Excerpts

                                            Nautical Intervention

To lift man in air and strangle strangle strangle not so fun as seems

–Bertok Melles

The Pertunda

       A thirty-seven-foot schooner heading south under power at twelve knots in the Ionian Sea, northwest of Corfu.

       Pertunda: Italian goddess of sexual love and pleasure, presides over the marriage bed. That is, the deflowering of virgins.

The Main Deck

       Cap gives the signal to cut the boat’s engine, so Little John cuts the engine. Bertok, who gets an itch in the middle of his back whenever he’s nervous and who’s entirely too muscle-bound to get near the itch, tries to scratch it with the tip of his machete.

       Cap gives me the help Bertok out, he’s liable to butcher himself with that machete look, so I scratch the itch. Bertok moans lightly, remembers the command for silence was given ten minutes ago, and tries to blend the moan into something aquatic, a porpoise call is my guess. Cap gives him an approving nod.

       Little John steers us toward the yacht. Daeng pulls his balaclava tight and passionately strokes the shaft of his AK-47. His glass eye shimmers in the Mediterranean night sky: he enjoys this way too much.

       The yacht we are approaching, The Good Life, is dark; they’re asleep, whoever they are. It’s what people mean by clockwork, I suppose, the way we all know our parts. Bertok hooks the steel ladder to their starboard bow and Daeng slings back his automatic and goes first, his little frame scampering like a woolly bug.

       Once aboard, he does a series of Hollywood somersaults and back-flips, producing a pair of Colt 45’s which he points in all directions. My weapon of choice is a solid birch rolling pin, an agile yet not too deadly companion who’s gotten me out of some hairy situations in addition to rolling out delicate, buttery pie crusts. Daeng does his seagull call, which means all clear and Cap, Bertok, and I climb aboard. Little John waits with the boat. He’s too goodhearted and utterly not fearsome. Also, his the patrol boat is coming hoot is a perfect mimic of a sperm whale song. It’s uncanny.

       Below deck, we split into two groups. I’m stuck with Daeng, who keeps asking, “Time?” and then answering it himself: “Ninety seconds!” “A hundred twenty seconds!” At the bedroom door, he pauses and gives me an elaborate sequence of hand signals. They could mean anything, but I think they say, I’ll riddle them with bullets and you thrash the corpses with your rolling pin. I respond with my high school baseball coach’s signs: steal second base, slide, the suicide squeeze.

       He shakes his head at my lack of professional brutality, kicks down the door and does another of those somersaults into the room. I step over the discarded door, annoyed that it was probably unlocked anyway, but as Cap is always reminding us, it’s chiefly Daeng’s showmanship that makes him a successful pirate.

       I flip a light switch and Daeng shouts, “Who wants to fucking die?”

       The middle-aged couple in the enormous canopy bed look a lot like I’d look if I was woken up by a hairy Indonesian maniac in a black mask pointing an AK-47 at me and asking if I wanted to die.

       “Nobody’s going to die,” I say, pointing to my rolling pin.

       “No way,” he says. “Last time nobody died and it was bullshit!”

       “Nobody dies.”

       He raises a bushy eyebrow and pumps his hips toward the woman.

       “No,” I say. “Absolutely not.”

       We march them onto the main deck where Bertok is duct-taping the hands and feet of two men and two women, all of them tan, grey-haired, and sporting crisp silk pajamas. Bertok is a virtuoso with duct tape and a machete and it’s a shame they’re too afraid to enjoy his handiwork. When all six are bound, Cap steps forward.

The Shpiel

       “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Captain Arthur Trilling.” He walks behind them and shakes their bound hands. Cap is decked out in his usual working attire: black linen pants, black leather sandals, a royal blue button down shirt, and a burgundy ascot. His jet black hair is peppered with white, as is his perfectly trimmed beard. He’s an immaculate guy: gives himself manicures, pedicures, under-eye treatments, salt scrubs. He sighs mournfully to illustrate the weight of his coming speech.

       “Piracy,” he begins.

       He gives the whole shpiel. It’s important to Cap that people understand the historical context behind us stealing all their stuff – that, for instance, simply by owning a yacht, they’re challenging the underprivileged to just try and take away their wealth. Cap’s grandfather was an actor who achieved some measure of fame as a pirate in the silent films, and his father ran a Caribbean-themed eatery in West Covina. Cap’s great grandfather, however, was the real deal: a pirate who successfully plagued four of the seven seas.

       As always, Cap brings up Blackbeard, his idol. He talks about how Blackbeard’s biggest weapon was the ability to cause fear: how he’d stick slow-burning matches among his whiskers and behind his ears in order to appear ablaze with power.

       “Fear,” Cap says, “is far stronger than all the muscles on this man here.” He points to Bertok, who shrugs, clearly not in agreement.

       “I’d wreck Blackbeard,” Bertok says. “Everybody know that.” The six, bound and lined up as though awaiting execution, try to smile encouragingly.

       Cap is interested in timelessness. His greatest pleasure comes from imagining the time, well after his death, when people will speak of him with the sort of reverence associated with other genius/villains, such as Blackbeard or Billy the Kid. He believes in a perfect act of piracy, a flawless performance in which the five of us and our “customers” (Cap’s word) would know exactly where to move and what to say, in which there’d be a progressive sense of movement, the entire experience adding up to more than the sum of its parts (in the same way the five of us together are greater than any of us could have been on our own).

       He thinks he’s helping people: the terror they’re subjected to will ultimately help them reassess the value of their lives. In the perfect heist, they’d have this epiphany while the heist was happening.

       While Cap’s in instructional mode and Daeng is off with his burlap sack collecting the goodies, I head to the galley. I’m pleased to discover that somebody aboard this boat fancies himself a chef. Obviously whoever it is is a hack; I can tell by their knives – Sabatier, so ridiculously overpriced – also they have mild olive oil and store-bought curry powder. There are, however, some indications of decency: eight tins of Sevruga caviar, a huge cut of perfectly marbled tenderloin, three bottles of decent cognac, a spice grinder, two cases of adequate Burgundy, some black truffle oil, and a nice-sized hunk of fresh ricotta salata.

       I hump the supplies back on deck where Daeng is waiting and Cap is finishing up. “You are fine people,” he says, “sexy, yet classy, and will most likely be rescued sometime tomorrow afternoon. Nevertheless, I’ll be leaving you with a dozen bottles of water because dehydration is a sucker’s way of killing.”

       To Cap, there are distinctly right and wrong ways to conduct a “nautical intervention.” It’s this unbending adherence to pirating principles which he believes will lead to his future legend.

       I respect Cap’s ideals, but for me, pirating is just a way to finance my restaurant. Three years ago, when Cap found me, I was working at a little bistro in Crete for a prick of a head chef who took credit for my recipes. Never again. So far, I’ve saved about ninety thousand dollars, and jewelry worth about fifty thousand. I figure I’ll need two hundred and fifty thousand to fund the whole thing.

       Cap continues, “I’ve shared something of myself, I think, in these minutes. You’ve seen the type of pirate I am, and as a final request I’d ask that each of you suggest a nickname for me: something which could capture the essence of who I am and help me counteract the short memory of Time in the way “Blackbeard” did for its host, Edward Drummond.”

       “I don’t understand,” says a man in tan silk pajamas.

       “Please, just leave us alone,” another says.

       “Kind people,” Cap continues, “delight in your fear. Give it a little squeeze. Imagine this time as an extraordinary memory, because it soon will be. Enjoy us! I’m Cap – but I believe there must be a better name out there. This is Bertok. Have you ever seen anyone wider than Bertok? Think about the fine story you’ll tell about this someday.”

       “Don’t kill us,” says one of the women.

       Cap keeps trying to explain how all he wants is a good nickname, but these people are too afraid to understand anything. They snivel and Cap insists they have nothing to snivel about: this is the greatest night of their ho-hum lives, but all his insisting works them up even more and soon one of them, a balding, droopy-eyed man, is in hysterics. Cap gives Daeng a nod and the guy is (mercifully) knocked out by the butt of Daeng’s AK-47.

       And then his wife is in tears, and Daeng is cursing her for being unappreciative.

       “I’m sorry, everyone,” Cap says, and he is. He’s a peculiar guy, but also utterly sincere and very weepy. “I’ve tried my best tonight to steal everything you have except your dignity, but I can see I’ve failed you.”

       Bertok places an arm around a dejected Cap and leads him back to the ladder.

       “Nice one,” I say to the crying woman, but of course she’s just afraid – didn’t mean to upset Cap. Daeng, though, takes out his glass eye and sits directly in front of her, says to look into his skull for forgiveness – he’s forever insisting that there’s wisdom to be found within the socket – but she doesn’t find anything except more fodder for wailing.

       And we’re out of there.


                                            Documentary

The salt of blood, hot sweat, the wide open vagina: These were the smells of childbirth, the camera implied. Instead, the truth was a pleasant, inhuman smell like wet pine wrapped in motel sheets, like a green apple lying on the ocean floor. Which was alarming, Samantha thought, how after just three days of filming, her documentary was already on the verge of inaccuracy. She’d tried a voiceover pointing out the discrepancy between sight and smell, but wasn’t sure anybody would believe that the violence they were watching had much to do with an old apple in the sea. In this, Samantha’s first paid project (she’d won a grant from the Maternity Center Association), she’d come to see how many ways the medium of film reduced childbirth into contorted faces, ridiculous patterns of breathing, fitness-room words of encouragement (Come on now! One more time and…push!), and all the fluids the body could make at once.

       She had no background in medicine and wasn’t exactly sure why she’d written out the grant proposal. She’d simply felt surrounded by babies; her younger sister had just given birth to her second, and most of her friends were either pregnant or had pink newborns. It seemed every adult pushed a stroller or wore some elaborate child-harness, and so she’d begun to read the New England Journal of Medicine, and Parenting magazine – and between the Learning Channel and the Health Channel she was watching six hours of births a week. These were medical shows, though, showing statistics and facts without too much reflection. Her film would take the facts and use them to make discoveries.

       She was looking for something like a truth, something she and her film could be said to have discovered. Something specific, like the better the conception-sex the healthier the child, or maybe she’d find that babies born at night were less prone to needing night-lights. Was the process of giving birth traumatic enough to actually age a woman, and if so, what was the numerical correlation: one hour of labor for each month of aging?

       She wasn’t so sure what she was looking for.

       She knew, however, that her truth would reveal itself through the images of birth, and the image that continually drew her in was the moment of release, when the baby ceased being part of its mother, along with the blood, plasma, umbilical cord, membranes, water, urine – the unbelievable amount of gunk that fairly gushed from between a new mother’s legs. This was the point of transition from fetus to human being, and from woman to mother. She’d experimented with this moment, splicing together all the births she’d witnessed so far into one large eruption, surprised at the seamlessness of switching from one vagina to another – how similar it all looked and how easily the images could be weaved together to create one endless fountain of birth. She’d tried something similar in grad school, patching together the male orgasms from a few pornographic films to create one mondo shoot-off, cups of it supposed to have been launched from the same large phallus. The angles, of course, were all wrong; it was obvious when one penis became another. Here, though, it seemed birth was birth – that in trying to record the unfolding of life, all she’d succeeded in capturing were vaginas: stretched, generic vaginas expelling screaming, generic babies.

       Josef called that last instant “womb soup.” He called it the eruption of Mount Vaginas. They sat in front of the twenty-dollar used television in their Brooklyn apartment drinking whiskey with buttermilk because Josef had somehow confused it with eggnog, and they watched today’s five births. It was Christmas Eve, and a few haphazardly wrapped presents lay scattered under a poinsettia on the kitchen table. They sipped their awful drinks, watched the children being born, and Josef hugged his knees and called it disgusting.

       “It’s not disgusting!” she said. “Quit being such a puss.”

       “No, Sam, it is, it’s totally disgusting.”

       “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Why can’t you see that?”

       Josef made large, brightly colored paintings of animals having sex with people, of animals having sex with other animals while people watched, of people having sex with animals while other animals watched. Six months ago, he’d painted a ferret having sex with his stepfather while his mother watched. He’d sent it to them for their tenth anniversary. Recently, these paintings had begun to sell in the Chelsea gallery where they hung; last week, Josef and the gallery owner agreed to double the prices, a move which seemed to improve sales.

       He hadn’t always painted such pictures; when they’d moved in together, Josef was working on a series of dark, spare landscapes. They were just cityscapes and rural villages – land and sky – but in their depiction he’d managed to attach the sorrows of the people who invisibly inhabited them. Every time she looked at one she wanted to cry. He’d tapped into something with these paintings; they were more powerful than they should have been. He’d come home from his studio drained but excited, and Sam would allow him to brag a bit because she was proud as well. For the past fourteen months, however, long enough that Sam was beginning to doubt it would ever end, it was just the animals, the people, and the sex. She could remember the first time she’d seen one of these pictures, the same disconcerting jolt as when she’d seen the way Josef’s name was spelled. She’d thought of him as plain old “Joseph,” but suddenly he was Slavic. Both events made her think, Who is this guy? The sex paintings hung on most walls of their apartment, and sometimes – fornicating animals staring at her from all sides – she’d wonder about the set of decisions which had led her to call this place home.

       “Look,” he said, “you know I love kids, but this…” and he pointed to the doctor performing an episiotomy on the television. “I mean, her cervix is heaving. It’s goddamned heaving!”

       She tried not to laugh. He often made her laugh at the same time he made her angry. The problem with Josef, she thought, was that he was so uncomfortable with uncertainty that he resisted everything new. It had taken him two years to tell her he loved her, and even then he seemed to say it not to her directly but to the painting beside her head (his painting: fish sprouts dick, nun on knees sucks the dick, family of bears watch with opera glasses), so that she wasn’t convinced he loved her and not just his work. He’d improved over the past year, and now when he told her he loved her, he said it to her foot, or sometimes her ear. He was thirty-one, she was thirty-three.

       “Here,” she said, taking his hand. “Come with me.”

       She led him into their bedroom where she’d hung “Rules for Living.” She picked up a pen, thought a moment, and wrote, “There is nothing so simple about childbirth that it can be summed up in one word, especially if that word is ‘disgusting.'” She numbered this rule #3 – the list was only a month old. Rule #2 said, “Celebrate everything.” Yes, he was expected to attend her MFA graduation, and no, his presence there wasn’t celebration enough. She’d accomplished something and you acknowledged this just as you acknowledged a three-year anniversary with more than a card, as Josef was on the verge of doing. (It was this, finally, which prompted writing #2.) You set time aside so the two of you could put to words what three years had meant, because if you didn’t, you could forget to see; you could miss significance if you never found the right words to name it. It could get to where nothing had any weight, where love was merely a penis placed into a vagina, and bucking hips.

       That night, they opened their Christmas presents. They’d agreed not to buy each other too much, yet he surprised her with an enormous bouquet of flowers, a hand-made silk dress she’d lingered over in a boutique a few months before, and what she thought was the most beautiful bracelet she’d ever seen: a perfect circle of amethyst, her birthstone, traced with white gold. She loved her gifts but they made her anxious. This was the time to save for adult things like cars with baby seats, or an apartment and new furniture to fill the apartment. She got him pants and shirts, a belt and socks, all from a chain store that catered to young professionals. Josef had the unfortunate habit of buying clothes at thrift shops, thinking they were trendy and alternative, but really the collars were just too big and they smelled sour and withered.

       After the presents, they brushed the film of buttermilk from their teeth, and slept.

       Sam had been given ten days to film at Beth Israel Medical Center in the Lower East Side. Mornings were spent meeting new couples, getting signed releases – there were often long periods of nothing to do except stare at Christmas decorations and Hanukkah cards until, usually all at once, each new room she entered held masked doctors and a frightened man crouched over an open-legged woman. And then she’d crouch beside the woman as well, recording the awkwardness and anger that accompanied birth, the spontaneous blessings when women turned away from pain and spoke to their future children: This is how you came into the world, angel, or, I do this out of love for you, my child. One mother yelled out, You’ll pay for this!

       Birth wasn’t always the monument to love that television preached; there were often bitter arguments between husband and wife, and wife and doctor – well, mostly just the wife yelled and the doctors and husbands took it. One woman, a high-pitched, small-boned pastry chef, punched her husband in the head, pulled out clumps of his hair, and finally scratched the mask off his face, before realizing – and it was a moment Sam had recognized in other mothers – that her pain was far greater than any she could inflict with punches or scratches, and so she resorted to a more powerful weapon: words. “You loser!” she screamed. “You monkey! You prick…” Then, with a snarl, she spat out, “Hate you!” and he backed against a wall, bloodied and terrified. “Get it out of me!” she screamed. “Get this thing the fuck out of me!” And they did. The doctor got the baby out, placed it gray and creamy onto her chest (her husband hesitantly making his way back to her), and just ten minutes later she asked Sam, “Did you get it? Did you capture the miracle of my baby’s birth?”

       In the hours and days following delivery, the parents she’d filmed became increasingly dependent upon her. They needed her, she came to realize, because she was their witness. The women needed confirmation that their pain had been like a physical presence bearing down on them with all the force it could summon and changing them in the process, because it wasn’t just the baby that was a miracle. And it was easy for Sam to confirm this, because she’d never seen anything like it. These women, almost always younger than she, seemed positively alien; opened up by pain, their screams like the singing of an exotic creature.

       Was it even possible, she wondered, that somewhere within her lay that same song?

       The fathers needed Sam in a different way. They were afraid of her because she had seen them scared and helpless. The men wanted to hear that they had been a different person in the delivery room – that their cowardice was something separate from their real selves. What they really wanted, Sam thought, was to be told they were no longer just men, but fathers; that they would never again feel as helpless as they had in the delivery room because back then they had just been men.

       Nothing, however, was said out loud. The new parents pleaded silently, bribed her with offers of hospital tea, held out their babies for one last touch; the camera, of course, only captured the obvious – the pastry chef thrashing her husband, then, the two of them lovingly cradling their new child – and without any words of explanation, you could miss the transition. Yet, sometimes, watching over her footage, she’d catch a glimpse of the metamorphosis as it occurred, so that one could see both the caterpillar and the butterfly, or in this case, both the woman and mother, man and father. There! she’d shout to the crappy, fuzzy television screen, but it was already gone.


                                            Disorder Destroyers

Ape foraged a corn niblet from his wooly moustache and was eagerly considering it. I shook my head at him. Meanwhile, the Cains, perched around their coin-filled jacuzzi, pretended not to spy on us. After a summer of working for Disorder Destroyers, I was used to clients watching us work, but the Cains’ constant lurking was as extreme as their mansion’s clutter problem. In the three days we’d been there, the Cains had watched everything – the emptying of the kitty litter room, the shoe room, the shoe box room, removal of their corkscrew collection, hand saw set, their many caviar spoons, tapas pans, and fish poachers. Mr. Cain was the CEO of a corporation in which our boss, Dr. Tony, suggested we invest heavily. Other than the lurking, they looked like a family you might see on a television show about country clubs: all of them – mother, father, and eight-year-old daughter – tall, blond, and perpetually dressed in white.

       Dr. Tony called what we did Litter Management. It was his business and he had lingo to describe it all. Our clients weren’t Westchester County psychotics who collected trash; they merely exhibited one or more symptoms of Object Obsession Disorder (OOD). Ape and I weren’t meatheads who tossed boxes into Dumpsters, we were Litter Specialists. It said so right on our shirts, alongside the company logo, which also appeared on our pants, Dumpsters, the truck, and was even embroidered on the baby blue handkerchiefs Dr. Tony carried. The logo showed a giant with Ape’s bone structure shaking his fist at a cowering sack of trash. Disorder Destroyers was called in when a litter problem – be it magazine collections or rotting mountains of food – became a genuine safety hazard.

       For the record, however, our clients were psychotic, albeit interestingly so, and Ape was, unquestionably, a meathead.

       We were in the grand foyer, a dozen chandeliers raining down thousands of watts, litter everywhere.

       “We could do the attic,” I suggested.

       “You seen the attic?” Ape said.

       “Backyard?”

       “They got a pot-bellied pig out there. And a peacock. And a billy-goat-looking thing.”

       “It’s an alpaca,” I said.

       “Never heard of it.”

       Normally, we couldn’t get to the back of a client’s house before first clearing away the front, so there were no decisions to make. The Cains, however, had fifty rooms to distribute their mess, plus a three-acre backyard, its massive pond filled with rowboats, inner-tubes, and Canadian geese.

       “Kitchen?” I said.

       Ape nodded. It was a good idea to clear out kitchens, since grateful customers often liked to offer us cold drinks or bake lemon bars in their newly liberated oven. Dr. Tony had tagged almost everything with red “Annihilate” stickers – it was mostly stacks of takeout menus, phone books, and rusty cooking gadgets – so we just tossed it all into the Dumpster. As a general rule, the stuff people couldn’t bear to part with had no actual value. A few of the Cain things, however, had the yellow “Eradicate” stickers, which meant we loaded those items into the truck for Dr. Tony to sell on consignment. Occasionally, Dr. Tony had us bring a client’s favorite piece of litter – a prize marlin, or a mysteriously cuddly teddy bear – into the backyard so they could kick the shit out of it, his theory being that sometimes the only way to let go of the objects in our lives was through cathartic acts of brute violence. There was a special sticker for this, a black one which said “Genocide.”

       As we worked – me stacking mail, Ape hauling portable meat-smokers and Snack Masters to the Dumpster – Ape started in on his favorite subject, his wife: in this case, how she had a cyst she was thinking of removing but that he was all for keeping. “…and just because it’s called a ‘cyst,'” he was saying, “doesn’t mean it’s any less a part of her, or that I shouldn’t love it. Would I take a surgical laser to her plump, delicious thighs? Or her doughy belly? I don’t think so, buddy.”

       “This is a cyst we’re talking about?” I said, but he wasn’t listening.

       I’d met Ape’s wife once: fuzzy, dumpy, toothy; “How you doin’, guy?” she’d said to me. For Ape, however, she was the only important thing in the world. He’d tell me I was wasting my time studying our object-obsessed clients. But he was wrong. Sure, these people were pathetic – too much money and too little faith in the power of a good spring cleaning – but they were also the most openly wounded and intriguing people I’d ever seen.

       There were less than three weeks until my junior year started, and I felt much more like an actual historian here, digging through strangers’ kitchens, than I ever did reading text books at Hampshire College. In my ancient history classes, all we had to go on was the artifacts cultures left behind – their goblets and primitive weapons, figurines of gods – so studying the objects of the present didn’t feel so far off.

       While Ape listed every possible procedure for removing the cyst, and the Cains positioned themselves behind a weeping willow, I gave in to curiosity and delved into the kitchen litter. When I first started at Disorder Destroyers, I looked through every box and bag before throwing them away. Dr. Tony had encouraged this curiosity, but warned that my need to spy on people’s stuff was a distant cousin of their need to collect it in the first place. He’d initiated a policy called One for Ten, in which I was allowed to open up one box for every ten I threw out. He assured me that if everyone with a psychosis could successfully quell their desires nine-tenths of the time, they’d make the important transition from full-fledged aberrant to harmless kook with a fetish.

       It was really difficult, however, to look through the Cain trash with the Cains behind their tree pretending not to watch me. I feigned an untied shoe and got a look at the largest collection of restaurant and bar matches ever, so I feigned another untied shoe and, shockingly, the next box was box two of the same collection. Then I had to take off my hat and feign wiping off sweat, so I could feign dropping the hat to see if there was a third box of matches, which there wasn’t. (This one was filled with Chinese takeout packets: soy sauce, chopsticks, napkin, fortune cookie.) I hauled the matches to the Dumpster, erasing all those years of traveling, eating, and drinking, hoping they’d taken photographs as well as matches. Then I took the chopsticks, and then two armloads of oven mitts tied with twine, and by then I was due for a reward, so I feigned a leg cramp, sat down, and sifted through a carton of books, one of which was 100 Gifts for the Man who Has Everything.

       A picture was beginning to form of the Cains. With their exotic animals and functionless rooms, their depressed maid and sixteen-mattressed bed (the bedsprings held together with bungee cords), their chiseled good looks: these were people who came from money but were still compelled to make more. They believed that by surrounding themselves with objects, they’d be safe from the loneliness that plagued others.

       Or maybe not – it was just a theory, after all, but then, I was the one sent in to rescue them, so even my most untested theories held the weight of authority. I picked up my box cutter and considered the pile.

       “Looking for something?” Dr. Tony said.

       Open boxes lay scattered around me; nobody could sneak up like him. It may have had something to do with his size, an inch under five feet tall, and that was with the booster shoes he wore. Also, he was such a chameleon – dressed to blend in to the particular color-scheme of the house in which we worked. In the case of the Cains, he wore a series of tan suits, brown shirts, gold fedoras. I swear, he disappeared into the crown molding.

       “No, I was just…”

       “Larry, please don’t further your disgrace by telling me some sort of horsecock tall-tale.” He was doing that thing where his face was happy, but his whisper sounded homicidal.

       I opened my mouth but nothing came out.

       “Oh Larry, my young protoge’, what are we to do with you…” and he described how vulnerable the Cains were during this process, how the slightest thing – for example, seeing me rummaging through their stuff – could set them off. He chronicled the many diagnoses he’d made in the weeks before Ape and I were called in: alcoholism, lachonaphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, a whole bunch of abandonment issues; he’d even diagnosed the daughter as dyslexic, and simply wasn’t convinced they were stable enough for the long-term demands of living litter-free.

       I didn’t like letting Dr. Tony down. Unlike most of my so-called “professors,” Dr. Tony was the sort of guy you could actually learn from. I would have apologized, but he’d just have lectured me about the colossal pleasure I’d feel were I to murder the sorts of behaviors that compelled me to apologize. He often used words like murder or massacre to describe the actions necessary for proper psychological health.

       I got back to work, annoyed that the Cains had seen my chastisement, but also thinking it was only fair. Fine, they knew I got scolded, but I knew that Mrs. Cain’s gym bag contained a five-pound bar of chocolate and a case of butter cookies, that Mr. Cain’s medical records included the term “chronic bleeding hemorrhoids,” and that little Tanya Cain took pills (placebos, but they seemed to be working) for her bedwetting. Still, they were camped out behind their tree gasping in a throaty way each time I threw a batch in the Dumpster, so I took to chucking things extra hard, delighting in the sounds of breakage. I dumped the books, and then sack after sack of stuffed Glad bags, one of which, when smashed into the sharp Dumpster-corner, crunched as if it housed bones. When I shot-putted a box filled with Gandhi photographs, one of the Cains said, “Oh, that’s just enough!” and Mrs. Cain came out from behind the tree, flashed me a look of contempt, and dove headfirst into the Dumpster. She emerged gracefully, the box of photographs tucked beneath her arm. “You won’t say anything,” she said to me, walking toward the front door.

       “You’re wasting your time!” I called out. “Dr. Tony will find it.” I turned back to the other two Cains but all I saw were four hands clutching the edges of the tree as though it were a lifeboat.

 

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