“Luces” by Ran O’Wain

The first time Luz saw the new neighbor, he and George were fucking, not making love, no, to make love one needed some semblance of foreplay, an act the two often neglected. Neither preferred doggy-style, but ever since Bastion Hill won an American Soap Award and George was promoted to head writer, Luz had refused any other way; he hated how George stared down at him with this self-satisfied look and besides George complained that kneeling hurt his back—everything else came easily for George, after all.

Luz watched the thin man across the alley as he ran his fingers along the windowsill inside what had been, at least since Luz had moved into George’s second home in Asheville, a reliably empty apartment. Luz was transfixed and George noticed the change, the body now cold with distraction.

George plopped down on the bed, sweating heavily. Before he could say anything, ask questions—Where did you go? Where do you always go?—Luz pulled on a velour robe and went to the bathroom for a shower. When he returned, brushing out wet tangles, George stood in a pair of jogging pants at the bedroom window. “Neighbor?”

“People move out and people move in,” Luz said. “If we were crustaceans we’d have new neighbors each time the moon finished a cycle.”

“Is that true?” George asked. “Do crustaceans float with the tide?”

Luz didn’t know if this was true or not, but enjoyed the reckless imagery of crabs scattering along the ocean floor.

“I fly to the city at nine,” George said. “How about Indian food?”

Luz pulled on a pair of cotton underwear that belonged to an ex. They were thick with holes around the waistband and felt utilitarian in a way that made him want to work for long hours. This, the house and allowance, was his time to produce something great. Too many years had been spent distracted by romance and Luz didn’t want to squander the security George offered. A balance had to be struck between black lace and white cotton.

“No eating out tonight,” Luz said. “I had a vision.”

The vision, a memory: Luz lost their virginity to a boy named Wally, an act Jo Ann said didn’t count because Luz had not been penetrated, such Catholic wording, but had instead worn a strap-on. Wally, a freckled boy of sixteen who had never hid his infatuation with Freddy Prince Jr., was so eager for the experience, Luz recalled. Luz hadn’t known what type of sex he desired, not like Wally had known, but when approached suddenly Luz had never wanted anything more than to wear Wally’s jet-black dildo. Wally was still in Iowa, Luz realized, working at Game Pros in the Coralville Mall.

“I rescued you from that dive so we could spend more time together,” George said.

Luz paused midway into pulling on a pair of track pants and crossed his eyes, pushed out his bottom jaw and aped George—Me. Strongman. Rescue. Luz had expected him to be more mature, but at forty-three George was as childish as all the others. George ignored the rebuke and watched as the apartment manager, dressed in a security uniform and utility belt, wrestled a mattress through the front door.

“I really hate that guy,” George said. A month prior, George had been in a short-tempered mood after flying to Asheville from New York when the manager came at him waving a mag-light and clicking his tongue because George had parked in front of the complex. George threatened to kick the shit out of the manager but ended up face down against the hood of his BMW.

“Don’t let him see you prying,” Luz said.

“I’m not prying,” George said. “Just fascinated.”

Luz hated the way he said fascinated. Every time he used that tone with that word, something from their lives ended up on Bastion Hill.

Luz retreated to the studio, a small bedroom that had been transformed into a workspace. Two lofts were anchored to the walls five feet from the floor; red velvet closed off each platform. The worktable was a clay-strewn mess; a twelve-inch marionette of Luz dangled from a hook in the ceiling: ball cap cocked at an angle, ratty polo with a stencil of Trump’s face covered in pie, and black jeans rolled above a pair of hiking boots. Even before quitting Café Troubadour in Brooklyn, George having offered to support him, Luz only worked at night. He needed absolute control over lighting and the sun was a fickle beast. While filming one frame at a time for an animation, any shift in shadow strobed through the scene as spectral blacks. The stages for the current animation were simple enough: a Victorian dollhouse positioned among papier-mâché cornfields, cows, and a dairy barn. Various painted backdrops for close-ups: a willow tree, a pond, and a tractor. Mother and Father and all nine O’Malley siblings had both miniature and large puppets with moveable limbs and interchangeable faces, though Mother and Father rarely needed any others face besides hard and observant. It was the story within the story of this animation of the Iowa dairy farm where Luz grew up that stumped him. At first, Luz was driven by memory of home: the elongated beauty of farms and flat earth, the wind and walls of snow in winter. He simply wanted to relive the landscape. But when he thought of his brothers and sisters, all still in Anamosa, the art turned inward and Luz no longer knew which story to tell. Midwestern expanse was all so confining, especially for a queer in Catholic country. Luz’s family was fine; sober and reticent when Luz visited. He’d left home years before, first moving to Iowa City and then to Chicago, then to St. Paul, to Montreal, to Asheville, where Luz’s only friend from home, Jo Ann, lived, to Brooklyn where he earned a very expensive film degree at NYU, and finally back to Asheville where George owned this summer condo: how to tell the story of living in rural Iowa without also dipping into the bottomless narratives created by leaving?

Luz caught sight of the neighbor carrying a suitcase in each hand, a shoulder bag in the crook of an elbow. The windows of George’s flat perfectly mirrored those of the stranger’s across the alley. The stranger reminded Luz of a lodger from film noir, a villain maybe, the way he stood politely aside while the manager flipped the light switch on and then off again. The neighbor had a strong jaw, but a thin waist and wrists, like puppet joints. What attracted Luz was the way he moved, languid strides from door to window, looking down into the alley and then up toward the sky where Luz knew the crows sat in gossiping threes and fours: there was something equally masculine and feminine about this muscular man, a white man with a goatee and crew cut whose hip pivoted to the left and pelvis jutted forward when he turned to bid farewell. Luz could mime these movements perfectly were he to sculpt a marionette of the neighbor. Strangely, the neighbor’s walk and eyes were as driving and sharp as Mother’s. Mother: broad shouldered, scowling and silent. Was this man maternal, or was Mother manly? The neighbor caught sight of Luz. His eyes widened and he held the stare. Luz did not know for how long the man had looked at him this way, irritated and showing.

Luz waved and the neighbor lowered his blinds.

In the living room, Luz found George stretched out on his back on the floor.

“Do you think Robin would slum it?” George asked. “You know, someone outside of Bastion Hill, like a rock star or club owner.” Robin was George’s prize character—the moderately attractive rebellious teen who hated the wealth she was born into. The rest of George’s cast indulged in normal business—attempted murder, adultery, and prodigal sons returned home from Hawaii. Robin’s millennial pithiness and distraction gave Bastion Hill an edge.

“Our new neighbor just brought in suitcases,” Luz said.

George sat up. “How’s he look?”

“Handsome. Chiseled like carved marble. Gay. Maybe?”

“Is he black? The network wouldn’t do interracial, but a rapper maybe.”

“You sound racist.”

“It’s not me. It’s the network.”

“Okay. Then you sound like a complicit racist.”

“And you’re an expert?” George sulked. “How many non-white friends do you have?”

Luz only had one friend, Jo Ann, and she was, like, Iowa-white and of course there was George, who was Jewish, non-practicing. He called Luz his shiksa but when Luz fucked George, he always cried Harder, Goy! Luz never really liked this role, the goy-bully role. Normally, he loved strapping on a dick but George went somewhere beyond the sex with this role, leaving the bedroom and Luz and disappearing into a greater possession. He wanted hate and always sulked after, feeling let down because the more George willed Luz to violence the more Luz felt tenderness and care.

*     *     *

The next morning, Monday, Luz got out of bed at ten thirty. George was gone and would not return until Thursday night or later. Sometimes he had to skip weekends. Besides Bastion Hill, George supervised a secondary open-serial Laurel Canyon—an upbeat drama about life after college in a small Colorado town—a show that Luz once followed religiously. Being head-writer meant more time in New York, which meant less time Luz spent crippled by self-doubt. Luz loved the alone time, the monastic patterns of work and rest and meals and, most of all, his morning run.

Luz took off down Haywood and jogged toward Montford Cemetery. The stoplights at the three-way intersection in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica had fritzed again and appeared downcast, darkened above deadlocked traffic. Cars and delivery trucks jerked forward nose to tail; the air grew visible with grimy exhaust but the heat had yet to build. Luz quickly left the shit-show behind and within minutes clicked into a zone. He had questions that needed answered: What does fucking Wally say about home? For so long now he had lived out in the open as queer. In his heart and mind he was not a woman, as his biology suggested, but undoubtedly male. Never did he feel more fulfilled, more real, than in moments when, strap-on aside, he was in a position to change a tire, to build a shelf—cliché masculine performances that made Luz giddy with self-satisfaction. If Luz must choose, if he had to categorize himself then he was a gay man, butch for sure. But that’s it isn’t it, Luz thought, the crux: the O’Malley’s knew nothing of Luz and Luz had so purposefully maintained this mystification that Mother sent Christmas and Birthday cards that read To My Precious Daughter. Home is a fantasy. What did it matter if Mother and Father and the O’Malley siblings knew Luz’s heart? Luz had chosen secrecy and exile as opposed to welcoming the family’s fear and bigotry. As a pitch for the animation, however, this synopsis would end with a sentimental question like but at what cost? Such a shit premise, Luz thought: the coming out story is overdone. I hate protest film. I just want to go through life without anyone asking me if I’m a girl. Like, I want to pass. But that was what made the story so hard to tell: it was impossible to separate queerness from coming of age, from home, from George, from the simple pleasure of a morning jog. Wally knew even before Luz did; Wally knew Luz would say yes.

On the way back to George’s, Luz passed the corner complex and saw the new neighbor. He was shirtless in the small lawn, carrying a box of potted plants. Luz smiled, and the neighbor stared and Luz felt his eyes follow when he rounded the corner toward home, unsettled now by a familiar anxiety. He knew the feeling well, it was akin to remorse but at least for the moment, Luz thought, he had nothing to regret.

In the studio, Luz peeled his shirt away and felt the sweat cool against his breasts and neck. Luz was in the habit of working topless, and as he rolled clay into a ball for Wally’s face, he purposefully stood at the window. Luz giggled; the man was downstairs and would not catch him but he wanted the neighbor to appear. When he did not a depression took the place of playfulness. Luz grabbed a dry shirt and slipped it over his damp torso, leaving the unformed face, oval and wanting, on the workbench.

It was then, standing in the doorway, that Luz decided to sneak into the neighbor’s apartment. Empty pots, two bags of soil, and various aspidistras still in plastic sheaths surrounded the neighbor outside; what were the chances of him returning to his apartment? Luz could not enter through the front. Perhaps there was a fire exit? George’s condo was new, decked out with evacuation routes that led through the laundry and exercise rooms, but the neighboring complex was old and run down. It was worth it to look for a back entrance, even if it was locked. His joy returned with the anticipation of danger.

Luz walked close to the condo’s exterior, stepping softly past the alley until he came to a steel door at the rear of the neighboring complex. There was no key code, as Luz suspected, and it opened with a turn of the knob. Why allow for such coincidence if not for a reason? Up the flight of stairs, first loft on the right—as George’s would have been the first on the left—and yet another game of fate. The neighbor’s door stood slightly ajar.

Breathless. Luz imagined the evening ahead, how restful everything would feel after breaking the rules, how calm after the high of evasion.

Inside, Luz found a clean and sparsely furnished home in a palate of grays and blues offset by a large area rug with random orange arrows shooting across a full moon. What looked like a shrine beneath the window: set inside of a large vegetable crate and covered with votive candles arranged on white taffeta was a photograph of a drag queen; her wig, a bouffant. She towered on stage in six-inch stilettos and wore a wedding gown. Luz fumbled for his smart phone, shaking; fingers hitting the wrong digits for the access code. He took one photo, and then a second. He heard movement, but it was their own.

*     *     *

Sitting at the kitchen table, Luz spread out prints of the two pictures taken at the neighbor’s apartment. This, he believed, was the real animation: the story behind this shrine, the story of the neighbor and the drag queen. Luz could see it play out perfectly on screen: begin with the shrine and the photo, have the queen, Mitzy—that’s what Luz will call her—break from the photo and begin to dance. Something slow at first, something with hips and breasts swiveling that transitions into something upbeat, like “I will Survive.” Irony. Yes, she doesn’t survive, does she? Killed in the 80s, a darker time for gender queers. And the neighbor—vengeful and love-worn—kills the man who left Mitzy’s body near a dumpster. A marionette of Mitzy will dance the entire time, while a live action film of the events will play on a little screen, an iPhone perhaps, back of stage but center. It was insane to change plans with the opening two months away, but nothing moved with the Iowa-film, just stills of nature, the sound of weather.

George appeared and nuzzled the nape of Luz’s neck, his fingers sliding down Luz’s shirt, as he pinched, and tugged Luz’s nipples. Luz pulled George’s hand away and kissed his wrist, a simple gesture to curb the sting of rejection.

“Going out for drinks with Nate. He’s in town doing a commercial at Biltmore,” George said.

“I’ll probably be asleep when you get back,” Luz said. “Wake me if you want.”

“Only if I could wake you now.”

“You sound like one of your characters,” Luz said. “Meh-meh-meh-meh.

“Oh right. I’m a creative black hole?”

“Creative black hole is a little dramatic. More like…creative display case.”

“Commedia Del Arte, babe,” he said. “Been around since the Greeks. What are you working on anyhow? Who’s the queen?”

Luz gathered his pictures and pushed passed him. “No one. Just something I pulled off the internet.”

In the studio, Luz stuffed the prints at the very back of his desk drawer. Wally’s puppet lay along the table next to a crowd of various faces and hands, the black dildo in miniature, his bed with an Apollo Shuttle headboard waiting for a coat of paint. Luz studied the puppet of Wally, changing out various faces: one bright and eager, one afraid, one happy. The plot for Mitzy and the neighbor’s story now seemed offensive, sentimental. Luz was criminal, a burglar who had kidnapped Mitzy and then killed her, damned the neighbor to a life of revenge and violence. It was bad journalism, bad art. He worked mindlessly sewing clothes for Wally and a bedspread with spaceships and the moon for Wally’s bed. He gave up at eleven, cut all lights but for a miniature lamp in the Iowa-house. Luz uncorked Pinot Noir from the wine cabinet and brought the bottle back into the studio. He pulled the strings of his likeness to make the marionette dance. Placing one arm on an imaginary waist, and another on an invisible shoulder, Luz waltzed along the workbench.

The neighbor stood at his window, suddenly, fiercely. He stared across the alley into the studio. Luz had the puppet wave, but the neighbor did not move or avert his hard gaze. It was as if he did not see either puppet or puppeteer. Perhaps he could not see beyond his own lighted reflection, into the darkened room where Luz stood. Luz finished the glass of wine in one gulp and poured another. The neighbor’s gaze was set at some fixed point in front of the window where Luz knew the shrine was displayed. With his hands cupped together, the neighbor knelt and rocked back and forth, his head shaking out nonononono. It was true. Mitzy had been killed. The neighbor had killed. Luz moved closer to the window as if proximity might illuminate or deepen his understanding of the neighbor, of the queen in the shrine. Luz felt an urge to comfort, to hold him and kiss him, just as the neighbor stood and left his front door open to the darkened hallway. Luz picked paint from his overalls, glancing toward the neighbor’s apartment. He turned on the overhead and the outside vanished, all he could see now was his own reflection in the lighted window.

When George came home, Luz lay awake reading. Without brushing his teeth, George crawled in next to him and lazily tugged at his waistband.

“How was your night?” George asked. He smelled of cigarettes.

“You smoked.”

George rolled on top of Luz, crushing the book to his chest; legs flat beneath George’s weight. He kissed Luz’s neck and then his mouth. Luz kissed him back, but ineffectually.

“George,” Luz said, pushing his shoulders away.

George kissed down from his neck to his chest.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

“Serious about the rain check, George. You’re drunk and I’m tired.” Luz pushed him off, and George rolled over onto his side.

“Don’t I give you enough?” he said to the wall, sounding like he might cry. That happened sometimes, when George had too much to drink he cried.

“You give me plenty, but I’m not a robot and can’t put out whenever.”

“Not an even trade,” he said.

“Didn’t realize we were bartering.”

George responded with a watery snore.

*     *     *

Hours later, Luz still couldn’t sleep. A car passed on the street below causing light to float across the room. The neighbor’s apartment was dark.

*     *     *

The following weekend, Luz cut his morning run short by half an hour and when he entered the condo, he found George masturbating to porn. George knelt on a couch pillow, his pants down to his ankles and in the split second before George slammed the laptop shut Luz saw the actors: one man, older and pudgy sucking the cock of a “she-male,” as the genre was so irritatingly named, with massive silicone breasts. Flustered, George didn’t try to stand or even move position. He looked over his shoulder, pouting before Luz had a chance to say anything.

“I don’t care, George. I like porn sometimes. I like facials. I sometimes sink into despair over this desire to cum without regard on your face, George, because it can’t happen. I watch those compilations. Second after second of different penises and different faces—”

“Please, stop. You’re making it worse.”

“Unless you wish I had—”

“Just stop, Luz,” George stood, his face flushed as he pulled up his bottoms. “I don’t like porn. I wanted to cum, okay? I wanted to cum without bothering you.”


*     *     *

Luz drove a box of body parts down to the public kiln. It wasn’t enough to justify his own burn, and so he called Jo Ann and she agreed to throw in. Luz hadn’t left the apartment in four days. He had sculpted three new heads for the neighbor’s queen, attempting to capture the fierceness and beauty based on the stolen photographs, but it was frustrating. No matter how much work Luz put into the puppets, there was always something missing; something he feared could only be realized if he had access to the real thing.

Jo Ann loafed around the studio lobby; a squat woman with a bowl cut. Unlike Luz’s paltry shoebox of ceramics, Jo Ann had three full crates, stacked on a dolly.

“Too busy giving it up to the ol’ man?” Jo Ann pointed to Luz’s box and thrust her pelvis like a hula-hoop dancer.

“Out of my league. Over my head. The usual.”

The high-strung studio assistant, Janet, who hummed about frantically but did nothing apparent, waved hello and pecked the screen of her smart phone purposefully.

Jo Ann covered an entire bench with her sculptures.

“What you got going on?” Luz loved asking Jo Ann about her sculptures because she blushed and stuttered when she had to explain her work. Even in high school, Jo Ann worked within the vagina motif. A little too O’Keeffe for Luz, but unlike Luz, Jo Ann actually made a living selling art.

“This,” Jo Ann held up a slender curve of clay, “is a peace lily. Part of the seed.”

Luz had painted yellow into the young Queen’s bouffant wig.

“Who’s that?” Jo Ann asked.

Luz heard insult in this question. Luz worked in miniature, so what? He made film instead of massive labias, so what? Normally he brought multiple sets and filled the kiln with his tiny world. What did Jo Ann care if progress was slow? “I’m spinning my wheels.”

Jo Ann pointed to Mitzy. “I don’t get it. Where is Anamosa? Where are you?”

Luz picked up one of the mock-ups for the neighbor’s head. It was all wrong: lifeless, generic. Mitzy was no better; she could be any queen at any club. Luz turned the neighbor’s face toward Jo Ann. “He loved her.”

“No honey. George offers you free rent and a studio and you bring in—who are these people—two months before the opening.”

“Doesn’t matter now,” Luz said. “George and I are on the rocks.”

“Like you’re going to lose the condo?”

Luz shrugged.

“Get it together Luz. Iowa. He loved her, you say. You want a romance, okay? What does Luz love?”

“What does it matter? Iowa isn’t about love. Iowa is origins.”

“Shut up. You have to tell me. Now. What is the origin story of Luz?”

“Changing the oil in my father’s truck. Smoking with you behind Big Wheel. Blowing Kyle Richards in your mom’s car. Helping Mom mix biscuits. Me and my sisters all in the same room whispering before sleep.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“It wasn’t. Why should it be now? Digging into all that makes me feel bad, like, I don’t have a right to it anymore. Not since leaving, ignoring them for so long. All I have is love for a childhood I can’t seem to see through my judgments as an adult. They hate fags and women and art and reading and they love Trump and money.”

“Ain’t that the truth? When I talked to my mom the other day she told me that her church had prayed for Trump’s victory and if his presidency isn’t enough of a reason to believe in God then she doesn’t know what will save my soul.”

“You talked to her this week?”

“Luz, seriously. You think my mom would go a week without calling me?”

Luz thought of George in that moment; the mind fantastically agile when dealing with thoughts of Mother, of the many months that had passed since anyone from the family had called. George was persistent and Luz liked his begging; Luz was thirty years old and wanted stability so that he could dedicate more energy to art. The fact that financial and emotional stability rarely coincide, after all, didn’t deter Luz from hoping the relationship might find a balance.

Luz didn’t feel love from George, but adoration.

Straight his whole life, married twice with two children, and he started calling himself queer the moment Luz moved into his condo, as if he’d not only acquired a hot-young-thing, but also a hip new identity. He changed his Twitter and Facebook page to say Queer/Writer. Even though he did ask to be bottom most nights, Luz resented this immediate coopting of a life that had been a struggle since adolescence: queerness had forced Luz to search for other queers and had led him far from home, from Iowa and the chance of weekly parental phone calls. George couldn’t just pick up a rainbow flag and march in line with everyone else who had fought before him, could he?

Luz never felt love for George, but duty.

“All I’m saying is you might want to focus on yourself some,” Jo Ann said. “Iowa was a much better plan and not without therapeutic value.”

“You think I’m nuts?”

“I think you are very good at ignoring yourself.”

*     *     *

That Friday night George made eggplant lasagna for dinner. He and Luz sat at the kitchen table, a gaudy glass-topped deal with brass legs from George’s old life—the married life—like everything else in the apartment. George poured a glass of Pinot Noir for them both and hummed under his breath.

“Out with it. What’s the good news?”

“Good news?” he said, fishing. “You’re my lover.”

Luz tilted the glass out to be refilled, made come on now eyes.

Bastion Hill is going international,” he said. “Mexico, Germany, England, and Canada. We’re moving to Los Angeles!”

Luz sipped the wine. “Matter of time before something came of all the fuss, I guess.”

“All the fuss?”

“Yeah. The fuss. Bastion Hill gets a lot of fuss.”

“Listen,” George said. “Just celebrate with me.”

“I’m celebrating.” Luz downed the glass of wine and said, “See. I’m partying.”

George frowned and poured. A pan of steaming lasagna sat on the table next to a salad with almonds and dried cranberries, Luz’s favorite. Wearing a blue and orange polka dotted apron, George fixed each plate. Luz cut a bite of cheese and eggplant, blowing to cool it. George remained standing.

“Stop hovering,” Luz said.

“Wait. Put down your food.” George wrestled his stubby fingers into his pocket and knelt at Luz’s feet. He held out a black box and as if proposing were as simple as dropping a lump of lasagna onto Luz’s plate George said, “Let’s get married.”

“No.” Just like that—it was easy.

When the two finally went to bed after hours of fighting, breaking up, yelling the nuances of Luz’s removal or George’s refusal to return, after fucking and finally crashing naked and swollen atop the covers, Luz couldn’t sleep. He felt crowded on the king mattress, mouth dry from too much wine and hours of crying. At three a.m., Luz heard pinched female vocals with violin. The music sounded far away, but everywhere at the same time. He peered across the alley into the bright cinema of the neighbor’s life. He was dancing in a blue cotton robe, stepping back one-two then forward one-two.

Luz crawled from bed and pulled on sweatpants and a t-shirt.

He walked around back of the building. No light reached the alley, and the ground blended as a textured mass. When Luz reached the complex, he looked up to George’s apartment and sought out the tall studio windows and the lumpy silhouettes of marionettes. Wally was there, and Luz. The Queen and the neighbor were half-finished on the workbench.

On the second floor, Luz heard music playing from behind the neighbor’s door. He knocked. After a pause, the neighbor opened and stared back without speaking. He was much taller up close and his thin arms were sinewy with muscle.

“Can I help you?”

Luz recognized the music. A waltz he remembered from dance classes in Anamosa.

“I’m sorry. I—”

The neighbor studied Luz. “I recognize you,” he whispered and pointed to the windows that faced George’s condo. “I saw y’all.” He made a wide expression with his eyes that said all of y’all.

“I guess that’s why I’m here—”

“Uh-uh. Put some blinds up,” the neighbor said, raising his voice. “I can’t help what I see.”

“I wanted to meet you. Talk with you—”

TV applause erupted from the apartment behind them and the neighbor’s eyes flicked in the direction of the sound. Someone coughed and snorted deep.

“You got to move on,” he said, pointing to the door across the hall. “If the manager finds you here I’m out on the street. Don’t you know this place is a halfway house? We’re not allowed visitors. So go before he catches us.”

Luz saw that he meant to turn away. “I’ve been watching you.” Luz looked past the neighbor and into the living room toward the crate set up in front of his window with a taffeta over the top, candles burning low. A boa was tacked like a coiled snake on the window frame above the shrine; flames licked the bottom feathers causing them to curl. Mitzy. Something raised up inside Luz, raised up into his abdomen, all blood and muscle and Luz swore he felt an erection.

“What do you want from me, girl?”

“I’m not a girl,” Luz said. The tension rising: a desire to overpower the neighbor; to push him to the bed and open his robe; to take him there in front of Mitzy.

“Well,” the neighbor said. “I need to stay out of jail, so please go.”

“Where is she? The drag queen in your shrine?”

“I’m going to close this door. Take your ass back across the way and stay out my business.”

From the manager’s room a bottle dropped and rolled across hardwood, empty by the sound of it but a clear sign of danger; a screech of springs, footsteps dooming. Wax sizzled inside the neighbor’s room.

“Let me inside.” All bravado had vanished and Luz’s voice sounded soft. The neighbor would not talk, would not let Luz any nearer to his life than the threshold of his front door.

“Go home, honey. Wherever that is, just go.” The neighbor closed his door.

Not wanting to sneak through the alley, Luz chose to walk down the main stairs. He left through the front door, as if he too had been living in this halfway house and was now free to go. He walked past George’s condo and toward the Basilica. Jo Ann would be asleep, but would wake up when Luz knocked. He would make a bed of the sofa and borrow Jo Ann’s truck in the morning to move his things into storage. Home, the neighbor said, wherever that is. It was not Iowa, but it was not with George either. When he reached the three-way intersection, Luz noticed that the traffic signal had been fixed. The light changed from red to green, drawing long shadows across the pavement. Luz stopped at the corner and watched the cycle twice: Green. Yellow. Red. Green. Go. Yellow. Slow. Red—No cars came, no other people either. No one but Luz witnessed the lights change.

Randal O’Wain holds an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Currently, he teaches creative writing at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution. O’Wain is the author of Superman Dam[n] Fool: family, loss, and coming of age in the working class south (American Lives Series, Bison Books, 2019) and Hallelujah Station and other stories (Autumn House Press, 2020). His essays and short stories have appeared in Oxford American, Guernica, Booth, Hotel Amerika, Zone 3, among others.


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