Abe, the broad-shouldered grave shift clerk, watches the man in the three-piece suit storm into his 24-hour drug store — to the degree that a man can storm through automatic doors. The hot, acrid wetness of the Florida night seeps briefly into the store behind the man, soiling its sterile, timeless atmosphere. As the customer’s well-heeled and polished shoes click deliberately on the immaculate tile, Abe watches fixedly from his sticky pleather stool behind the counter, ensorcelled by the naked gravity of the customer’s movements.
Observing the man’s spotless high-rent attire and purposeful motion, Abe rapidly becomes aware of the sweat that darkens the back of his faded red uniform polo, sweat that clings to him like liquid ennui. Through the mental haze of a long shift and a hot night, Abe thinks that there’s something familiar about the customer, though it’s inconceivable that anyone he knows would be in Florida, let alone this dank armpit of a town. Hell, that’s the whole reason he chose it.
Even so, a primal, electric tingle of unease raises the hair on the back of his neck. Suddenly self-conscious, he slides a hand into his blotchy khaki slacks, fingering and rolling an embossed pen between damp, strong fingers. Abe feels himself calming down slightly as he rubs the pen, enjoying the familiar texture of the little crossed boxing gloves.
The customer has taken no notice of Abe, not a glance in his direction since entering the store. So he remains oblivious to Abe’s admiration and internal discord as he walks from aisle entrance to aisle entrance, polished shoes clicking sharply while he looks up at aisle labels. He is wholly engrossed by his objective. This, too, Abe notices, resents, and admires.
He opens his mouth to offer the customer assistance, but he recognizes his opportunity to feel useful too late; the man has already chosen an aisle and is taking long, straight-backed strides in the opposite direction. In the fluorescent emptiness of the store, his footsteps echo with the weight and rhythm of a great doomsday clock.
Two minutes to midnight, thinks Abe as he puts away the gaudy little pen. Seeking distraction, he finds an old, dog-eared magazine behind the counter; it’s the kind of thing he’s normally berate the afternoon guy for leaving behind, but this time, he’s glad it’s here. It’s a sixteen year-old pop Christianity magazine from the late 90s. “You’re down with the Wu, but are you down with the Christ?” asks the cover. Smiling, he opens it to no particular page and begins skimming an article; it’s called “Repentance in the New Millennium”. Abe catches a glimpse of the customer over the top of the magazine and that unease of near-recognition returns. Additionally, he’s trying to ignore the rank emotion — he won’t admit that it’s envy — that has begun cramping his midsection. He’s trying with little success to shove down errant thoughts about sweaty, indolent men named Abe in their late twenties working graveyard shifts that have to kowtow to GQ men in suits. Ma, that steel-haired battleaxe of a Jewess, had always told him that envy was an evil thing.
He shakes his head and focuses on the article while the man’s footsteps continue their tick-tock sledging in his temples. His eyes settle on a single line that has been underscored and highlighted:
On this year, and only on this year, we children of God, sinners all, we go free. On the year of Jubilee, redemption is ours to receive freely. We need only seek it.
– Father J.T. Barnum
He reads the line again and again, incredulous and yet entranced by the language of the faithful. Abe feels as much as he hears the man coming up to the counter. Without looking up at Mr. GQ, he folds up the magazine and puts it back on the stack. The man puts his purchase on the counter, saying some banal thing about how bright the lights are in here, but he stops short halfway.
Abe finally looks up. A lightning crash of recognition and horror bolts across his face. The vain envy that had pooled in him becomes mortal panic that churns and thrashes in his intestines. The man’s bright blue eyes meet Abe’s and linger, slowly widening as his mouth and shoulders go slack.
His mind and heart begin racing. Abe is sure that there’s no way he’s going to make it to the regular exit. “Find everything you needed, sir?”
The man starts. “What? Fuck that, Abe, is that you? What are you doing here?”
Abe wriggles and writhes on the sticky pleather stool. His eyes flick away to the latchless “Employees Only” door swinging listlessly to his right and back up at the man and the pain in his
stomach is unbearable and he barely manages to say, “Working, Seth. I’m working. That’ll be twenty seventy-three.” Abe feels petulant pride at managing this response, and at having removed most of the embarrassment and shame from his tone. But Seth stomps his foot, outraged.
“Don’t give me that. Don’t give me that, man. You know what I mean.” Seth’s leaning halfway over the counter, white-knuckled hands grabbing at nothing. His voice is shaking as frustration begins to boil over. “Abe, come on, look at me, man.”
Abe peels himself up from the stool, oozing up to his full five-foot-five-inches of broad-chested manhood, holding his taut gut with one hand and fondling his worrystone pen with the other. He’s looking down and left and right and everywhere but straight ahead. He shakes his head, eyes watering, and flees toward the Employees Only door. He shoulder-breaches the latchless door like a sweaty juggernaut, praying that the afternoon guys forgot to lock up the back the way they goddamn always do. Even in his nearly incoherent panic, he hears the distinct tromp-snap of dress shoes landing on linoleum and he hears Seth yelling something, but he can’t make out what it is (“Way-a goin, Abe!?”).
He dashes through the break room with his heart in his throat and his fingers digging into his gut, throws open the back door, and makes a break for it.
Abe’s pursuer catches up to him under a streetlight three steps into the swampy Florida night, a strong hand on his right shoulder. He freezes, looking out into the back lot, which is a small dirt cul de sac littered with cigarette butts and surrounded on all sides by concrete walls. The lone streetlamp he stands under becomes a nightmare spotlight. The treefrogs are chanting their bizarre chorus, ominous as a Latin hymn. Nowhere left to run. With a large enough head start, he is sure he should have been able to scale one of those walls, or hop the chain link gate. But as it is. . .
“Don’t you run away from me.”
Abe leans against the streetlight, trying to catch his breath, and throws the hand off of his shoulder — but does not turn to face its owner. “God, my gut, man. You don’t understand. It hurts. I think I have an ulcer. I don’t know. I know what you’re going to ask and I don’t know. I just had to, that’s why. You wouldn’t understand.”
A trembling, breathy voice answers him. “Don’t give me that. Don’t even give me that. You can’t bullshit me, Abe. It was that broad, wasn’t it? That reckless broad? I always knew she was going to cause you some kind of trouble.”
Abe’s heart jumps into his throat and his eyes start to burn. “You shut it right there.”
His stomach rapidly unwinds itself as the thrashing panic turns to indignant rage, which in turn begins to melt years of frosty indolence and self-pity. He is a cornered animal suddenly remembering its teeth; he steps out into the cul-de-sac, rolls his shoulders, and turns to face Seth.
“You shut it right there, Seth. Alright. Let’s go. Same rules as always. Loser is the one who goes down first.”
Seth gapes for a moment, startled by this swing in demeanor. “You think you can just — who do you think you are? Two years, no word! Nothing left in Brooklyn! We thought you were dead!” He throws off his suit jacket and begins loosening his tie. “I thought you were dead. And you’re in Florida! Two years! I cried, asshole.”
The air stills for a moment. Even the treefrogs seem to be caught off-guard. Abe, who is halfway through slipping off his faded red polo, cocks his head and raises an eyebrow.
“Oh, fuck off. Let’s go.”
The two men, now shirtless, have moved to opposite ends of the small cul de sac. The scene is set by the dull glow of ochre lamplight, the shuffle of dirty khaki slacks and houndstooth dress pants, the patter of bare feet on packed dirt, and the discordant cacophony of treefrogs. They circle each other with light steps and sharp eyes. The damp heat of the night mingles with the ineffable atmosphere of adrenaline and impending violence. The result is something thick, something intimate, invigorating, intoxicating, familiar. Abe’s really waking up now, like he hasn’t in years. He knows there’s far too much to say. Far too much to express, at least as far as his capacities go. Seth’s too, though he’s always been the smooth talker.
He stares Seth down as they continue circling each other. He can’t suppress a nostalgic smile. What was that thing coach used to say? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a punch from a boxer is worth a million. You don’t really know a guy til you see how he squares up in the ring. Damn right, coach.
“Good to see you haven’t let yourself go too bad.”
When things built up between them — they always did, eventually — this is just what needed to happen. Sure as clouds give way to rain. Nothing could stop it. Not even Ma, though God knows she tried more than once. You’re smart boys! If ya spent half as much time studyin as you do scrappin. . .
Abe’s fists are close together just under his eyes and he’s bobbing his head slightly, as though searching for the tune of a half-remembered ballad. It’s the stance of a man who knows he’s about to take some shots. He tries to shake off his nostalgia and set his teeth against the punishment he’s about to receive.
Seth’s hands are half-open, the left a few inches out in front of his face, the right tucked in closer like a loaded gun. It’s the stance of a man who knows better than to take shots he doesn’t need to take. Years of impotent despair and silent mourning shadow his movements.
For the estranged siblings, this is a necessary catharsis.
They’re moving in tighter circles now, ebbing in and out, each trying to set up his own distance while dripping sweat onto the packed dirt. Abe’s arms are shorter and he may be out of practice but he’s still got dynamite in both hands and diesel in his legs. Seth can see that plain as day, so he keeps his distance, left hand flicking out again and again like a lion tamer’s whip. They come in on a steady beat. Pak. Pak. Pak. Abe catches the wrong end of a couple of these while he tries to find his rhythm, but it’s nothing serious, not yet. Pak. He’s bleeding somewhere and a little punch drunk, but still steady enough and light on his feet. A couple more, though — Pak! Pak! — and he’s not seeing straight. He’s got a mouth full of copper and his mind is starting to blank — but maybe his mind was just in the way, because his body seems to know what to do.
When he dives past one of these razor-sharp jabs and slips a heavy left fist hard and fast into Seth’s liver, causing him gasp and double over from sudden pain, it’s pure reflex. The one-two follow-up that puts Seth face down in the dirt lot, the one that’s going to end up swelling his right eye shut for a week and making his jaw ache on rainy days for the next couple months — pure textbook, pure muscle memory. The strikes crack like a double peal of thunder; it is a display of power both brutal and beautiful, visceral art given shape by corded muscle. Seth hits the floor. Abe’s face turns heavenward, his fists drop, and a small nova of dust settles about his prone brother. He laughs through bloody teeth and tears streak down his dirty cheeks. In the familiar warmth of victory, he remembers how it feels to be young and alive and invulnerable. The feeling will soon pass — it’s already fading — but in this moment, every ache and cut has become an irrefutable argument for the need to live, struggle, and conquer.
Seth groans and turns over onto his back.
“I win.” Says Abe, grinning as he sits down next to Seth. Even though he says that, Abe’s pretty sure that you wouldn’t be able to tell who won just by looking. They’re both covered in a fantastic vichyssoise of bloody grime. His head is still swimming as he hands Seth the red polo, which Seth uses to wipe some of the dirt from his face and arms after he folds himself into a somewhat upright sitting position. “Yeah, yeah. You win. I’m sorry for what I almost said about your woman.” Seth pauses. “How is she doin, anyway?”
Abe’s smile disappears. Eyes boring into the dirt, Abe pulls out that tacky little pen with its little embossed boxing gloves and waves it with a flourish like a drunk conductor. Seth’s eyes follow the pen, uncomprehending, as Abe puts it away. “She died in a car accident two years ago. I was driving. They found this in a gift box in the glove compartment. There was a note, too. ‘To my lovely fighter.’ ”
Abe would be having déjà vu right now if he were looking at Seth; he’s bug-eyed and slack-jawed for the second or third time this evening. “Oh, fuck. Oh, man. I’m so sorry. Really. I mean it. But is that why you disappeared? We coulda helped. Me, Ma, coach, the guys at the gym. We all woulda been there for you.”
“Ha!” Seth winces as Abe lets loose a bark of laughter. When he replies, his sentences start and stop in verbal staccato, as though he’s forcing them through a hole of the wrong shape. “Right. You don’t get it. I was driving the car that killed her. I was coming home from the gym. I don’t know why she was out. She ran a red light. We made eye contact, you know, before impact. She looked — she looked so terrified. Her eyes were…screaming.”
Abe closes his eyes. No answer. Right. There’s nothing for Seth to say. Of course it wasn’t Abe’s fault; Seth was not wrong when he’d called her reckless. It was her defining characteristic, along with her geniality and love of hosting dinner parties. He had given Abe plenty of brotherly warnings during Abe’s relationship with that woman. Of course it would be completely unreasonable for Abe to blame himself. Without question. Yet at this moment, it would be even more unreasonable to point that out. So they sit there for a time under that lonesome streetlamp, sweaty, bloody, and calm, just like a couple of half-anesthetized patients in post-op.
“Hey, Abe,” Seth finally says, “you happy here? You happy being a little night shift clerk out here in the swamp?”
After a moment of collecting himself and returning to the present moment, Abe opens his eyes and responds dreamily, “Thought I was, til you showed up.” Abe shrugs. That was a lie. “More or less. Not unhappy. Nothing bad happens out here.” That was mostly a lie. He sighs and his voice takes on a precise, candid edge. “Nothing good, neither. But I don’t know if I can go home. It’s been too long.”
Seth stands up, grimacing as his core reminds him that it just got ripped up, and walks toward the back door of the store. He tosses the dirty red polo back to Abe before gathering up his things and dressing himself. “Yeah, I get it. But you can’t waste your life here. And Ma, she still talks about you all the time. I know you won’t be happy til you set things right with everyone, and you can’t set things right with everyone til you get straight with yourself.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Abe says as he slips on his shirt. Oh. It’s backwards. Whoops.
Seth is trying — with little success — to straighten out his dirty jacket. Through gritted teeth, he says, “Ya know, I’m really makin a name for myself out there.”
Abe stands up and starts walking over to Seth. “I can see that. I didn’t even recognize you at first, all cleaned up. No beard, no wife beater, short hair. You looked like some asshole off a GQ magazine.” He pauses briefly as he puts on his socks and shoes. It takes him longer than usual, since his wrists and knuckles are fairly swollen and unwieldy from hitting bone with naked fists. “Not so much now, though, with the dirt and all. Now you look kinda like a guy I know.” They both laugh and start moving through the breakroom, back to the front of the store.
As they push through the listless Employees Only door, Seth responds. “Point is I got some pull now. When you disappeared, work was…” He trails off, then forces himself to continue. “I been real busy. I can hook you up. Get you back where we both know you belong. You know, get you back in the mix on the circuit.” He points to his right eye, which is half shut and turning a nasty shade of purple. “You clearly still got it in you.” Abe smiles and shrugs.
Seth looks for somewhere to wipe his hand, but his clothes are covered in dirt and it seems wrong to sully anything sitting in the fluorescent purity of the store, so he just sighs and reaches into his jacket pocket. He hands Abe a bent business card, which Abe puts it into his blotchy khaki pocket without a glance. As he does, his hand brushes the pen, and he thumbs the little embossed boxing gloves. “Whaddaya say, Abe?”
“I…” He digs at the linoleum with his foot for a long moment. Out of the corner of a bloodshot eye, he sees a ragged magazine on the floor behind the counter, sitting there like a broken promise. We need only seek it. His foot stops digging. “I’ll meet you in Brooklyn. Keep this safe til then. I have to…I have to make arrangements. Put in my two weeks and all that.”
He takes the pen out of his pocket and offers it to Seth, who takes it with wide-eyed reverence, like he’s taking communion from the holy son himself. With a nod, the two part ways.