Bad Actors

In the sunroom, Jamie and Abe were trying on their caps and gowns. The remarkable thing about academic regalia was that it always fit, no matter what ill fortune had befallen the bodies underneath. Jamie and Abe had been best friends forever and so had graduated college together, but that was twenty years ago. Okay, twenty-five. Since then, Jamie had attended a thousand of these things, and for this particular occasion—his daughter’s graduation from high school—he’d been tasked with giving the official commencement address.

“Will you marry me?” Jamie said to Abe. It was a joke; they both knew it.

“Someday,” Abe said. “If you’re lucky.”

They were lifelong friends and on-again-off-again lovers, something Jamie found a source of simultaneous satisfaction and shame. All these years later, and still they wore matching class rings from their college days. But the academic regalia, newly returned from the dry cleaners, was a mere afternoon lark, a dress rehearsal, a chance to show off.

“I look cool,” Jamie said. He looked at his reflection in the sun room’s picture window. “Hot.”

“You look like one of the Beach Boys,” Abe said. Jamie watched as he held up his phone and took several selfies. He could not help but notice these selfies were of Abe alone, and although Jamie’s ear or the edge of his sleeve might show up as afterthoughts on some of the resulting images, his presence hardly mattered. Abe had always been a little vain.

“We should have some champagne or something,” Jamie said. “Ice water.”

“Sure,” Abe said, still taking selfies. “Looking good.”

Because graduations were always in May or June, Jamie always wore secret summer clothing underneath his gown: baggy shorts, usually sandals, more often running shoes without socks, a pair of sunglasses, closed and affixed to his collar.

“You do look like a member of a boy band,” Abe said. “But not a good one. Shouldn’t you be wearing a necktie?”

“A bowtie,” Jamie said. “Maybe.”

“Your dad,” Abe said. “I’ll bet he’ll let you borrow one.”

Jamie’s dad, like Jamie himself and his sister, too, was an academic. A failed academic. Because they all were.

“I’m all itchy,” Abe said. Jamie watched as he doffed his cap and aggressively scratched his scalp. “I don’t think that dry cleaner did a good job.”

“You’ll be OK,” Jamie said. “Killer.”

The sun room was bright, the air crisp. Jamie’s parents had never bothered to outfit this particular room with central heat and air. Ostensibly, it was a “warm weather retreat,” but the truth was it was an all-purpose junk room, much like several other rooms in his parents’ house, a spare bedroom housing stacks of papers and ancient catalogs, a laundry room packed with pressed flowers, bolts of fabric, old cans of paint, the basement and attic both so crowded they could have been condemned. But Jamie had always liked the sun room, even now that the dogs were dead and no longer lazed away their days in the warmth of the windows. It was cool in there, and the light from the back yard put everything—mismatched throw pillows, crusty soccer cleats belonging to no one in particular, half-used bags of cat litter and peat moss—all in stark relief.

“You boys might like some potato salad,” Jamie’s mother said from the kitchen. Well into the twenty-first century, and still, she sounded like a relic. Sometimes, she treated all adults as if they were children.

“We’re OK, Mom,” Jamie called back. “We ate before.”

“Suit yourselves,” she said, now entering the sun room with a plate of cookies. She looked at Abe. “You can take these for the road.”

His mother had not forgiven Jamie for having the dogs put down, too early, she said, though both had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and so would not have survived much longer. And his father had more or less lost his mind. And both parents made over Abe as if he were some great perpetual honors student, all the while acting as if their own sons—Jamie, and his brother, too—should be excommunicated or in jail.

“These class rings are pathetic,” Jamie said, more to Abe than his mother. “I’m going to sell mine online.”

Jamie held his hand up to the light. In addition to the problem of the commencement address he’d not yet written, he and his daughter, too, had developed an ongoing and mysterious malady with mostly the same symptoms: their fingernails, not all of them but two on each hand, had suddenly and irreversibly bloomed with blurred-out bar codes, gray and fuzzy around the edges, numerals that looked like ink stains or the severed limbs from the bodies of mutilated insects. Both had been to several doctors, but nothing had helped. Now on the eve of Cora’s graduation, Abe insisted he knew not just the origin of the blemishes but also the malefactor responsible.

“It’s the radio station guy,” Abe said after they’d said goodbye to Jamie’s mother, hung the caps and gowns in the hall closet, and started on foot for their scheduled weekly softball practice. “Tripp Childers. He’s the manager.”

“That guy?” Jamie said. “He’s a punk.”

Abe went on to say all that he knew about Tripp Childers, long-haired libertarian who, in addition to managing the radio station and working the Avis desk at the local airport, mysteriously owned several apartment buildings, all of which featured overflowing dumpsters flanked by old mattresses and sets of box springs festering in moldy stacks by the curb. Everyone in town called him Slum Lord Tripp. Rip-off Tripp. Second Amendment Childers. Don’t cross him or he’ll follow you to the wine bar and send the cops after you on your way home.

“He’s your dad’s former student,” Abe said. “Remember?”

Of course he remembered. Jamie kept pace with Abe beside him. The concrete was uneven, the sidewalks buckled. The markets of Market Town were really just the same old grocery stores, and now they were just past the fancy, organic one, so close to campus the management rented out the parking lot on game days. With graduation coming up, the place would be packed.

Jamie turned to Abe. “You’re telling me that some Market Town jerkoff kid is responsible for my medical condition? That’s a bunch of shit.”

“Your dad told me about it,” Abe said, walking faster now. “The other day.”

For unknown reasons, Jamie’s father and Abe had been spending a lot of time together: yard work, amateur carpentry, a ceramics class, the occasional yoga session. Jamie thought it was stupid, but he didn’t ask questions. It seemed impossible to believe that this skin condition underneath his fingernails and now the fingernails of his daughter, too, could be controlled by any one human being, even a rotten one like Tripp Childers, but Abe insisted. There was a conspiracy, he said. A conspiracy of bad actors.

“You’re telling me it’s not just Tripp, then?” Jamie said. “This is some kind of Oklahoma Country Club for Biological Warfare?”

“Something like that,” Abe said. “Your dad thinks he’s in charge.”

“My dad,” Jamie said. “Thinks he’s in charge of the whole world.”

“He’s getting old,” Abe said. “That’s all.”

But that wasn’t all. Jamie’s dad had always been one of Market Town’s leading liberals, a regular on the monthly brownbag lunch & lecture series sponsored by the League of Women’s Voters, a reliable voice of reason among the oilfield aficionados and rabid football fans who otherwise would have dominated Market Town’s social scene. Everyone knew Jamie’s father was not just intelligent but kind, someone whose vast collection of former students made a daily practice of honoring him with their high moral standards and overall generosity. But something had happened to him: while Jamie had been embroiled in his own various and ongoing personal and professional failures, his father had slowly turned his attention toward the right-wing. At first, everyone—Jamie and his siblings and their mother, too—thought Hap’s new crowd of followers merely represented an act of charity on his part, some overconfident attempt to bring knowledge to the ignorant masses. And his own political ambitions meant he spent a lot of time courting potential-voters every year when the local school board elections rolled around. It was fine, expected, really, when he took a seat on the board of directors at the local talk radio station, fine when he organized a weekend trip to Denver with the Level Land Libertarians, not a big deal when he wore a T-shirt supporting the second amendment to a barbeque contest for bikers. In retrospect, they should have recognized the red flags. But Hap had always played both sides of the net, if only to appear open-minded and to make empty claims to objectivity in the classroom. Eventually, however, the writing was on the wall: he’d lost his marbles. When a woman from the radio station’s board of directors appeared in an online video complaining about the use of globes in a middle school class on World Cultures, Hap did not agree with her so much as express sympathy for her plight. So it all seemed as if it would be all right: he had not gone entirely flat-earth, after all. So much rationalization, so little actual understanding, Jamie knew, had been the recipe. Now they were all eating their just desserts.

Softball practice was over. Jamie and Abe, both outfielders, spent most of their time looking at their respective phones. The whole thing was sad, really, a bunch of old men pretending to be young. Jamie and Abe could laugh at themselves, at their stagnant sense of so-called hobbies. After hitting a couple of ground balls and sharing a single beer, they rounded the corner near the fancy grocery store and finally ended up in Abe’s front yard. Abe could have afforded something near the golf course west of town, but he preferred the same shitty row house he’d rented in college and bought as an adult. Kept him closer to the masses, he always said, and it was within walking distance of both the hospital and the fancy grocery store and the university campus as well.

“The hospital?” Jamie said, stepping on to Abe’s front porch. “Why would you want to go to the hospital?”

“To use the bathroom,” Abe said. “It’s very clean in there.”

Jamie took a seat on Abe’s warped porch swing. “Just clean your own bathroom.”

“Sure,” Abe said. He sat next to Jamie like a lover on a date. “Sometime.”

Jamie watched as Abe flipped through a stack of mail. Most of it, even what looked like bills with plastic windows on the fronts, he tossed into a recycling bin without opening it first. Abe was like that: always he threw caution to the wind, and somehow the consequences never caught up with him. You could say he was lucky, but more likely it was because his father was rich.

Together on the porch swing, back and forth in slow rhythm, they sat in silence. Jamie flinched when Abe put his hand on Jamie’s leg.

“Don’t,” Jamie said. “The neighbors.”

“They’re all at work,” Abe said. “Or passed out drunk.”

“I have to go,” Jamie said. “Cora.” The new custody agreement meant his daughter lived with him only every other weekend; still, he often used her impending arrival as an excuse to get away from Abe. Not that he wanted to get away from Abe. Really, he had no idea what he wanted or didn’t want from Abe. Mostly, he tried not to think about it.

Abe stood, threw what looked like a meat and cheese catalog off the edge of the porch and into the bushes. “There’s only one cure for that crap with your fingernails,” he said. “Your dad told me.”

Jamie looked down at the odd and mysterious bar code now appearing more visibly on his thumbnail. If you used a magnifying glass, you could see numbers erupting from the quick. He’d treated this particular blemish like he treated everything that went wrong with his body in middle age: increase the exercise, improve the nutrition, avoid the doctor, and enter into a state of deep denial. That Abe professed to know the secrets of its origins seemed annoying but irrelevant because Abe professed to know the secrets of the origins of more or less everything. “Spill it,” Jamie said. “What’s the cure for this fungus, bacteria, whatever-it-is?”

“Your graduation speech,” Abe said. “Make it dangerous.”

“Right,” Jamie said. “Like a badass.”

“I’m serious,” Abe said. “Your dad wants followers.”

“He has followers already.”

“He wants more.”

After leaving Abe’s house and walking home alone in the darkness, Jamie pulled out a yellow legal pad and began to write:


Welcome graduates, parents, teachers, relatives, and friends. To live in this great nation is to live in fear of the future. Already you’re worried about what awaits you when you walk out of those doors and into adulthood. I’ll tell you what you’ll discover: stolen jobs, stolen money, and stolen opportunity.


That was enough for one day. Enough fearmongering, enough authoritarianism, enough danger. All his life he’d tried to do what his father wanted. And there was no reason not to, not really. So many had made success stories from rebellion—the more honorable route to individuality—but Jamie, like his younger sister, had spent so long on the straight and narrow he couldn’t imagine anything convincingly crooked, even when some wiser part of himself issued all the necessary warnings against blind obedience.

And it bothered him that his parents and daughter and siblings and even his ex-wife and her new husband all professed to like Abe, to love him, even, but pretended not to know he and Abe were, had always been, more than mere friends. Possibly his family’s veiled homophobia was Jamie’s own fault; he’d never been open about it, after all. But he’d never been in the closet, either. He’d never been anywhere at all.

Still two days before the graduation ceremony, he decided to ask his father for coffee. He asked his daughter to join them, but she declined. “I don’t drink coffee,” she said from the sofa. She was watching the television’s screen, but it was not turned on.

“They have other stuff, you know,” Jamie said. “It’s not like the Sno-Cone Shack.”

“I’m busy,” she said.

“Doing what?”


She was not studying. She was not even looking at her phone. As far as he could tell, she was barely breathing. “I don’t know why you come down here,” he said. “If all you’re going to do is just sit there.”

“I’m on a break,” she said.

Lately, Jamie and her mother both had been urging Cora to seek summer employment. The summer before, she’d worked as a lifeguard at the Market Town City Pool and actually saved someone’s life. The victim, a nine-year-old boy from El Salvador, ended up paralyzed from the waist down, but still: without Cora’s intervention he would have died for sure. She’d been declared a hero and had her photo appear online next to a dead, but minorly famous jazz musician also born in Market Town, but the whole thing had made her quit the swimming pool and become listless and withdrawn. Sometimes, she went with her friends to a billiards hall on the strip—The Cue—but most of her free time she seemed to spend in unmoving silence at the kitchen table. Sometimes the sofa. Sometimes, when the weather was nice, the back patio. In any case, she’d become something like a recluse in an old movie, inward, a shadow of her former self. At first, Jamie had thought it might have been the divorce, but when her mother had first announced the separation in a noisy restaurant, Cora had pounded her fist on the table and said, yesssss, finally, as if she’d been expecting it all along.

“You should apply at the library,” Jamie said. He considered kissing her on the forehead, but at the last minute decided against it.

“You need a Master’s degree to work at the library.”

“I think that’s just for certain positions.”

“You’re late for your coffee date,” she said. “Tell Grandpa I said, Namaste.

At the coffee shop in Fountain Square—there was not a single fountain, not even the kind meant for drinking, within the confines of Fountain Square—Jamie arrived first. Once again, he saw the bulk of the other patrons were either alone with laptops or in pairs huddled over pencil stubs and Bibles. The laptops were ubiquitous and always had been, but the Bibles were new. There wasn’t a church nearby, not that he could remember, anyway, but the public’s post-pandemic predilections—in Market Town, at least—meant its members took a particular pleasure in debating the finer points of Paul’s letters to the Philippians.

“I’ve always thought of it as an open invitation,” a pale and damp-headed man said to his companion, also a pale and damp-headed man. “For worship and fellowship. That kind of thing.” Jamie watched as he turned another tissue-thin page between them on the table.

Take it outside, he wanted to say. He was standing right next to them, but they seemed not to notice. He coughed. He watched as they simultaneously turned their damp heads in his direction.

“Sounds raspy in there, brother,” one of them said. “You a smoker?”

“Quit,” Jamie said, which wasn’t actually true because, aside from his eighteenth birthday party, he’d never smoked a cigarette in his life.

“Good man,” the other one said. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome?” he said. After he retrieved his coffee from the counter, he selected an empty table near the fireplace, far from the original bible-brothers, but close to a second and third pair, all four of them, like the first two, defensive and unattractive white men who resembled one another in bland, but official hair style and dress. The collared shirts, the small, but mysterious nylon pouches affixed to the waistbands of the khaki pants, the short, but receding hairlines: all of it was meant to make them appear at once earnest and aloof, the kinds of men who would pull you aside and give you a stock tip or golf tip, the kinds of men who might issue knowing winks at other men when the pretty, young babysitter crossed the carpet into the living room. They seemed to own all the public spaces in Market Town these days, and mostly Jamie didn’t mind. They treated him as if he were one of their own. Had they known what he and Abe were up to—had always been up to—they might first have asked to join them and then made public pronouncements of moral outrage, you can’t trust anyone these days, next time I’m bringing my gun. Their devotion to firearms was the one thing that actually scared him; everything else he could laugh off as a so much pompous wrangling, dumbass Jim Bob meets dumbass Brian or Steve, dumbass dugout chat between Manager Mike and Lugnut Larry. All of them had their own secrets of the homosexual variety, and some of them didn’t even mind revealing them as evidence of the cleansing power of prayer to lift sinners from the depths of moral depravity. The world was strange these days: so many militant evangelicals looked and acted like ex-cons. They smoked and sometimes grew marijuana. Watched pornography on the regular. What fun was Sunday morning without the transgressions of Saturday night?

“I don’t see it as a commandment,” he overheard one of them say. “It’s more like a single statement on a list of best practices.

“Dude,” his companion said. “It’s literally called The Ten Commandments.”

“This is my interpretation,” the first guy said. “I’m an adult, and I can make my own decisions.”

Just then, Jamie’s father appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a button-down shirt that appeared two sizes too small. His hands, the skin blotchy and the movement uncertain, carried a stack of manila file folders between them. Something new: he walked with stiff legs. Two of the bible-guys seemed to recognize him.

“Where’s Cora?” he said, first thing. He didn’t even order himself a coffee.

“Studying,” Jamie lied. “Apparently, they make you take final exams before you’re allowed to graduate.”

“I brought her a present,” his father said, wedging himself into the banquette across from Jamie. He slapped the file folders onto the table. “Tax advice,” he said. “For next fiscal year.”

“She doesn’t need any tax advice,” Jamie said. “She doesn’t even have a job.”

“Doesn’t need a job,” his father said. “This is for her business.

“What business?”

“She didn’t tell you?” his father said. “Never mind.”

It bothered Jamie that his father seemed to know more about both Cora and Abe than he knew himself. But father and son? They barely knew one another at all. His younger sister had been the perfect one, his younger brother the one people with poor judgment called charismatic. And what had Jamie been? Dutiful, but dreary. Careful to the point of tedium. Reliable, forgettable, good at appearing youthful and vibrant back when he actually was youthful and vibrant. A man for the ladies and the men. An all-purpose party guy. If you needed someone to bring the dip, Jamie would bring the dip. When he was married, his wife had been the one to assemble the dip; nowadays, he made a run for the cold case at the fancy organic grocery store and called it a day.

He opened one of the file folders, which turned out to be empty. “There’s no tax advice in here,” he said to his father. He opened the other one. “Nothing in here, either.”

“They must have fallen out in the car,” his father said. “I’ll email them to her. No, I’ll FAX them to her. Do you all have a FAX machine?”

“No, Dad,” Jamie said. “No one has a FAX machine.”

“Well, I have one,” he said. “And I’m someone.”

He was someone increasingly instable. Someone not in control of his own fate. Someone not to be trusted. Finally, his father came out with it: “It’s a triple-time-lapse tattoo,” he said. “On your fingernails.”

Jamie looked down at his thumbs and forefingers. Indeed the bar codes were a sickly blackish-green, the color of moss that grows at the bottom of a well. These days, most younger men and women too had tattoos of one kind or another, usually the small symbol of spirituality or the tasteful butterfly between the shoulder blades, but Jamie, even among drunk fraternity brothers who practically pushed him out of a moving car as it sped by a tattoo parlor, had always refused. Mostly he didn’t want to spend the money—what a joke to call these people “artists,” anyway—and why should he shell out the big bucks and endure at least a half hour of agony, all just to look like a fool? And now he had tattoos on his own fingernails? And he didn’t exactly know how they got there? Something so stupid could happen only to him. And his daughter, too, right; probably he should have made her go to another doctor or something. Was this a disease?

“They’re not permanent,” his father said. “It’s to remind you of your own mortality.”

“What makes you think I need to be reminded of my own mortality?”

“All my children do,” he said. “But you need it the most.”

Jamie held his fingers closer to the light. The numbers were smeared, but still barely visible. One series had slashes between them: a month, a day, and the current calendar year, two days away, the day of the graduation ceremony.

He took a sip from his coffee, then looked at his father. “Abe told me you had some kind of secret club or something. At the radio station.”

“It’s not a secret club,” his father said. “It’s more like an attempt to preserve civilization. To connect people to their own true selves.”

“Sounds like some kind of therapy thing,” Jamie said.

“Yes,” his father said. “For the masses.”

Whatever specious set of principles he was adhering to these days hardly seemed like it required body modification—didn’t all cults have rules for dress and general appearance?—but Jamie was willing to listen. For days, he’d pretty much ignored his fingernails, convinced himself the vertical black lines were harmless lesions that were already fading every time he washed his hands.

“This whole thing is creepy,” Jamie said. “I want my regular fingernails back.”

“Look,” his father said. “The Constitution says that fundamental human rights come from God. Not government, God.”

“Wait a second,” Jamie said. “None of this has anything to do with connecting people to their own true selves.”

“Yes, it does.”


His father went on to explain the mechanism by which the bar codes became visible on the fingernails of unwitting victims: a press-on ink transfer along the lines of the toy surprises that once came in the bottoms of boxes of Cracker Jacks, applied in the dreamer’s sleep and later activated by a secret dose of a laboratory-altered liquid made from a combination of wastewater injection slurry and tap water from the Market Town municipal supply.

“You’re turning me into a product, then?” Jamie said. “You’re commodifying people.”

“People are already commodified,” his father said. “This is mere confirmation.”

“So what happens?” Jamie said. He squinted at his thumb nail. “What happens when the expiration date arrives?”

“It’s sort of like a pyramid scheme,” his father said. “Only altruistic.”

Angry now, Jamie stood from the table. He imagined himself draining the last of his coffee in a dramatic gulp, but he knew the coffee had gone cold and so didn’t want to drink it. If what his father was saying was true, this whole fingernail thing was worse than any ordinary contagion or cure, worse than anything even the right-wingers could manufacture for the sake of their monstrous misinformation campaigns. And what, exactly, was the reason?  Who was the mastermind? And why were the subjects so far all members of the same hapless family?

“It’s a trial run,” his father said. “It doesn’t actually alter your DNA, so don’t worry. You’ve been putting more poisonous substances in your coffee for years.”

“You could have told me about this, Dad,” Jaime said. “Before going all whack-job on me and messing with my fingernails. And Cora’s. This might really frighten her, you know.”

“This is for her own good,” his father said. “And yours.”

And so it was set: Jamie had his job to do. At the commencement ceremony, his speech need only remind people of old-fashioned values, of the nation and its former glories. Nothing discriminatory. Nothing inciting violence. Just a nod to the way things used to be. It shouldn’t be hard, his father said, to tap into nostalgia. To the left, to the right, damp-headed white men and their pencil stubs scribbling psalms into notebooks: that was what the future held, and Jamie was nothing if not a realist, might as well get used to it.

“I have something to tell you about Abe,” Jamie said to his father as they walked out into the sudden heat of the coffee shop’s parking lot.

“Go ahead,” his father said. “Shoot.”

“He stole from you,” Jamie said. “Back when we were kids. I don’t know how much, exactly, but it was at least a couple hundred dollars. You didn’t notice for a few days, but eventually, you blamed it on Mom.”

“I know about Abe,” his father said. “He told me. And another thing he told me is that he stole from you, too.”

“Abe wouldn’t steal from me,” Jamie said. “Abe loves me.”

“I know,” his father said. “He told me that, too.”

Okay, so Abe had loose lips. Who knew what else he’d been telling Jamie’s father? Jamie hoped that whatever it was at least it was true. Because Abe was like that, a liar, but a good-natured liar, the kind who believed his own exaggerations. That night, after Cora fixed lasagna from a box and the box was thrown away and the lasagna picked at and the leftovers relegated to the fridge, Jamie pulled out his yellow pad and continued:

Does everyone remember pay phones? Sure you do. How about push reel lawn mowers? You remember when vending machines accepted only coins and not credit cards? Maybe that last one was before your time. Maybe the payphones exist only in your mind’s eye. But I know some of you parents out there remember clotheslines, popcorn you shook on the stovetop, pajama pants with a flap on the back. And trousers! Some of you called them trousers. And the ladies wore petticoats. And carried umbrellas and handbags and long-handled feather dusters. I know some of you would give absolutely anything to have those days back again. Listen to the sounds of insects! They’re buzzing and humming, speaking in tongues now, all for the great cause of wisdom.

He figured he was sounding mostly all the right notes. Frankly, his father was a mystery. His brother and sister—and Cora and Abe, too—all believed his new political ideology was an age-related blunder, something they were free to either ignore or openly mock. But Jamie knew it was worse than that. At the coffee shop, his father had seemed to actually believe in some twisted vision of himself restoring common decency to an otherwise morally bankrupt populace. Growing up, his father had always been the kind of person to invite the handyman to stay for dinner, the kind to buy new sneakers for some kid who seemed to need them. But his charity had never come with strings attached. He realized his father had always been playing the long game, and now, without a reliable historical record to anchor him and without teaching to occupy his time, he was trying to cash in on a lifetime of phony moral deposits.

“I’m painting my fingernails,” Cora said the next morning over bowls of breakfast cereal. “I don’t want these weirdo bar codes in all my graduation photos.”

“No,” Jamie said. He was too nervous to eat. “Don’t.”

“Too late,” she said, tapping her hot pink nails onto the tabletop. It took two coats to cover up that crap on my thumb.”

“I was going to suggest you keep your hands either behind your back or neatly folded in your lap. Whenever anyone took a photo.”

“Right,” she said. “Because this is the nineteenth century and we want all the daguerreotypes to make me appear marriageable.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s just that your grandfather is proud of those bar codes, that’s all. He’s proud of you.”

“He wants me to become an influencer. Or, like someone who trains other influencers. He wants to start an influencer school.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Jamie said. “It’s OK to tell grandpa that you’re thinking about it, maybe pretend you’re considering it later, but then go ahead and forget all about it and never mention it again.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I was planning on something like that.” She put her empty cereal bowl in the sink. “Hey, did Abe tell you he wants to buy me a car?”

This was news to him, but he played it cool. “He might have mentioned it,” he said. “Seems like he ought to split the payments with you if he’s going to act like such a showoff.”

“Now he’s talking about getting something used. And paying for it all at once. Like a combination birthday/graduation/welcome to adulthood kind of thing.”

“No one bought him a car when he graduated. Well, now that I think about it, he already had one. And as far as adulthood goes, the adults still have not fully welcomed him into their world.”

“Abe is nice to me,” she said. “And not just because of you.”

“Right,” he said. “Abe’s a nice guy.”

“He’s nice, but he’s shallow,” she said.

“He likes to travel,” Jamie said. “That gives him depth.”

“Well, he needs to travel more, then.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.


On graduation day, Jamie returned with Abe to his parents’ house to collect their caps and gowns. Keeping his commencement attire at his own home instead of his parents’ would have been the sensible thing to do, but Jamie no longer considered himself sensible. Besides, he liked walking Market Town’s streets, where each curb-cut, each mailbox, each circular driveway held memories of his youth. It was stupid, really, to think of his own boyhood as if it were some collection of still photos featuring the young Mickey Rooney. But he’d always felt safe in Market Town. All of that safety was gone, but it wasn’t his fault, wasn’t even his father’s fault because only desperation or ignorance made people fall for lies. They hadn’t created the desperation or ignorance, only capitalized on it, and if it made people shut up about all their eleven million off-brand instances of injustice, then so much the better. People needed to be kinder, to one another yes, but also to themselves. All these young men with rage problems needed avuncular advice, target practice in safe sporting facilities, truth and wisdom from works of art and literature that had stood the test of time. He could see what his father was after: simplicity. Common decency. Restoring confidence in institutions. Making the world feel like a safe place to raise children. Those damp-headed dudes with their bibles possessed limited vision, but at least they had vision at all.

His mother tried and failed to convince Abe to eat a stale cinnamon roll, his father hugged Abe and Cora, but not Jamie, Cora decided to ride with her grandparents to the ceremony, and Jamie and Abe, now fully attired for the occasion, set off on foot. By the time they passed the fancy organic grocery store, the bar codes underneath Jamie’s left thumb  and forefinger had begun to throb.

“Man,” Jamie said to Abe as they stopped at a crosswalk. “My fingers. They hurt like hell.”

“Must be the slurry,” Abe said. “That shit can’t be good for you.”

“Did you tell my Dad you loved me?”

The sign changed from “Don’t Walk” to “Walk,” but they did not move. “Are you kidding?” Abe said. “Why would I tell him that?”

“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “He mentioned it.”

“He was testing you,” Abe said. “Don’t take the bait.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Jamie said. “It’s cool.”

“Your dad knows about us,” Abe said. “Everyone knows.”

“I know.”

“Maybe we should sit them down and talk about it,” Abe said. “Sometime.”

“Maybe not,” Jamie said. “I don’t want to talk to them at all.”

The ceremony, hot and crowded and smelling of old popcorn, meant he and Abe were eventually separated, and the entire night passed before he saw his parents or sister and brother. He recognized Cora only by the daisy chain she wore around her neck and the single exclamation point she’d painted on the top of her mortar board; otherwise she kept company with the other graduates, lined up like library books in alphabetical order. Jamie took his place on the stage. He realized ruefully he’d be forced later on to have his photo made with his ex-wife and Cora between them. Maybe her new husband or Abe would take the photo; maybe they’d both want to join the happy graduate and her parents and ask a stranger to do the honors. Suddenly, he wondered what family gathering would come next: Cora’s college graduation or wedding or someone else’s funeral? Maybe his brother would convert to Judaism; that seemed like something he would do. Regardless, he hated forced family togetherness and no longer allowed his mother to make him feel guilty whenever he skipped some pointless dinner party meant to mark some small account occasion like Cora getting her wisdom teeth taken out. The best part about the graduation ceremony was that he didn’t have to sit with them.

Graduates, parents, grandparents, and friends, he said, when he stepped up to the lectern. What you’ve been missing is your sense of security, your ability to feel whole.

He looked down at the rows of graduates, family and friends above. The graduates seemed eager; everyone else seemed bored.

You could spend all day reading. You could spend all day doing math. Doubtless you’ve done both of those things in preparation for entering the work force. What you need is a pathway to success. A countertop made from the finest organic materials. The knowledge your paycheck will buy all that you’ve ever dreamed of and more.

No one was listening, not really. He could say anything he wanted.

I’m here to tell you that you can have all those things. You deserve all those things.

Some of the graduates looked up.

His fingernails were still hurting, but they were hurting less. And when he looked down at his hands, he saw the smudges on each thumb and forefinger begin, slowly at first, but then rapidly and all at once, to fade into a light green, then a light gray, then disappear entirely. He watched as all his fingernails returned to a rosy, healthy pink.

Believe in your family, he said. Believe in God.

From the family section: applause. Nothing from the graduates.

There’s something happening out there, and it’s not pretty. It’s dangerous. Evil forces are all around you, and it’s your responsibility to fend them off.

He watched as a volunteer group from Moms for Liberty walked the aisles and passed out paper cups. What was inside the cups he did not know, but on the outside, each cup was emblazoned with both a cross and an American flag. All the graduates, even Cora, drank.

When evil forces surround you, God will fortify you. But only if you fortify yourselves.

He looked down from the edge of the stage. All these young people, all that energy, all that potential for good in the world, it just needed to be harnessed, that was all, and he knew his father was only trying to help them, to make their lives easier to bear. All at once, their fingernails began to bloom. Just as his own fingernails were restored to their former glory, the fingernails—the pointers and thumbs—of each of the graduates darkened with inky stains. The students themselves seemed not to notice, but—soon enough—they would. And they would be frightened, at first, but connected, at least, to one another, yes, but to Jamie too, all the while their paths predetermined to be grand and glorious, their cupboards full and their wallets fat, their dreams within reach and their future children under the umbrella of protection, all because they had sense enough to keep their heads on straight, to put their trust not in man but something better, something higher, something unknowable but powerful, something that gave you love instead of taking it away.



Dinah Cox

Dinah Cox is the author of the short story collections Remarkable from BOA Editions and The Canary Keeper from [PANK] Books. A third collection, The Paper Anniversary, is forthcoming from Elixir as winner of their annual fiction prize. She teaches at Oklahoma State University in her home town of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Dinah recommends Lambda Legal.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, November 12, 2023 - 20:40