Photo by Jr Korpa
Binana finds a table by the window. It resists occupation by gyrating, spilling precious coffee onto its stained wood top. She cleans up, then cuts the line at the counter to deposit a mass of hot napkins. The barista scowls. Binana uses the lowest register of her voice to threaten a blog post, then walks back to her table like the winner of a duel.
The meeting might not happen. Cobin is a no-show type, no stomach for conflict. She pulls the object from the bottom of her bag and stashes it on her lap, comfortably near her ovaries.
Cobin does turn up but does not say hello. His eyebrows lift as his gaze meets hers. It has been three months since they last saw each other.
He takes a seat and the chair shifts under his slight frame. He might be the last person to know it as a complete piece of furniture. A verse and a chorus from a lesbian folk anthem play before Binana finally speaks.
“Don’t worry. I’m not trying to get back together.” She places the talisman on the table. It is round and smooth, about the size of a golf ball with a flattened underside and a reddish-brown stain to the wood, probably walnut. Two haves rotate along a hidden pin. Each side contains a recessed piece of colored glass, one orange, the other pale green.
“What is it?” He laces his fingers together and rests them on his lap, his thumbs spinning anxiously.
“It’s called La Gonade du Diable. Satan’s Gonad. It’s a good luck charm and Pandora’s Box, all in one.”
“What do I do with it?” he asks. “Tuck it under my ball sack?”
“That depends,” she says, caressing the object with an index finger. He drops his gaze to her dark red nails, perfectly painted. He has always liked her hands. He does not like her ridiculous blog about child rearing, The Joy of Spanking.
“It is very old, obviously, and quite fussy. You must approach it with respect. The Gonad can make you rich, or ruin you.”
Cobin tucks his chin. The scent of bullshit bends a corner of his mouth upward.
“It selected me through an agent. This person could not reveal how or why I was chosen, but like me, the person was compelled to follow the Gonad’s selection and pass it to the next recipient. The agent carefully explained how he, too, had been approached by someone who told him what he had to do. The agent was an older man, working at my building as a painter. I told him to fuck off and tried to leave, which rattled him. He implored me to take it seriously and pressed the Gonad into my hands. Reluctantly, I accepted it.”
Binana sips her coffee cup and lets the bitterness rest on her tongue for a moment before the swallow lifts the top of her throat. When she replaces the cup on the saucer, she hides the smudge of dark lipstick from Cobin’s view.
“But it is an attractive thing, isn’t it? The pleasant way it clicks opened, its shape. So I kept it. And every time I looked at it, I thought of the agent, the look in his eyes when I tried to refuse him, and all the things he told me I must do in order to please it, to keep it from getting angry.”
“Like what?” Cobin asks.
“Promise me that you will only tell this to the next recipient.”
He takes a deep breath and nods reluctantly.
“Once you pass it on and explain the requirements, the new recipient has a week.” Her voice is barely audible now. “So in your case, you must decide to use it, or pass it on. Using it means accepting the risk. The direction of your life will take a sharp turn in the right or the wrong direction.”
“Did you use it?” Cobin asks. She nods.
“And the painter?”
“So you make a wish and hope the opposite doesn’t come true?”
“Wishes don’t matter. The Gonad decides for you. You cannot steer it.”
“But in your case?” he asks, measuring the object’s smoothness with his fingertips.
She pauses, looking down at her coffee with a canned grimace. “The next day, I left my building for an appointment and noticed the scaffolding on one side. When my eyes followed it up the height of the building, I saw the painter staring down at me from the top level, adjusting the planks of wood where he stood. Neither of us acknowledged the other. I turned and, a moment later, heard something heavy and dull land on the pavement behind me. It was a truly awful sound. I didn’t turn around at first because I knew what I would see.”
“Oh God,” Cobin says, a hand now covering his mouth. “I read about this guy.”
“The sound still haunts me, but the visual was worse. His head was somehow tucked under his chest, and a trail of blood formed on the sidewalk. I was the last person to see him alive.”
Cobin sets the Gonad on the table and sighs, wiping his face with both hands. She takes another sip of her coffee.
“Of course,” she says, “it is impossible to prove the Gonad killed him.”
“But you have no doubt.”
“He told me as much. The bad luck tends toward the extreme, especially for those who try to expose the Gonad. If I were you,” she says, closing his soft fingers around it, “I would let it influence you for a few days before deciding.”
“If you want a chance at a better life. To risk death for something just as profound. Something most people will never enjoy.”
“Like?” he says, more curious than dismissive.
“True love. Wealth. Fame. Maybe a promotion at Blowe’s?”
“Fuck you.” He crosses his arms and looks away, the Gonad tucked under his armpit. Her eyes follow it to the new hiding place.
“I’m sorry,” she says with a coy tilt of her head. “That was cheap.”
“You should be worried that this thing punishes smug assholes.”
“I don’t think I need to worry anymore,” she says.
He refuses to ask about her good fortune, or to let the conversation flow into a flattering omission. An uncomfortable silence grows. He slips the Gonad into the front pocket of his jeans, then places both hands on the table.
“I’m getting published,” she says before he can stand.
The gravitas in her voice reminds him of an early Sunday morning in their old apartment. She woke him with news that she was pregnant. A month later, she texted him at work to say she had miscarried, then never mentioned it again.
“Congratulations,” he manages.
“And it was because of this?” he asks, patting his pocket.
“The Art and Science of Placebo Injections.”
“Don’t remember that one,” he mumbles.
“There are two parts: a book, as well as a leather-bound medical kit with custom designed syringes, vials, and needles. The book will feature my original research on the effects of placebo injections on delinquent children. There will be chapters on incarceration and sex, too.”
“That’s disturbing,” he says.
“My publisher said the market will devour it.”
Cobin nods the way he does when his boss tells a racist joke. He stands and takes a step toward the door.
“Hold on,” she says. “If you decide to use the Gonad, you must pick a side, the green or the orange, but not both. When you are ready, touch your tongue to the colored glass of whichever side you choose, then close it. Do not reopen it. Once you do this, set it aside. Let it guide you to the next recipient.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“I can’t tell you that,” she says, curling the end of her hair with a finger.
Cobin fishes the Gonad out of his pocket and opens it. The glass nodes are equally seductive. “Which color did you choose?”
“Cobin,” she groans, slowly shaking her head.
He shuts the object and returns it to his pocket. A moment later, he is in front of the café, lost in thought. He walks in front of a double-parked delivery truck. A cherry red convertible is passing the café as if cleared for take off. The driver glances down at something in his lap. Binana strikes the window, but Cobin does not hear her warning.
Cobin is a cat person, both in disposition and reflex. He yells at the car’s tail lights, then feels for the Gonad in his pocket.
The shower is running when he unlocks the door to his shared apartment. Using an empty soda bottle, he props open a window in the living room, then clears a spot on the cracked glass coffee table by piling dated celebrity gossip magazines onto a chess set. Most everything in the apartment belongs to his roommate, Earl.
His mind is ruffled. He still dislikes her mannerisms, her missing sense of humor. She speaks as if defending the dissertation she never finished. She smelled nice, as always. The blouse she wore was a birthday gift from him. Just being near her felt like a successful trip to the lost and found.
What is fantastic luck? He no longer wants a music career. He doesn’t even play the electric guitar Earl found on the street, leaning into a dusty corner of the living room. He doesn’t covet wealth the way she does. The Gonad is all risk and no reward, just like their relationship. It mirrors her extremes, the way she looks at life as a competition to be won or lost in spectacular fashion.
“You don’t look so good,” says Earl from the edge of the living room. His white t-shirt sticks to his moist skin. With a pinky and a square of toilet paper, he digs at his ear canal. Earl is black, around 60, originally from Chicago. You can tell he works in a nursing home kitchen by the salt-free leftovers he carts home. When talking on the phone, he refers to himself as Rookie. Cobin is one of nine roommates he’s had over the years, and the third hipster. Cobin eschews the term. His parents are broke. Several days can pass without them seeing each other, a closed door suggesting the other occupant is gone, asleep, or online. Today is a rare thing, a mutual day off.
“Just thinking,” Cobin says, grabbing the Gonad from the coffee table and dropping it into the space between his legs.
“Look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Earl says, less guarded than usual. He uses the opposite corner of the toilet paper and works the other ear.
“Nah, just my ex.”
Earl nods. “You want a beer? My treat.”
“Sure,” says Cobin. “Whatcha got?”
“Didn’t cost $15 for a 4-pak if that is what you were expecting.” Earl returns from the kitchen and hands him a can before settling into an armchair. Cobin has seen the beer’s logo 175,000 times in his 32 years of life. “More like $15 for a 30-pak.”
“It’s all good,” says Cobin and pops the top. He doesn’t like to drink in the afternoon, but he doesn’t refuse Earl’s hospitality.
“What you got there?” Earl points at Cobin’s groin.
The younger man sighs and tosses Earl the wooden object.
“It’s called Satan’s Gonad.”
“As in testicles? Satan’s Balls?” Earl holds the Gonad as if it were attached to someone.
“I think Gonad is gender neutral.”
“Still. Your ex gave you this? That’s kinda weird.”
“Yeah. But she’s kinda weird.”
“Does she want a baby or something?”
Cobin laughs and takes a deep breath to fuel the explanation he is surprisingly eager to give. Earl’s discomfort with the object eases, and he begins to open and close the Gonad, affirming its smoothness and inspecting the colored glass inside as he listens. Repeating the Gonad’s prescription buttresses its credibility to Cobin, as does Earl’s curiosity. He condemns himself with a final sentence, explaining how he is never to talk about the magical device with anyone.
“Maybe I’m next,” Earl says. “I could use some good luck. Win the lottery. Leave this apartment to you and move to the Philippines, shack up with Sheila on a beach. Sounds pretty good, right?” Earl takes a swig from his beer and looks at the air in front of him without seeing. “Went there on my honeymoon,” he says finally. “1979.”
“Who’s Sheila?” Cobin asks.
“A woman I started seeing at work,” Earl says with faint vulnerability. “We’re doing Ethiopian tonight. You ever had Ethiopian food?”
“Yeah,” Cobin says. “Once.”
“Her cousin owns the restaurant. Guess we’re getting serious if she wants me to meet the family, right?” He glances at the heavy silver watch on his left wrist and resumes opening and closing the Gonad.
“Do you keep in touch with your ex?” Cobin asks. There are no photos anywhere in the apartment. The high-gloss white walls have no artwork hanging on them, good or bad. A few postcards cling to the fridge.
“Not really. Just Facebook. She lives in California now. Has two boys in college. You want another one?” Earl makes his way to the kitchen, really just a corner of the living room with tile instead of threadbare carpet.
“So your ex,” says Earl. “What’s her name?”
Earl guffaws into the open refrigerator. “Like the fruit?”
“Binana,” Cobin repeats slowly, but kindly. “Rhymes with Rhianna.”
“Her parents are from Lebanon. They’re weird too. They made up the name. She’d be thrilled to know I’m explaining it to you.”
Earl nods. “Can I be nosey?”
“Sure,” Cobin says as he tucks his legs under himself.
“You broke up with her, didn’t you?”
“It’s kinda complicated.” Cobin’s head bobs on his neck in a figure eight pattern. “But yeah. I didn’t have a choice.”
“She cheat on you?”
“She’s the most selfish person I’ve ever known. Our relationship only worked if I put her needs first, like I was her personal assistant.”
Earl’s face softens.
“She never called me her boyfriend to anyone we met. We were together for three years, and she still doesn’t know my middle name, or even my birthday. She didn’t care that much. Just needed somebody to split the rent and make her dinner. I have cash for the rent, by the way.”
Earl waves off the offer. “So you pulled the plug?”
“My appendix almost burst in March. Had emergency surgery. It was pretty rough. She didn’t visit me in the hospital or even drive me home. She didn’t want to miss any part of a conference she was attending in town. That’s fucked up, right?”
Earls nods again.
“Whenever she had the slightest ailment, I took care of her. But she didn’t make me a single meal, or even a cup of tea. No flowers, no gesture of sympathy. Nothing.” Cobin exhales to calm himself. “Maybe you’ve had that feeling, when something snaps and you can’t do it anymore? You almost hate the person. The things you found so attractive and charming are suddenly revolting. I didn’t want her to even touch me. I had to leave.”
“So three months later, she calls you up and says that she has this thing,” Earl says, holding up the Gonad. “And that you have to meet in person because it has chosen you as its next victim.”
“More or less.”
“That girl’s playing you, son. No doubt about it.”
Gullibility leaks from Cobin’s eyes. Earl finds a pair of readers on the coffee table and dons them. He taps a phrase into his phone and begins to scroll. “I’m not finding anything about Satan’s Gonad,” he says after a moment, giving Cobin time for his own search. “Least not a wooden ball like that. It’s mentioned in a book, but as a curse. Like ‘goddamnit.'”
“So you think she made it up?”
“Maybe,” Earl says. “You said she was a writer. That’s what they do, right? Make up a bunch of shit and sell it.”
“She’s more of a blogger. Stories aren’t her thing. She’s not that creative. And the painter—he really died. It was in the news. There’s a blood stain on the sidewalk.”
“So she took that story and made up the rest,” Earl says, setting the talisman on the coffee table in exchange for more beer. “This is either revenge or her wanting to get back together. But she’s definitely fucking with you.”
A man spots several open spaces near the front entrance of the Blowe’s parking lot. They are all handicapped spaces, something he deserves every other week with the gout in his right foot. He finds a spot further down and cuts the engine, silencing the radio. A canvas bag sits on the passenger seat, the reason for his trip. The object inside is more useful than a lame worker. He slams his car door and adjusts his faded ball cap, then limps to the entrance, the canvas bag hanging heavily from his left shoulder.
In middle school, no one could hit his curve ball. He was a popular boy who easily found his way to sex and the building trades. He married young. His third wife had a good job and a weak heart. She died at the blender, making kiwi daiquiris during their annual Superbowl party. A dozen friends watched her go, then slowly withdrew as the bitterness took hold. No one from his youth would recognize him now. Better that they remember the earlier version with golden red hair, a tapered waist, and a no-hitter pitched against the defending state champions.
He doesn’t know how many more summers he has left in the trades. His Pentecostal boss is a Bills fan, but they get along well enough. He needs to make a living for another fifteen years, which is why he resents being sent to the hardware store on an errand. He is visiting his near-future part-time job.
The air conditioning in Blowe’s tickles his sweaty face, but this joy is cut short by the length of the customer service line. Two Diet Mean Greens have eroded his patience. He’s hungry again and has to pee. The dull cashier is an obvious discredit to her race. He couldn’t work with people this stupid. Fifteen minutes later, the line hasn’t moved. A refund has to be approved by a manager who can’t be found. Heads turn when he grumbles an obscenity and marches off to look for someone who knows what the fuck they are doing.
“There you are,” Binana says when she finds Cobin on aisle 10. Three weeks has passed since their visit at the café. She brightens at the sight of him. He thinks of the Gonad, still on the coffee table. The prick of guilt reminds him of a childhood lapse, forgetting to feed a vacationing neighbor’s cat. The animal died of organ failure.
“Can you make me a few copies?” she asks, holding up a pair of heavy, brass keys. He is cutting a length of steel chain for an elderly woman who is convinced that neighborhood ruffians are plotting to steal her patio furniture.
“That’s on aisle 12,” Cobin says. “There should be someone at the counter.”
“I checked. There’s no one there. I think you are the only employee in the whole store.”
“Give me a minute,” Cobin says and leads the older woman to the padlock section on aisle 12, Binana in tow. The older woman does not like having so many choices but allows Cobin to slip away.
“How many copies?” he asks, taking Binana’s keys and searching for the correct slugs.
“One of each,” she says.
Cobin punches a button and the duplicator hums to life.
“New roommate,” she offers over the machine’s muted grinding. “He’s a civil engineer. New to Boston. How are you?”
“Pretty good,” he says with feigned casualness.
Binana forces a smile and lets her eyes drop to the floor. “How’s the book going?” he asks.
“Great,” she says. “I’ve been writing all morning. Or researching, I should say. It will be another week before I can start the writing part.”
“So you haven’t died,” she notes with a lowered voice. “You must have found a new home for Satan’s Gonad. Has anything wonderful happened?”
“I had a threesome.” The lie forces her eyes to the floor again. The soft grinding continues. He considers a retraction.
“Have you ever read Cloud Atlas?” he asks finally.
“Never heard of it,” she says. “Why?” He expects the question to dislodge her deception, but her curious regard seems genuine.
“It has a reference to Satan’s Gonad,” he says.
“Did you pass it on then?”
Cobin shakes his head, causing her eyes to widen in alarm. She is about to speak when a man wearing a faded ball cap enters the aisle behind her and catches Cobin’s eye. A light canvas bag hangs from his left shoulder, weighted down by its contents.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Cobin says.
“Of course you will,” the man says. Binana notes the sarcasm and turns. There is anger and more on the man’s face.
“What?” he says in response. His right hand is inside the canvas bag, holding the object unnecessarily.
“I didn’t say anything,” she says, refusing to look away.
The man’s mouth opens but he cannot find the right insult. His eyes are locked on hers. His agitation grows. Still, there is no reply. He readies himself to use whatever is in the bag, perhaps counting to ten before he acts. His nostrils flare and his labored breathing is now audible.
Cobin feels the wrath of the Gonad in his stomach and knows that his negligence, his disrespect brought this man forward. The Gonad required a simple choice from him: to gamble his fate or pass the torch. He considered approaching his favorite cashier at the Grocery Hole, a Mexican girl with bangs and a haunted slump to her shoulders, seemingly attuned to the supernatural. Instead, he did what he always did—he avoided making a decision. A vision of the Gonad, undisturbed on the glass coffee table, saturates him with regret. Now he will suffer vengeance, Old Testament style. A smiting on aisle 12 with 21st Century American flare.
The man’s motion is sudden but not surprising. The thing is now out of the canvas bag and moving toward her as she moves toward Cobin. The object comes to rest touching her forehead. The man’s legs are spread wide, his right arm is locked, holding it in place. A pause adds to her humiliation.
When he pulls the trigger, nothing happens.
“See,” the man says, now pointing the cordless drill upward, his face returning to normal. “Bought this piece of shit a week ago and it’s already broken. It’s got a full charge. The light works, but nothing moves. Imported piece of crap.”
“Get away from me,” she says, a snarl fixed on her lip as she backs away.
“I’m sorry princess,” the man says with a chuckle. “I was just having a laugh.”
“That was so fucked up,” she says. “You…” But her voice cracks.
“Hey, I’m the one who should be mad,” he says defensively. “Cost $180 bucks.”
“Returns are at the front of the store,” Cobin says. “In Customer Service. I can’t help you here.”
“No shit,” the man says, looking her up and down. He is unsure of himself now, his next move unpredictable. The man’s gaze shifts to Cobin and then back. He twitches, then mumbles something unintelligible. Cobin points meekly to the Customer Service area. The drill goes back into the canvas bag and the man withdraws.
“Are you OK?” Cobin asks her at a distance. “What a dick.”
“I’m fine,” she says as she extends a trembling hand toward the counter to steady herself. He can see the side of her face and thinks she is about to laugh. But she is fighting to keep it all in. Both hands are shaking now. She tries to speak, a whimper at first. Then it happens. For the first time in her life, she cries in public. People on aisles 11 and 13 wander by out of curiosity, finding a man and a woman of equal height, ear to ear, holding each other.
Cobin strokes the dark hair running down her back. She presses her hands against his shoulder blades. Her body shudders. In three years, he has never once consoled her. They have never danced. Her shuddering eases, and her breathing returns to normal. A minute passes and they separate.
Cobin finds a paper towel behind the counter and softly absorbs the dark wetness running down her cheeks. Shame keeps her eyes lowered. Unsure of what to say, unsure of anything, she checks the time on her phone.
“I’m supposed to be at work in a half hour.”
“The bar?” he asks. “I thought you quit?”
“I just want to go home and crawl in bed.”
“You should,” he says as he places her keys, copies and originals, into a small envelope. “Call out. Tell them that a racist almost shot you in the head.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she says.
“Have your new roommate make you dinner.”
This generosity knocks something loose in her. Her countenance thins and stretches, her lungs take in air, summoning courage.
“My roommate,” she says, then pauses. “My new roommate is not an engineer. It’s my mother. She’s moving in tomorrow. My parents are splitting up and she has nowhere to live.” Her eyes are fixed on the envelope joining her hands together. “My dad’s business fell apart, and now he’s retreated into this Republican insanity. It’s all he talks about. My mom put up with it for a couple of years, but she can’t do it anymore. There are other reasons too. She has to leave. The father I knew as a child is gone.”
“I’m so sorry,” he says. His hands are in his pockets now as he imagines her Phalangist father, ranting at the dinner table, her mother staring at a plate of uneaten food. Cobin was always surprised by the credibility Binana lent her father’s politics. He disliked Cobin’s untucked shirts and his lack of ambition. She always passed on his judgements with fidelity.
Cobin thinks of Earl’s advice, his sureness that the Gonad was a ploy. He doesn’t know what to believe. He has grown fond of Earl, a lucky break of sorts, and now this, the outlines of a friendship, something she has never owned.
In a few hours, he will see the cautious layers of her personality pulled back and learn that no one has ever been interested in her book proposals except for her credulous hair dresser, an outlier with three destructive children. She passed on the book idea and Binana’s contact info to another client, a literary agent, but the agent never responded. The rejection implied was not as forceful and damaging as Cobin’s, but it reinforced the publishing world’s unanimous opinion of her writing.
She inhales and straightens, lifting her head to meet his eyes. “Would you make me dinner tonight? Just friends.”
“Sure,” he says quickly. “I’d love to.”
“What time do you get off?”
“OK.” She extracts the new keys from the envelope and offers them up. Their eyes meet again, but not for long.
“I should go,” she says. “Thank you Cobin.”
“I’ll pay for the keys,” he says, taking the envelope from her. “The asshole is probably near checkout. Do you want me to walk you to your car?”
“I’d like that.”
Later, he is restocking sheet metal screws while his mind’s eye replays the incident. She had been standing off to the side when the man entered the aisle, and yet she ended up in front of him, protecting him. Or maybe she was simply drawn to the only solid thing in her life.
Demonica. That is her name, the cashier at the Grocery Hole. But he cannot imagine himself sitting across from her at the café, telling the Gonad’s story, forcing it upon her. He’ll ask Earl to take it to work.
The store is almost empty now. He sits down amidst a clutter of open boxes and pulls out the spare keys. The edges are sharp. A moment later, he is back on aisle 12, the purr of the grinder brush eating all sound, rounding the metal edges so they will not threaten her hands, her lovely hands.