Small Talk

Fiction by Lance Dyzak

“You look good,” I said, “took care of yourself, seems like.” I meant it, too. There was a feeling of correctness, like finding the thread on a mason jar.


I went to Las Vegas with Bill and Tracy for a few days. I’d run into them in Carson City. They were on a roll, and Bill liked to share the wealth. I wasn’t crazy about following them to Vegas because I knew that their run would quit eventually, and the trick with Bill was knowing when to bail.But I had a little money left, which a little I swear is the worst kind, and I thought I could get Bill to let me stay with them pro bono. Except I couldn’t get him to say it, and with Bill he has to say it. We ended up staying at the La Concha Motel, which is gone now. The lobby was formed into the shape of an enormous seashell. The arches must have been a hundred feet above the floor. I ran out of money on the second day, the last of it to this asshole of a dealer who wouldn’t look me in the eye.

The next morning I went out to the pool and lay on the concrete. The sun had only just peaked over the jagged black wall of the mountains in the distance. It was October, and the mornings were cold. The slanted rays made everything a bit strange. The pool looked like it could have been the scene of a drowning accident, or maybe just after the accident, when the crowd has been cleared. I listened to the steady murmuring of the pumps.

Bill came out to find me before they left for the casino, and I told him I was too sick for gambling. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. When they were gone I went into the room and fished my wallet from my front pocket. I had a MasterCard with a thousand dollar limit on it, and I thought I might get some money that way. I called the number on the back, but it was no good.

I hadn’t made a payment on the balance in months. The woman on the other end sounded concerned. She tried to keep me on the line. “Sir,” she was saying. “Sir, please.” I hung up on her. It made me depressed and anxious. That’s when I thought about Jill.

About two years ago, a letter from Jill somehow found its way to my P.O. Box in Reno. She’d been discharged from the Navy and had moved to Las Vegas. She said to look her up if I were ever around. I found the phonebook on the little hotel room desk and peeled it open. Her name wasn’t listed, but I knew from her letter that she worked as an assistant in a dentist’s office. It took me three tries to find her which I thought was pretty lucky. The receptionist put me on hold and there was an old love song playing that had violins in it. The sound was tinny and distant. It took a minute or two before Jill came to the phone, and I guessed that she must have been busy scraping someone’s teeth with that hook they use. The thought of it made me wince. At last there was a click, and before she could talk I said, “Jill, it’s Dennis. From a long time ago?”

I’d met Jill at a party maybe ten years before, in this little town called Laplace just outside of New Orleans. I was working third shift at a factory that made windows. In those days, everything was still green and rooted to the soil. Jill was a friend of this guy Nick that I knew, and she had dark eyes that were downturned and serious. When Nick noticed me looking at her he leaned in close and said, “I’d fuck those eyes.” That was who Nick was.

Jill was sitting on a metal chair near the end of the sofa where the coats had been piled. She kept her back straight with one leg tucked under the chair, cupped her elbows with her hands and seemed intent on a point right between her knees. Everyone else was standing. I went over to her. I was drunk and said something awkward that I no longer remember. Jill made a humming sound as if to consider me, and I realized I was gesturing with my hands. She said something like, I promise it will be okay if you keep still.

I stayed with her that night and every day after for two months. Jill worked nights as a waitress at the Copper Kettle, so there were whole afternoons lying in the grass at a park that had been forgotten by everyone else. We spent that summer together like children, self-indulgent and unaware. We said things like, I don’t care about anything except you. And during that time we were so saturated with our idea that it was easy to ignore that she had to leave. She’d joined the Navy to get herself clean. But we were at that age when everything is not doomed from the beginning.

The night before she left there was an ice storm. I drove through it to see her, twenty miles straight from work. Her apartment was on the main street through the downtown area of Laplace. Just a couple of rooms on the second floor above the Copper Kettle. The storm had knocked the power out, and Jill had lit a few candles by the window that looked over the street. We watched the branches and the telephone wires grow heavy with ice in the moonlight, then fell asleep together on her bed. I left her apartment without waking her; just a couple of hours before she had to go. I’m always doing that—getting up close to the end. World famous for it.

We wrote letters afterward, because it was tough to get her on the phone. After I got fired from the glass factory, I sort of figured what’s the point. By that time, I had a couple of habits— booze mostly, and pills when I could get them, and I lost track of things quickly. She wrote me several letters in a row to which I didn’t respond. Then she stopped, too.

Jill got someone to cover the rest of her shift and picked me up around noon in a little blue Toyota. I walked around the front of the car and got in. She kept it in neutral, her foot on the brake. There was a smell like old motor oil and ash-trays that made me think of my father’s car when I was a kid. Jill had aged. I don’t know why this should have been a shock to me, but it was. The color of her hair had washed out like weathered cedar, and she had the little wrinkles around her mouth from smoking cigarettes. She didn’t look at me, just stared at the center of the steering wheel and tapped with her fingers. I began fumbling with the seatbelt.

“You have to say something, Dennis,” she said finally. Then she turned her head, and I saw that her eyes were still young, weighted with that same sadness that I remembered. I was caught for a moment.

“Right,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I found the seatbelt and fastened it.

“Just stop for a second, will you?” she said. Her voice was playful in a way that I hadn’t expected. “Quit fidgeting and let me look at you.” I knew that I looked like shit. Jill reached out her hand and swept my hair across my forehead. I was embarrassed and closed my eyes.

“You’re still there, Dennis, don’t worry,” she said. “I know a place that’s quiet.”

“I’m broke,” I said flatly. Jill put the car into gear and we moved out of the parking lot, past the concrete arches.

“I figured as much,” she said.

I looked into the lobby of the hotel as we passed and held in my breath. When I exhaled it made a little humming noise.

We pulled into a little bar off the strip where it was just locals. I could tell by the looks they were giving me that everybody knew I was from out of town. It was good to be with Jill there; I knew that she would take care of me. She went to order the beer, and I walked to the far end and leaned against the pool table. Jill came back with a pitcher and made a second trip for the glasses. She knew I didn’t want to deal with anyone but her. We sat down at a table in the corner where the light was low, and when we finished the pitcher Jill ordered another. I was careful not to fill my glass before hers. Our conversation was timid at first. We didn’t bother with where we’d been.

“Listen,” she said finally, “we can’t stay here all day. But you’re right here aren’t you, and I don’t want you to go away just yet. I must be drunk.”

“We’ll go to your place,” I said, “and we can act like we’re twenty again. Catch up on the mischief.” I tried to sound cheerful. I didn’t want to go back to the hotel room. She was looking down into her beer, studying the tea leaves I guess. She shook her head.

“I can’t take you to my place. Not like this,” she said. “But someplace else.” I said, “I’m all yours.”

We got onto the highway, through the mountains to the southeast, and headed into the desert. After twenty minutes the road became perfectly straight, and Jill kept the wheel with just the tips of two fingers. I have always had a kinship with desert highways. Those which knife through indignant landscapes, where no life is permitted unless it begs. Jill had the cruise set to ninety. The shell of the car had a shimmy to it that made the stick-shift rattle, but I knew there was no stopping us. I loved her for that. She downshifted suddenly, and the engine whined. There was an intersection ahead, like a turnaround for cops. Jill turned onto it and crossed over the median strip. I looked over to her and she smiled into the rearview mirror.

“Relax,” she said, “we’re almost there.”

There was an asphalt lane that ended twenty yards past the edge of the highway, and then we were on a dirt road that snaked between the tufts of sagebrush. We drove until the highway was out of sight. There was a bend in the road where it went back toward the north, and Jill pulled off to the side.

“This is it,” she said, and pointed. “Just over that rise.” She got out of the car and closed the door, and I watched her walk away for a while. When I opened my door, I could hear the hard-packed desert soil crunching under the weight of her feet. She was still wearing her hospital scrubs and the sort of white tennis shoes that medical assistants wear. It was the strangeness of the scene that did it. Somehow the whole thing fit, and I thought how long I could watch her walk in the desert toward the mountains. I chased after her. I sprinted on my toes, but I had that desert-sensation of not making any progress. I kept my eyes on Jill. The ground in front of me started up gradually, and I saw Jill turn suddenly and drop out of sight. Like she’d fallen through a trap door. When I reached where she was I nearly ran off the edge.

Below me, in a steep-walled depression, was a green lake. It was kidney-shaped and maybe the size of a football field. The edges were crusted white with salt and the sun glinted off of the ripples made by the wind. I was breathing heavily and sweat got in my eyes. I took in huge gulps of air and felt my lungs stretch against my ribs. Jill was almost all the way down when I turned and put my feet over. As I clambered down some of the stones became loose. The muting chinking as they rolled over each other sounded like laughter. I became covered in fine red dust.

When I met Jill at the shore she’d taken off her shoes, and I watched her as she crept over the salt-covered ground with her bare feet. She’d rolled up the cuffs of her medical scrubs.

I said, “So this is your thing?” But she ignored me and kept looking down at her feet. “This lake, your lake? So this is something you do?”

“I bring all my old boyfriends here,” she said.

I must have looked sad to her, because then she said, “Not really. I meet friends out here sometimes, that’s all.”

There was a flat, dark stone nearby me, and I picked it up. I threw it sidearm toward the green water, trying to skip it over the surface. It was something I used to do when I was younger, but I didn’t have the feel for it anymore. It came out of my hand at the wrong angle and splashed awkwardly. Jill moved away from the salt banks and lay down in the sand where it was warm. I walked over to her. She had her hands threaded behind her head and her eyes closed against the sun.

“This is perfect,” I said. “Exactly what I needed. How did you know?”

“Lucky guess,” she said.

I lay next to her and listened to the wind rush over the water. “What’s next?” I said, “I go drown myself in that lake?”

“No,” she said. “We’ll just stay here for a while where there’s nobody else. Until the sun gets too hot.”

“Like we used to,” I said.

“Then we’ll go to my apartment,” she said, “if you want.”

To be where it seemed we should not be was satisfying. To wonder at how all of the events in my life had brought me to this place. It gave me a feeling of control over everything that seemed so inevitable. I had begun this chain of events, this bubble of opportunity. Jill had led me, but I wasn’t following her like I’d followed Bill. This was an exploration not born of necessity. It was an effort to see what existed past the borders. We lay in the sand, and I felt the sun wring the sweat out of me. I was reluctant to leave, but I had an odd sense that it would be ruined if we stayed too long.

“Let’s go now,” I said, “while we still want to stay.”



Jill lived in one of those themed apartment complexes called The Sahara Oasis. There were about ten buildings with palm trees etched into the stucco walls and the windows arranged in a haphazard way to look like ruins. Hers was all the way in the back, along the property line, and I saw that they were building something similar next door. There were plastic sheets nailed up against the bare stud walls, and I could hear them flapping in the wind.

Jill gathered her purse. “You should know that I have roommates,” she said. “Eddie and Rosemarie.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just glad to get out of that hotel room. I really appreciate you doing this.” Jill blinked her eyes. I said, “I mean I was pretty fucking down, you know?”

“I have some whiskey,” she said. “Try not to make too much small talk, and we’ll just go down to the pool for a while.” She had developed a deadpan delivery. I tried to laugh.

When we got to her door she fumbled with the keys and dropped them on the floor. There was some shuffling coming from inside the apartment, and then the lock snapped and the door opened. A man stood in the opening. He was older than Jill, maybe in his early forties, tanned and slim in a way that suggested vitamin supplements.

“Hey Eddie, thanks,” Jill said, and stooped to get her keys. “This is Dennis.” I nodded as Eddie looked me over. He moved his upper lip over his teeth and turned back to the apartment.

“Rosemarie went out for cigarettes,” he said, “but she should be back any minute.” “We’re just going out to the pool,” Jill said. “Can Dennis use a pair of your trunks?”

Eddie hesitated for a moment, crossed his arms.

“Sure,” he said, and disappeared around the corner of the kitchen. Jill went to the cabinet under the sink and pulled out a plastic grocery bag. She handed it to me.

“In the cabinet above the stove,” she said, and went into the living room where there was a futon against the far wall. She pulled a duffel bag out from underneath it. “I’m just going to change.”

I said, “Jill—” But she left me, and then Eddie appeared with the trunks. They were some sort of ridiculous pattern.

“These work?” he asked, and tossed them to me. Eddie was making me nervous. I had found something during the hours with Jill. But this was Eddie’s kitchen.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, “Jill told me to take the whiskey.”

“Yeah, go ahead.” he said, and waved his hands. “Drink up. I ain’t stopping you.” He leaned back up against the kitchen counter. I found a bottle of Black Velvet. “So you two?”

“Yeah,” I said, “we two.”

Jill came out wrapped in a towel and her hair up in a neat little knot. I smiled dumbly at her. Here was something familiar in all of the strange angles of that kitchen. I had a violent urge to hold her then. She seemed embarrassed.

“I’ll be by the pool with this,” she said, and grabbed the bottle from me. I changed out of my clothes in the bathroom, and I winced when I saw myself naked in the mirror. I’d forgotten how bad I looked. I wasn’t eating. I tried to remember when I’d eaten.

I went out of the apartment quickly to avoid Eddie, who was out of sight. It had gotten dark. The pool was a few buildings over, in the main courtyard where they had a couple of palm trees planted in the manicured gravel. I could hear them rustling. The pool was standard issue, surrounded by a black metal fence. Jill was in the hot tub with her arms resting along the rim. She had her head tilted back. I was a little worried about how I looked, but she didn’t say anything when I went through the gate. The jets were on so I couldn’t see Jill’s body. I slid in next to her and groaned a little from the heat. There were strands of her hair that curled away from the small of her neck. The fineness of her hair that I remembered. Running my fingers through it and cradling her.

“You look good,” I said, “took care of yourself, seems like.” I meant it, too. There was a feeling of correctness, like finding the thread on a mason jar. I found the whiskey.

“Dennis, you’re fooling yourself,” she said, and turned to grab the pack of cigarettes that she’d balanced on the edge. She held them up for me and made a face.

“I don’t care about that,” I said. “Everyone’s got something. You look good to me. You feel good to me. I was feeling so shitty, and then I knew to call you somehow.”

The jets quit; they must have been on a timer. I looked down at my hands under the water, backlit from the lamps. They looked so clean, like they’d just been removed from the packaging. I moved them over so Jill could see and splayed my fingers.

“See?” I said. “They’re like brand new.” Then Jill laughed like she used to. She reached for her cigarettes. I took another drink and felt the familiar pace.

“You sound like such an asshole, Dennis,” she said. “Did I ever tell you that?”

“No,” I said, “not till just now.”

She said, “I’m worried about you.”

“I love it here with you right now,” I said. “You understand.”

Beyond the black metal fence surrounding the pool there was a children’s area with a jungle gym. One of those impermanent plastic things with a slide and a bridge and a set of monkey bars. I could feel myself getting overheated in the water.

“Let’s drink the rest of this in that thing over there,” I said. She looked over her shoulder. “C’mon, we’ll dry off and climb up there. I want to talk some more. I mean, if we’re going to keep talking, it shouldn’t be in this tub. This fucking cauldron. I’m sweating too much anyway.” Jill took a long drag from her cigarette. I said, “Don’t you want to talk some more?”

Jill didn’t say anything, so I hoisted myself to the rim and went for the towels. “C’mon,” I said, “I’m feeling nice and drunk, aren’t you? This will be fun. Get us out of the rut.”

There was just the light from the pool. That eerie green phosphorescent light that makes you think of things that are gone. I let her walk ahead of me so that I could watch. The concrete pavement was still warm and her feet left wet little smudges. I walked in between because I didn’t want to ruin them. She opened the gate and it made a loud squawking noise. A light ticked on from one of the windows above us. Jill turned and looked at me.

“I don’t want people to watch us doing this,” she said. “I have to live here.” At the landing before the slide there was an enclosure.

“C’mon,” I said, “we’ll go up into that thing.” I pointed, and by her expression I thought maybe she was trying not to smile.

“We’ll never fit,” she said.

“You’ll fit,” I said, “and I’ll sit outside. The neighbors will think I’m talking to myself. They’ll think I’m crazy and that maybe I have a thing for kiddie toys. There’ll be a huge scandal, but it won’t matter because I don’t have to live here.” She laughed that laugh again, and it made me so happy.

Jill climbed up the ladder, I gave her the bottle and followed. There was a short plank bridge maybe six feet off the ground, and we crossed over it. Jill went down onto her haunches and peered inside the enclosure.

“Go ahead, just do it,” I said.

“Just don’t push me,” she said. “This is your idea.”

“Right, okay,” I said, and I patted her on the leg. Then she went in and I squatted down in front of her. I watched her become situated, her careful way. She sat cross-legged, like young people do, framed by the opening which was rounded like an igloo. And then there she was, that strange carriage, that way about her. I had to stifle a laugh from the excitement of it. I tried to mimic her.

“Don’t make fun of me,” she said, and handed me the whiskey. I drank it down. “I want to believe that it wasn’t a mistake to bring you here,” she said. That deadpan delivery again.

“Listen,” I said, “you’re the only one that I can tell my problems to. You know that, right?” Jill drank from the bottle and stared at her lap. “My life has zeroed out. I’m not taking care of myself. I’ve pissed everything away, including you.”

“Dennis, this was all so long ago,” she said. “I’m just worried that you’ll be okay.”

I said, “Can’t we just forget all of the in between? I fucked everything up, but I want to fix it.”

She leaned toward me, came out of the opening on her hands and knees so that I had to slide back. She was breathing heavily, and then she kissed me. How had I forgotten how good she was? I was certain that I’d found her again in that moment, felt her skin with my hands. Then she pulled away from me, and I saw those eyes. I saw in them what I needed.

“I think we should go back,” I said. “We should just go back, as soon as we can. And fix this. Right? Let’s go back to Laplace. I can get a job, and we could find a place.”

She stood up. She was so close I could see the stubble on her legs. I could see the hairs sticking out of the edge of her suit.


I woke up the next morning on the futon in the living room. Eddie was drinking coffee at the kitchen table with an older woman in a pink robe. When he noticed me stirring he said, “Hey, it’s Mr. Everything. Say good morning, Rosemarie.”

“Where’s Jill,” I said.

“You two had quite a little party last night,” he said. “I found her face first in the toilet. You landed just fine though.”

“Where is she now,” I said.

“I heard you two are taking a little trip,” he said. “You want some coffee?”

“What is this?” I said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Nobody’s saying you were wrong,” he said. “Not anymore. We’re done with her, so she’s yours.” Jill came out then.

“We should go,” she said.

Eddie cleared his throat. “Go fuck yourself, Jill,” he said, and Rosemarie got up to pour another cup of coffee.

Jill drove me back to the hotel so that I could pick up my things. She told me Eddie and Rosemarie were just friends. That they had helped her. She’d had a habit and a string of men. “Don’t worry about them,” I told her, and she nodded. “They don’t know us.”

We turned west on a street called Flamingo Road that was lined with discount stores and gas stations. In the early morning sun the shadows from the street lamps and telephone poles stretched long over the pavement. We got caught at a red light behind a line of cars. The stop-lights in Vegas last like nowhere else. I looked out my window and saw there was a funeral parlor. It was in a strip mall type of a building with a façade that was meant to look like big cement blocks. There was a hearse parked in front of the doors, and the pall-bearers were receiving instructions from the director, but no one was paying attention. One guy was wearing dark blue-jeans and cowboy boots and kept nudging the guy next to him with his elbow. Small talk at a funeral is the hardest kind there is. I looked over at Jill and gave her a smile like we were in this together, but she kept her head fixed.

She pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, and I told her to wait in the car. When I got back to the room I found the door cracked open, and I could hear that Bill and Tracy were having sex. I went in anyway. They didn’t hear me. I crept up to the corner of the foyer that led into the bedroom and watched them. Bill was laying into her on the far bed. I could tell that he was stoned by the way he had his head cocked. He liked to get high on benzos when he could afford them, which meant that they’d probably hit it big on the slots. I never understood how they could fill those fucking slot machines all day.

Bill had her legs up. Tracy was so gone that she wasn’t even looking at him; she just looked up at the ceiling, brushed at her face with the back of her hands. Bill didn’t seem to mind. Just kept pumping. She could have been a ham sandwich. She was made of ham sandwiches.

“Hey,” I said finally. I was impatient. “What the fuck are you guys doing?”

Bill looked over, still pumping. Tracy kept pawing at her face, kept rubbing over her nose.

“Listen,” I said. “I just need to grab a couple things.” I walked over to him. To them. “Hey, fuckface,” I said. I took my index finger and aimed it at Bill’s torso. I was close enough to touch him. I stuck my finger just below his armpit and held it there. “I can’t pay you for the room, Bill, I’m broke.” His lights were off. Tracy began to hum a single note.

“I’m leaving with a girl,” I said. “Her name is Jill.” It felt good to say it, and once I got started it was like I needed to get it all out.

“We’re going back to the beginning and fixing it,” I said. “She knows me. She understands me.” I was looking at Bill as I spoke. “She’s missed me.” Looking at the profile of his face, silhouetted against the light coming in from the window. “She was worried, and now she’ll make sure I end up alright.” His skin had a dull, unnatural sheen. He looked brittle. As if pieces of him might fall away. I laughed at him. “You know like I do, Bill. You got to have someone.” As I said this, Bill finished with a little shudder. Tracy rolled over onto her side. I could hear Bill breathing. Bill, who was no one. A flat, dark stone. He turned to me.

“You ain’t broke, Dennis,” he said. “You’re just Dennis.” I saw that some light had come back into him. He was there and not there. The look of him filled me with fear and doubt. Then he laughed, too. It was an embarrassed sort of laughter like after a prank that’s gone too far. Then Bill flopped down on the bed. I stood over them. I looked at Tracy. There was a long horizontal scar just below her navel. The skin was distended and shiny, and it looked as if she’d been welded together.

“You don’t know me, Bill,” I said. But the words were weak, and there was a falseness in them. There was a sense of solid ground giving way. I began to think that maybe Jill was right. She’d tried to tell me. I was fooling myself. I went into the bathroom to get my things. I tried not to look in the mirror, but couldn’t help it. There was a gash over my temple. I felt over the contours. My shirt was unbuttoned, and I could see again how bad my body was. It needed to be rehabilitated.

When I went back out, Jill’s car was gone. I had taken too much time. I didn’t even leave the lobby because I could see through the glass without opening the door. I never saw her again. I thought about Jill and wondered if she was in on the joke.

I went back into the room. Bill and Tracy were naked and breathing together on the bed. Bill’s hair was mussed in a way that made him look younger. He had left his stash of benzos on top of the television like an asshole. I took my shirt off and saw that I was still wearing Eddie’s trunks. My skin was damp, tacky like a fresh coat of paint. I took a shower, watched the water carry the dust into the drain, and made up my mind to steal all of Bill’s shit. I found his wallet stuffed inside one of his leather boots. There was about three hundred dollars, and as I put on his jeans I felt the car keys in his pocket. Then I thought fuck it and swapped out his shirt for mine. It felt good to be clean. I went around to Bill and knelt down in front of him.

“I’m sorry, Bill,” I said, and I tried to think of what else I could say. I wanted to go on. I wanted there to be more. I took the phone from the nightstand. The line was long enough to reach into the bathroom, so I carried it in there with me. Tracy’s cigarettes were next to the sink with the lighter tucked into the cellophane. I took them and went over to the toilet and sat down on the lid. I put the phone down between my feet and lit one.

The first two numbers I called I got the answering machine. But on the third try someone picked up. It was a man. I could tell by the way he cleared his throat.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” I said, “this is Dennis.”

He said, “Who is this?”

I said, “Dennis.”

He hung up on me, but I got a kick out of it. Bill and Tracy would be out cold until Easter, so I kept calling more people. Every time someone picked up it was that same thing, who is this? I kept calling until it quit being funny. The last time it was a woman who told me the Lord provides for those in need. I said hold on, and I took the phone back into the bedroom. I set it down between Bill and Tracy and put the receiver next to Bill’s ear. Then I left them to sleep the last happy sleep they would have for a long time. It wasn’t until I was back on the highway, flying west in Bill’s rusted out Mustang, that I thought about how she couldn’t possibly have known the Lord.

Lance Dyzak is from Milwaukee, WI and currently lives in Knoxville, TN with his wife, Megan. He is working on his first novel as a PhD student in fiction at the University of Tennessee, and his work has previously appeared at Per Contra and Shepherd Express.