Memorial Day Traffic
I arrived in Newmarket, New Hampshire at precisely 10:46 p.m. I had left Portland, Maine one hour, twelve minutes, and six cigarettes ago. I parked my car, slung my grandfather’s WWII military issue satchel over my left shoulder, and trudged into a three story apartment complex with the lack of energy accompanying nine hours of work in a retail chain. I was here to visit Joe.
Upon entering Joe’s apartment, I was immediately informed we were being picked up at five a.m. to drive to Branford, Connecticut. Our mission was to relocate our friend Holly’s life to Newmarket, Joe’s apartment to be exact. Our driver would be Kellen, an affable loaf of a New Englander’s dream, six foot six with long brown beard and hair. The three of us would arrive in Branford somewhere around 9:30 a.m. Upon which we would become four. I nodded an understanding affirmation of the situation. I would have to wake up at five.
It was approximately three cigarettes and four hours later, when Joe and I laid our heads to rest at 2 a.m. We had wrapped ourselves into a tizzy working on a story idea. It was Zane’s Zoo, a depiction of life’s battles through the medium of talking animals. Joe had paced. I had typed. When we called it quits, I stripped to my underwear and fell asleep on his couch.
I dreamt of a lush field stretching upward becoming sky. A banner waved over the horizon in a two dimensional fashion. A lion’s face, complete with mane, popped into view with a shit-eating grin and told me “my time to arise had come. The journey was long and hard, and we needed to avoid the Memorial Day Traffic.” I woke up to Kellen standing over me. I had forgotten it was May 28, 2005, another year, another holiday. I struggled to open my eyes. A cup of coffee and cigarette later, I was ready to depart. It was quarter to six and we were running late.
Driving down the highways in the dawn hours is an experience I have rarely enjoyed. I rubbed my eyes and decided music could medicate my situation. I pressed the volume wheel causing the speakers to gargle. The station was static mixed with garbled blasts of a spokesman’s voice. I lit a cigarette.
“What’s he saying?” I asked Kellen.
“I dunno, probably a traffic report.”
“My favorite,” Joe quipped from the back. “I love when they throw in the station tag line, it’s like a chorus.”
I laughed. Kellen joined in.
“I’ll hunt for something else,” I said.
I leaned over to punch the search button.
“95 is relatively clear of traffic on this beautiful Memorial Da-,” I pressed the seek button and the traffic report was silenced. It took three revolutions through the stations to find a song. It was The Who’s Teenage Wasteland.
I laughed. “It’s funny to think my dad used to listen to this. The angsty music of his time, ya know.”
“Rebel rock,” Kellen injected.
“It would be odd to think of Jim’s dad as a rebel,” Joe stated.
“Maybe he would be a Christian one,” I said. “The type with a studded cross on the back of his black, leather jacket.”
Joe laughed and Kellen did too.
“I could never imagine my dad as a rebel,” Joe said. “All he says is puns. Could you imagine a metal head cracking vaudeville jokes?”
“It’s a good song though,” Kellen said.
“Just kinda funny. I couldn’t imagine getting upset and putting on The Who,” said Joe.
“I could see it,” Kellen replied. The radio fuzzed out for exactly six seconds. “Goddamnit. I hate this antenna. It’s so damned finicky.”
“It’s cool. The wasteland’s back. We’re good,” I replied.
I opened up the shotgun window and tossed my cigarette out. If it hit a dried leaf, a forest fire would ensue. It would be battled by state paid rangers, firemen, and reporters. They would win. No battle lasts indefinitely. The endless toil would kill the ratings. And there are so many other forests to burn.
We cruised the 95’s from 4 to 3, in a rusted blue, Volvo, station wagon, a beast of a mobile, affectionately entitled “The Battle Wagon.” It shot windshield fluid across the hood rather than the windshield and received twenty-five miles a gallon going eighty the whole trip. Three hours and forty-nine minutes later, with eight deceased cigarettes and a new pack in my faded jeans, we arrived at Foxon Drive to pick Holly up.
She lived with her father and her reason for leaving was sound. Her father, since becoming single, paraded around proclaiming, “I hate fags.” This line was irksome to Holly, her being a lesbian and all. A summer of father-daughter time sounded less than enticing. We arrived and she groaned. She had stayed up late drinking and needed a few minutes to compose.
Holly stumbled with the grace of a sloth to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. I heard the choked sound of stale vodka fighting its way up her esophagus then the splash of toilet water and vomit. It was reminiscent of a dog dying. She exited the bathroom and dumped clothes into an old, black, duffel bag. Under her breath I swore I heard her mumble, “fucker.”
Kellen and I walked outside to give Holly a few minutes. We sat next to a dumpster beside the Battle Wagon. I stripped to my undershirt, enjoying the sunshine falling across my white shirt missing the sleeves with a handwritten “SpeeR” in black sharpie on the chest. The word carried the history of the German armaments and munitions minister during the Second World War. He was renowned for his organizational abilities, keeping the track beneath the Nazi war machine, the only defendant at Nuremberg who pled guilty. The shirt was my older brother’s. I needed to schedule a laundry day but hadn’t gotten around to it.
Kellen and I dumpster dived while we waited. A garish toy chest caught my attention. With Kellen’s help, we pulled it out of the trash and crammed it into the Battle Wagon’s trunk. Then I went back in for more goodies.
Holly walked outside with the black bag over her left shoulder. Joe followed behind. I climbed out of the green dumpster. Kellen scratched his beard.
We climbed into the wagon and drove away with a child’s toy chest splattered with ducks in fashionable capris pants, a duffel bag full of ill packed clothes, and a hungover lesbian wearing wrap-around, ray ban sunglasses.
We stopped at an I.G.A. to stock up on provisions. This was a road trip and peanut butter sandwiches on Wonderbread were in order.
In the store, I laughed at the local brewer of carbonated beverage treats, A Foxon Park bottle filled to the brim with unusually, bright liquid. Holly informed me their birch beer was quite delicious, so I put away my cynicism and with $1.63, supported their fledgling business. Joe bought a two-pound bag of gumdrops. Kellen purchased the bread and peanut butter. Holly decided Snapple and donuts would be the best breakfast for her head. We left the parking lot, a cigarette burning in my hand. It was number three since Branford.
I turned on the radio. A blast of static exhaled through the crinkling speakers.
“Can we go without any music?” Holly asked. “My head isn’t up for it.”
“Hung over a bit, are we?” Kellen questioned.
“Yeah, a bit.” Holly laughed. “I feel like shit.”
I nodded. I knew the feeling. I’ve never enjoyed the morning after excessively drinking.
Joe held a blood-red gumdrop up and placed it into his open mouth. He chewed with the exaggeration of a deer in hunting season.
“Fingernails astound me,” Joe stated.
“You’re in school for biochemistry and fingernails astound you?” I said before I gave a quick laugh. “I figured cellular stuff would seem crazier.”
“How come?” Kellen asked taking the bait.
“Their purpose,” Joe replied. “What is it?”
“To be bitten,” I replied with a chuckle.
“Scratching an itch that’s bothering you,” Kellen guessed.
“Putting inside a vagina,” Holly joked. We all took a second to chuckle.
“To kill and maim,” Joe answered.
“A little morbid,” I said.
“Evolutionarily speaking, fingernails were made to kill prey, I think.”
“Never thought about it that way,” Holly remarked.
“Makes sense,” said Kellen.
“So, why’s that funny?” I asked.
“Cause now-a-days we only use them to open child proof aspirin bottles, or scratch an annoying itch,” Joe said. “It feels like we lost one of our best defenses.”
“What about their vaginal purposes?” asked Holly.
“Well I imagine fingers are the more important factor in that equation,” I stated. “Fingernails are more secondary in the sense they add structure, but no real substance.”
“You just don’t know how to use a fingernail when you’re with a classy lady,” Kellen said.
“Is it any different from how I use them with a two dollar whore?” Joe asked.
“Of course,” Holly replied. “A two dollar whore deserves a two dollar finger bang. A high class lady, on the other hand, needs some fingernail tickling, scratching, and gentle pinching.”
“So you fuck girls differently depending on their social standing?” I asked.
“Why not?” Joe said. “It’s a good way to remind them of their place in this world.”
“The real question,” Kellen stated, “is whether you would even use your fingernails on a middle class woman.”
“A soccer mom?” Joe asked.
“A m.i.l.f.,” Holly added.
“Mother I’d like to fuck!” Kellen shouted.
“These are the same fingernails used to kill and maim?” I questioned.
“Keeps people in their place,” Joe restated.
“Reminds me of the Pareto optimal system,” I said.
“Ooh, Mr. Economics came out of the silence,” Holly said. Then she closed her eyes and remained silent for the duration of the conversation. I think her drinking binge was hard to forget, and right now she needed a nap to settle her stomach. She rested her head on the pillow laid out in the back seat. I am not positive, but I think she fell asleep.
“What’s a Pareto optimal system?” Joe asked.
“It’s where no change in society could be made if any one individual were to be worse off,” I recited.
“Sounds nice,” said Kellen.
“It was developed by an Italian fascist in the thirties,” I responded. “It’s fucked if you think about it.”
“Why?” Kellen asked while unscrewing the lid of a peanut butter jar.
“If three people held all the wealth and one couldn’t even afford food, you couldn’t give him food. It would be taking away from the wealthy ones. They get less, and that’s bad. It’s fucked to call that optimal.”
Kellen nodded agreement and offered me a slice of bread, smothered in peanut butter that was chunky. I brightened considerably and realized, “I’ve never smoked a bowl in Connecticut before.”
“Well, Christ on a bike, Jim!” Kellen exclaimed. “We need to remedy that immediately.”
“Why not a panacea?” I laughed.
Joe declined due to the need of a real job, and the fact biotech plants piss test with relative accuracy. Holly mumbled her negation through the pillow’s stuffing, figuring the alcohol and tetrahydrocannabinol would be ill at ease. I guess she hadn’t fallen asleep. Kellen and I puffed a few each. Then I ate the peanut butter sandwich he had given me. I have always preferred chunky.
Our conversation took a bizarre turn as we started telling quick jokes.
“What’s the difference between mayonnaise and sperm?” -Beat- “Mayonnaise doesn’t hit the back of your throat at twenty miles an hour,” Kellen quipped.
I, in turn, thought of one I could contribute. Joe was quicker, telling the tale of an amorous rooster taking on chickens, vulchers, and geese. We laughed, and he apologized for tripping over his words.
“What do you call a black guy flying a plane?” I supplied to the mix. Joe and Kellen wrinkled their foreheads in thought. “A pilot, you racists!”
The weed had kicked in and I was struck by the fact it was 10:30 a.m. I had been in the car four hours, forty-five minutes, fourteen cigarettes, and McDonald’s was still serving its breakfast menu.
“Does anyone else want flapjacks?” I asked.
“I could go for some flutterbobs,” Joe quipped.
“Hmmm, interesting thought. How many flapjacks we talking?” asked Kellen.
“I dunno,” I said turning my head to catch the fleeting greenery. “I expect we would get a plateful.”
“Isa play tef ul e nuff?” mumbled Holly. Her lips dragged against the pillow’s linen as she spoke.
“What?” Joe asked. Holly slightly tilted her head.
“Is a plateful enough?” Holly muttered. “God, Joe.” She looked out the window. I wonder if she saw her dad’s face painted on the leaves of the trees. When the wind blew, would the branches creak “fag”?
“A plateful seems like a vague description,” Kellen said. He pulled out a cigarette, ripped off the filter, and lit up.
“It’s vague,” Joe said. “At the same time it’s so specific. If I say a plateful of food you can vividly imagine it. We’ve all had a plateful of flapjacks before. We all know exactly what it looks like, how it tastes, when we’ll get sick of eating them. We have all the details needed to envision our flapjacks, but we have no idea how many that is.”
“Some one thought about that for way to long,” I joked. Joe laughed.
“Hmm, last one,” Kellen said shaking an empty Camel pack.
“You can have some of mine,” I assured him.
“We should drive west,” Joe said suddenly.
“What?” Kellen replied.
“Seriously, we should do a for real road trip. The four of us, it would be great. Just turn west and we’ll drive for a couple of days.”
“A road trip?” I questioned.
“It’ll be better than the Key West one,” he said to me. I remembered it well. Joe and I had visited my sister. We had driven from Durham, New Hampshire to Key West, Florida nonstop with our friends Pat and Ally. By the third day of a week long trip, we were split in twain. The couple and the friends at each others throats, unable to change the other side’s view of what a road trip should be. I hadn’t talked to Ally since we got back.
“What do we do when we get sick of each other?” Kellen asked.
“We won’t,” Joe replied. “It’s impossible. We’d be the perfect actors to recapture the days of Kerouac, Thompson, and Brautigan. We’ll drive till we find route sixty-six, and refuse to stop when it ends.”
I was scheduled to stock empty shelves at 8:45 a.m. the next day. Retail made a three-day vacation seem out of place with a cloud of rent, electrical and heating bills overhead.
“I have work,” I said.
“Call out, tell ‘em you died or something,” Joe argued.
“M tose ick ooh row trif.” Holly added.
“Pick your damn head up when you speak,” Joe said a bit too quickly.
“I’m too sick to road trip,” Holly reiterated.
“I dunno if the battle wagon could handle it. She’s already at 194,” Kellen said referring to the mileage by the thousands.
“But we could do it,” Joe said with emphasis on the “but.” He looked at each of us in turn. I dropped a spent cigarette through my cracked window. Kellen ashed on the ground between his feet. Holly let her head drift back to the pillow. Joe looked down at his bag of gumdrops. He picked a blue one out and nibbled on it. Kellen took the last drag of his cigarette and motioned for me to roll down my window. The Battle Wagon’s driver side window was broken. The passenger had to dodge the spent smoke as it was thrown.
“I don’t want any fucking flapjacks,” Joe said under his breath. I heard him. He gave a bull’s angry grunt and threw the gumdrop into his mouth.
I rolled down my window and leaned back. Kellen took careful aim and threw his spent cigarette past my face. It fluttered out the window and I saw a stutter of sparks in the side view mirror. None of us spoke. Joe looked out the window.
“How far are we from Newmarket?” he questioned.
“I dunno, about three more hours,” Kellen replied.
Holly closed her eyes, and I pretended to nag like a father.
“No daughter of mine will be in a car without a belt across her seat.”
She made an awkward grimace.
“Stop,” Holly said.
“Stop the car!”
“Why?” Kellen asked.
“I’m gonna puke!”
Holly’s breakfast was not mixing with last night’s vodka. We pulled off 395 and I lit a cigarette. We stopped the car at the first driveway we saw. It was owned by a cluster of small houses, surrounding a red, white, and blue sign that read, “American Mobile Home Park.”
I laughed at our predicament as Holly shoved open the door.
“Fuck mobile homes!” she mumbled right before vomiting. Her aim was pointed toward some grass bordering a bush on the community director’s front lawn. She cleansed her body of the Passion Fruit Snapple and chocolate donuts, while Kellen grabbed bottled water and napkins to wash her face and hands. He stepped out of the car, and closed his door. He walked to her side and offered her the napkins, but she declined. Holly crossed the street where she washed herself in a small river, gurgling with suburban purity.
I stayed in the passenger seat watching them through the driver’s side rolled up window. My half smoked cigarette left haze lingering in the air. It was precisely 11:17 when Kellen and Holly turned towards the car. There were no remnants of stomach content on her person as the sun reflected off slight ripples treading water downstream. She smiled and shared a thought. Kellen laughed and the sun bounced off the teeth of a disoriented lesbian and a woodman’s seed. I blinked from smoke and the moment was lost. I realized I would never understand that single second of time ever again. I turned on the stereo and resigned myself to the only station it picked up.
Joe tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a gumdrop. He wasn’t making much ground in his masticating mission of two pounds. I declined, never being a fan of sweets.
The radio was blaring the noise of a Caucasian actor trying to sound Hispanic when Holly and Kellen returned to their seats. He was the cabana boy of the Corona Light bungalow, kindly offering Joe and I tips on how to woo women in the battle of love. Holly laughed and said it had never worked for her. I told a Puerto Rican joke involving a skunk and a seagull. At the punch line Kellen gave a hesitant chuckle then checked to see if the radio had any other stations. The miles tumbled under our wheels and I smoked four more cigarettes in silence as the four of us drove 495 North to Newmarket.
We sang to the one frequency the wagon picked up in this area of Massachusetts. Holly informed us she needed to pull over again. And again Kellen complied with strict adherence to the “No vomit in my car” rule. We pulled off the highway into the center of Chelmsford, Massachusetts Memorial Day Festival. A gaggle of mothers and toddlers wandered in midday sun, clutching plastic cups filled with unnaturally blue juice and American flags. Joe inquired if anyone wanted a gumdrop. There was plenty to pass around. We circled the white tents and patriotic marble cakes, searching for a bathroom stall in which Holly could vomit. We found a mom and pop’s gas station and country store. It was across the road from the green fields of the fair. The bathroom was broken, so, Holly stepped behind the building to do her duty.
A child and a mother played underneath a gas pump, looking hopefully at our car, three road trippers quietly sitting, while a fourth dry heaved out of sight. We wouldn’t claw her from this life. She was too far gone with her Capri khakis and short, wavy hair. Her eyes met mine and I lifted my right hand to my mouth. I turned my head and bit the fingernail of my middle finger.
We left the small parking lot and turned around in an abandoned police station. We took one last look at this historic Chelmsford gathering, before running a red light in front of two cops conversing. They missed our crime, distracted by their conversation. We couldn’t find the 495 North on-ramp, so we settled for South and left Chelmsford forever.
Joe and I decided we needed to piss and a rest area lay half a mile ahead. We pulled in and I finished my butt.
I was the last to enter the bathroom and was informed it smelled like a rustic latrine. The tiled floors stretched up the walls stained with unknown substances. It smelled awful. I resolved not to breath, withdrew my genitalia, and began to pee. My eyes stared straight ahead at the names, numbers, and locations for a free blowjob.
I walked out of the bathroom into the sunlight. An elderly man stared at my shirt, then glanced up for our eyes to meet. There was something in his mourning stare that quieted my initial spite, and left me silent for the next twenty minutes of the car ride.
We turned the car back North, and I disagreed with Kellen’s choice of corporately sponsored songs, as was my right for riding the shotgun seat. I offered him a cigarette to make peace. He ripped off the filter, we lit up, and we were cool again. Holly closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep. Kellen, Joe, and I critiqued old and new examples of exaggerated model T’s.
The miles passed by as the road fell behind. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind brushing against our car -pushing against us, slowing us down. I opened my eyes. We were at a gas station. I guessed we were in New Hampshire. I must have fallen asleep. An elderly woman stood beside the driver side window. She yelled at Kellen, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Kellen laughed. “The Battle Wagon scared her fucking golden retriever. She’s pissed.”
“Where are we?” Holly asked.
“Plaistow,” Joe replied. “Next to Haverhill.”
I looked around. I knew the area. I had spent my teens two towns over. How had I not realized where we were?
The woman pointed frantically toward her car where a big puppy wagged its tail and barked. I wondered what it was saying.
“Let’s go,” I said. “That woman is giving me a head ache.”
“Sure thing,” Kellen said to me. “Fuck off!” he yelled at the woman before he piloted the Battle Wagon out of the gas station. We were thirty minutes away from Newmarket.
I looked at Kellen. “You’d think she would have something more important to do, than yell at us for making a dog bark. I always assumed it was regular occurrence with them.”
Kellen chuckled. “Can I have another smoke? I forgot to grab a pack at the store.”
We drove down the 128 strip of southern New Hampshire. Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and consignment shops passed on both sides. A club stood up ahead. It was called the White Buffalo and had a rainbow flag out front. Holly stared intently at it as it waved in a slight breeze.
“Pull over!” Holly yelled.
Kellen yanked the wheel hard to the right and we screeched into the White Buffalo parking lot. Holly jumped from the car and ran behind the building.
“I’m going to get some air,” I said and stepped out of the car. Holly’s retching bounced off of the brick wall of the White Buffalo. I waited for her to return to our mobile home. I leaned against the hood of the car. I lit a cigarette.
The sound of puking disappeared. Holly stepped out from behind the building. She was slumped as she walked towards me. I waved her back to the Battle Wagon. We were almost at Joe’s.
“Feel better?” I asked.
“It’s mostly just dry heaving,” she replied. “I think I’m done though. There’s nothing left to throw up.”
Holly looked at the rainbow flag and my gaze followed.
“Fag,” she mumbled to herself, but I heard.
Windshield fluid splashed against my face, putting out my cigarette. I jumped back with a “fuck!” Holly laughed. I wiped the spray of water off of my cheek. We both climbed back into the Battle Wagon. I punched Kellen in the arm. He laughed.
Nestled inside, Joe surrendered the sympathy of a salesman offering Holly a bite of gumdrop to ease her pain. “You’re stomach must be devoid of any sustenance. How about a gumdrop remedy?” Holly accepted and Joe had precisely 1.87 pounds of liquefied sugar left in his cellophane bag.
The radio station cut in with singular clarity, a Memorial Day homage playing a tired veteran’s voice. He explained the strategic positions that claimed the lives of once and never again peaceful civilians. An interviewer interrupted to celebrate the victory achieved on the corpses of millions, the glory haunting a generation’s dreams.
The old warrior wove stories of blood stained hills mixed with mortar blasts. Pure guts and steel balls kept you alive. How it never ended even when the guns had stopped. The screams had not. They echoed for a while in the sound of babies laughing, and families growing with the passing of the years. Everyday was a challenge to be faced. Everyday was new, and throughout it you remembered the sight of a man missing the left side of his face, his dog tags illegible in red mud, his right hand missing the ring and middle finger.
Some days you were lost, no matter where you’d go.
Some days your stomach remembered the smell.
Some days you vomited.
Some days you wished you had died for no reason other than the guilt of having survived.
There was something in the moment when I stubbed out the last cigarette of the drive. When the drug had retreated and conversation had all but died. We never needed to go west to confront our dreams. The world had changed, but it was new to me. For, I have never felt the ground revolving underneath my feet as it pirouettes past stars, meteors, and cars. The earth loping along at a precise twenty-three point ninety-three hours per rotation speed in its infinite stride, enduring traditions and monuments where men failed, leaving banners and expectations hanging above my field. We celebrated all that could be sacrificed by congesting highways in the last week of May to remind ourselves, we’re lucky we are where we are today.
Only, the roads were empty this Memorial Day and all I could think was the fact I had smoked 33 cigarettes and needed to buy a new pack.
I walked out the front door of My Love’s apartment building into an eighteen degree Fahrenheit night. The Big Apple Convenience Store was just down the street. No more than a painter’s stroke ahead.
The door shut behind, leaving me in the dark of a starry night. I gave a warm huff to keep the cold from the back of my throat, where words are formed.
I walked down the street. The trees, planted every half block on alternating sides, formed a zigzag pattern as I walked between them. The air felt nicer after a couple of minutes. My body warmed considerably since first stepping out. My sweater was thick with olive green resolve. The wind didn’t creep through. My hands were jammed in the pockets of my pants. I passed three trees – one on the left, two on the right. The limbs framed the sky, clasping at constellations and a cloud-covered moon.
‘Van Gogh,’ I thought. I shivered. I wished I had a cigarette
The Big Apple was two hundred feet ahead, the lights from its roof glaring into the dark, illuminating the pumps, ice box, and oil-stained lot. The sky beyond resembled a weak daybreak. Light lit the tips of my toes then climbed from my legs to my head –gaining ground with each step. My shadow tucked itself into my back pocket as I hopped the curb of the Big Apple.
I walked up the handicap ramp with my head bowed. I nodded as I passed the Big Apple’s Clerk leaning against the front window, smoking a joint.
“Be with you in a minute,” he said.
“Take your time,” I replied. “Just trying to get out of the cold.”
“Best thing to do is move.”
“Yeah, I’ll head to Florida tomorrow.”
We both chuckled. My right hand grabbed the steel handle and I pulled the door open. The temperature change was drastic. A heater was aimed at the door. My left hand left my pocket.
I walked to the cooler in the back of the store to grab a drink. I counted twenty-three colors on each two-foot floor tile. My eyes squinted at the glare.
The Clerk took one last toke and softly stubbed it out, placing the half-smoked roach in his left breast pocket, and walked inside the store. He was in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. A girl’s name written in black ink was tattooed to his right wrist.
I grabbed a ginger ale and headed to the counter.
“That all tonight?” he asked.
“A pack of Turkish Silver?”
The Clerk scanned the twenty ounce plastic bottle and took a step beck. His blue eyes wandered around the shelves above his head.
“I’ll have to open a carton,” he said. “Shelf’s empty.”
I was about to reply, say something along the lines of, “tI’m in no rush,” when the door opened and a man walked into the store. He had a beach’s worth of golden locks spilling out of a bleached hat, pulled low. His pants were denim jeans with a heavy flannel jacket, striped red and forest green, hung to mid-thigh. He looked angry and carried a gun.
“Give me the money, and I leave.”
The Clerk stared at him for a second.
“Give me the money, and I leave.”
The Clerk pushed the touch-screen register. The door dinged open.
The Gunman stepped closer to the counter. I backed away.
“Don’t look at me.”
A Mr. Goodbar seemed especially intriguing. My eyes stared admiringly at its red and brown wrapper.
“What’s this?” The Gunman shouted.
“The money,” the Clerk responded.
“It’s sixty bucks!”
“It’s everything in the cash register,” the Clerk explained. “Most of the money is kept in the safe.”
“Get it out!”
“I can’t. It’s a safe.”
“Bullshit. Find a way.”
“Maybe there’s a code. Hold on, I’ll look.”
The Gunman looked at me.
“What the fuck are you still doing here?”
“I want a pack of cigarettes.”
The Gunman looked at the Clerk. He waved towards me with the gun. “Give him a pack of cigarettes.”
“I was. You interup-”
“Shut up, just get him some smokes.”
The Clerk popped open a carton of Turkish Silver cigarettes. His fingers slipped on the cellophane-wrapped box inside. He pulled a pack out and placed it on the counter next to my ginger ale.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“A Mr. Goodbar.”
“Just take it!” the Gunman yelled. “Now open the safe.”
The Clerk hunted around for a code. The type a lazy manager would scribble on a sticky note to avoid having to remember four digits
I opened up my candy bar and took a bite. I cringed as a back-left tooth burned with a cavity I needed to get fixed. The Gunman turned my way as I took a second bite. The Clerk ducked behind the counter.
The Gunman’s free hand stretched out and grabbed a Mr. Goodbar from the shelf beside me.
“What’s taking so long?”
“Didn’t you read the sign on the door?” the Clerk asked. “The one that said, ‘cash register only has fifty dollars in the drawer. Employees do not have access to safe.’ It wasn’t lying.”
“I thought that was all bullshit,” I said. “Just words to fake out the robbers.”
“It was,” the Clerk responded. “Until the store got robbed four times in one month. Then the owners bought a safe. A safe I can’t get into.”
“Shut up,” the Gunman muttered. He wiped a bit of Goodbar off the side of his mouth. “I don’t need your shit.”
“Do you have dynamite?” I asked.
“What?” the Gunman turned to face me. The revolver remained pointed at the Clerk’s chest –somewhere near the lung, maybe the heart.
“If you had dynamite,” I said. “Like a stick or -“
“Do I look like I have any fucking dynamite on me?”
I held my tongue.
“Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“The Victim,” I said then took a bite of Mr. Goodbar. I winced from the cavity.
The Clerk looked at the safe. “There’s something I should tell you.”
“It’s kinda important,” the Clerk insisted.
The Gunman shoved the gun towards the Clerk’s face, the black steel of the weapon bobbing next to the Clerk’s adam’s apple.
“I will shoot your teeth out!”
I reached for my ginger ale.
“And what the hell are you doing at a gas station this late?”
I looked up. The Gunman was staring at me. The gun was not. My fingers grabbed the bottle’s neck.
“I had a fight with My Love.”
“At three-thirty?” The Gunman half yelled, half questioned. His voice cracked.
“You should have waited until morning,” the Clerk said. His red, button down Big Apple shirt barely flinched as he spoke. I smelled the reek of his stale joint. “That way you’ll at least get some sleep. Then when you wake up, both of you have fogged brains. You won’t remember what to fight about.”
“Pussy shit!” the Gunman explained. He turned to me. The gun followed. It jabbed toward me as he emphasized his point. “You tell that bitch, she’s a bitch, a cum catcher, and nothing more. Don’t pussy out trying to make her all bubbles and fucking smiles.”
The Clerk let out a soft, “Huh.”
The Gunman turned away from me. “What the hell you mean, ‘huh?’”
“Nothing,” the Clerk said.
“The fuck it’s nothing,” the Gunman countered. I took a bite of Mr. Goodbar.
“The way you said it,” the Clerk replied. “It sounded like you got in a fight too.”
I swallowed the melted remains of Mr Goodbar and took a sip of my ginger ale.
“Did you call her a cum catcher?” I asked.
“You want your dick shot off?” the Gunman threatened –I’m not sure who.
The Clerk held his hands up in protest –his right wrist flashing the tattooed name.
“Nice ink,” the Gunman scoffed. “Hope your girl made fun of your sissy ass when she dumped you.”
“How do you know we’re not together,” the Clerk shot back with the petulance of a scolded child.
“Relationships written in ink never last,” I said. “Everybody I know who tattooed a name on their body, ends up single. I had a friend who inked his girlfriend’s astrologic symbol on his hip.”
“What happened to them?” the Gunman asked.
“They’re still together,” I answered. “But they’re miserable.”
“Pussy drip,” the Gunman chuckled at the Clerk.
“Like you’re some genius,” the Clerk snapped back. “You got in a fight with your girl and now you’re here, robbing the Big Apple for sixty bucks.”
The gun lowered, pointing at the Technicolor floor beneath his feet.
“Shut up,” the Gunman took a step closer to the counter. “Open the safe.”
“We’ve been over this,” the Clerk countered. “I can’t.”
The room got a little brighter and redder -then darker -then brighter and bluer.
“What’s that?” I asked the Clerk.
“Cops!” the Gunman shouted. “shitshitshit.” He began to pace, nothing more than a step in each direction with an angry pivot and turn. I took another bite of Mr. Goodbar.
“Can I smoke?” I asked, leaving it open for either one to answer.
“Give me one,” the Gunman responded. He stopped pacing.
“Can I bum one too?” the Clerk asked.
I gave a smoke to each. The Clerk grabbed a lighter from behind the counter. It was solid red with no decoration –priced eighty-nine cents before tax. He lit his cigarette then tossed the lighter to the Gunman who caught it with his left hand, the revolver still firmly clenched in the right.
Out the front window, a single Cop stood beside his vehicle. His head, cocked to the right, shouted at a walkie-talkie clipped to his left shoulder. He was a stocky man with a bullish layer of fat and brunette hair. His mouth stopped moving as his gaze roamed across the glass front Big Apple. We stared at each other. I waved.
“What the fuck you doing waving at the cops?” the Gunman asked, branches of smoke rooting their way through his lips –drifting away from the garish floor.
The Cop outside yelled at his left shoulder again. I couldn’t hear a word he was screaming, but his face was distorted in a cubist’s anger. He thrust a finger at the front door, as if the operator on the other end was standing directly beside him.
“Think fast.” The red lighter hit my left nipple. The Gunman gave a laugh. I caught it against my stomach. I brought the lighter to my face and gave the wheel a sp -a terrific explosion of glass- interrupted me.
I dropped to the floor, my arms thrown over the back of my head. My body sprawled across the twenty-three colors repeating every two feet.
I lifted my head. The front window was missing.
“Sorry about that,” the Cop yelled. He was framed by the jagged outline of where the window had been. He was hunched over the hood of his car –forehead, shoulders, and gun created a pyramid of three dimensions.
“I did not mean to shoot the window,” the Cop shouted. “Is everyone okay in there? Was anyone hit?”
The Gunman was on the ground beside me, his revolver neatly tucked underneath his stomach. Our arms hugging the frantic colored tiles.
“We’re fine,” the Gunman shouted back after a moment of silence.
The Clerk stood behind the counter, a cigarette rack between his head and the Cop.
I stood up. The Cop followed me with his weapon. The Gunman followed my lead -his gun nowhere to be seen. I glanced at the floor, but it wasn’t there.
“Just me and two friends talking, officer,” the Gunman stuttered.
“I saw the gun,” the Cop replied.
“It’s a toy. I was buying it for my kid brother. He’s got a flu.”
The Cop nodded to the Clerk. “You sell toy pistols here?”
“Yeah. We’ve got three cap guns that come together in a ‘Rough and Rowdy’ pack. 2.99 before tax.”
“Pretty good deal,” the Cop decided. He paused for a second –the gun stayed focused on us. “Did he buy a ‘Rough and Rowdy’ pack from you?”
“Not yet,’ the Gunman interrupted. “I was just reaching for my wallet.”
“Good story,” the Cop stated. “Nice twist, but I didn’t see a red tip on your cap gun.”
I took a bit of Mr Goodbar, pulled out a new Turkish Silver, and swallowed the chocolate. I lit the fresh cigarette. The old one was crumbled in the remains of the front window.
“Fuck,” the Gunman exclaimed. He pulled the gun out from underneath his flannel shirt –striped red and green. “But we was talking.” he added defiantly.
“’Give me the fucking money,’ doesn’t make good conversation where I’m from.”
“No,” I said. “He’s right. We were talking.”
“Who are you?” he asked. “The Accomplice?”
“The Victim,” I said then took a bite of Mr. Goodbar. I winced from the cavity.
“Oh,” the Cop said. “I was wondering why you waved.” His head rose slightly away from the car’s black hood into the bright night above. “What were you talking about?”
“I had a fight with My Love yesterday,” I said. “Well, I haven’t slept yet, so, I guess, it happened earlier today.”
“Yeah, but it’s past midnight,” the Clerk stated.
“Fuck that,” the Gunman said. “Days end when you crash.”
“It’s yesterday,” the Cop stated.
“Yesterday,” I said. “I had a fight with My Love.”
“What was it about?” the Clerk asked.
I took a drag of my Turkish Silver then started.
“We were at an art museum’s souvenir shop,” I explained. “She wanted to buy a print of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’ I thought it was a waste. Everybody has a print of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,’ hanging on their bedroom wall, just to the left of the window. I wanted to get Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ instead. It’s got great potential as household decoration.”
“Good choice,” the Cop said.
“I like ‘Starry Night,’” the Clerk responded defiantly.
“What the fuck are you three talking about?” the Gunman interjected.
“Some paintings,” I said.
“You got into a fucking fight over a couple of paintings?” the Gunman asked, disbelief in his speech. “Paintings?”
“Shut up,” the Cop said. “Let the boy talk.”
“Whatever,” I responded. “It happens. She thought I wanted ‘Guernica because it had a higher level of violence and sexuality. I disagreed and felt she wanted ‘Starry Night’ as a goddamn talk piece. A prop to start meaningless conversations at parties, ‘Oh wow, we have the same painting on our wall,” I said, the last sentence clothed in an irritating tone of voice.
“Makes sense,” the Clerk started. “Art does reflect the individual. At least I figure it should. I’m sure the purpose is to push viewers into their own heads. Interpret the world around them. An argument over Van Gogh and Picasso makes sense.”
“Now, son,” the Cop interrupted the Gunman, “you’re looking at it through the wrong lens. A fight over art just shows she likes to argue about everything. Buying such a popular painting only show’s she is no different than ninety percent of women out there.”
“But we don’t argue that much,” I said. “I was caught off guard. It shook me, ya know. I didn’t know how to respond; I was so angry she said I wanted violence and sexuality.”
“What did you do?” the Cop asked.
I took a long drag off my cigarette before responding.
“I hit her,” I told him. “Nothing hard. A soft smack.”
The Gunman turned his gun on me. “Never hit a hoe.”
“You hit her!” the Clerk guffawed.
“Where?” the Cop asked. “Where’d the fist land?”
“Her left boob.”
“Okay, that’s not too bad,” the Cop responded. “The face would have been a problem. How’d she react?”
“She kicked me in the crotch,” I said. “Brought me to my knees. Then she slapped the side of my head, really hard. I was left holding my testicles, rolling on the floor underneath a stack of ‘Starry Night’ prints.” I paused. “Then she bought one and left.”
“Eye for an eye,” the Cop said.
“You got a good hoe,” the Gunman decided. He nodded his head in slow affirmation of this appreciation. The gun still pointed at my sternum or spleen.
“You two attacked each other?” the Clerk said with a waiver in his voice –brittle as thin ice. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Kids got a point.” the Cop said. “I mea-”
“She’s independent,” the Gunman interrupted. “She stood her ground and kicked your bullshit.”
“Yeah, and I was on the floor for seven minutes. Seven minutes clutching my crotch and gasping for breath as elderly tour groups mingled beside me. All of them asking if ‘I was all right? Did I need anything? You look a little flush. I’ll get some water.’”
“The last thing I needed right then was five cups of water lining my head. I felt like a contemporary art exhibit.”
“Never go back to the museum’s souvenir shop,” the Clerk said with a sad shrug of his shoulders. “I mean literally, you can never show your face there again.”
“I know,” I angrily agreed. “I like having prints on my wall. Now, I have to hope to find Turner and Singer Sargent at poster shops.”
“Pretty big,” the Cop said. “She’s stripped away a piece of you. You’ll look like a baboon rifling through rows of posters in a mall store.”
“Shut the fuck up,” the Gunman said. “You’re fucking with the boy’s head. So what, he won’t go to an art museum’s souvenir shop. There’s a hundred other things you could fucking do.”
“But the boy likes art,” the Cop said.
“You’re focused on the wrong shit,” the Gunman yelled at the Cop. “It’s a small thing. It fucking happens.” The Gunman turned towards me. “You should have just called her out on being a silly bitch. You would have said your piece. It would have been over.”
“I can’t call her a silly bitch,” I said. “She’d get pissed.”
“She already was!” the Gunman shouted. “The worst that would have happened, would be a bunch of oldies hearing ‘fuck’ and ‘shit.’ Being pussy about going back to the store is your problem, not hers.”
“You’re so stupid,” the Clerk said to the Gunman.
The gun swung from my chest toward the Clerk –waving past the Cop.
“You point that pistol at me again, and you’re gonna get shot.” He warned the Gunman.
I took a drag off of my smoke. I exhaled and took a bite of Mr. Goodbar.
The Clerk eyed the gun nervously, taking frequent drags on his cigarette as he did. He looked defiantly at the Gunman.
“Stop pointing that at me!” the Clerk yelled.
“Everybody, calm down, just calm down,” the Cop said. He stood up, breaking the pyramid into a solitary portrait. His revolver steadily aimed at the Gunman’s gut, both hands holding the handle. “Did you apologize?” he asked solemnly.
I took a drag off my cigarette.
“You did apologize to her, right?” the Clerk questioned, holding his cigarette steadily next to his chest.
“Is it cool that I’m ashing on the floor?” I asked.
The Gunman turned his head and stared at me. His eye twitched from the smoke drifting up from the cigarette hanging in his mouth.
“You, pussy!” the Gunman shouted. “I thought the Clerk was drip, but you’re even worse!”
I took a bite of Mr. Goodbar and washed it down with ginger ale.
“Son,” the Cop said with disdain. “she’d have to kick the balls off your body, to be unforgivable. You punched her and paid the price. Be a fucking man.”
“I hope she leaves you,” the Clerk said. He shook his head, staring condescendingly at me.
“Shut the fuck up!” I yelled at all three of them. “It wasn’t my fault,” I said. But the words felt hollow, unfulfilling to hear. The Gunman sneered at me and I threw my half eaten Mr Goodbar at his face to knock it off. The corner of the candy bar caught him on his left tear duct. He screamed in surprise, but it was drowned out by the first gunshot.
The Clerk’s chest opened as the Gunman’s bullet passed through his left lung and headed for the heart. The stacks of cigarette racks, standing perpendicular to the counter, shattered as the Clerk’s head fell back into them. Cigarette Packs of all colors cascaded behind his collapsing body, creating a manic rainbow of death behind the unmoving form.
Then the second gunshot threw the Gunman into the front counter. His mouth slammed into the cash register -his gut ripped open from the Cop’s bullet. A pond of blood pooled beneath him as the Gunman came to rest on his knees. He clutched his opened stomach and screamed.
The Cop grabbed the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. “I need medical assistance at Forest Avenue, Big Apple. Two civilians. Gun shots. Over.” His gun stayed pointed at the Gunman’s squirming frame.
The radio squawked a staticked reply. It was the sound of ripping paper and nothing more. The Cop lowered his gun and turned his head toward his shoulder.
“Big Apple,” he repeated. “Forest Ave. Two gunsh-”
He was interrupted by the third.
His left eye disappeared in a puff of gore. The back of his head was punched out, and his body thudded against the hood of his car. His arms limply splayed over the cruiser’s black paint.
The Gunman dropped his gun. He tried to scream then fell onto his face. He began to weep as he bled. After a minute he stopped weeping.
The Cop’s radio squawked from outside the shattered window. It rattled with a deafening fuzz –drilling through brain and skull. It sliced through the silence of the eighteen-degree night, peeling the skin from the Big Apple.
A cigarette rack tumbled. It clattered against the tile floor and thudded against the Clerk’s chest. His shirt became a little wetter. His eyes were open, but no longer worked. His body was tangled as a marionette hung on Picasso-painted strings.
I took a drag off of my cigarette. I exhaled.
I took a step forward, over the Gunman’s still body. I grabbed the carton of Turkish Silver cigarettes, crammed it underneath my right arm, and walked out the front door.
The night air was uncomfortable –bitter with a cold breeze cutting through my olive-green sweater. My left hand hovered near my mouth, holding my burning cigarette, and stealing warmth from my breath.
The wind drove recklessly down the street –shaking windows and trees. I jammed my right hand into my pocket. The carton held by my elbow against my ribs. I followed the zigzagged patterns of the trees lining the street.
My shadow led the way away from the weak daybreak of the Big Apple’s horizon. I stared at the sky, trusting my shadow to get us home safe. The swirl of constellations, outlined by the blue hue of eternity stretched above me. The canvas dotted by low rent apartment houses. I exhaled a cloud of smoke, temporarily obscuring the nocturnal beauty above me. My gaze dropped forward to stare at My Love’s apartment building. It was one hundred feet ahead cutting into the frigid masterpiece.
The shimmer of light hinting the edges of her red, bedroom curtain reminded me of the blood puddle of the Gunman once he stopped screaming. A shadow on the drapes waited for me as I stared at My Love’s window-framed portrait. She had woken up while I was away. I slouched in a futile attempt to curse away winter winds.
“Sorry,” I said under my breath as I walked towards the front porch. “Sorry,” I repeated to the night frozen around me. The words barely passed my lips. I opened the front door and stepped in.
A Couple’s Decision
They sat on a floral printed couch. Both, man and woman, held a wine glass before them. The man’s was half full with a dry, Italian cabernet sauvignon. The woman’s was half empty with a sweet, Californian chardonnay. A bottle of each wine sat half drunk on the pine, coffee table in front of them. A television sat behind the coffee table, against the far wall. Its screen flickered the images of a commercial. The sound was mute.
An actress scratched her head in confusion as a little boy ran up to her, bleeding. The two were in the kitchen, and the actress seemed to look out of the screen, at the audience, for advice on what to do.
Lee took a sip of his cabernet and swallowed. He leaned forward and gave his girlfriend a kiss on the forehead, above her left eyebrow.
“Hey, love,” Jan said with a smile. She turned away from the t.v. and gave Lee a quick kiss on the lips. Lee leaned back. Jan’s lips held the smile for a second then seeped back to a straight line. “What do you want to do?”
“I’m comfortable just being curled up with you.”
Jan gave a coo of pleasure. “You’re so sweet,” she said. “I love you so freakin’ much.”
“Freakin’ much, huh,” Lee said with a laugh. He leaned forward again to give Jan a kiss on the lips. It lasted for three seconds with no tongues involved.
Jan pulled away. Lee continued to smile.
“I was kind of hoping we could, ya know… Maybe, if you’re up to it we could…,” Jan trailed off adorably.
“Fool around,” Lee finished.
Jan pretended to hide her face behind her free hand. The wine glass was held a safe distance away. She looked like a little girl playing peek-a-boo for the first time. Lee played along. He took a sip of his red wine and swallowed.
“I’m pretty drunk,” he stated.
“Does that mean you don’t want to?’ Jan asked defensively.
“No, no, honey,” Lee countered. “You know I love fucking you.”
“I want to fool around. I was just afraid you’re as drunk as me.”
“What are you saying?” Jan questioned. Her lips frowned a little after speaking.
“Can your stomach handle it?” Lee asked. “If we start fooling around, is it going to make you sick?”
“I don’t know,” Jan said. Her head dropped an inch in disappointment. She took a sip of her white wine and swallowed.
“How about we start and if you don’t feel well, we stop,” Lee offered.
“I don’t want to get sick,” Jan said. She brushed her shoulder length, brunette hair behind her left ear. Lee leaned forward and kissed the lobe.
“Woah,” Jan said. She placed her hands on his chest and gently pushed him away. “I don’t want to make us stop once we start. I don’t want to get you excited, and then be too sick to fuck.”
“Well,” Lee started, “what do you want to do?” He positioned himself on all fours, his face two feet away from hers.
“Too close,” Jan said. “Too close, that makes me dizzy.”
“Sorry,” Lee said. He sat back. His lower spine rested against the left arm of the floral printed couch. His legs entwined with Jan’s, as she sat against the right armrest. Their bodies formed an inebriated “U.”
“Ok,” Jan said. She took a sip of her chardonnay. She shuddered a bit. “We start with phase one.”
“Making out,” Jan explained. “We’ll finish our glasses, then go into the bedroom for phase one.”
“Making out,” Lee said. He sipped his wine.
“Yes, but nothing too aggressive,” Jan continued. “Don’t shake me all over the place. If you do, I’m pretty sure it ends right there.”
“Of course,” Lee agreed.
“Now, if phase one goes well. If I don’t get sick, we can proceed to phase two. Again, only if phase one doesn’t make me nauseous.”
“What’s phase two?”
“You licking my pussy,” Jan said.
“So, after phase one, making out-”
“But nothing too crazy,” Jan interrupted.
“Nothing crazy,” Lee agreed. “After phase one, we go to phase two. Which is me going down on you.”
“Yes. But it depends entirely on how phase one goes,” Jan explained. She took a sip of her wine. “But yes, go down on me until I cum.”
“But you’re drunk,” Lee stated. “It’ll take a while to get you going. You know how numb you get from alcohol.”
“I know,” Jan said. “You’ll have to give it a good go. We can use a vibrator if we have too.” She started to take a sip of her drink but stopped. “We’ll use it on a low vibe setting. I don’t want my stomach to be shaken up too much.”
“Ok,” Lee said. He looked to the t.v.
An old man walked down a long corridor. It was lined with a deep red carpet, and door after door on either side. The man leaned his weight on an oak cane as his head looked from left to right at each door he passed. He looked at a scrap of paper in his hand.
Lee looked at Jan. “So, is that it?” he asked. “After you go, are we done?”
“No,” she said. “If you can get me wet, we’ll move to phase three.”
“You going down on me?” Lee guessed.
“No, no. That would definitely make me sick,” Jan said with a shake of her head. Her hair slipped out from behind her left ear. She brushed it back. “I can’t handle your cock waving in my face right now.” Jan took a sip of her wine. The glass was only a quarter full. “Phase three is you –slowly and gently- putting your dick in me. Then softly fucking me.”
“Slowly and gently,” Lee repeated back. “Let me get this straight.” He took a sip from his half empty glass. “Phase one is us making out.”
“Yes, but nothing crazy.”
“Ok. Then after phase one we go to phase two, which is me going down on you.”
“Until I cum. But phase two depends entirely on whether phase one makes me nauseous. If I get nauseous, we stop at phase one. Probably while it’s happening.”
“What if you can’t handle phase one, but feel phase two wouldn’t be a problem?” Lee asked.
“If that’s the case, we’ll move to phase two,” Jan said. “We’ll cut phase one short.”
“Ok,” Lee agreed. He took another sip of his cabernet. His jaw clenched as he swallowed. It was quick, involuntary. “Assuming phase one goes well, and you don’t get sick, we move on to me licking you until you cum.”
“We’ll use one of the vibrators if your tongue’s not enough,” Jan reminded him.
“Of course,” Lee said. “After we finish phase two we move on to phase three. Me softly fucking you.”
Jan sipped her chardonnay. “Yes, but only if you can get me wet.”
“I can always use the lube,” Lee suggested.
“That’s true,” Jan said. “I’d forgotten we still had some left.”
“I’ll fuck you until I cum?” Lee asked. “What if me humping you makes you sick?”
“You’ll have to pull out, obviously,” Jan said. “You can masterbate. I’ll watch.” She took a sip of her wine. Her body gave another slight shiver.
“Is that phase four?” Lee asked. “Is it possible we’ll go phase one, two, four?”
“It’s not really phase four,” Jan disagreed. “It’s more of an alternate phase three. Phase three is really you orgasming. Whether it be inside me, or in your hand.”
“Is it phase three b?” Lee questioned.
“No,” Jan said. “It’s just alternate phase three. Regular phase three is you fucking me.”
“Softly,” Lee said.
“Softly,” Jan agreed.
Jan took a sip of her wine. She twirled her brown hair with her free hand, dislodging it from behind her ear. She smiled at Lee then turned to face the t.v.
Two men stood on top of a building. One held a gun. He was yelling, waving the weapon in the other’s face. The second man held his hands down by his side. His hair was slicked back, black with a matching leather jacket. He looked over his left shoulder to see the edge of the building directly behind him. It looked to be a sixteen floor drop. The man with the gun pointed at the building’s edge, then pointed to the revolver in his hand.
“So, when do we start with phase one?” Lee asked.
Jan faced him. “Soon as we’re done with our glasses.”
Lee nodded. A quarter of his glass was full of red wine. Jan’s glass only had a few sips left. Lee smiled then drained his glass in one gulp. His jaw seized for three seconds.
Jan smiled. She took two more sips of her wine. Her body shivered once after each sip.
“I hope we get to phase three,” Lee said.
“I do too,” Jan agreed, “but don’t hate me if you have to do alternate phase three. Truthfully, we may not get past phase one. We may go in there, I’ll feel sick, and we don’t do anything.”
“Well, let’s find out,” Lee said. He took her glass from her hand, gently placed it beside her half-empty bottle of sweet, Californian chardonnay. Lee placed his own glass beside his half-full bottle of dry, Italian cabernet sauvignon.
Lee turned off the television, took hold of Jan’s hands, and led her to the bedroom.
Once inside, they did exactly as they had decided.
I was sitting on the front porch of my house deciding whether I had added too much vodka to my white Russian when I saw him moping up the street. The poor son of a bitch was my son and all he had been doing these past few weeks was laze around the house. He was getting up at three in the afternoon after going to bed at four in the morning. I had asked him to do a few chores, but he never seemed to get around to them. His schedule was too busy with sitting on his ass. When he wasn’t doing that he was staring blankly at the bracelet she gave him.
It was a simple silver bracelet. The type with a flat piece in the middle used for inscriptions. It wasn’t expensive, not like she went broke buying it for him or anything. It was the intention that mattered, not the price tag. A real Romeo and Juliet feel about it. Teen love. It represented the seasons, the idea all things must change. Most of the time the change was one continuous circle. You fall in love; you get your heart broken; you cry; you forget; repeat. An amnesia of sorts. You get hurt so bad you forgot how it happened and set yourself back up for it again.
So this fragile bracelet -you could easily break the thin chain with two fingers- was worn day and night. Thankfully, he only wore it for a month or two, otherwise, the poor inscription ‘Four Years Until Forever’ would have been rubbed away. Maybe time would have prevailed and only ‘Forever’ would survive, but that’s the type of thing Hollywood capitalized on, making God steer clear of the obvious trick he could play on a heart broken boy. The humor to me was the boy had never been keen on wearing bracelets, even a watch for that matter. It wasn’t because he viewed them as feminine as much as he never saw the necessity for them. For her though he wore the bracelet, poor sucker, he probably would have worn a necklace and an earring that matched if she had asked.
The poor fool even wore the bracelet for a few weeks after he received the call from her saying it was over. Like I said, only Hollywood has the poor slob who forever wears the mark of his first love. The real world is too busy to forever be sentimental over spilt milk and kittens stuck in trees. You learn to adjust in an almost handicapped way. You walk down the street, see some regular item; a café, a dog, a willow tree, a face. Suddenly your mind races as fast as a bullet; tears start to boil in the corners of the eyes; the throat strangles itself. Tourettes of the broken hearted. The ears red and burning with the ferocity of a fresh cup of coffee poured on your head. The drum of heart and fast breath rhythm, the type used to hide the fact you’re crying without any tears. Then as quickly as the storm brewed, it is over.
Maybe it is worse for him because he never felt anyone had cared for him the way she did. His mother told him he was an investment. Straight to his face, no lie. They were talking my daughter -a rebellious girl who’d gotten involved in cocaine, sex, and depravity- when his mother looked him straight in the eye, a real Hollywood moment, and told him she wished none of them had ever been born. She told him he was an investment. They were paying for part of his college, so he would make a good return for them. Nothing more, nothing less. So this investment stared his mother in the eye, without saying a word, until he turned and walked away. That was his senior year of high school. That was the week before he met her.
It was at work, and it was almost love at first sight. He though she was 25, when it turned out she was 18, it was love at first sight. They talked during their breaks and as time passed they started to go on dates. He would come home afterwards bouncing off the damn walls with excitement, and wouldn’t shut up for hours as he recounted every bit of conversation to me. They went to Boston in the middle of December, it was supposed to be a short date, just a cup of coffee, and a walk through the winter decorations. After eight hours, they decided they had better head home. She was afraid her parents would worry. He wasn’t. They talked on the car ride back. Not about music or movies or ideas or any of the things they had been saying in Boston. She told him her parents didn’t love one other. They never had. It was financially beneficial for them to marry, so they did. He told her he was an investment, and she frowned.
“You’re too special to be an investment,” she told him.
He wanted to believe her.
When they got back to her house, she held his hand and told him she would like to see him again. She told him to call her. He wanted nothing more than to hear her say those words. When he got home afterwards, he couldn’t shut his damn mouth long enough to swallow supper.
They fell in love. They held hands whenever they were together. It wasn’t to show others they were in love; it wasn’t to reassure each other they were in love; they did it because it was natural. He felt complete when he was with her. He felt wanted. He had never felt it before. He loved it, I could tell.
In the summer, they went to the beach every other night. I can just imagine them talking, laughing, and drawing pictures in the sand. She was going to art school in California. He was going to Massachusetts to study mathematics. But when they were together under the stars listening to the waves splash against the boulders and the sand, they felt infinite. They felt the summer would never end. They would never be far apart. They would stare at their pictures, his were silly scribbles, hers were beautiful patterns, and they would think of how the next day the pictures would be gone.
In August, he dug himself into the deepest hole. He went shopping for her, and he bought her a ring. It was a thin gold band with five small rubies surrounding a small diamond in a hexagonal pattern. The rubies were placed in such a way that they looked like a child’s depiction of a house, a floor, two walls, and two slanting roofs meeting at the ruby on top. The only difference was the floor was a little pinched. He spent all of his money getting it. It cost him three hundred and twenty-eight dollars and seventy-eight cents. I wanted to hit the idiot upside the head when he showed it to me. When he bought it he didn’t know what it was for. He wanted to give her something to tell her how much he cared for her. He stared at the rubies; they were beautiful; they were her birthstone.
I can picture how he did it. It must have been at the beach. He would have drawn a picture in the sand, a little close to the waves but he was excited and didn’t think of these things. The picture would have been a small house with a man and a woman standing to the left of the house holding hands, a child’s picture. Above the house he wrote in the sand. It would be short and to the point. Will you marry me. He was young and in love. It couldn’t be helped.
He told her to keep her eyes shut until he was done. She smiled and tried to peek, but he always caught her. And with a kiss on the lips and a ‘it’s almost ready,’ he got her to keep her eyes closed. He placed the black velvet box on the sand where the two hands of the stick figures met. He stood back for a minute, his shoes slightly sinking into the damp sand and looked at his creation. How beautiful it looked to him, I’ll never know. Then he looked at her, and I bet he thought it was perfect. I decided he watched to many damn movies when he told me.
When she had opened her eyes and read his message, she cried. She said ‘yes.’ She picked up the black velvet box and put the ring on. A wave rolled onto shore and washed away the picture.
They left for college two weeks later. The night before he left, he held her in his arms and told her how distance would never matter. They would always be near.
She said she knew they would always be close, and she handed him a present. A long black box used for bracelets. He opened it and removed the bracelet. She smiled and looked into his eyes.
“Four years until forever,” she said.
Now the poor bastard can barely get out of bed in the afternoon. He walked onto the porch and I winced as I realized I had put in too much vodka for my liking. He started to walk into the house. It must have been his pathetic look that made me feel sorry for the boy. Maybe it was because his folly reminded me too much of my own. I took pity on his stupidity. I decided right then and there, I would take him up to Sunapee Lake. We would hitch the boat to the van, grab our old fishing poles, pack up some water skis, put on our swim trunks, and head out. We would stop at Burger King before getting on 93 North. Then we would head north until we both had to stop to take a piss. Once there, we would swim in his favorite lake. We could cast line after line with no bites from our scaly pals. He would talk about his broken heart, and I would smile at his youth. We would be there while the sun slowly set behind our drifting boat. We would be father and son in a Hollywood way.
It was decided, we were going to the lake. Yup, straight to the lake, right after I finished my white Russian.
“How long’s it been?” Tommy asked. “Ten? Twelve years?”
“Thirteen,” Randy responded.
“City bin good to ya?”
“It ain’t bad. Just the old hustle and bustle.”
Tommy spit over the porch railing in front of the two men. It was white and wooden, sagging wherever a two by four wasn’t propped underneath. The paint long since peeled, cracked, and whisked away. The two sat side by side, swaying back and forth on a pair of rocking chairs that complimented the decaying railing. Matching .22’s lay across their laps. The porch was sturdier than the rail, even looked nicer as it lacked any paint other than a thin covering of white chips sprinkled like the first flurries of winter on its gray wood.
It was still autumn, barely. The leaves, mostly dead, lay on the ground turning to mulch from the November rains that had drenched Halbert, New Hampshire that year.
The screen door to the house creaked with the whine of rusted hinges. A woman no more than sixty with gray puffs of age dotting her hair, poked her head into the dusk air.
“You boys want a cup of cider? Bin mullin’ it since noon.”
“No thank you, Mrs. Gebson,” Randy answered.
“I’m fine, Ma,” Tommy said. “But if ya got a cup of coffee?”
“Give me a minute, boy. I’ll git you a cup,” Mrs. Gebson said. “Would ya like a cup as well, Randy?”
“No thank you.”
“Sure is good to see your face,” Mrs Gebson said from the doorway. “Thought you fell off God’s-gracious earth when you moved.”
Randy smiled. “Maybe I did.”
The screen door thudded shut, guided by the spring Randy always felt was too tight.
“How’s the city been?” Tommy asked. “You doin’ good out there?”
“It’s alright,” Randy responded. “It’s good. I’m learning sales reports. Keeps me on my toes at work and all.”
“You still working in that grocery store?”
“Yeah, a manager now. I run the organic deli department. They call me Randall. Can you believe that? Randall.”
“You never looked much like a Randall to me.”
Randy laughed. “Thanks. I don’t really feel like one. But it’s fun. Ya know. I like doing it, the ordering, the scheduling, the reports. It’s interesting enough.”
“Yup, sounds like a handful. I couldn’t get my head into it. Shoot, I’d prolly quit within two weeks.”
“Naw, you’d probably do better than me.”
“You say that,” Tommy said. He gave a laugh. “Couldn’t see myself doin’ anything other than what I’m doing.”
“What are you up to these days?” Randy asked.
The screen door creaked open. Mrs. Gebson walked onto the porch. A ceramic mug -off white with yellow daises painted on it- held in her hand.
“There ya go, boy.”
“That’s fine, Ma.”
“No more than an hour before I’ll have to turn on the porch light and invite every god-should’ve-smitten-bug in the county to the front door.,” Mrs. Gebson said as she looked across the backyard. Her eyes followed the silhouette of their forest until her gaze rested on Randy’s face. “You sure you don’t want a cup of that cider. I tol’ ya I been mullin’ it since noon. A real dandy. You ain’t goin’ get my cider in no fancy city, honey. Best have a cup while you can.”
Randy gave a quick smile. She always was a sweetheart. “You’re right,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take a cup.”
“Course I don’t mind, bin offerin it to you, ain’t I? You gone lost your sensibilities.” Mrs. Gebson headed to the screen door. She gave a quick look to the lawn in front of the porch, two acres of field, twenty-nine of forest. “Looks like a groundhog out there, boys. Best put the rifles to use.”
“You take it, Randy,” Tommy said. “Let’s see if you’re still the same horrible ass shot. Ma, remember when Randy shot out the mirror on the Ford?”
“Dang near strangled the boy,” Mrs. Gebson laughed. “Well go on, Randy, take your shot.”
Randy picked the .22 off his lap. The shadows of sunlight stretched across the yard in front of him, creating canyons of red and orange with green undertones. A spot of dark hobbled from canyon to canyon. It paused. Randy took aim. He pressed the butt of the gun tight against his right shoulder. He remembered the first time he had shot a .22 with Tommy. They were nine and Tommy convinced Randy the kickback from a rifle could take your arm off, dislocate your shoulder, shatter your collarbone unless you pressed the gun as far into your shoulder as you could. It had taken Tommy twenty minutes more to convince Randy to pull the trigger.
Randy gave a chuckle at the thought. Never guessed the lesson would stick. He closed his left eye, tilted his head to the right.
The groundhog hitched across a maroon canyon.
“Hoo boy,” Mrs. Gebson laughed. “You done scared the poor thing shatless. Probably runnin for some clean skivvies.”
Tommy gave a sip off his coffee. His head glided back and forth with the rocking chair. “Never was good at shooting. Don’t know why I took you out so often?”
“Oh, come off it,” Randy laughed. “I hit my fair share of stuff.”
“You talking about trees or dirt?”
Mrs. Gebson gave a hearty chortle. Her rounded body slightly hunched, she pulled open the screen. The metal wiring rattled as the spring creaked.
“I’ll be right out with that cider, Randy.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Gebson.”
“Ain’t no thing a t’all.”
She walked inside the house and was followed by the screen door slamming shut.
“What’ve you been doing for work, Tommy? Never really seemed much to do out here.”
“Not really, no,” Tommy agreed. “Never been much in Halbert. I just started raisin’ rabbits. Snowy white ones. Bin tryin to sell ‘em to kids or leaf watchers. A souvenir of the country.”
“You making anything off that?”
“No,” Tommy said. “Mainly been giving ‘em away to the Brattles and Smuthens kids down the street. Only sold one, so far, to a city biker. Guy was down driving the street with a bunch of his buddies. All had these beautiful Harley’s, midnight blues, chrome, raspberry reds. Gorgeous bikes. Ten of them. They came down this way, I was out doin a bit of leaf rakin’. Only been out for an hour at most.
“Well, this Biker, never caught his name, he tells me he wants a rabbit. Says he’s from New York City, him and his pals just biking for a weekend. He wants a country critter to bring home. Sneak it past his land lord, no pets allowed and all. Driving down the street, enjoying a goddamn fine day when he saw my sign., ‘Rabbits for sale.’ So, he stops. And he wants a rabbit.”
The screen door screeched open behind me. The spring sounded rusty, tighter than usual, but it had been thirteen years since the last time Randy heard it.
“Got you that cider,” Mrs. Gebson said. “Now, Randy, you try and tell me it ain’t the purdiest thing you ever did put on your tongue.”
Randy took a small sip of the cider. It was hot, burned the tip of his tongue.
“Little hot,” he said.
“Well, let it cool, boy. No need to be torturing your poor tongue.”
Randy smiled. “I’ll give it a minute.”
“Good, no need to be in such a haste. It’s gonna taste just as good in a few minutes. Prolly better, cause your poor tongue ain’t gonna be in agony. But I interrupted Tommy. I’ll git my chitter out of you boys’ way.”
“It’s alright, ma. I was just telling Randy about the rabbit that biker bought.”
“Oh, the poor thing,” Mrs Gebson said. “Well you boys enjoy. Holla if you want me to fetch anything else. I’ll be inside. Got to clean up the dishes.”
“Woodchuck’s still out there,” Tommy said. “Take another shot, Randy. Earn the dinner, boy.” He laughed.
Randy nodded. He placed his ceramic mug down. It was a twin to the cup in Tommy’s hand, just with purple lilacs instead of yellow daisies. A river of steam snaked into the sky, and Randy shifted his left foot, so as not to kick the mug. The .22 on his lap was picked up, butt pressed into his right shoulder. He tilted his head to the right, closed his left eye. Tommy took a sip of his coffee.
A slight chuckle.
“Oh, stop your laughing,” Randy said. “I haven’t shot one of these in years.”
“You just shot it five minutes ago,” Tommy said with a chortle. “Much to the same effect.”
“Did ya hit it?” Mrs. Gebson called from inside the house.
“Came close,” Randy hollered. “Near miss.”
“Near nothing, you mean,” Tommy jibed.
“Well you haven’t even taken a shot,” Randy said. “Who know’s whether you could hit it.”
Tommy took a sip of his coffee. The steam poured over his nose, across his cheeks.
“So how are you makin’ money?” Randy asked. “If the rabbit farm ain’t suppportin’ you, what is?”
“Don’t really need money, Randy. House is all paid for, been that way for seven years now. We got a good field of vegetables growing -corn, potatoes, rhubarb for pies, strawberries in the summer. Heat the house with firewood in the winter, and we got plenty of trees for that.”
“But bills. Come on, Tommy, everybody owes someone some money. You got an electric bill at least.”
“Largest one. But I put it to good use, got my electricity payin’ for itself.”
“Bout, I dunno. Ten years?” Tommy thought aloud. He turned to face the screen door. “Hey Ma, we get that computer ten years ago?” he hollered.
“Just ‘bout,” was the muffled reply.
“Well, took some money we had saved up from pa’s life insurance, and played some stock. Placed most in bio tech firms, hit it big with one. They made a product to keep your dick hard if you’re old, or impotent, or something. Sold like crazy. Made hand over fist in money. Pay the electric bill straight from that. Even have it deducted electronically out of my account. Haven’t seen that sheet o’ paper in at least five years.”
“You made it trading stocks?” Randy asked. “You’re bullshittin’ me.”
“In your free time, you just started raisin’ rabbits?”
“Why not, seemed like something to do this year.”
“I never woulda guessed,” Randy said.
“You want to see the pen I got for ‘em?” Tommy asked. “Just around back. I’ll show you Diamond.”
“The Biker’s rabbit.”
“How come it’s here?”
“Hey, Ma, we’re goin’ to the rabbit pen,” Tommy shouted.
“Best leave your guns. No need to trip on a root and shoot each other,” was the reply.
“I’ll keep Randy’s on the porch,” Tommy answered. “I’m going to see Diamond.”
He stood up from his rocking chair, .22 in hand. Randy followed, placing the gun on the ground as he stood. Tommy took a sip of his coffee then put it firmly down on the railing.
“Best to bring that cider. Ma wasn’t kidding about it being the purdiest thing you ever put on your tongue.”
Randy bent over and picked it up. He took a sip, scalding his tongue a second time.
“Stays hot for a while,” he said to Tommy.
“It’s a sign o’ quality.”
The two stepped off the porch onto the front yard. The red and orange canyons of dusk were gone, replaced with the grainy gray of night’s shadow. Thin shafts of silver moonlight dotted the ground, but clouds kept pools of it from forming.
Tommy led the way to the corner of the old farmhouse, he’d always called home.
“What happened with the Biker?” Randy asked. “How come you have his rabbit?”
“Well, he buys a rabbit. Diamond. He buys Diamond. This precious little piece of fur. Perfectly white ‘cept for one black ear. Midnight black. Darling little critter, personable to all hell.
“I sell ‘em to the biker for five dollars. Tell him to keep Diamond in good care. He bein’ a personable-to-all-hell rabbit and all. The biker laughed telling me he’s only gonna feed Diamond carrots imported die-rectly from France. Let him only drink bottled waters, purified and the like.”
Randy and Tommy took a right around the side of the house. Fifty feet in front of them, a wire mesh cage circled a village of hares.
“How high is the wire mesh?” Randy asked. “Looks taller than me.”
“It is,” Tommy responded. “Eight feet. Keep coyotes and the like out. Nothing worse than waking up, coming out here to feed them, and seeing some miserable coney all gutted out by some beast’s teeth. Makes me feel responsible. My keeping ‘em locked up and all.”
The two reached the outside of the cage. A handful of rabbits, no more than eight, were scattered about the pen. Tommy walked to the left of the cage. A small metal latch hung at chest level. He popped it open and walked inside.
“Best to hurry. Don’t want any mongrels gettin’ in here,” he said. “I’m telling ya, the look of a dead rabbit is just plain, old pitiful. Even worse when they don’t die, just get mauled and live. Crippled bunnies. Pitiful.”
Randy nodded, then stepped inside. Tommy closed the door behind them, clicking shut the metal latch.
“There she is,” Tommy said. “Come here, Diamond.”
He walked with his .22 slung through his armpit and elbow towards the rabbits.
“So how did you get Diamond back?” Randy asked.
“Well the Biker puts Diamond in his saddle bag, waves a farewell to me, and throttles his way into the sunset. Him and his group of buddies. Just take off. Have a good life and the like.” Tommy knelt down and placed the butt of the .22 on the ground, gently, with the barrel resting on his inner thigh. His right hand reached forward slowly towards a small, white bunny in the shadow of the cage’s supporting beam. The creature was tiny, shivering.
“Diamond. Come on Diamond.”
The bunny hopped once, forward. It fell on its face, then took seven seconds to stand upright again.
It only had one white ear, the other was a clogged blood stump. It matched the mangled stump where Diamond’s front right leg should have been. Tommy reached his left hand forward. He gently petted behind the bunny’s white ear. Diamond stayed still, quivering a bit.
“Jesus,” Randy said.
“Son of a bitch put Diamond in a damn, fancy saddle bag never meant to hold a bunny. He must have been from New York. The poor critter probably got flustered from the sound of the engines, and the speed they were moving. Four days after I sold her, she showed up on my door step, just the shape you see. How she avoided getting eatin’, or bleedin’ to death I’ll never know. Poor thing probably went through hell to get back here. Chrissakes her damn ear’s off. Far as I can figure, she jumped from the saddlebag and landed on gravel or pavement.” Tommy paused for a moment as he scratched the rabbit. “A mess,” he said.
Randy bent forward and stretched his free hand out. Diamond shrunk back without moving her legs.
“It’s ok,” Randy said. “It’s ok. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
His fingers touched Diamond’s fur. It was warm, soft, shivering slightly under his touch.
“Pitiful,” Tommy said. “Breaks my heart.”
He stood up, grabbing the .22 as he did so. Randy stood next to him. Diamond stared up, nose twitching side to side. It hopped forward, fell on its face again.
“Pitiful,” Randy agreed. He held the ceramic mug with purple lilacs to his lips. Tommy aimed his gun. Randy took a sip of the cider.
Diamond feel to the ground.
“Delicious,” Randy said after a moment. He took another sip. “Can’t get cider like this in the city. Purdiest thing I’ve place on my tongue in years.”
“Tell Ma,” Tommy said. He leaned over and picked up Diamond’s dead body. Blood trickled out of the bunny’s mouth, forming a small puddle on the dirt. “She’ll gloat for hours. Be talking ‘bout how she should enter it into the Halbert Autumn Cookbook.”
Tommy chuckled. “You be sure to tell her that.”
The two walked to the metal latch. Randy popped it open, while Tommy walked through with his mug, rifle, and Diamond, a steady drip of bunny blood trailing behind him. Randy followed then shut the wire mesh door behind, locking the latch.
“Hold my gun, Randy.”
Randy nodded and grabbed the barrel of the rifle with his left hand.
With his right, Tommy held Diamond by the scruff of the neck. In a single motion, he threw the dead rabbit towards the forest.
“Should keep some of those coyotes back tonight,” Tommy said. “I’ll take the .22 back, Randy.” Tommy chuckled for a moment as he grabbed the gun. “Randy, huh. Can’t believe they call you Randall. Never seemed much like one to me. Always been a Randy.”
Randy took a sip of cider and stared at the dead bunny sprawled on the forest’s shadowy shore. “I never felt much like one, myself,” he said.
A Short, Silent Film
The screen is a black and white shot of a city intersection.
A black-suited man stands on a street corner, the background of the buildings shrinking behind him in successive shades of gray until invisible in the distance. His arms are at his side.
She is walking towards him from the other side of the street, facing him.
His hat is evenly placed, the brim, a halo of beaverskin, circling his head. He tilts his chin up. His black pupils adjust to the sun. He sees her.
Her hands holding each other in front of her white dress. They bounce lightly off her thighs with each step.
He does not look away. His left hand fidgets. His right arm raises and tips his hat. His eyes fall to the ground in unison with his right hand.
She continues towards him, still on the other side of the street. She glances to her left, her feet getting closer to the sidewalk’s end.
His right hand fidgets. The left one he places inside his front pant pocket. The beaverskin cap slips down from its tip. His black pupils dilate as the hat’s shadow falls across them.
She glances to her right, coming to a stop at the sidewalk’s edge, her white dress only fourteen feet from his black suit.
A gray car passes between the two.
The car is gone.
They face each other. Her black dress fluttering in the wind; his white suit is still. She turns left and walks down the street. He looks to his left; she is on his right. Her black dress disappearing with each step, as shade after shade of gray turns into the black of the buildings background. His white suit blurs as he walks away into the sunlight.
Black Screen, white lettering reads: