This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue playboy magazine.
I normally don’t answer the phone when I’m uploading a picture of my cock to the internet, but it was Jess, and she had taken Zack out of state.
“Speaking,” I said.
“Why do you answer the phone like that?”
“Are you calling principally to question my phone etiquette? Because I know plenty of other women who can do that who I still get to fuck.”
I watched the picture come up bar by bar: the pecs with their breasty shadows, the taut overhang of the belly positioned to obscure my face and finally the cock itself, the undampable springing leftness of it, the tragic, gut-punch tapering, like a Nike Swoosh on a set of angry pink razor-burned balls.
Delete, man. Fucking deee-leet.
“I’m not sure. He was asleep this morning when JP left for work, and then when he got home Frank was barking like crazy and led him into our room——”
“—and he was under the bed.”
“Did you tell Zack yet?”
“No. Betsy and I took the kids to Legoland today, and he’s so happy. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Betsy was Jess’s high school friend. She had spoken at our wedding and then been the architect of my demise. She lived in San Diego now with Mike and their kids, on a street that ends in the ocean. At the corner of Via de la Paz or some such shit and the petering sand grains of America.
“JP’s waiting for you at the house.”
“I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” And then, instead of hanging up, “Can I say hi to Zack?”
I heard her walk into the other room, then him rabbiting around with Harlan and Juno, the hysterical pitch of it, laughter indiscernible from tears, and I forgot for a second that she had called me not out of kindness, or even decency, but because the court had ordered it.
“Harlan an’ me taught Juno fish bump oh crap buhronicles!”
Then all I heard was iPhone eating carpet, followed by more sounds of blunted, faraway joy. After a minute Jess picked up the phone.
“Sorry. I got him something for Christmas and he saw me taking it out of the bag.”
Like always, it was out of me before I even knew it had words to latch onto.
“Why are you always trying to turn him against me?”
“I don’t know, Latham,” she said. “I think you’re doing a pretty good job of that all by yourself.”
Jess and I met in Baltimore during our cardiology residency at the U of M, where we were both shit-talking and fuck-you fat. We would smoke outside with the EMTs and get drunk at happy hour with the nurses. Most of the other residents—the skinny Asians who grew up in suburbs named after office parks and dreamed of becoming dermatologists or pediatricians or GPs, as well as the occasional Jewish boy who still hadn’t gotten the memo to come to Wall Street—gave us a pretty wide berth.
Our patients were junkies and the war homeless. On the rare nights that they didn’t get knifed or raped or OD’d, they would put their fists through windows or run headlong into razor wire to get a bed.
“I got an SHP in 4-12,” I would say.
“SHP?” would say Richard Lu or Sinjin Park or whoever. “It’s a purpura, right? Vasculitis?”
“No, fuckhole,” Jess would laugh. “It’s a subhuman piece of shit.”
I took her to Crisfield, where I grew up, at the piss-end of Chesapeake Bay. We slept in my grandmother’s old twin bed, all 400 pounds of us. We drove around and bought beer and cigarettes and went crabbing in the shallows without a license just like Uncle Malcolm had taught me. When the police boat came by we hid on our knees in the bay grass, and when it was gone Jess blew me unapologetically while the egrets looked on, pouty and bored. My parents kept a brooding distance all weekend, curious about the smart part of me—the part I had cultivated on my own, in secret, afraid that if they found out about it they would stamp it out—and what it had brought home. We were as exotic to them as black people, or happiness.
Malcolm was my mother’s brother and, other than me, the only one who got out. It was to get a Ph.D. in poetry, I think, though that was clearly off the table by the time I was born. He had a long, rosacea-ruined face and was always coming from someplace different, Burlington or Amherst or New London, some college town with a public square where an old man could hang out with the runaways and oi punks and buy them beer and later try to suck their dicks and get beat up and do it all over again the next day. When I was a kid he would show up every year in the general vicinity of Christmas and upend a black plastic yard-waste bag onto the floor. There’d be lip balm, tube socks, roll-on, disposable lighters and sometimes penny rolls from the bank taking off for the corners in their red construction-paper jackets.
“If the mayor wants a Filet-O-Fish,” he’d say, “you’d better get him one. That stylish bastard is on a hot streak!”
Or “You don’t believe me? Go to the Ritz and ask the white bartender. He’ll remember. I’m the one who put his cigarette out in Bob Lowell’s butter dish!”
And often there was song: “Degree! Degree! I’m getting a degree! / In comparative histology! / Microbes dance and microbes sing / But the macrophage eats everything!”
Even a six-year-old can tell true joy from booze-fueled mania, but it was unusual to hear anyone make any noise in the house at all the rest of the year, so I took what I could get.
And he always had something special in the car for me: a plastic flying-saucer sled or a carving knife for whittling the marsh-softened wood or something from Heathkit.
The last time it was a brand-new Marlin bolt-action .22.
Even though the clouds were already pink he led me out into the woods and showed me how to load and aim. I shot the dirt and took the branches off some trees, my shoulder stinging from the weight.
“Now for a real target,” he said.
He found a sapling that was roughly his height, then took off his mackinaw and threaded a spindly branch through each arm so the tree looked like it was holding its arms up over its head in surrender.
And then, while he hooted and shimmied and shivered, I put hole after hole in his jacket, the smoke rising off it like steam.
When I ran out of ammo, he took a step back and looked at what I’d done. Tears and snot ran down his face, from the cold, I hoped, though I wasn’t trying to look too hard.
“I keep no rank nor station,” he said. “Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.”
The next December I was in the woods when a fierce wind tore through. I looked up to see the last of the yellow leaves rattling in the tall trees.
My mother was in the kitchen.
“Where’s Uncle Malcolm?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Indianapolis?”
About 25 years later I happened to pick up a greasy Norton Anthology that one of Jess’s roommates had left on top of the toilet tank.
There it was: “I keep no rank nor station.…”
“Home After Three Months Away.” By Bob Lowell.
I looked at it awhile, trying to find something, but in the end it’s just a piece of smugly unilluminating faggotry.
Jess moved in at the beginning of June, just before the last year of our residency. I had a structurally unsound townhome deep in Carroll County that she did her best to humanize. A trio of majolica roosters appeared on the kitchen counter one day, a little wastepaper basket in the bathroom the next. Trivets. Glass ashtrays. Copper-bottomed skillets hanging from cast-iron curlicues. Buffers against the tendency of things to burn or stain or otherwise go to shit.
The dogs were not on anybody’s to-do list. We were driving home from breakfast one day and saw a cardboard sign propped up against the mailbox at the end of somebody’s driveway.
bulldog puppies it said.
A ropy tweeker in cut-off jeans and a St. Barts T-shirt answered the door and led us into the kitchen, where five of them were nursing blindly on a Cookie Monster doll.
“Where’s the mother?” Jess asked.
“I don’t know,” the guy shrugged. “This is how they came.” I noticed, for the first time, that he was wearing lipstick.
Jess sat down on the floor and lifted the dogs out one by one. Within a minute they had nosed into her crotch and fallen asleep in a big pile. I have a picture of that on my old phone, wherever that is. Of the moment when she looked up from the pile to find my face.
We took two, because that’s what you do when you’re still in that place where you think you can control somebody else’s loneliness, animal or otherwise. They’ll keep each other company, we thought. They’ll talk dog.
So that’s how it was that summer: me and Jess and Odin and Frank out on the splintery, listing deck. Reading. Ashing in the glass ashtrays. The dogs loose and slack as spilled milk, their bellies sunburning while I rode Jess’s clit with the ball of my foot, bearing down and easing up on it like a pedal until she pulled me into bed to finish the job.
And then one night after I came, I proposed to her. Odin, roused by the noise, loped in and licked my balls.
Yet, yet, yet.
It became clear pretty fast that marriage and me were not going to be on the same page.
I think it was when Jess decided to get skinny. There wasn’t any conversation about it. I just walked in one day and found a treadmill in the dining room.
“It’s for both of us,” she said.
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “I’ll try not to hog it.”
She was on it all the time. More and more of her sloughed off, until all that was left was the treadmill and cigarettes.
And then just the treadmill.
I would take Odin and Frank out for a walk and hear the thrum-stomp-thrum through the open window.
The smart part of me fought hard but, as always, proved no match for the rest.
I am being cuckolded by a machine, I thought.
She is already running away.
And the dogs would squat and shit, looking up at me with naked affection as they bore down.
On our wedding night I smoked crack with the busboys at the hotel and then, apparently, told Jess’s mother about the time I stapled some SHP’s broken face back together because it would have taken half an hour to stitch properly. Out on the dance floor I got in her Bones-producing brother’s face and licked his glasses.
That night in bed, Jess tried to talk to me.
“Whatever,” I said. “I liked you better when you were fat.”
There were two decent cardiology practices in Memphis and both had openings, so we moved there. We bought a house in a new development and a big piece of land southeast of Oxford, Mississippi for me to run the dogs on. Jess called it the Duchy of Swampfucker.
I took up with a nurse who had a gift for prescription fraud. With a Percocet in me I found that I could see patients and make small talk. With two, I could get the grandmas in holiday sweaters who ran the hospital gift shop to fight over who was going to take me to lunch.
I would go down the cafeteria line and choose ribs, chicken, sweet potatoes, green beans, corn pudding, catfish, hot rolls, okra, pasta with Italian gravy and pie. Little pleated Solo cups of comeback sauce or remoulade would hydroplane raffishly across my tray.
One day there was a new lady behind the steam table. She was maybe 60 and bigger than I was by almost another me.
“You look like somebody,” she said. “Paula? Who he look like?”
When she moved I saw the roll and kink in her hip. Dysplasia.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. It’s the one from that movie.”
“How am I supposed to know what movie you’re talking about?”
“You know. The one where he put his foot through the windshield.”
“I don’t know nothing about no windshield.”
“Yes, you do. It’s the Pineapple movie.”
“Pineapple Express? You think he look like James Franco?”
“No, not him. The other one.”
“The Rogen one?”
“No, not him either.”
“Ain’t nobody else in that movie, Teesha.”
“Come on, now. You know who I’m talking about.”
“I am done with this conversation.”
“The Jamie Foxx one! He in the Jamie Foxx one about the president.”
“That’s who!” She put an ice-cream scoop of pimento cheese on my plate. “You look just like Channing Tatum.”
Something unfurled inside me.
I could swear it was the smart part, in reckless, unfathomable bloom.
On my next day off I drove out to the Duchy and let the dogs loose. After a couple of hours of hunting I found an arm-thick white ash branch about seven feet long, dragged it back to the truck, and drove home.
For the next month or so I would pull the branch out of the truck bed between patients and whittle it down with the knife Uncle Malcolm had given me all those years ago. The wood was smooth and slippery, and I had to stop every few minutes to dry the sweat off my hands. Even so, one time I ran the knife right through the tip of my thumb and had to pop another Perc and stitch it up.
When I had a proper walking stick, I rolled it in a piece of bright green felt and brought it to the cafeteria.
She wasn’t there.
“You didn’t know? She took that job in West Memphis. Closer to her grandkids.”
I walked through the cool halls and then the lobby atrium and kept going until I found myself way out in the auxiliary parking lot, where I unwrapped the stick and beat the asphalt with it until the grip broke off and skittered away. When it came to a rest, there was Channing Tatum’s fist-size face, perfectly rendered in white ash, staring down the hard Memphis sun.
On the last night, I stopped by the nurse’s place in Orange Mound after work. She made me a couple of drinks and then, while I was fucking her, slipped an Opana into my asshole.
I got home two hours late for the dinner party we were having for Jess’s partners. I was supposed to smoke some salmon on a cedar plank in the Big Green Egg, but Jess had just stuck it under the broiler, and everyone had eaten it in mortified, un-Southern silence. When I walked in they were drinking red velvet vodka in the living room and playing some portable electronic game called Catch Phrase! that one of the wives had brought.
“Wu-Tang Killa Beez, we on a swarm! Wu-Tang Killa Beez, we on a swarm!”
I lay down on the couch and put my head in Jess’s lap.
“All right,” one of the wives said, all watery and chipper, “this is one word, three syllables. It’s a person who is very concerned, very anxious about things——”
“What is cunt?” I said.
“Latham,” Jess said.
“The last syllable is a kind of growth, I think it is viral, like a little bump you might have on——”
“What is assfister? What is coozedribble?”
“Why are you answering in Jeopardy form?” one of the doctors said, trying to put some kind of headlock on the situation. “This isn’t Jeopardy.”
“Wart,” someone said.
“What is your mother fucks AIDS monkeys?”
I got the divorce papers before I even knew she was pregnant with Zack. She got the house, the money, the dogs and most of the boy. I got the land and the right to bury the dogs on it.
JP had moved in with Jess when Zack was two. He called himself Armenian but was raised in Paris by his filthy rich pill-dulled mother and her second husband, a famous psychiatrist who hated children. JP was kind, soft, inquisitive and forbearing and held eye contact longer than necessary. How he ended up in Memphis I knew at one time but have forgotten.
When I pulled up to the house he was standing in the driveway next to his 1990s Volvo wagon, which was filled with the Oriental rugs he sold for a living, their whorled ends jammed up against the back window.
“I am so sorry,” he said and gave me a big hug, pressing his belly against mine, his beard on my neck.
“Tell me the truth,” I said, all gravitas. “Are you touching my son’s weenie in the night?”
He shook his head wearily. “Come on. I’ll show you where he is.”
A great push of forced-air heat, with its faint recycled smell of myself, met me at the door.
And then the rugs.
JP had covered the floors with them in overlapping layers, pink and gold rosettes interrupted by silver birds and sky-blue swastikas and dolls with orange hearts and moons and fists and hot white points of light, like a fireworks show where the fucked-up technician keeps pressing the button too soon, releasing another one and then another and another, before the last has turned to smoke.
I wished I had done just one more bump.
Or maybe one less.
When we reached the bedroom, JP put a hand on my shoulder. “I tried to get him out myself, but he’s stuck. Maybe if I lift, you can pull?”
I got down on all fours. Odin’s belly had distended with the rigor mortis and was wedged against the box spring. When JP lifted the bed I grabbed both sets of paws and tugged as hard as I could. He came out in sharp little judders, his fur catching on the carpet fibers.
He was bigger than the last time I had seen him. Tiny white hairs had begun to mist his eyes and his black lips. But the main thing was how stiff he was. The pink drum of a belly. The invisibly trussed legs. Even the jowls looked frozen in place.
JP left for a minute and came back with one of the rugs.
“This was his favorite. I was measuring it one day, and he climbed on, and that was it. Odin’s forever.”
“Don’t do that.”
He shrugged. “It is happening.”
We rolled him up in it and put the whole thing in the truck, and after I had a smoke I went back into the house to take a piss and wash my hands. When I pulled one of the hand towels off the bar, I saw a Zack-high smear of dried—what? blood? snot? shit?—behind it on the wall.
I closed my eyes.
More fucked-up fireworks.
Patterns strangled and stomped on, colors raped and replaced.
By the time we were on the far side of Oxford, I could tell that JP was working himself up to do some serious empathizing.
“So, Latham,” he said. He was always very big on addressing people by name. “How are you?”
“Fine, Jean-Pierre,” I said. “How are you?”
“Are you still seeing Sharonda?”
“It’s not polite to answer a question with a question.”
“Really? We are really doing this?”
“Yes. Apparently we are.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Do you really hate everything that much?”
“No. I love that in most public restrooms now they put a trash can right by the door so you can open it with a paper towel and then throw the paper towel away. I think that is truly stellar.”
“You know, we both want to help you get your privileges back. Even Jess.”
“And coming. I love coming. That shit never gets old.”
He sighed again. “It is always épater with you. Épater, épater. Pretty soon people are going to stop trying.”
“God, I sure fucking hope so.”
When we pulled onto the fire road it was almost midnight. I parked and we carried the rolled-up rug across a narrow valley, more of a divot, really, to a flat spot under the big red cedar that Odin and Frank liked to nap under.
The moon was high and clear, so we turned off our flashlights and set to, shovels flinting on the rocky soil. After a few minutes JP stopped to wrap his underused hands in some gauze from the first-aid kit and talk about the landscape and the Deep South and the beauty in specificity. The deep, singsongy Frenchness of his voice running on like an unseen stream.
An hour or so later, when we had a hole, we unrolled Odin to look at him one last time in the cold light.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put him in the ground like that, in that permanent flinch.
So I waited. I sent JP back to Memphis in the truck and sat by Odin’s body for three days, batting the flies away, the crows, the scavengers. Watching the looseness, the sag and slack of it, slowly return. Watching him unburden himself of death. Watching him return to his body.
I buried him.
Then I walked down the road till I found a pay phone and tried to think of who to call to take me home.