FICTION SAMPLES by David Williams


Originally published in Other Voices, also in a collection of short stories, INDIAN BINGO

FISHING

             “I’ve heard enough about Death,” I yelled to my mother.  She was sitting on the sofa.  She had a book in her hand.  I went outside and yanked my fishing pole down from the shed rafters and walked to town.  “It’s part of living,” she was trying to tell me.  “It’s something we all have to deal with at sometime in our lives,” she had said.

My mother was saying this because my brother died.  Billy was a year and five months older.  He had blonde hair and blue eyes.  I have red hair and freckles.  He was jogging around the track at the new hi-h school when it happened, when he dropped over dead.  Mr. Haines, the janitor, found him and called Lifeguard Helicopter, but it didn’t do any good.  Billy was DOA.  My mother, two sisters, and I drove to the hospital, but only my mother went into the room where they put him.  He was blue, she said.  It didn’t look like Billy lying there at all, she told us later.

They couldn’t find nothing wrong with him.  He was a perfect specimen, perfect heart, lungs; didn’t smoke, drink, or -ake drugs ever.  It’s a medical mystery they told my mother.  The state doctor who checks out dead people said it was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  He said that’s what killed my brother, but Billy would’ve been sixteen by the end of July.  Saying that was just a name they made to make them feel better.  They didn’t have any idea why it had happened.

“We have to keep our faith,” Mom kept saying to us and everybody else she talked to. “Our faith’ll pull us through,” she said, but I was never a big churchgoer.  I was more like Dad.  Then she started reading to us from a book about how bad things happen to people who aren’t so bad themselves, but all I wanted to do was go fishing.

The funeral was what you’d expect it to be, a bunch of relatives none of us had hardly ever seen since we were born coming around bringing us sweet rolls, cakes, and pies.  It was like they were trying to poison us off with sugar, just like when Dad died in his car wreck, except this was three years later and Dad was forty-three and had had a life–teaching music at the University, playing the organ.  But Billy was only fifteen and three-fourths and what had he got to do?

That’s when everything in our family started going to hell.

Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer.  I wasn’t gonna think about death and dying any more.  I walked to the phone booth and called up Monkey.  Monkey’s called that because his teeth are too big for his face.  Anyway, he looks like a Monkey.   He’s a couple years younger, but he’s an okay kid.  He likes to go fishing any time you ask, which is what I like best about him, that and the fact he doesn’t hardly talk.  I’m probably the only person in town that ever hangs around with him, but I don’t care.  He’s all right really, if you want to know the truth.

I didn’t want Monkey’s mom and dad seeing me, telling me how sorry they were, which is why I called him from the pay phone, disguising my voice when his mom answered.  “Let’s go down to the River,” I told him when he got on.  I met him in the alley behind the Dairy Bonanza.

The way down to the river’s not far really, about three blocks is all.  You walk down two gravel roads and go behind the brick factory where the wife of somebody we knew got killed once two years ago in an accident.  That was Coach’s wife, Mandy Powers, who used to bring us cookies and things after Little League games.  Coach began stopping by our house after it happened, I guess because Dad had died already and we were supposed to know how to deal with things like that.  Now I suppose we’ll be experts for the whole town to hit on whenever somebody kicks.  Everyone knows who our family is.  We’re famous for people dying.  I was practically sure that most the people in our town were just sitting home feeling sorry for us, as if they didn’t have nothing better to do.

Monkey never said much to me about what happened.  The day of the funeral he just showed up in the yard and stood next to the tree asking if I still wanted to go fishing.  But I couldn’t.  I had to stay around the house the whole day-long and talk to people, must of which I didn’t even know.

Monkey came down the alley after I called him, running like he always does with that same crooked smile on his face.  We walked down to the bridge together without saying a word, then when we got there he stepped behind my back and followed me because he’s deathly afraid of heights.

The bridge is an old one.  A suspension kind of thing, cables stretching from the top to the ground to hold it up.  The floor is wood.  It’s big enough for one car at a time, but that’s about it.  The beams are rusted.  Even when you walk on it, it creaks.  Some people think it might rot through, and they’re afraid it’s gonna cave in sometime and hurt somebody, but no one ever does nothing about it.  It’s always just there.  People drive on it.  It’ll probably be there forever.  Years ago, Dad started taking us fishing.  We’d always go that way.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Dad would say.  “Can’t get to the good spots if we stay over here,” he’d tell us, meaning that the other side of the river always has the best fishing holes, places you got to work to get to.  I was never scared of the bridge.  It’s never fallen in yet, I figured.

When I looked back, Monkey was behind me.  He was wearing overalls without a shirt on and had the same shoes on his feet he was wearing two years ago when I met him, except now his toes were sticking out.  But that didn’t bother me.  I’d offered to give him some of mine, but they were too big for him.  Monkey’s family’s poor, but at least he doesn’t yap all the time like most people.  Besides, we’re not so rich ourselves.

“Look at the way this water’s swirling here,” I yelled as I was looking down.  Below me was the place the two sections of the river come together after splitting around Whitetail Island.  “If you were to jump off, this’d probably be the best place to try it,” I said.  I saw Monkey holding to the metal beams, but he wouldn’t look.  Sometimes I feel like I’m just floating when I stand on the bridge, like I’m just suspended mid-air, falling from somewhere higher, somewhere above, that I just haven’t hit water yet, which is kind of the way I day-dream.

A couple of redheaded woodpeckers went whirring into the trees.  It’s the white feathers that give them away, not the red.  I saw a raccoon on the bank below, picking at a shell.  Then a car came by, so we had to scrunch up to the edge.  Monkey kept his eyes on the wooden planks.  He still wouldn’t look at the river.  Then we walked.

When we finally got across he mentioned something about wanting to catch a big one.  We knew there were some big old catfish in the river, because we’d seen them.  Monkey and I had seen them at a hole once about a mile down the trail.  We even tried hitting some of them with sticks one time, but we couldn’t land any.  They were three or four feet long, some of the ones we saw.  Probably weighing ten or twenty pounds.

We got on the path.  We’d been on it hundreds of times, but it always looks different.  Mostly it follows Turkey River, though sometimes it wanders off a bit.  Monkey and I scrambled down the ravine, jumped on the old tires that’d been laying there forever, then hit the trail.  The trees and grass were thick with noises.  He kept following me.  We carried our poles out straight ahead of us so we wouldn’t get them tangled in the branches, and every now and then he’d hit me in the back with his.  It didn’t bother me any, though.  I’d been on the trail with a lot of people over the years: with Dad, with Billy, with a lot of my friends.  You learn to put up with people in the woods after while.  I’d also done a lot of fishing in the river, but just with boys.  None of my sisters would do it, or Mom.  They couldn’t stand putting worms on hooks, which is fifty percent of what fishing is all about.  If you can’t stand doing that, you have no right going fishing, I always say, which is what Dad used to tell us, “You might as well stay home, and watch TV.”

Me and Monkey kept going.  Every now and then we’d hear crows cawing above our heads.  We’d heard owls out there before, and coyotes at night when we didn’t get home before the sun went down, and you can always hear the river.  It makes a sound that keeps turning, like a truck motor that never runs out of gas.

When we got to a place we knew a good hole was we slid down the embankment to the shore, across from where Whitetail Island begins, and I took my tennis shoes off and squished my toes in the mud.  It was cold at first, but you get used to it.  I wiggled my feet in further till they were covered up.  It was still cold, but that’s because it wasn’t sunny.  It was a cloudy kind of day.

When they buried Dad I used to worry about how cold it’d be at the top of the hill where they put him, but that was when I was younger and didn’t know nothing.  Dead people can’t feel.  I know that now.  They don’t care if it’s cold or hot outside.

Monkey pulled the styrofoam container that had the worms in it out of his pocket.  I picked out a long fat one, then he did the same.  You can’t tell if its heads or tails with worms.  I’ve heard it doesn’t matter to them anyway.  If they get chopped in two they can just grow another part and keep on going, like a lizard can grow a new tail if you pull it out.  I used to have part of a lizard tail that Billy gave me once, when I was ten, but somehow I lost it.  One day it just wasn’t on my shelf any longer, but I liked it when I had it.  No one else I knew ever owned one.

I tossed my line out first, then Monkey did.  It was a pretty good hole we were fishing at.  We could spot dark shapes circling under the water.  I’d even seen snapping turtles caught in this part of the river before, but you have to be careful they don’t take your finger off after you reel them in.  Some people make soup out of them, but we always tossed them back.  I never had nothing against turtles.  They aren’t like catfish or carp: bottom feeders.

Monkey and me sat watching the river pull along.  It’s hypnotizing sometimes, like it could take your head away without your knowing it, but that’s part of what makes it good.  I sat and thought about all the things I hadn’t told Monkey yet that I’d have to once he got older.  But he didn’t need to know much of anything now.  He could get along fine as he was.

I remembered coming down to the river with Billy and a friend of his once a few years back.  His friend was Jack, who is kind of a friend of mine, and Jack had a shiny thing with him, a slick blue package.

“Know what this is?” he asked me.

I thought it looked like a candy wrapper.

“Don’t tease him,” Billy said.  “Just let him alone.”

But Jack pulled a skinny balloon out and started blowing it up and laughing.

A week later I made Billy tell me what it was.  We got into a fistfight over it.  Even when he had me pinned down I wouldn’t give up.  I slithered out and hit him in the jaw, so finally he walked me back to the shed and told me the whole story.  Since then, I’ve seen Playboys, and Hustlers even.  But before that, I didn’t know nothing.  I was just like Monkey.  The birds and the bees were just the birds and bees to me.  Once Monkey’s older he’ll have to know how complicated it gets, and I’ll have to let him know what he’s in for, but for now, he can be ignorant.  He can just go on like he is for a while without knowing all the trouble.

We kept throwing our lines out, but we didn’t even get a nibble.  I told Monkey we should’ve brought marshmallows.  I read in a fishing magazine that you can really haul them in with marshmallows, but all we had were worms.  We kept looking at the water.  We knew there was pollution in it, but we didn’t care.  It wasn’t as bad as the river going through the city was.  You weren’t supposed to eat nothing you caught from there.  Out where we live, nobody thinks twice about eating river fish.  The water’s not too bad really, you just wouldn’t want to drink it is all.

Finally, I washed the mud off my feet and put my shoes back on.  I told Monkey we should try somewhere else.  There were other places that might be better.  “Why should we waste our time at one spot?” I asked him.  We got back on the trail and followed it.  I was leading the way.  I thought about how I used to play in the woods when I was little: Army, Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, but Army was always my favorite.  You would count to ten when you were shot, then you’d jump back up and come out fighting.  I was always good at sneaking up on people.  I was better at Army than Billy even.  He was faster, but I was sneakier.  I could hide behind any sized tree, where he couldn’t.  We liked playing where they were building new houses, in the foundations and dirt piles they’d bulldozed into mountains where the tall grass would come up thick, hacking our own trails out and making secret forts that no one knew about.  Those were the good old days I guess, back when I was dumb as Monkey is now.  I was so dumb I was happy.

Monkey and I walked on.  We tried a couple of other places that were good, but we still couldn’t hook nothing.  Monkey got a nibble, but the fish just took his bait.  We decided to keep going.  There was nothing else to do.  The Turkey River twists around like a sidewinder, and the trail follows it.  No one knows how it got to be named after a turkey either.  It should’ve been named after a snake, but maybe it was somebody’s idea of a joke.  Everyone knows a turkey’s as dumb a thing as there is.  A turkey will stand out in the rain with its mouth open and drown.  It doesn’t seem like much of a name to give to a river, but somebody must’ve thought it funny.

We stopped at one place after another, dipping our poles in with bait, but it was useless.  We’d stay ten minutes each place then move on.  We ended up going further down the trail than we usually went.  Finally, we’d gone a couple miles to where the Turkey River makes a wide S turn.  I knew where we were at.  The other side was steep.  There was a big hill.  And an old footbridge went from our side up to it.  The footbridge was still in one piece, still connected, but it was older than the first bridge we were on, and this one was only wide enough for a person.  Some of the board slats were missing, so you had to be careful walking on it.  I knew where it went, though.  It went right over to the cemetery.

“I don’t know about this bridge,” I said to Monkey, “but I guess I’ll have to try it.”  Monkey’s eyes got big, but he wouldn’t say nothing.  “You stay here a second,” I said to him.  I could tell he was relieved.  “I’m gonna just be gone a little bit.  I’m gonna climb up that hill a minute, then I’ll be back.  You can try and fish from here,” I said to him, then I baited my pole and handed it to him.  He cast both lines in the water, one at a time then stuck the handle of his pole in the mud.  He held onto my pole as he watched me climb the bridge.  I was holding tight to each of the rope handles as I made my way up.  The footbridge was at an angle, each step you took, going higher.  I was a little worried some of the slats might give, but I tested each one with some of my weight before committing myself, then finally, I was across.

“I made it,” I yelled to Monkey when I was on solid ground.  He lifted up one hand and waved, then I went further up the hill and headed for the gravel road.  There were a lot of old stones lying around.  I was careful not to step on any graves.  Some of the dates went back to the eighteen-hundreds.  Those stones were old and white with pictures of lambs or dogs etched on them, and a lot of them had sayings that rhymed.  I didn’t like reading those things.  I tried to just pass them.  It never bothered me reading the names of the people, but the sayings always give me the creeps.  There was about every kind of name you could ever want to see, too.  There were names of people I’d never even heard of before.  I kept walking.  Off to my right I could see the river, and if I looked back I could see the bridge, but Monkey was out of sight.  I thought maybe he’d catch something if I was gone.  After all, I hadn’t had much luck lately.  I was just plain out of it.

Finally, I got to the new area where there weren’t any trees, and I recognized it.  I went right to the spot.  Billy was next to Dad, but Dad had a big stone over him.  Billy’s place was still just dirt.  There were flowers strewn about, but they were getting old.  The clods reminded me of the ones we used to throw at each other playing in the subdivision lots.  Those didn’t look any different than the ones that were over him now, but I couldn’t really believe my brother was under there, or Dad either.  None of it seemed very real.  I felt like I was supposed to cry or something, but I couldn’t make myself.  I just ended up getting mad at them, mad for them going off like that without any warning.  It wasn’t like when grandpa passed away from cancer after having been sick for a year.  This was different.  This wasn’t the normal way of dying.

I stood there looking down.  I had a pack of cigarettes in my pocket that I’d bought the same day that it happened, and I took one out and smoked it.  I didn’t want Monkey seeing me, but I didn’t see what difference it made if I smoked by myself or not.  Billy was the athlete; I’m the fisherman.  I stood there thinking of the last few things I’d said to him.  They were just everyday things: “Where’s my hat,” or “Did you leave any cereal in the box?”  I couldn’t think of nothing he said to me that last day out of the ordinary.  He seemed the same as always.  I remembered him going out the door with his gym shoes on.  I think it was “see yuh later,” that might’ve been the last thing he said, but I couldn’t swear to it.  It still didn’t seem like he was gone really.  And it didn’t seem like Dad was gone either.

I turned around and looked at the sky.  A group of sparrows went swarming over, moving as if they were one thing, one animal, instead of a bunch of little rust colored birds, and I thought about my body as the smoke went in, about all the different parts to it: my heart and lungs, my stomach, brain, eyes.  The smoke made me a little dizzy, and I began wondering what I was, who I was, if I wasn’t just all these parts stuck together with a name attached to them, or what?  Maybe there wasn’t really a me after all, I thought.  I wondered about Billy and Dad?  What was it they ever were?  What were they now?  They were lying under my feet, but I could remember talking to them, playing with them, eating with them.  I could remember what their voices sounded like.  I wondered if there really were souls to people, and if Jesus was really up in heaven waiting for people to die, or if he was just like Santa Claus, that this was really how it was, just dirt at my feet, like when you learn you’re not born from a stork or come up from a cabbage patch.

I stood there for the longest time trying to figure it all out, but I couldn’t.  I just wished I was Monkey after awhile.  I wished I was just that dumb.

I threw the cigarette butt in the gravel and stepped on it.  I said my goodbyes and left my brother and father lying at the edge of the new part of the cemetery, then I walked back, passing the old head stones without hardly looking at them.  When I got to the bridge I could hear voices.  I started back down, holding onto the ropes.  There were older kids down there now, and Monkey was in the middle of them.  I kept going.  I could hear them teasing him.  When I got close I could see who they were.  Most of them I recognized.  They were older than me.  They were Billy’s age.  One of them was holding a couple of big fat carp in his hands, and I could hear them plain as day.

“You don’t want to keep these trash fish, do you?” this kid was saying to Monkey.  “These fish are ugly as you,” he said.

“I want ’em,” Monkey was saying.  He kept repeating that over and over without saying anything else.

The kid started dancing around with them, shaking them in Monkey’s face.  The others were laughing.  One of them took my fishing-pole from Monkey’s hands and cast it into a tree.

I kept walking on the bridge.  Nobody saw me, till suddenly, I was right on them.  I was standing over them, about six feet away.

“What’s going on,” I said quietly, and they all turned around and jumped, staring at me like their eyes had turned into ping-pong balls.

“Hi,” I said, but none of them would say a word.  They dropped their heads down, and their hands went slack.  It was as if I’d put some kind of spell over them.

“We’re sorry,” one of them said.  “We didn’t know you were with him.  We were just joking around is all.”

The one with the fish gave them back.  I could see the fish’s gills still moving.  I could see the red insides.

“We’re sorry,” another said, “but we didn’t know is all.”

Then I stood there, looking at them as they all backed off, little by little, their heads down, apologizing the closer that I got.  It was like they could smell Death near me, like they could feel it sticking close by and were afraid.  Finally, they turned and took off down the trail.  It was just me and Monkey left.  I looked at him.  He seemed all right.  He got his fish back and he was happy.

“Don’t worry about them,” I said to Monkey.  “They’re just stupid.”

I cut the line from my pole down and left the hook with the worm on it dangling in the tree.  I waited a little before heading back so those boys could get ahead of us.  Then finally we hit the trail ourselves, Monkey following, me leading the way.  I knew his parents would be glad he caught a couple of carp.  They always cooked his fish for him.  I imagined him sitting in his kitchen with his family around him, eating the fish he’d caught in the river, thinking it tasted better than anything he’d ever eaten before.  He’d be satisfied for a week.  His brothers and sisters would be jealous.  The next time I wanted to go fishing I wouldn’t even have to ask.  He’d just be standing there if I thought the word “fish.”

I carried the carp for him, and for a second I felt like I was him.  He followed me across the bridge, but we didn’t stop to look at nothing.  I said goodbye to Monkey near his house and watched him toddle up the stoop with his catch.  I thought I’d find him some shoes and surprise him next time we were together.  I thought I’d even buy him an ice cream cone if he wanted one.

There was no one in the alley as I walked it.  It was getting dark.  Our two-story house was looming against the sky.  I kicked some stones and watched the dust rise.  Everything was quiet except for some black birds stuck in a tree.  I noticed the light on in our living room.  I knew Mom would be there, that she’d be reading her book.  I wiped my feet off on the mat at the door before going in.  For some reason I knew that I’d sit by her, that I’d put my arm around her, that we’d stay that way till dawn.

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Originally published in TriQuarterly

BOBBY ANGEL

Bobby Angel’s playing, and the lucky people have got their places in the front of the auditorium already, which is really an old movie theatre which the new owner has changed into a nightclub after putting in some décor in front of the first seats: tables made from old copper wire spools and chairs brought in deluxe from the Salvation army.  It’s a place where local-yokels play during the week but tonight it’s gonna be to best-thing-in-life-you’re-ever-gonna-see national act concert hall, even if whoever did the paint job on the walls forgot to make it all the way to the ceiling.  The place is packed, the bar is hopping, and the drinks are flowing out of the waitress’s hands like the fish and the loaves, miracles everywhere as everybody’s getting ready for this grand earth-shattering event of a lifetime, for nobody can croon like Bobby Angel, who has also got a silver tongue way with words, who takes them straight from his heart and lifts them right into yours, so that you’d do anything for him, you’d get on your knees, you’d roll over, you’d even bark if you had to.  And every woman knows this.  Which is why we’re here.  Fleeing from exes and has-beens, kitchens full of dishes and kids screaming, and all the unpaid bills and alimony payments that haven’t come, flat tires, cracks in the plumbing, and overflowing toilets.  We’ve been waiting for this night forever it seems, when we can be taken someplace else, a place we’d been expected to go all along but never got to.  My friend, Suzy, has on her best loopy earrings and a white dress cut so low that if I bend over to talk to her I can see the dark area around one of her nipples.  Sherry is dressed in black, Martha’s in a red dress that she couldn’t even have fit into in high school, since she’s on Weight Watchers now, and I’m in my best: very tactful.  It’s a blue dress with small white flowers that puts me in mind of an open field where you can walk and walk and find the rainbow if you wanted it.  That, and I have on my turquoise earrings that bring out the blue in my eyes.

We’re all sitting at one of these tables, drinking various things: a Bloody Mary, a Rum and Coke, a Margarita, and a Vodka Sour, when I see one of the band members come onto the stage: this guy in black boots and with hair down to this shoulders, but it’s squeaky clean hair, and he has a perfect little black moustache above his lip that’s so fine it looks like it was drawn on with a mascara pencil.  He puts his guitar onto a stand of some sort, and the closer I look at him, I figure he’s probably forty-five years old, about fifteen years older than I am, but his chest is still bigger than his stomach, which is something you can’t say about many of the guys my age.  Then another one of the band members comes out and sits down at the keyboard.  He’s not as good looking as the first guy, but he is younger, with about a dozen metal rings in his ears, but his hair is completely fantastic, naturally bright red that stands up straight, just like a bunch of carrots that are growing backwards out of his head.  Then the drummer comes onto the stage and sits behind the drum set.  This guy’s totally bald, but really macho looking, wearing one of those tee shirts without sleeves and he has tattoos on both of his arms that look like dragons or snakes.  Then finally the bass player comes strutting out, this tall drink of water who has a larger than average nose, and tremendous feet, and hands that look like they could fit around your waist they’re so big, and then on top of it, he’s got this jaw line that looks like Mt. Rushmore or something, I mean chiseled.  And they’re all tuning and looking at each other, and as they do a hush begins to build in the room, and the stage lights dim all the way then come back on again in a fireworks display of reds, greens, and blues, when all of a sudden he’s here standing amongst them—Bobby Angel.  His hair’s disheveled.  He’s wearing black sunglasses, and it looks like he hasn’t shaved for a day or two.  But his face is so fine boned, his features so utterly perfect and slim.  He’s got tall black boots on and black leather pants, and he’s wearing this plain white shirt made of muslin or something that’s open half-way to his navel, so that we can see the hairs on his chest springing out.  His mouth is this beautiful red ribbon that turns up at the edges, and smiles at us and invites us in.  Then he looks at the other guys in the band and if by magic they go into the music all at once, and the place is hopping with sound as the bass jumps into the cavities of our chests and the electric guitar lashes us with these runs, while the piano’s jumping, and the drums kick in, roaring, roaring, then just as suddenly, everything crashes to a purr, and Bobby—Bobby Angel puts his lips to the microphone and snarls. And out of his mouth and throat comes this tone that makes you sweat under your arms even if you’ve worn deodorant.  It’s a sound that oozes into you, that moves inside of you, till you find yourself wet in places you shouldn’t be, but you are, and there’s no distance between you and the stage, between you and him, and you know he’s singing to you alone, behind those sunglasses.  And my girlfriends want to tear our clothes off for him and jump into the limelight naked and dance.  We want to feel that tongue of his against our skin, like sandpaper, shark-like, rubbing us in all the right spots making us into kindling, to ignite us, till we are nothing but ash.  His words suck at us, his words of love, sweet love.  Words that we’ve heard a zillion times before, but now they’re like the first romantic words ever spoken, they’re the first kiss, the first time a guy takes you into his car out on the back roads of your youth when you are so hungry for it, and god you want to be hungry for it again, as the car careens down the blacktop with Bobby Angel driving, a red convertible with the top down, before hitting gravel, which kicks out like a stampede from the chrome and rubber, flying in every direction with the dust, as the road narrows down to a single lane and the trees go whizzing by you so fast they becoming one, until the road itself disappears, and the car engine purrs softly at the edge of the forest, where he takes the key and turns it away from himself and the turbo engine mutters and falls till there is only the sound of crickets and the summer wind, which gets in your ear and makes you breathe so hot and heavy as his hands find their way inside you like music against your skin.

When the song is over we clap so hard that our palms begin to swell and sting, but we love it as the next song and the next, rocks us or lullabies us, takes us to heaven or hell, so that the things inside of us begin to move in ways we barely remember, and we sway in our chairs, feeling like the wood against us is the whole world in his hands.

Magnificent.  Unbelievable.  Nipples hard.  Throats dry.  We scream.  Till the end of the night, when we stand, and everybody stands, raising their arms into the air and yelling, whistling, then applauding again and again, encore, encore, which he gives just once until the lights of the room go up and we are left amongst the throngs of others with the same unquenched desire.

“What’s there to lose,” Suzy says.  “We’re never going to get any younger.”  So together, like a pack of foxes, we rush behind the curtain to the backroom, all four of us girls who are wearing our best and who’ve had our hair done and our nails, and we scratch at the backdoor which opens for us, letting us in to the promised land where, thank god, we look good enough to enter, and where the band members sit smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and whiskey, carousing together, except for him,  He’s there in the corner, with his sunglasses still on—Bobby Angel—smoking and drinking as well, but in a way different manner than the other guys, for Bobby has something unique and fills his own space himself.

Someone offers us beers, and we take them gladly, and everybody’s laughing as we tell the band members how damned good they are, and why aren’t they at Carnegie Hall for Christ’s sake.  But not a one of us dares speak to Bobby Angel, for he’s off in his own cocoon, with something different rattling through his head than the rest of them, as the guitar player strums something, and the girls ooh and ahh, as the bass player shakes his hips a little and invites everyone back to the hotel where they all want to be, but Bobby Angel he just takes another cigarette out of his pack and lights it, his cherub red lips sucking the smoke in like this is all the matters in the world, like all the rest of it, the sidewalks downtown, the people streaming through the bars looking for each other, the busses and cars going, going, going nowhere, everywhere, are all nothing, nothing at all compared to this, to the moment he is in, this space he occupies, which is eternal, elemental, straight to the core, and I so much feel I know this, that I too am alone in that place, that I also inhabit that particular landscape, which is the secret reason I have come here after all.

So after the second beer I begin moving toward him, very, very slowly.  I slide against the wall where he leans and move carefully into the perimeters of his space, removed from the raunch of the rest of them who are now into the party mood, a mood that Bobby isn’t, and then I’m there in that sacred circle of his, within distance of a whisper to his ear, which is pierced with a small fleck of gold, a very delicate piece of metal, almost not even there, and I turn toward him and look at the stubble on his face, seeing the small black hairs poking out of his translucent skin, as my knees shake, and I light a cigarette for myself, feeling my hands shaking as well as the silver lighter rises to my face.  Then as the flame shoots up I see him looking at me, knowing I’m there next to him.

One of his hands, ringless, comes up and pulls his shades down slightly so that I can see the very color of his eyes, which are blue like mine, cold blue but with the greatest depths of the ocean, swimming with electric eels and rays, as his mouth opens slightly and behind it I can see his famous tongue ready to strike.

“You want me to fuck you, is that it?” he says so matter of fact that I’m startled and feel my legs begin to wobble on my heels.

“What?” I say, not believing this, and I don’t even look back.  I take a quick drag of my cigarette then toss it to the floor where my boot heel catches it and grounds it into the linoleum.  When I do look back at him once, I feel I’ve turned to salt, like my skin has dried out and is flaking off in chunks, and already he’s pulled the shades up again, over his eyes, so there’s just the blackness of my own reflection looking back at me, my hair newly blonde, my lips radiantly red, but I feel this little quiver in my heart that shakes it, that gets it off beat, and I turn to the door at once and walk until I’m opening it.  I step into the hallway which is as black as his sunglasses, blinding me with blackness, until my eyes adjust to that light and I see that I’m there behind the stage curtain where a half dozen empty beer bottles litter the floor and the ropes for the curtains hang thick and tangled, where the wires from the microphones all run together to a big black box that is plugged into the wall near the exit sign that has the “it” burned out of it, so only “ex” lights up in red, pointing the way.

When I open that door I can hear the sound of traffic, the roar and grind of engines, and I can smell the exhaust of diesel fumes from the trucks.  The air is cold, and in the distance I hear a siren winding itself through traffic, worming its way into the chambers of my heart.  It’s a music of its own, that sound, a music that you taste many nights of your life, that sits there on your tongue, like the taste of metal, toxic, that has somehow leaked into your blood.

Originally published in Cimmaron Review

BROTHERS

The cars hadn’t been moving too good. It was a lousy year.  It usually didn’t get this cold in Missouri, but one of those odd fronts had moved in, making it miserable.  Luke turned out the lights to his office.  He pulled the plug on the neon sign that hung across the lot.  He didn’t feel like going home yet.  He hated closing shop early, but there was no sense staying open when you knew no one was going to buy.  He was down, but at least he wasn’t as pathetic as his some of the other members of his family, like his brother Tommy.  He was better off than his sister Kathy; Jim was a little more financially secure, but he married money, which didn’t count. Jack was the one you could say had made it: forty thousand a year plus, and he didn’t have to do a lick of real work to get it.   All he did was give guitar lessons over at the university, make an album or two a year, and travel around to exotic places doing gigs.  A hard fucking life.

When Luke first got into the used car business it was a boom.  He thought Jack was crazy going to college, and crazy for practicing guitar all those years, day and day out, but now he saw he’d had a point.  Jack would probably become the president of the damned university before he was fin­ished, Luke thought.  He always acted so smooth, Jack did, like he was float­ing on air.  And he never had to get his hands dirty.

Luke decided to drive around town a while.  At least the heater in his car worked. Sometimes he liked going over to the university to watch the students.  He looked young for his age; most people thought he was a student.  It was hard to believe he was twenty-nine years old with three kids and a wife.  The kids were still in grade school, aged eleven to six.  Patty worked at the Savings and Loan then picked them up after school.  He was never sure what his hours were going to be. If it was a good day he might stay till nine or ten o’clock.  But if it looked like nothing was moving, he’d take off early.  He knew from experience that if they weren’t buying, there was nothing you could do about it.  He never went home before six though. He didn’t want her thinking he was goofing off.

When he got to the university he parked his car and put on his cap and gloves.  Students were walking around, going to classes.  He went over to the University Center and bought a newspaper and a cup of coffee.  The girl at the cash register was pretty.  She gave him a big smile as she dropped the change into his hand. If only he was about twenty-two, he thought.  When his father had found out Patty was pregnant, there was no decision to be made.  Two weeks later they were married: the biggest wedding the First Christian Church ever put on, and when the baby came, it was officially premature.  It was the right thing to do, getting married.  He never really doubted it. He still believed in God, even though he didn’t go to church anymore. His father still tried to get him to attend though.  “Didn’t see you and Patty at service Sunday,” he’d always say, no matter how long it’d been since they’d talked to each other.  Luke would usually just shake his head.  “We’ll try and make it next Sunday, Dad,’’ he’d say, but they never did.  Sometimes he thought he should go, to set an example for his kids, but the neighbors took them to Sunday school every week, so they were getting some religion, and Patty was always too tired to go anyway.  If she would, he would, but she was lazy the mornings she didn’t have to go to work.

After he finished the coffee he walked around campus.  His brother’s build­ing was there, and he passed it, imagining Jack in front of a classroom, talking to the students.  The good-looking coeds probably all had crushes on him.  Most of the windows had the shades drawn. In the few that were open he didn’t see anyone that looked like his brother.  In all the times he’d been to the univer­sity he’d never stopped to say hello to Jack.  He didn’t even know where his office was; he just had the building right.  You couldn’t miss it with the big Music Building on the side.

Luke walked for about an hour.  Most of the classes were letting out for the day.  He stepped inside the new Rec. Center where a few people were doing laps.  He had found an ID on the sidewalk at the beginning of the term and kept it.  There wasn’t a picture on it, and it was all the identification you needed to get in.  Sometimes he’d go take a sauna and a shower before going home.

Luke walked over to the edge of the indoor track and pretended to be stretching.  Then he reached down and tied his shoes.  There were a couple of attractive girls going around the track.  He watched the blonde bouncing each time her feet hit the carpet. Sometimes he wondered what would happen if he brought jogging shoes and started going around the track himself.  He imagined conversations he’d have with the coeds doing laps.

‘‘So, you own a car dealership,’’ they’d say to him after he told them what he did.

‘‘Sure,’’ he’d say.  ‘‘Why don’t you come over and check out the new Corvette I got in this morning.  We could take a little spin down to the Arch, go to a nice restaurant, then drive down to listen to some jazz along the river on one of the old steamboats,” he’d say.

He’d have to think of some excuse to tell Patty though.  He didn’t have any reason to go out of town.  The one excuse he planned if he ever did go jogging was to say a guy had come in with a great deal on a car in Chicago and that he was going to have to drive there that night to pick it up. He’d say the guy had shown him pictures of it and everything; there was just no other way of bringing it to St. Louis unless he went to get it.  Then he’d say that after he saw it, it turned out to be a dog.

Luke went to the counter and got a towel, leaving his wallet and keys at the desk.  A good-looking red head was working.  He walked into the locker room. It smelled like ammonia or bleach, as if they’d just cleaned the floor.  He stepped into the shower, then opened up the door to the steam room: hot air clouded out.  They kept the temperature high, but that was the way he liked it.  There was an older guy sitting inside. Probably a professor, he thought.

‘‘Hi,” Luke said. “Pretty hot in here, isn’t it?’’

“It’s hot all right,’’ the man said.  His skin was the color of a tomato.  His stomach hung halfway to his knees.

“Been in long?’’ Luke asked him.

“Long enough,” the man said.  “Getting out in one more minute though,” he said, wiping his face with a towel.

“What do you teach?” Luke asked him.

‘‘I’m a janitor,” the man said.  ‘‘Going on twenty-nine years.’’

“Congratulations,” Luke said, but he was glad when the old guy left.  He didn’t want to be in the steam room with someone who might keel over.  He didn’t think janitors were supposed to be using the facilities anyway.  Luke figured he was probably sneaking in, that he hadn’t punched out yet and was stealing a little free time.

Luke moved to a higher bench.  The steam was rolling.  After a couple of minutes he couldn’t see a thing.  Sweat was flowing from every pore, mak­ing his head light.  He thought of a carnival he and Jack went to years ago when he was about twelve years old.  It came flooding back to him: the popcorn-faced people, the cotton candy, the big moon-like eyes of the children, the smell of manure and gasoline and straw; the shouts of the carnies hawking from the booths: shooting games, dunking games, throwing games.  As he sat in the sauna he felt the steam of the calliope blasting out a tune that must have been seared into his brain, he remembered it so well. He could see stuffed animals hanging from the booths, giraffes, elephants, giant pandas, and green and yellow parrots; he and Jack waltzing through it all, spending their quarters trying to win cigarettes, tossing plastic hoops onto pop-bottles.  Then there was the tent with the big line of men standing waiting to get in; he and Jack ditched around back, Jack sliding in first.  Then Luke bent down, feeling the slick wet grass on his arms.  He got on his back, lifted up the tent flap and passed through, and when he opened his eyes he was in a forest of legs and black shoes, like crocodiles, stomping cigarette butts, and above their heads was smoke, drift­ing to the overhead lights that pointed at the stage. An odd music was snaking out from behind the curtain like something that might’ve come from Egypt, the whole room fidgety, shifting with men.

He and Jack pushed their way up.  It got quiet.  A woman in a white gown stepped out with bright yellow hair.  She had a black mole on her cheek and blue eyes that looked like turquoise stones had been plugged in her face.  Around her neck was a feathery thing slung to the floor. When it dropped, the gown slid off.  She was bulgy and white, a dangly gold cloth covering her top, and she strutted across the stage, turning this way and that, throwing her hands one way, then the other as the men began chanting “off with it, off with it till the room was a roar; the woman beaming, contorting her white fat rolls, then the gold thing went, showing the tits, big as squash, hanging to her mid­dle, with two red nipples, large as apples, blazing to the crowd.

She sat on a chair, slipped off her panties, and showed a yellow bush.  Her white legs slowly scissored apart, revealing a pink mouth that opened below the yellow patch, and the crowd hushed. Luke and Jack could feel their insides moving out.  They trembled on their legs.  They were scrunched together from the shoving in the room, and for a moment it was as if they were one person instead of two.

They never told their parents.  On the way back home they walked silently with the secret between them.  They felt they would always carry it, that it would somehow bind them together eternally.

Luke brushed the sweat off his stomach and felt his head with his palm.  He was burning from the steam; he slowly rose to his feet and opened the door.  The hot air swarmed over the cool, as he stuck his hand on the linoleum wall to steady himself.  He flipped on the shower: cold water gushing out. Then when he turned it off, it was quiet.  The sound of the metal locker opening echoed through the empty halls.  He put his clothes on and walked to the mir­ror.  His face was as red as the old janitor’s had been.  He combed his hair back, showing a receding hairline, then he pushed it back down over his fore­head.  After he dressed, he walked to the counter to get his things.  A new girl was working who wore her dark hair tied back with a bow.

‘‘What can I get you, sir?’’ she asked Luke.

‘‘Luke Smith,” he said, handing back his towel, so she looked up his name and gave back his things.

There was just one runner circling now: a skinny kid who looked like he could probably keep going around the track forever.  The blonde he’d been staring at earlier was gone.

When he got out of the building the sun was low and the wind had picked up, making the air even colder.  He walked to his car and fumbled in his pocket for the keys.  The car backfired a couple of times as he turned the key, then it began purring, blue smoke billowing out from the tail-pipe, clouding over the cobblestones.  He couldn’t get the music of the calliope out of his head, so he turned on the radio.  He wondered what made him think of all the things he thought of. Sometimes he wondered if he wasn’t crazy.

A group of bundled up girls walked by, talking and laughing, then they disappeared. Luke put the car in gear and pulled out as the light turned red.  When he got to the corner, he saw his brother’s white T-bird across from him, waiting in the other lane.  Jack was concentrating on the light. Luke turned his head the other way.  When the signal changed, he heard Jacks car honk at him, hut he pretended he didn’t hear it and kept looking toward the right.  Now he’d have to think of something to say to him the next time they were together, he thought as he got onto the highway. He’d make something up about an assistant professor in the English department who’d been thinking of buying his car, but couldn’t make it to the lot that day to look at it, so Luke brought it over for him to see.  The radio was turned up so loud, Luke hadn’t heard his brother honking at him at the light.  He had no idea Jack was even on campus that day, he’d tell him: if he had, he would’ve stopped by the office to say hi.

Originally published in Cimmaron Review

BROTHERS

The cars hadn’t been moving too good. It was a lousy year.  It usually didn’t get this cold in Missouri, but one of those odd fronts had moved in, making it miserable.  Luke turned out the lights to his office.  He pulled the plug on the neon sign that hung across the lot.  He didn’t feel like going home yet.  He hated closing shop early, but there was no sense staying open when you knew no one was going to buy.  He was down, but at least he wasn’t as pathetic as his some of the other members of his family, like his brother Tommy.  He was better off than his sister Kathy; Jim was a little more financially secure, but he married money, which didn’t count. Jack was the one you could say had made it: forty thousand a year plus, and he didn’t have to do a lick of real work to get it.   All he did was give guitar lessons over at the university, make an album or two a year, and travel around to exotic places doing gigs.  A hard fucking life.

When Luke first got into the used car business it was a boom.  He thought Jack was crazy going to college, and crazy for practicing guitar all those years, day and day out, but now he saw he’d had a point.  Jack would probably become the president of the damned university before he was fin­ished, Luke thought.  He always acted so smooth, Jack did, like he was float­ing on air.  And he never had to get his hands dirty.

Luke decided to drive around town a while.  At least the heater in his car worked. Sometimes he liked going over to the university to watch the students.  He looked young for his age; most people thought he was a student.  It was hard to believe he was twenty-nine years old with three kids and a wife.  The kids were still in grade school, aged eleven to six.  Patty worked at the Savings and Loan then picked them up after school.  He was never sure what his hours were going to be. If it was a good day he might stay till nine or ten o’clock.  But if it looked like nothing was moving, he’d take off early.  He knew from experience that if they weren’t buying, there was nothing you could do about it.  He never went home before six though. He didn’t want her thinking he was goofing off.

When he got to the university he parked his car and put on his cap and gloves.  Students were walking around, going to classes.  He went over to the University Center and bought a newspaper and a cup of coffee.  The girl at the cash register was pretty.  She gave him a big smile as she dropped the change into his hand. If only he was about twenty-two, he thought.  When his father had found out Patty was pregnant, there was no decision to be made.  Two weeks later they were married: the biggest wedding the First Christian Church ever put on, and when the baby came, it was officially premature.  It was the right thing to do, getting married.  He never really doubted it. He still believed in God, even though he didn’t go to church anymore. His father still tried to get him to attend though.  “Didn’t see you and Patty at service Sunday,” he’d always say, no matter how long it’d been since they’d talked to each other.  Luke would usually just shake his head.  “We’ll try and make it next Sunday, Dad,’’ he’d say, but they never did.  Sometimes he thought he should go, to set an example for his kids, but the neighbors took them to Sunday school every week, so they were getting some religion, and Patty was always too tired to go anyway.  If she would, he would, but she was lazy the mornings she didn’t have to go to work.

After he finished the coffee he walked around campus.  His brother’s build­ing was there, and he passed it, imagining Jack in front of a classroom, talking to the students.  The good-looking coeds probably all had crushes on him.  Most of the windows had the shades drawn. In the few that were open he didn’t see anyone that looked like his brother.  In all the times he’d been to the univer­sity he’d never stopped to say hello to Jack.  He didn’t even know where his office was; he just had the building right.  You couldn’t miss it with the big Music Building on the side.

Luke walked for about an hour.  Most of the classes were letting out for the day.  He stepped inside the new Rec. Center where a few people were doing laps.  He had found an ID on the sidewalk at the beginning of the term and kept it.  There wasn’t a picture on it, and it was all the identification you needed to get in.  Sometimes he’d go take a sauna and a shower before going home.

Luke walked over to the edge of the indoor track and pretended to be stretching.  Then he reached down and tied his shoes.  There were a couple of attractive girls going around the track.  He watched the blonde bouncing each time her feet hit the carpet. Sometimes he wondered what would happen if he brought jogging shoes and started going around the track himself.  He imagined conversations he’d have with the coeds doing laps.

‘‘So, you own a car dealership,’’ they’d say to him after he told them what he did.

‘‘Sure,’’ he’d say.  ‘‘Why don’t you come over and check out the new Corvette I got in this morning.  We could take a little spin down to the Arch, go to a nice restaurant, then drive down to listen to some jazz along the river on one of the old steamboats,” he’d say.

He’d have to think of some excuse to tell Patty though.  He didn’t have any reason to go out of town.  The one excuse he planned if he ever did go jogging was to say a guy had come in with a great deal on a car in Chicago and that he was going to have to drive there that night to pick it up. He’d say the guy had shown him pictures of it and everything; there was just no other way of bringing it to St. Louis unless he went to get it.  Then he’d say that after he saw it, it turned out to be a dog.

Luke went to the counter and got a towel, leaving his wallet and keys at the desk.  A good-looking red head was working.  He walked into the locker room. It smelled like ammonia or bleach, as if they’d just cleaned the floor.  He stepped into the shower, then opened up the door to the steam room: hot air clouded out.  They kept the temperature high, but that was the way he liked it.  There was an older guy sitting inside. Probably a professor, he thought.

‘‘Hi,” Luke said. “Pretty hot in here, isn’t it?’’

“It’s hot all right,’’ the man said.  His skin was the color of a tomato.  His stomach hung halfway to his knees.

“Been in long?’’ Luke asked him.

“Long enough,” the man said.  “Getting out in one more minute though,” he said, wiping his face with a towel.

“What do you teach?” Luke asked him.

‘‘I’m a janitor,” the man said.  ‘‘Going on twenty-nine years.’’

“Congratulations,” Luke said, but he was glad when the old guy left.  He didn’t want to be in the steam room with someone who might keel over.  He didn’t think janitors were supposed to be using the facilities anyway.  Luke figured he was probably sneaking in, that he hadn’t punched out yet and was stealing a little free time.

Luke moved to a higher bench.  The steam was rolling.  After a couple of minutes he couldn’t see a thing.  Sweat was flowing from every pore, mak­ing his head light.  He thought of a carnival he and Jack went to years ago when he was about twelve years old.  It came flooding back to him: the popcorn-faced people, the cotton candy, the big moon-like eyes of the children, the smell of manure and gasoline and straw; the shouts of the carnies hawking from the booths: shooting games, dunking games, throwing games.  As he sat in the sauna he felt the steam of the calliope blasting out a tune that must have been seared into his brain, he remembered it so well. He could see stuffed animals hanging from the booths, giraffes, elephants, giant pandas, and green and yellow parrots; he and Jack waltzing through it all, spending their quarters trying to win cigarettes, tossing plastic hoops onto pop-bottles.  Then there was the tent with the big line of men standing waiting to get in; he and Jack ditched around back, Jack sliding in first.  Then Luke bent down, feeling the slick wet grass on his arms.  He got on his back, lifted up the tent flap and passed through, and when he opened his eyes he was in a forest of legs and black shoes, like crocodiles, stomping cigarette butts, and above their heads was smoke, drift­ing to the overhead lights that pointed at the stage. An odd music was snaking out from behind the curtain like something that might’ve come from Egypt, the whole room fidgety, shifting with men.

He and Jack pushed their way up.  It got quiet.  A woman in a white gown stepped out with bright yellow hair.  She had a black mole on her cheek and blue eyes that looked like turquoise stones had been plugged in her face.  Around her neck was a feathery thing slung to the floor. When it dropped, the gown slid off.  She was bulgy and white, a dangly gold cloth covering her top, and she strutted across the stage, turning this way and that, throwing her hands one way, then the other as the men began chanting “off with it, off with it till the room was a roar; the woman beaming, contorting her white fat rolls, then the gold thing went, showing the tits, big as squash, hanging to her mid­dle, with two red nipples, large as apples, blazing to the crowd.

She sat on a chair, slipped off her panties, and showed a yellow bush.  Her white legs slowly scissored apart, revealing a pink mouth that opened below the yellow patch, and the crowd hushed. Luke and Jack could feel their insides moving out.  They trembled on their legs.  They were scrunched together from the shoving in the room, and for a moment it was as if they were one person instead of two.

They never told their parents.  On the way back home they walked silently with the secret between them.  They felt they would always carry it, that it would somehow bind them together eternally.

Luke brushed the sweat off his stomach and felt his head with his palm.  He was burning from the steam; he slowly rose to his feet and opened the door.  The hot air swarmed over the cool, as he stuck his hand on the linoleum wall to steady himself.  He flipped on the shower: cold water gushing out. Then when he turned it off, it was quiet.  The sound of the metal locker opening echoed through the empty halls.  He put his clothes on and walked to the mir­ror.  His face was as red as the old janitor’s had been.  He combed his hair back, showing a receding hairline, then he pushed it back down over his fore­head.  After he dressed, he walked to the counter to get his things.  A new girl was working who wore her dark hair tied back with a bow.

‘‘What can I get you, sir?’’ she asked Luke.

‘‘Luke Smith,” he said, handing back his towel, so she looked up his name and gave back his things.

There was just one runner circling now: a skinny kid who looked like he could probably keep going around the track forever.  The blonde he’d been staring at earlier was gone.

When he got out of the building the sun was low and the wind had picked up, making the air even colder.  He walked to his car and fumbled in his pocket for the keys.  The car backfired a couple of times as he turned the key, then it began purring, blue smoke billowing out from the tail-pipe, clouding over the cobblestones.  He couldn’t get the music of the calliope out of his head, so he turned on the radio.  He wondered what made him think of all the things he thought of. Sometimes he wondered if he wasn’t crazy.

A group of bundled up girls walked by, talking and laughing, then they disappeared. Luke put the car in gear and pulled out as the light turned red.  When he got to the corner, he saw his brother’s white T-bird across from him, waiting in the other lane.  Jack was concentrating on the light. Luke turned his head the other way.  When the signal changed, he heard Jacks car honk at him, hut he pretended he didn’t hear it and kept looking toward the right.  Now he’d have to think of something to say to him the next time they were together, he thought as he got onto the highway. He’d make something up about an assistant professor in the English department who’d been thinking of buying his car, but couldn’t make it to the lot that day to look at it, so Luke brought it over for him to see.  The radio was turned up so loud, Luke hadn’t heard his brother honking at him at the light.  He had no idea Jack was even on campus that day, he’d tell him: if he had, he would’ve stopped by the office to say hi.


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