I. Hess Esser
Lunch with Lucas Milas was, possibly, one of the worst ideas Hess had in a decade. The man said three sentences in an hour. And he ate a chicken breast. Nothing else. Hess could not even talk him into a beer. And he tried. He tried.
Hess pointed with his fork to Lucas’s disregarded steamed broccoli.
–Not a vegetable man?
–Soggy, Lucas said.
That was one of the three sentences.
The other two occurred near the end of the meal, when Lucas told Hess, no, he really did not want a beer, and yes, he really did refuse any offers for professional advancement.
Lucas has been Hess’s eerily quiet, directionless executive assistant for almost nine months. Hess guesses the kid is, maybe, twenty-four and likely suited for more than the shitwork he’s doing. But Lucas declined every suggestion for ladder-climbing that Hess put forth, apparently content to be a secretary and the barer of Hess’s morning coffee.
Motherfuck, was there anything more frustrating than granting an ungrateful fucker an opportunity?
Hess had taken larger missteps, though, in his thirty-eight years.
And, he thinks, here comes one now.
–Baby, do you have any other sheets? Pippa purrs in his left ear. –That I might refresh the bed?
Pippa slips her chilly fingers inside his shirt. She goes for a nipple but he twists out of her reach. And spills his vodka. He bites his cheek, swallowing a curse.
–Just leave it alone, Pip. Please, let me relax. I love you, but I want to relax. Long day.
Pippa sighs. Her blue and white silk dressing gown flies up as she sinks into Hess’s loveseat. A fake breast reveals itself, perky, C-cup, caramel-colored, as is most of the rest of her. Hess admires her long, lithe legs. Pippa smiles, showing whitened, perfect teeth. They are straight from two years in clear, adult braces. For which Hess paid. Along with the breasts. And a surgery to fix a hammertoe, whatever the fuck that was.
–Would you like a handjob? Blowjob? Pippa asks.
Hess shakes his head but thinks a blowjob sounds like a cure-all. He puts his vodka glass on the deep-pile carpeting beside his chair. His legs drop open. He nods to his crotch.
– If you want.
Pippa rises, crosses to his chair, and drops to her knees. She unzips his trousers.
–But that doesn’t mean you’re staying over, Hess quickly adds.
Pippa freezes. Her silver painted nails dig into his thighs.
–I just said. I can’t sleep with you. You flail. We’ve been over this, Pip.
–Then get a bigger bed.
–You have a bigger bed. At your very own beautiful apartment. Sleep there.
Pippa looks into Hess’s eyes. Her lips are pursed.
–I hate you, she says.
–And I hate you.
Hess rolls his eyes.
After Pippa swallows, cleans off her chin, and adjusts her dressing gown to cover the most delicious bits of her, she stands and curls her upper lip at him. He puts his penis back in his pants. He sips his vodka. Hess nods at her midsection as an afterthought.
–You want me to…?
–What? Do I want you to what?
Pippa glares at him. Hess shrugs.
–I don’t really want to do anything, Hess says.
–Don’t I know it. And just why is that?
–There are many reasons, Hess says.
–I need my beauty sleep, for one.
–And? Pippa asks.
–My neck hurts?
–And? Pippa asks.
Yes, okay. You have a dick. Sometimes, I imagine your Adam’s apple, though it is oddly invisible, bobbing when you swallow when we are at Percy’s for Sashimi. You have a dick. I love you, but you have a dick. You get drunk and naked too often in mixed company. All of Manhattan knows you have a dick. My great aunt would spot your dick. I love you, and I love when you blow me, and I would never want you to go away, but fuck, you have a dick.
When Pippa leaves, Hess smokes some weed and tells himself the truth.
She is the most feminine of women. A man knows, Jesus Christ, a man knows vaginal intercourse is a piece of the Triple Crown. Fucking and killing and shitting. A man rises to all occasions. But the vagina is a war waged in feces, while the other two may be exclusive of one another, and of the vagina. The vagina blurs lines –a weeping, stiff penis begs the enfilade, and a soft, spongy penis seeks the militarized sector with the most potential. A vagina blurs lines; it is a trap to take up arms, to fake bravado, to collapse in loosed stool and partisanship. A man would never know because a man is too stupid to know.
II. Lucas Milas
Lucas wants people to break rules for him. He doesn’t get why they don’t.
Hess Esser is a rule-breaker, and Lucas knows it. Can see it and smell it. Though the employee handbook of Seserko’s, where they both work, lays down the regulations, Hess is not likely to give a fuck about the rules of fraternization if, indeed, fraternization were Hess’s desire.
The day begins.
Hess staggers through the heavy glass front door, which closes with a thud. Within seconds, Hess stands in front of Lucas’s desk. He grunts a good morning. Lucas hands a large bold blend with two sugars to his superior, a man twelve years his senior. He sneaks a look at Hess’s neck, adorned by an unexplained, ragged scar – ear to collar-line – and shoots his eyes up to short, dark blonde hair that’s slicked-back, looking constantly wet. Hess drops his cheerless messenger bag on Lucas’s desk, takes three gulps of the coffee, and rolls his eyes. Hess juts his chin at the bag.
–Sort that shit out for me, will you? It’s totally fucked. The meeting was shit. I sold, like, nothing. Nothing fucking at all. And do you know what the German is for cunt?
Before Lucas can make eye contact, Hess disappears into a fifteen-by-fifteen office with beige carpeting, furniture with faux-mahogany finish, a leather chair with a high back for the chief, and two vinyl chairs for his quarries. Hess slams his door. Lucas pictures Hess dropping into his big chair, clasping his hands behind his head, thinking about money or sex or how much a new printer will cost.
Lucas peers into the messenger bag. He sorts out the shit: decollated collations, reports stained with coffee and…Tabasco? A dozen high-gloss catalogs, a single-serving box of Froot Loops, and two warm cans of Bête Noire energy drink. The bag smells of weed. Lucas drops the army-green shell onto the thinly carpeted floor and registers the small noise, ta-chink, when it lands.
He pulls the bag back into his lap and searches inside for the source of the metal-on-metal clatter. Keys. Lucas feels the slender, cool ring that holds three keys. He palms the set. With a reddened neck and face, he slips the keys out of the bag and into the pocket of his trousers. Though no one has witnessed this, Lucas feels the dread and shame bubble from his crotch to his sternum.
Putting the stolen keys out of his mind, he makes fast work of collating and smoothing and cleaning all the papers and laminated reports. He glances at the sale sheet. Basically, Hess sold enough yesterday to pay for a week’s salary and maybe a bite to eat for him and few potential buyers, presumably the German cunts. From behind Hess’s thick office door, he demands action.
–Sale sheet! Come on!
Lucas stands, puts his hands on the item of request, tip-taps a few choice words into a search engine, and confirms what he believed he knew. On a small sticky paper, he writes, die fotze, and adheres the note to the front of the sale sheet.
Hess looks up when Lucas enters without knocking. Holding out a hand for the paperwork, Hess checks out the scrawl on the sticky note. He grins. With his thumb, he flips the plastic lid off the coffee, downs the last swallow, and pitches the empty cup into the overflowing trash.
–Are we not getting cleaning service anymore? Hess asks. –What the fuck?
Lucas begins to say that they only come on Wednesdays now, but Hess cuts him off.
–Look, Peggy’s still in Toronto. I hope that old bitch is moving that shit series of Canadian cookbooks. They made them, they should buy them back. Only fair.
He looks Lucas in the eyes. Lucas stops breathing.
– What’s Canadian for cunt? Hess asks.
–Uh, Lucas murmurs, –cunt.
Hess regards him for a moment.
–You need sun. And a haircut. And to fuck something, apparently. How come you always look so pinched?
–Yeah, well, Hess continues, –you’re good at a spreadsheet, and that’s all I give a fuck about. Get me the Froot Loops from my bag. Do we have milk? If not, that non-dairy creamer is good.
As far as Lucas knows – and Lucas has done some research – Hess is neither married nor divorced. He is not widowed. He travels for business unaccompanied. Five months ago, he went to Nevada to visit relatives, and he went alone. In his bullet-grey BMW, the setting of the passenger’s side seat, where Hess stacks paperwork, digital gadgets, and half-empty packs of peppermint gum, never seems to change. Hess never smells like anything other than a shower or light cologne.
There are three equally stunning women that do work in the office for Hess. Not once has Lucas seen Hess leer at any of them. Truly, he barely acknowledges them, unless he’s insinuating Lucas should be fucking one or another. Lucas is astonished that Hess puts on no airs, no show, for their benefit. But then it occurs to Lucas that Hess is the kind of bastard that purposely ignores attractive – perhaps unattainable – women. Lucas has the notion that Hess feels he’s doing the community a favor by dishing out some sort of life lesson to the aesthetically pleasing, that physical beauty should be reproached or ignored by the arbiter, that its possessor should feel the bite of averted eyes.
III. Lucas Milas
Hess Esser wears lovely suits. Tailored, and the colors always one shade from the ordinary. This is what draws Lucas’s eyes to Hess. The scar, the man’s brusqueness, the large hands, au fait, and the flawless skin are what keep Lucas’s eyes there.
After placing work on Kara-the-Copyeditor’s desk, Hess peers into Peggy’s darkened office. He huffs and steps out of the shadow of her office, scrubbing a frown off his face with a large hand. Lucas tries to catch Hess’s eye, but Hess sails by his desk in a daze.
Hess’s family must be ideal by American or European standard. Attractive for generations. Neatly put together. Discriminate in personal hygiene and appearance, and very unlike Lucas’s family, comprised of plain people with no care for cloth or accessory. The Milas family grooming was basic, and no one really cleaned up all that well. His father, Pastor Linus, in particular, wore dowdy, too-snug suits, and never had a white cuff showing outside the suit jacket. Some of Lucas’s brothers tipped toward the ugly side; Addi, Lucas’s oldest brother of five with a lopsided face that looked melted on the left, a woman’s hips, and slightly icteric skin, neared monstrous.
It was Addi who told Lucas he’d find God if he fucked a dog (Canis lupus familiaris). Lucas always supposed, for this reason, Addi was the closest to his heart. For actually caring enough to push Lucas this way or that way. Too bad it was that way, but what Addi really wanted was for Lucas to see. To see and to feel the holiness of the noble beast. Just touch inside of her. Feel her center light. That’s what Addi said, dropping his underpants, leading the way. Addi was wrong, about the dog, but he was the only family member that wanted Lucas to thrive, in an inside-out way.
The term MacroChurch blossomed the decade Lucas turned eight, and Lucas’s family’s church grew – exploded, really – and became one of the twelve MacroChurches in the nation, complete with three campuses and its own school system. In Pastor Linus’s church, however, The Messiah, Jehovah, and the books of the Holy Bible were peripheral; Linus gathered his own text from six religious works, saw proof that the redeemer lived within our beasts – noble beasts, eleven species of them – and these animals were the only designated lines to deliverance. According to Pastor Linus’s Canon of Hendecanima, all the animals of the world were greater than man was, but eleven species were to be revered, to be tended, to be praised above all else.
Lucas was made to memorize those species, and he did so with no pauses in thought or breath: dogcatgoatsheepdonkeyrabbitguineapigcowturtlepighorse. By age twelve, Lucas knew all the Latin taxonomy and almost all the breeds of each species.
At thirteen, Lucas lived on Campus 2 – seventy acres of noble beasts and so many caretakers that Lucas gave up calling the people by name, because it was impossible to remember all the names. The beasts were of the most importance, anyway. The beasts were named. All the names were accompanied by numbers, Roman numerals that meant something, but Lucas never figured what. The names of the billions of redeemers were being noted, somewhere, by someone, for an important reason. When these names were spoken at the altar, it was like uttering the name of God. No, not like it; it was it.
Lucas tried for years. Listening to Pastor Linus speak every day about salvation and the holy, furry beings lighting the way never hit home for Lucas. When he was young, he felt he misunderstood because he was young; but when youth became young manhood, misunderstanding proved to be incredulity.
Four days after he and Addi fucked the German Wire-Haired Pointer, Lucas gathered one hundred and eleven animals and sliced and hacked and squashed them to death. He was long done when his mom found him. So done.
Lucas startles, now, when he hears Hess’s office door open and close quietly. He finds he’s been daydreaming, his brain brewing a mixture of melancholy, homesickness, and fury. He really should be transcribing a handwritten order into a spreadsheet.
The fly of Hess’s trousers appears in Lucas’s line of sight.
Hess places a color printout on top of the papers from which Lucas works. There is a web address at the bottom of the printout, and, at the right of the page, Lucas’s tenth-grade church/school photograph. To its left, another photo: the noon sun, diffracted by a thick, white steeple. And to the bottom left of that, the photograph that crushes the gas exchange at Lucas’s cellular level: sixty or so mounds of hastily shoveled dark dirt – graves – too small for human carcasses, and lining a long copse of trees at the edge of a vast field. The dirt on each grave having been churned recently, a confession made only by the sprouts of bright green grass and weeds in the chunks of damp earth.
Hess taps the paper and squeezes Lucas’s shoulder with his other hand.
–You? Hess asks in a whisper, for it is not Lucas’s name under the school photo, though the picture bears his unmistakable likeness.
Lucas is unashamed about the story. It’s a slow sick sucking past. It’s just one story. He has so many stories for that day. He is ashamed, however, about being found on the Internet, and by a man whom he desires. He sickens at being blindsided. He says nothing to Hess. What can he say? It’s obviously Lucas in the article. Rather, it’s obviously Cristofer Aristov, 16, of Richmond, KY, in the article.
IV. Hess Esser
–I’m going to say some things, Lucas announces without even the hint of a slur or self-consciousness, –some of which you will find odd. The others, you will find disturbing or unknowable.
They’re at Tortie’s, a restaurant fashioned after mid-level chains, and falling short of even those minimal standards. In the bar lighting, Hess notes a gloss of sweat on Lucas’s smooth face. Lucas is not angular. He has no scars and no blemishes. His attributes are like clay, argil smoothed by deft fingers, one fictile feature flowing into the next until, there, you have a face, pleasant to observe, no one thing drawing attention.
Hess eats quesadilla rolls and patiently waits for Lucas’s reveal. He refuses to speak. Speaking might scare the boldness out of Lucas, who has just finished his third beer in ten minutes. Lucas places long, thin fingers on the dark veneered tabletop and drums for twenty seconds.
–First, Lucas says, –it’s not untoward for you to ask me some questions after what you found yesterday.
–Like how do you have Lucas Milas’s social security number for a start? And who the fuck is Lucas Milas?
–Yeah. Like that.
Hess lifts his hands in a go-ahead motion.
–I didn’t want to be associated with that anymore, Lucas says. –They gave me two million dollars never to talk about it. Though, I bet you want me to talk about it.
–I have some questions. But I don’t have to ask them.
They both tighten their lips and stare at one another.
–It is fucked up, though, Hess says, finally, quietly. –What happened there? I mean, what happened?
–It was only the one incident, Lucas says. –I wasn’t crazy. Besides, you know, habit starts at the second crime. I’m just…here. Working. Passing time. Lawful. That all ended for me. Anyway, I have something else I have to tell you – and listen to all I have to say before you freak or leave or punch me, yeah?
Again, Hess lifts his hands in a go-ahead motion. Lucas’s breath becomes heavier, and he closes his eyes.
–I’ve been in your apartment, Lucas blurts.
Lucas polishes off the beer, upending the bottle on the table and spinning it, catching it before it topples.
–What? Hess asks again.
–I have your spare keys. I didn’t take anything. I just–
Hess realizes he’s been holding his breath. He blows out a lungful across the table, tries to relax by pushing his shoulder blades into the cushiony booth.
–What the fuck are you talking about?
–I was in your apartment–
–I fucking heard that. Why? Are you making this up?
–It’s an odd thing to make up, Lucas says.
– It’s an odder fucking thing to do. What the fuck is going on, Lucas?
–Nothing is going on.
Hess is just trying to keep down those quesadilla rolls.
This guy was in my apartment? Why would he want to be in my apartment? Shit, I’m dizzy. The raking headache is hitting me again. This is a sick moment. Why, oh, why would Lucas do something so fucked? And why would he want to tell me about it? Like maybe I’m being lined up for some crazy bullshit, like being strapped down in the back of his stolen van and sliced up slowly for amusement and, later, jerky. Slaughterday, revisited. Hoboken version.
–I don’t mean to upset you, Lucas says. –I’m not dangerous.
–If you weren’t fucking dangerous, then you wouldn’t have to say you’re not fucking dangerous.
–Just wait. I mean, there’s another thing, Lucas says. –It neatly ties up this entire situation. So that you can appreciate that I’m not a threat. I’ve got this…thing.
–Yeah, I’d say you’ve got some fucking thing. What the hell, Lucas? What is all this shit you’re saying? You sound insane. Why were you in my fucking place? You killed all those animals? By yourself? Why would you do that? Were you in my house looking for animals? Were you in my house looking for me?
–No, Lucas says, appalled. –I just wanted to know things. Things that you would never say. Things people don’t ever say. Like about what’s in your fridge, or your list of vices. What you read in the bathroom. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never broken into – well, I didn’t break in because I had your keys. Speaking of which.
Lucas digs in the front pocket of his trousers, pulls out keys, and slides them across the table to Hess. Hess mutters to himself. He feels exposed, and it’s awkward and disorienting. He tucks the keys into his pocket.
–Fuck’s sake, Lucas.
Repentant, Lucas shakes his head and picks at a napkin. Hess watches as Lucas sinks back into his inexpressive self. Hess pants, just a little, before covering his brisk respiratory rate with another slug from his beer. Speechless, he opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again. He pokes at a half-eaten quesadilla nibble and rolls the muscles in his neck and shoulders. The nausea has passed. Hess cannot pinpoint why the atmosphere shifts. But it does. It is no longer dangerous; it’s anguished. This man across from him is just weird. Peculiar. Neutral and winsome. No threat. Somehow, after all of it, the animal slaughter, the B&E, Lucas seems docile and companionable.
–Were you angry, Hess asks, gently, –when you killed the animals?
Lucas clears his throat, mumbles, and shakes his head once.
–I looked for something, Lucas says. –That was Cristofer Aristov, just looking for something. Like I looked for something at your…at your place.
Lucas’s eyes go to the grease-smeared saltshaker and stay there. He places his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. Hess throws his napkin on the table and regards the cooling cheese quesadilla rolls. Appetizers and beer revisit Hess’s esophagus. He swallows hard.
–Do you have anyone in your life that you’d break rules for? Lucas asks. –Not just arbitrary red-light-running? I mean the codes of civilizations. Did you ever just want to know someone, just one person, who was worth killing for?
Hess looks up, mouth agape.
–I meant that allegorically, Lucas says.
–Sure, you did.
–You’re no bullshit Hess, Lucas says, curling his lip, trying for a smile. –Everyone I’ve ever met is bullshit. Mouthfuls of lies. Duplicitous. Sycophants.
–You don’t know me.
Lucas sniffs. He idly runs a finger up and down the side of his last beer.
–So, I don’t, Lucas agrees. –You’re correct. You are bullshit.
Hess laughs once. He knows if he speaks, his voice will quaver. Lucas sighs, looking disinterested and saddened. He pulls his jacket onto his lap and says that he’s thinking of leaving now.
–So, look, are you firing me? Lucas glances at Hess.
Not even one percent of Hess wants to fire Lucas, though he doesn’t know why not. He shakes his head. Their eyes meet.
–So. You were in my apartment, Hess says.
–What’d you do in my bedroom?
–What do you think I did?
Hess’s fingers, toes, cheeks, and lips are a bit numb. He has an erection. Hess floats, it seems. And he’s tachycardic. Frightened and repulsed. But consumed. Wants to figure out a way to replay this afternoon’s conversation, once a day for, maybe, four years.
It’s only fact if two people recount it the same way. Hess’ll need corroborating details. Words might be missed. Lucas knows, and Hess knows, and there will be no way to recapture the thrill of this day without seducing, protecting, and fucking the one weirdo archivist with whom he can reminisce.