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Empty Hearts

by Peter Medeiros

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 2

This wasn’t the first time Emily had asked for my help. She had found me at the reception, while I pinched my fingers together in an effort to illustrate to the bartender how much orange juice belongs in a good Bronx. She whispered, almost in my ear, “Mr. Kwoong, you must be ready for a nice long loaf.”

“Emily,” I said, “you can call me Gavin.” And in a rare moment of near-honesty I added, “And I don’t have time to really ‘loaf.’ My job is like a lot like the fine institution your sister just embarked upon: the work is never really done.”

“Well, seems to me you deserve a break.” Emily gave the bartender a salute and held her hand on the counter next to my elbow. A Croatia Stout slid into her open fingers. She was barefoot, the first of the bridesmaids to kick off her heels. Her haircut — dirty blonde, carefully coiffed by the best salon in Shiver Rock, Arkansas, and not for cheap — was already pulled back into her typical ponytail. “Look, it was a super wedding. Nothing too uppity, like Babs likes it. And the music! Man!

“Well, Ruby’s the best.” I didn’t have much selection when it came to the music, honestly. Ruby and the Broken Axles was the only local band worth paying. They played honky-tonk. I had never heard anyone say “honky-tonk” before I moved out of New York, but that’s the only kind of music they had in Shiver Rock. Kamilla hated country music. We had that in common. We had believed it meant something.

“Darn right,” Emily said. Sipped. Rubbed an eyebrow with her thumb. A bit of her ponytail came undone. “So Martin’s missing.” Martin was a second cousin of Em and Bab. “Disappeared during the first dance. He’s a lurker, and I figure he’s still around. I could tranq him and drag his sorry butt back here myself, but he’d take it better from a guy.”

“You want me to sniff him out,” I said. “Isn’t this more your line of work? Wrangling wild critters?” Critters was another word I’d never used in New York.

“Unlike you, I am really, truly, one-hundred percent off-duty,” she said. “Thanks, Gavin. Be back in time for a dance, huh?”

“I’ll be back before they do the heartfish.”

“Ick. Aren’t you tired of seeing that after so many weddings?”

“I never get tired of the fish. Local color.” A harmless lie.

I tried to down my Bronx before I left the bar, playing the urbanite, hard-drinking, dislocated New Yorker. But I drank too fast and spilled the cocktail on my jacket, stepped away from the bar with my hands at my sides, dripping a bit.

Emily’s bare feet beat a quick tattoo on the hardwood floor of the function hall as she crossed the space between us. She dabbed at my jacket with a napkin from the bar. She said, “I’d feel bad if I didn’t know you had twenty more of these suits down at Lori’s dry-cleaner.”

“Four,” I said. “Gentleman’s Quarterly says you just need four.”

“Just four,” she said. “You would know.” She sipped her beer, as though for emphasis.

As I left the hall, a feeling played against the inside of my lungs, like a thin curtain billowing in a breeze. It was alien and disorienting as a first hangover, a first car crash.

I might have been falling for Emily, if I still believed in that sort of affection as anything more than a cocktail of biological imperative and deeply ingrained societal pressures that helped me pay the bills; if I didn’t think thirty was too old to really crush on someone; if I didn’t still feel Kamilla’s eyes, brimming with betrayal, when I told her I’d discovered New York was a crummy place full of crummy people pretending they enjoyed being crammed into the supposed center of the universe, and I’d be damned if I was going to die there.

But I could still do Em a favor. It didn’t mean anything. Another empty gesture.

* * *

The reception was held in the Order of the Bloodied Falcons Aerie No. 78. They’re like the Eagles or Elks or any other group of veterans and ex-scoutmasters who want to turn into animals instead of dying in a nursing home. It had floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, affording everyone a dramatic view of Lake Cranston. It was so foggy out that, for all you could see, it might’ve been Lake Michigan or some other landlocked puddle so big that the town grows up thinking it’s on a coast. The Aerie was the size of a Holiday Inn. Four floors. They don’t let non-members on the third. Who knew what was up there? I followed my feet around the place.

Found Martin sitting in the frame of a door I hadn’t noticed when I toured the place, up on the fourth floor. Empty hinges on the frame. Floor, walls, and ceiling painted a deep unbroken purple. I leaned against the wall. When he saw me approaching, he grunted and sipped from a flask.

I played the buddy. “I was scared at my first dance too, Marty. It’s normal, especially when you want to dance with a girl you like, huh? Someone you liked a long time?” I hated how we can’t talk about love without sounding like high-school kids, even when we know we’re lying.

Martin chuckled. “Screw you, Queens.” The collar of his tux dug into his red-burnt neck. Martin had the hint of belly and the bumpy-muscled shoulders of a construction worker or a handyman, the term he preferred. “It ain’t dancing made me step out. I can cut a rug like the best of ’em, long as I got a drink in me.”

Cut a rug. God, this place.

“But you know it ain’t that. Everybody knows, even the new guy. That obvious, I guess.”

Been here a year and I’m “new.” That’s the kind of town Shiver Rock is.

But it was that obvious: Martin carried a big ol’ flame for his cousin Babs. Attending her wedding to Louie Ellis, gap-toothed car dealer extraordinaire, was probably killing him. Em was right, Martin lurked. And mostly he lurked around Bab’s place. He’d fixed her porch so many times I think he must have been the one breaking it to begin with as an excuse to be near her. Babs was one of the few people who didn’t see it, or didn’t want to.

Still, I tried to coax Martin back to the reception. He waved me off. I said I was only trying to bring him back into the light, it was part of my job.

“But they don’t need me there,” Martin said, appraising me over his flask. “Who’s gonna want my ugly mug in the photo albums? Nobody.”

“Fine. You can hang out here feeling sorry for yourself and sipping whatever cheapass firewater you got in there and missing out on the open bar. An open bar, Martin.”

“I’m in pain, Queens.”

“I get that. And you’ve been trying to keep this thing to yourself for forever, I guess, so I’m not going to appeal to family duty and how it’s Babs’ big day and she really does want her cousin there. How she wants you to see her happy.” I turned to go. “But they’re gonna eat the heartfish soon. Chance the little sucker will do a birthday cake-style exit outta Louie’s heart. I don’t think you’d want to miss that.”

He muttered, “You’re damn right I wouldn’t miss that.” And like the good sport he was, Martin got up and followed.

The fish were the excuse Martin needed, the mask he needed to come back to the reception. But what really appealed to him, I knew, was simple familial duty. Whatever else you want to say about small-town America, they got that.

Self-made men and good country music, those were unicorns. But people still did stupid things for family. Mostly hurt themselves trying to show how much they love each other. So everybody was there, Martin included, clapping and taking photos and holding up kids for a better view, when Louie and Babs fed each other the heartfish.

Emily was next to me while the couple made a big show of swallowing the heartfish, live and whole. “Thanks for getting Martin,” she said. “I sure do appreciate it, Mr. Kwoong.” Again that feeling like a billowing, translucent curtain against my skin, or the empty space where the wind fills it up. “I guess this all seems silly to you, after so many weddings. And New York weddings, golly. Must seem like a big masquerade.”

It did, but I didn’t want Em to know that. I said, “Babs and Louie are going to be very happy together.”

Emily turned to me, cradling her beer against her shoulder. She looked different without her Shiver Rock Dogcatcher hat. I’d missed that. “You promise?”

“I’ve done this a lot. I promise.”

Then they brought out the cake.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Medeiros

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