I reached up and easily pulled Arnie’s hand off my shirt. I then reached out, put my hands under his armpits and lifted him into the air. He was about as heavy as a department store mannequin. I doubt you’ve ever lifted one of those but you can probably guess that they’re not very heavy.
Arnie’s eyes grew wide once again and I set him gently back down.
I said, “You’re an astral body. Do you know what that means, Arnie?”
Arnie didn’t hear. He clutched at his chest, looking at the world around him as if suddenly every stone and blade of grass held some new terror behind it. I said, “It’s a stage of manifestation between the physical and spiritual. A body that’s half there.”
Arnie ran. He sprinted to the driver’s side of the sedan and yanked open the door. He threw himself into the seat and went to get his car keys, realized he didn’t have them. He put his hands on his face and leaned over the steering wheel, eyes closed.
I walked up to his door and said through the window, “This is my fault, Arnie. Not just you gettin’ killed, but this, this half life you’ve got. I did this, I projected you. It’s the soy sauce, it’s one thing it lets me do. I’m thinkin’ you got killed right after we talked on the phone. You know how you talk to somebody and you imagine what they look like based on their voice? Well, when you got killed you immediately assumed the shape of—”
“This can’t be. It can’t. I don’t accept that. I—I got grandkids. I got a vacation comin’ this June, I’m goin’ to Atlantic City. I got tickets.”
“Yeah, you’re in the denial stage right now, Arnie. This is all normal. I gotta go, okay? I have to go call Amy and tell her she owes me five bucks.”
“Shut the fuck up, Wong. Right now. I refuse to believe that I’m only here because I popped outta your imagina—”
Arnie vanished. I said to the empty car, “I’m sorry, Arnie. I really am.”
I went around to the trunk of the car and almost closed it, but thought that maybe I shouldn’t have my fingerprints on a trunk containing a corpse. This also eliminated the idea of driving the car back to the restaurant. I looked up into the starless, overcast sky and hoped the rain would hold off until I got back to my truck.
I WALKED INTO the night. I passed a weedy vacant lot, a Burger King, a church operating out of a building that used to be a bowling alley. I passed a rail-thin guy who looked homeless, and did a double take because he was wearing a stained white T-shirt that seemed to have my name on it. It had a yellow caricature of a bucktoothed Asian man that said MR. WONG under it. I thought I had seen that character before somewhere, and dismissed it.
Half a block later I saw two kids who looked maybe thirteen, smoking cigarettes and looking at me suspiciously. The kid on the left had a black concert shirt with a picture of some glam-rock band on it. Below that it said, THE DARKNESS. The other kid had on a flannel shirt, unbuttoned. Most of the T-shirt underneath was obscured, but between the flannel the words, IS HUNGRY peeked out.
I thought I could see a sentence forming there, which wouldn’t be all that strange in the context of my life. I passed an old lady coming out of a storefront craft store; her blouse didn’t say anything. I saw a busty girl with an olive T-shirt that said STAY OUT OF IRAQ and I thought that might apply.
I stepped onto the blacktop of the They China Food! parking lot and saw a white T-shirt approach. I squinted and saw it said in bold, black letters, ” “BALLS: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER. I looked up and saw it was John wearing the shirt.
“Where’d you go?” he asked. “I saw your Bronco but the lady at the counter was closing up. Said you left a long time ago. Did you meet the guy?”
I asked, “Did the waitress remember me being with a guy?”
“She said she couldn’t remember. The question seemed to confuse her a little. Did he show? I came so he could get my picture.”
I waved my hand dismissively toward the horizon. “Eh, it didn’t work out. Turned out he was dead the whole time. He didn’t even know it. He was a semi-solid astral body.”
“I hate it when they do that.”
“Yeah, I had to break the news to him. He was drivin’ around a rental car with his own corpse in the trunk. I’m lookin’ at this old white guy who looks like a door-to-door salesman, and that’s not even what he really looked like at all.”
“Well he’s black, right? Dave, his picture was at the top of all those articles I printed out for you. Got the bow tie? Kind of bald? Didn’t you read any of them?”
“I don’t know. I got busy.”
“So I guess he’s not gonna do the article?”
I gave John a scowl that told him I wasn’t going to dignify that question. I said, “I gotta go back out to the mall. I left that floorboard pulled up. I was showin’ Arnie the body.”
“I’ll put it down. I was gonna go out there anyway.”
“You go out there by yourself? Why?”
He shrugged. “Hey, Amy called, lookin’ for you.”
“Big surprise there.”
“She said call her cell phone as soon as you get in. Hey, didn’t you bet her five bucks the thing with the reporter would turn out to be a clusterfuck?”
I WALKED IN my front door and threw the silver canister on the end table with my car keys and spare change. I found my TV remote between sofa cushions and clicked on the TV. It was some show about a family that builds custom motorcycles while they scream at each other. About a half hour later the phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID, picked up and said, “You owe me five bucks.”
Amy said, “Hi! It’s me! What did you say?”
“Nothing. I don’t think that thing with the reporter is gonna happen.”
“Can you hear me? Go to your door.”
“What did you say? Amy? Hello?”
Somebody could get rich by inventing just one cell phone that actually works.
“Go to your door.”
This all seemed very strange. I tensed up, went to my front door and peered out of the little window at the top. Nothing. Cautiously I opened the door and stepped onto the porch. I turned to my right and saw Amy sitting in one of my plastic chairs, her cell phone in her hand. She was wearing a white-and-yellow sundress and sandals. Her hair was longer than I had last seen it, actually touching her shoulders a little now. That was about as long as it would grow. In a timid voice she said, “Surprise!”
“Are you—are you really here?”
“Yep! I flew in this afternoon. For your birthday. John knew all about it, blame him. He didn’t really go to work today so he could pick me up instead. He wanted it to be a surprise.”
I was surprised, if for no reason other than the sudden realization that my birthday was just two days away.
“So you’re here? Now?”
“Yep! Hey, check this out. This is awesome.”
Amy leapt to her feet, raised one leg and planted her foot on the railing of the porch. This caused her dress to fall back on her thigh and my heart skipped a beat, like I had never seen that particular naked patch of skin on a woman before. Amy was pointing out something on her ankle and she was putting her leg back down before I took my eyes off her thigh long enough to notice it. She had gotten a small tattoo on her ankle, of a Chinese character.
“It’s, uh, nice,” I said. “What does it mean?”
She laughed, then closed the distance between us and clamped a hug around me that knocked the wind out of my lungs. She said, “Do you like it? I told Crystal you wouldn’t like it.”
“What difference does that make? If you like it, then that’s that. If I don’t like it I can screw myself.”
“So you’re saying you don’t like it.”
“It’s fine, Amy. You, uh, just got the one, right?”
She pulled away from me and gave me the most sly and devious expression her face could manage.
“Maybe. You won’t know unless you check me.”
I laughed. She giggled. We both fell silent. We left a trail of clothing from the front door to the sofa.
A CERTAIN AMOUNT of time later, Amy and I lay on the couch under an American flag afghan that John had bought me from a garage sale years ago. The TV was still on, we were both watching it absently. I asked, “So, how long are you in town?”
Amy didn’t answer at first, then said, “These guys get all worked up about building these motorcycles, don’t they?”
“You’re still working at that craft shop, right? When do you have to be back at work?”
“Oh. So when are you going back?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Amy, no. No. You can’t stay here.”
“Why? You have another girlfriend?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“I can’t go back there, David. It’s awful. Crystal and Tonya, they’re always, like, having naked pillow fights and stuff. I can’t be around that.”
“No. They told me to tell you that.” She laughed.
“Amy, don’t make me go through all that again, explaining why it’s not safe. I shouldn’t have to.”
She twisted around to face me.
“No, see, I worked it all out. I think that right there, that’s proof you’re not, like, evil or whatever. You’re looking out for my safety even though you’re lonely and depressed every minute I’m away. If you were truly bad you’d only care about yourself. You’d tell me you wanted me to stay around, knowing it was dangerous for me but doing it anyway.”
I thought about this for a moment, then said, “You’re wrong.”
“I do want you to stay.”
“Good,” she said brightly. “I will then.”