“I’d do it too, to keep from eating grubs,” said Cindy, late one afternoon.
Cindy was my dad’s girlfriend, a dancer and cocktail waitress. Dad worked at the garage while Cindy and I watched reality TV, Survivor reruns. We laughed at the women who bared it all to win chocolate bars on tropical islands.
Cindy rose from the couch, where we’d spent the better part of the afternoon sipping Jim Beam, and pulled off her yellow sundress. It floated to the trailer floor. She cocked one dimpled buttock in my direction and pointed to a blue mermaid tattoo, which swum across its surface.
“This little honey would get me a Hershey’s, don’t you think?”
I was surprised, but I had to nod. If anything deserved a candy bar, that plump and happy ass cheek did.
Cindy spun around to face me then, where I sat on the sofa, and her breasts swung out like a carnival ride. My eyes swung with them, large and long as they were, tanned and mean, ready for their turn in the ring. Cindy looked down to inspect them. I tried not to notice the wrinkles on her neck. I stared at her flying saucer nipples instead. I imagined them on a page of the Guinness Book of World Records, right next to the turbaned dude with the world’s longest fingernails.
Cindy smiled. “I bet you thought these babies were real.”
She hoisted each in turn to show three inch caterpillar scars at the intersection of breast and ribcage. My lips were numb with alcohol, but something twisted in my belly— -nausea, arousal, heat stroke?
“Huh,” I said.
“Here’s something else I bet you didn’t know.”
She put one bare foot on my knee and splayed her legs to present a gold hoop stapled into her labia. It glistened in the afternoon sun. I sat perfectly still, afraid to move for fear I’d disturb something, her friendly attitude, or the pressure in my pants. I felt a foggy, rising respect for the hoop and the woman that wore it.
“That must’ve hurt,” I said.
“Like a bastard.”
I took a deep breath, and smelled the possibilities: the salty sea breeze, the tang of stale beer, burnt Spaghetti Os, and Cindy’s open air access.
I leaned in for a better look.
It happened a few times, Cindy and me, and it was all right at first, my stuff pumped into that sucking wet hole. But soon enough, something about it left me feeling hollowed out, like a dirty tube sock, used up and smelling bad. Each time, I promised myself, would be the last. Cindy was my dad’s girlfriend, and honestly, she was old. It was hard to tell her age, the way Florida sun turns women into Slim Jims, but she might be as old as my mom.
Which made me want to hurl.
My parents split when I was young, but I stayed with Mom in Iowa until I was seventeen. Then I had some legal trouble. I don’t want to get into it all that now, but let’s just say my mom was pretty upset, so I decided to live with my dad for a while. Awhile turned into five years and I had just turned twenty-two, but I didn’t have much experience with women, no real relationships to speak of. Just here and there, a woman took a shine to Dad, and had a sister or a daughter or a friend. We’d all hang out, get drunk, do some tokes, and the bodies fell into piles. In the morning, I’d pretend to sleep, even if I was desperate to pee, hoping the woman beside me would
leave before I pissed myself.
Dad met Cindy at a country and western club in Daytona a few months ago. He did a mean Texas two-step, and while he spun Cindy around the floor, he spun the line that he used to mechanic for Dale Earnhardt, which went a long ways with a certain kind of woman, and Cindy had hung around longer than most. There was some sweetness to her, something touching about her toe rings and tattoos. She didn’t begrudge any of Dad’s bad habits, the weed and cocaine, the ass grabbing and staring at other women, the occasional pop across the cheek.
The only downside was she liked to screw me too.
And when it was over, and she went to the bathroom to clean up, I’d think about my mom. No matter how hard I tried to stop it, with my mind blown clear and my dick drying on my leg, Mom popped into my head. I’d stuff my face in a pillow and groan.
How weird could a person get?
Fucking Cindy made me homesick.
That was about the time I started smelling pig shit.
At first, I thought it must be her, but Cindy smelled like liquor and breath mints and sweat. The smell was there when I soaped myself in the flamingo pink shower, its corners full of mildew. And when I rang up customers at the convenience store, charging a little extra and pocketing the difference. The stink of the Iowa hog farms I left behind.
Maybe I had a brain tumor.
I was a few weeks into it, smelling pig shit all the time, when Johnny came into the store. Johnny was my best friend in the land of never ending sun. He was smooth and dark with a long ponytail down his back. He delivered goods to the neighborhood and came by every night for a Big Gulp to keep hydrated.
Johnny said, “How do, dude?” and headed for the soda dispenser.
“Tired man. My car’s still busted and I had to walk in. I’m about to leave. Can you give me a ride?”
“Daddy ain’t fixed it yet?”
“I have to get it towed to the garage before he’ll work on it. He said he’ll give me a 10% discount.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“I guess. So will you take me home?”
“Yeah, but I got to make a stop.”
The third shift guy, Raymond, emerged from the backroom, hair a frazzled mess, thick black frames hanging off the end of his nose. He was skinny, ghostly white. His hands shook as he opened the cash drawer. Jeans hung off his hips so I got a view of the G string threading his ass crack. Troubled by the sight, I averted my gaze and looked instead at Johnny slurping soda and browsing the snack aisle. I was thankful I didn’t have to hoof it back to Palmetto Pass. Even this late, it would be a long hot walk on a busy highway.
I said, “Raymond, you ready to rock n roll?”
He turned from the register and peered at me, eyes jumpy. “If you mean sit here all night selling Doritos to losers, I’m fuckin’ on top of it.”
Johnny sauntered up and threw a five dollar bill and a bag of Doritos on the counter. “Yo Ray, what’s up?”
“Rock n roll, baby, rock n roll.” A phlegmy laugh started in Raymond’s throat and curdled. He doubled over hacking. I didn’t want to end up engaged in a Heimlich, so I headed for the door. Raymond did a volcanic eruption and spat something in the trash.
Johnny said, “Keep the change.”
We strolled into the brackish night. I took a moment to admire Johnny’s shiny red Camaro before scooting into the passenger seat. He’d spent the last year and every spare dime fixing it up: new paint, new rims, and a kick ass stereo, but the upholstery still needed work. A ripped place in the passenger seat gouged the back of my leg.
Johnny slid behind the wheel. He adjusted his crotch, opened the Doritos, grabbed a chip, and offered the bag to me. I took one and we crunched alongside each other. I licked the orange dust off my fingers.
“Hey man,” I said. “Maybe you could help me get my car fixed.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I look like a mechanic?”
“You restored the IROC.”
“Yeah, but that was an investment.” He patted the dash and flicked the dice hanging from the rearview mirror. “Chicks dig this car. No offense, but no female wants to be bop in the back seat of a Hyundai.”
“Fuck you,” I said.
“No thanks. I got more pussy than I can handle.” Johnny grinned, his teeth shark-like in the night. He turned the ignition and Prince blasted from the stereo, singing Purple Rain.
“You got anything from the modern era?” I asked.
“This is a classic. Just listen. My brother used to dig this shit.”
Johnny tilted his head back, tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, and closed his eyes against the sodium arc light buzzing in the parking lot. His brother got sent upstate a few years ago and shanked in a riot. I listened out of respect, but I preferred Metallica, Nirvana, Disturbed, something to blow my brains out and make me forget who I was for a while.
The song ended, and dipshit Ricky Martin came on. Johnny made a show of roaring the engine and spinning his wheels, living la vida loca, and leaving rubber on the pavement. The car was smooth on the road. Despite Johnny’s musical taste, I enjoyed the sensation of a powerful engine delivering me from the store. We drove past palm trees and surf shops, restaurants, and dive bars, huddled beneath the low black sky.
“What I meant was, can you get me into the business,” I said, a few miles on.
“Whoa now, you ready for the big time?” “I need some cash to get my car fixed.”
“Now, that’s what you call a conundrum. In the delivery business, you got to have wheels.”
“I was thinking maybe you could set me up at the store.”
“No can do. Cameras all over.”
I slumped back.
“Relax amigo. Watch and learn.”
The Camaro pulled off the highway into a neighborhood of stone and stucco homes, fortified by two and three stall garages. We pulled up to a palatial pink rancher.
Johnny slid from the car. He balanced a pizza delivery bag on one hand. I followed as he strode over the grass, his white sneakers shining in the moonlight. We stood in front of a heavy door flanked by potted palms and Johnny rang the bell.
A curtain pulled back from the side window, and a hazel eye peered at us. The door cracked open, and a slinky leg emerged, its foot clad in a stiletto heel. Johnny whistled. The door opened further, and there she was, red lips, black hair, short skirt, poppy blouse unbuttoned to the middle of her chest. A hammered gold crucifix hung there, with Jesus in agony, stuck between her tits.
“Johnny,” she said.
“Who’s this guy?” She looked me up and down. I wondered if my fly was undone and resisted the urge to check.
“A business associate. Amber, Robbie, Robbie, Amber.”
I must have passed inspection, because she said, “Come on in.”
I closed the door behind us and she swished ahead, heels clicking on the marble floor. We passed built-in alcoves with blown glass sculptures in liquid shapes. Then we went through a high arch into a great room, similar to my dad’s mobile home, except for the runway of granite counters, the subzero fridge, big screen, and sectional sofa, all done in shades of white. Dad’s place was a retro job of brown and orange. You could have parked it on the kitchen island.
The only thing that wasn’t perfect was a kid who sat on the couch watching TV. Something about him didn’t look right: head too big, face too slack, lips too floppy. Even though he looked about ten or eleven, he wore footie pajamas with Power Rangers on them. I got the impression he might be wearing a diaper too, but beyond the smell of pig shit, it was hard to tell.
Amber gestured toward him. “That’s Colson. Sorry he’s up, but Carlita’s on vacation and I have a hard time getting him to bed. Thank God for Sponge Bob. It’s the only thing that keeps him happy.”
Colson rocked back and forth, making a low grunting sound. He began sucking on his sleeve.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“He’s fucked up. Autistic, you know?” She sighed, walked over and took his sleeve out of his mouth. “Colson honey, you’ll ruin your PJs.” To us, she said, “He likes to taste things. I took him to a girl friend’s yesterday and he spent a half hour licking the grill of her car.”
The image left a bad flavor in my mouth, like metal and bug guts. It must have shown, because Amber said, “I know, disgusting, right?”
She opened a set of French doors and stepped onto a wide deck, motioning us to follow.
Colson sucked on his sleeve.
Outside, there was a ten foot privacy fence, a pool, a big grill, and mini-fridge. She bent over the fridge and said, “Want something to drink? I’ve got beer and wine coolers.”
I forgot about the kid as her ass called out to me. Johnny jiggled his eyebrows and ran a hand down her flank. She backed right into his palm.
He said, “No alcohol for me, babe, I’m on the job.”
My throat was parched, like I’d been dry humping a mattress, or fucking Cindy, it was pretty much the same. I said, “I’ll take a beer.”
She stood, popped the cap off a Red Stripe, and handed it to me. Then she opened another for herself and sipped, red lips pursed around the mouth of the bottle.
“Where’s hubby?” Johnny asked.
She waved her hand at the sky, a monumental diamond glittering from her fmger. “Houston. Next week, Boston. So it’s just me and Colson. After the last few days, I really need some me time.” She closed her eyes and tossed her shiny mane, like she was shaking off a tick. Then she gave Johnny a hard, brilliant smile and ran a finger down his chest.
“Johnny be good.”
“I’m always good, baby, you know that.”
He unzipped the pizza delivery bag on the patio table and brought out a Ziploc full of green.
“Ooh la la, for me?”
“Only the finest. This shit is primo. It’s got a little extra kick.”
“Let’s set it on fire,” she said.
Johnny brought out papers, separated weed from seed, and rolled a fatty as wide as his thumb. He took a Bic from his pocket, lit up, and passed the joint to Amber. She put it to her lips and inhaled, eyes squinty, cheeks hollowed, so intent on the suction it was embarrassing to watch. She held the smoke in her lungs, and said to Johnny in a throaty voice, “Have some.”
He tapped her on the forehead. “No can do, baby. I’m on duty. You know that.”
Amber exhaled a pouty stream. “Who’s gonna party with me?”
Johnny pointed in my direction. “Robbie’s your man.”
I was tempted, but in this fancy backyard, where night-blooming jasmine climbed the fence and the smell of pig shit blossomed in the air, I felt kind of crawly.
“No thanks, I need to lay off.”
“What the flick? You need to get a life, get a woman, get laid,” said Johnny.
“You don’t know, I could be doing two at a time.”
“Hey pal, just because you use both hands don’t make it a threesome.”
“Fuck you,” I said. “Your weed is frying my brain. I’ve been smelling shit.”
“All I know is this stuff will make you smell something righteous. Now be a pal.”
Amber’s eyes were swampy and smoke rolled from her nose like double barrel exhaust. “This shit is fantastic. You’ve got to try it.”
I looked at the doobie, the moist red stain where her lips had been, and despite my doubts, I took it and sucked in, deep and then deeper, smoke curling through my lungs like dragon fire. The rush went straight through me. My nerve endings thrashed. I heard alligators rolling in the mud, insects colliding, frogs fucking in the dark. Purple sparks appeared before my eyes and floated over the pool.
Amber and I passed the joint back and forth. Johnny pulled his phone from his pocket, texted somebody, and set the baggie on the table.
“Amber, you’re my best girl, but I got other places to be. Let’s settle up.”
She sidled over and wrapped her arms around his neck. Bangles slithered around her wrists in shimmers of gold.
“You take credit cards?” she asked.
“You know I don’t,” he said. “I’m strictly cash and carry.”
She licked his ear lobe, slid a hand down his body, and into his shorts.
“What about other services?”
Johnny looked at me. “You mind?”
“No man, go ahead.”
“I mean, you mind going inside?”
I headed back into the living room, where the air conditioner belched icy breaths, holding the remains of the joint and my beer, relegated to watching TV with the kid. But to my surprise, the kid wasn’t watching cartoons anymore. He had turned around on the sofa, and stared out the window, watching the adult channel instead. A furrow ruffled his brow, and a line of spit spooled from his lips.
“Hey, buddy. Scooby’s on,” I said.
“Mama come in.”
“Not yet, pal. I think she’s busy.”
“Mama come in now.”
I looked out the window. The lovebirds lounged on a chair, old one-eye in Amber’s fist.
“Um, she’s playing with a friend.”
Colson made a grunting noise and banged his head on the armrest several times. I felt kind of sorry for him. I could see how Amber needed some personal time, but this wasn’t exactly a spa treatment. My mom wasn’t perfect, but as far as I knew, she never cranked a dude’s shaft on the back porch. Even a retard was bound to be upset.
“Throw Mama in the forest,” Colson muttered.
He propelled himself off the sofa and waddled away.
I was relieved he left. The whole situation made me uncomfortable. I sat down, leaned my head back, and tried to relax. But despite the pot, I couldn’t stop thinking. In fact, it seemed like I was thinking extra. How was I going to fix my car? When would I stop fucking Cindy? Would I ever stop smelling shit?
I thought of all the good smells I missed, like pizza and cinnamon, spring rain and pussy, and suddenly I saw myself, a kid younger than Colson, back in Iowa with my mom, hiding in a pantry while Mom cleaned someone else’s house. I was six or seven, and I examined all the rich people food, Skippy peanut butter, Oreos, Bisquick, and Count Chocula, no generic white labels with black print in sight. My breathing got tight, so I swiped a fruit roll-up, unwound the sticky concoction and chewed it in sweet-sour bites that eased the worst of the pressure. With a mouthful of gummy grape I sat cross-legged, and unscrewed the lids of spice jars to sniff at things with exotic names, like turmeric and tarragon, when I felt something crawling up my thigh. I stood, and the biggest roach I’d ever seen fell out of my shorts, fat and leggy. I tore out of the pantry and I must have startled Mom, because she laid me out with a mop handle. She gathered me up, saying sorry over and over. I buried my face in her neck, and breathed in her scent, hard work and hairspray.
My eyes gooped up then, there on the sofa, from the pot, so I blinked and blinked, and I saw one of those enormous Florida cockroaches crawling down the wall over the fireplace. Then I felt something crawling in my hair. I jumped off the sofa, trying to shake it loose, when Colson came back into the room.
Colson had a gun.
“Holy fuck,” I said.
“Mama come inside.”
“Mama come inside or I shoot,” he said, waving the gun.
“No shoot. I’ll get your mom.” But I didn’t feel brave enough to turn my back.
“I big and strong.”
“Oh yeah. I can see that. You’re a grown up dude.”
“You don’t want to do that. It’ll just be a mess. How about you give me the gun?”
“Look, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s trade. I’ll hold the gun and you can hold this.”
I offered him the joint.
Colson looked at it, curiosity lighting his eyes.
“Hey bud, it’ll help you chill. Like this.” I took a puff, my hand shaking like I was doing the hokey pokey. “What do you say?”
Miracle of miracles, Colson held the gun out to me with one small hand and took the joint with the other. I felt like I should join the UN, brokering peace like that. I tucked the sweaty pistol in my pocket and Colson put the jay to his lips.
“Now suck,” I said.
He inhaled, choked, and fell crying to the floor. I grabbed the jay from his fingers just as Amber and Johnny walked back in.
“What’s wrong with him?” she shouted, like it was my fault.
“Fuck, I don’t know. He was looking out the window.”
Amber closed her eyes and groaned.
“Jesus,” said Johnny, tugging at his crotch.
Amber sat down and pulled Colson onto her lap. He pressed his face into her chest, took a deep blubbery breath, and said, “Mama.”
I headed for the door.
In the car, Johnny turned to me. “Why’d you let him look out the window?” “I tried to stop him, but the little asshole had a gun. I got it away from him.” “You’re shitting me.”
“Look at this.” I pulled it out of my pocket. “I’d watch my back with that kid.” “I’ll take that fucker out.” Johnny’s rings clicked as he pounded his hands on the steering wheel. “What you gonna do with that gun?”
I moved the safety back and forth, back and forth, mesmerized by the motion. I tucked it into my pocket. “Keep it, I guess.”
Johnny gave me a long look. “Well don’t shoot your dick off.”
He started the car and drove with the windows down. Humidity collected on my skin. The adrenaline rush from dealing with Colson had passed, but the marijuana still pulsed in my head. The world sped by in a blur and soon enough we were almost home: the Palmetto Pass Trailer Court, with its row of single-wides stretching into the night. That’s the point when I began to see a big blank spot at the top of my vision, a tunnel, not the one with the light at the end, but a deep dark tunnel, like God’s own asshole, ready to plop one on me.
Johnny’s car stopped in front of my dad’s trailer.
“Here you go, man.”
The darkness yawned above. “Maybe I could ride along with you some more.”
“No can do, fella. I’m headed over to Josefma’s. She don’t like company.”
He shrugged. “Tell your old man I’ll be by with his stuff next week.”
I pulled myself out of the car, shut the door, and Johnny took off in a spray of gravel. In front of the trailer, spiky palmettos knelt like thieves in the porch light and the ocean muttered through scrubby trees.
I could hear Dad yelling inside and flashes of memory sputtered up in my mind.
Mom and Dad screaming at each other. Me hiding in the closet, peeking through the door.
I walked up to the trailer, lurched up the steps, and opened the door a crack.
Dad taking Mom by the throat. Mom raking her nails down his face.
Dad sat on the couch watching NASCAR with Cindy on his lap, topless, boobs bouncing on his forearm. He shouted at the TV, “You son of a bitch, what the hell did you do that for?”
“You bitch, what the hell did you do that for? “
Inside the trailer, the smell of pig shit was worse than ever. I gagged at the smell, retched, and tasted it in the back of my throat.
A vicious punch, Mom falling.
That’s when I knew what I had to do. I dove toward Cindy, determined to save her. I grasped her by the breasts, my palms filled with their rubbery substance. I pulled, and they stretched, long and then longer, like salt water taffy.
Cindy yelped and stared up at me, her eyes as big as her nipples.
“What the flick are you doing?” Dad roared.
He knocked my hands away with his own, which were large and covered with grease from his day changing oil and rotating tires. But no, I realized, it wasn’t grease. His hands were covered in pig shit, black and green and slimy.
I looked down at my father, at his small mean eyes, his reddened nose, its snout-like proportions. The smell came off him in waves. I grabbed Cindy’s arms this time, and began to pull until she fell on the floor.
Mom on the floor, one eye swollen shut.
Dad levered himself off the couch, and I saw those hard, shit covered knuckles coming, watched helpless, as they plowed into my face.
I slammed into the wall, knocking down a framed poster of Dale Earnhardt. It crashed to the linoleum, and for a moment all was calm and quiet. Then the sound came flooding back, hypersonic: the roar of the crowd from the TV, Dad’s heavy breathing, Cindy’s every little gasp, and a strange whistling in my nose.
And Dad was headed at me again.
Except this time, I pulled a gun from my pocket. “Hold up motherfucker.”
The sight of the gun, the oily perfection of the bullets, grabbed Dad by the balls. He backed away, hands up. “Boy, you ain’t gonna shoot me.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
And I blew a hole in the TV instead.
Dad looked at me, jaw slack. Then he pointed and said, “You’re gonna pay for that, Robbie. Now get the fuck out of here.”
And I knew he meant for good.
I looked down at Cindy, met her vacant, unquestioning gaze.
She didn’t look a thing like my mom.
“You can come with me,” I said.
“Why would I do that?”
I peeled myself off the wall, pushed out the door, and down the steps. I ran past the trailers in the hot dark night. Blood dripped down my face and fell away in flags of red. I jogged over the boardwalk, and the dunes, headed for the beach, and slogged through the sand, gun heavy, legs aching. And finally it was there, the inky dark vastness, the regular roaring. I staggered into the water, hurled the gun, and lost my balance. Then I was in it, under it, swirling, when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Beyond the pane of the sea, the moon said my name. It plucked me out by the scruff of my neck and tossed me onto the beach. I gagged, spit up, and passed out.
The next morning, I came to covered in salt, curled up on my side like a goddamn baby. There was a pain in my head like the world exploding. My nose was raw and caked shut, maybe broken. I cracked one eye. A pelican flew overhead. A fish dropped from its maw and landed beside me, six inches, silver, green striped. We stared at each other, both of us surprised to be alive.
I pressed one nostril closed and then the other, and blew bloody clots on the sand.
The fish flopped and gasped.
I drew in one raw breath, then the next. I smelled ocean, armpit, and fish.
But the smell of pig shit was gone.
I struggled to my feet and seized the fish. It jerked, but I kept it in my grasp.
“Hold on,” I said. I weaved my way to the edge of the Atlantic and lowered it in. I shielded my eyes from the sun, and watched as the fish sat still for a moment, in the shallow end of the ocean, catching its breath. Then it took off, headed for deep water, headed for home.