two girls said they’d kiss us if only we’d steal them a couple cigarette
lighters from Drug Fair. “And not no cheap ass Bics, either,” the blonde
one yelled, beneath the street lamp, in the middle distance of the parking
lot, as Kev and I pushed through the glass door. I knew Courtney, the
cashier, who’d been offered a basketball scholarship, but when I nodded,
“Hey, man,” he just watched us walk up the tobacco and candy aisle. Kev
busied himself examining the different sizes of peppermint patties—a classic
diversion—while I stuffed two brass-looking zippos, enclosed in hard plastic,
like batteries, into a specially-torn part of my coat’s lining.
When we went to pay for the peppermint patties,
Courtney said, “What you got in your coat?”
“Yeah, man,” I replied, as Kev slid him
four baseball-sized candies.
“Cause I seen you in the mirror,” he said,
ringing up a dollar fifty. “Both of y’all.”
We paid, but Courtney held our change. When
the manager came striding up to the register, we booked toward the doors,
Kev shooting through the one marked “Exit.” I clattered, full body, into
the entry door, then followed Kev into the parking lot, sprinting past
the knot of cars parked outside Drug Fair. All the other stores had closed,
except Sammy’s and the bowling alley, on the short strip of the L-shaped
“Does he have the fucking lighters?” said
the blonde, who stood defiantly, arms folded underneath her breasts.
“Yeah, he does,” said Kev. “Y’all gonna
The blonde said, “I’m gonna kiss you. She’s
gonna kiss him. But there ain’t gonna be no kissing until we see the lighters.
Does he have the fucking lighters?”
I reached into my coat for the zippos and
both girls went to work tearing open the plastic, and with limber wrists,
whipping the small flames to life. Kev and the blonde walked out of the
street lamp. A minute later, they broke the quiet only by saying, “mmmm,”
or smacking their lips.
The dark haired one, my girl, finally said
I said “Hi.”
We positioned our legs about shoulder width
apart, we tried arranging our hands on the other’s body, we both leaned
in at the same time, clashing our foreheads. She applied some strawberry
lip gloss. We started to kiss, closed-mouth. I felt as if I were on ice,
my lips sliding all over hers. Just then, a police cruiser came to a stop
outside Drug Fair, its lights flashing.
“Kev,” I shouted, and the four of us began
to run, the girls, their asses in jeans, toward an apartment complex,
The Point, Kev and I toward the woods behind the mall.
“Did she French you?” he cried.
“Yeah,” I shouted, my breath before me,
“yeah, she did.”
We hunched down as the cruiser drove by,
a few times, playing its spotlight across the tree trunks. Eventually,
the policeman drove off. A voice behind us yelled, “Get yo’ hands off
yo’ puss!” Kev and I both startled, jumping into the air. “Whoo hoo hoo
hoo,” said the voice, until I went and found it. The voice belonged to
Bobby Mason, a little guy, ninth grade like us, with an older face, like
he was thirty-five or forty years old. “Y’all was scared,” he said. “Y’all
was like, They’s a Negro in the hedge.” I tried to say, “It’s not like
that, Bobby,” but he kept going “Whoo hoo hoo hoo.”
After he calmed down, he produced a short
pipe and a sandwich bag full of brown powder he called hash. We smoked
the stuff, one of us lighting the pipe as another toked, even though the
pipe’s filter failed, and bits of burning powder caught in our throats.
I kept meaning to say, “This ain’t hash. I don’t feel a thing.” I tried
to express a correlation between the opposite gender and a police action,
but we stood there, the three of us, shivering in our paper-thin shirts,
Mike chewed me out on the third day of work. “I told you to stand over
here,” he said. “Not all the way over there. Can’t you fucking understand?”
He might’ve had two or three inches on the tallest midget, and wore a
boytoy long-in-the-front haircut. He managed the legislative operations
of Washington Federal News Service out of a closet media space in the
Rayburn House Office Building. Guys like me set up WFNS recording equipment
in subcommittee hearing rooms and recorded the members of Congress, and
expert witnesses, during the course of testimony, questions, and answers.
Little Mike had me train with Rick, a black
man with dreadlocks who, during a break, read a book called Monkey
on a Stick. When asked, he told me that the book covered the Hare
Krishnas. “Are you a Hare Krishna?” I joked, and did a doubletake when
he nodded, yes. “I went into the army at 18,” he said. “When I come out,
I needed somethin’ to do. So I went into the Hare Krishnas.” He paused.
“I mean, I likes my coffee and my beer and my girlfriend. They don’t know
about all that.” He paused again. “I seen ‘em whoop a li’l ass. But who
don’t? Who don’t whoop a li’l ass these days?”
I began to sit through all kinds of hearings.
The Hollywood brass, smiling cool millions, came before House Commerce,
to press for legislation preventing online music downloads. Medical researchers
came before House Government Reform to present their long overdue and
largely incompetent findings on the effects, on U.S. servicemen, of the
defoliant, Agent Orange. The administrator of NASA even yelled at the
chairman of House Science, “Get a grip, space is a rugged frontier,” after
the members had criticized NASA’s loss of Mars probes due to one engineer
calculating important figures in inches and another, the metric system.
After a long day on The Hill, I would drop the equipment downstairs at
Mike, who sat at a desk in the closet and would say, “The Duma. I’ve got
the fucking Duma on the phone.”
A few weeks into my stint with WFNS, I came
into work, and found Rick and a few of the others presiding over Little
Mike, who had a fat lip, broken nose, and black eyes. “Pissed off the
wrong guy,” I whispered to Rick, who flashed me a “no shit” twist of his
face. I’d heard Little Mike, on more than one occasion, chewing out Rick:
“What the fuck are you doing, looking over my shoulder half the time?
Go outside. Why don’t you go outside.”
Not long after that, maybe a day or two,
even, Mike called me at home. I had just received a reply from my submission
to the Antioch Review. “No,” it read on the back of the envelope
in neon purple ink. They hadn’t sent my poems back or sealed the envelope.
They just said “No.” My girlfriend, Marianne, had thrown me out the night
before, for not having said “I love you” after she had. And a rat had
gnawed through my neighbor’s wall into my kitchen cupboard, chewed through
the cupboard door, chewed through the plastic trash can and into the trashbag,
torn up tinfoil into shiny little shards and dragged off a lamb chop bone.
All that and a voice on the phone said, “Ohhhh!”
I said, “Mike, is that you?”
“Ohhhh!” he said.
“Are you okay, man?”
“I got mugged,” said Little Mike.
“I know, man. I saw you a couple days ago.”
“No, I got mugged, again.”
“Do you want to get a beer?” I said.
“What’re you,” said Little Mike, “some kind
of faggot? What I’m going to get, is some pussy.” And he hung up.
I tried to quit a little while later but
Little Mike pleaded with me to stay, begrudgingly praising my work and
making small guy jokes in my and Rick’s presence. When we laughed, Mike
snapped at us, “Shut the fuck up,” slamming the closet door behind him.
We could hear the phone ringing in there. “Federal News,” said Little
Mike. Then he said something, it seemed, in Russian.
ain’t got no current. If it’s a log floating around in a lake, it’s a little
five-foot alligator, instead. Mister, that lean-to of yours is gonna become
a swim-to if that hurricane ever comes through here. We stepped out of the
brush, only to discover that a snake had bitten my boot with all its might.
Probably a she-snake; I probably disrupted her nest; she didn’t seem able
to dislodge herself. She had colorful bands: black, red, yellow. The surveyor
tried to remember a rhyme he learned as a kid: “Red on yellow, you’re okay
fellow.” He shook his head. Others in the group meditated on the snake’s
colors. Mr. Peacock, the farmer, finally said, “It’s either a coral snake,
which is bad, or a milk snake or a king snake, which is good, in this case,
if you have to be bit by something.” I was getting kind of nervous. Some
ducklings and a duck paddled the edge of the lake. There were two or three
less ducklings than a week before. Eat ‘em up like popcorn, a little five-foot
alligator. Have to keep the dogs inside at night, now on. Sunset is glorious,
especially after a fish fry. You leave them fish guts out, down by the lake
and see, just see them turtle heads poking up out the water. Go on down
there in the morning, and you don’t got no more fish guts to worry about.
The dude from the lean-to came over. He nodded when someone said we was
just joshing you before. Handsome Hank, Mr. Peacock’s loyal mutt, took a
real dislike to him, though, all growly and woofing, on account of there
came Mr. Peacock’s young daughter, Christy, a real good looker, and her
own daughter, McKenzie, up the road, in their swimming trunks, Christy in
a bikini with a towel wrapped around her hips. Hank just showed up at the
farm one day, a couple years ago, from points unknown, and showed a fierce
interest in the little girl, McKenzie. “Oh, hush up,” said Mr. Peacock,
cuffing him gently. “Hush up, now, Hank.” The daughters were going for a
swim and does anybody else want to join us, the water is real nice. “Well,”
said Mr. Peacock, “we’ve got the issue of this fella’s boot,” pointing to
my ankle. The daughters recoiled and Hank barked it up as best he could.
Mr. Peacock had to shoo young McKenzie, though, out of fear that the snake
might turn on her, and besides, the crowd—Old Mr. Porter, Old Charlie, and
the surveyor—couldn’t say what kind of snake it happened to be: coral, king,
or milk. Served me right for joking about the Jr. Food Store, or, as I called
it, the “Food Jr.,” in a bogus southern accent. In the muggy Gulf summer,
you can see them dancing monkeys on the horizon. End of the day, see them
monkeys doing the twist. Old Charlie and Mr. Peacock shook their heads.
Everyone mopped his brow with a handkerchief in the wake of the daughters
and Handsome Hank departing for the little sandy landing. “That ain’t no
coral snake,” the dude from the lean-to said, finally. “Rhyme goes: Red
on yellow hurts a fellow. Yellow on black, poison lack. See there? It’s
a yellow on black. I’ve even heard it said, Yellow on black is a friend
to Jack, red on yellow can kill a fellow.” The surveyor slid his knife out
of its sheath. “Anybody mind?” he said, and nobody minded, least of all,
me. He stepped on the snake’s banded body, then cut its head off with a
quick slash. After which, he pried the head from my boot. Peacocks do it
in the trees with what a racket. The farmhands would joke about Christy
and McKenzie, saying, some lucky farmhand six or seven years ago. Later
that afternoon, at the lake, McKenzie said, to me, “You’re a cheeseburger
but you ain’t got no cheese,” and plunked a load of mud on top my head.
Christy said, “McKenzie Peacock!” and McKenzie stiffened. “Ma’am?” she said,
in a way that meant trouble.