People from the halfway house come into the store. One guy in particular. I think his name is Richard. He never buys books.
“I came in with this,” he says, raises a paperback like Moses with the commandments.
Richard thinks he’s funny. He’s funnier than the other methadone addicts, who aren’t even a little funny. The house is truly halfway: five blocks east to landscaped lawns, five west to boarded-up brownstones. People say they like this city’s slippery thresholds, the way the neighborhoods bleed into one another. Those who say they like it live far from the bleeding.
I say, “You.”
“This guy,” he says.
“You,” I say.
“I never buy books. Don’t know why I’m always coming in here.”
“For the conversation?”
“What conversation?” he says, which makes me sad.
Molly and I are a thing again. That’s what my sister calls it. A thing. Sounds like some kind of swamp monster. All it means is I’m back to bringing Molly home for holidays.
Molly doesn’t like that I’m always almost asleep. I don’t like being woken.
“Are you? . . .”
“I’ll keep watching.”
“I don’t want to watch if you’re asleep.”
How to explain the peace I get, TV on, this drift, curled into armpit?
“Don’t leave me alone,” she says.
There are other things Molly doesn’t like about me.
Her roommate Chandra goes by Chan, pronounced Sean. Sexy, considering:
Sean swigs bottled beer, says, “ah,” ashes into teacups. You aren’t supposed to smoke in the living room. I’m not supposed to smoke ever.
“Women,” Sean says.
“Bitches,” Sean says.
Richard’s indented the leather recliner. He’s in the indentation, eyes closed.
“I’m not asleep,” he says. “I hear every word you’re saying.”
“What am I saying?”
“I know even if you’re not saying it. You’re thinking it.”
One thing Molly doesn’t like is the six months we weren’t a thing. More specifically, she doesn’t like the other almost-thing I was involved in. More specifically, she doesn’t like Janine.
I meet Sean at Boat, a bar decorated in boat corpses. Sean likes the word pussy. She talks about getting it, then describes some she’s seen. The ones she describes don’t sound like any I’ve encountered.
My cell’s upset with texts. My head’s on the table. Before I know it Sean’s pulling my bicep—sneaking a comparative assessment—directing me through traffic to Molly’s bed.
“What did I say?” I say.
When I wake, Molly’s hooked in with headphones, watching murder on her laptop.
I write a note, forget the spelling. SEAN—HAVE YOU SEEN MY WALLET?
All these books are an avalanche in waiting. I want to pile them, climb, collapse, settle among the debris. Most of the time I just want to sit down, which isn’t allowed. It’s not that the job makes me tired so much as it never forces me into full cognition. Richard thinks he’s psychic.
“I can tell what everyone’s thinking about me.”
“There’s some old umbrellas out back,” I say, because Richard’s shirt is soaked.
Saturated. My sweat smells like coffee. Molly says, “What kind of person names their kid Janine?”
Because Janine was in the bodega, bending for our benefit. But it’s more than that: Janine’s an easy name for an emptiness we can’t articulate.
“David Bowie fans?”
“I wasn’t asking,” she says. The awning isn’t enough. Rain falls on our outstretched feet.
“Break’s over,” I say, cheek-peck, stand, turn, barrel into halogen, situate. Molly walks away, wet. Janine had Molly in the ergonomics department but was mostly a mess. She said it felt metallic, like I was infusing her with lead.
My wallet appears in the lost and found, still empty of money. Note taped to it says, “Thanks for nothing.” When it feels like I’m about to fall over I pluck chest hairs. Customers can’t believe we don’t have what will fix their lives.
“It’s been out of print since ’86,” I say.
“But this is a bookstore.”
April ends at night. The barking dogs have started being beautiful again. Molly has her thumb and index around the base of my neck, stroking. I say, “shit,” meaning, “I’m awake.”
Because: The frequency with which she reaches under my shirt, circles my nipples with the bitten ends of fingernails. The way she says the word orange like it’s two words, “or unge?” The way she slices them into slim eighths, sucks the skins. Looks like she’s wearing a mouth-guard. The way she still blushes when I look at her breasts.
Rain returns, May begins, we’re running.
Collapse into shower, bumping bone, bruising, singing (sort of). I want to rise out of my asshole self, become some sweet specter, line Molly’s insides. The closest we come to saying I love you is, “Baby that feels good.”
Another time, to test him, I say, “What am I thinking right now?”
“You’re thinking I wish this boobjob would get out of my store.”
Richard’s head is sparsely populated with hair like fish skin, silverish. The way hair gets before it gets going. I’m noticing new features on him always. Maybe it’s the program working, buffing, bringing out his shine.
“Used to be my job, anyway.”
I will hug Richard if he ever stops smelling like fish.
Janine kept me awake by making me wonder where she was.
Sean’s girlfriend’s skin’s so pink I want to twist her wrist, hear her howl. The state of California’s inked into her arm. A reminder of home or the expression of a mindset. Sean and I stop going to Boat Bar. Sean and Alice stand in the kitchen linked, ashing in the sink, elbowing each other in their taped-down tits, dimple-grinning, perched over our lifestyle, some advanced species of lover. Molly writes “Molly” on her carton of soy milk.
Other guys from the halfway house come in, women too. Haircuts from the wrong decade. Like one decade off from the one in fashion. They’re careful not to bend the pages. Everyone wants the same book about the 2012 apocalypse. That or chess strategy.
“Where’s Richard?” I ask. “Has anyone seen Richard?”
No one knows who I’m talking about.
“You and your Mayans,” I say to no one.
Molly still says it feels good, but spring is short and summer snakes up, sticks out its tongue, turns down our volume. We listen to Sean smacking Alice, saying, “yeah,” saying, “you lying bitch,” saying, “Jesus, baby, Jesus.” Alice yells, “Tell me,” at what might be the moment of climax. When Alice’s head hits hardwood Molly calls. Cops arrive, chub-cheeked, straight from a paperback, pull everyone apart. I’m the only one not crying. I feel like the culprit. The stain looks like a lost continent. Two hours later it’s hard to tell who’s doing what to whom, or if it’s in the right spirit until someone says, “I think I’m gonna.”
“How can you sleep?” Molly says, turns the TV up.
With us it’s different. We check email immediately after.
Business is moderate, which seems like a miracle to everyone but the owners. A customer tells me coffee stops working after a while. Molly stops meeting me on my lunch breaks.
But one night: Me, Molly, Sean on the roof. Hitting beer cans with a wiffle bat. “Bottom of the ninth,” I say, meaning, “Sometimes we come so close.”
The problem is the space between what we want to feel and what we’ve come to expect from certain situations. Sometimes I think that space is what it means to be an adult.
Then, desperate to dry, Molly pulls on a Janine-dress found in my closet, beige cotton, floral print, scoop neck. “My sister must have left it,” I say. And try to smell something foreign as she climbs atop me.
Dress back up. For a moment it’s a lampshade; her head the hidden bulb, body a decorative base.
Meanwhile, Alice is out, Erica’s in, Sean has started a band, Clit Pincher. The logo is a lobster claw. Their only song: “Alice.”
Molly’s mom keeps asking Molly if she’s happy. Molly keeps asking me what she should tell her mom. I say, “Baby, I’m tired. Can we talk in the morning?”
Richard isn’t dead, but he has found Jesus. He’s hawking crosses by the corner of Court and Pacific.
“What you think is the bleak shit,” he tells me, “isn’t always the bleak shit.”
Eventually it’s cold again. Restraining orders expire. Alice returns, sings her usual. They start slow, so I imagine, work themselves over each other, into each other, up to speed.
“Tell me! Tell me, Sean!”
We all await a response.
# # #
Adam Wilson is the author of two books, Flatscreen: A Novel, and What’s Important Is Feeling: Stories. A recipient of The Paris Review‘s Terry Southern Prize for Humor, he was recently named to Brooklyn Magazine‘s list of 50 Funniest People In Brooklyn.
“Tell Me” was originally published in The Lives of the Saints (TLR Fall/Winter 2011)