Suffer The Fool
by Will Christopher Baer
I see myself in the dark glass of a storefront window. The image is wavering, untrue. I slip a cigarette from my pocket with pinched fingers and stare at it for two or three minutes, maybe longer. Then place it between my lips and strike a match as if I never hesitated. This is a nervous condition I developed in jail. Time becomes narrow, physical. My perception of self is incidental, and this allows me to disappear. I become a lizard the color of dust. Detached and cool as new money, untormented by echoes. But also vulnerable, exposed. I haven’t slept with my eyes closed in years. My reflection shimmers in blackened glass. I’ve been out of jail for six hours and now I stand on a street corner like I’m waiting for a bus. I’m funny, though. I’m a clown in a borrowed suit. The sleeves are too short and my hands dangle like fish on a string. The tie is singularly ugly. There’s a hole in my shoe and now my toes are wet. My name is Seth Blake and I might as well be a dead body waiting to be cleaned and shoved in a drawer.
I turn to my left and walk until I come to a convenience store. The clerk is pale and unfriendly but I convince him to give me five dollars in change. And now I jingle, like a cat with a bell around its neck. I step outside and find a phone booth. I flip through the white pages and find her smudged name. Emma Waters. Too hot in the booth and I’m sweating like a pig. I’m nervous and I don’t want to admit it. I take off the brown jacket and tie and leave them wadded on the floor. Now I wear a white shirt and ill-fitting brown pants. If only I had a nametag that said: Hello, my name is Seth! I could be a hapless drone selling religious literature door to door. I dial the number and a woman answers. Emma, I say.
I’m on my way to work. Who is this?
Where do you work?
She sucks in a long breath. Oh, shit.
How are you?
Is this Seth? she says.
Where do you work?
At the Three Sisters, she says. But don’t come see me, okay.
Emma, I say.
She hangs up and I let the receiver swing on its cord and an automated voice instructs me to hang up if I would like to make a call. The traffic outside shrinks away to the friendly hum of insects. I feel clammy, terrified. I’m not sure how I feel about her. It’s been three years since I received one of her grimly cheerful letters. I didn’t mind really, when the letters stopped. Difficult to communicate with someone through walls. Everything is a dull reminder. A description of a grocery store or the weather can bring a prisoner to tears. I have to see Emma, though. There’s nothing else for me, no one else. Five minutes. I need five minutes with her. I gather saliva in my mouth and spit gloomily on the sidewalk. The Three Sisters is a cafe, a trendy little place near the college. It’s all the way across town. I start walking.
I stop at another payphone and call Jason. He has been my friend and enemy since we were ten. He beat me up more times than I can count. But he once gave me his bicycle when mine was stolen. I wrote all of his book reports in the seventh grade because his father died and he was a wreck. I slept with his sister four precious times. Then I broke her heart but Jason forgave me. He borrowed three hundred dollars from me the summer after high school. He told me it was for an abortion but I think it was a drug debt. The brown suit I walked out of jail in was his. He loaned it to me the day I went to court. He said he didn’t want it back and I don’t blame him. It’s an ugly fucking suit. And it itches. Jason’s number is listed but not his address. He answers on the fifth ring.
Don’t blink, I say.
Seth, he says. Jesus.
No, shit. Where are you?
I’ll come pick you up.
No, I say. Not yet.
What are you doing?
I’m going to see Emma.
Unwise, he says.
Maybe so. But I’m going.
Spare yourself, he says. Don’t tell her you love her or anything.
Because you might as well cut your own throat.
Yeah. Maybe I should do that.
The cafe is crowded, buzzing. I take a seat at the counter. Emma is dressed in black, as before. Short skirt and tight little sleeveless shirt, stockings and boots. A black apron smeared with something yellow. Long wild dark hair. She looks tough and efficient and this is not how I remember her. She glances at me and doesn’t smile.
How are you? she says.
Emma nods, chewing the end of her pen. Her hair is pulled back and her skin is shiny. She isn’t so painfully thin as she used to be. There are muscles in her arms. She is wearing too much lipstick, I think.
You look good, I say.
She glances at the clock, at a woman with a crying baby. At anything but me. I think of the girl I knew five years ago. Nineteen and scared. Her wrists like sticks and she shook when I touched her. But she believed me when I told her she was safe with me.
What can I get you? she says.
I ask for a fried egg sandwich and she sighs.
This is a vegetarian place, she says.
Eggs are not technically meat, I say.
I’m busy, she says.
Okay. A cup of coffee.
She remembers the way I like it, which nearly breaks me. She gives me a pale, apologetic smile and says that she sometimes has disturbing dreams about me.
I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.
Neither, she says. It just is.
I watch her work and soon I’m undressing her in my mind. Not to be rude. But I want to remember her body. She has a tattoo on her shoulder blade, a blue rose without thorns. A scar on her left thigh where a dog bit her as a child. Pubic hair the color of rust and the only truly perfect belly button I have ever seen. She has a heart murmur. She doesn’t charge me for the coffee and she doesn’t ask if she will see me again.
I follow her home after work. She lives just three blocks from the campus and I wonder if she’s going to school. I imagine her in a psychology class, a poetry workshop. Her hair in a ponytail. She frowns and takes notes in small, spidery handwriting. It’s possible. I stop, my mouth thick and metallic with nausea. I was in school once, for two fractured semesters. I didn’t much like it, but it was something to do. I have lost bits and pieces of myself, since. I tell myself to be brutal, detached. Otherwise I will start throwing myself at strangers. Emma goes into an apartment building and I wait a few minutes before slipping through the shadows to make a note of her address. She is in 3D and this makes me smile. Emma is three-dimensional. This is more than I can say for myself. I back away and go to find another phone booth.
Jason answers on the first ring this time.
Did you see her?
Yeah, I say. Briefly.
Fine, he says. Let’s get drunk or something.
She’s still beautiful.
Forget it, he says. That girl doesn’t exist anymore.
She does, I say. She’s real.
Five years ago, he says. You had an intense little thing with her, right. But it was a fantasy and almost got her killed.
We were going to Oregon, I say. We were going to get married.
Oregon is for suckers, he says. It rains all the time.
It’s always green there. Always.
Whatever. You never even made it to the bus station.
Yeah. I remember.
I’m coming to get you. Tell me where you are.
I hang up and dial Emma. She picks up on the first ring but doesn’t say anything. She breathes. She waits for me to say the first word. In the background I can hear a television, the shrill theme music for Jeopardy. I hate that music. And then a strange woman’s voice, bored and derisive: who was Margaret Mitchell.
Who is that? I say.
No one, says Emma. My neighbor.
Are you hungry?
I work in a restaurant, she says.
Forget it, I say. Let’s go to a movie.
She sneezes, laughing. I have a cat named Freckle.
You’re allergic to cats.
No, she says. I’m not.
Okay. Are you going to school? I say.
Memphis State, she says. I’m a psych major.
Good, I say. That’s good.
Do you think so?
Yeah. Where is Madagascar? she says.
I hang up the phone delicately. I control my breathing. I wait for five minutes, fifteen. I wait until my mind is relatively empty. Then I cross the street to her building.
Her building has no security door and anyone can walk right in. No one will say boo. I’m sure the rent is very attractive. I take the stairs up to 3D. I knock and she opens the door. She smiles brightly, innocently. As if she is surprised to see me.
She wears snug little boxers and a gray sweatshirt. I stand in the doorway, silent. There is a mirror behind her and I study my own expression, curious to see if it will betray me. I scratch my throat and decide that I look a little too desperate.
Your hair looks bad, she says.
I nod, helpless. I steal a glance at her bare legs. Emma turns away and I follow her into the living room. A woman sits on the couch and I immediately do not like her. She wears sweats and a little Everlast t-shirt cut off at the ribs and when she moves or takes a deep breath I see the pale curve of her breast. She shrugs. She barely looks at me but her dark thoughts are visible as smoke. She doesn’t want me there. Emma announces that she is making popcorn. I trail after her, into the kitchen.
That was Michelle, says Emma.
Are you enjoying this? I say.
Emma is pushing buttons on the microwave. Her hair is loose, hanging in fine curls around her throat. I stand against the refrigerator, my hands buried in my pockets. She looks up at me.
So, she says. What will you do now?
You act like we went to high school together. Like this is Christmas break.
Emma presses her lips together. I’m trying to be nice, she says.
Nice, I say.
What did you come for?
To see you. To tell you things.
I don’t know if I can stand it, she says.
There is a sudden fist in my throat. I go back into the living room. I sit on the edge of the couch, an arm’s length from Michelle. She tucks her legs beneath her like a nervous dog. Emma comes in with two green bottles of beer and a bowl of popcorn. I take a handful and it’s slimy with butter. Emma isn’t looking so I drop it back in the bowl. I sip a beer. Michelle drinks the other one.
I don’t drink, says Emma. Her voice a little too loud.
Okay, I say.
She stares at me. Your hair really looks bad.
That’s how they cut it in jail.
Emma is silent for a moment. Michelle begins flipping channels on the TV, hesitating interminably on each station. I think she’s doing it on purpose, to creep under my skin. I think I could easily kill her.
You know. Michelle cuts hair, says Emma.
Michelle groans. She looks like she swallowed a razor.
I drink the last of my beer, pleased. What the fuck? I say.
Emma goes to get a chair from the kitchen. Michelle gazes at the TV and says softly that I should go wet my hair. In the bathroom I stand on a fuzzy green mat and let cold water run in the sink. It would be nice to use this bathroom everyday. To brush my teeth with Emma’s toothpaste, to bathe with her soap. The shower curtain is clear plastic, with three giant fish swimming across it. There is a calendar on the back of the door, stuck on the wrong month. The picture is taken from an old Dick Tracy comic. I flip the months past Little Nemo, the Phantom, Betty Boop. Shiver and sigh. Betty Boop disturbs me. Her eyes are too big for her head and she has no actual mouth. Her figure is freakish. She’s three feet tall, with big curvy breasts and the thighs of a wrestler. I turn to look in the medicine cabinet. The usual female gear, mysterious and oddly threatening. I swallow several prescription diet pills and hope my world will accelerate. Through the closed door I can hear Emma and Michelle, hissing at each other. I shove my head into the sink and the water is very cold.
I come out of the bathroom and Emma tells me to take my shirt off. She tugs at it, playfully.
You don’t want to get dead hair on it, she says.
I stare into her face. Shove my thoughts at her like a bag of garbage. I want her to tell Michelle to go home so we can talk, so we can lick our old wounds. But she can’t hear my thoughts. Her eyes flicker away like moth’s wings. I take off my shirt and sit down. Michelle paces the floor, holding scissors and comb.
How do you want it? she says.
I don’t know. Different.
Emma smokes a cigarette, watching us.
Michelle leans over me and her breath is warm. She touches my chin, my throat. She puts her hand flat on my bare chest and tells me to sit up straight. I remember my mother cutting my hair when I was a kid. She always made me look terrible. The scissors whisper at my neck.
I know about you, Michelle says.
You don’t know anything, I say.
Oregon, she says. How romantic.
Yeah, I say. Fuck you.
But on the way to Oregon you stopped at a crack house.
It wasn’t exactly a crack house, says Emma.
Michelle looks at her. Whatever. A real boyfriend doesn’t take you somewhere like that, and he doesn’t leave you in a bathtub when you have a seizure.
That’s not what happened. I stare hard at Emma.
She sighs. I don’t remember.
What is a real boyfriend? I say.
Michelle shrugs. Nothing like you.
My hair is falling to the floor in chunks and Emma is silent.
I loved her, I say. I was trying to protect her.
Emma gets up and leaves the room. She walks like a new person. She was unfinished when I knew her, a child. Now she is someone else.
Michelle giggles. Love, she says. What is that?
I close my eyes, weary. I’m not angry at all. I’m lost and tired.
Michelle cuts my ear and it starts to bleed. I’m sorry, she says. She pulls the scissors across my throat like a knife. What really happened? she says.
Doesn’t matter, does it?
What did you come back for? she says. To marry her?
To see her, I say.
I put my hand on the scissors and her grip hardens. For a minute I think she’ll fight me. She relaxes her grip and I ease them away from her, toss them at the couch. There is blood dripping on my shoulder. I carefully put my white shirt back on and let it drip.
Michelle laughs out loud. Oh, my god. I butchered you. You look like a mental patient.
Everything has a faintly pink sheen to it. I feel grotesque. I think I should get away from this place before I rip her throat out. I walk to the door. There is the mirror again and I glance at it. My hair is uneven, jagged and too short. My ear is bloody and it’s true. I look like a bad suicide attempt. There’s a little table next to the front door with a ceramic bowl that holds two rings of keys and gloves and books of matches. I coolly take a ring of keys and walk out, twirling them on my finger.
There is a Volkswagen key on the ring. I wonder if these are Emma’s keys, or Michelle’s. I sniff them, press them to my heart. They smell like metal. I look around the parking lot for Volkswagens and count five. I try the key in each of them. The fourth is a little midnight blue Rabbit with a cryptic green bumper sticker that reads Slumberland: 999 miles and I feel a goofy smile twitch across my face. This is her car. The dashboard is lined with dried flowers and seashells. The car smells like her hair, like lemon and smoke. The radio is tuned low to a country station and I drive aimlessly. I can hear my own jaw clicking. Happiness fades so fast I can never remember what it feels like. My ear is bleeding and sore and it kills me to remember that Emma has a weakness for Patsy Cline.
The Rabbit is on empty and I pull into a gas station. Six pumps and a square metal hut. A girl’s face, pale and round behind glass. Moths wheel and spin in the electric light. I count my money: 26 dollars, a lord’s ransom for my needs. I tell the girl I want six dollars worth of premium, thinking I might as well be kind to Emma’s car. The least I can do. I unscrew the gas cap and an ambulance drones past. The nozzle is heavy in my hand, like a gun. I push it in and squeeze. The memories shimmer and that night comes flying back at me. Emma thrashing on the hardwood floor like she’s got no bones, turning purple. I call 911 and everybody freaks out. They scatter like rats. I carry Emma into the bathroom and lay her down on cool white linoleum. She seems okay and when the cops come I tell them the coke is mine. But the paramedics find Emma in the bathtub and she’s seizing again. She nearly kills herself. The ambulance’s siren is still fading and I’ve spilled gasoline on myself, on my hands and thighs.
She must have climbed into the tub to hide. I never put her there. I wouldn’t.
Oh fuck me.
I look around for a payphone. There’s one next to the metal hut and I pull out a handful of change. Three rings and I get Jason’s machine. A long beep and I start raving.
Emma has a girlfriend, I say. A vicious bitch. She gave me a haircut, a terrible haircut.
He picks up the phone. I told you not to go there.
I’m a fool, I say.
Did you tell her you love her?
This is pathetic, he says.
Then I stole her car, I say.
Yeah. You want to get a beer or something?
He laughs. Where are you?
I don’t know. The corner of Southern and Cooper.
Okay. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Don’t do anything.
I sit down on the pavement beside Emma’s car. I feel ill. My stomach is empty. Impossible to concentrate. The lizard detachment is gone. The clever ability to watch myself from a distance is a memory. There is a fucking frenzy in my head. My hands stink of gas and I hold them away from my body.
A short, muscular kid is walking toward me. He wears football cleats.
Excuse me, he says. Do you have a jack?
I sniff my hands. There is merciful silence but for the insects burning in the lights above.
My mother’s car, the kid says. His voice cracks and he’s maybe sixteen.
Across the lot is a long black car. It has suicide doors and a flat tire in back. A fat old lady stands there, her hands clutched together. I shake my head. Okay, I say. I probably have a jack.
I open the trunk. Emma has recently done laundry. There are two small baskets of fresh, sweet smelling laundry that could break my heart if I’m not careful. I dig around in the dark and pull out a small, slightly rusted jack. The kid takes it from me carefully.
Thank you, he says.
He turns and walks toward his mother. I drift behind him, as if drawn into his wake. The woman is old, her face gray and mashed. She is wrapped in scarves and shawls, muddied shapeless colors. She glares at me, furious with shame. I feel helpless before her. The tire is shredded, as if they drove on it for blocks. The boy crouches in the dark, the jack between his legs. He wedges it under the fender. The jack was intended for a much smaller car, and it cranks slowly with a groan of metal. A screeching noise as the car begins to sway.
Help him, the mother says.
I don’t want to touch the jack. My skin feels cold and fragile and I can see the teeth slipping and my hand catching between jack and fender. Two fingers cut off at the knuckle, dropping to the ground like the guts of a chicken. I clench my fist and resist the urge to count my fingers. I’m such an idiot. I’m speeding from those diet pills. I kneel beside the boy.
I’ll crank it, I say.
The car rises unsteadily, like a horse with broken legs. The boy puts his weight against the car to stop the sway. If it falls, he will not be able to stop it. There will be blood and drama. My world will certainly be accelerated. I stop myself from laughing out loud. The boy loosens the bad tire and drags it aside. His mother is talking, or praying softly, to no one. I rest my hands lightly on either side of the jack, watching the boy. The spare tire is bald as an egg, with pale swellings in the sides. It will not last long. The boy sighs and I look away, at the bugs crashing and dying in the lights.
Keep the jack, I say.
I walk across the street, the noise in my head like a riot. I try to relax, to let the silence come. My hands are loose at my sides. The air is thick with heat. White steam drifts from a sewer opening. I have twenty dollars and half a tank of gas. I turn to look back at the little Rabbit and my eyes burn. I’m getting misty over a car. Emma is a psych major, right. I wonder if she would call this emotional displacement. Now I breathe through my nose and eye the liquor store that has appeared before me. I go inside and walk to the back. There is Irish music in the air and the store is empty. A hard little man sits on a stool behind the counter. I point over his shoulder.
Vodka. Something cheap.
The little man grunts, sucking his lips.
His face is so relaxed and distantly scornful, he must be medicated. And as he turns with a pint bottle, our hands touch and there is a rush of silence. Without hesitating, I lunge at him. I shove the bottle into the man’s leathery face but it doesn’t break. Plastic, the bottle is plastic between hand and cheekbone. The man’s shirt is white and like mine, splashed with blood. His eye is bleeding but not too bad. He falls shocked on his stool. His hands come up with a shotgun. It’s a relic, covered in dust. He pulls the trigger and nothing happens. I open my eyes.
I love this music, I say.
The hard little man stares as I hop on one foot in a wretched jig. I grab two bottles of champagne and drop twenty dollars on the counter.
I don't want to rob you, I say. I don’t know what I want.
Outside. I walk back across the street where Emma’s car waits for me. My heart is a hammer but otherwise I feel fine. I pop one bottle of champagne and foam runs white to my elbow. I drink and let the bubbles tickle my spine. It’s pretty good stuff and now there are sirens in the distance. Twenty dollars was maybe not enough for two bottles of champagne and a broken jaw. The sirens scream and I’m not sure I can wait for Jason.
A motorcycle rolls up and he gets off. He walks toward the car.
Get away from me, I say. I just robbed a liquor store.
Jason wears a battered leather jacket and jeans. He spits in disgust and comes around to the passenger door. He climbs in and I catch a glimpse of his face in the dome light. He is handsome, muscular. Lost a little hair, maybe. He smells like tobacco and sandalwood aftershave.
You weren’t kidding, he says.
That is a fucked-up haircut.
I sigh. Been a long day, man.
Was there a video camera in the store?
I didn’t see one.
Maybe you’ll get lucky. For once.
Thanks for coming, I say.
You’re shaking like a bug, he says.
Yeah. I’m glad to see you.
He touches my cheek with a cool hand.
Five years, he says.
Don’t remind me.
Come on, he says. I want to meet this girl who cut your hair.
You can’t protect me, I say.
He smiles. Let’s just take the car home, okay.
Michelle opens the door and her mouth is dark with lipstick. She smiles at me, her face shiny with sweat. She laughs at me. I stand in the doorway with Jason beside me. My hands are heavy and I stink of gasoline. I feel a thousand times better, though. Jason is strong, so I don’t have to be. Michelle leans against the door, a curve of hard skin and muscle. She eyes Jason with the flat, curious gaze of a cat. I can feel him breathing beside me. I can feel him ticking, like a bomb. Michelle now wears a white dress, sheer across the belly. Her hair is dark red and falls to her shoulders. I touch my own hair and look down. She wears army boots, the leather bright and polished.
This is Jason, I say.
The door widens. Come in, she says.
No sign of Emma and I tell myself we should go, just walk outside and disappear. But Jason is looking at Michelle with a glitter in his eyes like broken glass, a barely visible twist to his lips.
I have champagne, I say.
Michelle flashes her bitter mouth. She slips a cigarette into her mouth, smiling. Jason sits beside her on the couch. He lights her cigarette, his face is furious and calm at once.
I like your friend, she says.
Are you Emma’s lover, I say. Or what?
Now isn’t that typical, she says.
You see two women and you can’t wait to imagine them in bed together.
Jason laughs softly.
I grind my teeth, back and forth.
Jason pours three glasses of champagne. Michelle drinks hers greedily. I don’t even touch mine. My hands feel like they’re made of wire and I run them through my jagged hair. Michelle leans on her cocked elbow, her fingers stroking and pulling her own hair. She pretends to ignore me. I stare at her pale shaved armpit and I want to choke her. I may want to sleep with her.
Jason puts his arm around her and she doesn’t resist. She touches his thigh.
Michelle, he says. Do you like Seth’s hair?
She smiles and moves her hand up, dangerously near his crotch.
I don’t like it, says Jason.
Let’s go somewhere, she says. You and me.
Are you trying to protect Emma from me? I say.
She glances at me, annoyed. Maybe.
You’re wasting your time.
She shrugs and leans to nibble on Jason’s ear.
Look at his hair, says Jason. Like some kind of retard.
Retard, she says. Retard.
Maybe it was imaginary but I loved her once, I say.
Michelle is bored. She blows on her fingernails as if they’re wet.
I know, she says. You left her to die in a bathtub.
Bullshit. Did she tell you that?
What is the truth? Michelle says.
Jason grabs Michelle like he’s snatching a fly out of the air. He pulls her close and locks his arm easily under her throat. She struggles and kicks, pulling at his arm. Michelle can’t breathe and I realize from a great distance that he’s crushing her windpipe. She could die in less than a minute.
Jason, I say.
It’s okay, he says. He relaxes his grip and she chokes for breath.
How would you like it, he says. If someone cut your hair like that?
He reaches into his pocket with his free hand. He pulls out an ugly black pocketknife and thumbs open the blade, ceremoniously gives it to me.
Cut it, he says. Cut off a fucking handful.
Michelle’s eyes are horrified and yeah I’m tempted in a cruel, childish way. I shake my head and Jason releases her immediately. She slumps against the couch, still gasping.
Where is Emma? I say.
Michelle glares at me. In her room, she whispers.
I take Jason’s knife with me. I tell myself I’m a lizard, my skin the color of dust. I walk down the hallway and find Emma’s door open. There’s a lamp on, a soft yellow light. Emma sleeps on top of the sheets, fully dressed. There’s a glossy paperback book on her chest, something she grabbed at the grocery store. Her hands are clenched fists at her sides, her face flushed as if with fever. I sit on the bed but she doesn’t wake. Her mouth is barely open, her lips like a goddamn flower. Barefoot, she wears a short skirt, blonde suede with steel buttons up the front. A pale blue T-shirt that barely covers her belly. Her arms and thighs look cold. She has a nasty cut on one knee. I reach for a blanket to cover her. She sleeps and I wonder if she’s dreaming. I want to tell her that I brought her car back, that I’m sorry if I scared her. I hope she feels safe. I put my hand over her mouth for a heartbeat and she kisses my palm, a reflex. Finally, I lean over her with the knife and cut away a fat lock of her black hair.
“Suffer the Fool” was previously published by Bomb magazine. Reprinted here with permission.
Will Christopher Baer is the author of Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre. His latest novel, Godspeed, is due in 2008.
He is represented by Dan Mandel of SJGA.