“I know, I know, I said bring along your little Korean boyfriend,” says Smithers Popwell, aka Kane, the bartender with tats. It’s true that he sends problem vets to get help, calling up people like Drin, rather than report them to cops. Kane has told him that Dance shows all the symptoms of being a veteran too.
“He was funny. Skinny kid, yeah, but I didn’t realize he’d get shitfaced that fast on three shots of whiskey. Or that he’d stomp Armand at arm-wrestling and Wingert at poker, and tell me half my collection of music is all bootlegged cause he can hear the copy distortions. Or knock over Jam for calling you a faggot. I mean, who asked that asshole Jam to come? You know Jam played defensive end for that farm team in Arizona for a coupla years, ‘fore his knees gave out. The taller they are, the easier it is to tip ‘em over, I guess.”
“Yeah, the poker kind of surprised me too,” Drin says.
“We shoulda been wise to that. Musicians, ya know, they always playin’ cards, waiting when technical shit breaks down. You think he’s gonna be okay?”
They listen to the noise of Dance heaving into a bush next to the open car door. He’s moaning sometimes, but not in English. He only spoke that when he asked them to back off. They’re leaning on the front of Drin’s car instead.
Drin says, “Oh, I think so. Don’t worry, I’ll pour lots of Gatorade into him, I’ll check on him during the night.”
“Shit, man, I had no idea he’s never had that much booze in his life,” Kane says, which is just his guilty conscience talking. “But hell, any of these damn memorial services, we all of us drink more ‘n we usually do. Bet he ain’t gonna want to try it again. Not necessarily a bad thing, the way he went after Jam, about ready to peck him to death.”
“Jam’s a pretty mean drunk.”
“Hell, if any of his punches connected, we’d all be in the ER, one way or another. You notice I ain’t nurse-maiding that asshole. Dunno who did.”
“Armand told me he’d take Jam to a hotel room, put some ice on his face and arms. Wasn’t sure if the fall broke his nose again. But he didn’t think Jam was gonna want anybody to know about it.”
“And good luck to ‘Mando on all that, better him than me.” Kane pats the hood of Drin’s car lightly, mostly to check where it is. “Well, I’m heading off for a bottle of Gatorade and some aspirin myself, call it a night. Thanks for giving me a ride, and hey, thanks for coming, I appreciate it, I really do.”
Drin nods, watches him slope off toward the trailer he calls home. Kane stumbles on the steps going up, fumbles with his keys, but makes it inside all right. Lights come on gradually through the trailer’s rooms. Drin looks up at the stars, closes his eyes a moment, and pulls himself together. He walks around the car.
“Right,” Dance says wearily, sagging in the front passenger seat.
Drin squats on his heels at the open door, rests a hand on Dance’s leg. “How are you doing?”
“Things are still… what did you say… helicoptering. But not so bad if I hang on.”
Drin smiles at him in the dim light. “I’m sorry. Really, really sorry. Let me get you home, sweetheart.”
“I do not smell so sweet just now.”
“We’ll get you cleaned up, just hang on till we get home. I’m lifting your feet in the car again, you just let things turn, don’t try to move your tail end until you’re ready, okay?”
Once they’ve got Dance shifted and his arms inside the car, hanging onto the dashboard instead, Drin gets into the driver’s seat. He pulls out the plastic bag from the day’s purchase of cheap whiskey. “Sick bag, if you need it.”
“Thanking you.” It comes out odd, between gritted teeth.
“Okay, I’m going to start the car, but you tell me when we can move. Take your time.”
“You… seem to know… how it feels…”
“Hey, I was young and stupid once. Plus, I had brothers with a sense of humor.”
“Oh Gaaawd,” Dance moans. “Let us go. Drive, okay? I do not want to think about… how your evil brothers would take advantage… of our Drin being sick.”
“Let’s just say I’ll never touch Creme de Menthe again, okay?” Drin drives as if he’s hauling a crate of broken eggs he doesn’t want to spill.
After a few carefully negotiated turns in the road, Dance says, “Why would anybody think this is a solution to their… pain…”
“Numbing agent, self-medicating,” Drin says briefly.
“And you had… pain that needed… numbing?”
Drin smiles. “I guess I thought so then. I don’t remember why, exactly.”
“Oh. I do. Just nothing… to fix it. I remember… being so ashamed. Failing… auditions. Wanting… the wrong things… and not… anything the other kids talked about. The whole… miserable… attempt to… figure it out.”
“I guess that’s part of what being a teenager is about, yeah,” Drin says.
“Being queer?” Dance asks.
Drin keeps watching the road. “Oh hell yeah. I was okay about liking boy parts too, and I liked ‘em a lot. What bothered me was the idea that maybe I’d get caught by the assholes at school, shit, that’d be a fight. Then I’d have to explain to my folks why I like dick too. I mean, if I survived that long. But mostly, later on… like you saw, flashbacks on all that bad shit in the military. You hope getting blotto will stop bad dreams, but it makes them worse. A lot worse, after awhile.”
“Well, damn,” Dance says, imitating his accent.
“You must be feeling better.”
“No, but I am… putting my face together… to explain… to Emma that I am… fine.” And then he throws up into the plastic bag. His body hardly moves at all but his jaw opens very wide. He makes odd squeaky noises like a cat with hairballs. When he sits back, gasping, his hairline and his neck glints as if he’s rolled in glitter dust. A line of sweat trails down his brow.
Drin flips open the console between the seats without looking, pulls out a bottle of water, twists it open with three of his fingers still on the steering wheel. “Here, rinse your mouth.”
“If I ever… say I want to do this again… just shoot me.”
Drin chuckles. “I don’t think we’re going to fool Em into thinking you’re okay. She’s going to worry. We’ll just ask her not to hit you tonight.”
“She’ll beat me up tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you’re going anywhere tomorrow, either. Don’t kid yourself, neither is Kane, or any of those guys. Which is why they scheduled this whole thing for the weekend.”
“I do not know how… musicians drink and work too. Em is going to kill me.”
“No, she’ll make you go to bed, and stay there.”
Dance moans. “Bad idea, those last two drinks. They didn’t even taste good.”
“I know, and I talked you into trying it. I figured it’s a good idea to know that stuff. I’m really sorry. I was bad to you. Em’s gonna spank shit outta me, too, and I know how mad she’ll be at me.”
“Drin, eating this apple of knowledge is… not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I didn’t set up the situation right, that’s why. If you wanna whack me for it, I completely understand.”
“I do not want to whack you. I want to whack Jam for calling you a chocolate-packing wick-dipping ass-sucking faggot. Very hard. When he’s not drunk.”
Drin winces. “All the guys said he’s just a mean drunk. Oh, hell, what am I saying– he was mean on the football field, too, Kane told me that was why the team owner kept him around. But what Jam, the damfool, was saying to me, some of it was just the truth, you know, even if it lacks respect.”
“That is why. I want him… to learn respect. Whacking is all he knows.”
“Pretty sad, come right down to it. And you, Dance–”
“Your skinny funny little Korean boyfriend,” Dance repeats bitterly.
“Yeah, and let me just add, outrageously sexy and totally brilliant.”
“And completely unable to drink,” Dance says, enunciating far too carefully.
“We don’t know that. Unable to hang around mean drunks, how’s that? I mean, you took down this great big guy when you were so shitfaced that you were puking. You stomped a former pro linebacker, man. How sad is that?”
“Perhaps he needs the excuse to cry,” Dance says, not sounding sorry about it at all.
“Man, you’re tough,” Drin says.
“I am a musician.”
“Yeah. I’ve been learning what that means.”
Dance takes a deep breath, makes the effort to talk. “People come to performances when they know… it will make them cry. And we know… we will make them cry. We just hope… it isn’t the critic who starts to weep in horror.”
Drin finds himself laughing. This was the Dance that Kane and the other vets got to see that evening, cracking jokes with that lethally solemn face and the careful enunciation. Drin takes another turn gently, climbing another of those damn mesas that make the car bob like a tilt a’whirl, as if he’s trying to make Dance sick. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says.
“I am hoping I do not have the bad dreams tonight,” Dance says then.
“I’ll be there as long as you want, I promise,” Drin says.
“I want,” Dance says, and rests one hot palm on Drin’s leg. “Please.”
Twenty minutes later, Dance has been pulled out of the shower, dried off, dosed with plenty of sports drink and aspirin, and put to bed looking exhausted; he’s asleep within moments. Drin brushes back the man’s dense, damp hanks of hair. Under Dance’s hair, around the nape of his neck, his skin is dry, but it still glints as if he’s rolled in finely-powdered glitter, and he feels hot.
Drin straightens up wearily from checking his pulse, and meets Emma’s glare. He jerks his head toward the living room.
She leads the way, turns on the light, and he sinks into the sofa, puts his throbbing head in his hands. He’s wearing a robe himself, feeling damp and achey, nauseous, totally miserable in spite of dosing himself too. And he only had one shot the whole evening, since he takes seriously the role of the designated driver. Stress, all of it. Living like this, with better things to do every night, he’s clearly lost whatever moderate tolerance he ever had for drinking.
Emma pulls up a chair facing him, looks him over. “Where did those bruises come from?”
“Pulling Dance off an ex-defensive-end football player who started to hit people and called me lots of bad names for faggot.”
“Because otherwise Dance wouldn’t stop?”
Drin sighs. “I don’t know, honestly. He put down this great big guy on the floor so fast none of us could stop him. Had him down in a grappling lock that could have dislocated the guy’s elbows. I mean, Em, he is so damn fast.”
“Ye-esss,” Emma says, arms folded.
“I’m sorry, I’m just such an idiot– dumb accidental things happen, you know. None of us knew this monster guy was gonna show up at all, he was smashed as hell before he walked in. Dance was already three shots down by then, not putting up with shit like that. Just locked him up. Then he started taking the guy’s brain apart. How the guy was disrespecting the vet who passed away, giving the finger to everybody in the military, dissing the guys who cared about the memorial services enough to fucking show up. Then he started whispering. Asking how come the damn fool kept talking about asses, maybe he’s a closeted queen, maybe he wants somebody stronger than he is to give him lots of dick up his manhole, maybe he wants somebody to hump his prostate gland–I’ve never heard Dance like that, just peeling off strips of hide. You could see all the straight guys going totally green.”
Emma touches his face. Tilts his chin up, looks at his jaw, then at his hands, lets go of him.
Drin rakes his hair back. “God. You think Robert is bad, going bitchy at the Metro, he’s a fucking amateur. Dance can drop Robert in his tracks.”
Emma shrugs. “Sure. All the Metro folks know he’ll hurt them with the truth. That’s what makes Dance so good at auditions. Competitive, hell–he eats judges. Those bowing attacks of his don’t come outta nowhere.”
“If Dance ever goes off on Young, he’s gonna take him to bits.”
“Oh yeah, he’s not the mouse that Young’s crowd likes to think. He goes to that dojo for a reason.”
“Yeah, I believed you. But I’ve never seen him like that–”
“I bet you won’t, either. He’s never gone off at me. Not once.” Emma stares at him with those pitiless storm-gray eyes. “But real early one morning he heard me yell for help, out there in the driveway, and he took down a guy who tried to assault me. Just laid him out. Said a few things I’m never gonna forget, let the guy go, and the bugger just took off screaming.”
“Oh Christ,” Drin says, wincing at the very idea.
“Said it was better than hitting him. Honest to God, Dance didn’t want to damage the guy. And he said there’s guys who don’t hear things, so talking doesn’t stop them–so then he’d have to really hit them. Your not-so-buddy Jam got lucky.”
Drin locks his fingers together over his forehead, pressing hard on the skin over his eyeballs with his thumbs. “I never meant to get Dance that trashed–”
Emma sniffs. “Yeah, I figured that out by the third time Dance told me it was his own fault, not yours.”
“Em, I’m so damn sorry. I’m a crappy boyfriend and a bad patron. I’m a shitheel. I’m untrustworthy.”
“No, just a fallible human, you silly wanker.” She snorts. “Well, I was at fault too. I knew that event was basically an excuse to drink. I was hoping it’d just be your vet buddies there, folks like Kane who he kinda knows, keep him calm, and so nobody’s shocked at whatever flashback weirdness he might get. Because he might, drinking that much.”
“Em, I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect this. I shouldn’t have talked him into–”
“Yeah, yeah, you wanker, don’tcha hate learning experiences? Hold out your hands.”
Drin holds out both hands. She whacks him firmly on each hand, across the knuckles, and makes a face, shaking her own hand, saying, “Ow! Bugger, that hurt! I shoulda grabbed a ruler, give you that whole evol nun experience. And stop giving me that puppy look!”
He looks at her hands. “When parents say, ‘This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you,’ it’s not supposed to be true.”
She grimaces. “You think I’m feeling righteous here? Fuck and bugger, man, we should have tested things here where things are quiet and he didn’t need to go into defense posture.”
“I should’ve taken him to a scuba diving class instead, like I wanted to in the first place, not let myself get talked into this dumb stuff,” Drin says. He heaves himself up on his feet, pads back to the bedroom.
He speaks softly to Dance, checks his pulse and breathing again.
Dance sighs, turns toward him with a blurred mumble, and falls back into deeper sleep. He pulls up the bedding higher around the musician’s neck, and returns to the living room blinking hard.
Emma swims into focus, sitting with her arms folded, swinging her foot with the slipper dangling. She lifts one eyebrow. He’s not fooling her.
“Want some fresh tea?” he says.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” she agrees, rising.
Filling the tea kettle at the sink, Drin says, “He’s fine, sleeping hard.”
“Good. Bit of a head tomorrow, for sure. If this scared him, knowing he might hurt other people, that might help him stay calmer when he’s dealing with Maestro Asshole Young.” She rummages in the cupboards. “So he’s too damn fast and aggressive for any of your vet friends, and he’s sure too badass for anybody at the Metro. What if Young finally pokes him into losing it? Who’s gonna haul him off chopping Young up into fucking diced radish? I think you’re the only one he allows to yank him round the paddock a few turns, if his temper blows.”
“Well, and Amalia, probably. But we’d all have to get his attention first, so he doesn’t hurt us accidentally.”
“I’m just hoping the ex-football player won’t sue for assault, for tonight.”
She spoons loose tea into the teapot strainer. “If the damn fool was that big, then wouldn’t admitting Dance bunged him up just look pretty damn silly? Hell, if he started making threats at you and Dance, that’s self-defense. Besides, they can’t get blood out of a rutabaga, Dance has bugger-all to take. The only reason an attorney would go after it is to snag your money. And you’ve got lawyers on retainer already, right?”
Drin smiles crookedly at her. “Oh, well, I could strike first with a suit for threats and slander, but that might just provoke the dummy into trying a counter-suit of his own. So I’ll need to check on the calculated risks.” That just makes his head throb worse.
She sticks out her jaw just like Dance does, looking stubborn. “So you want me to blow part of our Sunday on getting you some backup documents, huh? You know, like arrests and convictions on this bugger, records of the football career, fan pictures that show off how big he is, stuff like that.”
“Yes, please,” Drin says, meekly. He slumps into a kitchen chair and rests his face in both hands. Finally he asks her, “Shall I take Dance in for a nice chat with my attorney about it? Really rub it in, make sure Dance understands all the consequences? I mean, hardly fair to him, but–”
She snorts. “You have no pity in you.”
“Well, it’s not gonna be any fun for me, either.”
She pokes him, hard. “Your own fault, if you talked him into drinking that much.”
“Yeah, and now Dance probably thinks he’s not safe to drink at all, which is a damn shame.” Drin folds his arms, leaning against the table. “Dance is not a mean drunk, you know. He giggles a lot. Everything is funny. He was laughing at the asshole at first, until the guy started threatening me. Hell, it was out of hand before the rest of the guys understood what the hell the idiot was even saying.”
She glances over at a clock, drops the tea strainer into the hot pot. “Oh bugger, that’s too damn slow for Dance, he’s done with it by then.”
Drin sighs, scrubs at his face again.
She pokes him in the chest. “You’re missing something, ya big nong.”
“Thing is, you kept up with Dance. You’re about the only one I know could do that. Think about that, ya big fly-bit bushie wanker.”
“Well, yeah, that’s just cause I was paying attention.”
“No, people at the Metro pay attention, too, believe me, and they’re still about ten steps too slow for Dance. I had to teach him to wait. Taught him to give it a count of eight or ten, and clarify twice if he has to, when he tells anybody anything. I made him practice waiting for the rest of us idiots to catch up.”
Drin thinks about it. “Yeah, I’ve seen him do that.”
“But you saw it. You’re fast enough, you could watch Dance doing it.” Her hand comes shooting out, the nail posed to poke him even harder.
He stands up, picks up her hand instead of letting her hit him. He folds it in his hands, kisses her knuckles. “And bushie tricks like that, too,” she says, glaring up at him.
“I think you let me,” Drin says, just to be provoking, and then he’s catching her hands smacking at him. She throws a couple of direct punches, which he deflects easily off his forearms. Finally she opens her arms wide, flings her hands around him, and gives him a rib-cracking hug.
“See? You see? You big silly bugger, you knew what I was gonna do,” Emma says.
He gives a deep, tired sigh, and feels everything relaxing, his shoulders drooping. Why does a hug from our Emma always make him feel better?
“You stupid wankers coulda got seriously hurt,” she growls into his robe.
“Yeah,” Drin says, using the hug to grip her tight enough that he is lifting her off her feet for a moment. He puts her down again, kisses her cheek. “Yeah, I know. But damn, that was something to see.”
She growls Aussie footie curses into his robe, and pummels his back for awhile. “Aren’t you gonna stop me?”
“No, it feels pretty good,” Drin admits. He closes his eyes, smiling, while her fists pummel up and down his back, and her front is plastered up against his front, jostling and moving and totally distracting him from the dread of having to drag his ass into the law offices of his family, first thing Monday morning.
The expense is big enough reason to avoid it if he could, but he’s got other reasons. The younger attorneys veer into way too many damn questions about inherited accounts which he can’t answer. The senior partners are worse. The oldest of them is a woman who keeps vast tracts of genealogy charts in her head for dozens of rich families, apparently without effort; and she’s never been happy with his documented place in it. He always ends up feeling like a poor disreputable orfink cousin whose true antecedents could somehow get him murdered.
A woman so much like Emma, shaped by twenty years of corporate law, on the hunt for something, is not a comfortable experience. Sometimes she drags him over to discuss new accounting tricks with other senior partners, who are affable and relaxed and only occasionally show the same reflexes under their low-key surfaces. He hates to draw the interest of any of them to his activities, interests, or resources.
Emma says suddenly into his ribs, hugging him, “You wanker, you’re afraid of your own attorneys, huh? Face ‘em down! You got nothing to apologize for, and hell, you went to the services and the memorial to be supportive of these other vets. How much more all-American can you get?” She makes rude noises into his robe, tootling the national anthem through her nose. She tries to make it sound like a kazoo.
Drin snorts, and leans back into her. “Might be simpler to just have them arrange some way to hire on the ex-football player for a decent job in some podunk town back near his grandparents. Don’t give me that look!– he’s that sort. Have to think of something he can do that’d keep him out of trouble. I expect there’s some brain damage there from playing.”
“Listen to you, always with the managing,” she says, pummeling his back again. “Well, you oughta email teslamomma, right, she’ll have some ideas. And I can come up with lists of what jobs other ex-jocks guys like that have been doing, how’s that?”
He sighs. “Thank you.”
She snorts again. “Might be, meeting you two was the luckiest thing that’s happened to the damn fool since he quit playin’ gridiron.”
“I’d rather he didn’t find that out,” Drin says.
“Yeah, yeah, I bet you do shit like that all the time,” Emma says fiercely, pummeling him.
“Can you get that knot just under my shoulder blade– aahhhh,” Drin says.
“Ya big wanker,” Emma says.