In late spring, Darla said that she was pregnant. Hermann knew that the baby wasn’t his, couldn’t be his, because she was fastidious about him always using a condom. She made him take it off in the bathroom when he had pulled out of her, watched him tie the knot in the end of it, and place it in the trash can like someone supervising a child in cleaning their teeth. Darla had stern gray eyes that sometimes went soft and loving when they fucked, and she’d circle her arms around his neck and breathe against his ear and say You’re such a good boy, you’re such a good boy, and he’d hate how good it made him feel. But when she told him that she was pregnant, he blinked several times as if concussed, thinking that there was something he was missing, but then she’d told him the whole of it, and things fell into place with a sudden, terrifying satisfaction.
“Oh,” Hermann said. “Oh.”
“It’s Fran’s,” she said with a slow nod.
“We’ve been,” she started, but then seeming to think better of it, said, “Yes.”
“Okay,” he said. “Well.”
“I’m sorry about it,” she said.
“Hey, no. It’s alright.”
“He was the only one,” Darla said. “I mean. Other than him, I didn’t.”
“Comforting,” Hermann said, but he was already standing up from their bed. He crossed their narrow room to his dresser and began to take out his clothes.
“Oh, no, you don’t have to.”
“It’s alright,” he said.
“No, I meant that I’m moving in with Fran. After I told you, I was going to move out. To be with him. For the baby.”
The word baby entered the room with an almost physical presence. It was like a loud crack of thunder. His teeth vibrated with the intensity of it. Baby.
“If that’s what you want,” he said, sitting back down.
“Yes, it’s all planned.”
“Great, then, hey, take care of yourself.”
“We will, thank you,” Darla said. She stooped by the bed and pulled a duffel from beneath it. She had already packed her things without his noticing. It seemed unfair in an ugly sort of way, that one person could withdraw from a shared life like that without the other person knowing. It made him feel lonely and small. She rose and slung the bag over her shoulder. She came around the end of the bed and stepped between his legs. It was a posture they had assumed hundreds of times. He could smell her, the alkaline animal smell of her skin. The generic floral notes of their laundry detergent. She put her arms around his neck. She kissed him. Her mouth tasted bland like soap.
“I love you,” she said. He laughed, but he felt heat behind his eyes, moisture welling up.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, and she moved away from him. She was gone, down the stairs and out the door, and then down the driveway, which was filled with a loose blue gravel. He watched her from the window, that silly duck-like walk of hers, and the subtle hunch of her shoulders. She passed under the trees at the edge of the yard, and when she was out of his sight, he felt a flash of malevolence and was aware suddenly, for the first time in his life, that he was capable of great and fearsome things.
Hermann worked downtown in a diner as a dishwasher and sometimes he filled in at the bar. He had washed out of being a waiter because he kept forgetting small details. He’d bring the diet soda but forget the lemon; he’d bring the fries but forget the aioli; he’d bring the eggs but they’d be cooked wrong; he’d bring still water instead of sparkling. It was as if graduate school had burned out his capacity for remembering things in great detail. He had just turned in his dissertation on the witch hunts of the Thirty-Years’ War, which had begun as a series of small essays on a microblogging site about the contemporary misuse and misappropriation of the term witch hunt. But the moment he handed over his thesis, his memory, which was once a powerful elastic organ, went slack and hemorrhaged.
He hefted the heavy plastic crates of dishes into and out of the washer. He rinsed away food and debris with a hydraulic hose that he braced against his shoulder and aimed down into the deep gray basin of the sink, feeling it buck and writhe like a living thing. His hands and forearms were scalded and burned from the soap and cleaning agent he used on the sink itself. The plates were slippery like teeth slick with saliva. He always sweated through his shirt because of the heat of the water and the drying phase of the washer. And his back ached from the standing and bending. But he could feel his body changing from the work of it. He filled out again through his shoulders and back, his arms grew taut with muscle and sometimes he lay awake at night watching the veins beneath his skin fill and empty with blood as his heart beat.
The back kitchen was humid like the mouth of a swampy cave, but he didn’t mind it because he had grown up in Mississippi, and the heat felt like home to him. Sometimes, he took his break with cooks from the Italian restaurant next door. Their aprons were so bright they almost glowed in the twilight. Fima always borrowed cigarettes from Pasha, who said he didn’t have enough to share, but seemed to always find one for Fima. Hermann spent the break sitting on the back stair, stretching out the knots in his back while Pasha and Fima leaned against the brick with their legs crossed at the ankles. They were in an alley, surrounded by trash and half-hearted graffiti that was its own kind of shadow language, but when Hermann looked at them, they seemed elegant, beautiful, like characters out of Proust.
Fima was studying geology. Pasha was thirty-seven, from Boston, and had come to Iowa because a cousin of his had offered him a couch to crash on. He didn’t have a reason to be anywhere, he said. Pasha was tall and thick like the trunk of an oak tree. His forearms were milky pale and covered in tattoos that Hermann couldn’t read. Fima was skinny, reed like, with coppery hair and a struggling strip of a mustache. It had taken Hermann two months to realize they were a couple. In fact, it hadn’t become obvious to him until he’d stepped out one evening and found them pressed up against one another, Fima against the wall with his legs wrapped around Pasha’s waist. They’d been laughing.
“It’s not like that,” Fima had said. “No, no come down.” He’d glimpsed Hermann trying to back away unnoticed. But it was like that, or something like it. Hermann felt shy around them, their togetherness like a thin, flexible membrane that isolated them from him, but he enjoyed spending the fifteen or so minutes of his break down on the cool step, getting the tension out of his back while they smoked and alternately talked and ignored one another.
Sometimes he wondered if he was made differently from other people, if they had something he lacked that made it possible to reach out and connect. He felt like he was always missing the tiny gaps that permitted people to touch one another. He felt as if he were standing on a platform while other people whisked by in the channel of their lives, separate from him and shielded. There were moments when he wanted to reach, to grab hold of someone and say, I’m here, I’m here, I see you, I’m here, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to because he felt he’d be torn apart by the speed at which they were moving. How was it that other people got by in the world? How was it that he alone had himself and only himself? Some nights he was so hurt by it, by his aloneness, that he wanted to throw his window open and holler into the dense, heavy night as if that might take what was in him out and set it loose into the world. But most nights, he was sick of how pitiful he was, and he got on with it.
One day in late summer, a waitress called out sick, and they were short. The kitchen manager asked Hermann if he might step in since he had already been trained as a waiter. The back kitchen was so hot that day that Herman had sweated through his shirt and pants. He could smell himself, the sharp acidic smell of his deodorant and the chalky smell of his skin, salty sweat.
“I’m not presentable,” he said, but the kitchen manager, a stocky man with a gap and dark, fierce eyes scowled.
“I swear to God,” he started to say, his voice rising, and Hermann balked.
“No, no, it’s fine, I’ll get changed. Okay.”
In the bathroom, Hermann slid out of his sweaty pants and out of his balmy clogs. He drew on some jeans and a black tee-shirt that fit him tighter now. He ran cold water into the sink and splashed it on his face, and he ran his fingers through his hair, wetting it, drawing it back. He folded his damp clothes and tucked them into a plastic sack that he stashed in the back kitchen near the door. He held his breath and stepped into the front, where the music was so loud that the patrons had to shout at each other. They were like animals, he thought, those dull-eyed animals in food farms, accustomed to their conditions, overstimulated. Hermann’s ears rang, and his stomach tightened. Panic swam woozily up through him.
His first table was easy enough. A single man, late fifties maybe. He wanted the tuna tartar and a side of quinoa salad. Hermann wrote it down with his cramped, left-handed handwriting, squinting down at his notepad, trying for all the world to remember the table number, instead settling for old man, fish paste, quinoa.
The next table had four people who ordered with the desultory staccato of people trying to give the impression of ease and authority, rehearsed spontaneity full of sputtering half-feints and changed minds, so that their orders doubled back on themselves like so many insincere apologies. There was an older man and woman, and two younger women, but they didn’t look like a family, and they all wanted different things, which made his notes messy and scratchy with strikes and additions, underlines, upcharges, arrows, minus signs. Trying to decode it to the kitchen manager made Hermann sweat. It was like his preliminary exams, a dark mirror illustrating and illuminating his own ignorance and ineptitude.
At another table, he got two drinks mixed up and spilled a third on the lap of an older woman. She was kind about it.
“It was thrilling,” she said of the slushy ice as she gripped his wrist, her nails sinking into the skin. Her eyes were muddy and moist. He felt her pull at him, and when she let him go, he saw bright blood seeping out of the channels she had cut into him.
When he looked up, Hermann saw the kitchen manager staring at him, and he knew he was in trouble. They stood in the back kitchen, Hermann twisting paper sheaths from straws in his apron pocket while the manager paced a tight, furious circuit in front of him.
“What were you thinking?” he asked. “God fucking damn. You dumped an entire margarita down her skirt.”
Steam rose out of the sink from a pile of dishes that had been recently blasted with the hose.
“It was an accident,” Hermann said. “I wasn’t trying to.”
“Yeah, well, you did, buddy, and if she asked for your head I’d cut it off myself.”
Something dark and wet like want pulsed through Hermann.
“Promises,” he said. “Promises, promises.”
The manager’s nostrils flared and he took a step toward Hermann. He lifted a knife from the counter and pressed the tip of it to Hermann’s throat. Hermann could feel the heavy metal point of it, the almost dull insistence of the knife at the base of his throat. He swallowed, felt the shifting contour of his vocal cords pressing and retreating from the blade. The manager’s breathing deepened, and Hermann saw his pupils dilate just slightly. There was also something firm pressing between them, something other than the knife, and Hermann knew without quite knowing how he knew that the manager was hard, or getting hard, and he was getting hard in response, and there between them, the two of their erections pressed at one another.
“Do it,” Hermann said. “If that’s what you want.”
But the manager withdrew and slammed the knife down into the sink with a loud, banging clank.
“Get out of here,” he said like he was holding on to something tight. “Get out.”
Hermann drew up straighter, and he stepped through the swinging door into the front of house, and he lifted the plates that were waiting on the counter and whisked them off to their tables like long-separated children to their parents.
For the rest of the night, when he blotted sweat with his arm, he felt the sting from the old woman’s nails, and the knife point, and each time, he felt the edge of some vast, unfathomable desire pressing up through him. It was like when he had watched Darla leave him, how the urgent and sudden knowledge of one’s darker self could become before fading back, dropping away like hunters into a blind.
When he stepped out into the alley for his break, Fima was sitting on an overturned crate smoking and picking at his fingernails. The air had a sweet smell to it, and the sky canted and tilted back and away from them like a wrinkled blue tarp lit through from the other side.
“Where’s Pasha?” he asked, coming down the stairs, trying to breathe out through the humidity and the heat.
“Dunno,” he said. The cigarette smoke hung low over them, diffused slowly down the back of the alley toward a small intersection of other alleyways. Out the other direction, the sidewalk and the open street, some large campus buildings with dark facades, inert for the moment. Fima’s white coat was open, and his sleeves were hiked back. There was a long reddish welt along his forearms, something like a scald or a bruise.
“What happened to you?”
“Dunno,” he said.
Hermann spread his heels wide and put his head down. He braced his hands against the back of his neck, wedged his thumbs against the base of his skull.
“Better question would be what happened to you?”
Hermann laughed at that, shook his head, which sloshed fluorescent floaters across his field of vision. Blood had collected behind his face. His head was fuzzy and thick. Something hot and bitter wedged itself in his throat.
“Well, that would be an excellent question if I had an answer,” he said.
He heard Fima’s feet slide across the pavement, heard a dull thud against the side of the crate.
“You ever wonder why we try so hard?” Fima asked, and Hermann looked up sharply. The bones in his neck popped and shifted. A momentary wave of nausea crashed over him.
“What do you mean?”
“I guess—we’re trying so hard, all the time. Working. For what, you know? Why.”
“For money,” Hermann said. “Why else does anyone do anything?”
“Oh, sure,” Fima said. He had leaned back, was bracing himself on the crate so that he was suspended a little above it in a plank. He held his cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, I know. That’s what’s so dreary about it.”
“That I’m serious about money? What’s so dreary about that.”
“It’s a damned dreary way to live. When will we get what we deserve?” Fima asked in a tone of bored finality that made Hermann want to jump down from the stair and choke him. He flexed his fingers around the back of his own neck instead. His palm pressed over the place where the point of the knife had dug a little into him. Hermann exhaled hotly through his nose.
“How’s the rock business?”
Fima lowered himself back to the crate. It flexed beneath his weight as if bucking for freedom. It warped and shifted slightly to one side, and Fima had to catch himself to keep from falling. His cigarette slipped from his lips, and he had to catch it, lit-end down, in his palm. He winced and flung it away from him into a pile of trash in the corner.
“What you say?”
“The rocks, how are they?”
“Fine,” Fima said, waving Hermann off. “Look, I’m not really in the mood for chat tonight.”
“You don’t say.”
“Haha,” Fima said. “Oh very funny.”
“What’s the deal then?”
Fima squinted down into his palm, and Hermann stood up from his perch. He braced himself against the railing and gazed up through the column of night trapped by the alley into the broader sky.
He should have been applying to post-docs. He should have been seeking employment beyond the dishwashing. In a way, Fima was totally and completely right. Money was a terrible organizing principle for a life. Everything rose and converged on money, like gravity flowing through a center of mass. There was little essential mystery in the world, and he imagined that this was why people went into academia in the first place. It was one of late capitalism’s more elaborate illusions. A series of interlocking fantasies predicated on increasingly obscure questions about the various states the world had passed through on its way to this moment, this world, this iteration of civilization. What did it have to do with anything? Academia, like the last word of a dying species, a prayer offered on the edge of oblivion.
This was another of those moments, he knew, looking down at Fima who had taken to gently brushing his fingers across the welt on his forearm. One of those moments when he wanted fiercely to reach out and touch someone else. To be with them in their peopleness. But he didn’t know how. Except in the way of the desperate woman digging at his wrist or in the way of the kitchen manager wanting to behead him, which was to say, violence, hurt. Pain was a bridge between people. He knew this. It was why in the last moments before Darla left him, he felt so close to her. Because she had caused him pain. Her eyes had softened and she’d looked down at him, and he’d felt it between them, alive and fierce. He had never felt so close to her as when she had hurt him. It made him hard again, to imagine it, the idea of it. Fima looked up at him, and he could feel that, too. He felt himself drawn down the stairs, one after another, until he was standing in front of Fima on the crate. Fima gazed up at him, distant, but so close. He could see the almost luminescent blue vein in his throat. It beat like a small, dear creature. Like it was alive. Hermann’s fingertips brushed under Fima’s soft hair to touch his ear, silky like the inside of a shell. Fima’s lips parted just slightly at the shock of the contact, but his face closed and grew dark. Fima undid the button of Hermann’s pants, and Hermann heard himself sigh from somewhere deep and far away. Then, the humid night air was on him, Fima’s smoke breath, and the gritty slippery warmth of his mouth. Fima kissed his stomach, and then the dark, musky bush of his public hair. Hermann jolted, shivered. Fima slid his underwear down, and Hermann felt his cock hoist up slowly under its own weight. There was the initial, terrible heat of Fima’s throat, but then they slid into something else, sweet and kind and terrifying and mean spirited. He felt Fima’s teeth graze him, and then the smooth, welcoming deeper channel of his throat opening. Hermann dug his nails into Fima’s shoulders and gritted his own teeth because the pain, like flares in the darkness of his closed eyelids, burned itself out and turned over into something else, a dull, sustaining light. When he came, it wasn’t like a feeling of release, it was like the sudden calamitous arrival of a thunderstorm, and Fima stood up, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and spat down through the crate.
He could smell himself on Fima’s breath, that and the smoke, and Fima shrugged him off. Hermann took Fima’s arm in his hand and turned it over. Fima hissed at him, but didn’t withdraw, and Hermann pressed his finger to the deep red welt winding its way from the wrist back down to the elbow.
“That’s gonna be hideous tomorrow,” he said.
“I know, I know. I wasn’t watching what I was doing.”
Hermann had been burned and scalded before. He’d woken up with blisters on his palms and on his arms and once under his eye. Yellow and so taut, like new fruit. Tender and prone to tearing. He saw suddenly how the skin would rise, and seal itself shut. How much it would hurt. It must have hurt even then. He kissed it, and Fima squirmed and pulled his arm away and said, “God, relax.”
“I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to do,” he said.
“It was,” Fima said. “But that’s how it is. Everyone does stupid things.”
“Oh yeah, like what?” Hermann asked to be a little mean because he knew very well what Fima was talking about. But Fima didn’t rise to the bait. He snapped his white shirt closed and pulled his sleeves down.
“Break’s over,” he said. He went down the alley, and Hermann stood watching him a little until he dipped into the back of the Italian restaurant. Hermann kicked the crate hard and it bounded along the pavement and crashed into the wall where it split apart and hung open.
In early August, Pasha had a cookout. Hermann recognized some of the waiters and cooks from the diner, and a few he had seen around at the Italian restaurant. Fima was not there when Hermann arrived, and he felt a little relieved at that. They had been sleeping together for a few weeks by then, but sleeping together made it sound like more than it was. It was sex of an almost passive, indirect variety. Fima sucked him off in the alley and in the stall at a bar frequented by students from the creative writing program. It seemed to be all that Fima was interested in, and he wouldn’t look at Hermann during, which Hermann thought was a point of pride. The last time, in the bar, they’d been wedged into the cramped closet of the bathroom. Fima had went to screw the bulb out so that it would be dark, but Hermann stopped him, and so Fima shrugged and dropped to his knees. And when he had Hermann in his mouth, Hermann gripped the back of his head and drew him forward sharply until he felt the cartilage of Fima’s nose butt against his pelvis. He held Fima there until Fima began to struggle a little, his throat clenching like a desperate fist. And he held Fima there until Fima’s face, red and splotchy with exertion shifted upward slightly, and he saw his eyes, wet and gleaming with fear and anger and confusion. He could feel hot panic closing around him, and it was all he wanted, for Fima to look at him, and then he let go. Fima groaned, whether from relief or pleasure, Hermann didn’t know, but he felt himself grow harder at it, at the idea that he had for a moment controlled Fima’s body and the possibility of his life ending. Fima was so tender and precious to him then, and he stroked Fima’s hair while Fima sucked at him. But that had been a few days ago, and he hadn’t seen him since, and Hermann wondered if he had done something wrong, or too much.
At the cookout, they had brats and Pasha roasted a large ancient-looking fish whose flesh was white and flaky. There was beer and whiskey. Various pickled vegetables, a borscht, and some kind of homebrew that smelled musky and sweet. Pasha had baked fresh bread and he walked around all evening wearing an apron and incredibly short shorts that showed he had tattoos on the fronts of his thighs too and along his side. He had a tattoo of a bear of clenching a salmon in its mouth. He had skulls and eagles. What looked vaguely to Hermann like a swastika. He was solicitous in a way that felt aggressive and accusatory.
You get enough? he barked.
You want? Take. He thrust trays at the guests. He pounded down the rickety wooden stairs with drinks, ice sloshing, spilling. He towered over people sitting and playing cards on planks set up on crates. He had buzzed his hair again, light blond, translucent like the filaments of a sea creature. He was getting redder by the moment, and Hermann wondered if he had put on sunscreen, but suspected that he hadn’t.
The backyard was spacious, rimmed with pine trees and some shrubs. Pasha lived on the first floor of this house. His upstairs neighbors were some grad students in the classics department who Hermann knew vaguely because they’d sometimes attended the same seminars. He didn’t trust the classics department as a rule because he always suspected that there was something racial in the way people pursued antiquity, as though they were laying the foundation for an argument that presupposed the supremacy of whiteness. But Hermann knew that this was his own bias, his own discomfort because he had spent his entire life learning about history, and he felt like a helpless bystander to most of it because the history that he had learned had excluded people like him. History in its way was the study of power, those who had it were allowed singular selves, and those who did not were rendered voiceless masses that drifted down through time like glaciers.
In Mississippi, they had learned about slavery just vaguely. Forced migrants was the term the teachers had used in high school, and then they’d talked however fleetingly about the Civil War because it was painful, a psychic wound. For a long time, when he was young, Hermann went to bed thinking about all the faceless black people of history. He’d imagine them drifting down and away from him through an ocean of cold water, through ever darkening depths until they were gone. He had more or less never stopped thinking about those people. Stripped their faces and their names, relegated not even to the margins of the historical record so much as erased from it. Black American history was a series of redactions. It’s why he studied the early Modern period of Europe. For as much as they would never know, it was possible to know enough to tell a story, or different kinds of stories. It was possible to get from the beginning to the end of something.
Someone else’s history hurt less.
But of course, there was no someone else’s history—it was all mixed up and had to do with everyone else. History for you and history for him and history for her and history for them and history for us. History was just what people called the ephemeral and fleeting mystery of the universe; sound and fury and all that.
“Here you are,” Pasha said, standing over him. Hermann looked up from his low lawn chair where he had been pushing around cold, wet slaw and onions drenched in too much mayonnaise.
“Pash,” he said.
“I have been looking for you. All night.”
“I’ve been here,” Hermann said, but Pasha was smiling.
“Take,” he said, offering Hermann a plate on which a fish’s cooked, cracked head rested.
“In Iowa it’s lucky?”
“Iowa, Belarus, Ukraine, same thing.”
Hermann took the plate gently from Pasha and rested it on the chair. Pasha stood there with his hands tucked behind his apron, drumming his convex but hard stomach.
“You are welcome,” he said. But there was something wet at the corner of his mouth, foamy white spit. “Hey, ah, hey.”
“No, no, you eat,” he said, waving in the direction of the fish head. Hermann peeled away a strip of flesh from the crusty skin and ate it. He found it sweet and ferrous, was shocked at how good it tasted.
“Oh,” he said with a little pop of surprise.
“See. Good, right?”
“Yeah,” Hermann said. “Very.” Pasha glowed with pride at this. Someone had come down the stairs and set a Bluetooth speaker in a metal bowl on an overturned bucket. They played what Hermann thought was Chopin but which might have been Satie or Ravel, something slow and almost improvised. Pasha turned to look over his shoulder as some of the people playing cards had begun to shout and disagree. Their voices were rough, cutting through the air in a way that reminded Hermann of the way his uncles had fought over dominoes on Sunday. He dug his fingers into the fat deposits under the surface of the fish skin, the places that hadn’t rendered out, and he was startled and made uneasy at how soft and yielding they were, like pudding. Pasha whistled sharply over the rising clamor from the card players.
“Eat,” he said, almost spitting really, to Hermann, and moved away, back to the bulk of the crowd. A young woman wrapped her arms around Pasha’s waist and he drew her along with him. She was tall, like Pasha, but thin with dark blonde hair and a tattoo on her shoulder which was bare. There weren’t that many women at the party, another thing that Hermann noticed, but this did not surprise him really.
He sucked his fingers clean of the grease. The fish was good, better than he had expected, and when he looked back to the fish head, he saw he had stripped a great deal of the meat from it, and what was left was a carcass more than anything. The music changed, and grew moody and sultry, then more percussive. He did not know the song. There was something vaguely Turkic moving through it. He watched as Pasha was pushed forward by the group. He was trying to get through them, but they kept linking arms and pushing forward, closer to the speaker. And he’d laugh, try to demure, but there was no getting through them. At last, he gave up, and squared his shoulders as if getting ready to run and leap into something deep and wide. He closed his eyes. Pasha wet his lips, and he began to sing in a voice that was clear and forceful. It startled Hermann, raised the hair on his forearms. He had never heard Pasha sing at all. And he had only heard him speak in Russian a few times, but here, his voice seemed wholly not his voice at all, like it belonged to someone else or something else. It seemed to come from another place entirely. He sang with the totally unembarrassed ease of someone accustomed to it, and Hermann was ashamed because he knew instantly that there was this whole other part to Pasha’s life that he had no claim to or understanding of. He didn’t know what to make of Pasha’s voice except that it was solid and strong. The song itself had a recursive, bawdy feel to it, the phrasing a little childish, like a folk song.
Everyone began to clap, and Pasha gave his shoulders a punch and a shake. He stamped into the dry grass and sang out. The girl from before gripped his hands and he twirled her, and they began to sway as Pasha sang.
Hermann stood up from the chair. He left the plate of bones behind. He drew along the edge of the people who had thrown their arms around each other’s shoulders and had begun to sway and rock. They joined Pasha in his song, and their voices fit under his in a rickety hash of harmony. It wasn’t beautiful, this improvised choir. It wasn’t glorious. But it was good in a way that Hermann found difficult to understand. Because they were all together, in the song, in the sound of Pasha’s voice, they were all touching one another, joined. He peered through the spaces between them, and sometimes caught sight of Pasha’s head whipping by as he twirled the girl. The music in the bowl faded and changed, became another song, but they kept singing the first, until Pasha, his throat bulging with muscle and his face, waved them off as if to say no more, no more. They all threw their hands up and clapped and shouted and whistled.
Brava, brava, brava, they chanted until that too became a kind of song. Pasha bowed and with his jerky little walk, cut through them, but he drew up short when he saw Hermann. Rivulets of sweat collected on his bare chest. His apron hung a little open and down. His eyes were glossy and bright.
“Brava,” Hermann said, clapping. Pasha waved him off.
“Don’t you start too.”
“That was amazing.”
“Ah, fruits of an ill spent youth.”
“How do you mean?”
“Choir. Hard to believe, huh? I was once very sweet.”
“What was that song?”
Pasha’s eyes narrowed and he grunted.
“You are a doctor, and you don’t know anything about the world.”
“Well, I know about burning witches, and that’s about it.”
Pasha slapped the back of his hand against his palm so loudly that it was like a gunshot. Hermann jumped.
“Persecution, not funny. You know that.”
“Are you going to tell me the song?”
“Ochi Chernye,” he said, “but my version is my own.”
“Either way, it was amazing,” Hermann said, but he saw Pasha’s squint deepen rather than lessen. Pasha hummed and wiped sweat from his brow and neck. Then flicked it with an annoyed grace at Hermann. The sweat caught him on the bottom of his lip, but instead of wiping it away, he licked it clear with a slow pass of his tongue, and he could taste it, the salt of Pasha’s body.
“It was hackwork. But thank you,” he said.
“Is Fima coming?” Hermann asked, but another of the guests had sauntered over and claimed Pasha, and just like that, Pasha gave him another wave and was gone, taken up back into the crowd. A short moment later, his voice rose again, but this time, it was delicate and soft, not forceful or coercive. Hermann stood there for a moment, listening, watching as the crowd again put their arms over each other and swayed, content this time to listen too.
It went on that way. And then the music changed.
Hermann was washing the dishes when the manager came through and asked him to take another half shift in the front of house.
He stood there considering it, thinking about the last time, how shit he had been and how terribly it had gone, but also thinking that the money might better out there, and if he got some decent tips, the rent squeeze wouldn’t be so bad. He was on the last of the post-fellowship money he had, and still with no offers on the horizon, money was always welcome in all its forms.
Once more, out into the front, the lighting aggressively dim, the broad picture windows affording a view of the street, the glowing digital clock of the bank across the way, people passing. He ran plates and drinks, wound down tickets, and took orders. There was a group of women, a little older than his mother, sitting three to a side in a booth. He could feel the pull of their want, the way their eyes hung on him slightly, like a hitch in space. They had the high, upholstered hair common to the Midwestern Middle Class, and he suspected that they had come from Cedar Rapids or North Liberty. They looked like they had children in sensible majors who wore sweatshirts and Birkenstocks. They looked like this was a night out for them, like this was a high mark of their social lives. They leaned in and tittered amongst themselves wearing black, gauzy tops and tight, shellacked pants, with chunky heels. Their makeup was perhaps a half shade to a whole shade too dark, but he could see in the architecture of their faces that there were moments when, in certain light at certain angles, they flared fully and powerfully into beauty.
“What can I get you ladies?” he asked, his throat dry. They raised their brows suggestively, not even lewdly, but as if to say If I were ten years younger. He smiled at them, letting his face shift into friendly bemusement.
“Vodka sodas,” the woman closest to him said, her voice a trill.
“For all of you? Big plans?”
“Depends,” she said.
“The local sights,” she said, and he laughed a little at that, jotting the order into his pad.
“Where do people go for dancing around here?” asked the woman on the other side and tucked against the wall asked.
“There’s a bar across from here, down that alley,” he said, pointing. “But it’s, well, it’s a gay bar.”
They squealed, except for the woman on the end, across from the one who had order the vodka sodas. She had a trim, square haircut and she wore thick glasses. She was wearing a tee-shirt and blue jeans. And she gave a dismissive little shake of her head and said, “I don’t know about all that.”
“About all what?” Hermann asked, propping his hand on his hip for show, borrowing charisma from the rapport that had gathered between them.
“I’m not against them, you know. Those people. But, well, I don’t know about all that. Being in one of their bars.”
The way she said bar, in that bottomless chasm of Midwestern open vowels, made him smile. It endeared her to him. He imagined that she was something sensible like a Lutheran and that she prayed every night to a kind and loving God. He imagined her that way, on her knees beside her bed as her husband Harold snored, her fists clenched tightly as she knelt on their shitty beige carpet and prayed deeply and devoutly for rain, for light, for peace, for an end to the violence that streaked the world, for hope, for the health and prosperity of her family.
“They’re not so bad over there,” he said.
“You have a girlfriend?” the first woman asked, and before Hermann could stop himself, he said, “Yes. We’re expecting.”
“Oh? Your first?”
“Yes,” he said, thinking of Darla and Fran and their child, which he had now claimed as his own. Missing Darla, missing also the feeling of another person in his life. Missing all the ways that being with Darla had simplified his life and provided him a sieve through which to filter himself. He knew who he was with her by virtue of their common history. Love was bearing witness and holding one another accountable to everything they’d ever been before. Love was mutual imprisonment to shared history.
“This is no job to support a family,” the woman with short hair said. The other women tittered, but she looked up at him, and her mouth trembled, just a little, at the corner. They were out for her, he knew then. It wasn’t anything big that told him. It wasn’t anything miraculous. But he knew it as sure as he knew that the ground under him was firm and hard and wouldn’t give. He knew that they were here for her.
“I’ll see about those drinks,” he said, tapping the pad to his forehead and turning to the bar. He heard another wave of tittering giggles, their voices hushed and swift. They were talking about him. They were talking about his body. But let them, he thought. Let them.
The women stayed for half of his half shift. They kept waving at him, flagging him down, asking him again and again for directions to the bar, and when he said, Just over there, down the alley, they said, Oh okay, thank you, honey. At another of his tables, there was a family who looked tired. Their eyes were red. An older man, about seventy, was sitting with his head in his hands, and a young woman, around twenty-something, and another young man, the same age sat with coffee and soda, not talking or eating the apps they’d ordered. There was a woman, middle-aged, holding a small blond child close to her chest. The child slept. There was something unspeakable and hard at that table. He let them be, and didn’t press.
Beside that table was another family, this one garrulous and bellicose. Two toddlers that Hermann took to be twins were slapping the table and their parents were trying to feed them, or else bargain with them to eat, to take anything, please, something, and he kept bringing them water and juice and French fries. When he was between running orders, he leaned against the counter to stretch out his back, and he watched them trying so hard to reason with the children who seemed to think that it was a game, to resist their parents’ wishes. It was so late, must have been almost ten, and here they were, begging small children to eat when they should have been in bed maybe.
A sore heat spread across his lower back. The manager clapped him hard between the shoulders, and Hermann wheezed.
“God,” he coughed.
“Thanks for helping,” he said.
“Yeah, no sweat.”
“About before, the other time, I mean, about all that. A couple weeks ago, man. It’s been. Hey. You know?”
Hermann almost laughed at the complete non-apology that was as close as he was going to get to sorry.
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“Good. You’re slow on three. They look about ready to pop.” The manager struck Hermann two quick times across the face, and went back around the counter, toweling his hands off. Hermann vibrated down to the tips of his toes, and there was a lurch in him, something jolting to life. He rolled his shoulders, pushed off the bar, and went to close out the family with the toddlers.
The women were ready to go at last. Boozy and swaying. They asked him again which way to the bar. They wanted to dance. To cut loose. To live. Hermann held the door for them as they filed out. And they patted his cheek and his side and his hip, ran their hands over his body as if touching a charm for luck. The woman in the blue jeans with the tight haircut was last, and she paused and looked at him. And he saw flecks of dandruff caught in the fine white hairs of her face. She tucked a fifty into the waist of his pants, and he felt her nails dig against his pelvis. She didn’t smile when she did it. Her wrist was stiff, and when she’d secured the money, she took her hand away, and went down the slightly inclined walkway to join the others. Their voices rose in pitch as they laughed and keened, and looked back through the glass at him. And then they crossed the street, and were going down the alley after all.
Hermann closed out the rest of his tables. The music was quiet, and the lights lower. He could hear pans and metal bowls banging, and he sat at the bar, eating a quick dinner. The manager had made him scrambled eggs, and he ate them while the manager mopped the floors. The manager popped two beers for them, and they toasted across the counter. The eggs were greasy and full of the good cheese, and he loved the heat of them.
The manager leaned against the bartop. The diner was dark by then, and outside, they could see drunk undergrads drifting down the sidewalk, stumbling into each other, laughing. Music from the bigger bar across the street next to the bank. The roar of the dishwasher in back. Hermann was sweaty and stiff. His legs sore. The manager’s forearms were thick.
“So what’s your deal?”
“I don’t have a deal,” Hermann said.
“No, I mean. With you. And this job. You want to be a waiter? We could use you.”
“I don’t mind dishwashing.”
“That’s not what I asked.” The manager rubbed his face roughly, and drummed the counter. “Look. I’m offering. Do you want it?”
“I guess,” Hermann said.
“Okay,” Hermann said.
“God, why is this so hard? Is it yes or no?”
“Yes. I’ll do it.”
The manager gave a grunt of recognition and then pushed himself up from the bar. He walked around the counter, and Hermann watched him. It was still a surprise when the manager gripped him by the throat and hauled him off the stool, somehow. It was less of a surprise when the manager kissed him rough on the mouth. He tasted like the beer and like ham. He kissed like he was arguing, and Hermann didn’t mind it really, but he didn’t like it either. The manager pulled away and shoved Hermann against the counter, and his back hurt.
“God,” he said.
“Faggot,” the manager said. “You’re a faggot, aren’t you?”
“No,” Hermann. “I’m not.” But the manager kneed him one hard time in the stomach, and Hermann went to his knees. The manager pried his mouth open, and pressed the tip of his cock to Herman’s tongue, and he was overwhelmed by the sour smell of his body, the sweat of it. The manager had a fat cock, fat and unruly, and it filled Hermann’s mouth. The manager’s fingers were on his head and at his throat, and Hermann swallowed, gagged more out of reflex than fear, but the manager seemed to like that and he began to piston into and out of Hermann’s mouth.
“You like that, don’t you?” he said, and Hermann grunted in negation, but he allowed the manager to persist. He marveled at this in himself, his ability to go on with this, to allow himself to be used like a whetstone.
“Such a good fucking boy,” the manager said, and Hermann gripped at his thighs to hold him in place, and he sank down over the manager’s cock and thought that this might be one way of reaching out through the noise and the swift gray wind of the world and catching hold of someone else.
It was on his way home that he saw Fima and Pasha. They were on one of the benches near the Italian restaurant. Their voices were low. Hermann could still taste the manager. He had rinsed his mouth out several times.
“Here comes Oliver Twist,” Fima said. A small cloud of smoke hung in front of them like a veil.
“I’m more Ivan Ilytch,” he said.
“Dark,” Pasha said, one eye closed.
“You look like shit,” Hermann said.
“I feel like shit,” Pasha said, puffing smoke in Hermann’s direction.
“His girlfriend dumped him,” Fima said.
“I can relate,” Hermann said.
“I’ve been telling him it will be alright.”
“It will be alright,” Hermann said, not because it was true or because it was kind or because it was the right thing to do, but because Fima had said it, and in saying it himself, he was joining Fima in something, stepping from the place where he stood alone to the place where they were together. He leaned down and ruffled Pasha’s hair, and Pasha made a pleased sound, so he ran his palm down the back of Pasha’s neck, and when Pasha looked at him, Hermann kissed him. Tenderly, with love in his heart, he passed the taste of the manager and the ugliness from the bar to Pasha, who turned and passed it to Fima, and it was like he had come at last to some safe, steady place.
Brandon Taylor is the author of the novel Real Life, which was a finalist for the 2020 Booker Prize, The National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and the 2021 Young Lions Fiction Award, and was named a NYT Editors’ Choice and NYT Notable Book. His collection Filthy Animals, a national bestseller, won the 2022 Story Prize and was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. He is the 2022-2023 Mary Ellen von der Heyden Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
“When Will We Get What We Deserve?” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)