pulls a candy pill from an Elvis Pez dispenser, looks up at the ball on
the 76 sign, and sees God. An orange circle of sacred light rising above
the gas pumps and rows of flavored iced teas. He sits down on the curb in
front of The Liquid Kitty and devours its glow—immense and incomprehensible.
Minnow tries to light a cigarette but the pack is still wet. He puts the
lighter back in his pocket and feels the ring. It’s still there pressed
into his thigh like a memory. He feels the light attach itself to his skin.
The orange glow on his face almost makes him look embarrassed. He squints
even though he doesn’t really have to.
Lake Street is church quiet under a purple sky. It’s that time of night when only the nocturnal animals cab from shell to shell. He can still hear Melody cleaning up the broken glass inside. A mosaic of Miller High Life bottles, peanut shells, and forearm blood. He’s sure she’ll be sorry for kicking him out, and even sorrier for calling him a shitty human being. He was feeling broken and some stuff broke. Anybody can lose their balance, he thought. The gay midget who works the door patted Minnow’s leg as he passed. Even Irene, the stuttering fry cook/fortune teller, tried to stick up for him. But it was too late. He had broken too many things to stay.
The 76 sign is the only light on Lake Street. A beacon placed at the exact time, in the exact place that Minnow is to be kicked out of a bar for knocking beer bottles off a Galaga machine. It’s a genuine miracle, he thought. A sign. Only God would know he bought the ring tonight. Only God would know how scared he is. So Minnow waits on the curb for some more news from God.
Anny waits for Minnow on the couch. She reads “Life’s Little Instruction Book” and rips out the pages she considers to be total bullshit. She forces herself not to look at the clock on the cable box. Never Eat S’mores When Your Angry gets launched like a snowball at her cat.
Anny knows Minnow won’t be coming over tonight, but she waits anyway. She has spent five years waiting, picking him up from police stations, and watching him puke on her pillows. But she has spent the same five years dancing naked in her kitchen, getting high to Leornard Cohen, and making love on the roof. Minnow makes Anny feel. He is Tobasco Sauce, making her nervous and nauseous and excited and cautious all at once.
Minnow is in his own movie, the hero in the drive way. He sees himself backlit. He hears the swelling of the score, 70’s rock like in Serpeco. He wishes Kobie was with him instead of hanging out with that chick from the salsa club. Minnow wants “Diablo” at his side, like a buddy picture. Besides he knows that sooner or later Kobie will ruin his own rap and she’ll leave him jonesing. “What are you thinking, Diablo?” Minnow shakes his head and presses the ring deeper into his thigh.
The 76 sign is beautiful in its sweet geometry. He notices its perfections. It is rounder than a gall bladder, bigger than all the lobes of the liver, and even brighter than the orange he uses to color lymph nodes. He spends his days drawing body parts full of contours and cancers and imperfections. He draws all the parts that never quite make a whole. The human shapes that can never know the simple beauty of the circle and stem of God. The clumsy, meaty shapes that seem almost grotesque to him now.
Minnow massages Elvis’ bloated Pez cheeks and thinks about the day the King died, August 16, 1977. Minnow’s seventh birthday. Twenty-five years of changing music as human ears knew it, and Elvis died alone on a toilet. That was it. Minnow always thought if a guy like Elvis had to die it needed to be poetic. On safari or on stage, anywhere but on a shitter.
That night, Minnow’s whole family left him alone in the kitchen while they watched the news. He had to light the candles himself. He never really forgave the King for stealing the show, but he liked that they shared the same day. August 16th would always be a day to celebrate sex and rebellion and just being an all around badass. A good day to celebrate a life and a death. Minnow always thought he and Elvis had some sort of combined consciousness because of it. When he imagined what his guardian angel looked like, he saw a guy with pork chop sideburns in a spandex jumpsuit with a rhinestone condor on the back.
It’s Sunday so Anny and Minnow are at the Egg and I. Anny eats hashbrowns drowned in Tabasco even though it irritates her ulcer. She looks like a camp counselor as she pulls out her flowered scrunchie and puts it on her wrist. A tiny piece of ham has fallen on her chest and dotted the I in Wisconsin. She looks at Minnow in spurts. She feels a little dirty about the way they had sex the night before. She likes to make love like Journey not Def Leppard. Their eyes meet then dart off and land on a woman’s nipples or a waiter’s gold tooth. They come here for brunch, like all young couples. It’s the church crowd without the church. Sometimes the couples are joined by a golden retriever named Spanky or a golden child named Brittany. No one eats alone here.
Minnow pretty much hates The Egg and I, but he goes for Anny. She always sees someone from her firm or her school or her pottery class. He just watches the whole thing like a music video or a documentary, focusing on the untold story of a faded bruise on a woman’s wrist or the real cause of the slurping sound a guy makes when he drinks his tomato juice.
But Minnow still likes being with Anny on Sundays. When they were broken up he spent Sundays on the couch playing Sega or drinking beers at Maxie’s. It always felt empty. Even if Kobie was with him. Anny smelled like home. Kobie just smelled like Kobie. Some weeks Minnow would save all his errands for Sunday so he had something to do. But it never really helped. Sundays were for making Anny laugh.
Minnow pours sugar into his coffee and thinks about how Anny sneezes a lot before they make love. She says she’s allergic to the dust in his apartment. But he knows he is the dust. It is the skin and hair and nails he has shed. She breathes him in, but can’t hold him in. She can’t control it. She shoots little bits of Minnow back into the bedroom, only to be reincarnated into another sneeze the next time they try. Minnow wonders if it’s some sort of metaphysical sign of incompatibility. Sometimes when she sneezes, he wishes he was with somebody else.
Anny puts down her fork and tucks her hair behind her ear. She does this when she’s nervous. It makes Minnow think of when he first met her. She had big hair back then. She used to hang out at the coffee shop where Kobie recited bad poetry. Minnow smiled at her once when he picked Diablo up from a gig.
Anny asked Minnow out on their first date. That always bothered him. Minnow wanted to find love and chase it like a dream. He wanted to play his guitar in the rain until his soul mate finally invited him in to make love on her landing and eat Chinese food out of little white boxes in the tub. Minnow hated being chased, but he went out with Anny anyway.
Minnow was impressed that Anny didn’t let him beat her in pool and that she could quote The Simpsons. Anny asked Minnow a lot of questions and she listened. He liked that she was smart and that she had a lot to say. He learned stuff from her. She taught him that a civil war in Africa was bloodier than Viet Nam, that some of Jon Denver’s lyrics were actually sort of profound, and that if you chew peppermint Life-Savers in the dark they make a spark. Sometimes Minnow stayed quiet on purpose just to learn more stuff.
Minnow sips his coffee and thinks about how he wasn’t attracted to Anny at first, and how she became beautiful. He remembers those old people in that booth at Starfish telling them they looked like the perfect couple. He wishes he had just met Anny. That they haven’t been together for five years. That they could do all this over again. He wishes she’d paint her toe nails red like the business women on the bus, and wear perfume and underwear that didn’t look like his. He thinks about how she used to whisper “I love you” to him when she thought he was asleep, and how long it took him to say it back.
No one pumps gas under God. Nothing moves. Minnow wishes he had his sketch pad from work. He wants to draw. He never really saw God before. Why not sketch Him? Besides anything is better than drawing another cross-section of a kidney or the backside of an eyeball. All he has is a pen, so he draws the sacred 76 sign on his palm.
The closest Minnow ever came to seeing God before was that time he saw Mary in a sugar shaker. Actually, he saw Mary appear in sugar and shadow in diners all across the midwest. He started carrying a camera with him and has a collection of surprisingly clear images of Mary crying over Belgian waffles or gazing out at the cow creamer. He used some of the photos in a collage for an exhibition at a gallery back in art school.
People started to pay attention to Minnow because of it. Sometimes they asked for his autograph at Potbelly’s or the Jiffy Lube. One time they put his picture on page eighteen of The Reader, right next to an article on El Niño. He even got laid once by a Baptist woman with fake red hair and fake big boobs. After Kobie’s accident, Minnow stopped seeing Mary. She just sort of disappeared with Kobie’s leg. Minnow used to pray to those sugar shakers. Now he prays to no one.
It was Minnow’s first night out after his second break-up with Anny. It was December. You could tell by the little Santa hats Mitos put on the salsa jars at every table, and the twinkle lights on the men’s bathroom door. Kobie decided to take Minnow out to make sure he’d be okay.
Kobie finished his steak burrito and walked out the front door of Mexi-Hop still yelling his favorite lines from the poetry slam. Minnow finished his smoke and stopped at the register to pay, like he usually did for Kobie. “Gracias Señorita.”
Minnow moved outside, stood on the front steps and watched Kobie perform under the street lights. He watched him dance on the icy sidewalk, catch snowflakes on his tongue and shout poetry at the moon. He watched him spin, and lose his balance, and fall off the curb, and land in some headlights. Minnow’s whole body flinched from the sound. Kobie had been hit from behind by a tow truck crossing Lake street. He flew into another car with bravado and landed on the curb. A movie stunt. A cartoon. It was early winter, the ground in a cold sweat. The tires couldn’t grip. The truck couldn’t stop. It was an accident.
Minnow ran out in the street, put his coat around Kobie’s blood and tried to hold him together. “It’s cool Kobie. You’re all good.” Minnow hugged hard. People started to gather on the curb. Someone called 911. Minnow wanted to say something to make it better, or at least make Kobie feel better, or make himself feel better, something, anything, but nothing would come.
“I guess the guy in the truck just didn’t dig my poem.” Kobie looked up at Minnow and started to giggle, slow and foggy, and that made Minnow laugh too. They laughed like they used to laugh in Mrs. Garco’s homeroom when they knew they weren’t supposed to. They laughed at the pain and the spectacle and the absurdity of what had just happened. They couldn’t stop laughing. Kobie doesn’t remember that part now.
Minnow was afraid he didn’t love Anny enough. He was afraid they would just become friends and roommates if they got married. He never felt that profound moment of This Is It. Instead it was always a lot of pretty goods. He was afraid there was somebody else he was supposed to love. Maybe someone he’s never met. Maybe she lived in Sweden. He was just afraid. He thought it would be safer to leave—so he did.
The night he left, Anny hugged a pillow and said he was selfish. She said he stole something from her. She stopped eating for a while. Minnow didn’t go to work for four days and swore at his Honeycombs. Kobie spent a lot of time playing Sega Hockey with him that week. He finally got Minnow out of the house for some poetry and burritos.
The surgery took two and a half hours. The emergency surgeon said they couldn’t save the leg. Minnow didn’t even know what questions to ask, so he nodded. That night Anny came to wait with him. She sat down next to Minnow. They didn’t talk. They didn’t watch MASH on the hanging TV. He didn’t tell her he was sorry. She didn’t tell him she still loved him. She grabbed his hand and put it in her lap. He was so thankful for this. Anny could make the simplest things profound. He wanted to tell her this, but he just squeezed.
Minnow and Anny tried to go up to see Kobie, but they wouldn’t let them. The nurse at the desk talked to Minnow like he was a little boy caught stealing from his mom’s purse. In the hallway they overheard Dr. Pacheco tell the orthopedic surgeon that if Kobie hadn’t been drinking, it might not have happened. He said the injuries indicated that Kobie made no attempt to get out of the way. He said Diablo’s blood alcohol level was high. He said it didn’t appear that the truck was moving that fast. He shook his head a lot when he spoke. Minnow listened and closed his eyes tight, squeezing them after they were shut. A couple tears came out because of it. It was the first time he cried since he was a kid. He didn’t even cry when his grandma died. He thought he’d be more embarrassed than he was. Anny hugged him hard. He let more come.
Minnow holds up the ring under God’s orange glow. It’s the one Anny has hinted about for two years. Emerald stone, two little diamonds on the side, platinum band. She never thought of herself as a diamond person. She liked the self-controlled self-expression of the emerald. It was just different enough. Minnow quit gigging with Trevor Rhino so he could illustrate more medical books to pay for the ring. He used to paint his body on stage during Puffy’s long guitar solos. Now he draws bodies at a desk in front of a fern. He even sold his Strat. It was the only way he could afford the ring. He never told Anny the reason he quit the band. When she teased him that it was because he was getting old, it really bothered him.
Minnow holds the ring like a kid holds a grasshopper. He knows what it is, but it still feels weird in his hands. This really pisses him off. After five years he should know. He should know something. He spent most of his 20’s with Anny. They shared each other’s apartments, families, and sweaters. Maybe they already were married. His parents were married with three kids by the time they were his age. But they never really questioned it. They were dating, they were in their 20’s, so they got married and they stuck it out.
Anny would stick it out too. That is how she is made. Minnow remembers the first time he watched her run a marathon. He stood in the rain at mile 16 smoking cigarettes and listening to a demo tape on his headphones. Anny’s 5’2” frame was not made for that race. Her hips hurt. She had a blood blister covering her right heel. Her quads cramped. When she passed Minnow she looked horrible, but she still managed to smile and tuck her hair behind her ear. Anny kept running past mile 16, past mile 26, and finished without ever questioning if she should have run the race.
But for Minnow, gutting it out isn’t enough. “Anyone can grind out a life. Anyone can endure. That’s what we are conditioned to do. That’s what people will congratulate you for. Not for doing what’s right, for doing what’s expected.” Minnow told Anny that’s the part he hates most.
“What if we change? What if we grow apart. What if those mornings where we don’t talk get longer? What if the months where we don’t make love never stop? I’m not always sure of us. I’m not always sure of me. We’re limping along Anny. See it? I’d rather stop now than go into it like this.”
“It” was marriage. Minnow had trouble saying the word. Anny knew this. It became codified like a disease in a hospital. Anny listened, more sick than sad. More tired than angry. The second break-up was shorter than the first. They both ran out of things to say. It took about three months before they started sleeping together again.
Anny makes Minnow feel like an artist. She comments on his shading of an aorta, tells him the lines on a spleen are beautiful. She makes drawing a pancreas dignified. She gives soul to a walk and makes eating cheese fries a wholly worthwhile experience. Anny makes Minnow feel significant. She gives life to Minnow’s life. He knows this, but only thinks about it when he’s loaded with Kobie or when he thinks he’s going to die in a plane. He tells her even less often.
Then there are times when Minnow goes away. Times when Anny sneezes and he sleeps. Times when she wants to be a tomboy and he wants her to be sexy. Times when he knows what she wants to hear but still won’t say it. Times when he feels closer to Kobie than to her. Minnow doesn’t even know whether it’s boredom, or apathy, or if maybe he really is just a shitty human being. It just happens.
It is those times when he meets a waitress with brown eyes and a belly ring who loves Skittles and J. D. Salinger. And she’s an actress, and she fills his eighth cup of coffee, and she sits down and eats half of his apple pie. He tells her he likes the way Dunkin Donuts smells. She crosses her legs and smokes cigarettes like Jessica Lange. They talk about God and sex and how to make great mashed potatoes. He shows her his Winnie the Pooh tattoo. She shows him her star scar. He tells her he feels sad every time he sees someone eating alone. She tells him she’s never been in love. She leaves his table. He aches. He stares at the sugar shaker and just sees his own reflection.
The cigarettes are still too damp. The ring now rests on Minnow’s tongue. He looks up from the pack and sees a rollerblader circling the base of the 76 sign like a moth. The rollerblader skates like sex, or at least what sex is supposed to be like—fluid, sensual, natural. He dances to a groove in his headphones. No one else can hear it the way he does. Twisting grey goatee floating above the skin of an African drum. The swirls of his purple tanktop and gold shorts spread a smile over Minnow’s face. “That’s it, right there man” he whispers to Elvis. The angel on roller skates defies mortality. Nothing else exists. He won’t allow it to. Time stops to watch him fill himself with music and movement like syrup poured from a pitcher. Minnow watches this madness, this sensuality, this joyful veto of reality, this prayer to God, and wants to be near the angel. He wants to be that angel on roller skates. Minnow walks closer, but he still can’t hear the music.
The bee was the fuzzy kind that looks like it’s heavier than its wings can hold. It flew in sinking arcs until it could rest on a shoulder, a breast, or a window. The bus was packed. Morning perfume and aftershave mixed with late July sweat to make the 158 even smaller. Occasionally a group of blue suits would erupt in a collective “whoa” or a series of jerky spasms following the flight of the bumble-bee. Coffee was spilled. Everyone reacted. Minnow fell in love.
The bee kept trying to get outside. It could see the outside through the window, and wanted to get out there bad. But every time it got close, it slammed its head into the glass. Or worse, the window was open and it’d get three or four inches outside and realize the scenery that looked so beautiful was a violent explosion of wind. Angry air uncoiling like a linebacker. The bee was always thrown right back into the bus dazed and embarrassed. Minnow watched the bee trying to find ways to get out of something it shouldn’t get out of. He watched the bee grow tired and wary and die without ever giving the bus a chance. Minnow pulled out his sketch pad and drew a portrait of Anny.
The angel on roller-skates flies away in circles, replaced by a homeless woman wearing a torn Bears parka over a brown roll neck sweater over a flannel shirt. Her face is round like a cherub and creased like the moon. She stays bundled on a steamy August night because she remembers being cold. Minnow thinks she looks like Anny, always suspicious that it might turn cold again. Never able to adjust to now, because of what happened then. She talks out loud, barely audible, like a purring engine. Minnow knows the only difference between the two of them is volume. He is glad she’s there. He wants a witness when God speaks. She sits on a speed bump and watches Minnow watch the 76 sign.
Mara says Minnow and Anny need to talk outside the sessions. She says the reason Minnow has broken things off twice is because they communicate on different planes. She says it’s like a transmitter sending one signal and a receiver reading another. It has something to do with Minnow’s mother and Anny’s sexuality. She even drew them a picture once. She says they need to interpret each other’s language, which makes just plain talking very difficult sometimes. It’s like thinking about breathing. When you become conscious of it, it becomes forced and strained and harder to do.
Now whenever they’re not in session, Mara follows. She sits with them at Jerry’s, her cinnamon perfume ruining the cheese fries. She wakes up with them before work, her thick ankles keeping Minnows legs on his side of the bed. She walks with them along the lake like a ghost from a shipwreck.
It was a week before their first official break-up. Minnow and Anny had stopped making love. Minnow was pretty sure they stopped being in love. They were comfortable and kind but they were a routine—the worst thing Minnow could be. Anny went to her work friends for advice. Minnow went to Mexico. He said he needed to go because he wasn’t sure he was alive. Kobie came along because he read about Mexico in a Sam Shepard story. Anny didn’t want them to go. This made Minnow want to go even more. Minnow and Kobie loved to star in movies together, and now they had something to run from.
Kobie tries to order another bottle of Bacardi but he can’t speak Spanish. Minnow just points to the empty and nods. The waiter nods back. The speakers in the ceiling boom bass and erase Minnow’s laugh. Pieces of bodies rub up against each other. Flashes of strobe light tell whose looking at who. Nails and faces are painted. Everyone sweats.
“Dude, I’ll be back.” Kobie gets up and goes to the dance floor. Kobie loved to dance back then. Minnow sips Bacardi and Coke and can’t believe this goes on every Thursday. He spent the Thursday before drawing a spastic colon and arguing with Anny over cereal.
Minnow floats through the crowd smelling hair and perfume as he passes. Tribal beats move the scene. Everything is alive. The energy, the freedom, the celebration of life, the juxtaposition of his life, all mix with his Bacardi and Coke. Minnow drinks it in.
Claudia has black eyes and black hair. When she laughs she puts her hand on Minnow’s arm like she’s bracing herself. She barely speaks English, “un poco” she says. He speaks with gestures and smiles. He makes her laugh. He hopes she will like him. They dance in their seats between acts.
Claudia wears a lot of make-up. Minnow is sure she doesn’t own a blousy Wisconsin sweatshirt. There is no history, no expectation. They will not spend Christmas together, they will not go to church together, they will not share a toothbrush. Every time they look at each other they laugh at their inside joke. They dance and Minnow wishes he was wearing roller skates. Kobie shows up with Ale and all four go for tacos al pastor and more Bacardi. They still laugh and dance in their seats even though the music has stopped. Minnow kisses Claudia in the taxi. She kisses back, overly dramatic. A movie kiss.
Her apartment smells like spice and sex. She likes candles. Minnow looks at parts of her body, exaggerated features that would be edited out of any decent medical journal. He doesn’t think about Anny. He is not embarrassed or sad or angry at her. She is just not there.
Minnow wakes up next to Claudia. The condom is broken. So is he. He imagines Anny in a Wisconsin sweatshirt at the Egg and I with someone else that is supposed to be him. He feels the kind of shame only dogs and kids feel. He forces himself to swap sex stories with Kobie in the cab to the airport. Hero’s legends of adventure and booty. He calls his doctor from the terminal to schedule an HIV test. Minnow grinds his teeth whenever he’s not talking.
Minnow starts to climb the pole on the 76 sign, eyes locked on God. He looks straight up until the front of his neck aches. The metal is cold between his legs. He has the Elvis Pez in his mouth like a pirate with his dagger. He breathes loud like an animal. Anny’s ring is on his little finger. The wind is alive, trying to knock him off. But Minnow holds on. He climbs the pedestal and sits on top of the 76 sign. On top of God.
He is a crazy cowboy on a huge orange stallion. A confused chicken trying to birth something, anything, out of an orange egg. He takes his shirt off. He feels the cool air on his nipples, nose, and ears. He takes a deep breath, eyes closed, hands out over his head, and for one sweet sacred moment everything is gone. There is no fear. No expectation. No religion. No car accidents. No broken bottles. No movies. No Mexico. No therapy. No ring. No blood tests. No throwing up before you get the results.
For a moment he and Anny are okay and Kobie still has two legs. For a moment every decision doesn’t have a resonance that will affect the rest of his life. For a moment he can still crawl into somebody’s lap. God is in heaven, Elvis is in Graceland and sugar shakers just hold sugar. For a moment he is a child. The smallest child. The one they call Minnow.