Well, now this was a decision. James and I turned and looked out over the shelves of shrink wrapped magazines and DVDs. I felt like I was trying to solve a kind of puzzle, only I had no idea where to begin.
“You can go pick,” I said to James.
“Yeah, go ahead,” I replied. I figured James was the authority on the subject, and anyway, he was the one who’d brokered the deal. “It’s not really my thing,” I said. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
As James made his way over toward the racks, I walked back to the counter and leaned against it. Stan glanced up at me from his booklet. I pointed at his shirt. “You serve?”
He nodded slowly. “I served. Korea, fifty-one to fifty-three.”
“Our dad was in Korea. Kirk Baumgardner?” I’d heard stories of retired soldiers coming across men they’d served with years earlier. It wasn’t common, but in a city so crammed with retired servicemen, it certainly wasn’t unheard of.
But Stan shook his head in that slow, uneasy way of his and said: “Never heard of him.” He looked back down at his booklet and scribbled in a couple of letters and then said, “He make it through okay?”
“Yeah, he made it.” I fingered one of the novelty lighters on the counter, a woman’s torso, minus limbs, with tiny red lights for nipples that lit up when you pressed the silver button at the top. “How long have you had this place?”
He glanced up at the ceiling, thinking it over. “Bought it in seventy-one, so that’s... thirty-seven years.”
I glanced over at James, who was examining the back of a DVD case. He seemed like he was halfway across the world at that moment. “Hey,” I said to Stan in a near-whisper, like we were trading secrets, “let me ask you something.”
Before I could get the question out, Stan looked up at me head-on with those grim grey eyes of his and he sighed heavily through his nose and said, “You wanna know why this kind of place? Is that what you wanna ask?” His voice had a hard edge to it that made me lean back a little. “Why pornography?”
“You got me,” I replied, smiling, but it was too transparent, too desperate.
“That’s what everyone wants to know. That’s what they all ask.”
“I wasn’t trying to be rude or anything. I was just curious.”
Stan set his pencil down on the dingy counter, slapped it down really, a gesture that spoke of countless other conversations like this one—that defensiveness that over time builds up in those people who are, for one reason or another, constantly expected to explain themselves, until soon enough it becomes a part of their character, like a kind of tic. Immediately I wished I hadn’t asked the question. “Look, I got four kids from two different marriages,” he said sourly. “I ain’t gotta tell you that’s a lot of money. But this is a solid market. I mean, I’ve seen businesses come and go all over this area. Somebody opens a store or a bar or something, they stick around for a few months, then one day there’s a sign in the window and a chain around the door handles.”
I leaned back a little. “I honestly didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious—”
“But see, that ain’t a problem with places like this, you know?” he continued as if he hadn’t even heard me. “Everybody’s into something, even if they won’t admit to it. And they always will be. There’s a reason the porn industry brings in five billion a year. I mean, I get people trying to shut me down, churches and protesters and whatnot, but they’re the same ones what keep me in business. They just don’t like to admit it. And that’s okay with me. I figure, let them. I ain’t going anywhere. I make enough money for me and my family and I ain’t going anywhere.”
I glanced down sullenly down at the counter, not sure how to respond. We were beyond the point of friendly conversation; I felt like a scolded child, embarrassed in a way that had more to do with the way I saw myself at that moment than the things he’d said, and suddenly I was struck with an odd and not entirely comforting thought: Dad would really like this guy.
Stan, having lost all interest in talking to me, picked his pencil back up and went back to work on his crossword. At that moment James walked back over with his hands in his pockets. “Let’s just go,” he said, glancing uneasily around the room as though the place had a bad smell.
“You’re not getting anything?” I said.
He shrugged. “I can’t decide. I guess this stuff doesn’t really do it for me. And I’m, like, starving here.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got twenty dollars.”
He did this guilty go figure move with his head and then scratched the back of his neck. “It’s just, I keep thinking about Dad, you know? Like, what would he say? It’s weird. I’m thinking maybe we should just leave the stuff and go.”
I could tell that something was bothering him about the situation, though I didn’t know what it was. This wasn’t like my brother: why was James, of all people, worried about what Dad might have said? It didn’t occur to me until later that maybe James felt that my having delegated this kind of job to him actually spoke way too clearly about the type of person I considered him to be. But I couldn’t be sure then; all I knew was that it seemed self-defeating for us to leave empty-handed.
“This was your idea,” I said. “The silver lining to a dark cloud and all that. We drove all the way—”
“Look Dave,” he cut in sharply, “if you want to pick something out then go ahead. But if not, then let’s just go because I’m exhausted and all I’ve had to eat today is a goddamn bagel.”
But I didn’t pick anything out. Instead, we thanked Stan, told him we were going to forfeit the store credit, suggested he should give it to someone else. He raised a knobby hand, either in agreement or goodbye, we couldn’t tell, keeping his basset hound’s eyes on his booklet. “Somebody’ll want them,” he said as we made our way toward the door, meaning the magazines, the ones worth reselling. “I’m pretty sure about that.”
By the time we left the store the air was beginning to cool down and the first traces of early evening gold had crept into the sky. It hadn’t occurred to me how hungry I was until James had mentioned it earlier, and so when we spotted a diner a few miles up the road, I immediately pulled in.
The warm, greasy aroma of sausage and bacon hit us as soon as we walked in the door. We slid into a booth by the window, a few seats down from a trio of old men who were laughing over a joke, their voices thin and brittle like old newspaper. The five of us were the only customers in the place. James lit a cigarette. “Steak and eggs, man,” he said to himself, smiling, as he reached for one of the plastic menus tucked behind the napkin dispenser. “You better believe it.”
I was still thinking about Stan back at the Tropic of Cancer, the way he’d unloaded on me when I’d asked about the store. Some part of me was beginning to wish that we hadn’t gotten rid of the magazines. It wasn’t that I had any personal interest in them, but in light of the efforts that Dad had taken to keep them hidden, it seemed that maybe they had been something to hold onto. Obviously, they’d been important to him in one way or another, and as disconcerting as that may have seemed, I couldn’t help feeling that they should have been important to us, too.
I considered running this by James, but when I looked up from my menu and saw the pained expression on his face, as though he were trying to lift something heavy, I dismissed it. His mouth was pursed into a thin whitish arc, and his brow was stiff and flat over his wide eyes.
“What is it?” I said. When he didn’t respond, I followed his gaze to the counter behind us where a scrawny moon-faced waitress and a very large manager with a crew cut were whispering heatedly back and forth. Every few seconds the girl would glance over at us, fearful, and for a moment I was absurdly convinced that she had somehow pegged us as second-rate smut peddlers.
James turned to face the window, shaking his head. “Unfuckingbelievable,” he muttered.
“What’s going on?”
“Amelia.” He nodded in the direction of the waitress. Again I craned my neck to get a good look at her. It took me a moment to place the name—Amelia, the girl who had accused James of trying to put his hand up her shirt at the space restaurant a year earlier.
“You’re kidding,” I said, but James just shook his head and sighed heavily.
As though somehow prompted by this realization, the manager appeared at our table. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “I’m real sorry to do this, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the girl—Amelia—who was watching timidly from behind the counter, nibbling on her fingernails. His sweaty blue business shirt was stretched taut over his enormous belly and chest.
“What for?” I said.
He cleared his throat and offered me an apologetic smile: This wasn’t my idea, he appeared to be saying. Then he swiveled his head around to look at James, a move that seemed to require a great deal of effort. “Listen. Let’s be civil about this, okay? I’m trying to keep the peace here.”
James continued gazing out the window like a sulky child. I kept waiting for him to jump in with some punchy retort, but nothing came. Something had shut down inside of him. At some point I noticed that the table of old men had fallen silent and had turned their attention on us.
Taking a deep breath, I looked back at the waitress still cowering behind the counter, and then at the manager.
“My brother will have the steak and eggs and I’ll have the double burger,” I said.
The man’s face stiffened as he braced his hands on the table and bent over toward me. “Fella,” he responded, his voice now fringed with impatience, “I’m asking nicely. Don’t make me call the cops. We don’t want to have to make a scene.”
I leaned forward until my nose was only an inch or two from his. He didn’t budge.
“Steak and eggs, double burger.”
Well. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I could see from the way that Crew Cut’s brow wrinkled up and his eyelids twitched that something unpleasant was about to go down, a scene I guess, and you know what’s weird is that it actually excited me. What did I care about what had happened between my brother and that waitress? That had nothing to do with me. I was hungry and tired and had just spent my afternoon unloading my late father’s secret stash of dirty magazines, and now here was this pit-stained ogre standing so close to me that I could smell his shampoo, a man I imagined as one who deals with things in ways that require bulk and a flexible system of ethics, and would you believe that I was absolutely choking on exhilaration, I mean, totally fucking flying? It was as though the part of my brain that regulated self-preservation had malfunctioned.
The man cocked his head to speak, but before he could say anything James reached across the table and slapped my arm and then slid out of his seat, bumping not-so-accidentally into Crew Cut. “We’re going,” he declared.
“Good. Thank you,” the man growled.
I looked up at my brother. He shook his head, a mitigating gesture. “We’re going.”
Outside in the parking lot James leaned against the truck and lit a cigarette; I didn’t allow smoking inside the cab. I could see the manager watching us from the window of the restaurant, his thick arms crossed over his stomach. Behind him, the waitress hovered like a nervous wife. I was pretty worked up still, the way I used to get as a kid when James and I would wrestle on our bedroom floor. The matches had always ended the same way, with him pinning my head to the rug and me bawling, until around twelve years old when I was finally big enough to beat him, except by that point James wasn’t interested in wrestling anymore.
“What the hell was that?” said James.
I smiled and shrugged. “He was a prick. I was hungry.”
“That guy would have taken you apart, you know.”
We stood there in the dark parking lot until James had finished his cigarette, and then we climbed into the truck. As I started the engine I looked in the rearview and saw that Crew Cut was gone from the window.
“Hey,” James said softly just as I was putting the truck into gear. My hand fell from the shift lever. “Listen, I never touched that girl.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, leaning away from him a little.
“I’m serious, Dave.” Something in his gaze made me wince, a kind of hunger. “Not once. I swear to God.”
I was quiet for some time. James and I had never really discussed the issue with the waitress, at least not in any real detail. There always seemed to be an unspoken understanding between us that my opinion on the matter was irrelevant.
Finally, I turned and looked at him head-on. “So, what do you want me to say?”
“I want you to say you believe me.”
“Okay, you believe me, or just okay?”
“No, just—I don’t know, James. I have to think about it.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Now he twisted his entire body around in his seat to face me. “You have to think about it?”
“It’s complicated, is what I’m saying.”
“Complicated,” he said as though he were spitting out a mouthful of sour milk.
I nodded. I was staring down at the back of my hand, still gripping the steering wheel.
“Okay, Dave. Look at me. Look at my face.
He leaned in toward me, placing his hand on the seat between us for support. I looked over at him. I was nervous, I didn’t know why.
“Do you think I touched that chick, yes or no?” he said.
Outside, the three old men slouched out of the diner, their hands in their pockets and their shoulders hunched. I watched them amble off to their cars like animals slinking off to warm wooded dens to hibernate for the winter, and then I turned to James. “What the hell does it even matter what I think, anyway?” I said, trying to sound defiant but instead sounding like a petulant teenager.
He glared at me as if I had just smacked him in the face, a fierce, penetrating look that made something in me go scurrying for cover. It was like he didn’t even recognize me. I didn’t know how to explain it to him, how it wasn’t an issue of believing or not believing him, because honestly, it’s just never that simple with people like James, the margin of error is too big I guess you could say, and because of this I knew that whichever answer I gave wouldn’t be entirely true.
“Fuck it,” he said finally, turning back around and letting his head fall back against the seat with a soft thump. “Maybe it doesn’t. Forget I asked.”
For whatever reason, I thought about that day at the Jamaica Tavern, the girl in the red teddy sashaying past our table like an oncoming illness, and the look she’d given Dad, a kind of weary grimace, as though she regarded him as some kind of a threat. What was she saw in him that the rest of us didn’t? What had we missed?
“We should probably get back,” I said. I didn’t know whoI was talking to, me or James. “Mom’ll be home by now.”
I put the truck into gear and circled around to exit the lot. As I prepared to pull out into the road, I looked over at the restaurant. Through the large windows, lit brightly from within, I could see the waitress, Amelia, perched sideways in one of the chairs at the counter with her head resting in her palm, a cigarette smoldering between two bony fingers, watching us warily as we pulled out into the road, as though we had stolen something from her.