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He finds a payphone squeezed between lavatories at the back of the bar. After a ring he hangs up, scoops out his quarters, punches in the number, and hangs up after one. The third time he lets it ring on until she picks up.

“Lost your cell phone?” she asks.

“Traded it.” Gone for a purple Aloha shirt and a ride from Los Angeles to Sacramento riding bitch in a VW bug. But he still has the charger.

“Of course. Well, I hope you got something good for it.”

“I believe I did, yes.”

“Terrific.” The television roars in the background, a Hollywood scandal show about who’s screwing who and baby pictures and wow she looks fat in that dress, mind-erasing upchuck day in and day out. She usually watches public television but resorts to junk when stressed.

“You ok?” With no feeling, said purely out of habit.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You wanna turn down the tv?”


So he takes more of the blather, fashion consultants and ditz parades interspersed with screaming commercials for cat food and home cleaner. It is hot and his neck itches bad, coated in a skin of sweat and dust. “Work ok?” he asks.

“I haven’t been in for a few weeks.”

“Right.” Useless in a crisis, destined to fail him.

“The firm keeps calling. Something about missing laptops. And where are you. And do I know where the petty cash safe is.”

All fenced and disbursed for a royal weekend in Vegas. His balls ache just thinking about it. “Those guys are real dipshits,” he observes. “Grade-A dipshits.”

“Well, put yourself in their shoes. You’ve been gone six weeks with no explanation.”

Longer than any vacation since they backpacked Europe after law school, skipping through museums and guzzling cheap wine. Back when she’d stick her foot in his crotch under the dinner table and blow him behind cemetery gravestones. “Six weeks, huh. Feels like forever.”

“I thought you were dead. The police couldn’t find you. You didn’t respond to calls or emails.” The weight stacking at his feet, a mass of unthinking iron.

“I’m not dead.” All the work he’s missed. Mountains of email, the daily conference call juggernaut. Meetings and trips to the courthouse, end-runs and stalls, infinite objections, logging his time down to the minute, lunches and dinners of stale conference room takeout. The enormous volume of words, briefs, addenda, complaints, orders, letters, judgments. You could fill buildings with all the paper he’s produced.

“They found the Mercedes in Santa Barbara. Torched.”

“That’s for insurance purposes.” The trained husband in him hopes this passes for concern. “You can call it in as stolen. Blame it on a pissed ex-client. Or some random carjack. People are crazy. Who knows?”

“You know. I know.” Meaning she won’t play along, she will be the anchor from here to forever.

“I’ve been doing new things,” he says. “I picked oranges today. In a crew. Ten hours outside in the sun. Made fifty bucks. I feel terrific.”

“An honorary Mexican.” Trying to punch him low and throwing out her back in the process.

“You’re racist.”

“You’re drunk. What have you been putting your penis into.”

His lungs sag, his back dips, he feels the millstone of her being collapse around his brain. The robot operator voice comes on and he jams another quarter into the phone.

“My pants.”

“Ha!” Her steely rasp can’t paper over a judder of laughter underneath. She chuckles with her whole body, her ears, boobs, and butt echoing in a series of hard bounces. If only she had teased out that slippery strand of playfulness, taught elementary school or reared children or done stand-up comedy once a week. Instead she has wasted a lifetime on insurance and risk management, chiseling seriousness into every corner of her personality.

“I need you to wire some money,” he states. “Please.”


“The accounts are blocked.”

“That’s because I closed them.”

“Well, I need money. It’s my money. I earned it.” Logical as the times tables, indisputable fact.

“You blew twenty thousand dollars in a week. Our mortgage check bounced.”

“Jane. Please. That’s nothing.” His semi-monthly paycheck more or less. “Call Jared to fix it.”

“I fired Jared.”

“What?” His best friend and financial advisor since their Sigma Chi days. The man who’d introduced him to cocaine, who’d said that too much lawyering makes a man go bonkers. Jared had warned him about Jane after two bottles of Johnny Blue at his bachelor party, presciently observing that she was already rounding out and turning cold, that before long she’d resemble a heavy snowdrift inside and out, including a pile of poofy bleached hair on top.

“He wouldn’t tell me where you were. He was deleting your ATM withdrawals from the bank account records so I couldn’t track your withdrawals. He was cheating me as a customer. You would have fired him too.”

Septic gas swells in his head, threading through his ear canals and down his septum. He rips a few pages from a telephone directory and flaps them for a breeze.

“So you care where I am.” Casting for emotion, the hook back-dragging over a ventricle.

A sigh as deep as the catacombs. “Of course, Frank. Of course.”

And up comes the sludgy stuff, first-date funnel cake and long kisses at red lights and karaoke duets. He has to know. “Is it over?”

A quick breath, then: “Yeah.”

“We’re through.” So easy to say. He’s a hundred pounds lighter already, a fish hurled back into the sea. “OK.”

“Don’t get all broken up about it,” she hisses, but he is trying to order a celebratory Budweiser with hand signals and misses it.

“We’ll need papers,” he says, too giddy to think. “I could meet you in Reno. I know a place. Real cheap.”

The line clicks dead. He goes to the bar and gets his celebratory beer and change for a buck. It’s ten minutes of calling back before she picks up again.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“So this is what your partners have to deal with.” Cold as Arctic midnight but relatively accurate for once. “Treating people like dirt. I guess you see it as a way of getting respect.”

“It’s just my professional style.” Because it works, he wants to add, it’s the only way that actually works, but he knows if she hangs up once more she’ll never pick up again.

“It’s a filthy way to live. A perverse way to live. It makes everything rotten.” All of which he’s heard a million times, but truckloads more annoying coming from a woman who’s spent all the resultant money he’s earned. But he can’t find fault with her argument.

“You know it’s complicated.” A couple of giggly girls squeak by him to the pisser, matching rippled purple tanktops resting loose over pancake tits, shiny black pants slung a quarter-inch above their pubic hairline. Sixty percent chance they’re doing blow in the shitter. The chubbier one gives him a lethargic wink. He swigs his beer right back at her.

“Look. I don’t care why you did all this. But I do need to know why you’re calling me. Now.”

“Like I said. Money.” To get rid of the biker gang boiling methamphetamine back at his rental condo, keep the pancake-tittie girls happy for a night or two, replace the four crashed cars—the first of which he’d incinerated with a bottle of lighter fluid and his doobie—topped off with, he decides right then, booking a one-way plane ticket to Japan. Jane has always hated sushi.

She puffs air into the receiver like a long drag of smoke. “What brought this on?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you.”

He sighs just so she’ll stop. He is so much lighter now, he can’t bear thinking in these silly leaden circles. Was this really what his life was like? “All of it. Work. Life.” He stops himself before saying “you.”

“I see.” Said warmly, pleased with his concession that the job has scarred him too.

He hunches over the phone like a general over his maps, plotting the last offensive to break the siege. “There’s a Western Union here in Stockton,” he says. “Waterloo Road. I’ll be there in an hour. Or you could unfreeze the accounts. Or I could call Monty.” His Sunday golfing buddy, head of the financial services group at Reed Smith LA. They both know Monty would bulldozer her into a pile of gravel.

“Stop,” she says. “Please stop.”

“I need it. It’s mine.”

“I know.” And here he feels the hurt, a long low throbbing in his stomach, the dull and solid pain of years bricked away. He is the only thing she’s had.

Dagger words trickle over his tongue, an arroyo running fast with easy slams and digs, quieter eddies packed with defter cuts. He could demand. He could maul. He could slice and dice her heart into dog chow merely by requesting the return of her 1.7 carat princess-cut Tiffany ring.

“Thank you,” he says. “I really appreciate it, Jane. I do. Now I’d better get going.” He hangs up solemnly and feels the earth rushing away, the black wall round his skull tumbling over, his head breaking open in a flare of white light. He jogs to the bar and buys whiskey sours for the girls, then another round, then a third. They show him their tattoos, set cheesy 80s songs on the juke, drop bra straps down their shoulders. Forty-five minutes later they drive him down to Waterloo Road, honking while he hustles inside and zips up simultaneously.

They give him the cash in hundreds. He thinks about leaving the last bill as a tip, lets it linger on the counter for a couple of seconds before stuffing it into his front pocket. Outside the girls are posing on the hood of a red Subaru like fourth-tier pinups. The night is spiced with palm trees and cow dung, the smell of thriving agriculture. His pants sag on his hips, pinned up by the paper bags full of money wedged in his pockets. He pumps his weight onto his toes and is slapped with a violent desire to leap, to hang-glide, to jump over the moon.

“You girls ever jump out of an airplane?” he asks. Their giggling is non-committal. “I’m going,” he decides. “First thing in the morning.”

“I had a boyfriend who did that once,” the slimmer girl says, her jaw swishing like she’s chewing cud. “He broke a leg on landing. We couldn’t do it for a month.”

“I won’t have that problem,” he says, but he wouldn’t care anyway. A leg, an arm, a prick—all unnecessary weight.

“I want to take off my clothes,” he announces. He pulls off his shirt and throws it over his head. The fresh air sweeps his stick-man chest like a warm ocean wave. His jeans come off with a couple of sideways shimmies, he lost his shoes an hour ago.

The girls put him in the car before he can shake off his boxers and drive dumb-slow through town, cranking tuneless pop songs on the radio and fidgeting with their cell phones and drawling half-thoughts. Too many words, the drudgery of history and names and acts. He shuts off the stereo and makes them drive in silence past strip malls and cardboard suburbs out to the orchards and dairy farms laid in squares like a quilt. They pull over on a low crest and he clambers onto the roof of the car, awash in the dazzle of solar systems and galaxies. The stars are like sugar fused into the firmament, and he sticks out his tongue and swirls it like an Atari joystick, drinking the crystal light of the sky.


Matt Stewart’s debut novel, The French Revolution, is a San Francisco family saga loosely structured on the historical French Revolution. It was named a Best Book of 2010 by the San Francisco Chronicle and a Notable Debut by Poets & Writers. Matt’s stories have been published in Instant City, McSweeney’s, Opium, and more. Grab his free iPhone app at

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