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A Novella and Ten Stories
By Richard Burgin
Texas Review Press Copyright © 2013 Richard Burgin
All rights reserved.
She sat up in bed, rigid but strangely alert, as if trying to identify the sound of something underwater. When he touched her shoulder to try to make her lie down again she turned toward the wall.
"What's wrong?" he said.
She shook her head back and forth.
"Rina, come on, what is it? You're scaring me."
"I don't feel good."
"Take a hit of that joint on the bureau. It'll help."
"How long we gonna go on like this, huh? What's your plan, Stacy? Is there one?"
"What do you mean? I don't understand."
"Course you don't understand," she said, finally facing him. "Things going along pretty much the way you want? Just stay high every minute with me under the ground in this tomb that's below sea-level, for Christ's sake."
"I'm not high every minute." He wanted to add that his place wasn't below sea level either, but he wasn't 100% sure if it was or not.
"C'mon, can you face reality just a little? You wake up and have a Quaalude so you can take a shower then to counteract that you smoke a joint so you can have sex with me in the morning. Then to get through the day you take more Quaaludes or sometimes E. Then it's back to Xanax so we can watch TV and go to sleep. What do you think, you're gonna die if you aren't high for a minute?"
"I thought you liked being high with me."
"Yeah I do. Everyone likes being high but not every minute of every day."
"Okay. We'll cut back a little. I'll cut back."
"It's not just the drugs."
"We never go anywhere. We never do anything."
"This is Fort Lee. You think we're really missing something? Besides, we go out sometimes."
"Sure. We make heroic little runs for food to the deli or sometimes we even make it to the supermarket. We have to get high to do that, too."
"We've gone out at night."
"Just so you can get more drugs or more money to buy drugs. How come we never go to New York anymore?"
He felt a surge of anger but told himself to stay cool.
"I thought we agreed we'd had enough of New York," he said, turning his head away, hoping to see a bit of a tree, but the venetian blinds were closed.
"I meant living there, I'd had enough. I didn't mean never visiting. I'm sick of these wannabe dealers and crack whores you see here all the time."
"It was one guy and his girlfriend. You're exaggerating."
"I'm sick of all the other Fort Lee zombies, too. I'm too young to live like this, to just give up."
He was scared now. Something in her tone of voice and in her eyes frightened him. "I didn't think we were giving up," he said softly.
"What did you think we were doing?"
"I thought it was more like taking a little break, like a kind of vacation."
"This ain't a vacation. We're just dying is what it is."
"Come on, you don't mean that. You're exaggerating again."
"I do mean it. We have to get high to go to the bathroom and nobody's washed a dish in a week."
He felt himself start to vibrate then. He didn't know if it was from the pot, his Viagra, or if it were somehow cold in his apartment though it was close to the end of June.
"Okay, you tell me what you want me to do?"
"Jesus Christ!" she said, looking at the little clock on the bed table. "It's almost three in the afternoon. My sleep patterns are completely destroyed." She put her hands over her eyes as if she were going to cry but then got out of bed decisively. "I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to take a shower and then I'm going to get some food for us, and while I'm gone, you think about what we're gonna do."
"You worried about money? Is that it?"
"I'm more worried about what you do to get your money. Okay? We're setting ourselves up to get in a lot of trouble one day. Your landlady gave me a funny look yesterday."
"A funny look? Big deal."
"A killer look that said 'Bitch, I'd just as soon off you as not.' I feel like any day she could call the cops."
"She won't do anything. She wants her money, too. Who else would take her bottom floor and pay what I do?"
"You sure about that? I think it's time to go some place else for a while is what I think. But you think about it while I'm out. You focus on it without getting high first if you can and when I come back you tell me what you came up with, okay?"
She had to know how he'd feel, didn't she? Hadn't he jumped out of bed right after she said it and volunteered to go shopping with her? But she insisted she wanted to go alone so he could think, in other words, worry. That was Rina in a nutshell—Runaway Rina he'd nicknamed her in his mind a long time ago—who'd run away from home as a teenager, and never came back, first from Vineland to Atlantic City, then from San Francisco and finally from New York with him to Fort Lee. Come to think of it, his own mother would sometimes leave or threaten to leave him and his father, too, whenever she wanted to get back at them for some perceived deficiency or slight, of which the world had no end, of course, so why take the lackings of the world out on your family? The vibrating was getting worse, and he was feeling more and more cold. He pulled the blankets up on his shoulders and tried to get warm.
He thought of something else then. A woman who looked like Rina could do anything and might well be doing it right now with anybody. He pictured her breasts—smallish but with oversized nipples, when they erected. He'd never seen nipples like that before and knew he never would again. They were once in a lifetime nipples—he was only 31 but already knew that. The first time he saw them erect he'd nearly come just from looking at them. How could she have done him the way she did just a few hours ago and then gotten angry enough that she'd left him like this? There was no logic with Rina, ever, so he could never relax with her. The slightest thing could upset her and then he'd worry that she'd leave him or else screw someone else, which amounted to the same thing.
He got out of bed and took a Quaalude from the bureau. What would his father have done in this situation? He'd been with his own Rina all those years. Of course it was absurd to compare himself to his father who was so much more mature and honest than him and who barely even drank, much less took any drugs. His father was emotionally strong all right, in a way he never could be. He'd stayed over forty years with Stacy's mother—a woman he should have left but didn't. What hadn't he endured? The death of his parents, his brothers and sisters. Career frustration, raising two difficult children, especially him. But never drank, never really complained, even after his stroke from which he finally passed. He always tried to help everyone, especially his hypochondriacal wife. Never cheated either and even quit smoking on his own at the age of 62.
His father was physically strong, too. Once during one of their family vacations in Atlantic City when he was only seven or eight, he went in the ocean holding his father's hand because the waves were big, enormous to his child's eye and stronger than any water he'd ever felt. It was a little scary because he couldn't really swim much then, and when the waves came they'd crash over his head and knock him down. But his father never stopped holding his hand. He could feel his hand under water as if it were stronger than the surf, then feel and see it again when he emerged from underwater. He remembered laughing, squealing with delight, and his father laughing too, only letting go of his hand when they reached the sand in front of the Boardwalk.
How exciting yet strangely innocent the Boardwalk was then! Little kids ran freely up and down it laughing and yelling and carrying their cotton candy like magic wands. There was a fun house then, around where the Taj Mahal was now, and horses still dove into the ocean from the old steel pier. One time his family went to the Miss America pageant, and he picked the winner, young as he was, Miss Ohio, which made his mother marvel at him. Still, what he remembered most was jumping the waves with his father, holding his hand firmly as they crashed over him.
But this was becoming too painful to remember. What was the point of getting things you loved if you could never get them back again, if you could only lose them, as if life was nothing but an extended game of Hide and Seek? And now Rina was playing another form of Hide and Seek with him.
He decided not to wait for the Quaalude to hit and began smoking the joint he'd left for her on the bureau. It was the right decision, he said to himself, as he finally lay back under the blankets.
... When she walked in carrying the groceries into the tiny kitchen he was still lying down pretending not to be high. She began putting the food away quickly and didn't answer him when he said hello.
"So did you do some thinking?" she finally said, coming into the room at last.
"Yeah, I did."
She stood in front of him, dressed in her tight blue jeans, staring at him, waiting.
"How'd you like to go to Atlantic City?" he said.
* * *
They were driving at least five miles under the speed limit so they wouldn't risk being stopped (not trusting the landlady, they'd decided to bring their whole stash with them) when he sensed something, a kind of tense quiet that permeated the closed-in space of the car. For a minute he debated whether to ask her what it was—always a dangerous question these days. If only she'd followed his advice and had taken a hit before they left or at least taken a Xanax, but she was stubborn that way. She was trying to set an example. He turned on a rock radio station he thought she'd like (he would have preferred jazz or classical), but her mood didn't change. That was her method when she wanted to talk about something—to just disappear into a cone of silence until he couldn't take it anymore.
"You're being pretty quiet," he said, deciding to play it halfway.
"I'm just wondering about things."
"I'm wondering why Atlantic City? Why exactly are we going there?"
"I thought you liked to go swimming, you always did before."
"I do like swimming, but there are plenty of other places we could go on the shore where we could swim."
"It's the same ocean, isn't it? And Atlantic City has the Boardwalk."
"So you think we have the money to stay in a hotel there?"
"I told you not to worry about money, baby. We can afford to stay there for at least a few nights."
"And I guess you don't plan to do much gambling then?"
"Not if you don't want me to," he said, silently congratulating himself, not only on his answer but that he thought he really meant it. "So have I answered all your questions?"
"Some of them."
"Only some of them?"
"I have issues with Atlantic City, too, you know."
Then he remembered that she used to work as a dancer there before they met in New York. He'd never asked her too much about that. Atlantic City was also where she went first when she ran away, so he could understand her mixed feelings.
"So what do you want? You want to forget all about it and just turn around?"
"I just don't see why we can't go to a quieter place to swim and cool out and be together. Some place like Ventnor or Margate or Longport, that's less tempting."
"What do you mean 'tempting'? What would you be tempted to do?" he said, thinking of her dance routine again.
"I'm not tempted to do anything there. I was thinking of you."
"Me? Why me?"
"I don't know. I can't help thinking you're planning a meeting with some big-shot dealer there. I think you'll be tempted to make some kind of score."
He felt his heart beat but kept his cool. Could she somehow know about Ike? Ike had really seemed to care about him, especially after his father died, gave him some prime territory to deal in. A few months ago, in fact, he remembered hearing that lke had moved to Ventnor for a little peace and quiet. This was too good to be true, yet it was true. He could visit him in Ventnor, and Rina couldn't possibly object to that. He wouldn't have to set foot in Atlantic City except to visit the beach where he'd swam with his father. He could meet Ike in a clean, family-oriented place where he could even bring Rina.
"Okay, we can stay at Ventnor," he said. "That's cool."
She took his hand, which in itself made it all worth it. "Thanks, sweetie," she said, smiling.
"I like you, Stacy, you're a good kid. Whenever you're in Atlantic City you look me up, and I'll take care of you. You look me up and I'll set you up, deal?"
That's what Ike said to him the last time he saw him, a few years ago in Harrah's. There was always work from Ike and good money, too. Sometimes he even gave him a girl, and he'd get a free blowjob as a tip. Ike was a first class guy all around. He only dealt with the best people: first-rate dealers, hookers, and clients—all top of the line. Even when he'd moved to New York and started getting out of the business a little Ike still kept in touch.
"Tough without your old man, huh?" he'd once said to him, putting his arm around him in the Taj Mahal. "Wish my kid loved me the way you love him.... You know, Stacy, maybe you should stay out of the business for awhile. Go back to college. That's what your old man wanted. He told me that more than once."
"Sure, you were always on his mind. He even told me once while we were playing bridge. Your old man was one hell of a bridge player, too."
"Did you ever tell him ...?"
"About the work we do? Course not. You think I'm crazy? Your old man never suspected a thing. He was as innocent and pure as a child. I loved the guy like a brother. You let me set you up with something big—a one-time deal I'll give to you instead of to my own son and then you go back and get your degree. Then we'll see about your future."
Sure enough in less than a month he'd set him up with a killer deal. "I offered a deal like this to my son, Dominic, but he thinks he's such a big shot in Vegas now that he don't need this no more," he said in a voice as bitter as he'd ever heard from Ike. "Believe me, he'll live to regret it all."
So he took the deal although he never finished college.
He was remembering all this while Rina was sleeping next to him in the motel room in Ventnor. He wouldn't postpone seeing Ike any longer. It was simply a question of explaining it to Rina. He was sure she'd be reasonable about it.
When he finally brought it up, they'd just come back from a swim, walking to their room with arms around each other's waists, hands sometimes tapping each other's bottoms. The ocean always had that kind of effect on him and on her, too. Once in the room they had sex quickly—not even bothering to smoke first. He felt hot and happy, and it seemed a good time to tell her, except that he was straight but he told her anyway.
"So let me understand this," she said, "we're here for what, three hours, we just finished making love, and you want to go out right now and see this old guy, who was a friend of your father?"
"I told you about Ike, he was like a father to me after my old man died. You even met him once or twice."
"I wouldn't say he was like a father to you. More like the Godfather. He set you up big-time in the business is what you mean, and now you want to work for him again. Isn't that what this is about? I should have known that's why you wanted to go to A.C."
"You're way off, Rina, that's not it at all."
"Oh, so you wanted to come here to make me happy, making me come back to where I was at the lowest point in my life. You can't even bear to hear what happened to me in A.C., can you? Not even to this day."
He turned away from her and looked at a sliver of the sky barely visible through the blinds. How could a sky be both blank and blue, but it was. He hated it when she was sarcastic and bitter. "You can tell me," he said, hoping she wouldn't. "Really, you can tell me."
"Forget it," she said in her tough girl voice, though when he turned back to look at her again her eyes were moist. "I'm not making that mistake again. I don't need to tell you any of that shit 'cause I know it hurts you."
"Well I didn't bring you here to hurt you, either. You seemed like you wanted to come more than you didn't. And I wasn't even thinking about Ike when I suggested it, I swear. About your past, I guess I just blocked it out. I'm sorry."
"What were you really thinking about wanting to go to Atlantic City?" (She said the name of the place as if it were Afghanistan or North Korea.).
"Well number one it's an obvious place to go to for fun, not for you maybe, I understand, but in general, and second, I was thinking of my father and my family. We went to A.C. a lot when I was a kid. Those were good times for me, that's all."
He thought briefly of telling her how his father used to hold his hand in the water but decided not to.
"So you never thought of Ike at all?"
"I thought of him later. When you said you'd rather go to Ventnor or some place like it, I remembered then that he lived there now."
"And that's when you decided you had to see him?"
"Yeah it grew on me. I miss him, that's all. It's not about dealing."
"So why's he like you so much?"
"I don't know. He has problems with his own son. His son's about the only person in the business who had trouble working with him."
"But you said you were getting out of it. You said you were gonna get a real job or else finish school or both. You've said a lot of things to me."
"Said it and meant it. Look, why don't you come with me to see him? See for yourself. It's just about friendship, that's all. But friendship's a lot."
Excerpted from Hide Island by Richard Burgin. Copyright © 2013 Richard Burgin. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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