The Woods, by Natasha Stagg


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The Woods, by Natasha Stagg


"One silver dollar pancake is not on the menu," said Sheila.
     "Can I get one anyway?" said Alex sweetly. "I'll pay you a silver dollar."
     "Not tonight," said Sheila, warming up an untouched coffee on his table.
     Christian swung into the booth and reached over the table to snap a rubber band on Alex's wrist. "You're not hungry," said Christian. He snapped it again. "Pain replaces hunger."
     Alex smiled, but only momentarily. His eyes felt swollen, like the backs of them were spinning, bigger and fuller in his head. "Chrissy," he said, reaching with his hands and forearms. "I need."
     "Lexi," said Christian. "I don't have."
     Alex tried to sit up straight. One shoulder felt stabbed as he lowered it. "What do you mean? Nothing?"
     "I have some MDMA. That's it."
     "Jesus, jesus, jesus," said Alex. He stared at his own hands, the fluorescent light reflected on the table, Sheila's square figure. "Fine."
     The drug filtered into the cracks between the ice cubes. It was tough drinking all the water in his glass before Sheila came back to fill it again. It was a slow night at IHOP. If any of the glass-white powder remained, it was hopelessly stuck to the remaining shards like salt. Christian was almost passed out on the table. Alex got up and paid for his coffee.
     The boys in the back lot looked faceless backlit. One applied lipstick in the side view mirror of an empty car. His blonde crew cut illuminated looked like dandelion fluff. "Hey," they all said, holding on to the last sounds of the words, leaning all over the place with sarcasm, even in greetings.
     A black Mercedes rolled in and around them. Alex didn't recognize this car, but others seemed to. He was gone all last week, up in Michigan with his parents, who were trying to get him clean and straight. Some of the boys did little hops in place; others leaned against the wall, the single light bulb casting triangular shapes from beneath a metal edge.
     A back window rolled down, and the huge black man sitting there pointed to Alex. It was too much, too soon. He felt tiny hooks pulling him down, not into sleep but exhaustion. He had not gotten more than a few hours since he got back from Michigan, days ago, and now he was tired, wanting another speedball, not the ticking dilution he'd swallowed inside.
     "Two thousand dollars," said Alex. He had never said this before.
     Alex got in and shut his eyes for five seconds because a loud buzzing had started to drown out anything the man was saying. But when he opened them again, he realized it was the man in the passenger seat who was talking.
     "This is where the wow factor comes up for us. The selling point in the deal."
     "Mm," said the black man. He placed a hand on a trousered knee. The car was all soft leather. The smell, and the sound—the silence—matched.
     "This is the part where we can take it to the bank. Rake it all in and count it up later. The wow factor," he repeated. "So," he took a breath, but did not say anything else.
     The right side of Alex's head was against the seat. He looked at his customer, who was staring out the front windshield as the driver stopped at a light. "My money," said Alex.
     "What's your name?" His voice sounded higher than before.
     "Lexi." There was no reason to make one up.
     "You're pretty," said the black man. "My name's Rob, but people call me Stutter."
     "You stutter?" Alex said, almost in a whisper, he was so tired.
     "Nope." The men in the front were not saying anything, looking straight ahead, too. Rob looked back at Alex. "Not really."
     Alex realized who this was, what this meant. He was so tired, though.
     "You in trouble, Lexi?" Rob's voice was soft, but crisp.
     "I need my money, Stutter. But no."
     "I got your money. I got half now. That okay, Lexi?"
     "Half later."
     "Do you want some coke, Lexi? We can do a line now, one later."
     "Yeah," said Alex. "I'd like that." He managed a wide smile, lifting his head almost upright. "You're cute," he said.
     Rob laughed.
     "I like the way you rap." Alex said this in a childish, Midwestern voice. It made Rob laugh again. "Can you make me famous?"
     "We'll see," said Rob.
     Alex remembered the first time he asked this. It was to a photographer. Alex was taking a cigarette break at American Apparel and had on black leggings and a black sweatshirt. The photographer told him he was doing a Chicago street style feature. Of course he could make him famous. The photographer seemed straight in every way, but the way he said this—"Of course I can,"—said Alex had a chance. It was one of his first tricks. His manager, Kyle, who was working the register for him, was the one who taught him how to come on to a guy and bring up money at the same time. "The straight ones always pay more," was Kyle's most-repeated motto.
     "That's all I've ever wanted, to be famous," mumbled Alex.
     "It's not that bad," said Rob. "Where are you from?"
     "Michigan. The woods."
     "Sounds relaxing."
     "Not really. Can I have another line?"
     "When we get to the hotel."
     Alex could feel himself falling into a static high. The coke probably wouldn't help anyway. He closed his eyes and imagined dark pine trees where buildings stood, reflected onto the windows. When he opened them again the trees had simply melted into black rectangles. The sky looked purple from all the lights.
     "Are you straight?" asked Alex. It was supposed to sound teasing.
     "What do you think?"
     Alex liked this answer. "I never would have guessed."
     "These assholes would never pay me if I told people I like guys like you." It was something that took courage to say, and yet it sounded insincere. "You hungry?" "No."
     "I am."
     The man in the front passenger seat turned around for the first time.
     "Where can I get sushi?" asked Rob. "To go."
     "I know a great place," said the man. "Oprah loves it there."
     "I want to bring it back to the hotel."
     Alex almost said something. He remembered that Kyle said never to tell long stories, or personal ones. Alex almost said that the first time he'd eaten sushi was only one year ago. His ex-boyfriend, Jared, took him to a restaurant with only a bar. Alex kept dropping the pieces with his chopsticks so they both used their hands. They shared an apartment in Lincoln Park with Jared's friend Max. Alex moved in after knowing Jared for two weeks. He needed a room. Above their bed they hung up the cutout picture of him wearing the black leggings and sweatshirt from that magazine. Even after Alex got fired from American Apparel for stealing, they went out for sushi once every two weeks, when Jared got paid. The part he loved the best was how contained and equal each roll looked. Like six or eight separate meals. It had been a long time since he'd had any. It might make him puke if he tried some now, though. He closed his eyes again. No buzzing this time, only a feeling like a boat knocking between two piers. Jared had kicked Alex out when he caught him tricking again. Alex argued that their relationship was hardly defined.
     "You okay, sweetheart?" asked Rob.
     "Yes, fine. We've moved ahead, haven't we?"
     "We have to. After this, it's the room."
     As if the room was Alex's whole future. Alex was paid for performances. He never thought about trying harder if he was getting paid more. Maybe Alex had to show Rob why he should be famous right now, an audition.
     They pulled up to a restaurant. The two men in the front got out of the car. "You like Chicago?" asked Rob.
     "Yeah. I like a lot of places."
     "Like the woods?"
     "No. I hate the woods." Maybe this was not true. Alex closed his eyes and saw the trees again, cutting holes in the purple and starry light. The wind swept through them and hugged him like a snake. His mother called from the circular window of the attic. "I found a photo album." She waved a book back and forth, the white house looking like part of a diorama. "I want you to see how beautiful you were as a baby." Chicago was under Michigan on the map, but driving into it felt like moving up. Or the possibility of it.
     "Are you sure you're not in trouble?" asked Rob. It sounded more cautionary than sympathetic.
     "You ask a lot of questions." Alex opened his eyes and saw his hands shrinking. A car pulled out of a spot near theirs and turned around, shining light into the Mercedes. Alex saw again how big his customer was. He pulled a leg up under himself and propped an arm over the back of the seat to feel taller and to appear more awake.
     "You know who I am?" asked Rob.
     "Good." He was silent for a while.
     Alex wondered if he had said the wrong thing. He opened his mouth and closed it a few times before deciding to apologize.
     "I think you're really cute, come on, don't be mad," he started, making the sentence sounding like one word. "I'm going to make you feel good."
     "Are you crying?" asked Rob.
     "No," Alex touched his face and felt that he was. He probably had blue mascara running down each cheek.
     The men got back into the car and started to talk about a call they'd just gotten. It was official sounding, and Alex couldn't focus anyway. He saw Rob untie a plastic bag and squeeze open a Styrofoam box. Without looking at the pieces, he picked up a tiny one with his thumb and forefinger. It was mostly rice, bound with plain seaweed. Rob slipped it into his mouth and started to say something back to the men. He ate the whole first box in the parked car, and the rest while they drove. Alex watched as the food disappeared—leaves being swept from a sidewalk. Gold rings sparkled from almost every finger of the hand lifting the sushi. It was too dark to see the colors of the gemstones. Frames of gold around cracked surfaces. Everything in the car glittered and then was dark and cold. The trees opened up to a black lake, ripples circling a blurred face, red from the light of a camera. Rob faced Alex.
     "Son," said Rob, his voice louder and solid, breaking up Alex's thoughts and the conversation with the men in the front. "Th'fuck you need?"
     Alex stared at the back of the seat. He didn't know what he had done, but his body was now at an angle. The seat in front of him was the front passenger's, not the driver's. He leaned on an elbow, not touching Rob. His shoulder ached. He tried to sit up, and heard a zipper.
     "Change of plans. I have to go to the airport. Keep the thousand."
     "This is bullshit," said Alex.
     "I'll give you twenty dollars for a cab back."
     "And another line."
     "No." The car pulled over and the driver got out to open the door for Alex. He watched the Mercedes glide away. The color of the sky and the color of the buildings had switched. Near each streetlight the bricks or concrete glowed a grayish purple, while the sky was black and almost empty. He should have asked if Rob knew Jared. It seemed lately that everyone knew who Jared was. Music played somewhere, which meant it was not yet four. Alex walked in search of a bar. The buildings shifted as he walked, and the sky became one dark tree, growing up over him, comforting but unreachable.

Natasha Stagg is from Tucson and has a Creative Writing BA from the University of Michigan.