James Brubaker

 
1. An Afternoon at the Sauna
January 13, 2017

A nice, long sit in the sauna gets the toxins out. This is important, especially after a day at the office. I’ve seen people do any number of things to stay clean inside—heavy exercise, fad diets, fasts, drinking gallons of water a day, bulimia, juice cleanses, air purifiers. I don’t know about any of that. For my money, a moderate workout followed by a good sweat gets the job done. When I was a younger man, I rarely took advantage of saunas. I was perplexed by the ease with which older men, their oily skin hanging in thick folds from their bodies, disrobed among their peers, colleagues, neighbors. Now I am one of those older men—granted I am, I like to think, fit for my age. That doesn’t stop the occasional younger sauna user from huddling up in the corner and pulling their towels tight around their wastes, ashamed of their own nudity and, perhaps too, frightened of the glimpse we older men provide into their own futures. These young men don’t understand the importance of ridding the body of toxins. Of course, they have, what, twenty-five, thirty years of toxins? They haven’t changed the course of American history, haven’t had to deal with men like D. nor had the weight of the Western world on their shoulders. They don’t know what fifty-seven years of toxins feels like. Someday they will, and then they, too, will sit proudly and sweat, and be clean—will be purified by steam.

 
2. A Phone Call
January 16, 2017

D. called today. He said he’d seen me on the television and he liked my tie. I told him I hadn’t been on television recently, and he said, “Sure you were, on Fox.” When I insisted that I hadn’t been on television, D. said, “It was a beige tie, or gold—with the squares.” I told him he must have seen old footage. I said, “That was the tie that I wore last July when I was talking about H.’s emails” “Oh,” D. said. Then, “Well, it’s a fine tie. A fantastic tie.” I asked, “Is that all?” Through the phone I could hear a soft crunching sound, as if my interlocutor was chewing a mouth full of popcorn. He said, “What else would I want?” I told him I didn’t know, that he had called me. He said, “I mean, what else could I possibly want?” And then he abruptly said, “Goodbye,” his voice muffled and squeaky with popcorn, and hung up

 
3. Scrabble Interruptus
January 18, 2017

Tonight while P. and I were trying to “play Scrabble,” D. text messaged me, asking, “You watching the game?” When my text notification sounded—it’s By the Seaside, a bit excessive for a text notification, but I’ve always been partial to its buoyant lilt, and so I assigned it to D., both so the tone’s joyousness would offset who was contacting me and so there’d be no mistaking who it was. P. rolled her eyes and I said “goddammit,” even though I’m a good Catholic. And so, despite the fact that P. was about to “play a big triple word score,” I had to pause to read D.’s text. As I disentangled myself, P. said, “Do you have to deal with that now?” I told her, “Yes, yes I do—this is an important time.” She sighed and said, “I think I’m done for the night.” As I typed “What game are you watching?” back to D., I said to P., “But we haven’t played in so long—just give me a second,” but it was too late—she was already dumping the board into the box and packing up the pieces. In response to my inquiry about “what game?” D. texted back and said, “Hockey.” I asked him who was playing, and after several moments, he replied, “I mean basketball.” I asked who was playing. He texted back, “The Bears and the Wizards.” I typed, “The Grizzlies?” He typed, “Yeah, them.” Then: “I’ve got a pizza on the way and a six-pack in the fridge, just for you since I don’t do alcohol. Stop by and we’ll watch. Great game. Very competitive.” I texted back that I was unavailable and that this type of correspondence was inappropriate. I obviously couldn’t go hang out with him, what with the Bureau’s ongoing investigation and all—I didn’t say that last part, of course. He wrote back, “Sure, sure. Absolutely.” By the time the exchange was done, P. had drifted off to sleep, and all chance of more Scrabble was lost.

 
3. The Hug
January 22, 2017

The event was designated for honoring law enforcement officials, and I needed to represent the Bureau. I hoped he wouldn’t see me. I was wearing a dark blue suit—the one I’d worn out with P. on our anniversary last year—that almost matched the curtains in the back of the room, so I stood in front of them, attempting to disappear in the not-too-crowded room. I watched D. smile and schmooze, shake hands and give hugs, watched him speak of his gratitude for keeping inauguration day safe. Despite the relative ease with which he worked the room, I began to notice something almost mechanical about his movements, something programmed. I thought for a moment that D. is full of sadness. He would never admit to being full of sadness, probably doesn’t even know what sadness is, but he is afflicted nonetheless. And just as I was beginning to feel something between sympathy and empathy for the man, and mere moments before I was going to slip out of the room undetected, I heard his voice, suddenly electric with something resembling life, say “Oh and there’s Jim.” Then, “He’s become more famous than me.” I’d been spotted, caught out, and what did that even mean, I’d “become more famous than him”? Hardly. I wanted to step behind the curtains in front of which I was hoping to blend in, but knew that would be ludicrous. What could I do? I had to walk across the room and greet D. Determined to offer him only a handshake and avoid one of the hugs he’d been giving so freely, I stretched my arm towards him on my approach. When I was close enough, he grabbed my hand and pulled me in. I felt his arm snake around me and attach to my back, and then, as I tried to resist the hug, I felt the tremendous heft of his body step into me, surround me, absorb me, and, for a moment, begin to unmake me. I could feel, ever so briefly, the man’s breath on my cheek, and was surprised that it wasn’t hot and humid as I’d always imagined, but cool and sharp—were it a color it’d be bright green, like wintergreen gum or cartoon money. When I got home, P. was leaning in for a kiss when I told her what had happened. She abruptly halted. I could feel her considering whether she wanted to kiss the place where his breath had been. She didn’t. Instead, she turned her approach into a two-cheeked air kiss, the way Americans sometimes do when imitating the French, but are too shy to actually put lips to skin.

 
4. #wtf
January 23, 2017

After a quiet weekend, I awoke this morning to an Instagram notification. D. wanted to tag me in a photo. I don’t even know how he found my Instagram account. My own children don’t even know about it. The photo was from the event last week, D.’s heavy arm tossed around my back like a sack of water. Serving as commentary, D. provided nothing but a series of hashtags: #gratitude #thankyourlocallawenforcementofficers #blessed #instafam #bigjim #buds #bff #chasingfog #famousjames #mcm #PicOfTheDay #HugsBefore#Drugs #ComeyAsYouAre #GovFam #ComeyDoesPlayThat #ComeyIsland #ComeynaBurana #JamesComeyTheOtherJC #TeamPlayer #ItsComeyplicated #yourehired #fornow #WokeUpFellOutOfBedDraggedaComey AcrossMyHead #oneofus. I immediately untagged myself from the photo and threw my phone on the floor. Reacting to the thunk, P. called out from the bathroom where she was drying her hair. She asked if everything was ok. I told her, “More D. stuff.” And she said, “Just ignore that awful man.” She was right, but we both know I can’t just ignore that awful man. #wtf.

 
5. A Table for Two
January 27, 2017

Tonight D. invited me to his house for dinner. I knew I shouldn’t go, but I did. Over an appetizer of seared scallops, D. talked about the crowd at his inauguration. I politely nodded along, though his words crawled under my skin and around in my skull. I did ok until the salad course—a nice Caesar, too heavy on the dressing, though—at which point, between sips of his ice water—I still remember the ice clicking against his teeth as he sipped—D. asked me for his loyalty. I told him I couldn’t give him my loyalty, only my honesty. D. said, “But I need your loyalty.” I repeated my refusal. He said, “But I’m a nice guy.” He said, “This was meant to be. I deserve this.” I told him it would be unethical to pledge my loyalty to him. He reached across the table and grabbed my hand, said, “You owe this to me. This dinner? You still having a job? You owe me.” I said, one last time, “I can promise you only my honesty.” He said, “You don’t deserve me.” He said, “We could be unstoppable.” He said, “You’re just a whore.”

 
6. More Sweat
January 28, 2017

I Went to the gym again today—ran for an hour on the treadmill to work up a sweat and sat in the sauna for forty minutes. I didn’t intend to stay in for so long. It’s ok, though. I drank six glasses of water before, and once the sweat started, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted the toxins to pour out of me, imagined D.’s words, his hug, the Instagram post, his demands for loyalty spilling out my pores, leaving trails of filth down my skin. And then I got caught up in the metaphor for a moment and imagined it all evaporating in the sauna’s heat, mixing with the air, and winding up back inside me, sinking into my lungs and back into my blood. Maybe the sauna isn’t cutting it anymore.

 
7. A Gift of Flowers
February 1, 2017

This afternoon I got home from work to find P. arranging flowers in a vase in our foyer. I asked if she’d made a trip to the farmer’s market, as both of us have commented on how nice some of the vendors’ flowers are. She said, “You know where these flowers came from.” I told her I didn’t. She said, “You didn’t send them?” I confirmed that I hadn’t. She told me a Secret Service man had delivered them not long before I returned home. I said, “Secret Service men aren’t personal couriers.” P. started to ask, “Are these from…?” She didn’t have to finish her thought. We examined the flowers but found nothing. We finally found a card in the trash, stuck to the green floral wrap. It said, “Sorry about the other night. xoxo, D.”. P. said, “I assumed they were an early Valentine’s Day gift.” I said, “Right, because Valentine’s Day is soon,” which I hadn’t actually realized, but I played it off like I had. P. said, “Looks like you’ve got a fan.” Then, “Should I be worried?” I said, “Maybe we should both be worried.”

 
8. Jalapeño Seeds
February 6, 2017

The sauna isn’t enough anymore, so I started a juice cleanse. I ordered an Omega J8006 Nutrition Center Masticating Dual-stage Juice Extractor from Amazon so I wouldn’t have to go to the store and risk seeing anyone I didn’t want to see. I made a green juice with celery and kale and a green apple and lime. I made a red juice with beets and apples and blackberries and ginger. It made my urine a little red. I made a yellow juice with papaya and pineapple and coconut water. And I made another green juice with apples and basil and cilantro. I made a juice from the flowers that had been mysteriously delivered a few days before, dug out of the trash and wilting. I didn’t drink that juice. I poured it down the garbage disposal and chased it with bleach. And I made something called Spice-C juice, with pineapple and orange juice and cilantro and jalapeño, but I forgot to seed the jalapeños and the juice burned my mouth and my throat and my guts, and bored a hole right through me, and as I filled my toilet with that molten jalapeño seeded mixture of juice and toxins, I felt a hint of relief, as if I were shitting everything about D. right out of me. As good as that felt, though, I knew it was only a matter of time until I would be filled back up again.

 
9. Valentine’s Day
February 14, 2017

I was back at D.’s earlier, this time for a briefing on terrorism. On goddamn Valentine’s Day, no less. P. was upset that I had to work, and, to be honest, I was, too—this was the last thing I wanted to be doing on Valentine’s Day. I was uncomfortable seeing D. so soon after our previous meeting, but I wasn’t overly concerned since we would be surrounded by colleagues. The meeting went about as well as expected, considering the circumstances, until the end, when D. asked everyone to leave except for me. I didn’t know what to make of this. I didn’t relish being alone with him, again. As soon as the others had left, D. started in about an investigation I’ve been involved with. He said, “My friend Mr. F., he’s a good man.” He said, “He’s got a bum rap—you know it’s all bullshit.” He said, “Just let it go.” He said, “You don’t need to investigate this.” I told him we did, very much so need to investigate. D. stood up and walked around to the front of his desk, sat on the edge. He said, “Do this for me.” He said, “You know you want to.” I told him I very much didn’t and we left it at that. At home, I made dinner for P.—filet in a brown butter sauce, with roasted Brussels sprouts and bread purchased earlier that day fresh from the farmer’s market—and we dined in near silence. When she asked me what was wrong, I told her I didn’t want to talk about it, told her I needed time to process. I felt fine after dinner, but went to the bathroom and made myself sick.

 
10. The Helicopter
March 1, 2017

I was preparing to board a helicopter to attend a meeting out of state when a staffer told me that D. was on the phone and had urgent business to discuss. I asked the pilot to wait so I could take the call. Once on the phone, I asked D. what was wrong. He said, “I just ate the most delectable meal of my life. These chefs are out of this world.” I asked if everything was ok, and D. said, “Best veal I’ve ever had. And the asparagus.” I said, “I was told this was urgent.” D. said, “You golf? Of course you do.” He said, “Come down to my resort. We’ll be good together.” He said, “I hope you don’t mind my beating you, though. I’ve been working on my putting.” He said, “Oh, and the ladies we have working down there.” I said, “With all due respect, sir, this is inappropriate. Please don’t call me again unless it’s truly urgent.” D. said, “You don’t mean that.” I told him I did. He said, “I’ll be so good to you.” He said, “You’re making a huge mistake.” He said, “You bitch.” I hung up the phone and boarded the helicopter. As we rose above the District, I looked out the window, down on the buildings and people below. I could feel the toxins swirling inside me, but told myself I wouldn’t be sick, intentionally or otherwise. I resolved to cut out the juice cleanse and to stop going to the sauna. At least for now. Staring out the helicopter at my city, its majestic buildings, I feel shadows take root inside me and grow. Of course I’ve made my share of mistakes—though I’ll never admit them, just ask H.—but I mustn’t dwell on those, mustn’t dwell on D. or his actions. And as the helicopter moves away from the District and over the suburbs, I keep thinking to myself, this will all be over soon.

 
 
 


James Brubaker is the author of two story collections, Pilot Season (sunnyoutside, 2014) and Liner Notes (Subito Press, 2014). His third collection, Black Magic Death Sphere: (Science) Fictions, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press. His short stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, Web Conjunctions, Sundog Lit, Keyhole, and The Texas Review, among others. Find out more at jamesbrubaker.net or follow him on Twitter at @mrbnatural.