from watching reruns of old Punchy Phillips fights on the cable.”

“But I got to know it if I’m going to be your pardoner,” he replies. “I mean partner.”

Nimrod tucks the photos away. “I told you, bub. You can’t be my partner. I’m ruttin’ for heavyweight champ. Them tag teamers is just a sideshow act.”

Snapmare has always known this. But he considers the alternative: outside the ring. Wipes his nose with a pinching motion.

The bus stops. People get off. People get on.

Nimrod readjusts his antlers, grins. “Tiff get them pink carnations?”

Snapmare recalls the pink carnations in his sister’s trashcan. The prosthetic limbs just beyond them like squandered vases. Nimrod signed every card Secret Admirer. Every item he sent to Tiff she immediately discarded.

Snapmare gulps, nods.

“And?”

“And she liked them?” Snapmare says.

Nimrod glows. “I knew we was destined right off when she didn’t look askance at them antlers! Just inquisitively, and rightfully so.” An antler gets stuck in a leather loop. A hair-in-a-canned businessman stands in the aisle watching, looking askance. Notices Snapmare in the decorated police uniform, nods respectfully. Nimrod pops the antler free of the leather loop, banging his elbow, rubbing the lump, “I remember Tiff said a carnation is simultaneously beautiful and violent. Like a scrum of doves. Them florist only had pink.”

“Pink is her favorite?” Snapmare offers.

Nimrod puffs his chest. “See! My guts told me pink was good! Them’ll mean more to her. Them’s how you get the girl, bub. Them seemingly unimportant details everybody else overlooks? You make a big deal.”

Snapmare tries to recall a detail about Polly he might have overlooked.

“She mention the card? Dotted the i in Secret Admirer with a heart this time.”

“Made her salami?” Snapmare concentrates. “I mean smile,” he sighs.

The bus stops. Nimrod hoots. “I’ll tell you what, bub. The only thing I can think of worse than this,” he says, exhibiting an uppercut, “is bein’ damn lonesome. My luck’s sure lookin’ up!” Snapmare agrees, patting Ma’s ring in his pocket. Nimrod steps off the bus. The antlers clatter. Passengers gossip. The bus driver hems and haws.

From the sidewalk Nimrod turns. “But I wish I could see them smile myself.”

Snapmare nods.

The doors shut on an antler. Nimrod yanks it free just as the bus moves.

***

The python lunges, slithering so punk over Tiff’s residual limbs where the scars come together like red fireworks in static explosion. Tiff acknowledges her phantom limbs. Scratches at imaginary itches, wiggles invisible toes and fingers. A red handprint develops across her face. Her lower lip swells romantically. She concentrates on her heartbeat. Worries about what other parts of her might be phantom, too.

The python licks an armpit scar. Mr. Vegas throats a purr. Tiff focuses her attention on the pink carnations in the trash. Maybe the Secret Admirer is the retired judge with the sick wife: Mr. LA? The Indian podiatrist: Mr. Austin? The department store Santa: Mr. NY, NY? She ponders their fake endearment. Understands as the moment turns so does the meaning of everything, so do promises. Promises can’t be permanent truth, only temporary. A promise is only meant in the isolated moment. A promise is just an eventual lie.

Like someone who promises to love you forever will break your heart.

Like someone who promises to be there forever will leave you.

But the airport men are the exception, Tiff thinks. Moments turn but they’re still meaningless, still liars. No expectations with them, no disappointment. To avoid promises, love a liar. Never let a promise be made, never let it be unfulfilled.

Still, as the python kisses a thigh scar, Tiff finds herself hoping one liar will come along and save her. The fairytale prince of her youth. Make her believe in his promises. Make her believe in that impossible Happily Ever After.

Mr. Vegas pinches a hip scar. So punk. Purrs.

A nearby mirror reflects Tiff’s glossy red fireworks. She is reminded of a Fourth of July: throwing a Frisbee with her brother. How without hesitation he released the Frisbee to her. How she chased and believed in that offering from him, anticipating the breeze, leaping without question for it. She misses those days, her brother. Blames her shut door. Shut for good reason. Mr. Vegas slithers over a belly laceration. She doesn’t want her brother to see her this way. Wants to be recalled as the girl on that summer occasion. She recalls not watching the fireworks collectively. Rather, she chose one individual ember as it escaped the furious center and followed it until it fizzled out and vanished alone into the night. She remembers fearing what happened to the fizzled embers once they faded away. Remembers the moment become terrifying. Remembers doing this over and over again.

***

Nimrod flexes in the mirror. Slips on a blazer over his costume. Pins a pink carnation to it, pricks a finger. A tear of blood blooms. He hopes Tiff will put two-and-two together and smile. He hopes to see that smile for himself.

He walks to Tiff’s. A flagpole outside the duplex has a police precinct flag fluttering at half-mast. Nimrod salutes it, hand to antlers. In a game of street wiffleball, the scrawniest kid strikes out swinging. The pitcher says, “Cha-ching!” Robins heckle from the telephone wire. Another limps on the sidewalk below, twittering softly.

Nimrod rings the doorbell. Nobody answers. Curtains flap in an open window. Nimrod peeks in. A green-haired man with an arm tattooed like a snake investigates Tiff. He sees Tiff’s scars, like asterisks. The puffy handprint on her cheek waves hello.

His heart rallies. Muscles territorially bulge. He snorts, clambors inside.

The antlers clatter. Tiff catches his reflection. She gasps, clutching her bathrobe shut. The green-haired man jumps up, shrieks. Nimrod throws an uppercut and topples him. Body slams him as if soaring from the top turnbuckle.

The volume of Ingrid’s television increases: spin the wheel; go bankrupt.

The man’s eyes water, mascara streaks. Nimrod sits on his back and bends his legs into a figure four Cloverleaf hold. Tucks a leg under his armpit and yanks. The man makes a noise that resembles air escaping the pinched mouth of a balloon.

Ingrid’s television amplifies: buy a vowel; solve the puzzle.

The python slaps the carpet in agony.

Responding instinctively to a tap out, Nimrod releases. The man scrambles out the window. The wiffleball game suspends. Children watch the man limp down the street, giggling at his dark denim piss stain. Then the game resumes.

Nimrod wipes his brow, catches his breath, proud of the perfectly executed maneuvers. Hasn’t lost a step since his injuries, his setbacks. He’s confident about the upcoming tryouts. Tiff trembles against her headboard, clutching the prosthetic limbs. Nimrod raises his hands, takes a step backward. “Just seen them bub hurtin’ you is all. My guts told me you needed help. Brawlin’s kind of in my blood like that,” he says.

“He wasn’t hurting me,” Tiff says, looking down.

Nimrod gulps. “Them bub ain’t your bubfriend is he?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Tiff says, adjusting a bra strap. Looks up. “I’ve met you. Your my brother’s friend with the horns?”

“Yes. And them is antlers.” Nimrod points to his helmet.

Tiff lowers her prosthetics. “Could you?” she asks, making a circle with a finger. “Oh,” Nimrod says, nodding. Shuts his eyes, turns around. Hears some fumbling, straps tightening. “I rung them doorbell,” Nimrod adds.

“I heard it,” Tiff says. “OK.”

Nimrod turns. Tiff looks different with the prosthetics. Maybe like herself before the crash? Nimrod didn’t know that Tiff. Thinks she is more herself now without the prosthetics, more knowledgeable about the other side of the world: its cruel, below-the-belt nature. He knew of bad luck himself: the pulled groin before the Poughkeepsie tryouts last year, the broken wrist before that. He hasn’t auditioned in years. Has plenty of scars of his own. They could share them together. The prosthetics are just lonesome plastic lies.

“Please don’t stare.”

“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, honest.”

“My brother isn’t home.”

Nimrod blushes. “Them ain’t why I’m here.”

Tiff scrunches her face, confused. Nimrod puffs his chest, emphasizes his blazer. Tiff sees the pinned pink carnation. She puts two-and-two together. Nimrod blushes harder. He takes another step backward.

But Tiff doesn’t smile. Her eyes widen. Looks to Nimrod’s feet.

Nimrod steps backward, knocks over the trashcan. The pink carnations spill out.

The moment becomes silent.

“I guess you’re going to leave so you might as well do it,” Tiff says.

Nimrod glances to the window.

Tiff waits for the moment to fulfill its turn.

“I’ll go when you ask me to,” Nimrod says. He picks up the unopened envelope and flicks it to her. Tiff anticipates the breeze from the window, catches it. The scrawniest kid hits into a double play. Next door, Ingrid’s television goes to commercial break. The robin in the lawn falls over, its wing sort of waves in a gust.

Tiff opens the envelope, reads.

“How did you know I think a carnation looks like a scrum of doves?”

“I remembered from the poem you read at your Ma and Pa’s eulogy.”

“You dotted the i with a heart.” Tiff touches her mouth. Nimrod twiddles his thumbs. He observes the handprint on her cheek. Desires to kiss it, heal it.

“I should get some ice for them swellin’,” Nimrod says.

“Wait,” Tiff says, grabbing Nimrod’s hand. “Just stay with me a minute?”

“OK.” He sits beside her. Tiff rereads, squeezes Nimrod’s hand. Nimrod gently squeezes back, reassuring her he is still right there.

***

The KwikStop muzak plays behind the buzz of a dilapidated ice cream chest leaking a small puddle of cream. The colorful window advertisements filter the incoming light so the various conveniences look made of stained glass. Bernie is the other clerk on duty, wearing padlocks for earrings, snorting lines of Pixy Stix off a comic book. Snapmare asks for Polly. Bernie inhales, rolling his eye whites, tickled by the sugar buzz. Tugs a depressed earlobe, nods toward the back. “Cig break,” he grunts.

But Polly doesn’t smoke, Snapmare thinks.

The parking lot out back contains two cars and a dumpster perched with strays. Wrappers swirl over the damp pavement, mock derelict autumn. Polly sits on a bumper, her long red hair and smock strings curl flirtatiously in the gusts. Her hands cover her face, her torso hiccups. Bony elbows jut like stubby flightless chick wings.

Two tabbies spat, leap into the dumpster. She lowers her hands.

Polly’s thick glasses magnify teary eyes.

Snapmare thinks, Hornbills have long black curling eyelashes.

Polly’s sobs treble and tweet.

Snapmare thinks, Storks have no call because they lack a syrinx.

Polly hugs Snapmare. “Keet escaped,” she says. She was petting him while her parents fought. Keet nibbled peanut shells. Polly confided. How could her parents argue like this? Could they have ever loved each other? Was it a lie from the beginning?

Then another dish shattered in the kitchen: Gram’s hand-painted ceramic platter.

Frightened, Keet flew from Polly’s finger out a window.

Each of her sobs dizzies Snapmare. Like he was spinning in the weightless vehicle again. Like when he was with Polly at the Cineplex and her parents called, lobbying her to choose a side, a person to live with. An onscreen concession stand ad pictured two cartoon candy bars eating each other. Like when he was recently with Polly at The Bowl-O-Drome when her father showed up and told her they were definitely going to part, giving Polly his wedding band and her mother’s ring. Hugged her tighter than he ever had. A nearby 7-10 split teetered at the calamity of her father’s indifferent use of “part.”

“There, there,” Snapmare soothes. Polly calms.

“I thought today was your day off?” she says, taking in the decorated police uniform, the shiny badge. Polly cocks her head.

Then Snapmare drops to a knee.

“I have generous infection for you,” Snapmare begins.

Not infection, he thinks, furrowing. “I mean generous affliction.” Snapmare straightens his tie. Imagines the Wernicke area of his temporal lobe as a gummed-up piston, a buzzing ice cream chest leaking cream, a thrift store sofa with a spring bursting through its cushion. The correct word on the very tip of his tongue. Pictures pink carnations, a game of Frisbee, two coppery-breasted robins embracing, a ring.

He reaches into his pocket.

“I have generous erections for you,” he says.

Polly blushes, grabs Snapmare’s wrist before it leaves his pocket.

Snapmare scrunches, concentrates. Thinks, Erections erections erections.

“Don’t,” she says. “I know. Please, don’t say it.”

A stray rubs against Snapmare’s leg. “Why?” he asks.

“Because.”

“Because what?”

“Because of what it could mean. What it could become.”

“It means what it means,” Snapmare says.

Polly shakes her head, eyes welling. “How can you be so sure? Just look at my home!”

Snapmare turns Ma’s wedding ring in his pocket. The paper sticks to his sweaty hand. Two bird facts bleed together. He looks at Polly’s hands: her father’s band on one, her mother’s ring on the other. Polly tucks them into her smock.

“A home can be me and you,” Snapmare says.

“A home was also once my parents.”

“Mine too.”

“And Tiff?”

Snapmare recalls the Fourth of July, the Frisbee. Wipes his nose with a pinching motion.

Polly takes a deep breath. “How are we any different? How do we not become that?”

Snapmare thinks but doesn’t know. He imagines Tiff with the airport men, the faded wallpaper ballerinas. How can he promise Polly anything about a home with his sister like this? How can she believe him? Pets the tabby. Removes his empty hand from his pocket, stands. A gust pushes Polly’s hair up into a brilliant copper flame.

“We are different. We won’t become that,” Snapmare urges. He holds her tight to rebut that it doesn’t always mean goodbye, tighter to reassure her there isn’t a longer ensuing goodbye, tighter to show her he isn’t going anywhere.

But Snapmare knows he needs to do more than just make a promise. Promises are too easy to make. This is why trust is so fragile. He shuffles back into the KwikStop. Polly stands there, allowing the hug to linger.

She fiddles with her parent’s rings. Tears flock down her freckled cheeks. The tabby rubs against her leg. She shoos it away and notices a piece of paper blowing across the parking lot. Snatches it before it sucks into a gutter. Unfolds it. Reads the overlooked details. Two have bled together. Finds herself beginning to trust in them:

Hornbills have long black curling eyelashes.

There are more chickens in the world than people.

The kiwi bird of New Zealand has no tail or wings.

***

The wiffleball game is in the seventh inning stretch. Children hold their caps over their hearts, sing, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”

The wind picks up, the sky grays. The injured robin squawks in the grass.

Nimrod and Tiff observe the ballerinas on the wallpaper.

“What are we supposed to do?” Tiff says. Nimrod thinks.

“The worst thing anyone can do is be damn lonesome. So them is what we don’t do.” Tiff rereads the card. Maybe promises can still be truth? Maybe as meanings change and complicate it only becomes harder to see? Her heart jetés.

She gently squeezes Nimrod’s hand.

Nimrod squeezes back. Heart glittering like the champs belt held above his head.

Tiff touches her bruised cheek, winces.

“I should get some ice to ease them swellin’,” Nimrod says.

Tiff believes before he clatters through the door he’ll turn back to her. At the door, Nimrod turns, sees the smile he came for. Just as perfect as he imagined.

While Nimrod is gone, Tiff opens her notebook, begins to search for the truths buried somewhere in the new meaning of everything.

***

Mr. Vegas dries the piss stain in the airport bathroom. Not so punk. Rubs his sore legs, jaw. Respikes his green hair. Wipes off the mascara on his cheeks, like out of tune guitar strings. Avoids his own reflection, the python tattoo. It feels like that tattoo all over. Stuffs that feeling down. Tells himself what happened here will stay here.

But he lies.

The ticket agent confirms his flight. Mr. Vegas focuses on home: the illuminated strip covered with cabs, hookers, lobster buffets, the adult video rental hut where he alphabetizes. Thinks of his mother asking how was the trip to his father’s? How was the concert? Was it so punk? Is his father seeing anyone? Is she prettier than her? Does this slut make him blueberry pancakes, so fave? Did his father slip up and say he misses her at all?

Mr. Vegas considers the cost of love, curses his niggard heart.

The ticket agent asks if he has any luggage to check.

Mr. Vegas feels his guts coil. He blushes, shakes his head.

***

The bus stops. People get off. People get on.

Snapmare finds the correct word: his generous affection. He sighs, unrelieved. Considers Fourth of July. Perfect. The last good memory when things seemed so simple before they complicated. Life inside the ring could never feel like that. But things would also never be that way again. The fireworks have fizzled. The persona is a lie.

Life outside the ring maybe cruel but it’s true. What exists inside the ring is an impossible definition of life, of himself. When the match bell rings and he steps outside the ropes, what is it he is afraid to grapple? Everything, he admits. Especially the terror. Snapmare’s connection with Tiff has frayed. If he intends to promise Polly he can keep a home, Snapmare knows he needs to promise Tiff first. Prove to himself he is capable. Snapmare needs to be what Tiff has needed all along, what the airport men are for: to be a mutual sufferer, bereaved, carry his share of their experience, their terror. He needs to be the one who catches the Frisbee this time. The one who leaps without question for her.

This is life: one the crier, the other the shoulder, Snapmare thinks.

This is life: this constant back-and-forth.

The sky darkens. Rumbles threaten the distance. The wind cools. Some robins hop over the grass trying to seduce out the furtive night crawlers preparing to surface in the cool moonlight. The milky moon is low and lucent, nearly full, like a cataracted eye. A child hits a leadoff homerun. The injured robin lies quietly near some landscaping. Its companion flutters down and nudges it. The child rounds the pothole bases, celebrates with a Kurt Gibsoned fist pump. Ingrid’s game show audience cheers in almost perfect unison.

Snapmare looks into Tiff’s window from the sidewalk. She sits hunched, writing. She looks like Ma. Misses her terribly. Snapmare wipes his nose with a pinching motion. He looks closer, notices the handprint, the bruises like criminal fingerprints.

The moment becomes alarmed, punitive, dusk.

Snapmare recalls the screech of rubber tires. His mind shifts up a gear.

Inside, Ingrid’s television screeches the telephonic humming of the Emergency Alert System. Mr. Vegas’ luggage is still in the foyer. None of the men ever stay this long. Snapmare looks down the hall to Tiff’s shut door. Fists clench ghost white.

In Pa’s closet, he retrieves the pistol. In the cold light, Snapmare notices his reflection looks like Pa. Misses him terribly. Hopes Pa would be proud of him. Thinks that though life is complicated now it is actually simple compared to the future where it will only complicate. This truth calms Snapmare, steadies his hand. Hopes he has what it takes to promise this, believes he does. This is my home, he thinks. Fills the pistol holster.

The floorboards groan outside Tiff’s door. Snapmare tightens his tie, straightens the badge. Thinks Mr. Vegas will be taught a lesion.

Not lesion, he thinks, concentrating. Thinks of his Wernicke area as a waterlogged pistol, a bullet with a bad primer.

Thinks, Lesion lesion lesion.

Doesn’t wipe his nose with a pinching motion. Kicks open the door.

The moment turns.

***

Just before the moment turns. Just before an aproned wife spots the robin lying still in her lawn and calls for her husband to get a shovel. Just before what the wife mistakes for a car backfiring. Just before what Ingrid thinks is thunder and closes her window. Just before the thunder and lightning and rain and coins of hail, the clouds going black and swirling and funneling. Just before Ingrid shuts off her television, removes her teeth, swigs grape cough syrup and whispers a last prayer to the cat and boy photographs. Just before all of this, the wiffleball game concludes. The scrawniest kid delivers the winning RBI. The children hurrah, carry him off. The pitcher kicks loose gravel. The street clears.

Nimrod presses a frozen sirloin to Tiff’s face. Tiff leans into him, feels a fresh bruise of his own, a lump on his elbow. Nimrod holds strong, shy to wince. Tiff touches an antler lovingly, pulls him closer, the tightest yet.

The floorboards groan outside her door. Tiff knows it’s her brother. Wishes he could see her there with Nimrod, relishing each moment, beside the man who rescued her. She decides to leave the door open from now on. She wants to see her brother. Maybe with a little luck her brother won’t speak through it either and just come right in this time.

And he will.

But just before Snapmare comes right in. Just before Nimrod gives Tiff a soft kiss to the handprint on her cheek. Just before Tiff puts her hand to his lopsided chest to feel for his heartbeat, trust in it. Just before all of this, Nimrod points out the window. Tiff follows. A young woman stands in the lawn. The strengthening gusts lift her curling smock strings, push her hair up into a ball of fire. Thick glasses enlarge her patient eyes. With relentless certainty, she leans into each violent gust, hands clasped in front of her. Looking closer, Tiff sees her hands cup something. Whatever she holds the wind might take it. Something she doesn’t want to lose. There, tighter in her hands. The meaning of everything. Something she’s afraid might escape. But she holds strong, refusing to let it fly away.


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