The Train

The lights all go out, one by one.

He flips a switch and there’s a pop and a blue spark and then nothing.

The lights are going out, he tells Robert over the phone.

“Like flickering?”

“No. Like out.”

“Did you pay the bill, dad?”

His son sighs on the other end of the phone.

“I pay the goddamn bill. It’s just the lights are going out.”

“You change the bulbs?”

Bulbs, Raymond mutters to himself. He hangs up on his son and thinks about the new thing that lives in his apartment. Hidden. All the things he had to locate after Rosemary lost her mind. The checkbook. The vacuum for the building. He was supposed to vacuum the hallways since she couldn’t. He couldn’t find the key. And then when he found the key he couldn’t find the utility closet. What floor was it on? Was he supposed to try every goddamn door in the building until he found one with a vacuum in it? They can vacuum up their own damn hallways, he told her. Even though she wasn’t there. Even though she had been in the hospital three weeks. He said it to her anyway. Her in a hospital bed. Him on the fifth floor, his key in the last door. He was angrier later on, the anxiety of something undone hanging over his head. Was it just those hallways? What about the hallways inside the apartments? Was he supposed to vacuum those too?

When he looks for the bulbs he doesn’t find them.

He finds the picture though, with his wife and the girl he doesn’t know, the man he might know.

He sits on the floor in the living room, in front of the TV, covers bodies with his right thumb, so that just his wife is there in the picture. In the background is the curve of Lake Harriet, the peaks of the band-shell to the east just visible through the gauzy trees. She’s not smiling. She looks worried, her gaze aimed beyond the picture. He knows this look: the first time he lost a job, the time she told him she was pregnant.

Robert shifts his thumbs so that Rosemary is covered and the man and the girl remain. They are around now, people like them, in the building. Some upstairs. Some downstairs. He won’t call them the bad word, but it’s fair to say they’re both black, right? He hears that word all the time. The girl is skinny, stick legs and a yellow coat. Her hair straw colored, almost blonde. She’s young. Maybe eight. The man is slender, too. He stares into the camera, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. His eyes take up the picture, shamelessly, and Robert’s face reddens a bit, scrutinizing the man, while the man scrutinizes him, too.

In the background is the curve of Lake Harriet, the peaks of the band-shell to the east just visible through the gauzy trees. She’s not smiling. She looks worried, her gaze aimed beyond the picture.

It’s the vest that’s familiar, then the face, or the inside of the vest at least. Rosemary wore one for years, just like it. You wore one whether you were a box boy or stacked fruit or ran one of the registers. A vest from Kucharski’s turned inside out. But Robert can still make out the green and white stripes that extend to the interior stitching as if Saint Patrick ’s Day were exploding at the edges of the man’s chest, under his arms, around his neck.

This man stood at his door once, years and years ago, begged his pardon for interrupting dinner. Robert leans back against the living room wall and looks for the black man in front of him, the visitor projected faintly against the inside of eyelids. Black pants, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Robert’s eyes swing over the bottom of the name tag, searching for the stitched lettering, but the name isn’t there. Who needed the name when the man had apologized, when the vest was the right color, the demeanor acceptable. You pay attention to one thing and then it turns out the next is important, that the first thing wasn’t important at all. His eyes “shimmied” over people. She had accused him of this once as she washed dishes. Some forgotten detail, something about someone. “You’re just getting worked up,” he told her. “Like this,” she said, “shimmy,” and she pulled her soapy hand from the sink and let it flash across the back of his. He’d tried to grab it but it was gone, thrust back into the oily lemon water. She remembered everything. Where the light bulbs were.

He takes two more of Rosemary’s Memantine, shakes them onto the floor where he’s sitting and swallows them dry. Memory pills. Coat-hangers for the latch on his brain. Just over the lip of the window down into the lock of the car. He’ll snag the memory back, the name of the vested, name-tagged man.

He’d like to turn off the TV so that the lights won’t shine through to his eyes. The dark room makes the TV brighter, everything flash-bathed in the shifting colors of the evening news. The remote is out of batteries and so he’s stuck on yesterday morning’s volume. The kind that sounds good in sunlight, with the smell of coffee, but makes the neighbors complain. Somewhere on the slick box is a panel. Something he should push or pull, a skinny piece of plastic that hides all the buttons that make it work. The periphery of the TV is covered in oily prints. Aged prints. Circles that laze on the pads of his fingers, misshapen and tired.

On days like this Minneapolis feels less like a city, manageable, navigable. There are short distances you can walk in the streets before the cold sets in. Everything breathless…

He waits for the Memantine to work. He doesn’t believe in it.

But he’ll try. For Rosemary it didn’t do a damn thing. He told the young doctor over and over again. She imagines people. Sometimes she doesn’t recognize her son. The same goddamn things out of her mouth. What can you do? He tried to explain the predicament to the kid, the goddamn kid of a doctor. The pills conduct the electricity of the brain along the quickest route. Or maybe you can understand, it’s like water running in the same ditch, the same grooves. See what I mean? Everything pours along the same ditch and what spills out is the same memories.

The doctor shook his head.

“You’ve lost me.”

“The pills are the flood. Her head is the house. Only after the flood the same things wash out.”

“Sir,” the doctor said, “Sir.”

Raymond knows he’s right though, because here in his hand is the picture. And even without his thumbs over bodies his eyes narrow in on Rosemary’s worried face. Lazy pills, he murmurs. Rosemary is an easy memory. Take me to the man. But he’s caught up in the crease across Rosemary’s forehead and her faraway look. Oncoming train in your eyes, he says. And for a moment the evening news casts shades of afternoon light across Robert’s head, piercing the thin defense of his wrinkled lids. Out of his head washes a spring afternoon. There’s a lunch counter, their young bodies perched on stools. Rosemary, he tells her: you have an oncoming train look.

“A what, she asks?”

“An oncoming train look,” he repeats. “Like this,” he says, and he turns his head sidelong down the counter, creases his brow, crosses his eyes.

He’s young and giddy with the day, the February day. There’s still snow, but something like a summer breeze too, skipping across the ice-filmed streets. On days like this Minneapolis feels less like a city, manageable, navigable. There are short distances you can walk in the streets before the cold sets in. Everything breathless — the pushing open of doors to crispness, the plunging back through more doors to warmth.

“I look like a lunatic?”

“Let me start over,” he says.

He looks past her again, creases his brow. He lets his eyes go soft and unfocused, as if he’s imagining something in the distance — hands fall open slightly on the counter.

“That’s how you look.”

“All the time?”

“Sometimes.”

He’s watching her face, the first woman that’s allowed him to watch, follow the long line of jaw, the soft expanse between wide-set eyes. Irises like rubbed wood, the kind found at bank teller stations or train depots, bits of curved and oiled warmth. He can see that she’s deciding, deciding whether or not his description is small math, meant to subtract from her.

“But I’ve got something for you,” he says, in a hurry, picturing the numbers falling away, her calculations lost.

He looks momentarily into the bag at his feet. He’s never given a confident gift, a gift he knows is right. When he bought it he was woozy with its cleverness, its insight, its potential to reveal that he paid attention to her. He saw the gift, its parts, from the street, and when he walked into the toy store it was like putting together a meal, pulling ingredients from cabinets in a hustle of inspiration. People judge meals, he thinks, but gifts are judgments too. This is for you. I noticed you need this, which means that you are lacking — and I noticed. I bought this because I love you, though. His father always told him not to be clever. Did gift giving count?

He pulls it from the bag, first the track, and places it on the counter: One curving length of model train track, two black rails, thirty-six silver cross-ties. Rosemary wipes the mustard from her thumbs and reaches for it.

The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877
(Oil on canvas, 80.33 x 98.11 cm)
BY Claude Monet
Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

Just her reaching thrills him.

“Wait, he says, grinning.”

Out comes the train, black and shiny with a V-shaped grill. Even in its smallness it tilts forward, bearing down on the lunch counter.

Rosemary lowers her head, peers into the conductor’s box and he swivels the track so that she faces it head-on.

“It’s supposed to be oncoming.”

“At me?”

He nods, sheepishly. She touches the sharp bottom of the plastic grill, assessing its danger he imagines, its potential to drive right through her if she were lashed to the tiny tracks.

“But there’s something else.”

He pulls from his shirt pocket a thin tube of glue, Atomic!, written on the side. In his head he can see the remaining gestures, the parts of the giving. Put the track on the counter. Then the train. Then the glue. Plans are new things to him. Gears that work or don’t. He thinks of batters at bat: swing, contact, follow-through. Physical. Inevitable. Complete almost from the start.

Without interruption.

But then there’s the voice behind him.

“It’s a small counter. It’s biiiiii-ssssy.”

It’s reedy, the voice, complaining. Robert doesn’t turn, but looks down at the floor, at the man’s leather shoe up on the foot rail, scuffed, the sole split like dry lips.

“We’re waiting for the check,” Rosemary tells the voice.

Robert watches her flash a smile. A gorgeous wide-mouthed, disarming smile. And he’s jealous. Worried that there’s a shortage of those smiles and that he’s lost her attention. She’s stopped touching the train, waiting for him to reach into the bag. He’s also in love with her mouth and turns to confirm how beautiful it is. Buddy, did you see that smile?

Instead Robert gets the profile. A kid, really. The acne-scarred neck and the sharp Adam’s apple. There’s shaving cream nested in his ear, pink nicks on his chin. The kid radiates impatience. Over his shirt collar. Out from his arm pits. Ammoniac, rushing.

She smiles at this man, too, and he smiles back, perspiring, sweaty. The drops are there in lush beads clinging to his hairline, too big, like tap water delivered on the tips of spoons. His Rosemary-admiring bobbing head shakes them loose…

“Get this guy a check, will yah? He’s over here building a train for Christ’s sake.”

“Lewis!”

The name booms from the cook. Shouted into the eggs. He’s got one spatula’d hand pressing a sausage patty into the sizzling grill and when he says “Lewis” the meat hisses.

“Don’t curse in my restaurant. You wanna curse, go outside.”

“We’re just waiting for the check,” Rosemary tells the cook.

She smiles at this man, too, and he smiles back, perspiring, sweaty. The drops are there in lush beads clinging to his hairline, too big, like tap water delivered on the tips of spoons. His Rosemary-admiring bobbing head shakes them loose and they cascade down to eyebrows, the survivors down to cheeks, and the one winner, the one still robust drop, nestles into the corner of the cook’s mouth where his tongue captures it.

“Disgusting,” says Lewis.

“Lewis!”

The cook rakes a forearm across his face.

“Sit, already. You wanna sit in that man’s lap? You think eggs taste better on that stool?”

There’s a smattering of laughter from the counter punctuating the din. One man flapping the leaves of his newspaper, pushing the noise away. The old lady on the far side of the counter, pink tissues clenched in her left hand, a fork and drippy fried eggs speared in the right — she’s watching now. Dinner theatre at the lunch counter. Lewis cast in the role of Lead Pip-squeak. Robert looks at the empty stool to his left and then up at Lewis, hovering. His foot is inched under the counter, too close, like he’s offering a spare appendage.

“I think she wants to know what’s next. What’s in the bag.”

Rosemary has leaned into him, her warm mouth near his ear, but it’s mixed in with the swishing of Lewis as he claims the stool. The air is acrid for a second and he worries she’ll think the smell is coming from him.

But Rosemary’s not even looking at him. She’s smiling at the lady with the tissue, who smiles back over her fork, white fragments of egg all stacked up neat and quivering. The woman gestures at them with her egg pieces, eyes watery, eyebrows arched.

Robert has an audience. He’s a man with a beautiful woman. A man playing with toys. He pierces the tip of Atomic! with a fork and the glue surges out, a clear wispy bridge of plastic between left and right hand. He’d like to spend an hour gluing cups to the counter, napkins to the wall, wait for the old woman to stop watching. Wait for Lewis to stop watching, but he reaches into the bag and pulls out the figure.

Superman.

Three inches tall.

Made of rubber over lead, the cape bright rolling yellow — caught in high winds. Robert bends the toy’s arms and legs so it charges forward, hands pressed against the glue spots on the face of the train.
Rosemary giggles, slender fingers over her mouth.

“Is it dumb?”

“Not dumb, no,” she says. “It’s lovely.”

She runs her finger over the edge of the cape. Peers into Superman’s face. The molded features are squeezed, the eyes too close together, the jaw not strong but oddly angular, a superhero with the mumps. The arm muscles bulge, pushing, pushing against the oncoming train.

Robert glances to the old lady, still watching, chewing, scraping her plate with yoke and butter soaked toast.

“Matryoshka,” Lewis says. “Mat-ry-osh-ka.”

And it’s like the old lady tastes the word in her mouth before Robert can properly hear it, tack up a plausible meaning in his mind. She smacks her lips, dentures clacking, tongue searching out the offense.

“I’m sorry?” Robert says, turning to Lewis.

“It’s a Matryoshka you’ve got there.”

Lewis snorts, waives his thin hands around at the restaurant like maybe there’s a sun setting in the diner or the walls have gone neon.

“Superman,” he says, snorting again, louder, a rattling, nasally laugh.

“I don’t get it.”

“Nope,” says Lewis, head shaking in a twitchy pendulous swing.

The cook slides a plate of scrambled eggs and toast over the counter along with a small paring knife. He keeps his thick pointer finger on the handle, pinning it down.

Lewis reaches for it, but doesn’t take it. He covers the cook’s hand, like he’s consoling the big man.

“Stop bothering people,” the cook tells him.

“Sure.”

“And I want this back. No hiding it. No keeping it for tomorrow. Got it?”

He knows that out of this weird moment he’ll get a wide-eyed look from her, that they’ll be co-witnesses, re-tellers of an odd story to common friends they’ll eventually have. One day in another diner, he’ll slide her a spoon and she’ll cup his hand. Maybe it’s how they’ll always hand things to each other.

Lewis nods, his eyes darting over the periphery of his plate, one hand still cupping the cook’s hand, the cook’s finger still pinning the knife.

Robert feels Rosemary poking his thigh, but he wants to watch what she’s watching: the cook pulling his finger out from the hand of Lewis, Lewis pressing down so as not to reveal the knife. He knows that out of this weird moment he’ll get a wide-eyed look from her, that they’ll be co-witnesses, re-tellers of an odd story to common friends they’ll eventually have. One day in another diner, he’ll slide her a spoon and she’ll cup his hand. Maybe it’s how they’ll always hand things to each other.

He looks at Rosemary and she’s grinning, eyes flashing in conspiracy.

“Stop bothering people,” Lewis says to himself, the voice stern, deeper, a perfect mimic of the cook. It’s followed by motherly despair, a woman’s voice an octave higher, full of accommodation and pleading: “Oh Lewis. Your eggs, Lewis. They’re getting cold.”

Robert turns back in time to see Lewis grimacing in response, chastised by his own make-believe. He feels the tip of Rosemary’s finger fall away from his side.

Lewis pushes scrambled eggs up onto the face of his toast, spreads them around evenly across two pieces, then squeezes three lines of ketchup from top to bottom. Robert watches him move the knife from left hand to right hand, hidden, pushed underneath the lip of the plate. He palms it with his thumb, rocking his hand over the toast until one piece is two, two pieces three. Six evenly divided eggy fingers, the plate beneath free of crumbs, egg smearings, red streaks.

Lewis leans back, contentedly, and sighs, his eyes shifting between Robert and the plate.

“You’ll never know how I do it,” he says.

“What?”

“This,” he says, his hands floating over the plate, making circular motions over the plate.

“Magic,” Robert tells him flatly.

Lewis seems to like this idea, bobs his head up and down, grinning. Could be magic. He makes chopping motions over the plate. Chop. Chop. Chop.

Rain, Steam, and Speed
The Great Western Railway
, 1844
(Oil on canvas, 91 × 121.8 cm)
BY Joseph Mallord William Turner
National Gallery of Art

With all of Lewis’s chopping, the ammonia smell is there again, mixed in with bacon and soap. Robert remembers when he got his body under control, nineteen, twenty maybe. No more sweating when he didn’t mean it, no more funny odors from places he’d forgotten to clean. Now he has foot powder that he pours into his winter boots, after shave that is “bracing.” The kid is dragging him back into adolescence. He feels like the train will become a toy any minute instead of anything meaningful — that Rosemary might reach out and grab it, coo at him: choo-choo.

“I think it’s pretty obvious,” he tells the kid.

“What?”

“How you do it.”

“Nope, nope. Not obvious,” Lewis smiles.

“With a sharp knife, the little one,” Robert tells him, reaching out to nudge the plate. There’s nothing there, the expected clank of metal against china. He pushes the plate north, this time, instead of west, and still no clank.

“There’s no knife,” Lewis says, happily.

“I watched you cut the toast.”

“Nope.”

There’s the satisfying clink of fingernail against glass, then glass against metal. The knife falls out from behind its orange juice blind and rattles against the formica counter.

Lewis pops one of the egg fingers into his mouth, chewing, smiling recklessly so that food is near spilling out of the upturned corners. Is he sitting on it? Hiding it in his pockets? Robert thinks the kid’s hands have been out in front the whole time. Rosemary pokes him in the ribs once more and when he turns she has scooted one stool down, gestures for him to move over to her. He nods and holds one finger up, winks, like he and the kid are just finishing some juicy conversation.

Lewis is chewing and watching. Watching Robert out of the corner of his right eye. Grinning — what Robert often thinks of as a shit-eating grin, the kind people send you indirectly — they’re laughing at you, but not in your face — maybe barely holding in a gut laugh while staring into the eyes of another near-laugher.

It’s impolite to touch strangers, definitely there’s no excuse when you’re an adult, but if it were just him and Lewis, he might start patting the guy down. Instead he just stares at the old lady, who’s staring at Lewis. Lewis’s orderly plate. Lewis’s cup of coffee. Lewis’s tall glass of untouched orange juice, the juice so plentiful that it nearly crests the glass, begging for the kind of sip that requires you to drink from it with no hands, just lips.

Robert reaches out for the glass and the woman breaks a smile, the loose grinding of her dentures coming to a halt. He reaches out and Lewis the knife magician says to him “No, please don’t.” He’s polite, almost desperate, his hands offering a fluttering defense that want to wave Robert off rather than make contact. Robert doesn’t so much move it as flick it with his finger. There’s the satisfying clink of fingernail against glass, then glass against metal. The knife falls out from behind its orange juice blind and rattles against the formica counter. A soldier falling from behind a tree. “Please,” says Lewis, again.

“There,” says Robert, and he scoots over to the next stool, leans into Rosemary just a bit too much.

“What are you doing with him?”

“Nothing.”

“He might be simple.”

Robert looks over at Lewis to confirm a hang-dog expression, just a small defeat in the kid’s face. Instead the face is mottled red, head bent. All the blood in his body seems to have pooled above his shirt collar, in his neck, in his cheeks. Lewis leans forward and sips from the juice, his eyes darting back and forth over the horizon of the glass, like some pinched-face woodland animal come out at night to drink.

“I know maybe it seems clever,” Robert tells her, turning back.

Something about Lewis’ obviousness, his snap-the-finger penny-up-the-sleeve show has got Robert thinking. Maybe he should discount the gift. Let the air out of it. There it is, pulled out of the bag and constructed in front of her, glued even, but he can pretend that it’s not anything more than what it is, a Superman stopping a train. No Robert implied.

“I’ll write it out for you,” he hears him say, and Lewis is there on the stool next to him, his neatly arranged plate setting one seat down.

“I’ll write it out for you and you’ll see what I mean.”

“But we’re leaving,” says Rosemary.

Lewis is leaning in towards them as if the three are neighbors come across each other at the lunch counter. He writes out huge block letters on a napkin:

M-A-T-R-Y-O-S-H-K-A. “There,” he says, and slides it in front of them.

“I don’t speak whatever language this is,” Robert tells him.

“Sure you do, sure you do,” says Lewis, shit-grinning, again.

“I don’t.”

“I’ll make it easy for you.”

Lewis pulls out a napkin from the dispenser and draws a squat little figure, oval mostly, with thick hands flat against its sides. It looks to Robert like a cross between a penguin and a fat woman. Inside it he draws a smaller figure, the same woman, and another one inside of that, each line fainter than the next, each figure nested inside the next.

“Matryoshka,” says Lewis, leaning back from the napkin Babushka dolls.

“I don’t get it.”

Lewis sighs, grabs the napkin and crumples it. He takes another napkin from the dispenser, unfolds it in front of him. Robert turns to Rosemary and sees that she’s counting out money onto the counter. A few dollars, nickels and quarters.

“Let me pay,” he tells her.

“Can we go?”

“Wait,” says Lewis, “you’ll like this. It’s for both of you.”

On the napkin he’s drawing another figure, a series of intersecting rectangles and squares. Long thin rectangles for the arms and legs, a rectangle for the torso. The shapes remind Robert of the ads in the back of old comic books — learn to draw by mail. He watches Lewis grimacing over the figure and pictures him waiting by the mailbox in the summer for a new lesson, other boys passing by on their dusty bikes. The figure emerges quickly, a blocky superman pushing against an invisible wall, head turned away from the imagined impact. He has a cluster of circles for biceps, a jawbone rigid and square.

“That’s nice,” says Rosemary. “It’s a nice drawing. You did it quickly, too.”

“It’s for him,” Lewis says, his voice pitched and complaining.

“Okay.” She’s frowning. “I just thought you said it was for both of us.”

“It’s for you,” Lewis says, smiling into Robert’s face. “A superman for superman, right? A superman within a superman. Matryoshka.”

The figure emerges quickly,
a blocky superman pushing against an invisible wall, head turned away from the imagined impact. He has
a cluster of circles for biceps,
a jawbone rigid and square.

Lewis’s eyes begin darting again, and it’s the first time Robert has looked directly at the kid, noticed that one eye drifts vaguely to the left. Robert has the sense that each is doing double work, the right watching him, the left Rosemary.

“I still don’t see what you mean.”

“You’re clever, right Robert?” Lewis reaches past him for the train and track and figure, slides it front and center between the two men, his right eye trained on Robert. Robert recognizes the gesture with irritation, the way a bigger, older kid might drive his finger into half a tunafish sandwich and drag it over to his side of the cafeteria table, Robert’s harpooned, pilfered lunch, disappearing down the throat of some fourteen year old with newfound assuredness. Lewis is shifting in front of him, unreadable. A minute ago embarrassed and in retreat, now looking straight at him with his one steady eye. Only Robert’s not twelve and small. The grown man Robert begins to pull the train back, but there’s Lewis’s motherly, coddling voice: “Just let me show you,” he pleads loudly, beyond their two stools, over the heads of the other eaters. The cook turns from the grill.

He’s eaten here so many times, the Box Car Diner. How many times with Rosemary? The outside of the diner is even painted like a train, wheels painted on, a bent piece of v-shaped sheet metal like a train’s pilot tacked onto the eastern wall.

Lewis takes his drawing and drapes the Man of Steel over two napkin dispensers, holds it down with a pepper shaker so that it reveals itself like a parade banner down a department store building. There’s Robert’s superman in bright vivid colors, the blue legs, the yellow cape. And then there’s the ghostly superman, blocky in dimensions, somehow furious, angular jaw and resisting hands pressing against nothing. Robert thinks of this young man sitting alone in a rooming-house, drawing incomplete pictures. His thought is half-formed, emerging. Dog-smart, his father would have called it, something you know but can’t explain. But at the tip of his mind he knows he’s proud he had the entire idea: superman, train, track.

“Matryoshka,” Lewis says, and pulls a menu from between the ketchup and mustard bottles. He flips it over and lays it lengthwise against the napkin dispensers so that its laminated border touches the edge of the napkin. There on the flip-side of the menu, back to back with pancakes and eggs and coffee is another train. A Northern Pacific engine photograph in sooty black. Lewis’s drawing is scaled to perfect size, his superman hands pushing back against the train’s massive grill. Rosemary exhales lightly, but audibly. He looks at her still face, resigned, eyebrows crooked as if to say “you should have left him alone.” He feels the heat rush in his neck, his temples, and a falling inside. Not a heart falling, but a skeletal falling, as if the embarrassment were melting the steel girders in his chest, the lag bolts holding sternum to ribs, shoulders upright.

“Clever, clever, clever,” Lewis says, giddy with Robert’s knowing. “Hey clever man?” he calls out to him, even though they are separated by no more than thighs and knees.

He’s eaten here so many times, the Box Car Diner. How many times with Rosemary? The outside of the diner is even painted like a train, wheels painted on, a bent piece of v-shaped sheet metal like a train’s pilot tacked onto the eastern wall. In the toy store he had reached over the head of the young boy eyeing the gift-train, tucked it underneath his arm as the boy watched. “You sure these arms are bendable?” he’d asked the clerk importantly, pointing to the superman, even though the packaging advertised “posable arms and legs, action ready!”

“Hey clever man?” Lewis is asking, singing almost. “Hey clever man?”

Robert is lost between the intersecting lines of Lewis’s drawing, boxes intersecting boxes. He can feel a headache coming on, its thin cramped fingers crawling up the curve where shoulders meet neck. He wonders what else he doesn’t see, fears that there’s another surprise coming, that Lewis might reach into Rosemary’s purse and pull out a picture of her and the pip-squeak kissing. Or that maybe he’ll look down and see that he’s dressed himself this morning in blue tights under red underwear. Lewis is poking him, jostling him.

“Hey clever man? Clever man?”

Robert grabs Lewis’s forearm arm and thrusts it back at him.

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

“Is it just clever, or obvious too?” Lewis smiles, a smug, radiant smile. “Clever or obvious, too? Answer me.”

“Fuck off,” Robert tells him, holding his voice low.

“Answer me, clever man, superman.” Lewis’s eyes are tight around the edges, as if he’s peering into Robert from far off. The cook’s voice is loud, tired:

“You don’t pay to eat in two places, Lewis. You done down here?”

“Tell me,” Lewis demands, ignoring the question.

“Tell you what?”

“Clever or obvious? Clever or obvious?”

Both, Robert thinks to himself, the ache in his head crawling up behind his eyes. He’s gonna walk out of the diner into the cold and there will be a breeze on his face to cool him. He’ll find some way to talk about this date that puts it to rest, puts it away. He’ll figure it out. Gifts will be straightforward: roses, cards with plain notes of appreciation. He blinks a long blink, an aching invisible tar on his lids, and when he opens them Lewis is leaning even closer, murmuring, each syllable rising. Tell me, he’s saying. Tell me, tell me, tell me,tellme tellmetellme.

The cook is clearing Lewis’s plates. He looks up at Lewis’s chanting.

“You’re done eating. Go home.”

Lewis ignores the order, pressing Robert for the answer. Tell me, he chants, standing as Robert stands, the two of them, bodies pressed between opposing stools.

“Where’d you put it?” the cook shouts, moving around dishes.

“Tell me, superman, tell me”

“Where’d you put it?” The cook shouts again.

“Lewis, where’d you put it?” the kid mimics, his voice deepening. “Where’d you put it? Where’d you put it?”

Robert feels only the cold jangling of fear, as if he were the nested figures the kid drew, rattling back and forth inside each other, six or seven hopeless and contained urges to flee. He can’t see Lewis’s hands…

Robert tries to step past him but Lewis leans in closer.

“Where’d I put it, Robert, huh?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The knife,” Lewis says evenly, the chant falling away. “Where’s the knife, clever, super, man?”

Robert feels only the cold jangling of fear, as if he were the nested figures the kid drew, rattling back and forth inside each other, six or seven hopeless and contained urges to flee. He can’t see Lewis’s hands now that their bodies are so close. He thinks about falling back into Rosemary but then maybe the kid would be on top of them and Robert would have just trapped her there. Lewis can hear the cook demanding the knife, his voice carrying over the heads of all the diners, where’s the knife, while Lewis carries the intimate notes between them, same song, same lyrics run blurry at double speed: Where’s the knife?

Lewis, he hears her say. Lewis, over his right shoulder, past his ear. Rosemary repeats the kid’s name over and over, so firmly, so softly that Lewis turns his one straight eye over Robert’s shoulder. Robert watches the kid’s other eye drift over too, lazily, like a tag-along friend crossing the street to meet a girl. Lewis, she says, look, and Robert wonders to himself how many times Lewis’s name has been called in this fashion by a woman. He follows the kid’s gaze down to the counter where her slender fingers take up the Superman by the waist. She makes a whooshing sound as she does it, pushing the train back a few inches on the track and then slowly raising both train and man into the air. Lewis’s mouth goes o-shaped, near slack. Over his shoulder Robert watches the cook dip his stubby fingers into an old man’s full glass of orange juice. “Hey,” the man cries out in surprise as the knife emerges, pulpy and small. But Lewis misses the end of his bluff, his mouth slack and soft, still watching Rosemary fly the train.

EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL Palace

HEADER IMAGE: Minneapolis Skyline, c. 1912
(Gelatin silver print, 8 x 48.5 in)
BY C.J. Hibbard
Library of Congress

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