That winter, Michael lived with his step-sister. She had asked Michael if he would like to live with her after he quit his job at Citibank. He knew that she was pitying him, as she had always done, but that was okay. She had a nice condo, well-furnished with high ceilings, a good-sized second bedroom, and he wouldn't have to pay much rent.
Standing at his bedroom door one night, Shawna said to him: If you're going to live here, I can't deal with you not having a job. You're not going to lecher off me. She had on pajama pants and a hooded sweatshirt. She was short, a little squat, but had sort of a pretty face, roundish and happy, and curly dark hair.
You mean leech, Michael said. Lecher is a sexual something. Like a sex-crazed villain.
Michael, don't be an asshole. You're not going to mooch off me, okay. And don't forget to call your father. He's called twice. Please call him. It would be good for him and very good for you.
When I find another job, he said.
In the local paper, Michael found a job delivering phone books to help pay rent. Shawna went with him. They had to go to the Sawmill Road Y to get the phone books. There was two feet of snow packed into yards, on top of roofs, and piled onto curbs, but the roads were clear. The world had a despairing, echoing quality, like how things look plain and boring and sound distant and small on a racquetball court. Michael attributed this to winter. Winter, Michael knew, was the only season that was an honest expression of how things really were: it kept people indoors, away from each other, alone, which is how things, to Michael, really were. He explained this to Shawna as they drove. She looked out the window, then said, It looks pretty out. Look at those birds, isn't that strange that there're birds in the snow?
At the Y, they had to go into the main building, then down the stairs into the basement, where an overweight woman with short hair and a round face stood behind a foldout buffet table. Her nametag said Charlene. The phone books were in stacked boxes.
We pay a dollar per book, the woman said, looking at her clipboard. She seemed upset and spoke at Shawna. How many do you want?
I'm just here, Shawna said. He's the one.
Five hundred, Michael said to the woman.
What do you mean five hundred? Charlene said. Why don't you try one hundred to start?
Let me have two hundred, Michael said.
That seems like a lot, too, Shawna said. Maybe you should work up to a bigger amount.
It's harder than it looks, Charlene said. Keeping addresses straight and all.
I can do two hundred, Michael said looking at Shawna. Don't tell me how many phone books I can do.
The woman looked at them for a moment, then said to her notepad, It's going to take a lot of trips to get all those books loaded, but okay. Let me explain how this works. She handed Michael sheets of paper with two hundred names and addresses on them. Sometimes things get screwy, so if you can't find a house, you can't find a house, the woman said. She was talking to Shawna again and Shawna was nodding.
Another woman, with two children, walked down into the basement. Hey Charlie, the other woman said. I'm here to pick up fifty.
Michael stood holding the sheets of paper, shifting his eyes, momentarily, between all the women. The new woman was talking with Charlene. She was pretty, with a brown scarf and brown coat going down to her jeans. She was beautiful in a messy, uncontrived way that Michael liked, that said, I don't care about my appearance, I am the way I am. Michael tried to smile at the new woman's children so that the new woman would smile at him, but they didn't notice him.
What're you doing? Shawna said, nudging him. Let's get these boxes going.
Michael grabbed a box and began walking it up to his car when Charlene said, You have to sign in here. The pretty, new woman was signing the pad. Michael set his box down and the pretty woman handed the pad to Michael, and when he filled in his information—name, address, phone number, number of phone books—he memorized her's.
512 Oaklawn Avenue, Michael said to Shawna going up the stairs.
Impressive, Shawna said. Or you could've just said hello to her.
The phone books filled the trunk, the back seat, and the front seat where Shawna had to put her feet, so that her knees pushed into the dash. Michael couldn't see out the back. He had to turn on his blinkers far in advance and make lane changes hesitatingly, as an Alzheimer's sufferer might. He had trouble, every winter, getting his heater on the right setting, so his windows fogged up. Shawna rolled down her window and turned off the heat.
Let's start from scratch, she said. Let me handle the heat controls.
Plastic bags flapped due to the open window, one somehow slipping off a book and flying around the car, flapping in Michael's face. He grabbed it and scrunched it up. There has to be some other way than opening the windows, he said.
Michael, there's not, Shawna said. Just drive. Camden Avenue.
Trying to find the first address on Camden Avenue, not finding it, smearing the windshield with condensation and dropping the address sheet, Michael decided to drive home, too overwhelmed and unprepared for actual labor.
You're giving up already? That is exactly like you. That's a metaphor for your entire life.
Thank you for being a kind and understanding step-sister, Michael said.
A few days later, after delivering fifteen books, Michael came home to a man named Curtis slicing bananas in the kitchen. This was the third man Shawna had had over this month, which was not unreasonable Michael knew, but was also a slight mocking directed at Michael, saying, Look how easy. Shawna came out of her bedroom rubbing lotion on her hands and wearing a black dress. Her hair was curled and twisted about her head and falling into her face. She had on greenish eye shadow. Curtis had a shaved bald head, enormous and perfect white teeth, and a broken knuckle. The two stood in the kitchen, drinking ruby red grapefruit juice.
For its density, grapefruit juice has the most nutrients of any food item, Curtis said.
Curtis wants to open a health food store, Shawna said. And attach it to his karate studio.
The karate thing is a side project, Curtis said. Really, I'm in investments, like Shawna. But I just love the kids wanting to see bricks and boards broken. I'm not being truthful. It's something to do with calmness, the fluidity of movement and power it gives you. A quiet power. I don't know.
I worked at a bank, Michael said. He had the intense urge to tell Curtis that he was a filmmaker, had studied film in college, but he resisted.
Okay, Shawna said. If we don't get going we're going to miss the movie.
What movie? Curtis said.
You know, she said, and sort of nodded her head.
She wants you two to go somewhere together, Michael said. She used to pull that with our mom all the time without telling me either. Then I'd stand there looking like an idiot.
Ah, Curtis said, looking at Shawna and giving her a weird smile. I gotcha girl.
Too late now, she said.
It's okay, Michael said. You guys go out.
Come with us, Curtis said. Let's make it a threebie. I got a restored '74 BMW waiting to be tried out. I just bought the thing.
I have some deliveries to make, Michael said.
Michael went to his room and got out a short film he had made in college. He had gone to a liberal arts college in Wisconsin and studied film with a man named Theodore Canfield, who had to his credit three short films, and a half-dozen unpublished screenplays, though one of those screenplays was rumored to be represented by an agency out of Florida. Michael knew none of the screenplays would be taken. One was called "Ravenous Creek," and another "Broken Ties," and the one Michael had read, "A Late Flowering," was a coming-of-age story about a boy from Tennessee who must cope with two brothers (one a step, one biological) who are sent to Vietnam. Only the step-brother returns and the boy has to learn to accept him and, with what Theodore Canfield must have thought was real profundity, death itself. Simple realism. Professor Canfield's lectures typically had to do with the idea that film was the medium for linear narration, while literature should explore and experiment with new forms. Michael had felt cheated by this.
His own short film (thirteen minutes) was a detective story told in montage. The main character was named Huxley (Michael was pleased with this) who, in the opening frame, discovered his mother murdered. The rest of the short was a quest, interspersed with strange, metaphoric imagery (a butterfly being wound in a spider's web; a dissection of a pig fetus; a tree shedding its leaves in time-lapse; a man digging a ditch). Huxley searched the city streets (downtown Madison), following a caped man who always carried a white flower. The film ended with Huxley following the caped-man down a staircase into an alley; the staircase, however, was very long and soon Huxley found that it didn't end. Now in darkness, the film moved into Huxley's point of view and ran speeding up the stairs, but the staircase had become infinite in either direction and the film faded out with Huxley's hard breathing and stairs rushing by.
He watched the film in his sister's guest room: white walls, a small television on the floor, a stack of his videos along a wall. He watched, mad at himself because he hadn't gone to graduate school, because he had only delivered twenty phone books in total and because he had not gone with Shawna and Curtis. It was maybe a mistake; a lot of his life had maybe been a mistake. He considered masturbating, but knew that would only make him feel worse, then he did anyway.
Michael decided to go out and find the address on Camden Avenue, the one he couldn't find his first day with Shawna. Before he left, Curtis pulled up in his black BMW. They had only been gone a half hour. Curtis walked up the stairs to Shawna's Condo, calling out to Michael: I'm glad you're still here. I wanted to know if you wanted a little sidejob.
We had a little fight.
What happened? Michael said. Wait, that doesn't answer my first question. Where is she?
I left her in Target's parking lot.
Why'd you do that? We have to go pick her up.
I'm not going to get her, you can, but I'm not. That woman needs to cool the fuck down. She needs to run about fifty miles, swim a few laps, you know what I mean. I'm not saying I'm faultless here, but she's got all this stress built up in her like a river dammed up. I have an outlet, but she needs one. She's letting it out right now. Better not to bother her for an hour or so.
What do you mean? Michael said. What's she doing?
Last I saw, she was taking shopping carts and rolling them into cars and yelling at me.
Jesus Christ, she's going to have to pay for all that.
Nah, nobody was paying her any attention. They were all too freaked out. People'd rather let someone go crazy than worry about a ding or two. Anyway, Shawna said you needed some money. She said you make movies.
I can't talk about this, Michael said. We have to go get my sister.
She's your stepsister, right?
We never made a big distinction.
Just go for a ride with me. We'll go get Shawna. Things'll be okay. You two, my god, what a team.
Curtis drove them down Fairborne Avenue. His car was all black leather interior, probably four cows, Michael guessed, and blue, calming lights glowed on the dash. The car heated fast and Jazz played on the stereo. They passed restaurants and hotels and streetlamps, all glowing in the cold, white winter.
This is where I feel most myself, Curtis said. I don't even like Karate very much, but it helps a ton for self-defense.
Which Target is she at? Michael said.
I used to be a really violent person, Curtis said.
They didn't say anything for a few minutes. Michael felt like a child, like Curtis was someone who knew something, like everyone in the world knew something, knew actually the thing, and Michael did not, and now, through Curtis, the world was going to be explained to Michael. Michael felt very much like not having the explanation.
Look, do you want to hear this idea I have for you or not? Curtis didn't give Michael a chance to say anything. I'll bring you back to your car and you can get Shawna if you want to get her so bad, Curtis said. But I'm telling you, I saw you in that apartment when you came in, those phone books in your car, and I felt bad. I mean, I felt what you probably felt. That, what, monotony? I'm not offering an escape from that, that's all up to you. Like it is for anyone. I'm just offering you a way to get some money. For those movies you make. Shawna told me.
You said that already.
Good, then we're clear.
I'll listen, then we'll go pick up Shawna. Michael felt important and dignified and masculine when he said the words.
Perfect. So, you're delivering phone books, right?
It's not permanent, Michael said.
What is? I'm saying, right now, that's what you're doing. I'm just wondering if you'd add a few more addresses to that list.
I specialize in mushrooms. Hallucinogens. So, I'd have you deliver some of those to some folks I know. You won't be dealing with lowlifes, don't worry. It's college kids mostly. You'd be a kind of middle man. I will say this, though. Your job is risky because it involves transporting. That's what I get out this, a lack of risk in my life. You get a bit more money.
I'll have to consider it, Michael said. I've never done anything like it before.
Shawna told me you used to sell pot or something in school.
That doesn't really count, Michael said. I don't want to sell your mushrooms. Thank you for telling me about your proposition. Now let's go get my sister.
Just like she said, Curtis said. Stubborn.
Shawna did not stop seeing Curtis after that night, even though Michael told her that Curtis was a drug dealer.
It's a side thing, she told him.
Everything he does is a side thing, Michael said.
After some time though, it seemed she was right. Curtis came over often, hadn't left Shawna in a parking lot again, never said a mean word to her, except in a passing argument, which Michael considered acceptable and healthy. Curtis claimed not to like his karate studio and said it was just a side thing often, but really, he was very loyal to his students, even went to their classrooms to give speeches about the differences between self-defense and aggression. Karate, which is essentially self-defense, was about confidence; fighting was aggression and stupidity. He didn't bring Shawna into his little drug world and he never mentioned it to Michael again. They traded off dinners, cooking new recipes (curry pork with apple-marinade; chicken francaise; ginger-garlic noodles with chicken and snow peas), and Michael went over to Curtis' after delivering phone books. His house, surprisingly, was not what Michael expected. It was a track house, one story, in a new neighborhood without trees, many of the yards of which were dirt. Often, Curtis and Shawna went with Michael to deliver books. They went at night.
One night they went later than usual, close to midnight, in a neighborhood settled in some forest area with large, wood houses sitting far back of the main road so that they had to drive down long, dark, shadowy drives which were crusted with ice and slightly, Michael felt, treacherous. Curtis sat in the passenger seat and Shawna sat in the back. Curtis insisted on taking Michael's '96 Altima for delivering phone books (it had more character, he claimed), and it was cold in the car, their breath visible. Shawna often said: Why are we taking Michael's car again?
Down one road, Curtis said: Turn off your headlights. Let's see how dark it is.
Michael slowed down and turned off the lights. The night glowed from the snow on the ground in the forest. The road was black. Michael came to a stop and the engine hummed and the cold outside pushed against the car.
Keep driving, Shawna said.
Michael turned the lights back on.
With the lights off, she said.
He drove another minute with the lights off then said, That's enough, that's too far. When he turned the lights on again, in the woods next to the car, four deer watched them. Michael thought that he had maybe confused the animals by turning off the lights.
Look at that, Curtis said. See. It's not always what you see that matters.
I'm confused, Michael said. That sentence doesn't make sense.
Like, what you see isn't all that's there, Shawna said.
She means that sometimes there are things you can't see, Curtis said. There are things deeper than our field of vision. How we can't perceive certain strains of light or whatever.
So that's like the deer somehow? Michael said.
The deer are a metaphor, Shawna said. Pay attention.
On these late night routes, Curtis liked to get metaphysical and Shawna, perhaps, liked to get spiritual. It was always hard to decipher exactly what they were saying, Michael thought, but that's also what made it fitting. Michael liked Curtis and he even liked Shawna. Though maybe he didn't like Shawna as much as he liked how Shawna was around Curtis, less motherly, more like a person. He was glad for this because he hadn't genuinely liked anyone in a long time.
Michael drove his car up a winding, wooded driveway. 812 Lakewood. Curtis sat in the passenger seat with a phone book on his lap, looking hard through the trees. When they got up to the house, Michael put the car in park and they all got out, walking up to the front door. There was a light on in the house and they looked inside. They saw two people, a couple, walking around in the house. She was dressed in a black, professional-looking skirt and blouse. The man wore jeans and no shirt. The man was walking through the house eating a sandwich, walking slowly, and the woman seemed to be stomping, parading in her heels as if she had to be somewhere in that house at that moment. A dog, a sheltie or something, trotted soundlessly by. The nice furniture, the dog, the two people, not ignoring each other, but just going about their lives, separately, and yet together, made Michael feel an odd loneliness, but where that loneliness came from or what it meant, he didn't know. Curtis set the phone book down quietly.
Unmistakable sadness, Curtis said.
They went to other houses on other nights, always walking up to the doors and looking in, if possible: a woman sat watching television in a room with one lamp lit. She was eating something and holding a magazine up at the same time. At another: a group of high school boys sitting in a family room drinking beer and smoking. The house itself was not as nice. They moved past this one, trying to find a house they wanted to see into. Each house made them feel more alone, more of that unmistakable sadness and yet more comfortable in their loneliness. They didn't want the nights to end. They kept staying out later. One night they were pulled over near 918 Aberdeen.
The cop came up to Michael's window and said, What the hell are you doing out here, circling this neighborhood?
We're delivering phone books, Shawna said, sticking her head up from the back. Michael didn't think she needed to say this because there were fifty or so phone books in the back seat, but it was late.
You can't deliver phone books at night, the cop said. That's not something you can do.
Why not? It seems as good a time as any. We're night people.
Look, you can't. It's called disturbing the peace. It's the same reason you can't mow your lawn after dark.
Is that true? We didn't know that.
Yeah, actually, it is. It's also very dangerous, so if you've been doing it, I'd be careful. Just last spring I got a call about a guy who lost an arm mowing at night.
Well, we're sorry, Michael said. We sort of liked doing it at night though.
You can't do this at night. Not in my neighborhood anyway.
After the cop drove off, they went to another neighborhood. That was close, Curtis said, pulling a bag of pot from his pocket.
I thought you didn't smoke that stuff anymore, Shawna said.
I don't, Curtis said.
They got back to Curtis' place late one night and when they walked in the door, a man wearing a blue sportcoat and jeans was getting milk from the refrigerator. He had a stack of five chocolate chip cookies on a napkin on the counter-top.
Does anyone want a cookie? he said. They're fresh from the mall.
Curtis turned around, facing Michael and Shawna, and said, I think you guys better get going. I'll call you later in the week.
They can stay, the guy eating the cookies said. When he said it, two men came from the back bedroom and got between Michael and Shawna and the door. The men both had beards with shaved bald heads. They looked like brothers and both wore glasses, jeans, but they had on different shirts. On of them wore a shirt that said, WORD TO YOUR MOTHER with a picture of earth on it, and the other had on a flannel shirt.
These are some of my friends from school, Curtis said. This is Delaney, Thomas and Justin.
Curtis and Delaney went to the back room, Delaney with his stack of cookies. Michael sat on the sofa with Shawna, and the two bearded guys stayed standing. Michael felt uneasy, but also ridiculous. The entire situation was a ridiculous scene that could only be created by small-minded morons who lacked humor, other than vulgarity, in their everyday lives. He was aware that he was sort of smirking at them and doing a lot of things with his tongue. He looked at Shawna once, and her eyes were looking up, a little too wide, dog-like. She was a fearful creature in that moment, tiny in the universe. It disgusted Michael some.
So you're into the environment, Michael said to the guy with the earth shirt. Did you know there are reports that global warming isn't even real? The man with the earth shirt walked over to Michael, nodding his head. Like if you look at different reports, Michael went on. From different sources.
The guy took the butt of a gun he had been hiding and crushed it into Michael's face. Michael fell to the ground, blood seeping from his nose.
It's real, the gun-man said.
Let's go for a drive, Delaney said, coming out of the back room, walking Curtis to the front door.
They got into Delaney's SUV, which Delaney made Curtis drive. The two bearded men sat in the back on opposite sides of Michael and Shawna. Michael sat there bleeding and Shawna continued having a shocked look on her face, which embarrassed Michael.
Where are we going? Curtis said.
Michael felt emptied out and dizzied, his head and face sore. The world went by out the darkened windows of the SUV like a strange film, lights blurring together. His vision wouldn't go straight. I think I have a concussion, he said.
Please stop talking, Curtis said. Shawna, can you make him stop talking?
No, Michael said. She can't.
Then Curtis began talking to Delaney and telling him that this wasn't about Michael or Shawna and to please stop and let them out.
Well, I guess you probably should have thought that one out long before now, Delaney said in the affected and heavily sarcastic way a drunk uses with his wife. I guess you probably should have thought: what might this mean to the people I care about? That's what makes you a fuck, Curtis. You don't think about other people and you most certainly don't think about me.
Out the window, the city was gone, and fields like enormous parking lots, patched white with snow, stretched in every direction. Michael could just make out trees far in the distance. The two men with beards now had their guns out, pinned against their thighs. Shawna gave Michael a worried look, still animal-like. Michael turned to the bearded man next to him, he didn't know if it was the guy who hit him or not.
Delaney told Curtis to stop the car, then told the bearded guys to let them out. One pulled Michael out, the other Shawna. Michael got pushed down and kicked once, then again, in the stomach, then once in the face. A flash of white shot through his head. Blood seeped from Michael's mouth. The other bearded man pointed a gun at Shawna, then hurriedly jumped in the car. The violent one said, If you go to the cops, we all go to jail. The other, from his seat in the SUV said, I hope you know I don't like this type of thing. None of us do. Then the doors closed on the SUV and it started down the road.
They started walking back the direction they came. It was cold, ice on the side of the road and Michael slipped twice. He felt like he was trying to hold his face together with one hand and with the other hand balance on a tight-rope. Shawna turned back and looked down the road. She held her hands together below her chin, clutched there, and Michael was glad no one was there to see it. He didn't want to go back to her apartment now, or anytime; he felt like yelling at her. After a few minutes, Michael's sight began to clear and the world, once blurred together, came to him in an organized grid. He was aware of its startling separateness, the separateness of all things: the dark sky, then clouds, then a blinking plane tower, then the trees, the fields, the black freeway with white lines. They didn't talk. If Shawna would've said anything, Michael would've told her to shut up. He wanted desperately for her to say something so he could tell her to shut up; he wanted to tell her he was using her and her condo, though he wasn't sure if this was true. He thought about how Shawna seemed small-looking to everyone in the apartment, her eyes doing that looking. She kept looking back down the road in that same way, waiting for what, who knew? Michael felt sick for feeling disgusted with her now, but he was still disgusted with her. He wanted to tell her this. Then he said, Let's go to Curtis' apartment and wait there.