About the Author:
Frederick Busch (1941–2006) was the recipient of many honors, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award. The prolific author of sixteen novels and six collections of short stories, Busch is renowned for his writing’s emotional nuance and minimal, plainspoken style. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he lived most of his life in upstate New York, where he worked for forty years as a professor at Colgate University.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In a marriage, you have to tell your secret. I came to believe that. But I also came to believe that my wife would die of ours. So I kept it to myself. The marriage ended. Fanny moved on in upstate New York. I went west and south. I didn’t know what to look for so I looked for work. I was all kinds of hired security in the usual dark, cheap uniform that was always tight across the chest and shoulders or too short from the tails to the neck. One way or another, I worked with a patch of skin showing.
When we were together the dog tried to look after us. Whenever Fanny cried he thumped his tail against the floor. He’d done it since we got married. Sometimes it was the sound of his tail that lifted us out of that minute’s misery.
He always knew what he was supposed to do, even after Fanny left with nothing but a couple of suitcases and some cardboard boxes and a cheap urn filled with ashes. He and I were together in New York and then New Mexico and across the Southwest. We went directly west for a while and then we went south and then we headed east. We stopped on the Carolina coast. I had been a military policeman, a deputy sheriff in three counties and two states, a campus cop in northern New York, a head of strip mall security in Arizona, department store security in Portland, Oregon, and a guard in a private psychiatric clinic not far from Eugene. I was climbing slowly down the ladder of police work. I figured soon I would be a half-drunk bouncer in a porn palace in a medium-sized city I hadn’t heard of yet in a state I hadn’t meant to visit.
Sometimes I still couldn’t get warm. I woke up out of my life in air-conditioned rooms and the hot, wet countryside of the Carolina coast. Then I was back in the world made of snow again and the winds that came down from Canada. I would brew a pot of coffee in the tiny kitchenette of my efficiency apartment. Maybe I would sweeten the coffee with sour mash. I would stand there cupping the white china mug like it was a bowl of live coals in a blizzard.
It was me and the dog before the marriage and during it and afterward for fifteen years. I was the one who questioned everything I did. He was the one who always knew what he should do. His work included guiding me on missions whether or not he understood what they were or where we had to go. He protected me under any circumstances. He assisted me by carrying objects encountered on the ground. In the truck he rode to my right. He was at my left ankle when we walked. He was in charge of observing any creature that wasn’t us.
He usually came with me when I did my rounds of the resort that employed me to keep the guests safe from each other and the usual infiltrators of places like that. I watched for whores of both sexes, petty thieves, the occasional rapist, a variety of grifters. Security was made up of me and moonlighters from area police departments and Maurice Pettey. He was known as Mo. He was a guard at East Carolina and a B+ student in economics the color of weathered cherrywood boards. He was the size of a small bulldozer. The football season of his senior year was coming up and he thought he might get himself drafted the following spring by the NFL. “This here is my ticket,” he said while he pounded his own hard ass with his giant fist. “My muscle is my mo-dus-op-or-end-I,” he said. “You want the ticket, you got to hump the bale.” He grew short-tempered because he was working out harder in his off time and he was cutting down on snacks. “I am growing agile, mobile, hostile, and erectile,” he told me. He felt peckish, he said. That was his grandmother’s word. On the job he’d grown mean. He was watchful and bright. He talked a mixture of television and what I thought of as poetry and the teachings of his grandmother.
He was peckish, he said, when he dismissed from the beach-view dining room an ensign, the ensign’s new wife, and her parents. He got offended when the drunk ensign kept calling the chilled Pouilly-Fuisse “pussy foosy.” Several days later he dislocated the finger of a woman who tried to cut his face up with her long fingernails after he mistook her for a hooker working the bar. “Wouldn’t you of mistook her for a whore?” he asked the night manager as the woman sat on her barstool behind him. She went for his face. He turned and caught her hand and then tossed it away from him. The move dislocated her index finger and brought in the first law enforcement convention of the summer season. There were state police, sheriff’s deputies, a carload of Shore Patrol and enough emergency medical technicians clustered around the weeping guest to give you the impression they were treating her for a shotgun wound to the upper thorax. I begged the management to keep him on for two more weeks so he could leave for early practice with another salary packet in his jeans.
The second law enforcement convention occurred in the first week of August. I wasn’t on duty but I decided to hang around the resort that night because Mo was now two days away from reporting to campus for practice and he was hungry all the time. I came alone because the dog was in pretty bad shape. He had to work hard to breathe these days. His muzzle was much milkier. His eyes had the dull glaze they get when the lenses harden. But it was his breathing that told you he was in trouble. The larynx muscles were paralyzed so his airway didn’t open wide enough for him to draw a decent breath. The surgery with heavy anesthesia was a long procedure and neither of the vets I’d talked to would promise he would survive or even feel a good deal better. Generally I tried not to ask for promises. This time I did. The vets couldn’t give me a guarantee. So the dog and I walked very slowly together while he heaved for breath and growled down whatever air he could. He sounded like the drain of a kitchen sink when it emptied. It didn’t help him that his hips were crippled from dysplasia and the forelegs stiff with arthritis. We walked side by side. We took our time.
I was in the big bar on a Thursday night when it was crowded with a package tour on a long weekend as well as the usual officers from the base. As far as I could see there weren’t any female whores. There was one man you might call a gigolo. He was a service reject in his thirties named Jason Arnold who worked the available older women with some success because he was tall and tan and what I guess you might call sleek. I had banned him but I was only a costume cop and he knew it.
I asked Robbie, the college kid bartender who shaved his head daily but his chubby cheeks rarely, for a glass of mineral water with ice. I held the cold glass against my cheek and stared at Jason Arnold. Nothing intimidated him but I thought I ought to try. He was talking to a woman nearly six feet tall with big shoulders who was wearing a dress cut off in back under the shoulder blades. She looked uncomfortable and I couldn’t tell whether it was because of the dress or Arnold. He was moving his hands in the air imitating how pilots do it. They usually did it gracefully. Arnold looked like his hands were going to fall onto her shoulders or her chest. Her back blushed and I enjoyed watching the color come up over her skin. She had shiny dark hair and a crooked nose. She was trying to keep acting dignified, I thought. And he was probably talking about sex. I waited to see if she needed me. I reminded myself that my job consisted of maintaining a pleasant social atmosphere and not of deciding which women needed guidance and protection.
Arnold put his hand on her back. She sat on her barstool a second or two without moving. Then she leaned forward away from the hand. The hand went with her. She looked up sharply. He put his hand on her ass and held it there. She said something I didn’t hear and I went there.
I stood behind Arnold. A chunky, bucktoothed woman to his right who I recognized as local turned around on her stool to ask me, “You going to break anybody’s hand tonight?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “That would be my young colleague, Maurice. He’s patrolling the grounds right now, I believe. But he’ll be here soon. Excuse me.”
Arnold’s back was rigid. I told it, “I wish you’d consider working someplace else tonight.”
The woman to his left with the blushing back was facing me now. She said, “Working?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She said, “Oh, Jesus. I didn’t—well, I did. Can you believe it? I did. And I’m a lawyer.”
“Well, ma’am, they say he’s a charmer.”
Arnold got down from his stool and tried to tower above me. Since we were pretty much the same height, that wasn’t easy for him. He was broad enough, with thick forearms to prove how hard he worked with weights. His jeans were tight and they had a crease pressed into the legs. They were cut to show just enough of his cowboy boots for you to appreciate they were made of the skin of something unusual that was dyed black and red. He looked at me like I amused him.
The bucktoothed woman struck me as a lot of fun. Her eyes were merry and fond of trouble. She said to the older man to her right, “I think he’s going to break somebody’s hand.”
“It was a dislocated finger, ma’am,” I said, “and you’ll have to consult with Mr. Pettey about that.”
“Well, we’ll see,” she said.
The lawyer with the uncomfortable dress and the blue-green eyes had a broad mouth that must have been a liability in the courtroom. It told me just how silly she thought she had been and it was asking if I might be able to give her a hand. Her voice was low and a little harsh. I couldn’t imagine it whining. She said, “What kind of mess are we in?”
“He and I will get the whole thing done in a minute or two. I’ll try and make sure you aren’t embarrassed.”
“Oh,” she said, “I’ve been to embarrassed. Now I’m halfway to humiliated on the number Nine express. That’s on the New York City subway system.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Then I said to Jason Arnold, “We need to exit the premises.”
He stepped back. He spread his long, thick arms. He crooned, “I stand before you, ladies, free, white, and twenty-one.”
The bucktoothed woman said to the man beside her, “He’s ten years older than that if he’s a day. And I wouldn’t wave no hands around in the air inside of this place, with its reputation for breaking them and all.”
“No, ladies,” Arnold said, “I have the strength of twelve tonight, and I am ready to serve and service one and all.” His face was very sweaty, dark red, and I didn’t think it was only from the Manhattans on the rocks he’d been drinking.
“Okay,” I said. “I want you to do your service in a tavern someplace down the road. You’re a free man and this is a free country. But it’s a private hotel. I get to pick who stays and who goes. You go.” I went for the basic come-along. You grab a finger and you turn their hand palm-up and then you lift, bending back, at the same time. It’s fast, simple, and no one resists. The body doesn’t allow it.
“You told me you wouldn’t break no fingers,” the bucktoothed woman said.
“I really don’t want to break anything,” I told her. I lifted his hand to move him along and he couldn’t help rising onto his toes. But he was gritty and maybe he was flushed from chemicals. Something drove him right through the pain and it must have been considerable. He went for my Adam’s apple and he squeezed it. He snarled. I reacted without thought. I’d been trained to. I snapped his pinky or his ring finger and freed my right arm. He was still throttling me when I used the right. If there is trouble and a man leaves his midsection exposed then you go for it, and especially if he seems drunk or amped on coke or amphetamine. Someone that highly cranked is all energy and no mind. The solar plexus will stop them. I swiveled my hips and drove my fist maybe six inches into the meat below where his ribs met above the stomach. I got into those nerves with enough power to make him stand absolutely still. All his motion stopped and then his mouth opened while his face went white. Then he caved in over his gut and went down into a ball on the floor. He made awful noises and I felt sorry for the guests who had to hear them. I noticed that the lawyer was looking at me and not at Jason Arnold. I noticed that I was looking at her instead of him.
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