Dybbuk

Dybbuk

My mother is quietly crying at the breakfast bar. She’s not making any sound, but every few minutes she brings a quick hand up and brushes it across her eyes.

There’s a bright red mark on Dad’s cheekbone, and I suspect it’ll swell and darken as the day drags on.

“Clint,” my dad says. “Hey, we gotta talk.”

My father stands at five foot eight, and speaks so evenly no one outside the house would ever suspect that the words he throws at my mother reach the abusive cannon bursts that they do. He’s a good man, generally speaking. He’s a good dad. He’s good at his job, managing logistics for a delivery company. He’s a good Methodist. He only diminishes when it comes to his marriage.

He runs a thumb along the red spot my mother must have given him. She doesn’t speak with nearly the cruelty he exhibits when they fight, but you can measure the zenith of his abuse by the size of the welt her hand leaves on his face. Sometimes her palm is open, sometimes her knuckles are clenched.

I don’t really listen because this should have ended well before now. They tell me vague plans regarding the immediate future. With my move-out date only a week away, none of this really affects me. My mother’s retaliation tells me she’ll be the one moving out. She can afford it. She makes a little more than Dad anyway. Besides, my dad has fumigated this house with too many insults. Mom wouldn’t be able to breathe with the vapor of his words hanging in the air.

***

The plan is to keep the decision between the three of us until after Granddad’s estate is managed. My parents sit shiva holding hands and leaning against each other. They are the image of love in grief.

I sit with them. An enlarged photo of my grandparents on their wedding day sits above the couch, over my parents. If the photo had been in color it would still look grim. Neither my grandfather nor grandmother smile. In another picture, beside the portrait, are the bride and groom lifted high during the horah. They smile here but out of minimal obligation. My great-grandfather hoists his new daughter-in-law high and proud. When she was alive, my grandma would speak fondly of Great-Grandpa Anton. Grandpa would scowl at the praise. I never met my great-grandfather, but from what Grandma Beth told me he was very devout. “A very good Jew.”

When I was ten I found a small handful of yellowed photos in the back of my Grandpa’s wallet. In them he smiled in a way I never saw whenever I was around him. In one he sits alone, a common state for the old man I knew. But the dark youth in the picture smiled so widely his mouth was open. He was probably laughing.

In another there was a woman. She was laughing too, sitting alone in a 1920’s bathing suit. She had a plump face, and hair so blond her eyebrows were nearly invisible. Despite the differences, when I think about her now she makes me think of Greta Garbo. She’s alluring despite the heavy black suit’s attempts to subdue her figure. A silver cross shines on her bust, the chain coiled lazily against her neck.

There were three more photos. In one of them my smiling grandfather wipes at his chest with a towel. In another the blond woman stands ankle deep in the water, her back to the camera. She’s bending down, not to entice, but to examine something in the water the camera can’t pick up. The last photo showed nothing but a sepia-toned shot of the beach.

There’s a name on the back of the photo where the woman stands in the water. “Ethel.”

***

Nick comes to help me move. Dad scowls in the kitchen, drinking small glasses of Glenlivet and forcing himself to be personable whenever Nick or I are around. “Need any help?” he keeps asking, staring at the microwave over the stove.

“Is he okay?” Nick asks me, and I just tell him he needs time alone. “They’re separating,” is all I tell him.

“Oh, my God! Baby, why didn’t you tell me?”

I reach out and squeeze his hand. His skin is soft and the color of stained pinewood. He teaches first grade and then lifeguards in the summer. His blond hair has become bleached with streaks of white from all the sun. Touching it is what I imagine clouds feel like. He wears khaki shorts and a polo shirt, modest but not so loose they don’t show off his body. He doesn’t mean to be, but he’s kind of a total gay man. I love him just as totally. He teaches me Hebrew during quiet moments when we’re alone. I wear the pewter Star of David he got me for my birthday under my shirt.

“It’s no big deal,” I tell him, which is true for everyone but my dad. He met my mom when they were in middle school. Their first dates involved him going to church with her family. He never cared much for shul, so converting in high school seemed normal enough. It was an easy way to integrate himself into her world. Grandpa never attended temple without telling Dad he’d missed a great service. Always unsaid, you missed this, missed that, over some girl. Left the synagogue. Got new friends. Over some girl. Married some girl.

After a while, Dad started saying those things too. To Mom.

“Hey,” Nick says later, while we empty out my chest of drawers. “Is this your great-grandpa?”

He’s holding a little gray photo. In it the image of my grandpa stands in a long wool coat, wearing a flat cap. He’s in the doorway of a shop, Cyrillic lettering plastered on a nearby window.

“Nah. That’s his brother. From the old country.”

“Is this before they moved here?”

“He didn’t come. It was just my great-grandpa.”

“Rest of ’em still in Russia?”

“Not anymore.”

“Where’d they move to?”

“They didn’t. They were killed in a pogrom.”

Nick screws up his eyebrows and looks at me. “Jesus!”

“People forget that shit happened outside the Nazis too.”

Nick stares at the photo a little bit longer. “You wanna keep it?”

“Maybe. Just put it back in the box it was in.”

Eventually Nick’s truck and my car are both full. There’s a small load left, so I’ll have to come back in the morning to finish up. I go into the kitchen and hug Pop.

“Love ya, kid.” He holds onto me a little longer than I expected. The sharp odor of whiskey steams from his empty glass.

“Love you too, Pop.”

“You sure about this?” he asks when he pulls away. “You sure you and Nick are gonna be okay?”

“I guess we’ll see.”

“If…if for whatever reason, things don’t work out…you know you can come back here, right?”

“I know, Dad.”

He hugs me again. “I guess I’ll see you on Labor Day.”

“I’ll be back in the morning. I got one more carload to go.”

“Sounds good. I’m gonna miss ya, you know.”

“You left us all behind!” my grandpa sometimes yelled on the phone, whenever my dad would decline to take us to temple with the old folks. “You left us the way your grandfather left his own!”

Guilt is a knife built of small needles.

“I know, Pop. I’ll miss you too.”

I hug him and kiss his stubbly cheek. When I walk outside I roll my shoulders. The sun warms them through my shirt. Beneath the blue sky, there is no foothold on my being for anything to hold to.

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RPG

  

The new hire turns her ball cap around and rolls the sleeves of her tee shirt up around her shoulders. The cuff of her cargo shorts extend past her knees, and on her right calf I see a tattoo of what looks like a revolver. She crosses her arms in intense concentration as I go through opening and closing duties with her, the tat on her left shoulder bulging. It’s a date, a recent one, written in stylized calligraphy.

“So do you have any questions?” I ask her when I’m done.

“Yeah, uh…is there any way I can maybe open an hour later on evening shifts?”

“Sure, we can work that out.”

“Work that out? It’s not gonna put someone out is it?”

“Shouldn’t.”

“Well, okay. See the thing is I share custody of my kid with her dad, and she doesn’t leave to stay with him till four. And I kinda want her to spend as much time with me and my wife as possible.” She gets quiet and pulls at the brim of her Red Sox hat. “I’m…gay. I don’t know if you have a problem with that or…”

I stop myself from saying “Well shit, color me shocked,” and wave my hand in dismissal. “That’s absolutely not a concern of mine. We can schedule you an hour later. That’s fine.”

“I’m sorry for complicating things so soon into the job.”

I hide my irritation, or at least I think I do. “You didn’t. You’re just alerting us to your availability.”

***

The new hire’s name is Alisha, and she does a great job on the makeline during lunch rush. She’s fast and organized, and always prepared. When we’re slammed, I love her. When we’re slow, I want to overhand her through a window.

“Hey man, are you okay?” she asks me one morning. This, I’ve learned, is her favorite thing in the world to say. I’m beginning to suspect she’s someone who needs to lock others into a string of imagined personal problems. The conflict, then, lies in the fact that my life, at least at the moment, is pretty good.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

“You seem…” I wait to see what imagined characteristic she’ll assign to me today, “kinda wired. Kinda manic-like.”

“No,” I tell her, “I doubt that I do.”

“You don’t think you seem kinda irritated?”

“Nope. I feel the same way I felt yesterday.”

“Alright…” she says it in an “if-you-insist” tone, which fails to plant the seed of doubt she hopes it will because I immediately go back to focusing on the produce order.

Alisha’s wife walks in. I still haven’t learned her name, even though Alisha brings it up about five times per shift. She waves, I wave back. Yesterday Alisha told me that…Mary, that’s her name…that Mary thinks I disapprove of them.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” was all I said in response.

“Hey, Mark?” Alisha calls.

“Hey, Alisha.”

“Is it true what Beth said?”

Beth works the counter during breakfast. “What did Beth say?”

“That you used to date a man?”

“Yep. Dated one for a year.”

“Holy shit! Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Why would I?”

“As fuckin’ nervous as I was about being a lesbian around here, and you didn’t think it’d be a little fuckin’ reassuring to know I wasn’t the only queer?”

“Beth’s bi too.”

“She is?”

“Yeah. She’s dating that girl who works at Dunn Brothers down the road.”

Damn. I didn’t know so many people were in the closet around here.”

“We’re not. We just don’t bring it up every opportunity we get.”

Alisha takes a moment to try to process what I mean. I assume she doesn’t quite pick up on the meaning in the end. “Well, just so we’re clear, that was you who just told me Beth’s business, you got that?”

“I know. I was there, remember?” I smile at her, and her butch temper stymies a little.

I place orders, I balance the till. Eventually Alisha finishes storing the lunch items and setting up the line for dinner. She sticks her fingers in her ice water and flicks them playfully in my face. “Bye, Mark! BYE.”

“You’re such a fuckin’ lesbian!” I call out to her.

***

“Does this place have a health plan?”

I shake my head. “Not yet. The owner’s looking to put one together, but it’s kinda tough since Georgia didn’t expand its Medicare program.”

“So what you’re saying is I’m just stuck with this rotting tooth, right?”

“Do you have a Marketplace plan?”

“Is that Obamacare?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that what you use?”

“Sure is.”

“So you don’t mind just signing away your freedom like that?”

I pause, because I honestly don’t understand what she just said.

“Wait…what?”

“I mean, don’t you have to have everything reviewed before you can even get your prescription filled or something?”

“No. It’s health insurance, not a green card.”

“Well, how does it work?”

“Just like any other kind of health insurance. Except, you know, now they have to provide actual health care.”

“I tried signing up for that, but they said I missed the deadline.”

“Yeah. It’ll open back up in November though.”

“That’s a hell of a wait.”

“Sure is.”

“So I’m just screwed till then?”

“Not necessarily. They allow for extenuating circumstances. Just call ’em and see what they can do.”

She screws up her face. “I dunno. I just don’t trust anything that guy’s involved with.”

“Who? Obama?”

“He just…he’s always trying to force his views onto the country.”

“Because the fuckin’ Republicans are totally your friends, right?”

“Alright, I’m not racist, but…”

Holy shit she actually said that out loud.

“…I mean, I’ve seen what it’s like when black people are just left completely alone to run things. You wouldn’t believe how much they just want to wreck shit.”

“Uh…okay.”

“I saw that shit all the time when I used to manage a Wendy’s. I mean, I don’t wanna sound racist…”

“Well, who would?”

“…but I think they need at least, like, one white person to supervise them, you know? And Obama, he’s just totally bowing to the black voters ‘cuz they’re the ones who put him into office.”

“I voted for him, too. So did all my white friends. Admittedly all my black friends also voted for him, but I don’t think that actually backs up what you’re saying.”

Well…you know what I mean.”

Later, over beer and cigarettes, my friend Clint laughs when I tell him what she said. “She’s an RPG!” he howls.

“A what?”

“Republican, Proud, and Gay.”

I puff on my smoke. “One of those things is not like the other.”

“Tell me she wouldn’t say that in front of customers.”

I shrug. “She hasn’t said it in front of the president, if that counts.”

***

There’s another Alisha I know, a stunning woman who works with the local Chamber of Commerce. She’s got olive skin and chocolate hair, and she seems to own an impressive collection of tight business skirts. For completely shallow reasons she’s my favorite customer. Every time she walks away her ass puts me at risk for whiplash.

Alisha…the Alisha I actually like, I mean…is two tables away from us, at the bar I met Beth and her girlfriend at. Beth keeps pushing me to go buy her a drink, but while I can boss people around at work with zero hesitation, the idea of showing even the slightest interest in a woman in a casual setting has me frozen in my seat. I sip my beer and call myself a pussy.

“What are you guys doin’ here?” Alisha asks. The other Alisha, I mean. The one I’m less than fond of. Her wife’s with her, glaring at Beth like a territorial bull. Beth doesn’t notice.

“We’re tryin’ to get this pussy to buy that girl over there a drink.” Beth hikes a thumb over her shoulder at Hot Alisha.

Work Alisha looks over, then dips her fingers into Beth’s beer and flicks them in my face. Beth makes a disquieted face at her glass.

“Go get her a beer, faggot!” Work Alisha snaps. “The fuck you afraid of?”

“I’ll ask her when I order another pint. Promise.” I use a napkin to wipe flecks of ale out of my eyes.

“You fuckin’ better!” Work Alisha looks through the crowd. “Well we’re meetin’ someone here, so we’ll see y’all later.” Mary waves as she’s pulled away, and we lose sight of them.

Beth’s girlfriend stubs out a cigarette and lights another up. “She’s kind of a total lesbian, huh?”

***

Alisha rubs the bruise on her bicep. “Man, Mary really went to town on my shit yesterday.”

From what she’s told me, she and Mary had an argument last night, and as has happened before, they settled it by “play fighting.” I used to roughhouse with my ex-girlfriend too. We never bruised each other, though.

“Sooo, anyway, I got something to tell ya.” She dumps cucumber slices into a metal ramekin and hangs it on a rack in the cooler.

“Shoot.”

“I took another job.”

“You gonna keep this one?”

“…no.”

She’s acting shame-faced, and I ignore the attempt at melodrama. “When do you start?”

“Is that going to be okay?”

“When do you start?”

“Like two weeks from now?”

“Okay. Are you cool with working the rest of your scheduled hours till then?”

“Yeah. You’re fine with that?”

“Yeah. I just need to make sure we’re covered till I hire somebody.”

“I’m sorry.”

“S’okay.” I pop open the cash drawer and pull out bills for the deposit.

“You sure?”

“I really don’t care, Alisha. I hope you like the new job.”

She slices carrots and looks me up and down. “I feel like you’re mad at me.”

“No you don’t.”

“You…you don’t think I feel the way I feel?”

“Exactly. I hope you like your new job.” I zip up the deposit pouch and take it into the back office. Twenty minutes later our lunch rush hits. She and I power through it, moving ceaselessly for an hour. She keeps stealing glances at me as we run orders to tables, looking for an affectation I don’t have time to entertain. There is only the crowd, the food, the money, and the work. The world turns on its own gears. What we are, and what we want, stops beyond the bounds of our bodies.

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Dead Cat

cat carrier

I let myself into my parents’ house through the front door. Paper towels litter the carpet, sporting brown and yellow stains from hairballs my mother hasn’t gotten around to cleaning away yet. I count about ten before disgust compels me to just ignore it and step over.

Spotty is lying on the couch. She’s so thin I can see her skeleton in clear definition beneath her fur. The brilliant orange and white pattern of her coat contrasts less sharply than I remember it. The orange is dimmed, the white is yellowed. She’s growing more muted with each day.

Her breath rattles in her ribs. I pet her behind the ears and it’s a full minute before she acknowledges me. She strains to look up, with eyes clouded over with discharge. I stroke her softly, and she makes a hacking sound before lying her head back down.

My father’s cat leans beside her. She’s old too but not as old as Spotty. Every few moments she leans over and licks Spots behind the ear. Dad’s sitting on the couch beside her, sniffling.

“Is the carrier ready?” I ask him.

He takes off his glasses and makes a show of wiping at his eyes with his finger before answering. “No, not yet. I’m gonna grab a quick smoke before we head out. I’ll grab it when I’m done. Give ya some time to say goodbye.”

I don’t want to enable either addiction, so I just walk into the kitchen to the pantry. The cat carrier is tucked behind the trash can, and I grab some old newspapers to line it with.

“Oh, I can do that,” Mom says. She scurries over. “I think your daddy wants you to be able to say goodbye to Spots.”

“I know what he wants.” I stuff paper into the carrier. “But we can’t sit around. The vet closes in thirty minutes and it’s a holiday weekend. We have to get this done quick.”

“Yeah.” My mom pauses for a bit, then asks: “I just wish I knew we were doing the right thing.”

“We have to, Mom. Her kidneys are shutting down.”

“I know. I just wish we could know one way or the other if she was going to get better.”

“No, it’s old age, Mom. She’s not sick.”

“What about that medicine he gave us?”

“It didn’t work, remember? That’s how he knew it was old age. He can’t treat her. Her kidneys just don’t work anymore.”

“Didn’t you say something about him suggesting surgery?”

“There’s nothing to repair. They just don’t work anymore. The vet said outright it’s just old age. You can’t treat that.”

“I guess.”

“No, you know. She’s old.”

“Missy was twenty-one before she died.”

“Yeah. Missy was really fuckin’ old too, Mom. Cats get old.”

Oh, I wish you wouldn’t swear!” she whines, and I ignore her as I make my way back to the living room.

“You ready to go, Pop?”

“Don’t you want to hold her a little bit before we go?”

“We don’t have time.” I’m not joining his histrionic ensemble piece. I gently pull Spotty into my lap. When she was younger she would race across the house whenever I sat down and dive bomb me, before curling up to go to sleep. She’s completely limp when I lift her up. Limp, but breathing. I lean over and open the top of the carrier, and set a couch pillow inside. I carefully lift Spots and lie her on the pillow. She doesn’t change position the whole time.

“Ryan, did the vet think about her gingivitis?” Mom asks suddenly, bolting into the living room. Her eyes are wide, like something huge has just occurred to her.

“No. Why?”

“Maybe she’s just not eating because her gums are bothering her. I think that’s why she’s so weak. Ask the vet about her gingivitis when you get there!”

“It’s not gingivitis, it’s her kidneys.”

“No, Ryan. Her gingivitis could affect her kidneys.” She affects the idiot note of condescension, the way people do when they have nothing else to stand on. “Gum disease causes a lot of problems.”

“I’ll run the AC in the car a bit.” My dad fumbles with his cane and his keys.

“Dad, I’ll just take her. My car’s right outside.”

“No, no. I…I want to be there.” He forces his voice to crack. My own prescription of antidepressants is nearing his in dosage size. Will I need to supplement them the way he does, with liberal doses of melodrama?

“You’re just going to let them kill her, aren’t you?” My mother’s eyes flash, the way I remember them flashing when I lived here. The cold gray rage she can only briefly mask. I was always guilty of something. Once she told me I rustled my comic book so I wouldn’t have to hear her yell at me. She had to keep me out of school for a week while the bruises faded. “You little bastard.”

I keep myself from laughing so as to avoid a spittle-flecked tantrum from her. She’s 5’1 and stooped. I could probably lift her with one hand and put her on a shelf if I wanted to. It wasn’t bastard that surprised me. It was little.

“You little brat!” Her lips are peeled back, showing yellowed teeth. Half of them are implants. The strays they’ve collected since my sister and I left home scatter to hide. “You never even took care of her! What gives you the right?”

They’ve gathered about twelve strays since I moved out. None of them are sterilized or inoculated. They scratch constantly at fleas. It would have been eighteen cats if not for me and Aggie. Spotty would have been mauled by the strays each of us adopted if we’d taken her out of the house. Aggie’s wrapping up her Master’s, so I foot the bill for her three’s vaccines each year.

“Please!” my father moans. He covers his face with both hands. “Please, let’s not make this any harder…!”

“He’s always criticizing!” Mom snaps to him. “Have you gotten them their shots?” She uses a bizarre, high-pitched tone to mock me, even though my voice is pretty deep. “Like we don’t know how to take care of our animals. We can’t afford to get all of them shots, Ryan.”

That affected condescension again.

“That’s right. You can’t afford to get them shots.”

“Do you see how he does?” my mother screams to my dad. My father wails behind his hands, to hide the fact that he’s not actually weeping. My parents bicker. I quickly slip outside and take Spotty to my car.

***

The vet gives Spotty the phenobarbital and throws the needle into the sanitizing bin. “I’m sorry for your kitty,” he says, and I can tell he means it. He leaves right after. The place is packed and they close the doors in five minutes.

Spotty’s breathing slows. I feel her heart stop. The vet’s aid cries a little. I don’t mind. I wrap Spotty in a towel, set her in the carrier, and walk out.

“Oh no,” one of the patrons moans, when she gets a look inside the carrier. She’s pale, wrinkled, her gray hair tied back but still somehow messy and everywhere.

“I’m so sorry.” She reaches out to grab my arm. “Can I get a look at your kitty?”

She grabs my elbow, and I swat at her hand. Not hard. I swing the way I did when I housebroke Spotty, when I’d pat her on the rump with a newspaper if she peed outside the litter box. My fingertips barely touch her knuckles, but I get the desired result. She yanks her hand back, shocked. I go out into the hot, noisy day with my dead cat. I was fourteen when I first took her to this place. I carried her in wrapped in a towel. When I handed her to the aid to get her fixed, she hooked her claws into the collar of my shirt, and mewled when they finally carried her into the kennels.

***

My mother is silent when I get back, and after a few moments of scowling in the kitchen she scurries down the hall to her bedroom and slams the door. Twice. My father has finally managed to produce actual tears, and he tries to pull me into a hug as I pass. I work my way out of his arms and go out to the back stoop for a smoke.

Mosquitoes buzz just out of reach of my cigarette. Two houses down, I can hear an old woman bellowing about the “Arabs” that live between her and my parents. Her adult son is trying to calm her down. The neighbors she’s complaining about are actually Pakistani, but I doubt she’d appreciate the difference. They live in a house that was only built two years ago, but it looks every bit the same age as my parent’s home. Everything ages fast in this part of town.

The carrier with Spotty’s carcass sits on the bottom step. Tree frogs duel cicadas in the trees. My clothes stick to me. I decide I won’t tell my parents I’ve left when I’m finished. I stub my smoke and grab a shovel from the garden shed. I don’t cry while I bury my cat. I do that later, in the privacy of my apartment. There, the memories of my childhood pet are felt in service to no one but myself. My cats sit in a ring around my ankles while I grieve. Later, when I go to bed, they all hop onto the comforter, and lie across my legs while I sleep.

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Cracks in the Ground

 

broken ground

 

The cracks in the grocery store’s parking lot are so severe I can feel the tires dipping every time I drive over them. When I pull into a parking spot the car slides a bit, and for a moment I’m terrified my brakes are out. I lean my head out the window and see the problem: a loose piece of asphalt is stuck beneath the front left tire, and slid across a jagged pothole from my car’s momentum. Greeeeat. I’m gonna need to be careful when I back out.

Walking to the doors I stick close to the parked cars, as the vehicles in motion give no heed to directional arrows, pedestrian crossing signs, or even to each other. Before I’m inside, two cars straddling the center of a driving lane almost meet nose-to-nose. They sit there, blocking other cars, honking at each other as I go inside.

I’m five steps in when I overhear someone ask: “You ever see Bush People?” I’m not one for eavesdropping, so I keep walking.

“You ever see Bush People?” I hear again, and now the voice is closer. Whoever’s talking is talking to me.

I turn and see a guy about my age walking up to me. Blue polo shirt, black work pants, black sneakers. A handheld device for the self-checkout counters dangles from one hand. He adjusts his Kroger cap. At first he looks unshaven, but as he gets closer I notice it’s actually the sheen of acne I’m seeing.

“You ever see Bush People of Alaska?” he asks me. Half his face seems to droop a bit, like Stallone’s. “It’s on Discovery.”

“Nope. Never seen it.”

“You should, man. You look just like this one guy on the show. I mean just like him!” He laughs at this. “It’s an awesome show.”

“I’ll check it out. Hey, do you guys have restrooms?”

“Yeah, man. Back of the store, far left corner.”

“Sweet. Thanks man.”

“Watch that show!”

“I’m on it.” I do a mock salute and retreat down the center aisle.

The toilets are tucked way back. I duck under a sign and into a small walkway that leads to a storeroom, a walk-in cooler, and an office. There’s a little hallway to my left, but it veers right a few feet in, so I can’t see where it goes. Still, the sign outside said Restrooms.

I duck into the hallway, turn, and see the men’s room at the very end, past two shopping carts stuffed with the remains of broken-down water fountains. The dim yellow light bulb gives the cramped space an eeiry, lonesome feel. I squeeze past the carts and an abandoned mop bucket and go in.

While I’m washing my hands I hear a woman’s voice over my shoulder: “This is the LADIES room!”

I spin, and see an irate worker standing directly behind me. A female worker.

“Oh, SHIT. Oh shit, I’m so fucking sorry!” I bolt for the door. I can feel my face burning red. Jesus Christ, how did I pick the wrong door?

When I step outside I look to the next door down and sure enough, it says “MEN.” Fuck fuck fuck fuck shit.

I turn back to the women’s room door, still in horrified shock that I made such an unbelievably stupid mistake, when I pause. The door behind me says “MEN.”

I look to my right: “MEN.”

I look in front of me: “MEN.”

I double check. I triple check. Quadruple, quintuple. I’m still doing it when the woman comes into the hallway.

“That’s the WOMEN’S bathroom!” she scolds me. She’s stern the way people are with dense but naughty children.

“It…it says ‘MEN.'” I point to the door behind her, then to the one beside it. “They both do.”

She turns around, studies her door, studies the other door. She seems to contemplate them for a moment, then turns around and repeats: “This is the WOMEN’S bathroom!”

“Okay. Well, maybe fix the signs then.”

“It’s for WOMEN.”

“Yeah. BUT IT SAYS IT’S FOR MEN.”

“I can read the sign,” she says, but I don’t entirely believe her.

I wince as I stroll down the beer aisle. The tiled floor is as cracked and bumpy as the parking lot, and I can feel each ridge sharply through my Converses. The tiles are off-white, and thick, brown cracks spider-web across them in every direction.

I grab a six-pack, a local craft brand that somehow found its way into this shitty corner of town. I consider grabbing another, but I don’t wanna get shitfaced. I drove into town to help my parents move, and we start packing tomorrow morning. I say we but what I mean is I. My parents are moving into a retirement community. They’re not going to have the energy to box up the five decades of baby-boomer kitcsh that packs that place. I got a long weekend ahead of me.

The self-checkout machine beeps for the attendant, and I see the woman from the bathroom whispering to someone, another woman who works the deli counter. They look at me, the woman pointing as she talks, and the deli worker gives me an icy stare. I give them both the finger.

“What kinda beer is that?” asks  the guy who watches Discovery.

“It’s a wheat beer. Wheat beer with strong lemon notes in it. Summertime thing.”

“Lemon in beer?” I can’t tell if he’s appalled or amazed. “How much did it cost?”

“About ten bucks.”

“Ten bucks?!” He laughs, a choked, barking sound. Everyone nearby turns to us. “Ten bucks? Bud Light’s only five! Man, did you get ripped off!”

He keeps laughing as he types in my birthday. “Next time, get Bud Light. It’s so much cheaper.”

I swipe my card to pay. “Oh, it’s cheap shit alright.”

He’s still laughing when I walk off, but the laughter seems forced. He doesn’t seem to be laughing at anything funny; he seems like he’s laughing to make something funny. I leave him to it. Third shift always sucks. I know that personally. Let him get through it how he can.

Before I reach the doors another customer cuts me off. She doesn’t mean to, it seems. We were just both moving towards the same door at the same time. When I stop to let her by, she stops too. Stops, turns her head, and stares at me. Her doughy, pimply face is scrunched up with a look of…confusion, I guess.

“You can go ahead,” I tell her, but still she just stares at me. I gesture to the door and she just stands there. After another moment, she finally shoves her buggy and heads out. I duck out behind her and race for my car.

The two drivers who almost wrecked are parked, out of their cars, and yelling at each. The night would be completely still if not for their cursing.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!” I keep moving. I need to get out of here. “Sir, excuse me, you saw what happened, can you please explain…”

I dive into my car like an Olympic swimmer, start the engine, and drive across the half-empty parking lot. I need to turn left, so I choose the exit with a traffic light. While I wait at a red, I hear a tapping on my window.

An older middle-aged man is knocking on the glass. He has an oily brown goatee and deep red pockmarks on his cheeks. “Can you give me a ride?” he asks me, when I crack the window open an inch.

“Where to?” I ask, even though I’m only stalling till I get the green.

He’s quiet for a second, then says “I need a ride.”

“Okay. Where to?”

“Can…hold on.” He rubs his eyes, the way people do when they’re exhausted. Or, as I suspect with this guy, when they’re too wired to be exhausted “Can…can I get a ride?”

Meth has burned away the second half of his question. A green arrow shines from the light. I drive off, leaving him staring after me, bewildered.

I grew up here, I think.

The drive to my parents’ house is rough. The car bounces on gathered mounds of asphalt, and shudders whenever I drive over a protruding manhole. My parents have already moved into their new apartment, so the house is dark when I get there. Tomorrow I prepare everything for sale or storage, but tonight I break myself down, my constitution an old cinder block, the sweating six-pack the jackhammer.

I get out of the car and head inside. In the distance, from different directions, I hear sirens. Grass peeks out between the concrete steps to the porch. I go inside and lock the door behind me, packing away a great box of shattered ground and empty, bored suspicion.

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Queer Exchange

fuzzy crash screen

 

We’re scrambling tonight. An idiot coworker changed the register password. I can’t blame him for that. The system forces us to every three months as a security measure. What I can blame him for is the hopelessly idiotic neglect he’s shown by not telling a single fucking person that he changed the password. No one can reach him, and the owner texts saying he’s on the phone with IT.

“I’m on hold now,” is what he actually texted. Then another text, forty minutes after the last one: “Still on hold.”

One poor woman with a cart full of groceries patiently waits for us to tally her amount by hand, and pays with cash. She’s extremely cool about it. Our apologies are answered with a casual “It’s no problem,” and she tells us she’s just grateful we let her in through the back exit, sparing her a walk through the alley to the front door. She ducks back out the same way on her way back to her apartment.

The next guy isn’t so understanding. I hate this guy, and lately it’s gotten harder for me to hide my displeasure whenever he’s in the store. He’s a fucking throwback, one of those gays who insists on endorsing every effete stereotype that society likes to hoist on the rest of us. He’s whiny and rude and self-absorbed. We’re a small produce shop but he complains when we don’t carry prices or merchandise found at Kroger. He’s a twelve year old in a gay fat man’s body, and I can’t stand him.

I think he can read my disdain on my face. I tell him our system is down and ask him if he’s comfortable writing down his card information. He tells me he’s not, which is understandable, and I apologize. What throws me, though, is his attempt to hand me his card immediately afterward.

“So, you want me to write down your info?” I ask him.

“No! No, I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry, sir, our system’s down…”

“Well WHEN IS IT GOING TO BE UP?” He gives me a glare I would almost call evil, but he’s such a priss I can’t help but think of it as bitchy. It’s weird, how prissy he is. The guy’s a head taller than me and outweighs me by a good seventy pounds.

“I don’t know, buddy. It crashed.” I sigh, and tear off some receipt paper. “You can just take your merchandise, and we can take your phone number down and call you to settle the difference at your earliest convenience.”

He notices my irritation, and his mood shifts to apologia. “I’m sorry, I just had an issue lately with my information, and it was a nightmare…”

“I don’t care, sir,” I say, too honestly, of course, but there it is.

“I’m sorry,” he says after a moment, “but do I irritate you?”

“No,” I lie, unconvincingly.

Later, after we close, I stroll down to a bar and get a couple beers. He’s there, of course, because God was the kind of kid who liked kicking puppies.

I sit beside him without realizing it, and it doesn’t dawn on me that he’s there until he notices me and starts talking.

“You seem disapproving of me,” he pushes. “I’m not trying to be catty, but…”

“From one queer to another,” I tell him, hoping to shut this down before I take a few more shots, “you fucking embarrass me. And if somehow you’re not queer, then I still find you embarrassing on a human level.”

“How DARE you call…”

“…myself queer? Fuck you, prissy-pants, you don’t own that goddamn word. You’re a shitty, pampered little asshole, and I don’t want to fucking talk to you.”

“I’m friends with your boss,” he threatens.

“Everyone’s friends with my boss. My boss fucking loves me.”

“And nice play trying to pretend you’re gay. That’s the lamest shield for gay-bashing I’ve seen in a while.”

“I’m not gay, I’m bi,” I correct him. “But I don’t care if you believe that, either. I’d never fuck you, you fuckin’ whale.”

I’m being meaner than is necessary, but fuck him. Fuck him for appropriating me into his definition of himself. Fuck him for using a defining aspect of my humanity as a fucking shield. Fuck him for never carrying cash.

I down two shots of Cutty Sark, one two in a row, and ask for another beer. Something hoppy, something that’ll boil the way my blood is right now. Right now I hate this fucking kid the way I hated the redneck last week, who went on and on about how much he hated queers and Jews, a bizarre double-hitter for a guy like me. In a way I hate this kid more. At least the asshole last week was bold enough to display his evil transparently. This shit hides behind shields. He’s a coward who uses persecution as a blank check to be an asshole. He probably sells it as being “brave.”

I turn to the friend I met there, another bi guy. I kiss him. He’s initially surprised but he gets what I’m doing, and he rolls with it. I hold the kiss a little too long, long enough that the pissy tub of aggravation to my right knows I’m not bluffing.

“I don’t fuckin’ like you,” I tell him when we break. “In point of fact I might fuckin’ hate you. You’re a prissy bitch and you’re every reason I got beaten up every week in high school. You live in the lofts upstairs, and I have to card you when you buy wine. So I know you’re rich, and I know you’re younger than me. I would bet a week’s pay you never got a tooth knocked out in a public school’s locker room because you like kissing boys. I got two fake teeth because my tastes weren’t limited to pussy. So fuck you, and fuck your false outrage.”

I was going to take another shot of Cutty Sark, but I let my temper get a hold of me and I sling it across the asshole’s shirt. The bar has my card in the system and the bartender knows me, so I make peace with the automatic gratuity they’ll charge and I leave, hugging my friend as I go.

“Later man!” he calls, then dives into a conversation with his current girlfriend. Girlfriend, by which I mean he and she fuck now and again.

Outside I come across a young woman I saw earlier in the evening, an attractive kid, a college student. “Oh hey, you work at the store down the block, right?”

“Sure, yeah. Whenever I catch myself behind the register, I mean.” I smile to indicate I was joking, but drunk as I’ve gotten it might just look like a snarl. She smiles a little but she clearly doesn’t get it.

“Hey, um, I actually think you may have rung something up wrong when I got apples there earlier…”

I sigh, and reach into my pocket for a cigarette. There’s a handful of small bills beneath the pack, and I pull them out and throw them on the sidewalk.

“Take the difference out of that,” I say, and walk to the bench on the corner. I light my smoke. My ears are burning and my face feels hot. I sit on the bench and wait for the end of the race between my blood and the booze. The prize goes to whichever burns its way out of my system the fastest.

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Temporary Story

So I posted a story today that I’ll only leave up until tonight. It’s one if those tales I’m particularly protective of, ya see. Anyhow, it’s available in the post below. For anyone interested, catch it while ya can!

Read it here: https://seanganus.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/original-fiction-ziz/

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

When Stories Fight You

I’ve only just now finished a short story I’ve been working on since late August. I’ve written it, re-written it, restructured it. There have been so many abandoned reconstructions of it the files would’ve filled a small thumb drive. I can’t think of another story that took me this long to finish, at least one that wasn’t novel-length. This story, all nineteen pages of it, fought me with bared teeth every word of the way.

As satisfying as it is to have something pour out of you, for me it’s even more satisfying when I finally wrestle down a piece that seemingly had no end. There were a few months when I was sure that this story just couldn’t work, that even I didn’t know what I was trying to say with it. The genre is irrelevant; there are just stories, some true, some fictional, that won’t be told until they can be told right.

It might be emotional masochism, but I like to believe the enjoyment comes from the impression of accomplishment that comes when a piece finally seems to work. Typing and deleting and rephrasing words calls to my mind the image of a lost hiker, hacking through brush as he tries to find his way to saner land.

There’s always relief when you get to where you’re going.

 

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction