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vol v, issue 3 < ToC
The Breaking News of Charlie Que
Rin Kelly
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Creator andDroplets
The Breaking News of Charlie Que
Rin Kelly

Creator and


The Breaking News of Charlie Que
Rin Kelly
previous next

Creator and Droplets

Creator and


The Breaking News of Charlie Que  by Rin Kelly
The Breaking News of Charlie Que
 by Rin Kelly
after Franz Kafka

A cockeyed, roaring, broken-boned rain beat the windows and clanged the fire escape as silently, secretly, hauling fat black bags, they slipped in in their slickers and dark damp coats to where middle-aged bank janitor Charlie Que was having another bed-breakingly bad dream. It wasn’t about him, never was about him—it was Anna, always Anna, Anna alone and naked tonight, slipping on silver wind-pleated dunes shocked candescently deadly as he seethed and shrieked and thrashed miles above, powerless to protect her, blown by brutal winds all across America and beyond her grasp. “Anna!” he cried as the swarm circled him, some steaming faintly now under a shriek of hot white lights, some snickering at his racecar-shaped bed made of particleboard and peeling checkered paint and a boy’s version of dreaming.

“Anna,” he screamed, “look up, Anna! Anna, Anna, I’m up here, in the sky!” Leaning in, the crowd listened; lifted up, Charlie drifted beyond her, over the Rockies, swept across the plains, off to where long mountain shadows became Chinook winds and Chinook winds gathered blown grass and corn rust and dead dry husks into powdered high heaps in the East, piled into peaks that then rolled down and down and down at last to an ocean that lapped them with the sound of their names, Appalachia, Algonquin, Iroquois.

“Anna!” he howled, beating his fists on sweat-chilled sheets, all spittled out now and gone almost as pink as a potted ham. A bright bustle and thrill came clapping into the humid air around his bed like a firework, falling on the steaming crowd with hushed festivity. Terror like his was always a great get—an excellent get, even.

Unaware that he was nearing his few final seconds of ignorance of what was to come, Charlie, deep within his dream, began a long quickening fall, a black plunge of ripping wind toward an ocean below that was nothing but a void in the endless nearness of night where even through the whipsong in his ears and thudding of his heart, he began to make out something, a rumble of something vaguely familiar. It was faint at first, perhaps an illusion, but with each speeding second it grew louder and louder, and he was just about to smash apart against the whitecaps when he realized just what it was: his own name, spoken in the voices of some strangely unsynched chorus. At that same moment, too, accelerating almost at the speed of oblivion, he found himself suddenly surrounded by hands, gripped by hands, saved by strangely prying palms.

This was the work of the angels, he realized almost instantaneously, though he wasn’t a religious man and had never had a Bible or seen Ben-Hur or some Joan of Arc movie or either Sister Act or its sequel. This was all the angels come at once to carry him to safety, carry him away, chanting his name—

“Charlie Charlie, Mr. Que Charlie Charlie?” they said, laying hands on him all over. “Que? Mr.? NBC News, Mr. Que, could you Mr., exclusive CBS Mr. Mr. Que?”

—while all around his little childhood room with its narrow walls and desperate residue of a school career of strict compliance with regulation material like football posters and pictures resplendent with long golden bodies draped across muscle cars that fought them over who wore the most gleam and glow, the crowd had begun to shake and shake him. “Mr. Que,” they said, “Charlie Charlie? Que? Mr.? Mr. Que?”

Still he could feel only angels, angels shaking him free of death, and a life of loss and loneliness came quaking out of Charlie Que, jostling free of his body with the terrible power of a trembler. Silently, surely now he knew that Anna would be back, and his poor long-lost brothers, and a mother mostly lost to the loss of them, too. The angels had him practically bouncing beneath their insistent hands now, and suddenly something warm and familiar shifted on his lap.

“Anna?” he whispered, tears welling tight and breaking down his cheeks. It was Anna, sliding all across him. The awful thing between them was gone.

“Mr. Que,” Anna answered. “Charlie Charlie Que?”

“Anna!” he cried.

“You are watching CNN,” she answered.

Then there were lights, unbelievable lights. A reedy, red-haired woman in blue businesswear and a plastic black curlicue spiraling out of her ear was straddling him, peering down with high-hooked brows like a Concorde taking off above each eye, a blast of light haloing her head. “We have an exclusive CNN interview with Charlie Que now,” she shouted. “Charlie, what do you have to say to America, to the world?”

Anna was gone. Of course she was gone. She’d been gone for months, and he was moved out, moved home. Squinting into a pitiless glare, Charlie peered out of the dream now and saw the news cameras, dozens of news cameras and three-legged lights bowing their heavy heads toward his bed as though they were embarrassed for his poor bumbling soul. Behind them was an enormous crowd crashing and climbing all over each other, attempting toeholds on one another’s belts and waistbands and shoulders, some riding each other piggybacked. As the luckier ones clambered and bounced on his skinny, groaning bed, his thoughts soared away for a moment to how his mother would grieve if this one—this pitiful old twin he’d moved back into when Anna left him for good—were destroyed at last, where her dead Hector had dreamed his last dream.

“Mister Que, what’s your response to people saying ...” “Mr. Que, John Bassett for ABC News people are saying ...” “Charlie?, Fox News, can you ...” “Charlie?” “Charlie?” “Mr. Que?”

"Get the erection! Zoom!" commanded a delighted high voice to his right. Charlie whipped his head toward it but saw only a clobbering light. Choking under the scrum, about to vomit—he was deep in the watercolor bog of a hangover, the usual state of affairs—Charlie saw blue and violet spots falling off the air. “Zoom!” came another voice, and another, and another: “Zoom! Erection! Are we getting this?”

The blithe-browed woman with slithery silks slid back onto her haunches. “Mister Que,” she said, “some people are saying that you recently became aroused on national television.”

“Have you been drinking, Mr. Que?” asked a man trying to yank open Charlie’s mouth and have a sniff.

“Why is a woman on top of you, Mr. Que?”

“Are those sleeping pills on your nightstand, Charlie?”

“Why did your parents change your family name from ‘Xu’ to a word that sounds like ‘Chew’? Was it your eating problem?” came a voice from a man hanging from the ceiling fan.

“Some people are saying,” came a voice from beneath the bed, almost inaudible in all the Que hullabaloo, sounding choked, panting, probably trapped by the newly snapped slats, even dying.

A muffled scream stung all through Charlie’s throat, and finally he tried to wrench himself away from the reporters all atop each other in an insect tangle of waggling arms. Panting, petrified that he would suffocate, he realized at last that he had no idea why these people were there, only that they weren’t angels at all.

Desperately Charlie bounced backward and tried to dangle back into the dream, gliding behind his eyes into that moment of mercy between surf and sky, but the mound was slapping his face, yanking his hair, clawing at his mouth to make it move, speak, cry, scream; working his jaw like a vaudeville dummy in the barren little theater of this room. “Charlie!” they kept shouting. “Mr. Que! Charlie! Charlie? What do you say-”

Stop!” he wailed at last. “Stop! Stop! Get the fuck ... stop!

A sound went up, half gasp, half cheer, and more reporters climbed onto the pile.


“Mr. Que, some people are saying that you should be fined by the FCC for your language.”

“What do you have to say to parents who are upset that their children just heard you saying a bad word on live television?”

Now he was fully awake, gasping. These people were in his room. These people actually had their cameras trained on his underwear. These people thought he was someone else. These people ... CNN! He had only just registered it: CNN.


"Yes? Yeah. Yes?”


"What. What? Yes!"

"Some people are saying you're a flight risk."

"What? From ... I'm ..."

"Some say you're a danger to the public."

This was wrong, very wrong. This was some new nightmare. Hollowed by a sick panic, a sudden bravery, Charlie heaved his body upwards, knocking the pile all against each other as they roared with delighted fury and began shouting down his petty violence. “Is Charlie Que a threat to your family?” he heard a man bellow as finally, reduced all to elbows and kicks, he was able to crash through the crowd toward a thready old gray blanket hanging halfway out of his dresser. He lunged for it, for something to cover his chest and legs and underwear, but a man with square pulpit teeth yanked it away, braying, “Why are you in your underwear on national television?”

“Listen,” Charlie panted, “I have ... you’ve got the wrong person?”

The man considered this with gluttonous seriousness. “The wrong person,” he said.


“Are you admitting to identity fraud on national television?”

“No!” Charlie cried. “Of course not!”

Fumbling for something to do with his hands, with his personality, Charlie fluttered a flushed, dumb laugh of attempted camaraderie, an offering—here I am, harmless; here is the limp, awkward, attempted idle hang of my arms—but the microphones and little sound recorders and news drones kept jabbing toward his face, reporters’ heads bobbing over slim notebooks and phones, the photographers fighting over a fine angle atop his bed. A screen on his dresser was airing footage of him in this strange predicament, scrolling his own words across live video of Charlie himself reading those same words scrolling: QUE: “F**K ...YOU'VE GOT THE WRONG PERSON.” Then the feed cut to a news studio where two men were aiming their handsome audacity at some sort of hologram, a seven-foot-tall cross-section of a penis, its parts helpfully labeled.

“What we’ve seen happening this morning with Charlie Que,” one of the men said, “is these two chambers right here, called the corpora cavernosa, filling with blood.”

“Yes, what is typically called—you may want to ask the kids to leave the room, folks—an.... erection. Which Mr. Que has yet to explain.”

Charlie’s mind flailed. His stomach kicked. His body began to make its slow, elbowy, windmilling escape toward the front door as his thoughts followed helplessly behind like cans roped to a bumper.

Why was television doing this? Television had always been Charlie’s great companion. From early on he had studied and copied television until he understood which American expression belonged to which complication or product or category or part of a love affair or profession or subject or type of song or skin: intensity of heart in confrontation with a lover brought twitching eyes scanning the face right-to-left like meters on the brink of meltdown; money in hand meant head back, mouth open, eyes crinkling; blue eyes meant families and swimming pools; toothpaste meant blue eyes; dark eyes meant crimes; to enjoy a drink an American tipped a glass or a can back like a baby bottle, wiped his dry mouth as though it were wet, and hissed ... teeth open ... Aaaaaaaaaaahh ... but not if the American were a woman on a diet or if the drink was made with milk and the drinker was a child ... women, at least in the old ads when he was first learning, drank diet soda with a straw, from the can; children lowered their heads to straws bobbing in glasses on glazed tabletops.

When Katherine Hepburn listened in an old movie, her mouth strung tight and down at the corners because she was smart, and when Marilyn listened her head bobbed to one side because she was dumb; Barbara Walters had always listened like Marilyn. Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes had listened like Hepburn, but he tilted his head as well so it was hard to know if he was serious. And there was no music to help. When 60 Minutes went to commercial the television went loud as if in reprimand like the women who held their fists to their hips to scold talking cats whose boxes stunk; dark eyes meant other countries, and danger; dark skin meant all expressions were larger, and expressions were larger and easier to grasp in the old movies on the gray scratchy channel, too. Charlie had discovered it one morning as a child as he was pouring cereal and moved to the little TV set in his parents’ yellow kitchen to have it closer, suddenly spying faces where before was fuzz and darkness cresting on a dead channel. He saw women singing on giant swings. Manic brows and great gleaming mouths stretched, double-sized, and he set down the bowl and forgot he had any other reason to be standing there. He watched all day and through to the next, learning to understand America and its unending Dream ... when to tap ... when to softshoe ... when to know when to start dancing all at once ... when to gather his heart into cupped hands and press them to his chest, weeping ... when to salute a plane overhead and spin to watch it bellow on into the brave and certain death of history, when to rhumba.

He watched it all like Marilyn until the flag rumpled everybody off the air and he stretched back into his body and did not like it, to feel it there after such exquisite compilation, so he scutched back a kitchen chair and moved closer to the TV, changed the channel and watched the news reruns as Jimmy Carter—this was still his childhood, though television was forever for Charlie Que—listened like Hepburn and Ronald Reagan listened to Jimmy Carter like Marilyn in a debate about who would rule the world ... or something of great importance like that. Content didn’t especially matter to Charlie Que. But he knew Ronald, would have voted for him if he had been a grown-up then. Ronald made all the same faces as Santa Claus and laughed, like Santa, as though he had money in hand.

Charlie knew he certainly wasn’t built for his friend television: he had the unfortunate face of a private-school bully pressing his face, puggish and carefully snot-fraught, against a pane of glass. Anna was built for commercials in her own way, but she was meant to be Grimace, Ronald’s pear-shaped purple friend who always made Charlie laugh and laugh. They’d met at their arrow-spinning job, each standing at a rival corner spinning job ads for better sign-spinning jobs available for application a few blocks down the street. They’d bonded over their favorite shows: anything about cops; anything about real, rich people; anything about fictitious rich people; anything where celebrities came on to promote new movies and tell the funny jokes that separated them from the rest of us, save their not looking like the rest of us. Like so many Americans, Anna and Charlie had been stitching together a kind of a life based on dreams that some days felt just one step away from fruition, dreams just out of reach but hovering close, as close as those better sign-twirling jobs down the street.

And they had bonded over beer, at Dempsey’s one night. He drank beer; she favored hard cider, and he’d been just far enough into his third Bud to be closing in on becoming his real self, witty and full of stories and fun when they met. What he liked about beer was that it made his feet and his hands less fascinating. What he hated about beer was that it sold himself back to himself bottle by bottle, tip by tip, like it was taking money’s side against him every night, and he certainly couldn’t afford much of himself on a janitor’s salary.

But that was it. That wasn’t enough to invite those people to his room. Charlie was a good man, a gentle man, a forthright. “Que is on the run! Charlie's fleeing!" their voices were howling all around him now, but strangely they let him sprint desperately and still nearly naked for the door, jogging after him, hollering “CHARLIE’S ON THE LOOSE!” A group of men with crumbs flying from their mouths—they had been eating his favorite cereal, goddamnit—leapt into the elevator and attempted to interview him all the way down, wondering aloud if his silence meant guilt, while another woman with slightly less cruel—but still cruel—hooked, haughty eyebrows relayed the scoop, from a wire in her ear, that the elevator was a 1923 model manufactured by the now-defunct Parsons Company out of Newark, New Jersey.

“Fourth floor! We’re just about there now! Third floor! Second!”

“The Parsons Company certainly knew their way around an elevator, Gene.”

“Lobby! Lobby! He’s about to make his escape!” The door dinged open on a new crush of twitchy bodies, and immediately the questions went up, the closing in of cameras, the return of those horrible lights. “Why is your face red? Is that guilt?” “Some say you’re inconveniencing your neighbors with this crowd.” “What do you have to say to people who say people are saying some say Charlie Charlie Mr. Que?” All he could think to do was charge his way through them—“Violent tendencies, just like our analysts have been predicting!”—and out into the boundless crowds, all soaked through just to see him, his TK, his skivvies, his Fruit of the Looms©.

From every window, from every car, eyes and little handheld devices followed Charlie, cameras and phones and hovering, black-eyed tiny insects that must have been more drone robots of some sort, helicopters high above, swarms of electric scornbirds circling his head and shuddering out mechanical tut-tut-tuts as they transmitted photos back to some room somewhere. And he was nearly naked. Naked! Oh god, naked! Parents sprinted into the street with their children just in time to cover their children’s eyes. “Is Charlie sick?” a radio asked from a car that came splashing around a corner. “Is Charlie someone who takes pleasure appearing in public in just his underwear?” A slight, pale-eyed beauty with an enormous contraption mounted on her head—slim long arms, thin long limbs, a woman out of his better dreams—hung out of a news van beside him, frantically telling whatever the thing was she was wearing “blue Hanes Classics Men’s TAGLESS© No Ride Up Briefs with Comfort Flex© Waistband.”

As the sky cleared into a terrible brightness now, he neared the investment bank where he worked, grateful for once at the sight of the graceful curving building just beginning to show its daylight face of slippery sky, its mirrored face shining with thick knotty root clouds screwing up into another world, a world where he would surely be protected—where real life would be restored, where his jumpsuit was hanging all limp and familiar in his locker. But on the ground floor, the second floor, the third and then the seventh, where traders ought to be bellowing into phones and then turning to great ceiling-mounted screens and tickers and televisions to discover what it was they’d said, all was strangely silent, as though the markets were shut down for the day. The screens spoke only of Charlie Que, a man on the run. A mole-stippled torso, a highly average penis in that tight type of underwear some say decreases sperm count. Is Charlie against having children? Weigh in online, #CharlieWatch, he heard a solemn man behind him say while live on air, the scrum still there, his embarrassment as deep as his confusion.

By the time he emerged from the locker room in the navy-blue work uniform that always made him think of poor Hector coming home in his fatigues, his moles were potentially pre-cancerous according to the Associated Press. He had crossed only the first cruller station—SHOULD CHARLIE BE ON A DIET? WEIGH IN”--when news about the pregnancy began to break. A grim twangy woman with a vigorless red slash of a mouth lay curled within a giant uterus broadcasting details about gestation, trying out different positions, reporting what had been found on Charlie’s phone—he’d left it on the bedside table, goddamnit. There was Anna pregnant, Anna nude, Anna pregnant nude. A computerized little girl, half him, half her, “just a composite idea of what the child may end up looking like” but bearing Anna’s gray-blue bathwater eyes, shyly answered questions about what it was doing to her psyche to see her mother nude like that, nude and carrying her.

On a rival station, the projection was of a young man with Charlie’s thin lips and a set of perfect teeth—a feature not meant to represent the real possible mouth content, the reporters cautioned, but merely the default setting of the software. “What can we determine from this boy’s body language?” an anchor asked no one in particular. “That’s coming up next. Plus: Charlie’s former classmate on a telling playground fight.”

Was that what their baby would have looked like, all grown? Charlie wondered. For a brief moment the news thrust him back to those last, worst days between them, when that rainy gaze overtook her, that misty, half-lit expression, when Anna’s breasts and hips and despotic big buttocks with their overripe, rocking authority began strangely to thin and she no longer spoke to him but to the air between—as though some old Victrola were using her throat as a speaker and she couldn’t be bothered to know what it was playing. Television had tried valiantly to go on filling their apartment with life—and in time, television was the only tenant left to fight the barren embarrassment of the space between telephone rings. Finally it had become the sea he submerged himself in when he finally found himself alone. He especially liked the show where people got to run through a grocery store whisking goods into their carts, and the winners got to keep their sixteen cartons of oatmeal. But today all he could do was hate his own best friend: every screen, every slick black surface spoke of Charlie Que Charlie Que, and the people still in his apartment were reporting breaking news about the pill bottles in the kitchen cabinet. QUE ON ANTIDEPRESSANTS!

“Now this medicine, Gideapine, brand name Zelaprex—though it appears that Que is on generics—now this medicine, are there side effects we should know about? Is Charlie Que dangerous? Is he mentally ill?”


“Let’s remember Princess Diana, how the driver in her fatal crash was on antidepressants very much like this one.”

“Yes, Princess Di, and I’m just getting word right now that this medicine does have serious side effects.”

“Is he a threat to the current royal family over in England?”

“He may very well be, Curtis. He does have a current driver’s license. And here now I’m getting more information about these side effects. Fatigue, nausea, dry mouth, headache, thoughts of suicide, vivid dreams, constipation, erections lasting up to six days—“”

“Which may be what we’ve been seeing this morning.”

“Yes, Curtis, that’s a possibility. But we’re also hearing that these are only potential side effects. And there are more: muscle stiffness, hallucinations, depression....”


By midmorning, some said some say; by noon some say some said. By 1 p.m. some were saying some said some say some said some said, but when he asked fellow janitors and vexed secretaries and the crowd following his every move what it was they thought he had done, the news people gasped and accused him; the secretaries just stared, saying he wasn’t doing himself any good talking about it. The traders and bankers and champions of capital carried on with the salty silence they usually afforded the custodial team, flashfried by the world’s finest Columbian flake and the afterglow of riskless crimes, joking about the day’s news as he moved through their floors. Though that news was all Charlie Que Charlie Que—QUE ENGAGEMENT ENDED IN MARCH, AP REPORTS ... BREAKING: QUE PARENTS IN COUNTRY ILLEGALLY ... CHARLIE EMAIL, SOCIAL MEDIA HACKED—they kept up their disregard, betting on his conviction. He remained too insignificant to invite into their conversations about the breaking news of Charlie Que, his body-fat percentage and vaccination records, his unappealing lip shape, his brutalizing reporters, the bombshells buried in his online chatter about Fortune Wars and Cash Clash. The executive assistants brushed past him as unbothered as ever, smiling widely at the news reporters obsessing over Charlie as the assistants fed the Incriminating-Evidence Furnaces, speaking of poor Anna, unlucky Anna, what-it-must-have-been-like-for Anna, twirling their pokers like capering majorettes. The very mention of her made Charlie want to call her, to go to Kelly 16-16-16-16 Anna, but their grief was just too great.


That night, after a full day of journalists, Charlie couldn’t sleep—there were reporters beside him on the bed, journalists on top of him, reporters atop his dresser, on his old high-school desk, his sagging nightstand, on his embarrassing piles of socks and boxer shorts. They arrayed all around the bed and even crawled across the ceiling using some special glue or clinging tech, reporting on some said some say and some say some were saying, on whether or not his brothers had gone off to various wars to get away from him, if his future children truly loved him, if his future skin cancer was the result of a bad diet or lack of exercise. Why did Charlie hoard empty cereal boxes anyway? Why was his elevator so old? Why couldn’t he sleep? Why did reporters surround him if he claimed he’d done nothing wrong?

In fact, Charlie had never been good at sleep. There had even been a time when it was practically unbearable. It was with Anna, when things were falling apart: always he found himself hopelessly awake beside her, wrecked by worry and consumed by the swollen sadness of their separation, her wild dreaming on the bed, eyes glutted and quivering, muscles catching in a place where she could not be reached. There was a cruelty to sleep he hadn’t realized before she was slipping away from him, a terrible nearness of prisoners in overlapping dark cells, unaware of each other and babbling out their souls. After the first miscarriage, when she first took to sleep with the same devotion she’d taken to motherhood, he would have to leave her dreaming there and go out, away, spend insomniac nights at Dempsey’s with men whose lives were all tragedies that had failed to materialize. He would stay until last call when, shoved out awake dead center into the dreaming city, he would find himself overtaken by a great kind of pity-love that visited only in early hours, when the forlorn magic at the heart of the world revealed itself to the committed drunk. He could feel his sadness ripen to something holy in those moments: in his drunkenness, in his failure, he had not failed to love. Soon he began to pine for it, needed to feel it, that warm wet pity that filled him up to the edges of his soul and made its dimensions known. How damned they all were! For a moment he felt new, uninvented. He would vow to get her a puppy.

Now it was waking that had become impossible to endure, sleep that took up television’s noble old role. Weeks went on, and the misunderstanding with the news people only worsened with time. His parents had been deported not 48 hours after it all started—soldiers with beastly guns marched them onto a military plane as lip readers studying the video announced that when his mother turned to his father and erupted in tears, she was saying “BREAKING: CHARLIE REALLY IS TERRIBLE.” His would-be son’s body language required no expert’s interpretation as he sat daily for exclusive interview after exclusive interview with his thin replica of Charlie’s mother’s mouth pulled down, hands to his temples, answering questions about what some people were saying about his never having existed at all. On the thirtieth morning, Charlie had even awakened to find himself changed into a monstrous penis. Viewers must have grown bored with the regular in-studio visits with the incorporeal corpora cavernosa, because CNN decided to improve on it with a kind of high-tech dick sarcophagus a pair of production assistants would hoist up and over him, an electrified organ ticking and shuddering and bleeping, at the break of every dawn.

Dempsey’s was now so choked with gawkers and reporters and wannabes wanting to get on TV that a few regulars had resigned—some had even gone sober. The bank was investigating to make sure no accounts had been touched by his nefarious fingers; Bennigan's banned him nationwide. With nowhere to go unseen, Charlie had eventually stopped fighting the cameras that massed around him as he downed the bright little pearls his doctor had given him for sleep. Some nights, waiting to dwindle off into darkness, he would still try to lose himself in television or the internet, but there was nothing happening anymore but Charlie Que Charlie Que, Charlie Que the egregious egomaniac who loved nothing more than to watch himself on TV. A tiny silver flake that wouldn’t come out of his eye no matter how hard he rubbed transmitted QueView video of him watching his would-be daughter watching him watch her watching him. Asked by a woman in Miss America makeup if she resented her dad for putting her in the public glare, the imaginary girl with the big bathwater eyes wept.

“He really is terrible,” she answered.

Medicated now, he dozed atop the scrum, beneath the unblinking, devoted-insomniac reporters. He dreamed of flying every night, higher than the copters and drones, up and out of the world; he dreamed of his mother swimming back to him, cupping his cheeks in her warm kind palms and promising an end to all pain. He dreamed of Anna rosy and round and Anna in the too-big slip she wore in their final photo, the picture a hacker found in one of his accounts and the New York Post ran on its cover with the headline “Anna-REXIC?” Now, on the fortieth morning, sleeping fitfully as though his body could sense the latex penis looming, he was dreaming of her slight and slipped and leaning on a bar while men filed through, their right hands unscrewing the rings from their left and their terrible tongues licking their mouths for courage. They cleared their throats, tasted their lips, fumbled their elbows onto the bar and bounced their legs in clockwork discomfort, staring at the televisions in the corners with a parody of care as though at any moment the machine might take notice of their plight and feed them pick-up lines. Why was his face there, inside the screen, not on TV but in TV like an astronaut in his glassy helmet, body hanging, kicking, naked—Oh god naked! He tried calling to her, calling and calling to her, and he awoke to disquieting silence. Finally here were no sweaty lights, no contraptions choking him awake. Was it over? Oh god, was he free? Then he remembered he had spent the night with a girl with slithery sheets.

She had followed along behind him for weeks, pretending to be a reporter, and at last, after asking a few questions, had seduced him easily, taking his hand in the fluttering light of the Incriminating-Evidence Furnaces, helping him sweep the ashes into the bins while the press all around wondered if Charlie held a broom right, if Charlie Que wanted to be a witch and promising him a place to stay where no one could record him and transmit him, a doorman-protected, brick-walled loft. The news had gone mad: “IS CHARLIE GOING AWAY WITH A WOMAN?” “IS CHARLIE CHEATING ON ANNA?” “IS CHARLIE HIDING BEHIND BRICK?” “WHAT IS CHARLIE TRYING TO HIDE?”

The silence reminded him so much of his days as a little bouncing boy, Charlie Chew, back there again waking to windows blurred by winter and school cancelled all day, sounds frozen over and no cars on the road, ma home from work and downstairs drinking coffee with one hand as she waved him over with the other, into her lap, and buried her head in his hair.

“My baby,” she said. “My baby baby.”

Then, suddenly, an unknown, smirking male voice with the sound bellowed: “I see she beat us to it. I was trying to sleep with him too.”

Charlie startled. In the doorway leaned a man, long and blond and wearing a bandolier loaded with ballpoint pens. A shorter, rounder man whose eyebrows appeared to have had a falling out stood scowling at his side. Then the girl appeared from behind them carrying two cardboard coffee cups, gazing at Charlie with plundering pride, green-eyed and twinkling. She handed him a cup bearing a black-markered “Helene” in furious sawtooth script.

Yesterday she had been so kind, running her hands like Anna across the swells of his stomach and his sagging breasts, but now Charlie felt the joy go out of him that had stirred so briefly, because standing above him was an entirely different silver-sheets girl.

“You didn’t put in the work,” she told the bandolier-bearing man brightly. “I got an agent while he was asleep.”

“You’re shitting me,” said Bandolier Man.

“No way,” said Eyebrows.

“Nope, sold the story around four a.m.”

Charlie bolted up, sloshing coffee all over the sheets. “What story? Helene, what story? My story? You said you didn’t know what they’re saying I did!”

She merely patted him on the shoulder, barely registering the spill. “I really do like you, Charlie. Even with the way you treat your kids.” For a moment, the generous smile was back, guileless and wide. “What you were saying last night about how you love to laugh? You’re an interesting guy.”

Then the smile sharpened and vanished. “Is this why you took pictures?” he said, pointing to her phone. Pictures and probably worse; she’d fiddled with the phone all night. “You said you didn’t know what they’re saying I did! Helene, please ... what did I do?

“You’re only making things worse for yourself, buddy,” said the short man. “You should see what your kid is saying about you today.”

“I don’t have a kid!”

“And you think that didn’t mess him up?”

A tinkling came from Helene’s shoulder-slung bag. “That would be my agent,” she said, and even now Charlie had to fight back an urge to slip into her arms and beg for a pantomime of last night’s grace, her promise of absolution. She had stroked his hair and kissed his forehead and told him she would never let him die no matter how much he dreamed of it now, dreamed of soaring across America.

Bandolier Man saw Charlie’s expression and put a hand on his shoulder, gentle and warm. “So,” he said softly, “do you mind if I go ahead and sleep with you too?”

“Too late,” said Helene. “I just sold my Que book.”

“Goddamnit,” growled the little scowler.

“Back to Benruby Coates Imprints for you,” Helene singsonged as a doorbell rang. “Back to pitching your memoir—I got to him first! That’s probably Benruby now, even. Sloppy seconds don’t sell books, darlings. You’re back to cancer of what is it, the spleen?”

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