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The four boys snatch the tattered magazine from each other, cursing when it rips and then trying to pull single pages free. It's late. They stand beneath an overpass, light filtering down, the silent black river on one side and the empty train tracks on the other. The boys are nervous, excited; they are only thirteen.
"Man," Terrell says. "These ladies are licking each other."
"You haven't seen anything." Darnay laughs. He kicks at the small pile of things they've found, hidden under some old boards, inside a plastic bag. Taking out a pair of pants, he pulls them on over his shorts, as a joke. He cinches the leather belt around his waist.
Down river, lighted letters circle atop the Peco Building: PHILADELPHIA BELIEVES. A truck rattles past, overhead. Headlights shine, glancing across the water, and disappear.
"Let's get out of here," John says.
"Scared?" Swan says. He spills jars from the bag, along the ground. "Baby food," he says. "No money."
And then, beyond the train tracks, the bushes begin to shake and rustle. First to one side, then the other, as if a number of people are about to emerge. A scream rises, and a dark shape suddenly breaks loose, lunging closer, shouting sounds that aren't quite words.
The boys turn and run, stumbling on the rough gravel, downriver, pages of the magazine still in their hands. Their backs crawl, bowed out, ready to be touched.
"Wait," John says, lagging behind. "No one's following."
They slow and look behind them, not stopping until they're certain.
One man stands there, fifty yards away, illuminated by the faint light of the Vine Street on-ramp. If he's still screaming, they can't hear him. His body reflects slightly, his shoulders padded or hunched somehow. He kicks his legs out, his feet pointed; his arms are above his head, and he keeps twisting and kicking, all in slow motion.
"White guy," John says.
"There's just him," Darnay says, embarrassed for running. "We could go back."
"Not now," Terrell says. "He might have friends."
The next morning, Scott still wears his greenish-blue jacket. Some smooth cross between leather and vinyl, it looks like it belongs to a marching-band uniform, with finger-sized wooden buttons that fit through loops, all down the front, and epaulets of dirty gold twine resting on his thin shoulders. His jeans are tight, faded at the knees, seams split a few inches to make room for his cowboy boots. His hair, combed but not quite clean, hangs almost to his collar; his face, shaved smooth, is thin and pale, his squinting eyes set close together. He smiles at Lisa Roberts, relentlessly, and his teeth shine so white and even, so at odds with the rest of him, that they do not seem real.
"Thirty years old," Lisa says, shuffling through papers. "One hundred and thirty pounds. Has there been any fluctuation in your weight?"
They are sitting in her narrow office, their knees inches apart, her desk taking up half the room. Scott slides the soles of his boots along the carpet, sharp toes pointing right at her, then pulls the boots back before they touch her foot. He folds his left leg over his right one. Lisa is not a doctor, yet she wears a white coat with her name embroidered in red above the pocket. He feels her eyes on him, looking him over, sizing him up. A magnetic paper-clip holder stands on her desk, surrounded by all the dried-up pens she set aside before finding the one she uses now to write on a clipboard. In the window behind her, a tiny airplane, hardly moving, climbs into the sky.
"Has your weight been steady?" she says.
"I know what fluctuation means," Scott says. "And no, no fluctuation, none that I know of. Not that I spend a lot of time weighing myself." As he speaks, he gestures with his hands; blue-and-pink feathers swing from a roach clip attached to his jacket collar.
"You say you've been in Philadelphia three months," Lisa says. "What brought you here?"
Scott can tell by how she is sitting, how she leans away, that she is uneasy, that she wishes she was the one closest to the door.
"You have family here?" she says. "Planned to meet someone?"
"I heard it's a serious city," he says, "so I wanted to try it out. I mean, there might be bigger ones—hell, there are bigger ones—but there aren't any that are more serious." He looks up at the acoustic-tile ceiling, the fluorescent light flickering at him. That answer is the truth, partly; it is also true that he plans to meet someone, a woman, though he does not yet know who she is.
Out the window, the city spreads itself. The office they sit in is on the ninth floor of the university hospital, and he can see buildings, full of people, people driving in cars and walking in the streets below, disappearing under trees. Wires and signs fill the air.
"And your last employer was Kenny Rogers?" Lisa Roberts says.
"That's true, technically. I been all over, since then."
"Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?"
"No, I have not. Did you want to hear more about Kenny?"
"We have a lot of questions, here," Lisa Roberts says.
"Do you believe you get enough exercise?"
"I stay in shape," he says. "Jujitsu. That's a martial art."
"Yes," she says. "What would you say is your best characteristic?"
"Perspicacity," he says. "That means being real clear-sighted, if you didn't know. Real acute."
"And what would you say is your greatest weakness?"
"I'm pretty gullible," he says. "I can really get taken in."
That is a lie, but he's found it works sometimes, opens people up a little. He wonders if perhaps being gullible is the opposite of perspicacity, and if that is what Lisa Roberts is writing now. He tries to read her face for some reaction, for some indication—they always say there are no right or wrong answers, but that isn't true. Looking at her, he bets she is ten years older than he is, that she takes a shower every day. She wears dark tights, without any runs that he can see, perhaps her toes poke through inside her shoes, or the skin of her heel shows. A framed picture of a man with thick sideburns rests on the back of her desk, and other frames hold two little girls, on either side. The same girl, Scott decides, at different ages.
"Gullible," Lisa says, writing it down. "Have you ever taken medication for depression?"
"Ever considered suicide?"
"Do you feel others are better, smarter, and better-looking than you?"
"I reckon they're out there," he says, "but I try not to think about them too much."
"Are you satisfied with your current state of sexual activity?"
"Just how personal is this going to get?" Scott says. He is not answered, and he pauses, trying to figure how to slow the questions, so he can get some purchase on the situation.
"No," he says softly. "I'm not. Now what would you say is your best characteristic?"
"Sorry," Lisa Roberts says. "We don't have time for that. I ask the questions, you answer them."
"Feel a little rude, just talking about myself the whole time."
"Well, this isn't exactly a social conversation."
He shrugs, as if to say he knew that. He wants to tell her not to underestimate, not to disrespect him, but she's already resumed her questioning.
"Does it often seem," she says, "that objects or shadows are really people or animals, or that noises are actually peoples' voices?"
"No," he says.
"When you look at a person, or at yourself in the mirror, have you ever seen the face change right before your eyes?"
Scott leans close, his eyes on her, then eases himself back again.
"Are you the same person who asked me that last question?" he says.
"Yes," she says, and begins writing.
"Easy there," he says. "I was only joking with you—I never see anything like that."
"Seriousness is necessary," Lisa Roberts says. "We need to be certain of a few things, so when we administer the tests to you we can compare the results to those of our schizophrenic patients. You're part of what we call the `normal control group.'"
"Not yet, I'm not," he says. "First I got to answer the questions, and you still got to check my piss, my urine, and all that."
"Right," she says.
"That'll be clean." He pulls at the roach clip on his jacket. "You might of noticed this, here—it's just for decoration. Found it somewhere. I'm clean." He almost stands to speak, thinking it might help her believe him. "I'm a perfect specimen—that's why I do this. I mean, not that I turn any money down, but I want you-all to learn something from it."
"Are you nervous?" Lisa says.
Excerpted from The Ambidextrist by Peter Rock. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Rock. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted November 13, 2011
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