Photography by Su Red.
Source: Flash Fiction by Timothy Gager
Photography by Su Red.
Source: Flash Fiction by Timothy Gager
Here it is – lucky #13 with Timothy Gager! Tim comes on the show and we discuss a myriad of topics in seemingly short time. The Carpenters, child stars, old TV, classic rock, The Who, self-publishing, self-promotion, the dawn of e-books – just a slew of interesting stuff. Listen below or right click the pic to download and save for later (“Save link as…”).
Half of this campaign will to to charity! http://www.timothygager.blogspot.com/2014/07/trying-not-to-be-hypocrite-in-asking.html
Reblogged from Citron Review, my poem, Nearsightedness
as strong winds lift
off the ground,
you barely notice
what races beneath me—
when you rode me
wept at completion,
propelled yourself an arrow
toward me, such force
I thought for a split second
you made a point that
impaled my cornea
my vision weakened suddenly
as dust kicking up like thick smoke
the gust can’t diffuse,
only makes it denser.
Timothy Gager is the author of ten books of short fiction and poetry. His latest The Shutting Door (Ibbetson Street Press, 2014) was nominated for The Massachusetts Book Award. He has hosted the successful Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts every month for the past thirteen years and is the co-founder of Somerville News Writers Festival. His fiction and poetry has been published over 300 times since 2007 and of which nine have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has been…
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Why is it C.D.’s most gritty: My most gritty story is about cocaine addiction.
Sinvergüenza by C.D. Collins
A coke head and a junkie are two different things. With junk you hit up and just drop out. You feel very benevolent, but all you can do is sit there trembling and nauseated. Your eyes slam shut. With cocaine you are fascinated by your own mind, you feel smart and interesting and full of energy. Your life is suddenly ideal. Then the high is tainted by the craving for more, and you rev and rev till you climb the walls. I do coke but I’m not in the gutter, you understand. I’m a worker. During the week, I save all my money past rent and food, for my Friday night date with the snowman.
Both my jobs are seasonal. Factory work in the summers; winters, I cook. Right now I’m at the Delmonte plant, in Stockton Californina. Peaches. Tomatoes. The factory houses three levels under one rippled tin roof. From the outside, its just a square concrete building about the size of a city block with two stacks on both sides pouring out steam round the clock. My building is the actual canning plant, the floors are concrete with colored stripes leading to different departments. No walls inside, just sections for each job and layers of people working the lines.
When I applied for the job, I expected a lot of fancy incomprehensible machines. But everything was simple, primitive, even, like something a tinkering kid might figure out for a science project.
I work with hoses three inches around and a steam gun that melts people inside their banana suits. The bosses didn’t think a female could do this job, especially not one five feet even and weighing it at l0l.
“Half-pint female like you, I don’t know,” the big boss said, sizing me up and down. He looked to be an old fullback gone to seed. He shrugged his shoulders what the hell.
First few weeks I admit I was strictly faking it. Even now it isn’t easy. The sweat pours from beginning to end of my shift with me holding to my limit doing double time. I’ve picked up five pounds and dropped an inch in pant size. I’m solid.
You wouldn’t believe how much Freestone peach crud can accumulate on a vat in a matter of minutes. Clean up crew works on adrenaline. We’re everywhere at once, doing things no one else will do. I do things even clean-up crew shuns, jumping out on ledges that are covered with peach slime and swinging down to get at the backs of the vats. If I go into work too tired to face it, I toot a few lines and cover the whole factory. I read the Peruvian Indians chewed cocoa leaves when they were traveling for days. I imagine myself an Indian scaling mountains and high-tailing it across the desert while I shovel hard down among the flumes.
I spend a lot of my time on the catwalks doing the high-risk hopping around.
“Hey, monkey,” the foreman, Fred, calls to me. “Watch your step.” This other guy, Paulie, looks up with all concerned. This Paulie has a special interest in my not breaking my neck because he has a jones for my ass. I can’t take him seriously, though, because of his duck tail which shows out from underneath his hard hat.
If I said the factory was primitive, I did not mean it wasn’t beautiful. The tomatoes run the chutes like churning rubies. The peaches come bunching down like fragrant, overripe flowers. And for all the sweat and sloppiness of the job, the result is precision: long white belts with perfect peach halves, tins in moving in procession after being stamp-sealed, bathed and twirled into their labels.
The factory itself is cruel to the body. Sorters stand on metal or concrete, shifting back and forth. One woman got her arm hung at the end of the belt and was wedged there with her bones breaking because the foreman had refused to tell the line workers where the on-off switch was. I figure if I can keep moving, I’ll avoid the pain.
The accidents are the prettiest part, like when the tanks overflow and peach or strawberry chiffon poofs out. The factory produces six million gallons of water a day. One day a pipe burst and couldn’t be fixed until the entire factory floor was half a foot deep. While the afternoon shift left, I lay on the catwalk and watched the white boots doubled by the water filing out. The whole factory reflected up like the ocean casting back a monstrous, machine-age sky.
When I was little, my father was stationed at a base in Spain. He took my brother and me to bullfights on Saturday. To me, they weren’t cruel. For me the blood running down was just brightness, like the colored banners on the banderillas and the matador’s suit of lights. At twenty-five I still fantasize being a matador. I wear a pink brocade suit, skin-tight. I never flinch.
Today is Friday and I’m feeling good. I’ve got everything planned. I wedge the steam gun into a safe place to keep it from snaking all over the factory spewing scalding water. I finish just as the shift whistle sounds. I twist the steam off and remove the hard, heavy gloves. The belt winds down and I can hear the workers. One big sigh.
On my way to the lockers I feel a hand on my shoulder. I know its Paulie before I turn around.
“Some of us are going for beers. Wanna come?” His hair is slick and shiny, blueblack like handsome hoods in Sunday morning cartoons. His chest pumps out beneath his tight T-shirt like he had it inflated. Funny how men try to look as big as they can, women as small.
My mind goes back to last weekend. I was at home arranging my works on my bureau when the phone rang. My sister. She was having trouble with her husband. I never called her back.
“Gotta get home,” I say to Paulie. “I have some calls to make.”
He wonders can he call me later.
Maybe tomorrow I tell him and give him the right phone number on a book of matches.
“You okay?” he says. He has that look of concern that used to always haul me in back before I discovered what fakes people were.
I tell him I’m fine but I’m ready to scream. Thinking about getting high has made me urgent.
At home, I run my bath deep and hot. I strip my clothes off and stuff them in the hamper. I lay out my works: a liqueur glass with distilled water, cotton, rubbing alcohol, a sterilized spoon on a clean saucer, , an Exacto knife, the syringe, and the white envelope.
Then I’m ready for the bath. I put one foot into the water, too hot, but let my foot find the bottom and turn red. Stirring the water makes the heat unbearable. Then the other foot. I sink down, slowly, hardly moving, lean back wrapped in hot silk. My mind is calm. It’s all right, I tell myself.
The first few times I shot cocaine, my boyfriend Tim did it for me. He worked at a veterinary clinic so he always had clean needles. The crystals were totally pure, pharmaceutical cocaine like Sherlock Holmes used. As soon as the drug entered my bloodstream, my heart raced as if it would burst and a giant egg of terror broke and spread inside my chest; this was followed by a sensation of hilarity which reached through my fear and yanked me to the other side. An overwhelming in-love type orgasm rushed through my body in an long ecstatic wave. Everything was suddenly charming and magical. We pushed the windows open and listened to the palmetto leaves slice deliciously through the breeze. It seemed the world flowed in and filled our veins.
The second time was good, but not as good as the first. I became secretive. I shot up while Tim was not there and more and more I wanted to do it alone. Now I have to be alone.
I get out of the tub, oil my skin, and slip into my satin robe.
Tonight I have half a gram. Two good shots, and two scrap shots.
I worked like an animal all week, and only did a few lines. I deserve this.
This is my world. Where I earn my dollars through honest sweat, push the limits, see just what kind of distortions of reality I can return from.
I find the triangle of paper in the bottom of my drawer. I am already shaking and my throat feels tight. I’m very slow in my movements, quite careful in my ritual. I am right there. I lift some of the cocaine out of the paper with the Exacto knife. I am careful taking the cap off the needle, which I do now, I draw 25 milliliters of water into the syringe and then squirt it into the spoon.
I stir the powder and water with the red needle cap until the powder is dissolved. Then I make a tiny ball of cotton, roll it between my fingers and drop it into the center of the spoon. This filters any large impurities. We learn from the ones who died this way.
Now I swab the inside of my elbow with alcohol, make a fist,
loosen, make a fist, until my veins stand up. I am very excited. I place the needle point into the cotton, draw the solution into the syringe. I flick the side to get the air up to the top, then push it out with the plunger. It takes a lot of air to interrupt the heart enough to kill, but air bubbles hurt.
I place the tip of the needle, slanted-angle up, and then with a tiny thrust, I am in. Just slightly I pull back on the plunger with my thumb and the silk parachute of my blood seeps into the syringe and billows. This is good. It means I am definitely in.
Slowly, I depress the plunger. As soon as I am in the vein, I can taste cocaine in my mouth and in my nose, not quite a scent, the clean longed-for flavor that means I am about to get high. My mouth drops open and I am riveted on the needle in my arm, careful not to move and lose the vein. I check it, still in. I push the last little bit in fast and I can barely keep going, but I do, pulling back on the plunger, filling it with blood and then faster in, feeling a huge rush, just at the edge of control. I take out the needle and lie back, pressing cotton into the crook of my arm. I have it. I want it. I have it.
Every pore of my body is laden with pleasure and there is an almost audible buzzing in my head.
The phone rings. I can answer it without getting up.
My mother. “Do you know what is happening with your sister. It’s Mark. He’s beat her up again.”
I can hear my mother’s Chihuahua yipping.
I tell her the clean-up crew is being called in for overtime. “I’ll call you as soon as I get home,” I say. “Promise.”
I jerk the phone wire out of the wall and reach for the syringe, greedily shooting it in a stream into my mouth– that pleasant bitter numbness. Knowing how soon it will end starts to ruin the sensation. I’ve lost two, maybe three minutes of a fifteen minute high on the phone.
I make my second shot. This is a large hit, and for the first few moments I am out of control; all I can do is lie down. I winnow down to the core of my mind, to the tenderness and hurt. Here I find my sister, very small and full of hope, I see Dixie Green, my best friend from second grade, her hair the color of a sorrel horse.
A brave matador allows himself brushes with the bull, stepping aside with a flourish from behind his tiny cape. The picador must move around the bull and dig his lance into the giant neck muscle, weakening it, so that the bull finally lowers his head. Otherwise it is impossible for the matador to reach the heart. If the matador stabs the bull to the side, the sword lodges in its lung. The bull won’t die immediately, but stands drunkenly, head down, bleeding from the nose and mouth.
The crowd gets furious. “Sinvergüenza!” they shout, “Sinvergüenza,” You have no shame.
But if he is brave, the matador points his sword toward the bull and advances. He arches directly over the bull’s horns and plunges the sword into the heart. If he has been skillful, the bull dies immediately.
When the heartbeat leaves the bull, there is a corresponding blood heat in the heart of the crowd, a sensation of power, near riot, a delusion that death can be defeated; this, through the courteous and formal man bowing in the center of the ring. Women throw hats, everyone throws flowers, the lame throw crutches hoping to be healed. The bull is bred for this moment.
I didn’t know then that the bull was kept in a darkened pen without food and water for three days, then released before a crowd thirsty to see life forced from him, a debilitated and tortured animal that in the end cannot even hold up his head.
In ten minutes, maybe fifteen, I make my way back to the spoon for my scrap shot. I am hurried, knowing the shot will be a good one. This time I don’t get the vein the first time and when I do, it infiltrates, and I lose it.
I start over, over and over again, until the high has degenerated into obsession and anxiety. I spend half an hour poking holes in my arm, till I get a good scrap shot, but I am not as high as the first shot and I am immediately possessed by a desire for more. I boot it over and over, jabbing at the vein, seeing air in the syringe, then blood, then the blood clotting. I start over with a spoon full of blood, only slightly bitter with cocaine. Removing the clot and shooting the blood, barely bitter into my mouth, missing, squirting blood on my face, blood against the wall.
I wake to the sound of pounding at the door. I put up my works and wash the blood from my face.
I see Paulie through the high square window.
“I’ve been calling you all night,” he says when I open the door a few inches. He rubs his arms as if he is cold.
He is speaking but I don’t hear him. The noise is in my ears again. I lie down and close my eyes. I am repentant, prayerful. I will never do this again.
Paulie lies next to me on top of the sheets, if he notices the bloodstains he doesn’t say anything. The scent coming off Paulie is musky and minty and sweet. A boy smell. I thought I could always come back to this kind of desire, but now it seems a parody of my real desire.
I say to myself I will not do this again, but I know I will. Like wrapping the rest of the cocaine, cocaine I promised myself I would not shoot, in an envelope, in another envelope, inscribed with the name of someone I think I love, someone who represents goodness. Of course I tore into both envelopes, did the cocaine. Nothing mattered as much as that.
I seem to float slightly above my bed while Paulie holds onto me. He has relaxed and his breathing has lengthened. Knowing he is asleep, I look at him. His lips droop a little, his good muscles soft. I see for a moment that he means no harm. When he wakes up, I’ll get him out of here and track my dealer down. I don’t need this guy or anyone else and that’s honestly a relief. I’d rather be alone with my bath and my works fucking my arm with a needle.
Some days at work, I come back from lunch a few minutes early and lie on the top catwalk, gazing at the colored pipes. I like it up there where it’s barren; I like the transitory, machine quality. I feel like I’ve always been there. I hear the cans being pulled down by the sensing switches that know when the level is low. The edge of a can is so sharp it can slice your finger in two. They’re lined up on a reverse roller coaster, the fruit and syrup dumped in, the lid is stamped on. Once a cricket jumped off Fred’s shoulder into a can, dead center on top the fruit. Before he could say anything, the lid came down and the can was whisked away. We always tried to picture the chump who got those peaches. I savor those moments before the whistle, listening to the cans rattling by. I can distinguish them by their size, from pings to clunks, five separate notes.
Why it’s Brian’s most gritty: “This is the grittiest story that I have ever written because although I pass it off as fiction, it is 90% true, and based on some of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.”
One night in Salvador by Brian Sousa
The streets smell of fried food, of urine and unfiltered cigarette smoke. Packs cost 3 Real, about one US dollar, and are covered in peeling stickers that warn in Portuguese of disease, death, or worse, impotence. There are corresponding drawings, and the one I am most concerned with shows two cartoon figures embracing, but the man seems to be crying. He couldn’t get it done, I guess.
I didn’t even smoke before I came here.
John and I climb upwards, following the cracked streets away from our hostel. We are hungry, but not starving like the children who rise like ghosts from around the listless palm trees, running to us as we pass by. Shirtless, their brown legs scabbed and bone-thin, they clutch at our hands, fastening on like sea urchins.
We stroll down the main street, where on one side enormous women sit behind carts laden with food and buzzing with flies. Their arms touch each other, expanding, their dresses flash in obscenely bright colors, exploding. Their skin is wet, gleaming black.
We shake our heads at them and their eyes prickle my red skin. I want to tear at it. I have been awash in skin rashes lately, not sure from what. I drink before I sleep at night so that I don’t wake myself with dirty nails scratching skin until it bleeds. Smoking pot before I sleep helps me not to remember my dreams.
“Let’s get something else, right?” John motions his head to the woman who is now flicking a blue flyswatter slowly through the air. “There is no way she is going to hit it,” he smirks, shaking his head, “Fat bitch.”
John is Irish. We went to college together in the States. He wears his long hair pulled back in a ponytail and shiny faux gold aviator sunglasses. I compare our complexions. My skin has burnt and peeled, but is now darker than it has ever been. My Italian mother would be proud. John’s arms are heavily freckled and so red they could burst into flame.
We cross the street that is host only to old rusted Volkswagens and broken down motorbikes that buzz hoarsely, blowing dust across the street. It is our last night here; tomorrow we will be on a bus to Natal, or one of the next towns down the coast. I can’t remember what we decided. Rio de Janeiro will come at the end, and I don’t want to admit it, but it shines. We lost our teaching jobs and were kicked out of our house a few months ago. We ended up homeless and close to broke, riding buses full of squawking chickens and sometimes hitchhiking, boards under our arms, from the South to the Eastern Coast.
We are in agreement to splurge. We scramble across the cobblestone streets in flip flops—mine are now almost torn apart—and I picture steaming platters of fish, like fajitas at a hokey chain restaurant in the States, when they come out hot and spitting oil. Burning your elbows. I want wine, too, or at least something cold, not stale, warm beer from behind the desk at the hostel.
In the main plaza there are restaurants everywhere, tables and chairs and clusters of people making it hard to walk on the sidewalk. Owners catch out eyes, point to our translucent skin.
“Gringo,” calls one man from his seat at a table, “Gringo.” I hear laughter crackling in the greasy sun. I catch my swinging foot on the chair of an old man who has suddenly pulled his seat back, and my big toe scrapes the pavement and begins to bleed immediately. The man jerks forward angrily. I can feel his eyes on my back as we keep walking.
We finally stop at a lone restaurant on a small plateau. Below us are the streets we have climbed to get here, stretching down past the hostels into the slums that border the marinas and the polluted, tepid ocean. The projects, where drugs wrapped in tin foil are pressed into sweaty hands, where I buy the marijuana that keeps me sane. I can see the tiny shacks flashing in the breeze, cardboard houses and rusted fences.
There isn’t much of a horizon, just a stretch of dark clouds that glow orange through the cracks, like a Jack O Lantern. I think for a second of Halloween, but it is November now, and I have missed it. My life in the States feels tainted somehow. Sometimes I wonder if it even still runs on at all.
John stands before me. “This is the last place.”
His voice is haggard. This trip has brought us closer than I ever thought it would and then worn us way down, as if with sandpaper.
I watch a waiter wipe down a plastic table and realize that the sun has almost completely set behind him. The lights of the city, though few, begin to smolder in the distance.
Wine is being poured for a young Brazilian couple. I watch the man place his hand on the woman’s bare thigh, studded with black stubble. Suddenly a sizzling seafood platter appears at another table. I notice that the waiters are all wearing bow ties and short-sleeve white shirts that have wilted in the heat of the day. I recognize, suddenly, two German men that I saw in the hostel a day or two ago. They clink beer glasses and nod at the lost sun.
“Here,” I say, “This is the place.”
We sigh together. Lately John and I have been doing things on the same tired cycle. I am worse off though, health-wise.
We slip our bags off of our backs and as we sit at the empty table we put them down next to us, close enough to touch. A woman scrubs the table for us and I can smell her as she reaches over me.
“Disculpa,” she murmurs. Sorry. I breathe in, smell her sweat mixed with shampoo, and am almost aroused. Women here smell raw and salty and rough, stronger than either of us, even with her skinny black arms jangling with colored bracelets.
Our waiter slides in on the dirty sidewalk. His shirt is crisp, his face covered in tiny budding hairs.
“Hoy,” I say before he can speak and for a brief second his face twitches with uncertainty.
His name is Diego and anything that we want, he will provide. We order two large platters of fish, steamed and fried, to start. We stumble with broken Spanish mixed with the Portuguese we have learned, but we are used to the laughter, and we feign amusement. We want everything anyway, the strange vegetables and fruits they layer on top of the fish; rice and beans; even the fresh-squeezed juice. Beer and wine. Right now the Real is just a third of one US dollar, and this comforts me. In a few days we will be leaving Brazil, anyway. We just need to make it to the airport.
Diego’s hand lingers for a moment on my sweating back, and then he whisks away, clapping at another waiter, a trail of Portuguese exhaling from his mouth. I can still feel the warm imprint of his hand.
“We deserve this,” says John, laughing as if he knows it’s not true, “We fucking deserve this.” He leans back, taps a cigarette from the pack that we are sharing and lights it with matches, absently lifting his shirt and tracing the brown, brittle scars on his stomach.
I look down and the blood that has streaked my toenail is dry and cracking. My armpits are still itchy and hot, covered in red bumps, but my arms and back are better now, so I don’t worry quite as much.
Two beers are set on the table and our glasses meet immediately.
“Salud,” says John, nodding.
At this moment, I am suddenly and completely content. The lights of the city blink below us. In the mountains behind us, I can hear the drums in the distance, and, coming up through the cracks in the street, the imagined crash of the ocean.
We pile the small fish bones on an empty plate at the middle of the table. They are frail spider webs, all that is left. Diego winks at us, pats our shoulders and refills our water, most of his teeth shining, the front one dark.
On our third beer, our stomachs bulging, we linger. Perhaps we should go. The streets of Salvador grow dark and wet at night, and often a cool fog drifts in from the mountains and wraps around the city.
“Should we head?” I ask John. He nods slowly and looks away, his cigarette burning down to the filter. I watch him flick it away, a small pinwheel sailing into the street. John has spoken only of home since he was mugged. He has set his sights on the future—Christmas in Rhode Island with his family. When we are drunk now he always plots how he can get back together with his ex-girlfriend, still clinging to the picture in his wallet.
Diego is suddenly before us. He seems tired now, his dark hands pressing the small of his back. I am sure it has been a hard day for him. The restaurant has cleared out, only a few drinkers linger over their bottles of Skol poured into short glasses, plastic cups filled with salted peanuts.
“It was lucky that you spoke English,” I say to Diego, “We are so cansado.” I shake my head but he knows what I mean. I catch myself mixing English, Spanish, and Portuguese. I also think I might speak English with a different cadence now, a new rhythm. I’m sure it will disappear.
Diego grins and twirls an empty tray on his finger. “Tired of no speak Portuguese, no?” he says, “Better now, for you.”
I nod and light a cigarette with the small wax candle he has placed on the table. I am careful not to exhale in Diego’s face as he leans over us expectantly.
“Want to get a Caipo, and then go?” asks John. He grins a bit. I motion to Diego, who slaps at a fly on his arm and nods. The gold chain around his neck gleams.
A Caiparinha is grain alcohol mixed with ground-up lime and fresh sugar. We sit, feet propped on the table, chain smoking and taking large, burning sips. We watch the fog come in and a siren echoes from the streets below.
“Remember the first night?” I say. We drank Caipos all night in the streets of Maringa and by the time we got home Marcello and I had to carry John into the house we shared with our boss, who we only knew as Ms. Laura. Choking with muffled laughter, we dropped him and banged his head on the wooden steps.
He nods and rubs the back of his head, slides his sunglasses over his eyes as he does every night when he is getting drunk.
“What about Fer?”
I shake my head but now I am thinking of Fernanda’s lithe body and stark tan lines, how it was impossible to tutor her. We used to lay in the burnt grass under el Catedral and watch the boys play soccer. Broken pieces of plastic for goals, the rubber ball making a little exhaling sound each time it was kicked, the games all sharp movements and ragged shadows in the silver sky.
“Bad decision, gringo,” I mumble into my drink, but I know I would do it again in a second. John would have too, if he could’ve. I think of the way he used to look at Fernanda out at the bar, half-drunk, licking his lips as she left the table. He hadn’t fared as well as I had with the ladies. He ended up falling for a tiny brown-skin girl named Felize, and I remember his rage when he saw her kissing someone else at the bar. I found him sitting in the parking lot, smoking, surrounded by brown shards of glass from the two bottles of Skol he had been drinking.
John stares at Diego quizzically as he suddenly appears at the table, sits between us and sighs.
“California,” Diego says proudly, pointing at the blue bubble letters on John’s T-shirt.
“Diego,” John says gruffly, drawing it out, “Diego.”
Diego is staring hungrily at the picture of John’s girlfriend, John flicks ice cubes into the open street and we quietly listen as they shatter and skitter away into the night.
“I dream of America,” Diego is saying.
“Me too,” John says, “Your country is a bit much for me, you know?”
I kick at John under the table, but I think I can tell that Diego didn’t really understand what he meant.
“Not me,” I say slowly, my eyes on the waitress as she clears one of the last tables, “I think I might stay here a while longer.”
“You like the women, no?” fires Diego. I stare at his one brown tooth. Immediately I think of Maria-Luiza, the last girl I slept with in Maringa. She hadn’t told me she had a child until I was awakened in the morning by his hoarse, bleating cries. His crib was in the corner of her bedroom, but I had been so drunk at night I hadn’t even noticed. In the morning she brought him into bed with us, and he stopped crying and fit himself in between us.
“Yeah, this one’s a real ladies man, Diego,” says John bitterly. I ignore him, trying to remember Maria Luiza’s son’s name. Santiago, I think it was.
Suddenly Diego bolts from his chair into the street. He slaps hands with a group of men, one of whom drags a black pit bull on a leash made of rope.
“We should get going soon,” John says. I watch Diego jabbing and pointing, his other hand splashing his drink.
“One more,” I nod in agreement.
But it is too early to go back. Our hostel is a brick building with few windows. We call it the Oven. I sleep in a sticky film of sweat, usually swollen with beer and coughing from cigarette smoke. Cockroaches inch slowly from under our bunk-bed at night and attempt to scatter when the sunlight comes.
Diego has brought his friends to meet us. Tables are joined together, chairs dragged over to sag under the weight of these thick sweaty men, who lean back and chuckle quietly to themselves. Diego is in charge of introducing us, and hands are shaken, shoulders are tapped. They are big on the thumbs-up here. Two of the men are short and wiry and they look unclean. The other is large with a goatee strapped on his chin. He is out of breath after all the introductions, and he leans back and puts the loop of his rope leash under one leg of the chair.
He points behind him as I stare. “Marcel,” he says, jabbing the air, “Marcel.”
Marcel the dog is lying down, his body coiled like a spring.
The men seem happy to meet real Americans and it is how it usually is. We are a novelty. They buy us more drinks and we must have them.
I have a small joint in my pocket, enough for two. I go to the bathroom and inhale sharply three times, my lungs straining. I will offer the rest to John before I finish it. He doesn’t like to smoke when he is too drunk, but I need to.
Back at the table, I might be noticing new things. There is some exaggeration. Diego is different now, in front of his friends. John doesn’t seem to be listening as he smokes and stares up at the sky. But he catches me looking at him.
“Where’d you go?” he asks.
“To take a piss,” I say across the table, and quickly motion as if smoking, checking to see if anyone else is looking.
He sits up and glares at me. “That’s both of ours,” he snaps, and puts out his hand.
I glance around us. Diego and his friends are discussing something, they don’t seem to be paying attention, so I offer the roach quietly. “Keep it down, go to the bathroom,” I whisper.
But John leans back and kicks his feet onto the table, knocking over his glass of wine. His lighter clicks again and again, and Diego and his friends have stopped talking, and are watching intently.
“There isn’t any left,” I try to say, but my voice feels thick and hoarse. but as they As the men watch John they are growing excited, and their voices scrape the warm air. Finally Diego reaches out and snatches John’s lighter, tosses it away, stands and holds up his own. The flame leaps immediately.
“You want, you want?” Diego pokes my chest. I shake my head but now John exhales and passes it, smirking at me. “Si, Si,” he says to Diego, and then turns to me, glaring. “Pay the man, pay the man. Let’s get some for the whole table.”
Diego motions to his friends, who murmur to each other. I shake my head again and again. “Obrigado,” I stumble, “but we can’t. We have nothing.”
The roach makes is half way around the table and then the fattest man sucks, spits, and throws it on the ground. They look expectantly at me, and then at John, and are quiet for a moment.
I look at John pleadingy. He appears to enjoy the attention. Finally he holds up his hand. “No, no. Sorry, Diego, no more. Not tonight, amigo.”
The table is quiet. Diego says something quickly to his friends, none of who laugh, and motions to John.
“Oh, speak English, Diego, English!” exclaims John, pointing to the words on his T-shirt. He slouches back in his chair and looks to me for support, but I say nothing. “What?” he asks Diego, “What? What?”
The strap of my bag rests on one of the smaller men’s sandaled feet. Suddenly he swears at me and kicks at it. I reach down. “Disculpa,” I say, “Sorry.”
He snorts at me and then smirks, chomping on cubes of ice.
I stare at John, hoping we can leave soon. I could leave by myself, and for a second I watch myself walk, then jog away down the darkened streets. No one would bother to follow me, I don’t think. I stare at John’s flushed face, watch him drink from the bottle of grappa and then close his eyes, reach down, raise his shirt, and trace his hands over the scars again.
He was mugged 3 weeks ago at knifepoint in Fortaleza. He had left me at the beach with the boards to get us some bottled water. Five barefoot children stoned him from all sides in an alley before he threw them his camera, film, and wallet with credit cards and 80 Real. Then one darted in and stabbed him twice with a pen knife before they ran, small feet slapping the cement.
We were sunburned and high from smoking on the beach but somehow he had managed to shove his passport in his ass as they cornered him. I wanted to ask why he didn’t shove anything else up there but I never could. He came back shaking and crying to find me dozing under the palms, swinging in my hammock. The weird thing is that I heard him crying as I lay there, blank and half-asleep, and I knew, but I didn’t want to open my eyes, and I didn’t until he touched my bare foot with his wet hands, kneeling beside me in the red sand.
That night I half-dragged and half-carried John through the dirt streets to the hospital, where they gave him 10 stitches and some painkillers. I let him sleep on the bottom bunk that was originally mine, because he couldn’t climb up. I listened to his uneven breaths, downed a warm beer and one of his pills and dreamed of being on a plane headed home, suspended in a cold white sky.
Diego has his arm around John, and he points as two waiters rush towards us. They are carrying large trays. “Obrigado,” says the fattest man as they begin to set down dishes and glasses.
Steaming platters of fish, beef, beans and rice, dripping from the sides, bottles of beer and wine, one of grappa. John shakes his head and taps his stomach as if to say that he is sorry he is full. He is close to tipping over in his chair. I see two of the men trading looks and rapid gestures behind his back.
“What is the matter, Gringo?” Diego winks his brown tooth at me and piles food on his plate, motioning for the wine.
The men ignore us, pulling their chairs tightly to the table, their mouths wet with saliva, spitting rice as they laugh. At night stray dogs roam the streets, their fur sucked to their ribs, their rough footsteps just a light brush of the ground.
It is cooler out now. The table is bright and I am dizzy. I watch John pour himself a shot of grappa and stand unsteadily, shaking my head. I head to the bathroom, through the small bar that glows in candlelight. I stand in the darkness for a while, listening to the trickle of water and the nervous rattle of conversation somewhere that I can’t understand, and then wipe my face with water from the sink, my hand smelling of fish.
When I come out there is an old woman in a black dress at the other end of the bar hunched over, mopping the floor. It is so quiet in here, even with the door open to the street, that I can hear the water dripping from the faucet.
John is coming towards me now, his mouth shut tight, his sunglasses on. He pushes me against the bar, and his hair is loose and sticking to the sides of his face.
“What’s with the hair?” I say but he pushes my chest roughly, staggering into me.
“Yo, they’re saying that we need to pay, and they just ordered way more. They called you the ugly one and me the dumb one, I think.” John’s face is red and his breath is thick and smells sweet from the grappa. He is swaying from side to side. I can hear the dogs barking in the distance.
“Fuck that, I’m not paying,” I say, “We’re not paying. We can’t, anyway.”
I stare at the table and catch myself as I trip back a little, then lean weakly against the bar.
“Let’s just go then,” I say callously, because we aren’t screwing around with this anymore. I’m so tired, the Oven actually sounds good to me.
“No, I told them we couldn’t pay,” he said, “and I think they said they would sic the dog on us or something.”
We watch the table. I feel my armpits itching, and I shiver slightly.
John’s hand rests on my shoulder as he leans against me. I notice the sweat on his face now, the thin deep lines scrawled under his eyes. My credit card is maxed out from the plane tickets. John lost his in Fortaleza. We have about 50 Real each on us and 300 more stashed in the room, taped under my mattress along with some dry pot and cigarettes.
I reach into my pocket and my hand folds around the shiny paper money, brightly colored and fragile enough to tear in two.
The woman behind the bar sings to herself, drumming the fingers of one hand on the counter in a dull rhythm. She stands at the sink with her back to us. The beat she taps is almost in unison with the dripping of the sink, but not quite.
John puts an unlit, crumpled cigarette into his mouth. I can see that it is torn, and some of the tobacco is hanging out. He flicks his lighter once, then twice, but nothing happens.
“Diego has a knife, too,” he says softly, “He just showed me.” He stretches his hands to show how big the knife is, and his fingers are just barely trembling.
We stand very close to each other, watching the men roar in the gray fog. They slap the small table so hard that it shakes, laughing at a joke we never heard.
Rhode Island native Brian Sousa has been published in various magazines, journals, and newspapers including Verdad, Newfound, Quiddity, Redivider, Gavea-Brown,The Writer, Babilonia, the DMQ Review, The Providence Journal and others, he also has poetry and fiction forthcoming in the Atticus Review and the St. Petersburg Review. His fiction is featured in the Rutgers University Press anthology of Luso-American Literature, 2011. In 2007, he was awarded a fellowship by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and in 2011, he was a finalist for the Dzanc Books International Literary Award, and winner of a scholarship to the Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Portugal. Sousa holds an MFA from Emerson College, is an editor for the music and culture website Mule Variations, taught creative writing at Boston College for seven years, and plays guitar in the indie-rock band Ocean*Transfer. He currently lives in Aspen, Colorado, where he is working on his second book, a novel tentatively titled “Dreams About Ghosts.”
Why it is Steve’s most gritty: I first heard most of the story back in the 1970′s when I was drinking beer with some Vietnam War vets. When we got drunk enough I asked the question, “Did you ever kill anyone?” I didn’t expect details. The story I heard was so gritty I couldn’t write it all down, it was too hard. I still get a knot in my stomach thinking about it. The story here is a compilation of several stories I heard that night. None of the guys were proud of what they did, they did what they did to stay alive.
War Stories 4: Did you ever kill someone? by Steve Glines
Well, yeah but no one that wasn’t pointing a gun at me, mostly. I shot at a lot of people but there were only three times when I can honestly say I know that I blew someone away.
The first time we were humping up a trail towards an LZ that was too hot to chopper into. I was in the lead working my way very slowly and quietly looking for booby traps and signs of an ambush.
Ambush was our greatest fear so we all carried a weapon specifically designed to stop people from firing at you. Some guys carried sawed off shotguns with buckshot loads. I had a World War II grease-gun. A grease-gun fires the same .45 APC ammunition used in the .45 pistol except the grease-gun has a 30 round magazine. The barrel is unrifled so you couldn’t hit a target at more than fifty yards, hell, make that 50 feet, you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn but you could knock the barn down if you accidentally hit it. Which was the point. If you get ambushed you can make the bad guys duck pretty quickly if you empty a 30 round magazine of .45 APC in their direction and the tree he’s hiding behind gets knocked down.
Anyway I’m inching my way up this trail when a VC comes jaunting around a bend. He had his AK-47 over his shoulder. I had my weapon ready with the safety off. Before he could swing his weapon into firing position I brought mine up and put one round into his chest. It sent him flying about ten meters, dead instantly.
The funny thing is, we were only about ten meters apart. We both made eye contact and when he saw that I was going to get a round off before he could he just looked at me and nodded as if to say, it’s OK, if it were the other way around I’d pull the trigger too. He was a true warrior. It was the only time I ever felt bad about pulling the trigger. It’s almost like he gave me permission. I wish I knew who he was because I’d like to thank his family. Does that sound weird …?
Another time we were sent to relieve an ATC squad at a small Army firebase. We had a 500 meter runway, long enough for C-130’s to land and re-supply the base. It was an easy assignment, on paper. We took in two, maybe, three, C-130 flights a day, depending on how many rounds of 105mm we fired and a few Hueys looking for fuel. Our base had one battery of six 105mm howitzers and an equal number of 81 mm mortars which was three more than normal. I think the Major stole them from someone. It turns out the mortars were a good idea. In Vietnam if you didn’t improvise you were dead.
We were there for a month before we caught some real shit. Every once in a while we’d get a few incoming mortar rounds, mostly when a C-130 was landing or on the ground. We always made sure the turnaround was quick. But it was never much. Occasionally some pissed off VC would let go of a clip of AK fire in our direction but the returning fire would chill his ass. The Major put a .50 cal machine gun at one end of the runway and one of his M-60’s at the other. Someone told me he took the .50 cal off a burned out M113 armored personnel carrier. Anyway the firebase had been turned into a pretty good fortress.
As I said we had been there for about a month when a battalion sized unit of NVA (North Vietnamese Army) hit us at dusk. The first I knew about it was when we got hit with 10 or 12 mortar rounds just as a C-130 was landing. I told him to get the hell out of there but he touched down just a mortar round put a divot in my runway. The C-130 landing gear hit the crater, which was only a foot or so deep, and spun him around enough so the tip of his wing hit the ground and broke off dumping fuel all over a mortar pit and a pallet of mortar rounds before the C-130 burst into flames. I don’t know if he was hit by another mortar round or not but he went up in a big ball of flames as he fell off the end of my runway. Believe it or not the pilot and copilot walked away. Or I should say ran away from that crash. The crew chief wasn’t so lucky, he got toasted.
Lucky for us the NVA had decided to attack us from the end of the runway that was now occupied by a burning C-130 cooking off 105mm rounds. After a few minutes they disengaged. Not a place you want to be.
It took them three hours to regroup and this time they decided to attack us directly. I mean, we were arranged in a box but our strongest axis was perpendicular to the runway. That’s the direction the NVA had decided to attack us from. Each side of the box had about 50 men but with manning the mortars and 105’s there was really only a squad dug in and shooting, ten to fifteen men: One M-60 machine gun, a couple of thumpers, guys with 40 mm grenade launchers, and eight or ten guys with M-16’s. That’s not a lot of fire power against 6-800 North Vietnamese Regulars determined to rush your position.
The firefight lasted all night. We received a couple of hundred incoming mortar rounds and sent as much in return. The howitzers were firing at maximum elevation but it was clear they were overshooting the NVA who were between 400 and 1200 meters from our perimeter. The 105’s minimum range for indirect fire was about 1200 meters. The crew of one gun jacked it up so as to increase the guns elevation but they couldn’t hit jack shit. The Major tried direct fire and that was a little more effective but it did more to suppress our fire than the enemy. I mean you can get knocked over at fifty feet by the muzzle blast of a 105 and you sure as hell are going to be deaf but it’s better than being dead.
About midnight I could hear on the radio that the boys on the far side of the strip were having a rough time. One mortar pit was completely out of mortar rounds and guys in another foxhole were running out of M-60 ammunition. My job was to call in air support but there wasn’t much to be had just then so I jumped up, grabbed 600 rounds of M-60 ammunition and a box of mortar rounds and ran as fast as I could across the runway. I made that trip about half a dozen times before I got whacked by some incoming mortar shrapnel. It hit my arm and the side of my head with enough force to sent me flying. I felt the concussion of the explosion but I didn’t realize that I’d been hit so I just got up and continued across the airfield to the mortar pit. There was a medic there already because two of the three guys there were already in bad shape.
Anyway I got bandaged up and fed the mortar as fast as I could while the artilleryman did the aiming. We ran out of mortar rounds pretty quickly so I grabbed an M-16 and took a look over the sandbags. Shit! I mean the shit was pretty thick and I saw that one foxhole was about to be overrun. There was only one grunt still active and he was yelling for help. Now I’m a good shot, I mean I passed the marksman test pretty quickly and moved up to expert. I took soldering pretty seriously so I practiced whenever I could. You know, being a good shot can save your life if you’re in combat. That’s why I practiced.
There were about 10 NVA crawling up the hill. That’s ten I could see. At 100 yards they were an easy target so I popped each one with a single shot. I could only pop five at a time because that’s all I could manage before the parachute flare burnt out. Fortunately the VC fired three or four flares at the same time that lit the place up like daylight so I was able to target every gook crawling up the hill. Even from 100 yards you can see a .223 round hit. It’s got a hell of an impact. Anyway I knew there had to be more that I couldn’t see so I jumped out of the mortar pit and ran forward towards the foxhole where the guy had been yelling. When I got there everyone was dead and that pissed me off so I set my M-16 to full auto, jumped out and ran down the hill towards the NVA. I hit three more gooks with short bursts fired from 10 meters then I ran face to face with two gooks charging towards me. I guess they had run out of ammunition so they got up and ran towards me with bayonets. I blew their fucking heads right off. One shot to their head from fifteen feet. Their heads just exploded, poof. I mean they just exploded. Man! I still get nightmares from that, … still.
I must have run out of adrenalin or blood about then because the next thing I remember was feeling queasy and passed out. When I woke up it was past dawn and I realized I had shit myself bad and the Major was looking down at me. Awkward. He ordered a couple of grunts to hump me back up the hill to my dugout. My boys managed to find some air cover and that made the NVA back off.
I wasn’t hurt badly but the major insisted that I get a dustoff. I guess I was lucky. The outfit suffered 25 dead, another 10, including me, wounded and the NVA body count, and you can take that with a grain of salt, was later listed at 350.
I got a Purple heart and a Silver Star out of that. They said I killed 25 NVA but I think it might have been more like ten probably a lot less. I only really know that I did kill 2. I don’t know. The Major said that I stopped the VC assault all by myself but I really doubt that.
The only other time I killed an SOB intentionally. It was when I was tower chief at Da Nang and I was trying to bring in a C-130 gunship that had been badly shot up and only had enough fuel to make the runway. I cleared him to land but a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot cut in front and landed without permission. I lost the C-130, he pulled up at the last minute and crashed. All 12 GI’s were killed. I walked out of the tower, went down to the flight line and put a .45 slug right into that Vietnamese pilots god damned head and walked up to his commanding officer and told him that if that ever happened again I would hold him responsible and I put the barrel of my .45 to his head and cocked the hammer. I was seriously tempted to pull the trigger then too. Funny thing is, we became very good friends, that is the South Vietnamese Air Force Colonel and I. I almost married his widow, Lon Nol, when he was killed by the VC.
S.R. Glines has spent most of his career as a journalist with a reputation as an edgy technical writer. For five years he authored a monthly technical advice column titled Panic in Altos World Magazine. The column was written in the voice of a fictionalized, over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived, computer engineer working for the mob. He also wrote a column titled Famous Last Words for Unix Review about products that never quite materialized or never lived up to their promise. He is the author or co-author of five “trade textbooks,” a travelogue about teaching in Fiji and a flash fiction chapbook. For the past eight years he has been the editor/publisher of Wilderness House Literary Review.
Why it’s Matt’s most gritty: “Well, the explanation and the images used are certainly the most graphic I’ve had published, and perhaps the most basic, but there’s a disconnection, a lack of intimacy that often goes with descriptions of intimate actions. So you get the best of both worlds – and so much energy is spent on sex and people often forget how comic it is. A guy measuring the circumference of a penis with his hands and making it look like a tree trunk … that’s funny. And ridiculous. And maybe true, given fetishes! I don’t do violence, I hate violent films and TV shows and refuse to watch them. But I do do sex, and well, because I don’t shy away from things. Anal sex – not always that great if you haven’t douched before. I’ve not written about that … yet.”
Earlier Again by Matt Potter
When he flicked his lighter I grabbed his hand and cupping it in mine, leaned in. The cigarette stuck to my bottom lip caught the flame. And as the smoke puffed between us, just before I pulled away, I looked up at him – a split second – from under my eyelashes.
“Thanks,” I said. But I couldn’t see his eyes through his sunnies. I stood back, breathed out so my chest filled my one-size-too-tight Kuhlschrank and Sons workshirt, and blew smoke out across the car park. “So was he good?”
I didn’t really want to hear the answer. A three-night-stand a year ago and I’m still making goo-goo eyes whenever Tony’s name is mentioned. But I have this need to know …
“Did you fuck him?”
Tony shook his head and flicked ash into the rose bushes. “Thick cock,” he said, holding his hands out, measuring the circumference. “Massively thick.” And his fingers spread wider. “A real arse-splitter.”
“Well, you’re walking around okay today,” I smiled.
“Yeah, it was just what I needed.” He stretched and yawned.
The side door of the vestry flew open. “Fellas,” Brian said, eyes sliding. “I say this every day. Smoke over there.” And he pointed to some bright asphalt.
“It’s too sunny over there,” I said.
Brian sighed. “This … is … a non-smoking … zone.”
We moved further along the building, Brian finished his school principal wowser act and the door closed.
“Fuckin’ uptight shit,” I said. “Needs a good cock up his clacker to calm him down.”
Tony laughed. I like to make him laugh. “You offering, Jarred?”
“Not a chance,” I said. “That’s old news, baby.”
Tony smiled. Looked away. Flicked his cigarette butt into some more roses and shoved his hands in his pockets. When he does that, it’s hard to know if he’s playing with his cock or if he always smiles that way.
I looked down. My nipples stood erect against my blue shirt. “My hole needs a workout soon,” I said. “It’s starting to grow over.”
“Go to the sauna,” Tony said.
“Yeah, I might.”
No flicker from him at all. Like I’m just there to take the edge off.
“Just lie back in a sling and take on all comers,” I added. “I’ll let them do all the work.
“Line ’em up.”
“Yeah,” I said. Thinking all I really want is for him to be the one lining up. “Get my hole fucked so hard it’s gaping open but I’ve got a smile on my dial from arsehole to breakfast time.”
“Yeah,” Tony added, “so to speak.”
I looked over at the building and saw a flash of white in a window. Then heard the schtock! of the window sliding shut.
“Hungry?” Tony asked, taking his hands out of his pockets, still smiling.
“Starving,” I said, dragging on the end of my cigarette. “Could chase the horse and suck the rider.”
“Good,” Tony said. “Time for a late lunch.”
Matt Potter is an Australian-born writer who keeps part of his pysche in Berlin.
Matt has been published in The Glass Coin, A-Minor, Gloom Cupboard, Magnolia’s Press, fwriction: review, TrainWrite, Connotation Press, Istanbul Literary Review, Thunderclap Magazine Issue 6, Wilderness House Literary Review, Metazen, Fix It Broken, and Flash Frontier. He was a regular contributor to 52 / 250 A Year of Flash and had his work performed as part of This Berlin Life in Berlin in March 2011.
Find more of his work at his website writing, and then some
Matt is the founding editor of Pure Slush, and for his work with Pure Slush, was nominated for the Preditors and Editors Readers Poll’s Best Magazine / e-zine Editor.
It’s my fault I lost track of time and product. Six days late NG is proud to present the amazing former whiz kid, Jackie Corley–boss of Word Riot for over ten years.
Here is what she has to say about her grit
This is an excerpt from a novel I’ve been working on for awhile. Mild sadomasochism, drunkenness, juice bars and other assorted dirty Jersey behavior. But more than the content, the tone of it makes it the grittiest thing I’ve done. I was aiming for noir-y and desperate. I hope I achieved something of that.
Exit 117 by Jackie Corley
The cigarette should burrow through him. It should take his skin to butter and give me a rabbit hole on his skinny, hairless arm. Then I could pull up his shirt sleeve any time I wanted and admire it, that charred, empty well. It would always belong to me.
When I try to bring the coal down in the middle of a lazy map of freckles, he flinches again, laughing. His naked torso folds in on itself, like he’s blocking some probing, tickling hand, and he keeps giggling, high and sloppy and loud. He goes down to the floor, drink still buoyed up in the air by an extended right hand.
I clip the cigarette into the corner of my mouth, letting the ash pulse and glow and grow. I crawl to him and pin my legs on his chest. I get hungry for the cigarette and take my smoke in before reaching for his drink. I switch vices, flicking the gray feathers of ash out over his neck as I top off his finger of scotch. He closes his eyes and smiles. I don’t know if he’s too drunk to brush the ashes off of himself or if he’s just trying to be obedient. It doesn’t really matter. It won’t change anything.
“Jack, Jack, Jackie boy,” I say, sealing my thumb and index finger around his jaw line and forcing his limp head to troll the dry, wooden floor, back and forth. I hear the crack against his cheek before I feel the sting in my palm. His clear, wide face flushes red.
“Thank you,” he says, so I slap him again, same side.
I pinch my nails around his fleshy lower lip. “Open,” I tell him. He does it. He opens his mouth up, an eager baby bird. I knead my thumbs into the ridges of his larynx. “Wider,” I say. He tilts his head back, his neck up, and makes himself a Pez dispenser, the flapping, gaping empty of his mouth vulnerable to the world, to me.
I flick the ashes into the hole he’s made for me. He coughs and smacks his lips together and opens his mouth wide again. I grip the underside of his chin, my nails cutting these sad little parentheses into his cheek. I bring a leg up and brace my free arm against my knee.
I lean close to his face. I don’t whisper. I need him to understand. “I’m going to give you something,” I tell him. “You’re going to take it. You’re not going to give it back.”
He nods, mouth still open. He’s got these endless blue-gray doll’s eyes in this rubbery, translucent skin of his, thin veins crisscrossing underneath and hardwiring him back to the world. He wants to please me. He’s a child. He’s my child.
The blood pools and warms behind my ears when I see this game for what it is. He’s disappearing in this cheap room–shredding allegiances, letting his breath waste away. There’s nothing I couldn’t do to him. He wouldn’t stop me because none of this is about me anymore.
I hang the cigarette over his tender, twitching tongue and run my thumb over the coal, letting it fall deep into the well. I slam his mouth shut and keep one hand under his chin and the other on top of his head, latching my fingers around locks of his thick, matted hair, to keep him from opening up. He thrashes around on the floor and then goes limp. He blinks his red-rimmed eyes open and the corners of his lips rise up into a beatific grin. As I pull my hands away, he purses up the bow of his lips and spits out a charred pit.
He flutters his eyes around the room, shocked awake. There’s no more game. There’s me and him and he’s smirking up at false gods and I’m black and empty and lonely. He wraps his spindly fingers around my biceps and forces me to the side. Sometimes, when I’m lost, when I’m deep in the theater of us, I think I’m stronger than him. I think I can really hurt him; and any time I stop, it’s out of benevolence and restraint–never pity, you understand. I forget what we’re about. I forget that when we started up again I indulged him this so I could get warm by him, get some of his time.
His thin thumbs pinch at nerves, force them to the bone. Stings like hell. I shrug his hands off of me.
“Damn it, shitface. That hurt.”
He’s searching out a lost water bottle on the cluttered dresser. He coughs hoarsely, drawing up phlegm, until he finds it. He throws his head back and hurries to pour what’s left of the bottle down his throat. When he’s done, he lets the container roll out of his hand and bounce to the floor, forgotten.
“Lady can dish it out but she can’t take it,” he says. He’s eyeing the room again; trying to remember where he put the scotch I’m hiding behind my back.
“Where’s my red label?” He’s got this cut to his voice–irritable, childish. “Where is it?” he mutters to himself as he shifts around the piles of clothing left festering in this cave of his.
“It’s the last bottle I have in the house tonight.” He’s down on his knees now, crawling frantically into corners and sliding his hands into dust-caked crevices.
“Did you check the bathroom?” I say. He cocks his head and narrows his eyes at me. I think I’m caught, but he spins on his heel, slapping the doorframe as he rushes into the hall.
There’s three shots left to the scotch and I take them too fast. I choke and gurgle some of that piss color down my chin before I seal the empty bottle back up and roll it under the bed. I fumble to my feet and grab for his cigarettes. I prop my elbow on his sticky comforter and my hand is shaking some as I work my lighter. I manage though. My blood is pulling back from my skin and it seems like the first numb buzz I’ve had since college, which calms me and brings something cold to my breath. It’s nice, is what it is–being light and drunk. I crumple up the empty cigarette pack and throw it into the hallway; the sound will draw him back.
I brought my own vodka. I brought my own Camels. I don’t even like scotch or his fay menthol fetish. But taking from him is this little revenge that keeps on giving.
He shuffles back into the bedroom slowly, kicking the empty pack across the floor. He doesn’t know it’s the same one he bought this afternoon.
“Nothing,” he says. “You took it. You killed it off.”
“I did,” I nod. “You could have my vodka.” I reach for the plastic handle and wave it out in front of me like Glenda’s magic wand.
He walks to the bedside table and takes up his shot glass. It disappoints him. “But I liked that drink. It was mine.”
“They’re all yours, Jackie boy,” I say, letting the vodka slosh out over the lip of the glass as I pour. “And you’ll take this one too.”
“Yes, I will.” He swallows the shot down and crawls toward the opposite end of the bed, swiping the vodka bottle from me on his way. He’s humming some low, solid bar, sailing away with it. He lies down across the bed and his body seems to cave into itself at the pit of his chest. His skin sags on his thin bones. All his muscle has been chewed up from the inside, turned into vapor and thread. His stomach is the only piece of him with any substance and it’s a bloated, uneven mess. A few more years and the rest of him will look like that.
I fall onto the other end of the mattress. “When did you go from a drunk to an alcoholic?”
“A couple years ago,” he says. “I got bored.”
What he should say, what he won’t say, is that he needed the scotch to come down off of the ski mounds worth of cocaine he was shoveling up that delicate slip of a nose of his. The alcohol was always there, but he started up on the cocaine just before we split. He thinks I don’t know about it. He’d be right, except these days I’ve got ears and friends in people somebody like me–somebody from my zip code, my street–should have no business being around.
I drag myself toward him and lay my ear on his belly. I graze my fingertips up and down his pale legs for a few minutes before I unbutton his boxer shorts and slide my hand inside.
“Don’t,” he says, grabbing at my wrist. “It’s too late. I’m too far gone tonight.” But it’s not just tonight and it’s not just with me.
I keep my head on his stomach and nod, chin rustling the waistband of his shorts. “It’s okay. I know.” I gently push his hand away from my wrist. “I just like remembering.”
We’re quiet for awhile and all I hear is the television warbling in the living room. It’s Nick at Night, I think. Roseanne and Darlene cracking husky lines at a whinnying Becky, the laugh track pulsing under it all like a war drum.
Jack hisses air in dully through his nostrils and dry, slightly parted lips. His snoring crescendos, takes over the laugh track, the bickering. A cool bed, his stunted breathing–it’s too familiar. This wounded nostalgia settles over me and I try to pull my thoughts into anything else–the job, the family. I work my mind so hard that I start fading in and out and soon I’m in this heavy, drunken sleep, which is the best kind because it’s black and empty and I’m not there.
“What time is it? What happened?” Jack is confused, yammering. He shoves me off his leg and gets out of bed, kicking a pile of clothes off the ground where the digital clock should be. It can’t be more than twenty minutes–the audience is cackling and cheering over the bluesy harmonica of the closing credits.
“Not so loud,” I say, adjusting to the light in the room, reclaiming my senses. I feel that last drink hazing over me; it hadn’t yet worked its way through me when I fell off to sleep. I’m all limp and cold now. I crawl out of bed after him, scratching a numb muscle along the back of my arm. “We weren’t out that long,” I coo. I rub my hand along his spine, but he shakes it off and keeps digging through the clothes.
Jack finds the clock bleeding out 12:38 and he sighs and kneels, relieved.
“When’s closing time for her? 2 a.m.? 3?”
“She gets home by 3:30,” he says, “unless she’s not coming home.”
The she is Jack’s fiancée, Dani. They live together. She dances down on the highway at the Go-Go Rama. It’s an all-nude juice bar, the poor man’s strip club. The owners don’t have to shell out for a liquor license, the customers get to see bush and grab all over the girls without getting manhandled by a bouncer–everybody gets their sin in peace.
I’ve been losing hours at Jack and Dani’s apartment for going on three months. I’ve never seen the girl. Every time I’ve come over she’s been on shift. When we got started again, Jack said it didn’t matter, that he and Dani kept things open. It seemed like one of those things he’d say that I’d pretend was true.
But lately, I’ve been thinking the whole fiancée thing is a story he’s been running on me. It’s a good story, though. How he tells it, she’s better at our games than I am. He points to scar tissue. He talks about black eyes, stitches, trips to the emergency room. Once, he showed me this belt he keeps hidden in a shoe box in the back corner of his closet. He rubbed his thumb along the coarse underside of the belt and red flakes floated down onto the soft, gray cardboard at the bottom of the shoebox. He said the night she used the belt was the only time the world got small enough for him to feel safe in it. He said he couldn’t get up from his knees so it seemed about right to ask her to marry him.
Maybe there’s a Dani and maybe there’s just a girl Jack wishes was around, but I’m thinking he wants me on my way tonight. “Give me an hour to get a pot of coffee in me and then I’ll get going,” I say, walking toward the bedroom door.
“Wait,” he says, fingertips straining at the edge of my shoulder. “You want to see her?”
“I don’t care.”
“We can go to the club.”
“We’re drunk,” I say.
“We can walk there from here. It’s about a mile.”
“It’s cold. It was raining hard before.”
“We won’t feel it. We’re drunk,” he says.
We search for our clothes, stumbling and falling over one another. We come up with items that seem to fit. I might be wearing Jack’s fiancée’s clothes and Jack might be wearing mine. It doesn’t matter. We look each other over, shrug and walk out of the bedroom. The floor is uneven, but really it just feels uneven, floating and crashing back on itself the way it does. I’ll need to vomit during the walk.
Jack stops by the hallway closet, pulls a giant plastic bag from the abyss and hands it to me. I shake it loose and realize it’s a poncho, a crumpled red poncho covered in white Canadian leaves. I pinch my eyebrows together and cock my head up at him, curious.
“I went to Canada with Dani,” he says, putting on a thin trench coat. “We were going to kill ourselves by jumping into Niagara Falls.”
“They have all the good parts blocked off,” Jack says, and I nod appreciatively. It’s bullshit, though. He’s never been to Canada. He probably stole the poncho from an IHOP coat rack.
He’s shaking his keys in the air when we get outside, letting them sing out along his dark, wet street. The highway is shimmering a mile down this flat line of homes. The blurred, blinking signal light on Route 35 slingshots red blotches of cars forward to the next mile marker. A dull drizzle pricks my face through the fog. My skin cools and my throat cools and my stomach settles.
There are half a dozen kids a few hundred feet up the road. One of them splits the air with a hoarse cackle. It rumbles down this narrow, hollow street, piercing through the slow, constant spill of salt-spray and choking exhaust coming from the highway.
I lift my arms out under the poncho and start running down the street.
I scream, “I’m Batman!” and flap my red plastic poncho wings, turning wide figure eights from one end of the street to the other as I wait for Jack to catch up. He’s riding heavy on the toes of his sneakers, lazy and lighting a cigarette from a spare pack he found in his jacket.
“Jack Guthrie Arison, you slow country cunt, we need speed,” I say, still screaming, heaving it through my throat. The kids down the street are watching me warily, like they’ve got something I could take from them and make trouble about. Probably a joint or something, maybe some Hennessey. It’s not like I’d want either right now, anyway. I stop in the middle of my wing dive, suddenly conscious of the kids, of how they’re looking at me. Their faces are drawn bony and long and nothing’s moving, not even the edge of a lip curling up as they watch and wait for me to pass from their blacktop. I’m an annoyance or a threat; I’m imposing on them. I forget that I’m an adult now, that I can’t be another curb kid cutting my eyes at somebody.
I remember the way I would have looked at somebody like me. Pathetic, desperate. I put my arms down and dig my hands into my pockets. I turn my back to the highway and lean from one leg to another and wait for Jack.
When we were kids and I was still a frightened, warm thing, I’d snake my hands all around his arm and lean up on him while we walked. The sidewalks and roads were so much easier on him than me, and I’d stare down at his deft little feet dancing the ground like they would. I’d take a crack in the pavement the wrong way, breaking that singing stride of his, and he’d always put it back together with some assured hop-step-slide.
I can’t stand near Jack now, but it’s got nothing to do with him. There isn’t anybody I’d want to touch in public now. I’m six feet to the side of him and his limp legs are faltering, jelly at the knees. I have to cut my stride in half to keep us even.
“Your blood’s poison to you,” I say.
“Yeah,” he nods. “They should give dialysis to every addict over 25.”
“Am I?” He stops in the street and lifts his eyes to a sweaty streak of gray clouds on the dark gray sky, puzzling the numbers out. “Yeah, I guess I am. Something to look forward to.”
And we’re quiet then and the only sounds rolling around us, claiming the street, are the kids’ voices. They’re laughing and shouting again, throats all greedy and sticky and thick. As they get louder, I smile and look to Jack for some hint of recognition, but his face is empty and his eyes are trained forward. The purple rubber skin under his lower lids falls into something darker the farther we get from the last live street lamp before the sharp fluorescence of the highway.
He’s all used up.
We’re waiting, courting the damp air. The juice bar’s green and pink neon sign hums thirty feet above us. I’m counting the seconds it takes the light at the intersection to change. Jack’s stretched out along the baseboard, which anchors the two poles that hold up the sign. His head leans against one pole and his feet are flat against the other like he’s resting in the scoop of a hammock. He’s got one eye closed and the other watching all that mutant color vibrating in the thick tubes of glass.
He says we have to wait. “Management doesn’t like boyfriends coming around. Too much trouble,” Jack says. “The bouncer let’s me sneak in after last call.”
Jack wags his finger toward the far end of the near-empty parking lot. A monster of a Harley is edged up next to the chain link fence. “That’s his bike. He’s been with the Pagans damn near 40 years,” Jack tells me, and I nod. This part of the county isn’t short on bullshit biker gangs, all of them filled up with ‘roid-retarded Irish pricks with a couple sleeves’ worth of gothic cross tattoos.
The Pagans aren’t bullshit, though. The month before, my boss at the paper told me to lay off a story about a girl’s body washing up in Port Monmouth. All my sources–even a couple of the cops–were saying she’d been a Pagan’s old lady, that it had ended badly.
I tell this to Jack and he frowns, says some of the guys he works construction with are Pagans. “Most of them aren’t like that. Pagans don’t kill girls. I’m not saying one of them couldn’t have had a meth freak-out on his girlfriend. Just most of them wouldn’t go that far.”
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” I say, and I don’t like myself for saying it but I don’t know how to make it untrue. We’re quiet then and the wind’s petting the side of my face in slow, heavy gusts. I get this cold at the back of my throat and suddenly I vomit at my feet. Jack laughs and I look away from him, out to the highway, and hope for him to close his eyes so I can be alone with this feeling, this wet-walled empty of me.
I don’t care about the dead girl who floated up bloated and blue on the beach, her skin melting. I’ve already convicted her for her mistakes, for ending up a victim. If I had written that article I would have told her story and made it sing. I could have fought to tell it and I would have won. My editor owes me. But I’ve been bored by the world for a long while. There isn’t much I’d trouble my sleep over–I wish there was. I know there used to be.
The clouds part over the bay long enough for a loose, pearl string of stars to cut into the open patch of sky. The neon sign goes out overhead and I can see the stars clearer and Jack’s saying, “It’s time.” I back peddle toward the bar, giving my eyes over to the sky. The heavy jeans fall under my heel and I manage to drag through my mess. I shake the excess off my pant leg and turn away from the highway and the cracking rush of the gray, stormy bay sitting out a quarter mile past it.
Jack shies back from the entrance, grinning softly at the tops of his shoes.
“Oh, please, monsieur–allow me,” I say. The heavy wooden door is stuck, sunk just below the frame so I have to lift it to get it open. I struggle to pull the handle up while Jack laughs behind me. The door swings open and I’m forced back with the musty draft of air from inside.
Several dancers file out as house music from the bar’s speakers reverberates into the parking lot. They’re these fine-spun, endless creatures with tensed, long limbs untangling over and over again out the door. They tower over us, glowing gold. We have to tilt our heads up to see their sharp faces, taut and glittered and pouting. Girls like that belong somewhere we aren’t–behind locked doors to private clubs and Atlantic City penthouse suites. You see girls like that walking past you and you disappear, become some phantom whimpering underneath the persisting tide of nymphs.
The beehive storm of strippers splinters, spreads across the parking lot as each makes her way to her car. Jack’s gray-bearded, burly Pagan bouncer lingers behind the last of them and eyes the fence-line dutifully for any foul freak or player.
The drink is breathing in me again and I start laughing. I hop from foot to foot and then spin furiously, arms outstretched and chopping the air. Jack’s watching me tip toe back to him, my wrists bent back delicately, thumbs pinched to middle fingers like I’m carrying my tiny secrets back to him.
I fall into his chest and cup my hand to his ear. “Know something?” I say. “Know something? Not a one of them is real.” I slide backwards and throw my arms into the air, reaching my hands wide until the webbing between my fingers strains in the damp air. I let my head roll along the top of my spine. “They’re not real,” I scream. “They’re ethereal.” My voice catches in the air and bounces back to Jack and me.
Her painted nails look like purple bullets. She runs one along the rim of her cloudy water glass, letting a couple gray flakes slip down from the lip of the glass and float onto the surface of her drink. She leans an elbow and a heavy tit against the damp laminate of the bar.
“What are you looking for? Money?” she asks, taking the unlit cigarette Jack’s offering. Jack pats down his pockets for a lighter but a business suit has already leaned in from a stool behind her with an open matchbook and a flame. The suit calls her Dahlia. She’s Dahlia here. It’s a fine thing, a hiding place in a name. Everybody should have some foreign skin to crawl into. I wonder if she’s Dahlia or Dani for Jack. I wonder if he gets to keep his name or if she makes him give it up. Mr. No Body. Clean and reborn for Dahlia or Dani or whoever she is.
She cups the suit’s hand for the fire and thanks him in a flat, disinterested voice that he leans in to hear. She pulls back from the bar, her pale skin gummy and stretching at the gloss of the countertop before it peels off slowly, leaving her pink.
She walks past us, past the door of the Rama Room and the private stalls, past the rows of round black tables edged up too close to one another. Jack follows so I follow. An Indian in a button down dress shirt and khakis, Lucent ID tag still clipped to a belt loop, grabs her ass, begs her for something. She keeps walking and the edge of her dark red hair sways at the small of her back, waving goodbye to him. She leads us to a far corner where a bulb in the track lighting has burned out and all we can make of each other is outline and shadow. Jack motions for me to follow him into the booth.
“She doesn’t look like the other girls,” I whisper to him. It’s not an insult. She’s Bettie Page, Jean Harlow—round, fierce, full woman. She doesn’t fit this place.
“She doesn’t have to. She’s a fetish girl.” Jack tells me. “The freaks are everywhere. Some are just cleaner about the masks they wear in public.”
Dani puts a knee to the foam seat with her shin dropped down behind her, leaving an imprint in the maroon plastic cover as she rolls from one side of her ankle to the other. She rests her arm along the top of the booth seat and leans her torso back so that the bare span of her hips juts out toward us. Her bush is bright red, wild–not a hair trimmed. It crawls across the lower half of her stomach and brushes against the top of her thighs. I want to ask her how she gets away with it, especially in a place like this, but I just ride my tongue along the inside of my lower rack of teeth.
I fidget in my seat, pushing my ass deep into the booth and resting my chin on my forearm on top of the unsteady table. I watch my fingertips drill the counter rapidly.
“You’re going to get me fired if you keep coming around like this,” Dani says. The ash tray is at her side of the table but she flicks the end of her cigarette at the ground.
Jack says, “You can’t get fired.” Then he smiles and laughs, and Dani smiles back without any teeth, nodding. There’s something passing there between them, some secret, but I don’t know what it is. I’m not all that interested in knowing.
They’re still talking but I’m not taking any of it in. I dig my thumb under some duct tape covering a gash in the booth seat. I twist my fist into the foam under the cut, pushing it back down to the wood as I survey the room.
The Indian’s gone and the leather-faced bouncer is teasing the bartender, running these slow, unassuming lines on her as she wipes down the counter with her thick-veined hands. She’s laughing and fixing loose chunks of dirty blond hair back behind her ears. His voice keeps coming, steady and deep and wet–rusting out her armor. The crystal of her eyes is wearing out; they’re tearing up, she’s laughing so free and hard.
The suit is the only other one left in the place. His glass is empty and he’s chewing on his ice. The bartender and bouncer are working each other over just behind him, but the suit’s watching Dani.
When I turn back to us, our scene’s changed. Jack isn’t next to me anymore. His face is pressed up against Dani’s thigh. He’s whimpering into the pink fuzzy dice tattooed on the side of her hip. I wish I’d noticed the tattoo before. I’m wondering what numbers she has facing out to the world.
I can’t make out what Jack’s saying. His words are all mashed up and drowned in salt and snot and saliva. Dani takes the lock of hair at the top of his neck and measures it out between the scissor of her index and middle fingers. She ashes her cigarette onto the ground again, twirls it up and, glancing across the room, waves it at the suit. “One minute,” she mouths to the suit, still signaling with the cigarette.
Jack swallows his mess down a few times and the words are cutting clear now. “Come home, would you? Just come home,” he’s saying again and again and again until her thigh tenses and he knows she’s hearing him. “I can’t take this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want you home. You listening to me? I want you home.” Jack grabs her hard at the hips and stands up. His jaw is solid and he’s pushing his whole body up against her, breaking into any personal space she was keeping from him. But nothing about him could look hard or threatening next to her–she’s got half a foot on him, even without the heels.
Dani rubs a thumb along his sideburn and shakes her head “no” at him, clicking her tongue into her cheek.
Jack isn’t persuaded. He starts his chant again, “Come home, come home.” He’s getting louder and the bartender and the bouncer are watching. So is the suit. He’s got his jacket draped over his lap and one of his hands is in his pocket.
I’m watching them watching us when Jack’s voice cuts out all muddled and hissing. The table under my arm kicks up and wobbles back safely onto the floor with a tinny rattle, sending the ash tray rolling along its edge to the floor.
Dani’s made a dove of her hands and collapsed it on Jack’s neck, crushing it against the wall. Jack’s skin is pulsing out in folds between the rows of Dani’s long fingers. She doesn’t do it like I do it, joking like. She’s systematic about it, easing up a few seconds for him to catch a breath before cutting off his air again. Jack’s spit is caked white at the corner of his mouth and his eyes are gelled over and misshapen in the middle of that flat red face blooming from the stem of Dani’s hands. I get to thinking he could be some flustered sun in the middle of a baby’s mobile, sending grinning, absent faces of spoons and moons and cows spinning above a captive audience.
He starts kicking his heels wildly at the wooden base of the booth. I don’t want to be here anymore. My shoulder tugs up to the back of my ear and I hide into it, turning my face away after Jack’s foot sounds several dull thuds against the baseboard. I bend down to pick up the ashtray and light a cigarette, hoping they’ll tire of their show.
The granddaddy Pagan bouncer is done with us. He’s off his stool and his steel-toed boots are cracking along the floorboards toward our dark, dusty corner.
“That’s enough,” the bouncer says, humored but tired. “Let him go.” The bouncer doubles Dani’s body–arms on top of arms, the denim trunks of his legs bowed along the soft lines of her powerful thighs. He wraps his hands around Dani’s forearms and breaks her wrists away. He pulls her back a few steps and hugs her down to the ground. He guards over the heaving, damp pile of her until she stops struggling against his grip.
“Call it a night,” he tells her. The red shroud of hair above her white, hunched body bobs up and down in reply and the bouncer eases up. As his thick, knotted fingers go soft she wrenches her arms free, spiteful in the face of this kindness he’s offering her. The sound system cuts out in the middle of the Steve Miller Band chug chug chugging through some lazy guitar work. The lights flash on, white and blinding, exposing each of us in a frozen, awkward posture.
Dani’s blotched moon face rises from under her red veil, and her illusion rips away. At least in the drunken darkness you could pretend she was somebody. Now she’s just a dirty, ruined prom queen. Her mascara has turned into a greasy web glued to her brow bone, and the glitter of her pink eye shadow has spread across her face, settling along the flat oily plain of her cheeks where her foundation has melted away. Dani’s got a crass, filthy anger pouring through those wide eyes she’s tightened up on the bouncer. He raises his hands palms up, defensive, and walks away mumbling, “Get going, Dani. We’re closing up.”
Jack’s coughing into his fist and sliding down the booth toward me. His face is pointed up at the ceiling because under his fist he’s hiding a smile in that loose mouth of his. He snaps his fingers twice and points toward my cigarette. I hand it to him and he takes two slow drags, nods, and gives it back. His lips are still pinched in that lousy grin when he looks over his shoulder at Dani.
“I need some money or some scotch,” he tells her.
She stands slowly, leaning against the seat of a chair as she regains her balance on the glass stilettos. Dani’s chin is resting on her chest, eyes to the ground, and her hands are on her hips, but barely. Her fingers are folded in, her purple nails settled in the hollow cup of her palm. Her knuckles block out enough of the tattoo that I still can’t make her numbers.
“Come to the back. I’ll see what I have,” she says, turning away and stroking the backs of her hands down the face of her thighs.
He takes the peach schnapps down sloppy. It leaks out from a corner of his mouth. His small fingers probe the sticky rivulet crawling along his chin. He flattens his hand against his face and slurps up the remainder from the meat of his palm.
“Pass it along, brother sir,” I say. His wet lips shine back the light angling in from the highway and he nods and tilts the open bottleneck my way. I don’t know if I really want what’s left of the bottle, but it seems about right. There’s not much else to do.
The air’s drying out and the highway’s quiet. “It doesn’t make any sense,” I say. The trees are all wrong and the storefronts rising out from behind the road medians are all wrong. I can’t remember any of it. The whole scene looks refracted and distant. I eye up the parking lot, grasping for something familiar, something taking a shape to right. “Which way did we come in?” I ask, keen on the sound of my own voice cutting into the silence.
Jack grabs me gently at the elbow and leads me across the lot. I can make out our road and it warms me.
“How’s your little brother doing, anyway?” he asks.
I lick the lip of the schnapps bottle then wrap my palm around the it like we’re shaking hands. I lift it back over my shoulder and throw high and fast at a fat tree trunk at the edge of the parking lot fence. The bottle spins base over neck and explodes against the bark.
“He’s fine,” I say. “How are your people?”
He shrugs and works a hangnail off his middle finger, spitting it into the road. “They’re okay.”
We shouldn’t be asking about all of our others—it’s a savage business. They’ve been beyond repair for months, years. What’s nice, though, is that we’re at that place past being sore about them. With these years we’re wearing, memory takes those first lumpy baby steps into the haze. Neither of us mentions the fathers by name, though. We owe each other the courtesy.
I squint down the block, searching out my pack of kids. A frosty sheen has started capping off the brown-gray blades of grass in the thin, overgrown patch running the length of the curb. The cold chased my kids away. The pussies.
In high school, Jack and I never skipped out on any black, holy night we had free. The cold months were best because the air conditioner in Jack’s Trans Am was broken and the thing would overheat if you farted too hard.
We’d drive to the other end of the county and speed along the dead part of Route 33 that cut through hundreds of acres of flat, open farmland. We’d pull off into a dead end that ran just parallel to the highway. You had to exit sharp off 33 and ease your car down a steep slope. The thing was a quarter mile long and hidden in thick brush. Best we could figure, it was supposed to be a resting place for truckers. We never saw any, though.
He’d turn his lights off as Elvis Costello crooned and we’d crawl up into the backseat, lying on our sides, chest to chest, hands gripped on hips. It’d been a long time since I remembered that.
“Hey,” I say, voice low and careful, “you think you could use your hand on me when we get back?”
He winces and I turn my head to the ground quickly because I don’t want to know any more.
“I’ll put my mouth on you if you hurt me. Make me worship you,” he tells me.
“That’s not what I want. I want to see you when I’m close. I think that’s what’s been missing,” I say.
“A mouth is better than a hand.”
“Not for me.”
“I can’t give you that. It’d be too strange going back there. I’m past that.”
I breathe in deeply, slowly and let it out without any sound.
He stops and hooks his thumbs into the waist of his jeans. Nodding, he takes his tongue over his lower lip, letting his mouth rise into a smile. The fog is starting to creep back from the slick, cold road. He stares through the fog, far back there, confident in a memory.
“What are you about?” I say and he just shakes his head and laughs, starts walking again.
His steps are lighter, more assured, and he lets the weight pour into his shoulders, lifting his thin chest and exposing the underside of his distended belly. This time of night he’s a slothful sort of drunk, eager to slip into some easier version of himself: someone younger, less compromised.
“Here I was thinking you’d turned to stone,” Jack says. “It’s all made up. You’re as raw a recruit as ever.”
He tries snaking his hand through my arm but I turn sideways and amble ahead, letting his hand slide back out.
He stops again, heavy on his heels, thumbs back in his waistband. I’m not waiting on this. I’m bounding ahead with my chin slinking down my chest. My ears are hot and my throat is dry, splintered.
“Hey,” he shouts behind me, “remember that time, that one winter you were back from college? All of us were in Red Bank and we were coming out of the Broadway Diner and there was a homeless guy sleeping on the bench there, remember? We all wanted to go smoke a bowl in Marine Park and we started walking ahead but you just kept standing by the homeless guy’s feet, like watching him. Do you remember that? We were all the way down the block before somebody noticed you weren’t there and I had to go back and get you. I was standing right next to you and you didn’t turn. You just kept in this trance, watching him. Then you mumbled something about ice forming on his mustache, remember? You were so pretty and affected by the whole thing that I couldn’t laugh at you.”
I pop the collar of my jacket over my neck and break into a jog as he continues shouting at me.
“And remember that ugly, legless kid we saw waiting outside some skee ball arcade on the boardwalk? I thought you were going to run up to his wheelchair and offer up your open veins.”
He starts laughing, a filthy, rusted cackle. And the closer I get to his apartment building, the louder the cackle splits into this fine, violet sky until it stops abruptly. I settle into the doorframe and slide to the ground, pulling my legs into my chest. I fold my arms on my knees
His feet clop along the sweaty concrete. He slows around the corner, taking softer steps the closer he comes to the door. He settles on the faded, gag-gift doormat. The perfect script reads “Go away” where the “Welcome” should be.
He turns to face me or, at least, I watch his legs turn to face me. I won’t look above his knees. If I caught a glimpse of Jack’s smooth mouth or his head cocked whimsically to the side, I might soften. I’d regret that.
He nudges my shin with the toe of his shoe, waves my leg back and forth gently. I don’t look up. I’m not strong, understand—I’ve just played this out a few too many times before. Drama can warm up somebody else’s groin. Me? I’m Goddamned tired.
Jack unlocks the door. I crawl through the hole and stumble to my feet in the darkness.
Warm drops of water are beaded down my exposed neck when I wake up. Jack’s standing at the toilet next to me, finishing up with his tired trail of piss. The top button of my jeans is loose and my hand is limp, clamped between my thighs. I fell asleep on the rim of the tub.
“Morning, lady,” he says, smoothing back thick clumps of greasy hair.
I wipe the urine from my neck with the back of my hand. “You got the time?”
I slide out of the cramped corner, the muscles along my neck strained and burning. I try to slide behind Jack but he grabs my arm and pulls me up against him. He nudges my damp cheek with his chin, nodding at the mirror on the medicine chest.
“Look,” he says. “It’s us again.”
Years and years ago, when we first started having sex, we used to stop each other in front of mirrors–bedroom mirrors, bathroom mirrors. We’d put our flushed faces together, skin all lit to a slow burn underneath, and we’d sway and stare and smile, knowing something.
I scratch at the gloss of the memory, trying to get the taste of the live metal tinge back under my tongue. My mouth is dry and my reflection is yellow and thin and dull. I feel awkward, numb in the pose. I smile briefly at our worn faces in the mirror.
“It’s us dirty and hung over,” I say, patting his pale chest.
He grins, eyes falling down to catch mine. “Okay,” he hums irritably and lets me go.
I walk out of the bathroom and trip into the kitchen, one hand grazing a hallway wall for balance. Dani’s sitting at a square folding table. She stares over the torn cover of People magazine through thick framed glasses as her spoon clinks against the edge of her ceramic cereal bowl. She’s got on jeans and a white, button down blouse. Her dark red hair is wet from a shower and tied back into a neat knot. The foundation spackled across her face is a shade lighter than her pale skin. A naked bulb peers through a cracked lighting fixture hanging from the kitchen ceiling, cutting alive every bump and crease she’s tried to hide.
She raises her eyebrows above the edge of her glasses and glances at me. I’ve been acknowledged.
“Hey,” I say, flicking my hand up in a lazy wave. She lowers her gaze and I disappear into the safety of the open refrigerator door.
I grab the orange juice and crane my neck toward her. “You need anything from here?” I say and stare and she stares and doesn’t say anything. “‘Cause the door was open and I didn’t know… if you wanted anything, I could…” I mutter softly until my voice disappears altogether.
Her spoon keeps tap tapping at the bowl like a high-pitched violin note, stretched thin and faltering. I pull a short, chipped glass from the sink. A shallow, clouded pool of liquid has settled in the bottom of the glass. I think it’s the remains of one of my early screwdrivers. I think I don’t care.
I finish pouring the orange juice and when I look at my hand, a slight tremor is pulsing through it. I hold the rest of my body still, watching the flutter. It’s barely there – just a thin wing dragged into the current of a dying swell of wind. I can’t even feel the tremor is what bothers me. I turn my hand over and back in front of my eyes, willing the twitch away. It levels off but won’t stop completely. It’s a new defect to play with.
I sit at a diagonal to Dani and watch limp flakes of pulp float in my drink. I can’t touch it yet. There’s this constant puddle of acid sloshing around in my stomach. I’ve been bored by food lately, disgusted by it. Everything tastes like piss-soaked sand and goes down my throat in knots. I wouldn’t bother with it if I didn’t have to.
My head is nodding away from me, tripping on empty blood. I was the same way last week and I passed out on assignment. The fire chief I was interviewing tugged me into the station house and called the first aid squad over, made something out of nothing. It ate away at my whole afternoon and I wound up having to stay late at the office to finish up two stories and a police brief.
I will drink this orange juice.
Pour that murky, thick mess into this empty belly. Rot me straight through the skin.
I will drink this orange juice.
I grind the edge of my palm into my chin and bite down on a dead, fleshy piece of the inside of my cheek. I cough and grimace and throw the drink into the back of my mouth. It tries to come back up with the rest of my stomach but I dig my heel into the leg of my chair and swallow down against the gag.
A familiar, high-pitched beep squawks out from the living room, reviving the tremor in my hand. My cell phone is hidden in a backpack in some corner of the room, calling me to my voicemail.
I look over at Dani. This awkward, insistent part of me hopes she’s joined me in some conspiracy, some understanding. I snub out the worming want and lower my eyes to the floor before she can see me.
“Hope that wasn’t going off long,” I apologize. Nothing.
There’s a wide gap in the hallway but I press my body against the wall, tucking my thin limbs back so as not to touch or disturb her as I slide past the table. She doesn’t raise her face from the magazine cover and all I get of her is the side of her pale, glazed mask.
Jack’s wide, bare feet paddle the wooden floor into the kitchen just as trip into their living room. “Hello, my lovely lovelies,” he says.
I’m squatting behind the couch, elbow deep in my bag. I’m pushing around council meeting agendas, press releases, half-filled notebooks, micro cassettes, sharp plastic shards of broken pens and a couple of used up car fresheners. My phone screeches out again from an undisturbed side pocket and the excavation is over.
I brush crumbs and pencil shavings from my cell phone’s screen and blink. Twelve missed calls from the weekly newspaper office I work at, the first at 6 a.m. Six voice mail messages left. Before I realize what this is, I can taste the cool, copper tinge of blood coated over the hole I had gnawed into my numb cheek earlier. Air cuts sharp against the wound and I realize that my mouth is open and I’m smiling, showing teeth, tongue at the corner of my lips.
I’ve fallen into a crack in time. Worlds are dying, worlds are being resurrected. I’m being called in to ride on the vulnerable, tattered edge of it all and bear witness. I’ll get to rein-in a clawing, mouthy bitch of a story. My eyes are blurring over, my skin on fire. I dial into my voicemail.
Major corruption bust. Three of our mayors taken away in cuffs before dawn. We’re tearing up the front page.
Jack’s kneeling in front of Dani’s open lap. She’s swung a leg out from under the table so her torso can face him.
Jack takes Dani’s folded hands and forcefully plies them apart like he’s peeling the skin off a stubborn orange. He stares up at her intently, coaxing her approval. He strains his neck down, keeping his eyes glossy and wide on her until the soft parting of his lips presses against the shallow cave of her palm. He crushes her hands against his cheeks and starts tracing his tongue along the pale underside of her forearms. He gnaws at her skin with each stop.
When he pulls his mouth away to move further up her arm, a layer of her makeup is left wet and smudged. Thin, purple welts emerge from the caked mess, threaded up from her wrist to the inside of her elbow like railroad tracks.
I wonder if it’s Dani or Dalia who fit her with those marks. See, now I know something about the two of her. Neither of her has the stuff to follow through.
I shut off my phone without deleting the messages and start throwing my belongings into my backpack.
Jack’s got Dani’s palms pressed to the back of his neck as he looks over to me, a grin eating away at his face. “I’ve got something in mind, ladies,” he says. “The two of you could help me with it.”
Jack locks onto Dani’s eyes, posing the question a new way without having to repeat it out loud. She shrugs, indifferent but not disagreeable.
“How ’bout it, Annie?” Jack says, tonguing the tips of Dani’s fingers.
I shake my head at him like I’m confused about what he’s asking. “I have to get going. I’ve got work. It’s been a time, though. Hell, if it hasn’t been a time.”
Jackie Corley is a journalist, writer and book publisher based in New Jersey. She developed the monthly online literary magazine Word Riot in March 2002. Word Riot Press, an independent publishing company, evolved out of the magazine in January 2003. She established Word Riot Inc., a nonprofit benefiting literary culture and small press writers, in July 2011.
In recent years she has published Baby by Paula Bomer, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, and praised by Jonathan Franzen; Look! Look! Feathersby Mike Young, which was featured in Nylon Magazine; What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour Through New Jersey edited by Joe Vallese and Alicia A. Beale, which was named a 2010 Beach Read by New Jersey Monthly; and Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca, which won the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella.
In her capacity as a journalist, Jackie currently works in Central Jersey as an associate regional editor for Patch, AOL’s nationwide network of hyperlocal news and information sites. As a community journalist, her reporting has run the gamut of business features and police and fire coverage to politics and government and breaking news, including detailed coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Jersey Shore.
She runs a lot and plays guitar badly.
10/7 Matt Potter
10/21 Steve Glines