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The man at Hertz handed me the keys to a blue Corolla and smiled, revealing a large, distracting gap. In a boyish drawl he told me to return the car with a full tank, otherwise incur a $10 fee. I figured that here, $10 was a prohibitive amount, enough to forge trust. I scanned the radio as I set out on the road. My brother lived on a ranch three hours outside of Atlanta. He described himself as financially free. He hadn’t worked in years. Some large windfall had made him rich a decade ago, but whenever he tried to explain it, his speech devolved into diatribe about the extraterrestrial, the true function of solar panels and the dangers of consuming soy. He did not believe in racial intermixture, he did not believe in voting, he was pro-vaccination, but staunchly anti-sunscreen, his heroes were Marcus Garvey, Haile Salessie, Jesse Jackson and Prince. He was a member of the NRA and the Commandment Keepers Congregation, which he attended on Zoom. He was vegan, except for lamb. He slaughtered one animal per year and pre-portioned its meat in his deep freezer from which he chose one piece every other Friday. Eugene had much darker skin than anyone in the family. All of our known ancestors had been brown skinned or fair skinned, so he was an anomaly. He derived a great sense of superiority from this. Many people knew Eugene, but no one could penetrate his privacy or solve his enigma, which only fueled his absurd lore. He was happy to live inside his myth, miles away from his closest neighbor.

The influx of cash ten years ago put an obvious strain on his close relationships. He refused to lend money out to anyone. I was the only one left that he still stayed in touch with, if one could call it staying in touch. For a time, we kept the annual visits consistent and met halfway between New York and Georgia in a cheap hotel that Eugene booked as a Christmas gift to me. Each year we had one round of drinks and a holiday dinner in a smokey hotel restaurant of his choosing. Each year Eugene handed me an envelope containing three crisp hundred dollar bills and each year I feigned surprise. Sometimes I was so broke that I depended on that three hundred dollars to get me back to New York. More than once I would have been stranded without it.

The green Georgia pastures moved psychedelically through the open windows of my speeding car. It was like a camera effect created in a studio, lush and virginal and more vibrant than life as I knew it in Manhattan; in other words, too real. These days, Eugene never left his ranch. He had a boy who worked for him and brought groceries in from town. He didn’t even go down the road to collect his own mail. Meeting in a hotel or restaurant was out of the question. What stoked his paranoia, I did not know. I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear Eugene. This was not the fear of being violated by a violent man, but the fear of exposure to a psychology which followed no evident logic, which was neither inhibited, nor beholden to the mores of the outside world. How could I know what was true with Eugene? I knew he had money otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to buy the ranch, but there was nothing else I could prove. As I drove up the winding dirt road that led to his property, I heard a gunshot. Unalarmed, I parked the car and lifted my duffle bag out of the trunk. From a distance, I heard soft, regular footsteps slowly approaching.

“You’re late,” said Eugene.

“Sorry, my flight was delayed.”

“No, it wasn’t. I called the airport. You got in on time.”

“You know we’re bad with time,” I said, “Runs in the family.”

“Lateness is a sign of bad character. And any man who can’t overcome his genetic predispositions is a slave.”

I nodded.

“It’s good to see you,” Eugene said, almost smiling, taking the heavy bag off my shoulder, “Thanks for coming out here to meet me. You weren’t followed, were you?”

“Followed? Why would I be followed?”

Eugene laughed to himself and shook his head.

“I’m fucking with you. For a writer, you’ve got a terrible sense of humor.”

Eugene set me up on the day bed. It was an elaborately carved, Walnut Shaker style piece. He built it himself, along with all the other wooden furniture in the room.

“Wash up and get settled. I’m roasting the lamb. We’ll eat supper in an hour.”

Eugene handed me a towel and a washcloth, then excused himself.

I wandered the property, hopping the fence to watch the cows up close. The grass was littered with psilocybin that sprouted out of the manure after the rain. When I was too far to be seen from the kitchen window, I bent down and picked up several mushrooms and wrapped them in the bandana in my back pocket. The cows looked at me with dazed black irises. I filed this instance away mentally for my novel. I could gather many arresting images in my mind at a time, or so I thought. But the trouble was making them come together after the fact and making these facts count for anything. There was also the arrogance of believing I had anything worthwhile to say. The tome I’d written to exorcise the memories of my childhood and my meanspirited ex-girlfriend had gotten me nowhere. When written, everything beautiful just fell apart. Eugene was one of the only people I trusted with my unfinished work. I could count on him to be honest. I never needed to remind Eugene to be harsh. And I wanted to write for the world, not just my broke friends in New York. Who was further from New York than Eugene? The last time I showed him a story he insisted on reading it right then and there, not once, not twice, but three times, sighing all the while and rolling his eyes.

After a brief pause, he said, Me, me, me. More liberal arts bullshit. Without knowing you, I could tell you that the person who wrote this, jacks off every day, but says he’s too busy to exercise. No conviction whatsoever. Cut out every use of the word “I” and then maybe you’ll have yourself a story.

I rejected Eugene’s advice and sent the story out to six magazines. Every last one turned it away, but I got one generous rejection letter that said that it might benefit from more of a sense of the external world. Eugene’s advice was not limited to writing. He advised me on what sort of partner to choose:

Don’t ever let a woman who smokes vapes or e-cigarettes mother your children. Your entire bloodline will thank you.

Advice on what to drink:

When I hear you order one of these metrosexual cocktails or ask if they have any craft beer, I think, that’s an unserious person. Matter of fact, everyone within earshot thinks that's not a guy I’d do business with.

At night, the depth of a body of water is inscrutable. A very deep pool and a very shallow pond appear identical in the dark. Eugene is like this, never betraying the extent to which he believes in anything. Once, Eugene asked me which writers I admired. I made something up, mentioning Didion and Morrison and someone else, either Chekov or Chandler, whatever would end the conversation. I didn’t want to admit that, compared to where I thought someone my age should be, I’d read very little and written even less. He nodded passively.

The next time I saw him, the following Christmas, he told me that he had read every book Joan Didion ever wrote. He didn’t need to sing her praises, his admiration was clear in his lack of elaboration. Eugene saying nothing was praise. Over a plate of roast lamb, my brother looked at me with a solemn frown.

We used to have great writers. Now it’s a marvel if anyone can pull themselves away from the dating sites and food delivery apps long enough to jot dot one measly, perverted sentence. I read all this self-deprecating garbage and I think, a tree died for this?

I explained that there were no art subsidies, no infrastructure for sustained, focused work. This was a philistine nation, no one could stomach beauty or truth. I didn’t know what I was going on about. Eugene shook his head and looked at me disapprovingly. I knew that beneath his disdain was a convoluted encouragement, but I was closed off to it then. Standing amid the cow patties, surveying the mushrooms, I was still closed off to it. I didn’t write for almost a year after that dinner with Eugene. I took a job selling books in midtown and one evening, halfway through an understaffed holiday shift, I had a breakdown and began to forcefully knock rows of new hardbacks off the shelves, screaming a tree died for this? Customers were scared and ran out into the cold. My manager took pity, a Christmas miracle, and did not call the police, but I am not welcome at any of that bookstore’s locations anymore.

I walked back to the guest room and rinsed the mushrooms under tepid tap water. I ingested a small handful and took a quick, hot shower. Gradually, my steps became easier and lighter. The usual dread subsided and I did not feel the relentless hatred for people that I felt in Manhattan non-stop. Impossible to say whether it was the mushrooms or the clean air. Eugene called my name from the other side of the long hall. I sat down at the table and he poured us each a conservatively small glass of red wine from an unlabeled bottle. The leg of lamb sat nestled in a bed of white potatoes and bright green broccoli. I ate as though I would never eat again. Eugene emanated a quiet pride as he spooned more meat onto my plate. He even poured me more wine. The light from the tall candle on the table reflected against his dark, even, oily skin. I envied his mock-simplicity, his inexplicable competence. Needless to say, if Eugene ever bothered to write, he’d succeed as I never could. He’d lived and produced a story. My whole life was a series of transactions, more easily logged through receipts than through poetry. I stalked my ex-girlfriend, I patronized middle aged cam-girls who insulted me for thirty-five dollars per hour, I worked under the table as a nanny for two twin boys in Park Slope who insulted me for nineteen dollars an hour. But the lamb was perfect and as I chewed through its viscera, I believed it was symbolic of a purposeful life, laid down meaningfully.

“I didn’t get you a gift this year,” said Eugene.

“That’s alright,” I said, though I needed the money badly, “this is more than enough.”

“Because I want to invite you – if you’re interested – I want to invite you to come stay here for one year. All your meals and transportation paid for and a reasonable allowance, so you can write a book. New York’s ruining you, you look like a corpse. There’s nothing there. We work the land together, you write, one year, then you go back to New York, if you still want to.”

My face was hot with drunkenness. The wine and mushrooms convened to break apart my defenses and make me open to Eugene’s plans, even as I resisted them.

“I have a job back home.”

“Watching those white children?” Eugene asked, frowning. He broke a potato open gently with a sharp butter knife.

“I have friends.”

“If you had friends, you wouldn’t live as you do.”

“What do you mean by working together?” I asked.

“I want you to tell my story,” said Eugene, “I haven’t got any time left. There’s something hunting me down. It’s closing in on me. I got a prophecy that I’d die at 45. I’m 44 now.”

Was I hearing him correctly? I wanted to cry, to cry and to take Eugene’s hand and dry my face with it. I pulled myself together and ate the last of my food. After dinner we washed and dried the dishes silently. I finished the wine while Eugene fed small scraps of meat to his sharp, stern border collie. The flesh fell into the dog's dark mouth which closed with a foreboding force. Eugene gave him more and more, and still the dog was not satiated. His hunger flowed from a seemingly endless source. In the morning, I returned the car with a half empty tank and begrudgingly paid the $10 fee. I called Eugene from a payphone at the airport. My cellphone had been cut off, since I hadn’t paid the bill.

“I’ll be back soon” I said, “I just have to tie up some loose ends.”

He said that when I was ready he’d book the flight, first class, to my surprise. I had never flown first class. I had never had anyone try to steward me through the world. I was drunk from an overpriced airport Bloody Mary: I love you, I said, I think now I can finally write something real. I went back to New York and started to sleep with a loud, confident woman who worked as a copywriter. I took a job teaching English in a private progressive school. By June, the woman was pregnant. I married her in the woods surrounded by supportive, ordinary witnesses. I never wrote anything again and that visit was the last time I ever spoke to Eugene.


image: Noah Davis