FICTION: Ulysses, King of Hearts by Steve Passey

I remember that in the bar where I met the most beautiful man this other fellow used to come in. He wore a tweed coat and always brought in a book. I think it was Ulysses by James Joyce. He was only in his twenties and he’d come in with his tweed coat and Ulysses and order a draft and sit there and read hoping that someone would come over and talk to him about his book.

#

I sat with my whiskey and watched TV. The hem of my skirt is one inch below my knee. Time passes in good bourbon and coke, then bourbon and ice, then bourbon neat, then I go home alone to bed. Men would come up to me occasionally, sometimes in waves, and wash up on my shore. They come politely, they retreat politely, and lie down like starfish to dry and die in the sun. I do not come here for men. I work with men, all week, and all year. I see all of men I need to see. I see their alternating postures of assumption and supplication, riding elevators up and elevators down, working for their wages at a job they may not be suited to and may not enjoy, they are in these regards no different than I am. I come here to forget about work, to let go the elevators, and most importantly because it’s close enough to walk to my place. I don’t need to hold the mirror of work up to my face in these men I see. I have my procession of three Bourbon lovers, each in his turn, each in his place, and I love my bed alone. I am a faithful sort, and forever true.

He came in and sat down beside me and ordered something. Even in the reflection of the bar’s mirror, through the spigoted bottles, I could see the marks on his face, the welts on the bridge of his nose and the line of his brow, and the black eye. The shiner was a good one. I could even see the blood clouding the corner of his eye.

His drink arrived and he set out two Percocet, said a quick grace, then set the pills on his tongue and washed them down with a sip from his glass.

“Can I ask how the other guy looks?” I said.

“Like the winner,” he said, and smiled.

His eyes were kind, very blue, and shone like a man who saw some humor in everything.

I took him home. I knelt on the bed and undressed him from behind. I took his shirt off and threw it on the floor, and then I undid his belt buckle and eased the belt out through the loops. I rolled his pants down past his hips and ass and rolled the underwear down over them. I held him upright with my left arm under his arm and across his chest, and with my right I reached for his erection and cupped his balls.

“Ah little Mary” he said, “Look at me. I’m in pain so bad I cry, and yet I am still hard in your hands.”

This was true. Even as I held him tears came down in a single line out of his good eye.

My name is not Mary.

I pulled his head back by his hair then and kissed him hard, half upside down to him, rising above him by pulling hard enough on that hair to pull myself up. I stopped kissing him just to hear his breathing, heavy and ragged from the violence done him, and from the alcohol and the pills. I reached for his erection again and began to work him, slowly and with long strokes. At the bottom of each stroke I’d briefly cup his testicles in the outside three fingers of my hand. In time I felt his erection swell and his balls tighten up and rise in my fingers, and still kneeling, with me behind him, he ejaculated, his issue pouring forth in three long streams, across the end of my bed and onto my shoes and the floor before ebbing into a lesser flood on the bed and on my hand.

He gasped and then laughed. “Oh Mary.”

I lay him back down on the bed, and stood up to undress him. He was asleep, tears still on his face, before I had him unclothed.

After that was done I undressed and lay down beside him. “You beautiful fucker, you came on my shoes and my floor,” I whispered, and he smiled in his sleep.

All night long his eye swelled, and I counted the welts and the marks from past stitches on him with my finger-tips until I fell asleep too.

#

When we woke up in the morning he immediately got dressed.

“I’m going to go home and change,” he said. “I need to go for a run. I’ve got another fight coming up in a few weeks.”

“I don’t think you should fight anymore,” I said.

“Good thing I’m not a thinker,” he said. He smiled his smile and was gone.

#

He came back, off and on. We fucked like normal people.

He told me his name. He told me he was one of five brothers, the youngest, and that his mother had been very poor.

He told me that he’d been educated in a Parish school for boys, run by the Brothers of some order, but that Nuns had taught him too. He told me not to believe anything I read or heard about priests, that they were all good to him, and taught him sports and the rules of boxing, but the Nuns were the worst. He showed me his little finger, sticking out at an odd angle, and said that was how the nuns tried to teach him to play piano. He had played, and the Sister had caught him holding his finger wrong, and had wrenched it so hard it broke. There were none to look after him, to speak against any of this, and so the finger set the way it did. He thought it a miracle that it had never broken in any of his fights.

Long after he had left the school he’d had nightmares he said, but never on his own behalf. He dreamt that one of the Brothers, the man he most liked, was chained by the wrists between two posts, naked to his waist. A nun sat in front of him and counted out the lashes while two other nuns whipped the Brother across his back with yardsticks, lashing the Brother like they had lashed him at his desk. He cried, too afraid to say anything, and then the Brother had looked over and mouthed the word “Go!” to him. The nuns never looked over, just gripped the yardsticks with white knuckles and laid the sticks so viciously on the Brother that his skin started to break and he started to bleed. “Twenty-Nine,” the seated nun said, then “Thirty,” and in his dream he ran past the sound of the lashes and their voices.

“I’ve been fighting ever since I first had that dream,” he told me.

He learned my name.

I went to the bar less often.

#

When it came time I could not watch him fight.

I went to the bar and ordered my procession of bourbons, my gentleman escorts for the evening.

“We haven’t had the pleasure of your company in a while,” said the bartender, and he poured graciously.

My most beautiful man came in and he looked very poorly.

“How does the winner look,” I asked.

“Better than I do,” he said. “But not by much.”

He had four Percocet with his drink.

“Mary, take me home,” he said.

We went home I undressed him at the side of the bed and left his clothes where he stood. I helped him to lie down. He lay on his back. I undressed and knelt beside him. He had eighteen stitches above his left eyebrow. He had stitches inside and outside of his lower lip. It had been split wide open and even with the stitches it was swollen it obviously pained him to speak. He cried again, for the first time since our first night, and the tears fell without a sound.

I lay down naked beside him, my left hand in his hair and my right upon his erection. He was very hard, and very hot. I told him that I’d heard that man’s strongest erection was said to occur just before he dies and he laughed. I half lay on him then, pulling his hair hard with my left hand and kissing him open mouthed, above him again, my breasts against his shoulder. With my right hand I worked him long and slow, starting by cupping and gently pulling on his balls, then pulling his cock forward as I moved my hand up the whole length of it. I tasted blood in his kisses, in his mouth and now in mine, and his breathing was very ragged. When he came his semen poured forth from him again in jets, all over my hand and arm and breasts and his own belly.

“You called me ‘Mary’ again tonight,” I said, while we lay there in our heat and wetness.

He laughed. “I’m sorry. You know, I don’t even know a ‘Mary.’ You just seem to be one.”

“I don’t want you to fight anymore. Mixed Martial Arts? Five-Hundred for a win? Two-Fifty for a loss? It isn’t worth it. What’s next? Are they going to let lions in, like the Romans? Keep your day job. Go to school. Live with me. You can do it. It’ll be good for both of us.”

He was quiet for a long time before speaking.

“Thirty-One, Thirty two …” he said.

We didn’t speak again before he fell asleep. The next morning he got up to run.

#

His hair was light brown, very light, with a coppery cast, long and thick and straight. My grandmother would have called the color “auburn.” I imagined him to be of some sort of Viking extraction and in imaging this I smiled.

His nose had been broken, by his estimation, four, or maybe even seven times.

I could see veins in his lower abdomen, coming up from the crease of his groin, almost touching his abdominal muscles.

He had a tattoo on his shoulder, two playing cards: A King of Diamonds and a King of Hearts. He told me that they stood for money and love, and that spades and clubs were only for war and he did not want them.

He told me that the King of Hearts was called “The Suicide King” because he holds his sword above his own head, unlike the other three kings whose weapons are always at their sides.

He never talked about his brothers; save to tell me that he had the four and that he was the youngest.

#

I went to the bar, and the procession of gracious bourbons went through “neat” to “shots” and my handsome man did not come to me.

The bartender eventually called me a cab because I could not walk the three blocks to my place. I insisted that he tell the driver to ask for “Mary” when he came and he did. The bar paid the driver.

I slept in my clothes with my shoes still on and I dreamt of hitting him with a ruler, slapping him every time he said “thirty-one.” He laughed when he said it. In my dream he bore even more of the stigmata of the cage than I had ever seen before and both of his eyes were closed and his arms were folded across his heart and still I struck him.

I woke up ashamed.

I went back to the bar and ordered a coffee.

“What happened to that good-looking man I sometimes left with?” I asked the bartender, “The boy with all of the beautiful scars. Did he come in last night?”

The bartender pointed at the TV and said, “No ma’am. He did not. Sad story but he died in the cage last night. He was knocked out and the back of his head hit the canvas. It’s on the news. His handlers left him in there too long if you ask me. He wasn’t winning that fight. Too tough to quit, too much pride. Someone should have stopped it. Stay and sit awhile, it’ll come back around every half hour.”

I sat with my coffee getting cold until I could sit no longer and I left twenty dollars for the coffee and last night’s cab and when the bartender tried to refuse I turned my back on him and walked out. I never went back to that place again. When I got to my place I sat down at the foot of the bed where I would normally lay my shoes and I cried for as long as I could, and then slept on the floor. I woke up and cried some more. I cried for a knife, I cried for a Bible, I cried because I didn’t believe in either of those things. I only believed in this most beautiful man, and now that he was gone he had taken his Mary with him and I cried for her too.

At the end of days, when all is undone and unmade, I think that there will be no more crying. Or so I hope.

#

Algebra, driving, drinking and crying: Things you have to practice to be good at. I do not think about it anymore. If I do, if I am tempted to cry or sleep on the floor, I try to think about the poor boy with Ulysses, sitting there and waiting for someone to come up and talk to him. I see him sitting there with his pint and his book and his ridiculous tweed coat, belonging to no place and of no interest to people, and I don’t believe that anyone ever talked to him. I bet he is still there.

Steve Passey

August 19 2016

Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection “Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock” (Tortoise Books, August 2017) and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction. His fiction and poetry have appeared in more than forty publication worldwide, both print and electronic.

If you enjoyed Ulysses, King of Hearts, leave a comment and let Steve know.

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