Compost, circa 2010

Hal was right, it did smell like urine in the crammed garage that was filled with tools, old car parts and the half-built engine currently in question. He stood with his head cocked sideways at me. “I’m going to give you one more chance. Did you piss on my engine? Because engines aren’t known to piss themselves.” For a moment I thought he was making some sort of joke, but the wrinkles running from behind his flared nostrils to the corners of his downturned mouth told otherwise.

“Why would anyone pee on an engine?” I thought it was a reasonable question.

“You tell me, Ben. Why would you pee on my engine?” He shook his head turned his back to me, surveying the wall covered with tools hanging from hooks and nails. “Same reason you’re always screwing with me. And you know what—” He turned to stare at me again. “I get that. Boys your age aren’t known to like their stepfathers. What’s the problem here is that you’re lying about it. And that you’re always lying about what you done.” He shook his head and laughed without smiling. “Clean this shit up before dinner.” He went through the side door of the shop, slamming it as he went.

“Clean this shit up before dinner,” I mimicked, grimacing the way he did at me. I wound through the old parts and stationary tools, looking for shop towels. A roll was on top of his table-saw. I grabbed them and went back to the engine, tearing off sheets and laying them down on top of the puddle. Bucket, our housecat, came in from underneath the almost closed garage door.

“Well, well, well.” I clucked my tongue softly and he came running over. I bent to pet him. “You just got me in some real trouble, you little bastard.” He stopped purring and licked my hand. Sometimes I think he can understand me. “Why did you piss on the engine?” He purred again.

Hal always had a car or two he was working on outside of his “baby,” as he called it. A white Camaro he’d worked on and perfected for years that he only took out when the weather was good. Most of the time he rode his motorcycle. The best thing about Hal was his collection of motorcycles, both dirt and road bikes. On certain days when I wasn’t doing chores or in school, I’d rip around his property on the smaller off-road ones. I stood staring at all the vehicles lined up, shining chrome and slick paint smooth as mirrors, reflections glinting in the half-light of a single light bulb dangling from a chain.

I put some more towels down on the puddle and then used a shovel to pick them up and throw them away in the large aluminum garbage can outside. The summer air was cool but not cold, and I took in a few deep breaths before going inside the single level white farmhouse. Hal was in the living room, watching television and eating from a plate in his lap. “Food’s on the table,” he muttered, not looking away. “Eat and then go to bed.”

The kitchen was clean and bare, hardly anything on the counters and only two chairs at the small round table. A pot with hamburger and pasta in it was sitting on an oven mitt in the middle of the table. I took a plate from the cupboard and spooned some of the mixture onto it. It smelled cheap and old, leftovers from the night before. I pushed it off my plate back into the pot and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. After I was done I felt my chin and the sides of my face. They were only slightly rough, but I shaved anyway. I’d heard that shaving made facial hair come in quicker.

When I got under my sheets they were soft and cool. I’d had them for years, plain blue cotton that was beginning to wear through in places. My real dad had given them to me for Christmas when I was eight. I heard Hal go into his bedroom and cough for a while. I laid in bed for a long time, turning from one side onto the other, occasionally flipping over my pillow to feel the cool side against my razor-burned face. I kept touching the sheets, thinking about my dad, smelling them, hoping they still might smell like him after so many years. Hugging the sheets to me, I couldn’t help it. My eyes started watering, and I tried to stop because I didn’t want Hal to hear me, but nothing I could do would make it go away.

When I was finished I sat up in bed and felt an angry sort of emptiness in my chest, like someone was pulling all of the air out of me. I hated Hal and I hated that stupid engine, that stupid Camaro, that stupid hamburger and pasta dinner he had made. Quietly I got up and tiptoed from my room, down the hallway and out the door. I went into the shop and over to the Camaro, flipping open the gas tank. I unscrewed the cap as noiselessly as possible and unzipped my blue jeans. The metal was cold against me as I relieved myself into the tank.

Once back in my bed, I smiled in the dark, but the smile didn’t feel real. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. I was lying there wondering if I could somehow siphon everything out of the tank and put new gas in it when I heard my mom get home. Her hospital shifts ended late most nights. She went into Hal’s bedroom and almost inaudibly I heard them whispering to each other. A while later she knocked softly on my door. I pretended to be asleep.

“Ben? Are you awake?” I didn’t answer her but she came in anyway and sat on the edge of my bed. She smelled sterile and clean, like a hospital room. “Ben,” she repeated, touching my shoulder. I opened my eyes and sat up. “Ben, Hal told me what happened.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I said loudly, hoping Hal would hear.

“Then how did it happen if you didn’t do it?” Her voice remained soft.

“Maybe it was Bucket,” I said quieter. “He always pees on stuff.”

“So you didn’t do it? You promise me?” She put her hand on my shoulder.

“Why would I do something like that?” I was glad I couldn’t see her eyes. I wouldn’t have been able to look at them if I had.

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I believe you though.” She bent forward and hugged me. She had two kinds of hugs, quick hello or goodbye hugs, and longer ones, when I think she was trying to say something without talking. “You’re a good kid, you understand that?” I couldn’t reply. “Do you want to come with me into town tomorrow? I have to do some shopping.”

“Yeah, that sounds okay.” It sounded boring actually, but Hal would probably be taking his Camaro out the next day and I didn’t want to be around when he tried to start it.

“Goodnight then. Get some sleep, I love you.” She let go and stood up.

“Goodnight, Mom.” My voice cracked a little bit, but I don’t think she heard. When she was gone I pulled my knees up into my chest and started sort of gasping. My heart was pounding and my head was filled with static. A good kid, I kept hearing her say over and over again. What would she say tomorrow? Why had I peed in Hal’s gas tank?

I tried to calm down for a long time but couldn’t. Eventually I thought of Hal, and the small glass of whiskey he had with dinner every night. Once again I tiptoed out of my room and down the hallway to the kitchen. It still smelled like hamburger. I climbed on top of the counter and opened the cupboard above the refrigerator. Several tall bottles were in it, and I removed the closest one. Still standing on the counter, I uncorked the top and took a mouthful of it. It tasted so awful I almost spit it back out, but fear of what would happen if I did made me swallow it down. I coughed into my elbow for a minute or so before carefully putting the bottle back exactly where it was before.

It didn’t take long before I started feeling warm and the emptiness in my chest went away. I went outside and laid in the front yard for a while, looking up at the stars. I thought about the time I’d accidentally crashed through the fence into the yard on a motorcycle when I was still learning how to ride. I started laughing a little bit. Thinking some more, I got up and went into the shed. Hal’s motorcycle was leaning near the far wall, all plain black and chrome, large and intimidating but still somehow elegant. I took its key from a hook near the door and stuck it in the ignition. If you only clicked it partially forward, just the lights turned on. I nudged the kickstand up and slowly, quietly, backed it out of the side door. It was heavy, and I nearly let it fall over a few times as I pushed it down the long driveway to the main road.

When I got there, I swung my leg up and over the seat. I twisted the key all the way in the ignition and it came to life like a dragon might. Its deep roar echoed up through me. For a moment I just sat there, feeling the hugeness of it underneath me and imagining it to purr, just like Bucket. My blood felt like fire, and I put it in first gear and took off. I kept going faster and faster down the road, it was straight for miles, nothing but farmland. I felt a drop hit my face, then another and another. I looked upward but the sky was clear, the stars glinting brighter than any reflection off a car. It was raining, but there were no clouds. The water felt bright and cold on my face and arms, and I howled along with the motorcycle. I never wanted to leave that road, feeling hot inside and cool outside, the wind trying to pull my hair and oversized clothes off me, yelling into the clear night where no one could see me and no one could hear me, not ever.

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These Words Would Be In Kindergarten By Now

You’ll always have certain feelings about the decisions you make—sadness, anger, happiness, maybe just satisfaction—but the one constant will always be regret. You’ll forever regret any call you make to some degree, because a decision is the elimination of possibilities. And that feeling of regret, that’s your imagination mourning the death of all those other things your life could have become, the death of innumerable other realities that were once close enough you could nearly touch them, but never did.

____________________

She looked at me

with her night eyes.

She said

You seem different.

Different than what,

I asked.

What’s different?

She shrugged with one shoulder

smiled with half her mouth.

Yeah, I shrugged back.

You’re probably right.

____________________

My knee went out three times in a week.

The last one hurt the worst—

I was pouring concrete

back at work too soon.

Covered in that muck

doubled up on the summer ground

Wasn’t until I popped it back

That I could make a sound of any kind.

The doctor went in and patched me up.

Nice guy.

It cost me twenty thousand dollars.

He gave me some scripts for the road though

boy did I make use of those.

Laid out for weeks on her sofa

Sweating, drinking, popping.

She faded in and out of the apartment

on her two good legs.

From the sofa, I missed those legs

Too fragile and fucked for funny business.

We stopped shortly after summer did

Or rather, after our summers did.

Brawling and crying like people do.

Those summer pills did the trick though

I still don’t feel a thing.

____________________

Dim lights and tall, tall ceilings

The marble floors looked like a strange ocean

And all our shoes were going for a swim.

They said the train was pulling in soon

Any minute now, they said.

I watched a little boy try to eat an apple

but his mouth was too small

His mother, in black, stared at her feet

at her black boots.

Swimming.

I wondered where the train was taking them

but it didn’t matter.

The point was that it was coming any minute.

____________________

I turned nineteen on a Greek Island

A little town of whitewash,

splashed against a hill

Ready made for tourists

Who went just to believe

such places really existed

to believe maybe someday

they’d be the kind of person

who lived there.

Tom and I went

Because it was between us and Turkey

And we were in a hurry.

I turned nineteen in a small Greek bar

that smelled like sex and decay

We had stayed there late enough

only the locals were left

But they knew who we were

They knew what we were

So Tom and I bought each other drinks

and a bottle of ouzo for the walk home

I remember being mad at the tourists

The silly fucks

It’s too bad

we were identical

____________________

It was ten p.m. when she finally called me back

A complete day and a half later.

I could hear the Friday night in her voice,

her sickening excitement

with dangerous people

with anything new.

What’re you doing, she drawled

Comeoutttt

I was drinking on my roof.

but that’s neither here nor there—

I was neither here nor there

it didn’t matter who she called

she was calling for the sake of calling

to appear to have people to call.

It was ten fifteen when she called again

I dropped my phone off the side of the building

Somehow it still kept ringing.

____________________

I went to the top again

The glass elevator lifting

Me waiting

It was only five stories

The same ones I always passed

The weather would not allow

For me to observe the world

Until I hit the top

And there I found nothing

Nothing new, at least.

Concrete and wind, silence.

I watched the cars below

The countless drivers

On their weekendly grind

Not minding

Just driving.

I wished I was with them

I wished I was moving

From the parking garage

Where things only come

To stand perfectly still.

____________________

The slow dripping

Of old rain

Like a ticker tape

Reading out lost thought.

Shadows pull other shadows in

In a place where darkness laughs at itself.

Abandoned spider webs

Maybe they forgot to pay rent

Maybe their lease was up

More likely, though

They’re just dead

Or at least divorced.

____________________

I remember that I met you in the morning

I still see your dark hair sometimes

Flecked with light through the tiny rain caught there

I remember I wanted to touch you, touch the drops

To pull the sky away from your shining head

To examine it closely, to look at the water

What would I have seen there?

Could I have divined our strange, broken future?

Could I have seen you walking away

In the same light mist I found you in?

It seems unlikely now, years later

But I think I still should have tried

Even if for nothing than to see the gray sun

Distorted, reflected and refracted,

clear.

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The Bachelors- Rough Draft

I ask Dad why I cant’t come too, I’ve been to Avery’s Place before. In the daytime though, for lunch. We’d gone there for lunch because they had hamburgers that don’t cost very much, for the happy hours. Once I asked why they were called happy. He said, because you don’t spend that much money and that makes people happy. He was going to Avery’s Place tonight, even though the happy hours were over. Earlier I asked him why he would go when he had to spend more money, and he said him and Craig had dates with girls. A double date, he said. I didn’t like Craig very much, even though Dad said I should. Craig was giving us a place to live, because Gramma didn’t want us to live with her anymore. That was only sort of true, though, because Gramma wanted me to live with her, just not Dad. Dad would never tell my why though. He said she was getting old, and her mind was starting to go. When I asked him where her mind was going he just laughed.

“But why can’t I come?” I ask him again.

“We’re doing adult stuff tonight, bubba.” I always like it when he calls me bubba.

“I can be like an adult,” I tell him. “Look.” I stand up straighter and try to pull in my eyebrows and turn my mouth upside down like he does. Craig laughs.

“Little man, you can’t come for at least another decade or so. Nothin’ personal.” I don’t like Craig very much.

“Look,” Dad says, getting on his knees. “Here’s fifteen bucks. The pizza boy will be here in twenty minutes. He’s going to say it costs thirteen ninety-nine, but you give him all the money here.”

“For a tip!” I learned about tips three days ago from Margaret, who worked during the happy hours at Avery’s Place.

“Yeah, bubba, for a tip.” Dad smiles at me then looks at Craig. “See how smart the boy is?”

“Smart as all hell. Nothin’ like his pops.” Craig laughs and I give him my adult face. But then Dad laughs too and I guess things are okay. When he stops laughing he goes over to the T.V. and puts it on the comedy channel.

“Get your laughs in, eat your pizza, we’ll be back after you’re asleep.” He smiles for a second at the T.V. and then goes over to the door. “Don’t answer the door for anyone put the pizza boy, you hear?”

“No one but the pizza boy.” I wanted to tell him the pizza boy never was actually a boy. It was the same person every time, and if I was a boy, he was definitely not. He could probably go to Avery’s Place tonight. I can never remember his name, because he’s always called the pizza boy. I hear the lock make a clicking sound and Craig say something while they walk away. I sit down on the couch and grab the remote.

The couch is made out of the same cloth as my bear, with lines that stick out. I always hide my bear under my pillow, because I think Craig would make fun of me if he saw it. But sometimes, I like to lie down on the couch and hug it, pretending it’s a big bear, like a real sized one, even if it does smell like old things that stay in the closet for too long. Me and Dad sleep on the couch. It’s called a hideaway, which makes sense because most of the time you can’t tell it’s a couch. But then it pulls out to make a bed too, sort of like a Transformer.

I don’t think whatever it is that’s on the comedy channel is very funny, so I put it on the cartoon channel. But it’s not funny either. I always forget that at night they put on cartoons for adults, that aren’t really as funny as regular cartoons. They’re so much uglier. I’m flipping through the channels when the doorbell rings. I walk over to the door, but before I open it, I remember Dad’s warning. So I pull a chair over to stand on and see through the little round door-window, but the chair isn’t tall enough. Or I’m not tall enough, I’m not sure. So I just yell. “Do you have pizza?”

“Uh… Yeah dude, didn’t you guys order one? Ben, is that you? Where’s your dad?” I know he must be the pizza boy, or guy, because we know each other. He knows we live at Craig’s house, I mean. And I know what his voice sounds like, sort of a bee buzzing slowly, or a saw cutting wood. I open the door.

“He’s at Avery’s Place. Him and Craig had a doubled date. He gave me fifteen dollars for you. Here.” I hand him the money. He looks at it, then looks at me. He hands me the pizza and glances above me, into the house. I’m afraid he’s going to ask to come in, but he doesn’t.

“Does Mellie know you’re home alone?” Mellie is Gramma’s real name. I don’t know if she knows I’m home alone though, and I tell him that. “Well… when are they coming back? Ken and Craig?” Ken is Dad’s real name. I don’t think about him or Gramma as Ken or Mellie though. It seems weird.

“They’re coming back when I’m asleep. But can you keep a secret?” I use my library voice to ask. He nods. “I think I’ll eat some pizza and then pretend to be asleep, so they’ll come back sooner.” He looks at me funny, sort of like how Dad looks, except instead of his eyebrows pulling in, they kind of pull out and down.

“I hope it works, pal.” He looks at the money in his hand for a second, then looks back at me. Then he makes this weird coughing noise and says, “It’s a good plan. Go to sleep soon, okay Ben?”

“Okay,” I say and wink at him. He closes the door and then yells from outside.

“Make sure to lock it.”

“I know,” I yell back. “Dad already told me.” I sit down on the couch and pull one of the slices from the box. It’s really hot, so I just set it back down on top of the box and watch steam come off it, like a hot tub or spaghetti water in a pot. When it seems cool enough to eat I grab it again, still changing the channels. I like to play this game where I change the channels really fast and see if I can understand what’s going on in every show all at the same time. Sometimes I think it works. I call the game “God,” because Gramma told me God knows about everything that’s going on. She sort of looked at me weird when I told her about my game though, and said no one should try to play God. I’ve heard that somewhere else, but I’m not sure where. Gramma says a lot of good stuff though, one of my favorites is what she told me when I took a chocolate from the store and the man who works there caught me. Gramma brought me home and she said,

“Ben, your life is like a book. You can always start a new chapter.” I think she said that because I was sort of crying. I like that idea a lot, because when things go wrong I can start a new chapter and forget about what just happened. I think about that now, and think maybe it’s time to start a new chapter. But I don’t want to waste them, and if I started a new chapter every time Dad left I think I might run out of them too soon. Books never have enough chapters.

I keep thinking about books and chapters and why Dad is at Avery’s Place during the unhappy hours, and the entire time I keep playing God. It’s really hard playing God though, and I get tired. When I remember my plan about being asleep so they come back, I’m happy about how tired I am and lay down on the hideaway and pretend it’s a big bear. I pretend it’s hugging me until I can’t remember thinking about anything anymore.

When I wake up, someone is hitting the door and I tell the pizza boy he already gave us our pizza. Then I hear Gramma’s voice coming from outside. So I get up and unlock it for her, she’s not a stranger or the pizza boy. “B,” she says and picks me up. “B.”

“Gramma.” She puts my head on her shoulder and she smells like laundry and soap and cigarettes, she smells like the kind of perfume that never smells sweet or like fruit. She smells like home. She puts me in the car and we drive to her house, where I have a really great bed, not a hideaway, even if it doesn’t seem like my bear or a Transformer. She puts me in it and tucks me in. I always untuck myself after she leaves, because the sheets feel too tight, but I always let her because her hands feel nice.

It seems like I only have my eyes closed a few seconds before I hear Dad talking loudly. I can’t even sit up in bed before he comes into the room and grabs me. His hands always feel different at night, like they forgot who I was before they touched me. Suddenly we’re in his car and he’s yelling into his phone, the same things over and over again, like bitch, and not your responsibility, and if you ever do that again I’ll. He’s yelling so loud I can’t go back to sleep, so I watch while his headlights tag one side of the street before we slide a little and they touch the other side. Back and forth they keep going, and his old truck isn’t even as loud as he is. For a second I think we might be playing bumper cars, but I know that can’t be right.

When we get home he’s stopped yelling. I watch the headlights creep up the side of Craig’s house like they’re ghosts. He says quietly to me that it’s time to go inside. I tell him I want to be in our old bed, that the hideaway feels like metal mouth trying to eat me. He says it’s too bad, we have to take what we can get. I remind him we can get better, we just drove away from better, and he grabs me again with his night hands and says, “We’re going in now to go to sleep, and we’re going to be grateful for any goddamn bed at all.”

I know better than to argue with him when he has his night hands, so I say, “Okay,” and we go inside. When we lay down on the folded out hideaway all I can think about is fresh laundry and soap and cigarettes, and the kind of perfume that never smells sweet or like fruit. But it smells like old pizza and something sour here. This place never smells like home. I wanted to tell him he should never have gone to the unhappy hours. Or maybe I had gone to the unhappy hours, I’m not sure.

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Something About Horses

“A straight trifecta,” Corey said. “Damn near no one wins a straight trifecta.”

“With my last two dollars, too,” I reminded him as we walked over to the winner’s circle. The first place horse was stepping around quickly, nostrils still flaring from the race. I kept an eye on the board to see how much I’d won. Corey saw me looking.

“You might get a hundred off that. The odds were eleven to one on Number Two. Maybe even one-fifty.” But when the numbers did come up, I’d only won sixty-eight dollars. “Still,” Corey shook his head. “Off a two-dollar bet? Can’t complain there.”

“My last two dollars,” I reminded him.

“Rounds are on you, man. You know the rules.”

“Rounds are on me,” I agreed as we walked back inside. “Karen going to want one?”

“Dunno.” Corey shrugged. “Ask her. Probably.” When I had the beers we sat down. “You gonna see the lady tonight?” Corey sipped his drink.

“I’m not sure. She’s supposed to call me when she gets off work.”

“I love that girl,” Karen told me. “You’re lucky.”

“I am lucky. Lucky guy. Especially when it comes to horse races.” I leafed through the program. “Speaking of, how’re you liking Tex Mex on this one?”

“I don’t know why you don’t bring her out here.” Corey ignored my question. “We always have a good time out here.”

“She works Saturdays,” I told him. “Listen, Tex Mex is my man on this one.” Karen sighed and excused herself to the restroom. Corey looked at her then back at me.

“Well, invite her out for a drink with us when she’s off. We’ll all go out, double date kind of thing.”

“She hasn’t been drinking the last few days.”

“Why?” Corey raised an eyebrow at me. I looked out the window, then back at Corey again.

“She’s late,” I said quieter. “She’s worried.”

“Shit.” Corey raised both eyebrows. “How late?”

“Late enough to be worried. And worried enough for me to be worried.” We sat for a few minutes drinking our beer. Karen came back from the restroom. “I’m putting ten on Tex Mex to win.” I said as I got up and walked over to the cage. I glanced back and saw Corey talking into Karen’s ear. “Shit,” I muttered. The woman behind the till started and looked up at me. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so silently I took my ticket and went to sit back down. Karen looked anxious.

“Has she taken a test? Or seen a doctor? It’s good she isn’t drinking.”

“I’m supposed to pick up a test for her on my way home tonight. “ I finished my beer. “Let’s go outside. Race starts in three minutes.” The rest of the way out to the finish line Karen pecked me with questions while I lit a cigarette. Has this happened to Jane before, how late has she been and still been fine, did she forget to take her pill, to all of which I answered “I’m not sure.” And I wasn’t. Jane and I rarely talked about that sort of thing.

Finally the race started and Karen quieted down. “And that’s Freddy Jr. in the lead,” the announcer’s voice cracked through the outdoor speakers, “with Jameson in second and Tex Mex in third, coming in close…” He continued on, but I was paying closer attention to the board displaying the places. Tex Mex took second around the bend. I pulled my coat tighter around me, the wind biting through my clothing.
“Come on, come on.” I couldn’t help clenching my jaw. “I need this…”

“Freddy Jr. and Tex Mex vying for the lead, Jameson in third with Yours Truly behind…” The announcer kept talking but the horses were close enough to see now. Tex Mex and Freddy Jr. were too close to tell still, tied all the way until they were crossing the line in front of us. It could’ve gone either way.

“Damn.” Corey grabbed my shoulder. “Think you might have miffed that one.”
“Wait for the photo finish.” I kept my eyes on the display.

“And that’s Tex Mex in first, Freddy Jr. in second, Yours Truly in third, and Jameson in fourth, folks…”

“Damn,” Corey repeated. “Guess I was wrong. Congrats, man. Odds were against you on that, you should be proud.”

“Yeah,” Karen echoed. “Congrats.”

“Thanks. Both of you. Another round, then?” I looked at Corey, who looked at Karen, who shrugged. Corey shrugged back.

“Sure, why not?”

“You got it,” I said dragging my cigarette. “Be in once I finish this.” They nodded and walked back in. The sun was setting behind the stables, silhouetting the horses black against a pink and gold sky. A few clouds traced the horizon, bright as the sun illuminating them. I saw the outline of a man crouching next to a small shape on the ground near one of the stables. Then the shape slowly began to move and stood slowly and feebly on its thin, knobby legs. It was a foal. I didn’t know they kept baby horses at the track. It didn’t make any sense that it was there. It didn’t belong there. As I stood watching, it gained more confidence and began to walk around, livelier and livelier, almost dancing. I coughed on my cigarette and put it out. I looked at it for one last moment, then went inside.

Corey looked at me strangely and asked me if I was okay when I went back in. I told him I’d gotten some smoke in my eyes and then went to get the last round. I leaned on the bar, but it was sticky with spilled beer and smelled stale. I noticed that the floor was sticky as well, with little pieces of napkin or other garbage sticking to it. Everywhere men with bags under their eyes stood watching screens or drinking from plastic cups. I looked in the mirror behind the bar and saw the bags under my own eyes. When the bartender brought the beers I paid and walked back to our table.

“Took you long enough.” Smiling, Corey grabbed two cups and handed one to Karen. Then he looked at me more seriously. “So what are you going to do?”

“About what?” I asked him.

“About Jane.”

“About Jane. Good question.”

“You know,” Karen came in, “We don’t mind stopping by a store on our way home. You could pick up a test. When is she off work?”

“I’m not sure. Seven or so?”

“Seriously. We don’t mind. And we understand—Corey and I have been through this before too.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll get home fine on my own though.”

“Well… If you say so.” Corey got his coat on. Karen looked at me with something like suspicion.

“I’ll call Jane tonight. See if I can help her at all.”

“She’d like that.” I sipped my drink. We exchanged goodbyes and they left. I walked over to the bar and took a seat near the end. When the bartender came over I told him I wanted a whiskey and asked him how late he was open.

“Till about ten or so, depending on the crowd. Why?”

“No reason. That’s good.” I paid him and he began to walk away. “Hey one more thing—” I said. He turned around again. “I could’ve sworn I saw a foal out there earlier. Do they bring foals out here?”

“Sometimes owners like to bring them out. Not sure why. I think it might be to get them used to the track from an early age. I dunno for sure though.”

“That’s not right.” I looked down at my drink.

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“They shouldn’t have babies here. This isn’t a place for young things.” I didn’t like the idea of something new to the world exposed to this.

“If you say so, guy.” He turned and continued to the register. I sort of mumbled under my breath. “What’s that?” He turned toward me again.

“Nothing,” I told him. “Something about horses.”

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Culpability

After he hit the deer he stopped and got out to look for damage. The left headlight was smashed, but even at night he knew the road well and could get home safely. He was about to get back in when the carcass made a small noise. When he walked over he found the animal was still alive. One of its eyes was completely red and blood was trickling down its head and from its mouth. Still, its flanks irregularly rose and fell, shuddering slightly. The animal couldn’t be far from dead.

He stared into its good eye for a while and felt sure it was looking back. He’d expected its eyes to be rolling around in death throes, but they had a strange calm. He wondered if the animal was in pain. The only sound it made was a quiet wheezing as it breathed. He didn’t know whether to kill the animal or simply let it die. How would he even kill it? Snap its neck somehow? Perhaps backing his truck over it again would be the quickest, but the thought of flattening its skull make him nauseous. He had a small pocketknife, he could possibly sever an artery. But then again, it might die on its own. He’d already doomed the animal through accident, but didn’t want to actively finish the deed.

Finally he just crouched next to the animal, patting its heaving sides. It was apparent that the animal was going to survive for quite some time yet, but he knew he wouldn’t have to wait long. It was one of the busier backroads, and he kept his eye on the curve leading to where they were, waiting. After a few more minutes he saw headlights approaching and walked back to his truck. When he was sure they wouldn’t turn off the road before they got to the animal, he started his engine and continued on his way home.

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The Seeds

The mornings were cold and we could only see ten or fifteen yards through the fog. We’d roll up our tents with our belongings inside them and stow them in the ten-man van, pile in and then drive to the new work site that day. Some days they gave us coffee, other days only a bagel. We could wait till lunch time, they said. When we arrived we were sent down different rows of trees, but every row was the same—Doug Fir after Doug Fir. We harvested thousands of pinecones each day. We’d grab a few bags, a jar of Vaseline, rubber gloves, and a bucket with a hook on the handle, to hang it from branches. There were a couple of lifts in the crew, big mechanical ones you see repairing phone lines, and if you were lucky you worked one of those for the day. If not, you took a ladder—at twenty feet long, they were heavy and awkward, but we’d lug them out a mile going up a row and then back again. We usually started our first trees around six thirty, the sun coming up over the hills and melting the sap, making the pinecones sticky little pods.

The crew bosses called the guys from south of the border “The Amigos,” but really what they were calling them was the spics, and everyone knew it, especially the amigos. They all took it pretty well though, they seemed to just let it slide off them, not caring what they were called. I tried talking to the amigos in my broken Spanish and they were fairly receptive. I couldn’t stand talking to the good old white boys, all they ever talked about was tits and racecars.

One day a few good old boys were operating a lift near Juan and I when it started to make some strange noises, then suddenly dropped like a paperweight toward the ground. I thought it was going to take Juan and his ladder out, but it passed within a breath of him. And Juan, he reaches out and grabs a guy with one arm, while holding onto a tree branch at the same time. His ladder swayed like a drunk, but he held on and I jumped down off mine and ran over to steady his. They both got down okay, but the other guy in the lift broke his leg when it crashed, screaming through clenched teeth, and had a cracked rib on top of that. Me and the other good old boy walked him back to camp and a boss drove him off to the nearest hospital, an hour away. We put bets down on whether or not he whimpered the whole drive or just passed out.

When I got back to my ladder I asked Juan why he’d helped the good old boy, the kid was as racist as the rest of them. They just repeat fathers, he told me. They don’t know what they say.

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Familiar Movements

Jack and Calvin swayed out of Mickey’s, screaming with laughter and hanging on to one another for support like human crutches, though neither was in any state to be holding up the other. Kurt remained more composed.

“Then she was all like—” Jack said, tears running from his eyes.

“ ‘Bobby, Bobby where are you going?’ ” finished Calvin in a shrill voice, mimicking a girl. Jack leaned against a wall, laughing so hard he needed support. Somewhere beneath the giggling, he sighed in relief at the night air. Maybe the best argument for bars is breathing in the stale stench of booze only to better appreciate being released from it. Kurt, on the other hand, was flagging down a taxi. When he landed one he ushered the other two into the backseat, handing them a couple ten-dollar bills and said, “If you two get us 86’d out of one more bar, we’re not going out together anymore. Here’s enough to get you both home.” Their laughter became more controlled, less of a howl. “And Jack,” he continued, his face half pity and half longing, “Make sure he doesn’t spend it on booze.” Kurt shut the door, sighed, and began looking for a taxi of his own.

Inside theirs, Jack and Calvin had finally calmed down from their fit of hysteria.

“What is he, my effing father?” asked Calvin. “Besides, you’re the one he should be worried about.”

“Awful nice of him to pay for you two like that,” said the driver over his shoulder.

“He only does it to show off his shiny new salary,” Calvin replied. “He was an awful lot nicer when he was on our level.”

“So where’m I going?” asked the driver.

“That’s not fair,” Jack said to Calvin. “Yeah, he used to be cooler, but I don’t think he’s showing off.”

“Fellas—” began the driver.

“Bullshit!” Calvin cut in. “Fucker’s rubbing his wallet in our faces.”

“So I’m just gonna start driving,” said the driver.

“Sorry!” Jack almost yelled it. “I’m in southwest, southwest. 24th and… 24th and… shit, where do I live
again?”

Calvin helped him. “24th and Taylor, you dumb piece of—”

“24th and Taylor! That’s right.” Jack again nearly shouted at the driver, as if he’d found some buried treasure.

Dink-dink, dink-dink went the turning signal as they pulled out into traffic. Jack closed his eyes for a moment to the signal’s metronome, imagining music that could accompany it. The laughter had apparently sapped all the energy out of them. His head lulled to the side with his imaginary turning signal song and came to rest against the window. It was peaceful there—cool from the outside night air and the glass filtered the city’s sounds into a soft medley, an unintentional serenade.

He opened his eyes just in time to see they were passing The Matador. “Stop!” he yelled. “What’s the meter at?”

The driver swung over to the curb and answered, “Seven twenty-five. We’ll call it seven even.”

“Seven even! I like you, guy.” Jack fished one of the tens from Kurt out of his pocket and handed it to the driver. “We’re getting out here,” he said to Calvin, who was half asleep.

“We’re at the Matador. Two-fifty for well drinks, we got a ten left.” Jack tugged at Calvin’s collar and Calvin slowly followed him out onto the sidewalk. Still pulling Calvin along behind him like a disobedient dog, Jack rammed his head into the doorframe of the bar. Immediately he let go of Calvin and held his head, hoping that the bartender hadn’t seen. They got inside, and because all the tables and booths were taken, they sat at the bar. There happened to be only two seats open there, as if the place had been waiting for them.

“What’re you having?” Jack asked Calvin, one hand still cradling his stinging head.

“Water.”

“Bullshit you are. You can chase your vodka with water.” He ordered vodka for both of them, a water for Calvin, a Sprite and bitters for himself. The bartender served them and Calvin downed his glass of water in one go.

“Good God, that feels good,” he said as he put the glass down and gestured at the bartender for a refill. “So,” he said, “here we are.”

Jack was half glad and half disappointed to see he was sobering up. “Yeah, here we fucking are.” Jack wished the “we” was constituent of different company than Calvin. Not that he disliked Calvin, he just would rather be with her. Or maybe, he thought, I just don’t want to be me, being here.

“I cannot,” he began, “I just cannot believe we’re both twenty five, have college degrees, and this is still what we do.”

Calvin probably meant to sound sympathetic, but it didn’t come out right. “What did you expect? I bet the guy who drove us here was an English major. If you don’t want to be a teacher, you’ll have to make do with being a bum.”

“It’s not that I can’t teach,” replied Jack. “It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll forget I ever wanted to be a writer if I do anything other than write. I can deal with being a bum.”

“Only because you’re obsessed with Bukowski.”

“Not true! That was a phase. These days, I can’t put down Didion.”

“So,” started Calvin, who neither knew nor cared who that was, “Why don’t you just write? Putting words on a page seems hardly difficult compared to what I do. Not that majoring in goddamn Art History was any smarter.”

“Nothing we did was smart.” Jack paused. “Well, the course work was smart. We’re smart, sure. But our mistake was pursuing a degree purely for knowledge. We majored in what we love, instead of what we can use. There’s a huge difference.” He hiccuped and gagged on the smell of his own breath. “If we’d been business majors we’d be in the same amount of debt right now, but at least we’d have jobs.”

Calvin’s face clenched up slightly and he took a little longer than normal to blink. “Yeah. Let’s be honest, man. We’re fucked. We’re not good enough at what we do to make it a living, but we love it too much to do anything else. We. Are. Fucked.” Calvin shook his head. “Kurt was smart. Kurt made the distinction. He did what we should have done, put aside what he loved and pursued something useful.” He laughed and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if what you loved and what was useful were the same thing?”

Jack perked up a little. “Writing is useful. It is. I’m in it because I love it, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s useful.”

“Well then, fucker, where’s your book?” Calvin laughed as he asked the question. Jack ignored his derisive attitude. He thought for a while, then tried to give Calvin solemn look.

“It’s not that simple. I think—not that I would really know—but I think the problem with writing,” he said in a slow voice, buying himself time to think, “is taking opposing thoughts and making them work together.” He sipped his drink for a second, eyes searching the shelves of bottles facing them. “Like I dunno, having a simple concept, for instance, should be paired with complexity of thought.” Jack had some difficulty enunciating. “Speaking to the point is important, but embellishing a point can be really beautiful too. I mean, the reader shouldn’t understand everything perfectly, right? But confusing them will only make them angry. So, I guess what a writer has to do is make sense out of nonsense. Draw lines where—hic—where there were only dots. Take this huge and, and—and bizarre experience of life and dilute it down to something digestible.” Jack squinted and wrinkled his nose. “Kind of like a mama bird.”

“Wh…wait, what?” asked Calvin, incredulous.

“I just mean—it’s like being a mama bird, right? Taking things in, digesting them, then spitting them back out in a form that others can eat.”

“Oh.” replied Calvin. “I guess that makes sense. Kinda. Ask me tomorrow,” he said laughing, “when I can think straight.”

“I will.” Jack wrote the thought down on his napkin and handed it to Calvin. “Just not in person. With any luck, I won’t even remember coming here.” What he wanted to say but didn’t was, “You never think straight. Neither of us do. It’s too scary.”

“Oh God,” said Calvin, looking at Jack’s note. “Even if I can think straight tomorrow I won’t be able to read this.” He laughed. “Your writing looks like a chicken scratching its feet around.”

“Fuck off.” Jack laughed too, but wasn’t sure why. “So,” Jack began, trying to pick up the threads of their original conversation, “If we’re educated, jobless, and yeah, kind of hopeless, what are we?”

“What kind of mind-fuck are you trying to pull on me?” Calvin’s question was smiled. He played with the napkin note, sighed. “At best, we’re just people. At worst, we’re monsters.”

Jack looked down into his glass. He was suspicious of their conversation sliding into some kind of amateur existentialism. It wouldn’t be surprising. Countless times near the ends of their nights out, Calvin swung wildly from intoxicated and joyful to just plain drunk, depressed, and confused. Sighing, Jack waited for Calvin to speak up, looking at the bartender’s hair as it followed her around in a billowing, wavy brown cloud as she leaned over here, bent there, whisked away drinks and spun back and forth from the wall of bottles to the line of red-eyed men.

“I just—” Calvin started up suddenly, choking a bit. “I just don’t know what I’m doing. Do you?” Jack could only shrug in response. “I mean, hell, what is life?”

“What is life?” Jack wanted to hit him. “What is life? What kind of dumbass question is that? Life is easy to define. Life is having a beating heart supplied by oxygen that you breathe. Find someone who can tell me what life is about, that’s the real goddamn question.”

“You know what I meant.” Calvin seemed hurt. They were quiet for a moment. Jack thought for a while about Calvin’s question before he shook his head and went on.

“That’s what always got me about those religious bastards. They’re lazy. They take the easy way out, believing thousand year old farces that make them feel like they’re finally meant for something. But listen—” Jack turned sideways in his stool to look at Calvin head-on. “Fucking listen—the true fighters, the true champions, they work toward meaning on their own, without any cop-out bullshit like God or salvation to keep them going. I mean, is it so terrible to think that life has no intrinsic meaning? That like anything else, it’s worth as much the price you put on it?” Jack lost his steam and decided it was time to drink the vodka that Kurt had inadvertently paid for. Calvin wasn’t sure what to say.

“You make it sound like life is an item to be sold,” Calvin asked. Jack was coughing and squinting due to the drink he’d just taken, and pounded on the bar with a fist at the same time.

“NO.” he bellowed through coughs. “No. You don’t know what I mean. Put this in concepts you can understand, it’s like a painting. How much is a painting worth?”

“I dunno,” said Calvin, almost afraid. “Depends on the work.”

“No it goddamn doesn’t.” Jack was frustrated. “It depends on the price tag. A painting is worth as much as the artist says it’s worth. If life is a painting, then how much a life means is what’s on the price tag.”

“Ooh, how capitalistic of you.” Calvin’s joking attitude was not lightening up Jack’s mood, who shook his head.

“Never fucking mind.” They looked away from each other.

“Last call!” the bartender yelled. Jack scanned around and recognized several faces, couldn’t recall any names. Nobody else was ordering last minute rounds, and he felt awkward about getting another drink himself. He avoided looking at Calvin.

“Look—” Calvin started, paused, and tried hard to continue, “I don’t mean to bag on what you’re saying. You make good points. It’s just that whatever you talk about, it’s always a safe distance from anything actually personal. I don’t think you’ve actually spoken to me directly once tonight.” Calvin looked at Jack, who didn’t seem to understand. “You avoid personal things to avoid her.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Jack was still confused.

“It’s been a long time, man,” Calvin said quietly. “You could have asked her to stay, and you know that. But you need to stop avoiding everything sooner or later.”

“Oh.” Jack immediately knew where this was going and automatically cringed internally as Calvin went on. He suddenly had no qualms about getting a last call round. He caught one of the eyes hidden under the wavy brown cloud of hair and pointed at his empty glass.

Calvin began, “Jack, listen, it’s just that ever since… well, shit, you know, you’ve been a bit unreachable. It’s been kinda like, I dunno, watching you on a screen or something. You know? Like I can hear you saying words, but you’re not actually in front of me.” Now the wavy brown cloud was setting down a glass in front of Jack. He downed it and tossed the remaining ten from Kurt on the bar. Calvin was looking at him like a bomb squad disarmer might look as if he’d just cut the wrong wire. Jack saw his expression out the corner of his eye.

“It has been a long time. Thanks for the night, guy.” Jack patted him on the back and walked out into the night, closing his eyes as he passed the threshold.

The night had cooled even more and Jack’s muscles contracted against the new cold. The air felt sharp and clean in his nostrils. He dug a beanie out of his pocket, pulled it roughly on his head, and began walking in the opposite direction of his house, going uphill. He heard Calvin shouting his name from outside the bar. He stopped and hesitated for a second, tilting back his head and looking at the sky. He turned around. Calvin was jogging up the sidewalk toward him. When he reached Jack, he had to catch his breath before saying anything.

“Jack, I didn’t mean to strike a nerve. We just miss you, man. Not that we don’t see you, because we do, but we miss you. We all miss you.”

Jack chewed the inside of his cheek before answering. “I miss you too. I miss everyone. But I don’t know what to tell you all the same. If I knew how to let go, I would’ve by now.” Jack’s throat constricted. Calvin looked at him suspiciously.

“Are you okay?”

“What do you think?” Jack was looking at the ground. “I’m gonna go.”

“Well,” Calvin’s suspicion was replaced with something like worry. “I can’t stop you.”

“Night, Cal.”

“Yeah… night, Jack.”

Boulder Park wasn’t easy to get to on foot, but Jack made the walk often so he could watch the sun come up over the city. For over an hour he walked, cold eating in through the toes of his shoes, his breath becoming more and more visible whenever he passed under a streetlamp. He stared at the pavement directly in front of him as he walked, feet not needing guidance. As he got close he kept an eye out for cops since the park wasn’t actually open yet. Entering it, he glanced around a few more times and jumped up into the lowest limbs of an oak tree. Upward he pulled himself, grabbing damp, mossy branches, leaves slapping his face, feet sliding a little in their holds. Finally he reached his branch, the best one for sitting in, with a wide diameter and slanting slightly downward into the trunk. He wrapped his legs around it and waited.

Calvin was right. It was a long time ago. She was a long time ago, but she seemed to be everywhere still. Anything could set him off—a familiar hand movement of a cashier, the brown hair of a bartender, rectangular glasses. And her smile, her smile invariably came to mind. Good God, her smile. He grinned himself, thinking about it. She smiled in halves, like the corner of her mouth was hugging her dimple, like she had to tighten her face to stop the light in her head from escaping. He could still remember those afternoons, in the basement of the old house on a mattress with no box spring. The summer air would bring in the smell of bread and it felt like the house was breathing. It was always hot and the sheets were usually crumpled around their feet. He’d let his head hang over the side of the bed to feel the stony cold of the floor. Sometimes piano music drifted in from down the street and he remembered thinking what a clear resonance his life had in those small instances.

Finally the sun came up, breaking over the hills in pale golden shafts of light, and as the rays began hitting him, he could feel his body warming, drying. When the shafts reached the small morning clouds it was as though the sun was giving birth to smaller, fluffier babies of the same brilliance. The downtown buildings were similarly reflected off of, becoming pillars of light. Everywhere where there had only been foggy darkness was now an entire city seemingly supported by the morning glow. Jesus, Jack thought, this is the best sunrise yet. But something was wrong.

He began sliding back down the tree, gaining momentum, only barely holding onto branches as he dropped past them and hit the ground running. He didn’t stop there; he ran hard and fast, ready. The city was empty, the streets were all his, and not the pain in his chest or the ache in his heels or the wind slapping his face slowed him down until he was home. Up he went three flights and into his apartment, immediately looking for the piece of paper. It was on his desk. In uneven lettering that didn’t look unlike a chicken scratching its feet around, the lone line at the top of the page read:

Dear Beth—

He started looking for a pen, rifling through the disarray of papers and books and dirty bowls that were covering his desk.

“Jesus Harold Christ,” he said out loud, “I gotta start cleaning up.” At last he saw a pen inappropriately housed in a coffee mug. Grabbing it and the piece of paper, he sat down. He began to continue the letter, but after a few lines he crumpled it up and threw it next to him. He found another blank page and leaned back in his chair for a second. Thinking, he stared out the window and saw the same sunrise illuminating everything more and more. He began again.

Beth—

Have you ever had a moment so beautiful it was all you could not to think about the one you love most? And then you realized they’re not there, and it somehow made the moment perverse? I have, and it’s really terrible. I think it’s time to let go, and let things start to be okay again. So, I’m sorry, but this is going to be my last letter to you.

J.

He thought for a second and then changed the last line to read:

So, I’m sorry, but this is going to be my last letter to you.

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