I’m staring at a door. It’s Mike and me, and the two of us are sitting in his crappy little car staring at the door of a crappy little house in Nordeast Minneapolis on the coldest night of the year. We’re staring at this particular door because inside is a guy named Neil Batteau. We know he’s in there and we know he’s got four of his idiot friends with him, and we’re waiting to get him alone so we can grab him. Some guys wouldn’t wait. They’d go in there right now, guns drawn, ready to take on all five of them at once. There are people who get into this business just so they can kick in doors and bash skulls. Mike isn’t like that. He’s been running Friendly Bail Bonds for eleven years, and it’s made him bitter and suspicious and very, very smart. I trust him. A few years ago, I was one of those guys who like to kick in doors and bash skulls, but now I only do that if Mike asks me to.
He lights a cigarette.
“Do you have to?” I say.
“Keeps me alert. Makes me happy.”
“This car smells bad enough as it is.”
“So crack a window.”
“It’s cold outside.”
“So turn on the heat.”
I crack the window, turn on the heat. I check my watch. “How long are we going to wait?”
Mike gives me a look. The look says, Don’t ask stupid questions.
The truth is we screwed up with Neil. Last month, we bailed him out on a drunk driving charge. Drunk drivers are usually good business. People don’t skip out on bail over a simple DUI. But Neil has three of them already. A fourth means jail time. And not some twelve-step coffee and ping-pong treatment center—Neil’s probably going to Stillwater. We should’ve kept a closer eye on him. I never thought he’d actually skip out, but I guess people do stupid things when they realize their future isn’t really a future at all.
The door opens and two guys step out. I squint through the windshield: Neither of them is Neil. One says something, the other one laughs. They walk off down the street.
I start to get out of the car, but Mike says, “Hold up.”
“What’s the matter?”
“This is two-on-three. I’m hoping for a two-on-one.”
“We could be here all night.”
“It won’t be long now. This isn’t a slumber party-type situation.” He finishes his cigarette, feeds it out the crack in the window, lights another. We go back to watching the door.
“So, how’s the house coming?” I say.
“The house is coming,” he says. “The house is the house.”
This thing with Neil is happening at the worst possible time. Mike’s wife is pregnant, and so they just bought a house off Powderhorn Park. It’s an old crack house. They got a special tax break from the city to fix it up. Mike spends all his weekends over there trying to get it ready for the baby, but time—and money—are getting tight. The last thing he needs right now is to forfeit a bond. He’s stressed out, the skin beneath his eyes blue from lack of sleep. I can tell because I don’t sleep that well either.
“Jill told me I can’t smoke at the new place,” he says. “I told her fine, I’ll smoke outside. And she said no, I can’t smoke at all. The cigarettes aren’t allowed to follow me from the apartment. We’re starting this new chapter in our lives and she wants me to be around for it.”
“Maybe she’s got a point.”
He takes a deep drag of his cigarette, sighs out a clean, thin line of gray. “You’re lucky. You don’t have to deal with this crap.” He means women. He means because of my looks. People used to call me Cod, because I have a big, white face and big eyes and thick lips, like a whitefish. Then one Christmas somebody called me Lutefisk, after the dish, and that stuck. Now everybody just calls me Lute. About the only one who calls me Andy is Mike.
He shakes his head. “Shit, man. I’m sorry. That was a dumb thing to say.”
“It’s okay,” I say. He’s right—I don’t have to deal with women problems. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will.
Two more men come out of the house. They get into a car and drive off in the opposite direction of the first two men.
“Time for adventure,” Mike says.
We move slowly toward the house, staying in the shadows as much as possible. Mike pauses at the door, looks it up and down, left, right, like he’s never seen one before and is trying to figure out how it works. He does the same thing to the whole front of the house. The blinds are drawn on all the windows.
He rubs his knuckles under his chin. “Why don’t you head around back.”
“You think he’s going to run?”
He rubs his chin again.
I walk along the side of the house and post myself in the backyard. It’s dark back here, quiet, almost peaceful. This winter has been strange—temperatures below zero, but no snow. The air is thin. Even here in the city I can see all the stars. It’s one of those nights when the cold seems to be coming from space itself, and I’m reminded that if something ever happened to knock the earth out of orbit, if we were just a few miles farther from the sun, tipped a few too many degrees one way or the other, we’d all freeze to death. Then the back door flies open and Neil Batteau is running at me.
He looks over his shoulder as he runs, doesn’t know I’m here. Neil’s a big guy, plays minor league hockey, but he’s not as big as me. I lunge at him, elbows high, and give him a cross-check. I figure it’s something he’s used to. He hits the frozen ground hard, grass shattering beneath him. He gapes up at me.
“Ow,” he says. “That hurt, Lute.”
I roll him onto his belly. “Now don’t be an asshole. Okay?”
I kneel on his back, whack the handcuffs onto his wrist. I’m reaching for the other wrist when all at once he jerks up and swings his hand into my face, catching me in the eye. I’m only blinded for a second, but Neil, his body whittled down by a lifetime of hockey and bad living, is able to eel out from under me. And then it’s a foot race. I’m quick for a big guy, but he beats me to the back fence, and by the time I hump myself over it he’s gone. I run up and down the alley, but there’s no sign of him.
“You said you weren’t going to be an asshole,” I call out.
Mike’s car pulls up, and he gets out and blunders toward me, leaving the car in the street, the door hanging open, like a mouth.
“Please tell me you have him,” Mike says. “You have him, right?”
I hold up my empty arms.
“Goddamn it,” Mike says. I notice he’s in rough shape. His face is red and he’s wheezing and steam rises from the tiny bald spot on the top of his head. He suddenly looks old. He suddenly looks like who he is—a guy who smokes too much and drinks too much and doesn’t get enough rest, a guy with a mortgage and a wife and a baby on the way. I’m afraid he’s going to have a heart attack.
“You all right?” I say.
“What happened?” he says in between gulps of air. “You never lose guys. I was going to flush him out, and then you run him down, like a German shepherd. It’s your one job!”
He shuffles out to the street. I follow.
“Aren’t you the dog?” I say after a minute.
“If you flush him out, doesn’t that make you the dog?”
“Goddamn it!” He kicks the ground.
We take a look around, but it’s pointless. Dumpsters, trees, the old Catholic cemetery, the loading yard for the cardboard plant—the neighborhood has been transformed into a magical world of hiding places. Neil is everywhere, nowhere. I can feel my testicles being pulled up into my body inside my frozen pants.
“Those were my best handcuffs,” I say.
The next day I head over to Mike’s house to give him a hand. It’s the least I can do. The house is a typical old Minneapolis house—tiny kitchen, tiny dining room, narrow hallways, like being in a maze. Even I can tell the feng shui is for shit. Jill wants to knock down a few walls, put in a few see-throughs. She wants the house to be open—open to the air, the light, open to the possibilities of the future.
Mike points to a big red X spray-painted on the living room wall, offers me a crowbar. He holds it out in front of himself, parallel to the floor, like a ceremonial sword. “I wouldn’t want you to drop it,” he says. “I wouldn’t want it to slip through your fingers.”
I wave it away. “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.” I go stand in front of the X. I take off my stocking cap, carefully flatten my hair against my scalp with my fingers. Then I rear back, pause, and drive my head right into the wall. I do it again, and again. The whole time I’m making these kind of mooing sounds in my throat. After seven or eight strikes I’ve carved out a big me-sized hole. It doesn’t really hurt. The wall is old fiberboard, barely strong enough to hold a picture frame. But it does make a lot of noise.
The contractor, one of Mike’s old cronies, comes out of the bathroom. He looks at me, the hole, back to me. I can feel plaster dust on my face, my eyebrows. It’s in my ears.
“Jesus Christ,” he says.
“I’m trying to get ahead of the work,” I say. “I’m headstrong.”
“Hilarious.” He removes something from his tool belt and tosses it to me. It’s a stud finder. “I’d hate for you to mess up that pretty face, Lute.”
Mike rolls his eyes at me, but I don’t care. It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in weeks.
“Andy, man,” he says. “What are we going to do with you?”
The truth is I’ve always done stuff like this—big, loud, stupid stuff. Destructive stuff. Before Mike, I worked at Kijenski & Son Bail Bonds. The Kijenskis were total screw-ups. They would take on a risky bond, the guy would skip out, so they’d take another risky bond just to pay for the first. But the really screwed-up thing is I liked it when guys skipped. It meant I got to hunt them down. It meant I got to hurt somebody. I once punched out the window of a guy fleeing in his car. He dragged me for a block, and I ended up breaking my wrist, but I got him.
Jill comes into the house carrying two buckets of paint. “If I have to hear one more time how one color pulls out another color, I swear to God I’m going to kill somebody,” she says. Then she sees me. “Oh, Andrew. You’re bleeding.” She dabs at my forehead with a tissue. When she pulls it away there’s a red splotch the size of a thumbprint.
“We need to get you a girlfriend,” she says. She tries brushing the plaster dust out of my hair, and when that doesn’t work, she uses the plaster to style it, first giving me spiky bangs, and then she combs it down and to the side, with a neat little part.
“I’m okay,” I say.
The new bathroom mirror leans against the wall, and Jill goes and looks into it. “I’m a basketball.” She’s really showing now, and not just her stomach—she’s developed a small double chin. She pokes at it gingerly, like it’s a strange creature that’s attached itself to the underside of her jaw. “I hope you know this is going to stay even after the baby’s born,” she says to Mike. “I could do sit-ups until the cows come home, but my neck’s ruined forever.”
“You don’t know that,” he says.
“Honey, I’ll love you even if you have a fat neck,” she says. “What with you carrying my child and all.”
“I will love you. I just don’t want you to give up hope. About your neck.”
Mike is one of the sharpest guys I’ve ever known. He’s taught me a lot. If he hadn’t hired me away from Kijenski & Son, I think I would’ve been one of those bondsmen who kick down the wrong door one night and get a knife to the head. But as sharp as he is, there’s something Mike can’t see. It’s Jill’s brown eyes. It’s the freckles on her nose as fine as pollen. It’s the way the corners of her mouth turn down when she smiles, this weird smirk, like she’s trying to hide how happy she is but can’t quite manage it. She’ll be beautiful again, because she’s beautiful now. She reaches up to dab more blood from my forehead, and I smell the perfume on her wrist. It’s sweet, kind of clovey, a winter smell. It makes me think of a house. This house, when it’s all done. And everybody has come over and they’re all talking but not too loud, and snow’s piling up against the windows, but no one minds because inside it’s bright and warm and safe.
Tonight we’re at Maxwell’s. It’s an old cop bar, long and narrow, with dark wood paneling and brass fixtures, like the hallway of an ocean liner. There’s Minneapolis PD, firemen, EMTs, nurses. Mike and I are at a table in the back with Ryan. Ryan’s always here. He’s a lawyer, good-looking, with an office suite in the Lumber Exchange and a big condo on the river. He’s the one who got people calling me Lute.
“Still looking for that hockey player?” he says.
“We’ll find him,” Mike says.
“And if you don’t?”
“We’ll find him,” I say.
In the days after we lost Neil, we went to his mother’s house, his girlfriend’s, we even went to his coach’s house, but no sign of him. And so, with no other leads, we had to go back to his house. We’ve been staking it out in Mike’s car for the last three nights. My clothes are disgusting and my toes feel like ice and I can’t poop right from all the salted nuts we’ve been eating. We’re developing a towering hatred for all things Neil Batteau.
Two university girls are drinking at the next table. Ryan raises his glass to them.
“Hello there!” he says. “Care to join us?”
The girls stop talking, look at him, go back to talking.
He gives it another shot. “Slumming it tonight? I get it. Rubbing elbows with the government classes. The thin blue line. Constables, night watchmen. Servants of the secret flame.” Ryan’s drunk.
The girls look at him again. “So, what do you do?” one of them says. She has sandy hair and perfect teeth. You can just see her on one of those big, white speedboats on Lake Minnetonka.
Ryan tells her. “But please, no ambulance chaser jokes.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she says.
“And what about you guys?” the other one says. She’s in a black sweater and has a bright silver ring on her thumb. She’s older than her friend and doesn’t smile and seems tired and sad and a little hopeless. Maybe she’s in grad school.
Mike hands her a business card.
“Friendly Bail Bonds,” she reads. “It’s better to know me and not need me, than to need me and not know me.”
“That’s like our motto,” Mike says.
“I said they should change it to We’ll get your ass before your cellmate does,” Ryan says.
“Do you like being a bail bondsmen?” she says. I assume she’s talking to Mike, but then I see she’s talking to me. I’m registering that a girl asked me a question. And then another part of my brain decides to butt in and remind me that I haven’t said anything yet, that this whole time I’ve just been sitting here staring dumbly at the girls. And yet another part of my brain tells me I need to say something, and do it now, or else I’ll look like a freak. Of course by then it’s too late. I’m in full lockdown. My mouth won’t open, I have no air. Part of my brain, the oldest, deepest part, says simply, You are pathetic. This is the part I always listen to.
Mike comes to my rescue. “Sure, he likes it,” he says. “Don’t you?”
“Yeah, I like it.” I can’t even come up with my own answers.
“Lute’s more the strong, silent type,” Ryan says.
The girls then ask Mike what kind of people we bail out, and he tells them all kinds—drunk drivers, burglars, even murderers. He says we bail out almost anybody but prostitutes. It’s all about having ties to the community. Prostitutes don’t have families, which makes them a flight risk. If you post bail on a prostitute, she simply moves to the next town and starts over.
“Crack whores aren’t picky about location,” Ryan says.
“You can’t trust somebody who doesn’t have anybody,” Mike says.
“What about the men they have sex with?” the younger girl says.
“What about them?” Mike says.
“Do you bail them out?”
“If they have a good job and a good family, then yes, we would.”
“Nice,” the older girl says. “That’s nice.”
Ryan snaps his fingers and points at her. “Women’s Studies?”
“Engineering,” she says.
“No shit?” he says.
“I’m going to build things.”
“I’ve never built anything in my life.”
“You don’t say.”
At some point we switch to shots, and everything goes soft and warm and blurry. Mike manages to get his arm on the back of the older girl’s chair. It almost feels good to see him like this—the old Mike, the confident Mike, the one with all the answers. But then I think of Jill.
“It’s late,” I say. “We should call it a night.”
“I’m good,” he says.
“It’s late. You should go home.”
“I don’t have a home right now. Remember?”
“Come on.” I reach for his arm, but he pulls back.
“What are you going to do?” he says. “Carry me?” He turns to the girl. “Andy’s the best partner a guy could ask for. Except when he ain’t.”
“You’re drunk,” I say.
“You need to give me some space,” he says.
“Who’s Andy?” the girl says.
“I mean it,” Mike says to me. “Bug off.”
“Watch me.” But there’s nothing to watch. I know I should get up and walk out of the bar and head back to my basement apartment, but I don’t. Having an apartment isn’t the same as having a place to go. I would do anything for Mike, anything he asked me to, but the one thing I can’t do is leave his side.
“Yo,” he says. “Yo, man, are you okay?”
There’s a whistling sound in my head, like the pressure’s building up and my ears have been pinched off. I used to always hear it when I was about to bust in somebody’s door. It’s how I knew I was ready.
“I was just kidding,” Mike says. “I was messing with you.” I’m squeezing my hands into fists so hard it’s doing something to my back. Mike comes over and gives me a big drunken hug, pinning me to my chair. “It’s you and me all the way,” he says. “You know that, right?” I’m all worked up, strong and weak at the same time, like I’m either going to break the table in two or else start crying right there in his arms. What’s wrong with me?
“I love this guy,” he says to Ryan and the girls. “I love him. I love this face.”
“If this was France, he’d be a movie star,” Ryan says.
“That’s right,” Mike says. “A fucking movie star!”
When I get back to my place I’m so drunk I can barely walk. I stand in the middle of the room, heavy on my feet, and gaze around at all my things—my weights and my hunting rifle and my .380 in its clip holster, my werewolf DVDs, the cactus Jill got me for my birthday that’s dead now.
“Sure, he likes it,” I say.
“I’ve never built anything in my life,” I say.
“You don’t say,” I say.
I ram my head into the wall. It’s sheetrock, stronger than the stuff at Mike and Jill’s. I have to hit it three times just to make a dent. The guy above me starts pounding on his floor.
“Some of us have to work tomorrow,” he says.
In the morning I wake up to a giant hole in my wall scalloped in chunks of plasterboard. There’s blood around the edges. I forget for a moment how it got there. It looks like an animal was trapped in the wall and injured itself trying to chew its way out.
On my way into work Mike calls me and says he needs to do some stuff at the house today and he might not make it to the office, and I should start without him.
“I’m supposed to work by myself?” I say.
“It’s almost like you’re my employee and I’m telling you what to do.”
I spend the morning getting caught up on paperwork—sending copies of our latest bonds to the surety company, checking and re-checking the court schedules—and then I go to Neil’s. I park across the street in our usual spot. Staring at his empty house like this, I can’t help but feel a little proud of the guy. He’s somewhere out there, out in the city, running, hiding, doing what he has to do to stay free. Is he scared, freaked out, or is he strangely calm? Is this the first time in his life he’s ever truly risked something? Is this the first time he’s ever felt alive? My head still hurts from the wall.
At four I call it a day and drive to Mike’s to see how it’s going with the house. His car’s gone, but Jill’s is here. Inside the house everything’s quiet, and then I hear it: Jill is singing. I follow her voice. She’s in the baby’s room brushing white paint onto window trim. The walls are dandelion yellow. There’s a crib, a changing table, a rocking chair, and next to it another rocking chair, an exact replica of the first, only this one’s super tiny, with a toy bunny sitting in it. Jill has headphones on and hasn’t seen me come in. She’s singing along to something by one of those old female folk singers—Joan, Joni, Judy. It’s weird when people sing how their voice never comes out the way you think it will. In conversation, Jill is strong and confident, no bullshit, but now, singing, her voice is high and thin and scratchy. It’s like I’m peering down into her life, the way she was when she was a girl. I don’t want to sneak up and scare her, so I stomp the floor to get her attention. Still, she jumps—once when I do it, and again when she turns around and sees it’s me.
“Oh,” she says. “I thought you were Mike.” The music is still going in her headphones: acoustic guitar, flute.
“No,” I say. “Just me.”
The song she’s listening to stops, another starts. She turns off the music. This is the first time we’ve ever been alone together.
“So, is Mike here?” I know he’s not, but I don’t know what else to say.
“He’s in Shakopee,” Jill says. “He’s getting the new dishwasher.”
“They sent it to the wrong warehouse.”
“Bastards. What a pain in the ass.”
“Nobody cares about quality anymore. Have you noticed that? Quality’s gone down the shitter.” I tell myself to shut up. Shut up, idiot! This is how it always goes: When I’m supposed to say something I freeze, and when I’m supposed to be quiet I talk and talk and talk. “Want me to go down there?” I say. “Let me go down there. I’ll knock some heads together. I’ll get your dishwasher.”
“No,” she says. “No, I think Mike can handle it.”
I’m about to leave when she says, “He’s lucky to have you.”
“It’s true. You guys are good partners.”
“He’s the brains of the operation. I’m only the muscle.”
“Is that what you think?” Suddenly, she’s crying. Big tears fill her eyes. “Fucking hormones,” she says. “I can’t wait to not be pregnant anymore.” She blinks and lifts her chin, like she’s trying to keep the tears pooled in her head. “I know Mike’s having a hard time right now. I know he’s kind of scared. I’m scared too.” Her hand goes to her belly. I don’t think she’s even aware of it. “But it’s good that you’re out there looking after him,” she says. “I know you’ll always bring him home safe. You will keep him safe, right?”
“Of course.” I move closer. “Everything will be all right.”
“You’re going to be an awesome mom,” I say, and it’s the truth.
She smiles. Her cheeks go round and dislodge the tears in her eyes, and then she’s smiling and crying at the same time. A car passes by, the tires skidding on a manhole cover. It echoes through the exposed pipes in the bathroom. I kiss her. Our bellies bump, my mouth finds hers. It’s not until now I’m able to admit to myself just how badly I’ve wanted to do this. I’m afraid she’s not going to kiss me back, that I’ve made a huge mistake, and it makes me want to punch myself in the side of the head. But then slowly her lips part. It’s only a little, and it’s only for a second, but I feel it. It’s a real kiss, the first I’ve had in years. And then we’re pulling away from one another. Jill backs up against the window so hard the glass rattles in the frame. Her eyes are on the floor, like she can’t look at me, and her cheeks are red. I can’t tell if it’s from the pregnancy or excitement or shame.
A door slams at the other end of the house. “Where is everybody?” Mike yells. “I’ve been honking for like five minutes. I need help with the dishwasher.” We listen to him walk into one room. Another. “Hello?”
“We’re here,” Jill manages to say.
Mike appears in the doorway. He looks at her, at me. We haven’t moved since he’s come in. It feels like we’re standing either too close or too far apart.
“What’d I miss?” he says. “Did I miss something?”
“No,” Jill says. I wait for her to say something more, but she doesn’t. She’s still leaning against the window. Mike points.
“You’re going to smudge that paint, babe,” he says.
Mike and I are back at Neil’s. The cold snap has finally ended and the warmer weather has brought snow, big, wet flakes that fall with a soft rustling, swallowing up all the other sounds. I think we’ve both given up on finding Neil, but we keep coming here night after night, and afterward we always go to Maxwell’s. It’s become a ritual, our punishment for having lost him in the first place.
“What’d I tell you about cracking the window when you smoke?” I say.
Mike rolls down the window, drags at his cigarette, and blows the smoke directly into my face.
“Much better,” I say.
“What’s going on with you? You’ve been moody lately.”
“I’m not moody.”
“You just sit there and mumble. It’s a real drag. What’s up?”
It’s been a week since that afternoon in the house. I want to talk to Jill, want to get her by herself, but she’s always with Mike, or else he’s with me, and I don’t know what to do. I’m exhausted and hungover, and Mike is waiting for me to answer, the moment hanging there, and something has to happen.
“I kissed Jill,” I say.
“Jill and I kissed.”
He stares at me, and then his face jerks into a smile. “Bullshit.”
“It was when you were getting the dishwasher. We were in the house alone.”
“You’re so full of shit,” he says, but already his smile is fading.
“I’m sorry, Mike.”
“You’re serious? You guys kissed?”
My heart beats so hard I feel it in my collarbone. He turns away and puts both hands on the steering wheel, gazing out the windshield. He looks like he’s driving after somebody even though we’re not moving.
“So, what are we going to do?” I say.
His knuckles go white against the black rubber. Mike’s tough for a little guy, knows how to do damage, and I brace myself for whatever’s going to happen next. But to my surprise all he does is laugh.
“There is no this,” he says. “What, do you think you and Jill are having an affair? Do you think you’re going to steal her away?” He turns back toward me. “You may’ve kissed her, Lute, but she didn’t kiss you back.”
“She did,” I say. “We kissed.”
“You sure about that?”
“We kissed,” I say again. We did, right? She opened her mouth. I’m not the kind of person who’d imagine something like that. Am I? That whistling sound’s in my head so bad it hurts.
“Everybody’s right,” Mike says. “You’re a Lute.”
“Can’t get any girls yourself, so you go after my pregnant wife. What a Lute.”
“I said shut your mouth.”
“I’m an asshole. I know that. But at least I’m not you.” His eyes narrow with anger and scorn, but there’s something else too. Pity. He honestly feels sorry for me. And that’s what finally makes me reach out my big hand and take him by the neck and squeeze.
“Get off me,” he yells. He goes for my neck too, but his arms are short, his fingernails raking my face. This is my friend, my only friend, and still I squeeze harder. Somehow, he is able to open his door, and the two of us tumble out onto the street. He’s trying to get away, but all it does is allow me to get a better grip on his throat. He’s flat on his back on the slick asphalt, I’m kneeling over him. The whistling’s gone, but maybe it’s gotten so loud I don’t hear it anymore. He says something that sounds like Lute. I shake him until his head flops like a doll’s.
“No,” he says, his voice tight, barely a whisper. “Look. Look.”
I follow his eyes. There, watching us from under a streetlamp, is Neil Batteau. It’s like he’s appeared from out of the night, snowflakes clinging to his shoulders and his hair and the thin, wispy beard that now covers his face. His clothes are rumpled, there’s a dirty paper bag tucked under his arm. I wonder if he’s got my handcuffs. I look at Mike, who looks up at me, my hands still around his neck, and then we both look back at Neil. We all stay like that, the snow falling down, each of us waiting to see who’s going to move first.