Jennifer Pashley

Hearts

We hire a babysit­ter, a kid we would tell nev­er ever to do drugs, and we leave our kid with her while we play cards and get fucked up. It goes on all night. They oth­er cou­ple, Sandy and Tom, have been togeth­er about as long as their kid is old, about five years. Us, we’ve got a baby. We’ve only been togeth­er three years, but have known each oth­er a long time. When we met we were with oth­er peo­ple. Sandy and Tom got mar­ried when she got preg­nant. We’re still not. We just have a baby.

I don’t know them. Jessie does. Sandy is Jessie’s friend, which puts me in that posi­tion of being a grown man on play date with anoth­er man. Jessie says she knows we’ll get along. I don’t know any­thing about Tom, except that when Sandy met him – right before he got her preg­nant – he was in an abu­sive gay rela­tion­ship.

What kind of man gets him­self hit by anoth­er man? I say to Jessie.

You don’t know what goes on in oth­er people’s homes, she says.

After get­ting him­self fucked by that man? I add.

She gives me a look. Jessie stands by the kitchen win­dow with it open a crack and smokes out through the screen. Her boobs are still giant, still com­ing down. We feed the baby for­mu­la, which is prob­a­bly good, because oth­er­wise the baby would be get­ting a shit­load of xanax and hydrocodone.

The baby wakes up wail­ing and the babysit­ter comes right after that. I watch the two women nego­ti­ate the lit­tle body, the writhing, and the drool. The babysit­ter is one of those frumpy androg­y­nous col­lege kids in sweats and a pony­tail. Too hard to sex­u­al­ize. The baby calms down when she picks her up though. That’s good.

 

Sandy and Tom’s house is a dou­ble-wide, and sits next to a huge fal­low field. It’s the only house around there. The next one down is way down. Too far to see. When we pull up, there are thir­teen deer in the field. It’s not yet dusk, and their big bod­ies are out there like shad­ows in the late sun. I count them.

There are thir­teen deer, I say. Jessie dri­ves. She is slight­ly less fucked than I am right now. In the back­seat, the baby’s seat jin­gles with all the shit we hang on it to keep her amused, a mir­ror, some bells, a stuffed smil­ing mon­key. It’s like no one’s ever allowed to be alone, to just be, star­ing into space for a minute.

No there aren’t, Jessie says.

Yes. Yes there are. I count them again. And again. Thirteen.

They did this to my dad, too, I think. The shit to amuse you. All over his hos­pi­tal room. Bells and trin­kets. Mirrors and pic­ture of flow­ers, pup­pies, moun­tain streams. Anything to dis­tract you from the fact that you are dying. Anything to look at that is not your own blue feet at the end of the bed.

When we get out, Jessie stands and looks over the top of the car, squint­ing into the field. Weird, she says. Her face has that serene glaze. I won­der what else she is think­ing.

 

Tom has a mus­tache. It’s all I can look at, think about. For a minute, while he is talk­ing, I think that it’s mov­ing, the hairs like legs on a big bug, wav­ing, walk­ing over the top of his mouth. His mouth, which has held a cock. I get a shiv­er, and my arms go all goose­bumps. When he smiles, he shows a gold tooth, off to the side. An eye tooth.

Knocked out, he says, when he sees that I see it. He points. In a fight. He shrugs. Asks if I want a beer.

I fol­low him into the kitchen. It’s a weird pea­cock blue with white cup­boards. It doesn’t match the plain brown of the rest of the house. Tom says, with­out me ask­ing, that they let the kid pick the col­or. There’s a red rug and a lit­ter box off to the side. I think I’m trip­ping out, but I see a rab­bit come into the room, hop­ping, and go over to the lit­ter box. He uses it like a cat. It’s a big rab­bit. Red.

Tom looks at it and it comes over and paws his leg to be picked up. Sandy taught him, he says to me. He picks it up, and holds it to his neck, mas­sag­ing the scruff. Its nose does its rab­bit thing, mov­ing. I have to rub my eyes, and then I take a long swig of beer. He’s got bot­tles, Killian’s Red. Jessie and me, we usu­al­ly drink cheap. Cans. Busch and Utica Club. We buy them by the thir­ty rack.

That ok? Tom asks me. He puts the rab­bit down and it hops into the liv­ing room. He reopens the fridge and cocks his hip a lit­tle when he does. He’s real skin­ny in his jeans. One of those guys who just looks like a pair of pants with a belt. I got some oth­ers, he says, if that’s not.

It’s good, I say. I like it. I do.

 

They put the din­ing room table by the fire place and Tom gets it going, down there on his knees, with his bony ass stick­ing out. He builds it up good, a big fire, not smoky, and pulls the screen shut. The rab­bit stretch­es out along the top of the couch. Jessie laughs when she sees me look­ing at it.

They have the table set for cards, and smok­ing, and drink­ing. There are coast­ers and a glass pipe, blue with white hon­ey combs and a white flow­ery head. The table is old, heavy oak with legs that all come togeth­er and have paws on the ends of them.

Tom claps his hands togeth­er. Shall we? he says.

It shouldn’t, but it bugs the shit out of me.

 

We play hearts. I’ve played it, but I’m bet­ter at spades. They keep a book, a note­book for scores and they draw pic­tures and talk shit in there too. We come up with names. Whenever I’ve played spades we just have names like guys against girls or maybe, maybe if we’re feel­ing it we go with some­thing like studs and sluts. But Tom says you have to have a good name to play.

So, go, Sandy says to him. She sits down and I sort of notice her then. She’s lit­tle and blonde. She’s wear­ing soft white, a sweater that looks fur­ry and a del­i­cate gold neck­lace. I watch her pack the bowl right up to the rim.

Where’s um, where’s your kid? I ask her.

Oh, oh, she says. She looks up and smiles. She’s got super straight teeth. I won­der if she was a pageant girl or some­thing in high school. He’s at my mom’s, she says. We’re good. She smiles again, wrin­kles her nose, hands me the bowl.

Tom picks Charlemagne as his name and I snort out smoke. Fucking what? I say, and Sandy laughs real hard.

Charlemagne, he says again and then tells me to pick a king.

How about John? I say. King John.

Real inven­tive, Jessie says.

All our images of the dev­il, Tom says, come from King John.

I laugh. What? What’s that sup­posed to mean? I pass him the bowl.

I mean, he says, and takes a hit. He talks through it. Our pic­tures of the dev­il, with the point­ed beard, look like King John. He exhales. That’s where we got that image.

Jessie’s watch­ing the fire. I see it in her eyes, reflect­ed, but also, that she’s not real­ly lis­ten­ing to the rest of us. She’s mes­mer­ized, her chair fac­ing that way. It burns up behind Tom’s back. She’s in it, I think. Her head, soft and fuzzy.

Sandy’s writ­ing them down. Charlemagne, she says, King John. I’ll be Queen Alexandra, she says. Jessie, she says, you should be Cleopatra.

Ok, Jessie says. It suits her, too. Her bangs.

 

I’m bad at hearts. Sandy shoots the moon in that first hand and kills us. It goes on. We play to five hun­dred and she’s either a genius or she’s cheat­ing. We can’t catch up. After a bit, Tom turns to poke the fire, stirs it around and it sparks up around his head and flames up again, and I push back from the table. Say I’m going to smoke.

Jessie says, King John hates los­ing.

I suck at hearts, I say. I watch Sandy put her head down and tal­ly up the scores. She has drawn a whole line of hearts down the mid­dle of the page. Curvy, like her hand­writ­ing. I won­der how the baby’s doing.

 

I stand out on the porch fac­ing the field. The deer are gone. You can hear the creek mov­ing, fast over the rocky bed, and some coy­otes along the water. They almost sounds like dogs, but more hys­ter­i­cal, and more of them. Their howl­ing and yip­ping enough to make your hair stand on end.

The girls come out and talk about the super moon.

What’s that? I say. I expect Tom to pop out with the answer. To explain more than I care to hear.

Sandy shrugs. Her eyes are sleepy. Big moon? she says and then laughs. Maybe it has pow­ers, she says. You know. Like, we should howl. Or some such shit.

I like her. I pet her sleeve. Imagine let­ting her nuz­zle into my neck the way the rab­bit did to Tom. I just stroke it down the top of her arm. Jessie gives me a look. I let go, and look away.

 

Tom comes out and we walk up the hill to see the super moon. Apparently, it’s sup­posed to be huge and bright and it only hap­pens once every few years. The moon is the moon, I think, but the girls are excit­ed so we walk, the girls up ahead and me and Tom behind. We bring our beers along. Bottles in one hand, cig­a­rette in the oth­er. Tom lopes when he walks. It’s like he’s got too much leg, or like his bones are strung too loose.

I won­der who the guy was. The guy that want­ed him. He’s all edges and angles. I can’t imag­ine it. Then he looks and he says,

What you think­ing?

And I think, Guys don’t say that. Nothing, I say, and then stu­pid, I laugh a lit­tle. The moon, I say.

Along the sides of the hill there are some low farm hous­es. The kind that are white with a deep porch that have stood there for a long time. They have rick­ety stove pipes going up the side, and big propane tanks in the yard. One has light blue shut­ters and big snow­ball bush­es in front of the pic­ture win­dows. After, there’s a long line of pines going up to the top of the hill. They look blue in the moon­light, that deep blue green that only belongs to pines. They shush in the wind and the moon comes between them in tri­an­gles of light.

It’s there at the top of the hill. The girls sort of howl in awe, but it gives me a pit in my stom­ach. The thing is fuck­ing huge. I’ve nev­er seen any­thing like it. It comes up behind a barn. A good sized barn. But the moon behind it and com­ing up over the top of it is like forty times its size. I just kind of stand there in the mid­dle of the road look­ing at it. It gives me the creeps. Like a huge head, com­ing up from the hori­zon. Like some­thing watch­ing you. Or pulling you to it. I’m afraid for a sec­ond that I’ll get sucked up.

Jessie has her hands down on her knees, laugh­ing. Holy shit! she cries out. Holy shit!

Tom pats me on the back and urges me clos­er. Sandy is twirling in the street, her arms out at her sides and her hair fly­ing out. It’s bright as day right there, in that spot. The red barn and the rail fence around that field. The stones on the side of the road, all of them lit up and sparkling. The flow­ers that have come up already, some yel­lows and pur­ples up along the side of the road. Even the dou­ble yel­low line on the pave­ment, glow­ing gold. Sandy’s sweater looks like snow, glit­ter­ing. The top of Jessie’s head, like a streak along her part.

Sandy spins over toward me. Dizzy, she bumps into me. She laughs and she grabs my arms to steady her­self. She’s so lit­tle. The moon catch­es all the reds in her blonde hair, all of them, like lit­tle glints of fire. I imag­ine her kiss­ing me, full on, pressed up against me, about putting my arms around her there in the mid­dle of the road, feel­ing her small back, her shoul­ders. I look at her, and she looks up and in that sec­ond we both know it. It’s a real prob­lem. The moon, I think. The fuck­ing super moon.

 

I don’t know how long we stand out there, laugh­ing, just look­ing at it. When we walk back down, though, it’s high­er and small­er above us, but still bright white, light­ing the way. I try to walk back by myself, ahead of them, just think­ing. I hear Tom talk­ing behind me but can’t make out the words. He walks with Jessie and when I look back, he kind of slings his arm around her, his hand hooked on her shoul­der, loose and casu­al, the way a gay guy can hold your girl and it’s ok.

I start to ratio­nal­ize shit, think­ing about Sandy’s body, that she needs some­body to fuck her for real. And she sort of skips down the hill next to me, her feet kick­ing lit­tle peb­bles that roll way ahead of us. We come back upon the same house on the cor­ner, with the snow­ball bush­es. I wish it would snow. Would like to feel it on my face, the cool speck­le. She leans her head on my arm. And I do it too, I put my arm around her, my fin­gers just under her arm, where I can feel the edge of her bra under her sweater. It’s cool out there, the sky clear and the moon hard and bright. Let’s just switch, I think. I won­der what their kid looks like.

 

Tom gets out the bour­bon. It’s some small batch I’ve nev­er heard of. Makes me won­der if his boyfriend was rich, one of those small batch drink­ing, rolls his own cig­a­rette smok­ing snoots. He puts two big ice cubes in my glass and just hands it to me with out ask­ing. I drink. It’s good.

We sit like that for a while, at the table in the liv­ing room but fac­ing the fire. He’s built it back up again. Added a log. Poked around. The girls are in the kitchen, look­ing at some­thing and laugh­ing, gig­gling like lit­tle girls. I won­der where we are going, what time it is. If we’re all going to end up togeth­er at the end of this. I think about Tom lean­ing over to put his arm around me, and then won­der what I was wor­ry­ing about.

I met Jessie at a par­ty like that. She was doing coke with a girl­friend and came out of the bath­room with blood on her nose. She talked to me like that, all sped up and ani­mat­ed, for like ten min­utes before I put my thumb on her lip to wipe it off and she kind of put my thumb in her mouth. So I kissed her, blood and all. Later I kissed her girl­friend and they kissed each oth­er. We were out­side in the sum­mer­time, on a back patio with lounge chairs. The girls took their tops off. I remem­ber Jessie lean­ing back like that, in just her shorts, with her tits out, small and high still. Her girl­friend, I can’t remem­ber her name now, was a red­head, and had big tits cov­ered in freck­les. Her hair hung way down her back. She looked like a mer­maid like that, with her top off and her hair undone. She sat on Jessie’s lap. I remem­ber that. And kissed me, fac­ing away from Jessie, with Jessie’s hands around the front of her.

I didn’t see Jessie for a long time after that, til after my dad died, til I was liv­ing up here. And then when I ran into her again, we kind of stood face to face for a minute, remem­ber­ing, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her.

I hear her in the kitchen with Sandy. She laughs so hard she snorts. Tom leans across the table and puts anoth­er splash of bour­bon into my glass. I hear the rab­bit come in from behind me, its weird pat­ter thump, pulling along its back legs. It comes over and it paws at me now, its front legs up and knead­ing at my jeans.

What’s its name? I ask Tom.

Red, he says.

Hey Red, I say. I talk to it the way I talk to the baby. In a voice that’s not quite mine, like a baby or an ani­mal shouldn’t have to hear that, I soft­en it, make it high­er. Hey Red. I’ve nev­er pet a rab­bit before. Only seen them, in the yard, or maybe at a pet store. I scratch it behind the ears the way you would a cat. It keeps paw­ing, so I pick it up, under the arms, its back feet wav­ing. It’s heav­ier than I think it will be, way more than a cat, more bones and more mus­cle. It stretch­es out, and its back is ropy and strong. I hold it up near my face. His nose, twitch­ing. When he strikes, I don’t even see it, I just taste met­al and my eyes go black for a sec­ond. I think I’m falling.

Jesus Christ, Tom yells. I drop the rab­bit. I hear it thump on the floor and then away. I hear the girls scat­ter when he runs into the kitchen.

My whole face is wet. The rab­bit took a swipe at me and clawed up inside my nose. I feel it way inside, hot and metal­lic, like my skull has been gouged. It hurts my teeth. I lean for­ward onto the table, but Tom is behind me, then beside me, with his back to the fire. He moves the glass of bour­bon, he takes my shoul­der.

Not for­ward, he says, back. Lean back.

I start swing­ing my arms, like the rab­bit did with its back feet. I think about strik­ing Tom, goug­ing him with my blunt fin­gers. My eyes are tear­ing down my face. I think about my dad say­ing he tast­ed some­thing burn­ing, and how I said you mean you smell some­thing burn­ing? And he insist­ed no, he could taste it, some­thing burn­ing far off, like he could sense what was com­ing, his body small and cav­ing into that bed. The tubes and bags hang­ing out of him the last few weeks.

My head feels stuffed with cot­ton. I can’t open my eyes any­more. I feel Tom’s hands on my shoul­ders, mov­ing me from the table, over to the couch where he sits me down, sits beside me, his hands guid­ing me the whole way, and his voice in my ear.

Back, he says. Lean your head back. He says it in a dif­fer­ent voice, soft­er, high­er than nor­mal.

I can’t hear the girls any­more. I imag­ine them out­side chas­ing the rab­bit. I imag­ine them out back with their tops off. I want to grab Sandy by the hair.

Tom puts a tow­el near my face. He puts his fin­gers on my tem­ples. I can smell his bour­bon and his cig­a­rettes. He moves down to my jaw, his fin­gers tip­ping me back­ward and the tow­el under my nose.  I can feel his arm across my chest. His leg along­side mine. He puts one hand behind my head then, cradling the back of my skull as I go back, hold­ing me.

~

Jennifer Pashley is out­lawed in 44 states. She is the author of two sto­ry col­lec­tions, States (Lewis-Clark, 2007) and The Conjurer (Standing Stone Books, May 2013) Learn more at www.jenniferpashley.com.