Read Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever Online
Authors: Justin Taylor
This book is for Amanda Peters
So holy and so perfect is my love,
And I in such a poverty of grace,
That I shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps. Loose now and then
A scattered smile, and that I’ll live upon.
As You Like It
, III. 5
I sang the way I still talk. Every song was the worst way I could think of to ask for what I did not yet know how not to want.
Stories in the Worst Way
y two o’clock the sky had gone to ash. Amber pushed a blond lock behind her ear, stray hairs glancing off a steel row of studs driven like garden stakes through the cartilage of her helix and lobe. Her other hand still held the roll of duct tape with which she’d reinforced the window, the glass marked now with a dull silver
. She looked around it, out at the world. She wore pre-faded jeans and a small tee shirt. Stylish, but not quite
style, the wardrobe alluded to punk rock, outlet malls, and other holdover habits from high school. A year later, when you saw her in her no-longer-quite-new skirt (the plaid one so short you kept catching glimpses of her white white underwear) she seemed like someone else altogether. You were all wet from having jumped into the aboveground pool. She gave you an old Misfits tee shirt and
a pair of JNCOs to wear while your clothes dried, and you thought,
Oh, I remember Amber now
When she smiled her cheeks turned to waxed apples but she wasn’t smiling there at the window. She was worrying that the oak tree might come through her ceiling, wood obliterating wood, like a miracle running backward.
In the glass, between the silver diagonals of tape, she saw her own ghost. She stared through the translucent creature and focused on the measly expanse of grass between her building and the deserted street, its shuttered shops and condemned strays. Beyond that there was only the storm. It was really going to happen. And you weren’t there.
Your name was Patrick. You were still away, maybe out somewhere with your new friends or jerking off in some bathroom thinking about Marissa, who you never told Amber about, and who, you should never forget, I had before you did. I always wondered what you saw in her that I couldn’t, what made her off-ness on for you, but mostly I was just glad she began stopping at your bedroom door and left my end of the hallway alone. She was an ugly drunk, which was part of it, I already had one of those in my life—but this isn’t about Marissa, it’s not about you, and I won’t allow it to devolve into another damn soliloquy for Kim. This is about Amber, and the thing that wore away at us like waves beating beach sand until the day I kissed her and she liked it. We didn’t tell you. It was ours. We could have fucked maybe twice before the remorse caught up with us. Do you suppose we did?
She was a weather freak, as you’ll recall, crushed out on every forecaster, even the old fat ones. Late nights would dissolve into early mornings while she waited for her favorites, with their toupees and full-color satellite imagery. Sometimes I’d find her in the living room appraising the ten-day forecast with a sexualized eye not unlike the one I cast on her or you cast on whoever you weren’t ignoring just then. The predictions were always dire. The animated projections repeated, over and over, as if scratched by a DJ. She tracked the progress of every named and unnamed storm.
She told me this one would be the worst and remain the worst for a while. That’s why I picked it to tell about, whatever its name was or would have been. There’s always a new worst; only tenure varies. I was eager to see the city pelted and drubbed.
But I wasn’t there either. This picture of Amber at the window in hurricane season is a second-rate sketch, my little vision, an unfair summation of an era—a summer—we spent in grand subtropical poverty, sipping rum drinks so sweet they were almost sour and boasting that we were the people who did not listen to Jimmy Buffett. We listened to sad songs and the birds that haunted the oaks between the duplexes and low-rise apartments like the one Amber hadn’t moved into yet. The one where you found her again.
Cars were rare and there were stars at night. We stood on the porch. On the sidewalk some genius had spray-painted
EVERYTHING HERE IS THE BEST THING EVER
and nobody from
the city ever came to clean it up. I began to believe we were the secret owners of the world and everything in it: our shitty rental home; that one bar on Tenth that we liked; the whole state from the Alabama border over to St. Augustine, down past the Rat Kingdom all the way to Hemingway House and the beaches from which you can practically spit on Cuba. Amber would sleep in your bed, the window open, smelling the early summer and the last of you in the sheets. Hurricane season hadn’t started. Every night was balmy. We’d make ridiculous breakfasts at all hours, bacon and pancakes, stacks and piles, heaps, and wonder how you were doing, if you would ever send for her or wash back up here or never call again, or what. She never did the laundry. Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep for days.
his was a long time coming.” That’s the first thing Uncle Danny says after he says the thing he took me aside to say: that he wants to hire me to get rid of his house cat, Buckles. We’re out back, he’s smoking. I wouldn’t mind a smoke but I don’t want to ask him for one. The sun is going down into the man-made lake with something not unlike majesty, and when I glance back toward the house (pool needs a skim) I can see Vicky and Aunt Amanda inside, finishing cleanup. Vicky collects the dishes and serving things, her mother washes them in that perfect way she has, Vicky dries, and they both put them away.
I have dinner with my uncle’s family on Wednesday nights. They set a full table. With me here we are four, and sometimes I think of myself not as Vicky’s cousin, but as her big brother. Not quite ten years between us. Sometimes my
mother comes with me, but not usually. After a long day at work, she says, she’d rather have the silence than the company.
“You’re sure about this?” I say to Uncle Danny. I am not surprised that he doesn’t acknowledge my question. He is not a man who thinks aloud, but one who broods, then takes action. He probably made up his mind about how this conversation would go before I got here. I am tempted to raise objections just to hear the responses he’s worked out, but the fact is that I don’t object. I’m honored that he asked me.
Vicky is a good girl, her mother will tell you so, though if Uncle Danny is in the room when you are talking about this, he is likely to stay silent. He may look up from his paper, but he will keep his peace. She is fifteen, her dark hair streaked blond. She cuts her own bangs, a ragged diagonal like the torn hem of a nightgown. She is not allowed to date. Her braces, she thanks God, have come off. She wears band tee shirts procured for her by friends, souvenirs from arena concerts she is not permitted to attend.
The Watsons (one time I overheard Vicky on the phone with some friend: “God, I even have a boring
”) keep a clean house. Amanda regularly vacuums and mops, but Buckles sheds and sheds. There is always a thin coat of fur on the furniture, tufts on the floor, even some in the air: a minor atmospheric condition. Sometimes you’ll look toward a window and see a tuft headed earth- or couchward, caught in the AC slipstream, seeming almost to dance rather than fall.
Buckles is locked in the guest bathroom, mewling to be let out. For the past few weeks, no one knows why, Buckles has become “stressed out” (Amanda’s term) and has started to throw up his food. The vet says there is nothing wrong with him. The summer is over, Vicky is in school again, and Amanda is now working. The cat is lonesome.
Amanda says she’s started working because she is bored with being a housewife, now that her daughter doesn’t need full-time mothering, but the fact is that Danny’s business has been flagging. With everyone so busy, sometimes the cat vomit on the windowsill or under the couch will go unnoticed for days until somebody smells something and then finds the awful little pile of dried-up goo, the muted, autumnal reds and browns of their brand of cat food, garnished with white-gray sprigs of shed fur and some new-grown mold.
One time I was going to see a concert at the arena, a band that Vicky also wanted to see. This doesn’t happen very often, us wanting to see the same band, so I offered to take her. “She can come with me and my friends,” I told Danny. “I’ll keep an eye.”
“It’s not that we don’t trust
Kyle,” Uncle Danny said. “It’s just that Amanda and I don’t want Vicky exposed to that sort of influence.”
“I see what you’re saying,” I said, “but if she already knows the music well enough to want to go to the concert—”
“Kyle,” Uncle Danny said.
I had a better time without her, I’m sure, just getting fucked up and enjoying myself, but afterward I told her that I had tried for her, and gave her a shirt from the concert. I told her if her parents ever asked to say that one of her friends had gotten it for her. But her shirts, to her parents, are just shirts, vaguely offensive but not worth confiscating. They wouldn’t know any one of those bands from any other even if they did bother to read the names, always ornate silver script on black, some red-filtered cluster of sullen, long-haired guys.
“Try it on,” I said to her.
“Okay,” she said, but then did nothing, only stared, as if waiting for something.
“Just face away from me,” I said, “if that’s what’s bothering you,” and noticed a little Orion’s belt of pimples on the blade of one naked shoulder as she changed.
“You’re not even going to name your price,” Uncle Danny says.
I say, “I’m sure whatever you decide on will be fair. Besides, this isn’t business, it’s family.”
“Good,” Danny says. “That’s good. You’re a good kid, Kyle.” He reaches into his pocket and takes out two keys on a ring. The fob is a little clown head with red circles for cheeks and a cone hat and it squeaks when I squeeze it.
Back in the house, over oven-warmed supermarket apple pie and bright yellow vanilla ice cream, Aunt Amanda talks about her appointment tomorrow. It won’t be bad, and any
way it ought to be a quick visit, right? Everyone agrees. A few weeks ago she went in for a test, and Danny was grim-faced and Vicky went out of her way to be good. Tomorrow she goes for her results.
I ask Vicky how school is going. She begins telling about some especially unreasonable teacher of an otherwise enjoyable subject, then turns to Amanda. “I’m really sorry, Mom.” Her doe eyes are defined by the mascara she used to hide in her bag and put on at school, but which Amanda has only recently convinced Danny is not inappropriate for a young lady. He still says she looks painted, but he’s dropped any pretence of action. She is radiant, almost crying.
Desperate for another subject, Amanda asks me how
school is going, and I try to explain the concept of negative capability until she seems satisfied. I am pushing through the course with a solid C, which could even become a B if I ace the midterm, and in my heart I am not a student in junior college anyway. In my heart I have already left this miserable town behind for a place and future so bright with promise I cannot look directly upon it, which is maybe another way of saying that, though in my heart I am already gone, am calling my mother on her birthday or sending a Christmas gift to Vicky, I don’t know where I’ll go or how to get there.
When Vicky asks to be excused from the table, Danny says he will come by her room in a bit to check her homework. Toward the end of the last school year she slacked off and was not on the honor roll during the final quarter. She was grounded for the whole first month of her vacation. I told
Danny, privately, that I thought he was being too harsh. “It’s the summer,” I said, “and she’s just a kid. My mom never grounded me for my grades.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s right.”
“Danny, he’s still crying in there,” Amanda says, after Vicky is gone. “And do you hear that? It sounds like he’s slamming himself into the door.”
“Okay, but it’s your job to keep an eye on him. I don’t work all day to spend my nights cleaning up cat puke.”
“None of us does,” Amanda says, so quietly I’m not sure I really hear her, so maybe Danny doesn’t. Or, maybe, he’s letting this one go.
Amanda opens the door to let Buckles out, but he just stands there, looks up at her, and mewls. She sees the cut on his nose, smeary pinheads of cat blood on the back of the door. She starts to cry. There is vomit in the sink and in the bathtub. She scoops him up and cradles him, buries her face in his belly fur. She is sobbing and Buckles, declawed, is pawing at her hair.
I touch Amanda on the shoulder, then the back. How warm she is, beneath her dress, how feverish and soft. In a flash that passes so quickly it might not have happened, I imagine her kissing Uncle Danny, in their bed, with a woman’s passion. Has he ever been able to equal her?
“Let me,” I say, meaning clean up the vomit.
As I am getting into my car, Danny, who has walked me out, says, “Kyle.” Even though he is the closest I have ever had to a father, there is always something formal in the way he says my name. His inflection is a horizon. It is a wall. He hands me some folded bills; I pocket them without looking. “So,” he says, “I suppose we’ll see you in a week.”
Around the corner, idling at a stop sign, I see that Danny has given me two twenties and a ten, and I have to remind myself that my uncle has always been unselfish about money, from diapers to baseball gloves, and dinner once a week for how long? Things must be truly tight for Danny and Amanda now. I wonder if their situation is precarious enough to be undone by something like another vet bill and, if so, what that means if Amanda turns out to be not okay. It must be this, and not the vomit, that led to his decision. But why isn’t he taking care of it himself? Either things are so bad at his office that he can’t skip out for a long lunch, or else he wants to be able to tell his family he doesn’t know what happened, and not be lying.
“Man, my uncle is one crazy motherfucker,” I tell Tyler. We’re having beers at McCarren’s because Sara’s working so they’re on the house. “You won’t believe what he’s got me doing.”
Sara’s over at the taps, waiting for a Guinness to settle so she can finish the pour.
I tell him.
“Shit,” he says. “You think you’ll be able to?”
There are some old timers at the far end. Lifers, Sara calls them. Sometimes I laugh hard at this and other times it makes me afraid.
“Hey, business is business.”
“So, what’d he give you?” Tyler asks.
“Four hundred,” I say.
Sara fumbles the keys out of her purse and then sets about negotiating one, the wrong one, into the lock. She tries another and that one works.
“I could use another drink,” she says. She only had a few before closing, and then one while she cleaned up. I say I’ll have one too and she eyes me, deciding whether to start in on the question of if I need another. I don’t, probably, no, I know I don’t, but if she doesn’t start in—she doesn’t—I will have what I want, which is different from what I need: what a surprise. She gets the vodka out of the freezer and I go for glasses, find some coffee mugs first, decide that these are good enough. Sara cuts hers with some grapefruit juice and we clink but don’t toast anything. We move to the living room, sit in the ambient glow from the kitchen.
“It’s almost not enough anymore,” she says, breaking the silence. Should I ask what “it” is? No, that’s clear enough. She rattles the ice in her mug. “Typical,” she says, meaning my not answering, so I say, “I have to kill my uncle’s cat tomorrow.”
Neither of us is saying what the other wants to hear.
The first time I saw Sara naked we were teenagers. She had small high breasts and I came in my pants when she rubbed against me. Sometimes when we are being cute with each other she reminds me of that, and I remind her that I got another hard-on a few minutes later, which she went to
on, I always say, laughing, and we both laugh, and I tell her she’s still got it and she tells me to prove it to her and then I do. We date and we break up and date, and there have been others, for both of us, sometimes when there shouldn’t have been, but as the years have moved our old friends away, married them off, or put them in their graves, our rediscoveries of each other have lasted longer and longer. Right now, finally, temporarily, again, we are everything to each other.
When I enter the bedroom she’s on her side, facing away from the door, covers up under her armpit, and, as I can see from how she’s breathing, still awake. I take off my shoes and slip my watch and wallet into them. I take my jeans off. I approach her side of the bed instead of my own. I take her hand and pull at her. She slides her legs from beneath the bedclothes, lets me stand her up and turn her toward me so we are face-to-face. She is wearing only an old pair of white underwear, faded from a thousand washings and thin. Her pubic hair presses against the fabric; it looks like a topographic map, perhaps a map of us, if we, this, could be less a thing than a place. I touch her speckled shoulders, graze my fingers down her fleshy upper arms, the light hairs of her forearms, the backs of her hands, until our fingers touch: tips to tips. I lean in to kiss her. We kiss.
I get to Danny’s in the early afternoon, later than he said to come, but it was a rough morning. We went out to breakfast, didn’t talk much, then Sara dropped me off at McCarren’s so I could get my car.
“I’ll call you,” I said.
“No you won’t,” she said. “You’ll just show up here.”
I let myself into the house. Buckles is sprawled, asleep, on an arm chair, the cut on his nose scabbed over, taking in the full afternoon light that sets the fringes of his fur aglow, as if haloed already. He stirs when I take him up into my arms but does not try to get away. I hold him close, as I saw Amanda do, flip the push lock on the sliding glass door, and stand fixed a moment, appreciating the stillness of the yard, a ghost of breeze barely troubling the surface of the lake and the blue, blue pool. I step toward the edge of the water and kneel down, the stippled aggregate pressing into my knees through my jeans. I can feel the little red marks it is imprinting. I slide one hand as gently as I can around the cat’s neck and start to strangle him at the same time that I plunge him under.
It takes maybe a minute. I hold him down another minute to be sure, and then I am sure. As a final act of either defiance or submission, he has pissed in my uncle Danny’s pool. I watch the yellowish cloud dissipate, consider pulling the chlorine bobber over the spot, then think to myself, enough already.
I bring Buckles back inside and lay him down in the guest bathroom shower. I wonder if his being locked in here most of yesterday was even why he was so docile—poor, fucked animal; exhausted, ready. I decide I should check around for any final piles of vomit, to really do this right, and find one in the living room, which I clean up with a tissue and toss out in the kitchen garbage. When I’m done, I’ll put the cat in there too, put in a fresh bag, and take the full one with me, bring it to the dump or something. I check the kitchen, the dining room, the hall. The door to Amanda and Danny’s room is closed, but Vicky’s is open.