Tag Archives: original fiction

Repeat

repeat

 

Something’s bothering Greg but he won’t tell me what it is. I keep asking but all he does is mumble “Nothing.” I’m still in bed when he steps out of the shower, and I watch him shave through the open bathroom door. A towel hangs loose around his waist.

I’m getting a crick in my back but I can’t bring myself to change position. I breathe deeply to keep myself calm. If I turn over the usual gauntlet will run through my mind. I bite the inside of my lip to keep from examining the headboard ten times, once for each fingertip. I need to bring this up when I see the doc tomorrow.

I reach out to touch his arm when he walks by but he moves it out of reach. It’s subtle but deliberate. He’s pouting, which seems to contrast sharply with the gray at his temples.

The hold on me snaps and I’m able to sit up. “Oh, come on. Just tell me what’s bothering you.”

He grabs a set of clothes with a huffy sigh. “I really shouldn’t have to.”

He heads back into the bathroom to get dressed. This is a pretty new thing he’s done the past couple weeks. He bitches that I don’t touch him, but goes out of his way to keep me from seeing him. I get out of bed, tighten the drawstring of my pants, and go to follow. He shuts the door and I knock.

“Christ, babe, how is this supposed to work? Is it supposed to go away if we don’t talk about it? You know, whatever it is?”

I knocked three times, and I’ve noticed. I tap the door with my fingertips, too lightly to make any sound, and that’s barely enough to keep myself under control. I don’t know that the Anafranil is working anymore.

“Just don’t worry about it,” I hear him snap.

“Jesus, something’s been bugging you for weeks now. We’re practically just pissy roommates at this point.”

“Yeah, we are.”

I have to swallow, and my eyes get that heavy feeling like I’m about to cry. I don’t usually cry, actually, but I almost always feel like I’m about to. Maybe I should bring that up tomorrow.

“Honey…”

“Jesus Christ!” He whips open the door and nearly shoves me as he moves past. “Do you really have to fucking whine about it so much?”

I shower a little longer than usual, because the need for a systemic pattern rears its head. Goddammit. Is this because I’m upset?

I decide to skip shaving, and when I’m dressed he’s having coffee by the carport door. He doesn’t look at me.

“I’m probably going to be working late,” he tells me.

“That’s fine.” Now he looks at me, like he’s ready for a fight. “I’m going to be out late with Chanda anyway.”

“Of course you are.”

“Wait. Does Chanda have something to do with why you’re such an asshole lately?”

“What do you mean ‘lately?'”

“You fuckin’ well know what I mean.”

He sighs but doesn’t answer.

“What the fuck’s your deal? Do you have some beef with her?”

“Well, I don’t know, Nate. Should I? Is there anything I should be worried about?”

I catch what he means. “Oh, Jesus Christ. You can’t be serious.”

“You’re always around her!”

“She’s been my best friend for fifteen years. What the hell? You’ve been a huffy little princess for weeks because you’re, what…jealous of my beard?”

“I’m sure Chanda would love to hear you call her that.”

Now you’re worried about insulting her.”

“Nate.” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “It’s not like, you know…it’s not like you’re not attracted to women.”

“Are you seriously playing that card now? Are you telling me I’m inherently unsatisfied if I’m not cheating?”

He puts his mug down and grabs his keys. “Forget it.”

“How can I?” He shuts the door when I catch up to him, but I open it again and call out: “You’ve been making such a fucking point of reminding me!

He ignores me and gets into his car.

***

The bookstore kills me today. It’s buyback time, and when I’m not helping with the register I help lug the massive volume of textbooks into the back for inventory. We’re going to be working all weekend just to get everything cataloged. More fuel for Greg’s fire.

I prefer it busy. When I’m busy, scrambling to meet the demands of others, I don’t have time to slow down and wait for the same thoughts to force my attention inward. They’re still there, mind you. They don’t call it obsessive for no reason. But they’re in the back of my mind, not the forefront, and there is no time to act on the compulsions they inspire.

I stay until six, when Chanda calls me. “Look up,” she says, and when I do she’s waving at me from the window by the doors. Her bracelets glitter in the yellow light of the student union.

“Heyo! I’ll be out in a second. Coffee upstairs?”

“Sounds good. I’ll head up! See ya in a bit!”

Ten minutes later I’m sitting by the Starbucks kiosk, sipping lemonade while Chanda blows on her tea. She reads me like a billboard and immediately asks what’s wrong.

“Greg. He’s…still Greg, I guess.”

“And that’s a bad thing now?”

“Lately?”

“You think New Greg is Permanent Greg?”

“I think it’s safe to say he’s shades of permanent.”

“So what’s his deal?”

I sidestep the direct issue. “He thinks I’m stepping out, I guess. He gets in these moods if he sees me talking to women. The bisexual thing doesn’t sit well with him.”

“Well you are kinda flirty.”

“Wait, what?”

“Not…not like, consciously. Okay, I mean,” she straightens up, concentrating. Her words here need to be precise. “Okay, so, you come off as flirty, is what I mean, even if you’re not actually flirting. And…and you act differently around women than you do around men.”

The faint Indian accent she got from her parents makes her sound almost English.

“Like…” She pauses, looking up and to the right. She sets her tea down, and raises both hands, palms up. She sits cross-legged in her chair. For some reason the pose makes me think of the Bharatanatyam she danced when we went to her cousin’s wedding. Even now she slides her neck while she considers what she wants to say. The image of her writhing jade choli starts playing in my head. It’s preferable to the day-long replay of Greg shutting the bathroom door in my face.

“Like, when you talk with women, you’re very masculine, but then you practically bat your eyes around men.” She leans her head to the side. “You’re all ‘come hither.’ And with chicks you’re like…”

She lurches forward, creep-staring me, and cocks an eyebrow. She drops her voice an octave or two and grunts “DTF?”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?”

She shrugs. “S’what I’ve noticed, anyway.”

“Well.” I lean back in my chair. “Son of a bitch.”

***

Greg’s asleep when I get home. I decide to crash on the couch after my shower, and in the spring heat my mind goes back to Chanda dancing at her cousin’s wedding. Her date…I can’t remember his name now…he’d been affectionate all night, and I remember being a bit surprised at the naked desire in his eyes. When he looked at her, they almost seemed to sparkle in the light of the silver jari in her skirt. He didn’t seem to mind that she danced so much with me. I was already with Greg by then. She and I could’ve fucked in front of her date and the guy probably still would’ve assumed I was just “the gay friend.”

I remember wondering what it was that he wanted so badly from her, from this woman I’d known since I was ten. When I thought of Chanda it was with memories of middle school acne and baby weight that hung on through high school. But when she danced then I saw the fine-tuning ballet had finally worked on her body. She coiled her arms above her head and slid her neck from side to side. Her curling lips were dark like plums, and her stomach twisted like a python.

When I finally go to sleep, my mind is stuck on the image of her lehenga. I see its delicate hem billowing against her ankles, like a sail caught on a river wind.

***

Dr. Hale is a very fatherly guy. Soft voice, direct speech, always encouraging. Ideally fatherly, I guess I should say.

“So how are ya, Nathan?”

“Ahhhh.” I twist my hand from side to side.

“What’s up?”

“My thoughts are turning more obsessive lately. Repeated imagery, mostly. Some anxiety.”

“Any compulsive behavior?”

“Not that I can’t control.”

“Is it getting harder to control?”

“A…a little, yeah.”

“How’s the Anafranil working?”

I shrug. “I mean, I’ve been pretty stressed lately, and you know how bad it used to be if I was stressed.”

He knits his brows together. “What’s been bothering you?”

“I think Greg and I are gonna break up.”

“Why do you think that?”

“He’s mad all the time. He won’t talk about it. He’s been getting real jealous of Chanda lately.”

“Of you spending time with her?”

“Of just being around her at all, really.”

“Now, Greg knew you weren’t exclusively attracted to men when you two got together, right?”

“Oh, yeah. I made a big point of making sure he knew that.”

“Okay. Now, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but have you given him any reason to think you haven’t been faithful?”

“Not that I can think of.”

Dr. Hale is quiet for a minute. “Is there any possibility you’re attracted to Chanda?”

“Hold on. Why are we getting into this?”

“Trust me, there’s a point to it.”

I’m quiet for a long while. The silver jari in Chanda’s skirt sparkles behind my eyes, over and over. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.”

He nods. “Yeah, I think you are too. And I think this is a recent thing. Dollars to doughnuts, Greg is picking up on that.”

“Well, fuck.”

“Now remember how obsessive thought patterns can artificially inflate feelings of attachment and attraction? Now, that inflation can become compounded when you take into account existing feelings of platonic affection. You with me so far?”

“Yeah. Her being my friend complicates things. Makes ’em…like, bigger than they are.”

“Substantially. Now, I think you’re surprisingly adept at appraising your own perception. So, bearing all that in mind, would you describe yourself as possibly being in love with Chanda?”

I honestly consider it. Jangling bracelets. The Bharatanatyam.

“I think…I think I might be on the edge of that, yeah. Not yet, but…close.”

He gives me a comforting smile. “Well, there you go, kid. Your symptoms are flaring up because you’re stressed. Love, breakups…that stuff hits all of us pretty hard. And you work in a college bookstore. April is a shit storm for you guys.”

“So what do I do?”

“I couldn’t say, professionally or personally. Those are things you just have to manage on your own. Your boyfriend…I think you already have a course of action in mind in that regard, so I won’t add any input.”

“What about Chanda?”

“What about her?”

“What do I do?”

“There’s nothing to do.”

“Should I tell her?”

“I’m a clinician, Nate, not a life coach. That’s a question you gotta figure out by yourself. I…”

He pauses, then puts his pen and pad down and leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped.

“My wife and I were close friends for a decade before we began dating, and there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that she’s the love of my life. But…I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, loving friendships fall apart because of the presumption that attraction has to be consummated. Some friends can date, fall in love, fall out of love, and be friends again. Some can’t.”

“I would suggest…” and he points right at me, “…that you consider exactly what Chanda means to you. Not how much. That’s a meaningless measurement. Consider what she means to you. The what is important. What space is her best fit, and yours?”

He looks at the clock. “Alright, kid. I wanna see you in a month. I’ll forward my notes, but I still want you to tell your psychiatrist everything you told me. Off the record, I don’t think there’s anything clinically significant to the increase in your symptoms, but see her anyway, alright? From what I understand, side-effects from Anafranil can be sneaky bastards. They like to play the long game. She might wanna do some blood work.”

I have a weird urge to hug him when I leave, but of course I don’t. Still, though, the image of us hugging replays over and over in my head until I get a text from Chanda, asking if I wanna meet up when she gets off work. After that, the only thing I can picture are the white jeans she wore when we met last night for tea.

***

Greg stays out all weekend, fuming. While he’s gone I ask Chanda if she knows anyone who can help me move. She comes over in mom jeans and a baggy tee shirt, her friend Rebekah in tow. Rebekah has a sharp, curving nose that almost seems to pin down her extra-wide grin. She has frizzy blond hair that she keeps tied back.

Abhay swings by once everything’s boxed up, and he packs the U-Haul trailer like he does it for a living. He’s tall and athletic and I try not to feel too competitive. He’s a nice guy, eager to heft the heaviest items and joking around while he works. He never seems to sweat or lose his breath. I can see why Chanda likes him so much.

They’re clearly in love. They’re not engaged but obviously they will be one day. Their families would love it if they wound up together. She pretends otherwise, but tradition is important to Chanda. Both are first-generation kids, both have family hailing from the same province. He gets her in a way I couldn’t.

When we take a lunch break Abhay rides with Chanda to pick up food. Rebekah and I sit on the porch, drinking light beer and arm wrestling. She beats me every time. I want to keep going, long after the break is over and we’ve all eaten. I’d like to focus on anything other than the private jokes Abhay and Chanda share.

***

The apartment looks a lot more spacious now that everything’s arranged. Chanda had to do most of it. Greg was always the housekeeper when we were together.

I get an excited text from her before I head out: “TELL. ME. EVERYTHING.”

Rebekah’s already ordered a round when I find her at a back table. Her hair’s down. It’s less frizzy than I remember it. She has glasses on, thick black-framed jobs. Her huge grin gets wider as we drink. Hours later, while we’re playing darts, I think over and over about us drinking light beer, and her beating me at arm wrestling. I’m still thinking about it that night, when I go to sleep.

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Stitches

stitches

 

I wake up to him kissing my neck and running his hand between my thighs. I sigh and turn my head to kiss him. He needs a shave, but I’m too distracted to tell him that. And besides, I like the stubble. I’m tempted to tell him to let me sleep another hour, but he runs his fingernails along my stomach, and I come alive against him.

Eventually I turn over and pull him close, careful to keep the injured finger clear of his writhing back. Kissing his shoulder, I can see the bruised, stitched flesh, torn and marred, in heavy contrast to his smooth tan skin.

***

I would have really appreciated it if she’d told me sooner I was losing her. I knew we were going to break up, but I couldn’t have gauged how vicious she was going to be about it.

We’d been getting along lately, though, so I guess I misinterpreted that as a reconciliation. In hindsight it was pretty clearly just a cease-fire.

She was doing her makeup in the bathroom. She was naked, her hair fresh and dry, and before I jumped in the shower I came up behind her and kissed her neck. My hands slid along the curve of her hip.

“Get the fuck off me!” She jabbed me sharply with her elbow. Not enough to hurt, not in the body, anyway. But enough to startle me back.

“Jesus! What was that?”

“Are you trying to make me put out my goddamn eye?” she snarled. Even curled back across her teeth, her pink lips looked remarkably kissable. Eyeliner gave her a stare like sharp wire.

“Alright! I’m sorry.” I put my hands up in surrender and stepped into the shower.

“Oh, don’t sound so fuckin’ wounded.”

I didn’t answer, just started my shower. After a minute or so I heard her groan. “Turn it down! The steam is gonna fuck up my hair!”

I ignored her. I let the heat scald away my irritation with her. By the time I stepped out, she’d already left for work.

***

When he and I are finished we hold each other, our chests pressed together, me breathing heavily just behind his ear. His hair is sweaty, but when he sweats it’s with a clean, almost sterile odor. I run my fingertips against his scalp, ignoring the slight sting of my injured finger. We both need a shower. We’re clearly not done fooling around just yet.

Every so often he gives me a lazy kiss to my temple. We both doze off a few minutes. When I wake up I can feel him getting ready to go again. When Brittany got her stuff, she stripped the linens straight from the bed and threw them in the car. Soon Bobby and I are tangled in the act of consecrating the bare mattress anew.

***

“Christ, all I’m trying to do is talk to you-…”

“That’s all you fucking do. You talk about things but you never fucking do them. Goddamn, you’re boring.”

“Babe, just…”

“Just get the fuck back, alright?”

“Goddamnit,” I caught the door to the bathroom before she could close it. “Do you want us to break up or what?”

“No! I just want…”

“You don’t even fucking know what you want! All you do is endlessly bitch at me…”

She pulled the door. I tightened my grip, holding in place. Before I could say anything else, she threw her entire body into pulling it closed, grunting in anger and effort.

My finger made a dull, wet sound as it was smashed against the frame.

I remember yelling so loudly it felt like a roar. Brittany covered her mouth against the drips of blood spotting the carpet. She kissed me over and over on the forehead and told me she was taking me to the emergency room. She ran off to get dressed and grab her keys. While she was getting ready, I climbed into my own car and drove away.

I heard her come home from work around nine. I’d locked myself in my room. On the table in the kitchen, I left a note, telling her she had a day to get her stuff out. That’s all it said. Now that I think of it, I haven’t laid eyes on her since seeing her disappear into her room. This room, where Bobby and I are now.

***

When Bobby gets out of the shower I’ve set up a tray with toast and eggs. A carafe of coffee is on the desk I moved in here yesterday.

Bobby dries his hair. “God, I love you.”

He says it lightly, and I pretend not to notice him gauging me with his eyes. Seeing how I’ll react.

Oh, no.

His phone vibrates again. Text from Mark: “Hey babe. Flying back in tomorrow.”

Bobby tosses the towel over the curtain rod. He pours coffee without getting dressed. I take in the sight of him, and run my thumb along the stitches in my finger.

Maybe he’s sincere, but two days into this I’d prefer it if he wasn’t. I never touched him before Brittany left. Never thought of it.

While he stands there I contemplate going to him, kissing his body, going further and further until he’s against the wall and shuddering above me. I think about him trying to do that with Mark, a man almost twenty years older. Always tired, always busy, always out of the house when Bobby gets home. Maybe Bobby does love me. But he also can’t.

Bobby types something into his phone while he drinks his coffee. He winks at me while he sips from the mug. The tip of my left middle finger is deep blue and purple. Between the stitches I can see the skin beginning to heal. The flesh is smashed and shredded, but still it comes together.

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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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Cigarette Smoke

cigarette smoke

Her brother-in-law can’t really keep control of himself when there’s liquor around, so I fill up a flask for myself and tuck it into my jacket pocket before taking off.

The drive out to her house is a little long, and very peaceful. The treeline is a black, ebbing hillside in the dark, and the October wind cools me as it wicks away cigarette smoke. The only light I see beyond my headlamps comes from gas stations and the occasional church.

For an hour we all sit in the living room, drinking light beer. I take drinks from my flask every now and again. Her brother-in-law looks to the liquor but doesn’t say anything. I’m clearly pounding through it too fast to share it.

“Can you pick up some cigarettes?” her sister asks him, while he rifles through bills in his wallet.

“Yeah, I can do that.” He turns to me and thumps me in the chest. He’s a good head taller and about a person heavier than I am. He didn’t thump me hard but I catch myself wondering how much I’d waver if he did.

“You wanna ride with, fam?”

By “ride with,” he apparently means “drive.” I’m not drunk despite the brandy, so we head to my car.

“Are you sure you’re good to drive?” she asks me after he’s already outside, and I shrug.

“We’ll find out,” I tease, and in a second he and I are backing out.

“Dude, whacha been drinkin’ on all night?” he says, lighting up a cigarette.

“Whatever was cheapest.”

“You got a sip or two left?”

“I left it behind.”

“Damn. Well we can hit up a liquor store or somethin’ if you wanna restock.”

“Nah, I’m good.” We roll into the gas station. Inside he grabs a case of Bud Light and a few packs of smokes, then offers to grab me something.

“Dude, anything you want!” he sweeps his arm magnanimously, but I honestly don’t want anything.

“Anything you want!” he repeats. By keeping quiet I somehow compel him to buy two bags of pork rinds and two bags of Cheetos. More than anything I just want to get back in the car.

Finally we’re back out on the street, and he thumps my shoulder. “Hey, man, you still wanna hit up a liquor store, right?”

“Not really.”

“Dude, come on! You can’t be done drinkin’! You CAN’T BE.”

I don’t say anything, just light a cigarette.

“Man, don’t feel like you’re obligated to go straigth home just ’cause I’m here!” He thumps my shoulder again. “Come on, man! Do what you want!”

I feel like I’m starting to figure out his code.

“Dude, tell me you’re not still obsessed with her!” He laughs. “TELL ME you’re not still obsessed with her!”

“I’m not still obsessed with her.”

“Oh, man, I’m so glad to hear that. I remember you always following her around and it was, just fucking unfair, man! I remember just wondering why she wouldn’t let you hang out with the rest of us.”

I keep to myself that whenever I swung by, it was her I was there to chill with.

“Oh man, you really dodged a bullet there, though, man. Just…dude, I love her, she’s my sister-in-law, but man, I don’t think she’d appreciate you enough, man. Like, when I first met her, she was ALL ABOUT  me, man. ALL ABOUT me.”

Obsession seems to be the unintended theme of this drive.

“I mean, I was interested, but then I met her sister and it was just OFF. Dude, her sister in her prime? 10, easy. Fuckin’ 10.”

“Well, there ya go. Perfect score already. You win.” I light up another cigarette.

“Ahhh! That’s why I like you, man! You’re always just quietly sayin’ wild shit!” He shakes his head. “Man, I wish you’d brought that flask with you. Hey, man, seriously, I don’t mind a trip to the liquor store.”

I keep driving. I think of the text she sent earlier: “Hey, could you maybe bring beer instead? Or, like, just enough liquor for you?”

“I mean, she’s cool and all, but it gets awkward, all of us in the same house together. I always have to make excuses to stay outside if it’s her and me alone there. I LOVE my wife, man. I gotta make sure I don’t fuck that up, you know?”

I smoke my cigarette. “You got a good thing going, man.”

“I don’t get what it is about you she’s not digging. You’re a solid guy.”

I shrug. It’s getting harder to feign interest in the conversation.

“Hey man, I thought we were headed to the liquor store. It’s only a block or two away.”

I was raised by alcoholics. His hints are falling on uncaring ears. He’s not pulling any strings I haven’t already had fine-tuned.

We pull onto her street. I can see her smoking on the front porch. I get that butterfly feeling in my gut. It’s nice to know I can still get grade-school crushes at 30. It’s also nice to know that, at 30, I can keep them in check. I enjoy the friendship too much to ruin it with any kind of awkward, unappreciated fumbling in the dark.

His phone rings. “Uh huh. Yeah, man, sounds good. Here, can you guys pick me up? Aww, yeah boo! Alright brother, see you in five.”

He thumps me on the shoulder again. “Hey, man. You wanna head over to Boo-Boo’s? They got plenty of shit over there you can have.”

“Nah,” I tell him. I light another smoke. I smoke too damn much. My throat feels scratchy, and I cough. “Nah, I got work in the morning.”

“Aww, come on, boo!” I feel like he’s gauging whether I’m telling the truth or not. I am, but I don’t care if he believes me or not. “Duuuude! Come on! Don’t let her fuck up your good time.”

I shrug through the cloud of smoke. The temperature’s dropped. I wonder where the smoke ends and the mist of my breath begins. The air smells like pine needles, both fresh and burning.

“I came here to hang with her, man. I haven’t seen her all week.”

“Duuuude. Goddamn, you got it bad.” He thumps my shoulder again, enthusiastic to show there’s no hard feelings, and I get an inkling as to what’d it be like if he decided to hit me. Luckily, if a blackout’s imminent, it won’t be happening around me. Tonight, anyway.

“You enjoy yourself brother.” He climbs out just as his friends pull up. He calls his wife real quick to let her know he’ll be back in a few hours. He listens, tells her he’s sorry, then hangs up with a disgusted sigh. Then he turns back to me. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, brother. You seem like such a good dude.”

“You have a good night, man.” I stub out my smoke. I’ll probably light another one in a second. Too goddamn much.

“Alright, brother. Hey, text me sometime! We can hang without her bogarting you all night.”

The car that picks him up shakes from heavy bass, and this late, in this small town, there’s a solid chance someone will call the cops. I wonder if they’ll get pulled over. Boo-Boo’s not shy about lighting a blunt in the backseat.

I light another smoke and join her on the porch. She tells me her sister already went to bed, so I just set the smokes and beer on the ground and sit down next to her. It’s after midnight. We were going to watch a movie but I doubt either of us can stay up much longer. Another time, then.

Tree frogs sound off through the breeze that rustles the pine trees. At some point she leaves to check on her kid. While she’s gone I light one more cigarette. Staring through the smoke that billows around me, I can see the world the way I want to see it.

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Getting Drunk with Strangers

evan williams

 

Half an hour after I clock out I’m in the closest Walmart, browsing the aisle for cordless phone accessories. Unsurprisingly, I’m the only customer this far back into the store, and I clench my teeth in irritation when I see the price for a new bundle of phone batteries.

$14.99

The elderly man who came into my work looking for batteries was so frail looking I felt like he’d break apart if I breathed on him heavy. His voice was so soft I had to lean in to hear him. He lived downtown, in Section 8 housing set up in a swanky old former hotel. He shuffled in with the kindliest smile and asked if we had any batteries. We did, but only the kind people still use. He’d been all over downtown. I mentioned he’d probably find what he needed at Kroger, well beyond his means of mobility.

So here I was, at Walmart at 10:30. The old guy gave me $15 but the batteries ran a dollar over with tax. I hopped in my car and debated telling the old guy he owed me a buck.

Another half hour later, and I’m parked outside his building. It’s raining a little but I still take a moment to look up and take in the old place. In its day it must have been swanky, catering to the richest old racists Macon could stir up. Decades ago a realty group purchased the place, long after it’d shuttered. Now it housed the most vulnerable people you could dig up in town. People complain about the place, with its gaggle of drunks in wheelchairs parked outside every day. People complain because the worth of the place is being shared by those the more fortunate have somehow “beaten” at life. I hope this place houses the poor forever. A building can’t be more useful than that.

The security guard at the desk doesn’t see me. I know because I don’t see him until I’m almost at the elevator. I pause, debate whether I should sign in, and sign in anyway. The guard looks both surprised and confused when I tell him I’m there. He mumbles, writes down my name and license number, then waves me on, still looking nervous and confused.

I go up thirteen stories and wander the hall until I find the right apartment number. When he answers, his voice is louder, and he’s got a plastic cup of amber liquid in his hand.

“Hey!” he says to me. “Hey, man, thank you so much! Hey, you wanna come inside?”

I raise my hand to decline, but he doesn’t see me. He’s already splashing four fingers of Evan Williams into another cup.

Well, long as I’m already here.

“I tell you I was in Korea?” he tells me for the fourth time, but I don’t mind because by this point we’ve opened another bottle of charcoal-filtered liquid gold. I’m not drunk but I’m well past the point where the whiskey stops tasting sour and begins to get sweet.

“Nope,” I lie, and he starts telling me stories about bayonets and helicopter fire, and white officers who had no problem sending black troops like him to the front line.

“I was medical corps, but they made me pick up a gun every now and again.” He nodded, took another swallow. “Yeah, I seen my days alright.”

My phone vibrates as he gets up to go pee. I sip what I know has to be my last cup. I can’t drink it too fast if I wanna go home tonight, but even so I’m gonna have to walk it off before I get behind the wheel. Fuckin’ rain.

“What’re you doing tonight?” her text reads.

It’s more than likely not meant to imply what I’d like it to imply. I’m into her but she’s also a good friend, and the one time we tried going out it ended with her telling me she didn’t think she could see us kissing.

“Getting drunk with strangers,” I text back.

He comes back out, shuffling to his kitchen sink with a dazed look on his face. He drinks a cup of water and stares with dilated pupils into space.

“So how long were you in Korea?” I ask him.

He stares at me a bit before shrugging and mumbling “Few years.” Then he just stands and sips his water.

Right. I down my whiskey and stand up. Best let the old-timer’s medication run its course. “I appreciate the drink.”

“You’re welcome,” he murmurs, and I hear him bolt the door behind me as I leave.

“LOL You’re funny. You wanna hang tonight?”

In my whiskey haze I briefly entertain the idea she’d let me kiss her if I tried to tonight, then I let that thought go and replaced it with guilt. If my lust ruined the friendship I’d regret it for years. If I saw her, it would be as much for her as it would be for me. You drink with friendly faces. You spend the time that matters with friends.

“Maybe,” I text back, the breeze and the chilly wind waking me up. “Text ya in a few?”

And I stroll on. The misting rain beads on my shirt and skin. A light goes off in the old hotel. The wet empty road shimmers in the greens and reds of street lights. I ignore them, content to go to wherever it is I need to go.

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Layer

layer

 

She stayed the night, and because we both fell asleep so early we’re up before sunrise. We drink coffee on the porch of my apartment, both of us wrapped in an afghan. We’re very cliche.

It’s chilly, and I hold close to her. My right hand cups her left breast, and I can tell it’s begun to swell from the hormones. Not much, but enough it seems to satisfy her. She considered implants but decided she wanted whatever came to come from her. As much as was possible, anyway.

Eventually I have to get ready for work. She eases herself back into my bed, wincing as she sits, then carefully lying longways. After my shower I make a show of tucking her in, under layers of quilts and sheets. I kiss her nose, both of us laughing at the silly infantilizing. Then I kiss her lips, and she kisses me back, and my knuckles brush against her hair. Whatever she’s been using has made it light and feather-soft, a far cry from the chemically burned coarseness when she first bleached it.

I get dressed. We smile. We touch foreheads. We play a quick round of a private, childish game, where we bat our eyes and feel our lashes brushing against each other. We kiss each other again. I tell her I love her, then I go to work.

***

When she ordered her coffee she was in torn jeans and a man’s button-up. Her hair was still rust-red, and hung from her pork pie in curling tendrils. The button-up was halfway open, and she had a white men’s tank on underneath. While I rang her up I told her she had kind of an Arlo Guthrie vibe to her.

“I don’t know who that is,” she said. “I should look him up.”

“Well, yeah! You’re obligated now.”

“I’m obligated? You’re gonna hold me to this?”

“If I have to. Your coffee’s on the line.”

“If I don’t pass the Arlo Guthrie quiz next time I see you, I don’t get my coffee?”

“I’ll play hardball if I gotta.”

“Tough cookie,” she said, then walked with her friends to a little couch by the fire. I walked her coffee to her with my number and “Alice’s Restaurant” written on the sleeve.

***

“Hey man, how’s Emily doing?”

Scott and I are lugging carafes to the front counter. The coffee rush isn’t bad, as far as rushes go. Today it’s mostly lawyers and doctors, people who, regardless of gender, take their coffee quick and black. If we were packed with cheerleaders I’d probably have to shoot myself.

“She’s good, man. Recovering. Hospital kept her a week longer than they thought they’d have to. There was a lot of bruising from surgery.”

“Ugh. Brutal. Sorry to hear that.”

“She’s better now, though.” I take a customer’s order – black, no milk, no cream, no sugar – and I upsize it gratis because we haven’t had time to grab more small cups. “Docs say she needs to take it easy another week before she can do anything stressful.”

“Her job okay with all the time off?”

“She’s a student worker at her school. She’s off for the semester anyway.”

“How much is all this gonna cost?”

I shrug. “I don’t know, man. Insurance is handling most of that.” I grab two empty air pots and take them in back. “My guess is it woulda cost her a lot more without treatment, though.”

***

Pretty much all we did was hang out and listen to old music. Everyone claims to love folk but she was the first person I’d met who would actually sit and listen to it. We’d sit in the shop for hours after I clocked out, talking about songs she’d just discovered. On days when we were both free we’d park by the highway and listen to old Cajun songs.

I finally kissed her one rainy afternoon, sitting beside the highway. She was sitting in my lap, tracing her fingertips along the inside of my hand. My free hand had slipped into a rip at the knee of her jeans. I could feel the faint grain of stubble she’d missed when she shaved her legs. Something about that hit me as intensely intimate.

Without thinking, I put my lips to the side of her neck. She leaned into the kiss, and when my lips reached her ear, she put a hand beside my face, turned, and kissed me back.

***

When I get off work I pick up some ibuprofen for her. The doctors advised against any prescription strength stuff, considering her history. She’d been dealing with this for a while, long before she finally saw someone about it. Self-medication was the order of the day when she was in high school.

When I get home she’s tossed the blankets off. It was icy this morning but by now it’s risen over eighty degrees outside. The weather is such a fickle thing this far south.

She’s lying across the bed in the tank top and yoga pants she wears for pajamas. I can see a faint bulge from the pad of bandages between her legs. She’s tied her hair up. She’s reading the Bhagavad-Gita.

I put the ibuprofen beside her, and she smiles up at me. I bend down to kiss her. She reaches up and puts a hand behind my head, and inside I shiver at the feel of her nails against my neck. She traces her fingers down my arm. Her hands are almost as long as mine. Thinner, smoother, but nearly as long.

“You feelin’ okay today?” I ask her.

“Not too bad. I’ll need to head home in a few hours if I wanna bathe tonight.” She sits up, wincing a little at the effort. She needs a special bench to sit on for the time being whenever she wants to shower.

“You wanna eat before you go?”

“Oh, God yeah. The meds are making me feel queasy.”

I make some stir fry, and she eats the cubes of tofu separately before eating the veggies. When she’s dressed and ready to go, I help her down the stairs to my car and drive her to her parent’s place. It starts to rain before we get there, so we sit in the driveway for a spell, holding hands and leaning against each other.

Every few minutes, she lifts my hand to her mouth, and kisses each knuckle. I can’t tell which electrifies me more: the softness of her lips, or the little huff of breath that comes with every kiss.

***

The day I first kissed her had been cold, but somehow we’d worked up a sweat anyway. When we finally worked our way to the backseat, the windows were fogged, and her jacket was on the floorboard. She tossed her sweater over the back of the passenger seat. I pulled her shirt open, the snaps giving with little pops, and lifted her tank to below her arms, kissing my way from her navel to her flat chest.

In the front seat, she’d teased with small bites to the crotch of my jeans. I made shuddering moaning sounds each time I felt her nails to my stomach. She’d grinned up at me, amused, before undoing my belt buckle. Her hat had fallen away as I ran my fingers through her hair.

Now, in back, it was my turn to work her pants away. I was to eager to make a game of it, like she’d done. I just wanted to explore and see every part of her. Her jeans, always a little loose back then, slid away easily. I pulled her boxers down with my teeth.

She’d only recently started the hormones. Her cock was this delicate, quivering thing, smaller than usual but clearly still working. Her breath took on a hissing urgency as she grew against my touch.

I kissed my way down her flat chest to her hairless stomach. I could feel her muscles tightening as I ran my hands along her body. I made my way to the erect organ below her waist, this defining and alienating thing, and I kept kissing her. For hours, for days, for years.

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Flies in the Air

Flying Fly

 

When Alex first started working at Third & Rose, Mo immediately imagined him being blown out the door by the might of the wind machine Cooper kept leaning against the far wall from the counter. She imagined his white smock billowing like a parachute as the heavy duty fan launched him off his feet and spun him in the air like a stray takeout bag. She could picture him snagged on the top corner of the door, banging against the frame every time a customer came in, until finally a faint cross current plucked him free and sent him swirling down the block.

He was thin, but she soon realized he was one of those skinny people who cheated by being muscular in a wiry sense. His pale face never reddened whenever he hauled the morning’s meat delivery into the cooler, and he would work at the make line for hours, sweating in stale heat the wind machine only seemed to whisper to.

“Aren’t you hot?” Coop would ask him. “You want I should cover for ya a bit?”

Sometimes Alex would take him up on this, saying only “Yeah, I could stand to take a leak.”

“Take a leak, smoke a cigarette,” Coop would wave him away. “Christ kid, just sit down for a second.”

Coop liked him. “He works hard,” he said one day. “Believe me, we know how to appreciate hard work.” At that, Coop would tap the Star of David he kept on a chain. Mo wasn’t Jewish, but she didn’t think it was too kosher to tap the Star with a knife that had just halved a dozen pork butt sandwiches. Still, she kept that concern to herself. Outside, his sweaty hair pushed from his face, Alex smoked a cigarette he’d bummed from Mo, turning his head to check out a dog walker in a floral print skort. When he caught Mo catching him, he pretended to be intensely interested in the gravel by the gutter.

***

Alex figured out Third & Rose’s expansive menu pretty quick, especially the kosher section. “You could be a regular Jew!” Coop would say, impressed.

Coop knew Alex was also a Jew. Or, more accurately, Coop had been made aware on two separate occasions that Alex was Jewish. “Get outta here! Really?” he’d said both times, right before lunch rushes. Two hours of shouted orders and muttered Yiddish later, however, Coop had completely forgotten.

Alex didn’t mind. He was Jewish in the absolute most technical understanding of the identity. His people were Russian Jews, and it was definitely more Russian than Jew that showed in his makeup. But when you looked at him, it wasn’t even so much “Russian” that you thought of as much as it was “Icelandic,” or really even just “bleached.” He was the kind of fair-haired, fair-skinned person that never tanned or burned. Most of his genome hailed from a region that considered refrigeration to be a weather forecast.

Most of his friends assumed he was lying when he told them he was Jewish. “But we see your dad at Mass all the time!”

“Well yeah, he’s Catholic.”

The idea of a Catholic/Jewish coupling always seemed like such an outlandish idea to gentiles and Protestants, but from his own experience Alex was pretty sure more Jews married Catholics than other Jews, and vice versa. It was like a safe form of abandonment for both parties. They could escape a small portion of the oppression that comes from a heavily religious household, but still have someone they could feel comfortably guilty around. Judeo-Roman guilt beat Protestant shame any day.

***

Mo had a tattoo of a coiled snake between her shoulder blades. The snake wasn’t coiled naturally, but made to look like the spikes one would see on the screen of an EKG. A rattle pointed to her left shoulder, a forked tongue pointed to her right. The deli didn’t have a dress code beyond “don’t show up naked,” and Mo favored tank tops while she worked in the yearlong southeastern heat. When her back was to Alex, he would stare at the tattoo. As the muscles in her back flexed the snake would seem to slither from shoulder to shoulder. Or maybe slither wasn’t the right word. Maybe what Alex actually meant was dancing. The snake was dancing across her tanned skin, wriggling around freckles and coiling against the straps of her bra. It would nip at the tips of her dreadlocks, hanging from the bun she tied each morning, but it could never reach beyond the nape of her neck. It was trapped in a wonderful prison, stuck inside the exposed square of her upper back. When he fantasized about her, the fantasies always began with him thinking about the smooth, tan expanse of her back.

He felt like, even if she and he were ever to get together, this was something he should keep to himself. Would she find it creepy that he fantasized about her back?

As it turned out, she would. She would find the general idea of him fantasizing about her to be sweet and endearing, but going past generalities and into specifics, she would definitely begin to feel some reservations. So it was good that he never told her, just as she never told him that she could see him looking at her, his reflection caught in the sneeze guard, clouded by Windex residue.

***

Third & Rose handled flies pretty well. Above the door, a monstrous blower would dissuade most of the little bastards from following customers inside, but in Georgia, in the summer, flies were an inevitability.

Cooper was pretty good at killing them quick, and without garnering too much attention doing it. He keep an eye out while he slapped sandwiches together, careful with his work but always glancing up to track some whizzing black dot overhead. When it would land he coordinated his movements perfectly, as though he were a teenage ballerina and not a potbellied fifty-five year old with, as he called it, “a bad toe.” His movements in handing out orders and taking cash were so fluid that even if he reached above the bug, it would sit where it lighted, undisturbed. Then when the moment was right he would slip his hand overhead and with a little pat he’d execute the thing, killing it but not squashing it, then brushing it into his hand to deposit into the trash. He was a master at this, a veritable White Death, except with flies instead of invading Soviets, and with a middle-aged Jewish man instead of a disgruntled Finnish farmer.

But around mid-June, Cooper found himself outmatched at every turn by one fly that persistently buzzed overhead in long, lazy oval. He watch the bug with sniper’s eyes, muttering to himself.

“I’ll get the bastard when he finally lights,” he’d swear to Mo and Alex, his gaze circling the ceiling while his hands mechanically prepared a perfect pastrami on rye. You could tell he was mad from the way he sawed through the sandwich, hacking through it in three deliberate strokes. Coop kept the knives so sharp he could cleave even the thickest hoagie in a single swipe. By cut number three he was practically sawing into the cutting board.

After about a week, the fly was still alive. Mo thought she could hear Coop cursing it under his breath. By week two, she was certain she’d caught him, at least once, accusing the bug of being an anti-Semite.

***

“Who’s that girl who walks with you after work?” Alex’s mom asked him one lazy Sunday. She was sitting inside on a folding chair, enjoying a faint breeze from the screen door and sipping a beer she’d stolen from his dad’s stash in the garden shed mini-fridge. She did this every time he went to Mass. Alex’s dad was pretty devout, so she’d developed quite a fondness for Miller High Life.

“Woman I work with.” He was careful these days to say woman and not girl. He wasn’t doing this so much out of sensitivity as propriety. He was twenty-four years old. People his age weren’t boys and girls, they were men and women. He forbid himself, however, from ever thinking of himself as anything coming close to what he thought a man should be.

“You like her?” She sucked on her beer, always smiling a little when she did that, her eyes closed as though in quick prayer. A cicada squawked and thumped into the screen beside the mezuzah. Alex’s mom splashed beer on her fingers and flicked them at the insect, sending it screeching into the heavy afternoon heat.

“She’s alright.” Third & Rose closed early on Sundays, staying open only to serve the lunch crowds from church. Since getting back home at two he’d locked himself in his bathroom three separate times, in deep consideration of just how alright he found her to be.

“One day when she’s walking with you, you should keep walking. Just walk past here and go get her some coffee or somethin’.”

“I got grad school comin’ up, Ma. I don’t know that I’ll have time for anything serious.”

She smirked and shook her head. “Oh, so serious. Life just won’t give you three seconds to get your dick wet.”

“You’re very matronly, Ma.”

She cocked her head in a quiet, huffing laugh and swigged her beer. Her hair bobbed when she did this. The color and curls made Alex think of chestnuts. He didn’t look like either of his parents, really. His mother was the kind of Jew you’d find on vacation posters for Israel in the sixties. She was quick to beam and loved the sun. His dad was tall, dark, Black Irish. Both were given to browning in the sun. When they were together, it was like his parents had leached anything resembling skin and hair tone from their offspring.

It was the picture hanging above the TV that reassured him he belonged. In it, his grandfather, fresh from the old country, stood beaming with his wife and kids. All wore their Stars of David on glittering chains. All had dark eyes and dark hair, and smiled with deep, dark lips.

Except his grandpa. In the old black and white, taken in direct light in the middle of the day, his grandfather’s pale skin and light hair seemed to glow. Sometimes, if he stared long enough, Alex felt like his grandfather would begin to fade away.

***

At home Mo was in constant motion. It often occurred to her that she shouldn’t have to move this much just to live alone with a single cat, but there was always something that needed cleaning or feeding or scooping.

She spoke to her parents while she cleaned that Sunday, her mother and father quickly swapping the phone between themselves so that Mo had to guess when to end one topic of conversation and begin another.

“No, Mama, no one serious.” In English she had a pointed, intelligent inflection that made you think there was a secret meaning behind even the most mundane phrase. In Farsi, her mother’s language, her entire manner changed. Her voice softened, and words flowed together like a spoken song, unless, of course, she was talking to her parents. Then there was just a lot of interrupting and occasional swearing.

“Mama, I’m not even looking for a boyfriend now. I told you that internship might even call me back…”

“You have a boyfriend?” her father snapped into the phone in Urdu. Then in Farsi, to her mom, he asked: “Why the hell don’t you people tell me anything?”

“No, Papa, I don’t have a boyfriend…”

“You just said you had one. I’m not deaf! I’m old but I’m not deaf! I hear better than your mom’s dog hears!”

“Papa, I didn’t say you were deaf…”

“Don’t bother her so much,” her mother said, taking back the phone, “her boyfriend might be over there.”

“Mom, there is no boyfriend!”

“What’s his name?” her dad asked beside her mother. Again, in Urdu. The language her folks used when they wanted to be sneaky.

“Give me time, I’ll get her to slip up and tell us.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Mo interrupted, in fluent Urdu. Then, because Farsi came easier to her: “Mama, just let it go.”

“Why don’t you bring him over one night?” Her father had grabbed the phone again. “For dinner? Does he like homemade pizza?”

“Your pizza’s terrible!” her mother cried. “You’ll scare him off, you cook so badly!”

Her cat mewled as she walked past, more out of polite acknowledgment than affection. She clamped her phone between her cheek and shoulder and scooped laundry into the hamper. Clothes were strewn across the living room floor. Looking at the mess, you’d think her entire wardrobe consisted of nothing but thongs in varying colors. When the hell did she buy so much underwear? Did she really only own three socks? Where were her goddamn yoga pants?

“Honey, you bring him over when you’re good and ready, okay? Don’t let your father pressure you…”

“Who’s pressuring? I’m her father! Shouldn’t I wanna meet the guy? Honey…”

“Mom, Dad, MOM. MOM? Okay, mom, I gotta do some laundry. I’ll call you guys back, okay?”

“Okay, my love. But don’t you let your dad scare you into bringing him over, you hear me? You just take your time.”

“Mama, there’s no…”

“I remember how your grandfather scared your dad so awfully when they first met. He was going to ask for permission to marry me then, but he held off for three more years because of the hell my father put him through. You know…”

She did laundry and cooked dinner while her parents talked. They spoke of Pakistan, of her mother spending summers there working for her grandfather’s company. She could hear them both laugh, softly, as they remembered how scared Mo’s dad had been when her mother brought him back to Tehran. Their laughter was low and more intimate than a kiss. Mo’s dad had intended to stay a week, but had flown back to Kerachi the very next day after meeting his future father-in-law, convinced he’d lost all hope of ever marrying this amazing woman that God had put in Pakistan for the summer, seemingly for him.

Or maybe, he loved to add, he was put in Pakistan for her to find.

She stayed on the phone with them so long the battery eventually died, and when the charge cord brought it back to life she sent an apologetic text with a promise to call back tomorrow. She showered, then sat by her workout mat for a while, petting her cat. Around midnight he always became a whining ball of affection, and as she rubbed his stomach he twisted and coiled. After a half hour he dozed back off, and she left him to sleep. He stayed on the mat till dawn, dreaming in a spot touched a thousand times a day by the part of her back Alex secretly found sacred.

***

By the first of August, Coop was letting his preoccupation with the fly slow him down. Used to be any longer than a two minute make time was just wasted money. Now, if a sandwich didn’t get out till after five minutes, it wasn’t like it was the worst thing.

“Bastard’s quick. Only sets down when he knows we can’t get him in time.”

Even Coop’s mechanical hands were slowing down, his diverted concentration sapping the attention of his muscle memory. Sometimes he reach up with a magazine and smack it against the wall, but the bug was always just out of reach. It whizzed by, a mocking black dot against old, off-white tile.

“Hey Mo. You wanna maybe get coffee later?” Alex asked, wrapping a beef and Swiss in foil. “Maybe see a movie or something?”

She rang up two orders and doled out change, then slipped on a pair of plastic gloves. “Nah. I got some things I gotta do.”

He boxed the order and slid it out front. “Yeah. I got some stuff I should work on too.” He boxed another order before asking “Rain check?”

She ran a credit card, studied a guy’s license a little too long. “Nah. Is that okay?”

More orders. Grilled sandwiches wrapped in foil, the foil so hot his hands felt mildly scalded even through the gloves. “Yeah, that’s okay.”

The shift passed by even quicker than usual that day. Walking home, their usual bubbly talk flowed easier than it did before. An itch had been scratched, and not only that, but it had considered scratching itself before leaving. Consideration was everything.

Coop stayed behind an hour, hoping to catch the fly unawares. “Goddamn Jew-hatin’ fly,” he’d say to the anti-Semitic insect.

***

Mo’s internship went through. She left in September, taking her cat and mat and seven billion thongs to Atlanta. She came back for a weekend in October, and another weekend the next October, and the next October after that. She pretended not to notice how much time was passing, with Alex still behind the counter at Third & Rose.

Alex took so long deciding on grad school he actually had to reapply. By the fifth October, Mo didn’t see him behind the counter. She never saw him again, actually.

She saw Cooper plenty of times, though. Coop never left, never would, never wanted to. His grandpa had built that place, he said, and he told people that when he died he wanted to be buried in the basement, nestled in a make line cooler, hugging his beloved thin-slicer.

Coop didn’t have any kids. Never really wanted them. He never really let it bother him that there would be nothing to do but sell when the time for making sandwiches came to an end. The quality of his work never failed, but people eventually noticed that the speed he used to be known for had diminished significantly. No surprise. Cooper wasn’t a young buck even when he was a young buck, and age catches us all. But that wasn’t what killed Coop’s speed. Coop never could catch that damn fly.

It’s still there, now, swirling in the air, making Coop wince with each pass.

The fly, as it turns out, actually died years ago. It was never flying to begin with. It’d been caught in an eddy, caused by the wind machine Coop kept leaning behind the counter. It spins round and round completely beyond its own power. Coop still watches this tumbling corpse, waiting for it to land. The fly, however, has already moved on.

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