–English translation by Wendell Ricketts
When I got to Max’s house, the door was open. He was stretched out on the sofa, that gorilla-sized body of his spilling off the ends. Empty beer bottles were strewn across the floor in front of him, and a floor lamp cast shadows along the powder blue carpet, extending among the cigarette butts that had fallen from an overflowing ashtray. The place was a mess. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting in which to stage the retaliation scene I was planning. Max showed every sign of scraping rock-bottom, and I was there to deliver the coup de grâce. Our long friendship had gone to hell a while back, and a phase of barely concealed hostility had finally given way to all-out war. The time had come to settle old scores.
“Have a beer,” he said. He raised a hairy arm to offer me a bottle.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I just came to tell you that you’re out of the company.”
By way of an answer, Max unleashed a belch, looking me square in the eye as he did.
He hadn’t shaved in a week.
He put down the beer and scratched his belly. “Over my dead body,” he grunted. “There’s no way I’m selling my interest.”
“You won’t have to. You don’t have an interest anymore. At today’s meeting, the majority voted you out. For serious breach of your partnership contract. I wanted to tell you in person.”
“No way you can just get rid of me like that.”
“It’s over, Max. If you’re having trouble understanding, the lawyers can explain it to you.”
After his divorce and everything else that had happened, I knew this job was the only thing keeping Max sane. That was why I’d spared no effort in making sure the partners voted to cut him out. I’d prepared a couple of amusing little anecdotes for the meeting, knowing they would hit the mark. Max’s obvious alcoholism had done the rest.
Max looked at me, no life in his eyes. He seemed far away.
“I slept with your wife,” he said at last, his voice flat.
I searched his face. He seemed about to let loose with another belch.
“Bullshit,” I said.
“Thanks for putting that mirror next to the bed. That was a great idea.”
“She’d never have slept with you.”
“Definitely a winner,” he repeated. He stared without interest at a painting that hung on the wall behind me.
I turned. A few thin lines on a pearl gray background showed a pair of warriors squaring off with swords. They wore no shields, helmets, or even greaves on their shins. How the confrontation would end was anyone’s guess. My first thought was that a bookie would probably give them even odds. My second was that, if Max had a problem with alcohol, mine was gambling. Anyhow, the painting must have cost him an arm and a leg. Max was crazy about auctions―about auctions and about frittering his money away, but his divorce had left him buried in debt. He’d tried to get back on his feet with a couple of reckless business deals that hadn’t panned out, and then the ground had opened up beneath his feet. He wasn’t ready to face the prospect of giving up everything he’d accumulated.
He was sitting up now, his back curved forward and his elbows resting on his knees. He looked at the room around him as though he saw nothing but scorched earth.
“School was a long time ago”, he mused out loud.
I didn’t answer. I was trying to remember when I might ever have said anything to him about that mirror in the bedroom.
“Those were good times, huh?”
“Yeah,” I admitted, loosening my tie.
“I wish I could go back in time. To the first day we laid eyes on each other.”
“So I could make sure not to sit next to you.”
“I came and sat next to you, remember?”
“True. But the only reason I didn’t tell you to get lost was because you looked like one of those bookworm types who’d let me copy his homework.”
“And you looked like one of those guys who’d been held back a grade or two and I figured you’d have my back if I helped you out at school.”
Max slid his butt forward on the sofa, making himself more comfortable.
“With that ruler-straight part in your hair and those homemade sweaters,” he said. “Christ, you made me sick.”
“Of course, I couldn’t have hoped for class like yours. Designer pullovers, gel in your hair, divorced parents.”
He frowned, his eyes narrowing.
“When did it happen, exactly, that you turned into a bigger bully than me?”
The sofa seemed to absorb cold light from the lamp. I spread my arms.
“Couldn’t tell you.”
It was more a sigh than an answer. We stopped talking for a while. Max had slipped his index finger into the neck of an empty bottle and was wagging it back and forth like an extension of his hand. I was trying to get the dates straight in my mind. When had he last been in my bedroom? When I bought the mirror?
It was hot in the room. Max hadn’t even bothered to open a window. I yanked off my tie and unbuttoned the top of my shirt.
“Total madness,” he said finally. “They should have separated us when they figured out we were forging notes from our parents.”
I wasn’t listening anymore. I was too busy trying to get my thoughts in order. Let’s see … I’d bought that mirror online from the office, but even if Max had gone through the files on my computer, he still wouldn’t know where in the house I’d put the mirror. Could he have noticed that it wasn’t in any of the other rooms and hit on the bedroom by process of elimination? I felt as though I were missing some important detail.
Outside, the light was fading. A quivering, greenish film covered the sky, a final confirmation that the day’s suffocating heat and smog had outdone themselves. I was almost completely played out. I pulled a chair over and, as I collapsed into it, I felt my shirt glue itself to the sweat on my back. Max was still muttering. He’d reached the edge of the sofa and had begun rocking obsessively, his torso swaying back and forth.
On his head, I could see the start of a bald spot, which now pointed straight at me. I stared at it for a few moments until I remembered that I’d seen the same thing in a dream. A horrible nightmare, really … it must have been a couple of weeks ago. I’d awakened with a jolt, and after that I’d needed a shot or two (and a few harmless online bets, I won’t lie) to relieve my anxiety and get my breathing back to normal so I could sleep again. Then I blocked the whole thing from my mind―the dream and whatever other pathetic tricks my unconscious was trying to play on me.
What I’m getting at is that I remembered dreaming about Max and my wife. They weren’t in our bedroom, though. They were somewhere outdoors, and they were really going at it. I was no more than a few yards away, and I could see that bald spot of his, bobbing back and forth like a piston. I was standing behind a pile of gutted mattresses and, though I could plainly see the convulsing of their bodies, I could hear none of the sounds they were making. Their moans were cancelled out by a low and persistent rumble. All around us, everything was turning to ice. In the sky above, a strange, anemic sun was steadily disappearing beneath dark stains that spread across its face.
Except for the two of them, there was no other living thing in sight. The carcasses of animals and, I suspected, of human beings were jumbled together in piles of uprooted vegetation. In the background, the mountains had fallen in on themselves, their flanks leaden, slumped like exhausted giants. Some ominous vibration had altered the air, bringing a sense of inevitability with it. The desolation was utter. Rivers began to wind down from the slopes of what once had been mountains, gliding forward on icy tongues.
One of them passed directly below my feet.
Frozen fish filled the clear water: carp, trout―there was even a sturgeon. I shifted my gaze to the surface of the water and caught my own reflection. My face was sunken and I was alarmingly pale. I didn’t have much time left either, that much was obvious.