The floor creaked in the hall outside my bedroom at 3:20 in the morning, and shortly after that, the doorknob quietly turned. I had a Louisville slugger in my hands and a hundred-pound dog snoring next to my bed. On the other side of the door was Mike Harper, a childhood friend who had suffered a mental breakdown, thought mobsters were after him, was carrying a large knife and pining away for Adeline, a woman he hadn’t seen in a dozen years.
I set up three feet from the door, doing my best Pete Rose, ready to bash his face in. The bat slid wet in my palms. Sweat tickled my back. The doorknob squeaked. I set my stance and saw my moonlit shadow winding up against the wall for a homerun swing. Playing it through my mind, I wondered what it would it sound like. I wondered where the blood would go.
Mike had been a good friend, but if he came through that door there was a good chance I’d kill him.
I’d arrived home from my shop early, brewed coffee and watched a bright shaft of sunlight in my living room get winnowed away by a fat gray cloud. It was late afternoon and the sky dimmed in anticipation of a front. As soon as I moved toward the window, Dash, my yellow lab, was on his feet nuzzling me with the kind of loyalty unique to dogs. I scratched his head and opened the blinds fully, filling the room with bluish light. Across the street jack-o’-lanterns with the carved faces of comedy and tragedy stared at me from the neighbor’s porch. I sipped coffee and watched a stray calico bury shit in my cypress mulch. The phone rang. It was Mike calling to dredge up the past.
Forty-five minutes later, I pulled into Union Station and looked for that familiar face among scattered groups of people bound together under umbrellas. Through the wipers and the raindrops, I saw a man who resembled Mike, but this guy had a distended stomach, a bloated face and receding wavy hair. He wore what looked to be an expensive suit, white shirt and no tie, and he floated through the parking lot with his head high and his nose up.
“Mike,” I said, assessing what the years had done. “It’s been a long time.” I shook his hand, which was soft and slender.
“There were people watching me in the train station,” he said. His eyes darted nervously. “Two old guys in suits.”
“Why would people be watching you?” I said.
“People have agendas,” he said. “We’d better get out of here.” He smiled awkwardly revealing yellow teeth. I smelled alcohol on his breath and noticed that his eyes were glassy and red. I opened the rear hatch and tossed in his beat-up leather bag.
He clambered into the passenger seat. “What did you do, crawl here?”
“I said forty-five minutes.”
“I lost my cell phone,” he said, then turned quickly to look out the passenger window and then through the side view mirror as I pulled away.
Mike smelled unwashed and had a few days of beard growth. He looked around at the interior of my new Jeep Cherokee and said, “When I lived in Europe, I drove a Mercedes SUV. You wouldn’t believe how tight that motherfucker was. German precision tolerance is measured in micrometers.”
“I was surprised to get your call,” I said, and turned the air up a notch. “I thought you’d fallen off the earth.”
Mike nodded as if there were more to say. He didn’t rent a car because his mother wasn’t driving anymore and he needed to pick up her Buick.
“Adeline and I split up,” he blurted out. “She took everything. She took my soul.”
Sins and secrets reside in shallow graves, and at that moment, I regretted having picked up the phone and I regretted Mike’s presence here.
“Have you spoken to her?” I said.
Mike tugged at his bottom lip, a tic he always had, and he shook his head. “Things have changed,” he said, and stared through the passenger window at the endless line of strip malls and restaurants. He appeared perplexed by it all, like an alien studying a landscape of concrete and fluorescent lights that blurred into hues of color in the wetness and fading light.
We drove to the cadence of the windshield wipers and the rain and there was an uncomfortable silence that filled the space between us.
“How long has it been since you’ve been home?” I said.
He shook his head and said, “I need a drink.”
When we got back to my house, I turned all the lights on so Mike could see the place. I pulled two beers out of the fridge, and Mike asked if I had something stronger with Dash thumping his rebar tail against the wall and jumping all over him. “There’s a bottle of vodka in the cabinet next to the fridge,” I said.
I told Dash to lie in his bed and he did, but he kept a cautious eye on Mike.
“Vodka from Texas?” Mike scoffed and poured a hefty glass with some ice and tapped it to my beer. “Did you buy the house like this?” He looked around and it made me feel good.
“No, I spent a year renovating. Did every bit of it myself. I refinished the hardwood floors, re-plastered the walls and built new cabinets as they did back in the twenties. It’s listed on the National Historic Registry.” He looked around and nodded, plopped himself down on the couch and immediately lowered the blinds. Rain fell hard and tapped on the windows like a thousand strangers.
I choked up on the bat and thought about pitching those round summer melons in high school, swinging for the cheap seats and laughing like hell with my friends. The melons exploded, sending red flesh all directions. I stared at the bedroom door. It was one of the originals, from 1920; a sturdy door, with a crystal doorknob that sparkled in the moonlight. The door creaked behind Mike’s weight. Sweat dripped into one of my eyes and burned. My breathing got shallow and the room closed in.
What part had I played in the events that led to this moment? Did he know about me and what I’d done, or was I paranoid? I thought about Mike and the day our friendship ended, and stepped into my resolve, waiting for his face to show through that door.
One summer, before Adeline, Mike and I went to meet two girls. Mike and the girls were in their mid-twenties. I was in college. One of the girls brought out four glasses of sweet tea and we sat by their apartment pool under the shade of an umbrella and for that afternoon we were rich. It was a hot day and the tea was cold and the girls were curvy and sexy in their bikinis and they were smoking menthol cigarettes. Mike and the girls were laughing about a joke I wasn’t in on. Then he looked at me and said, “Listen, don’t freak out, but we put something in the tea. LSD.” I knew he was serious. I was pissed and my stomach turned. I didn’t want that shit in my body.
They were all talking at once and saying how much fun we were going to have. One of the girls flashed me and the three of them laughed even harder. I started to calm down and the world began to warp. Things all seemed to move differently. Slower. The familiar became peculiar. Then Mike said it was going to last six to seven hours and there was nothing I could do about it and that I needed to stay cool, have fun and ride it out. Six to seven hours of hallucinating, laughing, crying, huddled in a corner scared, wondering when it was going to end. I avoided Mike’s calls for more than a year after that. Then he called and offered a half-assed apology for what had happened and asked me to meet him and his fiancée at a wine bar.
I rattled up in my Falcon with the $95 Earl Scheib paint job and parked next to Mike’s new BMW. Mike wore a coat and tie and flashed money and introduced me to Adeline. She was an emergency room nurse, an RN, with a crazy, unapologetic laugh. When she spoke, she placed her hand on my arm in a way that made me feel as if I’d known her for years. Her brown hair was pulled back into a functional ponytail and she had a round, freckled face with soft, caramel eyes. There was a sizeable marquise diamond on her finger with a silver band. Mike doted on her and I couldn’t blame him. I liked her instantly and I think the feeling was mutual. I watched them together, and I looked at his car and his suit and his trajectory and I wanted what he had. I was there for his benefit, so I could see him in his glory. That was the last time I saw Mike, until he showed up at the train station.
We’d grown up looking over the fence and wanting, and suddenly he was on the other side looking back.
Fear of the unknown is debilitating. Did Mike have the knife behind that door? Was he here to make me pay for what I’d done? I glanced at the clock. It was 3:21. Dash nudged my leg and growled. I quietly shushed him, thinking that we’d have the advantage of surprise. I squeezed the bat and rubbed on the knuckle I’d broken the night Mike and the girls had drugged me, with no recollection of how it occurred, except for having been told that I’d punched a hole through a wall in an imaginary fight, and it occurred to me that I had not forgiven him for that night or for his success.
We sat in my living room with our drinks. I sipped beer and Mike drank my vodka. Dash barked and Mike sprung from his seat. “Is someone here?” He peered through the blinds and scanned the street.
“Relax,” I said. “Dogs hear shit and they bark.”
Mike called the shop when he arrived and my dad gave him my number. He asked how my old man was doing and I said work makes him happy.
“I’m surprised you’re still there,” he said.
“You and me both,” I said, letting his condescension slide. “I ended up with a business degree and quit, but went back five years ago, because I wanted to.” I told Mike that we had eight craftsmen working for us now and were building custom signature pieces; all hardwoods, cherry, birch, sapele, mahogany. “We have a website and we’re picking up projects all over the country. I travel around looking for aged woods from century-old farmhouses.”
“A website.” He chuckled. “Good for you guys. And you’re single?”
“I had a starter marriage. She wanted to travel the world and drink champagne and well, I wanted to build furniture.”
“When’d you get divorced?”
“Five years ago.”
He took a long swig of vodka and said, “Man, we were knee-deep in it back in the day.”
Truth of the matter was, Mike always picked up the girls, especially the ones that traveled in pairs. I’d usually get the castoff. Which wasn’t altogether a bad deal.
“But, I’d do anything to get Addy back,” he said. “She kept me grounded. We had a misunderstanding. I think I just need to…have you seen her?”
I shook my head and thought about Adeline. “We never traveled in the same circles,” I said, and asked him about Italy.
“In the afternoons, I’d walk up to the Piazza di Spagna, get a glass of wine, sit on the Spanish Steps and watch happy couples throw coins into Trevi Fountain.”
The light from a car illuminated the blinds.
“Shit!” Mike turned quickly and looked through the blinds for a long moment then turned back toward me with startled eyes, his hands trembling.
“Jesus, Mike. It’s just the pizza,” I said, over Dash’s barking.
Mike reached for his wallet as I headed for the door, then explained that he only had credit cards and helped himself to a second glass of vodka. Another fat pour.
The pizza guy, a middle-aged Hispanic man, kept diverting his eyes over my shoulder toward Mike, who eyed him suspiciously from the kitchen.
“Did you know that guy?” Mike asked when I walked in with the pizza.
“It’s just a guy who delivers pizza,” I said.
“Everyone hides in plain sight,” he said.
The track lighting in the kitchen was bright and I saw that Mike’s suit was frayed at the edges. When he turned, I noticed a discoloration on the back of the coat. A stain about the size of a fist.
“Nice suit,” I said, when he caught me looking.
“I had this tailored in Rome.” He opened one side of the coat with his thumb and index finger, so I could see a large custom label sewn inside. “One hundred percent Italian silk. Bought the loafers there too.” He raised a leg to show me his soft leather shoes with heels worn to wedges by years of abrasions. “When you purchase clothes of high quality instead of buying crap off the rack, they’re going to last you and wear better.”
Mike excused himself to change while I dished out the pizza. I watched him walk away and thought about a story I’d read in one of those pop-psychology books. The story told of a seven-foot tall statue of a Greek youth that the Getty Museum was going to purchase for millions of dollars. Experts studied the piece for a year and declared it genuine. Then one historian, in a glance, declared it a fake for no other reason than it just didn’t look right.
Mike came back from the bedroom wearing worn jeans, slip-on sneakers and the same white shirt now untucked. The pits of his shirt were discolored. He popped four pills in his mouth and swallowed them with what was left of his vodka. “Steroids and a couple of stress relievers,” he explained. “Gout. That’s how they’re treating it. They’ve bloated me up like the Hindenburg.” He rubbed his ample stomach and asked how I stayed so thin, and I told him that I was still a runner and got lucky genes.
We sat at the kitchen table and Mike ate like an empty man. “Do you know the pain of loss?” he asked. “Or of blind injustice?”
“We all grieve in different ways,” I said, and told him of my failed marriage. I’d worked for a Fortune 500 company. It paid well, but I hated it. Every day I went to work and stared at a shitty desk and a computer screen. One day I looked at my hands and felt as if I’d thrown away a gift. “You ever want something so badly that you’d lose your soul to get it?”
Mike nodded. “So, you quit,” he said.
“Her father owned the company.”
When I asked what brought him back home and if it was to see Adeline, Mike stood abruptly and helped himself to another vodka. His third in the past hour. He filled up the glass, then he went into the living room to peer through the blinds. He paced oddly, the way a person does when they want to say something or do something. He shook his head and ran a hand through his wavy hair, which made him look wild and unsteady. And he stumbled through this story of having worked for an import-export business in Jersey. He said they had a lot of cash coming in and going out. He suspected they were laundering money and that they would bury him because he knew too much. I pressed him for details but he offered none.
“And you think they followed you here?” I said.
“I’m ready for them.” From under his shirt, he pulled out an old hunting knife with a ridiculously long blade. The blade was not shiny, nor did it appear sharp, and the tip was blunted flat, as if it had been chipped on something hard. “I’ll cut their fucking balls off. I’ll kill those motherfuckers.” He waved the knife in the air. “Do you have a gun in the house?”
I shook my head and put down my beer. Mike downed his vodka the way I down water after a run and he headed back to the kitchen to finish what was left of the bottle, still clutching that knife. He filled the glass, dropped in a cube of ice and took a long swallow. I was watching the man poison himself. The pills and vodka had done their work. Mike staggered around my kitchen with that goddamned knife. Even Dash thought he was crazy and cocked his head sideways to watch Mike. I got a sickly feeling in my gut.
“Anyway,” Mike said, staring at the plantation shutters, “I figured I’d get the hell out of there and come down here and maybe find Adeline and talk to her. Just talk. All I wanted to do was fucking talk to her, right, but, but she wouldn’t give an inch. Not a fucking inch. You wouldn’t give. You fucking bitch.” He screamed at the shutters. His face became a ruddy tomato that seemed as if it would burst. His hand white-knuckled around that knife, while I sat as passively as I could at the kitchen table.
“When was the last time you spoke to her?” I said, in an overly calm voice. Dash moseyed up wagging his tail and rested his head in my lap, perhaps sensing my uneasiness. I felt naked and defenseless.
Mike turned sharply as if he just realized I was there. He slurred words in disjointed sentences and gestured violently with that knife. “She’s. That fucking whore. Call-blocked me. Had a restraining order on me. On me? Said I hurt her. She wanted it. She asked for it. It was an accident. Then, I went out of town and, on business you know, and when I came back. If she had come to Italy. I know she was fucking somebody. She wouldn’t commit. She was always flying back home. Flying back home. Flying back home.” His voice trailed off. He drank the vodka and wavered as drunks do. His eyes seemed at that moment to look through me. He sat and held the knife on the kitchen table and rocked as if in a trance.
I knew Adeline had been flying back home, because she told me herself while we were in bed together.
I ran in the crisp air that morning, feeling alive and strong, treading light-footed over fallen leaves. I should have known better. I slipped on those leaves as if on ice and ended up in the ER to be nursed by a bubbly RN whose face lit up upon seeing mine.
Adeline wore a colorful silk scarf around her neck to prevent the stethoscope from irritating her skin, so she said. I learned later, that was a lie.
We met for drinks and ended up at her apartment; me with stitches in my knee from a sprinkler head. She told me that Mike had moved to Jersey and that she had visited him a few times but had not quit her job nor given up her apartment. She was not wearing the engagement ring.
“Mike drinks,” she said to me. “He drinks a lot and he takes Xanax for anxiety and when that doesn’t work he takes other drugs. He gets violent. You’re the only friend of his I’ve ever met. That’s weird, right?”
We talked late into the night and drank a lot and we laughed, giddy, drunk, guilty laughs. When she removed the scarf, I saw bruises on her neck and I touched them.
“He’s not the same,” she said.
I shared the LSD story and showed her the lump on my knuckle, to justify what I knew was going to happen between us. What I wanted to happen between us. We were all laughs and googly-eyed until we shed our clothes and put our hands on each other. I wanted what Mike had and I got it and it was so damned good. I spent three days with Adeline and thought I was in love. Maybe I was. Maybe I still am. When we kissed goodbye, she placed a hand tenderly on my cheek and looked up at me with those soft caramel eyes and said that I helped make her decision, but that she didn’t want to see me again.
Now a decade has passed and she still haunts my dreams.
Mike stared at me from across the kitchen table and I ask him when he had last seen Adeline.
“Before I moved to Italy,” he said in barely a whisper.
I scratched Dash on the head and stared at the wall. How long had he been back? Perhaps years. He was stuck in a time warp, pining for a girl he’d lost a decade ago. I didn’t want him here, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was tied to this moment and maybe the cause of it. I said his name twice but he didn’t hear me. I considered reaching across the table for the knife, but it seemed just out of reach. Mike could also see it as an act of mistrust.
“Mike? Mike.” He turned toward me with dull eyes. “You have to move on with your life. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He rested an elbow on the tabletop and placed his head in his palm as if the weight were more than he could bear.
“I woke up one day and I couldn’t tie my shoes,” he said, squeezing the knife. “I wanted to, but I couldn’t remember how. And I stared at my shoes. Then I got mad. I wanted to hurt someone, anyone. Her. I spent some time in a place to help me figure things out. A long time. Years I think. They gave me lithium. No one came to see me. Now I’m home and I need to know what’s real. Are you real?”
I looked at Dash who responded instantly by pounding his tail against the wall. Mike raised his head and looked at me with dark eyes as if he were trying to read my thoughts.
“Sometimes I’m a ghost watching myself, and I see a stranger and I wonder who he is,” Mike said. “Robert, you’re the only one I remember who was a true friend. Someone who knows the Mike I was. You’re the only person I know. I need a place to stay. I need someone to ground me.”
I looked at this man across from me and tried to see the friend I once knew, the friend whose fiancée I screwed, who tutored me in calculus, picked me up when I didn’t have gas money, introduced me to girls, worked at my dad’s shop when he was flat broke with holes in his shoes and who rose above it all to become successful, only to fall into an abyss that I could never understand. I told Mike that he could stay the night and that I’d even give him some dough, but I’d have to drop him off at his mother’s house in the morning. Mike had become an enigma and I didn't trust him. I didn’t know what he was capable of.
The house at this moment had a hum all its own. Rain tapped against the windows and patted softly on the roof and I was reminded of something my mother once said. “Nothing like a good hard rain to wash sins into the gutter.”
I poured out what remained of my beer and placed that bottle along with the empty vodka in the recycling bin on the back porch. I set Mike up in the spare room, locked my bedroom door and settled in for the night with Dash on the floor snoring. I am a side sleeper but lay on my back staring into the darkness, and I wondered if he knew, if Adeline had told him about me. I wondered if that’s why he was here. I thought about what he had said. “Everyone hides in plain sight.” Was that meant for me? He asked me if I had a gun in the house. He knew I didn’t.
When I heard the creak outside my bedroom door, I placed my hand on the bat, quietly stepped toward the door and imagined myself doing some real damage. Part of me willed that door to open. I wanted Adeline and I wanted Mike gone.
“What the fuck do you want, Mike?” I said through the door winding up the bat. I sounded breathless, like I’d been running, my wet shirt stuck to my skin. I could practically feel the pressure of his palm on the door. There was no immediate response. I couldn’t wait anymore. I unlocked the door, opened it and jumped backed. Mike stood in the hall staring at me dumbfounded. He wavered and placed a hand on the wall for balance. He was shirtless, and his big, white belly hung over his tighty-whities.
“Man, shit, Robert, I have to take a leak.” Mike slurred his words and looked at me curiously. “Didn’t mean to freak you out. I’m all turned around in this old fucking house.”
“The other side of the hall,” I said. “On the right.” I released my grip on the bat feeling foolish and cowardly. I leaned the bat against the wall and scratched Dash on the head and he began swinging his tail wildly. I told Mike I wasn’t used to having people in the house. He turned and waved a hand and I watched him shuffle down the hall and enter the bathroom.
I shut the bedroom door and sat on the edge of my bed and Dash nuzzled up to me. He wagged his tail and licked sweat off my face. Light from the bathroom filtered under my bedroom door and I could hear Mike pissing in the guest bathroom. He flushed, shut off the light, walked back to the spare bedroom and shut the door. It was 3:22 in the morning.
My fingers ran over the scar on my right knee and I thought of Adeline, and at that moment, I felt the need to contact her.
Morning sunlight flooded my bedroom and Dash nudged me up a little after seven. The rain and weirdness of the previous night had thrown us off our routine. Mike was snoring when Dash trotted by the spare bedroom. Outside, the day had opened-up, the sky was a brilliant blue and the temperature had dropped about fifteen degrees. Dash ran around the yard free and crazy in the cool air. I wanted the smell of coffee and quiet in my house. I wanted to feel at home. I made eggs and toast and knocked on Mike’s door to rouse him. We ate, and he asked if he could stay for another day and I said no, and he seemed to sink in his seat.
We drove in silence to his mother’s house just a few miles away. As a pretense, we shook hands in the driveway with my new Cherokee idling behind an old Buick LeSabre. The house looked as shitty as it did when we were kids with peeling paint and torn window screens and tall weeds in the yard that depressed me. Mike looked at me with hollow eyes and I saw an emptiness there, but I couldn’t help him. I didn’t want to help him.
“I’ve got to go,” I said to him.
“I know,” Mike said, and stared at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then, leaning toward me he said, “The veil has been lifted.”
He stood there with his worn leather bag, in his stained suit and watched me drive away. I looked in the rearview before I turned off and he still hadn’t moved. He seemed to be staring at the place that I once was, and I felt a great relief.
At the corner, on a lush green lawn, a dozen ibises, as white as cotton, bobbed and pecked at worms beneath the surface. When I drove by, the birds took flight all at once, leaving the worms to their work.
When I walked into my shop later that morning, Dad was there rubbing down one of two mahogany and white maple conference tables with hard wax. He glanced up but didn’t say anything. I’d bought the place so he could retire, but that wasn’t his style. He always worked a few hours on Sunday morning and I usually stopped by with café con leche and Cuban toast. An old habit.
The air in the shop had the sweetness of cut mahogany. Shafts of sunlight illuminated shining specks of sawdust and it felt good to be there and be a part of it. I set the coffees down and watched my dad work.