One in Six

On a Wednesday night at about 7:30, I finally decide how I’m going to spend the rest of my life. It happens while I’m working on a painting inside my small apartment, alone, above the photographer’s studio on the corner of Fifth and Madison. When I saw the ad for the place in a newspaper, I had assumed “studio apartment” meant one tiny bedroom and a tiny kitchen. I’m more inclined to believe now that it was actually the photographer’s second studio at one point, because the stench of developing chemicals still lingers in the brown shag carpeting after three months and twenty bottles of Febreeze.

I take my friend Paul out to Kountry Kitchen to tell him the good news. Paul’s a year older than me, which is probably why I have a tendency to take him so seriously, as if a person can actually acquire substantially more wisdom over the course of three hundred–odd days. He owns a candle business and runs it out of his apartment. It’s ingenious, really, because he steals most of the wax and sells the candles at an outrageous price to the local occult shops on the outskirts of the city. He’s like a real-life Tyler Durden, only I doubt his hundred-pound frame could take any sort of pounding in the ring of a fight club. The first rule of Candle Club is no cheap shots to the face.

“I’ve never heard a stupider idea in my life,” Paul says after we’ve ordered and I’ve thoroughly outlined my plan.

“Yeah, well, stupider isn’t really even a goddamned word.” It’s a chintzy retort, but I’ve never been all that witty. I twist the cap off my bottle of Coke and look at it. One in six is supposed to win at least a free Coke, but the odds have eluded me through four bottles. One in an untold million wins the Grand Prize, which I’m beginning to doubt is even worth the pain in my stomach caused by consuming a gallon of carbonated acid.

Paul takes a sip of his iced tea and lights a cigarette. “It’s still a stupid idea, however you choose to define your vernacular.”

“What’s so stupid about it?” I ask, maybe a little too loud. The old couple in the booth behind Paul both cock their head slightly when I raise my voice. I give them an apologetic nod, as if I’ve happened upon them at a funeral for one of their dearly departed friends.

“It’s a romantic notion,” he explains in a tone I can’t help but take some offense to, the kind of tone a parent might use to explain to a child that Santa isn’t real, but the spirit of Christmas will always live on. “Jesus Christ, I give you one simple book to read and you go off on a delusion of grandeur. There isn’t actually such a job as a Catcher in the Rye.”

“So I’ll make it one.” I lean forward in the booth, wincing when my jeans rub loudly against the plastic cushion. Paul cracks a smile. “Listen. I’ve never been happy doing anything but drawing, okay? I tried to be happy doing the whole Making-a-Living thing back in my hometown, I really did. I tried to work a nine-to-five job, doing the exact same thing every day, but I couldn’t. I think if I could just spend my life out there with a sketchpad and a really sharp pencil, keeping those kids away from the cliff, I could be happy for the rest of my life.”

“And you’d mooch off me?”

I smile. “If you don’t mind.”

Paul shakes his head and takes a drag of his cigarette. “What about health insurance? This isn’t Canada, man. You can’t walk into a hospital every time you’ve got a sore on your weenie and then send the bill to Uncle Sam.”

“I won’t get sick. I’ve been on the Starbucks health plan for six months without ever having to see a doctor. Besides, that’s what the Coke’s for. All I need to do is win the Grand Prize and I don’t have to worry about all that shit.”

We both lean back so the waitress can set our plates of food on the table. Paul doesn’t reply to my smart-ass comment, even though he has every right to. But he’s not like that, which is why I’ve probably taken such a liking to him. It’s refreshing to become friends with someone whose life is just as pathetic as mine, because he can’t judge me for fucking up my own.

“What’re you doing tonight?” he asks after finishing all of his scrambled eggs with three giant yellow spoonfuls. He’s as thin as a pencil, and yet he eats like a horse on a daily basis. Guys like that should be models; they never have to worry about gaining weight no matter what. Paul chose the opposite route, opting instead to live a life of squalor and cut his hair himself (usually with scissors) so he looks like that little hellion from the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip.

I shrug. “No work till Saturday morning.”

“Come out with me tonight?” He asks this as a sort of half question.

“Sure,” I say. “Where to?”

Paul points over my shoulder, south, toward the suburbs. “About twenty miles in that direction, just off of Highway 12.”

“Strip club?”

Paul shakes his head, stabbing at his small mound of hash browns with his fork. They flake apart like a pile of dry twigs. “Bee farm.”

I raise my eyebrows. “You’re taking me on a wax safari? What makes you think I want to break the law with you?”

“Ah,” he waves away the comment with a fork-full of potatoes, shards of which flake off and bounce on top of my French fries. “You don’t have to break the law. You just gotta drive me.”

The waitress hands me another bottle of Coke. I twist off the cap and look inside. Five bottles, and now I’m too full to finish my chicken sandwich. “One in six wins. Those are good odds. What do you think the odds are we’ll get arrested on this little mission?”

“God, you’re a piece of work,” Paul says between mouthfuls of ham.

I do my best to choke down my new drink, but the carbonation has begun to expand my stomach to the point that it’s suffocating my bladder. I excuse myself and jog to the bathroom. I try to think of some excuse not to drive Paul, but my mind is notoriously bad when it comes to working under pressure. While I’ve got one shaky hand holding down the front of my boxers, I wonder if maybe a little excitement might get some of this extra caffeine out quicker. Then at least I could try my odds with another Coke.

“You’ll like this,” Paul says when I get back.

“Are there a lot of bees?” I ask.

“Well, yeah. It’s a fucking bee farm, man.”

A few goose bumps prickle up under the hairs on my arm. “I don’t like bees. I’m actually pretty scared of them.”

“Why?” he asks. “They don’t even sting all that often.”

A very fragmented memory places me inside my eleven-year-old body, standing on our family porch. I watch the bee land on my arm in slow motion, doing a little dance on its tiny legs before stabbing the stinger into my smooth flesh. It pulls away, leaving its entrails behind in a long string of miniature guts. They’re black and wet.

“Once was enough.”

Paul sips the last of his tea and clasps his hands together, indifferent to my traumatic childhood moment. “All right, let’s go steal some wax.”

I glance up at the waitress, who hands us the final bill. She gives us a careful gaze, but doesn’t say anything. I get out my wallet, look at the total, and pull out a crisp twenty. “Can you get me two more bottles of Coke?”

Now she eyes me suspiciously. The whole wax-stealing thing she doesn’t have a problem with, but all these Cokes are apparently making her nervous. “You sure you need them, sweetie? That much caffeine isn’t good for you.”

“They’re for the road,” I say.

We wait for her to come back with the two plastic bottles. We walk out to my car and I set the bottles in the empty cup holders. I have to pump the gas pedal a few times before the engine catches. “We may be walking home,” I say weakly.

“We’ll be fine,” Paul says. He reaches into both of his pants pockets and pulls out two handfuls of crumpled plastic bags, tossing them at his feet. He digs deeper in his pockets for a fresh packet of cigarettes and lights one.

We drive mainly in silence. Once we’re out of the city and freeway traffic thins out, I open one of the Coke bottles and check the cap.

“Anything?” Paul asks, not turning away from the dark suburban landscape sailing by.

“It’s bullshit, is what it is.” I take an obligatory sip of the Coke, only because I paid for it. “Did I ever tell you about the time I worked in a gas station back home?”

Paul shakes his head.

“We used to play the scratch-offs all the time. The odds of winning a buck were usually, like, seven-to-one. I probably played about twenty dollars a day, and guess how often I won anything.”

“Once a day.”

“Once a week. Usually a dollar.”

Paul sits up in his chair. “This is the exit. Pull off and make a left on 12.”

I take the next exit and make a quick left. We only travel a half-mile or so before I spot the solitary, white, one-story building standing in front of the fenced-in cabinet-style boxes peppered across a landscape of fresh-cut grass. It’s like a graveyard almost, only the tombstones are filled with honeycomb.

Morbidly funny, that’s what I am.

“There’s a light on in one of the windows,” I say, slowing down while we’re still a hundred yards away.

“I know,” Paul says. “It’s the night worker. He’s cool. He lets me sneak in if I give him a free candle.”

“He’s willing to sacrifice his job for a candle?”

“Not just any candle,” Paul says. “He has me make a special one that’s scented with his fiancé’s favorite flower. He uses them to smooth out fights.”

I pull into the hotel parking lot across the street, ignoring Paul’s drawn-out sigh. “How often do you come here, anyway?”

“Pretty much whenever he gets in a fight with her. Free wax really cuts down on overhead.” Paul grabs the bags and gets out of the car and I follow him across the empty road to the chain-link fence surrounding the farm.

“Well, sure,” I say. “I mean, all you really would have to pay for, then, is the goddamned string.” I follow Paul over the fence — I go over carefully, covering my balls to guard against the pointy top, while he jumps over like a professional graffiti artist.

He walks over to the nearest white box in the yard and looks over to me. “You coming?”

“I’m fine right here.”

I watch Paul work his magic, slipping between boxes and pulling out each drawer, emptying the honeycomb from each one, putting them in the plastic bags. His fingers slide in and out of each individual drawer in one smooth motion, carefully plucking each plate of wax with such a gentle touch that even the few yellow-and-black dots resting inside the comb don’t stir. In my mind, I had pictured more bees. Had there been bees all over Paul’s arm while he gently stole their life’s work, I suppose the whole moment might have seemed more extraordinary.

“You’re too much of a romantic,” Paul calls out, not turning away from his sleeping patient. “It’s why you’ve got this Catcher in the Rye bullshit in your head.”

“Was I talking out loud?”

Paul comes back over. He has eight bags filled with two thin squares of honeycomb in each. “We’re just stealing wax. If you wanna see some fucking bee magic, go rent Fried Green Tomatoes.”

A loud thunder crack cuts off whatever retort I could muster, sending a ringing through my ears that echoes inside the center of my brain. I turn toward the small building and see someone standing in front of the back door. The light over the door keeps the man’s face in the shadows, but I easily recognize the small, L-shaped object in his right hand, pointed toward the stars.

“Fuck,” Paul says, a little too calmly, as he grabs the sleeve of my shirt and pulls me back toward the boxes in the rear of the yard.

“Don’t run or I swear to fucking God I’ll shoot you both!” the man calls out, but we’re already running and I don’t think I could possibly stop my legs right now even if I wanted to. They’re moving of their own volition, conscious of the danger and unwilling to accept an untimely demise at the hands of a third-shift beekeeper. We jump the fence on the other side of the farm without hearing another shot behind us. I struggle to get over the top, carefully avoiding putting my crotch anywhere near the jagged links to ensure children in my future, catching up to Paul at the base of the large maple forest behind the bee farm.

“Some friend,” I say between hurried breaths. The cool night air has already begun to strip my lungs of their oxygen. It’s so dark I can’t see anything more than a foot in front of me, and even then it’s only shadows, ghosts of images. I have to dodge branches in a split second, no time to second-guess. I imagine this is what a baseball player must feel like in the ninth inning, when the closing pitcher is in and throws 95-mile-per-hour fastballs without breaking a sweat. “We need to slow down or I’m gonna keel over.”

Paul looks over his shoulder. Satisfied, he slows down to a jog. “That wasn’t my friend. That was the night shift security guard. But he’s only supposed to be there when none of the beekeepers are on-duty.”

“Smells like a setup.” I’ve always wanted to say that. When else would an artist moonlighting as a Starbucks barista have such an opportunity? “It was a waitress. She set us up.”

“It wasn’t a fucking setup,” Paul says. He looks over his shoulder again before slowing down a bit more. The trees have begun to spread out, giving way to more natural undergrowth and Midwestern foliage. “I must have gotten the dates wrong or something.”

“Maybe they found out your friend was doing it,” I say. “And they gave him a chance to save his job by letting them catch you.”

Paul concedes the suggestion with a restrained grunt. We walk in silence, letting our heaving breaths make the majority of the noise. I keep one of my hands out in front of me to catch any small branches at the base of the trees and avoid a scratched cornea. It’s another fear of mine, right up there with bee stings and damaged testicles.

We walk to the end of the forest, stepping into a clearing littered with old, large tombstones scattered in no purposeful order. They look older than the ground under them, with heavy weeds wrapping around the chiseled names, uncut grass growing unchecked, high enough so that only the tips of the smaller stones are visible in the sea of dying greenery. I would give anything to have my sketchbook with me right now, to draw these large slabs of decaying stone, letting my mind find a pattern in their intricate placement, a method to the madness. Each stone is unique — not just a different name, but a different shape, a different size, a different design.

“I don’t think he’s following us,” Paul says, taking a seat on the nearest gravestone.

I pull him off of it. “Are you nuts? That’s probably the worst possible thing you could do in this situation.”

Paul glances down at the faded name etched into the reddish marble, the dark letters covered by a thick layer of caked brown dirt. “I don’t think Raymond minds. He’s probably happy to have the company.”

In the silence, I can hear the soft hiss of Lake Michigan. “Let’s walk a little farther, just to make sure we’re not followed,” I say. “Not that I believe in ghosts or anything, but still.”

Paul shrugs and lets me lead the way. I walk through the small graveyard following the only way out, an overgrown path that leads from the clearing toward Lake Michigan. The dirt turns into flat gravel another hundred yards ahead, back into a thick forest of maples and oaks. We follow it another fifty or so yards until the trees give way to the edge of a grassy cliff overlooking the beach thirty feet below. We follow the path south along the cliff and come upon a wooden bench overlooking the lake. Behind the bench, flowers of all shapes and sizes surround a small sapling that stands out like a skeletal umbrella among its more developed brethren.

“Holy shit,” I say, standing in front of the bench. “We’re right by Bradley Beach.”

“How do you know that?” Paul asks.

“Because,” I point to the bench, “this is where that paramedic shot himself.”

Paul looks around, first at the dark path heading farther south, then out toward the empty lake, then back to the bench. “You’re right.”

I sit down on the bench and look out over the lake. Paul sits next to me, groaning in response to the pressure of the hard wooden surface against his bony ass.

“He just shot himself,” I say. Looking out at the lake, just like this. Sitting right where we are, with a gun locked tightly between his lips.

Paul nods absently. “It’s surreal, to say the least.”

The clouds directly above us part for a moment, allowing for the moon’s reflection to cut the dark lake in two, separated by a dull beam of light. To the north, a little more than ten miles away, the outlines of the city’s buildings are visible. I sit here in the darkness and sketch the entire horizon inside my mind. I move the moon’s reflection farther north, just below the last of the buildings, dividing the city from the country. I draw the paramedic inside the waves, drowning in the current of darkness he must have felt so hopeless against.

“What do you think he was thinking about?” I ask.

Paul shrugs, carefully setting his bag of wax under the bench. “That life just wasn’t worth living, I guess.”

I shake my head. “I always thought people like that were so happy. I never thought they were the type.”

“People like who?” Paul asks.

“He had a great job,” I say. “And a family. And a nice place just north of town. He had it all.”

Paul glances at me, frowning, his two thin eyebrows connecting at the bridge of his nose. “And you think just because he had money, he had happiness?”

“He had a family, too.”

“But you mentioned his job first,” Paul says. He turns back to the dark lake. “You thought it wasn’t possible to be successful and depressed.”

I shrug.

“You thought you would finally be happy if you had the Grand Prize.”

“Maybe,” I say. “The free Coke certainly didn’t sound appealing after my fourth bottle of the day.”

“The free Coke is bullshit, man. Look out there. Tell me what it is that would truly make you happy right now.”

I stare out at the dark lake. The moon’s reflection slowly disappears under the advancing western cloud cover. “If I had a sketchbook,” I say finally. “And a really, really sharp pencil.”

“There you go, man.”

I sit in silence, staring out at the lake and letting my mind travel across the dark waves, not really paying attention to anything except the constantly changing horizon. Paul curls against the opposite side of the bench, dozing off well before the first bright oranges and reds touch the water, igniting the atmosphere. I draw the sun’s ascent with my focused eyes, sharp as a pencil, sketching its gradual emergence from the wet horizon, exploding in a fury of warm colors that bounce across the light blue sky, tearing away the darkness and casting it back into the shadows under the bare trees. If only the paramedic could have waited just a few hours more.

Paul wakes up shortly after dawn, rubbing hard at his eyes and wiping the drizzle of clear drool from his scraggly five o’clock shadow.

“Sorry,” he says with a scratchy morning voice.

“For what?”

“It was pretty fucking freaky last night,” he says, glancing at me through half-open eyes. “The gun shot and all. It was freaky. Sorry I dragged you along.

“Ah.” I wave it away with a flick of the wrist. “You think it’s safe to go back?”

Paul thinks about it for a moment, then nods. “As long as he didn’t see us park in the hotel lot.”

We walk back along the path, through the cemetery and into the pine forest. At the end of the forest we carefully avoid the bee farm altogether, staying close to the main road two hundred yards farther east that leads into Bradley Park. We cross the highway and jog to the hotel. My car’s still there, without any signs of an ambush waiting nearby. We get into the car and I pump the pedal a few times to ensure a quick getaway before even trying to start it.

“Wait.” Paul reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a crumpled white envelope. He hands it to me.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Open it.”

I use my finger to break the seal and slowly pull out the bills, letting my sticky fingers touch every single one. They’re all twenties.

“What the hell is this?” I ask.

“Your cut.”

“Kind of a lot for a car ride,” I say. I look at him to see if he’s kidding, but his face won’t tell me anything.

Paul rolls down his window and lights a cigarette. “I stole one of your sketchbooks about a month ago. The one with the obelisks and buildings and shit.”

“I don’t get it,” I say. I know I should be mad, at least a little bit, but I don’t know why.

“I used the designs,” Paul says, exhaling a little shakily, like he’s expecting me to be mad. “For my candles, you know? I made molds of a few of your drawings and then I sold them to repeat clients. No one took the original asking price, but I still sold every single one of them.”

I try to envision one of the sketches from that book put into the third dimension. Trees, lamps, other things that my mind took hold of and distorted, contorted, manipulated. Now I imagine them with a wick on top. I imagine one — a birch tree reaching up with its branches to the sky, its leaves clutching at sunlight like hundreds of individual hands — melted down to a stump.

“You’re going to go into business with me,” Paul says. “You draw, I mold.”

I look down at the bills. “How much is this?”

“Three hundred.”

I set the envelope on the dash and pull out of the parking lot. “I can’t do it. Those sketches took me … fucking months to do. I can’t rush into that stuff. It’s just something I do for fun.” It’s a release, I want to say, but I’m not sure how to explain it without sounding insane. No one passes up money.

“Don’t give me that,” Paul snaps. “You’ve got honest-to-God talent. Like you said, it’s the only thing you enjoy doing, right?”

“Yeah, but you don’t understand. It’s what I do for me. I can’t do it under pressure — that’s why I quit the art program in college. I draw for me. I sketch for me. When I want. What I want. I’ve tried doing it for other people before and it always drove me nuts.”

“Then let me use some more of your sketchbooks. And I’ll keep using the molds I made with your obelisks.”

Now I am getting a little mad, because he just doesn’t understand. The more I want to draw, the less I can. And the more I draw, the more I want to. I can’t break the circle, the snake consuming its own tail.

“What’s the problem, seriously?”

I pull onto the freeway. Suddenly I’m tired, and all I want to do is lie down on my bed and try not to think about the white pad of paper by my bedside. The rough, dollar-like feel of the carbon, its tiny bumps and grainy surface tickling the tips of my fingers like filed-down Braille, sending my sensory receptors a hidden message only the sharpest pencil can decode. “I can’t explain it. I’m not an artist.”

Paul clasps his hand on my shoulder. “You know what your problem is? You’re always putting yourself down. You’re an artist. In every sense of the word.”

“But what if I can’t come up with another design?” I ask. “What if that was it, and my juices are all dried up?”

“Then we keep selling the designs I already have. And you keep getting your cut. But that won’t happen. You’ll always be an artist, no matter how much you try to convince yourself that you’re not.”

“Yeah.”

“Nothing changes,” he says. “You keep doing what you’re doing, and every once in a while I sneak away with a few of your sketchbooks.”

I scoff at the idea. “I wish you wouldn’t have told me in the first place. You could have just set all the money aside and given it to me when we’re both old.”

“I didn’t think you’d still be alive by then. Look, I know this isn’t what you expected.”

“How so?”

“With your life,” he says. “I know you’ve been waiting for something great to happen, like somehow you’re going to end up this famous painter or win the lottery or something like that. You’re not trying to win a free Coke. You’re trying to win the Grand Prize that’ll solve all your problems.”

I glance down at the last unopened bottle of soda, still sitting in the cup holder under the radio. I laugh. “God, I fucking hate Coke.”

Paul takes a deep breath and shakes his head. “The problem is, that type of shit happens to other people, not us. We’re just the normals, you know? You’ll never make enough to support yourself on your art alone, just like I can’t quit pumping gas to work on candles. But you can keep your day job and at the same time keep designing these candles, and we can both make enough to survive. Take the free Coke, man, and fuck the Grand Prize.”

I take the bottle of Coke from the cup holder and heft its weight in my hand. One in six wins a free Coke. One in thirty-four million wins the Grand Prize. I roll down my window, check the mirror to make sure there aren’t any cars behind me, and toss the bottle out.

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