The Reason Things Don't Work Out

Jonathan Wei

Desk, Chin thinks.
   To his right is a stack of papers, unsigned, sitting in a wire rack. Before him is the blank face of the computer screen, gray and reflecting in a dim smudge the rectangle of a window over his shoulder. Under the lip of the desktop is the keyboard. There are other things—a stapler, more wire racks with more papers, a tape dispenser, a small plastic cube with a magnetic collar to which a few paperclips adhere, miniature obelisk speakers for the computer, a pencil cup. 
   Yesterday, the desk had made him think nothing. Today it made him think of Sandy.

The table appeared to sit at an angle in the flat streetlamp light. They had been together for most of the day, having met on the train from Brussels that morning. Chin was on leave, ten days away from the warzone. Paris had seemed like a good idea. With nothing else to do, and needing something, they’d started drinking in the afternoon. 
   “I’m so tired,” she murmured. 
   Her head was tilted to one side. She was no longer attractive to Chin, though when they’d met on the train earlier, she’d possessed a kind of youthful energy that he’d found very appealing. She had broad cheeks and dirty blond hair that fell around her face in short rings. Her mouth was small. Her eyes were large and brown, and nearly closed at the moment. Sandy. 
   Chin looked at the watch on his wrist, a black watch. It was a large watch. The glass had deep scratches on it, from grinding into the dirt, from the always dust, from the hard edges of the Kush. Sangin was three days ago. He should get a new watch, but he was going back in six days, so why bother.   
   “It’s nine o’clock,” he argued. Twenty-one hundred hours.  
   He signalled to the waiter, who had been standing in the door near their table for the last several minutes. The waiter looked like he thought they might try to ditch on the bill, and this annoyed Chin. 
   “Another round,” Chin said. 
   The waiter was tall, had only a little hair, a long nose, and a recessed chin. He nodded.
   “Pernod,” Chin called after him.
   “I don’t want any more to drink,” said Sandy. 
   “It’s nine o’clock,” said Chin again. 
   From where he sat, he could see straight up three streets for at least a hundred feet, running away at ten o’clock, twelve o’clock, and two o’clock. The café wall hugged his back. The streets ran away until the buildings leaning in from either side curved to the left or to the right and the cobbles were hidden. It was a good spot. From here you could see in all directions, you could see everyone. No one but Chin seemed to appreciate this. People were beginning to appear. The cars that had lined the street when they’d arrived in the afternoon were gone and the street was now blocked to traffic. Pedestrians in groups of two and three stepped up and down, appearing and disappearing as they zigzagged in and out of the streetlamps. 
   “What time do people go to bed in Minneapolis?” 
   Sandy was from Minneapolis.
   “I don’t know,” said Sandy. “I don’t live there anymore.” 
   “I thought that’s where you were from,” said Chin.
   “I live in Boston now.” 
   “Oh, Boston,” said Chin. He pulled a cigarette from the packet that lay, along with a wad of Euros, an ashtray, matches, four glasses, Sandy’s purse, and Chin’s sunglasses, on the round table between them. Chin had been to Boston. 
   “Nothing wrong with Boston,” he said in a reproving tone. 
   Sandy was slumped down into her chair. The neckline of her t-shirt was stretched out into a loose ring that hung below the shallow V of her collarbones. The skin of her neck and chest was yellow in the streetlight. On the train, it had been pink and inviting. 
   “I like it,” she said. Her tone was suddenly interesting to Chin. He tried to look at her but he saw just hair, just eyes, just lips. Chin wondered if he was having trouble seeing her, or if she wasn’t there.  
   The waiter returned with two glasses of Pernod and two fresh glasses of water. Chin pointedly ignored the man’s glance at the wad of cash. He puffed energetically on his cigarette. The smoke was yellow coming out of his mouth. 
   “Central Square,” he said. “Harvard Square. Inman Square. Ever been to New York?”
   “Of course,” said Sandy into her glass. 
   “Best city in the world. Up all night. City never sleeps.” 
   He leaned away from the table, pointing his chest out into the street, as though he might fly off at a low trajectory into the alley of air that hung above the cobbles. He fell back into his chair again. 
   “We’re here,” he said. “We’re in fucking Paris.” 
   He hadn’t told anyone he was going on leave. He hadn’t told his family. He hadn’t told Anne, his wife. Anne seemed too far away from Wistan, from Sangin, from the ’Stan and the dust and dirt, the brown heat. Too far to go to her and then come back in ten days. He’d just wanted away—from everything, and everything included his wife. He’d needed away. And now he was here.
   Sandy’s small hands fiddled with the cigarette packet until she had pulled a cigarette from it. 
   Returned to the hotel a few hours later, she threw herself onto one of the two single beds that were lined up side by side in the narrow space. At the far end of the room, balcony doors allowed light to fall onto the floor in a block. One corner of the block was occupied by the dark blobs of their backpacks. 
   Chin lay down on the bed next to her and put his arm across her belly. His head hurt, his chest was tight. 
   “Kiss me,” he said. 
   Sandy lifted her head and looked at him, her face away from the window and shaded. A small point of light reflected in each of her eyes. After a moment, she leaned in and kissed him, and Chin felt a slight disappointment. 

At lunch, Chin plays racquetball. Robert is a friend of his from college; at one time tall and built, now he is tall and fat. Nearly fat. They reconnected when Chin got out of the Corps, and Robert got Chin his job. Five years ago. Five long years. His job, his desk, his computer, his paperclips. Robert had moved into upper management but he still hangs out with Chin occasionally, still wants them to feel like friends. He stands in the middle of the court on feet that seem too small for his broad hips and flowing chest and belly, his face flushed from the warm-up, thinning hair tossed here and there.  
   “Zeroes,” says Chin, serving. 
   Robert rarely moves more than a step from the middle of the court. He looks fat and clumsy and wins easily over Chin, who keeps himself in shape and squared away. Robert learned racquetball while Chin was in the Marines and Chin can’t catch up. They’d always competed in college—drinking, studying, ping-pong, you name it. It had been fun. Now Chin felt annoyance at being behind. Zero to four in the second game, Chin chases a lob to the back wall, sets his feet, lines up a forehand and rifles it into Robert’s large ass. 
   “Shit!” yells Robert, and goes down on one knee, hand gripped into the stretchy material of his shorts. 
   Chin put everything he had into that forehand. 
   “Jesus, sorry man,” he says, trotting over. “Miss-hit.” 
   Robert doesn’t look up. After thirty seconds or so, he rises to his feet. 
   “Play a let,” he says. 
   “Yup,” says Chin. 
   Robert wins three more points and Chin hits him again in nearly the same spot and at least as hard. Robert goes all the way down this time, his hamstring and gluteus muscles curling into a fist-like cramp just under the overhang of his right butt-cheek—Chin can see it through the thin nylon. Stretched out on his side on the floor, his red face even redder than it was before, Robert is looking at Chin. His teeth are visible. 
   “What the hell?” 
   “I am so sorry,” says Chin. “I’m just off. Really off. Maybe we should call it. This is ridiculous.” 
   When Chin hits Robert a third time, this time in the back of the arm (an actual miss-hit, as he was aiming for the ass again), Robert doesn’t say anything. He walks out of the court, leaving the glass door open behind him. Chin’s shoulder is twinging slightly from the off-center impact of the last shot. As Robert leaves, Chin gets a good look at the silver-dollar- sized welt on his friend’s arm, with the brand-name of the ball spelled out backwards across it, white on red.  

By mid-afternoon, the wire rack on the right side of Chin’s desk is empty. The screen shows a revolving pattern of curved lines that change color as they twirl back and forth, red to green to yellow to blue. The guy who takes care of all of the computers for his division told him that these are the easiest colors for the screen to produce. 
   “It’s like sleeping for the screen,” he’d said. “No effort.” 
   Chin hasn’t been sleeping particularly well for the last five years. Waking up in the middle of the night, he goes downstairs for a glass of water or to smoke a cigarette. Sometimes he awakens so completely that he turns on the television in the living room and watches reruns. When he’s been awake long enough, the screen starts to look like it’s much farther away than it is, like it’s a mile away and he, by virtue of superhuman vision, is able to see it with crystalline clarity. 
   Last night, An American in Paris had been on, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Maybe that’s why he’d thought about Sandy. Chin had been an American in Paris, and she had been Leslie Caron. The sex had been a little awkward, not particularly comfortable. They were both drunk, it was a small bed, they didn’t know each other. Nerves. There were many reasons that it wasn’t as romantic as the movie. And why Chin had left the next morning without saying goodbye.    And why he’d paid the hotel bill.
   Late in the afternoon, he writes out an email to Robert. 
   Sorry man. I was way off today—way off. Shouldn’t have even showed up to play. Buy you a beer sometime to make it up? Later. 
   He doesn’t send it. He works until after nine o’clock. 

Leslie Caron was really beautiful. A little strange looking, but definitely beautiful. Her eyes were so large, and her mouth was so large, and her whole head, really, was pretty large, but somehow it all worked out on her. There was something about the way she tilted her large head to look up at Gene Kelly, the way she pursed her large lips and glanced out of the corners of her large eyes. If Sandy had been that beautiful, maybe things would have worked out differently. 
   If Anne had been that beautiful. Anne was now Chin’s ex-wife who, it could now be said with reasonable confidence, hated Chin. This was, in fact, what Chin said whenever she came up in conversation. 
   “She hates me.” Not very attractive of him, but Chin hasn’t been particularly interested in being attractive lately, for whatever reason. 
   Gene Kelly had been very obviously attractive. Maybe if Chin had been more like Gene Kelly, things would have gone better. 
   Toward the end of their marriage, three years after he’d separated from the Marines, Chin had picked up a gun in a sporting goods store. It was a black gun, a pistol, heavy, cold. It was the first time in three years he’d held a gun, the first time since Samarra. Anne had seen him holding it. 
   “Put it down,” she’d said. 
   “I don’t want that in the house,” she’d said. 
   “I think I’ll buy this,” said Chin. He hadn’t been considering buying it. The girl behind the counter, maybe sixteen years old and wearing thick-lensed glasses that magnified her eyes to two fried-egg size blobs, watched them with an expression that might have been astonished or might have been bored. 
   “You will not,” said Anne. 
   “I need a gun,” said Chin. 
   “You need a gun,” said Anne. 
   “You need a gun.” 
   “A gun.” 

Maybe if he hadn’t gotten a gun, things would have gone better. 
   Now Chin keeps the gun in the drawer next to the sink in the kitchen, with other things that don’t fit in any other drawer: a pair of pliers, rolls of tape, some twine, coins of various denominations, a couple of pens that don’t work, a fold-up yardstick, several books of matches, and the gun. The gun is in the front of the drawer, and Chin takes it out sometimes just to carry it around the house with him. He puts it in his pocket if he is wearing a jacket, or tucks it into the waistband of his pants. Or he just carries it in his hand, the thick butt in his palm, his forefinger wrapped around the trigger guard. 
   That’s how he holds it tonight, in his lap while he watches the late, late, late movie. There are not many guns in the movie; it’s about a leopard that gets loose in Connecticut and wanders around terrorizing people. Cary Grant is the scientist and Katherine Hepburn is the wealthy hysteric who needs a man in her life. Again, they both seem pretty beautiful, though a little less put together than Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Toward the end of the movie a few guns show up, but they’re rifles and no one gets shot or even hurt. And Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn end up together, of course. When the movie ends, Chin remembers that he’s holding a gun in his lap. 

He doesn’t have ammunition for it. The gun itself is what he likes, the heft of it, the feeling of the roughness of the handle, the sense of aiming-ness that leveling it to his eye gives him. 
   He tucks it into the back of his pants when he goes to work the next day, under his jacket. On the train ride into the city and all day while he sits at his desk, he can feel it digging into the small of his back, a boulder, a bone, an angle, and though he thinks, in the middle of the afternoon when he is leaning back and staring at his computer screen and drinking the cold remnants of a cup of coffee that he has had sitting on his desk since the morning, he thinks that it should be uncomfortable, he likes it, hard and heavy and always there. 
   He leaves work at 6:30 to meet a couple of his officemates at a bar down the block. Robert isn’t there. Robert hasn’t called him since the day before, and he probably won’t, Chin thinks. These are guys Chin met when he came to the firm, guys with wives and houses in the suburbs, just like Chin used to have until Anne left him. They talk about sports and mortgages and repairs that they’ll do to their houses, and Chin can still do that, even without a wife, even though it’s different. To Chin, their lives seem like sparkly, colorful pictures that are out of focus. The talk becomes more involved the more they drink, and funnier, until they are without a doubt the funniest people there. Women come and go, and Chin watches them, uninterested. The gun is still in his back. 
  In the bathroom around 9:00, Chin is leaned up to a urinal and another man, a thin man with a mustache and hollow cheeks is washing his hands a few feet away. The man keeps looking at him and then looking away every time Chin turns his head. 
   It must be the gun, thinks Chin. You develop a sense for guns when you’ve been around them for a while. You can tell when one is in the room. Maybe this guy can tell.   
   Back out in the bar, his officemates are talking about the Mets and the Yankees carelessly, saying things that they’ve said to each other a dozen or more times, but that get said again every now and then. Chin says a few things as well, and watches a woman at the other end of the bar. The woman has a thick mop of curling, blond hair that falls to her shoulders like a headdress, a round face with pronounced cheekbones, large eyes and a large mouth. She has large breasts that are prominent beneath her tight, maroon sweater. She reminds him a little bit of Sandy, but she’s much more put together, and older as well. He realizes that she could be Sandy, all grown up. She is sitting with a couple of other women, sipping from a clear drink and not smiling very much. 
   The reason things didn’t work out with Sandy, Chin thinks.
   He thinks it again. 
   The reason things didn’t work out with Anne
   The woman at the end of the bar smiles at last, showing that she has deep, vertical dimples on either cheek. Her hair is very, very blond. 

The thing about the gun, the weight of it, the hardness and the coldness. The heat of it. The thing about it was that it wasn’t there. After you’d worn it for long enough, after you’d trained on it at the range, and then after you’d been issued it in the ramp up and started carrying it on your hip everywhere, and then after you’d added all of the rest of what you were carrying, the pack, the body armor, the kevlar, the rounds, the glow sticks, the NVGs, the MREs, the nav, the wipes, the maps and water and candy for the kids—after all of that, the gun wasn’t even there. It was another thing among so many things that weren’t there either, because they were there all of the time and you stopped even noticing. 
   Until you were out on an inspection one day, walking along with Tariq, such a good guy, such a nice guy who had had you over for dinner last week to meet his wife and two kids in their three room house in Al Amiryah, and you’d talked about what you were both going to do when you got out (he was going to university, you were going into business), and you were walking along outside of the base through the serpentine to the checkpoint to take a look at a couple of new recruits, introduce yourself, ask them if they were settling in okay, did they have any questions, and you look down because the lace of your boot is whipping against your ankle, against all odds because you always double-knotted your laces, but there it was, somehow undone, and flopping around, and so you knelt, and Tariq kept walking without noticing, and five steps away, the lower half of his body vaporized, and you were covered in his blood and your head was throbbing and you could just barely hear the pop-pop-popping of rounds going off, and everything was gray, then fading into focus, like the television was coming back on again. 
   Then you remembered the gun. It was almost like it remembered you, suddenly hard on your side, the always presence that you never noticed. You remember the thumb brush-back that releases the catch and allows you to draw it in a single motion, and the two-handed, hot metal heaviness as you zero it on the figure standing next to the checkpoint hut, leveling his weapon at you. And pop-pop-pop, you squeeze off the trigger and watch the figure drop. And you say, “Tariq! Tariq! Tariq!” even though you can’t hear your own voice yet, and so you can’t even tell that that is what you’re saying, but you’re saying it anyway because it’s the only thing in that moment that you can do as you squeeze the trigger again and again and again. Tariq. Tariq. Tariq. 

The reason things didn’t work out.  
   Chin falls asleep on the train ride home. Waking up just before his stop, he has a headache. The air outside, however, is cool, and helps him feel better. By the time he’s two blocks from the station, his headache is gone and he remembers the gun, which is still in the back of his pants. He takes it out. Under the streetlamp, it is a dull, orangish black. The barrel is beveled on either side down the length of the gun, with twin rows of serrations cut into the metal just under the bevel. Where the bullet would come out is slightly raised, and reminds Chin of something, though he can’t remember what. 
   He puts his hand holding the gun behind his back and walks along slowly, his middle finger hooked around the trigger guard, his thumb stroking the bevel along one side of the barrel; he runs his forefinger around the muzzle. The metal is perfectly smooth, silky under his touch, warm from sitting next to his skin all day. He lets it hang from the loop of his forefinger and thumb; he jounces it up and down in his palm. It was like he was holding it for the first time. 
   Such a thing, he thinks. 
   He wraps his hand around it, around the trigger guard, around the barrel, around the handle. Passing under another streetlamp, he looks at his hand holding it, palm down, just the end of the barrel, the end of the butt, and the hammer showing. The back of his hand is stretched, smooth skin and a scattering of standing hairs.
   Where did this come from? he thinks. Then he feels a twinge in his shoulder as the gun flies away toward the lightly orange-washed, dark-night sky hanging above the black obelisk of the nearest house roof. 
   The gun flies, and Chin feels himself go after it.      

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Jonathan Wei, founder and director of The Telling Project, is a writer, playwright, and producer. He lives with his family in Austin, TX. 


Cover photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash.