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One more rejection, from a man with habanero on his breath. At the end of the interview, he asks Stoke how he handles pressure situations, and pushes a ballpoint pen close to his mouth, mimicking a sideline reporter with a shotgun microphone.
“Pretty well,” Stoke says, and clenches the bones in his feet.
At night, he eats tuna straight from the can. Some of the packing oil spills onto his comforter, forming a long body of water in Las Animas County, near the River of the Lost Souls. He curses, holding the middle vowel, and when he lets go of the rigid ck he feels the way it wrenches the chest to summon something so ugly into the world.
Despite the harsh lighting of the en suite, the blunting of the body’s angles, Stoke sees a handsome man when he spruces in the mirror. He uses a straight razor to plane the curved shoots across his linear jaw, leaving the black clippings in the sink as an emblem of the accomplishment of grooming.
Through the laminate tile, he hears the ex-model keening on the phone. “Oh no, he loves me. It’s the cats I’m worried about. He screams at them. Logos cowers in the corner when he comes home.”
Stoke inspects his torso in the mirror, tenses his obliques while the ex-model below fights tears. The muscles quietly mark the surface, while a flare of red pain from a dormant injury lights his left side.
“No, he’s too young for dementia.”
Her voice is so paper-thin it folds before the end of the sentence. She married this man in Nanxiang, when his éolienne drapery and gold chenille gloves were being sold in Milan and Paris and Tokyo, being showboated by the improbable bodies of Iman and Claudia Cardinale. She married this man when her legs were so long they were the subject of feature writing, and dementia was not just beyond the radar, it didn’t exist.
Stoke hears a heavy voice say, “I’m back, Cecile,” and at that his pulse starts doing wind sprints.
“I missed you,” she croons.
It’s the first night of the playoffs, and his television is silvered. He rejects the idea of going to a bar, where a cola will cost him the same as a tube of mint toothpaste, one hundred garbage bags, a box of powder detergent. He resolves that this is the night he will get to know his neighbors.
The ex-model is wearing tortoiseshell glasses when she comes to the door. In the air of her own apartment, there is an elegance to her ordinariness that never has come through in the halls or the elevator. The arthritic dressmaker is on their goldenrod fainting couch, and when he sees Stoke, he asks, “Can I do something for you, champ?”
Palming his neatened face, Stoke says, “Sir, I live upstairs. My cable’s been on the fritz and, this is awkward, but there’s a basketball game I’d be grateful to watch.”
“Well, Cecile, let the poor man get comfortable,” he says, and the ex-model widens the door. “What channel is it on?”
The dressmaker addresses the demands of lifting the remote. His distorted fingers try to find five-oh-two as Stoke shares the numbers, and the ex-model flitters around his head, nervously, Love, love, love, what can I do?
The dressmaker barks her away. He motions for Stoke to take a seat on an ottoman beside him, and as Stoke is fumbling to park on the piece, he accidentally lifts the cushion off. Inside he sees hundreds of large bills, stacked in piers. The dressmaker winks and says, “Hasn’t been a rainy day yet.”
At halftime, the commentators remember Stoke for a late-game performance a decade earlier that clinched the championship for the Knicks. He sees footage of himself double-teamed and still sinking a three, his own body an unfamiliar icon until he pulls his thoughts to the press of one defender’s hip bone into his adductors. In his throat he discerns the pulse of adrenaline.
“That’s you,” the ex-model gasps.
“Cecile, you cow. Do you think it’s respectful to bumble to our guest about how you can use your eyes to see?”
The ex-model starts to tremble. Her toes are pointed inward, and facing the doorway. “I’m sorry, amour,” she says.
From the fainting couch, he reaches with his swan-neck hands and jerks her narrow waist toward him. Fight or flight, Stoke seizes the remote and brings it down aggressively against the dressmaker’s knuckles. Anything can be a weapon. The old man looks betrayed, the ex-model stunned, and Stoke realizes that maybe he has misunderstood the intent of his contact.
ONE-two-three-four-ONE-two-ONE-two, he needs to find a reason for what he has done. He opens the ottoman and peels a stack of bills while looking, brave and square, at the lovers. The third quarter is starting and the color commentator is repeating the word excellence. Arete is what the ancient Greeks called it. ONE-two-three-four-ONE-two-ONE-two, Stoke clenches a hand to his chest, the money rubbing his mayonnaise shirt, and says, “Please, I need you to help me.”
In the ambulance, Stoke forces his eyes open. Already he can rule out cardiac arrest, heart attack, he has learned through compound fractures and ribboned ligaments the way an emergency staggers the body.
Above him in a halo of street lights is the ex-model and the landscape architect. He wants to ask about the dressmaker, his hands, but the ex-model’s face is too warm, that ordinariness carrying such comfort in the haze of the moving vehicle. They were traveling somewhere on a team bus, the flatlands of Oakland, the steep bluffs of Milwaukee, an exhibition game in the monsoon heat of Manila.
He turns gratefully to the architect. “How are you here?”
“Cheap floorboards,” he laughs, locking his palm to Stoke’s forearm.
The ex-model clings to several bills in her right hand, and faintly Stoke can hear her say something to the architect, the cost of the dispatch, it sounds like, her voice made indistinct by etiquette. Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. The words are tattooed on Stoke’s chest in script, where the former model now touches him.