That morning Jackson woke with an erection like an iron bar.He lay in bed with his eyes closed feeling it throb between his legs.He imagined Céline returning from work, unbuttoning her blouse and pulling the red regulation sash from around her waist with a practiced flick.She’d step down out of her shoes, unclip her metal nametag and toss it onto the kitchen table where it would land with a clatter. He could see her fingers sliding the zip down the side of her skirt, the fabric falling to the floor with that sweet familiar swish and then there she’d be, thin legs and her hands reaching up behind her, leaning forward, unfastening her bra the way she did.

Then there she’d be just for him and my God he could have right there right then.

But he let go, opened his eyes, reached for the curtain and snapped it open.Nothing but a lovely rectangle of blue.

In the bathroom he stared at the wall and waited for his body to give in to his body, for the steady splash of water on water.He thought of what George had told him – about how women love to hear a man piss loud.Never try to hide it.Leave the door open if you can.The louder the better.A woman hears you piss like a horse she’ll know you’re a man.If you piss strong you fuck strong, is what George said.

He missed George and all that.He missed the house and its rituals.He thought of standing surrounded and protected by his brothers in the falling snow, their faces turned upwards, chests warm with Jameson, singing into the night.O come all ye faithful, they sang to the silhouettes in the orange-lighted windows.Joyful and triumphant, they sang to Lizzie Cannon on the third floor smiling, he was sure, in her fine red sweater.O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, they sang to Fran Fuerst and Kiki Dietz who sat on the front steps arm in arm tearful and aglow.O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord, they sang to sleepy Kelly Wanless, chapter president, who looked down upon them wrapped in a lush white robe like Benedict from the balcony of St. Peter’s.O sing choirs of angels, they sang, sing in exultation, they sang and when George put his mouth to Jackson’s ear and said, “Brother, I want to live inside that woman’s cunt.” Jackson laughed and believed then that he’d never been happier in his life.

No, but those nights, and that life was eleven months and a world away.Here is where I am, he said to himself.Here.I am here.And here is Céline. He knew whatever was to come in the long life unfurling before him would be full full full. Now.Whatever it is.Now, he thought pissing as hard as he could.

“Today,” he said aloud to himself as he shook and sent the last drops into the bowl. “Today.”Jackson and Céline had been living here for nearly a year now and it was time, he’d decided again, that he was going to get his shit together, get something going for himself.For himself and for Céline.Time to pull his weight.Be an adult.Today: the beginning of Jackson’s new life.

Push-ups – four sets of twenty. Pull-ups – four sets of ten.No cheating on the last two.Sit-ups – four sets of fifty; curls (his father’s rusting dumbbells) – four sets of forty. Left right. Left right.Keep it slow.Keep it tight.

He dumped some coffee into the machine, flipped it on, and poured himself a bowl of Raisin Bran.He took the milk from the fridge.He waited and listened to the sputtering pump.When the coffee was ready he sat down to the table and spilled milk over his cereal and after he was finished did not leave his dishes in the sink.He washed and dried and put them away.He poured a third cup of coffee, emptied the filter, and then washed the damn pot too.

Then he unlocked the glass door, slid it open, stepped out onto the balcony and into the cool air.Across the sand and towards the ocean the fog was dirty cotton hanging over the world.Thick June gloom floating low.But higher was the blue sky to which he’d awakened.The fog would burn away.Anyone could see that.

He loved that seaweed smell and the film of damp salt on the glass every morning.Now after eleven months he was nearly past the idiotic maritime street names.Anchorage, Buccaneer, Catamaran, Driftwood.Driftwood was theirs.Jackson looked out at the back of the lifeguard tower, at the letters in heavy black stencil.

Céline thought it was charming.Kitschy.A sweet, childish American affectation – unabashed creation of history out of nothing.

“At least we don’t live on Privateer,” she’d said to him when they first moved in.“Or Union Jack.Or Yawl.What is a Yawl?”

Jackson had read the definition to her from bed while she put on her uniform.

“A yawl is a two-masted fore-and-aft-rigged sailboat with the mizzenmast stepped far aft so that the mizzen boom overhangs the stern.”

Céline had laughed while Jackson watched wishing he could take her away somewhere and keep her there.He reached out and she came and fell into bed and he pulled her back beneath the blankets.He held onto her with both arms and felt that same old panic.

Jackson went down to the sand. Already the fog had begun to burn off and lift away.He left his towel at the lifeguard station and started running. The heavy damp air gave way to cool breeze.He felt light and quick.While he didn’t have a plan quite yet he felt something brewing, something rising inside him like lust but bigger and more important.He ran hard through the soft sand all the way to the jetty.He climbed up the rocks, onto the pavement and out past the fishermen towards the end.He ran harder and imagined diving out, tearing through the green water and swimming head down for the horizon.

When he got back his towel was gone.He stood there sweating.He scanned the beach.For what?A thief running across the sand, green terrycloth in his fist?What would he do?It was his fault for being careless.The towel was gone.Vanished.It was a fact.There was nothing to be done.

The beach was empty and the lifeguard tower shuttered.There was still a point of cold in the air.The plan was to swim and, towel or no, he wasn’t going to stop before he’d started.This is what happens in life.There are obstacles.Deviations.Bumps.He looked out at the ocean and counted backwards.He’d keep his shoes on.There was no way he’d leave them with a thief out there somewhere in the fog.Ten.Nine.Eight.Seven.Six.At five he knew he wouldn’t go on zero but kept counting down.And this seemed precisely his problem: the counting towards something and the simultaneous knowing that it was only an exercise in procrastination.

“Zero,” he said aloud and stood there.

He was no longer hot.The sweat had dried on his skin.He was furious now.“God damn it,” he said and sprinted full on at the bubbling line of white surf.He hit the water and felt the cold heaviness take his legs.He flung himself into a wave turning from runner to swimmer, immediately relieved by the quick absence of weight, the speed and completeness of the transformation.He swam head down, then twisted over and floated on his back, rising and falling, looking up at the sky, watching the jets glide away from LAX like clay pigeons launched into the air one after the other.

The callback wasn’t until three but his agent insisted he get waxed.

“You have to be willing to devote yourself to your work,” she said.“This is part of it.I’m just telling you.You have to make a decision.Either you’re serious or you’re not.You can write it off.Save your receipts.”

She gave him an address in the Marina.“Mention me,” she told him.“It’ll get you a discount.”

He pulled into the parking lot of a pocket mall off Maxella.He found a space in front and peered up through his windshield at the sign.La Tannerie.Céline would have laughed, would have put it on a postcard home.He thought of her walking up the aisle, pushing a cart, handing out trays of microwaved chicken.But that wasn’t right.She was in first class, pouring complimentary champagne, offering handsome men in suits more water, leaning over one to dangle delicately before another a hot towel from the teeth of her silver tongs.

He pushed through the tinted glass doors of the salon and stepped into a small waiting room with a sign above one of the couches that read, in green art nouveau lettering, Le Waiting Room.He took a mint from le bon bon bowl.

A door swung open.A young woman smiled and took him in.

She began by spreading warm wax over his right shoulder.Then she covered it with a piece of cloth, smoothing and smoothing and smoothing.

“Ready?”

He was ready.

She jerked hard.He flinched.His eyes watered.

She spread the warm wax, then the cloth, the jerk, the blaze of pain.She worked her way from right to left and back again.Shoulder to shoulder and then across his chest.Neither of them spoke.With each rip she made a brief noise, a quick expulsion of breath and he grunted in return as she tore the hair from his body.

Céline.He imagined her on the rest cot, gazing up at the plastic ceiling, the curtains drawn around her, the cold dry air, the synthetic blanket.He saw her turn her head and look out the window across the wide wing into the dark.

Céline speeding through the night.

Jackson on the table staring into the fluorescent lights.

When it was finished, the woman began to massage warm oil into his skin, gliding her slender fingers over his shoulders, around the curves of his chest.Jackson remembered Cèline propped up against their headboard, holding him in her arms, his back against her naked breasts, her right arm slung around his chest as if she were saving him from drowning, swimming him to safety, and her left hand around his cock, her soft hair falling over his shoulders, and Cèline whispering to him, oui, mon amour, oui vas-y, vas-y.And he came all over himself and fell asleep in her arms to the sound of her breath in his ear.

“Ok,” the woman nodded.“That’s it.Go check yourself out, dude.”

Once she’d left the room, Jackson stood in front of the mirror.There was nothing left.Not a hair.He looked at the clean pink plane of his chest.It was as if he were looking at another man’s body.When he pulled his shirt on he could feel every thread, every stitch sliding against his humming skin.

Instead of taking the Ten, Jackson took Venice.He had the time and wanted to be down on the street where there would be things to see.He liked stopping at the lights and watching as pedestrians crossed in front of the cars.He liked seeing what the people working the medians were selling.There were bags of oranges and lemons. Pistachios and roses.

Jackson hung his arm out the window.He could feel the heat rising up off the asphalt.He thought about the audition.He would be calm and focused.He would find his center.No matter how simple the scene, he would be absolutely certain of his intention.He would know this character.Know if his father had loved him, if his mother had been a drunk.Everything else must fall away.This is it.Get this and everything falls into place.Otherwise, he thought, otherwise he didn’t know what he would do.

There were nine of them.Each had dark hair like Jackson and like him they were tall and thin and strong.Squarejawed and smoothskinned, they gazed down transfixed by their telephones, or paced with their pages, whispering their lines, playing with inflection.

Jackson touched his chest and whispered, “Ice Cold keeps me fresh.Ice cold keeps me cool.Ice cold keeps me fresh.Ice cold keeps me cool.”

When they called him in there were two women sitting behind a table.The one with rimless glasses spoke first.

“Ok, Jackson,” she said as if they’d known each other for years.“This’ll be fast.We know we like your look ok, so what we want now is attitude.Presence.Acting.Ok?We’re looking for confident.The Ice Cold man is natural, masculine; he’s at ease in his body.You take care of yourself without being a pussy, ok?You’re a man who knows he’s a man.”

He nodded and stretched his neck from side to side. Think of Céline.

“Ok,” the other one said.She had her legs pulled up onto the chair and held them in her arms.“You’ll slate your name to the camera and then step to the mark as if you’re getting out of the shower.You grab a towel, you’re still tired, it’s early in the morning and then bang psst psst with the Ice Cold and you’re wide awake.Got it?”

“Ok,” he said.

“When you’re ready.”

He looked into the lens, “Jackson Paulson.”

He turned, stepped to the mark and stumbled, saying, “Cold keeps me cold” instead of “cold keeps me cool.”

Get your shit together, he thought.This is the rest of your life.In this moment.

“Let’s try it again.More confidence.Last time.Let’s do it again and no shirt.”

This time he stepped out of the shower and right into that bathroom.He could feel the cotton bathmat beneath his feet, the warm, damp air.He flipped the can from left hand to right.He raised his arm high.Two blasts of liquid man.Ice cold.Keeps.Me.Cool.

“Well that was just fantastic,” the one with the glasses said.

“Oh just really exactly what we’re after,” the other one said, releasing her knees and leaning forward.“I mean you’re it.That’s it.You’ve got a great body, great look. Perfect.Small note though?If you get this, and I think you will, you’ll need to wax the pits too, ok?”

“Sure.Whatever you need.”

It wasn’t guaranteed of course but he walked out of there knowing.And, sure, it wasn’t anything serious, but it would be money.A lot of money.Six months?A year’s rent?Longer?This was the beginning of taking things seriously, the beginning of everything.This day.It could run for years; he’d become the Ice Cold guy.People would notice him.Everything would begin today.Just as he’d planned it.You just have to make a fucking decision, he thought.And then everything changes.This living in the middle, this not deciding, it’s for cowards.And I am no longer a coward.He would from now on participate in his life.This is where I live.This is what I do.I am a peaceful warrior, he thought to himself.I have a terminal illness – he tried to remember where he’d heard that – and this illness is called birth.Find your inner warrior.You must be happy now.You must live now.

He called Céline and left a message.He’d have dinner ready for her.“Don’t eat,” he said.He’d take care of everything.“Just get home safe, Céline.Just get home safe.”

And he did take care of everything.He cleaned the apartment and set the table.He washed the sheets and made the bed.He walked to the corner and bought yellow calla lilies.He brought them home, sliced off the stem ends with a steak knife and put them in water.He sat on the balcony and watched the sun fall into the ocean.He took a shower and put lotion on his stone smooth chest.He took his time.He prepared dinner.And when everything was ready and everything was clean, Jackson put on a good shirt and sat in the chair by the window and he waited.

Then the door opened and Céline was home.There she was, unbuttoning her blouse, pulling the red sash from around her waist, stepping from her regulation heels, sliding the zip down the side of her skirt, the fabric falling to the floor with that sweet familiar swish and then there she was her hands reaching up behind her, her breasts coming free and she was smiling, smiling in the clean white bed, falling beneath the covers and they were pulling at each other, rushing forward and all the time he was trying to get a look at her eyes, to see if it would all be ok, this final piece, this last bit.And when he saw that it was, that flashing brightness, he slid into her as deep as he could and held on tight and buried his face in her neck and there was nothing he couldn’t do.

After dinner.After the wine.After he’d washed the dishes and she’d taken a shower.After they’d locked the door and turned out the lights.After they’d made love again.After she’d teased him about his hairless chest.After she’d kissed him for the hope of becoming the Ice Cold Man.After they turned off the alarm clock and closed the curtains, and after they’d fallen asleep in the dark, her narrow back pressed warm against him, hours after all of this, there was a noise at the door.

“Jackson,” she whispered.“Wake up.”

He was deep asleep but when she said his name the second time he was awake.

“The door,” she said.“Listen.”

He heard the noise but, at first, pretended not to.“I don’t hear anything.”

“Jackson,” she said again, this time a note of irritation in her voice.“Do you hear?”

“Yes,” he said sitting up.“Yes.”

“What is it?” Céline asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

The noise became more insistent.

“Jackson,” Céline whispered.“Jackson.”

He got out of bed and stood naked in the dark room listening. He found his boxers on the floor and pulled them on.

“Stay here,” he said and walked into the living room.He looked at the door.Here the noise was pronounced, unmuted by their bedroom wall.He could see the doorknob moving slightly in time with the click and scrape.

He would have to do something.In a moment Céline would enter the room and say that exact thing:“Jackson, do something.”

But what to do?Call the police?Call out?Jerk the door open and take what comes?This was what would be expected of him.Open the door and fight to protect his home, to protect his love.But he could barely breathe, barely swallow.He was dizzy with fear.

There was a click and the noise fell an octave.

“Jackson, do something,” Céline whispered.She stood on the threshold between rooms, the sheet wrapped around her body.

He nodded and looked at the door while Céline waited shivering.

What to do?He took a step towards the door.He wished for a baseball bat or something to protect them.But all he had were dull kitchen knives.

There was another click and the knob turned a full quarter turn.The door gave half an inch and pushed against the deadbolt.

There was a moment of silence, a moment of nothing happening at all.Then there was the sound again, metal on metal, something digging away at the deadbolt.

“Jackson,” Céline whispered.She’d stepped into the room and was directly behind him.He looked at her in the soft light coming in from the street.He saw her shoulders, the sheet, her black hair against the white cotton, the goosebumps on her skin, her eyes in all their terror and expectation.She looked back at him and saw his.And when she did she drew in a quick breath.She saw his eyes.She looked at him long enough.

She walked past him.She went to the door and screamed as loud as she could scream, “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off!”And then, letting the sheet fall to the carpet, she hit the door with the bottoms of her fists.

They heard someone running down the hall.

Then everything was quiet again.There was no more scraping.Neither of them moved.Céline stood pressed against the door.Jackson watched her shoulders rising and falling, her naked body, her pale back, until she reached for the sheet, drew it up around her and turned to him.

They looked at one another.

“Should I call the police?”He asked

“They’ll never come,” she said walking past him into the bedroom.He followed and with a flick of her wrists, she snapped the clean sheet into the air and the two of them watched as it fell like fog over the bed.

 

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ALEXANDER MAKSIK is the author of YOU DESERVE NOTHING (Europa Editions/John Murray Publishers). He is the recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching/Writing Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s presently the Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa. He lives in Paris and Iowa City.  

For more: www.alexandermaksik.com.

15 responses to “Trial”

  1. Mary Richert says:

    Mmm. Poor Jackson. What is it with us and these notions of manliness anyway? And Celine, of course, is spectacular. I wonder if they know how wonderful they are… I’m not much of a fiction writer, but I marvel at characters that come alive like this.

  2. Tom Huckabee says:

    Great work, Xander. You keep getting better and better.
    I know the perfect actors to play Jackson and Celine.

  3. jmblaine says:

    Man Xander
    You should teach a
    TNB class
    right here.
    It’s the little touches
    that make the big
    difference
    in tone and readability.

    Conservation.
    Let me tell you
    I appreciate it.

  4. Kymberlee says:

    Xander, I am so thrilled to have the chance to read new work! As always, your attention to detail is stunning. The characters are so real, I feel like I can touch them.

    As for the subject matter, there is so much inside of me that wants to express my frustrations and questions about gender roles and how we expect so/too much of one another. This inspires me to explore those places within myself with more courage.

    Thank you, dear man, for sharing your exquisite talent.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Love it. Going back to read it all again. Such great detail and characterisation.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    Alexander.

    Perfectly captured.

    One to be very proud of.

  7. Irene Zion says:

    Alexander,

    What a character Jackson is! You make him come alive in all his hope and diminishment.
    When I read your stories, I leave feeling as if I know the person.
    I feel bad for him, as though he were someone I know who is just never going to make it to who he wants to be.
    Appearing to be manly by the sound of his piss.
    Oh, the touches are so subtle.
    I could read your words forever.

  8. davina says:

    I love your writing, you make the characters come alive…I wanted to read more, exquisite x

  9. Judy Prince says:

    Alexander, wonderful to know a poet who’s writing short stories: “…watching the jets glide away from LAX like clay pigeons launched into the air one after the other.” And “…another hot towel from the teeth of her silver tongs.” My brain prickled (that’s a Very Good sign) when I read this: “And this seemed precisely his problem: the counting towards something and the simultaneous knowing that it was only an exercise in procrastination. This story’s real scroller (i.e. “page turner”), Alexander.

  10. tip robin says:

    Some realy terse, riveting prose here. For me the fluidity of its movements and the flow of the story in general, built up perfectly to this climax where I could even feel my own Adam’s apple tighten, and then a release, a “pheeeeew”, leaving me a bit devastated and dare I say scarred by this whole experience.

    As fiction, this is beyond merely solid, it’s great.

    Iowa is serving you well.

  11. Mark Eshman says:

    X,

    I actually lived on Privateer after college. Any similarity between Jackson and me is purely coincidental. And I’ve never waxed. You did a great job capturing the struggling actor/Marina Del Rey atmosphere. Nicely done.

  12. pauline says:

    The characters, I agree – but also the place where they belong that you describe so vividly. Beautiful.

  13. […] Xander Maksik, classmate here at the Workshop, has a blog and a new story out at The Nervous Breakdown. […]

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