Shannon Cain’s short fiction has been awarded the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Tin House, and the New England Review among others. She is the co-editor of Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq (Kore Press, 2008) and the co-adapter of a play based on the book. Shannon has taught fiction writing at the University of Arizona, UCLA Extension and as a private workshop facilitator and coach. She is the fiction editor for Kore Press.
My parents are in their seventies, and I’m their only child. To silence their noise about giving them grandchildren, I’ve let them believe my best friend Ramón is my lover. They’re too old to embrace homosexuality but know better than to admit it.
Truth is, I can’t keep a girlfriend. Louise looks at me now as if I’m the copy machine repair guy. Right through me. I’m sad most of the time, but let’s face it; everyone is sad. Ramón says that Louise is invested in the story of herself and that I shouldn’t give up on her. He told me he saw her on the roof of our office building at lunch today, her chin tilted toward the sun as if her own life were too tragic for this world.
Louise: her hands, her lips, the curve of her brow. I used to think her face would be with me always. I would have been there for the aging of those hands, the wrinkle of that forehead. I imagine her an old woman. Thin-skinned, thin haired, rheumy-eyed and beautiful in an Irish cardigan on the beach in wintertime. The gulls, the pipers, the wind bringing blood to her cheek. Me an old man, grateful and quiet and finally responsible.
I can’t keep a girlfriend and I can’t find a wife. I’ve been trying, Ramón will attest to it. With Louise I fucked it up again. I fucked it up good.
My mother is a displacement artist. She puts things where they don’t belong. When I was a kid, arts councils kept giving her grants. Her work is a statement on consumption, and identity, and place. I would come home from third grade and find one of her utilitarian brassieres in the refrigerator, a cluster of red grapes cradled in each cup. The family weed-whacker, encrusted with Bermuda, mounted inside a gilt frame on the dining room wall. In the supermarket I’d wander away from her, bored, and among the comic books I’d come upon a dozen key limes displayed in an open egg carton. A tidy row of Idaho russet potatoes set atop stacks of spiral-bound notebooks.
My father is a literature professor, retired. Emeritus. Charles Dickens was the genius at the center of my childhood. If Dickens were alive and in need of a baggage handler or someone to suck his dick, my dad would have been the man for the job.
“Fehgele for Dickens, your husband,” Ramón told my mother authoritatively last year at the Seder table. The old man had just delivered to us a fresh theory refuting the accusations of anti-Semitism in Oliver Twist. Ramón loves my mom, idiot that he is. Also he’ll eat anything, including my mother’s horrendous cooking. He’s freakishly accomplished at dinner conversation, so his presence at holiday meals works out for everyone.
My mother guffawed lovingly at Ramón. Wiped tears of laughter with her palsied arthritic hand. Dad grinned amiably through his deafness. Ramón is neither gay nor Jewish.
Incoming interoffice email. From Louise. Forgiveness? It says. Forgiveness is for pussies.
In the break room at work, Ramón eyes a bowl of chocolate kisses somebody brought for Valentine’s Day. The office is lousy with glitter and sugar. Ramón needs to lose about eighty pounds.
“She still loves you, dude,” he says. “Don’t be intimidated by the evil eye.”
I told him about the email she sent this morning.
“Yeah, well,” he says. “The woman’s got to vent. Venting is what you want. Believe me.”
“You don’t know shit,” I tell him.
“Not true,” he says, succumbing to the Hershey’s. “I do know shit. Shit I learned from you, in fact. For example, I know that Nigerian Princes can be real assholes.”
“Fuck you, Ramón.” I fish around for a dark chocolate kiss. “And keep your voice down, for chrissake.”
Nigerian Princes were our hobby, me and Louise. Those assholes. Stealing money from old ladies and crazy people. They offended us. You had to be either profoundly naïve or mentally ill to get caught in their scam. You had to live outside the reach of human interaction, which on top of everything else would mean you’re also lonely. This is the demographic those assholes are after. The unfairness of it killed me.
Harassing the Nigerian Princes was something we could do together. Couples split up because they don’t have common interests, like surfing, or scrapbooking, or smoking weed. Until we started fucking with the Nigerian Princes, Louise and I were heading down that road. She had her bitter feminist book group and her beer-drinking rock climbers and I had my Neanderthal white guy football Sundays and my language poetry workshop. The Nigerian Princes brought us back to one another.
Louise has a wicked dark imagination and a pitch-perfect understanding of character development. Her knack for detail is astonishing. Meet me at Lufthansa luggage carousel number five in Oslo, she’d email a Nigerian Prince. I’ll be wearing a desert camouflage maxi skirt and a black pageboy wig. Africans make me anxious, so be sure to approach slowly and leave any tribal accoutrements (masks and spears and whatnot) back in your village. I’ll get my nephew to strap the cash to my upper thigh and will probably need your help retrieving it, considering my bulk prevents me from accessing certain parts of my body, lol.
Louise would cackle as she typed. Lying on her stomach on the bed, laptop before her. This would make me hard as a rock. I’d lift her skirt and pull her up by the hips and slip inside her. Bent over the keyboard she’d cackle and type, type and cackle and moan.
Louise and I weren’t alone in our preoccupation with Nigerian Prince harassment. There are clubs, websites, support groups. It’s not as if we were the only people to pursue the hobby on company time, either: a guy from Massachusetts named Leon runs a listserv for counter-scammers out of his cubicle at Google. “Difference is, he’s not an ignorant asshole,” pointed out Louise, the night we came home from work, stunned and freaked out at the news that the company’s mainframe had been hacked and the credit card numbers of twenty thousand customers stolen, and by the likelihood that our taunting of the Nigerian Princes was responsible.
Incoming interoffice email. From Jerry, my boss. Your external audit team interview scheduled for next Tuesday.
It’s only a matter of time before they figure out it was us. Or Louise, technically. Because I was the one who told her my computer was offline when it actually wasn’t, that night months ago when she and I took a graveyard shift for the overtime pay, working all night in jeans and T-shirts, in a maze of empty cubicles. First we fucked in my office chair, then in hers, then in our department manager’s. Then we decided to fuck with the Nigerians for a little while. And I knew, somewhere in a dark corner of my idiot reptilian brain, that sending emails to Nigeria from your desktop was the sort of thing that gets you fired. It was me who told her it would be fine to use her computer, no way they’d find out, no way they’d even care. I told her it would all be okay.
And then in my despair I admitted what I’d done. At which point she started, rightfully, to hate me. Louise has a kid named Janie, a six year old with blue eyes and red curly hair and fucking cerebral palsy. Preexisting conditions up the yingyang, dependent on company healthcare for her meds, her wheelchair, her oxygen tank, her physical therapists, her specialists, her daycare, her survival. Louise’s anger at me is primal.
“Listen,” Ramón says. “Your mom has a plan.”
“To rescue your job, you idiot.”
Telling my mother about my professional fiascos is precisely the sort of thing you could expect from Ramón. I smack him upside the head with the flat of my palm.
“Ow,” he says. “Okay, ow.”
“You’re a lousy gay lover, you know it?” I tell him.
“I do it because I care,” he lisps, rubbing his temple. His suit jacket is dusted with flakes of dandruff. He’s just a customer service rep like me. There’s no need for the suit, but that’s Ramón for you. “Your mom says we should hack into the mainframe ourselves, erase your email trail.”
“This was my mother’s idea?” I say. “My mother can’t find the power button on her laptop.”
Ramón opens the fridge, releasing the garbagey smell of leftover lunches into the break room. “OK, we came up with the idea together. She’s willing to finance the operation, though.”
“I need you to quit hanging out with my mom.”
“We have a relationship that exists independently of you.”
Louise comes into the break room, wearing that blouse I bought her for Hanukah last year, the one that makes her tits look so fabulous. She sees me in my stained khakis and sleep-deprived face. “Your fly is down, dickwad,” she says.
“Hey, Louise,” Ramón says, sotto voce. “Meet me on the roof at lunch. We’ve got a plan for rescuing your job.”
Louise fixes Ramón with one of her testicle-withering stares. “Who does?” she whispers. “You and dickwad here?”
I hold my hands palm-forward in innocence. “This has nothing to do with me.”
“God forbid you have a plan,” Louise says.
Louise doesn’t let me help her with Janie. She’s a single mom, working full time, with a kid in a wheelchair. We’ve been living together for a year and I’ve never picked Janie up, not even to help her out of her chair. Louise won’t even let me sweep up the Cheerios Janie knocks over with that hand of hers, shrunken and twisted as it is, her soft fleshy claw. Underneath all that piteous frustration about her body, Janie’s a kid with a good heart and a sweet smile. I don’t know how Louise manages not to be crying, all the time.
Incoming extraoffice email. From Her Highness Mrs. Wife of His Highness Mgote: You are very stupid, this is not a scam but a pay back, are u cognizant about what the white man came to do to my grandfathers. You do not know what they stole from Nigerian kingdom. This is justice time.
The external auditor is skinny, with bad teeth and glasses all wrong for his face. He asks me questions and I answer them with lies. No, I have never used my corporate email account to send personal messages. Except for sometimes, I say, for verisimilitude, to my mother. I shrug, and tell the guy that Mom doesn’t understand professional boundaries.
“One time,” he says, in a burst of nerd-boy bonhomie, “my mother showed up at my office with a Tupperware of bratwurst. She stalked around the office waving away the receptionists, calling my name. She was wearing her sensible shoes and one of those housedresses she’s had forever. It was like middle school all over again.”
On my way back to my cubicle Ramón pulls me into the men’s room. “So?” he says. “How’d it go?”
“I’m golden,” I tell him. “We bonded over impossible mothers.”
“Don’t get cocky. These guys are fucking animals, believe me. And speaking of mothers. Dinner at Mom’s tonight. Seven o’clock.”
“Whose Mom?” I say.
“Yours, idiot. Mine is dead, remember? Who’s the lousy boyfriend now?”
At the front door to her house that evening my mother throws her arms around Ramón’s neck. “My dear!” she cries. Over his shoulder she shows me a steely eyeball. We sit at the table. She’s prepared a supper of kalamata olives, dried figs, and peanut butter on crackers. And champagne.
“I know a guy,” she screeches, so my father can hear. “He knows all about computers. He’ll break into your office and wipe out the evidence. I asked him and he said yes.”
The peanut butter is the all-natural kind, ineptly stirred. It’s thin and oily and dripping off my cracker. “It’s not that easy, Mom,” I say.
“Your mother is afraid for the little crippled girl,” my father yells. “Damn shame! Corporate healthcare is a crock of shit!”
“Disabled, Dad. She has a disability,” I articulate.
“All so you could amuse yourself,” my mother says. “Nigerians, dear? Why Nigerians? Could you not accomplish this…” she looks helplessly at Ramón.
“Scam baiting,” he supplies.
“…on your own time? Instead you indulge your hobby at work? Did you not realize you were playing with that little girl’s life?”
Ramón picks gamely at his olives and figs. “Go easy on him, Irene,” he murmurs.
“Interesting that you care so much, mother,” I say. “Given your feelings about Louise.”
My mother flaps her hands in dismissal. “I don’t give a shit about that woman, are we clear? But the little girl, a little girl in a wheelchair with no health insurance, it’s a nightmare. I feel responsible!”
“Louise’s computer was confiscated today,” I say.
“What?” my father yells.
“It’s too late, Dad,” I shout back. “The auditors took her computer. They’ll analyze the keystrokes or whatever they do. They’ll find a record of the emails to Nigeria. We’re too late, Dad! We’re too late.”
As I speak, my father’s eyes are bouncing frantically between Ramón and me. “You’re not gay?” he says. He looks at my mother in alarm. “Isn’t that what he said, dear? The boy’s not gay!”
“He said we’re too late!” My mother cries, leaping from her seat. “We’re too late!” She scampers to his chair and stands behind him, clamping his shoulders in a dramatic little embrace.
“And for the record, people, I’m not gay,” I say.
My mother releases my father’s shoulders. “Ramón? Is this true?”
Ramón reaches for the back of her neck, holds it affectionately. “He’s in love with Louise, sweetie,” he admits. “Not me.”
“What?” my father says. “What the hell did he just say?”
“He’s not gay,” my mother enunciates, bending to his ear. “That awful woman is the girlfriend.”
“And the handicapped girl?” my father asks.
And here goes the whir of Ramón’s genius idiot brain. “Your grandchild!” he says.
A fair trade. A lie for a lie. Ramón is the best friend I’ve ever had.
Incoming extraoffice email from Her Highness Mrs. Wife of His Highness Mgote: Africa is the birthplace of humanity you are idiot American. Return all the things you steal from our ancestors. We will hit you guys until you stop making child slavery and weapons of mass destruction.
But the security breach turns out to have originated from a couple of teenage identity thieves in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When the companywide email arrives announcing the discovery, I stand up in my cubicle and wait with a hopeful grin for Louise’s head to appear over her partition. I fucked it up so badly, she has no reason to forgive me.
On her face is an oceanic event of happiness, an underground earthquake of relief, a maternal tide. Someday we’ll end up on our beach, me and Louise, ancient versions of ourselves tottering through the loose sand, she thinking it’s her arm keeping me upright and me thinking it’s mine around her. We will have lived a long life of tribulation and pain and humor and unremarkable joy. The Nigerian Princes will have become grandparent lore. I can nearly feel her bones through the linen tunic she’ll be wearing, through her thin elderly skin, through the toneless muscles. In all my long life I will never have desired a woman like I do this one.
Later the security team calls Louise into their office to inform her that in the course of their investigation they found the Nigerian Prince emails. They give her two weeks’ severance pay.
In my arms that night she sobs. She feels foolish, it was her fault as much as mine, she says. She’s a mother, she’s supposed to be responsible, she cannot play loose with her crappy job. The weight of Janie’s condition threatens to crack the bed frame. To pull us, mattress and all, through the floor to the apartment below. We’re heavy, is what I’m saying. A dump truck of river rock, a thousand iron safes. But she’s taken me back, she’s forgiven me, and I will never, ever, fuck up again. I want to give her a healthy child. I pull her on top of me to take her weight, to cushion her landing.
In the morning a UPS guy delivers a state-of-the-art pediatric wheelchair. With a pink and purple frame and sparkly ribbons woven between the spokes. I come out of Louise’s shower to find her frowning over the thing, which is parked in the living room like a Christmas bicycle. Janie is wild-eyed and clapping.
“What the fuck is going on?” Louise asks me. She waves the packing slip. “Your mother did this?”
“It’s Ramón’s fault.”
“That bitch. These things cost five grand.” She stabs at the keypad on her cell phone. “Ramón!” she says when he picks up. “What have you done?”
Louise goes silent, eyes wide and tearing as she locks my gaze, and I know he’s telling her about the trust fund my parents started for Janie, and the health insurance policy they spent a fortune on, and he’s delivering the news in the way I couldn’t, in just exactly the right language. Goddamn Ramón always comes out smelling like a lemon cupcake.
The wheelchair is lightweight, half the width of the behemoth Janie has so much trouble navigating, plus the kid loves it. She’s screeching to be freed from her old chair, screeching for Louise to hang up the phone.
I lift Janie. She’s wobbly-headed and too light for her age. Louise gasps a little and holds three fingers against her lips. Gently I put Janie down, settling her into her new ride.
©2010 Shannon Cain
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