Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Pleased to Meet Me

 

 

I.

In a world forever re-creating itself in the image of itself seen on screens, the shift from 100% cotton jeans to those made of 93% synthetic fiber went undetected by Wurst until he arrived at the second of two murder scenes in which the female victim had been wearing a pair at the time of her death. She and her Pinarello CX Carbon Cyclocross lay mangled across the South Bosque bike trail, the toes of her bike shoes still clipped to the pedals. A single bullet, yet to be discovered by Ballistics, had penetrated her temple a little below her sport helmet, and the force of the blast had twisted her from her bicycle seat. The bike’s rear tire was pressed up between her legs, and Wurst noted that while the fabric of her jeans resembled denim, it adhered to her skin like ink.

Beyond the crowd of onlookers rose the city’s BioPark and ZooOn a prefab ledge overlooking the crime scene a polar bear luxuriated, its head resting on crossed forepaws. The shot had been fired by a skilled marksman from somewhere within the stand of cottonwoods and salt cedars that sloped to the river. That, or the shooter had been lucky. Blood spatters on the weeds and in the dirt indicated that the victim had been traveling between forty and fifty miles per hour at the moment of impact. Wurst stepped over police tape. To Rochelle of the Tethered Locks, he said, “Have dinner with me tonight.”

“Is that a command or an invitation?” she asked. 

“An invitation.”

“Then afraid I can’t,” she said. Wurst stared at the stones, bottle glass, and snakeweed surrounding her sensible, black-laced brogans until he drew a laugh from her. “I really can’t, Charlie.  My sister’s on Fall Break and our mother’s planned a big to-do, invited all the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins, and she’d kill me if I missed it.”

“Kill you?” he said.

“You know what I mean. Jen’s the first de la Madrid to go to college, and it’s very important to Mama that all of us be in attendance.” 

Rochelle smiled in a way that told him that nothing had changed, that as fond as she was of him his marital status (divorced), age (fifty), and seven-year-old daughter were deal-breakers.  They’d gone on two dates, the first to the Apothecary, an upscale cocktail lounge in a defunct-psychiatric-hospital-turned-three-star-hotel, the second to a rodeo in Socorro. On the drive back from the rodeo, after an afternoon spent cheering barrel racers and bronco riders, and while listening to The Replacements on the CD player, in a spirit of full disclosure he offered the details of his child custody arrangement. 

“I get Tara on Tuesdays and Saturdays,” he said, “in addition to paying her mother five hundred a month to cover dance lessons, childcare, babysitters, what have you. It isn’t ideal, I’ll grant you that, but Clair and I have things worked out pretty well.  At least neither of us is threatening to take the other to court anytime soon.”

Out the driver’s side window the Gallinas and Datil mountain ranges could have been ocean liners passing before an erupting volcano. A silver earring in the shape of a hand-grenade caught the blood-orange sunset and reflected it back to him through her hair. To see it down was worth what he’d paid for their admissions, Navajo tacos and beer. A rosary bead necklace disappeared in a slender V beneath her camouflaged tank top and he found himself envious of the crucified Christ at the vertex. Rochelle was twenty-nine, too young for him even by the French calculation, and a homicide detective under his supervision to boot, which added as much to his wooziness as his wonderment. 

“What would make the arrangement ideal, Charlie?” she asked.

“Clair dead.” It was a joke, but he wasn’t a comedian, and wouldn’t have attempted anything so deadpan if not for the beer. “What I mean,” he said, “is that then I could have Tara seven days a week.”

Rochelle sighed. “No need to backpedal,” she said, and he conceded to her how painful his divorce had been, how hurt feelings had brought the monsters in both Clair and him to the fore, but how in spite of their mutual disdain they’d protected their daughter from the worst of their conflagration. “Hell,” he said, “if Clair were in my place, she’d probably tell you she wished me dead.” 

“Don’t worry,” Rochelle said. “I’m not judging you.” But when they reached the city she wanted to be taken back to her south valley apartment.  Only a little after seven on a Sunday evening, she was nonetheless out of his Firebird before he could ask to walk her to her door. Three months had passed since then, and although he’d asked her out a dozen times, she’d presented him a dozen excuses—a niece’s birthday party, a nephew’s confirmation, a ground breaking ceremony for a new condominium complex on an uncle’s west side property.  The de la Madrid clan was old and ubiquitous, and competing against it was like sparring with an octopus, an obligation she couldn’t refuse at the end of every tentacle.

“The pants the victim was wearing,” Wurst said then.  “Aren’t they the same type that other female murder victim was wearing, the one we found in the gym parking lot a few weeks back.  They look like jeans but they aren’t.  They’re something else.”

“Think you’ve discovered a link, Detective Wurst?” Rochelle asked. 

“I don’t know,” he replied. “It might be a coincidence.”

“They’re called ‘jeggings,’” she said. “A cross between jeans and leggings.”

“Am I the only one who doesn’t know this?” Wurst asked.

Rochelle told him to step back from the crowd of spectators.  “How many women do you see standing around the crime scene?” she asked. 

 “You want me to count them?” 

She nodded. Wurst counted fifteen, most of them college students.  “Now how many of them are wearing jeans?” she asked. 

More than half appeared to be, some in sweaters and fleece vests, others in hoodies and jackets, and the women’s outerwear pricked him with the thought of Christmas, the saddest of all holidays, looming before him with its appeals to spend and false promises of mirth, its fatiguing buildup, arrival, and aftermath, the lost receipts that complicated gift returns, the disappointments that lasted until the middle of January. There was a reason so many of the aged passed away on Christmas day or just after. In his case, Clair would take Tara away to Albany, New York, as she did every winter holiday, until after New Year’s, and then he and his daughter would celebrate a grim, belated Christmas on a Tuesday night, once school was back in session. 

“Eight or nine?” he said. 

“Wrong,” Rochelle replied.  “None of them are.  See how the pants cling to their rear ends.  Even designer jeans don’t fit as snugly as that.”

“So these are ‘in’ right now, is what you’re saying?” Wurst said.

Rochelle shrugged.  “Well, you won’t see me in a pair,” she said.

II.

His daughter was wearing a pair when he picked her up from jazz dance class the following Tuesday. She called them skinny jeans, said all her friends were wearing them, and was surprised he hadn’t commented on them before if he didn’t like them. In the arrangement they’d worked out with the court, Clair was responsible for clothing, and apparently Tara had been wearing them for months without his even noticing. “Regular jeans are too restrictive, Dad,” she said.  “I can’t dance in them.”

“Back in my day, we danced in them just fine,” he replied. “Of course, they had to be broken in.” 

“Not the story about The Replacements playing in your high school gym,” she said.

"I thought you liked that story,” he said. 

“I don’t hate it,” she said.  “It’s just that I’ve heard it a thousand times.”

Tara sat in the passenger seat of his unmarked squad car, her iCarly backpack scrunched on the floor between knockoff Uggs that sheathed her calves in faux leather to the knees. Later, when she went missing, he would remember this conversation, how her pants were alerting him to danger. Though true she’d heard some of his story more than once, she hadn’t heard it all, and how many, he wanted to ask, could say they’d seen The Repalcements for free at a tenth grade sock hop? The part she hadn’t heard, about making out with Loren McGibbon in a storage room on a bed of volleyball nets while Paul, Bob, Tommy, and Chris screamed “Gary’s Got a Boner” on the other side of the door, she wouldn’t hear from him. 

“You know what they look like to me?” he said. “Cartoon jeans.  Jeans worn by a cartoon character.”

“That’s good, right?” she said. “Because cartoons are funny and funny is good.”  Her flaxen hair surrounded her heart-shaped face like a lion’s mane.  Since infancy she’d been turning heads, and he didn’t imagine it changing when she reached puberty. Au contraire, as Rochelle was fond of saying.

“Unh-unh,” he said.  “Not good.  Like Dora the Explorer jeans.”

“Dora the Explorer doesn’t wear jeans,” Tara corrected him. “She wears shorts.”

“Then like Bratz jeans,” he said.  “Like jeans worn by those awful teenaged girls called Bratz.”

“Oh yeah,” she said with glee. “I see what you’re saying.  They do, you’re right.” 

“You like wearing jeans that make you look like a cartoon character from the waist down?”

“I wish I could look like a cartoon character from the waist up, too,” she replied. “I wish I could be a cartoon character.”           

“Oh yeah?” he said. “Which?”

“Patrick Star,” she replied.  “On SpongeBob SquarePants.”

At home he made spaghetti while Tara sat at the kitchen table studying spelling words. The tests were on Fridays and she scored one hundred percent on them if she practiced during the week, but not if she didn’t, which was a point of contention between himself and Clair.  A school psychologist with a scholarly study to back up every one of her opinions, Clair believed that the educational benefits of external rewards were short-lived and that the surest means of instilling a lasting passion for learning lay in letting children discover it on their own. But if given the choice of watching SpongeBob on the couch or doing homework at the kitchen table, Tara would choose the former a hundred times out of a hundred and in time, Wurst feared, she’d become like Patrick, a starfish happiest left beneath his rock on the ocean floor, mesmerized by plankton tumbling past him in the current. But if he restricted Tara to half an hour of TV before bed if, and only if, she received a perfect score on the pretest he administered, then read silently to herself for no less than an hour from one of the children’s books he brought home from the public library downtown, the incentive led, at the very least, to a smiley face at the top of her sheet of ruled paper. Clair could argue all she liked about the weaknesses of his approach; it was producing results.

“The five W’s,” he said.  “Who, what, where, when, and why.  In a murder case, you’re usually given answers to what, where, and when.  Who, in most murders, is self evident. When it isn’t you have a mystery.  Then you have to ask yourself, Why?  Who, what, where, when, and why.”

He folded the mushrooms he’d pureed in the Cuisinart into onions sautéing on the stove. If he merely chopped them, Tara would pick them out one by one. He had to do the same thing with the ground beef. What made his marinara appealing to Tara, beyond its sugary blandness, was its consistency.  Aside from the spaghetti itself, she would be unable to isolate a single ingredient. She was a purist when it came to food, and everything that went into it had to be processed beyond recognition. It was why she liked bologna, Jell-o, and French fries. Orange juice free of pulp but not oranges themselves, grape juice but not grapes. It was why she liked cheese but preferred cheese spread.

“Should, would, could, before, after, and nothing,” he said. “When investigating a murder, there are things you should do and things you would do if only you could.  There is a before and an after, and until you can say precisely how they fit together, you have nothing.  Should, would, could, before, after, and nothing.”

As his marinara simmered, he filled a martini shaker with crushed ice and poured vodka over it. He set an olive stuffed with a pimento into a chilled martini glass, gave the shaker seven stirs, strained the cocktail into his glass. Across the top he floated a drop of dry vermouth. By then the pot of water was boiling, and he cracked spaghetti in half and dropped it in. As it cooked, he quizzed Tara on her spelling of ‘through,’ ‘between,’ ‘because,’ ‘around,’ ‘together,’ ‘apart,’ and ‘Warren, Michigan.’

“Warren, Michigan?” he said.

“It’s Avril’s hometown,” Tara replied.

When he was Tara’s age, his teacher had been Mrs. Hildebrandt and, as far as he’d known, ‘Mrs.’ was her first name.

“OK,” he said, “but is that reason enough to teach second graders to spell it?”

“You have to give Avril a break, Dad,” Tara said. “Her fiancé left her, and now all she can talk about is Warren.”

“Warren, Michigan huh?” he said. “Whatever.  Spell it.” 

As they ate their suppers and, afterward, while Tara read Witches Don’t Do Back Flips, he thought about Avril Dublonski. At the parent-teacher conference he’d attended with Clair, Avril Dublonski’s blondish shoulder-length hair had obscured a tattoo on the back of her neck. He’d sat beside his ex-wife at a thirty-degree angle from Avril at a workstation on two-foot-tall legs, his dress slacked knees pulled to his chest. Avril wore a white skirt and sleeveless blouse, and from the tone of Clair’s voice as she interrogated her about each S that should’ve been an E on Tara’s report card he could tell Clair didn’t approve of her, which made him like Avril all the more. How Clair could expect their daughter to excel when the only pressure to study at all came from him, he didn’t know, but rather than call Clair out on the carpet for it and offer himself up as a human target, he watched Avril’s tattoo advance and recede as if through stalks of wheat. He thought at first it was a deer half-hidden by the curvature of her neck, though he could swear that on the front hoof was a slipper and where the head would be a glove. 

In the schoolyard as they returned to their cars, Clair said, “Talk about bor-ing!  It’s no wonder Tara isn’t in the gifted program. The woman saps energy from intelligent life.” 

Clair’s harsh assessments of others, thrilling to him at the beginning of their marriage, had worn him down over time, and now the mere sound of her voice, gravelly when agitated, worked his nerves. The marriage counselor they’d gone to once their marriage was, in all three opinions, “dead in the water” asked her point-blank if her hypercritical nature wasn’t a defense mechanism meant to hide a wellspring of resentment, anger, and insecurity.  Though she answered, “Duh,” that didn’t make it any easier to bear. The closer to retirement he drew, the more certain he was that one’s severest criticism ought not to be directed at people at all, no matter how awful the deeds done, but reserved for an ever-evolving, global socio-economic network so vast and intricate it could never be understood in its totality. Every human encounter, from the most innocuous to the most sinister, from the most glorified to the most banal, was both a part of it and determined by it; thus, all one could do was conceive an approximation of it and recognize that one’s failures as well as one’s accomplishments were no more one’s own than a falling leaf’s path to the ground was its. The Replacements had understood this as far back as 1983, the year they’d released “Treatment Bound.”

“Did you happen to notice,” he called to his daughter in the living room, “whether Miss Dublonski is still wearing her engagement ring?”

“Avril?” she replied. “No, she isn’t. Now can I watch SpongeBob?”             

“Read for another ten minutes,” he said, and as she grumbled, he poured the olive at the bottom of his martini glass into his mouth, his mood much improved by the prospect of discovering what Avril Dublonski had tattooed on the back of her neck, a mystery that hitherto hadn’t seemed worth investigating.

III.

Tara wasn’t wearing skinny jeans the day she disappeared. When Wurst had let her out of his car across the street from her elementary school, she’d been wearing lilac skorts and a white pointelle cardigan, ‘skorts’ and ‘pointelle’ words he hadn’t even known until he and Claire were asked to provide a description of their daughter for an Amber Alert. They were in the playground, and Claire told the officer interviewing them, “Charlie communicates in generalities, I in specifics. When he says ‘purple skirt,’ he means ‘lilac skorts.’ When he says ‘sweater,’ he means ‘pointelle cardigan.’

“I can even remember the clothing lines,” she said with the shrill of immanent hysteria.  “Will that help?  The cardigan was a Bonnie Jean. The skorts were Guess. I bought them at Macy’s.”

“A purple skirt and white sweater is fine for the officer’s purposes,” Wurst said.

“In fact,” the officer told them, “knowing the clothing lines could prove useful.  You know that, Charlie.”  What he didn’t say was . . . in the event that we find her discarded clothes or, worse, have to identify her body . . . for which Wurst was grateful. 

A police helicopter circled the school in wider and wider arcs. The sky was smalt, and the finial atop the bell tower cast a needle-thin L upon the four-square courts and whitewashed retaining wall.  When the police left, he and Clair sat side-by-side on swings. Before the divorce, they’d brought Tara to the playground many evenings after supper. Going there had been one of her favorite pastimes, and the six-block walk from their small adobe house and back meant an hour he wasn’t self-medicating. He could practically see her there in the twilight, playing Duck, Duck, Goose and Honey, Do You Love Me? when he picked her up after school, see her climbing the ropes and jungle gyms. Their motives for having her—to remedy stasis in their marriage and boredom with each other—hadn’t been pure, but for the first year of her life her very existence, and the demands it made of them, had taken their minds off their marital difficulties. If a baby was a despot, under its rule kindness was less taxing than spite, and he and Clair might have stayed together, he often thought, if only they’d kept having them. But Clair had been forty when Tara was born, and in the modicum of leisure Tara’s toddler-hood granted them, demons thought put-to-rest were resurrected.  With the regularity of a nervous tic, Clair gave voice again to her fear that he no longer loved her with every fiber of his being, and though he denied it every time, he wondered whether a single fiber remained that cared for her at all. 

Then one summer evening on their walk back from the playground Clair said apropos of nothing, “I’ve consulted a lawyer.”

“About what?” he asked.

“Use your powers of deduction,” she replied. He was stunned and, weirdly, admiring. He’d thought they were manacled to each other, that freedom from each other was nothing more than the tired premise of a thousand impossible sexual fantasies, and yet once handed to him he was afraid. 

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“I could not be surer,” she replied. 

In the starlight Wurst could not account for the hours that had passed. He had no recollection of talking to Clair or Clair’s leaving him alone on the swings.  In his career he’d investigated hundreds of crime scenes, but none had affected him like this. He phoned Clair, asked her how long ago she’d left him in the playground and whether he’d acted strangely in any way. 

“You were in shock,” she told him. “Do you want me to come back down there?”

“No,” he said. “I’m all right. I just have no memory of what happened after we sat down on the swings. Did we talk? Did we make a communication plan? Did we say goodbye to each other?”

“You told me it was all my fault.  You kept telling me that Tara’s disappearance was all my fault.” From the receiver sounded a croak, and then Clair was sobbing with such volume he had to hold the phone at arm’s length from his ear. “I don’t know, maybe it is my fault,” she said between gasps.  “I was doing an assessment on a kid, parents totally uncooperative. I kept looking at my watch, trying to let them know I had somewhere to be.”

“It isn’t your fault,” he said. “And it was wrong of me to say it was.”

“And the traffic was terrible.”

“No one’s blaming you.”

“If Tara’s been taken from us, Charlie, I don’t know.”

“The East Side Area Command has some of the finest detectives on the force,” he said. “You remember Stottermeier, right? We had him and his girlfriend Kimberly over for dinner. I made bouillabaisse. And Joey Baca? He and his family attended Christ the King back when we did. Maybe they still do.” 

He knew from experience that his optimism, usually a source of irritation to her, calmed her in times of crisis. “All I’m saying is the department’s top brass is on it.” It was possible, even likely, he told her, that Tara’s kidnapper would attempt to contact her.  If he or she did, Clair was to call the private hotline the officer at the crime scene had given her during their interview, then call him immediately thereafter.  Though the case hadn’t been assigned to him for obvious reasons, he would conduct his own investigation on his own time. “Everything is going to be all right, Clair,” he said, though he didn’t believe it. “We’re going to get our little girl back,” he said, though he knew better than most how these things turned out.

The windows into the kindergarten classrooms, plastered with drawings of turkeys made from the outlines of children’s hands, caught the headlights of Central Avenue traffic and tossed them onto the asphalt, turf, and sand. Each second that passed diminished the chances of their daughter being found at all, much less alive. 

At home he made a vodka martini and picked up after Tara. From her bedroom to the middle of the living room lay a parade of stuffed animals led by the boa constrictor and skunk he’d given to her back when he still carried her around on his chest in a Baby Bjorn. Behind them stood the Snoopies and Woodstocks her grandmother in south Minneapolis had sent her every holiday from Saint Patrick’s to Christmas until she died on a winter evening while shoveling her walk, then the snow leopard, Pekinese, elephant, koala bear, penguin, orangutan, frog, condor, crocodile, tiger, antelope, rhinoceros, lamb, opossum, raccoon, weasel, and chimp, each bought for her on a visit to the zoo out of guilt as much as anything. A child of divorced parents, Tara had the spoils to show for it, displayed in separate houses but in matching bedrooms that resembled emporiums, with plumed Mardi Gras masks dangling from her mirror posts and antique wardrobes crammed with clothes she’d worn but once or not at all. That she wanted for nothing and didn’t know it couldn’t be blamed on her. One of them—which no longer mattered—had given her something that provoked the other to give her something else, and before they knew it they were competing against each other for their daughter’s affection. That they were ruining her didn’t take Dr. Phil.

Though after one, he phoned Avril Dublonski, figuring he’d leave a Voicemail message for her. When she answered, the gaping static that followed caught him off guard. “Hello?” she said again. 

“This is Detective Wurst, Tara Wurst’s dad.  I apologize for phoning so late.”

“It’s OK,” she said.  “I couldn’t sleep anyway.” 

“I won’t keep you long.”

“I have a sub tomorrow. I can talk to you all night if you like. You’re calling about Tara, I take it.”

“Yes,” he said, “though I’m not officially assigned to the case.  I know you gave a witness statement to the detectives who are.  Good detectives both.”  He asked her if she’d noticed anything unusual the day before, nothing that would necessarily stand out in her memory if Tara hadn’t gone missing but, now that she had, seemed mildly out of the ordinary, coincidental, or ironic even, in retrospect, as if God or fate were making a wry joke.

“A wry joke?” she said.

“Often witnesses fail to provide information pertinent to a case only because they don’t see its relevance themselves.”

“I understand,” she said. 

“An offhand remark. An odd expression. Someone behaving slightly out of character. Momentary impressions that would otherwise be forgotten. These sometimes matter.”

“There was nothing,” she said. “I’ve scoured the entire day repeatedly, looking for anything that might’ve signaled what was going to happen, but I keep coming up empty.”

“Well,” he said, “I’m sorry about your wedding plans. Tara told me they fell through.”

“First that, now this. If I didn’t know better, I’d say God has a wry sense of humor indeed.”

“What happened?” he asked. “Did you see it coming or did it take you by surprise?”

“Both,” she said. “When Berto told me he was going back to Poland, I was devastated. But even the devastation, if that’s what it was, was like a déjà vu, like something I’d foreseen and even counted upon.” 

“I know what you mean,” he said. “When Tara’s mother—you know Clair—told me she wanted a divorce, it wasn’t something I hadn’t imagined happening. I had, many times. But that didn’t take the sting out of it.”

“What about now?” she asked. “This?”

“This?” he said. “My talking to you on the phone at one-thirty in the morning?”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “But not just that. Everything. Tara’s disappearance. What we’re talking about. Berto’s breaking up with me. Clair’s breaking up with you.”   Outside a squad car siren sounded. “What’s that?” she asked. 

“A siren,” he replied. 

“No,” she said. “What you’re listening to.  I hear music in the background.”

He’d turned on the stereo without realizing it, just as he’d made a second and a third vodka martini without realizing it either. “The Replacements,” he said.

“Wow,” she said. “You like The Replacements.”

“Love The Replacements,” he said.

“They were from Minneapolis, right?” she said.

“South Minneapolis,” he said. And then he told her about hearing them live in his high school gym.

IV.

“It was a clown,” he tells Rochelle de la Madrid inside the Apothecary, the lounge on the top floor of the Hotel Parq Central, the site of their first date nearly three years ago, “a harlequin.” 

He is married to Avril Dublonski now and has been happily so for over a year.  But for three weeks, ever since the arrest of The Skinny Jeans Killer, a.k.a. Lucas (“Freebird”) Mahoney-Villa, thanks to what Police Chief Claudia Estovan-Clark called his “superb detective work,” which overnight made him irresistible to Rochelle, he has been having an affair with her, and now he isn’t sure if his marriage is happy or not. Rochelle believes that were it not for him, Mahoney-Villa would still be at-large, preying upon women in jeggings, though in truth once Mahoney-Villa was dubbed The Skinny Jeans Killer, most of the women living in the city stopped wearing them, which allowed Homicide, with help from the FBI, to lure Mahoney-Villa into custody with a decoy.

“I don’t know what I was hoping for. A mandala? A lotus? A cosmic egg?  But a fool? A jester? When I finally ascertained what my child’s second grade teacher had tattooed on her neck, by then I’d asked her to marry me. You laugh, but by then half the calendars in Warren, Michigan had our wedding date written on them. I proposed to Avril on a Sunday afternoon and by Monday evening the elder Dublonskis had the Knights of Columbus lodge on Ryan Road booked for the reception and her sister Maeve had set up a website with a ticker counting off the days, hours, minutes, seconds, and nanoseconds left until our exchange of vows at Saint Sylvester’s.”

Tara has been missing for over two years. Some nights he watches SpongeBob SquarePants in the living room while Avril prepares her next day’s lesson plans in the kitchen. Afterward she’ll ask him if he remembers anything that happened in any episode and he won’t, not one moment or line. It’s as if he’s returned from the other side of the television screen, from a fully animated underwater world where he is conducting an investigation on his own time, interviewing SpongeBob, his pet snail Gary, his boss Eugene Krabs, his friends Patrick and Sandy, his arch nemesis Squidward. Though each claims no knowledge of his daughter’s whereabouts, he suspects they are protecting her and as soon as he returns to his home where Avril sips chamomile tea while checking the status updates of her Facebook friends, Tara will emerge from beneath a rock in Bikini Bottoms and eat Krabby Patties at the Krusty Krab. Avril wants a baby, and on the three or four nights a week when he isn’t working undercover, he tries to impregnate her. On the nights he is, he leaves that other Wurst behind, and because Avril is so trusting he imagines that the Wurst putting murderers behind bars or, as is the case tonight, about to retire to a fully comped suite with de la Madrid, is no more real than the Wurst who dreams of interrogating Sheldon Plankton at the Chum Bucket. 

Rochelle sets down her Twelve-Mile Limit, a prohibition era cocktail made with rum, whiskey, and brandy, on an art deco bev-nap. “Clowns are creepy. If I found a clown on someone I was sleeping with, it might take more than a set wedding date to keep me with him. It might take a set appointment with a tattoo-removal specialist.”

“I don’t mind it,” he says. “Though if I’d been able to see the damn thing at the parent-teacher conference that morning, I wonder if it would have possessed me like it did. As it was, I couldn’t take my mind off it. For weeks I imagined pulling back Avril’s hair and seeing what? I didn’t know. But you know what? Every time I was with her and could’ve asked her point-blank to see it, I forgot all about it.  The tattoo never crossed my mind.”

He’s fifty-two, she’s thirty-one, and if the French calculation is to be trusted, they are the perfect ages for each other now. But if his second wife presents an obstacle to their ever being more than secret lovers, so too does de la Madrid’s fiancé, Carlos Santillanes, the oldest son of a family that prides itself in a lineage dating back to a conquistador born in León in 1542. According to Rochelle, she is in “like” with Carlos, but will marry him anyway within the year because of the endorsement their union has received from all four parents, which, she believes, is more important to a successful marriage than passion or even love. What she has with him, Wurst, she refuses to quantify, and why should she?  She likes him well enough to go to bed with him. And yet he can’t help thinking that their timing was off, that if she’d only found him attractive enough to bed before the apprehension of Mahoney-Villa, they could’ve made their relationship public, gotten engaged, wed.  Though of German ancestry traceable back to a great grandfather who in 1900 worked as a foreman in a Neenah, Wisconsin foundry, he could’ve won her parents over. Probably. Maybe. 

“What’s funny is Avril can’t stand it. Hates it in fact. She and an ex-boyfriend dared each other to get tattoos, the stipulations being one, that each would choose the tattoo the other would receive and two, neither could see the tattoo until it was done.”

“So she winds up with a clown on the back of her neck,” Rochelle says. 

“And he winds up with the head of a palomino on his left ass cheek.”

“She was smart to choose the back of her neck,” Rochelle says. 

“I guess.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Rochelle says, which surprises him. She wets her teeth with her tongue and grins at him. “I bet you would’ve agreed to the same thing if I’d dared you.”

“But you didn’t dare me,” he says. “You wouldn’t even go out with me after our second date. And all because of that mild faux pas of mine. I’ve regretted it ever since, I’ll have you know.”

“What faux pas?”

“What I said about Clair that day. On our drive back from the rodeo. You know, about wishing her dead. You lost interest in me after that. Don’t deny it.”

“I didn’t lose interest in you because of that,” she says. “My God, you had a child, Charlie.” 

So that was it. He had a child.

“Open mouth,” she says. “Insert foot.”

He had a child, and now he doesn’t. 

In their suite they undress and embrace. Standing beside the bed, he in boxer shorts, she in just her jewelry, he slides three fingers between her legs and parts her labia with the middle one. Skinny jeans are now passé. But if the year in which they were the rage seems like eons ago, The Replacements performing in his high school gym might as well have occurred in a past life, and as he and Rochelle kiss it’s as if he’s become a cartoon version of himself, folded into a future in which he is of the world but hardly in it at all.