The sound of a psychic restriction ray is that of a Schick razor, whirring, pressed against new skin.
Ajan, Efeb, Imar, Opri, Umay, Bejun, Culy, Daugu, Fisep, Gocto, Jocto, Lovem, Medec.
Here I am on a submarine, searching for the lost city of Atlantis. Here is Ardala, evil and cunning and possessing a deep-seated though infrequently acknowledged love of me. She refuses to wear the uniform of a submarine Third Officer while on board my ship. She looks like a flapper, slicked-down hair, a garter on her arm, a dress like wet paper. Wilma looks pale in her presence. “You like that, Buck?” Wilma asks me, and I gulp. She whispers in my ear, “I’ll make Ardala look like a rag doll,” and then she is gone. Ardala says she will make love to me and then, when I finish, will kill me painlessly. It is the best offer I’ve ever received. But there is Wilma, returned, stripped out of her uniform. She looks like a boy, a long-distance runner, and she bends Ardala over backwards. “Ouch, quit, you’re hurting my back, owwch,” says Ardala, and I turn my jumping belt way, way down, and wait for the ocean’s pressure to crush us all.
I am a Rocket Ranger and every courtesy is to be extended to me in whatever Interstellar Confederation I may be.
I liberated the planet from the Mongols, pounded the Tiger Men from Mars into a frothing, angry paste, and disintegrated Killer Kane’s internals with the XZ-38. All it got me was one night in Niagara with Wilma, ten kisses in thirty-eig
Nick and Nate, five and six, watch me play the keyboard. My three songs, memorized at ten, mesmerize them. I’m flat and rhythmless—grown-ups would see me for the trained monkey that I am—but Nick and Nate think I’m a gifted musician. I’m just their mom’s best friend, a sad case crashed on their couch, but they listen like I’m Beethoven. When you’re little, musicians are magicians: they summon something wonderful out of nothingness.
In four minutes I’ve exhausted my repertoire. My hands fold into my lap, somehow ashamed. Nick says “Again.”
Impatient violent Nate is bored by the second run-through of “Fur Elise,” and hammers keys in the lower octaves. Nick pushes him off the bench, and he runs to another room in search of weapons.
“Your breath smells funny,” Nick whispers.
“What does it smell like?” I ask.
He turns his head, sticks his nose in my open mouth. “Like gross,” he says.
What it smells like: blood and milk and alcohol gone rancid. Last night’s ramen. Hunger and loneliness.
“How long are you going to stay with us?” Nick asks.
“I’m not sure. Until your mom gets sick of me, I guess.”
“Can you teach me how to play?”
“Maybe,” I say.
A Nerf ball, thrown hard, hits me in the head. Nate roars as he runs at us. Climbs up onto the bench and stands, grabs me in a chokehold. His little arm is tight enough to make me gasp. He could kill me, I think.
“Stop it,” Nick says. Nate pouts, jumps down. Heads for his Nintendo.
Mom made me take piano lessons. At first I loved it, learning each note, putting them together into simple songs. In fantasies I was played by Gregory Peck, and everywhere I went there was a piano, and my spellbinding one-man symphonies made everyone love me. One year in, I could barely get through “Turkey in the Straw.” Two years in and I had my three songs, and I stopped going to lessons.
“I don’t know how to play the piano,” I tell Nick.
“Yes you do. You just did.”
“But I don’t know how. I learned those songs a long time ago, and they stuck in my head. I barely know a simple scale.”
Nick’s fingers form chords, press down on the keys.
Kids think the world is an obstacle course. A series of steps. Master tying your shoes, and you can master riding a bike. After the bike, attack algebra. After algebra, beat up that bully who’s been hurting you. And life goes on like that, one simple challenge after another, until you’re an adult, and there are no more challenges.
The phone rings. Nick and Nate both run for it.
“Hi Mom!” comes Nick’s triumphant voice. Nate kicks a kitchen chair. “Yes… yes… yes… grilled cheese.” He hands over the phone.
“Hi,” Nate says. Sullen. “Sure. No. Sure. I don’t care.”
He walks it over to me.
“Hi, Margie,” I say.
“How are they doing?”
“Pretty good. Me and Nick are trying to figure out how this keyboard works.”
Hearing his name, he comes running. Plops himself back in my lap.
“I’m stopping by the supermarket,” Margie says. “Anything I can get you?”
“You don’t sound fine.”
Margie lets ten seconds go by. “Just what?”
“I just feel like such a fuck-up.”
Nick sucks in wind at the curse word.
“I feel like I’ve made such a big mess of things.”
“We all go through times like that.”
“I feel like I’ve never not been in a time like this.”
I’ve been here before. Evicted, kicked out, laid off. Every time I thought my life was heading for something, I’ve ended up back here. When Nick and Nate were three and four I thought I could handle a relationship, could live with a lover, could make compromises and follow rules, and then a meltdown fight put me back on Margie’s doorstep. When Nate was one and Nick was a fetus, I was a McDonald’s assistant manager and I thought I knew how to hold a job. Thought my drinking was under control.
“You know the boys think you’re God,” Margie says. “And God knows it’s nice to get some help with them. So when you’re drawing up the list of what’s miserable about your life, don’t forget to look at what’s not.”
“I’ll be home soon.”
We click off.
Nick’s hands are folded in his lap, making the exact same shape as mine.
“The first note is C,” I say. “Every note has a letter.” I tap my way up the scale, calling out each name: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C again.
Nick stares at the keyboard.
“This is C.” I pick up his hand, press his little finger down on C. “You can always find C because it’s right before the two black keys together. You see: the whole keyboard is the same scale, repeated over and over.”
Nick picks out another C, higher up. Presses it, cautiously.
“Exactly!” I say.
“And this next one is D?”
“It is, Nick.”
Nick goes back and forth from C to D, faster and faster, whispering their names.
“I have to go to the bathroom, Nicky Nick.”
With the door locked, I take the lid off the toilet tank. Pull out my pint bottle of scotch.
The keyboard’s bottom register thunders. “Go away!” Nick yells. Nate pounds some more, then retreats to the Nintendo.
Scotch tastes like wood and smoke, like manhood. Hunting and cabins. Sunset on an autumn day. I fill my mouth and hold it, like holding my breath underwater. Far away, Nick taps at the keyboard. Taking it slow, determined to master the start of the scale before he ventures further.