The development lay over weedy slopes a fair drive from other neighborhoods and highways. If you wanted to walk for groceries, you’d better pack a lunch or settle for road snacks at the run-down gas station a few miles out.
“We’re way out here like a naughty child in the corner,” I told Gertz as we drove on the freshly paved road, sticky and black in the summer sun, passing rectangular plots with concrete slabs and white PVC pipes sticking up, patiently awaiting hookups. Aren’t we all?
“Coming from an overcrowded facility, this comparative isolation may require an adjustment.” Gertz, young and earnest, seemed too smart to lead this program to help ex-cons like me re-integrate.
“My whole life I’ve wanted nothing but this. Peace, meet Quiet.”
“Enjoy having the place to yourself, Mr. Lang,” Gertz said. “Eventually, you’ll have one hundred and forty-three neighbors.”
We arrived at the top of the highest rise. Two tiny homes huddled together there like a couple on a picnic watching the sunset. The houses were plain, mobile-home-like, house-like, but neither.
“Won’t take long,” I grumbled. I shouldn’t have grumbled. This new program meant rent and utilities, including electric, were F-R-E-E. I had to sign a paper agreeing to stay sober (check), seek employment (an electrician, I wanted to hook up with an honest outfit), contribute back (this place would need a tradesman like me once they rolled in some more teeny abodes), and, finally, be a good neighbor.
Yeah, that last one.
I interrupted Gertz’s pointing out the community dumpsters, unsoiled and new, sitting alone way the hell down the road from here.
“My place and that place are cheek-by-jowl. I’m a quiet man. I hope you’ve partnered me up with the like.”
“Quiet hours start at nine and end at seven.”
Gertz paused, perhaps recalling my criminal record.
“I understand you enjoy…silence. But those hours are reasonable, Mr. Lang,” he said.
That night, alone on this half-developed clearing, miles from another soul, just me and the tiny house and the buzzing locusts and the humming window AC unit, I had maybe the second-best night’s sleep I’d ever had. First was my wedding night.
Till 4:33 A.M., when a voice, distorted as if from a bullhorn, loud as a cop siren, startled me awake.
What do you think of your new place? the voice asked, over and over.
What do you think of your new place?
I stormed to the neighboring house, raging and bare-chested, as is my way.
The lights were on. I pounded on the door.
The flight felt an eternity, roared the amplified voice. Now more awake, I realized that the voice was female.
Between the blind slats, I glimpsed a figure with long blonde hair hunched over a laptop. No bullhorn, but there was a speaker. My ex-wife Mar used to go on the road with bands (as a sound tech, not a groupie) and she’d always hole up in the garage noodling in the guts of black Stonehenge boxes like that 2×12 Marshall.
When we arrived in Ecuador, so–.
“It’s quiet hours,” I shouted, “QUIET HOURS!”
When we arrived in Ecuador, so lush and exotic, I could only think of John thousands of miles away in Manhattan. Ben noticed me staring out of the plane window. He said it was beautiful.
I raised my fist to hammer at the window as the door opened.
It was not a blonde, but it was a blond. A long-haired dude, half my age. Prescription sunglasses, stubbly. Loose gym shorts. Wrinkly yellow t-shirt that said THE WEST IS GOLDEN.
“Hold on,” he shouted over the racket. Different voice, not a lady’s.
“So beautiful,” I said, but I was thinking of John. Why had I left him? Why couldn’t I stop think–.
The guy hopped over to his decade-old Dell laptop and hit the spacebar, stopping what I now realized was a recording.
“It’s my art project,” he said, fumbling with the knobs on the amp. “Thought the place next door was empty.”
The man had only a vague sense of the world around him. He seemed arty, all right. Not drug-high, but his head was in the clouds.
“Travis Lang,” I said, extending my hand when the man returned.
“Ben Argothy,” he muttered, suffering the apparent major inconvenience of having the most mundane of introductory conversations with his new neighbor.
“Gertz just move you in?”
“Mm-hm. They released me at midnight.”
“He explained the rules?”
“Yeah. Thought I was alone.”
He glanced back at his laptop, yearning for me to leave.
“You got headphones, right?” I said, not seeing any among the cables and equipment.
“Headphones,” he scoffed. “Can’t feel through headphones, brother,” he said.
The urge grew to make this condescending twerp feel something, like my fist. But if I so much as breathed too hard on someone, they’d toss my ass back in the cooler till the Cubs won another Series. I had to be better.
“Quiet hours, brother,” I, Better Travis, said.
He gave me a thumbs-up. I detected a sneer behind his cascade of hair as he closed the door.
He stayed quiet till nine A.M. on the dot.
I lasted fifteen minutes, then called Gertz.
“So, you’ve met Benjamin,” he said.
I held my phone out of my front door towards the other home.
Reynaldo pursued me through the crowded marketplace. Heat rushed to my face, and not from exertion. Do I let him catch me? Or do I lose him in the bustling crowd and return to Ben, dignity and clothes intact, but my body unfulfilled?
Return to Ben.
Pursued me, Ben.
Pursue me, Ben.
“I don’t get it.”
“He’s chopping up an audiobook like he’s mixing beat samples.”
“Shouldn’t you be online applying for jobs?”
“Can you wear headphones?”
“Travis. He’s breaking no rule or law. I have no time to referee.”
“Where’d he come from? Seems a peeping-Tom type.”
“I can’t tell you. But you’re close. He was never in the joint. More a psychiatric situation.”
“Fucking hell, Gertz. I’d rather live next to a serial killer.”
“I’ll arrange that. But first I gotta get more homes out there. My advice: Be friends.”
I cooked up four patty melts with off-brand American cheddar slices and expired deli meat and fried the sweet potatoes they stocked me with into a hash. I toted the lunch, along with a plastic jug of Kool-Aid fruit punch, a stick of butter, and a wad of paper towels, in a cardboard half-box from a Deep Eddy vodka display case and presented the offering to my neighbor.
Argothy welcomed me in. With a sigh.
Hey, fucker, I rarely behave like the neighborhood’s social glue. Keep the eye rolls to a minimum.
He stacked yellow notepads filled with scribblings, words in tiny print going end to end, width-ways and top-to-bottom, on his laptop and moved the bunch to his speaker box. He nodded towards the empty spot on his fold-down table.
“Too hot to sit outside anyway,” I said. These little houses were marvels of efficiency, but his felt cramped with two grown men maneuvering around each other to settle in for a bite. I found a fold-down seat I hadn’t discovered in my home yet. He slumped down into a ratty old swivel chair he must have brought with him.
He ate unselfconsciously, like a child. Breadcrumbs caught in his yellow stubble.
Not a single compliment reached my ears.
The old Travis might have taken offense at the lack of acknowledgement. Better Travis ignored the snub.
“How long till they stand up more houses? Heard anything?”
Argothy shrugged. “Don’t really think about it.”
“Just thinking about your work?”
That dismissive scoff sound.
Dude. I’m twice your size. My arm is bigger around than your thigh. I brought you lunch I made myself. Show some respect.
“We got off on the wrong foot this morning,” I said. “I’m interested in what you’re working on. You a songwriter?”
He finished his first patty melt and reached for another.
“I’ll keep it quiet during quiet hours.“
“I’m an electrician, and my ex-wife is a music tech. Could I help with your setup?”
He blinked. I noticed dark circles behind his glasses.
“If I turn it up, I can feel her vibrations,” he muttered, staring at the cheese oozing over the aluminum foil and onto his fingers. “But I’ll blow that God-ancient speaker before I feel her enough.”
I had to be careful before he slammed the door closed.
“The narrator’s voice is bourbon-sweet,” I said. “Make you want to say ‘ahh’ when she talks.”
“I’ve said that about her voice since high school. I’ve gotta be the reason she narrates.”
“You know her?”
“I dated her,” he said. He held up his phone to show me the audiobook he was mangling. Paradise of Choice, written by A.D. Sterling, narrated by Clemmie Whitaker. Never heard of ’em.
“Lucky,” I said. “Wouldn’t mind that voice in my ear. You edit her books?”
The door started to close, his eyes drifting back towards his laptop.
In that moment, I suspected they were not together, and he was not doing this for work.
He did it because he was weird and pervy for her still, and that his pursuit of Clemmie Whitaker is what got him locked up.
Lots of assumptions. But just look at the guy.
“I know what you mean, feeling a rush when those sound waves pump out. I got up to the first row of a Metallica show fifteen years ago. Bass made my balls throb.”
He flipped his hair back and pointed at me.
“You get it, then.”
“Yeah, I get it.”
I did not get it the way he got it, though.
Argothy dropped (not put down, dropped) his oozy sandwich and wormed his way between cardboard boxes to his speaker cabinet. He flipped on the power and upped the volume, then opened his laptop, spilling his legal pads, and played a segment of the book wherein the heroine and her rich companion Ben were having a tryst on the balcony of a swanky hotel.
(Dawned on me that one of the narrator’s lovers had the same first name as Argothy. Dude must have come in his floppy shorts when he heard Clemmie W. say his name.)
Argothy upped the volume until it distorted. It was loud for out here on a lonely hilltop, and damn certain too loud for me, but that cabinet wouldn’t have been suitable for the smallest of dive bars.
“The speakers can’t take any more than that,” he shouted.
“How loud do you need it?“
“Are your balls throbbing?”
At that moment, I had a li’l ol’ idea, about how sexy-throated Clemmie might help me solve my problem with Argothy.
On the way to my ex-wife’s place, Gertz seemed relieved after I told him we became buddies.
“And Marianne? Friends now, too?”
“She doesn’t know I’m coming. Drop me off on the corner.”
“I’ll wait,” Gertz said.
I patted Gertz’s shoulder, ever so gently. “She’ll see that I’m better. She’ll even give me a ride back, I bet. Go on.”
Mar’s garage door was open. A pedestal fan blew broiling summer air into the stuffy confines. She emerged carrying a speaker cabinet to load into the back of her pickup, still fit as hell. Mercy.
I dashed over.
“Let me assist you with your burden, Mar.”
“I got it.”
“Let me, Mar, it’s heavy.”
By then she’d made it to her truck. She pushed the box into the bed and slammed the tailgate closed. She turned to me, hands on hips.
I couldn’t read her eyes behind her big brown sunglasses, but those lips weren’t smiling.
“How long you been out?”
“Since the first.”
“I’m behaving, Mar. It’s a new Travis. Better. I even got me a tiny house. It’s a new program….”
“Thanks for stopping by, Travis. You look good. Keep it up. Gotta go.”
She moved to the driver’s side door.
“I haven’t seen you for six years, Mar.”
She stopped, looked at the door handle.
“Whose fault is that?”
I wanted to touch her shoulder (and the rest of her, desperately), but dare not.
She inhaled and faced me.
“Why are you here, Travis? If it’s for either of the two things I think, the answer’s no.”
“I need auditory advice.”
“Starting a band?”
“I’m helping a neighbor,” I said. “He wants to do music instruction videos, bass guitar, and he wants decibels.”
“Any music store in town will rent–.”
“We aren’t flush with cash and, unless something’s changed, you’re sitting on a storeroom or two full of old junk you haven’t touched in years. So here I am, trying to turn my life around, be the helpful guy, you know, and I thought of you. I knew you’d have my back. As long as I was trying to do the right thing.”
She brushed her hair back. Gray streaks interrupted that coffee brown. Mar wasn’t one to bother with coloring and would probably proudly rock a head full of white in a few years.
“Ride with me to storage. Help me pull some shit I need out of the back, and I’ll lend you a cabinet. Consider it my congratulations-for-not-dying-in-prison present.”
Mar enjoyed supervising me as I lugged out a dozen old 2×12 and 4x12s, Peavy and Marshall, mostly, to get to a pair of Mesa Boogies she sold to a Baptist church. Not her normal clientele, but money is money, she said. She said she’s still making a living, fixing, and selling once-trashed equipment.
When we were done and she asked me what I wanted, maybe this cute Orange 1×8, I told her I needed loud. The loudest she was willing to lend.
She drove me home with a 4×12 Line6 covered in death metal stickers and a beat-to-shit 2×12 Marshall.
I invited her in.
That, Mr. Lang, is not happening, she said.
I asked if she had a boyfriend.
She looked over to see Argothy stepping out of his little house, a smile on his face like we were delivering a high-tech sex doll.
“That’s my new friend I’m helping.”
“He looks like he needs help.”
“Mar, how loud do these get? I’m thinking about 100 decibels.”
“Roughly, sure. It’ll be plenty loud enough for you two.”
She told me to unload the speakers and she’d pick them up next weekend.
Ben Argothy and I set up the cabinets in a triangle, facing inward, in the middle of his living room (or living aisle), with his amp head with the volume and other knobs down a trail of cables to the far end of the home, under the loft that held the bed.
We both agreed that allowing me to control the volume would allow Argothy more freedom. More immersion.
What I didn’t discuss with Mar, and sure didn’t with Argothy, is that I did some research about how many decibels it would take to burst a person’s eardrums.
Best number I found was 185.
I figured that putting these three amps together would net about 100 times 3, or 300 decibels — easily loud enough to fuck up Argothy’s ears and send him into a hospital. By the time he returned, I’d have a new neighbor and he’d have to move in a tiny house elsewhere.
And Better Travis’s hands would be as clean as one of my freshly scrubbed toilets in the joint.
Argothy clambered over the Line6 with his laptop, dragging an aux cable (and its multiple adapters and connectors) with him and awkwardly sat cross-legged in the center of the mini-Stonehenge.
“Yeah, good, yeah,” Argothy said. “Thumbs up means louder? Yeah?”
I hit the red switch. Power on.
Volume was pointing straight up, midway.
Argothy started his audio file on his laptop.
Hi, Ben, came Clemmie Whitaker’s voice, snipped out of A Paradise of Choice.
“Hi Clemmie,” I heard Argothy mumble over the humming speakers. “You look great this morning.”
You look splendid — as well–my–love. Tell me — your day –about.
“About your day, damn it,” he said, then typed notes to himself to fix it.
I rubbed my temples. He’s crafting a whole fucking conversation.
“Louder, bro?” I called.
I bumped it to 6.
Marvelous, Ben! Marvelous. Ben. Ben, do you know what I dream of? May I tell you?
A pause, in which Argothy was supposed to respond. He didn’t.
He was undressing.
Thank you for listening. To me. I dream of — seeing you again. I dream of — telling you. I was wrong. I was wrong. For leaving you. On our date. Ben. I was. Scared. Of my feelings, how I long for you and what our lives could be in New Y–. If only I could tell. You.
“Tell me,” I think he said, and lifted his thumb again. His arm was bare. His wrinkly yellow shirt and gray gym shorts lay atop the Line6.
He had stopped making notes on his laptop.
As the edited recording continued, he was, unmistakably, starting to pleasure himself. I could see the top of his blond head fall backwards, eyes closed, right arm working hard.
Savor it, you little freak, ’cause that’s the last thing you’re ever going to hear, I thought, and twisted the volume knob all the way.
I stuffed my fingers in my ears.
I want to. Embraced in the park on that spring day in Vermont. I forgot all about the chill in the air when you pulled me close and grazed my neck with your soft lips. When my mouth met yours, I forgot all about my duties as a PR professional for the candidate’s campaign through the northeast. I only thought of you and I and your hands all over me, on my breasts, on my thighs under my sundress.
I could feel every syllable in my feet.
But that motherfucker seemed unaffected.
He seemed to feel no pain and made no motion for me to turn it down.
Keeping my ears plugged, I used my elbow to turn every knob, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, all the way up.
And Argothy did not stop till he came with a shuddering grunt. After a minute, he waved his left hand to tell me to shut it off. Sluggishly, he pulled his shorts back on and stood, his skinny white chest glistening with various fluids.
I shut the power off. My ears rang.
He leaned on his elbows on top of Mar’s Marshall.
“Fucking awesome,” he said. “I need to do some more edits, though.”
How the hell is he all right after being pummeled with 300 decibels?
“Does your ex have more speakers?”
“Hey. Thanks, Travis,” Argothy said, climbing out of his box. “I know this seems strange, but you’re being an amazing friend for helping.”
He extended his hand.
I tossed him a nearby bath towel.
“I’ll call her,” I said on my way out.
I decided to give it a night. Weird little dude almost made me feel guilty, he was so grateful, and I wanted to see if maybe getting that wank session out of his system would chill him out.
Not a chance. The concept of Quiet Hours went out the window. I heard about the goddamn illicit Vermont fuck session and that horndog Reynaldo that popped up in every marketplace in Ecuador till four in the morning, when Argothy must have finally wanked himself out, and slept for perhaps the first time since arriving.
I called Mar at eight the next morning.
“Wasn’t loud enough for a YouTube video?” She sounded like I woke her up.
“You said a cab could output about a hundred decibels. Three together means three hundred. I don’t think we got to three hundred.”
I heard the creak of the bed as she sat up. “Nothing, nothing,” she said in response to a male voice. That stung. She divorced me while I was locked up, and we were barely hanging on even before that. Back then, though, I was not Better Travis. Now I was and had been thinking about how to propose rekindling Marianne & Travis when I wasn’t thinking about Clemmie & Argothy. I might have had my own (silent) wank about Mar after he finally shut up last night.
“Your math is wrong, dummy,” she said. “Decibels is logarithmic. Tripling the speakers does not triple the decibels. You’d only get a couple points.”
I was staring out the kitchen window at Argothy’s place. No signs of movement yet.
“So, it’d take hundreds of cabinets to get to, like, 300 decibels.”
“You aren’t getting to 300 decibels, Travis. Jesus, what are you guys doing?”
“Like, bro stunt science bullshit? You told me guitar instruction, so that was a lie. And your buddy isn’t a very good scientist, then.”
“We want to burst a balloon.”
“Will you ever grow up? First, I’m positive you’ll need a more powerful amp head than you and Mr. Wizard are using now.”
“Can you lend me one of those?”
“I saw a bunch in the warehouse.”
“No. Go rent one.”
“If I were to rent one, what kind could burst a balloon?”
I heard a screen door slam. I bet she was on the back porch now.
“I’m getting a weird feeling, Travis. Like when you said you needed my truck to move lumber. For a friend. And it turned out to be–.”
“This is straight-up science, Mar.”
“You only get intense like this when you’ve been aggrieved. You trying to blow out someone’s….”
“Marianne. I’m different now.”
“Are you aggrieved?”
“I’m grieving the loss of our beautiful relationship.”
“Jesus. I’m going. Whatever you’re up to, don’t fuck up. I’m still getting those cabs on Saturday.”
She hung up just as Clemmie uttered her first words of the morning.
Do we have plans?
Oh yes, we do.
The rideshare ate up half of my debit card balance. I didn’t tip, which I felt bad about because the guy was nice and took me to Home Depot, then looked the other way when I used my new bolt cutters to get into Mar’s locker. Getting in the place was easy, though. I had noted, out of hustler habit, her gate code. 2788. No idea what it meant to her, but it got me in.
That done, I knocked on Argothy’s door.
He answered in a bathrobe, oblivious to his red, inflamed junk hanging loose.
“That for our project?” he said. He seemed drained, literally and figuratively.
Our project. Sure, bud.
“It is,” I said, unfolding the chrome rolling stand it had been sitting on in the warehouse. I sat the amplifier on top.
“You can bring it in.”
“It’s too tight in there. I grabbed more cables and connectors. I’ll run lines from your place to mine. This sucker has three outputs. Never seen it before.”
“Looks old school. 60s.”
“This here,” I said as though I knew what I was talking about, “Is a Fender PS-444. I picked this for two reasons. First, it’s the only one I saw that said it was a bass amp. See? Bass Instrument, it says. You want to feel those sound waves, make your balls throb? This ought to do it.”
I pointed out the strip of gaffer tape with Mar’s handwriting she had taped next to the Master Volume knob.
“Second reason. Look what she wrote: ‘Never above.’ I’m thinking she means ‘Never above where this tape is, four.'”
“Must be loud. If this works, it’ll feel like she’s touching me. I’ll let you try if you want.”
“She does have a nice voice.”
“Oh, not with her,” he said.
I set up the amplifier on my kitchen sink so I could see into his place when it came time to twiddle the knobs, plugged it in, and flipped the power switch.
All my lights cut off, and Argothy’s too. That sucker was a juice-sucking beast.
As I stared at the breaker box, working out how I could get more current in with my limited access to supplies, here drives up Gertz.
I put on a bit of an act as I met him at his truck.
“Checking on our welfare? For starters, your crap electrical crew cheaped out on this job, Gertz.”
“Came to check on your situation, Travis.”
Argothy stepped out to join us. He had put on clothes.
“We’re getting along great,” I said. “Can’t keep the lights on, though.”
“Isn’t it just a break–.”
I flipped the breaker switch. It flipped off immediately.
“Aren’t you an electrician, Travis?” Argothy said.
“I’m an electrician with no tools or materials,” I said.
Gertz rubbed his face like not another god damn problem.
“I can’t get a crew out here till next week, earliest,” he said. “What do you need to get going?”
Two hours later I had us fixed right the hell up. I mean, you could have run an electric chair with motorized cupholders and built-in tv with the AC full blast by the time I was done with it.
I hadn’t gotten an angry call from Mar yet, so there’s a chance I could handle Argothy’s wing nuts and get the Fender back to the locker before she was any the wiser. I’d figure out the sliced lock later.
We checked it with a random song I clicked from the internet. The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py, and that funk was loud. We clearly heard those guitar stabs over in my place, and the Fender was just grazing 2, much less Not Above 4.
“The file I gave you works?”
Gertz’s rehab program issued me a basic Windows laptop that I didn’t know how to use, but Argothy set me up. (There’s no way he’d surrender his own to me, not even for a few minutes.)
I hit the spacebar on the laptop like Argothy showed me.
Remember when we embraced in Verm–.
Ugh. I stopped it.
“Works. Enjoy it, brother.”
“I will, Travis. Then we’ll find a good audio file especially for you and we’ll switch so you can feel it, too.”
“Can’t wait,” I said, grinning.
After Argothy skipped away, I ripped apart a sheet of paper towel and wet it. As I plugged my ears up, I watched Argothy, now completely naked, scale the speakers. He situated himself down in the center of the triangle.
The amp was in my house and the speakers in his, with cables running into and out of both of our windows, connecting us for what I hoped would be the last time.
Argothy’s thumb rose into view.
Why didn’t you just rough him up and tell him to use headphones and be done with it? Why go to all this trouble?
Because I am smarter now, that’s why. Better.
I powered up, then clicked the spacebar.
The rig worked, and the lights stayed on.
Clemmie, it’s showtime.
I’d heard this bizarre dialogue quilt enough to know that Argothy started with a conversation with Clemmie and knew that I needed to wait to crank up the volume till the empty spaces for Argothy’s lines gave way to Clemmie’s monologue. When she launched into her recollection of their imaginary northeastern tryst on the campaign trail and her pledges of love as they overlooked the Ecuadorean jungle from their hotel in Quito, that’s when I’d try my best to break that volume knob slamming it to max.
Argothy’s thumb came back up again. I juiced it a tad and his thumb came down.
The conversation continued. When Clemmie spoke, my windows rattled, and my feet vibrated. If I hadn’t memorized her cobbled-together speech, I might not have known it was a human voice, because it sounded like a chainsaw was erratically cutting through a steel drum.
During Argothy’s turn to speak, I heard nothing, but I could sense the power that the amp head was pushing through this Frankenstein system like I was next to a monster taking in breath.
The Master Volume knob pointed to two. Bass was up all the way, middle and treble way down.
And then came that spring day in Vermont.
I turned everything up to ten.
Every fucking knob on that fucker, I turned up to ten.
The sound was not recognizable as human. When my mouth met yours became a beastly series of roars from a deep cave from the reverb. I felt Clemmie punching my eardrum with every syllable even at this distance. I had the same sense of being surprised at how far away you could still feel the heat at a distance from a homecoming bonfire.
Argothy’s kitchen window cracked, held for a moment, then shattered, spilling glass onto the ground, and giving me a clear view inside.
Frantic, he waved at me with both hands.
His mouth formed the same word over and over: STOP STOP STOP.
I fell backwards against my table, holding my ears, trying to remain upright and resisting the urge to hit that power button.
And then Mar, inexplicably, shockingly, was there, in my house.
She, too, screamed at me, furious, hands over her ears.
“STOP IT, TRAVIS!”
She made for the power button.
I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her away before she punched it.
“WAIT,” I screamed as she fought me, aiming her elbow at my balls.
“YOU’RE GONNA FRY IT!”
Through my window, I saw Argothy attempt to climb out of his three-walled speaker enclosure.
He collapsed down into the triangle as if Clemmie herself had dragged him back.
Mar saw, too.
“YOU’RE FUCKING THAT GUY UP, TRAVIS!”
“HE WANTS IT!”
“YOU’RE BOTH INSANE!”
Grappling with Mar felt so familiar. We’d rassled endless times over car keys and telephones and being-in-a-bar, one or the other of us doing our physical best to keep the other from doing something they wanted to do. The last time we tussled, she was trying to prevent me from shutting up this loudmouth in an IHOP that was ruining everyone’s Valentine’s Day. I got free of Mar and scooped up the metal pronged centerpiece that holds ketchup and salt and menus and bludgeoned that fucker.
But it cost me six years.
And here we were again, Mar trying to stop me from shutting someone up.
Smart woman that she was, she pivoted from reaching for the amp with her hands and feet and instead kicked the hanging cable connecting my laptop to the amp.
The amp didn’t budge, but the laptop disconnected and fell to the floor.
The buzzy drone of an unplugged cable replaced Clemmie’s voice.
I let Mar go. She switched off the PS-444.
As our ears rang in the sudden silence, we stared at each other and caught our breath.
“You ruined the video,” I said.
“You broke into my place and didn’t even lock it up again. I’m lucky–you’re lucky–no one stole anything. Except you.”
I lifted my window.
“Ben,” I shouted.
Mar began coiling wire, the precise and fast way I never got the hang of.
“I don’t have to tell you not to contact me again. Right?”
“Go check on your scientist.”
I left her to check on the little twerp.
“Load all my shit in my truck, Travis. Right now,” she called to me out my open window. “Fucking asshole!”
Argothy, naked, lay curled like a baby inside the triangle of speaker cabinets. His glasses lay against the bottom of the Line6. Both hands held his head as if he had a massive migraine, which he probably did, and he shook, spasmed.
“Dude,” I said. “I don’t know what went wrong. Can you sit up? Want some water?”
He spoke, but through his chattering teeth and the bell echoing in my head, it took me a minute to work it out. It was a phone number.
I punched it in my phone but paused before calling.
“It’s Clemmie,” he said, shivering. “If I don’t make it, tell her I’m sorry for the t-trouble I c-c-caused before.”
“Not make it? Dude. You just got your clock rung. Give it a minute….”
“Travis! Call 911.”
Of course, Mar followed me in.
“He’ll be fine. Stay out of it. You’ll get your shit, Marianne.”
“He’s bleeding out his ass, Travis.”
I had tried to avoid looking at the man below the waist. So he was.
His nose, too.
Mar went outside to call an ambulance. I heard her grumble nasty shit about me.
I regarded Argothy as he trembled like he was in a freezer.
Ok, it went too far. This wasn’t just busted eardrums.
My self-preservation instincts kicked in.
“This is what you wanted, though,” I said, hitting Dial on a video call.
“No. N-no. Th-thumbs down,” he sputtered, choking on his own blood.
A woman about Argothy’s age answered the video call. Glasses, hair up in a loose bun. Cute, but not my type.
She didn’t recognize me, of course, but I recognized her butter-smooth voice instantly.
“Hold it, Clemmie,” I said, then turned my phone towards Argothy.
“Ben? Why are you on the floor?”
Trembling, he reached for his glasses.
“Who called me? Who are you?”
I kept the camera focused on her forever suitor.
“You hurt your boy terrible,” I said. “I don’t mean when you ghosted him –so uncool, by the way–I mean now.”
Mar stuck her head in. “I don’t know how to describe it. Can sound waves cause a heart attack? I don’t know what happened. He’s bleeding. Maybe he ruptured inside? Just get here, Christ.”
Clemmie’s voice went up in panic.
“Ben? What happened?”
“You did this,” I said. “This is on you.”
I kneeled to help him put his glasses on–he shook too much to do it himself–and held the phone up close.
I didn’t see her expression but could see his.
As she begged him to tell her whether this was real or another stunt, he smiled, eyes overflowing with utter adoration.
Until they suddenly blossomed red, like a time-lapse video of someone getting stoned.
Blood welled up into his mouth like he was puking, then he collapsed into the fresh, bright pool.
Clemmie made a sound I hadn’t heard her make before in Paradise of Choice. She screamed.
“Destruction follows you everywhere,” Mar hissed. “This is no accident. Judge is gonna throw you right back in. For good.”
I shook my head.
“I don’t hurt people. I’m better, Mar.”