Dear Sir or Madam

by Adam Peterson, recommended by Electric Literature

EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus

In honor of Adam Peterson’s “Dear Sir or Madam,” I took a trip to a place I hardly ever visit anymore; a place where wishful thinking perishes and where no one has ever gotten the benefit of the doubt. This place, of course, is my spam folder.

Emails addressed Attn: My Dear or Dear Beneficiary are never opened, let alone taken seriously. But the rules are different in Ellyss, a small town “just big enough to have two of everything, one good, one bad,” and the stomping ground of this fine story. Here, an email addressed “Dear Sir or Madam” and signed “The Improperly Deposed King of Nigeria” may actually be worth the rewards it promises.

In a recent study, researcher Cormac Herley asked, “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria?” His answer: such an overt scam quickly separates the wits from the half-wits, leaving behind only the ripest marks. Among the latter, sorry group is Troy Wasinger’s father, known only as Dad, which is “all anyone calls him, even those of us who would rather not.” Dad is a scammer’s dream, the kind to believe gullible is tattooed on his own ass. First, he narrowly avoids serving up his kidneys to meth heads, and then he sends his Social Security and account numbers to the self-identified king of Nigeria. For such a heedless man, the outlook cannot be bright.

But “Dear Sir or Madam” doesn’t believe in gullibility, or scams. There’s another worldview at play, one in which the distinction between opposites — the good and the bad, the savvied and the naive — is so slight it was perhaps never even there to begin with.

Take this conversation between Troy and the Nigerian Princess, for example:

“You can’t trust anyone,” I say.

“I agree,” she says. “Or you can trust everyone.”

This does not strike me as agreement.

Agreeing, disagreeing, trusting, mistrusting: when you’re stuck in a prairie town without bridges, they all might as well be the same thing. Maybe that’s what giving up looks like but I think there’s hope in these blurred boundaries. The better bar might as well be the worse bar, the good ex-girlfriend is indistinguishable from the bad, the alleged king of Nigeria is no different than the true king. Because whatever shitty thing happens, another, better outcome is just as likely. So likely, in fact, that if you think about it, it may as well have happened. It practically did.

Halimah Marcus
Co-Editor, Electric Literature

Dear Sir or Madam

Here’s how Dad nearly lost a kidney: a man calls — a man with a voice as smooth as frosting on a wedding cake, Dad would here protest — and says he needs to speak with Mr. Wasinger about some test results. Despite the apparent and protracted decline of Dad’s body, he hasn’t had any recent business with the hospital as every urinalysis and blood gas and X-Ray only earns a more somber shaking of the head. But Dad — that’s all anyone calls him, even those of us who would rather not — desires only to be a friend so he says sure he’s Mr. Wasinger and wants to know if he passed. Wants so desperately it’s as if God’s phoning about the color of Dad’s soul. So, this phone-beautiful man tells Dad he needs to hear the results in person, not at the hospital but at an old wheat silo out on County Road 18. This is where most, I suspect, would come around to hanging up. The best, most civic-minded might call the police and the worst might send a child to investigate, but Dad, finding himself somewhere off the scale altogether, calls to borrow my Charger.

“I only meant to spare you the particulars of my ruination,” he says when I wrench the whole story out of him.

I dial the police — not that I am one of the good ones — and Sergeant Kidder tells me it’s only some meth addicts out to steal organs. Apparently the addicts — when they’re not only industrious but maintain an adequate front of teeth — get hospital jobs to pilfer pills and chemicals and patient records. They exhaust those — in that order — then find the next town west. They must be getting desperate to reach Ellyss, Sergeant Kidder adds. And I see his point. We are the final bivouac of civilization against the conquering prairie. When the last valedictorian moves away, the wheat fields will come for us. Before he hangs up, Sergeant Kidder says, Really they’re quite clever. I fear and respect them considerably.

Jimmy Kidder and I have known each other our whole lives, and he’s nice not to mention how me and the boys used to chase after him on four-wheelers or how more than once he’s had to ticket bartenders at The Jake for serving me drinks when they ought not have. This might be the first conversation we’ve had that does not end with one of us asking the other if he’s okay.

“It’s a win, Troy,” Dad claims later, scratching his stomach where he must believe a kidney to be, “because I went to the DMV to make myself an organ donor. Someone’s going to keep dancing because they’ve got my kidney. Hell, she — I imagine it’s a little orphan girl — can have whatever parts she can use.” His eyes get tears and his mouth gets a long pull at his Highlife. “Don’t imagine she wants my liver, but baby she can have it.”

This, I suppose, is a truth.

So Dad kept his kidney, but it seems only a matter of time before someone comes for one again. He signs his name — Dad Wasinger, what has become his name — on every special offer, every kiosk mailing list, every petitioner’s clipboard that circulates through The Home. On the phone he is even more exposed though I cannot suffer to sever the withered umbilical feeding him the world. Sometimes I imagine Dad hovering above his medical bed and how if someone were to open the room’s only window, he would float away.

The nightmare is such that in a fit of drunken pity I trade Van a laptop for a guitar amp I haven’t used since my high school band moved away. I slip an orderly twenty so that he’ll show Dad the internet and, I hint, the bookmarked pornography.

And this is where it begins.

Not with the pornography. That Dad never mentions except perhaps when he tells me there’s crazy stuff out there and either winks both eyes or closes them involuntarily during a tremor. At first it’s chain emails full of dirty jokes — the punch line to one is, Whose turtle is it now, Chad? — and then it’s conspiracies that I scroll through to find his irregularly typed, !did you no They s teal even R Dreams!, placed after thousands of other email addresses of which he has added exactly two: mine and the mayor’s. For a time it’s coupons to chain restaurants not found in Ellyss then videos of kittens sneezing then fundraising emails for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association then, finally, this:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I the Deposed King of the God-fearing Land of nigeria humbly ask from one beatific Christ child to another your help. Mountains of wealth I archived in your magnanimous motherland and need a U.S. American brother to help this disciple retrieve. Please good kind wealthy angelic sir assist a fellow human man in His time of need by replying with your address, Security Social, and account numbers so conveyance might be purchased to your home wherein you will receive UNIMAGINABLE EARTHY AND HEAVENLY AWARDS.

Yours,
The Improperly Deposed King of Nigeria

Dad tells me he has already replied and also ordered some Canadian Viagra at discount prices, an offer he forwarded to everyone in his address book which has now expanded to include The Ellyss Prophet’s editor.

At The Jake, I tell Van that Dad might be in trouble. I am thinking of his poor, shrunken kidneys and who might come for them next.

“Who?”

“My dad.”

“I thought Dad was just, you know, his name.”

“It is,” I say.

“That’s a capital-F fucking good omen your dad’s name is Dad.”

Van is not my friend; Van is my pot guy. But in recent years, moored and alone, the distinction blurred, a Venn Diagram converging into a circle with both of us trapped inside. Sometimes on his constitutionals, Dad smokes with us because glaucoma runs in our family, or so he claims. I do it because I have grown bored of spending my income on car stereos then despairing over which to install.

Days I work as the office manager for a trucking company — a job a girlfriend got me a decade back — and nights I go to The Jake where the familiar faces are either disappearing or turning sour.

The Jake is one of two bars in Ellyss — because Ellyss is just big enough to have two of everything, one good, one bad. The Jake is the bad one just as The Home is the bad nursing home. I put Dad there six years ago when I felt 30 taking aim at me. I went from a good home where Dad raised me to a bad apartment because I always settle on the shit side of the town’s dichotomy. Maybe that’s fated. The Jake was Dad’s bar, and I played in between the legs of these stools when I was a boy. My favorite childhood memories taste of stale corn nuts.

“Let’s introduce him to someone named Mom,” Van says. “My mom is named Mom but she’s already married to a Dad.”

I shrug over my beer. I never had a Mom with a capital M. The original one — which is to say the real one — Dad claims dead, but I know the truth is murkier. When I cleaned out Dad’s house, I found an ammo box full of postcards from her in his bedroom. I never read those cards and do not for a minute regret it. I only had to check the postmark to see the earliest arrived when I was 14 and by that time it had been only Dad and me for years. Well, not always, what with the way mothers came and went. But I figure Dad did all right by me, and when some of my ex-girlfriends got to crying about what our breakup would mean to their kids, I reminded them I turned out fine. Still, I spend nights in bed tracing the spaces between my ribs wondering if I am truly as weak as my body feels.

I admit this to Van.

“It’s natural,” he says. “We live to find new ways to die. That’s the secret. Most fail. Just more mice starving in the maze.”

Maybe Van is my friend. Maybe my only friend. So slowly that I failed to recognize the evacuation, my friends abandoned Ellyss. Which is to say they left me high and not particularly dry. And even that I could abide, if not for them having also left behind ex-girlfriends who glare from behind strollers as they walk through autumn mornings. I don’t have anything to do with the kids, at least not in the way of fathering them. But I pushed them on swings where I once swung myself. I gave my old children’s books as birthday presents. I showed the older ones how to make Troy Stew by buying four varieties of Campbell’s. I heard them accidentally call me Dad and did not correct them. Their mothers — who were so damn hard they were brittle — made me promise I would not hurt them. I promised, I did, again and again. And now I’m gone but not very far.

The worst part is that I don’t care a damn for any of the ex-girlfriends save Fran. Well, Fran and Maria. And these are the two I never see. Or maybe that I always see, just never when I am at my best. Like when Maria comes into the Russ’s and my shopping cart is full of microwave dinners. Or when I’m walking home from The Jake and Fran sees me standing in her lawn yelling her name at the stars.

Van says, “Didn’t you cheat on one with the other then the other with the one? Those bridges are burned.”

I remind him there aren’t any bridges in this prairie town.

All night in my drunken sleep I roll over and over the question of which is the good ex-girlfriend and which is the bad. This knowledge can free me, I’m certain, but I wake up red-eyed and no closer to knowing how I can ever choose one or accept neither.

Out of concern for my hung-over appetite more than Dad’s online activities, I pick him up early for lunch. I find him coloring his room with whistles. When I ask what he’s so happy about, he says, “O, Son, you can’t measure the good that’s coming.”

I worry about him more when he’s happy. Why should he be happy? He is shrinking back down into his athletic socks. His skin — burnt crisp over 40 years of fixing power lines too close to the sun — conveys his state, and I can’t imagine a little orphan girl could do a thing with any part of him.

We go to Taco’s for tacos, the Mexican restaurant Dad prefers to Olé’s which is owned by actual Mexicans. The idea of Mexicans beat actual Mexicans to Ellyss by some 20 years, and for the persistent racism of Dad’s generation I am sometimes grateful, even if the tacos taste like meatloaf sandwiches. See, Maria works at Olé’s and to see her would cause a terrible pain in my chest. I know because not seeing her also causes a terrible pain in my chest.

And Fran, too. Both that she causes this pain and that she works at Olé’s. The two are the best of friends and blame only me for our tortuous past.

Dad orders extra tacos because, he says, he’s suspicious of a Vietnamese cafeteria worker, and I don’t think anything of it. In fact, I enjoy the simple goodness of my gesture so much that I take him for tacos the next day too. We laugh at old stories and let the shredded American cheese rain onto the Charger’s floor mats.

This lightness lasts only a week.

The call comes at work. Before a word is said, I know it’s The Home. I cannot prove it, but those halls hold more oxygen than God’s atmosphere grants us. It leads, surely, to that smell — something so alive it’s death — and the way this woman on the phone breathes like a sparrow.

“If it’s about the bill,” I say, “it’s not that I don’t have the money. It’s that I’m forgetful.”

This, I suppose, is a half-truth.

The nurse insists that I come that minute. I think about how I haven’t shifted the papers around my desk for a while and want to tell her I’m busy. But I know her, or at least I know her daughter. I took Cindy Phillips to the Starlight dance at the Rec. Center in the 7thgrade. At our 10-year reunion, I asked her if I was the first person to have felt her up. Still a prude, she demurred and shuffled her husband away.

At The Home, everything is beige plastic, as if they built the facility after smelting the veterans’ false legs. A fist against Dad’s door sounds like knocking on a portajohn.

“It’s my own damn closet,” Dad says. “Couldn’t I put anything in there? Well, not a hotplate, they were clear on that.”

This confuses me until I look into the closet and see the dressing bench pulled down and covered with lumpy blankets that rise and fall in soft snores.

“Don’t wake him,” Dad says. “He’s still on Nigeria time.”

I try anyway. At first I clap my hands then I turn up the volume on the TV until the accusations on the soap opera crack like heat lightning. None of this has any effect, but it makes me feel like I at least tried. Dad yells over the TV that the man has been living in his closet for days, and that nobody cared until Mrs. Phillips thought something smelled like cabbage.

“It is cabbage,” the lump says.

The man — white and elfin sharp with a frizzy pompadour and a single curl of hair pointing down at a thick black goatee — stands and brushes off his too short pants.

“I am De King of Nigeria,” he says. He wears not a shirt, and I spy what appear to be gunshot scars.

I beg his highness for a brief parley with Dad, and his majesty grants this indulgence by shooshing us away with a limp wristed hand wearing a ruby ring bigger than the cherry suckers I used to buy at the Ben Franklin.

“You’ve embarrassed me,” Dad says. “Now I fear he’ll never trust me to rescue his millions in the name of Jesus.”

“You don’t care about Jesus,” I say. This seems a small point, but I want to win the little ones first.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not a soldier in God’s Army of the Blessed Redemption, my son.”

I am not sure who taught him to talk like this, but I have a theory. Mrs. Phillips glares at us when she enters. He’s been here a week, she says. Dad corrects her by saying it will be a week tomorrow then pulls back his lips to form a big smile. I don’t know about glaucoma, but the Wasingers have strong, bright teeth.

“He’s not the king of Nigeria,” I tell him.

“Of course he’s the king,” Dad says. “He knows all about it. Says he comes from Legos. Plus, his name is King.”

“De King, da,” the man says. He’s changed into a gold shirt and a black silk vest. “Papa, is this de son who brings of the tacos?”

Turns out Dad had been feeding the extra tacos to De King. This Dad explains to me as we drive through town, and when he hands a taco back to De King, he says my liege and bows so that his forehead touches the Charger’s vinyl.

“He’s not even Nigerian,” I say. There’s no chance of offending De King as he’s focused on the girls’ high school track team jogging down the street as he chews with his mouth open.

“Sure he is,” Dad says. “I replied to his electronic letter, and two weeks later he’d taken my savings to buy his plane ticket here, just like he promised. It’s God’s providence divine, Troy.”

I don’t think he knows what these words mean. Watch, I say.

“Perhaps you’d say grace for us, Your Highness,” I call into the backseat.

In the rearview mirror I watch De King stall by picking ground beef from his goatee. He waits for me to take my eyes of him — which I will not do, I don’t care if I run the Charger through the glass doors of the Orscheln’s — before he starts.

“O Lord God of de mother coontry. Bless dis feast and all who live within dis motorcar. Amen.”

“Beautiful,” Dad says.

I drive Dad and De King back, and begin a complex negotiation with Mrs. Phillips over what it will take to get The Home to not ask questions about what’s in Dad’s closet until we can figure this out. I offer the following: I will pay the double rate retroactive a month, and she will let Cindy know I’m thinking about her. Mrs. Phillips counter-offers: no.

But when I see Dad’s expectant eyes I tell him everything went fine. He hid the harder truths from me, and I can do the same for him. In the corner, De King tests the room’s only chair for durability by kicking at its legs then — satisfied — paces regally, his thin head so far back his pompadour is perpendicular with the floor. Dad hugs me for the first time in a forever then kneels to kiss De King’s ring. He says it’s only for a week then all the financial issues will be settled and De King intends to move somewhere more befitting a God-issued monarch. Somewhere like Las Vegas or Boise. I ask De King how he settled on those two destinations, but De King — sniffing Dad’s remote control — only says, “Boy-easy, da.”

I say, “Until then, keep him in the closet. They don’t want the others to know you’re coming into money.”

Dad nods. “Their jealousies vex me so.” Before I can leave De King clasps his hand on my shoulder and says, “Perhaps you’d like princess?”

“No,” I say. “I’m good.”

He squeezes tightly and my arm numbs. He both smells like anise and looks like how anise smells. But his eyes, they’re black and red and not at all shaped like eyes should be shaped. De King nods as if he knows I’m wondering if he is a mortal after all and says, “I take her out your share. Papa give you everyting. Say da.”

He will not release me until I say da. And I need my arm for Cornhole at The Jake so I say da.

Dad sends me updates through Facebook. De King told him about escaping from an African work camp where it was always snowing; Dad set the TV to Univision because De King is worldly; they sneak out to the rec room at night so De King can learn ping-pong. Even though Dad has only been on the site for two days, he already has more friends than I do. One is Maria. One is Fran. And one is De King who in his profile picture has a hand under his goatee while the other shields his eyes from the future or God’s grace or the uncovered neon tubes that light Dad’s room. De King has no other friends — but hundreds of discarded, nearly identical potential profile pictures he must have uploaded accidentally — and out of the same considerable pity that led me to get Dad a computer, I friend him. He never responds.

“It’s a scam,” I say to Van in the alley behind The Jake, “but I can’t figure out what he’d be after.”

“I vant only your happy,” De King says.

I can’t help their presence. Dad needed a constitutional, De King, too. He takes a long drag from the joint and coughs into the night. When it begins to rain, Dad unbuttons his flannel shirt and stands on his toes in a stained white tank top holding the shirt above De King’s head until the joint is gone and we are back in the warm bosom of The Jake. As Dad explains the rules of Cornhole to De King, I take Van aside and say, “Seriously, what’s his game?”

“It’s not Cornhole,” Van says, and he’s right. De King drops the beanbags into his own board and adds three points to his score while Dad claps.

“I mean with Dad.”

Van looks down into the vodka shot De King ordered for him then up at Dad, “And he still has his kidneys? Then it’s kosher.”

I remind him that he is supposed to be my accomplice in suspicion. I remind him he once wanted me to steal the tapioca pudding from The Home so he could test it for LSD.

Van shakes his head, pushes a dollar into the jukebox, says, “Mystery is the heart’s rose.”

As he saunters away, “Smoke on the Water,” comes over the bar’s speakers, and Van might be an idiot.

Drunk, I call the worse of the town’s two unofficial taxis to take us home. The streets of Ellyss are slick with tomorrow’s dew and the moon makes shimmering lakes of the streets. Dad says it reminds him of the war. He wasn’t in the war, but at this drunken moment I nod and so does De King. Tricia, who uses the family van to moonlight as a cab, must think we’re crazy because suddenly I am trying to explain to her the horror and beauty of wars I haven’t fought. And if not then she must think it when we get to The Home and I discover my pockets are empty. Dad offers to pay with his Eagle Scout keychain, but De King insists Tricia leave with his ruby ring which glows like blood in the night.

“I have many and you are as beautiful as this warnight,” he says. “But I must request de service of de toy pony I found on de floor.”

In the morning, I am only my headache when I crawl out from under Dad’s bed just to crawl back when there’s a knock at the door. A pair of white trainers drops off lunch and I hear Mrs. Phillips ask Dad what smells like cabbage. From the closet, nearly a snore, I hear De King moan, “It’s still cabbage.”

I spend the rest of the morning helping Dad move his stuff — only the computer and some old pictures of me as a boy — out of The Home and into the Charger. De King has no stuff. Everything he wears has been seized from other residents, and Dad and I wait as he returns the items.

“This isn’t what I want for you,” Dad says. “I want you to live your life.”

“And you?” I say.

“I suppose I want my life not to feel so lived.”

When De King climbs into the backseat, he holds a pair of khakis far too big for him and beams. “He lives in Jesus now.”

That afternoon as Dad and De King unpack, I walk a circuitous route through Ellyss that takes me by the houses of old friends who I want to follow to somewhere far away, but somehow I just end up at the Russ’s. A Saturday, the store is busy with the risk takers who prefer its roulette of expiration dates to the newer Dillon’s safety, selection, and convenience. I walk down the soup aisle throwing cans of chili and cream of chicken and vegetable beef with the alphabet noodles into my cart. I feel like every face recognizes this recipe, but I no longer recognize theirs. I have used them until I found them empty, and here faces are not born as quickly as I deplete them. I have Dad. I have De King. I have Maria.

At home, I make a stockpot full of Troy Stew and lock my bedroom door. Though the working week is two moons away, I leave a message saying I intend to be sick every day. O, and Fran. I have Fran, too.

In the living room, Dad and De King laugh and slap each other’s backs in front of the computer. I pass the time reading the emails Dad sends. They come rapidly in increasingly fragmented internet speak until he is signing his name !)@!). De King sends me messages, too, but only with requests to visit his personal website which automatically plays “Silent Night” while a winking moon rocks on a swing and a snowflake breakdances. There is this message:

Dear Sir or Madam, I need you more than ever. Please, in Lordly Kindness, link yourself to me.

The Irregularly Disposed King of Nigeria

Underneath, there is a picture of Dad and De King pretending to urinate on a plastic fern. It says © TROY WASINGER PHOTOGRAPHY, but I remember only urinating in that fern for real that night after The Jake.

On Friday I hear them whispering to each other outside my bedroom door, and for a time I think they are planning a house meeting so we can set up a chore chart and discuss upgrading the cable TV. But then they are gone, and for the first time in days I am alone. I step into the living room to survey the empty Mountain Dew bottles strewn around the computer and a drawing of black and white stick figures holding hands atop an icy plain. In the background lions dance with brown bears. Across the top it says, NIGERIA, and at the bottom, FLAG. Before I can take it down the door opens. I assume it’s Dad and De King back with sacks full of moon pies and 5-hour Energy until a woman says, Husband.

She steps into my apartment with her chin held high and lowers it only when she kisses my cheeks. She wears a dress of gold and green silk that stops halfway up her shoulders as if the fabric got tired on the climb up the smooth, brown slope. Thin braids cover her ears and a long ponytail cascades down her back. A uniformed driver carries in a set of white leather luggage, a blessing because I never want a time to come when we are alone.

“You ordered a wife?” she says.

This, I suppose, is a near-truth.

She kicks away a can that once held beets and says, “The Nigerian Princess. You received my emails?”

When I laugh she says, “What? You think I want to marry you?”

Her eyes take mine on a walk around my apartment, and I see it as she must see it. More damningly, I smell it as she must smell it. The nose does not like a mystery and Van is full of shit. I am too old to live like this. I know because I am standing on a black t-shirt I got when I played JV basketball.

When I put Dad in The Home, I remember being jealous of how he accepted that there were places he would not return to and would never go.

“I was once like you,” she says then pauses to think about it. “No, better than this.”

I excuse myself — with considerable relief — when the phone rings. It’s Dad. He says I won’t get the money if I don’t marry her and I say that’s ridiculous and he’s says he’s got to go because his druid is about to level up and De King says they won’t be able to kill the dragon unless they find a white mage and I say where are you and I say where are you. He’s gone.

“What’s your name?” I ask when the silence becomes intolerable.

“Princess Kano,” she says. “Like the city.”

“O,” I say, “Naturally.”

She calls me Husband until I insist she call me Troy. She insists in turn I call her Princess — which I thought I had been doing — but I realize I have not risked saying her name at all. I tell her I will put her on a bus to wherever she wants to go.

“Boise,” she says. “I’ve heard good things about their medical school.”

But she is hungry and there is no restaurant in Ellyss worthy of a princess. I choose the opposite of the one where I would normally go, but first we see the town. I drive in widening circles, not talking much but slowing near all the landmarks of my childhood. I am surprised how many places hold memories, and for the hour of the drive the town feels bigger than I know it to be. I even take her out to the decrepit wheat silo where the meth addicts once tried to steal Dad’s kidney and though I say nothing, though she has no idea what has happened, she holds my hand.

“You can’t trust anyone,” I say.

“I agree,” she says. “Or you can trust everyone.”

This does not strike me as agreement.

At Olé’s, I try to sit across from her, but she insists on the same side of the red booth. Sombreros hang from the ceiling and the salt and pepper shakers are tiny maracas. When the waiter comes, Princess slaps my shoulder with the menu.

“Tacos!” she cries.

We order a medley, all the varieties, even the ones that are made out of parts of cows I will not describe to her. While she eats — one bite from the bottom center of each taco, spinning the plate to bring the next one around — she widens her eyes and says De King is not her father. She looks as if this information might cause me to faint though I only say good lord, of course not. Disappointed, she continues. She didn’t know she was a princess until he told her in an email. What choice did she have? And all this time she’s talking I know she’s not lying and she’s not stupid, either. I believe her when she says she was studying to be a doctor, and that she’d like to continue to in America. I say it’s too bad there is only the Veterinary School in Ellyss, but that the university in Boise has a football field blue as an ocean. This pleases her greatly. She asks me to tell her about my family, and though I try to hide my mother behind the considerable adventures of my father — for this has always been my strategy — she will not relent. I tell her about the postcard box, and she says sometimes we must be guarded against the truth.

And this I do agree with, but an argument overcomes me anyway. “I can’t imagine it was anything so horrible.”

She shakes her head. Not a braid moves. “She left. Your father couldn’t. He moved forward where he could.”

Then I see them. First Maria then Fran then Fran and Maria together. They are looking and whispering. Both wear short black aprons heavy with order pads and pens. I am grateful they are friends despite what I did, and suddenly the thing I want most is to be able to explain something to them but I don’t know what.

“Ex-lover?” Princess says.

“Both of them.”

“Past wounds can heal,” she says, “but the future scars before it cuts.”

I tell her she reminds me of a friend of mine, and she says it is nothing, only the limited wisdom of someone who once received a message, who gave up her old life for a new one, who will do it again. In Boise.

A gas station serves as the stop for the day’s one bus, which goes the wrong direction. It will take her to Kansas City then to Omaha and then she will need to get a different bus — likely several different busses — until she arrives, two days later, in Idaho. I try to convince her of the arduousness of such a trip, but Princess only says she is sorry things could not have worked out.

“You should be far more worried,” I say. “Try not to sit by the bathroom.”

I go inside for the ATM to give her whatever I can, but when I punch in my PIN, I find a richer man’s account. Hands shaking, I dial my number and De King answers with a curt, “Ve’re podcasting.”

“The money?” I say. Outside I can see Princess by the pumps washing the Charger’s windshield, even taking a towel to wipe off the squeegee after each pass to prevent streaks. I love that car, and even I never do that.

“I promised,” De King says. “Your money minus $2,526. Wife fee. You are also official Nigerian Knight. Tap your shoulders and rise Sir Papason. O, and I took de tax, too. Do not be angry with this old bear-o-cat.”

And I don’t know what good things are coming. I only know that when I go to buy the bus ticket, I buy two. Outside, I tell Princess that it’s not a journey one should undertake alone.

This, I suppose, is a lie.

And it’s not that I believe in Princess as a princess or a wife. But I believe she believes something and maybe that’s enough.

When I go back into the truck stop to get Princess a water, I call Van and tell him he can have the Charger, and as he’s haggling over how much pot he’ll trade for it, I hang up. I leave the keys with the clerk and buy two postcards. The cards are all black and on the back say ELLYSS AT NIGHT, and while Princess is checking my brake fluid, I begin to write atop a dusty box of Fifth Avenue bars. One I write to Dad. I say I’m going and that he should videochat me so that I can look after his kidneys from afar. The other I write to Maria and Fran, care of Olé’s. I say I’m sorry for not knowing how to live here and even more sorry for not knowing I didn’t know. I say I don’t know how to live anywhere else either. I say I never knew what you wanted or what I could have done to give it to you. I say I am not sure I have learned anything. I say don’t read this postcard. I say I want to take you with me exactly as much as I want to leave you behind. I say goodbye but it might be hello, and I worry those two who once loved me will recognize the sad, smiling contradictions in my handwriting and give me up for good. Then where will I be.

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