Manuel Gonzales' bizarre, fantastical story collection The Miniature Wife is getting rave reviews from the likes of Charles Yu and Hannah Tinti. It was named one of last week's best books by Publisher's Weekly, which also gave it a starred review. And people are comparing Gonzales, executive director of the Austin Bat Cave, to David Foster Wallace.
So we're stoked to be able to present an exclusive excerpt, the story "One-Horned & Wild-Eyed."
One-Horned & Wild-Eyed
By Manuel Gonzales
"A Chinaman sold it to me," Ralph told me as he led me through his garage and into the side yard. I thought about telling him that whoever sold him whatever it was he was going to show me probably wasn't a Chinaman-most likely, considering Houston, some Vietnamese guy or maybe a Filipino-but I figured it didn't matter really, that it would only upset him, make him think I wasn't taking him or what he was going to show me seriously, which, in all honesty, I wasn't. "You're not going to believe this shit," he said. "You're not going to fucking believe it."
Considering all the shit I was never supposed to fucking believe from our past-schemes, fool-proof business ideas, or just the crap he'd bought or found or built-my expectations were pretty low, but I smiled at him encouragingly because we'd been friends so long.
We stepped out of his hot garage and into the even hotter afternoon, humid and suffocating, and we walked into the side yard. When he and Melissa first moved into the house, he set to work on this yard with considerable intent, building a small coop and clearing the brush and weeds that had grown there and setting it up for a half-dozen chicks he bought, telling me he planned to raise chickens. "Fresh eggs, man," he told me, as if that alone was all the explanation anyone would need, but in a matter of days, a pack of wild dogs ran through his fencing and broke through his coop and slaughtered those chicks. A month or so later, he tore everything down and threw up an uneven chainlink fence, which had since rusted and half-fallen over. It wasn't much space, really, a dog run and nothing else, and he'd done little with it since except plant patches of sod there a couple of springs back, which had browned and died. The rest of the ground was made up of weeds or loose packed reddish sand, and I figured he'd left it to the wild, but now, in the middle of it there was a good-sized shed, which he must have only recently built.
"You're right," I told him. "That shed is, um, a pretty nice piece of construction."
He shook his head. "Not the shed, jackass. What's inside it," he said. Then he smiled and looked at the shed and then back at me and said, "You don't want to guess?"
He said, "Give you a hundred guesses and you'll never get it."
"Yeah," I said. "I don't care. Just open the shed. I got to get back home."
"Suit yourself," he said. Then he pretended to fuss over the lock and the door, stalling to build suspense and whatnot, until finally he opened the shed and then with a sweeping wave, he stepped aside to allow me a good look, and for a moment all I could see was a bright white light, ethereal and ghostly and frightening.
Ralph then reached his hand right into that light and I wanted to grab him, jerk him back from it, sure if he dipped any part of himself in there it would be melted right off, but then I heard him grab hold of some jingling contraption and what he pulled out wasn't like anything I'd ever seen and certainly wasn't what I expected to see. It looked like some kind of pearlescent undersized horse or overlarge goat or some bastardization of the two, with maybe something else - moose? sea lion? - thrown in for good measure. It stood just a head or so taller than Ralph, who wasn't too tall to start with, and it was thin and sleek and strong looking, with something rounded and unhorselike about its face. In truth, though, these observations came to me much later. At first, I found I couldn't look right at it, like I was looking right into a flashlight or like I was driving into a rising sun, but judging by what I could see of it, it was an unsettling thing to look at, not ugly but not pretty either.
"What the hell is it?" I asked.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" he said, and then he grabbed it roughly by the top of its head where there was a nearly translucent and wicked looking horn growing there or planted there or something. "It's a god damn unicorn, Mano," he said. "Can you fucking believe it? I bought a god damn unicorn off a god damn Chinaman. And for cheap, too," he said.
I was late getting home. The house was a minor disaster, as was Victor, our boy, who was wandering around the house in just his diaper, something-mac and cheese?, whipped cream?-stuck to his chest. I found Sheila in our bathroom, half-dressed and half-made up.
"Jesus," she said when she saw me. "You're an hour late."
"Sorry," I said, and I picked up Victor, who'd grabbed me by the pants and then held his arms out to be lifted up. "You know Ralph," I said. "It's hard to break away when he gets going," I said. I played with Victor, peek-a-boo mostly, and I watched Sheila finish dressing and then I asked, "You ready for this?"
She stopped fussing in the mirror and turned and smiled and posed, her hands thrown up and out, her hip thrust to the side, more like she was a cheerleader or some Hooters waitress than a real estate agent. "What do you think?" she asked.
She looked lovely and for the first time I could remember, the sight of her made me sad.
"You look great," I said.
"It's my first open house, you know," she said.
"I need more than ‘You look great,'" she said.
"You look so good, Honey, I could take you and throw you on that bed right now."
"Fine," she said, interrupting me before I could finish my thought. "On the bed, okay. But would you buy a house from me?"
I laughed. "I would buy a house from you, and I already have a house."
"You couldn't afford it," she said. "You can't afford the house you already have," she said, but she smiled and kissed me on the cheek. "Next time, try not to spend so much time over at Rafael's," she said.
"He hates it when you call him that," I said.
"It's his name. He should be used to it by now."
"He goes by Ralph."
She shrugged. "Ralph's a boy's name. What about Ralphie? Should I call him Ralphie?" She said this and went back to our room, and I would have had to holler to defend him, to remind her he hadn't gone by Ralphie since we left middle school, and in the end decided it wasn't worth the effort. Then she came out, an inch or two taller in her heels. She took Victor from me and kissed him, and then she kissed me, a long, deep kiss, and then she wiped the lipstick off my lips.
"Ralph's got this new thing," I said, taking Victor back from her.
"I'm sure he does," she said. She found her purse and then her keys.
"This is," I said. "Different."
She was holding Victor again, giving him more kisses. "I shouldn't be too late," she said, "but if he gets hungry, there's food for him in the fridge."
"I mean, really, pretty different," I said.
Then she handed me Victor again and said, "You can tell me about it when I get home. I have to go."
"You won't believe it," I said.
"I'm sure I won't," she said, and then she opened the door and waved and said, "Love you two." And then she was gone, and then Victor, who didn't want her to be gone, started to cry.
I sat Victor on my knee and tried to distract him, tried to console him, but my heart wasn't in it, and it wasn't like crying was bad for him, and so I let him go at it for a little while. After a while, he'll stop, I thought, but he didn't, and then I got tired of the crying, but still had no idea what to do right then to stop it. I lifted him off my knee and held him so that his eyes met my eyes, though his were scrunched and wet and unseeing, and I said, "You want to go see something different?" Then I grabbed a cloth and wiped his chest and then put a shirt on him and some shoes, then grabbed a couple of diapers to throw into the car, and then walked outside only to remember Sheila had taken the car. So I went back inside and grabbed the stroller and twenty minutes and a few more crying jags later, we were back at Ralph's house.
I walked us back around to the side yard and Ralph was there, and as far as I could tell, he hadn't moved, not to go inside, not to go take a piss, nothing. That morning we had stood there looking at his unicorn for a good half hour not really saying much of anything and then he had gone into the garage and then he had come back out again with two lawn chairs and a small cooler full of ice and beer. He was still sitting in his chair and the cooler was there, the lid open, the ice melted, the empty beer cans floating in the warm, dirty water.
He saw me and said, "You think I need to build a fence, like a real fence here?"
The sun was beating down on his high forehead and he was sweaty and red. "I don't know, Ralph," I said.
"I think I need a fence," he said.
I lifted Victor out of the stroller and set him on his unsteady feet and then opened the gate to the fence and nudged Victor into the yard. For the first time, Ralph noticed Victor was with me and this brought him out of whatever state he'd fallen into, and he grabbed Victor, a little too roughly as far as I was concerned, as far as Victor was concerned, too, the suddenness of Ralph's grab, how tightly he held Victor's arm making Victor start crying all over again.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I said.
"Sorry, Mano," he said. "Just. I don't know what she's like around really little ones, you know? I don't want to spook her."
What about spooking my boy, I wanted to say, but instead I just took Victor from him and sat him in my lap and tried again to calm him down, and then he must have seen Ralph's unicorn because all of a sudden he became quiet and still, and all three of us sat there looking at it.
After he first told me it was a unicorn, and after I got over the initial shock of the thing, and when I was still just playing along, I asked him, "Does it have a name?", ignoring for the moment the unreality of the thing he was showing me, or, rather, the unreality of his belief in it.
"Yeah," he said. "The Chinaman told me her name was Fable but that name's for crap if you ask me. So I'm thinking of changing it to Sabre Bitch," and then he laughed, and then, slightly more seriously, he said, "Or maybe just Sabre, you know, cause of the kids."
Then he pulled up a canvas bag, like a bag you might see in a cartoon expecting it to be full of oats or something, and he opened it and started rooting around in it with a scoop. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he needed to feed it soon, and I asked him what you were supposed to feed a thing like this, and he told me fairy dust and I laughed and he said, "That's no joke." Then he opened the bag wide and showed me the fine, phosphorescent powder inside it. "The Chinaman threw it in as part of the package."
"Fairy dust," I said, my skepticism not even thinly veiled. "It looks like play sand like you can buy at Wal-Mart." Then I spat on the ground and said, "Fairy dust", again.
Ralph laughed a nervous, unfamiliar laugh. "That's what I thought, too, so I told him, No thanks," Ralph said. "But then he grabbed my arm, grabbed me by the wrist, and he shook his head real serious, and I asked, What is it? And I don't know, he could've been lying, but. You know what he said?" I shook my head and rolled my eyes. "I shit you not, he told me it was ground up fairies and that I had to feed the unicorn half a cup of this stuff four times a day." He laughed that nervous laugh again. I scoffed. "That's what he told me, Mano. And I believe him."
I looked inside the bag again, trying to picture that fine powder as something other than pink and blue play sand. "How do you feed it this crap, anyway?" I asked.
"You mix it," he said. "With water or whiskey or beer, but that shit will get expensive, so I figure water will do."
That was this morning, and something in the way he sat there in his chair gazing at the unicorn made me think something subtle had changed, and when I asked him how Sabre Bitch was doing, he snapped at me. "Watch your language," he said, and I said, "Sorry, I didn't mean to," and then I stopped, and then I said, "Sure thing, Ralph, won't happen again," feeling contrite and like I needed to apologize some more, though I couldn't have said why.
I dipped my hand into the cooler and pulled out an empty can and crushed it and then said, "Jesus, man, it's not even one."
He looked at me and then at what was in my hand and then he said, "Not me. For her. She got hungry so I mixed her up something to eat on."
"What happened to water?"
"She didn't like it with water, so I mixed some of the beer in there, too."
And then we didn't say much else to each other and we sat there looking at his unicorn until Melissa came home and started hollering at Ralph because he had apparently forgotten to pick the kids up from her mother's, and then, distractedly, he said, "Hey, man, I have to go, okay? I'll see you later," and then he stood up and he looked down at me and Victor, who was still quiet in my lap, who had been there so quiet and so still for so long that in retrospect I should have been worried about him, about what might have come over him, and Ralph waited until, grudgingly, I stood up, too, and then placed Victor back in his stroller, and he stood there, Ralph did, watching us until we were out of sight and almost half way home.
"It's not real," Sheila said as she stood pressed up to the kitchen counter. She was cutting up a cucumber, cutting one slice at a time and then sprinkling that slice with salt, and then eating it. Watching her I felt impatient, like I should grab the knife and cut the whole cucumber and put it all on a plate and set her down somewhere so she could give my story the attention it deserved.
"I think it is," I said.
"It's a goat," she said. "One of those poor little goats with its horns twisted together."
"It's real," I said.
"It can't be," she said.
"Sheila," I said.
"Meme," she said. She called me Meme when she didn't know what else to say to me, when she couldn't refute the logic of my argument because there wasn't any, when she wondered, not for the first or last time, I'm sure, who this man was she married.
"I think you should see it," I said.
"Fine," she said. "We're going there Monday for dinner. I can see it then."
I had already grabbed my shoes and socks and her shoes and Victor's shoes, and I was looking for Victor. "You don't want to go now?" I asked.
She sighed and moved from the kitchen counter and sat heavily on the couch. "I'm tired, honey."
There was something shaky in her voice by this point, which I chose to ingore. "Oh. Okay," I said. Then I said, "Well, since you're back, you mind staying with Victor while I go?"
She took one of the pillows off the couch and threw it at me, not at all playfully, and said, "Jesus Christ, Meme, I just got home and you haven't even once asked me how the open house went and all you've done since I got here is talk about Ralph's stupid goat."
"It's not a goat," I said before I could think better of it.
"Fuck," she cried, and picked up another pillow, but kept it squeezed tight against her chest. "Fine," she said. "Go, I don't care. Go to Rafael's and look at his fucking goat," she said.
I knew that if I left to go see that animal that the trouble I would come back to would be far greater than any trouble I'd come home to before in the four years we'd been married, that the trouble would involve an anger I couldn't rightly imagine, a different kind of anger, I could tell, which had already begun to brew inside her, and still, for a moment, for the smallest of moments, I considered going anyway.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I got so caught up, is all. I'm sorry." Then I said, "How did the open house go?"
But she didn't give in that easily and so I opened up a beer for her and poured it into a glass like she liked it and then sat next to her on the couch and picked up one of her feet and began to give her a clumsy massage and then asked her again how it had gone. And then she told me that it went awful and then she started crying and then Victor toddled into the room and then I sat down on the couch next to her and picked Victor up so he wouldn't bother his mother and then she took him and hugged him and I made a joke, I don't remember it now, but she laughed. Then Victor made a sound, one of his weird little squeaks, and this made her laugh, too, and then we were fine, or close to it. Close enough that she could tell me about the open house, and I could tell her it wasn't as bad as she thought it was-though, maybe it was, and maybe it was worse than that, even-and then we talked about other things, and then it was time for dinner and I took us all out for hamburgers, and when we came back, I gave Victor a bath and read him his stories and put him to bed so Sheila could rest. And when I came out of his room, I found her in the living room wearing this pair of old, faded maroon workout shorts that, as dumb as it sounds, never failed to rile me up when she was wearing them, and she reached out her hand to me and I grabbed it thinking she wanted me to help her off the couch, but instead she pulled me down onto it, and we had a nice little romp there, and then we watched some TV, and then we went to bed where we had a second go at it, and finally she fell asleep, and as she slept, I crept out of the house and hoofed it over to Ralph's place.
When I got there I found Ralph sitting in his chair dressed in his robe, and by the drape of it and by a flap of it that hung open at the top of his thigh, I could tell he wasn't wearing anything underneath. Worried I might have intruded on some private and disturbing moment, I stopped and was about to turn back around but then saw the heavy rise and fall of his chest and realized he had fallen asleep. I was quiet then as I opened the gate and took my seat next to him, gently flipping the robe back in place to cover his nethers. The unicorn hardly noticed me or my quiet administrations. As far as I could tell from watching it, the unicorn hardly noticed anyone. It was generally quite still, or not still, not exactly still. It seemed to have a way of standing still that made it look like it was in constant motion, or as if it existed in another place at the same moment it existed in our place, a shimmering, jittery, vibrating kind of stillness.
I didn't know how long I had been sitting there until Ralph stirred in his chair, coughed or sneezed or groaned, I don't remember, and this broke my concentration, and I looked up from watching the unicorn, took notice of the early morning light cresting over the horizon, and then, checking my watch, realized it was nearly seven in the morning, and that surely, by now, Sheila was awake and aware of my absence.
I smoothed things over by coming home with coffee and breakfast and acting like I woke up earlier than normal, a fire in my belly, full of energy and a need to get outside and greet this day, and by the looks of the expression she threw me, Sheila didn't buy one word of it, but she didn't say anything about it, either, and the morning proceeded. Just before lunch, Ralph called to tell me that dinner was a no go, and he gave some excuse about Melissa and a sensitive stomach, but I could tell by the sound of him it was something else, which I didn't push to find out about. I called Sheila's office and left her the message, and then I grabbed Victor and his things, and then I walked him over to my mom's house and left him with her, and about five minutes after that, I showed up unannounced at Ralph's house.
I was hoping at worst to find him sitting outside the shed looking at the unicorn, and, at best, that no one would be home at all, or that Melissa would have him holed up inside so they could finish their fight or whatever had changed their plans, and that way I could sit there all by myself. Instead, I found Melissa sitting in one of the lawn chairs, a People magazine spread out across her thighs, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She heard me coming and saw me before I could turn around and sneak back home.
"Hi there," she said.
"Hey," I said. "Ralph around?"
She lowered her sunglasses and looked at me over their rim. "No," she said, dragging out the ‘o'. "Was he expecting you?"
"I guess not," I said. "I was around, and, you know," I began to explain, trailing off as she moved a stack of magazines out of the second lawn chair. Then I said, "Where is he?"
She looked at me again and smiled a secretive, mean-spirited kind of smile and asked, "Don't you know?" Then she said, "Mr. Industrious got himself a job."
"You mean work?" I asked.
"A job," she said. And for a moment that hung in the air between us. For as long as I had known him, Ralph had only ever had one job, which he'd quit after less than a year. He'd found work, he'd made money, just enough, enough to get by, and when he needed more, he found more work and made more money. I didn't know what he did. He fixed roofs, sometimes, and he sold products sometimes, and he made phone calls of a kind or other from his home, sometimes. He must have done other things, too, because sometimes he would be gone for a week, for two weeks, for a month, and then he'd be home again, flush with cash, which would last him another week, a week and a half at most. For a time, I remember, he was buying cars and motorcycles around town and driving them up to Massachusetts and New York and Chicago, where he'd try to sell them, and then, once he was there, he would wait around until he could find someone who needed a car or a truck driven back down to Texas. It was a strange and not altogether enviable life that he'd cobbled together, but through this he'd managed to avoid finding full-time work since those months right out of high school he spent working as a stockboy at the Fiesta.
The morning was quiet between us as we both tried to operate under this new set of circumstances, and then the unicorn made a sound. Not a whinny, exactly, and not like it was saying something, exactly, not like it was trying to speak to us, but not like it wasn't, either. Saying something or trying to say something, maybe, something melodic and interesting and worth paying attention to. Melissa opened her magazine back up and then closed it again and looked up at the unicorn and then slapped at a mosquito that had landed on her leg.
"Growing up," she said, "I was dolphins."
"Dolphins?" I asked.
"My sister, she was unicorns. Christ. Unicorns everything. Unicorn stickers, unicorn posters, unicorn folders and bookcovers and a unicorn backpack. Unicorn shirts, and this unicorn figurine she kept with her even after high school. Every god damn thing in her room, covered with unicorns." She took a drag off her cigarette. "Hell, I should get her out here to see this. That'll screw her over."
From what Ralph had told me, Melissa and her sister didn't get on too well. She was younger and not prettier than Melissa, but pretty in a way, this according to Ralph, that made everyone act like she was prettier than Melissa, which was a serious blow to Melissa's ego and had been eating at her for some long time now. Then a year ago she moved up to Wisconsin and found work on television broadcasting for a local news station, which wasn't why there was bad blood between them, but the move and her success had only seemed to make the bad blood worse.
"How would that screw her over if she likes unicorns?" I asked.
She laughed and said, "This? This thing is not a unicorn. I mean, fuck, maybe it is, with that horn, and it looks kind of like a horse, I guess, and it does something, anyway," she said. "It's done something to Ralph, at least," she said. She turned and looked at me over her sunglasses again. "To you, too." She sighed. "But my sister, if I convinced my sister that this was what a unicorn really was, she'd hate it." She took one last drag off her cigarette and then stubbed it out and then pulled out another one and lit it, and then she said, "God she'd hate it." Then she said, "Course, she wouldn't believe it. Nothing I could say or do would make her believe it, so I guess it wouldn't matter."
"Sheila doesn't believe it," I said. "Or maybe she does. I don't know." Then I said, "What about you? Do you believe it?"
"It's because of that thing, you know," she said, ignoring my question, waving her cigarette at the unicorn. "The job." She slapped at her leg again. "He didn't even tell me he got a job," she said. "I woke up and it was still dark out and I hear him rustling around the room, and I find the light and turn it on, and there he is, his hair smoothed back, and his face shaved clean, and he's wearing pants and a shirt and a tie." Then she said, "I don't even know where it is he's working."
I didn't know what to say to any of this or that I should say anything, so I kept my mouth shut and let her speak her mind as long as she wanted, so long as she didn't decide it was too hot outside or that she was tired of sitting out there with the unicorn because I had this feeling that if she left, she'd make me leave, too.
"And you know," she said, "two days ago I would've given anything to get him out of this chair and into the house, to help me with the kids, to do any god damn thing that wasn't to do with this unicorn. And now this. I know what he wants to do," she said. "Build a fence, maybe buy the lot next to us, make it into a pasture or some shit." She slapped her leg again and I started to get the feeling that when she did that she was, in her mind anyway, slapping the unicorn, or maybe she was slapping Ralph. "Six years, I've been with this man for six years, and I never told him he had to get a job, I never pushed him, though I sure as hell wouldn't have minded. Six years, I've done without and I've held on, because I figure, give him space, let him find his own way, and then, boy, things will turn around. He's a man of special talents, I thought, and he can't be locked into a job that doesn't let him use those talents, that doesn't appreciate them." Then she said, "Ha." Then she said, "Ha, ha, jokes on me." She looked at me and smiled and said, "Less than a week with this thing and he's already found a job to take care of it."
She looked, then, back at that creature standing in her side yard and she stared at it with a trying-to-move-it-with-her-mind kind of intensity, and this went on for an uncomfortably long time, and I wondered if she was trying to move it with her mind, or wish it out of existence, or look into its heart to see if she could figure out what it was about this animal that had inspired in her layabout husband the sudden urge to clean up and work and provide. Then she shook her head at it, giving up on whatever she was trying to do. It pawed its hooves against the ground and shook its mane and dipped its horn. Then she took a long drag off her cigarette and, coughing as she exhaled, she said to me, "Don't you worry, though. One of these days, while Ralph's at work, I aim to make a pair of pants out of that animal." She winked and took another drag, a shorter one. "Maybe a jacket, too." Then she was quiet, smoking her cigarette, and it was right about then, I think, that I got the notion that I should steal this creature from them.
My mom called, then, and told me I had to come pick up Victor or have Sheila come get him because she had to get to a doctor's appointment. She didn't seem too generous about the situation, but really she'd already called a few times, and since I'd blithely ignored these calls, she had every right to her indignation. There was a moment, just after I hung up the phone, when I considered calling Sheila and feeding her some story, asking her to swing by and pick up Victor, but I didn't, only because Melissa was sitting right there, listening intently to what I said, and the idea of letting her overhear me lie so easily to my wife made me feel guilty and at the same time thrilled in a way that made me uncomfortable.
Reluctantly, I left.
By the time I got to my mom's again, she was carrying Victor out to her car and when she saw me, she looked ready to start hollering at me, but she just handed me, without word or fanfare, my son, and then she gave me a cursory peck on my cheek before loading herself into her car and driving off without so much as an offer to give us a ride.
When I got home, the car was in the driveway and I braced myself for a hellish fight. I figured she would tear into me about lying to my mother and about leaving Victor with her to begin with and then about forgetting about him, and that this would lead to some shouting, some storming around, some random household objects thrown about, most of them aimed at my head, my chest, and as I stood there on the front sidewalk, I wondered what made us fight like some 1970s sitcom couple, and then I wondered if it was worth going inside at all, if maybe Victor and me, we could keep walking, and maybe I could take him to a bar and set him up with some pretzels and let him look at one of those Trivial Pursuit video games and then take in a couple of beers myself, though I couldn't imagine further than finishing that second beer, couldn't imagine what would happen after that. I shrugged my shoulders, bent down and pulled Victor out of his stroller, was struck briefly by the image of me walking into the house with Victor held up in front of me, like a shield, and then I walked inside with him clinging to my side.
She was there looking exasperated and wild and disheveled and, honestly, pretty sexy, though I'm sure that last part wasn't intentional, was more to do with the weird, unsettling pleasure I took from working myself into trouble with her. I felt my body tense, waiting for that first wave, but all she did was take Victor from me and then take him into our bedroom and then close the door behind her. At first, I figured I'd performed some sort of voodoo, or maybe Victor had, but then I thought about Sheila in our bedroom, in the dark, holding that boy tightly, and I pictured everything that normally would've come out of her, and how, instead, it was building up inside of her, and I started to imagine what might come next. This upset me enough that I had little choice but to sneak off into the kitchen where I grabbed a sixpack of beer and an unopened bag of chips, which I took with me into the backyard and proceeded to finish, the chips crushed one fistful after another into my mouth.
Five beers and an empty bag of chips later, I felt sick and sweaty and overcome with guilt, which I blamed on the chips.
Back inside, the house was still and quiet and the bedroom door was still closed. I considered risking opening the door, but thought better of it. This was uncharted territory for me, and something about the way this had played out, something about our situation, or my own distractions, made this new development feel dire and irrevocable and exhausting. I sensed something large on the horizon, large and charging towards us, and this feeling that I should flee urged me out of the house and into the car and kept me driving until long after night had settled over Houston, and then farther still, until the engine stopped dead as I was pulling off the highway, leaving me only enough momentum to coast to a stop on the shoulder.
When we were kids in high school, Ralph and I bonded over the fact that we thought we were outcasts, even if we weren't, and that we lived a reckless life, when in fact we were safely ensconced in our families' suburban homes. We snuck out of the house not to drink or smoke or fuck, but to drive around back roads and listen to music and to pretend to race other cars in the lanes next to us whose drivers were oblivious to whatever games we were playing, which made it easy for us to win every time off the starting line. We would visit cemeteries and we would tromp through creeks and what passed for woods. We perceived life and our movement through it as if we were still eleven or twelve and not sixteen or seventeen, but we reveled in this as if we had made a conscious decision to do this and hadn't been somehow left behind.
One time we found ourselves moving slowly across an unexpected clearing, a patch of dirt and flattened grass and weeds we'd not come across before, which turned out to be a private landing strip. We found this out when a small airplane, a Cessna, maybe, or a Super-Cub, neither of us knew though we speculated for hours on it afterwards, began its descent nearly on top of us, or so it seemed at the time, when in truth the plane was probably half a mile away, and no real danger to us, though we ran screaming and hollering across that flat expanse as fast as we could and holding hands as if this would protect us from being inevitably caught up in the plane's propeller. When we cleared the landing strip, we fell and laughed and told each other how awesome we were, and afterwards, for a week or two weeks, we retold that story, embellishing it to ridiculous and impractical heights.
We did things, back then, is the point I'm trying to make. Not huge things, not important things, not life-changers, nothing so serious as that, but still. We had an impression of ourselves, of who we were right or wrong, and we acted out our lives accordingly, and as I sat in my car I wondered when we had come to some reckoning of ourselves, some reappraisal of our personal narrative, when we had stopped thinking of ourselves as guys who did exciting, adventurous, childish things and then through the basic laws of cause and effect stopped doing those things, or, rather, when I stopped doing those things, when I stopped believing in that story we told about ourselves, because, miserable or not, married to Melissa or not, Ralph was still doing things. Things, for the most part, I wouldn't do. Things I had no interest in doing, but things, nonetheless, and he had eked out a life for himself that, though just a shadow of the lives we had imagined for ourselves, was at least closer to those lives than anything I had made for myself, and that had now brought him to a Chinaman with a unicorn to sell for cheap.
Without thinking or looking, I threw my car door open and pulled myself out of the driver's seat only to be honked at as another exiting car swerved around me. Then I slammed the car door, and then I opened it and slammed it again. Then I walked down the exit ramp and across the access road and then I looked around to see where I was, which was less than an hour's walk from Ralph's house.
Ralph was there as he had been the night before, asleep and barely covered by his bathrobe. The unicorn turned to glance at me but regarded me only a second before it turned its gaze back inward, or so I assumed, back to whatever it was unicorns thought of when trying to ignore their surroundings, the fact that they were trapped in a shed in a suburban hell-hole outside of Houston.
Quietly, I opened the gate and I checked Ralph to make sure he was fully asleep. A bruise had begun to purple on his lips, which were beginning to swell, and one of his eyes looked like it would be seriously blackened by morning, and I wondered at what kind of marital strife had caused this, though I was pretty certain it had something to do with the unicorn. Then I checked the house to see if any windows were lit up and, satisfied that no one was awake and spying on me, I quietly, slowly, gently moved close to her, held my hand out to her, not sure if that's what you were supposed to do, but figured it couldn't hurt. She ignored my upturned palm, and feeling hesitant but desperate to touch her, I reached my fingers out to her pearlescent skin, to run my finger down the length of her throat and neck, which looked cool to the touch, and soft.
I don't know what I was expecting to happen when I touched her. An electric shock, maybe, or to feel an incredible warmth or stunning coldness, or to be flooded with memories, of the girls I'd loved, of their perfect faces, their soft lips, of my son's birth, of my wife's long, bony fingers, of the first time I'd had sex, or images of the future, my own or the world's. But nothing happened. Nothing, that is, so drastic or dramatic as any of that. I raised my hand to her head and touched her lightly and then drew back, in anticipation of something, but then gently ran my fingers in a soft line down the length of her neck, the feel of which sent a shiver through me, and she shook her mane, and she made a sound or I made a sound, but whoever made the sound, it was loud enough to wake Ralph, or maybe he had been awake that whole time, awake and standing behind me waiting for the perfect moment to interject, to say: "What have we got here, Mano."
It was a strange and violent fight that followed. Strange because in hindsight, it's possible Ralph had had no intentions to fight when he saw me standing there, and strange, too, because we weren't, neither of us, much for fighting. Ralph was short and overweight and strong but clumsy and I had a suspicion he needed glasses but wouldn't ever own up to it, a suspicion only cemented by how wildly he swung at me, how long it took for him to catch sight of me out of the corner of his eye whenever I moved to the left or the right of him. He said, "What have we got here, Mano," and I wasted no time, swinging wildly around even before he hit the M of Mano. I hit him hard on the neck, though I'd been aiming for his face. This threw him off a bit and made him start coughing, made him grab his neck with both hands, and for a moment, I stopped, not a little upset to see him there in pain like that because of me. He took this opportunity to throw himself into me and me into the corner of the shed, hard, so that I felt the pain of that corner digging into my back all the way down to my feet. Then we proceeded to punch and kick at each other, to grapple and push, grunting and swearing, and at least once, I landed a lucky punch right on his swelling lips, splitting the top lip open so that now we had some blood in the mix.
When I had imagined this fight between Ralph and me, and I had imagined it a number of times before, though I had never tried to imagine the circumstances that led to it, in no time it was me who got the upperhand of it, straddling a prone and defeated Ralph. I was the more athletic, the more cunning, I had always assumed, and maybe that's true, but at the moment, it didn't matter, and soon enough I found myself flat on my back, Ralph pressing down on me, his red, swollen, sweaty face hanging heavily over my own. Then he spit on me, and then he said, "What the hell, Mano?" Then he spit again, but this time into the dirt. Then he said, "Jesus Christ, what the hell?" And then for a moment I felt like a fool and an idiot and an asshole. Then I heard a hoof paw in the dirt and I tilted my head back so that I could see the unicorn, upside down and behind us, and then I tilted my head forward again and saw Ralph, his lip bleeding still, his mouth moving, though I didn't hear or understand what he was saying, and then I tilted my head further forward and saw that his bathrobe had twisted open so that, except for the corduroy belt still tied around his belly, he was bare and vulnerable from his chest on down, and seizing my opportunity, I jerked my knee up into that softest part of him with as much force as I could muster, which made him pitch forward and land heavily on my face before I could roll him off of me. Then I stood and kicked him once more for good measure, hard enough to stop him swearing and hollering for a moment at least.
I took a moment to catch my breath and then saw that a light had come on in one of the upstairs windows, and then I thought I saw the silhouette of Melissa move away from the lit window, and then other lights started to come on in the house, and so as quickly as I could, I grabbed at the harness Ralph had tucked over the unicorn's head, and I pulled, firm but gentle, not sure what I would do if the unicorn decided not to go with me. It didn't take any coaxing at all, though, and I had her out of the shed, and then I kicked open the gate, and then pulled her into the alley, which dead-ended, and then led her around the side of Ralph's house and into the front yard. Then as soon as we'd cleared Ralph's property and were moving into the street, that unicorn stopped and abruptly and smoothly tossed her head and then with a subtle flick put a gash in my chest the length of my arm and then kicked my legs out from under me, and the last I saw of her she was trotting down the street, spearing that horn through every mailbox she saw, and I watched that unicorn lower her head and spear through first one mailbox and then another and then another and before long, I lost sight of her, but I could hear her still, her hooves against the pavement, her horn tearing through the aluminum boxes, the crash of them hitting the street. Then I laid my head back against the street and I closed my eyes and I listened for as long as I could, and I waited. I waited for something else, anything else to happen.