"Samba"

Short Fiction, Keeping the Wolves At Bay

by Derek Green

 

Heeber checked his watch again. 

           

People were walking past the flickering tiki torches and on into the restaurant. Laughter came from inside and music, yet here he stood out front, alone in the muggy night air.  The valet, a hungry-looking kid with a baggy uniform and kinky hair, had twice approached him.  Heeber waved him away.  He’d been warned that they were going to try to try to fleece him down here and he’d been on his guard since the move.  They were all beggars of a sort, even the fancy jewelry-toting ones passing him now.  Why else would they need men like him to come down and help them run a factory, right in their own country?

 

He looked back at his watch.  You expected this of locals.  But his own boss, Ellis, an American, had told him to be here at a certain time and here he was.  What really got Heeber was that he’d wanted to go shopping, buy his wife a souvenir (she lived stateside, he missed her) but Ellis had said there was no time before dinner.  This was earlier, at the golf course.  Heeber had dutifully rushed home, showered and changed, and rushed back here by taxi only to wait alone like a fool for twenty-five minutes

 

 Tears stung his eyes.  When the valet approached again he growled that he didn’t want any help.

 

 

+++

 

 

Eight-and-a-half minutes later Ellis’s Grand Cherokee pulled up, tiki flames dancing in the windows.  The valet hustled to the door.  Ellis poured himself out, followed by Luciano, a junior engineer—local personnel.  Both were beet-faced and laughing.  They’d been off drinking somewhere.

 

Heeber hand came up to wave.  

 

“Hi, Mr. Ellis,” he said.  “Isn’t Simons coming?”  Simons, Ellis’s friend from sales, had rounded out their foursome earlier.

 

Ellis walked a step ahead of Luciano, palms upturned, like some Mafia boss on TV.  His smile was fading away.  “Heeber,” he said. “Jesus Christ, look how you’re dressed!”

 

Heeber looked. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, sandals.  It was hot.  He looked back up.

 

“You’re wearing a damn Tigger T-shirt, Heeber!”

 

“But you said casual, Mr. Ellis.  I—”

 

“Casual, Heeber, not kindergarten. God damn.” Ellis had cruel blue eyes, pale, and animal-like.  Heeber often found it hard to look at the man.

 

Luciano leaned toward Ellis.  “I do not believe they are allowing him without the collar-shirt.”

 

Ellis regarded Heeber for another unpleasant moment, then turned to the valet, snapping something off in Portuguese.  The kid looked at Heeber, then turned back in the direction from which he’d just come. 

 

“I don’t have to go in, Mr. Ellis, I mean, if there’s a dress code or something.”

 

“Oh, Christ, you’re here already.  Just wait.”

           

Ellis himself wore black slacks and a golf shirt, hardly dressy.  What got Heeber was that the T-shirt had been a present from his four-year-old boy last Father’s Day.  He’d worn it out of homesickness, a way to feel closer to his wife and son.

 

The Grand Cherokee came rolling back up.  Ellis opened the liftgate and rummaged around in back.  He came out with a wadded up Hawaiian shirt.

 

“Here,” he said.  “Wear this.”  He threw it Heeber’s way.  “Consider it a gift.” 

 

+++

 

The place was called a churrascaria and here you ate Brazilian-style. An army of waiters cruised the dining room with skewers of meat, fish, chicken, sausage. Heeber liked his meat and potatoes but some of the food here was scary.  Last time he’d seen a cart being pushed around with a fish on it the size of a man, toothy head still attached. You could lose your appetite. Crossing the dining room, Heeber was aware of eyes on him in the rumpled Hawaiian shirt.  The thing reeked of Ellis, his musty cologne and stale sweat.

 

They were seated.

 

“Isn’t Simons coming, Mr. Ellis?”

 

“He’s coming, Heeber, he’s coming.”  Ellis studied the menu without look up.  “He had a couple things to take care of, is all.”

 

So.  There was time for Simons to take care of things before dinner.  Heeber made the mistake of glancing at Luciano, who wore his usual dumb grin.  At the golf course there had been no one else for Heeber to talk to and now the guy thought they were best friends.

 

“Did you find for your wife the gift you were looking for?” Luciano asked.

 

Heeber inspected the silverware in front of him.  They used weird forks down here with only three prongs. “I’d rather not talk about it, Luciano,” he said.

 

Ellis’s head bobbed up sharply.  “Answer the kid’s question,” he snapped.  “Don’t be such an ass.”  The cold blue eyes were all over him again.

 

Luciano smiled.  “The souvenir?  The CD of the samba music?”

 

“I didn’t get them yet,” Heeber answered, eyes shifting in Ellis’s direction.  “There wasn’t enough time.”

 

A waiter appeared pushing a bar cart, the way they did here.  Ellis pointed at each man in turn.  “Caipirinha?” he asked.  “Caipirinha?  Três caipirinhas, por favor.”

 

“Not for me,” Heeber told the waiter.  “Coca lite, no ice?”

 

The waiter placed the warm can before Heeber.  He wanted to make a joke of not drinking, as his wife had taught him.  But Ellis sat still in his seat, jaw set hard.  The three of them watched in silence as the waiter sliced limes with a sharp-toothed knife.

 

Simons materialized, rubbing his hands together. 

 

“Hello, boys,” he said.  “Everything’s lined up for later.”  He collapsed into the seat beside Ellis and stared across the table.  “Jesus, Heeber. Aloha! Check out the shirt on you.”

 

“You think that’s bad?” Ellis said. “You should’ve seen what he had on when we got here.  A goddamn Tigger T-shirt!  I had to give him that thing so we could get in.”

 

“Tigger?”

 

“You know, the cartoon.  ‘The wonderful thing about Tiggers’—”

 

“— ‘is that Tiggers are wonderful things!’”  Simons turned back to Heeber.  “Grrrr!” he said.

 

Everyone, including Heeber, laughed.  Then Ellis kept laughing, so hard that tears swam into his eyes.  He had trouble ordering another round of drinks.  Heeber thought: it’s not that funny. 

 

Waiters arrived bearing meat.  Heeber was just starting in on a piece of salt-encrusted roast when Luciano came to life.  “Ah, look,” he said.  “Coraçao!  You must try here the coraçao.  Is in all of Sao Paulo the best.”

 

“Hey, let’s try the coraçao,” Simons said.

 

They waved the waiter over.  He carried a skewer studded with lumps of meat that looked like old blisters.

 

“Ah,” Luciano said, “espectacular!” He kissed his bunched fingertips like a Frenchman.  “This you must try, you must try.”

 

The waiter bowed toward Heeber.  Ellis nodded, grinning.  He said something in Portuguese.  Heeber smiled.  “What are these, Mr. Ellis?”

 

“They’re chicken hearts, Heeber.”  The waiter scraped off half a dozen.  Heeber gripped the edges of his seat as the things plopped onto his plate like the droppings of some small carnivorous jungle beast. 

 

 

+++

 

 

They were packed into a tiny taxi.  You never knew where you were in this city, it was so big and poorly planned.  Simons beside him and Ellis up front were singing—awfully, out-of-key.  The Girl from Ipanema, a song Heeber had liked till now.  On the other side of him Luciano stared from behind his dumb grin.  It was a workday tomorrow yet they were showing no signs of slowing down.

 

They passed through a scary park which opened into an area of sagging buildings and bright neon lights.  Heeber squirmed in his seat and asked where they were going.  No one answered.  They sang another song.  Finally the taxi stopped and deposited them in front of a bar with a blinking sign that read BLACK’S.

 

Heeber paused on the sidewalk as the others started toward the door. 

 

“What are you waiting for?” Simons asked.

 

In the window was a neon girl with breasts like bananas.  She blinked and her hips moved from one side to the other then back again.

 

Heeber forced a smile.  “I think I’ll just grab a taxi home, guys.”

 

“Come on,” said Simons, “we’ll only be a couple hours.” 

 

Ellis watched in silence.

 

“No, that’s okay, you guys go on.”  Heeber retreated a couple steps.  “I have to work tomorrow.”

 

There was some mumbling, then Heeber heard Ellis say, distinctly, “Fuck him. Let him go.”  He and Simons headed for the door.

 

Luciano, a pained look in his eye, touched Heeber’s elbow.  “Mr. Heeber, do come.  Is fun to look.  You don’t have to fahk the womans.”

 

Heeber snatched his arm back.  “I said I’m not going.”

 

Now the cab was gone.  Heeber stomped away with no clear destination in mind.  Why had he agreed to go out with Ellis and those guys in the first place? What had he been thinking?  One thing he didn’t get was why Ellis hated him so much.  He worked hard, he did what he was told.  But that wasn’t enough. You had to drink and chase women with the man.  Ellis!

 

Just the name made Heeber tremble.  He kicked at some loose pieces of pavement; he spat on the sidewalk.

 

That was when he heard the voice. 

 

“Alemán?”

 

Heeber looked around, then down.  Shadowing him, a little off to the side, was a boy, short-haired, barefoot, brown as a nut, hands stuffed in the pockets of dirty pants.  It suddenly occurred to Heeber this might not be the safest place to go for a walk.  The boy scuttled along beside him, a watchful eye cast down the street.  A patrol car waited at the curb down there with swimming green overhead lights, and Heeber let out a breath.

 

“Ingles?  Mérican?”

 

“Go away,” Heeber said.  “I don’t have any money.”

 

“Ah, Mérican.  You need the money?  Change from dollars to reais?”

 

Here we go, Heeber thought. 

 

“No change?” the boy said.  “How about souvenir. You like the souvenir?”

 

“Souvenirs?”

 

The kid brightened.  “Yeah, man.  Souvenirs.  Real nice, man.  Nice deal.”

 

Heeber peered down at the kid.  “Where?”

 

“Very near here.  Tudo bem, man.  Real nice.  Follow me, you.”

 

Heeber glanced again in the direction of the patrol car.  He licked his lips.  “Well,” he said.  “Okay, let’s go.”

 

 

+++

 

 

The kid led him along for another couple blocks and then into an alley.  About half way down, right there in the alley, they came to a storefront.  The word Bodega was painted on the window and beneath that, Umbanda.  The boy opened the door and beckoned Heeber to follow.

 

Potted palms sagged in the corners and oddly-shaped bird cages dangled overhead.  Heeber bumped into a wicker rack of outdated postcards.  Behind the smell of dust and disuse was something else—something strange.  Smoke, maybe, or incense. The boy told Heeber to wait, then vanished into a back room. A minute later he returned with a woman in tow.  She was taller than Heeber, dressed in a flowery African skirt, strong-looking, and black as lava.  A hemp blouse was stretched tight over her huge breasts—an Amazon, Heeber thought, amazed.  Not bad-looking, either, though not his type. 

 

“May I help you?” This she said in plain English.

 

            “I guess so,” Heeber said.  “This boy, he said something about souvenirs?”

 

“We have souvenirs,” she said. “We have works of art.  Also we have animals: piranha fish or the pet monkey.   How about a tarot reading?  Your fortune told?  Ouija, talk to the spirits?”

 

“Just souvenirs,” Heeber said.  “Something for my wife, you know, something really Brazilian.  Maybe a woodcarving of a parrot, I saw one of those at the airport once, or some Brazilian music CDs if you have them. I don’t want any garbage that’s gonna fall apart or not work, though.”

 

The woman turned and left for the backroom.  The soles of her feet were cracked and almost white.  The boy stared from behind the counter.  Heeber thought of the pet monkey the woman had offered. 

 

She  reemerged and to Heeber’s surprise placed just what he’d been looking for on the counter—a small wooden parrot exactly like the one he’d admired at the airport, and a stack of three CDs.  But Heeber knew that to show satisfaction with these people was to invite swindle.

 

“Do these even work?”  He turned the CDs over in his hands with a frown. There were beach scenes on each, the writing in Portuguese, unreadable. When he saw the word samba, he relaxed a little.  “I wanna hear them.  Play them for me.”

 

The woman shook a finger in his face. “You remove wrapper, you bought CD.”

 

He picked up the parrot and examined it.  “This isn’t even hand-carved.”  He shrugged.  “How much for everything?” 

 

“Twenty reais.” 

 

About eight bucks—less than he was actually willing to spend.  “Too much,” he said.

 

The lady raised her shoulders. “Is late,” she said.  “Fifteen reais.”

 

“Better.”  Heeber took care not to let them see how much cash he had in his wallet.

 

“Would you like,” she asked as he paid, “to have a spell cast?”

 

“A what?”

 

“A spell.  Good, bad.  Perhaps to bring luck to a beloved one.  Or to place the evil hex on some enemy for sweet revenge.”

 

What was this mumbo jumbo?  Heeber smiled. “Boy, do I ever know someone I’d like to put a hex on.”

 

She made an accommodating gesture.  “Costs only six reais to place the evil hex on an enemy.  Is on special this week!  Makes you feel real nice.”

 

Two bucks.  Now there was a bargain. “How do you do it?”

 

“First, you provide to me a personal item of the enemy.  Then at midnight I call on a demon to place the evil hex.”  She waved a hand. “Is all very simple.  You don’t even need to be here.” 

 

“Well,” Heeber said with a laugh.  “There’s not much chance of me getting my hands on—” He stopped short, fingering a button on the Hawaiian shirt.  Ellis’s cold blue eyes stared out at him from the dark. “Okay,” he said.  “What the heck!”

 

The African woman seemed confused as he passed her the Hawaiian shirt.  “But this is yours, no?”

 

“Trust me,” he said.  “Hex away.”

 

She brought the shirt to her face and breathed in deeply.  “Ahh,” she said.  Her voice went low and greedy like a man’s. “Sweat.  They adore sweat.  Is very precious to them.”

 

“Keep it,” he said, surprised by the bitterness in his own voice.  “Consider it a gift.”

 

“I am required to warn you.  Exu of the Seven Crossroads, the dark being on whom you are calling, is in evolution and therefore restless and unpredictable.  Once called upon to perform evil he is not easily controlled.”  She shrugged as she said this.  “Is just the fine print, though.  Almost never there is trouble.”

 

+++

 

Heeber was upset.  At first he’d felt real nice.  The souvenirs were a bargain and the hex was a good gag, a couple bucks to rid himself of the Hawaiian shirt and have a laugh at Ellis’s expense.  But there was something about the African woman’s warning that bothered him now.  Riding home in the taxi he decided he’d been fleeced after all.  Worse yet, he’d done it to himself!  In front of his building he quibbled with the driver over the fare.  Upstairs there were no messages from his wife.  He put the souvenirs on the table beside the bed and tried calling her.  The phone rang and rang.  Finally, feeling abandoned, he gave up.

 

In bed his mind raced.  Ellis was in the room, insulting him, ordering him to do humiliating tasks—polish his golf balls, press his wrinkly clothes. The African woman was there too.  She had thrown off her skirt and was straddling Heeber, her great breasts in his face, the cracked soles of her feet beneath his calves.  They made love as the bed rocked and groaned to pulsing samba music.  Ellis, squatting in the corner, wagged his tongue, taunting them.  The music grew louder and more frantic.  Heeber smelled blood and heard the panicked beating of wings.  There were flashes of light, like bulbs exploding in his face.  Someone cackled with laughter.  Someone else screamed. 

 

Heeber sat up with a lurch.  The salty meat, the Diet Coke—it had him all worked up.  He warmed some milk in the kitchen but drinking it he had an ugly thought.  What if Ellis wanted the shirt back in the morning?  It was his style.  Heeber could imagine being teased mercilessly for not having the thing, a fresh torment.  He poured his milk down the drain and began to pace.  Now he wanted to find the African woman and demand the shirt back.  For a long time he walked back and forth in his little kitchen, telling himself to calm down, and cursing Ellis and the power the man had to make his life miserable.

 

 

He was late to work and poorly rested.   He slipped past some locals gossiping beside the cafezinho cart and ducked into his office.  There was a rap on the door and Heeber looked up as if he’d been behind the desk for hours.

 

“Mr. Heeber?” It was Daniella, the office secretary.  “Are you well, sir?” 


“I’m fine, thank you.  I’m actually quite busy, however, so if you don’t mind…”

 

“It is just that…you see, I was wondering…have you not heard?”


Heeber’s eyes narrowed.  “Heard what?”

 

“Oh, my God.  You have not heard!”

 

“Heard what?”

 

“About Mr. Ellis.  That last night he is assaulted by robbers in the city?”

 

“You’re kidding.”

 

Her eyes grew round like coins.  “No, I am not.  His car was, how you say, hi jack?” She touched her forehead.  “When he is trying to fight they hit him against the head by a pipe.”

 

“Is he okay?”

 

“I do not know.  I believe he is alive.  But no good.”

 

Something scaly ran down Heeber’s spine with icy feet.  Was it possible?  

 

“Simons from sales,” he said, “and what’s-his-name? Luciano.  They were both with him last night.  Were they involved?”

 

She was shaking her head.  “No, sir.  Mr. Ellis, he is alone now going to home when he became assaulted.”

 

After work Heeber took a cab to the American Hospital.  It was a small place, clean and modern, near the diplomatic sector.  Ellis’s room was on the third floor, a private suite looking out on a leafy park.  There was a little a conference room by the door walking in.  Ellis.  Even sick he got all the best perks. 

 

The man himself lay beneath beige sheets.  He was attached by wires to a bank of machinery.  Clear liquids dripped into him from a constellation of hanging bags.  Ellis’s eyes were ripe plums and he had a knot on his forehead like a finger poking up from under the skin, something out of a cartoon.  Heeber had never seen anything like it in real life.  There at the bedside was Ellis’s wife.  Blonde-going-gray, pearls, a company wife. 

 

She looked up as he came in.  “Oh, hello,” she said. “You work for Hank, don’t you?  Matt, right?”

 

“Rob,” he said.  “Rob Heeber.”  He cleared his throat.  “Not Matt.  How is he?”

 

She shook her head.  “At first he seemed fine.  He was joking, teasing everyone.  You know how playful Hank is.”

 

Heeber knew all about it. 

 

“But then this afternoon he had an awful fit of some kind.  He’s been out of it since.  The doctors say it happens like that sometimes with, you know, closed head injuries.”  Her hand came to her mouth.  “We’ve never had trouble here before.  Never.  Just last night Hank had dinner with friends then went back to the office to work late.  You know how hard he works.”

 

“Yes.”  Heeber cleared his throat again.  “Hard.”

 

Ellis’s bruised eyelids fluttered.  “Claire?  Are you here?”

 

“I’m here.”

 

“Don’t leave,” he said, “okay?  Who were you talking to?”

 

“It’s your friend, dear.  David Heeber, from the office.”

 

The feral eyes turned toward him. “Heeber?  What the fuck are you doing here?”

 

Heeber felt sweat break out on his forehead. “I came to visit when I heard about your—your accident, Mr. Ellis.”

 

“Accident?  Jesus Christ, this was no accident.  Just what the hell’s going on here?  Why are my eyes black?  Where’s all my money?  Heeber, what in hell did you do with the goddamned shirt?”

 

Heeber glanced at the wife.  She looked stricken.

 

“Heeber, you hear me?  I want it, bring it to the office or to the golf course if you have to.”

 

“You see,” she whispered, “he says crazy things.”

 

“Like, all mixed up,” Heeber said.

 

“Claire, are you here?  Don’t leave me!”

 

“I’m not leaving, dear.  I’m right here.”

 

“Heeber,” he said.  “Heeber!”

 

“Yes, Mr. Ellis?”

 

Ellis sat up in his bed.  “Listen to me, you—”  Without warning his head jerked back.  Veins stood out like blue cables in his neck and he made strangling noises; spit sizzled across his lips.  The machines beside his bed chirped like startled birds as Ellis bucked and kicked. The wife gasped.  A doctor rushed in, a nurse.  Heeber fled.

 

+++

 

In the taxi he muttered his address then stared out at the hellish cityscape.  What was going on?  It was a gag, a harmless joke!  True, if anyone deserved to be hexed it was Ellis.  He was a hateful, lying man.  But Heeber hadn’t imagined him jerking around like that in bed.  And what, by the way, was he doing—Rob Heeber, a decent, God-fearing American—believing in the hocus pocus of foreign people? 

 

On the dashboard the driver had a small cloth doll outfitted with feathers and plastic beads—a voodoo shrine, a little pagan altar, right here in the cab.  It was this place, Heeber thought, these people.  They were to blame!  Ellis was to blame!  Heeber’s head felt like it would explode.  Forget the hex, Heeber thought.  Ellis was an American—he was corporate.  This made his mugging newsworthy.  The African woman would see the news, put two and two together, figure out who Heeber was.  She and the boy would track him down, blackmail him and ruin him at work.

 

He rocked in his seat; he groaned. 

 

The driver glanced at the rearview mirror.  “You okay, Mister?”

 

“Just drive,” Heeber said.  And then:  “Wait a minute. Do you know where Black’s is?”

 

            The driver grinned.  “Ah, Black’s.”

 

“Take me there.”

 

“Is real nice, Black’s. Real nice.”

 

“Just shut up and drive!”

 

+++

 

He wandered the streets.  Nothing ever looked the same way twice in this city, as if the place shifted and changed its shape nightly.  He walked up blind alleys.  Where was the little boy now that Heeber needed him?  People would take notice—a white man with money walking these streets, lost.  He began to sweat.  He stopped and looked around, walked a few more blocks.  He was ready to give up when he stumbled into an alley.  Halfway down was the sign: Bodega. Umbanda. Was it the woman’s name?

 

The place was different this time, shimmering and strange. Candles.  There were candle flames flickering everywhere now.  It was hot.  The boy was perched in his place behind the counter staring out, a wicked imp.  The African woman listened to Heeber’s story with a look on her face like he was the weirdo here. 

 

She shook her head.  “So, you ask me to place the evil hex.  The evil hex it works, and now you ask me to undo it?”

 

“That’s right, reverse it.  Call the whole thing off.  It was just a crazy mix-up.”

 

“Is not so easy.  Exu of the Seven Crossroads is very, very powerful.  Didn’t I warn you?  Didn’t I tell you that when you ask for evil to be done, you—”

 

“Yes, yes, you warned me, you warned me.  I don’t want to hear it again!”

 

She rubbed her chin and Heeber found himself staring at the awesome swell of her breasts, his dream coming back now, embarrassing and arousing at the same time.  The woman said something to the boy in Portuguese; he grinned at Heeber annoyingly.  He replied at length.  The woman turned to Heeber. 

 

“There is one possibility.  To undo evil hex, first you must retake possession of the shirt, buy it back from me. Then at midnight in your home—it must be your own home and it must be at midnight—you must destroy the shirt by fire as an offering.”

 

“You mean burn it?  I live in an apartment.  I can’t set a fire there.”


“You asked me to undo the hex.  If you’re going to tie my hands…”

 

“All right, skip it.”  He took out his wallet.  “How much to buy the shirt back?”

 

“Is one hundred reais.”

 

“One-hundred?  That’s almost forty dollars!”

 

“To reverse hex is a different story.  Costs a little more.”

 

“So that’s how it works, huh?”  Heeber bitterly counted out the bills.  “You charge four dollars to place an evil hex but forty to take it back.  Pretty clever.”

           

The woman showed her palms. “Is the going rate, mister.”

 

The little boy disappeared into the backroom.  A minute later he scampered back with the horrid shirt.

 

At the door, Heeber turned.  “What if it won’t burn?”

 

“Don’t worry, is polyester.  It should burn real nice.”

 

+++

 

Heeber downed three warm milks, one right after the other.  Then he climbed a chair to remove the battery from the smoke alarm on the kitchen ceiling. He opened the windows in the living room.  In the bedroom the wooden parrot stared from the shadows with an evil countenance.  He slapped the thing behind the nightstand and hid the Brazilian CDs in a drawer. The bathroom window was jammed shut.  Heeber seriously considered breaking the glass, going so far as to wrap his fist in a towel. But what if the neighbors heard?  In the end he used a heavy book to pound the jam until the window gave.  Damp tropical air flooded the little bathroom.  Now he waited. 

 

Music from the next apartment bled through the cheaply constructed walls.  It was heavy on the drums, tribal and crazy.  It played on and on. When his watch read five till midnight, Heeber placed the shirt in the sink basin. Then he realized that that he had no fire—he didn’t smoke, he didn’t have a lighter.  He scrambled to the kitchen and opened empty drawers looking for matches that weren’t there.  How much time did he have?  The African woman hadn’t said.  He panicked, then looked at the stove.  He rolled up a paper towel, held it to the hot coils.

 

Back in the bathroom he touched the flame to the shirt and the nasty thing began to move in the sink, squirming, alive with tiny rivers of fire.  Soon tarry smoke filled the bathroom.  Heeber realized it had been a mistake to open the windows—the neighbors would smell the smoke.  He closed the bathroom window then turned on the fan.  The shirt struggled, writhed like something in pain, dying in the sink basin. 

 

When he left the bathroom the phone was ringing.  It was his wife.

 

“Rob, is that you? 

 

“I’ve been trying to call all week,” he said.

 

“Rob?  Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“Are you sure?  You sound strange.”

 

“Strange, why should I sound strange?” He gave a strangled laugh that seemed to come from someone else. “I live in a third world hellhole full of insane people where you can find a witchdoctor on every corner but you can’t eat dinner in a fucking T-shirt.  I have a boss that treats me like crap.  I hate my job. I hate my life. How could any of that possibly bother me?”

 

“Rob, you’re scaring me. You’re not making any sense.”

 

He paused.  “It’s been a strange couple of days.  I miss you.”

 

“I miss you, too.”

 

“It’s this place,” he said.  “I hate it.”

 

“Poor Rob.”

 

“I hate it, I hate it!”

 

+++

 

He skipped work and went straight to the hospital.  Stepping from the elevator, he ran into Simons.  The man’s face sagged under its own weight.  “Hey, Rob,” he said quietly, “how’s it going, buddy?”

 

Rob?  Buddy?  Since when was Simons treating him almost friendly?  Heeber asked how Ellis was doing. 

 

Simons shook his head.  “It’s not good.”

 

Well, there it was.  He’d been fleeced again. 

 

“It’s the damndest thing, isn’t it?” Simons asked.  “How everything can change overnight?”

 

In the room the wife waited beside the bed.  Now a tube ran from Ellis’s nose around to the back of his head.  He seemed to be asleep.

 

“You’re back,” Ellis’s wife said.  “He’s been asking about you.”

 

“About me?”

 

“He’s so close to the men who work for him.”

 

The doctor entered. He was tall and brown, Brazilian-looking, yet spoke English like an American.  He nodded at Heeber without curiosity and  told the wife he wanted to speak to her.  Heeber said he would leave.

 

“No,” the wife said, “stay.  I’m sure Hank would want you to.”

 

They followed the doctor to the little sitting area, where he described Ellis’s condition and explained to them how it had worsened overnight. The tube in his head was called a shunt and it was draining fluid off his brain. The wife held a hand to her mouth as the doctor talked about things Heeber knew nothing about: left temporal seizure disorder, epileptic fugue, post-ictal disorientation. 

 

The shunt was only a short-term fix, which was why they were recommending an operation.  It wasn’t exactly a lobotomy, the doctor said, just something to stop the seizures and relieve pressure on the brain long enough to fly Ellis home safely.  Head injuries were like that: they could take a turn for better or worse at any time.  For now, the doctor said, the important thing was to keep him calm and avoid upsetting him.  He did, however, warn that there was a chance the procedure would fail.

 

“Fail?” the wife said.  “Oh, my.”

 

“I’m confident everything will turn out well. You might want to call any friends or relatives in the area, though.  The nurse will let you use the phone in my office.”

 

She thanked the doctor.  She turned and touched Heeber’s hand.  “Will you stay while I make a few calls?  You’ve been such a help.”

 

Heeber agreed and she left him with the doctor.

 

“This operation,” Heeber said, “you really have to do it?  There’s no other way?”

 

“It’s very likely that he wouldn’t survive a flight home without it.”

 

“Doc, tell me the truth.  Is it risky?”

 

He considered the question. “Quite,” he said finally. 

 

The doctor left and Heeber returned to the bed alone.  Ellis was awake now, stirring.  “Claire?  Is that you?”

 

“No.  It’s me.” 

 

The eyes rolled toward Heeber.  They were different now, strawberry-speckled, weaker—no ice there, no cruelty.  Ellis was scared, you could see it in his eyes.  “Heeber?  Where’s Claire?”

 

“She had to go make some phone calls.”

 

“You won’t leave till she gets back, will you?”

 

Heeber promised to stay. 

 

Ellis had become old overnight.  He was shriveled, unmanned by injury.  The word chickenhearted came to mind.  He did, however, seem much nicer this way. 

 

“Why did Claire have to go make phone calls, Heeber?”


            “Because,” he said, “they’re going to do an operation on you.”

 

“An operation?”

 

“Yes.  On your brain. They’re going cut your head open and do a lobotomy on it.”


“A lobotomy?” Ellis clutched Heeber’s hand.  “On my brain?”

 

“The left lobe part,” Heeber said. 

 

“Is it dangerous?”

 

Heeber leaned over slowly, close enough to feel Ellis’s warm breath, close enough to kiss the man.  “Quite,” he said finally.

 

The eyes grew wide with fear; Ellis actually began to sob.

 

“Don’t worry,”  Heeber said, wrenching his hand free in disgust.   “I’ll be here with you the whole time.” 

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