WHEN MY DAD LEFT, he drove away in his inky black Corvette, a sleek thing with tan leather seats and gills above the front tires. We were left with a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon. The top half was light blue, the bottom half a blond wood grain. It was sky and desert on wheels. The steering wheel felt like a hula hoop in my hands. I had no chance of getting laid in a car like that. Absolutely none. Not that my introverted self was helping things.
I pulled up to the curb under the shade of an oak tree. I looked around and checked my mirrors, making sure no one was watching me in this hideous thing I drove. The neighborhood was empty except for an old man watering his lawn three houses down.
I hurried up the walkway and rang Oliver’s doorbell. Their one-story house had a backboard nailed above the garage, the rim bent so far down it was almost perpendicular to the driveway. From the street it looked like a red zero.
Britt answered the door. He was already stoned, his hair full of cowlicks. The barrel of his starter pistol was shoved down the front of his jeans with the black handle resting against his white T-shirt. What up, Nine? he said.
I pointed at the gun. Do you know how fuckin’ stupid that looks?
Is that Nub? Oliver yelled out, his voice deep inside the house.
He’s all messed up, Britt said, thumbing over his shoulder.
I’m sure he is, I said, and stepped inside.
Oliver’s house smelled like old leather and Pine-Sol. Two brown couches faced each other in the living room. There was a wooden coffee table between them littered with empty soda cans, crumpled napkins, and an open pizza box with one lone slice inside. Candles stood on opposite ends of the mantel above the fireplace, a row of framed photographs in between: Oliver at three, at six, at ten. Oliver dressed for Halloween and Oliver in a Little League baseball uniform. Oliver fishing with his father. Mrs. Thompson holding a piece of wedding cake for Mr. Thompson, his mouth wide open and ready to bite.
Oliver was crouched by the stereo. Check this out, he said, and pushed the PLAY button. The room exploded with drums and bass, a guitar riff drenched in feedback.
That sounds good, I said. Who’s that?
Trigger Cut, Oliver said. They’re local.
I like it.
I knew you would. I’ll burn you a copy.
You guys heard about Darren, right? Britt asked.
What about him? Oliver said.
He moved to Alaska.
What the hell for?
To live with his mom, Britt said. Pops wasn’t too happy about him getting that room at the Travelodge. It was the last straw, I guess.
I pictured Darren in the coldest region of Alaska, wearing a heavy jacket and ski cap, bits of ice crusted in his brows and eyelashes. I pictured him lifting a frozen beer bottle to his lips, then turning it upside down and smacking the bottom as if it were a bottle of ketchup.
When’s your mom coming back? I asked.
In a couple hours. If you want to smoke a bowl, do it now, he said. And do it outside. Mom’s got a nose like a bloodhound.
Twenty minutes later and the three of us were sitting at the dinner table, bent over a half-finished puzzle. At the top of the box it said The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. Some guy in a checkered gold robe was kissing some girl on her cheek, a redhead kneeling on a cliff, her bare feet hanging over the edge. The whole thing shimmered like the scales of a fish. I looked at the puzzle and picked up a piece and turned it inches from my face. Wow, I whispered.
I know, Britt said.
I can’t believe you guys did half of this already.
My mom did, Oliver said. We haven’t done shit.
My face was numb. Britt said he’d gotten some potent weed from Hawaii, gourmet marijuana, he’d called it, but now I wondered if it was laced. It felt like someone shot me point-blank with novocaine. When I rubbed my hand over my face, my nose and cheeks felt rubbery. Hey, guys, I said. Do this.
Do what? Britt asked.
This, I said, and rubbed my hand over my face again. It feels strange.
Oliver slid his hand over his face. You’re right, he said.
Britt was next, sliding from his forehead all the way down to his chin. Oh man, he said. My head is made of Nerf.
We all started laughing uncontrollably.
Excuse me, gentlemen, I said, but it’s time for me to drain the main vein.
In the bathroom I held on to the towel rack above the toilet and aimed, still chuckling. I sprayed the floor a little and when I finished I grabbed some toilet paper and kneeled to wipe the tile. Something small rattled across the floor. It was a piece of plastic from a disposable razor, the transparent strip that covered the blade. Oliver’s face was as smooth as mine, so I knew it must’ve been his father’s. I wondered if he’d shaved on the day he walked down to the basement and looped the extension cord over the I-beam, or if he’d looked at his face in the mirror that morning, dragged his fingers across the bristles, and left the razor where it was, knowing what he planned to do later. I picked up the strip of plastic, wrapped it in toilet paper, and tossed it into the wastebasket.
When I stepped out of the bathroom I could hear Britt and Oliver still laughing. I looked down the hallway, the half-open door of the master bedroom, and suddenly I was floating there. Whatever hang-ups I had about snooping in my best friend’s mother’s bedroom a five-leafed plant from Hawaii put them to rest.
The bed was king-size, the flower-printed bedcover sunk slightly over two faint dimples on the mattress where Mr. and Mrs. Thompson slept together for two decades. On top of the dresser was a hairbrush, a jewelry box, more framed photographs. There were quite a few of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson together, in different vacation spots. One looked like Europe, one looked like Hong Kong. In another they stood on a beach with sunlight on their faces, the photographer’s purple shadow stretched on the sand. I wondered who snapped the picture, if it was a stranger or someone they knew. There was a white sailboat in the background and the sails were full of wind, its bow pointed right at Mr. Thompson’s neck. Mrs. Thompson wore a red two-piece bathing suit, her hair all messed up from the breeze. She had sexy legs, a flat stomach and narrow waist. I wanted something that belonged to her, something close to her skin. I thought about her panties and as soon as I did I started opening drawers, beginning with the top left. Magazines, a date book, pens and pencils, loose change. Three rows of empty drawers and two rows of stacked sweaters. A drawer with nothing but balled-up socks. Finally, I found her underwear drawer.
Yo, Digit, Oliver shouted. Did you fall in?
Stop polishing your sword, Britt yelled.
I grabbed a neglected pair bunched up in the back of the drawer, lacy and black, and shoved them down the front of my jeans. I closed the drawer and checked myself in the mirror above the dresser and hurried out, remembering to keep the bedroom door like it was, half closed.
In the hallway I stood a moment watching Oliver. He curled his fingers around imaginary drumsticks and smacked the air around him and I thought: I’m a boy without a father, watching a boy without a father banging on invisible drums.
What took you so long? Oliver asked when I sat back down at the table.
Britt moved his fist up and down, making that mosquito sound with his mouth.
I pissed on the floor and had to clean it up, I said.
You mean you jizzed on the floor, Britt said.
At least I have meat to beat, I said. How do you stroke your cashew, like this? I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together in the air.
Oliver laughed. Britt laughed harder, doubling over. I was confused until I realized he was pointing at my stub. Oh shit, oh shit, he said, teary-eyed. Look at his nub, he said.
Fuck you, I said.
Oliver’s laughter trailed off. He looked down at the puzzle. Okay, shut up, Bongoloid, he said. Let’s try to find at least one that fits.
We studied the puzzle again, all those freckled gold pieces, our heads bowed over the table. We didn’t move. From the outside it might’ve looked like we were saying grace.
An hour later we had destroyed a bag of potato chips and pretzels and washed it down with glass after glass of orange juice. We watched music videos and Celebrity Deathmatch and eventually my head stopped feeling synthetic.
Mom’s here, Oliver said when we heard the garage door growl open. Hide your toy gun, Stonehenge.
It’s not a toy.
Whatever, just hide it.
Britt lifted the front of his shirt and stretched it over the handle of the starter pistol.
Mrs. Thompson walked in holding her purse. She’d been at the salon and her hair now looked inflated and shiny. Well, guys, what do you think? she asked. She turned around slowly to show us every angle.
Why is it so fluffy? Oliver asked.
It is kind of big, Britt added, looking mildly comatose on the couch.
Mrs. Thompson had walked in the house glowing, but now her face slouched.
I think it looks good, I said, immediately embarrassed. I could feel Oliver’s eyes on me.
Why, thank you, Marcus, she said. So what have you guys been up to?
We were working on the puzzle, Oliver said.
Mrs. Thompson walked over to the dinner table. It doesn’t look like you made any progress.
We found a few, I said.
Yeah, Oliver said. We did.
Uh-huh, Britt mumbled.
Mrs. Thompson gave Oliver an accusatory look before heading to her bedroom.
What? Oliver shouted.
Don’t play innocent with me, she shouted back.
It was time for us to leave. Oliver had to get ready for his new job bussing tables and delivering pizza for Antonio’s Pizzeria. Britt had to mow the lawn before his father came home from work. As for myself, I had nothing to do and nowhere to be.
While Oliver was in his room putting on his uniform (a red baseball cap and shirt with Antonio’s logo—a mustached man riding a bicycle with pizza pies for tires), Mrs. Thompson walked me to the front door.
I really dig your hair, I said again.
I have to get used to it, she said, patting the side of it with her hand.
I almost forgot I had her panties shoved down the front of my jeans. And now I was talking to her, complimenting her new hairdo with her lacy underwear pressed against my crotch. I felt ashamed and embarrassed even though she had no idea what I was hiding. I said good-bye and headed down the walkway. When I reached the piece-of-shit-mobile I looked back, hoping Mrs. Thompson was checking me out, but the front door was already closed.
I had nowhere else to go but back home, up to my clothes-strewn and postered bedroom. With my door locked, I played one of Oliver’s mix CDs on my portable stereo. The Wrens, the Black Keys, Deerhoof, Modest Mouse—it was one fierce song after another. I pulled out Mrs. Thompson’s black panties, my head still a little woozy from the weed. Her panties were sheer, the edges ridged with lace. There were flowers embroidered on the meshed fabric and each stem curled into five petals. It was like her funeral veil, those tiny dark roses that floated over her ruined face. I lifted the panties to my nose and breathed in.
All I could smell was dust.
We used to play this game at the Cerritos Shopping Center. It wasn’t a game, really—no points were added, no score was kept. We didn’t have any money, just enough for a pack of bubble gum, which is all we needed. One of us chewed a piece of gum, usually Britt, and afterward he’d push the wad into the spout of one of the drinking fountains. Then we’d sit at a nearby bench and wait, the mall echoing with the voices of shoppers, a constant droning.
We would wait and wait, anxious for a laugh at someone else’s expense, because we were loaded, because the world didn’t care about us and vice versa.
Soon enough someone was heading straight toward the fountain, oblivious.
I remembered a middle-aged man in specs leaning in, how the water shot out and how his head snapped back, the white handkerchief he removed from his back pocket to wipe the lenses.
I remembered a young woman full of shopping bags, the water spraying her chin, her blouse, how she cursed at us when she saw us laughing on the bench, holding our stomachs.
And the little Asian girl in pigtails, on tiptoes to reach the arc of water, only to be hit with a stream directly in the eye. The way she bawled, the way her mother consoled her. Oh, honey, she said, rubbing the back of her head. It’s only water, sweetie.
I was sitting on the bench, alone now, remembering all of this, when I saw Ashley walk into the Hallmark store across the way. I didn’t see her face, actually, but I recognized the green shade of her hair, the plaid pattern of her skirt. I imagined she was smiling and that she was at the Hallmark store to pick out a card for Enrique. It was early August and his birthday was only a week away. You lucky bastard, I thought. You lucky depressive fuck.
I decided to take out the Valium Oliver had given me earlier that day. At the very fountain we once sabotaged I swallowed the white pill and when I turned around a boy with Down syndrome was sitting on the far end of the bench. He had a bowl cut and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt tucked into his slacks. I looked around, trying to find his parents.
Hello, he said.
I sat beside him. What’s up, little man? I said.
He shrugged his shoulders. He looked down at his shoes and swung them lazily, back and forth over the polished floor.
Where’re your mom and dad? I asked.
My mom’s buying cookies, he said, pointing at the bakery. You want one?
Okay, he said. He swung his shoes faster now, back and forth, back and forth, like a windup toy. I thought that if Enrique were here, he’d make fun of him. He could be heartless that way.
The boy tapped the back of my hand. What happened to your finger? he asked.
I had an accident.
Did it hurt?
I passed out, so I didn’t feel anything.
What’s passed out?
I blacked out, I said.
The boy’s mouth was half open and his pink tongue rested on his bottom lip. His almond-shaped eyes were brown and blank as stones. He didn’t know what the hell I was saying.
I fell asleep, I finally said. And then I woke up in the hospital.
The boy smiled, his round face lighting up. I could tell he liked the idea of transportation by sleeping, that you could close your eyes in one part of the world and wake up in another.
I didn’t know what else to tell him. I just wanted the Valium to kick in.
I had an accident, too, he said, breaking the silence. He bent his arm and lifted it up. There was a SpongeBob Band-Aid on his elbow, a spot of dried blood the color of rust.
What happened? I asked.
I was running and I tripped and I fell—like this, he said, stretching his arms out.
Ouch, I said. You have to be careful.
I didn’t fall asleep, he said.
No, that only happens when it really hurts.
So it really hurt when you lost your finger? he said, looking at my hand.
I guess it did.
And then you fell asleep?
Yeah, then I fell asleep, I said, finally feeling the Valium.
Enrique and I were at the grocery store when I literally bumped into Beth Guzman, Ashley’s friend. Our shopping carts crashed as I turned down the cereal aisle.
I hope you don’t drive the same way, Beth said, smiling.
Sorry about that, I said.
What have you been up to? She took a strand of hair and pulled it behind her ear. I didn’t know what to say. My tongue was pretzeled inside my mouth. Beth looked at Enrique, who was trying to decide between Wheaties and Raisin Bran. Is that your little brother? she asked.
Yep, I said.
Enrique yanked the shopping cart from my grasp and dropped the Raisin Bran inside.
Ashley really likes you, Beth said.
I really like me, too. Enrique smirked and left us alone.
What a brat, Beth said.
At least you don’t have to live with him.
I haven’t seen you since the Travelodge.
That was a crazy party, I said, remembering how Beth was topless, how she straddled some guy I didn’t know with fingers that crawled up her naked back, spiderlike. I’m never doing acid again, I added.
My cousin used to date this guy who did it once and he had flashbacks all the time. Like a giant black hole would open up in the sky and he’d start to freak out.
You’ll probably be fine, she said, pulling another strand of hair behind her ear.
My palms dampened.
On the intercom, a price check was called for the fried pork rinds.
We should grab coffee sometime, Beth said.
Beth searched inside her purse and pulled out a pen and scribbled her number on the back of a movie ticket stub. Enrique rolled back with the shopping cart. He took the Raisin Bran out and placed it back on the shelf and reached for the Wheaties.
Nights are best to get a hold of me, she said. Anytime after six.
Great, I said, sliding her number into my back pocket.
When Beth was out of earshot, I punched Enrique on the arm. What the hell? I said.
You barely even acknowledged her. That’s Ashley’s friend.
I know. She’s a slut.
No, she’s not.
Ashley’s told me stories.
Some friend, I said. Maybe she’s also telling Beth stories about you.
How well do you know her?
Well enough to know that she wouldn’t talk shit behind my back.
I made a humph sound.
Man, fuck you, Enrique said.
We reached the only open checkout line at the same time as an old man. He wore a flannel shirt and a trucker hat and smelled of stale tobacco. His shopping cart was completely full. At the top of the heap was a loaf of wheat bread, a box of tissues, and a blue bottle of Windex. Our cart only had four items.
Sir, Enrique said. Can we go ahead of you?
The old man began to place his items on the conveyer belt.
Hello? You deaf? Enrique said. Which he was—a cream-colored hearing aid was fitted into his left ear. I said are you deaf?
He looked at Enrique, and my brother got right up in the old man’s face. I grabbed Enrique’s arm at the elbow. Stop, I said. The old man turned away from us and continued placing his items on the conveyer belt. The pimply girl at the register looked at Enrique, her eyes full of worry. I could tell she was wondering if she needed to call security.
After she rang up the old man and he walked away, I told her I was sorry. She just smacked her bubblegum and scanned our items without saying a word.
Enrique was already in the parking lot by the time I pushed the cart outside. He was walking fast and suddenly broke into a jog. I was confused—we had parked in the opposite direction. Then I saw the elderly man, placing a bag of groceries into the trunk of his car, and Enrique heading right toward him. I shouted his name. Twice, three times. Still, Enrique raised his hand and slapped the hat off the old man’s head, sending it tumbling end over end onto the pavement.
Once we were back inside the car, Enrique rolled down the window and hocked a loogie into the night.
That was messed up, I said.
He shot a look at me, his face rigid and his eyes wild with rage. It was as if Dad had returned and was now sitting in the passenger seat, and this time his fists would come spiraling my way.
When he reached for the radio, I flinched. Enrique looked at me. Don’t be such a pussy, he said.
I was embarrassed, but I was more angry that Enrique didn’t realize he was becoming the person he despised so much, that there were other ways to act.
We drove home in silence. I glanced at my brother, who was looking at the trees rushing past the passenger-side window. His head was still as if he was deep in thought. Maybe he realized it then—as long as he didn’t raise a fist or scream out in anger, our dad was truly out of our lives.