After the Movie

March 23, 2013

It was the stupid commercial that finally pushed her over the edge. The hot office broad, up on her desk like a pole dancer, and those goofy executive types leering at her. Be more attractive to your employers, it said, and I laughed.

Rachel jumped up off the couch and took a few jerky steps toward the kitchen. I thought at first she was going for more snacks. Then she turned on me, hair flying around her head in a pale yellow storm.

“You goddamned men. You’re all the same.”

I didn’t stand a chance. “Rach…it was just a commercial. What’s the big deal?” Is this another one of your rape things? I almost said.

“If you’d been with me that night, instead of out drinking with your fucking football buddies, it never would have happened.”

I could only stare up at her, my mouth stopped up tight, my hands making these little butterfly motions. Was she broken for good?

Seeing that yet another apology wasn’t forthcoming, she stomped off to the bedroom, her slight form refusing to lend an ounce of floor-pounding credence to her anger. I heard the bath water, and then the snick of the lock. Looked like I was sleeping on the couch again.

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Ten after seven on a Sunday night. Tomorrow’s the first day of school. My wife says Billy needs stuff for a sandwich. He wants some potato chips, too. Ever since we lost Janey, she’s pampered the kid. Lets him sit in his room and play video games. When I was his age, I had a job. Washing dishes, delivering papers. I’d gladly work one of those jobs now. I take a piss the color of Kentucky bourbon and step into the high-nineties of late summer. My piece of shit car sits in the drive, broken and brooding. Worthless.

The clerk at the grocery store is cute. Trailer simple. She flirts, I flirt back, and I hope she doesn’t remember me tomorrow. Five minutes later, a lumpy sack of bologna, Wonder bread, and melting American cheese dangles from my left hand. From my right, a fresh pint of Jack. My last twenty bucks is gone until Wednesday. Maybe there’s some change under the couch cushions.

My flip-flops are loose. They chafe, and a small blister forms, between my toes. Bits of sand, like glass, collect there. The cool, fruity smell of the grocery store lies behind me. I miss it already. The Arizona sun hangs low on the horizon, bloated and lazy, but still bright enough to burn blazing pinholes of light into my brain. My head throbs like a whiny bitch.

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Yesterday my wife caught me with a picture of her best friend Liz. It was the one of her at the Christmas party, wearing the skimpy red dress and the reindeer antlers. It’s my favorite photo.

So I’m standing there, the photo of Liz propped against the bottle of expensive hand cream Jen always buys, and she busts through the bathroom door like it’s the last toilet on earth.

“Jesus, Jen. Ever heard of knocking?”

She takes one look at the photo and starts bawling. “That was my favorite picture of her,” she says. I try to explain, telling her that even though I’ve been seeing Liz for five years, nearly as long as Jen and I’ve been married, it’s not what she thinks.

She doesn’t buy it. “Bastard,” she says, and runs for the car keys.

My belt buckle scrapes across the kitchen floor as I follow her. She tries to jam her shoes on but the laces have knotted. As I reach to help she pushes me away, furious. “Pull up your pants, pervert.”

I want to tell her she looks like Patty Duke when she’s mad. “I love you, Jennifer,” I plead.

She opens the door to leave and I offer up a last ditch cliché. “She doesn’t mean anything,” I say. But we both know that’s a lie. Liz means everything to me.

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Finals Week

March 4, 2013

Darius Fletcher woke from a dream of Elvis Presley in a leotard. Don’t be cruel, sang the
King of Rock and Roll. Lisa’s ringtone. The blue glow of the cable box said 3:55 AM. Why
was she calling?

Fletcher gently slid his arm from beneath the mass of blonde hair lying next to
him. Mary Beth was a light sleeper. He picked up his cell phone and padded out to the
living room.

“Hello?” Light from the Starbuck’s sign across the street filtered in through the
blinds, painting the apartment’s shag an ugly fluorescent green. It reminded him of St
Patrick’s day.

“Good morning, sleepy head.”

A dark chasm of dread open at the sound of her voice. “Lisa. What’s wrong?” She was halfway across the country, at the University of Chicago. “Why are you calling?”

A sharp squeal of laughter. “Oh, no! Did I wake you? Gosh darn it, I forgot about
the time change thing again.”

“What’s wrong?” he repeated.

She emitted a huff of impatience at the question, like a miniature freight train. The little engine that could. “Nothing’s wrong, Honey. It’s just that…well, I have some good news, and I have a little bad news.”

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Three weeks ago, I bought a new barbeque grill. It’s one of those big stainless steel jobs, with three burners, a flush-mount auxiliary burner, and 10,000 BTU. That was right before I burned off my facial hair. I’m not talking about a flash of heat and a quick curl of the eyelashes here. I leaned down to push the starter…click, click, click, and WHOOSH! It was like Ground Zero at the Trinity nuclear test site. My neighbor Jim laughed so hard he fell off the picnic table. What a jerk.

I’ve been learning to grill since I got married. I’d be happy eating casseroles and TV dinners, but Marie is in love with grilled meat.  Ribs, chicken, brisket—you name it. Once she even made me grill the Thanksgiving turkey. That was the year we had Chinese takeout, after I got her to agree the bird was beyond salvage.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind cooking for her. But I’d rather do it indoors, where it’s safe. Grilling is dangerous. Charcoal briquettes are chock full of toxic chemicals. Those long-handled cooking implements? You could put an eye out with the fork Marie bought for my birthday last year. And everyone knows that grilled meat causes cancer. I tell her these things and she rolls her eyes, then hands me a platter of raw cow meat.

“Get outside. I’m hungry.”

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McGee and the Garden Hose

February 6, 2013

On the day James McGee decided to end his life, his wife had called him an asshole. “You’ll never be happy, Jimmy,” said Helen.

They sat at opposite ends of the kitchen table, middle-aged opponents squared off on a suburban battlefield. McGee planned to endure today’s skirmish as he had countless others, through a tactic of silent indifference.

While she talked, he watched over her shoulder. Next door, Amundsen mowed his grass again. The precise crisscrosses of his neighbor’s lawn offended him, as did the well-trimmed bushes and flowers. The landscape was an annoying quasar in McGee’s dark universe.

“Why does Dave need to cut his grass three times a week?” he said.

Helen fiddled with a dishtowel. She’d given up cigarettes five years ago, and her hands had been busy since. Her ragged fingernails teased out a thread along the towel’s edge, then deposited it on a growing pile in the center of the table.
“Don’t change the subject,” she said.

His headache set in. Jim’s Helenache, laughed the men at the office where Jim worked. “I’m happy,” he said.

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On the Shore of Lake Wissota

January 29, 2013

The sign over the cash register read 15 Items or Less. Warren stuffed Mrs. Kennedy’s boxes of Smack Ramen, cherry Jell-O, and licorice whips into the sack, counting each one. At twenty-nine, he opened his mouth to tell the old bat to get in the other lane.

Janelle shushed him as she ran the cash register. Then she smiled sweetly at Ms. Kennedy and said, “That’ll be $25.19.”

The old bat dragged a wrinkled twenty, five ones, and nineteen pennies from her change purse. Janelle scooped the money off the counter, winking at Warren. He started to smile, but then the boss suddenly showed up.

Dave tapped Janelle on the shoulder. “I need you in my office. Close up.” He scowled at Warren. “Lane Five. Get going, old man.”

Sighing, Warren clocked out at 9:45. His back ached and he was cold. He was too old to be a grocery store bagger, also assigned to the famous “other duties as required.” He had mopped the produce section, cleaned the toilets, and restocked the dairy case. He could no longer make a fist, and he struggled with his jacket as he walked to the loading dock.

He looked over his shoulder to see Dave lifting one edge of the blinds covering the window of his small office, staring out at Warren as he passed. Janelle’s head was a dark shadow behind the glass. He lifted his hand like a claw and waved but Dave turned away. The blinds dropped with what was probably a muffled clatter, even though Warren couldn’t hear it through the glass.

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Many people struggle with small talk, especially on a city bus. To Mark Hallman, the bus was like a family reunion where you can’t remember the name of your gap-toothed cousin, or that of the drunk uncle in the Chicago Bears jersey. Every weekday he left the quiet of the Lynwood Mall Park ‘n Ride and, with the apprehension of a visit to the proctologist, climbed into the echoing anonymity of the 13E. From there he rode twenty-five minutes to his job at the credit union, silent and uncomfortable among familiar strangers. Today, Mark would change all that.

To his left sat the young man with the sailor tattoo—Mark called him Popeye (never to his face, of course). Three seats back, the noisy couple who stepped off every day at Murdock Street argued again about who would cook dinner that night. In the very rear of the bus was a plump but not unattractive girl in a tartan knee-length dress and thick Harry Potter glasses. She was staring at him, again. And two seats before Mark was the woman he would someday marry.

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On the Interstate

December 15, 2012

yellow mama

Despite the blizzard, Will accelerated down the icy ramp. He grabbed fourth gear, too soon; beneath him the big diesel shuddered and groaned. Thirty, thirty-five, now forty, the transmission whined in protest. He ignored the truck’s mechanical complaints and slid into fifth.  The Kenworth lumbered onto the deserted Interstate, the last cold light of February shining on Will’s brow.

The pavement was glass. He regretted now not replacing that left rear tire back in Bismarck. He could feel it back there: slipping, grabbing, slipping, each icy bite making the truck groan and yaw in a great quarrel of reverberating sheet metal.

Beyond the heaving mounds of troglodytic ice and snow crowding the highway’s narrow shoulders, visibility was but a few hundred feet; beyond that, the landscape revealed naught but an obscure pall of white gusting across the ghosts of desolate farm fields, the dirt and snow painting hazy zebra stripes down the silent rows of October’s forgotten cornstalks.

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November 25, 2012


I didn’t think it was a big deal when my sister Kate started dating a Golden Gloves champ. Sure, my Mom got uptight, but when wasn’t she? And my Dad? Oblivious. He was far more interested in that big tit broad at the office. The thought of his daughter banging a guy who bench-pressed four hundred pounds, someone with seventeen KOs to his name, was just one more fart in the windstorm to my old man.

His name was Tommy Flatlin. People called him Flatline, but never to his face.

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