Rock Paper Scissors

Naja Marie Aidt

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

On the way home he picks up Thai food and white wine. Patricia slumps at the kitchen table in her blue dressing gown. Her greasy hair hangs over her eyes.

"Do you have a fever?"

"No," she says, her voice quivering.

"Then what is it? Are you sick?" He puts a hand on her shoulder. He grasps both of her shoulders and she shakes him off.

"Get the fuck away from me."

"But you said you wanted me to come home? You just called."

She raises her red-rimmed eyes. "That was hours ago."

She gets to her feet, points at him, narrows her eyes. "Why did you do it? Why did you put your hand over my mouth? Why would you do something like that?"

He looks out the window.

"It's perverse, Thomas. It's fucking violent!"

"I don't know. I had a sudden urge. I couldn't help myself."

"You couldn't help yourself. You had an urge! Don't you hear how fucked-up that is?"

He throws up his hands. "I'm sorry. But can't you please forgive me?"

Patricia takes a threatening step toward him. All at once she seems big and fierce, strong. "You're acting so fucking strange, what the hell's wrong with you? You're acting like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar." Clenching her jaw, she shakes her head and returns to her chair.

"Of course I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed. I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me. It was overpowering."

"Yeah, let me assure you that it was!" When she lunges to her feet, the chair knocks over backward. "You assaulted me. You're destroying us!" She rushes away. Looks at him with disgust. "I'm leaving."

"But I bought food . . . "

"Eat it yourself!" She goes down the hallway and slams the bathroom door. Shortly afterward he can hear the water running. He knocks. "Patricia? Can I come in?" But she doesn't answer, and the door is locked. He goes back to the kitchen. He picks up the chair and sits down. Her cup from yesterday morning is still on the table. Her lipstick has left marks, two red wings on the white porcelain. He watches the sparrows who are once again lined up in a row on the roof across the street. The river: white-green, milky. Some flies buzz around the fruit bowl. He stands up and tosses a half-rotten pear into the trash. A long time passes. Then she's standing in the doorway in a beige jumpsuit. She's applied a thick layer of makeup. Her eye shadow is dramatic, dark, gray-black. Her skin is dulled under a coat of powder. She's wearing her silvery shoes, her party shoes.

"Where are you going?" he asks.

But she only stares at him, sharp and angry, her hands at her sides. "That's none of your business."

She turns on her heels. Then she's gone, the door banging shut. The cat leaps on the kitchen table and sniffs curiously at the box of satay chicken. He calls Patricia several times, but she's turned off her phone. He tries to convince himself that she's just out with a friend, but jealousy and fear gnaw at him, like maggots. Later, he drinks the entire bottle of wine, and even later he stares walleyed at the sales sheet for the old bookstore, and even later than that he reads Celan: "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown / we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night / we drink and we drink it / we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined . . . " He reads Celan, loses himself, images of his father in his cell: his profile, the sharp nose, these words in his mumbling mouth, in his consciousness, his back arched, his face close to the book. He shivers, he stands at the window, he lights a cigarette. He thinks: One could jump. One could fall. As easy as anything, could dig a grave in the breezes. He lurches back, startled. He lies down under the rumpled sheets on the unmade bed; the cat's sprawled at his feet. Water swishes through pipes, the poems jumbled and harrowing his mind. He curls up and sleeps, just as unsettled and troubled, and doesn't awake until there's clattering in the kitchen early the next morning: Patricia has returned.


When they sit across from one another in the kitchen drinking coffee, it's as though they're each hovering in their own worlds. He's held her tight, she's pushed him away. In vain he's tried to get her to say something, anything. She reeks of booze. Maybe she didn't even sleep last night. Her makeup is cracked, her eye shadow smeared. He boiled eggs, she took only one bite. Now she's got egg yolk on her chin. The morning is warm and humid. She hasn't said anything about where she was, he hasn't asked. A ceasefire, Thomas thinks optimistically, letting his eyes wander across the light-blue sky. But what kind of war is this? There are butterflies in the pit of his stomach because he doesn't understand, and he's so desperately trapped in the present that he instantly forgets. He jerks his head. What is this? What do you mean? What does she mean? Not a cloud. Blinding sunlight. Rooftops, ships, tiny cars far below, people. An airplane ascending, slowly diminishing in size, carried off by the jet stream. Patricia stirs her teaspoon in her cup.

"You're coming with me to Kristin's tomorrow, right?" he says.

She glowers at him.

"Why are you so mad at me? I said I was sorry. Are you drunk?"

She says nothing.

"I'm getting ready to buy a new store. I want to hire Alice. Show her the ropes."

She looks at him, but her expression is cool and distant.

"Do you have the money for that?"

"Looks that way."

She shrugs. "Well, good luck then."

"Patricia," he says. "Patricia."

The silence is thick and dense, as if it's squeezing them each into their own corner. She stares at the shelf lined with glasses. So he says, "Want to go swimming tonight?"

She doesn't respond.

"Want to come with me?"

"I don't know." She sounds a little hoarse now. She sighs. Her eyes remain fixated on the glasses. He follows her gaze. The cat meows insistently, rubbing itself against her legs. Then it leaps onto her lap.

Leaning forward, Thomas lays a hand on her arm. "Patricia? Don't you want to be with me?" She lifts the cat and drops it, so that it falls to the floor, meowing.

He says, "Let's meet at the little beach at 5:30. Okay?"

She rises slowly and gets ready to go. She brushes her teeth and washes her face at the kitchen sink. Her perfume lingers in the warm, unmoving air: cedar, vanilla. The stench of alcohol. She doesn't say goodbye. She steps into her heels. She slams the front door behind her. As he clears the kitchen, he feels the sobs welling in his throat. He packs two towels in a bag, he feeds the cat and gives it some water. The cat's tail swishes back and forth as it eats, its front legs bent slightly; it stares at him, affronted. He hustles outside and down to the street. His head pounds, his throat's constricted, his vision's blurry. Fucking Christ, he thinks, wanting to slap himself silly. Get your ass together. It feels like walking on sludge, on wet sand, he sinks in, lights a cigarette, leans against a wall, and rubs his head. He can't go any farther, the humidity's extraordinarily high; he clenches his fists. Get yourself together, man. Unlock your bike and get on the fucking seat, unless you've decided to die in the middle of the street. But maybe that's exactly what you've got in mind. A grave in the breezes. You're digging your own fucking grave. Pierced by fear. And he begins to move, the urge to sob subsides, biking through a city shimmery with heat. The peonies are in bloom, the roses, the rhododendrons, the bougainvillea, like glimpses of purple and cyclamen in parks, against the walls of houses, on patios, on balconies. Everything has exploded during the night.


But as soon as he's turned the corner, he sees it. Maloney's standing outside the store talking to a policeman, his face a shiny red hue, his expression gloomy and agitated. A cruiser is parked on the opposite side of the street, and a second officer leans against the vehicle talking on a cell phone; his black shoes gleam in the sunlight, and he taps one foot. The store's front window has been smashed. Glass shards have rained on the sidewalk. A small crowd has gathered: a group of snot-nosed teenagers wearing backpacks, some older women. Annie and Peter are standing together a little ways down the street; they look like two frightened children who're hiding, leaning or tipping toward each other. Annie's practically on her tiptoes.

Maloney strides toward Thomas, who is frozen in place with his bicycle still on the road. Maloney's warm, tangy breath right in his face: "It's all smashed. Everything. I'm telling you . . . even the office computer and our mugs. Our coffee mugs are smashed, the yellow one and the other one." He stops talking and sucks air through his nose. "The one with the little duck. Your mug! And the candlesticks—everything." Maloney's lost in thought. Thomas begins to laugh hysterically. "The one with the duck!" But the laughter dies in him as quickly as it'd begun. Maloney's face is lit up with fright. The policeman signals to his colleague standing at the car and heads into the store, glass shards crunching under his feet. A car honks repeatedly. Maloney pulls Thomas onto the sidewalk. The second officer, still on his cell phone, walks past them and positions himself in the doorway.

Thomas asks, "Was anything stolen?"

Maloney looks down, wide-eyed. "I don't know." Then he looks up, angrily. "I just got here, for fuck's sake, how would I know?"

They peer through the doorframe, motionless, quiet, seeing heaps of paper and cardboard. All their goods have been pulled from the shelves. The chandelier dangles crookedly as if someone tried to shoot it down. "A dog walker called the cops." Maloney takes a deep breath. "Early this morning." Thomas nods. Maloney throws up his arms, almost contemptuously. "They were already here when I arrived!" Thomas nods again. "But it's a good thing they're here, Maloney." Maloney gives him a flustered glance, then his eyes dart every which way. The officer sweeps his hand across the countertop. "Palvino?" he says. The second officer reacts. "There's a mark in the countertop," says the officer inside the store. He shouts to Thomas and Maloney: "Do you know anything about this?" Thomas feels dizzy.

"We sure as fuck don't!" Maloney says. "We don't go around carving into our own countertop!" Palvino says, "Watch your language, please." "Sorry," Maloney mutters. The officer turns once again to Palvino: "It looks like a symbol of some kind. Done in a sloppy and clumsy way. Come have a look." Palvino slinks into the semi-darkness. Thomas's heart thumps in his chest. He gulps for air, his dizziness intense. His eyes flicker, and he's forced to lean against the wall for support. Who carved into his countertop? Who? I'm going to faint now. But he doesn't. The register has been broken into, coins are scattered across the floor. The officers talk quietly among themselves. Soon they come outside, and the officer who is not Palvino pulls off his latex gloves. Maloney says, "This is my partner, Thomas Lindström." Thomas extends his hand. The officer's handshake is brief and firm.

"Kagoshima. I've called for assistance." He turns to Palvino: "Go ahead and put the tape up now." To Maloney and Thomas, he says, "You're not allowed inside until we're finished. I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait to tally up your losses." He gives them a measured, friendly smile.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Maloney asks sheepishly, following his reprimand from Palvino.

"Yes, thank you. If you were having one anyway." Palvino opens the door of the cruiser and leans across the backseat. Now it's the pistol in his belt that captures the sunlight.

Maloney totters into the street, calling for Peter and sending him off to fetch coffee. Palvino affixes the police tape. Maloney stares at Thomas, and they shake their heads. Maloney's eyes focus on the floor. Thomas is weirdly lost in thought, watching Annie slowly approaching as if through a kind of filter. With a quivering lower lip and vacant eyes, she whispers, "Was anything stolen?"

"We don't know yet."

A tear falls from her right eye. "Don't cry, Annie," Thomas says, putting his hand on her shoulder. And Peter arrives balancing cups of coffee and a bag of pastries under one arm. The coffee is scalding and bitter. Without a word, Palvino takes two cups and slips under the tape. Maloney's pastry-grinding mouth is suddenly in Thomas's face. His forehead is slick with fine pearls of sweat. "Who the fuck did this shit?" he hisses, and begins restlessly pacing the sidewalk. The sun shines directly on the store now, and the thousands of shards in the display window. Standing in the doorway, Kagoshima asks, "Do you have any idea who might have done this?"

Thomas shakes his head. Kagoshima suppresses a cough. "We'll talk to people in the neighborhood, of course, possible witnesses. There must have been a lot of noise when the window was smashed. But the man who called us heard nothing." The coffee has apparently made Kagoshima cheerful; he's friendlier, gentler. He smiles at Thomas. "Okay then. You might as well go home. Have you vacuumed the store in the past few days?" "Yes, there was a spring cleaning here recently, but that was Tuesday. And no, not in the past few days."

"Then we'll have a look to see how many hairs and fibers we can find. If there are too many, we won't touch it."

"Why not?" Thomas asks. The sun blinds him. Kagoshima is a dark shadow in front of him.

"Too many people go in and out of stores like this. We're not interested in customers' hair. That's too sweeping, and we can't do a full sweep."

"Then what'll you do now?"

Kagoshima sips his coffee. "Our colleagues from Investigations are collecting possible DNA. Shoeprints, fingerprints. Traces of blood, if there is any. I tend to doubt there will be, though. Then we'll run it all through our database and look for a match. It usually takes a day. Getting the paperwork done typically takes at least a week." With the back of his hand he wipes his lips. "I just need to know where you two were last night and this morning."

"At home!" they cry, practically in unison. "We were asleep," Maloney says. Kagoshima nods. "And when were you two last here?"

"Yesterday," Thomas says. "I left early, before lunch. But you . . . " He looks at Maloney.

"I closed at 6:00 p.m. I was the last person to leave."

"And when was it, precisely, that you left?"

"Quarter after. Maybe close to 6:30." Maloney brushes some sugar from his sleeve.

"We'll be finished in about an hour," Kagoshima says and makes as if to go back to the store. But suddenly Peter's standing there. "Has this kind of thing happened elsewhere in this neighborhood recently?" he asks so softly that it's almost a whisper. The others observe him, surprised.

Kagoshima: "And you are?"

"Peter Ohlsson, our apprentice," Thomas replies.

"Aha. No. Not as far as I know. But we'll investigate, of course." Kagoshima nods at length, and the others stare at his round face. Then Maloney straightens himself with a jerk: "But what's this all about? Why did they carve into our countertop?"

"It looks to me like what we call criminal mischief in the first degree. I can't say more than that at this time."

"What does it look like, the thing they carved?" Peter asks.

Kagoshima says, "It looks almost like . . . like a sun with four rays. Four lines radiating from a circle."

"A sun?" Annie mumbles.

"Something like that," Kagoshima says, stepping over the doorframe.

"What if it's a warning?" Peter says, horrified. "The symbol in the countertop?"

"Let's not go there," Annie says softly.

"The symbol in the countertop! It sounds like the title of some ridiculous B-film! Who the hell would warn us, and against what?" Maloney's agitated again. "A sun? That's ridiculous! I'm going home now to sleep. I can't deal with this anymore."

"We need to board up the windows when they're done. C'mon. Let's go have a beer." Thomas grabs Maloney's arm. Maloney snarls like a dog and tries to yank his arm free. Thomas gets Peter's attention. He says, "You can go home. You too, Annie. We'll call you later. Annie nods and retrieves her purse from the sidewalk. Peter lifts his hand in a sad farewell. Stooping, walking slowly, they head up the street. "Now let's go get a beer," Thomas repeats. "Once they're done we'll board it up. Okay?"

Maloney doesn't respond. But he goes willingly with Thomas, across the street and into the café, where they sit in their usual corner. Thomas orders two large draft beers. The café's owner wants to know everything about what happened. He gesticulates in disbelief, he shakes his head with regret, he points out the window, he talks up a storm about how unacceptable this is, such a nice-looking store, everything's getting worse and worse, he says, like in the old days, worse and worse, soon you won't even be able to trust your best friend. Still shaking his head, he finally returns to the bar, after having assured Thomas and Maloney more than once that everything's on the house today. Shortly after that they see Palvino calling on the neighboring businesses. And then it appears that the reinforcements arrive: two plain-clothes officers climb out of a green Mazda and shake Kagoshima's hand. Maloney and Thomas say almost nothing, apart from arguing about whether or not they should have a contractor board it up, or whether they should do it themselves and use some of the old boards they have in the back. Maloney absolutely doesn't want them to do it themselves. They agree to do it themselves. The café owner brings them whiskey and more beer. Maloney stares at the store and says, almost grief-stricken: "Now they're searching for blood in there. They're searching for blood in our store, Thomas." But Thomas is distracted and only half-listening. He texts Patricia several times. She doesn't respond. Peter, on the other hand, sends him a text: "I looked up the sun drawing. It's apparently the generic sign for currency, that is, for money." "The what?" Maloney says. "Tell him to knock it off!"


Late in the afternoon, Thomas bikes through the city with two striped towels flapping in a bag on the handlebar. To the west, the sky shines like mother-of-pearl: light-blue with rose-pink and thin bands of yellow. He crosses the bridge with its view of the turbid water far below, rides through the apartment subdivisions on the other side of the river—where the highway cuts through everything like another kind of river, noisy and bright. And after another twenty minutes he arrives at the small beach, six hundred feet of sand and tufted grass. The water is dead calm, and clusters of jellyfish lap helplessly against the shore. The temperature is dropping now. The salty air clings to his nostrils. A flock of black-headed gulls skim the surface of the water with powerful wing strokes. Sitting on the damp sand, Thomas sighs. Then he lies down and closes his eyes. He thinks about the vandalized store. About Maloney angrily hammering boards to the door. About the conversation with the insurance company. He thinks: She's not coming. Patricia's not coming. And all at once he sees a vivid image of his father and himself, naked and entwined, his father old and bony, he a smooth-bodied young man looping around his father's lean figure like a fat, greedy snake. Their genitals hang limply down their thighs: his father's small and curved, his own firm and vigorous. His father slides his hand through Thomas's hair, sniffing at his ear with pleasure, he puts his lips to Thomas's cheek, he presses his mouth to Thomas's skin in one long, parched kiss. They lie paired in the sand. There's sand everywhere. And the sand begins to rise. It rises, and it covers them, buries them, buries this two-headed body and tugs it earthward, the ancient man and the youngling, the sand crashes down upon them like a heavy darkness, and Thomas feels the light disappearing, his father's body growing cold and stiff as he clings to it, melting completely into it, as his mouth fills with crunchy sand that chokes him. He gasps and opens his eyes: There stands Patricia looking at him. She's blocking the sun. She's pulled a green beret down her forehead. Nothing friendly in her expression. They undress and wade, shivering, into the cool water. There's seaweed and the pungent stench of rot, an even layer of stones along the shore, but farther out the bottom grows sandy, the water clear. Patricia is the first to dive under, and she returns to the surface with her dark hair clinging to her back. The subdued underwater sounds do wonders for Thomas. The images of his father vanish, his panic subsides. He skims along the bottom, where shoals of small fish dart past him, and his weightlessness is so invigorating that his cock stiffens. This, a moment's freedom. He collects a large conch and puts it to Patricia's ear. For a few moments, she listens in silence. Then she takes it from him and throws it as far away as she can. He grips her waist and draws her close. She lets him, but she's limp, her arms slack. He clutches her hips. He feels her belly against his groin. He feels her breathing, feels her breasts squeezed flat against the upper ridge of his belly. Then she squirms free. Scowls at him. She plunges into the water and begins to swim out. He stays rooted in place. Farther up the coast, someone is beaching a rowboat. Orange buoys bob on the water, maybe they're traps. And just like that, in one swift and surprising moment, he's floating above this scene and indifferently observing himself. He's swaying in the air, staring at the crown of his head, registering his receding hairline, watching Patricia slice through the water. Then just as suddenly he's in his body again, and sound returns: the lapping of the water, the squawking seagulls. Patricia's far away now. He thinks about clouds, about fire, about tropical heat, about a swarm of tiny insects crawling in the grass at twilight. Now she turns and swims back to shore. When she redirects to continue along the coast, he swims along. They glide silently beside one another. But Patricia's a much better swimmer than he is, and she shoots through the water with perfect ease, always keeping several lengths ahead. They wrap themselves in their towels and sit for some time, while the sun sinks on the horizon. The sky glows blood-red, the water darkens, a wide, seductive gold road heading straight toward the setting sun. "Look," Thomas says, pointing east, "here comes the moon." He takes her hand. It's wan and wrinkly from the water. The small, pale half-moons of her fingernails stand out clearly. "I love you," he whispers. "Where were you last night?" She pulls her hand away. He wants to say more, but nothing comes to him. A light breeze brushes the grass. Behind them, a few older kids ride by on bicycles, with fishing poles and red plastic pails on their rear racks. The bikes clatter along the uneven path. Their voices are shrill and cheerful. Thomas gets to his feet and begins to dress. He shakes sand out of his socks and hikes his pants over his hips. Patricia buttons her jacket and pulls her beret onto her wet head. She climbs on her bike and rides off without a word.

"I'm as skinless as a jellyfish," he mumbles, once he's finally caught up to her and they're riding across the bridge. "I'm a mollusk. It's disgusting." "What?" Patricia barks angrily. The sharp wind soughs around them. "Nothing," Thomas roars. I want to cry, he thinks. I want to sink down in a well of tears, until the well is dry. I am an idiot. I am beautiful. I am nothing. If I aim high enough, I can do anything. I am as empty as a meaningless, automatic sobbing fit.

At home the cat is infuriatingly needy, rubbing nonstop against Patricia's legs. She snaps on the TV and throws herself onto the sofa. He makes sandwiches; she eats hers then slams the empty plate down unnecessarily hard on the glass table. He cleans up. She stands abruptly, goes into the bedroom, and changes her clothes. Then she leaves. When he hears the front door open, he rushes down the hallway, the dishrag in his hand. He catches a glimpse of her silvery shoes and the back of her coat as she disappears on the landing below. He calls after her, "Where are you going? Why are you leaving again? Say something, Patricia!" But she doesn't respond. He falls into the armchair. He can't breathe. He calls her, but she doesn't answer. Then Maloney calls and tells him that the police didn't find a single trace of DNA in the store. Nothing except a whole lot of hair (which they quickly dismissed), and of course Thomas's, Maloney's, Annie's, and Peter's fingerprints. They could tell that someone had sifted through the stacks of paper on the floor, but the perpetrator had worn medical booties or plastic bags on their feet. Thomas goes to the kitchen. Maloney's voice is so familiar that he's almost thankful. He grabs a beer from the fridge. He looks out the window. The city's sea of light radiates in the blue violet evening. "There's nothing left for them to do. There's no trace. The neighbors didn't hear a thing. The windows must have been smashed when everyone was asleep. Why the fuck wasn't anyone awake? There's always some idiot awake." Maloney continues, "Well, at least we can size up the damage and order new windowpanes. I've called the insurance company. And the glazier. He's coming tomorrow. Fuck," he says, "it was probably just some fucking kids with nothing better to do than smash other people's property."

"You think kids use gloves and wrap their feet in plastic bags when they're seized with a sudden urge to demolish a store?"

"I don't know jack shit about that," Maloney mumbles tiredly. "Shut up and go to bed. I'll see you tomorrow."

On the way back to the living room, as he swills a beer, the phone rings again. It's Jenny. Thomas regrets answering it. She talks nonstop about the coming weekend. What if she can't handle being up at Kristin and Helena's so long; what if there's not enough food—if they've become vegans; what if she has an allergic reaction to sleeping in the barn.

"Then just move your mattress inside the house," Thomas says.

"My mattress? How can I sleep on a mattress? With my back? I bet they have mice, too."

"Come on, they have cats."

"Maybe they're dead. We haven't been out there for years."

Thomas sighs. "Surely they've got new cats, Jenny."

"And what should I bring them as a hostess gift? Should they each get something, or how does that work?"

Jenny talks and talks, heated, hysterical; she chirrups until, at last, she's calm. She exhales, satisfied, and says good night in a voice practically oozing honey.

Thomas calls Patricia again, but this time it goes directly to voicemail. He sits at the computer and searches for generic currency sign. Sure enough, what he finds resembles a sun with four rays. "Popularly called a symbol for money," it reads. "The designator generic means, in this case, that it doesn't relate to a specific currency, but rather to money as a phenomenon." For Christ's sake. Despairingly, he stumbles into his cluttered bedroom and curls up under the sheets. A pronounced stench following the day's heat hangs in the air. But he can't bring himself to open the window. One of the blinds dangles crookedly. The cat claws at the door. But he doesn't get up to let it in. In the distance, a church bell tolls 11:00 p.m. He tries to think about Patricia, but doesn't have the energy, he can't deal with it. He dozes off thinking about the vandalized store. He thinks about the symbol carved into the countertop. It's obviously the money they want. His father's money. But who? He imagines a bunch of thugs, hired by Frank and Fatso. But could those two old fools really organize such a thing? He doubts it. He hasn't quite understood it until now, in all its horror, as if he'd hoped it was something else, something that didn't have anything to do with him at all. And maybe it is just a coincidence. Maybe there's no connection at all. But he's almost free of the money now. If the sale proceeds as planned. He wants to figure out how it's all connected, but he's too exhausted. His right leg twitches once, then he's asleep.

translated from the Danish by K.E. Semmel