Young Man’s Slave
There’s a security car that passes the house every three hours. It makes a slow left hand turn about the cul-de-sac at the end of Poplar Hill Loop before retracting its path through the neighborhood. The driver waves at Karen, her face only half visible behind the curtain. She hasn’t waved back since moving to Cotton Lake. She won’t let herself. Not yet at least.
For the first month after she and Jason moved to the lake, she found ways to dodge the neighbors. She didn’t answer the door when they came with their pies and their iced teas. She only took out the trash at night when she was convinced they were asleep. People get comfortable when they are on a first-name basis when they wave at those who are better left strangers.
Jason was still fumbling for his bags at the door when Karen pulled herself away from the window. He would leave early for the ballpark, as he did every morning since their move. There was always something he needed to work on, something to improve in his game: picking up the knuckleball before they played Toronto; practicing with a heavier bat before playing New York; watching a film on certain left-handed pitchers and learning when to steal second on them.
“Did I hear you throwing up earlier? While I was still in the shower?”
“Oh,” she said, “yeah, but it was nothing. Probably the sushi from last night. I feel fine, now.”
“I told you not to eat any sushi around here,” he said. “This isn’t New York.” Did he think she’d forgotten? She asked if he’d considered putting a gym in the basement.
“I just don’t have the time right now. It’s the middle of the season. How can I put in a gym?”
“We could hire someone to do it. You know, just so that you wouldn’t have to leave so early every—”
He was already out the door, already waving it off saying, Yes, Yes, he’d think about it. He had to wait for the security car to pass before he could back out of the driveway. Jason waved at the driver. Karen shut the door, went back to bed.
It’s a thirty-five minute drive through Cotton Lake, the rural, gated community they moved to just outside Auckland, Michigan, and then another ten minutes down a two-lane highway to get to something resembling a town. Karen ensures the trip once a day.
The first time she drove through Cotton, all she saw were poplar trees. There wasn’t a Bloomingdales. No Whole Foods or NYC Racquet Club. There was no Margot Patisserie with her almond croissant and salted caramel latte. Just poplar trees flanking her on both sides of the street. Growing at near-visible rates. Edging her in.
Detroit was a two-hour drive while the next best thing–an area called Marysville that’d recently re-identified itself as a city rather than a village after an exciting seven percent population rise–was an additional twenty minutes drive from Auckland. So, most Saturdays now, instead of browsing the Chelsea or Brooklyn flea markets, Karen settles for wandering around a Meijer where she might buy cheese by the pound or wine by the gallon. There’s a Pete’s Coffee, but she’s refrained from going back. The one time she went, two men in coveralls cornered her against the pick-up counter.
“Hey, wait,” one of them said, shoving a finger at her, “you’re Campbell’s wife aren’t you? Jason Campbell!” She nodded, smiled, turned around to look for her latte.
“Knew it!” He clapped his friend on the back. “Hey, you’ve got a good man there. He’s gonna get our boys a pennant this year.”
The other one interjected, “Wait, now, I figured ya’ll’d be living in Detroit or somewhere closer to the stadium. What the hell’re you doing all the way out here?”
“Do you think they’re going to cancel the game, Jay?” On the television a group of men had just begun unrolling a tarp onto the diamond. “They’re bringing out the tarp.”
“I see that, babe, I’m at the ballpark.”
She turned the station to the weather channel. “Well, I thought maybe you were in the cages.”
“I wouldn’t be on the phone if I was in the cages.”
“So do you think they’ll cancel it?” she asked again. She was balancing herself on one leg in front of the television, turning her flip-flop over with her big toe. “It looks bad.”
“I hope not.”
“Why? If they cancel it now, you might be home before ten.”
“We’re two games out, babe.”
“Well, I just thought if they canceled it, you’d be able to come home early.”
She moved into the kitchen, stood before the window. There were two new cars in the driveway of the house across the street.
She couldn’t tell what had woken her up, the noise coming from across the street or the pain in her stomach. She searched the refrigerator for a Ginger Ale but soon felt her body heave itself toward the sink. There, she threw up something that looked like oatmeal. Her stomach settled, she sat at the kitchen island and stared out the window. A chiminea, visible around the side of the neighbors’ porch flickered, beckoned.
Jason came into the kitchen, grabbed coconut water from the refrigerator. “Were you just throwing up?”
“Don’t you hear that?” she asked him. “I think it’s coming from the new neighbors.” When he didn’t answer, she asked what he thought it might be.
“It’s music, Karen.”
“Doesn’t sound like music.”
“Yeah, and you don’t sound 100 years old there,” he muttered. Typically, the sort of comment wouldn’t have bothered her. Living in New York, Karen often felt younger than she was. And that’s not even to say that she was old: thirty-two to be exact. Yet she’d done something strange the other day.
She’d made the mistake of taking the trash out when the sun was still up. Mr. Altman greeted her from his lawn. He’d been tending the garden while his wife sat on the porch, drinking her iced tea and squinting across the yard.
“Who is it, Ralph?” she asked her husband.
“It’s Karen, darling,” he shouted over his shoulder. Then to Karen, he said, “She’s been putting off going to the eye doctor for her new lenses. Thinks she doesn’t need them!”
Mrs. Altman toasted with her iced tea, asked Karen if she caught the Tigers game the night before. Karen nodded, knowing that she couldn’t tell the truth.
“That husband of yours,” Mr. Altman said to Karen. “That homer he hit the other night against the White Sox? Whoa! And off of Jensen, to boot! Haven’t seen a Tiger with that sort of power since Magglio. But Jason’s even faster than him; better arm too. Five-tool player, they say.”
“You betcha,” Karen allowed, smiling, back-peddling.
“Ten year contract, too,” he gasped. “Clubs don’t shell out those kind of years for the young man’s slave, Karen. Only twenty-seven years old! That kid is going to be a star.”
“You and your Jason are only twenty-seven?” Mrs. Altman shouted from the porch, squinting again as if to find the number pinned to Karen’s forehead. And that’s when it happened. Karen was about to admit her age: it’s thirty-two; she’d been saying it for 200-some days, yet it had never been so difficult.
“Yes, yes,” she lied, her head desperately nodding in every direction, convincing herself. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Jason finished his coconut water and joined her at the window. The sky was in the process of turning from pitch black to navy blue, yet Karen could now make out a form on the porch across the street that seemed to vibrate in the early morning heat.
How the hell had security not been called all night? She didn’t want to ask Jason. He was smiling, looking across the street.
“We should go have a beer with them.”
“Who?” Karen asked.
“Those kids over there.”
She thought about grinning but couldn’t tell if he had been serious. “Jesus, Karen,” Jason sighed. “It was a joke. And they’re just college students. You remember college, right?”
Karen wondered if the question might not be rhetorical. Of course, she remembered. She remembered nights after games, sneaking into the baseball dugouts, drinking with the team until dawn. She remembered staying in the dugout with Danny Kauffman after everyone had left and before the grounds crew would show up at 8:00. The smell of Marlboro Lights on his fingers. Of sunscreen and stale beer. BBQ and hairspray. Breath mints and vomit. The sounds of Tom Petty and Springsteen. Old bedsprings and headboards, rally chants, and victory car honking.
These things Karen remembered well. So when was it exactly, she tried to remember, that she had begun to forget?
It’s my day off, Jason just kept saying; why did they have to fight on his off day? He was pouring coffee beans into the grinder with one hand and checking the scores from the night before on his phone with the other hand.
“I didn’t think we were fighting,” she said.
“I just don’t know why we can’t wait until the off-season to talk about something like this.”
“Because it’s only June. You really want me to live here for another four months?”
“Don’t forget about October, babe,” he said with a smile. She brought up Detroit again. At this, Jason’s body deflated toward the floor like a child being carted around a department store by his parents.
“For God’s sake, Karen,” he exhaled. “Why the hell would you want to live in Detroit? There’s nothing wrong with Cotton Lake. I grew up in a place like this and I loved it. My parents were happy. I was happy. What is it?” And when she didn’t answer, he added, “And Detroit? Karen I have to go through it every day. Do you know what Detroit is? It’s having to lock your car doors at red lights. It’s being afraid to send your kid to school every morning, wondering if he’s going to come back home or not. Do you really want that?”
“What kid, Jason?” Her body stiffened. He didn’t know anything. What was there to know? She hadn’t taken a test, afraid of what it would say, of what it would mean.
“I’m just making a point,” he sighed. “It’s just hypothetical.” He turned back to the coffee grinder, mumbled something about it being too late anyway.
In that moment between confusion and rage that might best be described as the hurt only a person you thought would never cause could cause, Karen remembered a conversation they had ten months ago. Jason told her he was thinking of opting out of the final year of his contract with the Yankees. They’d been married just over a year, and she suddenly felt stupid for assuming they’d never leave New York. The conversation began as something casual, the kind where they were both carrying out menial activities while half-listening to the other—she, dicing cucumbers for a salad; he, scrolling through his phone. At first, it just sounded like an idea, something they’d talk about without allowing it to become too serious. Only moments later did she realize he was no longer speaking in hypotheticals but in certainties. He spoke of his career; she, of their life. He thought of money; she, of friends. But somewhere in the middle of it all, as the fight fractured, sprouted new fights, he decided that they couldn’t raise a family in the city. And if they were going to “do this thing,” as he put it, they’d need to start soon. “Nobody is getting any younger,” he warned.
Whenever she thought back to this conversation, one that her divorced friends compared to fights with their respective exes, Karen would grow faint, nauseous. Now, staring at Jason’s back, she was suddenly aware of raging saliva and its mounting thickness on her tongue.
“Did you really just say that?” The coffee grinder stuttered. Jason appeared to think about responding but pretended not to hear. “Hey,” she tried again. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“What?” He stopped the machine and turned around.
“What what? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Is there something you want to say to me?”
“I don’t want to do this today,” Jason warned, smiling wearily. “I don’t know what you think you heard, but I don’t want to do this right now.”
“No, you don’t want to do anything, really. All you want to do is drag me out in the middle of nowhere, promise me everything will be worthwhile, talk about how great it is out here, and then spend all your time anywhere but here. How the hell does that work? This place is so great? Why aren’t you ever here, Jay?”
“Seriously? That’s a real question you want to ask me? That’s fair?” Karen threw her hands up, began for the kitchen window. It was 7:15. The security guard would be passing at any moment. The poplar trees across the street pushed themselves into her vision. She could feel Jason standing beside her, feel him trying to gauge her eye-line, trying to pull her back toward him. “I’m in-season, Karen. This has been our lives for three years now, and all of a sudden you’ve got a problem with it?”
“It’s not the job I have a problem with.”
“Right.” Jason moved back to the coffee grinder. “I don’t know what to say, anymore, Karen. It sounds stupid saying you signed up for this, but didn’t you? In a way at least? We talked about this. We agreed to try it out, and—”
“And we’ve tried it. I have. I can’t.”
“Great.” Jason sighed, started pouring the coffee into a filter. “Well, like we talked about before, maybe we’ll move after the season. You can’t wait a few more months?”
One of the boys from across the street came outside and lit a cigarette. He stretched like a cat, and his wrinkled blue tank top lifted, exposing his mid-drift. She thought about Jason’s question. A lot could happen in a few months. What would their lives be like then? Had he just been making a point? Was everything still hypothetical? Her stomach ached an anxious retort.
Two more boys came outside. One held a coffee mug, the other a can of beer. Each took out cigarettes of their own. A guilt suddenly overcame Karen.
“Maybe we could go into town,” she offered.
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “I was thinking of going down to the lake.”
“We could go on a hike,” she tried, surprising herself.
Jason smiled, picked up his phone. “Sure, babe. Maybe.”
On Tuesday he boards a plane for Texas and she spends the day on the Altman’s porch. One of the college kids turns on the propane to their grill. Mrs. Altman marvels solemnly over how long Jason will be on the road. “Seventeen days,” she keeps saying.
Wednesday, Jason calls after the game, but because they lost he doesn’t want to talk for more than a few minutes. She’s upset but wonders what they would’ve spoken about had he stayed on any longer. Afterward, she calls her friend Corrine who still lives in New York and cries into the phone for an hour. Corrine doesn’t help when she asks if it’s possible that Jason is sleeping around.
Thursday, the game goes into extras, and she falls asleep waiting for his call. She wakes up to booming music at 2 AM and she sees a text: “Sorry the game went into 14 innings. We won! Going out for beers with the team. Hope the neighbors are driving you crazy.”
Friday, he calls her from the plane before they leave for California. All he says is, “Taking two of three from the Rangers isn’t so bad, I guess.” While she tries to think of things they can talk about, she wanders the grocery telling herself she doesn’t need to take a test. Later she watches the boys across the street compete in a beer funnel race. She hides the pink box in the back of a cabinet. The boy who finishes last vomits over the porch railing.
Saturday is a day game, and Mrs. Altman invites Karen over again for iced teas and sandwiches. Mr. Altman stays in the house and watches the game. In between innings, he comes outside with updates. “Your man just robbed the Angels of a homerun. What a stud! I love that kid.” When five of the boys across the street shotgun beers and throw the empties onto the yard, Mr. Altman exchanges words with them. “You boys better pick those up or I’ll call security. You might be on vacation, but this is where we live and you better treat it with some respect.” Mrs. Altman pats him on the arm, says, “You tell ‘em, Ralph.” One of the boys apologizes, another burps, the rest laugh. Karen slinks down in the patio chair and tries to hide her face behind the glass of iced tea. And for the first time, she wonders if they’ve been watching her as much as she’s been watching them.
Sunday, after their win and sweep of the A’s, he tells her he sees no point in coming back to Michigan for his day off. “Why would I fly from California to Michigan and then back just for one day?” When she tells him that she misses him, that she can’t spend another day next door, that she thinks she’s turning into Mrs. Altman, he tells her it’s only 11 more days. So, she considers telling him about the test. She wonders if he would come home because of it. But she reminds herself of the implications of that conversation, and instead she says again that she could’ve come with him to the West Coast. “I know Lucia goes with you guys,” she says, and when he doesn’t answer, she clarifies, “The first baseman’s wife.” “Lopez?” he laughs. “His wife has family in Anaheim. She only came because we’re in LA and Oakland for 10 days straight.” He tells her that even if she had come, he would’ve barely seen her, and she realizes this is true. How often does she see him when they play in Detroit?
Monday, he spends his day off in the batting cage and she makes an excuse to not spend another day next door. There’s a thunderstorm on Cotton Lake, but she can still hear the neighbors’ music. She places her hand flat against the warm glass of her bedroom window, lets the music’s vibrations move through her body like electricity. She thinks of her appointment at the clinic tomorrow and whether or not she’ll go. Wonders what tools they would use. What she would feel. What she wouldn’t. Then, imagining sitting in her underwear atop an amplifier, the flesh of the inner thighs quivering, the room goes black. A streak of lightning thrashes through the darkness and the sky claps with thunder. And this time, she realizes, it’s the beat of her own heart-making noise.
What could she ask them for? What kind of food would a college student have? Whatever she asked for, they needed to have it so that she could actually get past the door.
She’d tried imagining the inside of their house. Every night that she stayed awake listening to their music, every morning when one of them came out for a cigarette and coffee, every time they threw beer cans onto the yard, she fantasized about being right there next to them. Until an hour ago, she never would’ve considered actually knocking on the door.
She’d agreed to go to the rec center with Mrs. Altman when she realized she didn’t have anything better to do but obsess over the neighbors from her window. However, once there, she became overwhelmed by the demographics. In the locker room she watched a woman in her eighties being helped into her bathing suit by a friend. The pool was ruled by geriatric swimming lessons. In the first hour that she was there, ambulances visited the weight room twice. But it was a gesture of Mrs. Altman’s that caused Karen to feign sickness, mumble something about walking home, and rush for the locker room before the old woman could stop her. Karen had been sitting on the edge on the pool, dangling her toes in the water, when Mrs. Altman let out a small cry. She doggy paddled to the edge and brushed a finger gently under her Karen’s left eye.
“Darn bags,” she said. “I get them all the time.”
“What?” Karen asked. She rubbed at the bottoms of her eyes.
“You know what I do? Before I go to sleep every night, I set a small bag of ice over both my eyes, and it’s like magic. No more bags.”
“These things? Oh, I probably just haven’t been sleeping well because of the music across the street the last week. It’s nothing.”
“Well, who could sleep through that racket? But no, no, darling, I think these just come with age. Are you sure you’re 27?” Mrs. Altman laughed, kidding of course, but Karen pulled back. She rolled over onto her knees and started for the door.
Dip! She would ask them for dip because she was inviting people over to watch the Pistons game that night and people need dip to do such things. They could come if they wanted to, she thought about saying. Well, sure, of course, I’ll come in and wait for you to find the dip—that’s no problem, really. And, oh, is that beer pong in the corner? I haven’t played that since my last college reunion…no, she wouldn’t say that. Nice pong table—who’s got next?
She waited for the security car to round the loop at the end of Poplar Hill and pass by before leaving her house. She heard the music—that same heartbeat rhythm with notes like shards of broken glass slicing through the center and looping, looping, looping. She knocked on their door. The beat pulsed through Karen’s forearm in sonic waves, passing through her shoulder and causing her to fold like a wet leaf. Dip; basketball game; party; I can shotgun too. The words throbbed along her tongue just as when Danny Kauffman asked her to wear his jersey at the bars after beating Penn State. She was only a freshman at the time, he a junior and captain of the team. She had searched for the words that time too—one word specifically: yes. But like an atom, the word split and began multiplying, and every half-syllable vibrated like the shirt from her chest.
And then the door was open.
“Oh,” was all he said at first. There was a beer stain on his loose blue tank top, which was still wet, still sticking to his ribs. Dip, she tried. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Is the music too loud? I know we’ve been annoying you guys, I’m sorry. I’ll turn it down.”
Someone from inside yelled, asked who was at the door. Karen heard something plastic hit the ground, something with a light bounce. What was that? She’d heard that sound before. She wanted to stay to remember, but she felt her body turning away already.
“Guys turn it down,” he yelled inside. “The lady across the street can hear us again.” And then, with the door half shut, she heard him quietly warn, “She might call the fucking cops.”
Before she realized, she was at the street, halfway home. Her face felt wet, but she didn’t have time to rub the tears away. She didn’t see the door. Didn’t see the road or the house. All she saw were the poplar trees in her peripherals, boxing her in, cornering her senses. Just before she reached her yard someone from behind called out to her, using the word “ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ma’am,” she said.
“Oh, my bad, my bad.” His voice seemed forced, deeper than what she was expecting. She turned and found a boy standing before her, his pink tank top clutched against his ribs and chest, his arms as big as Jason’s, a crop of brown hair tangled with sweat in his eyes. “Look, sorry about the music, you know, we’re just having some fun while we’re still here. We’re only here for one more day. It’s sort of a summer trip thing. You know how it is,” he smiled. “I’m sure you party every now and then.”
“Sure, sure,” she allowed. “I saw you guys we’re playing—”
“You’re Jason Campbell’s wife, aren’t you?” She felt the right side of her body dip to the ground. She was ready to nod and walk away when he added, “I hate to break it to you, but your husband sucks.” She didn’t realize that she, herself, was smiling until he smiled back. “Yeah,” he continued, laughing, looking shyly at the ground, “we’re from Chicago. Go White Sox.”
“Go Yankees,” she whispered.
“Oh, shit! You better keep your voice down or Ralph will hear you.” He paused to laugh some more, clapping his hands in approval of her. “Ahh, look we just ordered some food for the Sox game, it’s coming on in like an hour. Having a few drinks. Chilling out, nothing crazy. But you’re welcome to come over if you want. It’s not the Yankees, but hey, it’s not the Tigers either.”
“Fuck the Tigers,” she whispered again.
“Yo. Now, you gotta come over.”
A ping pong ball! That’s what it was, she remembered, as he led her into the house. The sound, that playful plastic bounce, light and youthful that she had heard only moments before. She hadn’t forgotten anything.
“Guys, this is,” he looked down at her and smiled, “my bad, my bad, I didn’t even get your name.”
“Karen,” she said, blushing.
“Guys. This is Karen. Karen, this is the squad. Jake, Robbie, Bryce, Luck, Kyle, Jordan, and Sampson. I’m Brian by the way.”
“Oooh, shit, you’re Jason Campbell’s wife!” the one named Luck burst out, spilling his beer a little as he leaned over the pong table to point at her. Then everyone else agreed with “ooh shits” of their own. “Your husband’s a bitch. But you can have the next game if you want.”
“You’ll be playing us,” the one named Jake said, handing her a Bud Light can. “Luck’s a fucking troll, he hasn’t made shit all week.”
Karen watched herself take the beer, watched herself open it and then motion with the can toward a funnel that rested on the kitchen counter.
“Anyone want to pour this beer into that funnel for me?”
“Oooh shit,” the boys harmonized.
“What–this funnel?” Brian held it up to her from a distance. “You sure you can handle this?”
“Bro, she fucks with it,” Jake said. “Look at her, she’s crazy. Give Luck the other funnel, I’ll bet fifty that she fucking murders him.”
“My whole dick,” Luck said, pulling a beer from the case under the table. “I hope you don’t funnel beer like your pussy husband swings the bat.”
“Bro,” Jake said, “he bats like .320.”
“He’s a bitch,” Luck said.
Karen caught herself looking out their kitchen window. Mr. Altman leaned over the side of his porch as his wife knocked on Karen’s door. The poplar trees swayed in a pre-storm tension, and she imagined the wind uprooting one, tossing it into her living room. Luck was next to her, pouring his own beer into his funnel while Brian poured for her. On the TV she noticed Jason’s stats flashing across the screen while two analysts spoke before the White Sox game. One of them said to the other, “This might’ve been the biggest move over the off-season. The Detroit Tigers nabbing Jason Campbell off the free agency. Shane,” he intimated to the other analysts, “this kid is in the prime of his career, I think we’re looking at a beautiful, beautiful relationship between a powerful switch hitter and the Tigers for years to come.”
“Yo,” Brian said. She felt him hovering over her, holding the funnel high above her head. She could smell the sweat coming from his armpit. The heartbeat music vibrating the floor beneath her and running up the insides of her legs. “You ready?” he asked. She nodded. Luck finished pouring his beer. She removed her thumb from the nozzle and tilted her head back.
Bo Fisher lives somewhere in Queens, New York. His fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Potluck, The Fordham Observer, The Underground, and Contraposition. He’s worked in kosher Chinese restaurants and butcher shops; in schools and bookstores; on golf courses and literary publications; and for a short time in 2012 he held a position titled “goose slayer” for which he won’t go into detail. He can most likely be found @BEdward26 threatening to fight Mr. Met or reminding Mike Huckabee that he is going to hell. Bo is originally from Columbus, Ohio.