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From the Publisher"[A] tender and darkly funny collection of stories." —The New York Times Book Review
"Lyrical yet searingly graphic, it is truly literary territory. An important body of work." —Chicago Tribune
Written with understanding and familiarity, these seven stories present characters who are coming into their own as they discover and rediscover themselves. In "Chuck Paa," a young man in flight from his mother seeks and finds employment in an upscale world, which can never quite become his own. The title story, "The Rose City," tells how a shared lost love brings together two friends who reunite to reflect on their past, their present, and what lies ahead. With the same insight and daring of The Danish Girl, The...
Written with understanding and familiarity, these seven stories present characters who are coming into their own as they discover and rediscover themselves. In "Chuck Paa," a young man in flight from his mother seeks and finds employment in an upscale world, which can never quite become his own. The title story, "The Rose City," tells how a shared lost love brings together two friends who reunite to reflect on their past, their present, and what lies ahead. With the same insight and daring of The Danish Girl, The Rose City secures David Ebershoff's reputation as a writer of rare talent and sensitivity.
"Lyrical yet searingly graphic, it is truly literary territory. An important body of work." —Chicago Tribune
Chuck Paa, not five and a half feet tall, his eyes gold and set deep beneath the brow, asked, "What do you need, Mr. Boyal? Chips? Cake mix? Corn oil? Where's your shopping list? Get out your list."
Mr. Boyal, glasses slipping down his nose, pointed to the breast pocket of Chuck's parka. Only a quarter of an hour before Chuck had picked up the list from the telephone table next to Mr. Boyal's front door, zipping it into the parka and patting the flap for good measure. Then Chuck had forgotten all about it. He must have been thinking of something else at the time: his paycheck arriving in tomorrow's mail; the red-and-black HELP WANTED sign in the window of the liquor store; the call he needed to place to Mr. Riley. Yes, something.
Now Mr. Boyal was leaning heavily on the shopping cart as he pushed it down the baked-goods aisle. It rolled slowly, its back wheels trembling, until Mr. Boyal seemed to lose track of what he was doing, steering the cart into a display pyramid of canned pickled beets. The pyramid collapsed on itself with an extended clatter, and Chuck Paa tried to look the other way.
But worse than the racket of the cans rolling down the aisle was the sight of Mr. Boyal himself. His knees were wobbling, his blue hand was grasping the cart's handle, and Mr. Boyal was on the verge of crumbling into a heap. Here we go again, thought Chuck, moving to catch Mr. Boyal. More than once Chuck had told him it was time to buy a walker, preferably the kind with the little white skis. But Mr. Boyalhad—as Chuck expected—resisted. Yet when Chuck mentioned the walker to Mrs. Boyal, Mr. Boyal's sad-mouthed mother who lived far away in Pasadena, her tongue snapped across the phone line. "I couldn't agree more. I just didn't have the heart to bring it up myself." "Well, I have the heart," Chuck replied. And Mrs. Boyal, with her poof of silver-blond hair and pinched oily nose, said, "Oh, Chuck. Aren't you kind to us all."
"Here, Mr. Boyal," Chuck said at the bakery counter. "You like sugar cookies, don't you? They're on sale this week, only five cents each. Two bucks will get you enough for a week." Chuck placed the sack of clover-shaped cookies into the cart's baby seat. His hand, which was a small hand, even Chuck knew, scampered into the sack and pushed a cookie to his mouth. And then Chuck snapped his fingers, wet with saliva and decorated with green sprinkles, and he realized this: He had asked Mr. Boyal where's the list? to test his mind. Dementia was so common, after all.
But that wasn't the real reason, Chuck knew. No, the real reason was he'd simply forgotten what he'd done with it, thinking of something else.
"What's next?" Chuck glanced at the grocery list and directed Mr. Boyal to the seafood counter. Mr. Boyal liked to order his fish on his own, and so Chuck Paa leaned against the Mexicana rack that clutched bags of tortilla chips and jars of green-pepper salsa and pull-top tins of refried beans. Mr. Boyal's hair, yellow but somehow colorless, lay flatly on his skull. It hadn't been like that when Chuck began working for him. No, Mr. Boyal had once possessed a full set of hair, or almost. His face, too, had passed from man to cadaver before Chuck's eyes: cheeks as deep as saucers now, and this morning some sort of infection curdling white in his eyes; Chuck had had to take the damp corner of a tea towel to dab them clean.
Even so, Chuck had seen worse.
Mr. Boyal worked the numbered paper pennant out of the dispenser. His fingers, all bone, fluttered, tugging on the bit of blue paper. He held it up, showing Chuck that he was 43, four behind Mrs. 39 who now was ordering tuna steaks from the fish man, chattering about how the Star Market's fish prices were becoming insupportable. "Your prices are higher than they've ever been!"
That was it!
Chuck had forgotten what he'd done with the list because he'd been thinking of Ben. On his way to Mr. Boyal's this morning, he ran into Ben in front of the liquor store. Six months had passed since Chuck had seen him, a period of time that had quickly but thoroughly picked away at Ben's health: wrists thin and nearly strangled by the kudzu vines of his veins; skin scaly and a clammy gray; a colony of white nodules on his throat, like little toadstools. For the first time he had spent a night in the hospital, Ben reported breezily, as if it were a rite of passage, as if Chuck had known all along Ben had been ill.
"Did you have a nice room?"
"It was okay," said Ben. "Say, who are you working for these days?"
"Jimmy Boyal? Right here on Columbus?"
"Mr. Boyal? You know Mr. Boyal?"
"Sure. He's an old friend."
"Mr. Boyal is an old friend of yours?" asked Chuck, who was heating up under his parka. "Maybe it's a different Mr. Boyal. My Mr. Boyal has blond hair and a tiny little chicken pox scar just here."
Chuck Paa touched his face.
"That's Jimmy." Ben giggled slightly, as if something were a secret. "But I haven't seen him in over—"
But Chuck stopped listening. He studied Ben from the corner of his eye. With his cold skin and his unsteady gait, Ben looked as though he might need a helper sometime soon. A pang entered Chuck's chest as he realized he couldn't offer his services to Ben as long as he worked for Mr. Boyal. And so Chuck, who was about to be late, said, "Maybe you'll stop by and visit Mr. Boyal someday." He added, "We—he—would love a visitor." And then, this time with a wrinkle of pain in his voice, "You're managing on your own? You can still do everything on your own, can't you, Ben?"
As the fish man called number 43, Mr. Boyal cheerfully waved the tag of paper. Chuck smiled at his employer and then began to pick at the rim of his face. At twenty-three Chuck's pores had yet to abandon their adolescent flow of grease and grime. The quality of his skin remained immature and frustratingly clogged. Not that he thought of it that way: No, in fact he was more obsessed with his skin than that, finding its condition both better and worse than it actually was. And despite his best efforts—the bar of Lifebuoy soap, the washcloth worn bald, the straight-up rubbing alcohol—Chuck knew no one would ever examine his skin and comment on its healthy glow. On Tremont Street he felt as if the young men could see only the oily dents in his face, tar pits he called them, though if pressed Chuck would have to admit that was an exaggeration. Boyz, the young men called themselves, men with laundered dress shirts and tassel loafers, their faces perpetually lit from a step aerobics class and a steam at the Metropolitan Gym. Not that they were the only ones roaming the South End, though sometimes it felt that way. No, there were others, women and families and shopkeepers and meter maids, and the clutch of ghostly men who ventured out with trembling canes. Just like Mr. Boyal, who was still waiting, his neck dewy and draining of color, for the fish man to wrap up his perch. Or Ben, who had waved good-bye with an awkward plea in his cloudy eyes.
Seeing Mr. Boyal blanch even more, Chuck asked if he wanted to sit, although Chuck couldn't think where Mr. Boyal might rest in a supermarket. On the little bench in front of the fish counter where the loaves of French bread were stacked like sandbags? In the shopping cart itself?
Chuck had never trained as a helper, nor as a boy had he imagined that this was how he'd pass his days. He had no particular inclination for this sort of profession—all this fussing over men who could no longer fuss over themselves. But work was work—his heart still quickened whenever he heard that inimitable rip! of a check being yanked from its book—and now he could no longer picture himself doing anything else. The pay was good, and in these bleak times of raging plague the jobs so bountiful that Chuck's biggest problem was deciding who to work for and how to regretfully say no; nothing balled him up more than having to turn down a chance to earn another dollar. When he was eighteen he abandoned his Finnish-blooded mother in her two-room apartment in Maine and moved to Boston. Out of the woods and into the big city: That was how he liked to think of it, even though he'd grown up on a rough street in Portland. Upon arrival, he walked from the bus station to the Charles River, then cut across into the South End: Columbus Avenue, St. Cloud's, the Purple Iris flower shop, a corner bookstore with a neon rainbow in the window. When Chuck saw a man talking to another with a goatee and a little white dog, Chuck knew to stop. This was the place. These were the men—or the Boyz—he was meant to live among. His next thought was of work—of survival, really—and he eyed the storefronts for HELP WANTED signs: a video rental, an ice-cream counter, a wine shop that also hawked baskets of tube cheese. Under closer inspection, the awning of the Purple Iris flower shop flapped in the breeze with a gash through its canvas, and the buckets in the refrigerated window sat half empty, and there was a sheet of paper taped to the door that said: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! EVERYTHING FOR SALE. You see, Chuck had arrived in Boston during the recession a few years back, and not a single window displayed a HELP WANTED sign. Yet this moment of panic—How will I feed myself? Where will I sleep?—was not the first to clamp its clammy cuff around Chuck's wrist; no, Chuck had wondered before—and he somehow knew he would wonder again—from what dented pot would he scrape his next meal.
When he was thirteen, his mother, a shoplifter who had trouble holding a job, took a position as a summer maid at a house on a private island named Little Thule two hundred yards off the coast of Maine. After school let out in May, she and Chuck settled into a room with sloped walls above the house's stable. There were five girls in the family who summered on the island, and a boy a year older than Chuck named Bennett. After a few days, Bennett, eager to get away from his sisters, turned to Chuck for friendship, offering him his Red Sox cap when he saw Chuck squinting and his face burning in the clear blank summer light. From then on Bennett took Chuck clamming and fishing for scrod and out on his gray-planked dory, Bennett Boy, to pull up the island's lobster pots. Bennett, with his long brown feet and the downy tendril of hair on the nape of his neck, taught Chuck to clean a cod and to rinse the black waste from a mussel. Almost every day the boys would dirty themselves with lobster tomalley and the blood of alewife. Or they would rake the manure in the pony ring and then, together, ride the old horse, Danny Boy, round and round. Or they would paint the peeling toolshed wearing nothing but gym shorts, their backs becoming speckled with the splatter of paint—to say nothing of the time Bennett silently painted bright white circles around Chuck's hardening nipples and then a thin upturned smile beneath his navel. Each evening Mrs. Wriston, Bennett's sun-damaged mother, would direct the boys with her talonish finger to the claw-footed tub in the service bathroom. "Soak for as long as it takes," she'd demand, latching the door behind her, leaving them to the moist-aired room with the pillowy towels. Chuck would eagerly yank himself out of his soiled clothes, except the Red Sox cap, and plop into the tub where he'd sit knee-to-knee with Bennett. It was what Chuck liked most, even more than the fishing or the horseback riding or painting the toolshed. The steamy water. The lavender-scented soap. The red sponge in the shape of a heart that Bennett used to scrub Chuck's back. "Boys are allowed to wash each other's backs," Bennett would say, his whispering voice growing deeper almost by the day, his fingertips carefully picking away at each whitehead of paint until Chuck was clean, his body pink, and his child's fist of a heart swollen. Every night they bathed together, their hands interlocked, their faces becoming as clean and shiny as plates, and Chuck found it remarkable that everyone—his small-faced mother, Mrs. Wriston with her dug-in eyes, but especially Bennett himself—thought it was the most natural thing in the world for each day to end like this. And so Chuck came to believe this was how things were meant to be: the direct summer sunlight, the cold green ocean, the friendship grounded equally in solidarity and intimacy. Chuck could look no further than the present, his memory forgetting where he'd come from, how he'd arrived here, and his imagination suddenly unable to envision, or plan for, his future, his own survival. But then one humid morning in August Mrs. Wriston witnessed Mrs. Paa, with desperation permanently etched across her forehead, snatch a dolphin-shaped brooch from her mother-of-pearl jewelry box. Within hours Chuck and his mother were ferried off the island while Bennett sat on the anchored bow of Bennett Boy, his feet dangling into the dimpled water, his valentine face following the heads of Chuck and Mrs. Paa thirty feet away as the outboard motorboat captained by Mrs. Wriston herself puttered toward the rocky, pocked shore. You'll come back, Bennett's face seemed to be saying. Pretending a lifting breeze had come along, Chuck knocked his Red Sox cap into the boat's wake—as if to say, Yes, I'll come back. Never again with her, but I'll come back.
Now Mr. Boyal was nudging Chuck and saying, "Daydreaming on the job? Chuck, are you there?" And then, "Just perch today." Mr. Boyal attempted a smile. "I don't think I need anything else."
"Check your list, Mr. Boyal." He handed him the piece of paper.
Mr. Boyal noted each item. "I still need a vegetable."
"Creamed spinach is on sale." Chuck held up the supermarket's circular. He paused. "I didn't know you're friends with Ben, Mr. Boyal."
"Ben who lives on Dartmouth Street."
"Oh, Ben." His nose twitched. "I wouldn't say we're friends. Did you once work for him?"
"Not exactly," Chuck said, feeling the blood rise to his face.
Since January Chuck had worked for Mr. Boyal as a daily companion, helping him shop and cook and, when the weather was bright, taking him for a stroll through the Commons. Really, his tasks required very little skill; it was all that ordinary and mindless. Not that people didn't appreciate all that he did—that was how they put it. Not that people didn't commend him in low, whispery voices for all that he did. Mrs. Boyal, who smelled like honey and tied little flowered scarves around her throat, shook his hand the time she flew out from California to check up on Mr. Boyal. She always enclosed a note on an ecru card when she mailed his checks, one of which was due tomorrow. Such fuss people made over keeping track of a dying man's grocery list.
At the checkout counter, Mr. Boyal turned and said, "Why don't I make you lunch today?"
Chuck nodded. Mr. Boyal prepared lunch every day. It was an exercise, and Chuck liked almost anything Mr. Boyal made, except the spinach salad. He especially loved the pink cupcakes decorated with rainbow sprinkles.
For almost a year now, Jerry Riley, the brother of one of Chuck's previous clients, had been asking Chuck to work for him. He owned a liquor distributorship that specialized in imported beers. It was a business of relationships, he once told Chuck, and Mr. Riley saw him as the man who could get his beers into all the gay bars from Portland to New Haven. But why Chuck Paa? You seem like a loyal young man, Mr. Riley had said. You don't seem like the type who'd think about screwing me over. Mr. Riley also admitted he himself would never set foot in a gay bar, but that wasn't a reason to walk away from money on the counter. The first time he made the offer was nearly a year ago, at the wake of Harold Riley, who died in his sleep, boiled over with fever. "Do it for old Harry," Mr. Riley had said, filling his mouth with an aunt's deviled egg. Although flattered, Chuck declined; there were others on a list waiting for his services. Mr. Riley probably took a liking to Chuck because in his final months Harold's life insurance money had run dry, leaving him with little to pay Chuck, and yet Chuck had stayed on, each morning walking over to Harold's narrow apartment on West Newton Street, opening the front door with the worn brass key he protected on a string around his neck. He would feed Harold's two tabby cats and then wake Harold himself, shaking the knob of his shoulder until his papery eyelids began to flutter, which would tell Chuck that today was not the day—his responsibilities would continue. For nine weeks Chuck repeated this routine without pay, each morning rising earlier and earlier as Harold's body shut down more and more, so that Chuck started arriving at Mr. Riley's even before the tabby cats had risen themselves. For two months this had meant that Chuck could never buy the three coconut doughnuts he liked in the morning; it meant no groceries except cans of black beans and pickled beets, on sale because of a dent in the tin; it meant no replacement when his bottle of shampoo emptied; and after a month it meant no quarters for the hungry, humming machines at the Tidy-Tide laundromat. All this Chuck bore not out of kindness but out of duty, a sense of professionalism, an approach to survival deliberately in contrast to his mother's. When Chuck began working for someone, he always made a promise to himself that he'd never leave his client until his client left him. And so Chuck continued to work—his body thinning and dirtying at an exponential pace—until the morning he arrived at Harold's apartment only to find the two tabby cats nudging their orange, delicate bodies against the cold, dead wall of Harold's now peaceful chest.
Two weeks later Jerry Riley phoned to inform Chuck that Harold had left him a gold pocket watch, which Chuck quickly pawned. Jerry Riley had also said, "I mean it about the job. Stay in touch with me, Paa. I could be your ticket out."
Chuck asked Mr. Boyal what he would make for lunch today. "For some reason I'm extra-hungry," Chuck said as they walked from the supermarket to Mr. Boyal's parlor-level apartment in the South End.
"I'll broil the perch."
"How about frying it in the canola oil?"
"Maybe," Mr. Boyal said, already tiring from his sack of groceries. He set it on a cement stoop, and suddenly a fit of coughing hurled up from his lungs and bent him at his waist. A tick of worry bit into Chuck. How long would his assignment with Mr. Boyal last? Would they be together come summer?
"Give me a minute," Mr. Boyal said, sitting on the stoop. Chuck sat down, too, his hot wet hand with the wadded grocery list touching, lightly, Mr. Boyal's back.
The two men shut their eyes.
"Catch your breath yet, Mr. Boyal?" Chuck asked. "Ready to move on?" As he carried the groceries down the street of brownstones, Chuck was thinking about working for two people at once. Ben had said he didn't need any help. Maybe not now, but perhaps in a few months when Mr. Boyal.... Chuck calculated the business of it, the potential and the limits for profit. If only he could duplicate himself, make a team of Chuck Paas, and care for Mr. Boyal and Ben at once—then that would be worthwhile. He shifted the grocery bags in his fists as the sweat began to collect inside his parka. He watched Mr. Boyal's neck, just a twig really, move inside the yawning collar of his sweater. Chuck saw a DRIVERS NEEDED sign painted on the back of a delivery truck and told himself to remember the 1-800 number, though he knew he'd forget it in an hour. And then Chuck, whose skin was mushroom-white in the weak spring sun, silently watched the grocery list slip from beneath the shopping bag's plastic handle pressing into his palm, the list delicately floating away from a sticky starfish of a hand that seemed to belong to someone else, that seemed not to belong to Chuck Paa at all.
* * *
The next day Chuck took Mr. Boyal for a haircut. Waiting on a bench padded with magazines, Mr. Boyal said, "I have an appointment with a nutritionist tomorrow."
"Why?" Chuck was flipping through a men's fashion magazine, imagining the two-tiered haircuts first on himself and then on Mr. Boyal.
"I'm not sure I'm eating as well as I should."
"Who told you that?"
"Ben." Mr. Boyal was sitting erect with his back straight and his hands cupped over the handle of his cane, and Chuck could feel Mr. Boyal's eyes move curiously across him. Had Mr. Boyal and Ben spoken about Chuck last night? "Ben's had some success with macrobiotics."
"I see," said Chuck, wondering if Ben would share his recipes and the name of a good health food store—for a lump had begun to rise in Chuck's throat when he thought that he might not have been feeding Mr. Boyal properly. Or was the lump from something else?
Just last week Chuck rode the T down to Braintree to see Mr. Riley in his office in a blue-roofed warehouse. Mr. Riley, who was hairier than Chuck Paa but not much taller, gave him a tour of the floor. While Mr. Riley explained his inventory management system, Chuck's eyes stopped on a truck driver with a spiky crew cut. The driver was wearing blue overalls and a sewn-on patch that said Eugene. As he loaded the shelves of a truck with cases of beer, his arms flexed with strings of muscle, causing a sway in Chuck's chest. Mr. Riley slapped Chuck's back and said that, were he to come on board, Eugene would deliver to any of the routes Chuck could develop. He knew he was gaping; he had to quickly bring a handkerchief to his chin to catch the lurching drop of drool that, as it turned out, wasn't actually there. "Anything wrong, Chuck?" said Mr. Riley. "You seem a little nervous about something." Even so, he still wanted Chuck as part of his operation. I've got a feeling about you, he told Chuck Paa.
"Thinking of anything different for the hair?" Chuck asked Mr. Boyal.
"No, I wasn't. Any suggestions?"
"Ever have a back rub?" a blind client had once asked Chuck Paa. His heart began to thump so rapidly with hope that he was certain the man could hear its patter from across the living room. Other than his sight, the man's health was holding up, and all Chuck was doing for him was driving him on errands once or twice a week. "Not since I was thirteen," Chuck replied, lying down, feeling the slab of his stomach seep into the cracks between the sofa cushions. "Your shirt off?" the man asked playfully, approaching the couch. But then Chuck, fearing the state of his skin, told the man to forget about the massage.
"They're calling you, Mr. Boyal," Chuck said.
"No, they're not. They just called a Mr. Doyle."
After the haircut Chuck walked Mr. Boyal back to his apartment. It was a warm, early spring afternoon, and sweat began to roll down their foreheads. Once inside, Mr. Boyal, his face ashen, set himself on the plaid sofa while Chuck went to the kitchen for some water. When he returned he found Mr. Boyal slumped on the couch like an overturned sack, a trail of foam spilling from his mouth. Uh-oh, Chuck thought, hoping Mr. Boyal hadn't gone off and died on him just then. Had he walked Mr. Boyal too hard? Would they blame him? He nervously placed his thumb to Mr. Boyal's pipe of a wrist, locating a pulse. Chuck fell to Mr. Boyal's side in relief. After catching his breath, Chuck turned to Mr. Boyal and slapped his icy face. He didn't come to. Chuck telephoned an ambulance and then Mr. Boyal's doctor at Mass General. Then Mrs. Boyal in Pasadena. Chuck Paa wasn't naturally levelheaded in a crisis, but Mr. Boyal had penned instructions of what precisely to do should he teeter over. And thank goodness! Chuck had demanded that everyone he worked for do the same, even those he only helped out for an afternoon: Should you pass out or die while under my watch, please write down exactly how you would like me to react. Chuck supplied the pen and the index cards.
Mr. Boyal spent two nights in the hospital. When he came home, Mrs. Boyal, who had jetted in, announced in her girlish voice that the time had come to move Mr. Boyal back to Pasadena. Chuck hadn't planned on leaving Mr. Boyal for several months, and no one else had offered him a full-time position. Although Mrs. Boyal ceremoniously sent Chuck off with a three-week bonus and a white mum in a clay pot, it was the first time since he had arrived in Boston that he'd found himself out of work. He still had some onesy-twosy jobs—helping with a move, special errands, baby-sitting for an evening. Mr. Boyal said he would send out word among his friends that Chuck was available, but the trouble was (though Chuck Paa didn't say this) most of Mr. Boyal's friends were dead.
When it was time for good-byes, Chuck said, "Keep me posted." He meant both about Mr. Boyal's health and any job prospects.
"I will," said Mr. Boyal. After his stay in the hospital, where they cleaned a parasite out of his intestine, he looked fitter than Chuck had ever seen him, his eyes clear and alert and color returned to his cheek. Mr. Boyal reported on some sort of new combination therapy that was showing good early results; something to do with an inhibitor of some sort or another. He was carrying a blush of hope in his face, standing erect to see Chuck off, and who was Chuck Paa to tell Mr. Boyal that there was no hope at all? Chuck believed in a cure about as much as he believed the world would one day be his own.
"When I find something," Chuck asked, as he always did at the end of an assignment, "can I use you as a reference?"
"If I'm still around." A smile broke open his face. Was that a joke?
"If you're not, do you think your mother would mind?"
Mr. Boyal's smile folded away. "I'll tell her you might call one day."
"You couldn't suggest me to Ben, could you, Mr. Boyal? Let him know I'm available for work?"
Mr. Boyal paused. "I don't think that would be a good idea." He continued, "It's not you; it's him. He's too independent." And finally, in only a whisper, "Chuck, trust me. Forget about Ben."
Chuck Paa walked home. It was Saturday night, and he drew his bath and plugged the television into the outlet by the mounted toothbrush holder. There was a made-for-TV movie on about a surgeon who was the only doctor in California who knew how to perform microscopic surgery on a rare heart condition called Chunt's disease. In the second part of the movie the doctor's wife came down with the disease herself, and the rest of the movie—as Chuck guessed—was about the doctor preparing to cut up and sew back together his wife's heart. Soaking, Chuck wondered if he could have ever made a fine doctor. Dr. Paa, the cardiologist. Dr. Paa, the dermatologist. A vision of a grateful patient rose before him, her skin cleared and rid of a hideous weeping rash. That's the type of doctor he would have become, transforming a marked face with a pill and a scrub.
Chuck stepped into his white jeans and pulled on a gray sweatshirt that read MAINE. Combing his hair in the mirror, he saw the patch of stubble on his cheek and scraped a dry razor over it. He saw the scars—along his jaw, on the forehead, on the butt of his chin. He was on his way to Chaps, the disco in the Back Bay where two years ago on a night not unlike tonight he had met a stranger with pale blond hair. After shaking hands the two had danced together, Chuck's hips rotating wildly. The black walls and carpet and the cigarette smoke and smoldering dry ice made the place so shadowy that it was only after the stranger, Ben, invited Chuck home, laying a hand on his nape, that Chuck realized that Ben was Bennett, Bennett Wriston, Bennett of Bennett Boy. Once they were in front of the disco, beneath the yellow street lamp, Chuck assumed Bennett would recognize him as well, would cup Chuck's face between his hands, but Bennett did not. Surely the china-jar lamps of a well-appointed apartment on Dartmouth Street would reveal things as they were, but Bennett never bothered to turn on the lights when they got to his place. And all night Chuck lay in the wide bed with the goose-down pillows, anticipating the angle of morning light that would finally inform Bennett of their good fortune, and then Chuck could stop calling Bennett "Ben," as he'd been doing all night. But in the morning Bennett looked sad, his mouth hanging at the corners, and he refused to look Chuck in the eyes. When Chuck asked Bennett for his phone number, he stopped, looked around as if startled, and then wrote out the number so slowly that Chuck wondered if Bennett was having trouble with his memory. Chuck asked, "When can I see you again, Ben?" but the only answer to appear was: "Um, I'm not really sure."
Examining his egg-shaped face in the mirror, Chuck hoped tonight he would meet someone like Eugene, the truck driver. And then Chuck Paa had this idea: Oh, how orderly and understandable life would be if everybody always wore his job's uniform with his first name stitched to the pocket.
Except: What would Chuck wear?
* * *
"That's the best news I've had all day." Mr. Riley sat in his office, his fists on his desk.
Chuck stirred the coffee in his Styrofoam cup. "I thought you'd be happy." He bared his teeth; the job would provide insurance as well, and Chuck could take his teeth for a polish.
"Guess what this means," said Mr. Riley.
Chuck had no idea; he sat in his chair, one eye toward the window in Mr. Riley's office that surveyed the warehouse. Where was Eugene? What was it that Mr. Riley actually believed Chuck could do for him? Mr. Riley, with his shag of black hair and the hooded eyes and the gold dolphin pendant around his throat that had once belonged to Harold. Mr. Riley, his fingers filthy with ink and cut up by bottle caps. You'd have to look hard at him to see any resemblance to sweet dead Harold, master of two tabby cats.
"This means you'll be getting a Jeep," Mr. Riley said. "You know how to drive, don't you, Paa?"
When he tried to explain it to himself, Chuck had moved away from Maine because he was afraid of the people he knew. Too many snarls, too many mouths twisted in distaste. Yet in the South End most of the men, at least the healthy ones, terrified him just the same. They growled like the pack of boys in high school who had called him Chuck Paw, the Animal. And whenever he ran into Ben, Ben's face would tighten with pallid rejection. It's like there's something wrong with him, Chuck overheard Ben screech to a bar buddy one night from behind a mirrored pillar at Chaps.
"Yes, Mr. Riley?"
"You do know how to drive, don't you?"
"I can learn."
"You'd better, because I'm going to give you one of my Jeeps so you can carry the samples with you. How does that sound?"
"A Jeep?" Chuck said. As long as Mr. Riley left him alone, he knew he'd be okay.
"I've got twenty-four brands of beer from places like Iceland, Malta, and South Korea. I want you to make the gays love them." He jabbed his finger into Chuck's soft breast. "You can do that for me, can't you?"
"Sure," Chuck said. "I sure can."
Mr. Riley had poked Chuck where a large pit of a pimple was growing. It was the size of a cherry, a hard core on his sternum, and Chuck had come to call it his crab apple. He didn't know why. It was smaller than a crab apple, but its red soreness, the scar he knew it would leave, reminded him of the welts that had bloomed on his skin after the eleventh-grade field trip to the beach when his classmates pelted him with a sack of stony crab apples. Forced to seek refuge in the icy waves, Chuck bobbed in the ocean as he watched his skin turn blue. When the boys had thrown the last crab apple, he emerged from the sea shaking and wrinkled. Once home, he locked the door to the bathroom and examined his skin for hours, fascinated by the bruises that had erupted like ripe fruit.
"You guys love," Mr. Riley was saying, "anything trendy and imported. We've got to make these beers chic. I've got a marketing gal helping me with that. You just need to take her message to all the bar owners in New England."
|The Charm Bracelet||46|
|The Rose City||138|
Posted April 16, 2014