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Extra Extra

movie set

 

Wardrobe has me put my hair down, then slaps several leather bracelets and a tweed trilby on me. “You stick close to the band,” the costumer tells me. “What instrument do you play?”

“None.”

“No, I mean what do you want to play? What prop do you want?”

I say banjo to be silly, but she immediately radios to the set. “Props, put a banjo by the street band setup.”

When I get to permanent holding, the only stool I can find is one next to a striking South Indian woman. She’s beautiful to the point that I have trouble believing she’s real.

I’ve only ever seen women like her on TV, I think, then I remember where I am.

“What instrument do you play?” she asks me with a deep accent. She fingers a charm on one of wardrobe’s bracelets.

“Not a damn one,” I tell her.

She laughs. “The poor musicians,” she says, nodding to the people who brought actual instruments. “They’ll be playing to an audience that will only hear a soundboard.” She takes the hat from my head and puts it on. “How do I look?”

“A damn sight better than I ever do,” I tell her.

She laughs, and then the PA comes and ushers half the room outside for a crowd scene. My seatmate gives me back my hat. “Here I go!” she tells me.

I watch the crowd pour out into the brightening morning, then notice a woman looking me in the eye. She’s smiling, and luckily I smile back. I say luckily because my general instinct when a woman smiles at me is to look away in a stricken panic, and then spend the next eighteen hours cursing my inability to recognize basic flirting. Her smile widens when I respond, her red lips framing impossibly white teeth. She has blonde hair, the edges turning pale in the rising sun. Smoky eyeliner contrasts sharply with her creamy skin. The same PA comes back in.

“I need everyone on these two rows to come with me!” And Smiling Woman goes with them. I’m beginning to wonder if this PA is enforcing some obscure No Hookup rule I wasn’t aware of.

Three hours pass before the PA calls for the band. “Time to work for your money!” she tells us.

“Right,” I say to the cute acoustic guitarist, “because it’s not like we’re grownups playing make believe.”

She responds by looking at me like I just waved Mardi Gras beads in her face.

While I pretend to play banjo, a guy in his mid-fifties practices his pacing. He’s the wipe for the shot, an extra specifically designated to cross the entire frame. He works full time, with union benefits and a pension. Before today I had no idea that was possible for an extra. I seem to be alone in my ignorance.

For the final scene that day they sit me on a bench beside a woman whose neckline I’ve been making a serious effort to avoid examining. We pantomime drunken conversation while two women playing vampires run their lines in front of us, and between each take she tells me about her voice over work and her English boyfriend.

Everyone here takes this so seriously, and I’m treating it like a field trip. Whenever the horses for the scene clop by I gawk like a ten year old at the circus. I’m an extra among extras. Everyone here is so professional, but when I see the main actors I want to shout “ARE THOSE THE VAMPIRES?”

I find out later they’re actually playing werewolves.

The PA calls a wrap for all but twenty of us. While everyone else files out to validate their vouchers, I’m brought back outside for a pickup shot. The sun has set, and the French Quarter set is now aglow in strings of incandescent light. I’m paired with the pale-haired woman from earlier. We’re made to hold hands and touch foreheads, and with each take we have to sway like we hear music.

“This feel awkward?” I whisper.

“Little bit,” she murmurs.

“Is it strange that that’s a relief?” I ask.

“Probably,” she smiles back.

When we finally wrap for good she and I talk while we sign out. We exchange numbers as we head to the shuttle that will take us to our cars. The doors behind us flap, spilling the other dreamers into the night. They make me think of eyelids fluttering awake at dawn.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

Roll-Away

roll-away

 

Krista and I smoke cigarettes by the door to the employee garage. She’s just off work and I’ve just rolled in. It’s February and it’s freezing. The garage can park forty cars but there’s only five here now. It’s just her and me, smoking and complaining about work. Occasionally she curses our managers in bubbly Greek.

“Christ,” she says, rubbing at her eyes. “I gotta be up in five hours for my shift at Hilton.”

It’s a quarter past eleven now. “Shit,” I say. “And you live all the way in Clarksville. That’s two hours coming and going.”

“Yeah.” She takes another drag on her smoke. “Fuck it. I’ll just sleep here in my car. I’ve done it before.” She shrugs and says something in Greek that sounds dismissive.

It really is cold in here. “Oh, fuck that!” I say, digging my houseman keys out of my pocket. “Here. Stub your smoke and follow me.”

We take the service elevator to the housekeeping floor, and I grab a bundle of roll-away linen from the racks in back.

“Front desk to houseman,” my walkie squawks. I unclip it from my belt and answer. “Go ahead.”

“Guest in room 307 needs a roll-away.”

“10-4.”

Krista and I ride the lift to storage. Storage is a little warmer than the garage, just because heat rises. It’s just as much a concrete box as downstairs, but here every available space is filled with items guests may request during their stay. A single window looks out over the alley. Red neon spills in through the glass, and the occasional hoot from drunks outside works its way in like whinnies from a field.

I pull one roll-away to take with me to the guests, and make space to set another down. “Here ya go,” I tell her, dropping one bundle onto the bed. “This has gott abe better than sleeping in your car.”

“Oh, no!” she says, almost alarmed. “I can’t put you to this much trouble!”

In the neon light, with her brow creased, I’m reminded she’s 41. She looks younger than she is, but here I faintly notice indicators of her age. Small creases by her eye. The sheen of her skin. Not old. Not even weathered. Tempered.

Under fluorescent light her bouncing, kinky hair is light brown, but in the glow of neon it is a deep rose red.

I wave a hand. “It’s no trouble. You’ll be up and out before anyone else clocks in. No one’s gonna know. It’s just me on hall duty tonight.”

“But the extra laundry!” Her eyes bulge from worry or guilt or maybe just the general shame of the working poor. “I don’t wanna make extra work for anyone!” And she bites her nails and mutters something Greek.

“They’ll never notice. It’ll literally just be an extra armload. They’ll clock out the same time they always do.” I slap the thin mattress. “Sleep here. I’ll wake ya in five hours”

She hesitates, then gives a shy grin, hugs me, and kisses my cheek. She says something I don’t understand, then follows it with: “You’re sweet, little baby.”

I’m twenty-six, but in that moment I feel like an eight-year-old being reminded of my childishness by a pretty high schooler.

“I try.” I grab the other bundle and roll the other bed behind me. “G’night.”

Something in Greek, just as the door closes behind me.

***

“Krista’s sleeping in storage,” I tell Clint at the front desk. “Can you believe Dan scheduled her for dinner shift? Knowing her morning schedule?”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Assholes.” Then: “You sure she’s comfortable? I could look for a spare room.”

“Nah, she’s good. Just wanted ya to know in case it was too cold for you to take your smoke break downstairs.”

“Word.” He’s typing a mile a minute, closing guest accounts and settling invoices. In half an hour he’ll print three-hundred receipts, some stapled together for longer stays, and I’ll spend a busy hour sliding them under doors. It’s a little after one in the morning.

“You and Krista talk a lot.” He gives me a coy, stubbly smile. “Always smoking together when I come in.” He looks over and winks. “And then she’s always making you coffee before you clock out.”

“Oh, dude, Jesus Christ. She’s, like, my mom’s age.” Which is nearly true. My mother married very young. But Krista…Krista does not look like my mother. Not even a little bit.

Clint shrugs. “Hey man, I’m just sayin’. My man’s older than she is.” Clint’s my age. “Besides, after a certain point, do age differences even exist anymore? This ain’t fuckin’ high school.”

“Funny ya say that. She woulda been in high school when I was born.”

“It’s like that Wanda Sykes bit,” he says, typing through his duties. “If you can’t find a good man, raise one.”

***

Two guests come back from bar hopping around three. Two women, one blond and sort of heavyset, but no less pretty for it. The other, deep brunette, slim and having a little trouble balancing on her high heels. Halfway across the marble lobby she stops, leans on her friend for support, and slips them off. The two of them make for a side hallway, where the overnight coffee station is.

Ten minutes later, I’m bringing a fresh carafe out when I see them go into the room they share. I swap out a few condiments, and in my haste to get the chore done I stumble over something hidden by the table skirt. When I crouch down to see what it is, I find a pair of black heels. The same the guest kicked off in the lobby.

I grab them, feeling awkward as I carry them to the guests’ door, and knock rapidly. You’d be amazed how fast someone can pass out. I steel myself for an irritable string of swears when the guest, the slim one, opens the door. She’s still in her dress, her eyes a little red, her makeup wiped off of her cheeks.

“…yeah?” she asks. She seems nervous, and I guess if I was alone and pretty, I’d be uncomfortable if a strange guy knocked on my hotel door too. Actually I’d be nervous if that happened regardless of who I was, come to think of it.

“Uh…I think these are yours?” I motion to the table. “I found ’em near the coffee?”

Her eyes light up with understanding. “OH! Oh, thank you so much!” Her voice is quickly layered with emotion. “Aw! That was so sweet of you!”

I’m tempted to tell her I’m just paid to do this, but lately it’s been occuring to me how much of an asshole that makes me sound when I say that. “Well, they looked nice on ya. It’d be a shame for you to lose ’em.”

The night’s libations seem to make her melt when she hears that. “Aw! You’re so sweet!” And she leans into me then, steadying herself with one hand against my crossed arms. When she touches me I quickly wonder how she’s able to keep herself from blowing away in the wind. She pecks my cheek, and I pretend to run a hand over my beard to hide what I suspect is a blush.

“Thank you!” she says again, with more sincerity than I would’ve expected.

“Y-yeah,” I say, then smooth the stammer down. “Yeah, no problem.”

She smiles and holds eye contact as she closes the door, and fifteen minutes later my heart is still pounding in my ears. I take a quick smoke break with Clint in the garage.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, shaking his head. “You gotta stop working so hard, man. You’re beet red.”

***

By three I’m hurriedly stuffing guest receipts under doors. On the seventh floor a middle aged man with expensive clothes but an alcoholic’s physique grins and holds out his hand before opening his door. I give him his receipt and ask him: “So how much ya owe us?”

He looks over the printout and says: “Probably not as much as y’all deserve.” Then he looks up at me: “How much they pay ya anyway, kid?”

“Ten and change an hour.”

“Yeah. Not nearly enough.”

“True,” I agree, since it seems safe to. “But better than a lot of others get.”

He holds eye contact for a second. “But you’re not looking to keep this job forever, are ya?”

I cross my fingers. “Well, ya know. God willing, an’ all.”

“You from around here?” Here being Louisville.

“Nah, nah. I grew up around Atlanta. A little to the south. Poor part, ya know,” and he laughs with me, and I wonder how much of being poor he can actually identify with.

He opens his door but he doesn’t go inside, just leans against the cheap aluminum frame. For as much as we charge you’d think we’d be built less like a Days Inn, but our location is primo so we get away with it. “Ya lived here long?” he asks, in a nasally accent I place somewhere in Ohio. He undoes a top button. His chest hair is as salt-and-pepper as the hair on his head.

“Couple years.” And I’m not stupid, I know what’s happening. I straighten the receipts in my hand, evidence I need to get back to work.

“Moved here for school?” he asks. In my head I translate: Could ya use some extra cash?

And like always, when a man gets aggressively flirtatious, I feel guilty for every woman I’ve ever gotten handsy with. “Sure did. Wrapping the degree next semester.”

“You can’t possibly afford that with what they pay!” He scratches at his chest. His stare is like the scope of a sniper’s rifle.

“Well, if I can keep my poverty a secret long enough, it won’t matter.” I move away, long, strong strides. “You have a good night, sir!”

He stays in the door frame a moment, unsure of what to do, then quietly says, “Yeah, you too,” goes inside, and closes the door.

When I’m done, I head down to storage to wake Krista.

***

Krista’s already up when I get there, sitting on the edge of her bed, smoking a morning ciggie and rubbing at her eyes. Her hair is still relentlessly buoyant, but even it seems to be taking time to awaken. It seems to hang with less spring than it does when she’s fully loaded on caffeine and nicotine.

“You’re up a little early,” I tell her, stealing a smoke and lighting up. Outside the tinkling of empty bottles becomes an outraged ringing, as garbage trucks empty Dumpsters behind alleyway bars.

Krista shrugs. “Slept like the dead, though,” she tells me. Her blouse hangs loose on her, a few top buttons undone. I notice her server’s smock is bunched up beside her boots, resting on her folded slacks.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” I say then, stubbing out the smoke.

“Sorry for what, baby?” she asks, honestly confused.

“I…I didn’t know you still needed to get dressed. My bad.” And I’m backing away before she waves me back.

“No, no! I don’t care!” And she gives this bursting laugh that rings like hollow glass. “Ohhh,” she purrs, comforting but not condescending. “I embarrassed you! I’m sorry!”

“No! No!” I laugh then and relight my smoke. “You wouldn’t be the first naked woman I’ve seen, believe it or not.”

“Oh, really?” And she gives a tired grin. “And how many naked women have you seen?”

“Uhhh,” I take a deep drag. Can she see me go red in the wash of neon? “I don’t know. Never really counted.”

“Oh ho! So that many, huh?”

“You make it sound like I’m bragging.”

“Well,” she tosses her hair over her shoulder, “no harm in that. It’s something to brag about, after all.” She looks down, rubs at her eyes again, mutters something in Greek, then asks: “Anyone down in the staff showers right now?”

“Oh, hell no. No one from first shift is gonna roll in for another hour.”

“An hour.” She just says it, like a confirmation, staring at her burning smoke.

“I can get a kit ready,” I tell her, and start to turn again. She grabs my arm.

“Hey,” she says, and when I turn she pulls me a step closer. Another tug, and I’m nearly sitting on the cot with her.

“It’s chilly,” she tells me, and pulls me closer, throwing the blanket aside. I wasn’t aware of how cold it was until I feel the heat billowing from her bare legs.

“Damn, it’s chilly!” she giggles, throwing the blanket back over us. Soon her mouth is clamped against my ear. Her hands, strong from a lifetime of working to survive, anchor me to her like vices. Every few seconds she murmurs “Oh, my baby,” and then something, the same thing, over and over, in Greek. I never ask her what it means.

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Buggy

scary bug 2

So I’ve had a problem with bugs ever since I moved into my apartment. The super insisted nothing was wrong, but of course he would, right? But the maintenance guy said the same thing, and Tony’s a pretty straight-up fella. I still saw bugs even after he looked around, but I thought, hey, he’s maintenance, not an exterminator. Can’t fault him when I ask him questions outside his field.

But then I called, like, three professionals, and they all said the same thing. No bugs here, man. Place is clean as a whistle. Not even a freakin’ mite, they told me, and they ran UV lights and shit over everything.

So, right, the exterminators tell me there’s no bugs here either. And admittedly, it’s not like they’re everywhere. They don’t pour out of my cabinets of clog the drain. They’re just always there, out of the corner of my eye, scurrying into some crack I can’t see before I turn around. But I always see them. They’ve gotta be stacked a foot deep behind these walls.

Anyway, I guess it’s not all bad. They don’t get into my food or anything, so that’s a plus. Still, I sleep better at night knowing there’s a can of Raid by the bed.

***

So it’s been three months, right? And every time I bring friends over, I always have to look around, feel through the couch cushions, because I’m afraid one of my cuter female friends is gonna reach for her drink and get a handful of bug.

I still can’t prove anything, but I know they’re here. Fuckin’ scurrying out of sight whenever I try to get a look at ‘em. Sometimes I get lucky, see one in retreat before it vanishes. Jesus, they’re ugly things.

They aren’t roaches. I…I really don’t know what the hell they are. They almost look like spiders, but I’m sure they have six legs, and spiders have more than that, right?

I know they have six legs ‘cause the fucking things are huge. Like pipe cleaners covered in rose thorns. Just big, gnarly, awful things, bright yellow with spots of…I dunno, green I think.

And sometimes I see antennas. I definitely see the antennas. Sometimes I’ll just look up and see ‘em wiggling over the edge of the cabinets, long, orange, just waving around like how you’d hang your arms if you were laying in a hammock.

But as soon as I get a magazine or something, they’re gone. I don’t know where. Seriously, I don’t even think there’s any cracked paint in here.

It pisses me off, but what am I going to do? Can’t knock a hole in the wall, not without voiding my lease anyway. Can’t ask the other neighbors if they have bugs ‘cause, well, I don’t know. Fuck the neighbors, really.

They still don’t seem to bother me much, but it’s hard to go about my day knowing they’re there. I hear them when I sit down to watch TV, and I have to turn the sound up sometimes just to drown them out.

***

Shit, it’s a real problem now. I woke up thirsty last night and thought I’d get a drink of water. Then I hit the light and there it is, on the foot of my bed, just walking around like it’s scoping out property.

I screamed like I was ten and kicked the sheets. That thing dropped to the carpet with a thud heavy enough to make me wonder what else I’d kicked off.

Then I grabbed a magazine even though now I wonder what I was thinking I’d do with it. Piss it off, I guess. But it was gone, like they always are.

I need all of these fucking things gone. Soon.

***

So they mostly stay out of sight, which is good, since me and this one girl are kinda getting serious now.

I like her. She’s got black hair and black eyes and she fucks me like a demon. Sometimes her legs wrap around me so hard I wonder if she’ll dislocate my thighs from my hip.

It’s good right now. It’s real good. She’s naked all the time when she’s over, and I love that.

I’m always looking over my shoulder, watching for those fucking things, but they stay hid out when we’re together.

Which is good for now, but I might want her to move in with me, and if I do that I’m gonna need to know these damn bugs aren’t going to be a problem.

***

So I was plucking my hairline, ‘cause I got some weird patchy widow’s peak that’s not sharp enough to be cool, and if you tell anyone I pluck I swear I’ll eat your mother. And I guess I haven’t been getting enough sleep because while I was yanking out one really thick and gnarly hair I passed out. Just…BOOM. Right to the floor.

But that’s not the important part, even though, yeah, I know, it should be, but look: when I came to, I didn’t see too clearly at first. Just a lot of blurry spots, wavering around like I had a bad drunk on. But then I finally blinked my vision clear, and when I did I saw them.

Just…fucking saw them. So many of them, just standing there, those gross legs bouncing up and down as they skittered around, waving those freaky orange antennas. They were everywhere.

And one really big one had a stinger.

I freaked the fuck out and kicked at that one, and it squealed and smacked the shower wall, and I grabbed my sneaker and swung at the others. I was knocking them everywhere, and they were making these weird squeals and ducking for cover. They hid really fast, just vanished into God knows where the fuck.

Anyway, they’re all gone now, even the one with the stinger, and that pisses me off because I kinda wanted to super-kill that one, but whatever.

What worries me now is this spot that looks like something stung me, right on the side of my neck. It’s not swollen, not like most stings are, but it’s red and there’s a hole in the center, and it’s got me worried. Real worried.

***

So I’m still alive, thank Christ. Place where it stung me didn’t even start to itch, though I’m pretty sure it’s what made me pass out, so I definitely don’t wanna get stung again.

Yeah, so I need to get these fuckers gone. My girl still hasn’t seen ‘em, so that’s good, but we’re talking about her moving in, and I kind of want to make it soon ‘cause her crazy-ass ex is starting to leave her threatening phone calls. I know I can’t take the fucker in a fight, but at least she’ll be somewhere where we can both lock the doors.

She doesn’t seem to hear them either, whenever she stays the night. I ask her sometimes if the noise at night ever bothers her, and she usually just gives me a weird look and goes “What noise?”

***

Nobody fucking hears them, which, I’m not gonna lie, has me a little worried.

I know crazy people say they see and hear bugs all the time. And my mom…my mom kinda had a little of that. She was able to keep it under control pretty well, but I remember her yelling about bugs whenever she forgot to take her meds.

So it’s got me a little worried that no one else seems to know they’re here. They never hear ‘em, and actually they always ask me why I have the TV so loud.

But I can’t help but gag when I see them shoveling handfuls of cereal in their mouths. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that I don’t tell them. Still, I can’t see how they don’t know already. I hear those things all the time. They’re so damn loud.

***

Her ex-boyfriend comes over. It’s her first night in, and already he’s freaking the fuck out. I don’t know how he found out our address, but he’s kicking on the door so hard I feel like he’s gonna dent the aluminum.

She’s curled up against me, scared and shaking and I wanna go out there and punch the guy, but we both know I’m not gonna hurt him like he can hurt me. The guy’s huge, bigger than both of us combined.

So we sit here, and she seems to like me holding her tight in my arms ‘cause soon she’s kissing the side of my neck, close to where I got stung, and I feel her tongue on my ear and she’s whispering these little sexy things and soon we’re fucking.

And I mean fucking hard. Her on top, holding her tits and yelling, him outside hearing everything and losing his fucking mind. I’m pretty sure it turns her on and I’m not gonna lie, I liked it more than a little bit.

Finally a neighbor says he’s gonna call the police, and the guy yells back at him, and the neighbor says he ain’t afraid of some punk ass, and they yell a little at each other before the boyfriend finally leaves. And through it all she’s whining and grinding and I’m moaning, and everybody’s making all kinds of noise.

Especially them. I hear them loudest of all, their squeals needling their way in my brain. Those hairs I plucked the other day are back, and at every squeak I feel them tingle.

***

I walk around at night, too keyed up to really sleep. She’s sound asleep, too spent to be bothered, I guess. But I’m up and looking in every nook and cranny I can find, spraying bug spray that I’m not entirely sure is legal for me to own.

I don’t see how they can get in or get out. There’s not a loose board in the place. But I hear them. I hear them everywhere I go in here. I can’t sleep, and I feel this weird pressure in my head. Like I’m going to pop.

That low squealing. It’s like I hear them whistling inside my skull.

***

A few days pass. Good days for us. Constructive days, ya know?

But soon he’s back, banging on the door and shit. It sounds like he gives up after a while, but later when I open the door to go get the mail he’s there. He throws his weight against the door and barges in. I’m almost thrown off my feet, but I stumble around till I’m steady.

He comes up to me, yelling and waving his arms and I get real tired of it, real fast. That weird, cross-eyed look he’s always got is getting to me. I’m already having a shitty day. My head’s been killing me all day, and my mood was already shot before this ass wipe dropped by.

He doesn’t care, of course, just pushes me so I stumble a little more and keeps yelling. “Where is she, you little shit?” And without even giving me any time to answer he rears back and comes at me.

Then he looks over my shoulder and screams.

I don’t really get why he’s screaming so much. She’s pretty safe, and it’s not like she can hurt him or anything. That cocoon’s, like, four inches thick, easy. She’s gonna sleep clear through the molting.

But he won’t stop screaming, and I can’t have him going ape shit all night, so I come up to him to ask him to keep it down. And he jumps back like I’m poisonous, which is silly but he does it anyway. And I have a feeling he wants to escape but he stumbles into the door and it closes against his weight, and he doesn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind for figuring out how to open it back up, especially after my jaw comes off.

Jesus, I can’t tell you how much better that feels. They’ve hollowed me out pretty good, but it’s still pretty crowded in here. With my jaw gone they can pour out a lot easier, and that cramped feeling in my head disappears. My antennas have grown pretty impressively, now that I’ve stopped plucking them. They twitch as the hive tells me they’ll take things from here.

They come spilling out, two, sometimes three at a time. And he covers his face with those heavy tattooed arms of his but really, what does he expect that to do? Not get him cocooned? Please.

He’ll be a good one. Lots of meat on this guy’s bones. I’m pretty sure we can eat around the tattooed parts if we have to.

Most of the hive is busy wrapping her ex, so I sit down to watch some TV. They’ll call me when they need help hoisting him to the ceiling. I’m pretty sure I can catch Weeds before I gotta do any heavy lifting, though.

I turn up the TV, and the hive does its best to keep it down while I watch, but I don’t mind the noise. I don’t really have that much of a problem with bugs.

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Filed under Fiction, Horror

Links

links

 

Ben and Heath are sitting so close together their elbows are almost touching. On TV Alan Rickman quietly breaks Emma Thompson’s heart, and sad music by Joni Mitchell makes Heath think of Ben.

“So you talk to Gene any?” he says, and Ben shifts in place at the question.

“Not…not since Saturday,” Ben says, because not since the breakup scratches too deep inside.

“So it’s final ya think?”

“I kinda don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Fair enough.” Heath’s phone buzzes in his pocket but he ignores it. Texting Ari in front of Ben might be a little too hurtful. If his best friend was suffering, he’d suffer with him. All gays together, as he liked to say. Ben always fucking hated it when he said that, but that didn’t deter him.

Then Ben’s face breaks a little. He doesn’t cry, but with the pout comes a whimper, and he leans against Heath. Heath puts an arm around him and squeezes his hand.

“Hey, man, don’t hold back on my account,” Heath tells him. “You let it out if ya wanna. I know it hurts.”

The phone buzzes again. It could be Ari, and if that’s the case Heath doesn’t have to text him back. Ari’s The One; he never gets jealous or suspicious, and when he and Heath are together Heath forgets that there used to be a time that existed before they met. When they’re alone the image of leaves gently billowing in the wind frequently comes to mind.

His phone buzzes again. Ari isn’t the type to machine gun texts to people, so Heath thinks it might be Harrison, looking to go out and wanting a wing man. Heath isn’t good at the wing man thing because he has no idea what cues to look for to see if a woman is into Harrison, but Harry is convinced Heath ups his success rate. Possible delusions aside, a night out with Harrison is usually an entertaining one.

Heath feels a little guilty for letting his mind wander, but there isn’t much else to do besides sit and be here for Ben. Ben doesn’t usually talk his feelings out. Rather, he tends to opt for the approach of quietly letting himself stew until the boiling hurt cools to a simmer. But in these quiet hurting moments he does like company, and so Heath is here, for as long as his best friend needs him.

“I was hoping it was just a patch,” Ben says then. Mumbles, really. Half his mouth is pressed against the shoulder of Heath’s sweater.

Things had been rough between Ben and Gene for a while, a long while, actually, but Heath keeps this to himself. Ben just needs to feel as sad as he feels. No more, no less. It wouldn’t help anyone for Heath to pile on. Ben’s the kind of guy who needs to believe that even bad relationships are worth fighting for. He hasn’t yet figured out that couples are usually still in love when they call it quits. Love is vital, but it isn’t everything.

Heath scratches at his beard, which he hates but Ari loves. The whiskers get in Heath’s nose when he turns over in his sleep. “I know you were, man,” he tells Ben, squeezing his shoulder. Ben’s bigger than Heath and outweighs him by about forty pounds of packed muscle. For such a brawny guy Ben’s always been a bit emotional. Heath has soft feathery hair and a higher voice, but he’s so stoic and even-tempered that sometimes his calm unnerves people. When Heath broke up with Richard, Ben had asked why they’d been together as long as they had, since Heath didn’t seem broken up about it. Heath couldn’t make Ben understand that he was just able to tell that things had run their course between them. When endings that should come finally do, it’s best to let them pass without incident. Heath compares it to trying to waft away a storm wind with a hand fan.

They’re both good-looking men. They lean against each other and hold hands, Heath hugging Ben tight, Ben pressing his face against Heath’s shoulder as his eyes water. Heath’s sweater smells of burning leaves and Ari’s dog. Ben is warm, and Heath can feel it even through his layers. Heath squeezes Ben’s shoulder and murmurs: “I’m here for you. You’ll be okay.”

And Ben looks up then, and their noses are almost touching. Heath wipes at the wetness under one eye. The moment is still.

“I mean it,” he tells him. “I really do get how much it hurts.”

And Ben puts his wet face back against Heath’s shoulder, and soon Emma Thompson is crying again. The two men who probably should be in love but aren’t sit against one another, because the love that is there is not just good enough, it is in fact more than they need. It’s the kind of perfect love we often overlook, because it is not perfect along the lines we would like it to be. But it is no less perfect for it’s alternative definition.

When the movie ends they smoke cigarettes in the backyard. Ben drinks beer and Heath drinks from an old flask his father used before he died. Heath subtly brings up that their friend Rob is single again, and they smoke more cigarettes, and it is in hours such as these, on frosty winter nights filled with cigarette smoke, that bonds such as theirs are tempered. When their smoke intermingles Heath sometimes imagines chain links.

And when Heath goes home, he and Ari eat and watch a movie. Love Actually, again, because Heath could watch this movie on loop forever. Ari asks about Ben, and feels sorry for him, because Ben matters to Heath, and thus he matters to Ari.

And the night gets late, and becomes early morning, and because getting up for work is already going to suck for both of them, they go to bed before they make tomorrow worse. The two of them fall asleep, back to back, piled deep under comforters and pajamas. Almost friends, always lovers.

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Scoutmaster 

  

Today I’m going to the funeral for my late Scoutmaster Chuck Smith. It generally surprises people to hear this (for whatever reason), but I’m an Eagle Scout. I almost wasn’t. Scouting was fun but also kind of hard for me. I was good at it but I didn’t fit in. I was poor. I had shaggy hair. I listened to death metal. I didn’t like church. I liked to be by myself and read in my free time. Other Scout leaders weren’t shy with criticizing me, and they were downright reticent with acknowledgement of what I could do. I nearly quit Scouts a dozen times over. 

Mr. Chuck was entirely the reason I stuck with Scouts long enough to make Eagle. He didn’t care how shaggy my hair got or that I didn’t believe in God. He praised what I got right and took the time to explain how I could get a handle on what I got wrong. He went far out of his way to make sure I could fully participate in the Scouting experience, and my life is richer for it. To paraphrase the cliche, he was a great Scoutmaster and a better man.

And now he’s gone. Rest in peace, Mr. Chuck. I’m really going to miss you.

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Familiarity

familiarity

 

When Lori walks up Dex’s drive, she sees him kneeling by the steps to his porch, gouging an old basketball with a box cutter. The box cutter is dull and the hide of the ball is thick, so he isn’t cutting so much as he’s slashing. The ball is old, and the bright orange Lori remembers from high school games of Horse has dulled into a deep, graying brown. When Dex finally punctures it the ball spews dust in a wheeze that almost sounds asthmatic.

“The shit are you doing?” she sneers as she kicks her way up his walk, her heavy boots snapping against the concrete. Dex works his fingers inside the cut and holds the ball open as he flattens it.

“Time to retire the old fella,” he tells her, and when the ball is rendered a sad, flat carcass he lifts the lid of the city trash can and flings it inside like a Frisbee. Dex crosses himself facetiously and lowers his voice: “In nomine Patris, et Spiritus Sancti.”

“I think there’s more words to that,” Lori tells him.

“Well fuck it. I ain’t even Catholic.” Dex rubs his arms. He’s wearing a thin long sleeve tee, one he always wears. The seams at the shoulders are wearing out and each threadbare elbow has a thin, short rip at its apex. “Damn. It’s colder out here than I thought it’d be.”

“Yeah, I know, right?” Lori says, making her way up the steps. “Some dumbass might even try to tell you it’s January.”

“Yeah, yeah. Get yer ass inside.” Dex opens the door and lets her in before following.

Inside it’s substantially warmer, though not as warm as it might be in other people’s houses. Dex’s parents own the place but he lives here alone now, paying utilities and generally bumming off his folks while he builds his own funds. When his mother still lived here she kept it warm enough to bake bread, but Dex starts to sweat at 70 degrees. Luckily Lori’s always wearing her ugly gray and brown sweater, so it’s never an issue for her.

“I’m hungry,” Lori tells him.

“Well then go eat,” Dex says. They’ve already made plans to head out to The Nacho Shack, however, and Dex pulls on a sweater for the walk.

Lori snuffles her chilly nose and watches him while he’s turned away and she has the chance. With his black curly hair and his rounded face he’s pretty average looking, but there are moments or angles or something that Lori doesn’t have the words for where he’s so goddamn handsome that a warm trickle drips from her chest to her gut. She can only take these moments in quick bursts before her mind goes to her greasy hair and her horse teeth and the stomach that seems flat enough so long as she wears the ratty gray and brown sweater she always wears. When she thinks of those things she feels like she’s stolen something, and she has to stop before the embarrassment can make her face red.

Dex ruffles his hair and grabs his phone and wallet. He scratches at his shoulder, at a scar he got in high school. He’s so milquetoast that he mostly keeps the scar’s origin to himself. The few people he’s told who didn’t see him get it assumed he wass just making it up, trying to make himself seem less bland than he was.

A kid who grew up two doors down from Lori had taken to harassing her every chance he got. He’d follow her before, during, and after school, calling her a dyke and telling her he planned to kill her or rape her or both. Then one day Dex told him to back off. Dex had never met Lori but didn’t like how ugly things were getting between these two kids he passed in the hall. The guy had a box cutter and jammed it in Dex’s shoulder, then got shipped off to juvie. Lori heard from someone that he was dead now, beaten up in some prison upstate. Lori felt a little guilty over how relieved that news made her feel when she heard it.

Dex ruffs his hair again and checks himself in the mirror. “Will you hurry up, you pussy?” Lori groans. She really is hungry and this honestly is getting on her nerves a bit.

“Alright, alright,” and he grabs his keys and goes up to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and shaking her playfully. Then he looks down and pinches her nose. “You’re so cuuuuute!” he teases, a head taller than her, and she shoves him and punches him in the scarred shoulder.

“Oh, fuck you!” she snaps, and makes her way outside, smiling while also scowling. Dex follows her and locks the door. When he was pinching her nose there was a fleeting urge to kiss her forehead, because she’s almost like a little sister to him. Sometimes there are moments when the words are capitalized – KISS HER – and when those words grow in his mind, he sees her both again and for the first time. He sees her huge toothy smile, and the wide scattering of dark freckles on her dimpled cheeks, and the gray-blue eyes almost hidden behind messy bangs that aren’t quite brown and aren’t quite red. And in those times, with those words so huge in his head, she isn’t like a sister to him at all.

Friendship is a bond, but also, sometimes, a chain.

The Nacho Shack is down and around the block, so they walk, Lori’s baggy jeans scraping against themselves, Dex occasionally running his fingers through his hair in the cold wind. They’ll probably eat outside, warmed by fresh tacos and fueled by too much Cuban coffee. They’ll tease and kick each other, like they’ve done for nearly a decade, and they’ll ignore fleeting wishes that will pass between their ears. They walk, neither arm-in-arm nor with outstretched hands. They are bound both together and apart by placid, steadfast familiarity.

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Verse

old truck

 

The sign by the highway read: “HALLOWEEN IS THE ROAD DOWN WHICH SATAN WALKS.”

The sign a half-mile down added: “BY WHICH SIN WILL YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON GOD ALMIGHTY?”

Roadside Evangelical was little more than a white clapboard shack, too small now to hold the congregation it had grown. Most sermons these days were held in the field out back, beneath a blue tarp, in folding chairs that tested your faith. Today the chairs were replaced with plastic tables loaded with food. Children and their parents ran across the grass, alternately laughing and singing hymns. Short hayrides were punctuated with scripture quoted by those in the truck bed. Children bobbed for apples and were awarded pocket Bibles.

The door was open to Reverend Howell’s office, really just a trailer parked behind the church. The lights were off, and with the growing clouds it was hard to see inside. Scattered across the carpet were crudely scribbled Bible tracts, condemning the lust of homosexuals for God’s precious children and the urges of cross-dressers to peek into women’s toilets. In the far corner, the reverend’s chair was overturned.

They’d walked to the woods at such an angle that the church blocked them from the congregants’ view. Howell didn’t try to scream anymore for fear of choking on the torn shirt Lacey had jammed into his mouth. He could feel the fabric a hair away from creeping into his throat, and while the boys held his arms and legs he had no means of pulling the gag free.

They were strong, athletic kids, so they carried him a good ways through the pine trees. An old pickup, license plate removed, was parked about a couple miles in.

They threw Howell down, then picked him up on his feet and wrapped a heavy chrome chain tight around and between his wrists. Colt fastened one end to the truck bumper while Lacey and her brother pulled down his pants. Clint tore away at the reverend’s coat and shirt, utility knife in hand to sever the threads too thick and stubborn to yield to the tugs. Lacey pulled Howell’s pants so that his ankles were snatched from under him. He felt them pull his shoes away before finally pulling his pants loose. Someone snatched away his socks.

The rag had crept a little deeper down Howell’s mouth, and coughed as he fought his urge to gag. He was barely able to mumble “What are you all doing?”

Colt shrugged. “God’s work, I guess.”

“God’s work?” And Howell gagged again as the rag crept deeper down his throat. “How could this be God’s work?” he groaned, nearly unintelligible.

But Colt seemed to hear him. “You know about how my granddaddy was a code breaker after he got drafted? He always used to tell me that the secret of any code was figuring out what it was folks was trying not to say.”

Lacey propped herself up on the pickup’s tailgate. It was late October and cloudy, but the humidity was high and the temperature was in the low eighties. She was in small denim shorts, and she wore boots that hugged her calves. Howell looked away when he caught her catching him.

“Please!” he murmured. He tried to cough some of the rag clear, and felt bile rising in his throat. “There’s nothing Godly in this action!” Then he fell on back on the standby defense: “Look to His Word!”

“Codes always say one thing and mean another. And it’s not even so obvious as just sayin’ the opposite of what ya mean.” Colt flipped a pocket Bible through the air, one of a couple thousand Howell kept in boxes in his office. “You say He’s a God of love. If that’s the case, I ain’t so sure He’s the author.”

Howell’s blood was racing hot, and he tensed to keep from voiding his bladder. The pressure began to stiffen his prick. Lacey noticed and barked a little laugh, then reached out a leg and nudged it with the toe of her boot.

“Damn, reverend,” Clint said off to the side, “you sure have timing, don’t ya?”

A blond-headed boy Howell knew as Zach came out from behind him, stuffing Howell’s clothes into a nylon bag. He threw the torn suit into the truck bed before climbing into the cab and slamming the door shut. After a couple minutes Howell could hear the tinny sounds of country music from the radio.

“When you have us testify in town, you tell folks we’re witnessing before the Lord. I remember a lot of my granddaddy’s stories. That sounded a lot like code to me.”

“What…?” And Howell had to stop and fight back a convulsion in his stomach. He bit down on the shirt to keep from swallowing it. He felt his prick spasm and leap. Lacey watched it and laughed.

“My leg feels a lot better,” she told him then. “Nurse at school says I just strained it a little. Should be running track again in no time. I palmed one of them relaxers you said would help me and gave it to my sister. Put that little girl right to sleep.” She smirked and tossed her honey blond hair over one shoulder. “Just how relaxed were you wanting me to be that day, reverend?”

“They…they’re gonna find you!” Howell gagged.

“Maybe.” Colt shrugged. “Maybe not. If they do I guess that’s His will. Or, you know, somebody’s anyway.

Clint slapped the side of the truck. There was a clang from under the hood, and it lurched as Zach shifted gears. He opened the door and stuck a foot out, his boot digging into the dirt.

Colt clapped Howell’s shoulder. The sound of flesh smacking against flesh was intimate, violating.

“We’re just doing the best we can with what we can figure out.” He squeezed the pale skin of the man’s shoulder in an obscene gesture of comfort. “Plenty of snakes out here. You get a chance, let ’em tell ya a story.”

Zach stepped out, and the truck began to roll. It hit a sharp drop in the soil, and just as it began its descent its tires met an exposed oak root. The truck bucked and lurched, and Howell’s slow march turned to flight. He was slung through the air like the tip of a bullwhip. For a second the kids could hear his screams through the shirt, but he was quickly drowned out by the screeching of smashed steel and shattered glass.

When it was quiet they looked over the edge, and saw Howell lying fifty feet down. The truck he was still chained to stood on its nose, its roof propped against a pine sporting fresh scars. The old bald tires in back were still spinning.

Howell’s body jerked. None of them could tell if he was fighting to breathe or if it was just a muscle spasm. It wouldn’t matter soon.

“You all best get back to where you ought to be,” Colt told the others. “I’ll stick around to make sure it’s finished.”

They disappeared to the crunch of green twigs and the rustling of dry pine needles. Colt dipped some chew, and for good measure lit a cigarette. He sat on the edge of the drop-off, kicking down loose dirt with his boot heels. There was a faint pulse of light, and the distant growl of thunder. A few cool drops of water hit the back of Colt’s neck. He sat waiting until the rain came in force. Once he was cleansed, he would start the work again.

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