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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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Buggy

scary bug 2

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

I need all of these fucking things gone. Soon.

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

And one really big one had a stinger.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Then he looks over my shoulder and screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fiction, Horror

Scoutmaster 

  

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

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

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

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Familiarity

familiarity

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hungry,” Lori tells him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Written Out

writing

 

The humid air probably isn’t good for his computer, but Bruce keeps the window open anyway. The smoke probably isn’t good for the machine either, but he lights another cigarette and drinks more coffee. The stereotype is something he tries not to think about.

The apartment is cheap but relatively quiet. Bruce sees nothing but trees, hears nothing but tree frogs whenever an obnoxious neighbor isn’t driving by. Luckily the obnoxious neighbors seem to work the same long shifts he does, so shitty pop-rap is only an occasional irritation.

The window is a cheap pinewood frame set in discolored drywall. The glass is foggy and streaked no matter how often it’s cleaned. The Georgia summer heat is the kind that finds you through a million particles of steam. Every few minutes something bulky and jointed thumps into the window screen, its bristled legs tangling for a moment before helicopter wings beat it free. A feral cat walks by, stops, and looks back at Bruce. Then it snarls at rustling monkey grass, and chases a possum through the buzzing southern twilight.

It’s a quarter to ten. Bruce needs to go to sleep. He has work in the morning.

He saves the poem and shuts the computer down.

***

Bruce washes Mr. Price first thing, wiping the old man down with a dry lather so he won’t get chilled. Chills become invisible monsters in retirement homes. They creep upon prey despite the summer heat.

“Didn’t you say your granddaughter just had a baby?”

“Fresh out the college, too. Time gets away.”

He cleans him a section at a time, drying and dressing him as he works his way down. He cleans his legs after removing the trousers and setting them aside for laundry. The soiled adult diaper is removed and sealed, to be thrown out in a biohazard bin. He cleans the man’s feet, then his legs, his perineum and groin.

Mr. Price grimaces. “Oh Lord, I can’t hold it.”

Fast and practiced, Bruce has the jug in place as soon as the urine flows. The old man’s face relaxes, then contracts again in embarrassment. Bruce holds steady until he’s done, then quickly moves the jug out of sight and cleans the groin again.

“You get any pictures yet from your granddaughter’s graduation?”

“A couple. She a doctor now, ya know. Not like the ones give you shots, but you know. The kind just really knows what she’s talkin’ about.”

Another adult diaper, then a fresh pair of trousers. Bruce strips away the tee shirt with the stained shirttail and wipes Mr. Price’s waist and armpits. He applies unscented, hypoallergenic deodorant, then puts on a fresh shirt. He combs and smooths Price’s whitening hair, grooms his mustache. The old man’s ninety but could pass for sixty. He could’ve passed for less if his beard and hair hadn’t gone white.

“She’s a psychologist, right?”

“Gon’ be. The kind tells kids where they oughtta go to college.”

Price takes each pill as soon as Bruce has them on the counter. He takes big swallows of water, like he’s never had a drink in his life. Almost every medication he’s on gives him dry mouth. His diaper will be finished in another thirty minutes.

Bruce strips off his gloves, throws them away, puts on another pair, and grabs the removal bags. Yellow for laundry, orange for disposal. “Mr. Price, I’ll be back in an hour to check on you.”

Price laughs. “I’ll be here.” Even in the chair, his legs shake from the diabetic nerve damage that’s plagued him since he was seventy. Bruce’s lifetime ago.

Bruce is filing care information when Stevie comes by for lunch. “You wanna get out of here and go to Mel’s?”

“Can’t. Only got a half-lunch today. Maybe we can run to the Subway next door and eat here?”

Stevie shrugs. “You registered for classes yet?”

“Still waiting on word for the second half of the internship. You?”

“I got the exploratory literature program going on. Basically a bunch of advanced lit students collaborating on that poetry collection the school wants to sponsor.”

“Oh, yeah.” The insurance company demands three copies of everything to prove Ms. Wallace is alive. They seem to resent the facility’s denying her demise. They’re awfully eager to see paying clients dead. What’s worse is Ms. Wallace keeps insisting the company shouldn’t have to pay for her care, though that’s all they exist to do. She loves everyone at the home as family. She tells Bruce he’s old enough to think about getting a job. It’s possible she thinks he works out of a kind of familial obligation.

Stevie shrugs, a lie. “It’s kind of a pain. You’re expected to stay until the group unanimously decides to leave. I hardly have any time for my own material.”

Stevie is rich by college standards and well-off by those of the rest of the world. Writing about a straight man’s affair with his uncle has eased his worries about money considerably. Stevie and Bruce shared Applied Poetic Theory together.

“You given any thought to the collection?”

“A…little.”

“Having a prepared collection would really impress the internship committee.”

“I know. I’m thinking about it.”

“Well, it’s a week from tomorrow before you’d have to meet with them.”

Bruce fishes out eight bucks and offers it to Stevie. “Turkey sub. Half sweet tea, half unsweet.”

Stevie waves his hand. “Hey, no man, I got it. Don’t worry about it.”

Stevie’s novel was a bestseller. Stevie was paid two hundred thousand over the course of two years.

“But seriously, get those poems together. I’ll even help you arrange them. I mean, not to be a hardass, but you really need to have a collection or something.”

Bruce looks to Stevie for a moment, his hand still hanging, still holding the cash in the air. After a moment he tucks it in Stevie’s pocket, his friend unconsciously alarmed even though Bruce’s fingers don’t come a mile within his dick.

“Turkey sub, no chips. Sweet/unsweet.”

***

“Read your poem in the paper,” Mr. Price tells him after lunch. Bruce sweeps his own straw hair off his face and blots his forearm with the sleeve of his thermal shirt. The sleeve of his attendant’s scrub top is dotted with perspiration absorbed from his temples. He wheels the lift swing out of the room, wheels the lunch tray to Mr. Price’s bedside. The empty wheelchair is rolled into a corner.

“Any good?”

“Good enough.” The old man has a hearty laugh, tempered from the days when there was more belly to pump with. “Yeah, yeah, it was real good. You write a lot of ‘em?”

“When I can find the time.”

“Uh oh.” A grin, well-cleaned dentures. “We ain’t eatin’ into your schedule, are we?”

Bruce grins. “Mr. Price, you are my schedule.”

Mr. Price is a man who slaps his things when he laughs.

***

Stevie’s back when Bruce’s shift ends. Stevie is so burdened by his one extended class he doesn’t even go today.

“You wanna get some coffee? We can get your laptop and you can show me what you’ve been working on.”

They walk down the hall leading to the employee exit. They pass a room with an RN stripping a bed, wiping the rubber mattress with a rag and spraying every fifth swipe with cleaner. A man white as bone sits in a chair outside, watched by an orderly. The orderly nods as the two men pass. The old man lays his head flat on his shoulder, and snores whether he inhales or exhales. He isn’t asleep.

“Jesus.” Stevie looks to the woman cleaning the poly mattress. “I can’t imagine being stuck here.”

Stevie pities the nurse who never fell into her job. She doesn’t make two-hundred thousand in a single year but will make a steady pay until she retires. Her art is in daily absolutes. Stevie scratches at the shoulder of a blind animal.

They step outside, and both light cigarettes as soon as the door closes. They smoke beside Bruce’s old Honda. Stevie almost matches the snow. Bruce’s hide is yellowed from his summertime habit of opening windows.

“So be honest…how much work have you done?” Stevie asks him.

“A lot. It’s an intensive internship.”

Stevie rolls his eyes. “I meant your writing.”

“I know.”

“So how much?”

Bruce shrugs. “Maybe thirty pages total.”
Stevie smokes, considers, slowly nods. “Alright. Yeah, we can work with that. With poetry, anyway. You working under any kind of theme?”

“There’s kind of just the one.”

Stevie sighs. “You want to be precise as possible if you’re asked. They’re impressed with precision of intent.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna try for it anyway.”

Stevie gives him a sharp look. “Why? The profs who run this thing have direct connections to publishing houses.”

Bruce shrugs, grinds his smoke into a sandy ashtray. He cocks his head to the hospice. “I already have the one internship. I’m not sure I can fit another.”

“But this is one that matters.”

“They all are. Who works for free?”

“Bruce: you can finally get your work out there with this. I’ve told Dr. Hunt about you. He said he’d keep you in mind if you contacted him.”

Bruce shrugs again. “But I don’t really need to. This ties directly into my major…”

“Dude, don’t let life hamstring you. This might not happen again.”

“I know.”

“And?”

“I took the opportunity.”

“You’re already in the program?”

“Yep.”

Stevie smiles. “Oh, shit, I didn’t even know! That’s awesome! Are you gonna use the writing lab they have on weekends? Because…”

“I’m not taking the writing internship.”

No smile now. “But you said…”

Bruce climbs into his car, starts it. “Yeah.”

“You’re seriously going to let this happen?”

“No.” Bruce checks his blind spots, backs out. “Didn’t just happen. Had to petition for it and everything.” He looks to Stevie before he puts the car in drive. “See you in twenty?”

Unsure: “Okay.”

Bruce puts the car in gear.

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Company

watching tv

 

Walter’s drinking tonight. He’s drinking this whiskey because it makes him think of his dad, and he misses his dad. He’s drinking so much of it because Lin’s here, and through no fault of her own she makes him nervous.

They’re watching a scary movie, both of them sunk deep into the overstuffed leather couch Walter’s mom left behind when she moved away with her new husband. Walter pays utilities and a small sum that can only charitably be called rent. His brother works in New Hampshire and his sister is studying in Toronto. He likes being by himself. He likes Lin’s company more.

They have their feet propped up on the coffee table. Walter wears jeans and heavy boots, even though winter is barely more than an early spring in Jacksonville. Lin’s bare ankles are draped over his. She’s dressed more for the region than he is, in a belt-like pair of shorts and a soft pink tank. She’s kicked off the blue All-Stars she favors, and the glow of the TV illuminates her feet through the mesh running socks she has on. The image makes Walter think of an x-ray.

It’s getting late and they can both feel it, Lin because she gets up early to go running every day, and Walter because he’s drinking too much. The movie comes to an end, the heroine dragged screaming into some creature’s lair, and credits begin their slow crawl to eerie, somber music. Walter barely notices. He’s a little hypnotized by the smooth glow of Lin’s legs in the light of the white lettering. Because he’s her friend and she cares about him, she pretends not to notice.

The menu screen pops up, and Walter reaches overhead and flips the light on. Lin takes a final swig of her beer.

“You good to drive?” he asks, but of course she is. The entire night she’s only made it about halfway down the bottle.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She stands and stretches, yawning as she bends down to pull on her shoes. Walter’s dog, alerted by the light, wanders into the living room and watches her. Walter does his best to be less conspicuous than his dog, but the sight of her shimmering black hair slipping from her shoulders makes him feel like he has to swallow.

He gets up, slowly, to make sure he isn’t too drunk to stand, but he’s able to keep himself steady and he walks with her to the door. His cat patters between them, looking from one to the other. The animal either wants attention or treats, or both.

Like we all do.

The porch light is a soft amber color, and Lin’s own amber skin glows beneath it. It doesn’t shine; it glows.

Walter runs a self-conscious hand across his unshaven face, makes a casual motion to smooth down his chronic bedhead. He leans against the door frame as they chat. He listens to her but he also thinks about how her eyeliner makes her brown eyes look smoky, how she hates the light acne scarring at her temples, the scarring he suspects people only notice after she’s pointed it out. He thinks these things but he also listens.

He worries he has pickle breath. Lin hates pickles, and earlier he warned her not to get too close after he’d eaten one.

She’d elbowed him. “How close we talkin’ about here? Cuz at a certain point I’m not gonna care that you had pickles.”

Not a signal. He knows that. He wants it to be, but he knows better than to assume.

They talk a little longer, and then they say goodnight, and he catches himself almost leaning in to kiss her. Almost. His neck loosens and he feels himself reflexively about to lean in. But there is no movement, and Lin remains unaware of the trespass he almost went for.

He drinks too much, he realizes.

And then she’s walking to her car, and backing out, and when he closes the door he leans against the frame and watches the headlights trace across the wall. He groans and thumps his head a little against the molding.

He looks down. His cat and his dog sit beside each other, both looking up at him. They always look mildly surprised. Like we all do.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He grins and pets them with both hands, rubbing behind their ears. “I know, ya judgmental bastards.”

He walks to the kitchen, and they both get up to follow. Because he’s moving for the food bowls. Because he might not be feeding them after all. Because he’s just there, and because they want to be around those they love. Without condition. Without expectation.

Like we all do.

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Midnight Until Morning

sodium light

 

The light in the Kroger parking lot buzzes, and I amuse myself by pretending the buzzing is coming from the moths circling overhead. It’s muggy tonight, and my cigarette somehow makes things feel warmer in the car. Eventually she comes outside, and when she climbs in she changes her clothes in the passenger seat.

We sneak into her house as quietly as possible. Her mother’s still at work and her kid sister is asleep. She calls her a kid sister even though the girl’s almost seventeen now.

We get to her room, which she’d tried to abandon for a few years for an apartment across town, but she is inextricably tied to this drywall box. Poverty is a lock built for heavy use.

I text my sister to tell her she doesn’t have to leave the hall light on for me, at the house we both share on our parents’ dime. Our folks moved out of state a couple years ago but kept the place as an investment, though not so much monetarily as familial. We try to pay them rent, but generosity won’t allow them to keep the money for long. It always comes back in Christmas cards or unusually generous amounts of “gas money” for errands. I would complain, but it’s something of a sin to do so when there really aren’t any complaints to have.

We drink warming beer I bought while waiting for her shift to end. The cashier in the next line seemed exasperated when I wouldn’t respond to her attempts to wave me over. I very nearly whispered “But it’s this cashier I want to fuck!” but crudeness is not a taste for every palette.

She opens her windows and we smoke cigarettes. We sit on the floor and watch headlights trace across the walls. We’re no longer teenagers but we don’t want to know it.

She has red hair that’s almost orange, and it curls so that every movement makes it leap from her shoulders. The ends of it brush my face when she stands and bends to kiss me, before shambling to the bathroom.

I crack open two more beers, and she comes out in green cotton boxers and a white men’s tank top she likes to sleep in. We drink beer and talk about anything other than the fact that we won’t be doing this – any of it –very long from now. That’s a topic we’ll visit later, when we add “not thinking about it” to the list of luxuries she can’t afford.

The ends of her hair tickle my face again. They puff with every breath I take. She hugs me tight around my neck, and her breath makes my left ear feel wet. The boxers have tied her right ankle to my left one, somehow.

In movies and novels, only the boring parts about sex are covered. The parts of each other’s bodies that everyone likes. The generic mentioning that someone eventually experiences an orgasm. The interesting bits are always overlooked. Like how your stomach always makes a paunch, no matter how skinny you are, when you’re hunched over towards the other person. Or how small flecks of stubble ignite the nerves in your skin when her leg brushes yours. Sometimes I see dark bristles under her arms. They’re short, regularly waxed away, but they’re there, just barely.

I want no one else as much as I want her in this moment.

My teeth brush her ear and I feel her arms tighten. I keep forgetting that’s something she likes. She scratches at my shoulders, and I feel undutiful because she clearly remembers that’s what I like.

We fall asleep for awhile. She wakes me an hour before her sister usually gets up. Her mother has already come home and gone to bed. We dress and kiss and she goes to shower while I lock the door behind me. I start the car and drive home. The sun isn’t up yet. Last night will stay on my mind all day. It will be years before I realize we were saying an early goodbye.

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