The first thing Sanchez Miller did on his eighteenth birthday was change his name to Constantine. He didn’t want the things his parents had wanted. He kept the Miller, though. His dad, dead just one year then, always used to say, “The Miller Men, up to no good,” whenever they got in the truck and shut the doors one-two, to run an errand or go visit Pamela, who was just Dad’s friend, or to go on a drive to clear the head. At least one Miller Man had to stay.
Thirty-two now, which was extremely grown up, practically dead almost, Constantine fancied himself a sort of modern HRE, heavy on the “emperor,” light on the “holy.” It was good to have a namesake. His kingdom: Vacaville. Steel beams piled in a heap by the chain-link fence; some guy’s Datsun parked crazystyle, angled to the rebar warehouse, its rusted tan paint giving way to a message in graffiti: ASSRAT 606, whatever that was supposed to mean. The long stuccoed housing strips that looked like shopping centers; kids in mid-asscrack pants, their knees spread on sidewalks; backwards Giants caps; gummy shoe soles—what he’d grown up on—and through Vacaville’s mighty aqueducts, rivers of powdered milk in bulk, Marlboros, Slurpee cups crushed like wreckage in the gutters and along the pavement. Seasonally, the rodeo. He hadn’t seen much outside Vaca, but he knew there couldn’t be much to see in a place where he’d be invisible. Here he had history; they knew his dad. Where you had history, everything you could see was yours.
Constantine was the manager of Dad’s photo shop now, and assistant managers like just-a-friend Pamela had long ago been replaced with assistant managers like Ralphie Consuelos. The photo shop wasn’t exactly doing brisk business. Some professionals came in on their way to the City Coach, a few artsy-fartsy girls, but mostly the kids with the asscracks and the backwards hats, the kids who would jangle through the door and run their greasy fingers along the picture frames, smear the photocopied model prints with whatever was left of their double-chicken specials, hold the vegetables, double condiments.
“The fuck out of here,” Constantine would say. “The matter with you,” and as the asscracks receded with a cackle, the happy framed faces in his shop would smile back at him, behind glass, through the mayonnaise.
Allison came into the shop every day at one p.m. to see what he wanted for lunch. He was lucky to have Allison, everyone said so. She stayed at home and prepared lunch to order—more than most guys’ wives would do. Unfortunately, Allison was not his wife but a closeted dyke who he’d met at a rodeo show in September, when she was thirty pounds lighter and was still wearing her hair natural, the color of very underripe strawberries. She’d been working the door with another girl her age, similar to her in coloring and height. Constantine asked if they were sisters. It was the kind of question you were supposed to ask girls to show them you were sly. When it turned out that they were sisters, Constantine changed tacks. Allison and Lisa, newly arrived, had hitchhiked from Vermont to L.A. and had not sold their bodies for sex once; they were Christians and students and would never consider such a thing. He shrugged.
“And now you’re working the door of a rodeo?”
“It’s a job,” said Lisa.
“Although not a very good job,” Allison added, and Lisa looked at her sister like she had just shat into a flowerpot.
Constantine didn’t go into the rodeo; the girls told him it was a bust and not very entertaining, and definitely not worth his eight dollars and ninety-five cents. Instead he spent that money, plus change, on PBRs for them after they finished their shift. Lisa drank her beers and Allison’s one after the other, and Allison chewed gum.
“Ladies, may I be so bold as to ask where you’re staying tonight?”
This time it came out like a proposition.
“We said we don’t ho,” said Lisa.
“I’m not saying you ho,” Constantine told her. “I’m asking where you’re sleeping.”
The girls exchanged a look but neither one came up with something fast. Allison blew a bubble. “With you, I guess?”
Allison was the prettier of the sisters, no question. Lisa’s sneer was strange, like she’d just stuck her nose into a carton of old milk; her freckles landed in an avalanche of specks on the left side, blank white canvas on the right, as though one cheek had been shellacked with flypaper and left near an abandoned picnic. No worries there, of course: he’d tap that too. But he preferred Allison—her open face, her heavy breasts that appeared about to leak or fall off like drops of molasses, her white lips and blank green eyes. He imagined Allison lying under him on the top bunk of his bed, completely expressionless, while he worked over her like she was a shoe that needed shining. He imagined himself an eager lover, thorough, and how she wouldn’t even flinch when he made her come.
Since Lisa was adamant that she didn’t ho, she called up another girl from the rodeo and asked if she could crash. But Allison came along with Constantine. With her clothes off she looked even more unexceptional, and true to his predictions, she was completely silent and motionless while he fucked her. Later, of course, he would find out through thin walls, when he was supposed to be at work, that this was not what Allison was like in bed at all; this was simply what she was like in bed with men, whom she was not attracted to and never had been.
Every day Allison went to the rodeo and every night came back for more comatose fucking. Once in a while Lisa would come over for dinner too, with her Inspector Gadget face on, like she was looking for asbestos in Constantine’s walls.
“I don’t like you,” she said the first time he opened the door for her. That was probably the only thing he liked about Lisa: At least she got things out of the way.
One superhundred degree day when he was six or seven, Dad had taken Constantine to just-a-friend Pamela’s for a business meeting. It was a Sunday, liquid sweaty, and Pamela set Constantine up in the garage with a cardboard freezercan’s worth of day-glo pink lemonade and a real hand-held Tetris. If he needed anything, he was to holler. Minutes tromped by. A lot of minutes. The upside-down crate he sat on impressed designs on his butt, and the pitcher of lemonade leaked a puddle of sweat onto the concrete around his hi-tops. It tasted gummy and coated his teeth. Pamela left the garage door open, but somehow, though he had not been told, Constantine knew not to leave its confines. It seemed like hours before Dad rambled back out to the truck alone and saluted Constantine in a wave that sent sweat drops flying onto the hood.
“Alley-oop,” said Dad. “Let’s go, partner.” Constantine looked around for Pamela to return the Tetris, but she was nowhere in sight.
“Forget it, champ. You can give it to her later,” Dad said, ushering him into the truck. “Remember this rule: There’s only so much business you can do on the Lord’s day.”
Ralphie Consuelos was no Pamela. Dad’s assistant manager had been fry-dyed blond and honey-voiced, her jaws smacking gum through her teeth in perpetuo like a rototiller. Constantine well remembered the globular undersides of her breasts—sweatered and soft-looking as she needlessly ascended ladders to replace working light bulbs. Ralphie, not quite so coy, believed that assistant managers were supposed to be geeky and sidekicky (he’d never known Pamela), and he wasn’t. He was vaguely ruined, bag-ridden, as though he didn’t sleep, hardly alert enough to be anyone’s Bucky. His skin glowed caramel and meringue like the top of a pie. He was not short or thin, not tall or fat. He was not muscular. He did not get beat up. He was not unattractive. Women were not attracted to him, nor were men. He liked to give high-fives, because this, to his mind, was an assistant manager’s signature. His name was not even really Ralphie. After he discovered that Constantine had changed his name, he decided he’d pick a name to suit him, too. Scott—the one he’d been born with—felt a little too suit-and-tie.
In fact, there was nothing wrong with him except for the drinking. Yet—and this was what really annoyed Constantine—he screwed things up for himself to be Ralphie Consuelos, Professional Shitbrick, like it was a job, and did nothing about the one thing he might really have fixed. His little shampoo bottle full of booze lived in the Photos 4 U shirt pocket, where it bulged non-mysteriously. Constantine would have liked to shake him by the shoulders and bark get it together get it together until his hair dreadlocked, but instead he advised Ralphie to start with telling girls his real name; it would be easier to get laid.
“‘Scott’ says manhood; ‘Scott’ says virility,” Constantine suggested.
“Don’t you ever get tired of manhood, man?” Ralphie whined. “Don’t you ever want to stop?”
Constantine’s blank expression told Ralphie no, but the truth was that Constantine had never considered the possibility of being tired before.
Ralphie and Constantine were in agreement that neither Allison nor Lisa was the hottest woman at the rodeo. The hottest woman was Candace, a bareback rider. Never mind the obvious reasons; Candace had a perfect way of walking (like she’d just dismounted a bronc, Ralphie said), a perfect way of looking at you (like you could, potentially, be the next bronc she’d ride), a perfect ass (that, moments ago, had been slamming the spine of an animal). Fine, maybe it was that she was a bareback rider, but regardless. Word was Candace woke up all over town. The rodeo was only in Vaca for a few months, but there were more than enough free days to make the rumor plausible. Whether there were enough men no one could say. Some guys said they’d had her twice. Of course, the truth was that none of these nincompoops had had her; Constantine definitely hadn’t, and he was one of the best-looking guys in town. Even though his eyebrows met in a furry vee above his nose, and even though his gut wasn’t the bastion of solidity it once had been, he still had his teeth, and he liked to think he walked with confidence. He hadn’t even propositioned Candace because he was waiting for her to come to him. When she walked by the entrance to the rodeo, his usual hangout where he could be seen squatting in a Crazy Creek next to Allison, holding a boom box on his lap and eating Pringles, he would pretend he was another kind of man, the kind he imagined she liked, and say things like “Hiya, darlin’,” and “Nice evening tonight, huh, sugar?”
Allison would roll her eyes and kick the bars of her stool. “Oh my Christ,” she would say. “Like that’s ever gonna happen.”
After morning call on a Wednesday, too rainy for the rodeo to open, Constantine closed the photo shop to play hooky with Allison. She begged him not to. Dad had a saying about rainy days—what was it? Something about precipitation, women, and legs—and the merest memoried glimmer of this saying seemed reason enough to close shop. “Don’t,” she said forcefully, and he winked at her like they both really wanted the same thing.
After calling Ralphie, he made bacon.
“I don’t eat bacon,” Allison told him, her eyes locked on a hand of solitaire.
“No bacon? What are you, a Jew? Are you a Moor?” Constantine lowered a piece of meat into his mouth, tongue extended.
“Do I smell bacon?” Lisa called from the living room.
“No,” Constantine replied. He turned back to Allison. “You gonna let me in on a hand?”
She glared up at him. “This is solitaire.”
“Then how about some rummy?”
When Allison wasn’t out at night, she’d been spending a lot of time talking about Vermont. Not just the people she used to know back there, people who had boring names like John, John, and John; not just the stuff she used to do, her old job, which basically sounded like wearing silky clothes and photocopying shit; she also started talking about going back there, and it made Constantine nervous.
“But why?” he said, baffled.
“I’m too east coast. California is like Mars.”
Lisa, a barely visible headtop over the back of the couch, was watching reality TV and eating all of Constantine’s groceries. She was starting to spend more time around the house, complaining that she and Allison didn’t have enough quality time together. This, her comatose headtop, was the quality time.
“So? Everyone who moves is too something,” said Constantine as Allison dealt him in. “It’s just a way of saying you moved. When I moved from my mom’s to this place, I was too ‘mom’s house’ for here. And? As you can see.” He gestured grandly toward the chipped Formica countertops and the mildewy window over the sink. My kingdom, behold. He picked up his cards.
“Constantine,” said Allison, and rolled her eyes. She was the only one who regularly called him that, and he appreciated it. “I’m saying I don’t feel like this is home.” She slapped a card on the table. “I feel at home on the east coast.”
“Yeah, Vermont, or elsewhere on the east coast.”
“Oh, so now even elsewhere on the east coast is better than here? Even elsewhere?”
“I didn’t say it was better,” Allison said. She took a sip of her coffee. In the other room on the TV, someone was eliminated. Constantine won the hand.
It was around noon the next day, same as always, when she came into the shop to ask what the boys wanted to eat. Constantine pretended he was happy to see her and happy to see her hair, which he had not mentioned to Ralphie for fear of looking like a fucking cuckold. It had happened that morning as he was changing T-shirts for work: a pair of garden scissors, a box of Clairol, and a shoebox, then Allison shyly emergent from the bathroom with a slapdash bob that recalled a dogfight in the old west. It was dead black, the way Sharpie looked when you tried to blot out red-eye on a photograph.
“May I suggest tuna fish?” she asked now, leaning her breasts over the counter. She raised her hand to Ralphie for their usual high-five.
“No high-fives today,” said Ralphie. He looked yellower than usual, and thinner. “Not with that shitstorm on your head.”
“Way to keep it to yourself, Ralphie,” Allison said, sticking her hand in her pocket. “Like I’m gonna make you lunch after that.”
Ralphie made like he smelled something rotten.
“Tuna sounds good, Al,” Constantine told her, but he had to admit, he was relieved to learn that Ralphie also found Allison’s hair disturbing. It changed the way her face looked, the way curtains changed a window. For the first time since he’d met her, the face seemed to have something to say.
“He doesn’t like it?” she asked Constantine, half like she cared.
“Naw, he likes it. He’s just in a mood.” Constantine scruffed her skull and smiled, but his palm came away with dye, black and spittlelike, as though her scalp had just hawked some chaw onto his hand.
She pressed his arm and jangled out the door to go make lunch.
“This doesn’t bode well,” Ralphie told Constantine, gesturing toward the entrance. “First the hair, then what? She’s gonna leave you.”
“She’s not with me,” Constantine said. A withering eye roll in response. Constantine tried to look like he wasn’t looking, but the skin under Ralphie’s eyes was baggy and slightly brown, like an old dog’s belly. He turned back to the register and wiped his hand on his pants.
“She’s not with anyone,” he said.
Allison came back holding just one lunch bag. Ralphie slapped the counter and enacted what he hoped was a very unfriendly sneer.
“God damn you, I was hungry,” he said. He stalked off into the break room.
“He’s not mad. It’s just Oprah’s on,” said Constantine, and winked at her, taking a bite.
Allison slipped another brown paper bag out of her backpack and handed it over quietly. “For Ralphie,” she said. “I don’t want him to, like, starve.”
“He’s not gonna starve.” Constantine opened Ralphie’s lunch bag and fished out a packet of chips. “Never even eats anymore, anyway. He runs on diesel.”
“Metaphorical diesel, I hope,” Allison said.
“Yeah, metaphorical diesel, and also—you wanna see something fucked up?” Constantine put his sandwich down on the bare counter, the watery mayonnaise pooling beside the crust. He opened Ralphie’s locker. None of the lockers had locks.
“Shit,” said Allison. A big bottle of Gordon’s leaned against the back wall of the locker, some cans of Coke, a few mini bottles of other things, Sauza, Casa Noble. “Tequila and Coke? That’s gross.” Constantine shut the locker and went back to his sandwich. He wiped up the mayonnaise spill with his thumb and sucked it clean. “Is he even allowed to drink at work?”
“Whatever,” said Constantine. “Like anyone’s gonna tell anyone what to do.”
For Lisa’s birthday all four of them went to the rodeo to see Candace ride. It was between the rodeo and the movies, and the only movies playing involved muscles and speedboats, young children in Christmas hijinx, or titties. Allison brought sandwiches and Ralphie brought his usual, stashed in the pocket of the Photos 4 U shirt, which he wore even though he had gotten the day off for the rodeo trip. Constantine brought binoculars.
She was the final act, and the crowd, mostly men in T-shirts with pit stains that gaped hello when they raised their arms to holler, were obviously staying to see her. There were a few handmade cardboard signs that read “RIDE IT CANDACE” or else “RIDE ME CANDY” or related sentiments.
“This is not how I envisioned my birthday,” Lisa said to Allison, but Allison had her eyes on the ring.
When Candace shot out of the bucking chute in her leather chaps and jeans and red-and-white plaid shirt with the hard pearly snaps, one hand on her hat and one gripping the barebacker’s handle, the audience stood. It was a chorus of rising beer bellies and spreading mouths. Constantine and Ralphie were swept to their feet by the crowd, Lisa with them. As Candace’s ass slammed down on the bronco’s back with a judder, Constantine looked down the row to find Allison the only one sitting. Her eyes were fixed on Candace as though she were alone watching television, the expression on her face placid and proud. He watched her as the crowd began to holler and catcall; Candace was still on, jerking a wild, forceful beat over the horse, and he was missing it. Allison’s smile was small. He fixed on her rigid, arched back. She looked like she was about to be glad to snap.
Ralphie punched him in the arm.
“Dude, what are you looking at? Action’s out there! Ass city.”
He followed Constantine’s eyes down the row. Allison was still sitting but her expression was that of someone laid out, prone but ready. It was not the look she wore in bed at night; it was no longer the look of a person watching TV. Ralphie had the sense not to look back at Constantine but could feel his boss staring straight through him to what was behind that awful dogfight hair.
July was never a good month for business, but that July was worse than most. Constantine was beginning to worry, in a non-proactive way, about what would happen to Photos 4 U, the sole responsibility with which his father had ever entrusted him. He lazily entertained the notion of advertising, of offering specials, although Dad had never done that. Dad had let it ride. That was the Miller way. Constantine couldn’t stand the idea of ruining the only thing his father had made, but more than that, he couldn’t stand the idea of putting forth an effort to save it. It would work itself out. Still, all July barely anyone came in except the wise-ass kids who visited to smear the picture frames. Ralphie almost never came out of the break room anymore. He lay on the couch with his limbs limp like tissue paper, his wrist loose and fingers looser over the remote control.
“Hello?” Constantine stood in the doorframe smoking a cigarette. “Is this a business here, or what? Do we run a business?” He had taken a short break from drawing his name over and over on a piece of computer paper.
“Sorry, Connie.” Ralph started to lift himself up off the couch, but the effort was heavy like custard. The whites of Ralphie’s eyes were yellow. His mouth hung open a little, so you could see his teeth lined up in a row. Constantine stepped out of the way and let Ralphie lope behind the counter.
“You look like shit,” said Constantine, scratching at his piece of notepaper.
“Thanks, that’s friendly,” said Ralphie. For the first time in his employ at the photo store, Constantine looked more like the manager than Ralphie did. The assistant manager slumped on the stool behind the second register, his Photos 4 U vest hanging off him like a window treatment. Constantine looked over at him, squinted slightly. Then, experimentally, he raised his hand for a high-five.
“Look, man, it’s low season. It’s all good to chill. I just need you out here for a little bit to give face. I gotta enforce. I’m in charge, you know?”
Ralphie looked up, raised his hand, leaned forward, and vomited all over the carpet.
“Oh, Christ.” Constantine dropped his high-five hand to his side and looked to the left and to the right, as though for cleaning supplies. Constantine did not clean. This was why he was the manager, and a man. Ralphie did not come back up. The back of his head hung like a bristly brown toothbrush face up, and under the buzz cut Constantine could see scabs on Ralphie’s scalp. The assistant manager was breathing heavily.
Ralphie’s body coiled and relaxed, and another bout of vomiting commenced. Constantine backed away.
“Ralphie? Jesus, you okay, man? Let it out.”
Pressed up against the developing machine, Constantine could see the pool of vomit gathering over Ralphie’s shoes and soaking into the office carpet. There was going to be hell to pay, but whatever. This was what cleaning people were for. They’d close for the day, spray the whole thing with lavender Lysol. Constantine was just working out how he’d call Allison and have her bring the air freshener, paper towels, maybe some Pepto for Ralphie, some Raisinets for him, when he saw the blood like a swirl of gold snaking through the pool of Ralphie’s vomit.
“Ralph? Holy shit, man, you’re bleeding. Talk to me.”
He took a tentative step forward, not wanting to get scuzz all over himself.
“Hospital,” said Ralphie, and he fell off the stool into what he had produced.
Ralphie maintained an air of ennui even with an inconceivable number of clear tubes snaking out from under his covers, ferrying red, yellow, white, and colorless. When the nurses took off his shirt the girls saw his bruises, like purple paintballs splattered against his ribs.
“What are you going to do?” Allison asked, holding his hand. Ralphie was asleep, drugged down. The nurse shrugged.
“Whatever they decide. He needs a new liver. Lots of people need a new liver.”
The doctors grilled them outside his hospital room. Did Ralphie drink? Did they ever see him out of control? Did he have a problem? Allison knew what this meant, that if they told the truth the doctors would let Ralphie go the way of all addicts, which was all the way down, which was where they were all going, maybe, but slower.
“Absolutely never anymore,” Allison answered for all of them. “Never ever.”
They all got tested to be donors. Ralphie said he didn’t want them to interfere, but nobody cared what he said.
“Just let me die,” said Ralphie from his hospital bed.
Lisa rolled her eyes. “Oh, God, you’re so corny,” she moaned.
“Let me die,” Ralphie said again. Under the drugs his face hung long like a sock filled with marbles.
“B-O-O, H-O-O,” said Constantine, his arm held out prone for the nurse.
Untying his tourniquet, she said suspiciously, “You folks are his friends?”
Constantine gave her a wink. “Closest they could find,” he said.
By night the nurse said they had found a blood match, and Constantine could feel himself growing clammy, nauseous. It had to be him; he was the one who knew Ralphie inside and out, the one who hired him, signed his paychecks, spent every day in that back room watching Ralphie masticate Allison’s sandwiches with his mouth open, his perfect white teeth gnashing. If he gave Ralphie part of his liver, would that mean that he, Constantine, would have to cut down on the booze? He pictured going home at night, knocking back a beer to the top of the paper label, fitting the bottleneck into the kitchen sink, listening as the remainder gurgled down the drain. It wasn’t the behavior of a real man.
“Allison Benicek?” said the nurse, scanning their faces.
Allison held out her hand. The nurse looked confused. She took Allison’s hand in hers, pumped it twice.
“No,” said Allison, rolling her eyes. “For the paperwork.”
“You’ll need to be counseled before you can—”
“No, I want to sign now. I’ll do it.”
“There are other tests, too. This doesn’t mean for certain you’ll be able to be the live donor, at least not at this stage,” the nurse said. “The paperwork is just for the tests.”
“Ally.” The blood had returned to Constantine’s head and he touched her arm. “You don’t have to.” He was ashamed at how relieved he was. He was hungry all of a sudden. He really hated her black hair, and the stains the dye had left on her temples.
“No,” said Allison. “You don’t have to.” She stood up as though to show that she could not be contained.
The next morning Lisa was quiet in the car. She smacked her pack against her palm over and over but didn’t take out any cigarettes.
“Smoke already,” Allison said, changing gears. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her, but she wasn’t one of those drivers who turned to make eye contact. When their parents were teaching her to drive, they always told her to keep her eyes on the prize.
“I don’t want you to do this surgery,” Lisa said finally. She was still smacking the pack.
“And why is that?”
“Because you barely even know Ralphie.”
“He’s Connie’s friend.”
“You barely even know Connie, Allison.”
“Well, he’s my boyfriend, isn’t he?”
Lisa gave her sister a skeptical look.
“Allison, what is this really about?”
If it was, Allison thought, to hear the story of what happened in Constantine’s bunk bed at night that Lisa wanted, to hear the words, this was not how she was going to get them. She was going to get them served hot on a plate, liver and onions. Order up.
Lisa rolled her window all the way down, her shoulder pumping as she rotated the handle; then she stuck the cigarette packet in her fist out the window and opened her hand. The pack hit the back end of the car once and skittered away behind them down the highway. “I’m making a change,” she said, and looked at Allison. “Quitting.”
“Yeah, for like the five billionth time.”
“I’m making a change,” Lisa said again, slowly. “Can you?”
Allison had dreams at night about a baby fast asleep where her liver should be. It was curled up sucking its thumb, small enough not to overtake the other real estate: kidneys, intestines, spleen. In her dreams she would reach into her abdomen barehanded, close her hands over the baby neck, thin but solid like a length of rope, and twist, twist, twist. That tiny baby head, eyes still closed, would emerge from her belly trailing shredded fleshy strings, sparking like cut wires, and she would drop it storklike into Ralphie’s back. It seemed impossible that the baby in her stomach could survive headless, its beetle-sized thumb suspended in midair, jacked like an arrow to where its mouth should be. But Allison knew that any baby that would sleep inside her, in her dreams or no, would have the power to exist maimed, headless, and to see without eyes.
There was no stopping her. Decisions like this were made in seconds. After her biopsy, her measurements, her X-rays, decisions like this went from start to finish in hours. She didn’t have time to change her mind, though she had chances, like when Lisa got their parents on the phone crying through her new pack of cigarettes, or when the doctors told her about the risks one by one and made her sign off, her initials on every line. Yes, blood clots. Yes, viruses, infections. Yes, possible death. Yes, yes.
On the operating table Allison felt entitled to look across at Ralphie, exchange some kind of meaningful glance, but this wasn’t possible for a number of reasons: Ralphie was too sick to comprehend any meaning, and there was a curtain and several nurses between them, and they were already taping her IV down against her arm. She could not shake the image of the baby’s severed head in her dreams.
“Count backwards from ten now, Allison,” said the anesthesiologist, turning a little wheel on her IV tube.
“Ten, nine,” said Allison, but what she was thinking was, I’m the man now.
In Constantine’s top bunk ten nights later, shade rolled up above the window, Allison lay by herself on her back and watched the telephone wires. Constantine was in the kitchen deconstructing pizza boxes to take to the dumpster; they’d had pizza because they were in “dire circumstances.” The dire circumstances were Ralphie. This had been going on all week: Chinese, pizza, Chinese. In Allison’s family different things happened in dire circumstances. You took care of yourself.
Constantine climbed up the ladder from the floor and slipped into the bunk, his legs ashy and hairy against hers.
“It’s hard times, Ally,” he said, “but we’ll get through it, don’t worry.”
They lay side by side on their backs. Constantine reached a hand over and massaged her breast absently, kneading it like a loaf.
“Baby?” he said. He took his hand off her breast, guided her fingers down to his dick and left her hand there trustingly, bucking his hips a little to encourage her. For a few moments she just lay there, holding it, staring out at the telephone wires. If she didn’t think about it too hard she could be holding a very small baguette, a flashlight about to turn on.
“Baby,” he moaned plaintively, like she was hurting him. She wasn’t supposed to have sex for a while; the doctors had been very grave about this. Looked from him to her, her to him, like they were bad children, or about to be bad. Allison wanted to tell them that with Constantine, she didn’t have sex, sex was something that happened to her. She wanted to say that while he was at work. When he was out, other girls. Candace. She wanted to ask if that counted. If she could. But Constantine wouldn’t leave the room.
Dutifully Allison began to stroke up and down, still focused on the wires and the sky. She tried not to think about the way the side of her hand brushed his pubic hair on the downstroke. She wondered if Ralphie was going to die. What even happened when your liver failed? What did you die of? Toxins in your body, blood to drown in?
When Allison and Lisa had taken the rodeo job and come to Vacaville, it was an unspoken fact that they were going to move on when the time seemed right, find the kind of place they’d left Vermont for. A bay window, fresh fruit market, girls on a beach, eucalyptus trees. There was nothing holding them here, no reason they should stay, not even this bed to sleep in or the way that Allison, at least, had some small purpose to her days, making Constantine and Ralphie their tuna fish sandwiches, taking tickets at the rodeo. Not even girls who visited the house. Not even because Ralphie might die. One thing the doctor did explain to them was that sometimes when a transplant patient got a new organ, even if the blood types were a match, the body might reject the new elements. Even if the match seemed right, sometimes the new host environment could be inhospitable, could kill you.
The next morning, after Constantine left for work, Allison took the bus to the hospital and went up to Ralphie’s room. She had packed all her bags to leave Vacaville and, despite the heat, was wearing everything that wouldn’t fit inside them, including her down jacket and rain boots. Allison waited outside the clear partition for five minutes, looking at Ralphie.
“I . . . can… see . . . you,” Ralphie mouthed to her through the glass. Her cheeks pinked and she stepped toward him around the barrier.
“How do you feel?” Allison asked. Ralphie shook his head and stared at a spot over her shoulder. “Do you feel any better?” She came around to the side of his bed. The laminate paper bracelet on his wrist shone in the fluorescent light: Consuelos, Scott printed in blue capitals under a file of numbers.
“How do you feel?” he said finally, but he still wouldn’t look at her.
Allison sat down in the chair by his head and sloughed off her coat. “I feel fine.” It wasn’t true; she didn’t just feel fine, she felt phenomenal, on fire, limitless, like a god. The Y-shaped scar on her stomach was the tattoo she had always wanted: proof of what she could grow inside her that was ripe for harvesting, the way other women grew children, lay eggs like hens. What she had been looking for in bed with girls, in bed with Constantine, in the car from Vermont to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Vacaville, at the rodeo, making sandwiches, was still unnamable; but the metaphors that approached it converged on the act of giving away her organs; they made her both the woman and the man at once.
“They think it’s working,” Ralphie said. “And gonna be okay.” His head was turned away. The side of his face was covered in acne from his chin to his temples, assistant-manager style, greasy from the pillow.
“So I hear,” said Allison. She took his hand. He was trying to keep it limp, but when he rolled toward her he clenched it for ballast.
“But if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be your fault,” said Ralphie.
One thing they hadn’t told Allison in the obligatory counseling, her two meetings with the doctors after the tests had come back all right, was what would happen to her if Ralphie’s body rejected the new organ. Even if she were to leave Vacaville, leave Constantine, get her own place with Lisa, make it with girls. Even if she were never to know the outcome, never see Ralphie again. What kind of cosmic force would inform her?
Constantine had not really gone to work that morning. He had gone behind the house to allow Allison the departure she considered secret. It would have taken a real chump not to have seen the duffels she’d packed and stowed behind the bunks all week, thinking them hidden; a real idiot to have believed her story about the Greyhound ticket in her wallet being for Lisa. He waited almost an hour, and when he heard the front door slam behind her he peeked out from around the siding to watch Allison walk away. He had expected a theatrical watching, a long woeful stare as she faded to a speck in the distance, but the bus came almost right away, and before he could even remind himself that he felt sad, she was gone.
Dear Sanchez, Dad had written in his will, I’m leaving you the shop. Don’t screw it up.
When he had said goodbye to her this morning, she was making up the top bunk in her bra like any other day, her gruesome Y of a scar twisting as she tucked in the sheets.
“I’m going to work, Ally,” Constantine told her, and she had climbed down and eased herself into his arms, gentle like she used to do when they didn’t know each other yet.
“Go make some photos, killer,” Allison said, and she winked at him as she ascended the bunk ladder again to fluff the pillows.
If you ever feel like you might second-guess yourself, Dad wrote, don’t. You can’t question your actions. People will sense your weakness.
It was safe to go back in the house now; he’d given her her secret egress. The place was his again. But he did not want to go in there now. He did not want to see the bed as she’d left it, knowing it was the last time. He did not want to see the kitchen clean, the dishes drying on the rack, like she’d touched everything that was his. Now Constantine sat. The yard was wetter than he had expected, unpleasant through his pants, but now that he was down here, knees stiff in their Indian-style, it was hard to get up. This was when a real man would stand and march into the house, then charge toward the shop, still closed all this time without Ralphie to open it. This was when a real man would make a plan, hire a new assistant, advertise at bus stops. Make business.
And this, Constantine knew, was when a real man would take back the things that were rightly his, his birthright and his bloodline, even if they were just photos, just lockers and plate glass and fake faces smiling in frames, people he’d never meet. Even if there was no one to be the boss of but himself.
Get up, Constantine, he told himself in his sternest, most managerial voice. In his head it sounded imposing, almost enough that he might listen.
Get up, Constantine. Go get what’s yours.