• 404

    Peter Kispert

    Winter 2024

    Charles was getting better—healing I mean, after last year had tortured us both—and it was completely ruining the plan. For the better part of two years, we spent sleepless nights in small single-floor sublets in and around Boston, living among broken ovens and cheap white fridges that shook themselves awake and groaned, always awoken by the sound of traffic outside the window, never staying for longer than a few months. I tried on stupid aliases every now and again to make it seem like this was all a joke. Maybe we did have more options than siphoning funds from whoever fell for our shit. Like any idiots in their late twenties, we flirted with our own exposure: just weeks ago a young delivery man in Jamaica Plain saw me suppress a laugh at the utterance of my own “name”; Richard Balls is one you have to practice saying without cracking up. But I wasn’t looking at this man’s reaction; I was watching Charles stifle a smile. Somewhere during these past months I’d lost the ability to make him laugh, and found myself savoring the feeling, swept back to our first nights together. That bone-cold winter, warmed only by each other’s bodies.

    Now it was almost June, and we were in a new place near the Bay—a green marble kitchen island, among other upgrades—thanks to a man named Daryl who donated several thousand to “unlock” his long-lost sister’s fortune. (“What does that even mean?” Charles had asked me as I read him Daryl’s reply one night. “I don’t know,” I’d said. “But he’s buying it.”) For a while I was getting lucky in my emails with what I called the grandmother sweet-spot: comic sans, size fourteen font, spacing a little off, some purple type in there, asking for just a little help—and then the link. You send that to two hundred John Smiths and wait for someone to bite, some idiot to just give themselves up for chivalry. That’s what you get for having a normal name, I’d think as the first bouncebacks hit. We assumed, of course, that a normal name also meant a normal life, which also meant comfort, stability, the things Charles and I could do without. Like gilled fish that thrive even out of water, we imagined we were unique to a point of freakishness, normal only with each other. I’d forgotten that was what I preferred, and now I was too good at this: six grand on a Tuesday afternoon while I licked the lid of a pudding cup. A résumé of petty thefts and two DUIs, a rescinded college admission: you get something like that early enough, the future just seals up. These hours together were our cheat code to another life, or had been until the past few weeks, when Charles started getting himself together as we packed boxes, ready to ditch the mold and nail-studded floors for good. He was buying collared shirts, taking longer with the encryption, and disappearing at midday while I slept until early evening. I stared at the large ceiling fan, which whirred the rank, low-tide air off the Bay. In the style of anyone who has massively fucked up, I kept telling myself I didn’t want to escape the life I’d assembled. But on the night before Charles went missing from my life, I could sense him in the other room—awake, offline, planning for a life without me. I watched the email responses from my evening cast come in like they always did: the majority of them Unsubscribe nowand Fuck off, the occasional dignified No thank you.

    You don’t open these, as a rule. There might be something bad in them.

    Compared to the rest of my life, my job at the Jack in the Box drive-through, was steady, boring, and fast. During the evening shift, I donned a cheap black headset and took orders through the static. Beetles and moths slowly orbited the light above the pick-up window, and every now and then I’d slide open its door, hand a John Smith his combo, and June bugs would fly in, hit me in the face. The grill left a residue on every surface. I lugged trash bags to the dumpster after closing. There was a peacefulness to the work I appreciated, and the manager, Jane, was fond of my over-it attitude since learning on one of my first days years ago that I was gay. I could start a grease fire and she’d thank me. Twice, I called in sick and still got paid. It was nice to be in the company of all that, even though I never let on. Jane would say “great work” while I drank a wine slushie from an XL cup and spilled nuggets out the window. Getting yelled at by dads in suits with cars full of screaming kids taught me an important lesson. Anywhere you go, whatever they look like on the outside, money or not, people just want their fries hot and fast.

    Usually, they came cold or slow or both. That prepared me well for my interactions with strangers over email, because I also knew that—aside from some rude words—most people are too lazy to act on being inconvenienced.

    We got the idea for the scam from a kid who lived at the Y, where Charles and I had been staying. This was months ago, back when we were hopeless. Sam, this kid, claimed to have made ten grand in a single night off a paranoid old man. Left for the Four Seasons with a pair of duffels, stuffed with three thousand in cash. Sam talked us through every stage. To prove it, he let us look at his account balance. Charles and I talked early into the morning about how insane it was, and then what we’d do with that money, which turned into our wish to try it too.

    “You have to inhabit the character,” Charles told me. From across the room, his old laptop beamed a white screen. A roach skittered down the far wall onto the uneven wood floor, then off toward the kitchen. We’d leased the second floor of a Central sublet from a terse, mostly toothless man who, per his listing, “preferred cash.” Old wallpaper peeled thickly off the sides of the bedroom.

    “We can’t just be Mastercard, or an idea,” Charles insisted. I clicked a new window, nodding, and the brightness faded. “We need a point of view.”

    “Right,” I said, tabbing through a new e-mail registration, not completely sure I knew what he meant.

    Starting out, we knew better than to lure with promises of overseas sums, inheritances from any distance, estranged kings of misspelled African countries. But after the first week requesting account information yielded nothing, we downloaded a browser privacy program off the web that took an hour to install and turned our screen black, an aggressive spinning noise under the keys before a line appeared across the monitor. Scammed, Charles said, before our first scam! We snapped the thing in half in the bathroom and submerged it in a steaming hot tub, incriminating ourselves with the destructive thrill. We pooled the last of our small savings and September rent to buy a new laptop, and slept most of the day, lights cut, to stave off the record heat. At night, the temperature magnified the scent of everything—the dirty laundry piled on a table, the wildflowers growing in the untamed brush in the backyard—and lent a dire edge to the desperation we shared, to our need to recoup our loss.

    “Think of it this way,” Charles said. “Who do you feel sorry for?” He seemed deep in thought, shifting his weight to get comfortable. “Who do you want to help?”

    “Myself,” I said. He laughed and pressed his shoulder against mine. He’d been a swimmer in high school. Nearly a decade later, he remained imprinted with a lapsed athleticism. He told me one night, very drunk, after we escaped our mandatory counseling, that he hadn’t swum since the day he got the news his parents passed. Car crash. His coach told him. He toweled off, never returned. He wondered if he could even tread water anymore. Though, he added, his breath rotted with wine, in his dreams he sometimes floated on a lake, lightning veining a dark mountain sky. Since I’d met him at the Y, Charles had been someone who won your sympathies without trying. He deserved better. He had a “depressive tattoo” phase, he told me, in the months after the funerals, which passed quickly but left him with a sleeve of skulls and snakes. He had sweet, cool blue eyes; you could feel him notice you.

    “Start with Dear,” he said, adjusting his back against the wall. “People read that stuff. Very sincere.”

    I was good with words, and covering my tracks, but Charles was better at capturing a feeling. He’d also worked out the encryption behind our links, the coded screens resembling legitimate payment pages, and so this part was on me. My job was simple: bait the hook. I thought of his questions: Who I wanted to help, and who I felt sorry for.

    “Maybe not me,” I said. “Someone down on his luck.”

    I felt him agree, leaned back while I typed. Sensed him watching me write it out. All this want or need, as if it was coming from someone else.

    We eventually exhausted our landlord’s pity, and he kicked us out with enough notice to allow us to fold our few wrinkled things, pack them in six cardboard boxes, and wipe everything down with a dirty towel that left streaks on every surface. Our ineptitude discouraged us, but we were dishonest about our doubts with each other, so our efforts continued. We packed with the care typical of boys half our age. In the bathroom’s mirror, the deep bags under my eyes creased when I smiled. A rash I’d ignored had climbed up my neck, redder than when it first appeared. The last good look I’d got at myself was years before, during the first seizure of withdrawal, my nose runny and temples beaded with sweat. My nose was in a dirty shag carpet and I could see myself in the black TV screen across the room. At the time, I’d hoped looking would make me see that I was better. Now, I turned away before I hoped the same thing.

    We moved into an old two-bedroom in Waltham. The place had sagging floors and, inexplicably, three laundry chutes, which had crosses nailed up over them. The crosses, along with the occasional unidentifiable dripping noise, suggested to us that we were in the company of spirits.

    The day after we arrived, Charles and I took a pair of fishing rods from an unlocked shed outside and walked down to the river. October, unseasonably warm. Even with only two bags of rice in the cabinet and a mesh net of apples in the freezer, we knew better than to eat anything we caught. But our circumstances were dire. We held our rods in silence, squinting into the late sun. I sensed my rash spreading in the heat. Charles had made long, graceful casts, his line growing taut in the mid-river current.

    “I swam in this once,” he said. “Mom came home from the store, went looking for me. Neighbor told her I was swimming. Should’ve seen her. She went berserk.” He cleared his throat for the imitation, Irish accent and all. “Charles Anthony McGurvey, I will call the police!

    He smiled, revealing the white teeth you get from growing up the son of someone who cares about you.

    “If they drained this,” I said, “what would be there, at the bottom?”

    “Everything. Everything would be there.”

    “Bikes,” I said. “For sure.”

    “Bear traps. A tractor trailer.”

    I pulled my line, letting the hook catch a glimmer. “Would have been some headline: CHARLES LOST IN THE CHARLES.

    He smiled again. “Then there’d be everything,” he said.

    After three hours, our hooks baited with thin worms that we’d dug up, all we managed to pull from the river were a pair of small brown fish. The sun set a sweet orange, and just as we were about to leave, I hooked something massive, a tire or a log. The line gave and relaxed until the catch was visible in the clear water around our ankles. A bass, long black stripes shimmering down to its tail. When I pulled out the hook, I saw the tail fin of another, smaller fish, which the bass had attempted to swallow. It was so still. Charles put the fish in cour bucket, where they occasionally thrashed against my knees on the walk back. On the kitchen counter, the bass heaved, bloated and dying. We filleted and pan-fried it and, even without butter, we hummed with pleasure through dinner.

    When we checked our email later that night, there was a frantic correspondence from a woman named Deb—had I received her four thousand dollars? Eleven minutes after that, she wrote, Are you OK? We let the small fish die on the counter.

    Peter Kispert is the author of the story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin, 2020). Recent writing has appeared in Esquire, Story, and the New York Times Book Review. He lives in New York.

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