Davis called, told me he was dying.
He said his case was—here was essence of Davis—time sensitive.
“Come visit,” he said. “Bid farewell to the ragged rider.”
“You?” I said. “The cigarette hater? That’s just wrongness.”
“Nonetheless, brother, come.”
“Who was that?” said Ondine, my ex-mother-in-law. I kissed her cream-goldened shoulder, slid out of bed.
“A sick friend. I’ve known him twenty years, more, since college. I might have to leave town for a while.”
“No,” said Ondine. “You’re leaving town for good. The occupation ends today. It’s been calamity for us, for the region. Go to your friend.”
“He’s not really my friend.”
“All the more reason to go to him,” said Ondine. “Jesus would be in Pennsylvania by now.”
Ypsilanti was easy to leave. I wasn’t from there. I’d just landed there. The Michigan Eviscerations had begun in Manhattan. Martha was a junior at NYU, heiress to a fuel-injection fortune. I was the cheeky barista who kept penciling my phone number on her latte’s heat sleeve. Cheeky and, I should add, quite hairy. Martha finally dialed the smudged figures on the corrugated cuff, cavorted in my belly fur. The woman never exhibited any qualms about our economic divide. After all, she’d remind me, I was a Jew. One day I’d just quit mucking around with burlap sacks of Guatemalan Sunrise and start brewing moolah.
“You can’t help it,” she said. “It’s a genetic thing. You weren’t allowed to own land in the Middle Ages.”
I wasn’t allowed to own land in Michigan either. We got married, but her folks bought the Ann Arbor house in her name. Martha enrolled for a master’s degree at the university. She demanded I concoct a passion she could bankroll, a “doable dream.” What would it be? Poetry journal? Microlabel for the new jam rock? Nanobatch raki boutique? I mulled these and other notions, but mostly focused on my favored pursuit: grilling premium meats. I grilled grass-fed beef, saddles of rabbit, bison, organic elk. My mulled projects moldered. I’d always pictured myself the genius in the journal, on the label, not running the damn things. Moreover, wasn’t there bookkeeping involved, basic math? No matter what Martha believed about my inherited numerical wizardry honed on the twisty streets of Antwerp, or maybe Münster, I could barely count.
I grilled until the grilling season ended. Around the time the first shipment of Danish birch arrived for my new curing shed, Martha kicked me to what in this municipality wasn’t quite a curb. She’d met an equally hirsute Scot from the engineering school. His name happened to be Scott, and his people had the twisty brain, too. Besides, our sex life was a wreck. We were down to those resentful tugs and frigs. She’d said the stench of burnt meat put her off. I figured it was also the weight I’d put on, the perpetual slick of cook grease on my chest beneath my loose kimono.
Ondine, an old beauty with hair the color of metallic marmalade, was historically attuned to her daughter’s fecklessness. She took pity, rented me a unit in a shingle-stripped Victorian she owned in Ypsilanti, let me slide on the rent until I found a job. I never did, but she seemed satisfied to visit a few times a week for my attentions. She called my style of lovemaking “poignant.”
Still, even before Davis called, I could tell she was getting bored.
“I’m getting bored,” she said.
It came to her suddenly, unbidden, the way it might strike you that you hadn’t gone candlepin bowling or eaten smoked oysters, in years.
“You bore the piss out of me,” she said.
I stood, started to dress.
Ondine reached out, pinched my ass fuzz.
“Don’t be so sensitive. Lots of things bore me. Things I love. My husband. My house. My daughter. My Native American pottery collection. It’s not an insult.”
But if not an insult, it was a signal. Now, weeks later, I headed east in one of Ondine’s several Mazdas, a parting gift, along with a gener- ous cash severance and a few keepsake Polaroids of her in aspects of the huntress.
The dashboard robot in the Mazda goaded. Beneath its officious tones I sensed confusion, a geopositional wound. Had some caustic robot daddy made it feel directionless? Meanwhile, the comics on the satellite radio joked about their dainty white cocks. Such candor was supposed to prevent the race war.
My neck ached and I bought an ice pack, wedged it up against my headrest. My tongue was a mess. I still tasted Ondine. Deep in Pennsylvania I ate a coq-au-vin quesadilla. It’s what Jesus would have ordered, and it was delicious.
I had to drive fast, before I ate too much road food.
The ragged rider, Davis had called himself, but I couldn’t parse the phrase. I was naturally undetective.
Clues clenched me up.
I’d booked a tiny room in the Hudson Lux in New York City, high up and hushed, a loneliness box of polished walnut and chrome. You could picture yourself dead of a hanging jack-off in such a room, your necktie living up to its name, your lubricated fingers curled stiff near your hips. I stretched out on the narrow bed, decided not to picture this. It wasn’t the kind of thing I’d ever try. Aficionados cited the bliss spasm caused by air loss, but I wondered if most got orgasmic on the gamble. Anyway, everything in my life was a gamble, a wager that somebody would see to my needs. Was I secretly here because I thought Davis would somehow fit the bill, even though he was sick? If so, who was sicker?
Now I shut my eyes and Davis loped into view. He stood in an orchard of pomegranates, his legs greaved in low, personal mist. Tall, homely Davis with his hamster-fluff hair and granny specs.
We used to sip espressos in the campus café. Davis would read from his critical works: “In truth, of which there can be no certainty, the Frampton phallus must be unfurled from the constrictive denim of manufactured desire’s sweatshop.”
I loved his papers, these phrases that seemed to trickle out of a plastic port under his shirt, or hiss from slits in his hands. I wasn’t one of those narcissists who thought I had to understand something for it to be important. Besides, he wasn’t wrong about whatever the hell he meant.
He wasn’t wrong about much. I rarely went to lectures. Davis mentored me.
We drank beer in the old sailors’ bar, and Davis would whisper about the Russians, Pushkin in particular, whose story “The Shot” he so admired.
“Pushkin invented Russian literature as we know it,” he said.
“But I don’t know it,” I said.
Davis studied Latin, computers, knew some physics, dabbled in questions that plagued those he sneeringly called the string-cheese-theory people. He taught me to marvel at the elegant mysteries of Nagle’s Law and the Peck Conjecture, though maybe they had other names. Even words associated with counting undid me.
We slurped whiskey in our basement apartment, with our friends and possible girlfriends. Davis was the guru. I was his handsome disciple. Eventually Davis would get huffy about the cigarette smoke and stomp around the piles of books and laundry, the stray Stratocaster, the tripod with the liquid swivel. We were making an experimental video for our band, the Interpellations, but who wasn’t?
“How can you breathe in corporate death like that!” Davis shouted one night. “Smoke the kind, like me.”
“We’re not hippies,” said Caldwell, neobeat goblin. “I’ll take the bourbon of my fathers.”
“But this is the one thing the hippies got right!” Davis said, held aloft his cinnamon-scented bong. “Maybe they sold out the working class but they grooved! Anyway, there are too many of them. So few of us. They will rule our lives forever. They will never pass the torch.”
“Do we deserve it?” I said. I guess I’d gotten tired of being his disciple.
“I do,” said Davis.
“So what kind of ruling-class motherfucker are you,” I said, “to be talking about the torch?”
I knew this would bother him. He’d been born into citrus money. We’d get crates of tangelos delivered to our door. Also, his girlfriend, the Brilliant Brianna, which was her official nickname, had made some late-night sojourns to my futon. Davis starred in the Invention of Monogamy seminar, so his hands were tied, but I could tell he seethed. He had good reason to seethe. Brianna was a brown-haired paragon of ripe-lipped, sadly amused loveliness.
“Be nice,” she mouthed now, but I plowed on, foolishly, for her, I imagine. I’d yet to learn to read hearts.
“Davis,” I said. “Davis.”
“What is it, Sasha, my brother?”
“My name isn’t Sasha.”
“Is it something?”
“Davis,” I said, “you’ve grown clownish. I’m sure you’re right about the cigarettes. But you’re not our father.”
“I don’t believe in fathers,” said the goblin Caldwell. “Except my bourbon fathers. Listen to Sasha.”
“Davis sucks,” called a girl near the stereo. “Sasha, or whatever, is our hero. Ask Brianna.”
Brianna ducked her head but Davis caught her eye. He threw her an evil glance as he departed. We stayed, drank, smoked, forgot bad things. We laughed. We stood up and sat down. We impersonated each other standing up and sitting down. We told tedious stories about our childhoods, feigned enthrallment. That part of the evening arrived when people sat closer together on the sofa and the carpet. One groupuscule, a reedy boy and two brawny women, groped and giggled, mashed their faces for a trilateral smooch. Brianna and I fell entwined into the couch.
“What makes you think you’re smart enough to talk to him like that?” she whispered, tongued my ear. “You’re just a dumb piece of gash. We like you for your innocent enthusiasm. Remember that.”
“No, you won’t.”
That’s when Davis returned with his velvet-lined mahogany pistol case. A brace of Berettas gleamed from their notches: compacts, pearl handled, gold flecked. We broke our clinches as Davis called the room to attention.
“Big happenings, entertainment-wise, folks. Gather round for what will prove a violent and transformative highlight of your lives.”
“Guns?” called a tall fellow with a can of dip. He was a theater jock from Texas, which meant he affected flasks and went bare-chested under his pleather vest.
“Put those away,” said Brianna. “Davis, this is not funny.”
“It’s just a game. They’re not loaded.”
“What game?” said Brianna.
“Come, Princess,” he said to me. “I mean, Countess. Choose one.”
“You’re drunk,” said Brianna.
“Somewhat. Also stoned. Why do we even say stoned? So brutal. So Levitical. Pick a pistol, dreamboy. We’re going to play out that scene for our friends here. From the Pushkin.”
“And then will you can it?” I said.
“Goddamn ridiculous.” I hardly looked at the pistols, drew one from the box, took a position near the stereo. The girl who stood there smirked.
“They’re not loaded,” I said.
I shrugged, raised the pistol at Davis.
“Did I grant you first shot?” said Davis.
“I’m following the story. I’m the young, handsome soldier everyone has left your orbit to be near. Your are the older, bitter officer who can’t compete with my charisma.”
“Funny,” said Davis. “Not exactly as I saw it, but I admire your hustle. You framed the scene first. We’ll go with your version.”
“It all fits, Davis. You called for the duel. You’re the crack shot. I’ve never even fired a gun.”
“True. Well, on with it, then. You may have the first metaphorical shot, you upper-crust social usurper. Just flick that safety off.”
“What about the tangelos?”
“My poor father has a little tree. Now take your shot.”
Our audience, stymied by their lust, groaned at our stagecraft.
I grinned and pulled the trigger. Davis fell back with the bang. There was a neat hole in the drywall.
“Shitsnickers!” called the kid with the dip.
Brianna swayed in shock. The goblin squealed under the table, and the girl by the stereo clutched her ears.
Powder smoke hung in a clot. The room hummed with vanished noise. We stood there, grave and giddy.
I shook and laid the pistol on the coffee table. I felt my stomach cramp, wanted a cigarette. I wanted to see the body. I started to move but Davis popped up, waved his Beretta.
Brianna swooped in and wrapped him in her arms. His gun arm quivered.
“Baby,” he cried. “Was that dramatic? Was it worthy?”
“Are you hurt?”
“Not a scratch! How did it look?”
“It was radically transgressive,” she said. “Of something.”
Davis nuzzled his lady, shoved her away.
“Now we must complete this man-deed.”
“No,” said Brianna. “No, sweetie. The piece landed perfectly. Don’t fiddle.”
“It’s okay,” I said, lit a Korean cigarette I’d mooched from a pack on the table.
“It is?” said the girl by the stereo.
“Davis’ll put one in your frontal cortex,” said the Texan.
“No, he won’t,” I said.
“You going to duck it like Davis?” said the goblin.
Davis hocked a loogie and leveled his pistol at me. The room got quiet. Davis winked, lowered the Beretta.
“No, no,” he said, with the quiet and cadence of a maestro, “I think I’ll take my shot another day. I think I’ll wait. Until our friend here is a little older. When he’s lost his bunny-like nihilist strut. When he’s discovered love. When he’s struck a truce with feeling. When his every thought and action isn’t guided by a childish terror. When he’s graduated from dickwaddery. When he truly understands all that he’s about to lose. Let’s forget these shenanigans for now. Just a little show. But you, buddy of my heart, you’d best watch the ridges and the roads. It could be years from now, but watch for the ragged rider’s approach. He comes only for his shot.”
“And . . . scene,” I said. We’d taken some drama classes together. The others clapped hard for our skit, or the oratory, really. Davis, wasted in the right ratios, was a natural. We both took a bow.