“Like what?” I look at the kitchen doorway, but Mom isn’t there.
I’ve lived with my mom for sixteen years, but I still can’t predict her words or actions. No one can. Mom was born a lefty, but my grandmother tried to make her right-handed. My grandmother’s attempt was among the first of many to change immutable things in my mom. They all failed. Mom mounts a hostile resistance to other people’s ideas of what’s right.
Andy and Mike sat at the ends of a table, boots in the air like planted flags. The table a plethora of bread dust and cheese crumbs. Roschachs of coffee and wine. Bored little pillars of salt. Service was over but the smell of it remained on the cloth. Andy and Mike finished their cigarettes. They watched over the restaurant like kings. Stock bubbled away. Waiters slept in the linen closet, burred into white sheets.
Mike and Andy didn’t talk. They stared at the walls. A single artist decorated the restaurant. The painter was sleeping with the Maître d. Their portraits were all of spherical blue people reclining. They filled the restaurant with Rubenesque Smurfs. Mike examined a tattoo of knife scars. Andy flexed his boot. Inside were blisters already filling up with blood. They smiled at one another. Smoke trails chained them to the chandeliers. They picked off shattered melon fragments from their faces and hair. They picked it’s hard dinosaur skin from their whites.
When the boy grew tired of pirate stories before bed, he asked me to tell him a rock n roll story.
But it’s gotta be a little bit scary, he added.
So I told him about Black Sabbath.
Once there were these four lads from jolly old England, I told him, his room dark but for the red flickering glow of a spaceship nightlight. Good blokes, hard working dudes all. They were playing the blues, playing that heavy rock n roll in a band called Earth. But they weren’t having much luck.
After a Saturday night gig somewhere out in the moors or the swamps or whatever they’re called over there—foggy, anyway—their van broke down at a crossroads in the dark, moonless hours of the morning.
Dang this, they said, or something similar but British. They were bummed right out. They thought about throwing in the towel on the whole music thing, going back and spending their lives in the factories, losing the rest of their limbs piece by bloody piece.
Katie’s elderly aunt slept in the sun while her dad recited Red Fox punchlines, trying but failing to keep his voice down, although the remainder of the partygoers, resentfully sober 7th Day Adventists, retreated from the heat into the house where a gray bearded man in rainbow suspenders twisted up a miniature zoo of balloon animals. I couldn’t tell if it was the beer, the sun, or the air of religious judgment, but I began to feel dizzy. I tasted metal. There was a buzzing in my ear and my head felt like it was full of cotton. I caught a whiff of hot maple syrup, then putrefying garbage, both from an unknown source. Katie’s dad’s topic of conversation shifted from Red Fox to Rudy Ray Moore. I excused myself from the table. I opened the sliding glass door and was hit in the face with a delicious gust of cool, dry air, as well as a burst of excited voices. Sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle, children squealed in delight as the balloon man manipulated his cache of multi-colored latex, while the adults focused on gossip. I located the bathroom, closed and locked the door, and splashed cold water on my face and neck. I rinsed my mouth with water from the bathroom faucet. I could hear the screams and laughter and electricity of the party on the other side of the door. I didn’t want to go back out there to all of those faces and mouths and teeth, all of those ears and eyes. I flicked off the light, sat with my back to the AC vent, and decided to take a nap. If they wanted me, they would have to come and get me.
This time, Mom got drunk first. In a pink cat-embroidered sweater, she delicately opened the Beefeater, like it was one of those antique music boxes. Dad watched from the doorway, grinning, flipping his mug in his hands, still pockmarked with paint from our chores yesterday. This was breakfast.
Hours later, she’s driving. We were off to the races today. She’s singing but it sounds like she gargled with gravel instead of Listerine. Her red nails clacked on the dashboard. Dad’s fumbling to light their cigarettes. It was a sunny day and the light cut hard into them.
To be honest, and I know you’re going to think me an apologist, but I didn’t mind them this way. I mean, was it healthy? Of course not. I will say this though – they made sure I was fed, read to, and had good shoes to wear. The drinking never hindered their jobs. They just liked to have a good time. Maybe a little too much, but it was days like this that they really let themselves go. If we were going to the races – they loved going to see the horses – then they were going to have gin instead of coffee, beer instead of apple juice.
I remember on this particular day that I wasn’t really enthusiastic about going though. The night before, they got me a Super Nintendo – I was the last kid in my class to have one and I was looking forward to finally playing some of the games they talked about. But, they said, I was still too young to be at home. I almost made the suggestion that I could stay at home and watch the alcohol for them, babysit the beer, made sure it didn’t run off somewhere. But I swallowed hard and said sure. They assured me we wouldn’t be gone too long. Just to the races. Just long enough to throw some money down.
Mom was usually the better drunk driver of the two, but today, something was amiss. She had swayed slightly on the turnpike and got honked at by a tractor trailer. Dad laughed the first time, but when she did it again a few miles later, he chastised her.
“Debbie,” he said, “quit driving like an idiot.”
She pouted slightly, held her cigarette like a dignitary. “No one’s driving like anything. I just want to get there.”
“The track will be there,” he said. “Let’s make sure WE get there.”
She huffed and looked in the rearview. “Sweetie, you good?”
I nodded. I was daydreaming about saving Zelda. I was doing the math on how many drinks they would be having at the track – the more they lost, the more they put down. I looked up and saw Mom still staring through the rearview.
“Fuck,” she said.
Dad turned. His open mouth spelled it out – red and blue lights. Not the first time, not the last time.
“Well, you’ve gone and done it now,” Dad said. “I should have driven, goddamn.”
“Stan,” Mom whispered.
“Pull over,” Dad said. “I’ll talk. You’re slurring like a goofball.”
The sun highlighted their faces and I remember thinking about how old they looked, how in the kitchen just an hour ago, they looked youthful, like they had just met at a school dance. But now there’s wrinkles, curves, spots where things like gin and bitters hide, and it made them look so alien – like they were a monster that couldn’t scare anyone or anything. They looked like old dogs that would hang out at gas stations and bake in the heat. It was sad. I remember that so well, and what happened next is something I could draw on any canvas with any instrument.
“Well, Stan,” she said, as the cop car whooped behind us.
“Oh, Jesus, don’t you even…”
“Wanna bet? We can make our own race.”
“Awh, hell, Debbie…” Dad smacked his face. The white paint was still on his knuckles, caught in his hairs. He couldn’t even wash his hands properly. But they always knew to make more ice. It’s weird – we notice the talents in people and they never notice it themselves.
“We’re only two miles away,” Mom said.
Dad sighed. He smoked his cigarette. He looked back at me.
“Hey. You know how you like going down hills in your Radio Flyer?”
Dad smacked his lips. “This is the Radio Flyer. And we’re going down together. You ready?”
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “Whatever you say.”
Mom took that as her cue. She sped down the road. The cop raced, too. Here we were – the two finest steeds of our time. Galloping. For glory and honor, for that sacred finish line, for the purse, one for the money. Two for the show. Not everyone can win. Mom clacked her nails on the dashboard some more and Dad sat, clutching his seatbelt, smoking away, like he had intentions on finishing the pack right then and there.
I know what you’re thinking – about me and them. I’m not going to say they were the best parents ever – far from. But they were mine. I had to hold onto that. There, in that spot, as a kid – I had no choice but to stay tethered. I wasn’t sure where else to go. I wouldn’t be sure for a while. Just had to accept it.
We picked up speed. It was such a gorgeous day. I pretended I was in my Radio Flyer, like Dad said. We glided past trees. I felt like I was going to win. I couldn’t think about anything else. I imagined my name in the newspaper – and the thought warmed me.
Kevin Richard White’s fiction has appeared in Hobart, Rejection Letters, X-R-A-Y and Hypertext among other places. He is a Flash Fiction Associate Editor at Barren Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia. His Twitter is @misterkrw.
We found your car in a ditch at 5 AM. Kevin’s truck illuminated your Saturn sedan covered in band stickers. Smoke leaked into the summer haze. The lights were off. Tire marks carved into the soggy earth. Auto liquids saturated the plush grass in burgundy. Kevin jolted out and bounded the hill, going No, no, no. Your door was stuck and dented inward. Your lifeless body slumped into the passenger seat. Your head smacked into the glass. Blood on the tan dash like mold on bread. Brown beer bottles all over the back seat. CD jewel cases busted and snapped on the floorboard. Lukewarm KFC chicken half-eaten in the cupholder. You know how laconic Kevin is, how much he can handle. When I heard his deep-throated scream, I fell to my knees. We knew that night it was on us, fuck. We didn’t hold you back. You always were an Aries.
I’m watching an old movie on my bed, holding my laptop close to my face to hear what the characters are saying.
It’s loud outside.
My apartment has no air conditioning or heat. But the weather is that breezy hardly-noticeable kind so my window is open and I can hear everything going on. The party down the block. The weekend traffic on Pacific Avenue. And the homeless man digging through the dumpster right outside my window.
Once a week he’s been doing this, since I moved in a month ago.
I know this because every time I hear him I have this fantasy.
A fantasy about getting up the guts to talk to him.
I will discover he is actually a genius and that he wrote the greatest L.A. novel of all time. But lost it in a house fire that also claimed his wife and children.
After the incineration (his words) he took to the streets and started garbage sifting– just as a form of therapy at first– but then discovered it to be the purest form of artistic expression. An art form that he would then pass on to me.
After getting paid, Goya drives to Walmart hoping to purchase a gun and spending an hour looking at guns and picking one out and filling out all the necessary paperwork and handing her background check to the clerk.
“So, it will take a week for the background check to process?” Goya asks the clerk.
The clerk turns the forms to read them, and he makes little reading sounds under his mustache, and his eyes go back and forth across the paper, and he breathes a deep breath in to his mouth and out through his nose.
“I can tell you right now that it probably won’t pass,” he says, turning the form around and pointing to a checked check box that reads, I have been diagnosed with a mental illness. “They cannot sell guns to people who have been diagnosed with certain mental illnesses.”
“Okay,” she says, taking the paper from him and walking through the parking lot to her car and driving down the highway and pulling into the parking lot of a different Walmart and filling out another background check without checking the box called, I have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
My eyes-wide are boring holes into this pallid glass of orange juice in front of me. I hear him -the pancake dude – but I cannot break my vision away. My drink has netted itself into tiny ripples, vibrating from the buzz of the restaurant. Tiny clumps of pulp bob up and down like buoys in salt-water sea.
There are waiters waiting for the old grey dying couple to choose their 2:00 PM dinner. Bus boys carrying plastic grey tubs of dirty melamine dishes into the sink sloshed around with soap, just to be slopped up again with eggs and sausage or chicken and waffles. His voice is a tiny speckle in the boisterous breakfast spot.
“So… was that a short stack?” I look up. Pancake Dude smiles, but he’s annoyed I haven’t answered him yet. Thick black dreads line the back of his scalp. His calm skin claims an innocent mind. He is older than me, but I have seen more than he ever has. I resent him for this.
“Just the 3 is fine.” Mom finally answers for me. Tight jawed. Furrowed brows. An almost convincing smile. “Let me put that right in for you, ok?” Pancake Dude takes our menus. Stephanie is sitting next to mom, twiddling her hair into her fingers. Around her thumbs, across the tops of her hands, and back again her brown curls move in the conveyor belt. We sit unspeaking in these unpleasant vinyl booths. I can’t believe they still make vinyl booths.
Now that I think about it, nobody has spoken to each other since last night. Mom is dancing with sideways glances, trying to catch a glimpse of sadness or tears on our faces. She won’t look us in the eyes though. She feels responsible. Which is and isn’t true.
I look up from the table and catch her staring at me. She clears her throat and pretends to look behind my head, at the clock on the far wall.
Hair into fingers, around her thumbs, across the tops of her hands, and back again.
Mom holds her cross pendant in the palm of her hand.
Breakfast tastes like sour milk and sugar. Nobody wants to go home.
Dad’s favorite song comes on as soon as Mom’s engine turns over. She slaps the radio dial mute with the heel of her hand. I think he was trying to reach out and pull her down into the speakers.
Mom turns to us and puts her finger up to her lips right before she lets us out of the car. “Don’t wake up your dad, ok? He’s sleeping upstairs.”
My breath instinctually becomes more shallow, quieter. I think maybe only I could hear the difference, but I wasn’t willing to take the chance. Steph and I slowly lower ourselves to the ground and unlace our sneakers with patience and precision. Socks stay on; bare feet squeak on linoleum floors. We become methodic in our movements. Don’t step on that floorboard, it creaks. Open the cupboard, but don’t let it slam. I even see mom gently placing her purse on the countertop. We are tiny, uneasy guests in our own house.
Aunt Joyce is already there when we get inside the house. She’s cast out any trace of evidence from the night before. Dad’s favorite chair is right side-up and back against the wall where it’s supposed to be. Our floor lamp is gone, but so is the broken base and shattered bulb. She even replaced the repugnant smell of Jack Daniels with Lysol, and a peppermint candle. Everything almost looks normal. It feels as sterile as a hospital, but it’s better.
The only thing Aunt Joyce didn’t manage to cover up was the immense gouge of freshly chipped paint and cracked gypsum board in the wall. I can hear the yelling and screaming again as I start to think about what happened. I stare at the dent in the wall until I don’t see a dent anymore.
Mom makes us dinner as usual, and Steph and I watch Nickelodeon after, as usual. The white dent seems to have eyes. It twists and turns in my peripheral vision. Morphing into a disfigured face; something foul and unearthly. I don’t think Steph can see it, but I know it’s there.
Aunt Joyce is helping mom clean up in the kitchen. I can hear their whispers over “Legends Of The Hidden Temple”, and the sound of plates being put into the dishwasher. They are being too loud.
“Are you sure you and the kids are safe here, Lisa?” “Yes, of course. He’s their father. This has never happened before.” Which, of course, is and isn’t true.
Tip toe up the stairs. Brush teeth. Put on clean pajamas.
Mom folds the sheet and blankets underneath my mattress the way I like. Usually being strapped in snug is nice, but tonight it feels like a cage. She smiles at me and kisses me goodnight, but lingers on the bed for a bit.
I close my eyes, turn to the side and feign sleep. There has been so much silence today in rooms full of people. I don’t want to spend another single minute like that. Mom leaves. I stare at the glow-in-the dark planets on my wall.
I reach out to touch them and trace the stars.
I think about the dent.
The door creaks, and light spills into my room. The noise immediately wakes me up, but I do not move. I don’t move. Don’t move don’t move don’t move.
His breathing is so heavy, and loud. Careless, clumsy footsteps approach my bed. My eyes are shut so tight. I try to relax them so he won’t notice, but I can’t help it.
“Hey bud, are you awake?” I smell the bite of alcohol from his breath as he stands over me. It burns my nose, but I don’t move. If I don’t move he won’t know I’m awake.
He ruffles my hair, hapless and sloppy. Tries to shake me awake. I don’t want to be touched. I know what he did and I know who he really is. I want him away so I can sleep. My head screams. My body screams.
“Jack?” Mom calls him from the master bedroom.
Dad stands over my bed for another minute before leaving. I think he’s looking at the planets. We look at the planets together, apart. I don’t notice him and he doesn’t remember me there anymore.
I think of my mother.
The taste of sour milk.
I feel the dent with every step he takes away.
Ryan Westmoreland loves reading, artisan cheeses, and napping. Her work has previously been published in The Tiny Journal & Beyond Words Magazine. Find her at twitter.com/reeltuffcookie
Didn’t much matter where we ended up because it was always the same faces doing the same things with the same people and the same perspectives. Not much happens when nothings going on.
(practice in dialogue and realism just to make sure we could still do it). Tony asked what Callie’s favorite star was. Unprecedented conversation.
“Star Wars?” Callie said.
“No, just Star.”
“I don’t know any stars.” “You don’t know any stars? Of course you know stars.”
“Name one star I know.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay,” he repeated.
“So the sun’s not your favorite star?”
“No, the sun’s not my favorite star.”
“Then what’s your favorite star?”
“I don’t know I haven’t really thought of any of them. The North star? I don’t know that’s a stupid question.”
“Of course it’s a stupid question.” He paused to let that sink in before bringing the conversation back to his answer. “The sun is my favorite star.”
“It keeps us alive. All the other stars don’t even really matter.”
There were three other conversations happening around the table, one staying true to the well-worn subject of Star Wars and which was and wasn’t the favorite films from the series. While nothing of any substance could ultimately be added to the exploration of fandom, it was a conversation that would continue until the end of the universe despite, recycled for as long as the medium of film continued to exist (and maybe even past that). Someone tried to interject themselves into Callie and Tony’s conversation, but came up stopping short.
“If all other stars don’t matter, then why did you ask the question?” Callie asked.
“I wanted to see what your answer would be.” Tony said.
“Well of course it’s the sun now that you explain it. What am I supposed to say? The one my Dad bought my Mom for Christmas?”
“Your Dad bought a Mom a Star for Christmas?” Mikaela asked. (interjection interstitial).
“We all did. It was a family gift.”
Eventually the conversations would collide upon Garrett asking Tony what his favorite Star Wars film was. Someone handed around a plate of cocaine. Kyle did a bump and handed it to me. One in each nostril just to make sure it worked. Later we played some house music. Kyle played three or four tracks and then Garrett played about the same and then I played a few more than that and then Kyle played again for a long while, maybe an hour. I played once again later, but only after Kyle came and got me and told me to.
Fourth of July was coming up and someone offered the idea of the group of us camping instead of staying in town like we’d already been doing for weeks on end. The same thing we did every day. It didn’t need to be special, but living at the beach might just end up making the day worse. A series of differing opinions, but ultimately group consensus decided the best thing to do would be to do what we were already doing, either Tony’s house or Kyle’s house or maybe the beach.
The party ended around midnight. It would be just about the same again.
KKUURRTT is the author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.