The Knack

Bruce Johnson

I once had a friend who could tell you where you were from. This was a hell of a trick for social gatherings. She’d be in the corner, sipping something with gin in it, and I’d be beside her drinking beer. Inevitably someone would approach. This was Las Vegas, the best place for this trick, a city nearly no one was from.

Cheryl worked with me at a small PR firm that handled several clients on the Strip. Like most men in PR in Las Vegas, I was gay. I am still gay, obviously, though I say ‘was’ because I am no longer friends with Cheryl, no longer work at that tiny little firm. But back then I loved this trick of hers, to watch it rankle people. I spent all my time on the Strip, even lived there, in a small studio apartment on the fourteenth floor of the Cosmopolitan. I took most of my meals at buffets or trendy burger cafés, watching the yard-high margaritas go by in the arms of women who were all leg or men all muscle. As a rule, I preferred people in my life to be only passing through.

The people on the Strip enjoyed her talent the way you enjoy a magic trick, an enjoyment mixed with stubborn confusion and an annoyance that there are things in the world you do not understand. We would have these club openings or these red carpets or these media whatever-the-hells and people (mostly men) would approach and want to talk to her. This was their “in.” She was beautiful, I suppose, in the boring sort of way straight men seem drawn to. I was happy to observe this fray from the outside.

Is it true? they would say. Let’s see it.

Cheryl would sip up the last of her drink and hand them her empty glass. Get me another, she would say, then I’ll do it for you.

This was an essential part, she told me. She could only do the trick if she had a fresh drink nearby. She was somehow always right at the end of a drink.

When she got the new drink she’d remove the straw and take a long, thoughtful gulp. Cheryl was one for theatrics, and it was hard to see where the performance ended and the real knack began. She would usually shut her eyes. Then she’d put a finger to her temple, rubbing in small, circular motions. Or she’d fold her hands as if in silent prayer, or rock back and forth on a stool if she was sitting down. A pained expression would darken her face, a downward tilt to her features. I was the only one who knew this expression for what it was, an earnest effort not to smile.

Say something, she’d say. Let me hear you speak.

She’d listen intently as the men rattled off whatever came to mind. Usually empty details: their name, their position, the make and model of their car. Sometimes some cheesy line about how she looked that night.

Okay, she’d say, shut up. You’re from Kalamazoo.

Or: Poughkeepsie, New York. Hopkinton, Rhode Island. Chubbuck, Idaho. Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Sometimes she’d get angry. Chicago, are you kidding me? Give me a real challenge.

People had their theories, of course. Some thought it was an accent game, that she had an incredible ear for regional accents then just played the numbers. It wasn’t that she never got it wrong, after all, just rarely—sometimes she’d tell you that you were from a town you spent a lot of time in as a child, as if something essential from that place had rubbed off on you. Other people figured she spent time scouring the Internet, studying public records. It couldn’t be that hard to find this info if one really tried. Half of everyone had their hometown up on Facebook anyway. It wasn’t inconceivable that she found this information for people she was likely to run into at media functions.

Others thought it was a trick of psychology, that everyone somehow betrayed this info in the way they responded to her question. Like when you ask someone a math question: if they look up, they’re a visual learner. Sideways means aural, downward kinesthetic. Maybe if you say ‘Speak to me’ and someone scratches their eyelid, they’re from Poughkeepsie. If they pull their lower lip, Grand Forks.

I begged her to tell me how she did it. She never would.

Though fewer, there were women too who were interested in her gift. Most seemed to genuinely enjoy the trick, as an impressive talent that didn’t need to be put on trial. But there were occasional women who were more standoffish around Cheryl, as if they were only there to see what all the fuss was about. The beginnings of their questions were tentative, often needling: “So, you’re the one they say can.” Or, “I’ve heard you’ve got a good trick.” These women seemed to think there was something distasteful, even cheap in Cheryl’s knack, its invasiveness.

Once, near the end of Cheryl’s time in Vegas, an important man named Stilson Dodd asked Cheryl where he was from. Dodd owned one of the flagship steakhouses on the Strip. Cheryl and I were sitting on stools by the bar on the rooftop of a casino when he approached, celebrating a new lucrative concert space.

So, Dodd said. They say you can tell me where I’m from.

Cheryl nodded, and shut her eyes. She knew better than to ask Dodd to get her a drink. She told him to start talking, and Dodd began to describe the stools at the bar of his steakhouse. Hand-sewn Italian leather. Exotic wood.

That’s enough, Cheryl said, opening her eyes. You’re from New York, New York.

Dodd turned red. His nostrils flared. How dare you, he said.

He looked at me. You in on this? he asked. I held up my hands as if in surrender.

You listen to me, Dodd said to Cheryl, finger in her face. My mother was only there six months. New York was the worst time of her life, of both our lives. Just because I was born there doesn’t mean I am from there.

I think that’s exactly what that means, Cheryl said quietly. Or maybe you misunderstood your own question.

Mr. Dodd took the drink from Cheryl’s hand, the drink some man had gotten her, and threw it in her face. Then he handed me the glass and walked away. I looked over at Cheryl.

I didn’t know real life people threw drinks, she said, bewildered and dripping.

I handed her a cocktail napkin from the bar. Maybe it’s a New York thing, I said.

After that, Cheryl didn’t like to do her trick. She’d seen how the wrong bit of biography could unsettle someone, and decided it wasn’t worth the headache. She told me in a voice where I couldn’t tell if she was joking that that’s why she left where she was from, anyway: too many people with too many drinks, too many people who threw things.

So now people would come up and ask her and she’d say no no no, that’s someone else you’re thinking of. Or no no, I don’t do that anymore.

Some people would press, though, usually important people: prestigious chefs, owners of nightclubs, managers of departments or sometimes entire properties. People who loved to hear things about themselves. People who loved to make her do what they asked of her.

To these people Cheryl had little recourse. They were powerful, these people. Her job was PR, after all, which mostly meant building relationships, and snubbing them would be bad for business. So she’d say, reluctantly, Okay then: talk to me.

Something had changed, though, by then. Cheryl seemed incapable of her old knack, that simple geographical placement. But she had to say something, so she’d shut her eyes. There would be a moment where her face was perfectly calm, serene even, and she seemed not to know where she was. In these moments she’d speak in spite of herself.

You’re from a big empty house, quiet and deathlike—like a museum after closing time, or a long-abandoned tomb.

Or, You’re from a place that gets very cold at night, and you were always terrified to ask for another blanket.

You’re from that comment your father made once, the one about if you’d never been born.

You’re from the folders your father kept hidden in his desk drawer. You’re from the secret language you made with your sister, the one you only pretended to understand. You’re from all the places your mother never took you. You’re from San Jose, California, that summer your brother drowned.

Cheryl quickly became an industry pariah. Anger trumps amazement, and this new phase of her knack angered people. These events were often packed, the context for these revelations public. These were things people didn’t want to hear anywhere, especially not in front of friends and coworkers. That’s not funny was the most common response, by people convinced Cheryl was playing a cruel trick. It was clear that the most she could hope for in Vegas was to tread water. She wasn’t long for the world of the Strip, the world of PR.

The man who had started the trouble, the Not New Yorker Stilson Dodd, took me aside at another rooftop party one evening. One of our clients, The Cupcake Factory, had provided cupcakes for the gathering. Dodd said he saw great things for me, or at least good things, if I knew how to associate with the right people. Before we rejoined the others, we shook hands in that businesslike way, the way where you try to match the other’s firmness, a perfect pitch of pressure. Cheryl was waiting in a corner, alone. Someone had asked me earlier how I knew her and I told them the truth: I didn’t remember. For the life of me, I could not remember meeting her or ever deciding to be her friend. We worked at the same PR firm, so I guess that was that. And I was amused by her little trick. Being from Las Vegas myself, I was always interested to see where others flocked from.

She glared at me, when I joined her in the corner. She’d seen me talking to Dodd. She was on an action plan by then, to correct her subsatisfactory performance at the firm. She’d made too many enemies, when her job was to make friends. Within a few weeks, she’d be gone.

I asked why she was glaring at me like that. Why she couldn’t keep her eyes smiling, her words kind. There was a drink in my hand all of a sudden, and I began to take sensibly sized sips. When she didn’t answer, I asked her if she remembered how we had met, or why we had become friends. I told her I could not remember. She shook her head.

Then I asked her where I was from. I knew I had probably mentioned at some point I was from Vegas, but I wanted a more nuanced answer, like the answers she’d been giving lately. She shut her eyes and her features went smooth. How unsettling it must be, I thought, to find your best moments of calm in thinking about other people. She told me to start talking. I told her about the shirt I was wearing, and started to count the buttons.

I want to say you’re from nowhere, she said, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more like you’re from everywhere, all at once. You’re from the high heels your mother had, the back of her calves. All the people who ever smiled at you, just because. Your father’s cufflinks, the way he never wore them but still periodically took them in to be shined. The princess movies you loved as a child. The girlie mags you hid beneath your mattress, in case anyone ever checked. The way whenever anyone asked your mother she said “Catholic,” though you never once saw her go to mass. And the time you skipped school to see how far you could walk in one direction before someone came and found you, then called home from a payphone when no one ever did.

She said it was hard to explain, but it was like everything in me added up to zero. The way atoms seem solid to the touch when they’re mostly just empty space, particles held to loose orbit by contrary charge. She said that appearance of being solid was why I was destined for above-average things.

I nodded, still sipping. And you? I asked. Where are you from?

I said it because it seemed like the thing to say. I don’t remember her response.

On the way out, I helped her carry the leftover cupcakes to her car. We placed them in the back seat. They would be a gift for the breakroom, for all the worker bees. But instead she forgot them in her car overnight, and in the morning when she got outside the Vegas heat had melted them all together, a mound of frosted mush. She put it in the breakroom as a joke. The people there ate it with spoons.

from Issue 30.1


BRUCE JOHNSON is a PhD candidate in the University of Southern California Creative Writing & Literature program, and holds an MFA in Fiction from University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His work has appeared in Joyland, The Cincinnati Review MiCRO Series, Midwestern Gothic, The Los Angeles Review, The Able Muse, and other journals. He lives with his wife and two cats in Quito, Ecuador, where he is working on his dissertation. For more information and a full list of his publications, visit brucejohnsonfiction.wordpress.com.

One thought on “The Knack

Comments are closed.