Read More: A Short Interview with Bernard Grant
Sam hissed smoke into low fog, a gray thickness obscuring the street beyond the driveway. It was a quiet morning, aside from Sam’s boasts and the cars swishing by the road outside our neighborhood. He was proud of himself, smoking his last cigarette. When I told people back home I lived with a man in his fifties, they said it was weird, like he sneaked in my room to sniff my panties. Sam was a perv, I can’t lie, but he’d never touch me.
The cherry was near the butt, though he’d smoke until he charred his goatee. I hopped into the car, a tiny red thing in desperate need of a muffler, and sniffed a reason he wouldn’t quit. His car reeked. Every time he got inside he’d want to spark one. I fingered the bracelet tied onto my wrist and told myself that keeping a car that smelled like smoke when you were trying to quit was like wearing a bracelet your ex gave you while claiming you’re over him. I was over Gene, but the bracelet, handmade from brown string entwined in white, with a third black string running straight through, like a coiled garden snake, was tied too tight.
Sam slid behind the wheel, covered the bald top of his head with a baseball cap, white strands spreading against his neck, and backed down the driveway. At the entrance to our neighborhood, he swung a right and hit fifty in a thirty-five. Maples shot up from a field carpeted in orange-yellow and purple leaves, a faint glow beneath a gray sky. I rolled down my window, poked my hand outside, let the wind rush my palm as we passed a girl on the sidewalk. Sam turned his head, no doubt gazing at her tight jeans beneath an undersized sweater.
“Dammit,” he said, glancing in the mirror, catching sight of her cherubic face. “Fifteen year-old bootie. I make myself sick sometimes.” But he smiled. “Better to be a dirty old man than a filthy old man.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“A dirty old man looks, but he don’t touch.” He flicked his head left. “Here?”
I unbuckled when we neared Gene’s apartment, and had the door open before Sam parked.
“Now hold on a sec.” Sam lifted himself to pull his wallet from his back pocket. He took his time, performing in his way, shuffling through cards, inspecting sleeves and compartments. “Damn. Fresh out. Ya’ll ain’t gone need protection or nothing?” Then his lips peeled back and he laughed so hard I could tell he was faking.
“How rude of me, I forgot to laugh.” I stepped out of the car, and as I started for Gene’s apartment, I called out, “Thanks for the ride, dad.”
My real dad was a Jesus freak who sucked my mom into church. He sucked me in, too. Sunday school, vacation Bible school, church fundraisers, carwashes and plays. From the age of speech until tampons, I swallowed my nerves to stand on stage before an eager audience, cameras flashing, to impress him. It was a big church, one of those megachurches you see on TV, with two screens flanking the pulpit. Ten was the minimum age to audition for the part of Mary in “The Nativity.” Fifteen was the maximum. Girls wanted the part like pierced ears, but older girls usually got it. Took me three years of auditions before I landed the role. Mom and I kept it secret until dinner.
“Oh, dad,” I said. “Almost forgot to tell you. I got Mary this year.”
Mom leapt up and hugged me from behind, eyeing him, who sat across from me. One of my brothers cooed while the other one clapped. My father didn’t look up from the fork he was sinking into his pork roast.
“About time,” he said.
Gene ducked my hug, stepping aside to introduce Brenda, some girl curled up on the loveseat. Freckles spotted her face and thighs, tumbling from cutoff jeans. Thick legs aside, she was pretty, prettier than me. Lighter, too. Mixed, maybe, she had beige skin, and traces of innocence in her round cheeks, blemished with melancholy. She tucked caramel curls behind her ear and turned to me, raising a hand, as I followed Gene into the apartment. It was dark, aside from a TV and a touch of lamp light. I sat down on a bean bag beside the loveseat. Gene slopped down beside Brenda and she passed him a joint.
“What are we watching?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” Brenda said. “It was on.”
An hour of high-speed chases and violent arrests, drunks cuffed and stuffed into the backs of police cars, then Brenda proposed a smoke break. Outside, the air was still crisp. The sky had darkened a bit. Gray clouds had clustered 0above Mt. Rainier. Gene offered me a cigarette. I took one and stood near the door, my arms crossed, while he leaned against the rail. Brenda stood beside him, mocking a criminal who’d been caught with crack. The police had found several baggies inside a sandwich bag tucked into the passenger seat of his car. When they asked him about it, he claimed it wasn’t his.
“Makes you feel good about your own shit, huh?” Gene said.
Brenda laughed, but I disagreed.
“Just makes you feel gross about humanity.” I blew out smoke and flicked my butt past Gene’s shoulder. It sailed over the railing and landed in a puddle, hissing. “How do you guys know each other?” I asked.
“We worked together,” Gene said. “Back in high school. Then we bumped into each other not even a month ago, at SPSCC. It was like a movie or something. Like—what do they call it?” He wagged his fingers, then snapped them. “Serendipity.”
“That is a movie,” Brenda said, slapping his arm. Then she pulled back her cheeks, stretching her lips apart, showing shiny teeth, a narrow gap between the two upper-fronts, but her eyes didn’t smile, not even later that night when we went to a bar and got shitfaced and laughed too hard about nothing. She seemed watchful, cautious. Even more so when we went back to Gene’s apartment and he brought in a plate piled with crystals soaking up lamplight. […]
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Bernard Grant lives in Washington State, where he is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Stirring, Thin Air, Compose, and Fiction Southeast, among others. His chapbook Puzzle Pieces, winner of the 2015 Paper Nautilus Press Debut Series Chapbook Contest, is now available from Paper Nautilus Press and can be purchased though Paper Nautilus or Bernard’s website. He was awarded a 2015 Jack Straw Fellowship and serves as Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. For more on Bernard and his writing, visit www.bernardgrant.com.
Read More: A Short Interview with Bernard Grant