Wallets, ladies. Now!
That’s what the mugger said to Michael and Wade when he ambushed them. They had just come out of a late movie, and were rounding the corner onto a residential block when he emerged from some shrubs. The teenaged assailant with lippy peach fuzz and a confusing accent called the brothers ladies. He held the grip of some weapon, stuck into his pants at the waistband. Michael dropped his popcorn, which flew up and then scattered onto the pavement. He tossed his wallet to the skittish kid, and then his brother did the same.
Turn around or I’ll shoot off your face!
Michael and Wade turned and stood with their arms at their sides until the boy’s staccato footsteps grew faint. Because it was late at night in Los Angeles, nobody was there to see them. They looked like life-sized wooden soldiers who’d been positioned on the sidewalk and then abandoned. Michael, whose scarecrow body and tentative manner made some women think of poets, stood with his back straight and long. He maximized each distinct vertebra but he still felt delicate in the presence of his brother’s much larger body, just inches away. He glanced over at the spiny orange birds-of-paradise that separated one duplex from the next. The flowers looked like plastic from the ninety-nine cent store—odorless probably, and coated in a fine layer of dust. He conjured up the kid’s voice. I’ll shoot off your face is what he’d said, as though he and Wade shared one face—the meshing, hapless visage of a single victim.
The night on which a crime occurs is always the wrong night—always incongruous, inappropriate, charged with meaning. This night was no exception. It was the brothers’ first encounter in nearly a year. In the early days of their estrangement, Michael had been optimistic. Because he couldn’t trace it back to a decisive insult, it seemed like an adult’s rift—a barely perceptible accumulation of subtle wrongs rather than a brawl, beef, or blow-up. He visualized it as an artery, occluded with the plaque of misunderstanding, until, after too many awkward phone calls and canceled breakfasts, the blood barely pumped.
He could still see the two of them as boys, falling back onto the couch with the loose-limbed ease of brothers. He saw Yoo-Hoo spewing out of each other’s noses, he saw Wade spinning Nina Marsak’s tiny, mysteriously obtained underpants around his forefinger, and he heard the echo of handballs against the garage. Their parents had believed in the sanctity of the fraternal bond. “When we’re gone,” they would say, “it’ll only be you two.” And the boys would answer, “yeah-yeah” as they chased the dog past the TV, slammed bedroom doors papered with raunchy bumper stickers, and slouched sullenly around on Sundays in mismatched socks.
And then their parents were gone—run off the road three years earlier, on their way to San Francisco. It happened north of San Simeon but below Big Sur, the point at which the viscous coastal fog wraps itself around the road like a big gray cat. On childhood car trips, Michael likened this misty stretch of Highway One to the Middle Earth in his books, where white cliffs arched and preened, like women getting dressed. It was their parents’ favorite strip of the coast, which made Michael feel simultaneously better and worse that they had died there. Attempts to stay in touch had been sporadic since then. After the accident, the brothers collaborated in the work of death, meeting in corner booths over french fries, cloaking their grief in logistics. Finally, after what felt like months but were in fact only weeks, the affairs of their short, round, easygoing parents had been streamlined into paper statements and reduced to receipts.
The brothers would make casual plans and then break them each time. It had been gnawing at Michael for a year. At home in his bed, after mixing sound for cartoons all day, he wondered about his brother. He’d allow himself one beer for two that were non-alcoholic, and then two reals for one fake and so on. He felt bloated and muzzy-headed, but he rarely got drunk. He spent his days wedged tightly between headphones and in front of screens—rising and falling to the manic, high-speed rhythms of big color and voice. This did sinister things to his nights, when the silence sounded loud and the stillness dizzied him—like sitting in front of a television that had just been turned off, the click and the blackness piercing the center of his forehead: a bindi of sudden quiet.
Michael doubted that Wade was as preoccupied with their estrangement as he was, not because Wade was a bad or callous person, but because his superpower was the ability to make himself slippery, so that nothing ever touched him. Michael assumed he was busy with his own life, which had always been somewhat mysterious. Wade had dropped out of law school and gone into “investments.” Michael assumed he earned money making rich people richer. He was defensive and noncommittal when Michael asked.
Had one brother bullied the other or stolen a girlfriend, the situation would have been clearer. But Michael began to understand, during his bedtime alchemy of drinking, and not-drinking, and then drinking, that his problems with Wade were not fixable, and that Wade was a person he wouldn’t have known had they not been related. They’d always been comfortable at home with their parents and on holidays in restaurants. They were good at being brothers. Boys. But the family made sense only as a foursome, and now the surviving two were thrust back into the world, maladroit on the skinny legs they’d inherited from their father. There were memories to unearth and stories to tell and retell, but without the parental glue, the brothers had come apart.
Michael called Wade on a Monday night. He made himself sound casual because Wade responded well to lightness. The ease of the call surprised him; they decided on Vincenzi’s remastered 1948 triumph of Leftist desolation, The Elegant Rube. A movie date might have been a strange choice for a potentially tense reunion, but for Michael and Wade it made sense.
Fifteen minutes before the show, Michael arrived to find Wade in his usual seat: middle section, five rows from the front, on the left aisle. It was just the two of them, save for a woman in the front row, with long, wild gray hair and a complicated scarf. The deco sconces that lined the walls were the same ones that stood watch over Michael and Wade’s childhood matinees and teenage late shows. Their parents had never understood the boys’ interest in revival house fare—often the same movies they’d watched when they were kids—but they were relieved that their very different sons had this in common. Michael’s magic lessons and Wade’s soccer practice began dwindling in exchange for Westerns and war films at age ten. And during teenage weekends, when Michael painted naked women (although he’d never seen one) and Wade played Atari, they’d line up together late at night for the culty, bloody, and bawdy. They’d sit together in that blue-lit space—that timeless,
placeless fish tank of shadow and sound. At sixteen, Michael wrote an essay entitled “Breathing Underwater: Ode to the Cinema,” in which the viewer watches a movie while pleasantly submerged in the indeterminate space of the theater: a warm, undulating zone of contrast, a fusion of land and sea.
Michael didn’t want to creep up on Wade and scare him, so he weighted his gait enough to make it audible as he walked down the aisle.
Wade turned and smiled. He’d gotten fatter.
There was a simian brushing of hands and bumping of limbs against shoulder and knee. Michael sat down.
Wade handed him a half-eaten bar of expensive-looking chocolate.
“So?” said Michael, who broke off three squares, already wondering where they’d go when the movie ended.
They finished the chocolate too fast. Michael wanted to slow everything down. He wanted them to take their time but he didn’t know how to pause and linger in a way that wouldn’t alarm Wade.
“You got fat,” Michael said.
“I know. All I eat is meat and candy. Mirabelle’s putting me on a diet.”
Wade had always dated rich girls, who’d been carefully named: Mirabelle, Tatiana, Tallulah. Whenever Wade mentioned a girlfriend, Michael sensed he’d never be allowed to meet her. He knew little about Mirabelle, even though she and Wade had been dating for some time. She was a rock critic whose not unimpressive trust fund allowed her to work on an extremely part-time basis. There was always a story about Mirabelle’s disappointment when some rock legend turned out to be shockingly dull in person.
Michael tried to formulate a question about Mirabelle that would shepherd them past the small talk but Wade maneuvered the discussion back to familiar territory.
“Remember when we tried to freeze our nose hairs, like dad?” he asked. He was referring to a story their father had told repeatedly: an army story. He was stationed at Fort Devins in the middle of a bad Massachusetts winter. While marching back and forth on the parade ground one frigid, windy morning, he felt his nose dripping. He reached up with a gloved hand and squeezed it, wincing at the sharp pain inside his nostrils: his nose hairs had frozen into glasslike shards. He began to bleed as he marched. It was a morning of bleeding and marching, bleeding and marching: a wretched moment in a relatively comfortable life. He thought the story might ensure that his boys chose college over the service, although there was never any real danger that they wouldn’t. What the story did do was encourage the boys to freeze their own nose hairs by shoving crushed ice from the refrigerator up their nostrils.
“Popcorn?” Michael asked, and with Wade’s mildly irritating double thumbs-up, he left for the concession stand.
In line in the lobby, Michael studied the posters for the Vincenzi retrospective. They were all pop art and primary colors, as if to dupe today’s moviegoers into thinking that the bleak neo-realist world of Vincenzi might be kitschy and mod. And the films’ English titles had all been changed. Crime Tale was now Riotous Corpse, and God Is Here became The Boss of Us. The strangest of all was the movie they were about to see; the gently wrenching The Elegant Rube had been renamed Uncle Paolo Is No Criminal. Michael paid for the popcorn, pumped it full of liquid butter, and told himself to tell Wade about the title.
There was no one new in the theater, still just the wild-haired woman. Her ragged attractiveness, coupled with the fact that she sat alone and in front, made her seem self-possessed, European, and a little morose. She had begun to read a book.
“But Uncle Paolo’s a minor character,” said Wade with a mouth full of popcorn.
“What I don’t understand,” said Michael “is why Uncle Paolo Is No Criminal is a better title than The Elegant Rube.”
“It’s his best film,” said Wade.
“I like the later ones, after the stroke.”
“But he was paralyzed. Dude couldn’t even talk!”
“He said those were the movies he’d always wanted to make, that he wasn’t a genius until he had the stroke.”
The European woman whipped her head around as though startled by a loud noise, and surveyed the brothers before returning to her book. Michael had mentally named the woman “Veronique,” but then he changed it to “Simone.”
The lights faded, which meant that in two minutes it would be dark. Michael stuffed a fistful of popcorn into his mouth and then rubbed his palms together so that the butter and salt stung the chapped grooves. He felt a fluid surge of trust in the next two and a half hours, as though he’d just taken a Valium on an empty stomach.He and Wade would sit there like they always had, snug in each other’s idiosyncratic breathing and the periodic shifting of weight. They’d swell and break in tandem, like wrestling on the kitchen floor or kneeling over Tinkertoys, the stove popping with the first sounds of dinner. And after the movie they’d sit in silence for as long as they could stand it. They’d wait for the theater to empty and then they’d look at each other and smile—exhaling—slightly embarrassed at having just seen something great. They’d walk their identical hunched-over walk up the aisle, through the ancient lobby with its flocked wallpaper and whorehouse candelabras, and they’d rejoin the night. And before they began their postmortem, they’d look at each other again and just say, “Wow.”
Wallets, ladies. Now!
Turn around or I’ll shoot off your face.
They stood there until they believed the kid was really gone. Then they turned around and walked ten feet to the tub of popcorn and its splayed contents. The pieces of popcorn looked violated, as if they’d been alive before and now they were not.
“Great,” said Michael, hands in his pockets.
Wade reached up and fingered the cartilage of his upper ear, a habit he’d had since he was a kid. “I think he was Latvian,” he said. They weren’t far from the Baltic section of town. “Lucky I only had a few bucks. Did you have cash?”
“None in my wallet. Five bucks in my pocket, which I kept,” said Michael, kicking the tub of popcorn toward the gutter.
“He called us ‘ladies.’”
“Ladies with no money,” said Michael. “Little douche bag chose the wrong ladies.”
They circled slowly around the pieces of popcorn, as though it might provide some insight into the situation.
“Now we have to cancel everything,” said Wade. “I hate that.”
“Like credit cards?”
“Credit cards, gas card, driver’s license . . . my whole life was in there.”
“If that’s your whole life, Wade, I don’t know. Not a good sign.”
“It takes five minutes to replace everything. You do it on the computer now. You’ll have all your cards by next week.”
“I am relaxed. You’re the one who’s worrying. Why do you care so much about your cards?”
“Jesus, Mike, calm down. If I irritate you so much, why’d you arrange this? Why’d you invite me out?”
“Because we’re strangers, Wade. Because I don’t know shit about your life after the age of eighteen.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I’m serious. You’ve never asked about my life. When did you suddenly get interested in anyone besides yourself?”
“You have no idea what I’m interested in,” said Michael, stunned at how suddenly their politeness had turned.
“Because you keep everything a secret. Your delicate little life, so sensitive. You think I’m some big dumb jock.”
“You think I’m a depressed drunk.”
Michael began speed-walking up the middle of the street.
“Aren’t you?” Wade yelled. He was a few paces behind Michael. Their loping gait was synchronized, their father’s, something to do with those skinny legs and bad knees.
Michael stopped short and turned around. They were standing in the middle of the street, face to face, a foot apart. “At least I feel things, you bloated fucking robot.”
They walked fast, heading toward the horizontal ribbons of light at the next big avenue. Tears crept down Michael’s long face and Wade’s broad one.
“If I’m a bloated robot, then you’re a sullen teenager. If you’re so unhappy, do something about it. You want to know who I am? Ask! You wait for the world to approach you, and when it doesn’t, you pout. You’re too old to feel so misunderstood, Mike. Unless you plan to die alone.”
They passed a water-damaged apartment building with subtle metallic specks in its stucco façade, probably from the early sixties. On the grass in front, a young Filipino man was giving another young Filipino man—seated on a lawn chair and wearing a white smock—a haircut. It was jarring to see this after midnight, but the men on the lawn behaved as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
“You say I don’t feel anything,” Wade continued shrilly, wiping the tears from his face with the back of his hand. “You know why I’m pissed about my wallet? It’s not the damn gas card. I had a picture of mom and dad in there. My favorite picture.”
“Which one?” asked Michael, who felt all of a sudden responsible for what had happened, as if by orchestrating their reunion, he himself had taken the wallet from Wade’s baggy, faded jeans.
The brothers stopped walking. They were in the middle of the street.
“A picture—from a long time ago. I just liked it.”
“What were they doing? Where were they?”
“I think it was in the old backyard. You can’t really tell. They’re in bathing suits and they look like they’re laughing at a dirty joke.”
Michael saw Wade just then as a six-year-old wearing Mickey Mouse ears. The guy at Disneyland had mistakenly embroidered “Wayne” onto the hat, but Wade didn’t mind. He was a happy child, easygoing even then. He wore his “Wayne” hat for an entire summer.
“What are we doing, Mike? Where are we going?” There was a pleading tone to Wade’s questions.
“We’re walking it off. I can’t go home yet.”
“Don’t you feel like a target?”
“We’re not going to get mugged twice in one night,” Michael said.
“Oh man, can you imagine?”
“Jesus,” said Wade, and they both laughed a little.
At that instant, Michael knew that the mugging had earned the stamp of official memory. He imagined the story they would tell, the pithy paragraph, the recounting. He didn’t hear the words but he could feel the shape of them. The moment of the shared chuckle was the moment the mugging had become mutual, an event, another installment in the brothers’ soft mythology. This incident, Michael knew with a prescient pang, would assume an unearned weight strictly because it was a memory—a memory for two people who existed for each other only in the world of memory.
They arrived at the honking bustle of a major east-west artery with the four usual corners: giant supermarket, giant bank, giant parking structure, giant hamburger drive-thru. Everything in Los Angeles had grown giant, mom-and-pop shops bulldozed away from high-profile intersections like this one. The garish display blew at the brothers like a gust of wind.
“I should go,” said Wade.
“I should go,” he said. “Mirabelle’s waiting up.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” he said, reaching up to finger his ear. “It’s just starting to hit me. I don’t want to be out in all this,” he said, looking up and around at the lights and billboards and then down at the sidewalks and the pedestrians that weren’t there. “If you want to spend your five dollars on a piece of pie, I’d split it, but I can’t just traipse around.”
Wade had always been an abrupt leaver, a fact that Michael only remembered during the mildly shocking moment of Wade’s goodbye. His goodbyes seemed surprising and inevitable at the same time.
Michael felt a twitching guilt about the night, but he didn’t want to eat pie and he didn’t want to reminisce. Memories offered little succor for him, perhaps because he and Wade always seemed to remember the same things. Didn’t the power of memory lay in its ability to surprise and illuminate? Otherwise, wasn’t it just an elaborate brand of small talk, starving the people in question while appearing, briefly, to feed them? Michael knew that a piece of pie with Wade would not feel like progress. Plus, there was nowhere to get pie after midnight, unless you were willing to drive, and what Michael needed was a beer.
“Okay,” he said as he leaned in to his brother. They embraced like tinmen with unlubricated joints.
“I’ll talk to you,” said Wade. “Sorry.” He walked back down the darkened street, toward the scene of the crime—or whatever it was—where his car was parked.
Michael sprinted through the blinking intersection and into the supermarket. It was painfully bright and operating-room cold, but it was a familiar shock, and not unpleasant. He yanked a shopping cart out of the corral and began wheeling it through the meat aisle, which was far more populated than the street outside. The bustling aisle gave Michael the sensation of an approaching storm, of citizens stocking up on canned goods and butane, going about their business with the methodical American dread he’d seen on the news. He pushed his empty cart past the various meats. He passed at least three young women ogling lamb chops or pausing to consider a fillet or some other lonely cut. He wheeled past the breakfast meats and into the bread aisle, feeling well adjusted because, surely, he was the only person there who’d just been mugged and then immediately resumed his quotidian duties. But as he gained momentum down the pillowy aisle of muffins and pita and all the other starches, he felt in his stomach the possibility that he might be wrong. There was the chance, however slight, that others in the market had also just been mugged—or if not mugged, then accosted, attacked, held up, assaulted, shammed, scammed, humiliated, beaten up, shot at, or victimized in some way. It was possible. He checked his watch. It was 12:53 and they were all contained there in the bunker-like supermarket, wherever they’d been before.
He began filling up his cart. He took peanut butter and tomato soup and cans of tuna packed in oil, and he looked long at his late-night shopping companions, who maybe just didn’t want to go home.
He pushed the cart, which now also contained a sports drink with electrolytes and some boxes of couscous, into the cereal aisle, where he saw the unmistakable gray rat’s nest of a hairdo, simultaneously abject and sophisticated. Simone, still alone and wrapped up in her Euroscarf, walked quickly down the aisle with a small red basket. There was a furtive grace to her gait, a hurried worry not unlike Alice chasing the White Rabbit. Here was a middle-aged, possibly European woman in a West Coast supermarket at one in the morning, but Michael saw the dewy, distressed heroine of a fairytale. Maybe the night would end well. She—Simone—would be his reward for calling Wade and trying to repair things. This serendipitous detour could alter his life more profoundly than his well-meaning lump of a brother ever could. Maybe he was right to let Wade go, not agreeing to get pie but rather following his instincts. He began trailing Simone, but he feared he’d make her nervous. He wanted to talk to her without seeming dangerous or desperate. He was
too far away to make out the contents of her basket, but from a distance, her knee-length hem revealed a skinny ankle and a strong calf. They were at the edge now, near the verdant maze of produce, when she turned abruptly, a sudden jerk of impatience sending her to the express lane. She fished around in her well-worn leather bag, which looked like a baseball mitt. Michael got in line behind her. She leaned back against the metal railing, staring at something—or nothing—and maybe she sensed the jumbled intentions pulsing in him because she gazed out of her reverie and into his eyes, revealing, maybe, some tiny bit of recognition. And then she began placing her groceries onto the belt.
He grabbed a roll of mints from the display and tossed them into his cart when his stomach—which knew things before he did—turned a lumbering somersault as he remembered that his wallet had been stolen,and that he had no cards and no identification. His pockets were empty—save for the five dollar bill and his car keys—but his cart was full. With his five dollars, he could afford to buy two of the beers in the six-pack in his cart, but he hated that guy, the one who buys two beers and nothing else, after midnight, alone. He scanned an imaginary list, mentally crossing off the things he would not do: he would not meet this brave and mysterious woman; he would not buy provisions for the imaginary storm; he would not call Wade to rehash the details of the mugging. He would excuse himself from the express lane, which had already filled up behind him, and he would leave his cart in the middle of some aisle, which is exactly what he did, and then he slipped a candy bar into his jacket pocket and he went to find his car.
“The Elegant Rube” was Malerie Willens’s first published story. It was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading after its appearance in Open City in 2007. Her stories have recently appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Granta online, and Electric Literature's "Recommended Reading.” She grew up in Los Angeles and lives in New York City. (Updated 7/2016)