Hustle

“Name’s Jeff,” says Leo.“Nice to meet you.”

They shake, and the deal begins. Not long after, the deal is done.

“Thanks, Jeff. I’ll be in touch.”

No you won’t, Leo thinks. And leaves with pockets a little heavier. When he gets home, Paris, his wife, sits on the couch, feet on the ottoman next to two glasses of red wine in the grainy rosewood tray. Her friend Camila sits across from her.

“Hey, Leo,” Camilla says. Paris says nothing.

Leo raises his head a degree in response. He found Camilla beautiful once, something Paris knows and used to mind, but he now finds her too annoying to be beautiful. He finds her yoga pants and tank—pink and yellow, bright and inviting, filled perfectly and intentionally—as obnoxious as her condescending looks and constant presence. Everything about her is calculated. She sips wine.

“How was work?” Paris asks. There’s as much enthusiasm as interest, which is to say none.

“Fine. You eat?”

“Greens and Proteins.”

Leo opens the fridge, finds nothing useful. “What?”

“That place by the gym. We went after spin.”

“Right. Any leftover?”

“Sorry.”

“Mm. I’m going out.”

“Can you pick up some eggs?”

“Yeah,” he says. He still finds Paris beautiful. He starts out the door but turns, half in and half out, says, “You want to watch a movie later? I can grab a Redbox.”

She doesn’t answer. She might not have heard him. He might have asked too quietly.

Either might have been intentional. He goes out the garage, hits the button next to the light switch, and hops the sensor. His clicker has been out of batteries for months. He should replace them, and he never will. He’ll continue to hop the sensor until they move out of this house, which he has no plans of doing any time soon. Paris would like to, he thinks. She’d like to move somewhere a little bigger, somewhere gated, somewhere closer to Camilla and her husband, Price. Somewhere whiter, she said once and never again, probably because of Leo’s raised eyebrows. She said once because it was so contradictory to who she used to be, to who she still claims to be. While he didn’t care for the sentiment, he appreciated her brief moment of transparency. If not with him, then who?

Anyway, he likes this neighborhood. He likes their house, the giant canopy tree that sits in their front yard. He likes that the shared mailbox is right at the end of their driveway. He likes hearing the neighbors’ kids play outside, football and water balloons and spy.

Leo walks down his driveway and sees that man across the street. Maybe more than anything else, he likes that man.

More often than not, the man sits—or lies, Leo’s not sure which best describes the position— in that contraption on his driveway. Leo has never been able to identify it, but it’s like a cross between a barber chair, a dentist chair, and an ab machine. Whatever it is, it’s medical. Leo knows that.

Most days, they make eye contact. The man smiles and nods, and Leo returns both. He’s old but not ancient, thin but not emaciated, bearded but not unkempt. He seems happy and healthy and content to sit silently in his contraption and watch his slice of world from his driveway.

Leo has never talked to him. He’s never had the will or motivation to cross the street. The distance defines their relationship. Someday, though, Leo will cross. He’ll smile and nod, traverse black tar, and learn the man’s name, learn what the hell the contraption is, learn what the hell it is that makes the man look so satisfied.

Leo will cross one of these days.

 
 

“Name’s Brad,” Leo says. “Nice to meet you.”

They shake, and the deal begins. Not long after, the deal is done.

“Thanks a bunch, Brad. I’ll give you a call.”

At home, there is no Camilla, and there is dinner. Leo is both pleased and surprised, and he’s disheartened to find those to be his immediate reactions. He used to expect nice things from her, just as he used to do nice things for her. When they decided he was making enough money as a real estate broker for Paris to quit her job, he never asked her to be the stay-at-home Stepford wife, apron and dustpan and slippers with nary a request. She guaranteed those things on her own, but he of course happily agreed. At the top of her list of guarantees was food on the table. For a year, year and a half, he came home to gourmet love-sweat-tears meals from scratch. The year after that, the meals were ordered, takeout, or from-frozen. Now, the meals are memories.

She isn’t who she used to be. In her defense, neither is he.

In college, in that anthropology of animals class in which they met, she was electric, sharp. Passionate. First to raise her hand to answer a question, first to declare a pork-free diet when they learned of pigs’ exceptional intelligence. She cared for the animals about which the rest of the class remained disaffected, but she cared about those classmates as well. That, more than anything, drew Leo to her. Watching her stay after class, surely late for her next class, to help that kid with two broken legs shuffle to the elevator. Watching her listen attentively to the octogenarian woman in the class—finishing her bachelor’s degree as a bucket-lister—ramble about her grandkids. Leo’s favorite, though, was watching her watching him.

Him, twenty-one, attractive, beating them off with a stick, as they say. Dashing, as many literally said. He’d redden, but never correct. He loved it, owned it: dashing. As attractive as he was, though, he was never good enough for Paris. Would never be good enough for Paris. He knew that. Still knows it. But still, he tried. He allowed—forced—Paris to define him. To fill him like a stuffed dog. And in many ways, it worked. For Paris’s causes, he passed out flyers and spat from a megaphone rehearsed rhetoric he didn’t believe because she’d bite her lip when she asked for his help, and he was a fervent devotee to a bitten lip.

And for Paris, he listened, learned, loved.

No, they aren’t who they used to be. And the dinners show that.

But tonight: roasted salmon with lemon and dill, a salad with a homemade vinaigrette, molten chocolate cakes in individual custard cups prepped and ready to go in the preheated oven when they finished their meal. French vanilla bean ice cream in the freezer.

Paris is lighting candles on the dinner table when he walks in.

“Hey,” she says, smiling, beaming, proud.

“Hey.” Leo enters cautiously, feels his face condense into a question mark.

“Hungry?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” she says, bookending the plates with silverware. She packs salad into individual wooden bowls, drizzles her dressing over the top, and sets them on the table. She turns off the lights. At six p.m. in November, it isn’t completely dark outside, but it’s close. Twilight through the open windows, flames flickering on the table—it’s romantic. Leo never considered that he missed romance. Paris takes off her apron and sits, gestures for Leo to do the same. He does.

“You recognize the food?” she asks.

“Should I?”

Her smile is sad. “Our first date. I made this for you in my dorm.”

“My God,” Leo says. “I remember.” She shrugs. “No, really. Really. I do.”

He really does. She nods.

“Work?” she asks, reaching for her fork.

“Yeah,” he says. “It was good.”

She takes a bite, chews carefully and rhythmically, like a polite metronome. Her eyes shine and inquire, hazel and curious.

She really is still beautiful, he thinks as he watches the candles’ shadows flicker over her face, layering and relayering her features. Each layer highlights something different. One shows those soft peach cheeks with baby remnants that Leo’s always loved; one shows her too-big anime eyes and too-small fairy nose that together are perfect; one shows her high forehead that’s just regal enough to balance the cartoonishness beneath it. She smiles, shadows bouncing on her teeth.

“Good,” she says. “Any sales?”

“Yeah. One.”

“That’s great.” She covers her mouth with her hand while she chews and speaks. “Really.”

“Thanks.”

Leo takes his first bite. He doesn’t care for salad, generally—more a meat and potatoes guy, he likes to think—but it tastes wonderful. Spring mix greens and pine nuts and feta cheese with her dressing. On that first date, he had no idea how she was able to pull it off in that shoebox dorm.

“Yours?” he asks.

“My?”

“Day. How was your day?”

“Oh.” She smiles again. She’s smiled at Leo more in the last two minutes than she has in the last week. Her smile widens, and Leo remembers how much more beautiful she is with that smile. Still too beautiful for him, too good for him. “It was good. Really good.”

“Good.”

Ask Leo, and he won’t be able to identify a moment in time when their passion faded. He heard once that if you have a bucket of white paint and add drops of black, one at a time, slowly, the entire bucket will turn black before you realize it. You’ll miss the darkening shades of gray in between. That was his marriage. Their grays, though, contained no animosity. No fighting or threats of divorce. Just growing indifference.

Until finally, one day, before either of them realized that it was even happening, their marriage turned into a black hole where passion, where romance, where love simply don’t exist.

But this, right now, this dinner—it’s something. It’s life in the void. He takes another bite of salad and thinks that it feels like love.

“Thank you,” he says and gestures toward their plates and the candles. “For this.”

“You’re welcome.” She says it clearly, enunciates, shows she means it. “Do you like it?”

He smiles. “It feels like love.”

She cries a little.

“Okay,” she says. “I was going to wait until dessert, but I can’t hold it in.”

“What?”

“I have something for you.” She walks to the kitchen, opens a drawer, and withdraws a small gift-wrapped box. It even has a bow.

Leo opens it and sees the plastic strip with two bold parallel lines. He looks up, gapes.

“I took three tests to make sure,” Paris says. She raises her eyebrows and bites her lip and lifts her shoulders. She waits for his reaction.

“Jesus,” he says. He exhales. “Jesus!”

They skip the entrée and dessert and go upstairs and make love twice, first in their bed and then in shower, and with the sex is more of the passion that Leo didn’t realize he’d been missing. The sex is perfect, but it’s the cuddling afterward, he thinks again, that tastes like love.

After, while Paris lies sleeping, Leo sits in his office and smokes a cigarette next to an open window. Across the street, at—he looks at his watch—nearly midnight, the old man sits in his contraption in his driveway and studies the neighborhood, his face a model of satisfaction. Leo wonders if the man has lost a few pounds. He considers going downstairs and crossing that street and introducing himself. Sharing the news. Giving the guy real justification for that satisfaction.

Maybe tomorrow, he thinks. He drags long and leans back and closes his eyes and feels for the first time since his broker’s license got revoked six months earlier that all is right, all is as it should be.

 
 

“Name’s Renzo,” says Leo. “Nice to meet you.”

They shake, and the deal begins. Not long after, the deal is done.

“Much appreciated, Renzo. Talk again soon.”

Leo meets Paris at Babies ‘R Us. They’re halfway through their registry, but they haven’t decided on a travel system or breast pump yet.

Paris reads a product description for the gray gender-neutral Graco in front of them and tells Leo to look up reviews on Amazon.

“Seems good,” he says. He looks up at it. “You sure we shouldn’t wait till we know the sex? Get something blue or pink?”

She gives Leo a look. “That’s not a thing anymore. You don’t buy kids gender-specific stuff.”

Leo points. “There’s a pink car seat right there.”

“Okay, so they still make them, but they’re old-fashioned. Reasonable people don’t buy them. Girls can have blue rooms and boys can have pink rooms. You don’t shove gender norms down their throats. You let them choose who they want to be.”

Leo thinks that back in college, twenty-year-old do-gooder Paris alongside him, he might have held up a sign that read something to that extent. It’s nice to have her back, in place of that woman who wants the white neighborhood.

“Plus,” she says, feigning casual, “we can use gender-neutral stuff for the next one.”

“Next one?”

Her gaze meets his and she shrugs and nods, a twinkle.

“Yeah,” he says, smiling. “The next one. That’s a good point.”

They finish their registry, all gender-neutral items, and buy a frame for a sonogram photo beneath the words We Love You Already. Paris printed the picture and picked out a spot on the wall earlier that day.

“Oh.” She snaps her fingers as they’re about to split for their separate cars. “Forgot to tell you. Camilla and Price are coming over for dinner.”

He groans.

“Come on. Camilla is my best friend. You can deal with her for a meal.”

“Camilla is Camilla,” Leo says. “Whatever. Price is my problem.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad?” Leo puffs his chest and adjusts invisible glasses, blows on his fingernails, deepens his voice an octave. “Oh, hello, Leo. Yes, well, our 5-series BMW was fine, I’m sure, but it just didn’t offer the luxury we desired, did it, Camilla? So we decided to go for the 7-series. Tell me, Leo, how is your Ford Fiesta running?”

“Stop.” Paris could give a seminar on the eye roll. She slaps his chest. “First of all, he drives an Audi.”

“Oh my,” says Leo. “Has he applied for welfare yet?”

“Second of all,” she continues as if uninterrupted, “you’re killing it lately. I bet you’ve been making at least as much as he makes. Just spend the evening rubbing all those closings in his smug face.” She grins, his teammate.

Leo thinks of the cash in his glove box. His daily till has become too much for his pockets. He has been killing it lately. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess I can do that.”

When they get home, she showers, and he tucks his money in the footlocker in the garage. In their bedroom, she comes out of the closet and gestures to her stomach.

“Does this make my stomach stick out?”

“No.” Reflex, doesn’t even look.

“Dammit.” She comes back out with a different, tighter top. “Now?”

He smirks and looks. Her stomach is flat as it’s ever been. “Yep. Way out there.”

She grins and fusses with her hair for reasons he doesn’t understand. She helps him prepare dinner. They eat with Camilla and Price. Price kisses his fingertips and calls the meal five-star. He and Leo sit on the front porch and smoke cigars that Price brought while Paris and Camilla talk in the living room. Paris comes out and asks for a puff of Leo’s cigar and Camilla and Price share a look but Paris grins and Leo hands her the cigar. She takes two puffs, three, doesn’t inhale. Price shows them his new car. Turns out he wasn’t satisfied with his Audi A6. It offered neither the comfort nor pickup that he desires, so he traded it in for the A8. Might just have to spring for S-series next, he says with a wink.

They walk the Martins out and say goodnight. Across the street sits the man in his contraption. It’s dark, so they can’t see his face, but Leo assumes the man smiles and nods.

He smiles and nods in presumed return, aware that the man probably also can’t see.

The Martins drive away, their Audi A8 growling their departure, and Paris goes inside. Leo lingers. He looks at the man, his friend and stranger. It’s dark, but he’s skinnier. Leo knows it. He wants to talk to him, to ask him about the contraption, about his life. About life.

He wants to. He will. He will tomorrow.

 
 

“Name’s Johnson,” says Leo. “Nice to meet you.”

They shake, and the deal begins. Not long after, the deal is done.

“Thanks a million, Johnson. I’ll spread the word.”

Leo feels a buzz in his pocket as he drives.

No heartbeat

Leo finishes loading the car and wishes they’d listened when Paris’s mom told them to wait until closer to the due date to throw the shower. At least everything was from the registry. Shouldn’t be a problem returning all of their gender-neutral stuff.

As Leo works, the sun follows its trajectory and presses down on him from multiple angles. Presses down hard enough that a man’s tears could easily be mistaken for sweat. The old man across the street watches Leo go inside and out, over and over again, filling his small car with what was to be his future. In the full light of day, there’s no denying: the man is skinny. His arms shadow his driveway the same as the twigs on the tree that shades him. His face is sad and Leo thinks it has nothing to do with his contraption or its purpose. Leo thinks it’s sad for other reasons.

Leo thinks the old man knows the difference between tears and sweat.

It’s four loads, four back-and-forths to Babies ‘R Us before the late Baby Z’s room is emptied of his/her loot. It’s a full Saturday of work, the day warm and clear and inviting outdoor recreation. The crib and dresser were a bitch to take apart, and Baby Z’s walls are peppered like a dart board with nail holes—Leo can never find the stud. But it’s done, it’s empty.

They’ll spackle the holes. They’ll paint over the spackle.

After it’s done, when the day is night, Leo sits at the kitchen table, in the same chair he’d sat in when he opened that little box. He peels at his beer’s label. Dragon’s Milk, an expensive barrel-aged stout. He bought it to celebrate the day after Paris had shown him those parallel lines. He knows nothing of beer beyond a vague notion that lager and ale are different, but he’d liked the name and wanted something pricey to commemorate. It tastes fine, he guesses, but he doesn’t know enough about beer to appreciate it. This one he drinks now is from the same four-pack from those months ago. Leo’s never been a big drinker, but when the occasion calls for it.

Paris enters and sits across from him, where she’d sat when she passed him that box, and wipes her face with a rumpled napkin. She tosses it down onto a placemat, where it blooms like a time-lapse of a daffodil.

“Got everything?” she asks, monotone.

“Yeah, that’s it.” He sips and tastes nothing. “That’s it.”

She reaches a beckoning hand and he gives her the bottle and she raises it slightly and leans the tip toward him.

“Cheers,” she says. And drinks.

 
 

“Name’s Gerard,” says Leo. “Nice to meet you.”

Leo reaches to shake, and the man in front of him points a gun in his face instead. Leo empties his glove box, center console, and trunk for him, and the deal is done.

“Thanks, Gerard,” the man says. “See you around.”

Leo parks his Fiesta, thirty-six thousand dollars lighter, in front of his open garage. Across the street, the driveway is an oil-spotted canvas for shadows and twigs and fallen leaves and bird shit. There is no man in the driveway. He’ll be there tonight, Leo thinks. Mid-August zenith heat is too much. Temperature is one-fifteen, one-twenty maybe. It’s too much heat for anyone. Can’t blame him. Anyone would stay inside to avoid that much heat.

Leo edges through the shoulder-high hedge-maze of boxes in the garage and goes inside. Packing tape rips in a shrieking duck’s quack.

Camilla glances at him in acknowledgement.

“Hi, Camilla.”

She nods.

Then Paris’s voice, growing louder as she walks down the stairs, her phone at her ear, a black garbage bag with hanger hooks curling through the top slung over her shoulder.

“Eight-thirty. Yeah, it’s all packed. I’ll be ready. Thanks a bunch.”

She drapes the garbage bag over a stack of similarly packed bags and folds her arms. She looks at Leo, and he looks back at her.

“So,” she says.

He nods. She presses her lips together, right down the line between a smile and a frown. It’s almost a grimace, but not quite. Grimace carries with it negative connotations, anger or disgust or pain. Those are all there, probably, in that thin-lipped contortion, but more accompanies them. Regret and understanding and second-guesses. Love, maybe. Remnants. What hits Leo, though, worse than the disgust or anger, is the pity. More than anything, there’s pity in those lips, in that perfect horizontal line that sets off the dimpled pits in Paris’s peach cheeks. She’ll be fine on her own. She has Camilla. And prospects.

But Leo? Anybody’s guess. He’s all exterior.

That pity ignites a jolt in his stomach and throat and behind his eyes and he turns, occupies himself with the fridge. Because the pity is accurate, warranted. He uses the door as a barrier. Bottles of hot sauce and ketchup and hoisin clank. A moment, and the jolt is gone. And then he feels a grimace of his own. He takes a beer, a more frequent sight in the fridge of late, and twists the top. He gave up on fancy craft brews that require bottle openers. Palming the bottlecap, he closes the fridge and, jolt now gone, looks back at Paris.

“I’ll be here at eight tomorrow morning,” she says.

“Okay.”

“I found a place. An apartment. Opens up end of the month.”

“Good.”

“I’ll be in Camilla and Price’s guest house until then,” she says. “I mean, if you need anything.”

“Got it.”

“You…will you be okay here?”

“Fine.”

Paris nods.

Camilla looks around, her head on a swivel, and says, “I think that’s everything.”

“Yeah,” Paris says, eyes on Leo. “That’s it.”

Leo raises his bottle slightly and leans the tip toward her.

“Cheers,” he says. And drinks.

That night, Leo sits in his office. He opens his window and watches the cigarette smoke curl out. He’s just finished masturbating, first time ever with the volume up and the door open, and he’s unsurprised to still feel guilt even though he has no reason to. Now he drinks, his sixth beer, his tenth, his fourth cigarette, his eighth. Doesn’t matter. He stares out the window, feels the warm and beckoning night air trickle in, and can’t take his eyes off the empty spot on the driveway across the street. The old man’s absence in the afternoon makes sense; it isn’t terribly unusual for him to wait until blistering summer days cooled into warm summer nights, but he never resisted the warm summer nights. Rain and wind were the only things that had ever kept him in, and even those had to be strong. A drizzle or breeze wouldn’t do it. It took a storm to keep him inside.

It’s okay, Leo thinks. He’ll be there tomorrow. He’ll be there tomorrow.

 
 

Name’s failure, Leo thinks. Failure and decay and poverty and famine and impotency.

Sucks to be you, says his reflection, that haggard, bearded, greasy thing that must be him.

No shit.

Leo rubs his temples and splashes his face with water. He’s not sure why, but he’s always seen people in movies splashing water in their face to get their heads straight. It almost works.

He goes downstairs for a beer, all that remains in the fridge. He sidesteps boxes, not the tidy and stacked abundance that Paris had but a scarce and scattered minefield of crinkled and torn third-hand things that are more tape than cardboard. He should be able to fit them in his car in the morning. And anything that doesn’t fit will get left behind. After the bank’s lackey changes the locks on his front door tomorrow, it won’t be Leo’s problem. He’ll be gone. Where to fit his car—and himself—that’s his bigger concern.

He takes his beer up to what was once his office, before he sold all the furniture on that shady-as-hell app, and leans against the wall. He opens the window even though it can’t be more than thirty degrees outside. The air hurts and heals. He looks across the street at the empty driveway. It’s been a cold January. That’s why he hasn’t seen that man in his contraption. December was cold, too. The wind blew in November, and October rained. September carried the remains of August’s heat. That’s why he hasn’t been out. The For Sale sign in the unmowed grass next to that driveway is there by mistake. Probably supposed to be at the house next door. That couple with the older son who leaves late and comes home later, his car full of piss and vinegar and bass. Leo has watched him from the window. He’s probably going off to college, that kid, and his parents are downsizing. Leo’s sure that’s what it is. That’s where the For Sale sign is supposed to be.

The man in the contraption will be there tomorrow, and Leo will talk to him.

Name’s Leo, Leo will say. Nice to meet you.
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cade Hagen lives in Las Vegas with his wife, one-year-old daughter, hellhound Cane Corso, and orange tabby. He teaches writing at UNLV and is a hot-sauce connoisseur, craft-beer enthusiast, and hobby tabletop gamer. His work is forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review.

 

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