Walter White is looking in the mirror when he hears a key in the door of his condo. He is smoothing a deep maroon shirt, new, Hugo Boss, over his abdomen. He is liking the shiny sheen of it and guessing at what combination of synthetic fabrics creates that particular sheen that so sings of success.
Skyler throws her keys loudly on the counter and scoffs at him.
“Nice shirt,” she says.
He wants to respond with the truth, wants to tell her that if anyone other than the mother of his children ever scoffed at him, they’d spend the evening decomposing in a vacuum-sealed, fiberglass tank. Instead he says, “Thank you,” and then, “What brings you to my humble condominium?”
“Do you have any wine?” she asks.
“No. Also, Skyler, it’s noon.”
Her day drinking, always white wine, has begun to wear on him. Wealthy wife of a powerful, enigmatic man, drinking just enough to make her estrangement noticeable, never enough to bottom out and change. It’s embarrassing, not the addiction part, but the cliché of all of it. It feels like reality TV sometimes, and they are more complex than that. At least they used to be.
“Don’t you dare,” she says.
This is another nuisance for Walter, the emphasis that she puts on the words ending her sentences, as though the fact that he is the Southwest’s premiere meth dealer allows her to weight every clause she speaks with angst befitting a starving Somali child. He watches her cross the room, boots like gunfire on the hardwood floor. She sits at the kitchen table, gives a shrug for no reason, the kind of quirk that was once adorable to him. He watches her and tries to convince himself that he still loves her and that she still loves him just as much.
“If it’s got to be something hard, I have beer,” he says. “Oh, and some really nice whiskey I just bought. It’s sixteen years old. From this tiny monk compound in Scotland. Tastes like smoke.”
She remains unimpressed.
Walter reaches. “Are we celebrating? Car wash chain of the year from the chamber of commerce?” He begins to chuckle, as though his doing so will remind her to. She doesn’t.
“No, we’re not celebrating,” she says. “Or, I guess I don’t know what to do.”
She pauses, drums her hand on the kitchen table, and in that pause he silently hopes for tears. Over the past year, her tears have been like a door opening. The only un-frigid, un-rageful action that she’s taken. When somebody is crying, they need to be consoled, even if the consoling comes from the person they blame. Walter hasn’t consoled anybody in a very long time. He always liked the feeling of consoling; it makes him think of warm water and baby powder. These are, he realizes acutely, not thoughts befitting a kingpin.
No tears come, and he tries to hide any disappointment on his face, though it doesn’t matter because she’s not looking at him.
“Penguin wants to publish my novel,” Skyler says, eyes on her boots like she’s talking about the baby dying.
Walter is wracking his brains to remember. That manuscript about the bookish, put-upon high schooler? From a few years back? It was so obviously autobiographical that he’d masturbated to it once, back when he was a high school teacher and his greatest indiscretion was occasionally imagining Skyler’s head on a tight, un-tired, fifteen year old body. He remembers liking the book. It’s sweet, he remembers saying, and that made her so mad.
“Skyler,” he says, “We are celebrating. I didn’t even know you were submitting again. Penguin, that’s so. Well, it’s so impressive, I guess that’s the word.”
“You would say that.”
“I don’t really understand the bad—“
“They said it’s Young Adult, Walter.” This is screamed, and he goes silent. “They want to publish it as the top of their list for twelve through fourteen, right next to the fucking Babysitter’s Club.”
Walter hasn’t seen her this angry since he made the mistake of hinting at all the people he’s killed. It’s that same kind of rage, indignant and unwilling to accept – we are not this kind of people! He felt that way once too. But that’s all been replaced with the realization that we are exactly the person that we need to be in any given moment, that each moment is washed away in a warm bath of the next moment, cellular regeneration for the soul, the ultimate step in man’s evolution.
“Skyler,” he says evenly, trying to adopt the tone he once taught with and she once listened to. “Skyler, I’m so proud of you. Who cares about labels? This is Penguin, this is the big leagues. This isn’t that place that published your collection, Blue Hen or whatever, this is —“
“Red Hen, you fucking asshole. You never took that seriously. You never took my work seriously.”
Pot? Kettle? Black? He’s out there performing chemical miracles that not even the Mexican cartels can duplicate. He’s out there keeping a steady cook hand with a gun aimed at his goddamn head, working to save his own life, his family’s future. That’s art with stakes. And for his trouble he gets locked out of his own home, called a monster, treated with such derision, like he’s some school bus driver with a gambling problem? What is it with writers? An hour and a half a day at the computer between the grocery store and the gym and the whole world is supposed to stop and applaud?
“Red Hen. I’m sorry. I knew that. I’m just saying – I’m just happy for you. You’re going to get paid for your work, Sky. Don’t you deserve that?”
She doesn’t answer. She’s breathing hard and so is he. She used to breathe like this after making love. Then she’d lean over, pat his shoulder, say, Not bad, buster. That was in his home, their home, not in this condo with all of its impersonal, came-with-the-place decor. The air conditioning makes a loud whir. The microwave is beeping. He still hasn’t set the clock. It’s always beeping and he’s stopped noticing. He flashes into noticing twice a day, does nothing about it. She doesn’t know any of that. She submitted her manuscript without telling him. He used to proofread her cover letters. He used to say, Don’t be afraid to brag. You’re supposed to brag. He blinks once. He smoothes his shiny, dark maroon shirt over his abdomen again. He doesn’t want the silence anymore.
“I’ll be the vulgar one, I suppose,” he says, and tries to give a generous smile. “How much are they going to pay you?”
“I haven’t said yes, Walt,” she says. Then, finally, thank God, a small smile. “They’d give me $150,000. It’s a three-book deal. They think it can become one of those stupid series. It’s so stupid. My protagonist dies at the end.”
“Well, for now.” He blurts it out and regrets it immediately. She gives him her galloping high horse look, furious and infantilizing all at once, the look that makes anything he may have just said into the worst possible thing a human being has ever said to anybody.
“Yes, Walter, for now. You are just the model of artistic integrity.”
He walks away from her, over to the sink. He washes his hands for no reason, mechanically. He lifts his wet hands up to his face, feels the water bead on his beard. He opens the cupboard above the sink to grab the whiskey. He is thinking many things. There is the part of him he would wish to ignore, feeling jealousy for her success. She is winning bread, devoid of his involvement. 150k. I make that in a week, he tells himself. But then, She did it legally. And in publishing. No easy feat. It’s hard to weigh literary accomplishments next to drug dealing ones. Literary ones win that every time and Walter is stung, for a moment, by the injustice of that. And he cannot help but think her unwillingness to sacrifice the intended integrity of her super adult novel is mostly a shot at him, this way of saying she would make her talent work on her terms or not at all. He breathes deeply and pours whiskey into two coffee mugs, the only dishes he’s gotten around to buying.
“Skyler, let’s drink,” he says, trying to sound nice. “To your success. To compromise.”
She takes the mug without a thank you.
“It’s not that I expect you to understand,” she says. “I know your whole, whatever it is, by-any-means-necessary thing. It’s just, I mean, come on, they might as well have said, we love this, now make it into a memoir.”
“Well, if I remember, it was pretty autobiographical.”
She glares at him and he scrambles.
“Look, there are great memoirs. That Sydney Brenner memoir I had you read, remember? Of course, he was a significant man, he really did things for science, discovered things, so, I guess that’s —“
“Walt, that’s not the point.”
Skyler swigs and he watches her throat move to swallow.
“I write complex characters, and there are a lot of dark themes,” she continues. “I’m not saying YA isn’t good, I just don’t write it. I write character studies, I deal in ambiguities. There are no simple answers in my narratives, you know?”
Walter feels himself losing the ability to listen.
“Do you remember when Sheryl read my stuff? She said it was Steinbeck-level interior. I mean, was Steinbeck writing YA?”
Walter can’t remember a Sheryl, let alone her reading anything. Sometimes it feels like every memory is so far away from him. And sometimes it feels like every one of them is playing across the bare walls of the condo. He cannot control it, cannot pick them out one by one.
“You know me,” he says, feebly. “I’m a classics guy. I like Whitman. I guess I don’t really know the difference you’re talking about, but I think a book is a book. You did the work, it’s good, that’s it.”
It feels like the right thing to say. It feels like he said it well. He reaches out to put his hands on her shoulders and she doesn’t move to shake him off. He dares to squeeze a little. She’s tense. He tries to knead the tension out of her.
“This is a good thing,” he says. “Everything is good. I’m so proud of you.”
He can’t believe it but she leans her forehead into his chest. Not romantically exactly, but accepting his support. The weight of her head feels so good. He has the thought that maybe she knew the book deal was a good thing. Maybe she just needed to hear it from someone she loved. To be convinced. He is the convincer, her husband. He is necessary to her. And now, for this moment, everything is good doesn’t feel at all like a lie. He thinks about how many times he’s said that phrase in the last year, and how little he’s meant it.
“I’m so proud,” he whispers down into her hair. “My little novelist.”
This is drowned out too quickly by a banging at the door that he doesn’t want to believe is happening, at first. Walter feels as though everything has moved in fast-forward, the gentle pride and mutual acceptance of a second ago gone, hurtled beyond. The banging continues.
“Mr. White. Hello? Mr. White.”
It’s the only person who ever knocks at his door, but still, Walter’s mind tries to lie itself into a sense of, Who could this be? But Skyler has recognized the voice, too. How could she not? How many people has she ever met with Jessie’s particular blend of appropriated white-boy-ghetto swagger and the nasally whine of addiction?
“Yo, Mr. White. We need to talk. Yo. It’s about Skinny P.”
Walter lets a sound escape, something between a sigh and a groan. Skyler has moved away from him already, leaning so intently away from him, in fact, it seems as though her chair might topple over. Her eyes are terrified. She has, her eyes say, just had the realization that she almost took sincere literary advice from a drug lord who needs to have an urgent talk with a delinquent about another delinquent named Skinny P. Not knowing what to do, Walter downs his whiskey. It burns and he coughs.
“Just one moment,” he says. “Just one moment. We’re celebrating still. Everything is good.”
He tries to open the door a crack but Jessie pushes past him.
“Fuck, yo,” he says. “I’m out there fucking knocking for like an hour.”
Jesse doesn’t seem to hear him, or care. He stomps into the living room.
“Yo. Skinny P. is using again. Mike says we need to, you know, take care of the problem. But it’s Skinny, man. Fuck, yo. It’s Skinny. I can’t do Skinny like that.”
Walter feels like he cannot breathe, like he is back in the shitty lap pool at the high school, testing himself to take another stroke with his face underwater, anything to add a little bit of danger to what used to be his day-to-day. He looks at Skyler, who is looking at Jesse with an admirable amount of concern for the boy’s well being. Such a mother, Walter thinks with a strange pride. Jesse follows Walter’s eyes, and says, “Oh.”
“Jesse, you remember Skyler,” Walter manages.
Jesse, stopped mid-rant, looks like a child, all big eyes and tensed shoulders. It would be a funny image at another time, Walter thinks. The infantile drug dealer. Jesse could leave, and Walter could do an impression of his face, and Skyler could laugh,
“My bad,” Jesse says. “Hi, Mrs. White. I didn’t know. My bad.”
“I was just leaving,” Skyler says.
“No.” Walter is surprised by the volume of it, so desperate. He has hopped toward her, put his hand out at her arm as if ready to shove her back into her seat. Jesse looks more flummoxed than usual. “No, Skyler’s not leaving. We’re celebrating, actually. She has a novel coming out. From Penguin. That’s in New York. It’s a major —“
“Damn,” Jesse says. “Fucking Harry Potter and shit. Sorry, I don’t mean to curse, just, damn.”
Skyler smiles at this, the first smile of the day, and Walter pushes down the rage at all his sweetness and whiskey going unnoticed, while some moron being unintentionally funny gets all of her happiness. Her smile is so beautiful. He told her once her smile was like Thorium, his favorite element, so strong, named after Thor, the God, omnipotent and blonde. She’d loved that. Back when his knowledge was impressive but benign, like a magician pulling a quarter from her ear.
“Actually, yes, like Harry Potter,” Skyler is saying. “The company says it’s a YA book. So, for kids, basically.”
“That’s fucking dope,” Jesse says.
“Well, not so dope,” Skyler says. “It’s an adult novel. It’s supposed to be, anyways. They didn’t really get it. There’s a lot of subtext. I think the difference between adult and YA is the levels in the narrative and—”
Jesse isn’t listening.
“Yo, Mr. White, you’ve got a family of geniuses. Fucking chemistry nerd, you, and then her with the writing.”
Jesse nods his head fast, like he’s waiting for Skyler to agree with him. What a good boy, Walter thinks. He’s a born fan. He’s the exact kind of bubbly consumer that makes creating anything worthwhile. He really sees Walter as a genius. He is really impressed by Skyler’s Y.A. publication. He hasn’t even read the thing; that’s not the point. It’s this gentle simplicity in him. Walter used to think it was just stupidity, but that’s not it. He just reacts to things. Yo, you did a science experiment! Fucking sick! Or, Yo, you wrote a book, yo! What else to say but that first exclamation? No time for resentment or self-doubt, no time for the genre debate.
Skyler is charmed, too. “Jesse, would you like some whiskey?” she says. “From what Walter says, it must be close to your age.”
“Oh, nah, thanks. I’ve got my three months.”
He pulls a chain from under his t-shirt, a plastic chip on the end. Walter hasn’t asked him about sobriety. He hasn’t asked about any relapses, about how hard it must all be. He hasn’t said, Nice job, not once. It is always about the work, the chemicals, the distribution, the money, the perfection of it all. Guilt is no longer an emotion that Walter feels easily, but it’s there now. He wants to say something, but what. Congratulations? Another ambiguous congrats in this afternoon full of it.
“Yo, Mrs. White, have you ever read Holes?” Jesse is asking.
“Oh, yes, I bought that for Flynn,” Skyler says. “That’s our son.”
“That book is dope,” Jesse says. “Mr. White, it’s about digging holes in the desert and shit. I was thinking about it when we were out doing that thing—”
He stops, thankfully, and looks at Skyler. She wouldn’t want to know about their holes in the desert. But she doesn’t seem disturbed.
“Yeah, that was a nice book, I guess. A little, I don’t know, moralistic, but still. Flynn loved it. I think he actually turned off the TV to read it.”
“That book is dope,” Jesse says again. “That’s, like, the last book I read all the way through. I read it like five times, yo.”
Walter isn’t sure if Jesse can see the sadness on Skyler’s face. It’s not fair that he isn’t exactly her desired reader. No author really wants to be the last book anybody ever managed to get through before deciding the whole reading enterprise is too hard. But still, he’s excited. He would read her book. If Walter gave it to him, Jesse would be sincerely amazed to know a writer, and he would devour the thing. He would pester her with questions about plot and character that she could pretend to resent the next time he saw her.
“I may not go through with it,” Skyler says, weaker now. “If it’s not being taken seriously as literature, why do it, right?”
“Yo, you have to do it,” Jesse says, right on cue. “Mr. White, tell her.”
“He’s right,” Walter says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. And nothing will ever be perfect.”
He wishes he hadn’t said it so sadly. But it’s true. Nothing will be perfect. Things might get close but, on second thought, probably not. He was married to Skyler for eighteen good years. Now it’s bad. He was a genius. Now, maybe he still is one, but he’s also a drug dealer. Nobody appreciates his genius except for the people dying from it. She was going to be like Joan Didion or something. When they were younger, that was the plan. He was going to invent something. She was going to write a novel about his achievements, thinly veiled, complex. The kind of narrative admiringly picked apart in the New York Review of Books. They planned that. They were so fresh and they were so smart. It feels like so long ago, before the usual sacrifices, kids and mortgage, the eventual cancer treatment that gets every family at least once. And before the unusual sacrifices, too. His yellow Hazmat suits and dirty money under the floorboards. Her spite and white whine, and the affair.
They used to be artists. They said that word with sincerity to each other before bed every night, lying young and naked over the covers.