Excerpt from the Book
From above, from a thousand feet up, an eagle’s-eye view, it’s a strange spectacle still. A six-legged insect, stiff and ungainly, too long on the grape vine gone to vinegar.
From five hundred feet one sees a mutant, an insect with three heads, each imbued with its own purpose. Each with a desire to carry its midsection somewhere else. First moving one way, and then the next, drifting here and there like three hands on a Ouija board.
From one hundred feet up, the height of a mere eight-story building, it becomes obvious that each pair of insect legs is joined at a human torso, with human heads, and between them, the three, they share a burden. A piece of furniture, seemingly.
From ten feet, a guardian angel’s view, the view this tale will take, three men carry a couch. An orange, knit couch of considerable size.
Thom moved his meager possessions into Tree’s apartment. It was a high-ceilinged, early twentieth-century affair that had obviously been reworked in the seventies, destroying much of its charm. He put his books in the living room in an attempt to add some sort of decorating touch, and they sat there like moldering sea chests.
Thom moved his chairless desk around his room, trying to figure out how to fill in the emptiness that a lack of dresser, bed, and every other item that a person usually owned caused. He occasionally glanced toward the window across the corridor between the buildings to see if he was being spied on, at once trying to hide his actions and trying to make them presentable and interesting on the off chance there was a single woman across the way who might be interested in a fairly intelligent, bumbling ogre of a man with a slightly below-average self-esteem.
Slightly? Thom’s brain said.
“Yes, slightly,” Thom replied firmly. Brain was the entity of indeterminable size that sat somewhere above Thom’s right eye, one inch in. The origin of headaches. That Muppet cynic gallery that studied his every move from some disappointed forefather’s eyes. Part logician and part patriarch, brain intruded on Thom’s consciousness primarily as a backseat driver.
He uncased his laptop, tracked down a wireless signal, and got on his knees in front of his desk to check his email. “As if to pray,” brain said. “I know, I know,” Thom replied.
Erik burst through his door, knocking after the fact as he had done the other three times Thom had encountered his new, somewhat excitable roommate. Erik was in his mid-twenties and would be considered handsome but for an utterly uncombable head of dark hair.
“Donuts!” he said like a herald, like the king had arrived. He lowered a giant box of donuts to Thom’s eye level.
“Ah,” Thom said. “I can’t eat them. They look good though.”
”Can’t eat them?”
“I can’t eat wheat,” he intoned for probably the millionth time in his life, knowing it always led to confusion. “I have sort of a strict, ah, strict eating habits.”
“Good Lord, man. This is a celebration. We’ll go running in the morning. There’s a park around here. I’ve seen it on the map, and I’m going to find it. We can get up at dawn, get our one-twos in.”
Thom repressed a shudder. “It’s not a diet diet–it’s a stomach sort of thing. Gluten intolerance, among other things. I can’t eat wheat.”
“Gluten, huh?” Erik raised his eyebrows. “Glutentag,” he said brightly. “Okay, man, they’ll be in the kitchen if you change your mind. Nice room you got here. Like the desk placement. What kind of games you got on that thing?”
“Nothing much, really.”
Erik nodded vigorously. “Alright, man, see you around. I’ll be in the living room if you need anything.”
Thom shook his head. He was fairly sure he wasn’t living with any of the chosen people.
Subject: bad news
I’ve got bad news for you. ShopStock has decided once and for all that in this economic climate, having a strong web presence for a local grocery store is just not practical. Ahem. As we’ve known all along. So they’ve decided, effective immediately, to cut the web development team.
I’m sorry about this. I know you could use the money. Email seems like a bad way to break it, but knowing you I thought it’d be better. I’ll keep on the lookout for other jobs for you. How’s the apartment hunting coming? Let’s have a beer soon and talk more about where spammers fit into Dante’s Inferno.
Thom put his head in his hands. The last three months had been a spiral in which life seemed bent on unhinging him from every stable situation he’d had a feeble grasp on. At least he had an apartment. His stomach churned. He opened up his website and thought about how to phrase his newly found freedom in a way that wouldn’t read “laid off.” “Now available for freelance work! ;-)” he wrote, and then deleted the idiotic smiley. Then deleted the entry altogether.
He fretted about how to write his self-descriptive summary at one of the many job-networking sites he belonged to. “I am professional (still have all my teeth!),” he wrote as filler text to keep his fingers busy while he thought, “stable (no longer living out of a hotel!), competent (kung-fu coder still can’t code his ex-girlfriend back), and motivated (as big as an ogre and twice as bright).” Then a migraine took over and he closed his laptop without saving.
“Thom!” said Erik. “Have a seat, big guy.”
Thom sat on the couch between Tree and Erik. The couch was miraculously large and held the three of them without testing his personal-space requirements. It was comfortable too. It sucked you in and gave you the impression of continually sinking. The Simpsons was on, and there was silence among them until a commercial. You did not talk during The Simpsons.
Tree tucked a long strand of hair behind his ear and picked up a spool of baling wire from the floor. He drew a length and cut it with a pair of needle-nose pliers and began to twist. His thin hands moved with great agility, making quick definitive bends to the wire, working its straightness to a ball of something. And then, to Thom’s astonishment, Tree opened his palm to reveal a perfectly shaped three-inch horse with a long horn on the front of its head. A unicorn. Thom studied the couch to make sure Tree hadn’t discarded the wire and plucked the unicorn from somewhere. Thom beamed his approval, but Tree seemed unconscious of him.
Tree fashioned a tornado from the same spool and twisted the bottom of it into the green shag-rug carpet so that it stayed upright. A tornado on shag-rug plains. He planted the unicorn in the rug so that its horn just pierced the midsection of the tornado. A battle in miniature.
“Just like jousting windmills,” Thom blurted loud enough to make Tree jump.
Erik stared at it. “Well,” Erik said. “Here we all are.” He rubbed his forefinger vigorously across his mustache.
“Yes,” Tree said.
”There you have it then,” Erik said.
Thom counted his teeth with his tongue–twenty-seven? Could he really have an odd number?–as a defense against whatever words his brain might try to dislodge into the quiet air like a donkey’s bray.
“I lost my job.” Thom pulled at a string on his pants. “Just got an email.”
“Alright, buddy!” Erik gave an irksome punch to Thom’s arm. “Join the club. How about you and me drive down to Labor Ready in the morning after our jog? Guaranteed payment daily, can’t beat that. They’d love the likes of you.”
“I’m not sure about the jogging part.”
“Just jumping jacks then, no problem.”
“I’m not sure about the Labor Ready part either.”
“I don’t really like to work,” Tree said. He hugged his knees up against his slim frame.
Erik and Thom stared at Tree.
“Except lawn care.”
“It’s the middle of winter, amigo. You won’t be doing lawn care for another five months.”
Tree looked thoughtful. “Maybe something will come up.”
“Get a rich girlfriend. That’s the ticket,” Erik said.
Hearing the word “girlfriend” made Thom’s stomach ache, a compost pile too long in the sun, methane fuming from the bottom of the heap. “My girlfriend broke up with me,” he blurted out, belched.
There was a long pause in which nobody was sure what to say.
“I’ve never had a girlfriend,” Tree said.
“What a bunch of freaking sad sacks!” Erik said.
Thom started to chuckle. The chuckle gained momentum into a giggle, and then he was holding his gut and belching and giggling and the others were caught by surprise by the cacophony until they joined in laughing, laughing the laugh that only the bottom rung laughs, crying laugh tears.
If one were to graph the traffic through the front door of the apartment, a downward-sloping curve would begin to emerge, so that by the end of the week it would be apparent the door was being used half as frequently as at the beginning.
The apartment’s gravity drew them in like some amassing black hole. Each outward foray grew more difficult and less successful. As their comfort level with each other increased, and with no great purpose outside, the path of least resistance lay in the hallways of their apartment.
Monday morning found Thom in his shiny clothes on the streets of Portland, wielding a résumé laden with tech acronyms and buzzwords: Ruby, Python, Perl, XML, PHP, SQL, C++. He paced through the downtown corridors, traveling the route from Internet startup to established technology company, finding them either closed for good, moved to the suburbs, or “weathering the storm.” And even those he suspected had room to grow were looking for sharp shooters, sharp talkers, sharp lookers from other failed tech companies, not veterans of ShopStock who wore overly baggy clothes, couldn’t find the right words at the right time, and towered over them. More than once a startled remark was made: “It says here you have a Master’s in English Literature–oh, that’s too bad, we’re really looking for someone with an MS in Computer Science.” Never mind that most colleges still weren’t teaching the skills that the companies needed, skills that Thom possessed from being a part of the actual movements that had created the software. Thom was not one to point this out. He failed to mention, too, certain legal troubles he’d had concerning a certain slightly less than legal thing he’d done which would certainly, beyond a doubt, prove his computer expertise.
Possibly to address the question Why are we here? or to toy with creationism versus evolution, Tree created a lineup of wire figures from fish to monkey to hominid on Monday, planting them into the back of the couch in order. He admired them from a distance and several angles and then, not yet satisfied, added a larger manlike creature at the beginning of the line that sculpted wire fish out of a bundle of its own wire. In his bedroom, he picked up his shrinkwrapped Bible and then put it down again without unwrapping it. Then from under his futon he pulled a spiral notebook full of pages wildly scrawled in pencil. As always, he studied the handwriting, marveling that it was his and so different from his daytime script. He read and reread the last five dreams. In the hundred or so dreams before this, not one of them took place within the last several thousand years, and now these. He closed the book and passed an hour he wouldn’t recall later staring at a fixed point. He folded some clothes, then arranged some wire sculptures, setting scenarios and adding roommates. He washed dishes and then made a large batch of split-pea soup and waited for Thom and Erik to come home. The phone rang three times, and each time the caller hung up when Tree answered.
Erik spent the first hour of the first day of the week trying to unplug the toilet using improvised instruments–a spatula, vinegar (did vinegar even work?), a soy-sauce bottle–still wondering how what had come out of him could really have come out of him.
Then he prepared. He shaved his mustache, did fifty push-ups and all the Tai Chi he could remember, put a baseball cap over his unruly plug of hair, donned a silk shirt and headed out along trendy Twenty-third Avenue to see what turned up. At Twenty-third and Flanders a possibly stranded young woman stood on a street corner, and Erik took it as an opportunity to introduce himself and offer his navigational services. Not long after, he was having coffee with the young Wisconsinite and talking about airline safety in Third World countries, with an emphasis on Latin America. By four o’clock Erik had a lipstick stain on his chin and fifty-eight dollars in his pocket that she had given him to buy tickets to a “three-day dinner-theater performance” he’d mentioned that they absolutely must go see together.
Alone, he headed up to Forest Park and ran through bushes for a half hour to punish himself for being such a snake, hollering, stumbling on the wet ground. Rotting leaves clung to his shoes and pants. With his face sufficiently bush whipped, he dropped by the grocery store, picked up a case of cheap beer, and went back to the apartment to celebrate his earnings with his roommates.
Night found them embedded in the couch, drinking Erik’s beer, eating Tree’s popcorn, watching TV, while the fishing line of their collective fates intertwined, became inseparably tangled. The couch cast the late-night spell that couches cast on their occupants the world over. And they became comfortable with each other–if by no other way than by the proximity of their bodies.
On Wednesday Thom completely reworked his résumé to accentuate his Master’s in English Literature degree while muttering curses at various employers at high-tech companies he wished would get trapped in Porta-Potties. He printed fifty copies and spent the first half of the day farming out his statistics to law firms looking for research assistants, newspapers looking for junior editors, businesses looking for copy editors and, frankly, anyone else who’d listen. He carried his massive form dutifully from office to office, crowding doorways, looming over desks, frightening secretaries. He wished for some shred of success he could use to ground in truth his increasingly fictional emails to his mother. By two in the afternoon he’d had all the human contact he could take and headed home.
He found Tree in the kitchen baking a pie. A young, hippy, wire-working Martha Stewart, delicately smoothing out their home life, Thom thought.
Tree was bent on his purpose, one-tracked but with an absentminded carelessness, leaving plates barely balanced on counter edges, so that Thom would lurch forward and scoot the plates into the safety of the counter behind Tree’s back.
“Wheat-free,” Tree said after five minutes of silence.
“Wow. Thanks, Tree, but you don’t have to do that for me.”
“I like to cook. Any luck?”
“Not that I can tell. I shook about twenty hands, handed out all résumés. Fifty copies. I figure that’s got to be some kind of record. I felt like a political pamphleteer. And that’s not including the résumés I sent by email the last few days. I’m bound to scare someone into hiring me sooner or later.”
“Seems like someone with as many skills as you wouldn’t have a problem.”
“Yesss. One would think. I’m afraid there’s a bit more to getting a job than having the skills.”
Tree nodded. “Maybe you should take the next few days off.”
“That’d be nice, though I suspect you’d rather have a rent payer living here.” Thom smiled. He found a spot out of Tree’s way in the small kitchen.
“It’s not so important.”
Thom stared at Tree, watched him wipe cutting boards of flour, wash measuring cups, sweep the floor. Sometimes Tree looked like an elf: petite and only half-human. Thom never felt sure if they were having the same conversation. “Surely it’s important,” he said. “The rent will become due.”
“I had a dream it would work out.”
Thom repressed a chuckle. “Excellent. I can always use a subconscious advocate. Your dream mention my salary?”
“Well, you don’t have to get a job. That’s why I said you should take a couple of days off.”
The phone rang, and Thom picked it up. He heard a click on the other end.
“Hang up?” Tree said.
“I guess so.”
“Somebody’s keeping tabs on us.”
“Oh?” Thom experienced a quick wave of full-body itchiness, and he jerked to scratch several places at once. What the hell was the kid talking about? His brain couldn’t seem to come up with any reasonable response, and he began to long for some kind of computer project, something logical and solitary and problem-solving intensive, something that worked, something he could create, his own digital Garden of Eden to craft. Something without the strange unpredictability of human interaction. Surely God was a programmer, fleeing his own creation after he’d introduced code that spawned its own bugs: humans.
“I saw those sculptures on the back of the couch,” he said, hoping to change the subject. “Really something. You should try to do something with that.”
“I have pretty clear dreams, and sometimes they sort of come true,” Tree said.
Thom wasn’t sure what to say, so he pushed on. “You could take those down to Saturday Market. I’m sure you could sell them. Get a little stand.” That’s what God needed, Thom realized suddenly. He should have created himself a quality-assurance department first thing. There were a lot of programmatical errors in human nature that could have been worked out.
“I dreamed you wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job, so I’d hate for you to have to waste a lot more time looking for one, you know?”
“What did you dream?” Thom sighed.
“Oh, I don’t really like to talk about them.”
Thom blinked. “Pie smells great,” he said finally. “I’m going to do some work for a while. How’s Erik’s job search coming, by the way? Any word from him?”
“He doesn’t need to find a job either, actually.”
Thom nodded. Of course, he thought.
Somehow the smell of the pie baking was stronger in Thom’s room than in the kitchen, as if the smell had intensified into a presence, looming over him. His mouth watering, he opened his laptop. There were two emails from prospective employers that weren’t hiring. He weighed the threat of human interaction against eating a piece of pie and went back to the kitchen.
“Smells really good.”
“It’s done. Want me to cut you a piece?”
“Sure, sure, yes.” Thom considered his reaction to Tree’s dreams. So he had dreams he thought came true, or he had dreams that came true and he doesn’t like to talk about them. That’s okay. Thom’s ex-girlfriend had been an amateur I Ching diviner, and when Thom had done something contrary to what her reading had recommended she’d get irritated with him. Sure it was possible to dream about the future, Thom tried to make himself believe momentarily, and then felt himself losing the effort.
Tree set a gorgeous, steaming plate of pie in front of him.
“Beautiful,” Thom said. “Where did you learn to cook?”
“I grew up on a commune. We all had to take turns at the chores. There were a few people with strict eating habits.”
Thom nodded. Suddenly anxious not to hear anything else about the commune, but he nevertheless felt compelled to ask, “What type of commune?”
“The usual sort.” Tree turned away.
Thom saw the back of Tree’s neck redden. He felt certain the kid preferred that he not pursue the subject, and he wondered if it’d been some sort of cult.
“So what else can you tell me about this dream?”
Tree turned and beamed at him, his voice the tone of happy announcements. “I think we’re going on a journey together.”
This wasn’t speculation. This was conviction. “Really?” Thom’s stomach bubbled up hotly from the center of the Earth, and he excused himself to the bathroom. On the way there, Erik burst through the front door. Thom noticed that he had a full mustache again.
“Hide me, you’ve got to hide me. I’m not here. I am not here.”
“You’re not here?” Thom burping the last half of the question.
“You don’t even know me. You’ve never even seen me.”
“I’ve never even seen you,” Thom repeated gratefully and continued to the bathroom. With the door closed safely behind him, Thom looked in the mirror, raised his eyebrows at the racket that was continuing outside the bathroom, and proceeded to create some gaseous racket inside the bathroom. How did the guy grow hair so quickly? Thom barely shaved more than once a week, and Erik had grown a full mustache in two days.
There was a fierce shout, and a noise Thom felt could safely qualify as a yelp. He searched his face for something to pinch and stared into his pupils as the sound rose outside. He thought he should see what was happening.
Erik was backed up against a wall in the living room by a gentleman holding a pocket knife to his throat. The man was in his forties, wore a tightly fitted outdoor-style shirt, and seemed to have the upper hand. In the doorway a young woman vacillated between outrage and infatuation for Erik. Thom took a stride across the living room and grabbed the man’s hand until the knife fell to the floor and the man cried out.
Erik picked up the knife, leapt back, and yelled, “We take them!”
“We’re not taking anybody,” Thom said. He held his arm out so Erik would stay back. The man eyed Thom and backed toward the doorway. “What’s going on here, Erik?”
“Don’t listen to him,” said the woman in the doorway.
The man rubbed his wrist. “Let’s just forget the whole thing, Sherry,” he said.
Thom turned to Erik, who shrugged.
“Sounds like we’re forgetting the whole thing,” Erik said. “I’m willing to do that. Let bygones be bygones. Let them who is without sin throw the first stone.” Erik kept the knife raised.
“Cast the first stone. It’s cast the first stone. Somehow I doubt this is about martyrdom.” Thom looked back toward Sherry and tried to appear upstanding, which took the form of a smile and better posture.
Sherry closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, they were rimmed with the beginning of tears.
“On Monday I met him on the street and he seemed nice and we had coffee and talked for a long time and then he, well, we made some plans and I thought he was nice and I didn’t know the city so it was nice to meet somebody nice.” Sherry inhaled just shy of a sob and looked up at the older man. “Like maybe we would go see this theater performance that he’d heard about and we made plans for where to meet and I gave him money for the tickets because what else am I going to do while I’m here and he never showed up,” Sherry said in a hurried exhale. “Then we saw him on the street and I’d already told Dad about it and when we saw him he ran and we followed him and then Dad and he got in a fight and . . . then you got here.”
“Ah.” Thom wished he was back in the bathroom.
Tree appeared, looking sleepy. For a minute Thom feared that Tree was going to wave at him, like a mother waves at her child onstage in his first play.
Thom sighed. “Erik?”
“I meant to go buy the tickets, but I got . . . I meant to go buy the tickets.”
“I’d still like to see the theater thing,” offered Sherry hesitantly. She leaned against the door frame, one foot toe first to the floor. She smiled at Erik, and Erik waved back. She was probably no more than seventeen, maybe an honors student, Thom thought. She’d tried to do something with her makeup, under the influence of the city, that her clothes and hair couldn’t keep up with.
“Not with him you won’t,” said her father.
“Alright, how about giving the knife back, Erik,” said Thom. He swallowed twice. “With the money.”
“I don’t have the money,” Erik said, not moving.
“I have some money,” said Tree. Everyone stared at Tree as he went to his room and returned a minute later with a small stack of bills. Tree took the knife from Erik’s hand and handed the knife to Sherry’s father and the money to Sherry.
“Thank you. We won’t trouble you any further,” Sherry’s father said and shot a dark look at Erik.
After the door closed, the three roommates held their places for a moment. A frame frozen in time, the transition between outside conflict and inside conflict. Actors repositioning, new arguments and explanations boiling up. Tree and Thom turned to Erik.
“I meant to buy the tickets.”
“I believe you,” Tree said.
Erik studied Tree for a moment and then continued with confidence. “And they were sold out. But when I went to look for her, I couldn’t find her.”
Tree nodded, and Thom didn’t say anything.
“Is the mustache supposed to be a disguise?” Thom finally asked.
“What?” Erik rubbed his forefinger like a jigsaw across the fur on his upper lip.
“That’s a real mustache then?”
“It grows kind of fast.”
Thom nodded again, turned to Tree. “And how much money did you give her.”
“How did you know how much?”
Tree looked startled. “I don’t know, I just did.” He blushed brightly.
“Were you involved in this, Tree?”
“Yeah! How did you know? What’s up with that?” Erik stepped forward, taking the opportunity to turn the focus. “I’m not the paranoid type, but I’m pretty sure, no no no, I’m positive I didn’t mention it.”
“I, I think I dreamed it.”
Thom let out a great roaring rumble of gas and both roommates turned toward him, polite, startled smiles on their faces. Had he said something? they seemed to be asking.
“Oh man, was that real!”
“I have a stomach–”
“You just came in and grabbed the knife from that sucker, just like that. You were amazing. You had them so handled!”
Thom felt so immediately grateful that Erik wasn’t talking about his flatulence that he allowed himself to laugh in relief.
“And then you grabbed the knife from me,” Erik said. “I didn’t know who was going to stab who!”
“And I knew how much money to give her,” Tree said, trying out a laugh.
Erik frowned. “I still think that’s spooky. But I do appreciate the loan. You know I’m good for it, right?”
“Alright then, let’s go have some pie and beer,” Thom said.
“We should team up,” Erik said excitedly. “All three of us. We should make some kind of a team.”
“I think you mean gang,” Thom said.
“Hey, I’m not talking about illegal stuff.” He turned, trapping Thom just outside of the kitchen. “I’m talking about some kind of enterprise.”
“That’s a spaceship, right?” Thom joked to no apparent effect.
“I’m talking about a business venture. With your brawn–and brains–and my, you know–seriously! Think about it.”
“Tree wants to join.” Thom finally pushed through the bottleneck of Erik into the kitchen. “He’s got a plan.”
“Oh . . . ,” Tree said and stared at the floor.–
If you were to squint from the roof of the apartment building midway up the West Hills, with Portland proper below, you could almost, with practice and a shifting of scale, morph the scattered buildings into the teepees of the people who’d inhabited the riverside some five hundred years ago, at the same time an explorer from Spain was rediscovering Cuba, the land their forefathers had discovered eighty thousand years prior. Or at least that was the legend. Men had been absentmindedly discovering land they’d already traversed, built civilizations upon, fucked and cried on for as long as there had been men.
Among the teepees below, a society pulsed, children were fed, art was made. There was a hierarchy, and at the bottom of it were the unchosen who huddled together and wondered what purpose they were intended for.
By Friday, it was fairly clear to Thom that going out into the world was negative. He preferred to traverse and re-traverse the small follies he already knew his way around–the loose shower knob, the stubborn toilet, the web of lies that kept his mother proud of him, the other two unchosen. A certain emotional neutrality was reached in the apartment. Occasionally that neutrality passed into positive ground–laughing about knife encounters, eating popcorn in front of the TV, drinking beer in the kitchen. And sometimes it passed into the negative–knife encounters, for example. But a makeshift brotherhood emerged. Thom spent the day doing as Tree had recommended: not looking for work. He spent the day on the couch.
Erik decided he certainly wasn’t going out into the world. This was his second trick in one week that had gone awry and now he feared simply stepping through the front door. Outside he was a wanted man; inside he was comfortable enough. Bored, but comfortable.
There were many little mysteries in the apartment that worried Tree: the drapes across from his room that always closed when he glanced over, the phone without a caller, the older man who stationed himself on the front stoop, watching them come and go, and the large couch that lulled him to sleep.
The couch wasn’t free until late afternoon, after Thom had moved to his room and Erik had sated himself on bad television. Tree removed all his wirework and pulled off the cushions. Something about this couch, he thought. There was a nagging in his mind, a leftover fleck of dream or a mishandled scrap of intuition, nothing more than a reminder that the couch was an item that required some kind of attention. He tucked his hands down into the crevasses, squeezed the cushions, put his ear to it. He tentatively touched his tongue to the armrest and recoiled from the smell of Erik’s BO. He tipped the couch onto its back. The underside revealed little. The uneven and haphazard stitching led him to guess it was handmade, or at least had once been repaired. However he tried, he couldn’t pry the backing off, and the thread used for the stitching was incredibly strong, resisting even a knife. Finally he loosened a seam and opened up a gap so that he could see into the intestines of the couch.
The couch sighed–there was no other way to describe it. A faint smell spilled out: spines of old books, flowers past prime, the smell of things so long dead that only a nasal whisper remained. Tree realized he’d fallen back. Had he fainted? He leaned forward, but the gap had closed and the couch again smelled like a couch ought to smell.
The disaster came late on Sunday night. Erik was asleep on the couch and Thom and Tree were in their rooms, but the apartment above thumped with activity. An inebriated romantic encounter between a gymnast and a horse jockey had gotten a bit too creative. A table next to a waterbed was upturned. A lit candle from the table rolled next to the bed, catching a small pile of newspapers, dirty laundry, and a book of matches on fire. The fire licked at the underside of the waterbed, burning a hole that drowned the small fire. Fate lent a push, however, and several powerful pneumatic jostlings by the pair atop the waterbed opened the hole wider and pushed the water out with great throbbing force until the couple noticed they were sinking. By the time they had their wits about them, half the bed had leaked onto the floor. They ran for towels–which were useless against the massive flood of water–then gathered a meager collection of pots and pans that could not hold the gallons still flowing from the bed in biblical proportions.
Erik woke startled and flailing from a dream in which a horse had been pissing on him. He leapt from the couch and flipped on the light switch to see their apartment turned into a waterfall. Frantic pounding footsteps sounded from the apartment above. Water bowed the sheetrock in the center of the ceiling and had broken through the plaster. The green shag rug had taken on the appearance of a swamp.
“Tree! Thom! Ho-lee shit!”
He ran down the hallway, pounded his fists on his roommates’ doors and yelled, “Wake the hell up, goddamnit!” He gathered all the towels out of the bathroom. In the living room, he let the towels drop as he realized he didn’t have the faintest idea what he was going to do with them. Thom appeared in the hallway, his eyes wide as searchlights, and Tree appeared a moment later.
“What, what did you do?” Thom said, staring over Erik’s shoulder at the wreckage of the living room.
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Wow,” Tree said, “this is really . . . really.” He tapped his temple with his forefinger repeatedly.
A rapid, angry banging came from the door. Erik sloshed across to open it and found that the swollen rug had sealed the door shut. He put his foot against the wall, his hands firmly around the doorknob, and pulled with all his might. His hands slipped and he landed on his back in the swamp water. He got up and managed to yank the door open a crack, letting water into the hallway. A very stout, enraged woman shook her fists and yelled at him to Turn his goddamn water off, he was sinking them back to the fucking Stone Age!
“It’s upstairs, upstairs!” he said breathlessly and pointed at the ruined ceiling. She pounded off, presumably toward the upstairs.
“Power cords!” Thom yelled.
Tree jumped in the air like a stung fish, curving and turning, and landed on his back on the edge of the television, hurling it to the floor and pulling its power cord from out of the socket, stopping the electricity from surging through the water.
“Holy shit!” Erik waded toward Tree to help him up.
“I’m looking for more power cords,” Thom yelled and rushed around the apartment, a great spray of water leaping up from each footfall. He unplugged two more and saw that the downpour was beginning to slow.
Tree was laid out on his back on the couch, slow drips landing on his knees, lip, and sternum. Erik was angrily sloshing around.
“How you doing, Tree?” asked Thom.
“Nothing is broken, I think. I don’t feel great though.”
“You’ll be sore. That was a hellish fall. But shit, you saved us, I bet.”
“Not the TV though,” Tree said. The three looked at the TV, upside down in a corner, surrounded by water, like a shipwreck stuck in the surf.
“Probably not,” Thom said. “Doesn’t look good for the TV. Or the apartment.”
“What in the fuck?” Thom raised palms toward the upstairs, or the sky. Or God.
“Waterbed upstairs,” Erik said. “Some kind of fire underneath it. That lady came back. She’s so mad.” Erik smiled. “I mean, she’s mad. The whole waterbed let loose. I’m mad too, I guess. All the water in here is soaking the apartment below us, the poor suckers.”
“This is really screwed,” Thom said. “Let’s get out of here. I’m treating everyone to breakfast. Does your car still work, Erik?”
“If it doesn’t, at least it’s dry.”
Outside, rain was streaming from a black sky. “Celestial waterbed,” Thom joked and was ignored. The three piled into Erik’s car and headed for an all-night diner across town, black smoke curling up behind them, an ocean of rain in front. Every once in a while Erik would bang on the steering wheel and curse.
The restaurant was full of the regular assembly of stylish, alternative Portland nightlife–people none of them felt at home with. Velvet Elvises mixed with local artists and black lights on the walls.
Erik ordered two pieces of pie, Tree a grilled-cheese sandwich, and Thom complicated things with eggs without cheese, no toast, and Italian sausage that he felt guilty ordering in front of the vegetarian-looking waitress. Beers were had all around.
“So, dreamboy, what are you going to do now?” Erik said. “Dream this one too?”
“I did have . . . I’ve had a lot of dreams with water lately. Sort of thought it was one of those.”
“Oh, you did, did you? Next time let’s have a little more warning. I woke up from dreaming that I was getting pissed on by a horse.”
Thom chuckled and noticed the bar was playing his ex-girlfriend’s favorite band, Neutral Milk Hotel. Oh comely, I will be with you when you lose your breath. A tingle went up his spine.
Erik lurched up and over to a group on their last drinks of the night. He came back with a lit cigarette.
“Yep,” he said, “yep yep yep.” Exhaling smoke. “It was pretty funny though. You’ve all got to admit that it was pretty funny. Tree’s swan dive. The whole thing like a SeaWorld exhibition.”
“Yeah,” said Thom, “it’d be funnier if I wasn’t so entirely screwed. Maybe I’ll go live with my mom.”
“Hey, at least you can,” Erik said. “My folks are probably lost in a jungle somewhere. Home-home has been gone for decades.”
“Yeah,” Tree said.
“Yeah what?” said Erik, covering Tree in smoke, waving it away.
“Mine too. Not a . . . err, not a jungle, but same sort of thing.”
Erik exhaled another cloud of smoke in a sine wave, nodding vigorously. “We could always get arrested.” His white teeth picked up the glow of a black light somewhere. “It’s better than the rain.”
“I think we . . .” Tree started and then looked down at the table, fingered the saltshaker. He grabbed the pepper and made the two spices do a self-conscious jig.
Erik and Thom exchanged looks.
“Not more of that dream shit. That’s freaky shit,” Erik said.
“It’s not so freaky,” Thom said. “The mind is an interesting entity. The dreams may be subconscious wishes, snatches of extrapolated information that seem like premonition. Jung even talked about tapping into a collective mind–so he may have lifted the fifty-eight from your mind, or it may have been a lucky guess. But the important thing I think is not to get too carried away.”
Tree nodded vigorously, Erik jabbed the cigarette into the ashtray with repetitive violence, and their food arrived.
“Well, I’d like to hear it, dammit,” Erik said.
“I wasn’t saying I didn’t want to hear,” Thom said.
“No, you said you weren’t going to believe it.”
“I didn’t,” Thom protested.
“Well what the hell do you think you said? And shit, if he can pick a number out of my mind while I’m sleeping–how about that guy over there?” Erik pointed to an older man nursing his coffee, a ski cap tight around his ears. “What’s that guy thinking?”
“I can’t,” said Tree, and his face reddened. “It doesn’t . . . I don’t . . .”
“He’s thinking he’d like to get the waitress naked,” Thom said with too much on his fork, trying to pare down the load. “Just like the rest of us who are too afraid to admit it.”
“That’s the spirit!” Erik took a swig of his beer. “That’s exactly right. He’s thinking he’d like a pair. See those greedy eyes? That one sitting up there”–he gestured with the bottle to a woman dressed as a goth, black tights on slender legs, beautiful lips with dark lipstick–”and the waitress.”
Thom and Tree shyly studied the goth.
“Heh heh,” Thom said, an ache in his throat. Thom’s brain repeated his mantra: She is pretty; I am homely.
They looked at their plates, pushing around food they were too exhausted to eat.
Thom grabbed a handful of his hair and squeezed, felt several of the strands pop from their roots. “What in the hell are we going to do? How can so many things possibly fail at once?” He tried to put a humorous tone on his words but knew he couldn’t keep it up. He was this far away from real depression, the state that puts you in bed for a couple of weeks, too weak to move.
“Hey, big guy, none of that. No despair at this table. Tree’s got it all worked out.” Erik nudged Tree.
“Uh!” Tree rubbed his side where Erik had elbowed him. “I don’t, really, I just think that . . . maybe something else might come up. Maybe we’ll eat some foreign food.”
“What in the Jesus hell are you talking about? What kind of a plan is that? We’re trying to cheer Thom up. Come on now, foreign food–we’re heading to a Thai restaurant next? Listen, this is how you do it. I’ve got an uncle that lives in one of those fancy houses in the hills, great place, there’s a hot tub, it’ll be warm and dry, big improvement right there. He’s away in Europe for three months, and I know where the spare key is. Fantastic kitchen, view of the city, we’ll get girlfriends and have them over, it’s a hell of a place. Just to get back on our feet. You’ll get your job, Thom, and then whatever happens, happens.”
“Really?” Thom smiled dreamily. “We could do that?”
Erik rolled his eyes. “No, man, come on, think I’d have been staying in that apartment if I had a place like that? I was just showing Tree how to cheer somebody up.”
“Sorry, sorry about that–this is what’s going to happen. The water will have made the apartment pretty much unlivable. The landlord will tell us to get our shit and get out, because it’s got a lot of repair time and they’ve got to check electrical and structural and all hell, and while they’re at it, why not just renovate the damn thing so it gets more rent?”
Thom put his face in his hands and stared between fingers at his Italian sausage.
“We’re going on a trip,” Tree said.
“You dreamed this?” Thom said.
“Hey, man”–Erik pointing at Thom–”don’t knock dreamboy, I told you he had a plan.”
“But I’m not sure. Sometimes they don’t . . .” Tree stared at his plate.
“Quit saying that! So your dreams don’t always come true. Mine don’t come true. Yours come true, Thom?”
“Not a one.”
Erik brought his beer bottle down to the table with a heavy thud, “That settles it then. We leave tomorrow.”
“You have got to be out of your mind. Where to, what money, why?” Thom said.
“Come on, you big worrywart, what have you got going here?” Erik said.
Thom looked hopelessly at Tree.
“I don’t have anything going,” Tree volunteered. “But we could find another apartment.”
Erik spread his hands wide in mock indignation. “Just a minute ago you were talking about a trip. Besides. Who is going to rent to three unemployed types?”
”I have some money from my grandfather,” Tree said.
Erik nodded several times. “How much?”
“Erik,” Thom growled.
“Hey, it’s cool, man. Don’t tell me. I was just asking.”
Erik calculated on the ceiling for a moment and then mashed the remains of his second piece of pie into a liquidy hash with his fork. “Well, that’s an extremely short apartment rental or a long trip.”
“I’m going to live with my mom,” Thom said.
“The hell are you going to do there? I say we just get in my car and head south, seek our futures in less rainy climes. Go to Mexico. Think about fifteen hundred bucks in Mexico. Viva México!” he yelled, fork in the air. Heads at several tables turned toward Erik then back again.
Tree shifted uneasily in his seat.
“Let’s get out of here,” Thom said. “I want to look at the apartment again.”-
When they hit fresh air, Thom decided all at once he wanted the trip. He wanted to get out of town, do something different, see somewhere different. He needed to move, to ramble, to let road dust and sky patch tight the various holes in his life. “I’ll do the trip,” he said.
“Yes!” said Erik. “We’ve got a plan. You’re in, right Tree?”
“Okay,” Tree nodded and smiled.
“Okay!” Erik started the car, revved it, and, with a whoosh of smoke and a bang, it gave out and would not start again.
Thom clapped his hands in glee. “I’m cursed. Let’s all of us just coast this thing into the Willamette River. Us in it.”
Erik pounded on the steering wheel.
“Tell me about your uncle again,” Tree said.
With nowhere else to go and no other way to get there–the buses wouldn’t start for several hours–they walked. Down Clinton Street to Twelfth, two miles, down Twelfth to Burnside, three miles. On Burnside a car brimming with party revelers pummeled them with fast-food remains. A milkshake struck Thom square in the chest, exploding onto Tree and Erik in a chocolatey mess. Erik turned and ran after the car, holding his middle finger up and shouting incomprehensibly. He made it a full two blocks before he ran out of steam. Thom and Tree waited, scooping off globs of milkshake.
Burnside to the river, over the bridge and the frigid glare of the Willamette River, the Superfund ecodisaster. Thom imagined the slick, rubbery bodies of suicides floating coldly under the bridge, merging into the Columbia and then finally out to sea.
They continued up through downtown and then up to Twenty-Third, three miles.
By the time they got home, they were exhausted. A note from the building manager was taped to their door. Hi Tree, heard about the leak. Will have a look in the morn.–Bob. As if they’d had a small issue with a leaky toilet and he’d be around to fix it when he got the chance.
Erik checked the couch and was amazed to find it dry. “Feel it! It’s dry. Think all the water soaked in?” Both roommates dutifully felt the couch.
“There’s something about this couch,” Tree said.
Thom sighed. “I’m going to bed wherever I can.”
“What’s about this couch is it’s where I’m going to sleep, that’s what’s about this couch,” Erik said. The others curled into dry corners of the apartment wherever they could find them, with clothes and scavenged dry blankets piled over them for warmth. The sound of dripping echoed through the apartment like a cave lullaby.
The apartment manager was at their door first thing in the morning with an older, well-dressed gentleman in tow.
The knocking came to Erik like announcements in foreign countries. Like undersea drums, leagues away. He couldn’t seem to separate the sound from his dreams, and even on his feet he was unsure which part of the wrecked room the noise was coming from. He found the door, forced it open enough to look out, and the two men on the other side took a half step back. A smell of must and rot bustled past them and filled the hallway.
“Fue una noche terrible, bien mojada,” Erik said, and felt his voice didn’t sound right. His hair stood out at angles like the sweeping end of an abused broom.
“What?” said the gentleman.
The manager glanced at the other man, swallowed and said, “Qué pasó?”
“I speak English,” Erik said, confused and irritated.
“What happened?” the manager said.
“You were speaking Spanish,” Erik said, ready to close the door.
“In the night, what happened in the night?”
“Oh. Waterbed upstairs.”
“But how about with your apartment?”
“Ever seen Titanic?” Erik asked.
They both nodded, and Erik stared at them until he realized they wanted to come in. He wrenched at the door, then went to take a piss. When he got back, all that was left of the men was a scattering of fading shoeprints in the wet rug. One set of shoes had spent a fair amount of time at the couch, he noticed, and then Erik folded himself back into it and back to sleep.
Tree woke to the smell. It smelled like a house on the commune when a cat had died in the basement and lay undiscovered for a week. He ran to the bathroom and lost the remnants of the grilled cheese sandwich from the night before.
He found Thom and Erik in the kitchen, drinking coffee from paper cups. Thom handed him a cup.
“Electricity is off,” Thom said. “They’re worried about fire danger and other problems. It’s all old knob-and-tube wiring through here. So we went out and got coffee.”
“Thanks,” said Tree. He took a sip and let it wash down the terrible taste in his mouth. “I threw up,” he said. “That smell is terrible.”
Thom nodded. “Erik says he can’t smell it.”
They drank their coffee and watched the rain through the kitchen window. The apartment was cold and uncomfortable, and Thom filed through his life looking for bright spots.
“Boy, that was a fun night.” Thom raised his cup in a mock toast.
Tree got a pair of needle-nose pliers from a kitchen drawer and began to dismantle the small wire house that he’d made and set on the kitchen table in a spirit of home.
“I think we’re going on a trip,” Thom said.
“Not you too,” Erik said. “Why aren’t I having these dreams?”
“No dream,” Thom said. “I just think we should get out of here.”
“I have eighteen dollars to my name,” Erik said in what both roommates felt was an uncharacteristic moment of truth. “And you know where my fucking car is.”
“You’re a realist today,” Thom said. “It doesn’t really become you.”
“Well, I don’t think you can even take the Greyhound anywhere for eighteen bucks. Maybe Salem or something, but I’m talking about getting out of here.”
“I’ve got a couple of hundred,” Thom said.
“You guys know how much I have.” Tree’s disassembled house quickly morphed into a bus shape under his pliers. “I’m in.” He paused and looked up at them. “I can front you.”
But why? Thom wondered. We don’t even really know each other. A faint paranoia coursed through him. There was a knock, and Tree went to get the door.
It was the building manager, his hair tied up in a ponytail. He wore a Grateful Dead shirt, slacks, and work boots, and took a step back when the smell hit him.
“Hey, Tree,” he said fondly. He worried his lip with his teeth, raised his eyebrows. “That’s quite a smell.”
“The rug, I guess.”
“Ah, it’ll have to go.” He exhaled dramatically and put his hands on his hips. “So I’ve got bad news for you guys.”
“We’ve got to move out?” Erik said.
“Everything has got to go. We’re going to overhaul the three apartments entirely.” They nodded and stared at the floor. “I’m sorry about that, guys. Here’s your deposit back, Tree.” He handed Tree an envelope.
“The couch was here when I moved in,” said Tree.
The manager studied the couch through the opening in the doorway, “I know,” he said. “It’s funny. This morning the owner said to make sure you take the couch with you. Not sure why he would say that. I can have the workmen chuck it for you, though, if you don’t want it. Or better yet, you guys could just haul it over to the Goodwill. It’s only two blocks away. That might be easier, if you don’t mind–I’d probably have to charge you otherwise.”
“It is a nice couch,” said Thom, thinking of the extent of his furniture. “The owner came by this morning?”
“Yeah, we spoke with . . .” Pointing at Erik. “Sorry, I don’t know your names, just Tree since he’s on the lease. I’m Bob.”
Erik and Thom introduced themselves.
“This morning?” said Thom.
“Yeah, we knocked at about eight a.m.”
Tree and Thom stared at Erik, who wore his eyebrow-raised, open-eyed look.
“Okay,” said Tree.
“I’m really sorry,” Bob said. “There’s just nothing really to be done about it.”
“You could let us take a couple of swings at the people upstairs,” Erik said.
“You’ve got to wait in line for that, my friend.”
They busied themselves with undoing what they’d done just a week before. Packing clothes, this time divvying up what could be taken on a trip and setting the rest aside to be donated, thrown away, and forgotten.
There was not much to pack. Tree had his wire and pliers, the Bible he’d never opened, some slightly damp dream journals, a change of clothes. Fetching a knife from the kitchen, he opened the Bible and cut carefully along its spine, separating the Old Testament from the New. He packed the Old. With a deep sigh, he threw his entire sculpture collection in a box, and the box in the dumpster.
The fact that every several years or so Erik lost everything he owned kept his possessions to a minimum. He had extensive personal hygiene equipment, a few shirts, and several hats, one of which was straw. He took off his shirt and put his straw hat on and did some maneuvers in front of a mirror. He had a fake beard, which he’d never used but always liked the idea of using. He threw it all in a pillowcase and busied himself with eating whatever was left in the refrigerator and cupboards, which included a Jell-O mix that he ate by the spoonful. The sickness that followed he tried to chase away by eating half a block of cheese.
Thom spent the first thirty minutes inventorying his computer gadgetry, packing it, taking it out, and putting it in the Goodwill pile, feeling heartbroken, and then packing it again. It was a nice laptop, if a bit old, he admitted, going over its curves. All of his projects were uploaded to a server, so he could access them from anywhere. But still, the laptop was a connection to a whole people, to a different people, his people. Most of his friends he’d never met in the flesh, though he would never admit this publicly, especially not to Erik or Tree. His virtual, fleshless relationships were the domain of the ultranerdy, the hopelessly introverted and socially maladjusted, especially in the absence of real relationships. If his mother knew the level to which he had sunk, she would weep. A Brazilian expert on TCP/IP protocols, a German and an Israeli working on PHP stuff, a Taiwanese and Chinese guy who were working on rival open-source databases, a Japanese Objective-C guy, a girl in Vermont who specialized in information design, several South American Apache-server people, a scattering of Americans and Canadians. They weren’t friend friends. He knew little to nothing about their lives. But they were friends, and he loved them deeply. They didn’t talk about much but their area of specialty, and they all seemed to utilize a wry banter that acknowledged that they knew where they stood in their own societies, which team they were on. A few of them had become filthy rich, but mostly they were people with unmatchable attention spans, people who could spend fifteen hours a day for weeks in front of a computer working on a murky, obscure problem that would most likely never be appreciated except by a tiny handful of people in their world. Most of them had shitty jobs working for companies that didn’t understand them. They were close to the machine. They thought with steadfast logical minds and occasional explosive bouts of creativity that, at times, would reengineer the way machines interacted with humans or the way machines interacted with other machines.
The phone rang, and Thom heard Erik say: “Stop calling. We’re leaving, you molester-bastard-pervert-cocksucker.”
“Don’t tell them we’re leaving,” Tree said belatedly from down the hall.
Thom shut his door. He decided to take the laptop. With it he threw in his cheap digital camera, a radio modem, and a couple of changes of clothes that he carefully folded and packed around the equipment in a backpack. He decided to send his pots and pans, desk, and whatever else to the Goodwill. He thought his life was changing; it must be changing. Fate had certainly cleared out any holds he’d had on life here.
Then in the living room he ran into his books. With an ache in his throat, Thom went through his entire sodden collection, water still an inch deep at the bottom of the box. Bloated and falling apart, their glues melted, covers warped. He pulled out a reprint of Independent People by Halldór Laxness, and the sheep on the cover came off, stuck to his thumb. The pages of Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance were oatmeal, indistinguishable from each other. And a book apiece by Rick Moody, E. Annie Proulx, and Richard Powers respectively had become like Siamese triplets, the whole inseparable without fatally damaging each of its parts. All of them doomed to the Dumpster.
The couch was surprisingly light. Erik and Thom each carried an end and Tree ran around opening doors, making sure they angled it down the stairs properly. Thom wished he had a place to store it. He briefly thought of his ex-girlfriend’s basement and then wished he hadn’t.
Both Erik and Thom were aware of being out in daylight, in public view for the first time in a while. Here they were, announcing they were leaving. They were taking the symbol of sedentary life and getting rid of it. They were off. They felt exultant.
They carried the couch the two blocks down Burnside and realized they were something to look at. Three men and a couch at a stoplight. Several people waved and they smiled in return.
They came to the Goodwill parking lot and carried the couch to the garage-style entrance, the weight of it beginning to pull on them.
The man in charge of donations was in his late sixties and dressed in blue jeans and a blue sweatshirt. His face was lined and grim, and his nose projected from his face like a geometry problem gone awry. He came and stood over the couch, fingered the back of it for a while.
“I can’t take this,” he said. He tapped it with his shoe and inspected the stitching, picked up one end and measured the heft. “No, sir, I can’t take it.” He adjusted his baseball cap, revealing well-groomed gray and black hair.
“Can’t take it?” Thom looked over at the wall of donations and saw a mound of couches in far rattier condition than theirs.
“Can’t take it.”
“Why on earth not?” Thom said.
“It’s not a brand-name couch.”
“It’s a handmade couch,” Thom said. “Don’t they sell?”
“Yes, but this one won’t.”
Tree nodded. “There’s something about this couch.”
The older man nodded with him. “Yes, there is,” he said.
“What are you guys talking about? It’s a perfectly nice couch.” Thom waved one arm up and down and tried to tamp down the confusion. “If we weren’t leaving, I’d keep it. What’s wrong with it?”
“Do I know you from somewhere?” Erik said.
The man squinted his eyes at Erik and then shook his head decisively.
“Hmm,” Erik said. He rubbed his middle finger over the scrub of a newly shaved mustache. “Okay, okay.” He looked at Thom and Tree. “Well, this is no setback, guys. We’ll just dump it in your dumpster there.” He pointed to a giant Dumpster on the edge of the parking lot.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“What? Come on. The hell are we going to do with it?”
“You could try William Temple. It’s another secondhand store down Twenty-third, on Glisan, about six, seven blocks from here.”
“Seven blocks from here.” Erik’s voice climbed an octave. “We’ve brought the damn thing far enough.”
“Sorry, can’t help you,” the man said and walked away.
Erik hauled back and kicked the base of the couch.
“Come on,” said Thom. “It’s our last Portland task. It’s the last trial.”
“What’s he going to do if we just leave it,” Erik mouthed and jerked his thumb at the old man.
“Come on,” said Thom.
“I’ve got it.” Tree stood at Erik’s end, placed his hands under the couch, and squatted, waiting for Thom.
Thom picked up his end, and they backed out of the loading bay. Erik followed.
“What if they don’t take it at this Willard place?” Erik said. “There are buses leaving right now!”
“William,” Thom said. “I suspect they’ll take it. That guy was nutty. There’s nothing wrong with this couch.” With Thom walking backward holding the front end of the couch, they returned to Burnside and Twenty-third.
Twenty-third was the most fashionable and ritziest of Portland’s streets. Full of posh, expensive shops and fancy restaurants. Only Erik had felt at home on the street, but now he continually looked over his shoulder, making sure none of his past marks were about. It was the kind of street that made Thom feel larger, more stooped, fleshier, more clumsy. Beautiful women were everywhere.
At the first block, a woman in her forties pulled up in a Mercedes.
“Looking good, boys. After this, I’ve got a couple at my house you can move around.”
“You’ll have to wait in line, ma’am. We’re wanted from coast to coast for this work,” Erik said, finding his voice.
“I can imagine, I can imagine. What’s your job then?” She winked at Erik.
“I’m in charge of precision.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively.
“Oh my.” She winked again and drove off.
“This isn’t so bad,” Erik mused. He rolled his shoulders, cased the street