Friday, January 20, 2012

(excerpt from "Before the Gates")

The Quick Car  

            The sun doesn’t set in Arizona.  It just hangs on the horizon, then fades through the spectrum till there’s black and blue everywhere.  I like to watch it.  Sometimes.  Not because it’s pretty or I like to paint, but because there’s really not much else in Arizona.  Outside my brother’s front door there’s just dirt and shrubs for miles, maybe a plateau here or there.  It’s a fun place.
            Tonight, I’m drinking. Close to what I did yesterday, except that today it’s a different brand of beer.  We were watching Stephen’s little black and white television inside the trailer all afternoon, but when the sun goes down it can’t get reception.  Besides, I think the Grammy’s are on tonight, and I can’t stand that nonsense.  Like a dog show with people. 
He mumbles something and rolls into the bedroom.  The door sort of drifts shut and quality time comes to an end.
            It’s cold outside, and hard to balance on the edge of the porch with one hand on the railing and the other holding the beer bottle you’re pissing into.  You don’t learn that from TV.  I’ve developed many talents since I moved here.  I can take the caps off with my teeth, too.  They clink when added to the pile on the other side of the porch.  Stephen says it’s a dumb thing to do, but he’s one to talk. 
One day I’m going to make something with the bottles.  I think I’ll seal these bottles of piss up, one at a time, and just line them off West from the front door.  The light should look beautiful reflecting off the brown glass in the shifting evening.  Like little people waiting for the exact moment the sun dies.  I can’t wait.
            There’s noise in the dark, quick, a shape on the higher ground like some stupid movie, dark with the moon behind it.  If Stephen had a gun.  I snort.  It looks at me then doesn’t move a hair. 
            It might say, “Brian, why are you pissing in a beer bottle off the front porch of your brother’s trailer in the desert?” 
If it had a voice, it would.
But it doesn’t.  Stephen’s passed out and the TV’s shot.  I sit with a wooden creak on the porch and stare at the shade of the animal pacing the rocky hill beneath the dirty, waning moon. 

            It was a quiet New London Wednesday.  The sun had come up.  The birds sang, but not terribly loud.  I was waiting on the steps in front of the apartment complex.  You could smell the ocean on the breeze.
Mark was late.  He usually wasn’t.  I sat smoking cigarettes and listening to the birds.  They were mockingbirds, and earlier in the year I’d taught them the only bird call I knew.  I’m not really sure what kind of bird made it originally, maybe a dove, but it was pretty and warbled.  The little things took it quick.  Just a little off at first, but they got better.  Today I wasn’t in the mood for practice, though.  I just sat and waited.
            Mark’s blue car turned the corner twenty minutes later.  The hood and trunk lid were primer grey.  White smoke coughed from the exhaust as the engine dropped out of gear.  Cheryl, his girlfriend, was driving.  She stopped coasting in front of me, the engine growled, and I climbed inside.
            “Sorry, how long have you been waiting?” she asked.
            “About thirty minutes longer than usual.  I’m only fifteen late by my watch.  No big deal.  Where’s Mark?”
            She bit her lip and stared at the road.  Her lips were really shiny this morning.
            “He had to go to the hospital.”
            “Is he alright?”
            “Depends on how you look at it,” she said.
            I rolled down my window and threw my cigarette butt out.  When she smiled her eyes were as bright as her lips.
            “Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
            “It is, Brian.  You might not even believe it.  There was blood: it was pretty nasty.  Mark caught his fly when he was getting dressed.  I’ve told him, I don’t know how many times, to wear boxers or something.  Does he?  No, not free-swinging, indestructible Mark.”
            “Jesus, that’s rough.”
            “Yeah, plus it blows my sex life for the next couple of months,” she said, putting her hand to her chest.  She sighed.  “I kind of feel responsible for it, too.  I told him it was cute once.  Once, and he’s done it ever since.”
            Cheryl stopped the car at a red light.  I reached over and turned the radio up.  One of Mark’s tapes played a Misfit’s song about killing one’s girlfriend.  It was lovely music.  Really.
            “So, is he at the hospital right now?”
            “Yeah, they fixed him up.  I just figured you were sitting out waiting for him, and thought I’d make sure you got to class on time.”
            She smiled at me kind of funny.
            “It’s just school, not like a job or anything real important.  I could miss a day.  I mean, Mark just tore his unit up.  I’m sure that has to be a good excuse.  I’d use it.”
            My stomach was growling.  I looked at it and half-way expected to see it move like on TV.  No such luck, though.
            “You’re hungry.  Aren’t you, Brian?”
            Cheryl was smiling a lot this morning.
            “Definitely.  I’ve been trying to metabolize nicotine, but I don’t think the old stomach’s satisfied,” I said.
            “Well, you’re already late.  Let’s go get a bite to eat.”
            She turned the car around in a sharp U-turn that made me grab the dash.  The Misfits had turned to singing “Halloween”.  I’d always liked that song, but it seemed out of place this early in the morning.  Cheryl pulled into a Burger King drive-through, and squeaked the tires at the sign with all the pictures.
            “May I take your order?” the box said.
            Cheryl looked over at me weird.
            “Just a second,” she said in a high voice.
            I looked over the menu.
            “I’m going to be a while, Cheryl.  Breakfast food always turns me off.  I don’t really know why.  It just seems like everything that people eat for breakfast is the kind of food I hate.  Like eggs, they’re just disgusting.  Who came up with the idea to fry chicken embryos?  And then, after they came up with that, who decided to put them on a croissant with a slice of pig ass?”
            “Don’t know, Brian.  Promise it wasn’t me.”
            Again with the smile, this time she ran her eyes up from the seat to meet mine.
            “Can I take your order?”
            Cheryl scowled at the speaker.
            “Wait just a minute, ok?  Jesus H. Christ.”
            “Uh,” the speaker coughed at us.  “Ok.  Just order when you’re ready.”
            I shook my head.
            “You shouldn’t talk to them like that, Cheryl.  They’ll spit in my food.”
            “Oh, a little spit won’t kill you.  Will it?”
            “They could have a disease.”
            “They could have the fucking plague, Brian.  That still doesn’t give them the right to be pushy.”
            She tapped me on the leg.  Just two pats, but it was a touch.  I looked at the menu.  Nothing seemed to really grab me.  I went ahead with a slice of pig ass on a croissant.  It seemed like it would at least go down easy.
            “Pushy, right.  Remind me of what we’re doing here?”
            “We’re getting you breakfast, duh…”
            She pushed her hair behind her ear.   It was short and light brown with blond streaks coming down the sides.  Her right eye winked.
            “Or not,” she said as she threw the car into gear and peeled out of the parking lot.
            I shook my head, and tried not to think of Mark at the hospital.  The car took a turn through several sharp residential intersections, and, making the block, hopped the curb back onto the main road.  Mark needed stitches and everything.  We passed by cars in both lanes.  This was his car.  She was weaving, taking hard rights here and there.  She knew all the one-way streets, I guess.
            A half-hour later we pulled out of another parking lot, deep in an industrial section of town that I would never see again.  Cheryl drove the speed limit.  I kept thinking about that croissant with the pig ass on it.  Now I was hungry.  We stopped at the gas station across the street from school for a pack of smokes.  Class wasn’t even on my mind, to tell the truth.  I wondered how Mark was, how he was doing.  She lit my cigarette for me, and handed it off slowly.  It smelled like summer flowers and tasted like strawberry lip-gloss.
            Cheryl told me to call her later, but to be discreet about it.  Mark was going to be down for a good week.  I stole a good stare before I got out of the car.  She had blue, blue-green eyes, and real firm tits.  She smelled good, too, even without the floral perfume.  I bet Mark would be hurting for a while, probably dead drunk the whole time.  She’ll be bored.
            He found out a week later.  It was scary.  There are few things in the world as dangerous as an impotent man. 
I was on my way home from school, about an hour walk without my ride.  His car came around the corner booming that same damn Misfits tape.  I didn’t know that he knew.  I kind of had a feeling when the car screeched up over the curb and into the grass. 
He jumped out with an aluminum baseball bat.  It was too late to run.  That bat was dark blue stars falling out of the sky.  The grass smelled like my neighbor’s dog.  I hated that dog.
            Mark didn’t say a word.  In fact, I’ve never heard him talk since that day, if he ever said anything at all.  I only saw him one more time.  It was outside of the Mall.  He was walking out with some friends of his.  I was limping up to the little blue button that opens the door.  He said something to his friends, and they all laughed.  But not at me, I know. 
Mark wouldn’t tell anyone about it, not even to brag.  He’s a thick-headed ape of a human being, but he’s consistent.  It would mess with his mind, to think too much.  They’re alike like that.  I hope they have kids.

            I wound up here in Arizona with Stephen and his beer.  I like to sit back and remember Cheryl bouncing up and down, the taste of her lip-gloss, the warmth of her breath on my chest, the sound of the fast-food speaker.  I don’t have a clue what I did the rest of that day.  It’s fuzzy.  Whether from the beer or what, I don’t know.  The government pays for Stephen’s pills and sends him a check for being special.  Not much, though. 
That’s where it goes.  It goes real far, too, if you stick to the bottom shelf.
Cheryl visited me in the hospital.  She brought me flowers, cried a little, and apologized a whole lot.  Her lips were really shiny.  Her jacket was red leather, and she got it wet.  Two dark lines of cheap mascara left the corners of her eyes like clown make-up.  That was it.  The room smelled like honeysuckle and latex for an hour afterwards. A vague undertone of leather.  I never saw her again.

            I throw the bottle in the dirt towards the damn thing.  It moves a little then, eyes me, stepping sideways with a paw hanging in the air.
            It’s going to move.  I step into the yard and wave my arms like in the movies.  It just stares and sits there, even as I start running toward it and screaming till my voice breaks. 
Like the moon you never see move: it does.  Then it’s somewhere else.  I kick dust and rocks, stomp my feet.  I can taste the dust.  My chest heaves in and out.  Sweat cools on my forehead, teeth cold in the air.
            It moves those paws, then.  It knows it better.

(Before the Gates available on

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