Ben first met Charlie Cahill on the train to New York. Charlie was reading a collection of Hemingway stories; he wore a wrinkled suit that showed too much sock; and he gorged himself on a hot dog, oblivious to the ketchup that dripped down his tie. Behind Charlie sat a young mother with her crying child. After ten minutes of wails and screeches, Charlie turned around, dangled his keys, and grinned.
“It’s got a little light,” he said. “See here? You can switch it off and on. Click click.”
The child blinked, tears sliding over her lips. Ben thought he heard someone applaud. The mother smiled, and Charlie returned to his book.
Ben saw him again a few hours later, in the dining car. Charlie sat alone, bottle of wine on the table and the Hemingway book on its last pages. His tie was gone, and he was side-lit by a small lamp. Ben gulped his beer and walked over.
“Nice work with that little girl.”
Charlie looked up, squinting. Then he fumbled in his breast pocket and pulled out a pair of glasses.
“That little girl clicked the pen light off and on for thirty minutes,” Charlie said. “This is why some cultures shoot annoying children.”
“Interesting,” Ben said. “I’ve never heard of any culture that shoots annoying children.”
Charlie sighed. “Neither have I. But there should be.”
They were the only ones in the dining car except for the elderly conductor, who sat in the back corner, cap crooked, staring out the window with his hands on his lap. Charlie motioned across the table.
“I don’t want to interrupt your reading,” Ben said.
“No worries.” Charlie closed the Hemingway book and slid it to the side. “That is an old book, and it is a good book. It keeps me company in the way a good book should. Tomorrow I will finish that good book, and it will be no more.” He grinned and refilled his wine glass.
“Hemingway,” Charlie said.
“Yes, I got that.”
“My pastiche. Or would it be an homage? Anyway. Are you coming from D.C.?”
“Very nice. Big homes and little fences. You must be married.”
“She’s back home.”
“Ah,” Charlie said. “And first I thought you might be a fag. I don’t care, you know. My father was a playwright so I grew up with fags. My first kiss was with Sergio the wispy Italian.” He brushed away the memory with a wave of his hand. “Tell me what you do.”
Ben sat across from him. The rhythm of the train made Charlie sway in his seat.
“I’m in advertising,” Ben said.
“Selling or writing?”
“A little of both.”
“Anything I would know?”
Charlie folded his hands across his stomach. “I love a clever ad campaign. Try me.”
A decaying town swept past their window—a graffitied mill surrounded by tall weeds, and stacks of tires and shopping carts frozen in midtumble down the bank of a slow river.
“We’re the guys who rebranded Werther’s Original caramels,” Ben said.
“ ‘Werther’s.’ ” Charlie swept his hand across the air. “ ‘Suck it, Grandpa.’ ”
“We don’t mind ridiculous,” Ben said.
Charlie narrowed his eyes. “What do you think I do?”
“You’re a kindergarten teacher.”
Charlie laughed. “I’m a playwright. Most of my work premieres in New York, off-off-off Broadway.”
“I haven’t been to a play since high school,” Ben said.
“Let me guess: Bye-Bye Birdie.”
“Barefoot in the Park. I went with my girlfriend.”
“Jesus. It’s always one or the other. I bet she loved it.”
“Of course. A handsome couple making their way in a Manhattan brownstone—”
“I know the plot. Neil Simon was a family friend, and he based Victor Velasco on my father. Have you ever heard of The Comfort of Random Objects? That was my father’s show. It ran for six years at the Majestic.”
Ben drank his beer and looked at Charlie’s reflection in the window. He figured he’d played Ivy League football, or one of those rugged, preppy sports made for thick boys with freckles, wind-tousled hair, and cheeks red from the cold. Ben thought of his own college days: the muddied field outside his dorm, the slate skies and the forested hills.
Charlie finished his glass and wiped his mouth with his jacket sleeve. He stared at Ben.
“Two daughters,” Ben said. “Neither of them annoying.”
“Nice. I bet you’re a popular man at work. How’s your secretary?”
Charlie laughed. “You see? This is why I don’t have any old friends. The first year I impress them with my cynicism, the second year they try to impress me, and the third year they realize I am completely full of shit. So what? Saves me the trouble of having to come up with new stories. What’s your wife’s name?”
“The two of you walk into a room, and the women all pat the side of their hair. Am I right?”
“I don’t pay enough attention,” Ben said. “But it sounds good.”
“That line is from my last play. God, I am pathetic. What the hell, though. We’re on a train. We should be talking this way.” Charlie leaned forward, his mouth slightly open, eyes smiling. “You wouldn’t have a joint on you, would you?”
“Not in years,” Ben said.
Charlie sighed. “Oh, well. You should come to my show tonight. It’s a little one act about a dog trying to find its way back home. An Afghan hound lost in the mountains of Kabul. The story is dripping with political subtext—slave/master relations, not having a voice, et cetera. It’s profound, is what I’m trying to say.”
“Sounds interesting,” Ben said.
“It isn’t,” Charlie said, grinning. “But you should come anyway.”
Charlie wrote an address on his card while they stood in the middle of Penn Station.
“Show starts at nine,” he said, and he stuffed the card in Ben’s breast pocket. “Arrive early if you like shrimp, because that always goes first.”
Ben found a cab easily. He rode through Midtown and into the Village, past brownstones and double-parked delivery trucks. A Chinese man carried a box of lettuce across the street. A young couple hugged on the corner, both of them wearing the same style jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Pigeons soared and landed on the curb. Ben leaned his head against the window and inhaled deeply.
He had the driver let him off at the Cherry Lane Theater and walked toward Seventh Avenue. He loved autumn shadows in the city; they hide the dog shit and cigarette butts, leaving the best parts—the yellow leaves on the black street, the pale sidewalk, the chalking brick. A leggy blonde wearing stilettos clacked past, and Ben nodded at her. She smiled.
He pressed the buzzer to Sarah’s brownstone. She took her time answering. Ben walked slowly up the stairs, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his cuffs. He ran his hands through his hair and his tongue over his teeth.
He paused in the doorway. Sarah wore tight jeans and a little black sweater. He saw a flash of her stomach and the half-circle of her navel. She was barefoot, with paint stains on her fingers. He smelled chicken tarragon coming from her apartment and heard talk radio playing softly.
“A little,” he said, and when he picked her up, she wrapped her legs around his waist. It always happens this way, he thought. It’s supposed to be spontaneous, but it’s the best we can do.
Sarah sat in her kitchen and smoked. She wore white cotton panties with a wrinkled T-shirt, and she had one foot on Ben’s seat, while her other leg was folded Indian style. Ben ate chocolate-covered almonds from a bowl on the table. He found he could reduce Sarah to three parts: thin nose, high Russian forehead, and a long neck.
“If you’d like to go, then we can go,” she said. She exhaled through her nose, wrist limp and cigarette dangling.
“I’m fine either way,” Ben said.
“What do you want me to wear? Something nice?”
“Throw on some red heels and go as is.”
She pursed her lips. “I’m not a fucking Natasha from the Ukraine.” Her accent thickened. “I wants to look nice for friends, yes? I wants to be . . . how do you say . . . supermodel?”
She ashed her cigarette in his bowl of almonds, and he grabbed her foot.
“Please,” she said. “I am in a terrible mood. I got nothing done today.”
Ben felt his wedding ring in his pocket. He’d taken it off on the way up the stairs. It always comes off after his tie, and it sits in his pocket, patiently, warm and blind, until he’s ready to return.
“Maybe you need a drink,” he said.
“Of course. Natasha the shitty artist needs vodka to help forget her troubles.”
“That bit is getting tired,” he said.
“So am I.” She yanked her foot from his grasp. “What’s our story tonight? Am I your wife, or your cousin, or—”
“We don’t need to say anything. Charlie won’t care. He’s too busy talking about himself.”
Sarah picked at the paint on her thumbnail, and Ben glanced at the easel in her living room. She’d finished the pencil sketch and had started coloring; a darkhaired figure hung from a noose in the middle of a bare room with a single window, one shoe on the floor and the other dangling from its foot. Ben hated everything about it. Aside from the technical flaws—the perspective was off, and the light falling across the floor was too narrow—he was certain she’d wanted him to see the painting and wonder if everything was okay. The manipulation made him want to put his fist through the wall and rip the painting to stiff shreds.
“A play about a dog,” Sarah said, tossing her cigarette in the sink. “God, I hate the theater.”
They found the brownstone at the end of a quiet side street in SoHo. A sculpture of a lion sat on the stone railing to the left of the red front door; its eyes wept water stains, and lichens stained its pitted flank a pale green.
Ben rang the doorbell, and a short, older man answered. He wore a dark suit, and his hair was slicked back. He carried a highball glass, half filled. He chewed, then spit an olive pit into his hand.
“We’re here for Charlie Cahill’s play,” Ben said.
“That’s nice,” the man said.
Ben led Sarah inside. They stepped into a sumptuous room, draped with tapestries and oriental rugs. Medieval weaponry hung high on the walls; Ben saw crossed swords and polearms, axes and flails, and a matchlock mounted above the fireplace. A long table stood in the middle of the room, serving platters and tureens crowded by discarded plates filled with gnawed rib bones, wilted salads, and crumbs of cake. People wandered quietly. Charlie sat with a woman in the corner. She wore a short pink dress, like a sixties go-go dancer. Her legs were crossed, and her shoe dangled from her foot. Charlie said something, and she laughed. Then he spotted Ben and waved him over.
“Just in time,” Charlie said, pulling a joint from behind his ear. “Ruth, this is the man I was telling you about. He’s very clever. He did the Werther’s Original ad campaign.”
“Werther’s Original?” Ruth said.
“It’s a candy for octogenarians,” Ben said, and he shook her hand. “We tried to make it hip.”
“Hip is one of those words that’s lost all meaning,” Charlie said. “Like luxury and genius. Who is this clinging to your arm?”
“This is Sarah,” Ben said. “We’re old friends.”
Charlie looked at Sarah and smiled, slowly. “Is this the girl you saw Barefoot in the Park with?”
“Not that old,” Ben said.
“When did you see Barefoot in the Park?” Sarah said.
“High school,” Charlie said, “so we forgive him. Please, take my hand before it grows cold.”
Sarah cleared her throat and took Charlie’s hand.
“This is my first time at the theater,” she said. “I’ve never been to a play before.”
“I promise I’ll be gentle,” Charlie said. “Would you like to see the stage? The space is remarkable. Come, before they clutter it with all my props.”
Sarah glanced at Ben, who shrugged. Charlie took her arm and led her away, puffing his joint.
Ben stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked up at the carved ceiling. He saw the faces of gargoyles and angels, and rows of grapevines and harvest vegetables. Ruth adjusted the strap on her loose shoe and set it down, turning it to the side.
“I was worried the straps would be too high for this dress,” she said.
“It looks good,” Ben said.
“I don’t know. I think it’s too much. This hemline is too high.” She rose off her seat and tugged at it. Ben watched her thigh muscles lengthen and flex; her sixties flip bounced along her jawline. “Charlie found this dress at a consignment shop. I don’t know why I listen to him. I cut my hair yesterday and put on these ridiculous fake lashes. Really. I’m too old to play dress-up for a failed playwright. Don’t you agree?”
“I don’t know much about theater,” Ben said, “but anyone who can put on a show in a place like this can’t be a failure.”
“Maybe,” Ruth said. “This is Otto Anschlinger’s home. Have you heard of him? Supposedly he was an SS guard at Belsen. I never read the papers but Charlie told me the Times ran a damning piece, a few years back. I avoid Otto whenever he’s in town. What can you say to a Nazi?”
“I can think of several things,” Ben said.
Ruth smiled. “Do you work in the city?”
“We have some clients in Midtown. Whenever they get nervous, I get the call.”
“Because you’re the charming one.”
“Compared to my coworkers, yes.”
Ruth touched his arm, softly, two fingers on his elbow.
“My father worked in Midtown,” she said. “Sometimes he’d take me to his office, and I’d sit on the train and stare at everyone’s shoes. I was too scared to look anywhere else.”
“My oldest daughter does the same thing,” Ben said.
Ruth smiled again. “You have to tell her she’s making a mistake. She needs to remember all those unhappy, middle-aged men; how else is she going to describe them when she writes her first novel?”
A fork struck a glass, and conversation stopped. The short man who had greeted Ben and Sarah at the door stood at the far end of the room.
“Five minutes,” the short man said. “Five minutes, please.”
The crowd moved. Ruth opened her small purse and plucked out three red pills. She took Ben’s hand and dropped a pill in his palm.
“Trust me,” she said, and she took two with a swallow of white wine. “You don’t want to sit through this sober.”
“Charlie told me it’s only one act.”
“One act divided into eight parts. And there’s the prelude, and his commentary at the end . . .” Ruth shook her head. “Not even Charlie sits through it sober.”
The theater was at the back of the house, with a black box for a stage and red velvet stadium seating. Ben spotted Sarah in the front row, sitting near Charlie, who was whispering in her ear and pointing at the set design. Sarah laughed, and Ben couldn’t tell if it was sincere or polite. She played with the necklace around her long neck.
Ben sat near Ruth. He felt her thigh touch his. She stared straight ahead, fake eyelashes curled, hands folded primly on her lap. Ben felt a sudden urge to run from the room and call his wife. Rebecca was always the one who remembered these moments: the birthmark at the base of his youngest daughter’s skull that faded by her first birthday; the appearance of a long-ago neighbor at his father’s funeral. This was something new, and sharing it with strangers seemed a waste.
The room dimmed; onstage a blue light panned across wooden cutouts of a snow-tipped mountain range. Whispers faded. A man in a dog suit crawled from behind the curtain and sniffed the air, while a voice boomed from somewhere overhead.
“Spay called himself a vagabond in semi-ironic howls, and while he believed himself to be nothing more than sunlight shifting across the side of a great white mountain in the Khyber Pass, he also knew it didn’t matter. None of it mattered.”
Ruth glanced at Ben, her eyebrows raised, and Ben burst out laughing.
They found a dark room in the back of the house during intermission. Ruth leaned against the wall and let Ben fumble under her dress. His hands wouldn’t move as precisely as he wanted, and he ripped her underwear. It was too violent; instinct told him she was the sort of woman who needed a soft touch. “Sorry,” he mumbled. She kissed his neck and lowered to her knees. Ben straightened his arms, pressing his palms against the wall. He focused. She was very warm. Her fake eyelashes tickled his thighs. In the dark of his closed eyes, he remembered a cold autumn day, driving to see Rebecca. He’d broken his nose during a soccer game on the field outside his dorm; Rebecca had called him a war hero.
Ben wasn’t sure when the other guests had left, or how long ago he’d arrived at the long table in the middle of the main room, but he found himself seated between Ruth and Sarah with a wine stain on his tie. He’d been picking at a hollowed loaf of bread, filled with sweating cheese cubes and olives. Charlie sat across from them.
Charlie poured Sarah another glass of wine. “The lighting was horrific,” he said. “You couldn’t see his testicles, and I insisted they put testicles on the costume because the entire thrust of the play is Spay’s masculinity. Why would I include testicles if they weren’t important?”
“Chekhov’s testicles,” Ruth said.
Charlie nodded. “Exactly.”
“I saw the dog’s testicles,” Ben said. His mouth was dry, and he crunched an ice chip. “Very realistic. Were those kiwi fruits?”
Sarah giggled. Ben noticed her eyes were bloodshot.
“Spay,” Charlie said. “The dog’s name is Spay.”
“How ironic,” Ben said.
Charlie sighed. “First of all, they were tennis balls painted brown. Second, it’s not ironic. Spay is Pashto for dog. Do you know what Pashto is?”
Sarah said something to Ruth, and they both laughed. Ruth sipped her wine, and Ben imagined it mixing with his sperm in her stomach.
“Let me guess,” Ben said. “Pashto is what the natives speak in Afghanistan.”
“Pashto is one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan,” Charlie said. “They also speak Dari, and Turkmen, and Uzbek.”
“I didn’t see Spay’s testicles,” Sarah said. “I thought the play was very sad, and a little funny. But mostly sad.”
“Well, Spay had to die,” Charlie said. “I was worried it might come across as heavy-handed, but those people have little regard for humans, much less pets. I remember reading about this Afghan farmer—I think it was in National Geographic—who talked about using stray dogs as target practice. First it was the Soviets, then it was dogs.”
“But what’s an Afghan farmer doing with a Luger?” Ben said.
Charlie lifted his shirt, revealing the Luger tucked into his waistline. “It’s Otto Anschlinger’s, and it’s the only gun I could get. You can’t believe how heavy it is.”
Sarah slouched in her chair and traced the edge of her wine glass with her paint-stained fingernail. “If I had children, I would bring them to see this play.”
“Thank you,” Charlie said.
Ben shook his head. “I didn’t think the ending was right. Spay wouldn’t lunge at the farmer, because that’s not the type of dog Spay was.”
“How do you know?” Sarah said. “It was not your play.”
“He let that rabbit go,” Ben said. “He was starving, and he let that rabbit escape.”
Charlie sat up. “Spay is a dog, and dogs bite. Especially when they’ve run out of options, and they have no sense of home. Which is a long way of saying, Don’t fuck with a cornered dog.” He gulped more wine and put the Luger on the table. Light reflected dully off its barrel.
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “I thought it was a cheat. There should have been a baby goat.”
“A baby goat,” Charlie said.
Ben pushed back from the table and stood in the center of an Oriental rug. “The baby goat is the property of the farmer, and Spay sees him from across the field.”
Ben found himself getting down on all fours. His hands rubbed across the coarse Oriental rug, and he realized he had no idea the last time he’d felt the floor with his hands. Then he remembered: two summers ago, the living room, searching for Rebecca’s contact that had popped out.
“You be the goat,” Ben said, pointing at Charlie. “Sarah, you be the farmer.”
Charlie laughed. “You’re insane.”
“No, I’m Spay,” Ben said, and he began to crawl. He imagined what his daughters would do if they saw him. They would cover their faces and laugh. “And I see the baby goat . . .”
He stared at Charlie.
“Oh, hell,” Charlie said. He jogged around the table. Charlie got down on the floor, a few paces from Ben. Ruth stood and grabbed the Luger off the table.
“That’s perfect,” Ben said. “The farmer sees Spay in the distance, running toward his baby goat. But Spay only wants to greet the goat, you know, touch noses—”
Ben crawled to Charlie and mimed touching his nose.
“And the farmer thinks he’s going to hurt the goat.”
Ruth pointed the gun at Ben. “Leave my goat alone,” she said.
“Perfect,” Ben said.
Sarah grabbed the gun from Ruth.
“Boom,” Sarah said.
“Make sure the safety is still on,” Charlie said.
Sarah frowned, and Ruth leaned over. “This little switch here,” Ruth said. “It should be moved to the side. Like so.”
Ben felt the ring slip out of his pocket. The gun clicked. He saw the bullet shine from the barrel, cleaving the air and chewing through his heart. But there was no bullet; there was only Charlie’s laughter.
Micah Nathan is the best-selling author of the novels Gods of Aberdeen (Simon & Schuster, 2005) and Losing Graceland (Broadway/Random House, 2011). His short fiction and essays have been published in the Bellingham Review, the Boston Globe Magazine, Diagram, Glimmer Train, and other national publications. He received his MFA from Boston University, where he was awarded the 2010 Saul Bellow Prize in Fiction.
“One Act” appears in our Autumn 2011 issue.