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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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Abort

abort

 

Karen and I are drinking dirt-cheap beer and laughing through a season of “It’s Always Sunny” when the connection in my TV goes out.

“No worries,” I say, standing and facetiously beating my chest. “I shall fix this! Come citizens! Follow me!”

We’ve pounded our way through a twelve pack, so we both kinda stumble down the hall to my room, where my laptop sits charging on my desk. I open it and bring up Netflix, and soon the Paddy’s Gang start their antics right where they left off. She and I drop down on my mattress and watch through a beery haze.

I’m drunk enough I actually don’t notice her hand start to move between the snaps on my shirt. Honest to God, I don’t actually catch on to what’s happening until one snap pops, and when I look down her cool palm is running its way across my ribs.

“Whoa,” I say, sitting up and moving back a bit. Karen’s fine and all but, uh, this isn’t us. We aren’t…

“Oh, what?” she says. She’s smiling, her lips a darker red than I can remember ever seeing them before. She scoots closer as I scoot farther.

“I..we aren’t…”

“Oh, fuckin’ come on,” she says, rolling her eyes, and now she’s working down the strap of her purple tank top. “It ain’t like it was never leading to this.”

She’s pressed against me now and in the warmth I become so much more aware of her than I ever have been before. The crotch of her jeans scrape against my fly, and my heart rockets when I realize that soon, very freakishly soon, my skin will be pressed against the skin wrapped so tightly in those jeans.

She looms over me, wolfish grin and locks of distressed brown hair. The curl of her right eyebrow mimes the curl in her sneer. Porcelain white teeth threaten to eat me alive in the most comforting way imaginable. She pulses then, in a deep red light.

I look up and see the big red button, flashing bright. It reads: ABORT For some reason, I slap it.

And I wake up.

It’s Thursday morning. Practically the start of the weekend for me. Landscaping work is tight this time of year, so I wake without the usual strained aches of hard labor. Four crushed cans of Old Milwaukee litter my nightstand, and my laptop hums by my feet. Netflix tells me it has timed out due to inactivity.

I sit, still in the jeans and white tee shirt I fell asleep in. I rub my eyes and mutter “Aw, shit” over and over to myself.

***

Karen and I are drinking cheap drafts at a little hot dog place we tend to favor. Shamefully, I’m in the same wrinkled clothes I woke up in, because when you landscape for a living your perception of clean and dirty is fundamentally altered. She’s got on a brown sweater and tight jeans, the tightness of which I don’t think I would’ve noticed before last night’s dream. I drink a little faster when the memory comes to me.

“Ugh,” she groans, nudging a loose plastic stool on the eating station beside us. “Fucking seventy degrees in the middle of goddamn January. Someone needs to tell fall it’s time to give it a rest.”

She pulls off her sweater then, and underneath she’s wearing a deep purple tank. I almost spit my beer back into my plastic cup.

“You okay?” she asks me, loose hair cascading over her brown eyes as she looks at me.

Oh, goddamn it. God. Damn it.

***

Later we make our way back to my house, and Karen helps me swap out my engine mounts, which means that we actually have to lift the motor up and out. Before heading over we’d loaded her engine net into the bed of her pickup, and now with it set up in my driveway she and I curse and hiss and finally have the block loose enough to haul into the air. While she locks it in place I slide an engine stand underneath, then grab the mounts from the trunk.

When we get everything swapped out, we lower the engine and hook it back up, Karen complaining the whole time. “Goddamn motherfuck,” she groans, “why’d you ever buy this fuckin’ bitch, anyway?”

“Bitchiness is an appealing quality to me,” I answer back, pretending not to notice her shaking cleavage as she wrestles hoses into place.

When we’re done it’s dark. We’re sweaty and scratched up, and our skin and our clothes are smeared in grease. “I need a fuckin’ shower,” she says, grabbing a beer from my cooler and wiping grease from her wrist on the ass of her jeans.

“Go for it,” I tell her, lugging the cooler inside behind her. “Least I owe ya is some hot water.”

“Yer goddamn right you do.” She shotguns her beer and tosses it in the cardboard box I use for recycling. “Won’t take me fifteen.” And she disappears down the hall.

I sit in my threadbare recliner and keep drinking, and I guess I fall asleep ’cause I feel someone running their hand against my face. I have to blink for almost a minute because I can’t make out who’s standing in front of me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I finally see it’s Karen, ’cause really who the fuck else would it be?

What does surprise me, though, is how comfortable she is standing around naked.

Her hair is dripping wet, and without thinking I reach out and put my hand to her hip. Her skin is soft from scrubbing and cool from drying, and she sets her hand against my wrist and moves it lower. Her leg is so smooth I have the weird impression she’s melting from the heat of my hand, like cream. Her skin is deep brown and sun-kissed.

She leans down, her mouth open, and her lips are so close to mine I honestly don’t know if they’re touching or not. My mouth is open too, more out of shock than anything, and I can feel her breath coming and going across my tongue.

There’s a shimmer of light from behind her, and I look over her shoulder and see a massive insect’s wing wafting behind her. There are two of them, one on either side, and I look to her side to see a second, smaller pair below them. They shimmer with pulses of what seems like sunlight, and as they flutter the sunlight drips through the air like rain against a window. The liquid light spatters across my carpet, soaking deep into the fibers, and after a moment little hands reach into the air. Smaller Karens stand, emerging from where the light splashes. These Karens also have wings, pulsing, dripping, sunlit wings. It occurs to me that, if I keep watching, even smaller Karens than the ones I see will begin to appear. She is flooding my home, soaking it in shimmers.

There’s a different light now, a flashing red standing out against the pulsing white and yellow rays of sunlight. Across the front, the red glowing button reads ABORT. Without wanting to, moving mechanically, I move my foot to it and press it with the toe of my boot.

Fairy Karen’s fingers disappear from my cheek. I’m alone in my dark living room. When I check the time I see a text on my phone. “Didn’t wanna wake ya. I’ll be back tomorrow to grab my motor caddie. Sleep easy. Thanks for the beer. You need more conditioner. – Karen”

***

When Karen comes to get her motor caddie, she’s in canvas cargo pants and a thick flannel shirt that almost makes me think she knows what I was dreaming about. We laugh and drink beer at her place, slugging each other’s arms when we need to shut up or we’ll miss a good part of whatever show we marathon on Netflix. This morning, I dreamed we were lying on our sides in my bed, just looking at each other. The warmth under the sheets told me neither of us were wearing anything. We didn’t touch, didn’t kiss, just lied there with it feeling like we should. Her brown eyes held mine. The side of her mouth curled in a smile. Her right eyebrow was cocked, mimicking the curl of her lip. If I’d moved my head an inch, our noses would’ve touched.

But for the flashing button between us, I could’ve.

It’s Sunday, and we drink a lot. It starts to get dark, and it dawns on me I’ll have to head back soon.

“I need to cool it,” I tell her, waving away the offer of another beer. “Gotta drive back eventually.”

“Oh, fuck that.” She waves her hand. “Just sleep in back. Bobby ain’t due back in town for another couple days.”

Bobby. The boyfriend. I know him. He’s a good dude. A good dude who never makes an appearance in my dreams. In my dreams it’s just me and her.

But I persist, and when my buzz wears off we hug and I make my way back home. When I go to bed the space across my bedspread where I dreamed her is cool and smooth. Eventually, some undetermined time after I finally fall asleep, she’s there again, smiling, eyebrow cocked.

Her expression seems to say the same thing it seemed to say this morning. What happens now?  And this morning, what happened was a slow, regretful push of a button.

Now again we lie and look at one another, the ABORT button flashing between us. Now I drag a pillow across it, and lay my head closer to hers. Now, here in my dream, our noses touch.

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Links

links

 

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

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

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

“So it’s final ya think?”

“I kinda don’t wanna talk about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mist

trees in the fog

 

I’m smoking on the front porch. It’s cold out and misty, and the mist seems to give the chill a quality like needles. The porch is a barren concrete slab adorned only with the aluminum folding chair I’m sitting in and a mason jar I flick my ashes and old butts into. I can feel the skin on my arms goosebump beneath the terrycloth shirt I’m wearing. Steam rises from a vent in the crawl space, and against the neighbor’s porch light it shines and wavers, an effervescent belly dancer.

“I want you to know I haven’t forgotten about the assistanceship,” my old adviser told me earlier. He stopped by my job to pick up a coffee and recognized me. We’ve only ever communicated by email the last three years. I tell him I’m grateful and I mean it. The university doesn’t strictly require work experience for their graduate program, but with so many applying you don’t stand a chance of acceptance if you don’t read the phrase de facto between the lines.

Just a few weeks earlier, he and three other former profs of mine filled out an emailed index, telling the university how much of an asset they believed I could be. The university emailed confirmations to me, letting me know each response had been received. The trick now is to ensure my file doesn’t become a small tomb in the registrar’s office. Indolence sounds a lot like the burr of a coffee grinder to me.

The professor I’ve been emailing at the university tells me she’s excited at the idea of me joining her program, though she isn’t shy about admitting that my rather sparse work experience worries her. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life in college, up until and during graduation. My GPA shows it, as does my four-years-and-running coffee making career afterward. I’ve kept up with my habit of emailing researchers whose work interests me, including the professor at the university I desperately want to attend. Thus I at least have a show of interest on my side, despite the flaky decade in my rear-view mirror.

At home, above my desk, there’s a plank of framed cork board adorned with applications for programs and scholarships I either never completed or never mailed off. I look at it whenever I need an existential kick in the ass for motivation.

When I got home earlier I checked my email. One story was accepted, to a popular podcast that can’t afford to pay its contributors. Another, one I’m much more proud of, was rejected by a professional magazine, on the grounds that the characters weren’t likable enough. No comments regarding quality are made. The submission guidelines encourage writers to be bold, but I’ve noticed that every purchased story follows the same general structure. Out of spite, I resubmit it, entirely unaltered, and then go outside for a smoke.

The woman I love has called me a couple times today, but I was working so all she could do was leave voicemails. One tells me she’s driving down to visit family, and wants to see me. The other tells me she just misses me, and wants to talk. I hit the callback button. Her phone rings four or five times, and my call goes to voice mail.

“Hey, it’s me,” I say inanely. What else do you say to those who know you better than you know yourself? If I’d told her my name just now it would’ve felt like a white lie. “I just wanted to tell ya I’m excited for your visit. I don’t have any plans, so shoot me a text whenever you can. Love you. Talk to you soon.”

The plans I’d already made are wiped away from my mind. I hang up and take a drag on my cigarette. I think of the school my adviser mentioned, out in Arizona, which he says has a marvelous student aid program. Arizona is a bit of a hike for someone whose parents may, at any time, need a ride to the hospital.

The muffled grunt of an engine wafts over from…somewhere. Streetlights bleed into the mist. I huff out a last mouthful of smoke and drop the butt into the Mason jar. I stand and stretch. The paperwork I’ve been avoiding will become concrete as soon as I step inside. The neighboring houses fade gently down the road. If it weren’t for the trees, this mist would go on forever.

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Do What You Do 

Going to a funeral today. Sad but the loss didn’t catch us entirely by surprise. Still, it occurs to me that for all the efforts by others at telling us how to best lead our lives, all we can do is just what feels right in the moment in which we do it.

And because I believe in fighting grief with gaiety, I’ll leave you with this:
  

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While at Work

cuddling

 

They’re both rushing through their routines, each of them fighting off the grogginess that holds fast when you have to be awake by five in the morning. He’s pulling on paint-spattered jeans, to compliment his paint-spattered thermal shirt. She wraps a towel around her hair and walks naked from the shower, picking a pair of slacks and a blouse to wear without really looking. She’ll do her makeup at work.

She reaches under the bed for shoes, finds his work boots instead. She hefts them his way, tossing them so they land by his ankles. The thud makes her wonder how he walks in them. Beneath the drips of paint they’re a deep, dark brown. She finds a pair of kitten heels and nudges them into the open with her foot while she slips on her underwear.

“You gonna be late tonight?” she asks him as he pours coffee into a thermos.

“Probably. The other guy I was splitting the job with is too wrapped up in a loft he’s working on downtown. I’m pretty sure he’s just bailed.”

“Well, that’s more money, at least.”

“At least.”

She tightens the belt of her slacks and shakes the towel off onto the bed. She comes up to him, topless, hair damp, contacts out so he’s just a vaguely handsome blur, and grabs him by the hips, closing her eyes to find his lips with hers. “My poor blue-collar baby.”

He wraps his arms around her, and the weight of the thermos throws her a little off-balance. Her body leans against his. The kiss gets a little breathier before she breaks it off.

“Save that for after work, babe” she tells him, kissing his nose before she goes to finish dressing.

“In that case, I’ll work at light speed and get home early.”

“Well, my day’s probably gonna run a little long too.” Allie puts in her contacts and blinks them in place, then grins as he comes into focus. “So you’ll just have to be patient, mister.”

“I’m the soul of patience.” John throws on a denim jacket and heads for the door. “Love you!” he calls out as he leaves.

***

Allie’s day does run pretty long. Around seven she gets a text: “Made it home by daylight. Accomplishments like that warrant a reward, I’d say.” John follows it with a little winking emoji.

Brandon reaches around from behind and cups her breast. His fingers knead her in time with every thrust. She can feel him getting ready to climax. Her moans become small whines, and his body bucks as he finishes.

Then they’re both face down, breathing heavy into the sheets. Her face is red and her breathing’s heavy. Tucked away in her purse, set to silent, her phone vibrates again.

“Love you!” the screen reads.

***

He sleeps in the next morning. He has another job lined up but this one has to be done at night, when the shops in Harlem are the least busy. He’s still naked and the sheets still smell of last night’s sex. She leaves a note asking him to do laundry, then kisses him on the temple before turning to leave.

“You look like sunshine,” he mumbles.

“Huh?”

“Your hair. I…” he swallows to lubricate his voice, “…I don’t usually see it dry in the morning.” He cracks open one eye and smirks. “The light from the window. It makes it glow. Like sunshine.”

She leans her head against the bedroom door and smiles. “I love you,” she tells him, and she does. In this moment Allie loves him so much she could cry if she thinks about it too long.

“You gonna work late again?”

“Probably.”

“Alright. I might not be here when you get back.”

“That sounds like a threat.”

He huffs a little laugh. “You know what I mean.” He waves a hand overhead. “The job tonight.”

“Yeah, I know. I tossed your clothes in the machine. Do me a favor and wash the sheets next?”

John makes a lazy salute. “Ma’am, yes ma’am.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

***

She stays late again. Really late. Around nine her phone vibrates, unseen and unheeded in her purse. “Heading to the job, babe. Washed the sheets and remade the bed. Dinner in the oven. Love you. Like, more than you love me.”

Another winking emoji.

The sheets are bunching under her back but she ignores them. Her lips touch Brandon’s but the kiss never finishes. Their open mouths just barely meet, and they snake their tongues together, the warmth of their breath bathing their faces and fueling the eager pumping in their hips. Her knees are wrapped around his waist, locking him in place. His hands run across her stomach and an electric heat rocks her as they graze her nipples. She’s pulling him in with her ankles. She can feel him finish, again, the second time tonight.

***

Allie’s already showered and asleep when he comes home. She picked him up a sandwich, and he eats it while he comes down from the coffee he drank a little too liberally through the night. Finally he strips away his painting clothes and tosses them in the hamper. John spent most of the night by the shop’s doors, and the gusting winter wind has worked its way through to his bones. Even half an hour in a steaming shower can’t work the chill loose.

She feels warm as he climbs in bed beside her. He presses himself against her and wraps an arm around her waist. Without waking up, Allie turns on her side and curls against him. In these quiet hours, it comforts him to think that they are so natural together one could see their love as automatic.

Beneath the sheets, pressed naked against her, John falls asleep in the gentle heat.

***

Brandon rocks his hips with each nod of her head. He holds fistfuls of her sweaty hair as she works her way up and down. Each thrust lifts his waist clear off the bed. His abs have to be tired, but he’s so close and so into the moment that his rhythm only builds. “Oh, yeah,” he groans. “Aw, fuck yeah.”

And then he’s done, groaning and holding her head in place until he’s completely spent. They lie like that for awhile afterward, and when Allie finally looks up, she sees someone out of the corner of her eye. Someone who hadn’t been there a moment before.

She looks up and sees John, looking right at her. After a pause he turns and starts to walk away.

“John!” she calls, and gets up to chase him. “John, wait!”

He stops, and turns back around.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

He shrugs. “Finished the job earlier than expected. Thought I’d pop by and see if you wanted a sandwich or something. You gonna be late again?”

“Not too late.” A grip hands her a robe, and she slips it on. “We should be done by tonight.”

“Sweet. You hungry?”

“Starving. Like literally to death.”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” He checks the time on his phone. “Panera okay?”

“Oooooh, yes! Something in asagio bread.” She makes a pressing motion with her hands. She does this all the time when she speaks. If she asks for soup she makes a little bowl shape. Coffee and she pretends to tip a cup. It’s juvenile, but it tugs at his heart when she does this. It’s why she does it, actually.

“Your wish is my command. Back in ten.” He leans in to kiss her, but she ducks it with a sheepish grin.

“Uhhhh…we’ve been at it for awhile now.”

Now he grins. “Ah. Okay. Uh…any facials?”

“Not tonight.”

“Then in that case,” and he kisses her forehead. Her face has always been so sensitive. She feels a quivering warmth ripple down her cheeks and through her scalp. In her head, she sees an image of herself, melting like ice against him. “I love you,” he adds. He almost sings it, because saying it in plain words somehow always feels dishonest. Or really, not honest enough.

“I love you too!” She actually does sing it, because she’s nothing if not honest.

“Hey, Allie!” Lenny calls from his director’s chair. “You ready for the next scene?”

She thinks about it. They’ve been working a few hours now. She doesn’t want to be too sore when she gets home. “Maybe. Is there an ass scene in this thing?”

“There can be. You up for it?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“There’s no rush, kid.” Lenny’s Boston accent clashes with the supportive tone he’s trying to sport. “We can wrap this up tomorrow if you need us too.”

“Nah, let’s get this thing done. I got another shoot tomorrow night. I hate it when my schedule gets crowded.”

“Your call, hun. Hey, Brandon, you get that?”

“Got it!” Brandon calls back. The fluffer leaves to double up on his lube. “Be ready in fifteen!”

“Alright, folks, take thirty to eat! We’ll shoot this after and then we’re done.” Lenny waves his aide down. “Steph, call accounting so they can add the ass work before they cut Allie’s check.”

***

In contrast to the day’s filming, their lovemaking that night is tender and slow. To a voyeur it would almost seem like they’re simply cuddling. He only touches and kisses her wherever she isn’t sore. As he pecks his way down the bridge of her nose she finally climaxes. The gentle, billowing orgasm makes her think of a warm blanket, caught in a breeze on a clothesline.

She feels him finish in her hand, and she continues holding him as they fall asleep. His body presses her to the bed, shielding her from the chilly night. She wraps a delicate hand around one shoulder, anchoring him to Earth. They sleep like that, exhausted from the work that is being alive, and being in love.

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Trust

My cat is just getting over a rash on his belly. To treat it the vet gave me an antiseptic spray to squirt him with three times a day, and by squirt I mean really soak him with each dose. He despises this with the heat of a thousand suns, hating only the vacuum cleaner more than being sprayed with this mentholated gunk. But he puts up with it because he trusts me. He hates the vet, and all the stabbing and blood-letting and anal violation it entails, but I feel like he’s noticed that he only goes when something’s wrong, and always ends up feeling better pretty quickly after coming home. He still shows his displeasure, but mildly. Some cats would bite or scratch, but he just gives a pitiful little groan and squirms a bit. A minute later, he’s eating cat treats and curling around my ankle. He loves me and knows I love him.

Whenever my cat suffers a health issue, I want to sit down with the universe and ask why it finds the suffering of a small fluffy animal so amusing. This is hyperbolic, of course, and I’m sure my cat has gone full Mengele on a few unsuspecting chipmunks in his day, so it could be hypocritical as well. We love to despair over the unfairness of life and the apathy of the universe, but I’ve come to suspect the universe actually does care. Generally speaking, anyway.

I mean, yeah, politicians sell out the lives of their constituents for the gain of corporations they own stock in. Assholes will cut you off in traffic and pass stopped school buses. The neighbor will subtly encourage his dog to shit in your yard when he thinks you aren’t looking. Meteors may or may not play shuffleboard with human existence.

But the universe keeps growing and evolving. Star systems keep forming. New flowers and fluffy, adorable woodland critters pop up all the time. People kiss. People fall in love. People masturbate. There’s hurt, sure, but the universe also trusts us to find happiness.

***

 

Mo and I dated for about a year and a half before becoming serious. It was mostly necessitated by distance, but additionally it seemed like a good idea. Latching onto a relationship with little knowledge of the other person rarely seems to go well.

On the day we became official, we’d spent most of the day tramping around an abandoned asylum a few towns over. We picnicked in a cemetery that had been converted into a park, and took photos of graffiti warning us not to trust voices in white coats. We were dirty, sweaty, and breathing heavy when we finally got back to my place.

We were in my bedroom, but not on my bed. I forget why but we sat on the carpet, and after a while I pulled down a couple pillows and a blanket. We cuddled and talked about nothing. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me too.

“Then we should be an item,” I said. “Just us.”

She smiled, and traced an X with her finger on my lips before kissing me. “There,” she said, trusting me to understand. “Sealed with a kiss.”

 

***

 

A month or so before moving out of Nashville, a neighbor cat took to wandering into my apartment whenever I’d come home. We’d feed him and play with him, and soon he’d stay whole weeks without leaving the place. I’d come home and he’d be begging to be let in. I would find myself anxious to be away from home, afraid he’d be left outside if it started to rain. It would take me a few moments before I remembered he was somebody else’s cat.

I got attached to him and started calling him Eddie. He’d sleep under my arm while I read in bed, or curl up on my gut when I went to sleep. He’d tackle my arms and play-bite me when I’d exercise. He followed me to the mailboxes and was patient enough to let me take photos of him with tiny hats on. He was a quality cat.

I say was but I should say is. He was clearly young when he started hanging around, and well cared for. I pulled a tick off him once but he was in good health otherwise. Someone was obviously feeding and sheltering him. But still I got attached to him. And when we had to leave town one weekend, I found myself hanging back till late. He didn’t want to go outside, and I didn’t want to leave him alone. I did eventually, of course, and a day after we came back, he strolled up to our porch while I was reading, mewling to be let inside.

Moving day came, and Eddie weaved between us and our stuff as we broke it down and loaded it up. He’d leave for an hour, then come back and play with someone taking a break. The activity got him excited, and he’d disappear again chasing children and bumblebees. We worked till two in the morning emptying the place, and by the time we were done, Eddie was off somewhere for the night. Probably back home.

Mo had gotten a place an hour away, on the opposite side of the city. I was leaving the state altogether, but I crashed at her place for a few nights, sorting through things of mine that had been mixed with hers and building up the courage to finally, permanently go. I went back to the apartment once more, to clean a little before we dropped off our keys. We’re the kind of people who are paranoid about deposits, and we wanted to make sure we got ours back. It was dark when I pulled up, and as soon as I got out, there was Eddie, on the rail, mewling at me.

I spent a couple hours there, scrubbing, vacuuming, trying to usher the cat out every now and then so he’d go home. But he just batted at my pant legs and purred when I’d pet him. When I was done, I cooed at him to follow me out, and locked up.

I loaded up the vacuum and Eddie hopped onto the roof of my car. I petted and kissed him, and a neighbor commented that he obviously didn’t want us gone. I waited until he got distracted by something in the grass, and climbed inside. He looked back once when I started the engine and began backing out, then went back to playing in the weeds. I trusted him to be okay.

I try not to think about it, but sometimes I’ll get the image in my head of Eddie mewling on a darkened porch. In my mind he paws at the door, trusting it to open, until the empty echo from inside convinces him to go home.

 

***

 

The annual family reunion is always a mixed bag. There are relatives I can actually, like, relate to, and relatives who seem as though their parents were likely related too.

Somehow, I always end up watching everybody’s kids when I’m there. I don’t quite understand how this happens. Kids seem to like me, parents seem to trust me, and somehow I’m put in charge of a small line of young’uns who insist on following me around.

Not that I’m complaining. I never want to have children, but I do enjoy their company. They’re simple and earnest and when things get irritating, I can always hand them back to their parents and go on my merry way.

I also remember what it was like to be little and opinionated, and how desperate I was to be regarded by adults with anything approaching respect. I try to keep this in mind whenever I find myself locked in a conversation a few grades below the general age of my peer group.

One reunion I found myself on the porch swing, watching over some cousin’s eight year old. He was as average a kid as you could get. He liked bugs and Pokémon and was just discovering the wonderland that is the Transformers franchise.

Every few sentences, a wrinkled old woman in the bench beside us would lean forward and say: “Have you ever heard a child who talks so much?”

The boy didn’t seem to hear her, and I’m not one for dignifying cruel statements with a response, so we kept talking. If anything, the kid was a little on the quiet side. He liked the talk but I was definitely the chattier one between us.

“Hush,” the strange old woman eventually scolded when the boy was answering a question I’d asked him. “He doesn’t want to have to listen to you.”

The boy looked at her then looked away. I don’t think he knew she was talking to him; he was just vaguely aware she was speaking nearby.

We kept talking.

“Shhh.” I looked over, and the hunched old woman was leaning forward, scowling. She was staring directly at the (thankfully) oblivious little boy. Context was irrelevant. She did not consider my presence, our talk, anything. It dawned on me that all she could see was something small she wanted to crush, something she was furious with for being out of her reach. We trust family to be there for us. Maybe that’s why so many predators choose to hide in the brush of blood relations.

“Blood is thicker than water.” The phrase is exploited frequently by relatives desperate for an excuse to be accepted despite their bad behavior. It’s paraphrased out of context. The original line is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Bonds are forged. DNA is coincidental. No one ever intends to be related to monsters.

 

***

 

A year or two after the breakup, Mo and I sat on her mother’s porch during a rain storm. She visits every so often, and we usually find at least one night to sit around and catch up.

That night was the first time we’d seen each other since I’d left Tennessee. It’d be a lie to say I was over her already.

We drank coffee and ordered pizza, and sitting on the porch, we listened to the rain. Midnight crept up on us, and we dozed off despite the caffeine.

We woke up to a crack of lightning and intense thunder. The wind as screaming and rain blew hard enough we could feel the mist. We watched the storm and I put my arm around her. She trusted me to move on, but at that time it was beyond my abilities.

So I sat quietly with the woman I still loved and watched the storm. The breakup had come up in conversation, and I told her I was fine. What I meant was that I would be. I at least owed her that minimal honesty. Holding her, I was determined not to break the trust she put in me to move on.

The rain fell, and we trusted it not to wash us away.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction