Fiction 2011 / Volume 41

Places to Change — Nick Bertelson

I. Misstep

Coty and I made the pact in sixth grade. If Osama Bin Laden wasn’t dead by the time we graduated high school, the two of us would join the army and kill him ourselves. All through lower school, Coty played with other kids’ ears. I remember his hands, as dry as cork board, massaging my ears for hours during lunch, recess, and class even, when the teachers faced the chalkboards. With the noise of it in mind now, like a pillow case rustling against my face, and the way he touched them when no one was watching, our relationship seems intimate, a forbidden affair.

The summer before we went to high school I watched Coty fall from the rafters of his mom’s garage. Once a week, we crawled over collapsed cardboard boxes and two-by-fours to the plastic Santa that Coty stashed old Playboys in. Slinking between rafters, I listened to Coty speak in his rapid fashion, words bursting from him like a police scanner. Then he disappeared, replaced by a plume of glittering dust. He stepped somewhere wrong, a place with little or nothing to hold him. When he landed, he screamed in a way boys aren’t supposed to at that age, letting go his pre-pubescent pitch—something we all hid. He screamed like, dare I say, a girl.

I couldn’t get down fast enough. I knocked my head and shins on everything trying to find a different way down than the one he had taken. He fell onto the roof of his mom’s Camry, his arms through the weird glass of the windshield which seemed to pull harder each time he tried freeing himself. The dented roof didn’t let the passenger door open when I tried it, but I watched fingers of blood run down the glass, both inside the car and out. It covered the dashboard, ran down the radio, dripped to the carpet.

“I’m going to die,” Coty said, over and over. His face was white as canvas and covered in a pathetic painting of dust and tears.

Coty’s mom threw open the door. “Oh my god!” she screamed. After that, she became a mess of hair and arms. She flailed and panicked and screamed into her cellphone. Coty gave up screaming and simply wept.

An ambulance came, and for the rest of the summer Coty’s arms looked like two huge cuts of meat wrapped in butcher paper. He told kids who’d never heard the story that he cut himself on purpose.

“Were you sad or something?” they asked.

“What?” Coty said. “No!”

In actuality, he was, but it was because he secretly longed for ears. Imagine what those textures meant to him: the mutability, stiff to squishy, the folds and bends and passages, the punching-bag lobe, the labyrinthine pinna, the tragus grazing his knuckles—those fleshy question marks punctuating everyones’ face.

With his hands out of commission, he soon replaced his ear obsession with the painkillers his doctor gave him; so that, near the end of high school, not a day went by when Coty’s backpack didn’t sound like a huge maraca. He and I hung out under the grandstand after school selling kids little pills with big names. But then Coty got busted, and I knocked all that off. I stopped carrying a backpack anyway. After we graduated, I kept track of Coty through newspaper articles and judicial reports. It started when a man allegedly raped Coty’s 14-year-old sister, even though she admitted the sex was consensual, that she didn’t want to press charges, that she loved this 23-year-old man who received a fine and community service despite all the love in the world. But justice for Coty came in the form of a tire iron to the side of the head. When I heard all this, I remembered our pact to kill Osama, as forgotten as the ninth-grade long division those pills had burned from our memories, and I said to myself that with his mentality Coty would have made a good soldier, maybe the one good enough to kill Osama himself. Then I wondered for the first time why his hands were so dry. Was it genetic? Did the skin wither with each generation, scaling off until kids were born with nothing but two bony garden-claws for hands? I pictured him staring at his hands in a hand-lotion-less jail cell, tracing with his finger the lightning-like scars of his arms. Only three months ago, I heard about Coty molesting his seven-year-old cousin and a few more thoughts came to mind, one pertaining to the army having beef with pederasts, and the other: Coty fondling my ears with those sandpapery hands of his and my ears never taking on a similar callousness.

II. Any Tiny Place

The last time Winnie came to town, she called me an old man when I left the bar at eleven. “You’re a sixty-year-old in a twenty-three-year-old body,” she mumbled while crawling to bed from the toilet. I told her I’d like that knowledge now, all the stuff I’ll have retained by the time I’m sixty. I’d take it like a vitamin, all at once, everything I need to see the world proper.

“You can’t do that,” she said. “You’d be someone different, your sixty-year-old self. What if I don’t like him?”

Hopefully, at sixty, I’ll be better off than my grandpa, who, on the morning Winnie came to town the second time, didn’t bother waking up. Encephalitis, Meningitis, Rocky Mountain Fever, West Nile, or a stroke—the doctors didn’t know which, but it was a hell of a list to be up against.   My father said I should go to the hospital soon and see him. But I told him about my company: “Winnie’s coming to town, Dad. I have to pick her up from the airport. We’re going hiking.”

Picture my grandfather, this man whose hairy hands I’ve inherited, with his mouth gaping, lips folded over his toothless gums, strings of saliva my grandma wipes away. “He’ll snap out of it,” she says, stolid. My little cousin’s head rests on his shoulder.

What am I to do?

They say, “Talk to him. Hearing is the last thing to go.” So I speak with the same inflection he used while cooing to me as a child.

I couldn’t do it, not that day.

Instead, I packed the truck and picked up Winnie from the airport. In the time between undergrad and graduate school, we had about as much time together as we did money. So in the cheapest attempt I could think of to prove I was at least more agile than a sixty-year-old, I told her to wear hiking boots on the plane and we’d hit the hills first thing. Of course, I found her at the airport in a pleated skirt, tights, and heels.

“Who wears heels on a plane?” I said, as an officer waved the way for me.

“Relax,” she says. “It’s all in my carry-on.” She slides across the seat, kissing me on the cheek. “You’re just mad I didn’t follow instructions.”

In a restaurant, Winnie changed in the bathroom. She told me to order for her if the waitress came back, but a line of people formed at the door and no one working appeared to have graduated high school yet. Most of them leaned on the counter thumbing their cellphones. Across the room, a man read a menu with his glasses at the tip of his nose. His daughter’s head rested on his shoulder. In ten years I’d be asking myself when the head resting on my shoulder became my wife’s instead of my girlfriend’s—Winnie’s or whoever else may come. Another twenty years, I’ll ask when it became my daughter’s instead of my wife’s. And on it will go.

The people in that restaurant were not happy, but most were beautiful. Girls almost too young to touch walked by wearing shorts so short I almost saw the places the sun almost never tanned. Almost.

I stared back at the booth across the table as Winnie clunked up in her boots. She sat on the same side as me: something couples did, I was told, even when one of them doesn’t want to. She scooted in so close that when I moved over I felt a coldness coming off the wall, like sitting next to an open fridge.

“I just about had a panic attack in the bathroom,” Winnie said.

“Why’s that?”

“I couldn’t figure out the door. I turned the knob like crazy but it wouldn’t open. Then I started banging and a waitress helped me out. She said they’ve been having problems.”

“Guess they should fix it.”

“I know, right? That’s one of my biggest fears.”

“Being locked in a bathroom?”

“Any tiny place.”

“Claustrophobia,” I said. I put my coffee cup up to my face without drinking.

“No, it’s something… more.”

I read the board across the restaurant with the specials written on it. It was a hell of a list. The words got so small near the bottom that I squinted without realizing it and Winnie patted my arm, giggling. “Put on your glasses, old man.”

Someone tell me, please. How much time passed before she put her head on my shoulder?

III. Fun and/or Games

My divorce ended in my wife taking everything except the five years worth of money I’d hid in an account under our daughter’s name. Ten minutes after becoming my new ex-wife, she bawled on the court steps when I told her about the account, not because I had deceived her, but because she wanted that money too. It was enough for a plane ticket to Vegas and hotel room near Fremont Street where I had to smack the TV a dozen times to keep the picture from going out and when I asked the dealers in the hotel’s casino how they were doing, they replied with whatever day of the week it was. I slept the soundest sleep I ever have, married or single, even though the irregular couple next door regularly banged their headboard against my wall. I knew their secret, though—the comforting premise that kept them together: her begging him to stop, not really wanting him to stop, and him not stopping.

Their noises didn’t bother me. I just didn’t ever want to see them, not because the split with my wife made the thought of love taste like wasabi. Rather, I wanted the people making those noises to be beautiful. But when I saw her walking with the bubbly gait of a preschooler, running her fingers over everything she passed, and I saw him in the same sleeveless shirt three days in a row eating cereal in the hotel restaurant, wiping milk from his lip-ring with his wrist, I knew they were the type of people who’d rarely pay taxes. His name was Adam. Every time they fooled around, I heard her yell, “Adam stop!”

And Adam never stopped.

These types of things are supposed to bother people my age. When their headboard drowned out the only part of my TV that worked, I was supposed to complain at the front desk or go over there myself. These are the things my wife would have wanted me to do. I wasn’t supposed to tip-toe across my bed comforter, put my ear to the air register, and listen to the noises they made.

“Adam, stop!”

And Adam never stopped. That is, until he stood next to me

at the urinal in the lobby bathroom. It was the middle of the day, but I had been drinking, and I’d just won a hundred dollar hand of blackjack. I was now brave enough to say “Adam, stop.” Softly at first without turning toward him.

“What?” he asked.

“Adam, stop!” I said, facing him now. “Adam, stop!” I buttoned-up my pants. “Adam… staaawp.” I bounced dramatically toward the door before he finished peeing and left him at the urinal, wide-eyed and breathing through his teeth.

And that night I listened to the despondent squeak of the springs next door. After the night’s first “Adam, stop!” I knew I had got to him. The silence crept through everything and in my mind Adam replied, “You don’t mean that.” I hoped he rolled over, pulled the blanket tight to his body, and said, “Say it like you used to.”

In that moment, Adam stopped and the silence remained in everything, a silence that became a ringing in my ears. It was the same silence of the morning when I learned I could wake up without opening my eyes. From then on, I did it every morning while lying next to my wife because she woke up before me and, in the beginning of our marriage, stayed in bed until I woke up too. It was for fun at first, a trick I played, making her think I was still asleep when I wasn’t.

After a while, it was just something I did.

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