All paintings by Brad Phillips.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen and the forthcoming collection of short stories What’s Important Is Feeling. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories 2012. A recipient of the Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize for Humor, he was recently named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 50 Funniest People in Brooklyn. Brad Phillips is a Canadian painter who depicts oddly unsettling scenes of modern life, so we thought his work would be perfect to go with Adam’s story. Brad’s work was most recently shown at the Louis B. James Gallery in New York City.
In college I read Karl Marx and snorted cocaine. I lived with four other guys. We got money from our parents, or from student loans, or campus jobs. One of the guys, who we called Spine, was from Connecticut.
Spine gave us drugs. Or rather, we paid for them by writing his term papers. I was caught in a cycle of needing drugs to complete Spine’s papers, and writing papers to pay for drugs. Spine was barely passing with Cs but didn’t care. He had a job lined up after graduation, selling commercial real estate for some blueblood uncle.
One night I was battling a 20-pager on labor theory when I heard breaking glass. It was about 2 AM.
Spine burst into the hall holding a baseball bat. He was wearing boxers and a bathrobe. Through his open door I could see two girls in his bed. One had her toenails painted like a rainbow. The other had an ankle tattoo of an ankh. Neither was Spine’s girlfriend. It was another injustice, though I wasn’t sure who was bearing the brunt of it.
“The fuck was that?” Spine said. The others came out of their rooms. Mike had the police Taser he bought on eBay. Some nights we Tased each other. Donny opened his butterfly knife. Chris didn’t have a weapon. More noise from the living room.
“Shit,” Spine said.
Downstairs, there was a guy. A black guy, I should say, because it makes a difference. The difference was that we wanted black people to like us. None of us had black friends growing up. In college, the black kids stayed separate.
The black guy in our living room looked marginally homeless. He smelled like burned plastic and had holes in his Nikes and his sweater. His lips were chapped and tinted white. He brushed glass from his body as if unaware we were watching. He scratched his arms and mumbled under his breath.
“Hey, guy,” Chris said.
The intruder snapped out of his daze. He grabbed one of Spine’s guitars and held it two-handed from the neck like he was about to hit a backhand. But the guitar was heavy. Instead of swinging at us, or dropping the guitar and going back out through the window, the intruder sat on the floor and began to play.
The guitar—a semihollow ES-335 with cherry finish—was Spine’s pride and joy, his favorite of the five guitars he owned. I’d seen him polish the thing for over an hour.
The intruder strummed the open strings, plucked a C chord. Then he started crying.
“Fuck,” Mike said.
We were still surrounding the guy. I didn’t have a weapon, but I noticed I was holding Spine’s laptop like I might bash it into the intruder’s face. Mike flicked the Taser on and off, I guess to show that it worked, and then put it in his pocket. Chris unclenched his fists. Donny folded his knife. I put the laptop on the coffee table. Spine still had the bat. The intruder was still crying. The girls, wearing Spine’s T-shirts, watched from the staircase.
I got the intruder a glass of water. He sniffed at it and wiped his tears.
“Smell all right?” Donny said.
The intruder nodded. He took a small sip, then a bigger one, and then cleared his throat. “Cigarette,” he said. His voice was thin and weak.
Spine got a cigarette, lit it, and handed it to the intruder. For a second their fingers touched.
The intruder took a deep drag as he eyed our apartment. The floor was covered in trash and hardened socks. On the ceiling hung a tie-dyed banner with Bob Marley’s face silk-screened in the middle.
It was the end of April, and cold at night. Outside it was raining. The wind carried rain in through the broken window.
The intruder was shivering. He took another long drag. “How about a beer?” he asked. His voice was louder, more sure.
Donny grabbed two from the fridge. He tossed one over, opening the other for himself.
The intruder took a slug. He licked his lips and said, “Ahhh.”
I sat on the La-Z-Boy. Spine, Donny, and Mike were on the couch. No one picked up the broken glass. We didn’t have a dustpan. The girls moved into the doorway, and the intruder took notice.
“Hello there,” he said, trying to act suave.
Spine pointed a finger at the intruder. “Watch it,” he said.
For a second we tensed. Spine looked at the bat. Then he laughed, hard. He actually slapped his knee.
Chris packed a bowl. Spine picked up another guitar, this one an acoustic. He hammered out 12 bars in E, playing ninths to show off, sliding up and down the neck. The intruder tried to keep up, but he wasn’t as good as Spine.
One of the girls pulled a bag from Spine’s pocket. She laid out lines on the table, and the intruder perked up.
“You first,” Spine said. He handed the intruder a rolled-up hundred. The intruder looked skeptical. Then he snorted a line and handed the bill back to Spine.
Next thing I knew he was standing, singing. Spine, Mike, and Donny were, too. We were all laughing, even the girls.
The intruder leaned over and snorted another rail. He came back in on the next bar, still in time.
“Now there’s just one more thing”—ba-wah, ba-wah—“that my new friends can bring”—ba-wah, ba-wah—“make me scream, cry, and beg.”
“Wait for it,” Spine said.
“For a touch on those legs!”
The intruder winked at the girls, and stuck out his tongue.
“Ew,” said Ankle, furrowing her upturned, tiny nose.
Toes appeared not to have heard. “Hey now,” Spine said.
The intruder took another cigarette from the pack out on the table.
“You got a name?” Spine asked.
“Jess,” the intruder said.
“A girl’s name,” Spine said.
“That’s right,” Jess said.
“Well, Jess, we can’t let you steal any of our shit.”
Jess looked out the window. I saw the rest of his night flash before him, the way it would go when he came down and we kicked him out. The rain definitely wasn’t letting up until morning.
“There’s a couch on the covered porch, though,” Spine said. “If you want to crash.”
Around this time, I was coming to terms with my lot in life. May came on, clothes came off—first sweaters, then socks and stockings—barefoot coeds sunning on the quad, books splayed across sunburned stomachs.
I was onto Trotsky now, dreaming of Mexico. I sat in my room, reading, while the others partied downstairs with Jess; I listened to mariachi, sniffed imagined bougainvillea, ate takeout enchiladas. When I closed my eyes I saw Leon in that freight train, groggy head resting on a rice bag, rolling through Tampico at dusk. I saw Frida Kahlo slow-riding him, eyebrows arched, twisting the corners of his mustache with her fingers. Some nights I could feel the sweep of Stalin’s ice pick through the center of my brain.
A knock on the door.
“Entrez-vous,” I said.
Isabelle, Spine’s actual girlfriend, wore a thin linen dress belted high above her navel. She picked a book up off my desk, flicked the pages, put it down. She took a cigarette from my pack but didn’t light it.
“New roommate seems interesting,” she said.
“That’s the word for him,” I said. “Interesting. The situation is, well, I don’t know exactly.”
“Well, Robert is certainly infatuated,” she said, using Spine’s given name.
“That’s Spine for you,” I said.
“Spine, Spine, Spine,” she said, and lay down on the futon, inches from me, head on the pillow, smelling like shampoo and the faintest trace of sweat. We’d reclined like this a hundred times.
I could’ve slipped beneath the linen, held my palm against her panties, felt the heat coming off her. She might not have stopped me.
“So he broke in,” she said, “and you let him move in with you.”
“Spine let him,” I said. “And he hasn’t moved in. He’s just crashing for a while.”
If I told Isabelle about Ankle and Toes, it would only make things worse. She would probably tell me to fuck off. She might hit me. She’d definitely wait to cry until she was alone. She would let herself believe whatever lies Spine would spin to make it right.
Donny worked at Campus Convenience. Twice a week during his afternoon shift, Donny’s boss’s and his co-worker’s lunch breaks coincided, leaving Donny alone in the store for 20 minutes. When the coast was clear, Donny would call us on the house phone and scream, “Biotch!” into the answering machine. We’d grab backpacks and go, cleaning out the aisles, stocking up on freezer supplies.
Spine insisted that Jess come along.
“I don’t know, man,” Jess said. “Sounds off to me.”
“Not off,” Spine said. “Easy.”
Spine pulled on one of those full-face ski masks with holes cut out for eyes. “Trust me,” he said.
“Take that fucking mask off,” I said. “This isn’t a movie.”
“Seems off,” Jess said. “Something’s not right.”
But we all got in the car and made our way to the store.
We ran through the aisles, adrenalized. I felt sexy and alive. We stole Slim Jims, Ritz crackers, gummy worms. Jess was in and out in a matter of seconds with only a Snickers bar to show for it.
“I ain’t playin’,” he said when we were back home.
That night we had a feast. Spine bought a three-foot sausage from Stop & Shop, and we cut it in pieces to top our stolen frozen pizzas. We mixed vodka with Mountain Dew.
Jess drank very little. I never saw him eat. He was waiting, always watching and waiting for Spine to lay out the lines.
Toward dawn we were high as skyscrapers, looking over the mountainous heaps of our living room city, scraping powder, the dregs of Spine’s stash, off CD cases.
Ankle and Toes were twitchy. They’d stopped massaging Spine’s neck and shoulders and lay head to foot on the floor, staring up at Bob Marley.
Spine tried to pressure Jess to go out on the streets and find one last hit.
“I don’t know, man,” Jess said. “This ain’t the hour.”
“Buddy,” Spine said, a hand on Jess’s shoulder. He spoke in a calm, low voice, like a boxing coach coaxing his fighter into the ring for one last round. “Now or never, dawg.”
We all walked outside. Jess led us. The sun lingered on the horizon, threatening to burst the black. The streets and lawns smelled like dew. We followed, trance-like, weaving over Longfellow Bridge as the skyline approached. We’d been walking for an hour. I was sweating, half asleep, or maybe I was sleepwalking and the morning was a surreal dream.
Jess led us through the Chinatown gates into the old combat zone. He told us to give him all our money.
For a second we hesitated. I looked up at a building, back at Jess. His hands were in his pockets.
Spine took out his wallet, peeled off a fresh $50. The rest of us gave Jess tens and $20s. Jess crumpled the money in his palm. Whatever we were getting, we were overpaying. Jess said to wait outside.
We lit cigarettes. We checked our watches.
When we got back to the house everything was gone: instruments, plasma TV, stereo equipment, all our laptops.
Jess must have had help, known a guy with a van. Our furniture was gone too—Spine’s king bed, even the corduroy couch with all the rips and burns.
“Shit,” Spine said. “Shit.”