Chapter 1: Tomb
After a sleepless night communing with his dead wife, Eric watches the world pass from the backseat with heavy eyes.
He'd sneaked out and borrowed this very truck, driven for an hour to the mausoleum, and unsealed Sofia's visage from the nutrient vat within her marble obelisk.
And for what? He wasted precious time. Every second spent awake brings her nervous system further beyond repair.
Eric jolts as Crane abruptly swings the dilapidated pickup into a small parking space, a perfect cube cut out of the pristine white walls of a loft. The exterior seems unaffected by time, save a broken front door and excess foliage draping through the bedroom's shattered glass window. A single tendril reaches past the balcony railing and sways in the breeze just above their windshield.
Crane gave them nothing. No directions, allowed little gear. The only radio is in Crane's ear.
Eric traveled to tell Sofia that Crane had become obsessed with these unexplained missions, but she sensed his despair before he uttered a word.
Another year, Sofia had said, struggling to part her cracked lips. Just keep paying the jackals. One more year.
So he'd spent the time lying instead. He told Sofia how close Crane was to having a cure, how he was saving enough money to buy the mausoleum from the jackals, until she'd lost the energy to listen. He resealed the obelisk while she slept, leaving her to an even deeper sleep, and stepped into the graveyard, passing the more peaceful dead to meet the dawn with a heavy heart.
One more year.
He forces himself to dispel the memory of her hairless scalp and gaunt face.
He scans the loft. Eric has been through hundreds of these abandoned homes. Here, there are no stinging nettles or jumping cholla planted along the pathway to deter unwelcome guests, just an interior full of robust flora. No one is squatting inside.
In the backseat by Eric, Mae slips a flashlight attachment onto her rifle.
Eric grips the shotgun on his lap, watching the back of Crane's head. Already strapped to Crane's back is a flattened bag. A flashlight is holstered to his hip. Otherwise, he's empty.
“No one's home,” Eric breathes.
Crane doesn't take the bait, doesn't mutter a syllable about what's inside.
He'd called this a typical sweep. More of the same bullshit.
Before, Eric intercepted shipments of medicine or performed solitary reconnaissance, at least pocketing whatever currency he found to pay the jackals.
There was nothing here. These modern lofts were the disemboweled remnants of urban convenience. Looters passed through decades ago like a swarm of ants, picking every bit of human gristle in mere days and leaving flimsy architectural bones for a more patient earth to digest.
One more year.
Crane presses his fingers to the radio in his ear. “Go,” he says, and the three head to the front door.
The doorknob is missing, and the door shudders against the light breeze, groaning on its loose hinges. Without warning, Crane throws it open and steps into the dark.
Eric clenches his jaw at the reckless entry, but he and Mae follow, stumbling over the twisted remains of a screen door that's made its way indoors. Mae stifles a curse and turns on her light.
Inside, the loft is like every other abandoned home. Overturned, rotting furniture awakens in their beams, spindly shadows stalking them step by step on the yellow, water-stained walls. To their left, open kitchen cabinets and broken bottles. The skeletons of what might have been a family of possums draped across an island countertop. To the right, a face-down bookcase and the sunken frame of a sofa. The floor is plastered with so much old paper it's formed a brittle second layer over the hardwood.
Crane pulls out his own flashlight and paces the kitchen, a shell of paper cracking under his boots.
Mae's light stops beside him. A giant, warped painting rests against the wall beside a hearth. The fireplace and surrounding floor is blackened with soot. Another possum skeleton rests in ashes.
“Well done,” she says. “Yum.”
Crane roots through the cabinets as Mae heads deeper into the living area, towards a staircase.
Eric stares at the painting. The sunken canvas looks like an ancient map, the sort cartographers designed before explorers dared venture beyond the four corners filled with admonitions of darkness and monsters, but perhaps the continents had decayed on the canvas into shapeless, earthy brown froth after years of ruin. It was fitting enough. Darkness and monsters now pushed back against the torches.
“The stairs are good,” Mae says, and they ascend to the second floor.
The bedroom is much brighter, covered in leaves and tendrils and the floor itself appears to have turned into a mossy soil. Vines have crept from window-to-window along the ceiling, spilling halfway onto a rotted bed, the only furniture other than another bookcase and a desk.
A breeze flows through the windows, weighted by a caustic stench.
Crane and Mae examine the bed and bookcase as Eric walks to the bathroom.
On the door is a partial handprint in dried blood. No patterns. Gloved.
“Mae,” he calls.
Eric presses his body against the door, leaning in slowly, shotgun to the ceiling. Rotten air pours out, and broken shards of mirror glint from the sink basin.
Legs are draped over the bathtub.
“Mae,” he says again, and her light shines into the bathroom from behind.
The man in the tub is a drifter with ragged clothes and one soleless shoe. From the looks of his blistered skin, he's been here a few days. The left arm is missing, but bandaged; he must've been dealing with that for a while. His head, a mess of beard and congealed blood, hangs at an impossible angle, cut deep at the throat all the way to the vertebra. Around him a porcelain halo shines black-red.
“He was killed in the tub,” Mae says. “Not much blood on the floor.”
“Surveyors,” Eric tells her. “That's the work of a cutlass. He spooked 'em, pissed 'em off.”
A cigarette butt rests upright on his chest, and around it a hole burned through his shirt.
“Yeah, Surveyors,” Mae spits. “Steady enough to use the blade of their gun, vile enough turn him into an ashtray.”
They backtrack into the bedroom, where Crane is holding a leather-bound book.
“I hope you found what you're looking for,” Eric tells him. “The Guard sent—”
“Surveyors two days ago, yes. Look what they missed.”
He hands them the book, its pages unsoiled and crisp.
If you're reading this, I am sorry.
The likelihood of your existence is exceeded by the probability of any one particular human sperm successfully reaching its mate. Or at least that's how Jericho explained things. His eyes glazed, fork suspended midair, forgetting the unchewed watercress in his mouth.
Don't bet on that baby, he slurred.
I'd said something about only one, any one, needing to survive to create life. Jericho rolls his eyes in this memory. He says something about the only thing certain is getting fucked.
“A big, sloppy...” and he stared at his fork as though he'd forgotten a word. “Mess. Miracle of life.”
I am sorry. Even then, I was not thinking of you. I did not think of you until this final moment.
If nothing else, I owe you an explanation—how all this lifeless ruin is due to one man, a man so wrecked on guilt and drugs and sleepless nights he may well be insane. Why we've left you behind. But I don't know where to begin.
I owe my life to Jericho, twice over, but we never agreed on much. Never those fundamental questions of human destiny. The whys of life.
I remember all of it. There's not a detail I've forgotten. I keep piecing the conversations together, again and again, expecting a pattern to emerge.
Sometimes I believe there is nothing more human than forgetting. In a man's last hour, his memories may swell with the fragrance of his fondest lover. He may remember the shape of the moon on the night he professed his love. But when he tries to place the date, or even his age at the time, the only number that comes to him is a decades-old PIN, embossed on his cerebrum like square digits on a banking card or the LED of an alarm clock.
They say the devil is in the details, so I search those minutiae, line by line, hollow incantations that summon nothing but guilt and pain.
I wish there were things I'd forgotten. The rest choose what to forget and don't realize the choice is made until the memory slips away. But there are so many memories in this head. The old world is a boulder, and all that remains is an endless hill. It's a big responsibility, carrying it alone.
Maybe, then, I owe you this first confession: I'm only writing to convince myself this will be read.
Chapter 2: Fugue
Jericho pushes two tablets across his desk.
Back and forth. Into each other. Away from each other.
There's every reason not to put the tablets in his mouth, not to take it one step further and chew them.
It's been a good day.
He sloshes a gulp of water around his bitter mouth, stares at the glass.
There are no good days.
He closes his eyes and waits. Half an hour until he leaves Blue Coral Inn.
Soon he feels it. The walls sink below his weightless body, his blood warms, thoughts fall into a languid mist—-and in walks Maggie.
Had it already been thirty minutes? Just as time had begun to dissipate, the open door is like a violent injection of black ink in water. All serenity spins toward the open hole.
Her mouth moves in slow-motion. Drifting through the breaking waves of bliss and saying something he can't hear.
She settles into a chair.
Jericho stares at her lips, at the ballpoint pen digging into the corner of her mouth. His desk radio rolls in soft grey waves, a purring, frothing alien water.
He realizes the radio's lost reception, fumbles with the volume dial. The waves recede. Everything fluid is gone from the room.
Solid edges, broken silences.
He studies her face, but can't really see it.
Here we go.
She smirks, the pen inching in, and he envisions black ink being sucked down her throat, encasing her skull, twisting from her eyes like blind snakes.
Tempt the ghosts and they will come.
With enough focus, the snakes disappear. He knows they're not real.
She leans in, laughing now, and he forces himself to stare at the details. The real details. Creamy skin, pearly teeth.
“You are so spacey,” her eyes say, green wildfires scanning him over. The thin feathery lines above them narrow into a squint. Then, throatily, “Let's go to Paseka's tonight.”
How long had she been talking?
“Yeah.” He drags the dull ends of his chewed up nails across the desk, embracing the uneven texture, the wooden veins. They rise like roots under his fingertips. The walls begin to slant.
Shit. Pull it together.
He pushes his chair back and reaches to turn the radio fully off, but hits the volume dial and static ether rushes back over the room.
“No. Exhausted. Didn't get very good sleep...sleep last night. Tomorrow.” It all rolls out fast, sloppy, disjointed.
She says nothing, exhaling loudly. Right away he remembers—she won't be here tomorrow night.
That level of focus takes too much effort. He's high, and the ghosts are seizing on this weakened state, banging on his mind's peripheral windowpanes.
He swallows hard to prepare for a full sentence. “To be honest I might just stay in one of the vacant rooms.”
“Okay,” you fuck up, “nothing new.” Just the same bastard you were yesterday. “But you know I'll be out of town the next few days.” And I know you don't care.
“We'll do something then.”
He hates his indifference. But now he wants her to be gone. She wasn't supposed to come in, he was just supposed to get high and coast through the next few hours, sleep, wake up, repeat. But here she is, interrupting the plan. And the ghosts came with her, as though to say you can't hide from us with your silly little pills.
“On a Tuesday,” she murmurs. “I'll be back in Caligatha on Tuesday.”
“That's not what I meant.” She stands, straightens the name tag on her navy blue dress. “Look, I'll call you tomorrow.”
He walks her to the door, dizzy. She's talking, but all his attention is spent on standing balanced with even weight on each foot.
With the salty breeze slipping in his panic recedes. The ghosts are already gone, everything is steady and in place. No more visions he can't control, no slanting walls or veins rippling out of his desk.
But no high either. That suspended feeling has inverted into a thousand tons. So much weight on each foot.
“I'm not going to...” She stares at him, probably looking for any sign of his attention. “Just take care of yourself.”
He goes to say something without knowing what, but she kisses the corner of his mouth, that same spot the pen was drilling into her lip. Then she's gone.
Blotting the back of his hand on his forehead, he realizes how cold he is.
God damn it.
He waits for her to be far enough away, a slow ten-count. Then he rushes to the radio and turns it off in vindication. He resists staring in disbelief at the clock on his desk telling him it's been ninety minutes since he swallowed the pills, just palms the light switch hard on his way out and slams the door.
The breeze now prickling his skin, he sits on a bench behind his office. It's a short walk from the pier, but he endures the clamor and soon curls up against the wall, watching drums and crates make their way inland through bustling crowds in the distance. A few scattered groups walk by him, and a young couple stops a few feet away for no apparent reason, laughing at each other's attempts to wrangle their mouths around heaping ice cream cones.
Chittering like mindless, feeding insects. He imagines their stupid faces drowning on the melted goo.
His own imagination is pure irritability, never as vivid as what the ghosts conjure up. And the ghosts don't care about Maggie or nameless couples on the shore—no, they exist to torture him. Only him.
Today the ghosts came and left much quicker than usual. A brief reminder of his tenuous grip on sanity.
There's a pain between his eyes, a flowering bruise. It bleeds with patience into a familiar yellow-white flash lingering in his vision.
He covers his face and breathes. It's not so bad. He needs to rest, wait out the terrible inverted high.
In half an hour or an hour, he finds himself at ease, then jerking back awake from a falling dream.
His eyelid twitches, occasional voices boom in the distance, and an invisible gull or two grumble somewhere nearby.
His irritability has waned. The smaller, disparate crowds don't bother him anymore.
He props himself up.
A new billboard a block away stares back at him, a woman in a bikini leering over her dipped sunglasses. They must have put it up this morning. A faceless man, cut off at the ear by the edge of the sign, has his arm around her. GET LOST, it tells him. Strangers laugh in the background, some holding martinis, but the message seems personal. Her eyes are cold. She's not smiling.
I try, I really do.
He forces himself to think of Maggie, and how he pushed her away. He shouldn't have panicked and let her ruin his high, shouldn't blame her for it.
But that only leads to how he doesn't care.
But she's right. Or the angry words he imagined simmering in her head were right, anyway.
There was nothing wrong with her, just how she had come into his life unannounced, like an insect into his bed.
You asshole. How can you compare her to a louse?
The gulls sound closer, and like they're arguing.
I don't mean it like that though.
“Shut up,” he says to himself.
He sits, and after his blood redistributes, locks the office door and leaves.
It's a gray day, hard to tell the sky from the clouds from the water, but the sun will soon set. He's fallen asleep a few times on the bench or in his office, and the walk home along a black sea transforms everything into an empty fishbowl, all loneliness and mirrors.
An obsidian plane of sea foam is the stuff ghosts are made of, but none would materialize. Once a day is usually it.
And they aren't real ghosts, anyway. He doesn't think so.
He looks back at Blue Coral Inn.
Back in his apartment, Jericho rolls a cigarette by the open window. It's only about seven, but the sky is a glow of light pollution, a blacklight in the darkness.
He debates drinking coffee or scotch. Scotch wins out over the remaining week-old wet cement mold of coffee grinds.
A group of young men, no doubt away on a late holiday, shout at each other. Though he lives in a quiet area, it rests between the beach to the west and the nightlife in the southwest, so drunks are always crossing through.
The scotch will soon be gone; he'd fallen asleep clutching the bottle last night and not remembered how much he imbibed. Maybe he could call Reuben, see if he wanted to grab a drink.
No, damn it, he'd want to go to Paseka's.
Besides, he's not sure he can tolerate Reuben now anyway.
He takes a sip and decides to call Maggie.
“Jericho,” she says.
“How are you?”
She doesn't respond for a moment, then, “All right. I just got to my parents' house.”
“Oh. Why did you leave early?” But he doesn't want to hear the answer, cuts her off. “Do you need to go?”
There's a half-breath, half-laugh. It's always amazing how people put more meaning into precise little sounds than the words that follow. What's the point of language, anyway? To let these sighs mull around in the mouth, transforming the huffs and tsks into something more deceptive?
“No. But I told you I would call tomorrow.”
“I've been thinking about you,” he lies, regretting it as he speaks.
He stares at the window pane, into his own eyes.
Nothing. Why even call?
“We're not really dating, you know?” he says.
“Jesus. Thanks for the phone call.”
And that's it.
He stares at the phone and wonders what he meant. It was something of a fact—had they ever used the word dating?—but stating it made it an even truer fact. Now he'd lost her for sure.
That would be okay because it was nearing autumn and the owner of Blue Coral would be gone until spring. The slow season had begun, and at least half of the forty-eight rooms at Blue Coral would be vacant until April. The kitchen staff of the adjacent Tombolo's Restaurant, he needed. Blue Coral's housekeeping he couldn't afford to lose. A front desk manager like Maggie would not be so necessary; he could check in the lonely winter wanderers on business trips, coordinate meetings in the banquet room with the kitchen. There was a night receptionist, so he wouldn't have to work nights. And no one this season would give a damn about the nightlife, so he wouldn't need to be knowledgeable about the concerts and fairs and theater productions that didn't happen in the winter anyway.
But none of it makes him feel any better for developing an immediate disinterest in her.
Everyone is just a fucking hole.
He takes out his last two pills.
Shaped like no one.
Two pills. Too many, too soon.
One to stop thinking about Maggie. With a mouthful of warm scotch, he swallows, calling Reuben.
One to deal with Reuben. He swallows again and walks to his bed.
Reuben answers after three rings.
“What's up, my man?”
“What're you doing?” Jericho mutters.
“Thinkin' of goin' to Paseka's with Fern, grab a few once the sitter's here. The lady got her cast off today. Celebration time, right? Sound good?”
This will not be a transaction, is what this means. For as badly as he treats Fern, he never gives Jericho drugs around her or their twin girls, Alana and Stacey.
“Not really. Maggie wanted to go there.”
He does feel a tinge of guilt—Fern's arm had been in a cast ever since he and Reuben started talking again a couple months ago. She'd tripped on one of Alana's toys and fallen down the stairs. Jericho couldn't imagine what hell it must be, chasing after those girls with a broken arm. But he knows this celebration thing is just an excuse for Reuben to drink too much.
“Oh,” Reuben laughs, “Maggie. Hah. Don't wanna ruin your depression with gettin' laid?”
“Something like that. I turned her down. She might be there.”
“You're crazy, man, you should be all over that.”
But he never was. She was the one who insisted on “getting to know him”, on having drinks at the hotel bar, on staying in a room because it was too late and she was too drunk to drive home.
“Sometimes it feels like... we're just our relationships with other people.”
“I thought you weren't dating, she was only on your back?”
That was true. They didn't have a relationship. She'd flirted and followed him about for a couple months, or a little longer.
But they'd never slept together again. Or maybe they had once, or twice. Surely she would give up soon. She would come back from visiting her family having realized what an asshole he was, snuffed of all desire.
“That's not what I mean.”
Jericho pauses. “Nevermind.” He knows better than to be so nebulous with Reuben.
But Reuben says nothing, so he continues. “We are what we are...or aren't...for other people. We define ourselves... by our loneliness, by our unavailability, by... I don't know.”
“Not even been a minute since I picked this phone up and you're already gettin' me down. What's that even gotta do with bein' with Maggie?”
“I don't know.”
“I swear, you had more game when you were a damn scientist. How you even manage to bag a girl anymore—I'll tell you—that's a goddam miracle.”
It's hard to remember. But in the snippets he sees of himself, he's going along with her every whim, offering elusive responses, standing disoriented in the doorway. Being pulled onto the bed. A willing prop with a truant mind.
Nobody's fault. Things happen.
Reuben is laughing. “No, no, see, let me explain something. That's how you define yourself. Relationships, whatever type, they're give-in-order-to-take situations.”
“Marriage?” he bites, wondering why he even called.
Because there's no one else. We're just our relationships with other people.
These conversations always turn into lectures about how he needs to take “it” easy. As though the whole universe and everything he's endured could fit into a little two-letter word, three lines and a dot, and be flicked away.
No, he didn't call for this conversation. He called for drugs.
“Everyone uses each other for fun, fuckin', help, love, work, whatever.”
If Reuben wrote a self-help book, it would be four letters long: beer. Or maybe three: sex.
What's that feeling? Hypocrisy? Jealousy?
“Lovely,” Jericho says, resolving to end the call.
“Hey, hey,” Reuben laughs, “don't go gettin' critical on the damn phone with me, man.”
“Can I buy?” Jericho sighs.
“Tomorrow. Now, listen. Your life ain't what it used to be, I know, I know.” Rehearsed sympathy. “You gotta let go, give in to shit like this. You're gonna eat every pill on the planet. Maggie, Maggie—I mean you have, you know, seen her? That ass is therapy.”
“Man, if I had your money I wouldn't be tryin' to keep busy. I'd buy a girl or two like that, go to one of those islands, drink champagne off—”
“Thanks,” Jericho interrupts.
Voice of a bigger asshole heard. Objective complete.
“Hey, look, just tell the girl you're done and move on, and don't sleep with one of your managers again, dumbass.”
“I'd rather not talk about it anymore.”
“Great. Believe it or not I don't give a shit about your soap opera. Keep padding my pockets, babe. But hey, I'm gonna go.” There's a muffled thump followed by the sound of an engine revving and Fern's voice in the background. “I'll see you tonight if you can man up and come downtown.”
“Are you driving?”
“Don't lecture me, dopehead. I'll have my license back soon.” Dopehead. Knowing Fern heard stings.
“Right. Well, can we meet for lunch tomorrow then?”
“Uh, yeah. I'll have the girl cover me at the shop a little longer tomorrow. Man, I've got some stories with her.”
“You gotta get outta your stale apartment somehow, buddy.”
“I was thinking of Tombolo's.”
“The hotel bar? Christ on a stick,” Reuben says, laughing as he hangs up.
As the line disconnects, it occurs to him he could go. Maggie wouldn't be at Paseka's because she's miles away at her parents'—he just called her. This lapse in memory should frighten him, but he's getting used to it.
Life itself is the only thing keeping score.
Oh well. It's hard to see Reuben and his wife together these days, although he couldn't deal with Reuben alone.
What a piece of shit.
He turns to the wall. A crayon drawing of fish talking on two cans and a string is taped by the side of his bed. He keeps little else on the walls, but Alana's drawing makes him smile from time to time.
Sometimes he can be happy when he sees little Stacey and Alana, little remnants of temporary innocence, if he ignores Reuben and Fern speaking in couples' tongue.
“Daddy, daddy!” a three-year old Alana chanted at Reuben once, excited feet stomping and knees bending, “How can fish talk on their phones without getting eletera-cuted?”
“Fish don't talk on the phone, babe,” Reuben had said. “They write letters. They're old-fashioned like that.”
“Oh. Okay!” And she ran off never doubting him.
Where Reuben was quick on his feet, Jericho had laughed long and hard. His laughing must have made an impression on her, because she'd rushed back minutes later with the drawing and in a shy whisper asked Reuben to give it to him.
He can't smile this time. Guilt tickles his throat. Staring at the crude and innocent fish makes him wonder what he would tell his own little girl.
He stares at the ceiling, the tickle becoming a tight ball.
She has no face.
The morphine is alive, its anesthetic fingers slithering up his face and wrapping around him. The last thing he thinks about is Fern's cold, stern face staring down at him in that hospital bed months ago.
He lets go.
Jericho doesn't dream the way he used to, where every fear of inadequacy is stark nakedness or decaying teeth. The surrealist connect-the-dots of dreaming only smacks him with terrible scenes and vivid memories. More and more, he's able to direct the dreams, feel a part of them. Eyelids twitching, enamel gnashing, twisting a full-body tourniquet of sticky sheets—for a reason unknown, he hastens along string after string of associations, entangled at every hyperbolic scene—can he change things? Alter the past? It doesn't matter. Soon the web breaks and he falls into the painful acid bath of reality, either birthed kicking and screaming or curled fetal, the helpless dead skin shed by a mysterious animal of dream.
Quarter to three, he awakens haunted by some phantasmically-connected string of faces, a centipede of eyes and mouths and melted wax skin, veins, sinew. Beautiful, sorrowful brown eyes.
Yellow glow fills the walls of his room, and he turns to stare at the desk clock's blinding light.
2:46, 2:46, 2:46.
He repeats the numbers in his head to drown out their sad whispers. “Don't go, don't go...”
The faces became more and more featureless as he passed them, dissolving dolls. At some point he realized he hadn't begun at the very start, hadn't seen the first face. Who was this person, melting in pain? This panicked him, and the faces panicked too, moaning and howling, “Don't go, don't go...” until they were mouthless little heaps, sounds of pain escaping in defeated pockets of air.
“Fuck,” he says out loud, wiping his face and neck as though the vision was a tangible slime.
He didn't see her in the dream, but it must have been her. She's always in the furthest recess of his dreams. Laying in bed, feverish, beads of sweat collecting on her brow and huge belly, halfway through the third trimester.
He murmurs a plea for something reassuring, some nostalgic comfort, something that feels like home.
There's never anything.
The ghosts come and go, manipulate his visions, taunt him with lunacy, but when they come in dreams they're different. Tortured.
Frail arms of light are searching the uneven brick walls of his room, while a gangly spider hurries against a draft by the window to pluck together residence.
Only after nightmares, he longs for Maggie in his bed, a breathing talisman.
Something, anything, to fill the void he'd become.
He disentangles from the damp sheet, heads to the bottle of scotch. In the window's glow a silhouetted moth is suspended in the glass.
“Bastard,” he says, tilting it. “Lucky bastard.” Noticing wings flinch, he feels bad and puts the cap on, shakes it into a quick death.
He's out of pills too, but he's been excessive. He knows what happened last time, and he doesn't want that. Not yet.
Pushing aside all the formal white shirts he wears to work, he pulls a jacket out of his closet. The nights will soon grow cold; it's already a bit chilly in his room.
He stares at the wedding dress, wrapped in protective muslin like a corpse. His fingertips graze the surface before he gingerly pushes the collared shirts back, covering it.
Caligatha's streets are wet, stirring the feeling he's always trailing behind something. Silence nearly overtakes the whispering drip of trees and occasional splashing tires in the distance.
The long-dead cocoons of Victorian architecture never raise his spirits, but after dark the town seems to bow its giant head, commiserating. Jericho feels as ancient after his thirty years. These cluttered buildings, Industrial Age fever dreams of Gothic windows and trusses and scrollwork and turrets, stand despite infinite beatings from coastal storms, having lost but a few shingles or cobblestones to time.
They almost seem to take the abuse for lack of any other option; change would destroy the invented narrative, the charm of an idealized history. Everyone wants to live in tomorrow and vacation in yesterday.
Jericho's days, too, are designed to be at once transient and eternal, an endless and unevolving pattern of disposable experience. The roulette of faces at Blue Coral, the sleepless nights, the nightmares when he does sleep, the pills, the night walks. A fixed set of variables.
His memories become weaker and weaker; only the ones that repeat stick.
Three blocks from his apartment, he passes Reuben's new employer, Eden's Vineyard, tomblike in its solemn terra cotta. An eroding mural hangs between thin rectangular windows like a stray fingerprint, an Art Nouveau Eve clad in lush foliage. She appears to blow something from the palm of her hand, but whatever it was faded.
He's still mad at Reuben. Dopehead. He deserves that. But Fern—he can't stand for her to hear.
He peers into the black windows of Eden's Vineyard, wanting to uncover a private understanding, but he's unable to see past his own dim reflection.
How does Reuben treat the people inside? Does he greet everyone and smile? Does he make advances on the women? Does he bother to make advances on Fern anymore?
He walks away from the window with an eerie sense that someone might be watching from inside.
How do some people do what they do? Reuben frequented the places that fired him, soaked up the company of those he fucked over.
He's never been more disdainful than this past summer. After Reuben lost his bartending job at Paseka's by sneaking too much of the liquor into his belly, he managed the front desk of Blue Coral for a brief stint. Everything seemed fine until he didn't show up one busy June morning, leaving arrivals stranded. Half of the reservations were refunded, and a business meeting planned for the banquet room ended short of a fistfight between Jericho's frazzled chef and a locked-out group of realtors. After the chef and morning bartender walked, Jericho realized it wasn't an isolated incident.
Jericho didn't know. He took such great pains to not know. And with Reuben smoothing things over with the owner—well, he was always picking up Jericho's slack recently, at a price.
The real disappointment, however, was in finding Reuben. Casual and reckless—his name was on the front desk's computer, assigned to a room. He must've left his card key at home, and been too drunk to realize he could use the housekeeper's card, booking himself a damned room like an idiot.
Jericho swiped his own card, expecting anything. Reuben was sprawled unconscious on a twiglike vacationing student he'd picked up at one of the trashy tourist bars. One of Tombolo's whiskey bottles at the foot of the bed, plastic pourer still in the neck.
Jericho took him into his office and sat in tensed quiet.
Why are you such an asshole?, his mind screamed, Pissing in your cozy little domestic bed! What happened? Why did you even marry Fern? Because you wanted what I had? Well now it's gone! You still have Stacey and Alana!
But the two men's agreement was sealed in near-silence.
As they left Jericho's office, Fern walked up with their two little girls, kissed her husband's cheek. He could tell Reuben's blood was running cold, but somehow he tugged on one of her curly brown tresses and kissed her lips. Jericho choked on his nausea imagining the student's dried sweat moving from Reuben's to Fern's mouth.
“Good morning!” Stacey hollered as she clung to Reuben's leg. “Momma said we can have bumblebee pancakes for breakfast!”
Jericho tried to feel relief in the levity of her indecipherable demand, but everything once adorable now just seemed vulnerable.
“Why do you keep giving my man so many overnight shifts?” Fern said with a half-smile. Jericho studied her pouty lips for signs of a sad knowing. “You try handling these twin devils alone.”
“I don't know,” he told her, watching them walk off. Her arm around Reuben's waist. Reuben's sex-crusted hand running through Alana's hair.
“I don't know,” he told the student as he helped her gather her things when she asked where Reuben was, snatching up a polaroid they'd taken at the bar to crush it in his fist.
“I don't know,” he told Maggie, the night receptionist at the time, when she asked why everyone from the morning shift was so upset.
“You're a nice guy,” she said, breaking the narrative. Pen drilling into her lip.
“I'm sure it was nothing.”
“I don't know. Are you free afterward?”
Is that what happened? Is that how they'd started?
“After one in the morning?”
“I'd like to talk. Can I meet you at the bar?”
She paused, uncertain, her lips poised like Fern's.
Sad, smiling, pouty, playful, confused.
What's the fucking difference anyway?
It's begun to rain again, and Jericho dives under Mila Ristorante's canopy, surprised to find he's walked fifteen blocks.
His memory has become like a winter tree. It grew out of his head long ago. All the facts dried up and fell away, and soon he'll just be following his own footsteps, circles in the snow.
Maybe everything with Maggie was his idea. Or maybe he just wanted her to take Reuben's job as front desk manager. He can't be sure.
So many I don't know's. He wishes all women could be like little Alana. “Oh! Okay!” Running off. Realizing he was full of shit years later. In her head, some whimsical white lie, a fish at a typewriter, not a polaroid of a strange woman kissing her father.
Fuck you, Reuben.
But for what? Being his own honest reflection?
He pulls out a spare cigarette.
It's wet. He wishes he'd talked Reuben into giving him more pills instead.
He tries to think of innocence, of something Alana would say, but his own inner voice calls back in somber rhyme.
Circles in the snow, round and round we go.