When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys.
Seeing the stash, I stopped mid-stride. The pithy pile was waiting when I returned home for the first time in three days, along with a moldy funk and Andy's lavender cologne. My mind clicked through the pile's content – Playboys, book, old blue fishing rod. Where had he possibly kept this stuff?
Someone shuffled into the hallway behind me. "Door…close," I whispered. Hearing my voice, the magazines quivered.
The door soughed shut. Huffing out a loud sigh, I called, "Andy." The top magazine oriented itself toward me. Energy defusing, I circled the pile and laughed, knowing Andy was gone because there wasn't any place he could hide unless he'd shrunk himself and was hidden behind that stack.
But he wasn't, unless he was wearing a cloak and was invisible. No way I could tell…. "Andy?"
Our pod's emptiness echoed around me. Andy's selection matched his perversity and cruelness. Oh, well, the contract was done, the bond broken. Good-bye, Andy, and thanks for staying so long. Good of him since he was gay, which is okay, and I'm straight. I've wondered about that since he first told me four years ago. He was fifteen. I was fourteen months in arrears. Our contract has a DNA cert confirming our common heritage. We talk alike and look alike, fair skinned, brown eye gringos with round faces and unibrows. He's taken to shaving his unibrow's center and he appears more feminine than me but everyone assumes we're related at a glance with comments like, "You guys are mirror images of each other." Yet he likes women and I like men. How can that be? The thought of touching a woman troubles me with shudders. Humping one – I can't imagine it. I've never tried and I don't want to.
Of my own legacy on this day of days, I had the clothes that I wore, a hundred cee stick in my pocket, a glass flask of whiskey, and a KompileMeal. The flask's amber fluid was nine tenths diminished, leaving ill effects in my head. I hungered for breakfast but the KompileMeal was programmed for lunch. Selecting a reubens sandwich, French fries and a lager beer with a peach cobbler dessert, I set the square aside.
"Thank you," it said. "Your meal will be ready in seven minutes."
My stomach rumbled. "Thanks."
I considered the stack of Playboys. They still resided in their protective plastic sleeves. A big blonde guy in a turquoise bikini grinned from behind a small umbrella on the beach of the top cover. "Hello," he whispered. "Come into my world."
"I'm free," the magazine said. "Come on in and visit with our Boys of the Big Ten, and I'm not talking about sports."
"No offense," it answered. "Just doing business."
"Well, shut up, I'm not interested."
The model pouted at me. "What's the matter? Don't you like me?"
I shook my head. "Sorry but no. You don't do anything for me."
The model shifted. "Not out here on the cover, no, but come inside and see what I offer." He leered at me. "You look like you might like my kind."
"No means no, okay?"
"Sure, sure." Looking chastened, he offered his palms out in supplication. "Sorry, no offense, okay?" He chuckled. "Just business, okay?"
"Would you just shut up?" My glower shut him up but I still had to finish, "Keep harassing me and I'll report you. You want to try me? Just say something. I'll report you so fast, your ink will run."
The model stared at me. I stared back, waiting for a response. Biting his lip, he twirled his umbrella.
"Good," I said. "Looks like we understand each other."
It looked like there were forty Playboys in the stack but I had to know for certain. Counting them showed forty-three, giving me momentary glee over my guessing skills. "Hello," each cover said as I glanced at them. "What's happening? How are you? What can I do for you?"
"All of you listen," I said. "I am not interested."
That set them to mumbling but I wasn't interested. Sure, I'd peeked at them a couple times but they didn't do much for me. Those guys are just too perfect. I like flawed men. Even if the Playmates have stunning looks and fantastic, lean, muscular bodies, they're always shown doing things nude – fishing off a dock naked, hang-gliding over a canyon – naked – jogging, playing ball with the dog – naked. It's surreal.
They started with this month's edition – turquoise bikini boy – and went back three and a half years. But of course there were forty-three, one less than four years. It all fit. I laughed inside. I could see Andy picking up a Playboy and then hiding it somewhere.
"Your meal is ready," the KompileMeal said. "Be careful because it's hot."
It smelled great. "Thanks, I will."
"Bon appetite," it burbled as the lid folded back.
I enjoyed it for about five minutes, burping with a sweaty gasp as I finished the cobbler. I was still working the beer, kicking myself for not ordering coffee. I'd need the energy lift. With Andy gone, I was expected to vacate the pod since it was contracted to him. It's no big thing, a personal hygiene, two sleeping compartments, a food compiling station with an eating bar, and a clothes compiler. Our one table, webertainment center and two chairs had either been stolen – very likely by that Russian family down the hall – they were into the whole Furniture Freedom thing – or the things had run away, not that unlikely, either. None of the furniture had ever liked me. Sitting on the one chair with the singed arm was like riding an angry stallion. Not fun.
The clothes compiler was a year dead, too. I've been going to a public compiler when my clothes wore out. Public compilers are okay except the clothes aren't as stylish or durable and don't fit so well. I don't know what Andy's been doing for clothes but he's always well turned out. I think he has a sugar girl but he's always been real private -- neat, skinny, and private, the prototypical gay, that's Andy. Oh, well, more power to him.
Picking up his fishing rod, I cut the air with it like it was an epee, and laughed like a maniac. Amazing Andy still had it after five moves and fourteen years. It had been inherited from grandfather the day before Mom broke her parenting contract with us and contracted us over to welfare. The first day we had it, we'd broken it, not easy to do, and we'd splinted the vintage blue fiberglass stalk with equally vintage chopsticks and gray duct tape. The rod had served as an all-purpose sword. Once, I used it to beat back some gay-baiters attacking Andy because he'd been kissing a girl down in the common. His reaction then had been weird, like he'd been upset that I'd rescued him. We were less close after that. It was kind of like the beginning of the end in hindsight.
Tossing the rod aside, I picked up The Wind in the Willows with ginger fingers. It was old, old, old, published pre-computer age, back in the seventeenth century. Andy was a bastard for leaving that with me. Why he even had it…it had terrified me even as I loved it. He could read it in such a way that its sinister passages came alive, haunting me with images whether I was awake or asleep. Even now, the evil toad started rising in my imagination. Shivering, I tossed it aside with a pronounced grimace, wiping my hands on my pants afterward. I can't believe he left that book with me.
"Can I ask you a question?" the Playboy beach boy asked.
"I told you to shut up," I answered.
I finished my beer and dropped the remains into the de-compiler. Its soft whirring amused me into nostalgia and I gazed around the pod. The last time…. "Okay, what?"
"Why are you so angry?"
I rolled my eyes. "Oh my God…."
"I just want to know."
Stepping close to the stack, I stared down at the top cover. "Is this a marketing ploy?"
"Bryan's here," the door said.
"It's not," the magazine model said. "I just want to know for myself why so many men are so angry."
"Bryan is here," the door said in a louder voice.
"I heard you," I snapped. "Let him in." I pointed at the magazine. "No more out of you."
Making a motion across his mouth, he resumed his initial pose.
Bryan came in, glancing around as we hugged. "Hey, Keri." About two inches taller than me, he's a good-looking blond with a big mouth, full lips, blue eyes and broad shoulders. Bryan is an amazing athlete, too, with speed and strength that makes me think he's not human. We lightly kissed, not as lovers but as friends, and, arms around each other's waist, looked around. "Where's Andy?"
"Gone when I got here."
"Oh, well." Bryan didn't sound unpleased. He'd never really accepted Andy's gayness and he never liked the way he thought Andy treated me. "Guess there won't be any arguments or angry farewells. That's a shame."
Bryan looked at me with a wearied glare. "Come on, Keri, he's gay and gone. Men and women having sex with each other are no better than animals, are they? If God had wanted men to be with women, he wouldn't have given us the technology to reproduce without sex, right? Right?"
The ageless argument sucks wind when you're talking about your own family. "Sure, you're right."
"Sure, I am. I know he's your brother, but…." Looking about, Bryan shrugged. "He here?"
"Hello," the Playboy cover said.
Andy blinked at it. "Hello – are those – " Grinning, Bryan picked up a Playboy and turned it over in his hands. "A Playboy. What the hell." He laughed. "A Playboy."
"Hello," the beach boy said. "How are you?"
Bryan winked. "I'm good, thanks. How you doing?"
I groaned. "Bryan, I just shut him up."
"Why don't you come in and find out?" the cover boy said. "I have a lot more to offer than what you see on the cover. You won't be disappointed." He sang the last.
"Bryan, don't encourage him," I said. "He's just a marketing page. He can't do naught for you."
Bryan shrugged. "No harm flirting."
The cover model flexed his muscles, coyly winking and lasciviously licking his lips. It was gagging gross.
Sighing, Byran said, "Sorry. I already have an agenda. Another time, maybe, buddy."
"Keep me in mind," the Playmate answered.
Dropping the magazine, Bryan quizzed me with a look. "So what's with these? Where they come from? Not Andy?"
"Yes, Andy. He left them. I don't know why."
Bemusement crossed Bryan's handsome face. "But he's gay."
"Far as I know." And I knew.
"Why would a gay have a Playboy? What would they do with it? They don't like men."
His questions exasperated me. "I don't know what he was doing with them. Maybe he sought hobby tips."
Bryan returned his quizzical look to me. "And he left them here?"
"That's what I said."
"Why did he leave these?"
"I don't know, Bryan."
"But you know Andy. He did it for a reason."
I counted to three. "Bryan, what do you hear when I speak?"
Blood flushed his cheeks. "Don't get pissed."
"But you're not listening to me. Andy left these. I don't know why. I don't know what the hell he was trying to tell me. He was gone when I got here, and they were sitting there. Voila, you know what I know."
In truth, he didn't. I was leaving out whole sections but that's what I do best. I like knowing things that others don't know. In this case, I know that when Andy told me he was gay, I brought him Playboys. "Look at these, Andy. Look at them. These are men. Don't they do anything for you?"
"Actually, they're not men," Andy said. "They're pictures of naked men in ridiculous poses."
"Fuck that and look at the damn men. Don't tell me these pictures don't do anything for you."
"They do anything for you, Keri?"
"Answer me, Andy. Do these do anything for you?"
Andy looked straight at me. "But they don't, Keri. I don't know why but they don’t."
I threw the Playboys at him. "Fag." Pages flying and shouting, they hit him in the face. The look he gave me, sans emotion, was why a stack of Playboys awaited me.
"Sorry." Hurt, Bryan bent and appeared to be counting the Playboys.
I pressed back a mental sigh. "There's forty-three."
"Really?" Looking satisfied, Bryan chuckled. "That's what I would have guessed. Are they all Playboys?"
"Yes." I hadn't thought of that but scanning their spines – "They're all Playboys." And yes, I'd look at them. They were all Playboys. Forty-three Playboys from Andy. "Yes."
"How weird. What a trip Andy is. Why the hell – " Looking at me, Bryan raised a protective hand. "Now I'm just being rhetorical so don't jump all over me."
"But why the hell would he leave these and more urgently, what are you going to do with them?" Confusion fusing in his expression, he shifted attention to the book and fishing rod. "What the…he leave those, too?"
"Yes." I looked at the stuff. "I don't want them. Guess I'll leave them here."
"Don't leave me here," the Playboy beach boy said.
"You shut up," I snapped, pointing at him.
"Hey." Dropping his umbrella, the model put his hands on his hips. "Bryan was talking to me and I'm talking to him. He hasn't told me to shut up."
"Bryan, tell the magazine that you're not interested," I said.
"The Wind in the Willows." Bryan shuddered. "I hate that book. Keep it away from me. I read it once and it gave me nightmares for months. I'll probably have nightmares tonight, thanks a lot."
"Hello?" the magazine said. "Remember me?"
"Shut up," Bryan said to it. Facing me, he spread his legs, folded his arms over his chest, and looked me over capapie. "Okay, then. Worn clothes…bloodshot eyes – oh, and swollen…in need of a shave…grungy hair. How you feeling?"
I was depressed but I shrugged. "I'm okay."
"You don't seem it."
Feeling his scrutiny on me, I met his eyes, to more convince him. "Well, I am."
"You upset that Andy is gone?"
"Not really. I was expecting it."
"And there was no note?"
I hadn't looked for a note but there wasn't anywhere to put one unless he'd left it in the hygiene or a sleeping compartment. "No. There's no note."
Tweaking an eyebrow up, probably with doubt but willing to accept it, because that's the kind of friend he is, Bryan nodded. "Still going through with it?"
Skepticism weighed his tone, irking me anew. Why was he asking? What did he think he saw? "You mean the dimension jump?" Like, what else would he mean?
Smiling bemusement and nodding, he said, "Yes, I mean the dimension jump."
His tone said, what else is there?
Why would he ask that? It had been our plan for the last three years, since they'd lowered the acceptance age, for us to use a portal and jump through to another dimension. Now, on the edge of the moment, trepidation clamored in my chest. Andy had always derided the plan as stupid. It had gotten so we could never talk about it. It made a hell of a lot more sense than his college plan, and what else was there? He always figured he'd get a college degree and become a Peer – a white welfare kid, becoming a Peer. What a joke. Yes, there were anecdotes about people achieving it, like Trump, but he was a success story because he was the exception, not the rule.
Try telling that to Andy. He wouldn't hear it. He was looney about getting a college degree and becoming a Peer. Much as I thought he was crazy, I admired his aspirations.
But he was gone, wasn't he? Andy was gone, without saying good-bye. Taking a deep breath to calm myself, I smiled. "Sure. Let's do it."
"Okay, then." Bryan clapped me on my shoulder. "Okay."
The small gesture lifted me out of my trough of misery. "Okay." I grinned at him. "Let's go."
I nodded. "Sure. Let's go."
He led us out. "Hey," the Playboy model said, "Take me with you. Please. Give me a chance."
I looked back at Andy's bequest. "Door closed."
"Hey," the model called. "Wait – "
The door closed. Farewell, Playboys. Farewell, Andy. Turning away, I followed Bryan down the quiet hall, looking forward to the portal and the alternate realities it might bring, excited to be stepping into the rest of my life. The men I would meet….
Oo la la.
Causes Michael Seidel Supports
Kiva, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Propublica.org, Doctors Without Borders, GreaterGood.com