Kurt didn’t have any issues. Everyone else had issues. And they brought those issues to him. Kurt was a military lawyer, a defender of privates and punks, but tonight he was impressing Annabeth Villanueva. He had flown her to San Francisco to prove that his life buzzed with sudden excursions. And now, over dinner, he was acquainting her with one of the issues he’d expertly handled: some knucklehead kidnapped a congressman’s daughter. “No clue who she was,” Kurt said, “just parked at the school, flashed a gun at the first girl he saw, told her to get in the car. He recorded himself on the ride—sent the video to his friends. What an unbelievable dolt!” Kurt took a bite of his lamb. Blood dribbled over his chin. “Good lamb,” he said. Annabeth Villanueva prudently nodded. She blotted her lips, trying to hide her disgust. “But this idiot tells me he’s innocent. So I tell him, ‘Hey, we got the video of you and her in your car.’ He tells me—get this—that it was staged. Says he’s been framed by the Republican Party. Unbelievable, right? But I talk to Tommy, the D.A., I get him a deal. Five years. The kid doesn’t bite. I hassle Tommy, drop it to three. The kid’s convinced he’s been framed. Won’t give it up. So I dump him. What else could I do? And just last week the sentencing comes. I had him at three, remember?” In the restaurant the tables were crammed close together. Kurt listened to everyone listen to him. “And the judge hits him with eight!” Kurt chortled.
“A shame,” said Annabeth Villanueva. “He might really reform with five extra years.”
Kurt spit out a bone. “My son is a poet,” he said, and before she could say, “I’ve met your son many times,” he added, “He writes about losing his friends, the friends he lost in Iraq.”
He envied his son for losing his friends. He had never seen anyone die. When his wife croaked, six months ago, he’d been too wussy to watch. Standing next to her hospital bed in a room so beepy and bright, he squeezed the twigs of her fingers, embarrassed to publicly hurt. Kurt mucked around in his pocket. He called someone at random and hung up before they could answer. His phone started ringing. “Business,” he said, stepping out of the room.
In the Indian restaurant, Kurt made eyes at Annabeth Villanueva. This was their second attempt to love one another. A decade ago, they had tried to have an affair, but Kurt had felt too guilty to fuck. In their hotel room, he told Annabeth Villanueva he needed to leave. He was a man of commitments and couldn’t break up his marriage. He preferred resentment to guilt. “Okay,” she said. She unfastened her shoes, grabbed the remote. That’s what he loved about Annabeth Villanueva. She didn’t need anyone. Her cage didn’t rattle.
Kurt so wanted to rattle her cage. He leaned over the table. “You know it’s not for the world I open I wallet.”
“You have been incredibly generous.” She touched her purse: a mound of pink pleather layered with feathers plump in a chair. She pinched free a feather and released it to the floor.
Kurt didn’t notice. Kurt had to go to the can. Near the end of the line for the bathroom was a table of middle-aged men. Kurt said to the men, “See that woman, sitting alone, in the frilly pink dress: she is with me. I brought her here for vacation.” The men said, “We are here for a conference on hazardous waste.” Kurt said, “You know the only thing more dangerous than hazardous waste?” “Batrachotoxin,” ventured one of the men, “It is the poison one finds in—” “Women,” Kurt said. Everyone everywhere laughed. Kurt pulled up a chair. He said, “She doesn’t need anything. She owns a home. She works finding work for the poor, helps women tell deadbeats to scram. Never been married. My wife was always—I mean—she was a—dead.” The word fell out of his mouth like roach. The men condoled. “It’s okay,” Kurt said. “My son is a poet.”
When he returned to the table Annabeth Villanueva asked if he needed dessert. Kurt loved her for knowing he did. At the door, he waved to the men. They pretended he didn’t exist.
In bed, he ate from a carton of mint chocolate chip. He fell asleep holding the carton. Annabeth Villanueva tucked the blanket up to his neck. She changed into jeans and a sweater. She went for a walk.
San Francisco glowed old penny gold. Its dimness excited Annabeth Villanueva. Kurt had called this neighborhood real. Authentic. She had a soft spot for men who euphemized their parsimonious habits. So what if the neighborhood seemed to her seedy? She was happy to be where they were. She favored decay to revival. She marveled at the streetside debris, the chipped subway mosaics, instruments squeakily played. Freed Chihuahuas scrambled around her feet. She kneeled to pet one; it nipped her, breaking the skin, and she sucked the blood from her wrist.
She walked uphill and discovered a vista overlooking the city. Fog swaddled the blinking buildings. Above them were stars flung into dark. Unmoved, she continued to walk. She discovered another vista. Another. The city was liquored with vistas. She rested on a wet wooden bench.
“Los Dioses son rojos,” said a thin boy sitting beside her. He wore ratty clothes and smelled like an onion. Crushed leaves oranged his hair. “Los Dioses son rojos.”
The gods are roses? she thought. Annabeth Villanueva regretted not knowing Spanish. Her mother was a Salvadorian refugee; she had barred her daughter from learning the language. “What are you saying?” she asked.
The boy spit out a memorized spiel. He brought up God many times. He said a lot about fire. Was it fire? He shook a sock in his hand. Change rattled in its lumpy toe. She dropped a nickel inside and asked the boy if he was hungry. He nodded. She bought him a burrito the size of his arm. He ate with paranoid fervor, splashing salsa onto his neck.
Rarely, she wanted—she wasn’t a woman weakened by wants—but she wanted this boy.
In the hotel room Annabeth Villanueva woke up Kurt to show him the boy. She said: “We will raise this boy as our own. He will bring joy into our lives.”
Kurt said: “Is he hungry?” He offered the melted remains of the ice cream. They sat at the foot of the bed sipping from the carton, their teeth slimed green and speckled with chocolate.
Kurt and Annabeth Villanueva raised the boy in her home. He was a prophet. In his dreams he envisioned The Lord, a long-limbed, willowy fellow with hair as firm and silver as wire. The boy learned English with ease and tweeted his visions. His followers swelled into the millions. Kurt and Annabeth Villanueva referred to the boy as their son. They posed for Christmas photos together. They bought him a car. Together they formed a modern, alternative family.
Until: Annabeth Villanueva took a new man. She hadn’t intended to take him but then there he was, there for the taking, and her heart was as soft as a slug. She kicked Kurt and the boy out of her house. Kurt begged the boy to split an apartment—Kurt hadn’t lived by himself for thirty-eight years; he feared the sounds of the night—but the boy had people to lead. He couldn’t be bothered.
The boy moved to L.A., where his people built him a church made of glass. On Sundays he stood at a pulpit describing The Lord. But as weeks sunk into years his visions became sporadic and rare until they finally ceased. His followers found other people to follow: dowsers, psychics, mystics, savants, capitalists, and their parents. He fasted and slept in his pews, grew out a sticky-stiff beard.
One night an earthquake shattered the city. The boy woke up spiny, crusted by blood, glass shards glimmering underfoot. He limped through streets marred by alarms. Men and women in tuxedos and gowns, or shamefully slippered and robed, fled a five-star hotel. Inside, nobody noticed him crossing the lobby looking for signs to the pool.
Debris chunked under water. He swam leisurely laps, tinting the water a murky maroon. Once he entered the air he noticed somebody watching.
“Come here,” said somebody sipping a drink.
The boy sat down beside him. “Why are you staring at me?” he asked.
“I am a poet,” said the poet.
“You never visit your father.”
“I’m terrible at hellos.” The poet nodded toward the unguarded bar. “The staff is distracted. I can make you a drink?”
“I’m an ascetic.”
“I’ll water yours down.”
After a couple of rounds the poet invited the boy to his room. He didn’t decline. They climbed the stairs, crossed miles of burgundy carpet. The boy purposefully dawdled. Sweat skated the side of his chest. They must’ve been walking for hours. Thin fingers of wallpaper curled off of the walls as if it were burning, but the air had become icy and calm, sending the boy into shivers.
He mumbled a prayer.
“What do you want?” said The Lord.
“I don’t know,” muttered the boy. “I didn’t think you would answer.”
“This is me,” said the poet. He reached for his key.
The door opened itself. There stood Kurt holding the handle, his eyes streaked red from weeping. Behind him were men on the bed, men on the floor, men huddled under the desk, two men tangled in a recliner, twelve—at least—squeezed inside the shower, men on the toilet, men curled cattishly in the sink, men on TV, men on the balcony, the legs of men poking out from under the bed, men ironing shirts, every one of them weeping terribly into their hands.
“What is this place?” said the boy.
“Heaven,” answered the poet.
They entered, their faces wonderfully wet.
Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Tin House online, New England Review, Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review Online, and was recently award the 2016 Neutrino Prize from Passages North. His chapbook, Daddy Issues, was named Editors’ Choice in The Cupboard’s 6th Contest and will be published fall 2017. He is currently a print fiction editor for Gulf Coast. More work can be found at alexmcelroy.org.