Editor’s note: I am drawn to Travis’s writing because his stories are honest and memorable. He features characters the reader sees, knows, and interacts with often in real-life. These people have dreams, but their choices, misjudgments, or lack of insight can bring on their own disasters, which rings true for this reader. There is sometimes violence and sadness, but there is touching emotion and dark humor, too — very much like real-life. – Janice Leagra
He was very expressive with his hands. When he spoke. He waved them about. They flowed. He would shoot them out, palms up, imploring you to understand. He would hold them close to his body, to his chest, when he told you something meaningful. He was thirty years older than me, but his hands were a child’s. I loved him. He would make a fist, bring it down on me.
Our last night we had dinner at a Vietnamese place downtown. He was in such a good mood. He had given a presentation on Thomas Harte Benton to a rapt and appreciative crowd at the local art museum. Loud applause, champagne after. Adoration and close contact.
By the time we got to Thu Duc he was tipsy, bordering on drunk. As we approached the steps, I took his hand.
“Let go of me,” he snarled. “I can walk up three steps without any goddamn help.”
I smiled. “I just wanted to hold your hand. I wasn’t trying to help you, you vain old fool.”
I saw his hand ball up into a fist, realized I had stepped over the line. “I’m sorry, Robert. I just wanted to hold your hand.”
He began to respond when the door opened and Pham, the owner, greeted us. “Professor,” he smiled, “welcome!” Robert walked through, patting Pham on the shoulder and chatting.
I followed behind. We ate and Robert became friendlier. He had several more glasses of wine and spoke of the crowd and how happy he was with their response
“What do you think, Mark? My best night?”
I smiled back. “Yes, love, perhaps it was.”
“And who was that one young woman?” His eyes focused, thinking of her. I knew who he meant. I knew exactly who he wanted when his eyes focused like that.
Managing his sexual encounters was one of my more unpleasant tasks. When I first fell in love with him I found this to be detestable, but over time I understood that Robert was not going to stop and that I needed to decide how important that was to me. I regretted my decision to stay some days, when I would get up early on a Sunday to drive them home, see the pain in their eyes and, sometimes, the bruises on their bodies. His tastes were severe and some were simply unprepared.
“Karen Sullivan,” I said, checking my notebook.
He smiled, repeated her name. “Sullivan.” He closed his eyes and put his finger to his mouth. “A good Irish-Catholic name.” He smiled broadly, winked at me. He believed that Catholic girls “took the whip,” better than I, as a man and, gasp, a Methodist, would ever understand. “Let’s see if she is free this evening.”
I closed my notebook. “Robert, you promised me a quiet evening, after all the legwork I did this week getting everything ready…”
His fist came down hard on the table.
I sat back, afraid to say more, knowing that it would be pointless. After a moment I took out my cell phone and started dialing.
Robert wasn’t done yet. My eventual obedience had not been enough. “Promised. I promised nothing.” He took another long drink of wine. “You live in my house. You want for nothing. You have my love. And you speak of promises.”
As the phone rang, I looked at my notebook and jotted the word “address,” so I would have it now in case Miss Sullivan was not in a condition to tell me in the morning. As I wrote, I could see Robert stand. Then he slapped me across my left cheek, sending me, my notebook, and my phone falling to the floor.
“What fucking promises?” he screamed.
Pham ran over to me. “Professor! Professor!” Someone helped me up as Robert fell back into his seat. I was hurt and angry and humiliated. He had never done this in public. Never where anyone could see. I wept openly.
“Mark,” Pham said, “are you alright?” He turned quickly before I could answer. “Professor, you must leave now! Now!”
I stood, began collecting our things. Pham took my elbow. “Mark, allow me to call you a taxi.” He looked back at Robert. “You should not go with him.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Pham. But I’m fine. He’s had too much to drink.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I will take him home and let him sleep.” I wiped my face and smiled at Pham and the other guests, all of whom stared in horror. “He’s had too much to drink.”
Robert slept the entire ride home. When we were parked in the drive, I shook him. “We’re home.”
He moved better on his own now and got out without help. As we approached the front door he said “I am starving.”
“I’ll make you a sandwich.” We walked in and I took his coat. “Get into your pajamas and I will be there soon.”
Robert nodded, began walking down the hall that led to his master bedroom.
“Mark, darling,” he said over his shoulder. “I was an ass this evening. I am sorry.”
“Get ready for bed. We can talk about it in the morning,” I replied.
I stood in the kitchen, hands shaking in a rage. I knew what I would do, what I had thought about many nights. But tonight, in public, with all those people looking on, tonight would be the night.
I made myself a vodka tonic, waited a few minutes, and then screamed. I threw a plate to the floor, grabbed the meat cleaver, and ran down towards his room.
I heard him drunkenly call out, “Mark?” as I crashed through the door. I raised the meat cleaver high above my head and screamed again, as loud and high as I could.
“Oh God,” he yelped as he tried to stand. “No!” At this, his face contorted. His hand went to his chest and he heaved a breath. He crumpled down to the floor and wheezed. I let out one more scream and I could hear him groaning and gurgling. And then he stopped. I sat down, waited a moment. Eventually I felt his pulse. Nothing. I balled my hands into fists, relaxed them. I took the cleaver and walked back to the kitchen.
I opened the sliding doors and walked outside, and sat on the back porch, vodka tonic in hand. The large yard bordered the river, which was deep and slow and made no particular sound. The slightly brackish smell of the water and the semen stink of the callery pear trees made sitting there most times almost unbearable. But this night I sat, serene. In my periphery I saw a light go out. A neighbor’s porch? A firefly darting behind a tree? An old comet, perhaps, having flown through space for millions of years only to break itself here, above me tonight? I didn’t know. The loss of a light was too ridiculous and pretentious to ponder. I finished my drink and began towards his room, dialing for an ambulance as I walked.