Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

Poems by Jessie Janeshek

 

Lowe Township, Part Eight

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Time has left the diner alone as far as you can tell. The TV’s still muted, the barstools still creak. For fifty cents you can still have your fortune read by the electronic machine out in the lobby: Squeeze the Joystick and Let Genie Read Your Fortune. As a kid, you found the harder you squeezed, the better your fortune turned out to be. Decade-old fingerprints still blacken the menus. For all you know, the fingerprints are yours. Really, time has left the diner alone—until you open the menu and find that most of the prices have been scratched-out and rewritten by hand. Pen marks have turned “2’s” into “3’s”, “7’s” into “8’s.” Your eyes scan the fine print above the “Breakfast Specials” to see if the complimentary coffee is still included. It is. But in even finer print below the fine print, the words “Maximum: Two” have been scribbled by an unsteady hand.

The waitress reappears, neck jumping, arms jiggling. Still the same after all these years. Like the TV and the barstool and the fortunetelling machine. Time has stood still.

Do you know what you want yet, honeys?

You order the Township Special, no meat, double home fries, and Phillip orders the same with no home fries, double meat.

I’ll be riiiight back with that coffee, the waitress says. Jumping, jiggling. Phillip waits for her to disappear into the kitchen, then wags a finger in your face.

Now you take it easy with that coffee, he says. One sip at a time. Every sip counts.

Phillip Dombrowski, still the same after all these years. Now and then, when time stands still, a good thing can actually become better.

Two cups.

Two fucking cups!

It’s almost as crazy as the metered parking down at Centennial Park, which apparently costs a dollar an hour now. You wonder out loud if Mr. Dewitt paid the parking meter when he’d take Samantha into the front seat of his car to fuck her after softball practice. What was she, seventeen then?

Phillip tugs at his pale blonde moustache, still unconvinced the rumor’s true.

But it is, you insist. Too widespread, no contradictions. Multiple eyewitness accounts. It would have made local headlines soon enough—High School Softball Coach Scores Real Homerun—if Dewitt hadn’t already lost his job for showing up drunk all the time.

The waitress returns with your coffee and sets the saucers down on the table.

First of two, Phillip says.

Excuse me?

First of two. We only get two.

Oh! Yes, there is a limit of two, but—the waitress stops, peers over her shoulder—I’ll get you honeys as much as you want as long as no one’s looking. She butters the end of her sentence with a wink and a smirk.

Phillip lifts his coffee, pinky delicately outstretched. Cheers, he says. Cheers, you say, and coffee leaps carelessly out of the cups onto the placemats.

… to the kind of woman who knows that the rules only apply when someone’s watching.

Mr. DeWitt would be proud, you say.

Phillip shakes his head. Too fat, he says. He remembers: Lunchroom, fourth period, sophomore year. Mr. DeWitt was smiling—no, grinning—under that pencil-perfect goatee of his. See those girls over there? Look at them eat. He blew out his cheeks and went cross-eyed and shoveled one, two, three imaginary forkfuls into his mouth. They try so hard to keep up with the hot girls at track practice. When they run they look like fat little turkeys and I laugh at them behind their backs.

He actually said that?

Actually.

You can’t remember exactly what he called the kids struggling to pass his class—Fucking dummies? Dumbass fuckers?—but what you do remember is the way the corners of his mouth curled up as if aroused when he said it. At the time, none of it seemed wrong because Mr. DeWitt was in fact a good teacher who, on the surface, had everything a small town hero could ask for: Cleverness, athleticism, good looks. Good-looking wife, too. You remember her from a picture on his desk standing arm-in-arm at a Yankees game dressed in matching jerseys wearing matching caps eating matching hotdogs.

Yeah, but that guy has a dark side outside the classroom, Mr. Wilson mentioned in passing. Give him two drinks, that guy becomes a nut.

Wilson and DeWitt were teacher-pals, maybe real-life best friends, but something about Wilson’s remark that day stuck with you. The way he rolled his eyes. The way he sounded like he was beginning to get fed up with something.

… I don’t know, maybe the Samantha rumor is true, Phillip says. The hair above his upper lip is more of a toy for him than a mustache. I remember—

All riiight, honeys, the waitress interrupts. She sets down your plates with a graceless clank and says she’ll be riiight back with some more coffee. Wink, smirk. Jumpjiggle.  

You poke the scrambled eggs, stab the plastic home fries. Apparently, time has passed in the kitchen, too. Phillip inspects his lukewarm meat, says he could have done better with a microwave. But you’re hungry and the food’s not as bad as it looks, though the picture on the menu looks nothing like the real thing.

… you know, at least DeWitt never bragged about drinking to seem cool. Do you remember in French class when—?

Phillip nods his head before you finish. Because who wouldn’t remember Mrs. Guenet’s story about blacking out at a college party and waking up the next morning half-naked under a bridge? Murray, Wilson, Adams. The list goes on. You run out of fingers trying to count the number of teachers who voluntarily stopped teaching in the middle of class to share nostalgic stories of their own drunken stupidity. Not just stories, but recommendations for the future too: No, that beer is piss-water. No, that wine’s too sweet. At the time, the stories were exciting and daring and baffled the prudes in class with wide-eyed wonder, but at this point in your life, you can only wonder: Why?

To get their students to respect them as real people, Phillip says. Duh. All the teachers you just named are idiots. You never heard diFranco or Suzuki talking about getting drunk. The only thing that teachers like Guenet or Politti had going for them was a shot at being cool.

By the end of a year with Politti you’d learned nothing about sociology and everything about her hubby—yes, hubby—who had several important business trips to … what’s that country that’s sort of like Africa? With all the beautiful mosaics? Morocco? Yes, Morocco! That’s it! But Ms. Politti? Yes? Morocco is in Africa. Oh? Oh!

that is not the problem with this town!

An enormous man at the bar slams his fist down on the counter. Beside him, a second enormous man gazes with strained, squinty eyes into the muted TV screen where a news reporter stands outside an old blue door.

Phillip nudges you, pointing at the screen. Is that … ?

The camera shifts point of view to a hallway packed with high school students, then to a close-up interview of a dark-skinned teenager with a nose ring and dreadlocks.

Now that is the problem with this town!

Blocking his enormous mouth with his enormous hand, the enormous man whispers into his enormous friend’s ear. Again an enormous fist comes down on the counter, this time accompanied by enormous phlegmy laughter.

The principal’s face appears on the muted TV screen, mid-interview. She shakes her head Yes, definitely, then No, definitely not, before her mouth abruptly stops moving and she looks like a stumped game show contestant. Her eyes float away from the camera, balloons set free into the air. Her blank eyes blink as her head shakes left to right and the balloons burst into nothingness: No, no, most definitely not.

The camera jumps to a stock image of a school uniform superimposed over a question mark. One by one, bullet points materialize next to the image. You’re too far from the screen to make out the words, but you get the gist. The camera jumps again, this time to a list of test scores. An imaginary marker draws a big red ring around something at the bottom of the list.

Look at that, the enormous man says. Kids in this town can’t even do basic math no more! He pulls out a toothpick from behind his ear and violently works at the notches in his grey-yellow teeth.

His enormous friend raises his enormous hand and calls over the waitress, asking for the check. The men look at each other and their faces become boy-faces, excitable and naughty. Like the dog-kicker, Phillip says. The dog kicker, the nameless kid in elementary school who loved kicking his dog.

Will that be all for you honeys today? the waitress asks, hovering at their tableside.

That’s a great perfume you got on, the enormous friend says.

My perfume? Oh! Thank you, it’s my favorite. An uncertain grin appears on her face, then disappears; appears, disappears.

… so will that be all for you honeys today?

You get our hopes up when you call us that, the enormous man says. He looks at his friend and they laugh together, turning her powder-red cheeks redder. She looks down to hide her flickering grin and burrows through her apron for the check. Grinning, not grinning, grinning, not grinning; jumping, jumpjiggling.

Poor lady, Phillip says. As she passes your table she morphs her grin into the smirk that signifies more coffee, but there’s no turning off the color in her cheeks—or the jumpjiggling.

More coffee? she asks.

I think we’re okay, you say. Phillip nods, and she takes away your dirty dishes, sets down the check. Your eyes follow the enormous men’s eyes following the waitress into the kitchen. The spectacle of her jumpjiggling from behind gets them jumpgiggling.

Back to the lunchroom, fourth period, sophomore year: Look, says Dewitt. He points with his finger and your eyes follow. Dana Minto, jumpjiggling from behind, walks from the lunch table to the garbage can and dumps a greasy cardboard tray into the garbage. See? Fat little turkey.

—damn good turkey!

The enormous man shoves a final piece of meat into his mouth, then indulgently sucks the grease off his fingers. So whadda we got here, eight and six? he says, lifting up the check. That’s fifteen for the two of us.

Fourteen.

Fourteen? The enormous man opens his enormous hand, using his enormous fingers to count.

… thirteen, fourteen—oh, fifteen. You’re right!

The enormous man’s friend counts his money, twice to be sure, then tosses the stack of bills onto the table. He glances up at the clock on the wall. It’s broken, and if you remember correctly, it always has been. He shakes his head and rolls up his sleeve and checks his wristwatch instead: Noon and he’s got to get going. The clock on the wall says half past seven, a stagnant seven stuck still.

I’ll be dead before they fix that thing!

He starts to lift himself out of his seat, slow and heavy like a planet moving through space.

You just reminded me of something, the enormous man says, standing up with the same planetary slowness. His tongue probes his lips for any grease he might have missed. The flesh on his cheeks rumbles from a close-mouthed burp.

The other day I picked up my granddaughter from school, he starts, and this kid in the hallway comes up to me and points to the clock on the wall and says, Tell me what time it is. I can’t tell time. I’m standing there dumbfounded thinking, Ain’t this the saddest thing in the world that a third grader don’t know how to tell time? I go, What’s wrong with you, kid? You’re gonna have to learn to tell time if you ever want to be a man! He says, Sorry, I only tells time on digital clocks. I only tells time. That’s how he said it. The whole time he’s talking real bad like this to me. For God’s sake, what the hell are they teaching kids in school nowadays?

Which beer is piss water, of course, and which wine is too sweet. You scrape up the last bit of yolk with the side of your fork and slide the metal between your teeth. It helps you keep your mouth shut as the enormous men—celestial bodies in orbit, really, minus all the beauty but just as astounding—walk by. Their mouths keep flapping until the door behind them slams shut with a careless bang. A few heads turn, then immediately turn away. A mindless knee-jerk reflex.

… is the real problem with this town, Phillip says, shaking his head slowly.

You ready to get out of here?

Let’s go.

Phillip looks at the check, takes out his wallet, and puts money on the table. Ten and ten is fifteen, he says. You owe twenty.

I think you mean twenty-one.

Oh, right. Sorry.

Phillip goes to the bathroom before leaving, says he’ll meet you outside. You stand up and look around for the waitress. You’d like to say thank you. You’d like to say more than thank you, but as she emerges from the kitchen doors jumping and jiggling with a plate of soggy burritos in hand, all you can do is smile, barely.

Come again soon, honey. I’ll be here waitin’ for you!

And the TV will be muted and the barstools will creak. Genie will be there to tell you your fortune. It will be about half past seven o’ clock.

* * *

The End

 

Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at ray1018belli@gmail.com.

Lowe Township, Part Seven

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

 

Talk, Gene

Rich was mushy after a night of drinking alone in front of the TV. He’d fallen asleep with his limbs sagging like strands of egg yolk off the side of the couch. The alarm clock rang. He raised a hand, dropped it, and began snoring again. 

Kelly came back inside after walking the dog. She stepped over an empty beer can and shook her husband awake. 

    “Get up. You’re going to be late.”

    Rich groaned and buried his ears under his hands. 

    “Rich,” Kelly said. She huffed and shook him harder by the shoulder. 

    “Stop. I’m calling out today.”

    “Rich, you can’t.”

    Rich swatted her away and fumbled around the couch for his cell phone. He called the post office, claiming to have come down with a fever. 

    Kelly stormed out of the room, cursing her husband and the rest of her life. 

    “What’d you say?” Rich demanded deliriously.  

Kelly said nothing and cracked two eggs over a pan. “Breakfast, Gene,” she called. She made sure to kick Rich’s beer cans under the couch before her son’s footsteps came rushing down the stairs. 

    “Aw, not eggs again, Ma,” Gene said. 

    “Honey, you love eggs.” 

    “Yeah, but not like, every day.” 

    Kelly bit her lip and stopped herself from smashing the pan into someone’s face. Into her own face.  

“You know, Gene.” 

She threw her hands into the air and left the room. The eggs continued to cook until the pan breathed smoke and Gene turned off the stovetop.

 

* * * 

    

    An envelope from Gene’s school came in the mail that afternoon. A teacher had caught him stealing milk from the cafeteria, and just a few days ago he’d punched a classmate named Chris in the face. On account of such behavior the principal was calling for a meeting between Gene’s parents and his guidance counselor. 

    Rich shouted his son’s name in a loud, wet voice. He was drinking beer and watching TV without paying attention to what was happening onscreen. Five minutes later the boy came down. He had a small bruise below his eye that Rich hadn’t noticed earlier. 

    “What’s this all about?” he said, holding out the letter. 

    “I don’t know,” Gene said.

    “What’s that bruise on your face from?”

    “What bruise?”

    “Don’t play dumb, Gene.”

    “I pushed a kid at school because …” Gene tugged his earlobe nervously. “ … he said something to me.”

    A car pulled into the driveway, and Gene shot upstairs before Kelly came into the house, carrying bags of groceries. Rich explained the situation to his wife without moving from the couch. He opened another beer and asked what was for dinner. Kelly slammed the groceries down on the kitchen counter and climbed the stairs to her son’s room. 

    “Lower that music and open this door. Now.”

    “I didn’t start it, I swear,” Gene said.

    “Just open the door so we could talk.”

    The door cracked open, barely, and Gene poked out his head. 

    “Don’t be hard on him,” the voice downstairs sloshed. “Just try to get him to talk. My son’s finally sticking up for himself like a man.”

    “Honey, you told me you got that bruise from playing at the park,” Kelly said.

    “I did.”

    “Gene, I—”

    From downstairs: “Don’t be hard on him, Kel. He’s starting to act like a man!”

    Gene tried locking himself in his room, but Kelly caught the knob before the door fell shut. They played tug-of-war with the door until Gene won and slammed it shut in her face.

“You—” Kelly started. She clenched her fists in time to stop the words from spilling out. When her fingers uncurled, she exhaled, shut her eyes, and told herself that she’d tried. That she always tried. 

    She drifted into her bedroom, to be alone. She peered out the door—no husband, no son—and locked herself in. 

She lifted her shirt. She sucked her stomach in, then out, observing the fluctuations of her body in the mirror. Her son had left a few marks around the waist, but Gene was worth it, so it was okay. She stroked her breasts, then gently squeezed them together. She thought they were still in good shape. Rich said they were still in good shape, and that had to mean something. 

She took out a dress from her closet, folded it, stuffed it into a plastic bag, then tiptoed into the bathroom. She dug out a pile of hair products and stuffed them into the bag, burying the dress at the bottom. Before leaving, she scrutinized herself in the mirror again. She tried out different faces and found it hard to distinguish between the ones she liked and the ones she hated. 

 When she went downstairs, Rich was still glued to the TV.

    “What’s in the bag?” he asked. “What’s for dinner?”

    “No dinner tonight,” Kelly said. 

“Huh?”

“I promised Jackie that I’d do her daughter’s hair for prom in a few days. I’m gonna try out a few things.” 

Kelly’s closest friend had in fact asked her to work on her daughter’s hair for prom, and prom was in fact a few weeks away. Kelly thought her presentation sounded confident. By now she was getting the hang of this sort of thing. 

    “I’m running late,” Kelly said. “There’s leftover egg salad in the fridge.” 

She rubbed Rich’s shoulder with an attempt at affection. Rich raised his beer can, assuring her that he wouldn’t move an inch.

 

* * * 

 

Kelly said nothing to Gene on their ride to school the next morning. Gene enjoyed the silence. When they reached the front of the school building, she pulled abruptly alongside the curb. 

    “Quick, sweetie, get out,” she said.

    “What’s the rush?” Gene asked.

    “Just get out, Mommy has to be somewhere,” Kelly said, giving Gene a light shove. 

    “Relax, ma!” he said. Gene unbuckled his seatbelt and lifted his backpack from between his feet. He got out of the car without saying goodbye. Before driving away, Kelly drew a crumpled napkin out from her purse, unfolded it, and read to herself the address drunkenly scrawled upon it. 

When she lifted her eyes, Gene was halfway across the schoolyard. She beeped the horn as if to say “goodbye,” but the horn made Gene feel an emotion he didn’t know the word for yet. What he did know was that Ma was the biggest idiot in the world, and Dad was a close second. On some days, it was the other way around. The best part about going to school was getting to forget about them when he could. 

 

* * *

 

Ms. Caifa began math class by handing back quizzes. She called students to her desk one by one in a no-nonsense voice. When she called on Gene, he got up quickly and took the quiz from her hand without looking at it. On Gene’s way back to his seat, a red-cheeked boy with uncombed hair and freckles muttered something indiscernible at him. 

“Shut up Chris,” Gene said.

Shut up Gene,” Chris mocked.

“Really, shut up, Chris.” 

Really, shut up, Gene.

Ms. Caifa resumed class with a review of long division. As usual, Gene felt lost and stopped trying to pay attention. He looked at the back of Chris’s head and wanted to smash it up. He looked up at the clock and wanted to smash it up too. He wanted to get out of here, but he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to go to bed—not for the sleep, but for the dreams. In his dreams, he was the best kickball player in gym class. In his dreams, Chris wasn’t real. 

“So remember that we carry the remainder … and write it above the number we’re dividing into … like this …”

While Ms. Caifa wrote on the board, Chris looked over his shoulder at Gene. “You get another F, dummy?” he whispered. 

“Fuck you, fatass,” Gene said.

The girl next to Gene gasped softly. Someone hollered, “Ohhh!”

Ms. Caifa abruptly stopped writing and poured her stern eyes over the classroom. “Does someone have something to say?”

“Wasn’t me,” said one of the boys. 

“Wasn’t me either!”

“Gene said a bad word, Ms. Caifa,” said Chris. 

Gene sprung out of his seat. “Then quit making fun of me you fat—”

“Gene! That’s not how we talk to each other in my classroom.” 

“Chris called me stupid, Ms. Caifa. He’s a—”

“Liar!” Chris said. “Liar, liar, liar! I never said that.”

The feeling of Gene’s heart shot up to his head, and the pounding turned everything blurry. Water welled up in his eyes, but he held his breath, trying to stop the tears. His father had taught him that crying was for girls. No real man cries by the time he’s reached the third grade, Gene knew.

“You basically called me stupid,” Gene choked. “You asked me if I got another F. You deserve the F for fatass.”

This time, the whole class joined in like a choir: “Ohhhh.” 

Chris stood up and beat his chest. “Hit me,” he said. 

“Don’t even think about it,” said Ms. Caifa, stepping between them. “Both of you, outside.” 

She walked the boys to the principal’s office while a teacher on hall duty watched over the classroom. The whole time Gene kept his eyes away from Chris. They stung from holding back the tears.

Girl, said the voice in Gene’s head. Girl, girl, girly-girl. Gene couldn’t stop the memories from coming back to life. They weren’t just memories of his father’s voice, but of flying beer cans aimed like missiles at his head. 

 

* * *

 

The guidance counselor’s office had narrow wooden walls and a low brown ceiling that gave Gene the feeling of being squashed. Behind the closed door, Ms. DeLorenzo stood outside in the hallway talking to Chris’s mother and father. They seemed to be talking forever. Gene sat by himself and tried to keep his head from spinning.  When Ms. DeLorenzo came inside, it reminded Gene to breathe. Then the walls began closing in again. 

    “What’s the matter with you, Gene?” she asked, sitting down behind her desk. “It’s the second time I’m seeing you this week.” The words soared over Gene’s head. He was concentrating on holding back his tears and keeping the walls from collapsing in.

    Ms. DeLorenzo’s fingers pecked at the keyboard, and Gene’s records appeared on the computer screen. The sound of her fingers was the only sound in the room. 

“No answer, huh?”

Gene found it impossible to speak, impossible to look at her. Speaking to her would release the ball in his throat, and looking at her would reveal the tears drying beneath his eyes. 

    From down the hall came the sound of frantic, high-heeled footsteps. The sound grew louder until the office door flung open. Ignoring Gene, Kelly stumbled inside and introduced herself to Ms. DeLorenzo.  

“ …  so sorry I’m late,” she stammered. 

“That’s all right. I’m glad you could make it at all,” Ms. DeLorenzo said. “Please, sit down.” She indicated a chair against the wall. In a single exaggerated motion Kelly pulled it closer to the desk and sat down, ordering Gene to do the same. Wordlessly, Gene obeyed. 

Ms. DeLorenzo began describing this morning’s incident. Gene didn’t like the way she got the details all wrong but felt too nauseated to interject. The walls became fuzzy pendulums that knocked his visual field in and out focus. Somewhere through the mirage came the disapproving sound of his mother’s tongue clicking against the back of her teeth.

“ … yes, that is absolutely unacceptable,” she was saying. “ … yes, and we’re having some trouble with him at home, too … defiance, yes … yes, building walls around himself … we’ve been thinking of seeking help … yes, I understand it’s not the first time … yes … yes … ”

“Gene? Gene?”

A hand clamped down on Gene’s thigh. “Gene, pay attention,” said his mother, shaking his leg. 

Gene blinked. He looked up at her, and her scornful face made him want to shrink into a small invisible box.

Ms. DeLorenzo reached her arm across her desk and touched Gene’s hand. “Let’s start with your fight last week. With Chris, at the park. Just talk, Gene. Talk. What you say in this room stays in this room. But you have to talk.”

Gene couldn’t talk. He also couldn’t stop the eyes in the room from piercing him. He couldn’t stop his own eyes from welling up with tears. Not again, he thought. The voice replayed in his mind. Girl, it reminded him. Girl, girl, girl. He tried turning inward to hide, but he found that same voice hiding there too, just where he’d left it, days, weeks, and years ago, hoping it would eventually disappear. He buried it there hoping to hide it from himself, but it never disappeared and grew louder and louder and louder until Gene silenced it with a scream. The scream made Kelly jump out of her seat.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she said, kneeling beside Gene.

“Chris,” he began. He spoke into her eyes. “Chris called you a …” It was the extent of what he could say. The incomplete sentence dangled in the air. 

“Me?” Kelly said. “Chris called me a what?”

For all Gene knew, Ms. DeLorenzo had vanished from the room. There was only his mother kneeling beside him and Gene despised her. He despised her softness and he despised her right to cry. He despised the things that made her a girl. 

Gene said, “I know where you go sometimes on Wednesday nights, mom. Chris lives across the street. He sees you there.”

Kelly’s face turned ghost-like. The ghosts of many buried nights flooded back to her. “Honey, I still don’t understand.”

“I know what a whore is, okay? He called you a whore.”

It wasn’t just the word, but the way he said it that made Kelly’s toes gnaw like frantic squirrel-teeth into her shoes. Her mouth moved, annunciating nothing. She stuttered over the same syllable, then managed a few false starts. 

“Ms. DeLorenzo … God, I’m sorry. You see, it’s my husband who … I really don’t know what, my husband’s a real …”

Ms. DeLorenzo stood up. “Maybe it’s best if I step outside for a moment,” she said. She spoke in a whisper, as if a full voice might shatter Kelly into pieces. The sound of the door falling shut knocked the ball out of Gene’s throat, and the boy burst into tears.

“Oh God, Gene,” Kelly said. She repeated his name over and over again: Gene, Gene, Gene. It was too much for her to look at him, so she pulled him into her breast to hide his face. The feeling of his head against her heart brought her to tears. She tightened her grip around his small-framed body as he tried squirming away.

“No Gene. Please,” she said. “Cry with me. Cry.”

 

Lowe Township, Part Six

A Certain Kind of Man, Part 2


Deb can’t sleep. For the third time this month, she asks about Jake.

  “You have to remember something about him, Gene,” she says. She fidgets under the covers and nuzzles against my chest. She insists this stuff’s important to know before getting married.  

 I wrap my arm around the small of her back, wondering where to begin—if to begin.

“I remember some things. But you wouldn’t understand,” I say.

“Of course I’ll understand,” Deb says.

A lick of night air drifts in from the window, cooling the sweat on my bare chest.

She must get these big ideas about Jake from me, the way I talk about him. Sometimes I don’t realize I still talk about him.

“Well, you know. We were just … boys together,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

Deb shifts in place and her dark brown hair spreads like a fan beneath her head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, tell me a story. Anything,” she says. “Actually, wait.” She wriggles out of bed and walks naked and drunk into the kitchen. She comes back with a joint and two drinks and settles back alongside me.

It’s almost been fifteen years—I have my uncle to thank for that. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if me and Jake had stayed friends. Sometimes more than sometimes I wonder how he’s doing.


* * *


We met in the summer of ’99, the summer I lived with Uncle Joe. He dropped me off at the park every morning, insisting that it was good for me. I was bad at sports—terrible, really—but he said that boys my age were supposed to have fun playing sports and making friends outdoors. No one ever picked me to play on their team, so I’d just stand on the sidelines and watch everyone else play. That’s where I met Jake. We played the same videogames and watched the same TV shows and read the same comic books and started getting along. He was two years older than me and went to a special school because he was smart and quiet.

One day he tugged on my shirtsleeve and said, “Let’s leave.” I told him that Uncle Joe had strict rules about not leaving the park, but Jake convinced me that he’d never find out. That it didn’t matter.

Jake had a strategy for sneaking past the park counselors and told me to follow his every move. Once we were out of the park, the pressure in my chest began to disappear and I started having fun. We didn’t have a place to go or anything to do, but it was enough to just talk about things we liked. Anything was better than standing on the sidelines alone.

When we came to the bridge that crosses over the river, we stopped to look at our reflections in the water and noticed two people smoking cigarettes in the distance on the riverbank.

“What do you think they’re doing down there?” Jake asked.

“Fishing, maybe?” I said, but no one ever fished in the river. It was dirty and shallow and surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence. How they got on the other side of the fence was a mystery to me. Again, Jake tugged on my shirtsleeve and said we needed to find a way in. The pressure in my chest came back, and I told him it was probably a bad idea. He called me a chicken, but he said it with a smile, as if he knew something I didn’t know.

“We’ll treat it like a mission,” he said. Putting it like that did make it sound like fun. “By the end of the summer,” he promised, “we’ll make that river ours.”


* * *


Everybody called his dad Pops—the mailman, the neighbors, you name it—and after a few visits to Jake’s house, I was calling him Pops too. His father was a tall, fat, balding man with a grey mustache and round-rimmed glasses. The balding part was funny since Jake had some of the nicest brown hair I’d ever seen.

One day we lost track of time playing video games up in his room and I wound up staying for dinner.

  “Have fun up there, Jake?” Pops asked. Jake nodded. He didn’t talk much around his parents and never looked them in the eyes.

“Not much into sports either, huh?” Pops asked me.

“Flat feet,” I explained. “Like my father.”

“If you’ve got more than his feet, your father must be a good man.”

“I guess so.”

Pops stroked his mustache at that. It must have been the tone of my voice. I think he understood the situation without needing to hear more. He scooped mashed potatoes onto my plate, smiling, always smiling, and thanked me for spending the evening with his family.

Potatoes, salad, roast beef—it was a feast whenever his mother cooked. She was a nervous but well-meaning mother, the kind of mother whose main priority is to make sure everything is all right at all times. I liked that about her. I liked how much she cared about everyone that set foot into her home.

“How’re your new glasses, honey?” she asked her husband.

“Still getting used to them,” Pops said. “When I was your age, boys, I had the best eyes in the world. After Jake was born my eyes started to go.  Myopia, it’s called. You wouldn’t know what it’s like yet. It’s when things at a distance get harder to see.”

Myopia. Every time I talked to Pops, I seemed to learn something new. Or maybe I was just young then.


* * *


When Uncle Joe dropped me off at the park the next day, someone I knew from school was making fun of Jake. I don’t think it was anything serious, but Jake, being too sensitive, dragged me by the hand out of the park and didn’t let go until we were out on the street. I don’t think he realized he’d grabbed me like that. Really, he was just upset. Luckily he didn’t turn around to see the rest of the kids laughing and pointing fingers at him.

We roamed through town without saying much. Finally I mentioned that he probably shouldn’t grab my hand like that in public—or anywhere, really. Jake thought about it for a second, and then said, “Okay.” It was a funny thing when he grabbed my hand, though. He had small, smooth hands.

Later, Jake wanted to get ice cream, but the ice cream parlor was close to Uncle Joe’s, and it was best if Uncle Joe didn’t catch us together. He didn’t Jake, I think because Jake was too quiet. That had to be it.

Instead of getting ice cream, we decided it was about time to find a way down to the river.


* * *


There used to be a bakery on Main Street with a parking lot that dropped off into the riverbank. We made it as far as the barbed wire fence, but Jake caught his foot in some shrubs and sprained his ankle before we found a way through. Jake stayed home for about a week, and without Jake, I didn’t see the point in going to the park. I tried one excuse after another to convince my uncle to let me stay home. The thing that finally sold him was a bargain to start my summer reading, and even that ended with an argument. We agreed on the condition that I stay in my room unless told to come out, which I thought was stupid but okay. I didn’t like being around Uncle Joe, anyhow.

One afternoon, I forgot the rules and went downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea. Uncle Joe was nowhere in sight, but I saw his car parked in the driveway beside another car I’d never seen before. I pressed my ear to the basement door and heard his voice spilling over with high-pitched laughter. His voice, and another man’s voice too.

I went back upstairs and decided to never mention it to him.


* * *


That night my mother called from Florida. She said her vacation was going well, and when she asked how I was doing, I started telling her about Jake. “That’s nice,” she said. “That’s nice. That’s nice.” After a few minutes she had to go.

“So what is it you like about Jake so much?” Uncle Joe asked. For some reason the question made me feel guilty. He had a way with his words that always made me feel guilty.

“Um,” I said. “He’s my friend.”

The next day Uncle Joe dropped me off at the park. He decided it wasn’t good for me to stay home and work on my summer reading because I needed tougher friends that would—I don’t know, I just needed tougher friends, he said.

When he drove off, I left the park. By now, I knew the way to Jake’s house on my own.


* * *


As soon as Jake’s foot was feeling better we went down to the river again to try to find a way in. Sure enough, farther down from where he’d hurt himself, someone had cut a hole in the fence that was big enough to crawl through. I can’t tell you why being down there was such a big deal. But it was. It felt like we were conquering something, all on our own. I guess it’s because we were young—I mean, all of this is just about being young.

We followed the bends in the river toward a long, dark sewer pipe that stuck erect out of the earth. I poked my head inside, and the echo of my voice bounced in the darkness like a rubber ball. It was completely empty and we crawled inside.


* * *


“And that’s it,” I sigh.

“That’s it?” Deb says. “I don’t get why your uncle stopped you from being friends.”

My head’s sore from pot and alcohol and it’s hard to think straight, to think quick. “See … there was a dead body that washed up on the riverbank a few days later and—”

Deb jolts up and looks at me like I’m crazy. “Gene, you’re lying!”

“No … really. The town kept it out of the news because … I don’t know. But Uncle Joe found out about it somehow and—”

“I don’t believe you,” Deb stares down at me, looking ten feet tall. “How come I never heard about it? I didn’t grow up far from here.”

I shrug.

“What’s that even got to do with Jake?”

I shrug again. Her expression says shrugging’s not enough.

“My uncle knew that we played by the river, and he had this crazy idea that we might have … oh, I don’t know, it really doesn’t make any sense.”

That’s as far as I can take it. It’s an incredible stretch as it is. I repeat what I’ve already said, and after the fifth time, the look of doubt on Deb’s face starts to change. I can tell by the look in her eyes that she’s more than a little out of it. Good.

“This Jake’s not as interesting as you make him out to be, Gene.”

“Huh. I guess you’re right.”

  She pulls my body close and starts talking about the wedding. The wedding, the wedding, the wedding. She tries making love again and I tell her to stop because I feel sick. All those drinks, I say.

I excuse myself to the bathroom where I can sit on the toilet alone and think about Jake until she blacks out and forgets everything I’ve said.

Lowe Township, Part Five

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

* * *

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano


Not the Point

The electronics store lets Pedro out around nine. His shift at the diner began at nine-thirty. On a good day, he made the drive in ten minutes, leaving fifteen minutes to nap in the car and five minutes to change outfits between jobs.

The diner was empty when he came in. A chair occasionally squeaked and a reporter delivered news on a muted TV screen. Pedro stared out the window and yawned. He gnawed a cuticle and thought about quitting—not just the diner, but the electronics store, too. Getting used to real work was like hell. His friends called him crazy for giving up the streets altogether, and Maria was starting to take their side.

Maria.

Pedro tore through the dead, hardened flesh. Of course, there was Little Maria. The obligation to be a good father kept him around. Her face came to mind, and he imagined wringing her by the neck—Big Maria, that is.

Another yawn, the sound of a car zipping by. The lights across the street went out and the night outside turned darker.

The front doors flung open and three middle-aged women stumbled inside. The first woman walked with a strut crossed between a runway model and a chicken. The second precariously clip-clopped on three-and-a-half inch heels. The third trailed behind, examining her dyed roots in a pocket mirror.

“Five, please,” the tottering woman said.

“Five?” Pedro asked, counting three heads.

“I mean four.”

A fourth woman, younger than the others, came stumbling through the door. “It’s really coming to that point,” she barked into her cell phone. “It’s really, really coming to that point … look, I’m at the diner now, I’ve got to go. Yeah? Yeah? Then go kill yourself, see if I care.”

“Anywhere you’d like,” Pedro said. He disappeared to retrieve a set of menus. His chest tightened. He recognized the ladies and hoped they didn’t recognize him.

“Let’s sit here,” the runway chicken suggested. With each strut, her stomach shook like a pot of fresh jelly.

“I don’t want to sit under the fan,” said the one wearing heels. She pointed a long, red fingernail toward a vent on the ceiling. “Let’s sit by the window.”

“The booths are too tight in this place. We have to get a table.”

“I don’t want to have to put my purse on the floor.”

“Just hang it on the back of your seat!”

“Someone might steal something if—”

“We’re at the diner, for God’s sake. If you—”

The one with dyed roots pressed the back of her hand to the vent. “This thing’s not even on,” she shouted. “Let’s just sit here.”

They settled on the table beneath the fan, and Pedro returned with the menus.

“Whenever you’re ready,” he said. As he turned away, a dizzying array of spots colored his vision.

“So do you think he’s gonna call me back?” Linda, the one with three-and-a-half-inch heels, asked Barbara, the one who came in late. Linda excitedly reached across the table and shook Barbara’s arm. “They all think he’s gonna. Do you think he’s gonna?”

I think he’s gonna. He seemed to really like you,” Barbara said. “But you can’t keep seeing two men at once. How’s that going to work with Gary? That’s his name, right? You can’t pull the same thing with Gary you pulled with Vinnie.”

“Oh, please. Gary doesn’t know how to be a boyfriend. At least Vinnie was a man,” Linda said. “Gary’s a washwoman. I say one thing he doesn’t like and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m going home! I’m leaving!’ ”

“You don’t need that,” said Debbie.

“Damn right I don’t. And you should see what his house looks like. If I ever took you to his house, you wouldn’t believe, you wouldn’t believe what a …”

Linda’s words trailed, and they all nodded in agreement with the incomplete sentence.  

“ … smells like B.O. and old soup,” she continued. “Goddamned slob, he really is. No wonder his wife left him.”

“But you guys are still dating, right?”

“Who knows! He walked out two days ago during dinner. To hell with him, I can’t deal with a man like that.”

“Some of us are still married,” Barbara moaned. Her forearms fell to the table like deadweight. “Me and Kev have been married twenty-one years and one of these days we’re gonna snap. Thank God our sons are already in college. I told myself we’d stick it out until the boys were in college. Now that they’re out of the house … ”

“How old’s your oldest boy?” asked Linda. “I always forget. Your oldest boy’s how old?”

“He’s a senior. He’s getting his history degree and becoming a teacher. I told him there ain’t no job in the world like being a teacher. As long as he’s doing something to take care of a family is all that matters. My younger one’s a freshman. No idea what he wants to do yet. Joey Donahue—”

Barbara paused, and the quartet of bouncing heads became still. The alcohol coursing through their blood evaporated into solemnity as if the name of something sacred were taken in vain. The excitement drained from their faces, turning them pale.

    “—Joey Donahue was his age,” Linda finished. “God … it’s going to be two months now, isn’t it?”

Her throat bulged. The others’ expressions turned limp with grief.

Pedro overheard their remarks from across the diner, and the colored spots intensified. He threw a look at Alejandro, the late night busboy, and Alejandro narrowed his eyes. He said something in Spanish, and Pedro shook his head, No.

“I still don’t understand why God took Renee’s boy away from her. That could have been any of our boys, you know.”

“It’s all the drug dealers we’ve got in this town nowadays.”

“God’ll take care of the son of a bitch who killed Renee’s son.”

“Renee was a good mother, too.”

Linda’s teary eyes narrowed spitefully. “I blame it on that good-for-nothing husband of hers who left when Joey was just a kid.”

One of them mentioned that Renee’s husband was known to hit her when he got drunk, and the women concluded—in more graphic detail—that the law should make eunuchs out of men that even think of raising their hands against a woman. They forgot about Joey Donahue, and the alcohol seeped back into their collective consciousness.

“ … sometimes Gary jokes about hitting me, giving me a ‘good old slap.’ Who the hell does he think he is? I’m not into jokes, not one for jokes. No jokes. Not into them. It’s ’cause he’s insecure. No real man wants to hit a woman. Vinnie would never hit me. Too bad Vinnie didn’t have more money. That’s all I’m keeping Gary around for now, the money. Once I find a better man who knows how to love me—”

 “Uh …”

 The women looked up. Pedro stood over them at the tableside.

“Are you ladies ready?”

“Oh, sorry, guy, we didn’t even open the menus yet,” Debbie laughed. The others giggled. Pedro told them to take their time. He joined Alejandro behind the bar. Again, they exchanged something in Spanish, this time more heatedly.

Don’t,” Pedro said. He pushed through the kitchen’s wooden saloon doors.

A cockroach shot out from a crack in the wall. It took him by surprise, and Pedro smashed it under his shoe. He moved his foot away. Still alive, the roach groped helplessly at the air. Pedro mashed it into the ground even harder.

When he returned to the table of drunken high school teachers, they placed their orders, each with incredible specificities. The runway chicken requested a bun-less burger cooked medium (but not too medium, more like medium rare, but not completely rare) with raw onions on the side plus an order of fries that wasn’t greasy, because she’d ordered them here once before and they were very greasy, and she didn’t want to have to send them back again. As Pedro scribbled, the teacher with dyed roots leaned over the table and examined his face.

“You look familiar,” she said. “Did you go to Lowe Township High?”

“Uh, no,” Pedro said.

“What’s your name?”

“My name? My name’s Juan.”

“Juan what?”

“Juan … Ortiz,” said Pedro Martinez.

“Juan Ortiz. I had a boy in class named Juan Ortiz a few years ago. Different face though. Huh.”

 “We’re teachers at the high school,” the chicken confirmed.

Pedro nodded stiffly, feigned a smile, and took away their menus. He retreated to the kitchen, passing the mashed cockroach on the way. One of its dead limbs still trembled. Alejandro followed behind him and came through the door.

 “Who’s Juan Ortiz?” he asked.

 “You heard them talking about Joey Donahue,” Pedro said.

 And?”

Pedro’s face turned expressionless, and Alejandro gave him a shove. “Are you for real? I’da went up to ’em and said, ‘I’m the son of a bitch that sold Joey Donahue the shit that killed him, and if he don’t know when he’s had enough, that’s his problem.”

 “That’s not the point,” Pedro said.

 “What’s the point?”

 “Never mind.”

 “No, say it.”

Pedro shoved Alejandro away and passed the teachers’ order along to one of the cooks.

“The point is that if it was you or me who OD’ed, they wouldn’t give a shit,” Alejandro shouted across the kitchen. Pedro ignored him and walked back into the main dining room.

The group of teachers was in high gear with laughter. The sound of fake nails ticking against everything they touched grated on Pedro’s ears. Only three more hours until he was out of this place … and six more until his shift began at the electronics store.

Another car outside, another horn, another yawn. Cold rainwater splashed up into the face of an unsuspecting passerby.

Alejandro was right. To hell with Joey Donahue. Pedro reminded himself that this was for Little Maria, this sudden change of pace.

God, he hoped she’d turn out okay.

To Be Continued …

Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at ray1018belli@gmail.com.

Lowe Township, Part Four

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

* * *

A Certain Kind of Man, Part One

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano


Hank McDuffie slammed the door shut on his wife. It was a petty fight, but he couldn’t stand the sound of her voice and already had plans to meet up with the boys. He rode his Harley down the street to the local Dunkin’ Donuts and waited outside for the others to arrive.

Another motorcycle pulled into the lot. The rider dismounted and threw a single, sagging arm over Hank’s shoulder. Pink, plump, and pockmarked, they could have passed as brothers.

“What’s doin’ J.J.?” Hank asked. He traced the curves of J.J.’s motorcycle with his hand, nodding his head with approval. “Finally got her fixed, huh?”

J.J. beamed. “Rides like she’s new again.”

“Hit the highway yet?”

“Not yet. Just got her back from the shop. I took off of work tomorrow so you and me and Sammy could take a ride upstate.” J.J. took out a carton of cigarettes and flicked it open with his thumb. “Got a light?”

Hank struck two matches against a matchbook and lit the end of J.J.’s cigarette. Using the same flame, he lit another for himself. One of the things every man’s got to learn—to keep a match lit in the wind, Hank thought. They smoked wordlessly and watched the traffic crawl by.

“You hear back from Sammy?” Hank asked.

“No, but he’ll be here. I talked to him last night.” J.J. milked the smoke out of his cigarette and shook his head, partly chuckling, partly grunting. “Betty was bitching in the background the whole time.”  

“What else is new?”

“Mark my words, she’s gonna put him in the ground one of these days.”

When they finished smoking, they stomped out their cigarettes and climbed the steps to the door. At the top, they paused to cough and spit and catch their breaths before stepping inside.


* * *


“Six and a half,” J.J. whispered.

Hank shook his head and formed the outline of imaginary breasts with his hands. “Come on. At least an eight.”

J.J. feigned a stretch to get a good look at the teenage girl behind the counter. He stretched in the other direction to play it off, then turned back around in his seat.

“Too dark,” he said, suggesting her face.

The girl, whose nametag read “Pooja,” gasped soundlessly. She called in a foreign language to someone out of sight, and an older woman with similar features emerged from a door marked “Employees.” Her nametag read “Deepa,” and beneath it, “Dee.” Pooja grabbed Dee by the hand and whispered something into her ear. Dee listened closely, nodding after every few words. Her eyes, narrow and cautious, shifted toward the men.

A small bell jingled. Hank and J.J. turned at the sound of the open door and Sammy came storming inside, hands stuffed like contraband into his pockets.

“For Christ’s sake, Sammy,” Hank said.

Sammy’s blue cowboy boots click-clacked along the linoleum tile floor. He was a small, grumpy-looking man with a crooked posture that shucked an inch or two off his height. He set his elbows on the table and stuck his face into the notches of his fists. He moaned. His regularly curled mustache drooped with the look of drawn-on prison bars incarcerating his mouth, the innermost hairs stained yellow from coffee and smoke.  

“What’s doin’ Sammy?” J.J. asked.

“Don’t get me started,” Sammy said. He grabbed a donut from the box on the table and rolled his tongue around the icing.

“Jesus. You see what this poor man’s wife does to him, Pooja?” Hank shouted across the room. “He needs a wife like you that’ll do what he says.”

“Me?” Pooja choked. “The wife?”

“Yeah. You, the wife. Come on, we’ll arrange a marriage.”

Excuse me?” Dee said, stepping forward defensively.

Pooja’s mind blanked, then out of the darkness came the words to express herself in English. “You are … too old. You are old like … the father.”

Hank’s fist slammed down on the table.

Ooh, you hear that, Sammy?”

“Me and J.J. don’t look old like the father, do we?” J.J. asked.

“You’re old enough to be her grandfather,” Dee snapped.

Hank waved his hand dismissively. “All right, all right. What? I hear that Indians make good wives, anyhow.”

Using the arms of his seat for support, he laboriously lifted himself up and waddled to the counter. Pooja’s feet unconsciously pulled her in the opposite direction.

“I’ll take another coffee. Medium, lots of sugar,” Hank said, punctuating sugar with a wink. An uncontainable smirk burned on his face.

Dee’s emotions seethed silently, held behind a wall of clenched teeth. Hank hovered over the counter, breathing heavily, staring cruelly. She could feel the stare undressing her, probing her.

“Well I haven’t got all day,” Hank said.

The seething emotions spilled out of Dee in a foreign, nasal dialect. She slammed down on the coffee spigot and stuck her finger accusingly in Hank’s face. She tore the money out of his hands and thrust the coffee cup over the counter. “Just … leave,” she said.

“Yeah, okay,” Hank said. He squeezed his body back into his seat and reached for the last donut. “So really, Sammy, what’d your wife throw a fit over this time?” he mumbled, churning a mouthful of chocolaty mud.

Sammy flung his thin arms into the air and squeaked. “She was talking about moving again. I said to her, ‘Look, Betty, we’ve been in this town for all our lives, all our friends are here, we’ve got everything in the world we could ask for.’ She goes, ‘Well I don’t like it here anymore. I’m bored.’ And I tell her, ‘If you’re bored here, you’ll be bored everywhere, there’s something wrong with you, not the town,’ and then somehow there’s something wrong with me, and I’m the biggest asshole in the world, and a-this, and a-that, and a … ah, Jesus.”

His knobby fingers anxiously twirled the end of his mustache. The others shook their heads and made wet, clicking sounds with their mouths.

“You know,” Sammy continued, “I said, ‘Maybe if you wanted to move out to the country where we could have acres and acres of land to ourselves, then I could see what you’re saying, but Betty wants to go through the whole process of buying and selling a house just so she could be close to a nice park. She wants to start jogging every morning. Can you believe it? Now, come on, she could just drive to the park if she wants!”

“Aw, to hell with her, Sam!” Hank said.

Sammy sighed. Hank raised a half-eaten donut, and they all clinked their donuts together in cheers.

The bell on the door jingled again and a young man wearing a black suit and dress shoes came inside. He ordered two large coffees in a low, beaten voice. He paid and left without lifting his eyes from the ground.

“That’s Petrillo’s grandkid,” J.J. whispered.

“I think the old man’s getting laid out tonight,” J.J. said. “You read this morning’s obituaries?”

“The whole town’ll be there,” Sammy said.

Hank stroked his beard meditatively. “Wanna go?”

“You’re kidding,” J.J. said. “You hate the Petrillos.”

A clump of half-chewed mush came flying out of Hank’s mouth. “Of course I do!” he laughed. “But I want to get a look at the old man’s granddaughter. Haven’t seen her in years. Hear she’s got a body to die for.” Still running his fingers through his beard, his eyes grew narrow as if contemplating something serious. “Betcha she’s a whore. Her mother was a whore. Being a whore runs in the family, I say.” He nodded and spat a brownish fluid into a napkin, then scooped up the mush from the table. He called himself a man of intuition, a certain kind of man that’s always right.

Behind the counter, Deepa pulled Pooja close and murmured something into her ear.

“We’ll have to go home and get changed,” J.J. said, and they all nodded and agreed to meet back here in about fifteen minutes.

They got up, leaving zigzagging crumbs all over the table. Outside, Sammy blew a kiss to Pooja through the window. She shook her head frantically. Her eyes begged them to go, please go, and Deepa shouted something that went unheard through the glass.

The men laughed as they mounted their bikes. They revved their engines to life, loud enough to disturb the dead.


Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at ray1018belli@gmail.com.


Lowe Township, Part Three

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

 

Employee of the Month

Gerber stepped outside for a cigarette break after stocking frozen foods all morning. He removed his ShopRite cap and, sore from hours of bending forward, stretched his lower back. The smell of leaking freezer fluid lingered in his nose. Smoking helped him forget about it. Smoking seemed the cure for everything.

 He smoked and spit and fixed his eyes on nothing in particular. Big day, he supposed. They just had named him Employee of the Month and taken the honorary photo. Big, big day. The thought of his face hanging on the wall for the whole town to see made him sick. The whole town would see it, and that was a fact. But he convinced himself that working here wasn’t the worst thing in the world. He occasionally had sex with the Customer Service girl, and the crazy old man who gathered carts from the lot told a good story now and then. 

 Gerber took a final pull at his cigarette, then stamped it out beneath his shoe. As he walked back inside, he played air-guitar and sang loudly to himself. He liked the way it made old people look at him as if he were crazy. 

He passed through the produce department on the way to frozen foods to say hi to King Carl. Carl was at work unpacking a crate of fruits. Gerber smacked him on the back, and the self-proclaimed king expressionlessly turned. Tall, pockmarked, and perpetually bent forward, Carl was less than twice as old as Gerber and more than twice as cynical. 

“What’s up?” Carl said.

Gerber picked up a bunch of bananas. “What the hell, man? These’re black already.”

“Don’t blame me. I just put ’em on the shelf.”

Gerber rummaged through Carl’s crate and found a thoroughly bruised peach. He pressed his finger against a diseased-looking crater.

Really?” Gerber said. 

“Don’t put your hands all over ’em.”

Across from them, two customers hovered over a selection of bell peppers. They examined them individually, then put each one back. Gerber tossed his own damaged peach back into the crate and asked Carl what he was doing after work. 

“Drugs,” Carl answered.

“Well, sign me up too,” Gerber said. 

His impression of the produce department had changed since he was a kid. The rows of fruit used to glow like a certain dotty painting he’d seen in an elementary school art class. Now, the smell of old water showering supposedly fresh greens just gave him a headache. The smell of everything in this place gave him a headache. 

“So I hear you made the grade,” Carl said, pointing to the customer service desk. Behind it hung a joyless, smiling portrait of Gerry “Gerber” di Paolo. 

“Oh, Christ.  Already?” Gerber said.  “Kill me.”

Carl formed a gun with his fingers and fired.

“Gerber to stock room, please. Gerber to stock room,” blared a voice over the loud speaker. 

Carl made an enthusiastic gesture with his fist. “Go get ’em, champ,” he said.

Gerber groaned and obeyed the voice that summoned him. The craving for another cigarette break already stirred in his blood.

Hank McDuffie, the afternoon manager, met him in the stockroom and explained that one of the other stock boys had called out. Hank rolled out a dolly loaded with canned goods and handed it over to Gerber. 

“All you, buddy,” he said. 

Gerber hated Hank McDuffie. He hated his pink face and white hair. He hated the sound of his name when pronounced aloud. He especially hated his fingers and how they looked like fat, wet sausages, but getting away from the leak in frozen foods curbed the impulse to say something insulting. Gerber indulged in a smile and kicked the dolly into motion.

On Gerber’s way out, Hank congratulated him on being named Employee of the Month. He assured him that it was an honor—really, really an honor. 

“What I’ve always dreamed of,” Gerber said, and the heavy door fell shut. 

 

* * * 

 

Thirty-six … thirty-seven ….

One by one, Gerber filled the shelves with canned fruits. 

Thirty-eight … thirty-nine …

He usually stopped counting around sixty. The counting itself was pointless, but he liked to see how long the uninteresting could hold his interest. He felt the uninteresting holding his interest becoming the story of his life. 

He went from canned pears to canned peaches without noticing. Then one of the labels caught his eye. It had the image of two peaches nestled together side by side. They were the peaches he remembered as a kid, peaches perfect and glowing. The rest of the supermarket faded into an unreal backdrop and the mental counting stopped. The peaches gripped his mind like a great idea. The great idea gripped harder, and he tore back the tab on top of the can. He closed his eyes and drank its syrupy liquid from the brim. A piece of fruit dropped to the floor, and the big idea let go.  

Behind him, a shopping cart came to a stop and Gerber felt eyes on his back. It was an almond-faced woman, thirty-five at most. The mouthful of peaches bought him a few seconds to think. 

“The picture’s better than the real thing,” he said. 

The woman laughed, or maybe coughed. Then she was still and silent again. Gerber noticed boxes of kiddy pasta and Lunchables in her cart. 

“The picture’s always better than the real thing,” she finally said. 

Gerber extended his hand, gesturing for her to try a piece. 

“Uh, no thanks.”

Gerber shrugged. He looked around the aisle for a place to put the can, then settled his eyes back on the stranger. He liked the way she stood there, awkwardly lost for words. She said nothing, but invisible thoughts materialized on her face—glowed on her face. The mouth gave it all away. Her thin fingers tapped playfully on the shopping cart’s handlebar. One of them wore a ring. 

“Now what if your boss were to catch you eating off of the shelf like this?” she said.

Gerber’s heart kicked. “He’d know it’s for the good of the customers. The whole point of eating off the shelf …” He paused for a second. “… is for me to tell you firsthand that these peaches ain’t as good as they look on the outside.”

“But the outside’s just a picture.”

“Exactly! And the reason the picture looks so good is ‘cause it ain’t the real thing. See, you’re with me. It’s all a scam.” 

The woman’s tongue rolled around a piece of gum. She studied Gerber with narrow, curious eyes. She wore her hair in a ponytail like a girl half her age and chewed gum like a kid, but subtle lines carved the skin around her eyes.  

She cracked a bubble behind her teeth and broke the silence.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“How old am I?” Gerber repeated. “How old are you?”

The woman pushed her cart forward slowly. She rolled her eyes. Her winding imagination rolled away with it. “Enjoy yourself while you can,” she said. 

Gerber watched like a spectator at a fashion show as the woman disappeared down the rubber-tile runway. He thought to himself, not in words, but in pictures. The pictures entertained but led nowhere. He placed the opened can alongside the others and began stocking the shelves again. 

The mental counting never returned. 

 

* * * 

 

    King Carl joined Gerber for a smoke break toward the end of their shift. Gerber was quieter than usual. He pulled at his cigarette long and thoughtfully. Nearby, pigeons gathered around a pile of dog shit, bobbing their heads with interest. Carl began retelling the plot of a movie he’d seen last night. Gerber found the pigeons and dog shit more interesting and stopped listening after the first scene. 

Frankie the cart gatherer walked by, and Carl raised his head as if to shout.

    “Don’t call him over,” he said. 

    “You and the old guy ain’t friends no more?” 

    Gerber said nothing and flicked away his cigarette with an impressive arc. 

    “What’s the matter with you?” Carl asked.

    “I have to get that picture off the wall.”

    It took Carl a few seconds to realize what Gerber was talking about. Then he laughed.

    “What? I’m serious,” Gerber said. “I don’t want people to see that picture and think it’s me. Like, actually me.” 

“But it is actually you.”

“No,” Gerber said. Trying to elaborate was useless. Someone like Carl wouldn’t understand the difference between a picture and the real thing. He thought it was funny, the bastard. They should have given the honor to him: “King” Carl Workman, Employee of the Month. King was the perfect candidate to hang on a wall lifelessly collecting dust. There wasn’t much life in him to begin with. Gerber wondered when Carl last kissed a girl, if ever. Of all the things he rambled about, he never rambled about girls, and girls were an important thing to ramble about, Gerber thought. Carl was old enough to be married. He was probably older than the woman with kiddy pasta in her cart. Carl once mentioned that he still enjoyed kiddy pasta now and then. 

Gerber’s mind indulged in a picture of the almond-faced stranger. He liked the way she glowed. But it was a passing glow bookended by spontaneity and dutiful restraint, spontaneous intrigue and that ring on her finger. Dutiful restraint, builder of fictions. It was that same restraint that nailed Gerber to a wall above a baptismal inscription he’d never asked for: Employee of the Month. That he’d never really live up to: Employee of the Month. 

Dutiful restraint, builder of King Carls. And Gerber was sure he was no King Carl—almost sure. 

 

 

The Evening of Skunk’s Arrest

 

Jay passed a blunt to Tippity and vertically exhaled a column of smoke. The door was closed to keep in the grey cloud that hung over the entire room. The cloud curled slowly and rhythmically against the room’s yellowing walls. 

    Tippity pulled on the blunt with a downcast expression. “Sorry,” he said.  His eyes escaped into a piss stain on the rug. “I got nervous before is all.”

    Jay waved his hand. “Whatever.”

    “You know what’s goin’ on with me and probation and—”

    “Whatever,” he said. “You wanna burn the rest of this in the one-hitter?”

    Tippity reached into a desk drawer and took out a small pipe. Jay handed him the remainder of the blunt. Tippity emptied it out. They passed the pipe back and forth without saying anything. The pipe took the place of talking.

“I saw Shanice outside Korner Deli today,” Jay finally said. It was the only thing that had happened today that he could find the words to talk about. “She was wearin’ those dumb-ass leggings with the planets on ’em.”

Tippity pictured the leggings in his mind. He lifted his eyes from the piss stain, and his tense lips mellowed into a smirk. “You shoulda said, ‘Yo Shanice … your ass looks outta this world!’ ” 

They laughed together, and the anxiety in the room dissolved into the heavy cloud of smoke. The pot helped draw out the laugh. When they finished laughing, it became hard to talk again. 

Jay took a final hit and set the pipe down on the computer desk. He kept his mouth shut and stared into space, stone-faced and stoned. Staring into space made him think of Shanice’s leggings: Your ass looks out of this world. He laughed again, but the pot took his laugh and turned it against him, and everything on the inside burned. 

Tippity turned on the TV and picked up a video game controller. 

“Wanna play?” he asked.

The rising and falling of Jay’s chest had quickened quickly. His breaths became shorter, sharper, but his mind slowed down, stretched out like taffy. The taffy eventually snapped, and the real world kicked back hard.

“You know,” Jay said. “Fuck you.”

He left the room and slammed the door behind him. The force from the door knocked a clock off the wall, shattering it into pieces. Tippity barely flinched. He left it there, thinking, I’ll worry about it later, then: I’ll worry about it tomorrow—yeah, tomorrow. It was old and broken anyway, and the hands had stopped moving years ago.

 

Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at ray1018belli@gmail.com.

Lowe Township, Part Two

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

 

Lucky

 

You’re eating a bowl of cereal in bed when Aunt Bailey calls. You know it’s Aunt Bailey without having to pick up the phone because she’s called you every night this week, just as you’re about to go to bed. You’re starting to feel guilty for ignoring her, so maybe if you answer she’ll stop calling for a while.  

Hey, you say.

Hey, she says. What’s up, sweetie?

Just trying to fall asleep. Crunch. I have an exam tomorrow. You?

Take a guess what Psycho dropped off at my doorstep this morning!

A bomb, you say. Psycho’s your crazy relative who bought a fire truck off the Internet and uses it to water his grass sometimes.

No. Another baby girl!

Huh?

She’s already fixed, I think.

Crunch. You mean he gave you a cat? Crunch, crunch.

Her name’s Lucky! Psycho was about to throw her out on the street. Can you believe it? You don’t just throw away a cat named Lucky! Well, you don’t just throw away a cat, period, but especially if her name is Lucky! He don’t understand that some people in the world need all the luck they can get. I need all the luck I can get.

I mean … sure, you say. Sure. You can sense where the conversation is headed, and you don’t like it. You attempt to sidestep the drama by asking why Psycho decided to get rid of his cat.

He’s moving in with his mother, didn’t you hear? She’s getting sick and he’s going to take care of her, but she doesn’t want to have a cat around.

Oh. So Psycho’s the good guy.

Yeah, the good guy who throws his cat out the window. To die. He’s a son of a bitch sometimes, she mutters. Am I being hard on him?

A little, you say.

A little, she repeats. Oh, you’re right. Because Psycho is a good guy. Don’t tell anyone, but I think he was gonna move out anyway ’cause he’s having trouble paying the rent.

Well, there you go. Crunch, crunch. Cats don’t have to take care of sick parents. Cats don’t have to pay rent.

But she’s beautiful! You have to see her. Hold on a sec, I’m going to pour a drink.

The refrigerator door opens, closes, and something goes clink.

Can I call you tomorrow? I’m trying to go to sleep and—

No, no, don’t go. I’ve got a few things I want to talk about. But tell me about your week first. I want to hear about your week. Tell me what your week was like.

You finish the last mouthful of cereal—crunch—and tiredly exhale.

Well, you know. Nothing much, really. It’s finals week. I’ve been studying a lot and … and that’s about it. My roommates are crackheads, but—

What?

Not actual crackheads. But they got busted smoking pot in the dorms and—

You don’t have anything to do with that, right?

No.

Oh, God bless you for keeping your head on your shoulders. You know, you’re like me, the only other person in the world who can be around losers without becoming a loser. It’s different for you ’cause you’re in the city now, but … you know how it is, beat as ever back home. You having fun in the city?

When I’m not too busy. Sure.

She swallows the last mouthful of her drink, and it sounds like she goes to pour another.

Let me tell you what happened to Joe-Dog the other day!

You really don’t want to hear it, but you let her mouth fly. From what you gather, Joe-Dog’s car breaks down on the Parkway. He drives illegally without insurance, so he has to hitchhike home and ask a friend who works at a local towing company to take his car to his driveway where his neighbor, who Joe-Dog swears is an effing homo, decides to key it up in the middle of the night. Except there’s no proof it’s actually him.

… but I tell him not to worry about it ’cause Psycho does touch-ups for cheap. So I call up Psycho to talk about it and we shoot the shit for a while, and I don’t know how it comes up, but he says he’s getting rid of his cat. I go, No, you can’t do that! No, no, no! You know me. I flipped out on him. My heart’s just too big. Bailey with the big heart!

Right, you say. Two hearts.

Two hearts, exactly. Which is why I’m taking care of the cat even though I ain’t got a pot to piss in. It’s bad, she says, and her voice drops to a whisper as if the whole world’s tuned in to what she has to say. She’s says she’s scared. The quiver in her voice is real, and it takes you by surprise. You straighten out and actually start listening.

She repeats that it’s bad and that she’s scared and puts the phone down to add a little more alcohol to her drink. You want to point out that she probably doesn’t need more, but you know she won’t listen and there’s nothing you could do to stop her over the phone.

There’s something wrong with me, she says. Look, promise you won’t tell your mother, okay?

What is it?

I’m not telling, but the doctor said it could be bad. I don’t have health insurance since I’m out of a job … and here I am in the meantime adopting a fucking cat. But her name’s Lucky, you know? Maybe it means something. It has to mean something. Maybe I won’t die by the end of the year.

There’s a long silence, mostly because you don’t know what to say and you think she’s expecting you to say something.

After a while, she says, I might die, man. Shit.

Well that’s not good, you say, and a few more seconds go by before either of you speaks again. The stillness in the room makes it worse.

Are you going to miss me if I die? she asks.

Jesus. Of course I’ll miss you.

Are you messing with me?

No. I’m serious. I have one heart, at least.

Sometimes I’m not sure. I just need to know because I love you.

It’s weird to hear Aunt Bailey say that she loves you. You know that she loves you, but you don’t think she’s ever said it before, not aloud and earnestly like that. You think she’s sniveling. It sounds like she’s holding herself back from crying like crazy.

Would you be sad? she asks.

Now that’s a good question. You have to think about it for a few seconds. You tell her that you would miss her but would try your hardest not to be sad.

You know, you really are more of my son than your mother’s. Everyone used to say that to me when you were young. Sis would go berserk. You know her.

I do know my mother, yes.

You really are my son. When my mama passed away, I said the same thing to myself, that I’d miss her without getting too sad. Christ, it’s been ten years and I’m still sad and I still miss her. God, I miss my mama. You remember Grandma?

A little bit, yeah.

I’m strong, but not like you. I just don’t want you to be sad. ’Cause the doctor—sniffle—the doctor said I’m really sick, you know.

I’m—

And listen, whatever you do, do not tell your mother.

I won’t.

Because she don’t need to know. If I die, it’s my business. Joe-Dog’ll take care of the—ha! Joe-Dog’ll take care of the cat. Get it?

Yes, I get it.

He’s broke too, but he’ll find a way. But you know, maybe I won’t die because her name is Lucky. You know, it’s a good thing I never had any real kids ’cause they’d never live up to you. I really love you. I do.

Same to you, you say, and it’s not entirely untrue. It’s just a little weird for you to say the words.

Aunt Bailey drifts into a monologue about Lowe Township and how she hates everyone back home, even her friends and family; mostly her friends and family. You can’t blame her, but you miss Lowe Township sometimes—the streets, the stores, the smells. It was naïve of you to think you’d never want to go back, even just to visit. But you definitely don’t miss the people Aunt Bailey’s talking about.

She pours another drink and promises it’ll be the last one, but you tell her that you really need to get going because of that exam.

Oh, all right. You’re such a good student. You make me so proud. I never used to study for exams when I was in college. Maybe that’s why I’m stuck in this hole now, ’cause I didn’t study hard enough. Only God can find me a job nowadays, and that’s a fact. You turn my age and start believing in God again. Imagine that. I’ve even been going to church with your mother on Sundays, but that’s another story. We’ll talk about that next time.

The ice cubes in her glass jangle loud and clear through the phone. You picture them floating, swirling. She takes a long gulp that pulses with a steady beat down her food pipe. A high-pitched sigh in an artificial voice punctuates the last drop.

But don’t you worry, she says. It’ll never get to this point with you. Not with your talents. I promise.

She’s not very reassuring, but you tell her that she is and that you’ll visit as soon as you’re back in town. She asks if you could talk for just a little bit longer, but you tell her yet again that you really need to get going because of that exam.

After you hang up, you turn on the TV and stare into the muted screen. It’s going to be hard to get to bed after that.

Huh. You wonder what’s wrong with her, if anything. She’s got two hearts all right, and it’s sometimes hard to know which one of them to take seriously. It’s a good thing she’s got another cat. Hopefully that’ll keep her from doing anything stupid. You do love Aunt Bailey, after all.
 

To Be Continued …

* * *

Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at ray1018belli@gmail.com.

Lowe Township, Part One

This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.

Enjoy!

 

Upon Returning Home

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

Illustrations by Mariela Napolitano

 

On the sign on the side of the road where you turn off the highway, then again on the banner that hangs from the bridge that crosses Essex Street: Welcome to Lowe Township. Big, golden letters that assume you’ve never been here before: Welcome to Lowe Township.

But it’s been a while for you and things have changed. Main Street’s changed, the highway’s changed. Ma says the people have changed too. You tell her things are changing all the time, but she says a town like this is never supposed to change. You probably shouldn’t repeat the rest of the things she says.

Jen turns her perfect blue eyes out the passenger’s side window. Tides of cars along the highway. Traffic.

I can’t believe that people sit through that every day, she says.

It’s her first time in this part of New Jersey. You’ve tried explaining that in places like this, it’s the little things that matter—your favorite pizza place, the batting cages, the parks. Jen says that’s how it is everywhere. But everywhere isn’t here, you remind her. Nostalgia, she says, but the truth is that people here give you the feeling that no one else in the world is precisely like them.

And what’s that supposed to get you? That’s her father talking. You met her father once. He had the impression of a person for whom things in life need an objective, material purpose, because everything else is hippie shit and that won’t get you nowhere. You don’t entirely hate him.

You get off the highway at Essex Street and approach Petrillo’s Deli—well, what used to be Petrillo’s Deli. It’s The Korner Store now, and the Grand Opening sign is still hanging off the side of the roof. Jen touches your arm, says she wants to stop for gum. You pull over and get out.  

Inside, there’s a program on a small TV in a language you can’t understand. You couldn’t understand when Ol’ Petrillo spoke Italian, but there used to be enough Italians in town that you’d recognize words here and there. Fratelli, fangul, fanabala. That’s mostly what Ma means about people here changing, that families like the Petrillos and Andrettis are moving out. Moving out or dying out.

You hear the bathroom door close and Jen’s gone when you turn around. In the meantime you walk the aisles: rice, cereal, beans, detergent. The man behind the counter—tall and dark and leathery with a mustache and eyes that look like melted berries—stares you down without smiling, without speaking. When Jen comes out, he stares her down too. He keeps on staring until you step outside to leave.

 

* * *

 

It’s only for a second that you catch the Redhead throwing punches in the rearview mirror before someone beeps and shouts Move. It’s the echo of her fists slamming into the sandbag that turns Jen’s eyes out the car window. Even at a distance, the punches are loud and clear, short and mean.

Bad day at work, you tease, but the truth is that the Redhead showed up two or three summers ago here in Lowe Township and has been beating the living hell out of that sandbag ever since. No one knows her or where she came from, but of course, everyone knows of her and where she is now. She’s hard to miss on the corner of Main and McKinley with the way she sets that thing up in the middle of her lawn.

Jen gazes into the rearview mirror until the Redhead becomes a tiny speck and a lawnmower drowns out the distant sound of her fists.

Now I’ve seen a punch or two in my day—you remember this from a friend’s father—really, a good punch or two, but never from a young lady that I’d call beautiful. Really, just beautiful. The first time I saw her, I had to drive ’round the block to get another look at her ’cause I couldn’t believe my eyes.

You pause, for effect, and Jen’s face pinches into a small knot as if physically bracing herself for what you’ll say next. For what the Redhead will say next.

She stopped punching and gave this guy the finger, you say. She said if he didn’t get moving she’d shove her sandbag so far up his ass he’d never believe it came from a woman.

The pinched knot loosens and Jen ponders the story, eyes glued to her toes. The eyes stay glued there until you ask what’s wrong.

I bet someone hurt her, Jen finally says. She thinks about it for a few seconds, then nods. Someone hurt her. Physically, I mean.

Huh. Well that’s one theory, you say. Jen is probably right. That sure would explain the sandbag up the ass.

 

* * *

 

The door won’t budge, you have no keys, and you’re stuck outside upon returning Home. Ma’s out food shopping and won’t be home for an hour, but the weather is perfect so you take Jen for a walk around town.

She’s regretting it, you think, regretting coming here for the weekend before spending the summer at her parents’ house in rural Pennsylvania. Maybe regretting it puts it harshly. But she’s not used to houses like these, houses side-by-side with fake grass and lawn decorations out front—or sandbags, for that matter. Ma’s house isn’t too shabby, but it’s nothing like Jen’s with a Jacuzzi and a gym and a hardwood floor in every room. Around here, you got Jimmy Feducia to come in and furnish your home with whatever you needed at the friends and family discount. But then they put him in jail for tax evasion, and the business went under after his son tried taking over.

… so the kid tried being a cop, but word on the street is he couldn’t fire a gun to save his life.

And then?

And then, you chuckle. And then he got a job as a clerk at the gun shop on the highway. But now he’s in jail too for smuggling handguns on the black market.

The chuckle hurts because you knew the kid and his dad. You hiked and fished with the kid and his dad. But telling the story to Jen somehow makes it funny.

You put your arm around her waist and start walking.

Welcome to Lowe Township, you say. Welcome to Lowe Township.

 

* * *

You take the path alongside the river that cuts down to Main Street. A smell drifts up from the water, a smell that wasn’t there when you were young—or maybe it was there and you never noticed. You notice new things about Lowe Township all the time, things you couldn’t have noticed as a kid. Not just the things that Ma complains are changing, but the things that’ve stayed the same. Exactly the same. Girls becoming their mothers, boys becoming their fathers. Patterns of nepotism beginning anew. Again, Jen says, that’s how it is everywhere, and, again, you insist that everywhere isn’t here.

Now you’re being a hypocrite, she says.

What?

You just are. You talk about this place like everyone lives behind a peephole or something. I mean, I get it, sort of, but you take it too far. Everybody lives in the center of their own universe no matter where you go.

The way she says it makes you slow down. You stop altogether. Now that’s a thought: Lowe Township, Center of the Universe—well, their universe. Your universe? You guess that’s where the peephole comes in. But peephole sounds cruel, and it is. Maybe that’s what the look on Jen’s face is for, the look she’s been wearing since you’ve gotten to town. You tell yourself it’s more like a doggie door popping open and closed. Because no one could fit through a peephole, anyway.

 

* * *

 

Down on Main Street, crouched over an untied shoelace: That you Jay?

Jay knows the voice and turns. Aw shit, he says. He gives you a knock in the chest, asks what you’re doing back home. The way he talks makes it sound like a big deal.

Visiting my Ma for the weekend, you say. Jay, this is Jen. Jen, Jay.

His eyes roll all over her body. You know exactly what he’s thinking—what she’s thinking.

You a famous rock star yet?

Working on it, Jay.

When I see you on TV, I’m gunna say, I used to know that kid! I used to party with that nigga! When you a millionaire, remember Afro Jay, aight?

And you will. You’re not sure about the millionaire part, but you tell him you’ll never forget the people in Lowe Township, the people you grew up around. He says to watch out for cops nowadays ’cause they don’t care if it’s two grams or two ounces anymore. It’s been three years since you’ve quit, but you say you’ll be careful anyway. Less to explain.

He hoists up his pants, says he’s got to get going. Business, ya know? You expect him to say more, but he’s less enthusiastic than you remember. Droopier, crustier.

When he leaves, Jen asks if that’s what all your friends from around here are like.

Not all. Some. What do you think?

Oh, Jen laughs. He’s great.

But for all you know it’s her father laughing. Jen’s family is used to lawyers, engineers, politicians. Yet Jen’s fallen for you, a musician from a town like this. But that’s not the weird thing. The weird thing is that after living in New York, touring the world, and getting a good start to what you’d like to think of as a career as a professional musician, you like being here in Lowe Township. It is home, whatever that’s worth. You still like to see what happens.


 

The Morning of Skunk’s Arrest

 

Jay lived illegally in a single room on the second floor of an old house covered with ivy. Tippity’s mom let him stay there. An extra two hundred a month kept her happy, and no one said a word.

Jay dragged himself into the kitchen for breakfast and noticed a clump of eggs in a pan on the stove. He chased away a fly and poured the cold, hardened egg-stuff onto a plate. Two spoonfuls was enough. His stomach churned, his head throbbed. Everything hurt from last night’s combination of chemicals.

He brought the eggs to Tippity’s door and knocked.

“You want your ma’s leftovers?”

Tippity opened the door. His eyes were heavy and glazed. His shirt was on backwards, inside-out. He stood there silently for a few seconds, then took a step back. The step back was the strange thing.

“Whatsa matter with you?” Jay asked.

Tippity took the plate and set it on his bed. He gazed downward at nothing, half-turned away from Jay.

“They arrested your brother this morning,” he said

“Say what?”

“Yeah. Check your phone, it’s been ringin’ like crazy.” Tippity hesitated, then said, “That’s all I know. But you can’t stay here anymore.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

Jay’s heart stopped beating. His stomach stopped churning, his head stopped throbbing. Everything stopped completely until his heart kicked back to life.

“I’m sorry, but—”

Jay punched Tippity in the face. Tippity fell backwards into his bed, spilling the eggs onto the floor. He grabbed Jay by the wrists and tried shoving him out of the room, but Jay squirmed loose and punched him again, this time in the side of the head.

“Yo, chill out!” Tippity said.

“I live here,” Jay said.

“Yeah, not any more. Me and my mom live here.”

“I pay you, nigga. You can’t just kick me out.”

“I swear to God, Jay,” Tippity said.

He got up and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. Blood, red and foamy. He flicked it off his hand and slammed the door shut. Jay violently shook the knob, pounded the wood. Eventually, the sound of a video game resumed on the other side.

“Are you forreal?”

But in less than twenty minutes he was out of the house. In his backpack were some clothes, his laptop, and two ounces of pot that he planned to get rid of by tonight. The TV, the bed, and everything else he used belonged to Tippity’s brother who one day disappeared and never came back.

On the way out Jay threatened to break Tippity’s face if he ever saw him again.

From the window in his room, Tippity watched Jay’s shape shrink down the street. Eventually the shape disappeared. He wondered if kicking Jay out was an overreaction. It was a terrible thing, really. Everyone knew that Jay and Skunk were like family to him, and for precisely that reason, he wanted nothing to do with them.

 

* * *

 

It was after their mother overdosed that Jay and Skunk came to Lowe Township. They moved in with their aunt who lived in an old woman’s basement, and for a while things looked like they’d turn out okay. A year later their aunt died of an undiagnosed medical problem. Then the landlord kicked them out.

“ … and it’s what we gotta do now, you hear?”

Skunk was sixteen when he said that. They were down by the river, Jay and Skunk, smoking cigarettes like old friends past their age. As kids, they went down to the river to hang out and get high.

“ … as long as we don’t end up like Dad. We’re gonna quit while we’re ahead.”

And back then, he meant it.

Jay gazed into his reflection in the river now. Desperate black rings clung to his eyes, the eyes themselves stained red with insomnia. The shallow water moved gently, licking the tips of his sneakers. He kicked it.

“… then where’s my fucking money, Jay?”

But Jay never found the money—never had the money, he swore. Skunk had pinned him to the kitchen floor and beaten him over nothing, really. That had changed things. When Skunk left town, it marked the end of something. The start of something, Jay had hoped, but here he was, yet again, at the riverside.

He sat in the dirt, knees to his chest, tugging at a stubborn root. He tried to think about nothing, but all he could think about was Skunk’s face gazing out at the world from behind prison bars. The face resembled his own. It had the same eyes, the same nose. The same stubbornness in the mouth.

He tugged on the root harder and it popped out of the ground. The whole thing was much larger than what shown at the surface. Most of it was buried beneath the ground, gnarled, black, and cancerous. He flung it into the river and it landed upright, lodged between two rocks. It began to sway gently, gracefully even, until the water snapped it in half and carried the broken pieces out of sight.  

 

* * *

 

Jay emerged from the riverside at the back end of a Shop Rite parking lot. An employee with unkempt hair and a bored-to-death expression was smoking a cigarette a short distance away. His nametag said, “Gerber.”

“Got another boge?” asked Jay.  

“Last one,” said Gerber, indicating the cigarette in his hand.

“You the law?” asked Jay.

“Huh?”

“I said are you the law? Like the police.”

Gerber looked down at Jay’s mud-stained knees, then up at his sweat-soaked face. “I’m just out here on a smoke break, man,” he said. Gerber’s face twitched with a smirk. He tapped the nametag on his chest. “I work here.”

“Something funny to you?” asked Jay. “I’ll kill you.”

Unfazed, Gerber drew another smoky breath into his lungs. The smirk was hard to hide away.

“You tell me what’s funny, you piece of shit.”

Jay shoved Gerber against a metal pole, then slammed his fist into the side of the nearest car. He grunted in pain or rage and started walking toward the street.

Gerber bent down and picked up the cigarette that had fallen out of his mouth. He continued smoking calmly. Junkie, he thought. Good-for-nothing dickhead junkie. He felt the smirk crawling back onto his face. The smirk turned into a chuckle, the chuckle into laughter. He couldn’t put his finger on what was so funny. But he supposed it didn’t matter. He stomped out the rest of his cigarette and walked back inside, wondering what the good-for-nothing dickhead junkie could have been doing down there by the river. He supposed that didn’t matter, either.


 

To Be Continued...

 

Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at ray1018belli@gmail.com.