Steven Rogers prided himself on his youthful appearance. At forty-five and with a head full of curly brown hair that he dyed regularly, the handsome theatre professor was still sometimes carded at the bars along with his graduate student girlfriend-a rare but flattering enough experience to which he actually looked forward, specifically, the patented double take from the doorman or waitress upon seeing the age on his driver’s license. Blessed in part with good genes, it was really his deep-seated sense of vanity that kept him looking so young-coupled with an unconscious desire to always be appealing to the opposite sex. Yes, Steven Rogers ran six miles five times a week; watched his fat and carb intake; still used the Bowflex that his ex-wife bought him for his fortieth birthday; and still lived whenever possible by the old adage his doting mother hammered into him as a child: “Early to bed, early to rise, Steven, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Healthy? Yes. Wealthy? He couldn’t really complain. But wise? Well, even Steve Rogers would have to agree that the jury was still out on that one.
Yes, Rogers had done a lot of dumb things in his forty-five years on this planet-the dumbest of all, perhaps, leaving those e-mails from Ali on his computer. It had been an honest mistake. He had to uninstall then reinstall his AOL software, forgot to change the “save mail to computer” setting, and his wife found everything a few months later. That was the worst part, Steve thought: The e-mails had been on there for months before Cathy happened to come across them.
Stupid stupid stupid.
No, Ali Daniels was not Steve Rogers’s first indiscretion during his twelve-year relationship with Cathy Hildebrant-his first student, yes, but not his first affair. There had been a handful of others of which his ex-wife was entirely unaware: a summer theatre actress here and there and a regular fling with an old girlfriend he ran into twice a year on the conference circuit. The latter had been going on since before both of them got married, so Rogers did not feel the slightest bit guilty about that one. Besides, she was the one with the kids.
In fact, Rogers was actually proud of himself for the degree to which he had remained “faithful” to Cathy Hildebrant over the course of their twelve-year relationship-for in his bachelor days he had been quite the satyr. Indeed, Steve Rogers always had a sneaking suspicion that if he had put as much effort into his acting career as he had into getting laid, he might have been the next Brando-or at least the next Burt Reynolds. He had often been compared to the latter in his youth-a comparison that he downright resented while at Yale; and later, one that he used to his advantage in his early thirties as a second-rate regional theatre actor.
Oh yes, Rogers was very, very vain. But more than his vanity, Rogers carried with him an unconscious yet subtle resentment for the hand that life had dealt him. True, on paper he had much to be proud of-after all, he was a graduate of the prestigious MFA in Acting Program at Yale University, and he was a tenured faculty member and the senior acting instructor in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance at Brown University. Nonetheless, Rogers secretly felt like something of a failure-felt that for some reason the deck had been stacked against him from the beginning. It really had nothing to do with his mediocre acting career. No, even before entering Yale at the age of twenty-two, Rogers had already begun to feel as if he was somewhat unappreciated by his constituents, as if nobody really understood the depth of his talent. But rather than grow into a sense of bitterness, Steve Rogers’s perception of his place in the world evolved over the years into a sense of entitlement, of being owed something-so much so that when he cheated on Cathy Hildebrant, he actually felt like he deserved some recreational pussy for giving in to the concept of marriage in the first place.
Yes, cheating was one thing-getting caught was another. It was as if for Rogers only an acknowledgment of the act itself by the betrayed could really define it as adultery-If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, yada yada yada.
And so, more than the hurt he had caused his ex-wife, more than the guilt of his failed marriage, Rogers would forever curse himself for being so stupid as to let fate get the best of him once again. Sure, Cathy could have screwed him; she could have really taken him for a bath if she had wanted to-so yeah, he had to concede his good fortune with regard to the painlessness of his divorce. However, Steve Rogers could not help but feel somewhat the victim-could not help but feel somewhat abandoned. When it came right down to it, Rogers hated to admit to himself that he wished Cathy had fought just a little bit harder, been just a little bit more aggressive and spiteful to him over the last four months-for that would have proven that he really had meant something to her.
Yes, as his career as a second-rate actor had taught him, the only thing worse than hate was indifference.
Ironically, it was with a certain amount of indifference that Rogers held Ali Daniels-that great piece of graduate student ass whose MySpace generation I-have-to-get-an-e-mail-from-you-every-day-now-that-we’ve-fucked neediness ruined his good thing with Cathy. True, Steve Rogers had loved Cathy Hildebrant as much as he could possibly love someone other than himself-probably still did, in a way. And true, he was self-aware enough to realize that he had been jealous of her at times-of her PhD, of the success of her book and, most recently, of the attention she had received as a consultant or whatever-the-fuck-she-was on that nutbag Michelangelo case. Nevertheless, Rogers understood that he would miss Cathy and the routine, the security, the practical convenience of the life they had carved out as a couple. If only he had heeded his working-class father’s advice like he did his mother’s; if only he had lived by that credo, perhaps none of this nonsense would have happened to begin with.
“Remember, Steven, you don’t shit where you eat.”
Looks like all that shit is blowing over now, anyway, Rogers said to himself, his feet pounding the pavement.
And so, despite his brief moment of weakness the week earlier, Rogers peacefully resigned himself to the fact that it was now time to move on for good-from both Cathy Hildebrant and the annoyingly needy, pseudo-intellectual Ali Daniels.
Now that she’s graduated, Steve thought, now that she’s got her fucking useless Masters it’ll be easier to just let it drop. Won’t say anything unless I have to-maybe tomorrow when she calls from her new digs in New York City. Or maybe I’ll break the news to her in an e-mail. Wouldn’t that be a little poetic justice?
Rogers checked his time and kicked his pace into high gear as he usually did during the last mile of his morning run. He was ahead of schedule-might even make it home before it was light. That was good. More than anything else-even more than sex-Steve Rogers loved that feeling of having finished his run before most people were even awake; of having a leg up on the day ahead of him-a leg up on all those fat lazy slobs who stayed up the night before watching Letterman. It was a feeling that helped to ease the unconscious but palpable resentment that fate had forced him to be an actor; moreover, that fate had forced him into the actor’s schedule, into those late hours at the theatre which sometimes prevented him from staying ahead of the game the next morning.
“Early to bed, early to rise, Steven, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
Rogers rounded the corner onto the street that would loop him back to Garden City Center -the outdoor shopping mall in Cranston to which he made a special seven-minute drive from his house five mornings a week, and where he always parked his BMW Z4 roadster by the big gazebo at its center. Rogers had been coming here for years; the uneven terrain and low traffic of the surrounding middle-class neighborhood was ideal for his strict running regimen. Yes, he was making incredible time today, would make it back to the big gazebo, would sit on the bench, and breathe the cool May air and drink his Gatorade before any of the other runners even arrived-perhaps even without having seen a single light flick on in the kitchens of the houses as he passed. It was Monday morning. The people in this neighborhood worked. And it gave Steve Rogers a great sense of satisfaction to know that he had already accomplished more in a little over an hour than they would all week.
Depending on what time he started, the last leg of Steve Rogers’s run had the potential to be the darkest-especially in the winter, when he would reach the poorly lighted loop around Whitewood Drive well before sunrise. On this particular morning, Steve had risen at 4:00 A.M., was on the pavement by 4:15, and thus hoofed it onto the heavily tree-lined street just as the sky was beginning to change color out of sight beyond a jagged curtain of oaks and pines. Now that the semester was over, now that he had made the decision to move on from both the women in his life, Rogers kicked off his first official summer as a bachelor right on schedule. He had honored his pact with himself that he would have to work extra hard to get himself back on the market for some younger pussy. Yeah, he was going to take his buddy back in Chicago’s advice: he was going to try the Internet dating scene; would make a profile and shave ten years off his age and play the field of late-twenty-to-early-thirty-somethings in Boston for a while. Yeah, better to play that game on the road than to damage his reputation on his home turf any further.
“Remember, Steven, you don’t shit where you eat.”
His heart pumping powerfully, his thoughts clear and precise, Steve Rogers was deep in the zone when he came upon the blue Toyota Camry. The car was parked between the streetlights, at the side of the road in the shadow of a large oak tree-just one of the many cars he had passed that morning. No, the avid runner and born-again bachelor did not even give the blue Toyota Camry a second glance as his Nike Air Max sneakers carried him into the shadows and straight into the arms of The Sculptor.
It all happened so fast-so fast that Steve Rogers barely had time to be afraid. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw movement, then the flash of a red dot. A man stepped out from the thicket, from behind the bushes next to the large oak tree.
Rogers felt a sharp pain in his shoulder-his trapezius muscle. He whirled around but kept running-backward-his hand instinctively reaching for the pain. His fingers found something, tugged, and pulled it free just as he entered the pool from the streetlight. Between his thumb and forefinger he saw a small yellow dart-about the size of a house key. He was about to cry for help when suddenly-
Another sting-this time in his neck, in his jugular-as if the big blue bug on top of the New England Pest Control building had suddenly swooped down from the dark and bitten him. Again Rogers reached for the pain-his fingers closing around the dart just as he saw the man coming for him-a man in a tight black T-shirt, a big bald man with funny goggles and a wide white-toothed smile.
And as the shadows and the light from the street lamp began to iris inward, as his fingers went numb and his knees began to buckle, Rogers thought of Mr. Clean-and that he needed to wash the bathroom floor and get rid of Ali’s blond hair before he brought any new women home.