Tag Archives: growing up

Folding Chairs

old folding chair

 

The pickup lurches a little when I put it in gear, and there’s a rattle I’m starting to fear is coming from the water pump. If it’ll hold for the next two paychecks I’ll be able to have it replaced.

It’s October and warm for the afternoon. I steer to avoid smashed road kill and a deputy notices that I cross the center line. I see him in my rearview mirror, debating whether or not to hassle me. He never pulls out, though. I’m at my pop’s house in twenty minutes.

He gives the dogs free reign inside, which gives the house the suffocating odor of musk and hidden dog shit. I make a mental note to set aside a weekend to help him clean.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a fat boxer sitting over both his feet. Two disassembled pistols are on the table, and he’s cleaning them with oil and cotton balls. The guns give off a sharp odor that I hate worse than the smell of the dogs.

“Hey, Pop.”

He’s let his hair grow since retirement. He keeps it tied back but he doesn’t brush it enough, and it looks stringy. I can see patches of his scalp between the vines of gray hair. He turns, slowly. “Hey, kid,” he tells me, looking almost stunned. He runs a hand over his unshaven face. “How’s work?”

“It’s work.” I grab a nylon folding chair from against the wall and bring it to the table to sit. The whole tabletop is overrun with mail and small tools. Mom always hated this. “I wash dishes. I fry eggs.”

He nods gravely, like I’ve said something worth pondering. “This is that .357 I got you that one Christmas. The one you left behind when you moved out.”

“Oh, yeah.” The gun is somewhat obscene in size, and I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would practically need it. I do carry a gun, though, sometimes. A little .38 I’ve always been fond of. Pop bought it for Mom but she never much cared for it. He’s something of a lone enthusiast under this roof. I doubt the dogs care about guns at all.

Roscoe, a rickety old brown pitbull, comes hobbling over. He’s got bad knees, and watching him sit down or stand up makes me wince. But he’s a sweet old thing and I scratch him behind the ears.

“I oughtta take that gun back with me one of these days.”

“Well, I can hold onto it for ya,” Pop tells me. “Keep it safe till ya need to come home.”

I moved out five years ago. I’ve been taking night classes the past two years. The nest is old and covered in cobwebs.

“You ready to head out?” I ask him.

He turns and checks the time on the microwave. “Yeah, I guess we should go.” He stands up, takes a moment to steady himself against any joints that might yell out. He grabs his cane, an oak branch with a handle shaped naturally like a duck’s head, and I stick close in case he loses his balance. He doesn’t. He shuffles his feet loose from the boxer and we head for the door.

 

***

 

“Sean’s here, too.” Pop waves at me, standing by the door.

“Oh,” Mom says, sounding unsure. “That’s nice.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“Come on in, kid,” Pop says, obliviously.

“I’m okay, Pop.” The only thing she remembers about me these days is the rage I used to inspire in her. Last summer she swung at me with a plastic fork. Pop sits alone across from Mom.

“Me and Sean are heading out today, the way we used to when we all had Sunday off.” When she shows no interest he asks her as casually as he can: “Would you wanna come with us sometime?”

“Oh. No.” She turns to watch hummingbirds out her window. Her roommate mutters in her sleep.

Pop reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I miss you, baby.”

Her arm doesn’t move. She doesn’t pull her hand away or hold his tighter. The knuckles sit there, unflinching.

When we start to leave Mom is still looking through the window. The nurse at the desk tells her she’s been more lucid than usual lately. This nurse always says that.

 

***

 

Pop and I dig a fire pit. Really I dig it, but Pop sets out the can and lays the charcoal inside. A grill is balanced, and sausages begin to sweat alongside hissing potatoes in foil.

We drink bottles of water pulled from a cooler. “I almost miss beer,” Pop says after a quiet moment.

“You ever miss it much?”

“I said I almost miss it,” he reminds me, then lights a cigarette. Putting the lighter down makes him wince.

“You alright, Pop?”

“Back,” he mutters. “My fuckin’ back.”

The aluminum armrests of the folding chairs scrape together when we move. Pop chews his food loudly, smacking and sucking at his teeth. I’ve learned to not let this bother me. Conditioning makes it hard to ignore, though. Nothing used to irritate my parents more than when my sister and I smacked our lips at meals.

“You’re doctor’s kids,” Pop would say, in that tone he used during lectures. “Behave like it.”

The old man in plaid and faded denim wipes his face with a dirty napkin.

It’s getting cold. We sit under blankets and sometimes talk about Mom. At some point I notice the wheezing breaths he takes when he’s fallen asleep. I put my arm around his shoulder. There are stars out tonight. Moonlight shines against the armrests of our folding chairs. I hold my father while he sleeps.

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Stride

old slide

 

There’s a park in my hometown that I frequented a lot as a child. It’s old but well-maintained. Most of the play sets are constructed out of heavy wood and steel, and the metal bridge spanning the ditch from the parking lot to the play area has a little heart scratched inside the green paint. Inside the heart it reads “J.K. & H.A. 1967.”

This place seemed gigantic when I was little. Journeying from the play sets to the baseball field by the road felt like an honest hike. Splashes from the pool carried like noise from some distant highway. The ditch beside the parking lot required careful climbing if one wanted to collect the tadpoles that always swam in the green puddles after a rain.

I could cross the entire thing in less than two minutes now, without the slightest effort. I’m taller than the jungle gym that used to feel so dangerous to climb. I used to sit at the top and daydream that I was King Kong.

There’s a “nature trail” that leads through some trees in back. In this small town, “nature trail” means that you can just barely see the houses through the bushes on either side. Here I remember the thrill of autumn games of flashlight tag, and noticing with excitement as the sky turned dark and the moon began to shine. On those nights, when you had an hour of night before the park would close, the dark figures behind the flashlights could be anyone you wanted them to be.

I walk along that trail now, and there’s nothing here beyond my ability to control. Rustles in the leaves are simply scared chipmunks. The trail is now paved, and comfortable to follow. Children no longer issue cryptic warnings about things seen in the brush. They see me for what I am: a grownup, separate from whatever threats lurk in their imaginations.

This expansive land shrinks beneath my footsteps as I walk it. I can’t pretend I don’t hear the sounds of sprinklers and power tools behind the foliage. Once limitless days are shortened and frittered away. Sweet crushes have become lost loves, or, worse, just forgotten.

I walk to my car. It used to be a hero’s journey to enter and leave this sandy, leaf-strewn land. I climb into the driver’s seat. I am in the street and headed home within ten seconds. Later, it will take me longer to do the dishes than it did to stroll the length of my childhood continent.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

House, and On All Sides There Are Thorns

thorn

 

“We need to get you a gun,” my old man says. The dining room table is littered with pistols, all shining with oil from a fresh cleaning. Mom hates seeing this but it’s been Dad’s Saturday ritual since before I was born. He’s careful not to make a mess or let the oil soak through into the wood. A small stain under the centerpiece very literally almost cost them their marriage.

“You’re growin’ up, and boys are gonna start noticin’ soon.” He takes a cotton ball wrapped in wire and slathers it in gun oil, then slides it down the barrel of .32. He repeats this for each empty chamber, then takes another cotton ball with fresh oil, holds the revolver by the stock, and carefully polishes the brushed steel exterior.

“Older boys are gonna notice it too,” he goes on. “And I know you’re plenty wily, but if one of ’em manages to get his hands on you, you might not be able to slip away.” He looks me up and down and winks at me. “Not so easily, anyway.”

I scratch my shoulder. I don’t want to be here, but I wandered in without thinking, and now that we’re talking I can’t think of a reason to break away. I could feign a text message but my phone’s in my room, and that could set him off on a tangent about cell phones that would delay my imaginary meet-up by an hour or two. It’s a little after eleven. There’s every possibility that I’m stuck in this chair until two.

My mother silently shuffles to the kitchen from the living room. I hear the cupboards and the clack of oven dials as she makes herself some instant coffee. The phone rings, and in her irritable muffle my mother answers it.

“We need to take you out to the range sometime soon,” Dad says. He checks the sights and lays the .32 on the towel. Usually I implode inside when he suggests this. The shooting range almost always buries an entire weekend in gun trivia and sight adjustment. But now that he’s retired he has a habit of letting time slip by. “Sometime soon” could be next year.

“Melissa!” Mom growls. “Phone for you!” Dad looks surprised that I’m getting a call. He goes on about how my friends haven’t called for awhile, forgetting I have the cell phone, while I get up for the kitchen.

“It’s that boy,” she spits, shoving the phone at me. It’s my phone but she has a habit of answering it if it rings near her. I barely catch it before it can clatter to the tile. “Hello?”

“Hey.” It’s Richard. Mom didn’t like him because she thought he was sniffing after me. Now she doesn’t like him because she thinks he’s gay. “You wanna go out into the Badlands today? I’m bored.”

Gay or not, Mom will lose her mind if I’m alone with him. “I gotta work,” I tell him.

“Cool!” He sounds excited when he hears the code. “Alright, I’ll be by the creek in a bit.”

“You gotta work?” Dad asks. He sounds let down.

“Ms. Parker asked me to cut her grass this Saturday. She wants to keep it short before fall hits, she says.”

“Oh.” He lowers his gaze to the .45. If he wants to guilt another hour from me it won’t work.

“Anyway, I should go.” I go to hug him. He stares at my chest the whole time I walk forward, then lowers his eyes and gives me a one-arm.

“Love you,” he tells me. “Don’t work too hard. It’s still hot out.”

“I won’t.” I turn to leave, decide to leave my phone in my room. They wouldn’t think to call even if I had it on me. I pass through the living room where my mother watches the news. “Love you Mom!” I say without stopping.

She gives me a suspicious look and mutters “Love you too.”

Outside I walk through the opening in the driveway, then cut around to the backyard, running my hands across the old fence. The vines have only gotten thicker, and needle sharp thorns poke my fingers. Behind the house, beyond the wall of thorns, I feel the guilty relief that comes with knowing I am beyond their reach.

***

He kiss for a little bit, then fumble until our pants are off and I’m sitting on top of him. We’re hunkered down low, by a section of the creek cut low into the earth. I’m hugging him and quietly looking around in case someone walks by. He’s breathing hard, and where his nose is against my neck I feel sweaty.

I hear the huffing of coyotes, but other than that we’re alone. I’m not worried about the animals. They never bother us, just hang around until they smell the bowls of food my parents put out for them. I feel Richard squeeze my shoulders and tighten up.

Finally the low tickling warmth fades from my stomach and I climb off, wrinkling my nose at the smell. It always feels a little itchy when we’re finished, but I just ignore it and put my jeans back on. Richard pulls the condom off and shoves it into the leaves.

“My brother keeps asking me why I want those,” he says for no real reason. “He thinks you’re my girlfriend.”

I straighten my waistline and sit down against a tree. “Am I?”

He shrugs. “Do you want to be?”

And I just say: “I don’t know.”

We just sit around for an hour, then we’re kissing, and maybe a couple of hours later we do it again.

***

When I get back to the house Mom is filling big metal bowls with dog food. She slides them under the brier fence, and yipping coyotes fall all over each other to eat. I stay back until I see her tighten her robe and head back inside. The coyotes completely ignore me as I walk the perimeter to the driveway.

“Took you awhile to cut that grass,” Mom growls when I walk in. I ignore the look she’s giving me.

“Yeah, Mr. Parker had to go get oil for the lawn mower.” I round the corner into the hall before she can ask me how much I got paid.

In the bedroom I see my sister on the floor, playing with my phone. Her face is lit up and she seems to be playing some kind of game.

“Hey Melissa!” she chirps.

“Hey Sammie. Whatcha doin’?”

“I put this game on your phone,” she says, swiping her finger across the screen.

“Oh. Hey, can I see that for a second?” I take the phone from her and check the data. Fuck. It’s several hundred megabytes over the limit. No more emailing Richard until I can afford to add more.

The irritation I feel shines like a full moon, threatening to swell into a tidal rage. But I keep my tone calm and just pocket the phone. “That all ya been up to today?”

She rolls over on her back, bored. “I don’t wanna go outside. I hate it when they feed the coyotes.”

“I know you do, kid.” I turn off the internet on my phone and hand it back to her. “Knock yourself out.”

***

That night at dinner Mom complains about me cutting grass. “I mean, I guess I understand. Boys like to walk down the street on the weekend.”

It’s a clumsy and awkward thing to say, and I’m almost embarrassed for her so I overlook the attempted insult. Dad left one pistol on the table, an old .38, and despite Mom whining about it he insists on keeping it out until it’s cleaned.

Sammie’s playing with my phone still. Mom looks irritated about that but is determined to elicit some kind of comment from Dad about me being outside so much. Seeing my little sister so absorbed breaks my heart. I remember the fear and fascination that came to me with the phone. It is a chain link reaching beyond these walls. No wonder my mother hates it so much.

Mom continues to complain about the gun, and Dad just silently stares into his plate while he eats. Outside, coyotes howl.

“Melissa, could you feed them?” Mom asks when I get up to wash my plate. Her usual sourness becomes concern whenever she hears “her babies.”

“That cop said we’re not allowed to feed them,” I tell her from the kitchen.

“What? Speak up when you talk!”

“I said we’re not allowed to feed them! They’ll write you guys another citation.”

“I can’t believe they did that!” Dad pipes up. “What do they expect us to do? Let ‘em starve?”

“They won’t starve, Dad. They’re wild animals. They feed themselves.”

“They’ve gotten too used to us feeding them, Melissa!” Mom condescends with her tone, like I’ve overlooked something obvious. As though I’m the one threatening them with fines. “They can’t feed themselves anymore!”

“Sure they can. I see dead animals outside all the time.” I rinse the plate. “That cop said the coyotes were the reason those dogs disappeared.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that! Those things are just big babies!”

Outside I pour kibble into dog bowls, and squeeze them through holes in the brier fence. The coyotes scramble the instant the food clears the thorns. In their frenzy, I feel teeth brush against my wrist. Their breath smells like blood.

***

After school on Monday Richard and I make our way to the creek bed. We do it and then try to kiss for awhile. The kissing is okay. If we kiss while he’s still inside, it distracts me from the weird emptiness that comes after we finish.

I kind of want to stop but it doesn’t seem like I’ll be able to. I keep making up my mind to tell Richard we shouldn’t do this for awhile, but then we’re alone and it’s the first thing both of us start to do.

I don’t really want to go home. It’s getting cooler and the sun is prettier in the afternoons than it was in the summer. I untie my braids and talk to Richard about the coyotes. At some point my head is in his lap, and he starts to snore. I close my eyes.

***

I open my eyes to the cries of coyotes, and now it’s dark. I jerk upright, and hit Richard in the arm. He takes a deep breath and wakes up, rubbing his eyes and looking confused. His hair falls in his face as he tries to sit up.

“Shit,” he mumbles.

“Fuck! My mom’s gonna kill me!” I get up, wiping dirt and leaves off my butt. The barking is getting closer. It must be close to feeding time.

“Mmm…you gonna be okay?” Richard stands up, catches his balance. He’s tired and breathing heavy.

“I don’t know. Hey.” And for no reason I kiss him. “You should be my boyfriend.”

“Why?” He’s only more confused now.

“Because.” And I climb out of the dip. He follows me.

“So we’re together now?”

“I guess so.”

“Okay.” He stands for a moment, then kisses my cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay.” And we’re both running home.

***

Mom’s still pouring kibble behind the house when I walk through the driveway. I go inside without letting her know I’m there.

Dad’s cleaning a pistol on the couch, and when he sees me he jumps up. “Oh, Jesus!” he gasps, and runs over to hug me. He holds on long after I’m comfortable with it, and kisses me on the neck. “Where the hell were you?”

“Just outside,” I tell him, wriggling free. He tries to tighten his grip and keep hugging me, and I almost have to shove to get him off me. “I was hanging out with Richard.”

“After dark?

“We didn’t mean to be out late. It was just that the sun was setting when we started walking back.”

I see him look outside, in the panicked way he does when he thinks of the world beyond his routine. How had he ever been a cop?

I walk out the room, ignoring Sammie’s scared look from the hall when I pass. I’m pouring a glass of water when Mom comes in. She freezes, but I refuse to turn around and see the stare she has to be giving me. Finally she slams the heavy bag of dog food onto the floor. I still don’t turn around.

Where the hell have you been?!” She’s so furious the question is screamed flat. “Who do you think you are to make me worry? How dare you be out this late!”

The microwave says it’s not even eight. I don’t bring this up. I can only weather this.

I feel her nails dig into both shoulders, and she whirls me around and hits me in the face. Her hand knocks the glass out of my grip and it shatters on the floor.

Dammit! Look what you’ve done!” And I hunch my shoulders as she keeps hitting me.

“You goddamn brat!” she shrieks. “You goddamn little brat! Who do you think you are?”

“Jesus, Susan, stop!” Dad yells, and he shoves himself between me and her. She keeps swinging, but now she’s beating on him.

“Oh, you always take her side!” She’s digging her nails into the flannel shirt he always wears. “I know what you want to do! You and her both disgust me!”

Dad grabs her wrists, and Mom makes this bellowing cry. She’s obnoxious about it, yelling like she’s terrified but doing so right in his face. “Get your hands off me! Don’t you dare lay a finger on me!”

And she pulls free and runs into the living room, still screaming.

“Goddammit!” Dad yells at me, running after her. “Why can’t you just keep yourself in line for a fucking change!” And he runs after her, because he never misses a step in this dance.

They scream, and scream, and Sammie screams too because that’s what she does when she cries, and I go outside to the snarling of coyotes.

***

I can still hear Sammie crying hysterically upstairs. When you’re eight a fight is practically a war.

I hear Dad yelling: “You want me to use this? You know what could happen if I pull the trigger?”

I’m outside, so I don’t know if he’s pointing the gun at himself or waving it at Mom. It’s around midnight, close to the last feeding of the day. I sit outside the brier fence and listen.

They’re yelling louder than they usually do. Mom keeps shrieking about the way people “look” at me. Sometimes she says Dad looks at me. Dad calls Mom crazy. He tells her she ruined his life. He calls her evil. Mom calls herself a child of God and says Dad is sick.

They yell and midnight becomes one in the morning. I take out my phone and look at Richard’s number. Coyotes wait around, snapping and huffing.Midnight has come and gone, and there wasn’t any food.

One becomes two. They’re still shouting. Then there’s a flash and something that sounds like a dull pop.

I freeze in the new September chill. Dad is screaming “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Mom isn’t shouting anymore.

I hear Sammie screaming too, almost drowning Dad out. Then there’s another pop. Now it’s just Sammie screaming to herself, over and over. I don’t hear any more shots.

Richard’s number glows on my phone. I hear Sammie weep into the kitchen phone. Faint lights, red and blue, begin to flicker through the trees. I hear heavy breathing in the dark.

Behind me, beyond the brier fence, the coyotes lie unseen in the night.

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Miscellaneous

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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Filed under Fiction, Miscellaneous

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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Filed under Fiction, Miscellaneous

Adultolescence

adulthood

 

During a slow period at work, when there are no customers and everything’s been stocked and cleaned, I sit at the computers by the registers and look up random things on Wikipedia. My coworker, a nice enough guy, looms over my shoulder, talking a mile a minute about every subject I search for. It wouldn’t be so bad except that he’s explaining the meaning of whatever it is I’m typing in, not understanding that I’m just passing the time. I try to be polite and engage him while he speaks, but it becomes tiresome and eventually I just ignore him. He’s in college and eager to show off what he’s learned. He lectures me on subjects I’ve studied more thoroughly than he has. He wonders why I’m not amazed by information I already know. He’s young and he resents it.

While I study for my GRE, I’ve taken a job at a local grocery store. It’s a cute, mostly locally sourced place owned by two friends I admire a lot, who were kind enough to hire me. The pay is low but the work is light, and there are days where it feels as though I’m simply being paid to hang out.

I’m one of the older employees there, and while the age difference between me and most of the other workers isn’t tremendous, it’s enough that I notice it. At 28, there’s no way I can pretend I’m not young, but I feel disgustingly grownup compared to the other workers. It’s silly, really, but when I refer to them, I don’t think the word “people” so much as I think the word “kids.”

The early 20s are often referred to jokingly as extended adolescence, but whenever I mention that to someone in their late 20s, there’s this knowing nod that we both share. It’s awkward when jokes are unintentionally accurate.

Do you remember what you were doing when it hit you? When you realized life after 25 was noticeably different than life before 25?

There are people who have forgotten how dramatic this dichotomy is, and they’ll scoff when you bring it up, but how many of you remember waking up with a staggering hangover at 26, and remembering how you would shake it off with zero effort just four years ago? When did you feel the first tell-tale sign of buckling in your knees after jumping the last stair, a jump that had never registered in your hips at 24? How many of you remember the exact moment when you understood you were only growing older from now on, instead of growing up?

The kids wouldn’t believe me if I told them any of this. Other “kids” haven’t, and I suspect they can’t. It’s almost impossible to understand the dramatic change in their self-perception that waits for them around the very next visible corner.

And it’s not just the body that has changed on me, it’s perception as well. I see these kids groan over workloads I’ve come to see as routine. Easier than routine, really. The café will get four sandwich orders at once, and complaints will fly when customers are out of earshot. At my last job, twenty orders at once just meant the hotel guests had woken up.

You have to understand that they’re not ungrateful or lazy or spoiled, or any other bullshit coded anti-youth phrase you were about to mutter. They’re just kids. They’re getting their feet wet and remarking on the temperature. They’re not rejecting the world, they just have to force themselves to mold into it, the way everyone eventually does.

And I know this, but still they seem so young and even at just 28, I think to myself they have so much growing to do. And then I laugh at myself for being so ridiculously patronizing. Who issued me the license to discount them for their slightly more noticeable youth?

But I do it anyway. Sometimes it’ll take me a moment to register when teenagers I’m around are talking to me. They probably think I’m awkward but the truth is I simply don’t have any interest in what they’re saying. They seem put-off when I brush off invitations to hang out. They stammer when I cut them off mid-sentence so I can get back to work.

Part of the wisdom of adulthood is in remembering the social power you wield. Teenagers will never threaten your place in the world the way you think they will. Every bully thinks they’re the persecuted one.

My coworker notices I’ve stopped responding. I didn’t do it out of spite. I only did it because it was never truly a conversation. He’s a person who talks at you, not to you. But he’s sensitive and worries a lot, and he’s only 20, so he asks if he’s bugging me. I say no and keep reading, but he’s still unsure.

“You can tell me if I am,” he says. “Am I? I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just if I am you can say something.” Like everyone who doesn’t yet know how to be taken seriously, he affects a condescending tone. “You know that, right?”

And he keeps talking, and asking questions, and I can say nothing back. I can only answer the questions he asks by waiting until he lives through the next few years of his life.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction