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Rewards - Joshua Vigil

I was sucking down a cup of red jello when Art slammed his knuckles to my door. He wore a suit, his shirt all dank and tacked to his chest. He told me he had bad news. The street isn’t owned by the city, he said, but by the gated community. A tie with palm trees flanking a sunny beach dangled from his thick neck.

Can’t we still sue? I said. 

From the hospital hall, wheelchairs rolled past with squeaks and whines while the intercom blasted sound. Code white, skyway. Code white, skyway. I had fallen into a sinkhole, that was why I was here. 

It’s not like the city. They may not settle as quickly. And who knows how much money they have anyway, Art said. He had read about the whole thing in the newspaper. He was the one who tracked me down at the hospital. He dealt in these kinds of suits. Sinkhole suits.

But it’s a gated community, I said.

It doesn’t seem worth the hassle. 

You mean you don’t want to put in the hours.

Art took a pull from my glass, left my straw all chewed. He was a greasy man with shadowy eyes, a bulging nose, a devilish grin. Sometimes he rubbed his palms together, holding back a booming cackle, his master plan one step closer to completion. For whatever reason, I trusted him. It’s a game of rewards, he said.

My legs are broken, I said.

I know, it’s awful! he said.

I need some kind of reward, I said.

I can give you a referral, he said.

But you’re already bottom of the barrel, I said.

That’s not so kind, he said, and he frowned, and then he spun on his heel and was out the door. Out the window, the birds of desire shook to a gust of hot wind. The everglades somewhere behind the squat white buildings, the sizzling pavement lined with lamplights, moths clinking to glass. I fingered the gnawed straw Art left behind.

My boyfriend came for lunch, a tray of mashed potatoes speckled with gravy and a slab of white meat floating on my lap. He spent hours by my side, the way he always did, dragging the tips of his fingers across my arms because he knew I liked the feeling, sometimes digging a ruler into one of my casts. I purred and he smiled.

My boyfriend was so hot. He had large shoulders that swallowed the bulk of me when we embraced, teeth straightened into perfection after years of orthodontic care, eyes like scoops of honey, and a nice square jaw. I’m here to take care of you, he said into my ear. He stood now, rummaged through the closet until he found a wire hanger, and he began undoing it. He spun the hanger with his finger, untwisting it, the aluminum groaning. When it was just one long metal strand with a hook, he pushed the end deep into my cast. I’m always here for you, he said. I purred again and he smiled again.

When Ruthie from down the hall rolled into my room, he took off. He’s so devoted to you, she remarked, the way she often did. 

I told her the truth. I said that when we first started dating I’d asked him the thirty-six questions that lead to love. That did the trick. His eyes were two beating hearts, beating for me, blind to all my imperfections. He wasn’t so smart to begin with. I mean, he never asked me the thirty-six questions. Was happy to talk all about himself, fell in love that way—all I did was listen. 

Ruthie picked her nose, a large hard gob at the end of her pinkie’s nail. She was here due to complications after a hip replacement. She also had emphysema. I didn’t know people still got that, I’d told her when we first met.

She asked me what I was in for and I shared the story.

Was it aliens? she asked. The sinkhole.

A viral video had just gone around that allegedly depicted tall lanky aliens invading a Miami mall. It was all anyone in the hospital could talk about that day. 

I shrugged. Who knows? I said.

Now, she was coughing a wet one. A wad emerged in her mouth and she happily swallowed it. Ruthie was old and looked it: her face held many thin folds of sagging skin; her hair was a dyed red abstraction, only a few springy strands spotted her head; though she was in a wheelchair, I could tell her back was all bent, and that she was a woman who hunched by necessity and not by choice; she wore dentures that sometimes slid out of her mouth with a pop, either landing on her lap or clattering to the floor. She sidled herself by the window now, told me they were at it again, the two male orderlies. They’d been having some kind of secret affair we first noticed a few days before. One of them, Gato, came into my room several times a day. I was his charge, and he often lingered, as though he found me or my case curious. They’re practically fucking! Ruthie said. 

I scooted up from my bed, caught the tiniest glimpse. Then I settled myself back into the mattress, feeling sweat sprout from my forehead and collect on my chest. I was exhausted. At least you’re not dying, Ruthie said. Her hands shook as she patted my arm in piecemeal comfort, her skin meeting mine then lifting then meeting mine then lifting. You’re not dying, I said.

If the emphysema doesn’t get me, she said, this dirty hospital will.

From the intercom, a playful chime. Ruthie tilted her head up before asking if I knew what the sound meant. I didn’t. She said, A baby was just born. They’ll play it extra long when twins are born. Even longer if it's triplets.

They do say hospitals are some of the filthiest places, I said.

Doesn’t help when your orderlies return with dirt on their fingers.

Dirt? Ruthie and I both turned to the door. It was Gato who said this. His swollen arms crossed over his chest, twisting veins rising to the surface. His skin was shimmery and even—all of him looked golden when the sun hit him in that particular way. Feces and whatnot, Ruthie said.

Gato lowered his eyes, laughed something quiet but full.

Our little secret, Ruthie said.

Looking at me now, he said, Promise?

Most nights, I had dreams I then thought about throughout the day. They were lucid, thanks in large part to the meds I was on. In one, I’m in bed with my boyfriend. I straddle him. From my phone, a list of questions. What roles do love and affection play in your life? I read one after the other. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother? He has no idea these aren’t mine. When did you last cry in front of another person? I see his eyes twinkle. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? The twinkle grows and grows. Why haven't you told them yet? I’ll never leave you, he says. This comes out as a threat. But I scroll through my phone, keep asking him the questions, his personality dimming with each answer, his devotion only growing stronger, that twinkle so powerful, a parasite taking over, his body now just a host. He’s a slave, someone once said to me. Yes, I said, and he’s all mine. 

Art returned. Someone thin and mousey hidden behind. This is Ezekiel, he said. My assistant. Art pushed him towards me. He was young, younger than me, a face spotted with active pustules. He’s on Accutane, Art said, as if noticing my scrutiny. 

Art then told me Ezekiel was interested in my case. That he had the energy and gumption to do all the leg work. Seems we might win this after all, he said, slapping me on the shoulder.

Is Ezekiel a lawyer?

Art shrugged. He won’t be arguing for you in court. But he’ll do the paperwork.

Will you be arguing for me in court?

It won’t get that far, Art said. We’ll be millionaires. I thought you’d be happier.

I told him I was happy, I was so happy, then I said something about rewards, a reference to our last conversation, but Art was no longer listening. He said, I think two nurses are out there fucking.

Don’t act so shocked. Nurses have sex too.

Hospitals, he said, so filthy.

Then he was out the door, Ezekiel all abandoned. He took a seat on the squat wingback beside me. It was cheap, worn, and smelled of chemicals. He said he had questions for me, and he fished out a large binder from his backpack. He flipped through the pages and began, asking me about the day of the incident, everything leading up to it, then the incident itself.

It was a day like any other, a ping from my phone alerting me of a new task I could complete in a gated community nearby. An elderly woman needed her gutters cleaned. Her family was visiting, she included in her TaskRabbit note. Her children and their spouses were snobs, with demon children who were somehow even snobbier. Her house needed to be immaculate. She’d sent out a dozen other tasks but I could only confirm one at a time. There’d be several of us there, something I found oddly comforting. A meeting of precarity. Of the people who filled our mid-sized Florida city, yet went unnoticed. Invisible. We were like mole-people, in our own underground aboveground. I drove towards her address and was past the first gate when I heard the rumble. The car shook. The pavement in front of me buckled, then was gone, and I was gone with it, into darkness, and my hood was crushed, and my legs were crushed, and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was in triage, then darkness again. Next, I had two casts choking my legs, and a lawyer named Art was shaking me awake, talking to me about opportunity. Rewards. 

So you weren’t high on meth?

I stammered. Coughed. A dryness to my throat. 

Ezekiel patted my leg, the area just above the plaster. He handed me my cup of water. The straw somehow chewed from Art’s most recent visit. Sorry, he said. It was something Art didn’t know about. Or didn’t ask. But it could possibly come up.

I tossed the straw aside and drank. I told Ezekiel I wasn’t. That I didn’t do that anymore. That I even tried to refuse the painkillers here but Dr. Know-It-All insisted.

Besides, I said, don’t they test for all that when you get admitted?

His hand was still on my leg. He was nodding his head. There was something sweet to his pale, oval face. His thin, hairless throat. I felt cared for. He broke contact and made more scribbles. Then he continued.

They could argue that this was all orchestrated, he said, The desperation of a recovering addict. You can’t be making a real living off of TaskRabbit.

I made a sinkhole myself?

You’d be surprised what people get up to. This is Florida.

I’m starting fresh. Don't you see that? I have absolutely no one. 

Ezekiel looked at me. He’d put his pen down. He was listening. Is the loneliness worse than the desperation? he asked. 

I’ve never felt less alone, I said.

I had the cap of his pen between my fingers somehow, and I flipped it, worried it. I pressed at the cap and it bent out of shape. And when Ezekiel left, I dug the cap deep into my cast, and I left it there. Something to one day remember him by.

My boyfriend came afterwards. I told him to close the door and he did. I turned to my side. I said, Fuck me, please. He gave a cursory glance at the door’s little window, then jumped onto the bed. He spat and spat and spat, then eased himself inside me, asking if I was okay, if I was comfortable, if my legs didn’t hurt. I’ll scratch you later, he said.

This is the itch you’re scratching now, I said.

I’ll always be scratching your itch, he said.

You can go in deeper, I said, and then he did.

You can go faster, I said, and then he did.

You can bite my neck. You can say something filthy into my ear. You can pull my hair. You can—

Because I never left my room—in my state, it was more of a hassle than seemed worth it—I had no idea if Ruthie ever had visitors. She came to me at the same time every day, and so I assumed maybe she had a schedule like mine, with visitors sauntering in at certain blocks like clockwork. Though I didn’t know this for sure. I asked about her kids. They hate me and I don’t know what I ever did, she said.

They’ve always hated you? I asked.

I think they just think I’m an old grouch now. I wasn't always this way, so bitter.

I don’t think you’re bitter.

No, you’re wrong. I am bitter. I’m so bitter.

It’s not your fault. Life tramples over us and we become what we least expect.

Ruthie was brushing her hand with her palm, smoothing it over, the liver spots there then gone. She smelled of talcum powder and vanilla. I only ever see your boyfriend, she said. Where’s your family?

They abandoned me long ago.

She kept swatting at her hand. We’re not so dissimilar after all, she said.

I knew we weren’t. How else did we become such fast friends?

Everyone else here is a dud. Besides, you’ll be out of here in no time.

So will you, I said.

Ruthie brought a shaking hand to her chin, a dot of lipstick on her plastic tooth. Her whole face was shaking now. She sighed, gave up, then returned to petting her hands. I liked the sound. Like autumn leaves being brushed from sidewalks.

Only my therapist knows how much I hate myself, I said to Ezekiel on his next visit. He had his binder of papers on his lap, though he had yet to crack it open. Were we through with our questions? The prospect made me sad, but his continued presence made me hopeful.

He said, I think we all know.

The way the light landed on his face, half of it was covered in shadows, half of his imperfections all gone. You don’t know me like that, I said.

I have good instincts, he said. He sat back, his spine pressed to the wingback. He stared at me and I said, Why were we talking about my self-esteem?

You were telling me your story of addiction.

Oh. But that’s so pedestrian. So boring.

I don’t think living on the streets, falling under the spell of bad men, users and enablers, making abandoned warehouses home, boring.

You just haven’t lived, Ezekiel, I said.

Ezekiel stared at me, a long moment passing, an electric comfort hanging between us, before he spoke again. I once put someone in jail for impersonating his mom, he said. He collected her social security for years. Dressed up as her, went to the bank, all the while her body rotted at home.

But he’s one of us, don’t you see?

He had a twin. A twin who missed out on all that money. I was serving the twin.

A more evil twin. I see.

A more evil twin who was actually more devoted to his mother. Can you imagine the shock when he discovered she’d been dead all this time? Ezekiel said. He’d scooted himself closer, something to his eyes now. Wide and brassy, flooded with hope and hunger. This was the most naked I’d ever seen a man. This was, I thought, the most sincere moment in his life. And I got to witness it.

I drank from my cup and swallowed. If he was so devoted, why didn’t he visit her more often? I said this and Ezekiel grew even more energized. He was a storyteller, his arms carving the air. He said, He visited all the time. He’s visually impaired, and so he had no idea.

Did the other twin sound like the mother? There are holes all across this story.

The mother was a mute! She didn’t talk.

Now that’s just convenient, I said, and I gave a quick snort. The story was ridiculous, so ridiculous I believed every word of it. 

Ezekiel tossed up a quick and goofy smile. It really was the perfect crime, he said. Until the landlord came in unannounced, found her body folded in the fridge. He was only looking for a slice of her famous tiramisu. Did I mention they were Italians?

Do you want to be a lawyer?

I keep failing my LSATs. Besides, I can’t afford law school. He sat back in mock resignation. These were just the facts of his life, the failures God had slotted into his backside; there was nothing he could do now but laugh down its silver lining. Moments like this. Stories like this.

Study. Find yourself a private firm that’ll pay for your schooling. Or, take out loans. You’ll pay them off in no time. Go to a state school too. Who knew I had such good advice to give, Ezekiel? I said all this knowing how cheesy it sounded.

I knew, he said. I knew. 

His hand was on my thigh again.

Again I reconsidered him. His softly attractive features. I found peace in his tranquility. I’d, in my mind, been able to unearth the handsome boy that lived beneath the acne. I have four more months left, he said. But did you know Accutane makes you suicidal?

Is that how you feel?

It’s sometimes impossible to leave the house when you look like this.

But you do. You’re so much stronger than I am.

I’m not the Elephant Man. 

I only meant to pay you the compliments I feel you deserve.

You have a boyfriend, he said.

And my legs are crushed. And I’m a recovering addict. And my best-friend is an octogenarian named Ruthie who might pass any day. There’s no right way to live a life. I didn’t ask for any of this. But I’m grateful all the same.

We’re going to win a settlement. You’ll be a millionaire.

We’ll be millionaires. 

You and Art, sure.

One day, everything will be yours, Ezekiel.

The intercom flicked with sound. Code yellow, last seen in Room 216. Code yellow, last seen in Room 216. Then, after a little thud: I fucking hate this job. A three year old could do it? I’m telling you, if it wasn’t Bishop’s birthday tonight, if I didn’t know I’d be riding dick into the morning, I’d be going postal here. That’s a promise. Then, the woman from the intercom sighed. I met Ezekiel’s eyes. Several moments passed before the woman recognized her mistake. Shit, I did it again. Click.

Ezekiel laughed and I hung on to that sound all day, up until it was night and the drugs pumped me into narcotic sleep. His laugh drifted, slipping from my fingers, and I wondered if I’d ever hear it again. 

My dreams were so vivid under the narcotics. I’m knocking on a door, a set of keys dangling from my fist. The locks have been changed. I hear my mother behind the door, quietly sobbing. What’s going on? I ask. Silence until my father’s gruff shuffle. You’re no longer welcome in this house, he says. This is it. You’re no son. The list of grievances he then spews: the jewelry I pocketed, the weeks of absences on end, not even a text to provide them the relief of knowing I’m alright, alive. Then, the times they found me passed out in my bedroom, or in the bathroom, or in the living room, or in their bedroom, or in their bathroom. My body, exhausted from the meth’s constant go go go. He pounds on the door and I can’t pound back.

Gato was back, lumbering from one end of the room to the other, making sure everything was, as he said, Gucci. He fished out my filled bedpan from below the bed, tossed the contents into the toilet, and gave it a good rinse. When he was done, he stood by the door and lingered, his eyes fixed on me.

I’m not being coy, or necessarily avoidant, I said. I recognized you days ago. 

I was waiting for you to say something, he said. He settled his weight against the wall, cocked his head, flashed a smile. 

I was in bed, didn’t bother to scoot myself up for him. I felt a dampness across my body, especially within my casts, the sharp but oddly delicious scent that wafted from the dark crevices between plaster and skin. I try not to think too hard about that time of my life, I said.

You’re clean? he asked, a spark of surprise to his face.

I nodded. You?

Depends who's asking, he said, a grin emerging from his mouth’s edges. He had no shame. I pointed this out. You work at a hospital, I said.

Exactly. I’m safe. I know what I’m doing, he said. His voice was steady, clear—he seemed to be certain he knew what he was doing. Okay, I said.

Going to NA make you so judgmental? he said.

I don’t mean to preach anything. I was just surprised.

Only weekends, not every weekend, has to be people I trust, etc etc.

I don’t have self-control, I said.

Is that why you’re here? he asked. He was by my bed now, running his fingers along his hospital lanyard. 

In some sense. I needed the next task the way I needed the next hit. It was all about survival just the same.

Addicts make for the wisest people.

I’d like to think I’m not as impulsive anymore. But I am.

Gato raised his eyes.

We’re not fucking, I said. 

No, he said. We’re not. 

And we didn’t—I swear, we didn’t.

Sometimes my dreams were memories, pure and simple. Gato is there. We’re in some basement. The baggies all emptied out until more arrive. A swirl of unclothed bodies glistening with sweat. Pumping and pumping—for hours, which is how it always was. I feel Gato’s palm on my back, gentle. Or was it? Someone is chanting for more CRISCO. CRISCO. CRISCO.

Dr. Know-It-All told me I was being discharged. He said I’d need help getting around for the next month, and did I have that support system? My boyfriend jumped in. He does, he said. I’ll be there every day. Absolutely. 

He was so eager, and I was so thankful. Any shortfalls he had, and he had many, he made up for in his attentiveness. He was so in love with me! If only he knew what I was really like. If only he’d asked me those thirty-six questions. Or any questions.

Great, Dr. Know-It-All said. We’ll miss you. You’ve been a highlight for many of us. A star patient. 

He pressed his clipboard to his chest and left me with my boyfriend, who began dragging his fingers across my arm, down my leg. I imagined Ezekiel doing this to me, him on the wingback instead of my boyfriend, his thin fingers dancing across my skin rather than my boyfriend’s plump ones, his volcanic face that sometimes didn’t look so bad under a forgiving light and right mindset. Looks like someone woke up, my boyfriend said, jutting his chin at my erection.

I looked down, a sense of disappointment cast over me. It was just my boyfriend’s face, just my boyfriend’s fingers, just my regular hard-on. I don’t want to be all cummy later, I said.

I can wash you down with a wet rag, he said. You know I love to wash you.

His eyes were so sincere, they flickered beneath the light.

Guilt rose from my belly, a prickly fullness I felt claw up my throat. 

A wash sounds good, I said.

I dreaded saying bye to Ruthie, and so when she strolled in, I didn’t say anything at all. She rolled herself towards the window. Any second now, she said. And when Gato and the other orderly arrived, she squealed. 

If you like it so much, maybe you should consider gay porn, I said.

Why haven’t you let me watch you and your boyfriend do it? she asked.

Is that what you want? Anything for you, Ruthie.

She wheeled herself to my bed, cocked her head to the side, squinted. She said, I can hear you sometimes, actually. Did you know?

I’m so quiet. I’m hardly there.

Ruthie pursed her lips before speaking again. He does it exactly the way you want it, she said. Do you ever feel bad?

I’ve always been the one more in love. It’s refreshing to have it be the other way for once.

Will save you a great deal in heartbreak, she said. 

I’ll be sad when it’s over. It’ll be its own heartbreak.

Your hands will be full with the lawyer, she said. She was grinning now, face crinkled in mischief. Yes, she said, I know all about that.

Nothing’s happened, I said.

Since when has that stopped anyone?

We can be the change we think we deserve.

Do it for me, she said. My life will be over any day now. Ruthie dropped her shoulders in playful defeat. 

You seem more filled with life than I ever was, I said.

It’s because I see the light.

Nonsense, I said, and Ruthie was biting into her nails now. Don’t say stuff like that, Ruthie, I mean it.

Is that where we draw the line? she said, and she spat to the side of the bed. 

When she was gone, I inched down, dragged my fingers all across the tile. I was searching for that piece of her, that piece of Ruthie, that little nail shard. A piece of Ruthie to carry forever. And when I did find it, it was still wet, and this felt good, and I flicked it into the hollow of my cast. 

Ezekiel came that afternoon. A blemish on his face was red, boiling. Under the light, it was sheeny and wet-looking. Ready to pop. I asked him how the lawsuit was going. I don’t want to talk about business, he said.

Bad day on the job?

I like Art, I hope you know that. He’s a perfectly fine boss.

What do you want to talk about then?

I suppose I don’t want to talk, he said. He stood up, paced, then his eyes landed on the remote. He snapped the TV on. The movie Signs was playing. I love this movie, Ezekiel said. He sank into the seat beside me. We watched for several minutes before I shifted to the edge of my bed. There’s room up here, I said, patting the spot I’d made all for him. Might be more comfortable.

Ezekiel hesitated before jumping up, his weight settling quickly into the mattress. I felt his heat, could smell the pine and sandalwood of his body wash or deodorant. I can’t sleep with you, he said below his breath. 

Because of ethical reasons. I understand.

Because you find me beautiful, and I’m not ready for that. It was so unexpected. 

As long as you know, I said.

What if, when all this settles, I look worse than before. Do you like them a little ugly?

My boyfriend isn’t ugly.

No, but he’s dumb. That’s ugly.

Shhh. We’re going to miss the scariest part.

We tipped our heads up, returning our attention to the TV. When the alien flashed across the screen, Ezekiel and I jumped.   


My days pass like this: I bake and attend a meeting, bake and attend a meeting. The church hallways stink of cinnamon and burnt sugar, sometimes ginger and sage too. Sometimes I mow my neighbor’s lawn. Clean their pool. A wise person from one of my meetings said that, according to Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do—in recovery, we are our best habits. This has become my credo, to do enough good until it sticks, which feels like its own reward. Like I never needed the settlement to begin with. Sometimes, deep into one of my good deeds, or in the middle of a meeting, I think back to the hospital. When Dr. Know-It-All sawed into my casts, all my little treasures tumbled out. Ezekiel’s pen cap. Ruthie’s nail shard. Gato’s lanyard. Art’s teeth imprinted on a straw or two. It’s a bittersweet feeling, to think of that time in my life. I was so happy. Sometimes I wonder about Ruthie, though I know exactly where she is. That was inevitable. Sometimes I think about Ezekiel, and I imagine what he’s up to. I haven’t heard from him since I left my boyfriend—my first good deed—when his looks emerged. Through the many confessions that rise in that back room at St. Mary’s, I imagine Ezekiel at work. The notecards he’s prepared for the LSATs, a pile of practice exams to his side. Art too busy in the room next door to take notice. I see him receiving perfect scores. The many acceptances that come pouring into his mailbox. Fat envelopes, all of them. I imagine the years flying by, success after success. His first year at a proper law firm. The years that follow too, Ezekiel climbing rung after rung. I imagine that one big case he wins, a career-changer. Sometimes I imagine him closer than all that. He’s across the street and he raises his head and when he recognizes me he waves. He waves me over and says, I’ve changed my mind. Isn’t that allowed?

    Written by Joshua Vigil


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