February 12, 2008


A few hours earlier, around five o’clock, Michael Karlinoff sat in his living room playing the piano as his father read the Wall Street Journal. Well, actually, it was a large electronic keyboard, but both Michael and his father called it "the piano" and since we're guests in their home, we'll follow their custom.

Michael had taken piano lessons for about seven years, until he was talented enough to know that he would never be very talented. His father, who had spent most of his youth and early adulthood trying to be a famous musician, had hoped his son would fulfill his long-ago ambitions. But when Michael asked to give up the lessons—roughly three weeks after transferring to Beaumonde—his father let him quit without a fight.

As Emily had said a few weeks before, Michael was good at things. She'd meant it as a compliment—and it was true, he could pick things up faster than most other people—but in the three weeks since he'd heard from anyone, he began to wonder if this wasn't really his downfall. Since school let out, he’d been working for his father, sorting out the fabric warehouse, which meant eight hours alone with just himself, his iPod, and the question he kept coming back to: was he doomed to be good at everything, but great at nothing?

He hadn't heard from anyone in the Gang. He'd missed a call from Emily a week before, but she hadn't left a message and he'd made himself not return her call. Lillian hadn't called him, either, and whenever he called her, he got her voicemail. He never left a message.

Michael began playing a piece from a movie score by Thomas Newman. It was soft, unspeakably sad and, best of all, very easy to play. His father turned back a page in the paper and ran his finger down the stock symbols. He didn't own any stocks—he had other investments—but he followed the markets the way other people follow sports. He cheered on his favorite corporations and rejoiced in the misfortunes of their rivals.

As he played the slow deep chords of the song, Michael thought about the summer that awaited him. He doubted he'd hear from The Gang. Only Lillian and Alexander thought he was indispensable, and they were gone. So he'd work for his father and save up some money for when the Budds came back (and they were coming back) just like when he'd "gone back to Macedonia" last year.

He wondered if The Gang had been hanging out in the last three weeks. He was sure they were. Maybe they were even together right now, and no one had called him. Were they eating dinner at Emily's, drinking cocktails on David's patio, watching a movie at-

"What you want, I should suicide?" His father threw the paper down on the old coffee table.

Michael turned a few degrees on his bench, glancing over at him. "What do you mean?"

"This music is what I mean! So depressing, are we at a funeral?"

"Oh. Sorry." Michael began playing a jaunty ragtime tune, but stopped after a few bars. He turned around on his stool and shrugged.

Nicolaos Karlinoff ran a hand through his thick hair. "Like a ghost, you're been haunting this house. Ever since your little girlfriend left town, I can't have two minutes alone."

"Sorry," Michael said again.

His father took off his reading glasses and slipped them into his dark red dressing gown. Though gruff and merciless in public, Nicolaos Karlinoff chose to spend his rare evenings at home living like an elderly Old World aristocrat: he wore velvet slippers, he drank claret, he listened to classical music. In short, he was everything Alexander wanted to be when he grew up, and Michael had dedicated his life to making sure the two never met.

"And how is the warehouse coming? You are almost finished with the counting?"

"Oh, it's coming really well. I think I'll be done in three or four days. Then I guess I'll-"

"You'll guess nothing," Michael's father said softly. "When you're done with counting warehouse, I want you should take time off."

"What do you mean, take time off?"

“Is your last summer at home before college. Next summer will be crazy, both of us running around before you leave. You should enjoy yourself…go have fun like a young boy should.”

Michael reached behind himself and absently flicked the piano off. Outside on the street, a car alarm bleep-blooped a warning at a pedestrian. “But what about money for next school year?”

Nicolaos Karlinoff waved his hand, dismissing the argument. “Michael, you have friends other than Miss Lillian…not that I’ve ever met them, God forbid. Go visit them.”

“That’s kind of complicated right now, Dad.”

“Bah. At 17, everything is complicated. Listen to me, here is what you do.” He dug in his robe and pulled out some money. “Here’s ten, twelve dollars. Put on your new suit, the one Sam made for you, and take bus into downtown. Now, find a bar. Hotel bar is best.”

“I can’t go into a bar, I’m only-”

His father, a passionate speaker, slapped his hand on the coffee table to shut Michael up. Michael, so used to his father doing this, had tried the same thing with Lillian and Litta’Bit once, and they were so scared they avoided him for days.

“Please,” his father said. “When I was seventeen, I…well, not for tonight, this story. Listen, what have I told you since you were child? Look like you belong and no one will ask one question.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “The secret of my success. And yours too, I am thinking.”

Michael didn’t say anything.

“Now, find bar with piano in it, start playing something that does not make people want to jump off bridge, and you have two pretty girls on each lap before you finish first song.”


“Okay, these girls, maybe not as pretty as your girl, but who is? Besides,” and here he leaned forward and winked at him broadly, “I do not see pretty Lillian. Do you?”

Michael lauged and shook his head. “Okay, Dad, I get your point. I do. I’ll stop moping around…”

“Point?” His father turned his hands towards himself. “I have no point. Get out of house, leave me alone. That is my point.”

Nicolaos Karlinoff stared at him and pointed to the door. Michael turned to look at the door, then look back at his father. There was something about his gruff face, the exaggerated gesture…

“You have a date,” Michael said.

Picking up the Wall Street Journal, his father slapped it against his hand and threw it back onto the coffee table. “Do I hear this? I try to get son to enjoy last summer before he is adult, and he accuses me. Here, Michael, son, I go into kitchen and get knife for you. Will be easier.”

“You do have a date!”

“You should too! Let me borrow your face for just one night, I will show you how to use it.” This was ridiculous, of course; Nicolaos Karlinoff was young by Dad standards, only 19 when Michael had been born, and very handsome. He had dates—usually with women only a few years older than Michael—a few nights a week.

He stood up and adjusted his dressing gown, tucking the newspaper into one of the oversized pockets. “Now, change clothes, leave house, play piano, meet girls, smile, use protection. Goodnight.”

Ten minutes later, Michael was standing in front of his house in the cream linen suit Sam had just made for him a few weeks before, staring up and down the street. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was going to do. The idea of taking a bus into town and playing piano in a bar to meet girls was so far away from what he was capable of that it was basically science fiction. Besides, he had a girlfriend.

But he had to do something, since his father had banned him from the house that evening. He had wanted to grab a book before he left, but he didn’t want to be stuck carrying it around. Instead, he’d picked up Lillian’s coded letter and slipped it in his breast pocket. Maybe he’d go over to Tulane’s library and spend some time trying to decipher it. How late were they open on summer evenings, though?

Or maybe not. He stood at the bus stop for five minutes, still not entirely sure what he’d do when the bus showed up. Eventually, he realized that he’d left his bus pass upstairs, but there was no way he could go upstairs and get it now. His father was very particular about his date preparations.

Michael didn’t really need his bus pass since he had twelve dollars in his pocket. But the bus cost $1.25 and he didn’t have a quarter. There was a Starbucks on Tulane’s campus, about four blocks away, where he could get something to drink and get change. Four blocks is way too far to walk in a Louisiana summer, but what else did he have to do?

The walk wasn’t actually that bad, though; the sun was almost down and his new suit was as light as a pair of pajamas. As he crossed Calhoun Street and entered the campus, he looked around for signs of life. The college students had been gone for a few weeks now, but the campus was surprisingly busy. A few kids ate Subway on the ground in front of the Butler dorm, and a couple of shirtless guys played catch in the street as a bored security guard in a golf cart looked on. Michael tried to walk as if he belonged there.

As he passed them, the baseball bounced on the ground and knocked up against the wheel of a Jetta right in front of him. He bent over and picked it up without really breaking his stride. Turning towards the guys, he started to just toss it back to the one closest to him, then thought better of it and threw it overhand at the guy farthest away.

“Thanks, bro,” the guy said before he even caught it.

“No problem.” Michael hoped he sounded like just another college kid.

“Where’s the wedding?”

Michael had no idea what this meant—he guessed it probably wasn’t college slang, though—so he pretended he hadn’t heard and kept walking. Behind him, the girls on the ground started giggling, and Michael felt the back of his neck grow warm. The security guard blinked heavily at him and waved away a fly that had landed on the miniature steering wheel.

The Starbucks was empty. No customers, no employees, only lite jazz and empty chairs. Michael looked around and thought about sneaking back out. A head—a cute head with curly brown hair—popped up from behind the counter and smiled at him before disappearing again.

Michael peered over the counter and found her squatting on her Converses, pulling shrinkwrapped CDs (Starbucks Presents: The Sounds Of Summer) from a cardboard box and placing them haphazardly into a long drawer.

The girl looked up at him and smiled. “I’ll be with you in a second.” She had that raspy voice that made her sound like she’d been out all night smoking and screaming. But some girls sounded that way naturally…most of Litta'Bit’s friends, for example.

She turned around, still squatting, and began to put the rest of the CDs in another cabinet. As she leaned forward, her shirt rode up, and between the green straps of her apron Michael could see her back and a slim line of white cotton just above her jeans. She had two shallow dimples on her back. Lillian had those, too.

The girl slammed the cabinet door, put one empty cardboard box inside the another, and hopped up to her feet. “Ta-da! I’m like a Megan-in-a-box.” She tapped at her nametag with a chipped black fingernail. “I’m Megan.”

“I see.” Without moving, without dropping his smile, Michael quietly held his breath and tensed up all of the muscles below his neck. He exhaled softly and introduced himself.

“Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Michael.” Megan held out her hand and gave Michael a firm handshake, her jelly bracelets rustling together. “Man, you look great. That suit is awesome.”

Michael knew exactly what to say here. Alexander had taught them that there was only one Proper way to answer a compliment: “Thank you, Megan. That’s nice of you to say.”

“I didn’t realize you guys were in rehearsal already.”

“What…? What do you mean?”

“Your costume…you guys are doing dress rehearsals? The high school drama camp?”

Michael shook his head. “No, I go here. I’m a student.”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry.” Megan put her hand up to her mouth and laughed. “I just thought…you know. So, why are you so dressed up? Got a hot date?”

Alexander would have said that dressing well was its own special occasion, and that needing an excuse to look good was the first step in a journey that led inexorably to cargo pants and flip-flops.

“No, I just…this is how I dress. I like to look this way.” Stupid! Stupid stupid stupid!

“I hear ya. That’s cool, that’s cool.” She rested a hand on the edge of the cash register, but otherwise she didn’t seem terribly interested in taking his order. “Do you live on campus?”

“Yeah. Just across the street. Where do you live?”

“You live in Willow?” Megan cocked her head to the side. “I didn’t think Willow was open yet.”

“It’s not.” Michael licked his lips. “But I’m an international student, so I get to live there through the summer.” When he said this, his voice got just a little deeper, a little thicker, as though he’d spoken English since grade school, but still dreamed in his native tongue.

Megan bounced on her heels a little. “Really? That’s so cool. Where are you from? No, wait…let me guess.” She leaned over the counter and peered carefully into his face. Michael grew slightly nervous and played it off by striking model poses as she studied him. “You’re funny. Let’s see. I think you’re from….Brazil?”

“Wow, that’s right! I’m impressed, you’re really intuitive,” Michael wanted to say, but didn’t. The way this conversation had been going, she’d probably end up being fluent in Portuguese. “You were close. I’m from Macedonia. How about you? Where are you from?”

“Macedonia? Is that an island?”

“Sorta. It’s in Europe, just above Greece.”

Megan nodded her head deeply. “Right on, right on. I’m trying to save up money to go back to Europe. It’s so beautiful over there…I can’t even describe it. Maybe I’ll hit Macedonia next time.”

Michael smiled. “Well, we’ll leave a key under the mat for you.”

“You’re a funny guy, Michael Macedonia,” Megan said, digging in her apron’s pockets. She put a tube of Burt’s Bees on the counter and kept searching. “Hey, do you like hip-hop?”

No. “Yes.”

“Cool, cool. Look, I do the hip-hop show on the college station? Maybe you’ve heard of it? Anyway, my roommate and I host a thing at that club Voicebox every other Thursday, you should totally come tonight.”

Megan had found what she was looking for, and pulled a club flyer from her apron. There was photocopied graffiti on it, and a drawing of a robot dressed like a breakdancer. Hip-Hop Thursdays at The VoiceBox. Old School, Underground, Freestyle. With WTUL’s DJ Megatron and Lady Maximum.

“That’s me, Megatron. I know, it’s totally dumb, but we were making the flyer and the computer lab was closing and I just blanked on a name. Megan, Megatron. Now I’m stuck with it.” While she was talking, she wrote something on the back of the flyer, then folded it in half. “So, you’re gonna come, right?”

“I’d like to, but I don’t know if I can. My dad’s pretty strict about me going out at night.”

Megan narrowed her eyes at him. “News flash: your dad’s in Europe. I’ll make you a deal…if you come tonight, I promise I won’t tell him.”

Michael laughed. “Okay, you got me. The real reason I can’t come is that my girlfriend is out of town and I don’t think she’d like it if I went out to a club while she’s gone.”

“Oh my god, how cute are you? That’s adorable.” She opened up the flyer and wrote something else on the back, then folded it up again. “And it’s a good thing you’re not going to come if you have a girlfriend…in America, when a girl asks a boy to her DJ night, it means she’s totally going to molest him.”

Michael laughed and looked at his shoes for a second. “Ha. Yeah. Listen, Megan, it’s been nice talking to you, but I have a bus to catch.”

“It was nice talking to you, too. You should come back and visit me.” She leaned across the counter and tucked the folded-up flyer into the breast pocket of his suit. “I’m here in the afternoon, Thursday through Sunday.”

Touching the back of his hair, Michael smiled at her. “Don’t worry, you’ll see me again soon.”

“Wait, did you want a drink or anything?”

He shrugged. “Not really. I was just walking by and saw a girl I wanted to talk to.”

Megan smiled wide and even bit her lip. “That’s good. We closed, like, half an hour ago. I just forgot to lock the door.”

There was an awkward second or two while they silently negotiated whether they were going to shake hands again or what—Megan finally just patted his hand on the counter—and Michael was back out in the evening heat. Behind him her heard the chunk of the front door being locked. He resisted the temptation to turn around and wave.

Outside, the guys playing catch were gone, as were the girls and the security guard. A small pile of ice melted into the curb. Michael hadn’t gotten the quarter he needed for the bus, and he idly wondered if he could just give the driver two dollars and be done with it. Surely that had happened before.

That whole interaction with Megan could have gone a lot better. It wasn’t her, he knew that…he had plenty of experiences dealing with girls like her at school. Sure, she was a bit older, and he’d fumbled a few of his stories and she’d called him on it, but that wasn’t it. Was he just out of practice? Was it because the twins were gone?

He missed Lillian, of course, and he missed Alexander. He missed the rest of The Gang, too, even if they’d never really considered him one of them. He missed Emily…he never even smiled at her, but she always cheered him up. He missed David and Litta'Bit and Robert, Andre and Josephine. And, in a way he only barely understood, he missed himself.

A few minutes later, he stood at the bus stop down the street from his house. His father was clearly home, so he couldn’t run upstairs and get a quarter or a book to read once he got wherever he was going. He reached into his pocket and glanced at the coded note Lillian had left him, but the sun had gone down enough that it was difficult to make out the letters.

As he put it back, he found the flyer in his breast pocket and pulled it out. Angling the paper towards the streetlight, he could just read Megan’s two notes. The first said You have beautiful eyes and then the second read Your girlfriend is really lucky.

He had just refolded the flyer and was putting it back in his pocket when an older Camry pulled up slowly in front of his house and idled. The dome light came on as the woman inside checked her lipstick and hair in the rearview mirror. She was older than most of his father’s dates—she might have been 35—but she nervously primped like a junior high girl. Michael’s father, who must have been waiting in the foyer, walked down the large stone steps of the house and kissed each of her cheeks. Michael was too far away to hear what he said, but the woman blushed and turned away.

They got into her car, stopping briefly at the intersection where Michael waited for the bus. His father caught his eye and gave him a deep nod and wink, laying one finger against the side of his nose. Michael smiled and turned away.

After they were gone, Michael went up to the apartment to get his bus pass, then realized that now that his father was out of the house there was no need to go downtown anymore. So instead he took off his jacket and stretched out on his bed. He picked a book up off his nightstand—Brideshead Revisited, which Alexander had been pretending to read for so long that Michael had gotten curious about it himself—but after only a few pages he fell heavily asleep, the way only teenage boys can on summer evenings. It was barely nine, and he hadn’t even taken his shoes off.

At 2:30 in the morning, he woke up with a start when his phone beeped loudly. Emily was on his front porch, sending him text messages.